Author Archives: Jen

A day of extremes

Bob and I must be gluttons for punishment. Despite freezing our tails off in Bryce on Friday, we went back for more — and upped the ante — by getting up at 5:30 on Saturday morning and heading back to watch the sun rise.

The early hour did not improve the temperature. The car’s thermometer read 25 degrees as we headed into the park. Since our children were still sleeping warmly in their beds, I borrowed Nadia’s jacket (which I judged to be the warmest) as an extra layer. It didn’t seem to help much. There was snow visible on the path and topping the many hoodoo rock formations.

But we joined a small group of intrepid tourists at Sunrise Point (conveniently named by the National Park Service so you don’t need to wonder where the best place to go is), shivering as the sun appeared from over a distant mountain range. This place is amazingly gorgeous at any time, but the sunrise colors in the sky and the early morning light hitting the red rock took it to another level. (Not having to listen to complaining children also helped.) We took a short hike into the canyon and vowed to return again someday.

Then, in a move sure to shock our systems, on to a five-hour car ride in the car with three kids, heading to a loud and crowded indoor amusement park in Las Vegas. Zoe has been very concerned about maximizing this part of the trip, and so actually had managed to get her sisters up and mostly packed by the time we returned to our cabin around 8am. After a quick breakfast (sadly, the Bryce Pioneer Village breakfasts do not hold a candle to the Zion Ponderosa Lodge’s breakfasts), we were on our way.

The car ride actually went pretty smoothly. During the drive to Bryce, I’d decided to approach the intermittent bickering like an anthropologist, and identified each child’s One Fatal Flaw when it came to sisterly relations. My assessment was that we have one child who never lets anything go, one who goes out of her way to provoke people when she’s bored, and one who overreacts to everything.

We found the far northern end of the Strip to be considerably seedier than the middle where we spent our day last week.

Sadly, this combination does not always make for harmonious family time. Imagine, if you will, a long car ride where Likes to Provoke People is seated next to Overreacts to Everything. Never Lets Anything Go doesn’t get into arguments as often, but when she does, they’re guaranteed to last for hours and rise again, phoenix-like, days or weeks later.

Between the fun that everyone was having guessing their own and others’ Fatal Flaws, and the candy that Bob doled out occasionally, good spirits mostly prevailed on the drive back to Vegas.  We also had the entertainment of watching the car thermometer climb 60+ degrees over the drive.  I can’t think of too many places within five hours of each other that would be as different as the cold, snowy, quiet and natural Bryce; and hot, sunny, crowded, loud Las Vegas.

Zoe tries to kill me

We have discovered that it’s a lot easier to get everyone moving in the morning when the lodge offers an extensive breakfast buffet. Between that and the sun shining in through the windows of our east-facing cabin, we got off to a pretty early start. (Spoiler alert: it was not as early as we thought. Details in a future entry.)

So many rocks to climb.

After fortifying ourselves with enormous breakfasts, we headed back into Zion. It was just as amazing as we’d heard. Every bend in the road reveals a new breathtaking vista, so after a while you just get saturated with the beauty.  Fortunately there’s a park shuttle, which goes to nine popular hiking spots, so we could look out the windows with abandon.

 

The vast majority of this hike had no guardrail.

These switchbacks are called “Walter’s Wiggles”.

Our first destination was Angels Landing, because Zoe apparently has a death wish and wants to take her parents out with her.  Only the last part of Angels Landing is truly terrifying, so the whole group of us headed off to hike the first two miles. It climbed steeply up to the top of the canyon through a series of switchbacks and awe-inspiring views. Lucky for us it’s only in the high fifties here, so we weren’t sweating too much (except for Bob and Nadia, who were sweating with nervousness over the sheer drop that we had on one side of us).

The final mile of the trail is along a knife-edge ledge, with steep ascents and descents and a chain drilled into the rock to hold onto in most areas. Bob was bravely planning to accompany Zoe, but was clearly suffering after the first few

Proof that Bob gave it a try

feet, so I offered to take over.

 

The most frustrating thing about the trail was that you’d be climbing up to the top of a hill, thinking you were done — only to see further undulations stretching out ahead. My strategy was to maintain a death grip on the chain and stare at my feet. This worked reasonably well except when there were people coming from the opposite direction who were trying to follow the same strategy.

Eventually we labored to the top, at the end of the ledge, with spectacular views of the canyon stretching on all sides, and the road and river tiny ribbons far, far below.  We stood a few seconds, breathing in the thrill of victory.

That knife edge ahead of Zoe is the trail we’re following.

I was not looking forward to the descent, but was feeling pretty good about having made it.

Then it started to hail.

Seriously.  The skies darkened, and fearing rain, I told Zoe we should start down right away.  The wind picked up.  Then flurries of white specs appeared in the air.  I think I said something like, “You have GOT to be kidding me,” maybe with a few expletives thrown in.  And we were still passing people going UP.  Call me crazy, but when ice starts to fall from the sky I think it’s time to call an about-face.

Luckily, the weather here is even more changeable as it is in New England, and it wasn’t too long before the storm passed and the sun was shining again.  We made it back to the regular trail without incident. Bob, Nadia, and Lanie had been waiting for us there, but gave up and headed down once the hail began.

On the plus side, the trail down seemed like nothing after that.  Zoe and I walked along side by side, carefree and nonchalant.  (In contrast, Bob told me he’d been nervous enough on the descent that he made the other two keep one hand on the canyon wall the whole time.)

And this was just the morning!  Tales and photos of our afternoon to come in a future installment.

We survive Sin City with our virtue intact

We tend to find, on vacations, that everyone in the family has somewhat different priorities on where we should spend our time.  Fortunately, Las Vegas caters to all tastes.

Of all of us today, Zoe had the worst luck.  Her main focus was going on thrill rides.  We’d told her about the New York New York roller coaster and the rides on top of the Stratosphere (which Bob refused to go within a quarter-mile of when we were here long ago).  Alas, we kept an eye out all day and did not see any coaster running at NY NY.  Despite walking our feet off all day, we didn’t quite make it all the way up to the Stratosphere way in the north of the strip.  But Zoe is patient and we have promised to return next Saturday, before we fly out.  And luckily, she also likes dolphins, which we saw in large numbers at Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden behind the Mirage.

Ceiling at the Forum Shops

Nadia had much better luck, given that her primary interests were Starbucks and gelato.  There is a Starbucks approximately every quarter-mile here (that probably isn’t even an exaggeration), and all of them have long lines.  She was also a big fan of the Forum Shops mall.  And although our main purpose going in was visiting a Starbucks for Nadia, we all thought the mall was pretty cool.  It had extremely elaborate “Italian” architecture, and a cloud-painted ceiling with lighting made to look like you’re strolling down a street in Rome at dusk.  Plus, curved escalators!  (There are a LOT of escalators here too.)

Sunset in Little Italy? No, just the Forum Shops at 10am.

Lanie was content just to take pictures of everything we saw.  In the elaborate and beautiful conservatory within the Bellagio, I had to stop her from individually photographing each flower.  She was also thrilled that we got back to our condo just in time to take a quick dip before the 9:30pm closing time at the pool.

Gelato!

 

Beyond that, there were several attractions that all of us enjoyed.  When paying the (rather exorbitant) entrance fee to the Secret Garden, we discovered we could buy a three-attraction pass for $57 — a tempting deal since individual attractions mostly cost around $30.  So we sprung for the pass and elected to try the “CSI” attraction where you study forensic clues and try to solve a crime.  A good time was had by all and we figured out the solution even before the clues made it totally obvious.

The four-storey M&M store also provided a fun diversion.  At the picture below, you can see Nadia and Lanie struggling to figure out which of the countless flavors and colors to choose.  We ended up sampling Pecan Pie, Holiday Mint, Vanilla Cupcake, Cherry, and Pretzel, among others.

Living painting at the Bellagio

We caught the fountain show at the Bellagio, and strolled through a simulated St. Mark’s Square and Doge’s Palace at the Venetian (where we recognized some details from our trip to Real Venice a few year’s back).  We saw real flamingoes, and a black swan, at the Flamingo.  When no one could agree on what they wanted for dinner, we found The Yard House, which served Mexican, pizza, burgers, sandwiches, AND pasta.  The girls bought post-dinner gelato and ice cream, even though we were all stuffed — which meant Bob and I got plenty of leftovers.

But the definite highlight of the day was at the end — the Cirque du Soleil Mystere show.  A kind usher upgraded our high-up seats to 8th row,
where performers soared over our heads and ran through the aisle behind and next to us.  (Bob got to reveal one of his special talents before the show, when one of the performers was throwing popcorn for guests to catch in their mouths and he was the only one to manage it on the first try.)  The show was amazing and also very funny, and we all highly recommend it.  

 

This is what democracy looks like

Sometimes democracy looks like a long line of people waiting for an overflowing porta-potty.

When we went to vote on November 8 (yes, Mr. President, we did in fact vote), my husband and I dragged our daughters out of bed and to the polls with us. We even pulled them into the voting booth. We told them they were witnessing history as we filled in the oval for our first female president.

Like much of the country, we were stunned and crushed as the results rolled in. Not because a woman lost. But because the man who won was an openly racist, sexist bully. A man whose main goal in life, besides enriching himself, was seemingly to find people who had so very little, and convince them that their enemy was others who had even less. A man whose go-to response for any provocation, however, slight, was to behave in a way that most of us wouldn’t have tolerated in our toddlers. The people telling us to give him a chance had missed the point. Regardless of his future actions, the fact that a person could be elected in spite of this behavior — or, worse yet, because of it — made us realize we didn’t live in the kind of world that we’d thought we had.

Ready for the road

So we decided to march, and witness a different kind of history. To show the world, and ourselves, and our children, that we are not alone, but part of an army.

It wasn’t the easiest trip. We drove late into the night through remote parts of Pennsylvania (having chosen an alternate longer route to avoid traffic in the major cities on the coast). It was raining and foggy, and everything was complicated by trying to drive two minivans in caravan. After arrival, Wendy and I had to go out again to attempt to secure Metro cards. We are two of the most directionally-challenged people on the planet, and Wendy’s cell phone that provided navigation was about to die, and the first station we went to had no clear place to park and then turned out to be closed. By the time we got back (victorious!) it was near to 1am.

Tyra and Riley even managed to bring posters on the bus ride!

We shouldn’t complain, though, because our friend Tyra and her daughter Riley had to take a 12-hour bus ride up from Georgia. The bus left an hour and a half late, and then they had to catch the Metro from DC to Bethesda, and then they WALKED a mile and a half, at midnight, carrying all their stuff, to the house.

But these are not the things we’ll remember. By now just about everyone has heard what the march was like — the crowds, the love and solidarity, the energy and inspiring speeches and funny signs. So here are a few other things that will stay with me.

It’s the bond with my long-time mom friends — Wendy, Judy, Tyra, and Susan. We realized that we’d all met in a class about sustainable parenting back when our kids were babies and toddlers. How great it is that we’re all still working together for the same cause, more than 10 years later, and that some of those same kids are now engaged young adults who are marching by our sides.

And those same kids, who were up past midnight, and smiling and ready to go by 7am. They stood in crowds and cold through several hours of speeches, with nothing but granola bars to sustain them, all without a word of complaint.

It’s Wendy’s eighteen-year-old son Sam, who voted for the first time this year — and chose to give up his weekend to join a group of ten women and girls, marching through DC in his pink hat and being helpful to everyone. And his friend Haley, who jumped in a van with a bunch of people she’d never met because she wanted so much to make her voice heard.

It’s those who made the trip possible even though they didn’t attend themselves. My generous friend Kathleen and her family, who opened their lovely home to a bunch of people who were mostly strangers. Our friend Heather, who made us hats. Our husbands, who held down the fort at home and welcomed us warmly on our return.

It’s the woman working in the Grosvenor metro station the night before the march. She’d probably had a very long day, dealing with scores of out-of-towners who didn’t know what they were doing. She can’t have been too excited to see two people jump out of a car with NH license plates past midnight and run toward the ticket machine, with confused expressions and several half-used Metro cards clutched in our hands. But she greeted us with a smile and walked us through our lengthy transaction with cheerfulness and patience. And then she turned around and did the same thing for the two people who rushed in five minutes after we did.

It’s her co-workers who were on duty the night of the march, greeting train after crowded train with claps and shouts of “thank you!” as throngs of marchers streamed out onto the platform.

It’s the other marchers on that train, which was the most crowded place I’ve ever been in my life. Instead of glaring and grumbling, people chatted and helped each other. When someone left the train, the entire car gave them a big cheer like they were a rock star leaving the stage after a concert.

And the woman restocking the restroom in a highway rest area the day after the march. The whole rest area was overwhelmed with marchers, and probably had been since early that morning. She undoubtedly had had a tough day — but she smiled and chatted and cheered with the long line of women waiting for an open stall.

Even those crowds and long lines, in the streets and in the subway and at the rest stop. Those things meant that the march was a tremendous success, and that was more important than a little delay or discomfort.

And most of all: it’s the fact that it was totally unspoiled by conflict.

Think about that. Over half a million people crammed into a few city blocks. Women and men, eighty-year-olds and college students, rich and poor, black and brown and white, gay and straight, urbanites and farmers — all wedged together in a giant mass of humanity. We were sleep-deprived and travel-weary, hungry and cold, footsore, dehydrated and desperately needing to pee. And yet there was not a single violent incident or arrest.

Instead, there were people looking out for each other. Yelling back to the people behind them to tell them a step was approaching. Climbing a tree so as to direct people around a low fence that was impeding progress to the street. Supporting those who stumbled and helping those who needed a leg up. Swapping stories and smiles and Metro maps. And knowing without a doubt that they will not be fighting alone.

 

Derailed and all shook up

Our last couple of days in Quito did not lack for excitement.

IMG_0719

Violin with a view

Things started out pretty low-key.  On Sundays, one of the main avenues through the city — that passes by the park right outside our apartment — closes to traffic and is taken over by bikes.  Our plan was to rent bikes then bike into the Old City (several kilometers away), which is also closed to cars.

Alas, we were foiled by Lanie’s diminutive stature.  The first bike rental place we found didn’t have a small enough bike.  They attempted to make a larger one fit by lowering the seat all the way, but this proved rather disastrous when Lanie took it for a trial run and, out of her depth trying to control it, immediately almost took out another biker.  We quickly said our no, graciases and our lo sientos and bolted out of there.  We thought there would be more options, so we walked…and walked…and walked…and didn’t find anything.

Fruit in the park

Fruit in the park

At this point, I should say that Zoe, usually our most intrepid hiker, was lagging further and further behind.  Zoe is joining the high school cross-country team next year, and is expected to run 5-6 days a week all summer, traveling or no traveling.  But our daily runs in Quito (elevation 9350 feet) had done a number on her.

Eventually we reached another park.  It did, in fact, have many bikes for rent, but at this point we’d rather lost our appetite for it.  So we contented ourselves with lounging around for a while, reading, people-watching, trying out various playground equipment (in Lanie’s case), and eating random food from the abundant food carts.  The park was full of people enjoying

Sausages in the park

Sausages in the park

their weekend, with pickup soccer games and bike-riding families everywhere.

IMG_0748

Cool water feature in the park. People of all ages were giggling and running through.

I should add a word about Quito’s parks.  We’ve been so impressed with the amount that the city has clearly invested in becoming a healthy and livable place for its populace.  The park by our apartment, Parque La Carolina, was huge and filled with attractions.  Along with the usual paths, fields, and trees, there was an elaborate botanical garden and “serpentarium” (which Nadia refused to enter).  There was a winding lake with islands, bridges, and paddleboats.  There was a brand new one-kilometer synthetic track, the center of which was filled with athletic fields and courts as well as a set of metal non-electric exercise equipment.  There were extensive networks of well-paved bike paths, as well as a bike terrain park and a huge skateboard park.  There were any number of playgrounds, which brought delight to Lanie’s heart.  (She was most excited about the attraction pictured below, which we thought would be a kind of trampoline but which in fact she landed in with a bit of a thud.  Someone quickly appeared and told us it was

This is the sort of play structure you don't find in a country with strict liability laws.

This is the sort of play structure you don’t find in a country with strict liability laws.

for ages 4 and under only, so she only got the one crack at it.)  The paths were lined with carts selling about anything you could want — fresh fruit and ice cream and sausages and a pile of cotton candy almost bigger than Lanie.  Everything was clean and well-maintained, and the locals made great use of it.  I’ve never seen so many runners and bikers as I did on a weekend morning in Parque La Carolina.

Eventually we decided the

prudent course was a cab back to our park, and an afternoon relaxing there and in our apartment. We had dinner at the local pizzeria, and thought we’d have a nice calm movie night followed by an early bedtime.

Botanical garden in the park

Botanical garden in the park

We were watching National Treasure 2.  If you are not familiar with this franchise, it is basically a PG-rated Da Vinci Code.  The end was very exciting, with the characters trapped in a cave that was collapsing.  Boulders were falling everywhere, water was pouring in, and crashes sounded from the television.  Also, the whole building was shaking!  Wait, why is the building shaking??

Bob and I quietly debated this for a bit.  Our apartment was on the 10th floor.  Was it possible that the effect was due to high winds?  It seemed to stop for a bit, then started up again.  When I noticed the picture frame on the wall rocking back and forth, I decided to check in with our landlord.  Lo and behold, we had just experienced an earthquake.

We also worked in a little dessert from a nearby bakery.

We also worked in a little dessert from a nearby bakery.

On his advice, we went downstairs and out to the park to mill around with various other building and neighborhood residents, not quite sure what we were doing or how long we should do it for.  Eventually, people started drifting in so we followed along.  Not quite the restful night we had planned, but it certainly could have been worse.

Farewell, Galapagos

IMG_0474We’ve wrapped up our time in the Galapagos and headed onward from that magical place.  I was going to just briefly talk about our last couple of relaxing days, but then I reread Bob’s last entry where he was supposed to talk about our volcano hike but instead seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time discussing $7 dinners instead.  (Not that I also didn’t appreciate the $7 dinners.)

Our hike was a guided tour of the Sierra Negra volcano (the largest on this island at 1200 meters) and the nearby, much smaller Volcan Chico.  It was a fascinating glimpse into the dramatic variations in ecosystems here.  As we hiked up to the Sierra Negra crater, everything was shrouded in mist.  We were surrounded by greenery — mostly guabana and guava trees.  Eventually we could see that the land seemed to just end on our left, and thus assumed we had reached the crater — but we could see nothing but white.

IMG_0499After reaching the top, we started down the other side — and immediately, we were in another world.  The mist vanished, the sun shone down, and stretching for miles ahead of us in all directions were fields of lava rocks, interspersed with fumaroles, lava tubes, craters where lava tubes had collapsed, and the occasional cactus.  We were able to see lava that had existed for 15,000 years, alongside lava from the last major eruption in 1979.  It was an otherworldly landscape.

Crater of Sierra Negra

Crater of Sierra Negra

When we made the return trek, we had another surprise waiting for us — the mist on the mountaintop had cleared, and we were able to see across the Sierra Negra crater — the second largest in the world.  I think our guide said it was 10 km in diameter.  The steeply sloping sides were covered with greenery, and the bottom was black lava rock.  It almost looked like cliffs dropping into the sea.  By the time we got back down to the beginning of the trail, we were back in the mist.

This trip entailed almost 10 miles of walking, but it wasn’t too steep and the kids handled it fine.   Unfortunately, disappointment awaited back in town.  Every day we’ve been passing a place that sells milkshakes, and it’s had a sign saying it was closed until Monday.  We took this to mean that it would be open the day of our hike, and that we could reward ourselves with milkshakes afterwards.  Alas, apparently they meant closed through Monday.   As a consolation prize I allowed them to get double-scoop ice cream cones.  (We’ve been getting ice cream pretty much every day and calling it “lunch”, but usually I hold firm to the single scoop.  We went back Tuesday for milk shakes and they were delicious.)

Priscilla and Sandra at La Jungla Hostal -- highly recommended!

Priscilla and Sandra at La Jungla Hostal — highly recommended!

Tuesday was our last full day on Isabela.  We rented snorkels and headed down to a little cove by the dock where you can enjoy world-class snorkeling right from shore.  At first we didn’t see too much other than some colorful fish, but eventually we were rewarded by the arrival of a sea lion.  If anyone out there maintains a bucket list, I would suggest adding “snorkel with sea lions” to it.  Unlike the other sea creatures, the sea lions here are friendly and playful.  They literally swim circles around you, flipping and diving, clearly mocking you for your inferior swimming skills.  Sometimes one will dart right at you, coming within inches of your mask before jerking back and veering off to the side.  You can almost here them shouting “boo!” and snickering as you fall back in alarm.  This one swam with us for 10 or 15 minutes of sheer delight.

IMG_0520In the evening we enjoyed our last $7 dinner, accompanied by two other guests at our hotel — Jeremy from New Zealand and Isabel from Germany.  We’ve discovered that one of the $7 restaurants seems to be a cut above the others, and greatly enjoyed our dinner of cream of carrot soup, fish/shrimp/chicken with rice, passion fruit juice, and some kind of delicious cake.

Our boat back to Santa Cruz wasn’t until 3pm on Wednesday, and Sandra kindly let us stay in our room until then — so we rented body boards for the kids and enjoyed a final morning on our beautiful beach.  We had plenty of time to make our way to the dock, and this time our boat actually left on time!  On the other hand, it was 2 people over the posted capacity, so conditions were rather cramped.  (The way they handle boat passengers here is very amusing to me.  Clearly they don’t want any clueless tourists ending up in the wrong place, so when you check in they give you a large laminated placard with the name of your boat that you wear around your neck.  So essentially we’re labeled like pieces of luggage.  I like the system, though, as it gives a bit of confidence that if you’re going the wrong way someone will notice.)

Labeled for the "Gabi"

Labeled for the “Gabi”

After a pleasant dinner and an uneventful night back in Puerto Ayora, we headed back to the airport this morning to embark on the last leg of our trip — 5 days in Quito, Ecuador.  Our delayed-travel curse definitely seems to be broken, as we were taxing down the runway 15 minutes before our flight was even scheduled to depart.  The first leg, to Guayaquil, was amazingly smooth.

The hop from Guayaquil to Quito was another matter.  The former is at sea level, and the latter at 3000 meters elevation, in the middle of the Andes.  As we approached Quito, it wasn’t so much that the plane descended as that the

Snow-capped mountain as seen from the airport parking lot

Snow-capped mountain as seen from the airport parking lot

land rose up to meet us.  And suddenly the plane was rocking with turbulence in heavy winds.  Finally, as we struggled with nausea, we approached the runway — only to have the plane pull back up at that last minute.  At this point some of the more dramatic passengers on the plane began to wail and pray.  Fortunately, on the second pass the wind apparently died down and we landed uneventfully.

On our ramblings tonight we found a parking lot full of food trucks.  We enjoyed some fresh-made Homer Simpson mini-doughnuts.

On our ramblings tonight we found a parking lot full of food trucks. We enjoyed some fresh-made Homer Simpson mini-doughnuts.

Now we’re ensconced in an absolutely amazing 3-bedroom apartment I rented on airbnb.  We’re on the 10th floor with floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the park and the city beyond.  From the rooftop deck, we can see almost the whole city, which is in the shape of a bowl inside the mountains.  Our host, who picked us up at the airport, was incredibly helpful. So far, we aren’t suffering too much from the altitude. We can’t wait to explore tomorrow.

 

 

This is what $90/night gets you in Quito.

This is what $90/night gets you in Quito.

Freewheeling

Laguna

Laguna

We’re loving life here on Isabela.

Flamingo - mission accomplished!

Flamingo – mission accomplished!

Though we rented our room through airbnb, it’s part of the La Jungla lodge — and we’re enjoying the benefits of having the friendly, helpful, and kind Sandra assisting us with all our planning. We told her the tours we wanted to do, and she researched tide tables etc. and set everything up optimally. We even get picked up right here at the lodge for all our tours — Sandra just collects our money and tells us what time to come downstairs.

Though we only have a one room for the five
of us, our “living room” is the downstairs, open air spaces here — complete with hammocks, tables, and chairs. Our yard is the beach, which we generally have all to ourselves. The kids love starting the day with a big breakfast IMG_0339here, which includes juice, coffee, steamed milk, and hot chocolate powder served in a big bowl. (Lunch is snacks bought at the store and ice cream. Dinner is a fixed-price meal at one of the several seemingly interchangeable side-by-side Ecuadorean restaurants, where we get soup, a choice of entree (some kind of grilled meat/fish/shrimp which always comes with rice and french fries), juice, and a small dessert for $7. We’ve been so pleased with this system that we haven’t even bothered to ask Sandra about using the downstairs kitchen.)

IMG_0350Yesterday we didn’t have a formal tour arranged, so after a morning swim we rented bikes and set off to explore Los Humedales (the Wetlands). Following the beach road that runs right by our hotel, we wound our way along gorgeous coastline on one side and a series of lagoons on the other, weaving in and out of mangrove forests . The trail (really a road, but without vehicular traffic) was impressively maintained, with clear signs pointing out the frequent pull-offs to see lagoon or coastal views, tiny private beaches, or impressive rock formations. Eventually we left IMG_0371the coastline and headed into the hills, sometimes riding through tunnels formed by the tree branches arching over our heads. We saw several wild giant tortoises in or near the road. It was magical — and we had it almost all to ourselves.

The end of the ride got pretty tough. It was pretty steeply uphill, and as luck would have it this was the hottest, sunniest day we’ve had yet. We’d misplaced one of our two water

Stairs to the lookout point

Stairs to the lookout point

bottles early on so everyone was quickly parched. And our reward was more climbing — on foot. We eventually came to a long staircase going up a steep hillside, leading to a platform with breathtaking views to the ocean and across Isabela. (Luckily I had a small package of gummy bears with me. I’d been saving it to help combat nausea on the boat ride back from Isabela, but Zoe had the brilliant idea of using it to motivate her sisters up the hills.)

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IMG_0368The end of the trail, a bit further along the uphill road, was the Wall of Tears. This is a huge stone wall that was build in the 40s and 50s, when there was a penal colony here. The prisoners were made to build a pointless wall in the middle of nowhere just as punishment. Many of them died. Nonetheless, the wall was an impressive sight.

Riding back into town downhill was lots of fun — luckily, since by this time we were all completely parched. We’d hoped to locate our water bottle on the way back, but no luck — so we had to make it to our hotel, where we gulped liters of water before heading into town to return the bikes. A refreshing swim in the ocean to cool off topped off our afternoon.

Wall of Tears from the top

Wall of Tears from the top

Bigger (and better?) things

Yesterday we packed up our cozy little house on the island of Santa Cruz.  The remainder of our time in the Galapagos (except for the last night, when we’ll be back on Santa Cruz for proximity to the airport) will be spent on Isabela, the largest of the islands in the Galapagos.  There are a couple of cool things I noticed about Isabela when looking at it on a map:  (1) It looks like a seahorse, and (2) the equator cuts through the northern end, right through the seahorse’s head.

IMG_0283We had to be at the dock by 1:30, so the first part of our day was spent packing, reading, and attempting to eat all the food we had left over.  (They are very worried about invasive pests here, and you’re not allowed to bring any kind of fresh foods into the Galapagos, or even from island to island.  Our bags were searched and tagged at the port.)

One challenge to our packing is that a substantial portion of our clothing is damp.  It’s not all that hot here — I would say most of the time the temperature is in the 70s — but it’s very humid and nothing ever dries.  The towels that we’ve been bringing on our beach and snorkeling trips have been in a perennial state of dampness ever since day 1, despite our dutifully hanging them up each day when we get home.  Bob even set up our little travel clothesline in the yard, but still no luck.  (The day before yesterday, when we went to the beach, there was a stone wall in the hot sun, and I spread out the towels as soon as we got there.  I carefully turned them around every so often, and by a couple of hours later, they were actually approaching dryness!  This gave me a great sense of accomplishment, until the children ran out of the water and grabbed them.  My first impulse was to tell them they COULD NOT use the towels, so we could keep them dry — but then I had to admit to myself that that was crazy talk.)

A good omen upon our arrival in Isabela

A good omen upon our arrival in Isabela

We were somewhat apprehensive about the boat ride.  It’s a two-hour trek through often-rough seas, and I’ve read descriptions about the discomfort and seasickness that it often entails.  We dutifully took our pills that were hopefully something like Dramamine (assuming we’d accurately communicated our need to the lady at the pharmacy, who kindly sold us as many pills as we wanted for 25 cents apiece).  The small boat was full, with an enclosed area with two benches along the side where we all sat, shoulder to shoulder and with barely space to walk between our knees.  I couldn’t help thinking about how unpleasant things would become if ANYONE on the boat felt the need to vomit.  This feeling grew as the young American woman across from us fished through her backpack, which appeared to be loaded with empty beer bottles, and she and her friends began swigging from a bottle of liquor called “100 fuegos” (“100 fires”).

Lava rock that still looks like it's flowing

Lava rock that solidified while still flowing

At least, we thought as we hopped onto the boat at 2pm sharp, we’d finally broken the curse of delays that has plagued just about every form of transport that we’ve taken in the last week.  And then we waited.  Alas, there was yet another mysterious problem with “paperwork” and it was 45 minutes of sitting in the rocking boat before we could even leave the harbor.  (Another inconvenience of Isabela is that there’s no ATM on the island, and credit cards are generally not accepted, so Bob and I were each carrying hundreds of dollars in cash to pay for all our tours, food, transport, etc. for the next six days.)

The trip went as well as could be expected, all things considered,  No one threw up, though at the end one of the other passengers commented on how green I looked.  The hopefully-Dramamine pills made us all sleepy, but it was impossible to really sleep on the constantly-bouncing boat.  I had to spend the whole trip either staring at the horizon or with my eyes closed, and was thus not able to carry on a conversation with anyone in my family.  Other passengers said they saw dolphins and a whale, but sadly I missed all of these.

Marine iguana tracks

Marine iguana tracks

It’s already worth it, though, because Isabela was delightful from the get-go.  Standing on the dock waiting for our luggage, we were surrounded by beautiful turquoise water lapping against white sand beaches, backed by mangroves growing out of solidified lava.  Sea lions frolicked in the shallow waters beneath us, and turtles and a ray swam by.  In the distance rose high mountains, Isabela’s still-active volcano.  The roads here are made of sand and the vibe is laid-back and beachy, reminding us instantly of Caye Caulker in Belize.  Unlike Puerto Ayora’s downtown, which is a harbor, Puerto Villamil on Isabela is lined with a miles-long white beach, punctuated with black lava rocks.

I wasn’t able to find a house for us here like I had in Puerto Ayora (possibly because this town is much smaller and sleepier, and possibly because I waited until the last minute because we weren’t sure of our plans), so we’ll be living in a single room, without a kitchen for the next six days.  On the other hand, this is our view:

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Having ventured into town for dinner in one of the al fresco restaurants lining the mail square, we’re back in our room, with the roar of the surf coming in through the windows to lull us to sleep.  Tomorrow we hope to find a couple of animals we haven’t seen yet: flamingos and penguins!

We were excited to find this restaurant, where the fixed price menu of $7 included soup, entree, juice, and even a little piece of banana bread for dessert.

We were excited to find this restaurant, where the fixed price menu of $7 included soup, choice of  entree, juice, and even a little piece of banana bread for dessert.

Ups & downs

There are lots of different day tours one can take here, going to many different locations and run by many different tour operators.  It’s hard to figure out what to do.  We decided to start small, with a half-day tour of Tortuga Bay right here on Santa Cruz island.  The itinerary sounded almost too good to be true — first a stop at La Loberia, a small island offshore, to snorkel with sea lions.  Other snorkeling stops to see white-tipped sharks and sea turtles.  A trip to Las Grietas, a deep green pool set between two cliffs.  And there were a few other things thrown in as well.  All this for $25 per person!  (Half price for last-minute booking).

P1020559Turns out, it was maybe a little too good to be true.  Or, to be fair, we probably just had some bad luck.  First off, we met our captain and his accompanying naturalist on the pier — he pointed us to a particular dock and said he’d bring the boat around.  We sat down to wait…and wait…and wait.  When over 20 minutes had passed since our tour was due to have begun, and we began to think they were in a bar somewhere drinking away our $125, the naturalist reappeared to apologize for the delay.  Apparently there was a “little problem” with the boat.  (A short while later the captain showed up, and told us there was a “little problem” with paperwork.  He must have thought that sounded less alarming.)

Eventually we were underway, with a different boat and a different captain.  Daniel, our naturalist, tried to get us back on track but it was clear that the boat problem had created some confusion.  He’d start to tell us where we were headed, then the captain would grunt something in Spanish, then he’d go to confer with him, then come back and tell us something else.

Zoe dives to the depths in Las Grietas.

Zoe dives to the depths in Las Grietas.

Once we finally arrived somewhere, though, it was spectacular.  We walked a short way past a salt flat with pink water (from the same kind of shrimp that flamingos eat) and eventually arrived at Las Grietas.  It was a beautiful spot, with blue-green water surrounded by 20-foot-high cliffs that the locals sometimes jump off of.  When we put on our snorkels and set off, we were all astonished at how deep it was.  Turquoise light seemed to radiate from the bottom far below.

Eventually we headed back to the boat and the confusion resumed.  We passed by a spot where a lot of people were snorkeling — and then jumped into the ocean further on along the coast, where there was initially not much to be seen.  (I should add here one surprising fact about the Galapagos.  Despite the fact that it’s on the equator, the ocean is not all that warm.  Now it’s not cold by New Hampshire standards, by any means, but it’ll definitely have you chilled fairly quickly.  The air is not all the hot at this time of the year either.)  The kids were freezing, the guide was attempting to herd us down the coast while dealing with the only other passengers — a young Ecuadorean couple who, despite having signed up for a snorkeling trip, did not seem to have much desire or aptitude for snorkeling.  In the end, though, we managed to find a couple of huge sea turtles and a couple of sea lions, so we were prepared to say it was worth it.  (See Bob’s post for photos.)

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Playa de los Perros

After that, looking at our shivering forms as well as the waning afternoon sun, Daniel decided we were done snorkeling for the day.  He took us on a beautiful hike on the Playa de los Perros where we saw the Galapagos in its semi-natural state.  (The Ecuadoreans, apparently also not fans of walking, stayed on the boat.)

The trip description had said we were going to La Loberia, and by God, Daniel was apparently determined to take us there.  So we had a long, choppy boat ride out to the island.  The wind had picked up and the seas were high, slamming against the rocks.  Clearly no one was going snorkeling, even if we hadn’t all been half-frozen.  The brochure had also promised a “glass-bottom boat”, and Daniel dutifully pulled up the flooring to reveal a narrow depression with a couple of windows.  He half-heartedly started trying to talk about sea urchins, but eventually trailed off as it became increasingly clear we couldn’t see anything in the turbulent water.  The captain, who seemed to be extremely protective of the glass bottom, quickly sealed it up again (nearly capsizing the boat in the process, as he left the wheel unattended in the large waves) and we headed back.

In the end, for $25 we certainly got our money’s worth, even if this was a case of reality not quite living up to expectations.  And, in  the interests of righting the cosmic balance, we had the opposite experience yesterday.

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Los Gemelos

We had decided to do a “highlands” tour, exploring three attractions on the interior of the island — El Chato tortoise reserve, the lava tubes, and Los Gemelos — two massive sinkholes that were created by the collapse of earlier lava tubes.  Rather than pay $45 per person for an official tour, we opted to pay a taxi driver $45 total to chauffeur us for three hours.  (We’re back to our old Central American habit of having Lanie ride on my lap so we can all fit in one cab.)

In the lava tube

In the lava tube

We didn’t realize we were getting a private guide as well.  At El Chato (see Lanie’s previous post for more details and photos), our taxi driver hopped out of the car with us and led us into the reserve — then began speaking knowledgeably about the biology of the turtles, the surrounding plants, and the workings of the conservation program.  (Granted, this was all in Spanish.  Fortunately Bob has found taxi drivers to be the absolute best people to practice his Spanish on, and was able to translate for the rest of us.)  He also took several photos.  We had similar experiences when walking through the lava tubes (caves carved out by molten lava flows) and when walking along the craters of Los Gemelos.

So, you win some and you lose some.  We’ll hope that tomorrow’s full-day (and rather pricy) snorkeling trip comes down on the plus side.

At last

Early departure from the Hotel Air Suites

Early departure from the Hotel Air Suites

We’ve finally made it, after what seemed to be endless legs of travel. It was another early morning for us, with an 8am flight. After spending several hours attempting, with mixed success, to get some sleep at our hotel in Guayaquil, we were up again at six.

 

It wasn’t the easiest day on the pocketbook, either. When we arrived at the airport, we were directed into a long line to purchase (for $20 each) some kind of “tourist card” needed to enter the Galapagos. Upon arriving in the Galapagos (after a pleasant and uneventful flight that left and arrived on time), we had to pay $100 each for a national park entry fee. Then it was $10 per person for bus IMG_0026tickets and $1 per person for a ferry ride, and of course the fee for the taxi that brought us across the island to Puerto Ayora, the main town here. (The airport here is in the middle of nowhere, on an island that doesn’t seem to contain anything else. The bus is necessary to drive you across the island, and the ferry to get to the larger island of Santa Cruz. Then you’re still in the middle of nowhere until you drive the 40km or so to the other side of Isla Santa Cruz.)

Yesterday was a pretty low-key day. We got settled in the apartment we’ve rented for the next six nights, and strolled into town to look around. There’s plenty to look at, including a beautiful and incredibly detailed mosaic garden, gorgeous blue-green seas, and — of course — exotic animals everywhere.

IMG_0037Our favorite viewing spot was the open fish market, located directly on the docks where the boats come in. People stand there all day cleaning and selling fish, and this has not escaped the notice of the local wildlife. Sea lions lounge around, resting on the pavement or begging for scraps. Pelicans and frigate birds dart in and out, attempting to snatch a choice morsel from under the watchful eye of the fish cleaner. Colorful sally lightfoot crabs scuttle underfoot, while iguanas rest in the sunshine.

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A wall full of sally lightfoot crabs

IMG_0034IMG_0030IMG_0032Walking around, ice cream, grocery shopping, dinner, and very early to bed — that was about enough for today. Oh, and the nearby playground which features a pretty impressive zip line. The older girls roll their eyes when Lanie wants to stop there, but none of them ever wants to leave.

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