Category Archives: South America

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.

Derailed and all shook up

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

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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.

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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.

Mitad del Mundo

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When we went to the Mitad del Mundo, there were two different museums:
The first one we went to, we had a tour group and our guide told us about different Indian tribes. We got to go into little huts like the ones they live in and talk about the tribes. All these tribes still live in Ecuador in the jungle. Later we saw a pen full of guinea pigs.
Then we went to the place where they measured by GPS to be the Equator. We got to stand on two different sides. One foot was in the Northern Hemisphere and one foot was in the Southern Hemisphere.
IMG_0637We did a bunch of cool science experiments. I balanced an egg on a nail. Our guide poured water in a sink on the equator and the leaves in the water didn’t turn in any direction, they just went straight down. We had to walk along the Equator with our eyes closed — it was hard to do because it felt like I was going to fall over. When Dad wasn’t standing on the line the guide had trouble pulling Dad’s arms down; when Dad was standing on the Equator, she could push his hands down really easily.
At the end anyone who brought their passport could get a special stamp, and Nadia and I got a certificate for balancing an egg on a nail.
IMG_0651The second museum was bigger. There was a monument that was a big ball on a pedestal and we got to climb up in the pedestal and look around. We saw a lot of old-fashioned cars. There were a lot of mountains all around us and some were covered with snow.
IMG_0655As we went back down, there were lots of exhibits on the levels. Some were about building the monument, some were about the Indian tribes and some were about science.
IMG_0662After the monument we went to the Plaza de Chocolate where there was a chocolate museum and we got to taste cacao beans right out of the pod and also samples of freshly-made chocolate.
Next we went to a planetarium show. The pictures were really cool, but you couldn’t understand much because all the words were in Spanish.
IMG_0665Before we left, we found a playground. Zoe, Nadia and I went on this big swing merry-go-round.

Editor’s note: Mitad del Mundo means “half or middle of the Earth.” It’s one way to refer to the Equator. In the late 1700s, a geological survey team determinted the location of the Equator in the hills around Quito. In the late ’70s the Ecuadoran Government decided to turn the site into a tourist attraction, which is now known at Mitad del Mundo City. About an hour drive from downtown Quito, it is pretty extensive, with restaurants, hotels, a bullfighting ring, and different pavilions dedicated to the history and science of the original geological expedition, as well as the monument/science museum, planetarium, Plaza de Chocolate, and playgrounds that Lanie described.
IMG_0645In the intervening years since they started developing Mitad del Mundo City, GPS technology has determined that the actual Equator is located a few hundred meters north of the monument erected by the government. Hence, the two museums. The new museum is privately owned and surprisingly more rustic than the old museum, which enjoys a lot of funding from the government (new features, like a train connecting it with Quito, are apparently on the way).

Since just about all of the equator lies at or near sea level, the Mitad del Mundo is as unique experience as many of the ones we had on the Galapagos.  We were able to see a white-topped volcano that is the only snow-covered area in the world that lies along the equator.  

IMG_0654Also, we seemed to have arrived at Mitad del Mundo City during a Volkswagen convention.  There was a circle of old Beetles, Camper Vans, and others surrounding the main monument and a lot of general hoopla.  This is why Lanie said we could see a lot of old cars from the top. 

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.

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.

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.

Still cruising

The demise of our underwater camera came one and a half snorkel trips too soon, by my estimation, but we may have lucked out.

By “us” I mean you, too, because you may get to see some of the cool pictures our guide Carlos took of our dive at Los Tuneles yesterday.

Then again, you may not, because he copied his pictures to our memory card, but we can’t figure out how to access them. With luck, we’ll be able to get to the shots of a school of golden rays and the closeup of the seahorse once we’ll get home. If not you’ll just have to take our word that we saw those things.

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If you look close, you might see a sea turtle gliding by in the shallow channel.

Until then, we do have some pictures from the terrestrial part of our trip, which brought us up the coast from Puerto Villarmil to a place where lava and the sea once met in interesting ways. The result is a maze of calm, clear water running around and through fingers of black lava rock, archways and caves.

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Carlos showing … there’s no way I can write it so it won’t sound dirty.

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Sibling rivalry, vicious among boobies

In the first five minutes after landing, we saw three sea turtles swim by. Then we walked a bit to find a few Blue-Footed Booby nesting sites. Some had eggs; some had chicks; some had one of each. We learned that nesting couples incubate two eggs, but usually only manage to gather enough food for one of the fledglings to survive. Interesting birds, these boobies.
The tour allowed us to encounter several new animals that we hadn’t seen yet. The seahorse and rays are new to our list. We also saw Nasca Boobies, which are different from the blue-footed variety — for one, the larger chick pushes the smaller one out of the nest to spare its parents the problem of deciding which to feed; for another, it is the only booby endemic to the Galapagos. We also caught a shady glimpse of a manta ray while we were in transit. Carlos said they can grow up to seven meters wide. This one looked to be about two meters.

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I think we actually saw flamingos two days ago. Yesterday we discovered these birds which satisfyingly stood on one leg apiece.

The last new animal we saw today was the Galapogos flamingo, which we spied from the boardwalk cutting through an inland lagoon. The boardwalk brought us to another tortoise breeding center (the tortoises here do well in the wild once they’re grown up a bit, but they have trouble getting born in the wild for various reasons, including wild pigs eating eggs and invasive guava trees making it hard for parents to dig nests). At the breeding center were many smaller versions of the tortoises we saw on on bike ride through the Humedales the day before.

Watching over the little ones

Watching over the little ones

They’re cute — and decidedly more active, apparently — when they’re this age.

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

Sharks, beaches, & ice cream

IMG_8814P1020724Editor’s Note: our camera battery died in the middle of this tour, which was so frustrating since there were beautiful and fascinating things to see at every turn.  Thankfully, some kind fellow tourists, Chris and Christina, shared some of their photos with us.  With the state of wifi here, I’m sure emailing them was no small endeavor, and we really appreciate it.

When we went on the Tntorero Tour the water was really cold but the things we saw were very cool. It was a tour of the bay here in Puerto Villaril and they call it the Tintorero Tour because of all the sharks you see on it. (The word tintorero is a reference to color; the sharks in the bay have wite tips on their fins, or sometimes black tips  – Ed)

Snorkeling above the sharks

Snorkeling above the sharks

We saw sea lions, penguins, sting rays, eagle rays, and lots and lots of sharks. We swam through a narrow channel (a lava crack, according to the guide) and right below us in the channel were so many sharks. There were 50, probably, and most of them they were longer than my body. The channel was warm, but when we swam out I was very cold.

Tintoreras landscape

Tintoreras landscape

Then, on land we went on a hike to another channel full of sharks but we didn’t swim there. The island that we hiked on was totally made up of jagged lava rocks covered in white lichen. I thought it would be a good setting for a Star Wars movie. We saw baby sea lions playing and baby iguanas watching us from beside the path. Then we looped back to the boat and the boat took us past some rocks that had penguins on them. Then we saw some blue footed boobies and some more sea lions sitting on a platform in the middle of the bay.

Another shark tunnel, seen from above

Another shark tunnel, seen from above

I liked that we got to see lots of animals and that our tour guide was really nice. This tour was one of my favorites that we’ve done in Galapagos.

Before the tour we spent the morning and part of the afternoon at the beach right outside our hotel. There are lots of waves. It was really fun because Zoe and I tried to jump and dive over and under them. We also buried ourselves in the sand. This beach was fun because of the waves and the really, really soft sand. We didn’t even want to leave when it was time for the tour.IMG_0311

We didn’t even want to leave for ice cream for lunch. Nadia and I got chocolate ice cream bars and Zoe got mango. Mom got coconut. P1020720

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