Month: February 2013

Galapagos day 3, Santa Cruz island: giant tortoises, sea kayaking and the beach

As always, these days start early. We were dropped off on Santa Cruz at about 08:30, where we hopped in a bus for a drive into the highlands. There, we would have a chance to see giant tortoises in the wild.

It was muddy up there, very different from other islands we’d been on, so we were issued rubber boots to walk in. Now I understood why they’d recommended that we bring socks, which I hadn’t!

We took a short walk through the forest with our guide, who explained about these tortoises and the ones in the breeding center, as well as pointing out the various birds along our route.

Giant tortoises look, if they’re not moving, a lot like boulders. We almost ran right into this lady while she was snacking. It’s hard for me to tell the difference between the males and females. Males are larger and have concave lower shelves, for mating with the females.

We also had a chance to try on a male shell while learning interesting things about tortoises. Lifting them is more awkward than anything else, since our joints don’t bend at the correct places.

We watched this guy swim across a pond. In the first 2 pictures I took, his head was submerged, which made him look very much like the turtle island/ wise one from the Neverending Story.

The black shininess of the shell is due to a covering like our fingernails, which falls off when they die. That is why the shell we tried on was white. It was only bone.

After seeing some tortoises, we took a very short walk into a lava tube. Lava tubes are pretty similar everywhere, and we’ve been in lava tubes near Mt. St. Helen and on Iceland. We were only able to walk about 100-200 meters into this one due to a pond. It was much taller than other tubes I’ve been in.

And then it was lunch. After lunch, we rested in hammocks and chatted or napped. Some people played soccer. Obviously, we were not among the lunatics!

Eventually it was time for a short downhill bike ride to the beach, which was fun but almost uneventful. One of the little girls crashed and burned on one of the steeper slopes.

Leaving the bikes at the entrance to the beach, we continued on foot.

It was a lovely beach, and nice cooling off in the water. We swam and kayaked. Matt and I were almost the last people back from kayaking, except for Wayne and the Peruvian guy, who had been chasing sharks in solo kayaks out towards open water last we’d seen them.

Just before leaving, we saw a pink flamingo. Flamingoes, it turns out, do not start out pink. Their diet means they consume a lot of carotene, which colors them pink over time! I didn’t know!

Wayne joined us just in time for the bus back to the panga back to the boat. I had a good look at the pier there, at Puerta Ayora, since that’s where we’ll be for the 2 days after our cruise finishes.

Before dinner we had a next-day briefing with our guides. At dinner, our dining companions from the Frigates group (we are Boobies) told us that they’d heard that we could extend our cruise 4 more days. The extension would take us to the northern islands and therefore we’d see penguins! Because they are trying to fill their occupancy, it would only cost $600 more (which is very much worth it). Very tempting! However, if we did that, we wouldn’t be able to see the market in Otavalo, which was where we were hoping to pick up any souvenirs. Still, it’s just a market. We’re going to have some serious thinking about it overnight.

Dinner was followed by a band playing Ecuadorian music for us to dance to, but a group of us went up top to star-gaze and chat.

Matt hadn’t joined, so after a while I went looking for him. He was helping Roger, a very interesting older guy from Colorado, pick out his next tablet. Roger bought me a glass of wine, but I pooped out without finishing it, and went to bed.

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Location:Galapagos, Ecuador

Galapagos day 2, Santa Fe and South plaza islands

Wake up call is at 07:00, which sounded really early in our exhaustion last night, but I was up much earlier, annoying Matt by opening the window shade to look outside. We had an amazing breakfast buffet then at 08:15 the group that had chosen the “long difficult” hike were called to disembark.

It was another wet landing, so here we are getting our shoes on at the beach where we began our hike.

The very first thing we saw was one small cove over, where a colony of sea lions were sporting around on the sand.

Then we hiked up a very steep and crumbly trail. At the top there were many large land iguanas and prickly pear cacti. My massive zoom lens came in really handy, but since most of the photos look much the same, I’ll just treat you to this guy.

The total hike was around 2 hours, but it was a scorcher of a morning, and we were all sweating buckets. Here we are heading back down from the top.

We walked back across the sea lion beach, but these guys weren’t sporting around anymore. It was way too hot for that!

After we returned to the Santa Cruz, we had about 15 minutes to reapply sunscreen and put on bathing suits and, if desired, wetsuits, before going out to snorkel for an hour.

I don’t have any pictures of snorkeling because I don’t have an underwater camera, but it was brilliant. When I flipped backward off the boat I pretty much fell straight in to a small group of big flat colorful fish. We saw a lot of them during our time underwater. They were looking at me like, “Excuse me, but we were having a nice chat here. That was quite rude!”

We saw lots of fish. We saw two rays. I can’t remember the type they were. There was a blue fish that had bright blue spots along its crest that looked like LED lights. A massive sea lion startled me by swimming right underneath me while I was looking at another fish. I chased a sea turtle for a while, at a slight distance.

Near the end, I was lagging behind our group a bit when I looked ahead and saw a river of those same big flat colorful fish swimming right at me. They were so many and densely packed that I couldn’t see anything but them. They swerved at the last moment to avoid me, then I rejoined the group just as another smaller but similar school of fish did the same thing again.

Altogether, it was brilliant. I got a sun burn on the upper back of my thighs, but I’d carefully covered that area with sunscreen, so I think it was just time in the water.

And then it was lunchtime, which was SO delicious, even better then yesterday. We stuffed ourselves, again, and wished we had space for more.

After lunch, thank goodness, there was a break of about 2 hours. I’m pretty sure everyone napped. When the announcement came that we had 15 minutes to be ready to disembark for our next hike, I was pretty groggy, but it was an easy walk and slightly cooler.

This afternoon walk was on South Plaza Island. It was an animal-viewing walk, and these little (and big) guys really love to pose. Here’s another land iguana.

And another one, blending in with the local succulents.

These guys aren’t local, but they’re getting more acclimatized.

We watched a group of 5 eagle rays off shore.

Another land iguana, looking majestic. He was huge.

And here’s a smaller aquatic iguana, and his little sunning buddy the lava lizard, under a prickly pear.

I have about a million pictures of this and one other blue-footed booby, but I like the one because it turned to check me out too.

This land iguana is decked out for a dance night, flowers in her scales.

Aquatic iguana: “What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”

Another imported species, sunning himself and trying to attract his mate with his not-so-colorful plumage.

His local counterpart. Actually, I’m pretty sure that’s a female. Those white rocks were very shiny from the fatty oils the skin of sea lions secretes, as they travel back and forth across them.

The youngest sea lion we saw was about a week old, although we saw quite a few in the 3 week range. We also saw one of about 3 years nursing, which was cute.

And then we went back to the ship, where we showered then had happy hour cocktails up on the deck before a scrumptious dinner.

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Location:Galapagos, Ecuador

Galapagos day 1, aboard the Santa Cruz, around San Cristobal

Another early morning. Are you sure this is vacation?!?

We woke up at 05:00 to get to the airport for our flight to the Galapagos islands. The airport experience was a little confusing. We were supposed to have our luggage checked for quarantine, then pay for the luggage check ($10), then meet our guide who had the boarding passes, then check our luggage, then security check. But no one was manning step 1, so we felt a little uncertain standing there with one other group, until more people showed up. The line became very long before the desk was opened, but everything proceeded smoothly from there.

The landing on San Cristobal was interesting. We descended, then suddenly swung upwards, circled the island rather wobbly, then came in for another descent and finally landing. This odd arrival has been a recurring conversation among the 57 of us experiencing the Galapagos aboard the Santa Cruz this week.

Immediately upon leaving the airport, we were put onto a minibus for a short drive through town to our boarding site. There was an aquatic iguana right there, as well as many sea lions and many varieties of birds.

We boarded our ship via small rafts called pangas, which are quite pleasant. We wear life vests and the kind staff takes care of getting us on and off safely.

On board, we were greeted with warm towels and fresh juice, then escorted individually to our cabins. Our luggage was brought shortly later. We have a room with twin beds because the double beds were booked.

We learned the rules of our experience in the lounge, where we sat with our new friend Tanja, who we’d met in the airport.

Lunch was quite a spread, but everything had bell peppers in it, so my plan to not tell anyone about my allergy didn’t work out. There was no eating around them, unless I wanted a perpetually unhappy tummy.

This is our ship as we left for our first excursion, on the other side of San Cristobal, to Punta Pitt. We were given a choice between snorkeling/swimming then a quick hike then a panga trip, or a normal-paced hike and panga trip, or just a panga trip. Matt and I are still nursing sunburns, so we skipped the snorkeling today and opted instead for the hike and panga.

We went first to an offshore rock where we watched various animals, including these baby sea lions, doing what they do.

This is a male frigate, puffing out his red throat in order to attract a mate. Frigates are huge, and steal food from other birds in the air.

Matt was particularly charmed by these red crabs that were all over the rock, just above the water.

We made a wet landing on the beach of San Cristobal, hopping over the sides of he panga into knee-deep water and heading ashore to put hiking shoes on.

It’s a little tricky to see here, but that’s a pretty good cliff edge just past the STOP sign.

Here’s Matt followed by Roger and Tanja. Roger and his friends, including 84-year-old Frank, recently returned from a trip to Antarctica. We’ve been enjoying chatting with them very much.

In the distance you can see people standing where we will soon stand, and returning along a trail we will soon follow.

When we got back to the beach, the sea lions were flopping around contentedly.

After we got back, we showered and enjoyed happy hour with our fellow travelers. Then announcements, welcome cocktails, and finally dinner. Dinner was delicious, and was made without bell peppers just for me. Hurray! After dinner, we’re back in our rooms. It’s now 22:15, but wake up is at 07:00 and I’m exhausted.

This has been a wonderful day.

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Location:Galapagos, Ecuador

Guayaquil day 1, sunburned backpackers

The craziest thing woke us early this morning. At first it was low, and I thought maybe it was more of the students’ party. But bit by bit it got louder until it was blasting in our room like a disco. I’m not exaggerating. I put in my earplugs and Matt got up to see what was going on. It was 04:00. There was a truck out there with a lone guy playing beach DJ for himself. At this point Matt saw people from two directions approach the truck, and the music abruptly ended. We went back to sleep until 09:00.

The two red roofs, by the way, are our hostal. The first night, we were in the shorter one, and last night we were in the taller one, with a private balcony and hammock.

When we woke up, we went down and had breakfast with the other guests. This time, we had a lengthier chat with an Irish woman named Claire. She and her friend Katy (pardon spellings) have been traveling South America for a while now and had some wonderful stories and suggestions. Eventually, though, Matt and I went on yet another quest for water and aloe vera. When we got back, we packed up then made an effort to get our Galapagos vouchers printed. Soup story. Then we went to lunch, eating ceviche again at the same place as 2 nights ago. Delicious.

After lunch, it was time to go to the bus to leave for Guayaquil. It was so hot that we called a taxi for the 10-minute walk. We bade farewell to our host, who was really nice if disorganized and Claire and Katy, and hopped into the cab.

Unfortunately, we were informed at the bus station that all buses for Guayaquil were sold out today! We have a flight to Galapagos in the morning, though, so I asked how we could get there. The ticket seller recommend we go to Montanita, take a bus to Santa Elena, then get another bus from there. We took off in the taxi for Montanita, and barely caught the bus, with the taxi blocking its way.

It was 50km to Santa Elena, stopping everywhere, so it took a long time. Then we bought tickets for Guayaquil and made an easy transfer.

In Guayaquil we spent a little time at the bus terminal, first printing the vouchers for tomorrow then calling the hostal we’d selected from the lonely planet. This place is great, silent and empty, with friendly hosts who suggested a dinner venue for us (that we ignored, although the same place is also recommended in Lonely Planet, in favor of middle eastern food) and have already arranged our morning taxi to the airport.

Next posts: Galapagos!!!

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Olon day 2, a peaceful beach

I am starting this right before noon, sitting in a hammock outside our hostel room. We have an elephant living above us, so we woke when she woke, but it wasn’t too early, so that was fine. Besides, we’d already been on the edge of consciousness for a time due to extremely heavy rains. My first thought was, “oh no! They’re following us!”

We went down and had breakfast with the hosts and an older American couple from Philadelphia who were very chatty. Apparently, the woman has been coming here for decades and owns some land in neighboring Montanita. She is trying to convince her husband of Ecuador’s fabulousness, which isn’t very difficult to do.

After breakfast, the woman, Davita, walked us over to the local laundress, which I’m glad of, because we’d never have found it. Then we went for a walk along the gorgeous beach, the longest in Ecuador.

The fishermen were cleaning up the last of their catch, selling the small leftovers to locals while birds wheeled overhead.

We saw a huge sand dollar, missing a chunk almost half its size, but it was alive! Periwinkle-like things were being dragged along with the surf, digging into the sand and wiggling their soft bits up in the water.

After a bit of a wander, we headed back to the hostal. We hoped to move our things over to the new room, but they weren’t ready for us. Instead, we hung out reading on the hammocks for a while before going back to the beach to find a parasol to sit under.

This beach is so peaceful. There aren’t too many people here, although it’s also certainly not empty. There are cafe cabanas along the beach, as well as a few cocktail stands and vendors selling all kinds of treats and souvenirs. Matt had a shaved ice with 3 different flavors and condensed milk sprinkled over the top. We shared 2 fresh coconuts, drinking their water from straws. Later we had ice cream. My coconut ice cream was the coco-nuttiest I’ve ever tasted. Yum! No pictures through the afternoon because we were going swimming too, so left the tech in our bags at the hostal.

The water at Olon is great for body-surfing, although very full of sand so very uncomfortable when you get it up your nose or down your throat, which we did. It’s also very warm, kind of like swimming though a very large area where someone peed. Every once in a while we’d get a cooler bit, but mostly it was warm.

After a few hours under the parasol, I started thinking my toes felt a little tight. We went and picked up our laundry and a big bottle of water, then went back to see about our room. Reminiscent of yesterday’s soup, it still wasn’t ready, so we sat and waited. Our constant presence this time seemed to move things into higher gear, and we got into our room within the hour.

By now it was about time to be thinking about dinner, and we needed cash. We also needed more aloe vera to help deal with the sunburns we were sporting. Matt s particularly lobster-esque. My burns are bad, too, but I was under the parasol the entire time, whereas he’d decided to get a tan and spent some time lying out directly under the bright equatorial sun. Oops.

Anyway, we decided to go into Montanita, and inquired about the bus. This led to an attempt by our host to be helpful, which led to an hour sitting around, ending in our walking to the bus stop. It was a pleasant hour, though, spent being manhandled by a troupe of girls, ages 9-17 if I’m guessing. A 12-year-old and a 9-year-old were particularly interested in my dreadlocks and my piercing. They were sweet.

We’d been told about Montanita several times since arriving in Ecuador. It sounds like a party hippy town, and it is. The beach is known for surfing, but it’s small and crowded.

The streets were filled with people and vendors, bars and discos, and crappy-looking restaurants. All the prices were as high as European prices, the first we’d seen this in Ecuador.

I am so glad we stayed in neighboring Olon instead.

We found everything we need, including a nice little clothing shop with clothes similar in style to the things my friend Brenn makes. I tried on a little sundress that fit but could have fit better, and the young woman running the shop said she could make me a better one, same price, within an hour. She even gave me a choice of fabrics, although I chose the same one. So we went to dinner, which was disappointing, then picked up the dress and took a taxi back to Olon.

The teenagers (including Aussie Elephant) were having a birthday party directly under our new room, so after reapplying aloe vera, we thought we’d take a walk on the dark beach to look at the stars some more before bed.

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Olon day 1, another long bus ride, but now warm water, stars beyond belief, and ceviche

The alarm went off at 08:00 this morning, but we were already stirring. We wanted to get a few errands run before leaving for the coast, and I was hoping to catch the bus by 11:00, in an effort to get to Olon before dark.

First order of business was yet another technical difficulty regarding Matt’s phone. I’m now awesome at solving telephone difficulties in Spanish. I will be expecting my repayment for services rendered for unnecessary problems, namely getting Matt a data connection so that he can play Ingress. Sigh.

Today the shops were all open, and the streets were busy. The sun was shining, and we were wondering if we made the right decision, leaving Cuenca. Cuenca was shining, so busy. Our next stop was to get the stamps we’d bought yesterday and the postcards we’d bought in Banos sealed. This was confusing to us. We had asked the lovely receptionist at our hostal, and she had confirmed: we needed to get them sealed at the same place we’d bought the stamps. So we put the gigantic stamps on the postcards, rewrote the addresses which no longer fit, and showed up at the shop. The proprietess put her seal on our stamps, and we put them in the postbox outside. Family, expect postcards, but I have NO idea when they’ll arrive. They were placed in the box on 13 February.

Last errand for town: Matt really wanted a hat. Did you know that the hats referred to as “panama hats” came originally from Ecuador, specifically Cuenca? Well, we’ve been seeing all these hats and they look great, so Matt is now the proud owner of one. Actually, I bought another sun hat at the same shop, made the same way, but in a classic sun hat shape, since my usual one badly needs a wash.

And finally, at noon, we were at the bus station, catching the bus to Guayaquil. I’ve waxed lyrical about buses enough, but this one had no food vendors, a big disappointment.

On the plus side, the journey from Cuenca to Guayaquil took us right through Parque Nacional Cajas, beautiful high Andean plains.

Sadly, our seats were the last 2 in the bus, and the windy and bouncy roads gave me a mild case of motion sickness. It rained much of the time, but I kept my window open and enjoyed the gorgeous scenery.

When we finally left the mountains, the change was amazing. Suddenly we were seeing bananas and coconuts being sold roadside, and it was hot.

A total of 4 hours from departure, we had a crazy rushed transfer in Guayaquil, and were on the bus to Olon. This bus was completely different from any we had been on previously. It was filled with tanned hippies and surfers, a large number of Ecuadorian party boys, and maybe a handful of non-holiday travelers. The driver blasted a dubbed version of “Taken.” The film ended just around the same time we reached the coast.

The sun was descending steadily towards the horizon as we made out way north. At 18:39 I saw the clock at the front, looked outside again, watched the sun disappear beneath the waves, and glanced back at the clock. It still read 18:39. 20 minutes later and it was full, pitch-dark.

All but the two of us, a young woman, and a drunken middle-aged man got out at the main Montanita stop. The woman was let out just a few minutes later, still in Montanita.

I was finally getting a little worried as we continued north. We hadn’t arranged accommodations, but we hadn’t expected the trip to take 7+ hours. The road was dark, and we couldn’t see any road signs or likely hostels. And then we were in Olon.

We got off the bus and decided our best course of action was to head towards the beach. Through town, almost everything was dark, and even the couple of hostals looked closed up and uninviting. It wasn’t very late, but with everything closed, we were worrying we’d have to head back to Montanita and find something there.

However, our instinct to head for the beach paid off. There was a large well-lit hostal at the south end of town, right on the beach. There was a taxi dropping someone off right inside the gate and lots of people hanging around. We walked in.

Our host turned out to be from Chile, and maybe Chileans operate on an even more relaxed time-frame than Ecuadorians. He had us sit down while he checked “something,” but “for sure I have a room for you!” We sat quite a long time. Finally he took us up to a room, but he couldn’t find the key and it didn’t shut without it. So we propped it closed with a shoe in order to shower and clean up before heading back down to check in.

Again, a wait. He took out his laptop, checked his emails, his reservations, a few other things. We mentioned that we hadn’t eaten since breakfast, if he could suggest a cafe in town. He said that if we waited another 10 minutes they’d have soup and we could join them. We waited another half hour. I couldn’t smell any soup. We asked if it would be ok if we took a walk while we waited. “Of course! Only 10 minutes!” We walked for another half hour, saw a beach shack cafe, checked that they were open, walked back to the hostal, where there was still no soup, and explained that we would not be joining them for dinner, thank you all the same.

The food at the beach restaurant was fantastic. I had a calamari ceviche and Matt had a fried filet of fish with salad, rice, and plantains. Everything had been freshly made. We shared a beer.

Afterwards, we walked up and down the beach. The stars were brighter than I remember ever seeing them, and slightly different. We walked in the water, which felt warm like someone had been peeing in it. There were colder patches as well, but they weren’t cold by any means.

When we arrived back at the hostal, our host said it was good that we hadn’t stayed for soup, as extra unexpected tenants had also shown up, and there hadn’t been enough. We laughed, asked for towels, and went up to our room.

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Cuenca Day 2, a lovely city closed for Carnaval

Silence greeted us as we began to rouse from sleep this morning. Blessed silence. We lay in bed, just relaxing and enjoying. And then the phone rang. The kitchen staff wanted to know if we’d be coming in for breakfast, which was ending at 10:00. it was already 09:45. We got our butts out of bed.

In the dining room were 2 Canadian women in their 60’s that Matt had been chatting with last night while I sorted our accommodations. At first we sat at another table, but ended up getting so talkative with them that we joined their table. They’d been in Cuenca a couple of days already, so had a lot of good advice for us.

We decided to take their advice and walk along the river to the ruins. It was a beautiful walk, and many families were out enjoying the morning of their last vacation day. As was the case last night, all shops were closed. The churches were busy and that’s about it.

Here is what the empty streets looked like, all of them:

However, there was so much beauty in the building design here. We passed an elementary school that looked like this!

Yes, that’s really a school. Not that they all looked like this, but Cuenca was indeed a lovely city, even if everything was closed.

The walk along the river was lovely and peaceful, and not long after we passed the Puenta Rota, a broken bridge beside the river, we came to a point where some ruins sat above us. These ruins were very small, and had signs describing the pieces in them, but were overall not spectacular. Here is the bridge.

It seems I didn’t take any pictures of those first ruins, Los Ruinos de Todos Santos, but after looking at those, we continued up the hill and found an interesting museum, El Museo del Banco Central ‘Pumopungo,’ which had a fascinating exhibit about the different cultures and traditions around Ecuador.

Behind the museum were some far more interesting ruins, believed to be part of the old Incan city of Tomebamba. Here the ruins were basically stone walls, and a tunnel under the cliff, but beneath them lies a garden with various agricultural examples, descriptions of Incan farming techniques, medicinal herbs, and a large bird house with descriptions of how animals play a role in man’s relationship with nature. I found these gardens very beautiful and a nice peaceful place to relax.

As we left the gardens and returned back up the river, heavy clouds began to appear. Luckily, we were also ready for lunch. We were tired of eating the same Ecuadorian food, so we went into the only other open place, an ice cream and snack bar, where Matt had a surprisingly excellent pizza and I had a delicious fresh sandwich.

After lunch, we decided to run back to our hotel, drop off stuff, sort out postcards, stuff like that. We ran into Udo, an Austrian man from Berlin (yes, I know… He’s lived there 16 years… I know the difference between Germany and Austria on a map), and invited him to join us for drinks at an expat bar, Cafe Inca, one of again the few places open. He sold his business recently and is on a 6 month world trip.

Afternoon became evening, and we had dinner there. I had a delicious burger along with my 3 caipirinhas. Then we walked back to the hostel. Udo took this picture of us in front of the church nearest our hostel.

It had been raining and raining, all afternoon and evening, so Matt did a little research to see if he really really wanted to go to Ingapirca, the main Incan ruins in Ecuador. Factoring in all the bus time for no more than 2 hours of looking, and the rain, we decided we’d had enough of the Andes and are heading to the coast tomorrow.

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Location:Tarqui,Cuenca Canton,Ecuador

Cuenca Day 1, public transportation in Ecuador is pretty good

We enjoyed our last breakfast in Banos this morning, on the roof of Hostal Plantas y Blanco. As usual, it was delicious, fresh fruit salad, fresh juice, coffee, and pancakes. We will miss those breakfasts, but today it was raining, so our decision to move on from Banos seemed well-timed.

Yesterday we had dropped in at the bus station to check times for Cuenca, and it looked like we’d be able to get one direct. The very friendly woman at the hostal we had called in Cuenca said we could expect about 6 hours. This turned out not to be quite the case. In actuality, we needed to take a bus first to Riobamba and then to Cuenca. At least they were in the same direction! I’d read other travelers’ tales, and there are frequently situations where the only way to get where you’d like is by backtracking, sometimes hours, to a larger hub or road. It makes sense, since this IS the Andes, and roads are windy and hilly.

I am really impressed with the bus transportation in Ecuador. It is really easy and very cheap. There are many bus companies and the price varies to reflect quality and directness. For example, when we left Quito for Banos, the bus was extremely cheap, I think $3-4 per person. However, there was no toilet and we stopped in many villages and rural locations. The trip took around 4-5 hours. The seats were comfortable but the decor was a little kitschy. Instead of tinted windows, there were colorful curtains.

Today the bus trip of only about 2 hours to Riobamba cost about $4 each. Seats were assigned. There were full delicious-looking hot meals available for purchase and a movie playing. There may have been a toilet but I don’t remember. Many people were standing in the aisle, and there was some kind of argument involving a family who had only bought 3 seats for 5 people. The bus driver said it was not a problem for him, but rather for the police if we were stopped.

When we reached Riobamba we had about an hour and a half before the only available bus to Cuenca, so we circled the station looking for the best option for lunch. Many places were closed, probably due to Carnaval, so we ended up in a small cafe right across from the station’s main entrance. The same meal we’ve been enjoying in Banos was available, with slight variation. This time, instead of sausages, there was a seasoned filet of beef like what we’d eaten at the executive lunch in Quito on our first day. We ordered smoothies from the stand outside to drink with our meal.

The bus to Cuenca was the nicest we’ve been on, in terms of security and service. The baggage was checked under the bus, and we were given vouchers. We’ve been using the underneath storage already, but receiving claim vouchers just feels more secure. There was no movie but instead we were entertained for a while by a marionetteer. Unfortunately for such a long trip (6 hours), the bathroom was broken. Instead the driver announced a toilet stop. It was only shortly after we’d begun, however, and I didn’t need it yet. Matt got off along with a group of others.

On all of these buses, various vendors come and go, selling all sorts of snacks and food, as well as soft drinks and ice cream. It’s handy, but sometimes there are so many hawkers on at one time that it feels a bit claustrophobic.

Figuring out transportation by bus is also really easy. We simply walk into a bus station. Each bus company has a sales kiosk where you can buy tickets. As you look around for one offering the destination and time you want, you will be approached by various people shouting out destinations. These are mostly representatives of the bus lines, and typically leaving within minutes. If you say yes, you get rushed through the sales office and onto the bus. We’ve done it both ways, slower and faster. Both have gotten us safely to our destination.

Even with good, efficient bus service, it was a long day on the road. We got into our hostal around 20:00, exhausted and smelly. As we sped through the streets in a taxi, we had noticed that all the streets were empty, shutters and shops closed, and it was raining. When the proprietess told us that dinner was available in their restaurant, of course we jumped on it.

First, however, we needed showers. We were stinky, our clothes are ALL dirty, my scalp felt ready for a shampoo. I spent about 40 minutes under the beautiful brand-new shower. It was heavenly.

Matt said he was getting sick of Ecuadorian food, but surprise! The menu was pretty much the same, with a slight variation. This time, instead of potatoes in any form, there was hominy mixed with scrambled eggs. Otherwise, all was familiar: thin seasoned filets of chicken and beef, a couple of sausage links, avocado, beets, salad. It was good, but even I find myself craving pizza or hamburger or pasta or Indian curries, or anything.

Because of Carnaval, things are pretty full up. The only room left for us was a triple, so we pushed 2 of the beds together. Still, we’d love to have a nice bed, not too hard, not wrapped in plastic with smelly blankets, not small beds. Even on our Galapagos trip, we’ll be in a cabin with 2 small beds. Ah well, we certainly still sleep ever night!

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Location:Tarqui,Cuenca Canton,Ecuador

Banos day 4, in which a peaceful day becomes an adventurous day

Oh wait, I’m not there yet. But there it is.

We woke up later this morning, not feeling very rested. Yesterday while all that was going on, we’d been debating trips into the jungle. We have enough time for 4 days, which would allow us to canoe, swim with piranhas, meet indigenous people, hike a lot, camp in the wilderness, maybe zip line, do some shaman drugs, get malaria (I’m kidding), etc. We couldn’t decide on the tour operator.

This morning we remembered that we’d discussed this sort of dilemma before we planned this trip, and we were definitely NOT going to adventure every day of this vacation. It is not the idea that you need a vacation when you’re done with vacation.

So this morning we decided to skip the jungle. It was both a relief and a disappointment. I’d convinced Matt that we’d probably kick ourselves later if we didn’t do it, and we were both so excited, but the new plan is to go to a somewhat posher hotel in Cuenca for a day or two, then make our way to the beach until the day we need to be in Guayaquil to fly to the Galapagos islands.

We decided to begin this new resolution by relaxing for as long as possible on the upstairs terrace over breakfast. However, all the noise and activity in town inspired me to pull out my telephoto lens, and this is what I saw, as crowds began to really pour into Banos for the Carnaval activities.

Vendors were selling everything from souvenirs to candles for offerings in the cathedral, to sugar cane for chewing or juice. We had to outside and check it out.

Over in the direction of the in-city baths, we found a big center of activity around the waterfall and the statue of the Virgin. That gate you see on the left of the next photo is the entrance to where the statue is, and we could hear a speech or presentation that sounded very much like an official opening ceremony with religious overtones. People were very respectful and quiet in this area, even if playing in the water or dressed in costumes for their own performances later on. Or their best event-worthy clothes.

After checking out that side of town, we headed into the main part again, where festivities were starting to liven up a little, that guy in the buggy has soap suds all over him from getting attacked by a kid as the drove past. Here in Ecuador, Carnaval is also a sort of water-festival, and a lot of the fun is dousing passers-by with water, in any form. We saw people attacked with water balloons, entire buckets of water, spray tubes of fruit-scented colorful soap, water guns, and later, even with shoes filled with water dipped from the river.

Still, it was our last day in town, and the parade that we’d seen scheduled for 09:00 hadn’t happened, or had been much smaller than expected, so we took Melissa’s suggestion and went for a bicycle ride for around 25 km of windy roads with gorgeous waterfalls. I’d wanted to do the route on motorcycles, but we’d been confused by the information at the only motorcycle rental place in town, and it was amazingly nice to be back on bicycles. (I guess we’re fully ingeburgerd now!)

The route was mostly downhill or flat, but there were occasional climbs. Fortunately the bikes had 28 gears. The scariest part was all the traffic on the route, especially because of the holiday, but the drivers were pretty considerate and I never felt too unsafe. We got sprayed by soap guns a few times, but because of wind and movement, they only grazed us.

This was the first waterfall that we came to, at Agoyan. There were huge crowds here, riding a flimsy-looking cable car or zip lining across the canyon. We just had to do it too.

Here’s the photo the official photographer took of us getting ready to go. It’s a little dark because I had to take a photo of the print to put it up here. The ride across was beautiful, and so peaceful. I felt like I was alone in the world, even though I could see Matt just ahead of me.

As we approached the far side, however, the kids at the end of the line started shaking the cable, presumably to slow us down, which was alarming. Then I could see Matt slow way down ahead of me, but I was still flying full speed ahead, directly at a rock wall to which the cable was attached. I panicked, screaming, “no no no no no no no no!!!!!” at the top of my lungs, to the vast amusement of the people waiting to head back via cable car. Most of them had just been where I was, so part of the laughter was sympathetic. My legs were a little weak as the little boy who’d stopped my ride helped me take off my gear. I was laughing too, but it was partially shock.

At Matt’s suggestion, we wandered around on that side for a few minutes before joining the line to go back. The wait was very long. At one point, the cable car coming towards us didn’t make it all the way, and slid back. Everyone waiting had a good laugh over that, as well as while watching the zip liners come in. No one screamed quite as much as I had while approaching the wall, but I had a few contenders.

I didn’t take pictures of all the waterfalls, but we saw many more zip line opportunities and cable cars, with shorter lines. However, I’m pretty happy with our choice. It was one of the prettier ones.

Here at this bridge, there are actually 2 bridges. The lower one is filled with spectators and traffic from the slower road beside that part of highway. The upper one is the main highway and is where a crowd was gathered for “puenting,” or bridge jumping. It’s a little difficult to see, but there’s a guy swinging under the bridge in this picture. We watched him jump, and I think he’s done it before, because he was pretty calm. The next guy had to be pushed, but it was a spectacular jump. First they buckled his knees, then as he began to fall, they flipped him upside down by grabbing his ankles, and he flew, screaming and waving his arms.

Eventually we reached Rio Verde, where Carnaval festivities were in full swing. We got sprayed pretty thoroughly by a tiny little girl just as we were pulling up, before we got our bearings. I got a picture of Matt, but then she started spraying directly AT my camera, so I put it away while my sunglasses were completely covered by fruity suds and her parents posed her and us for photos. I was a little confused, blinded and worried about my camera, but smiled and laughed and tried to play along.

After, it occurred to me that I had probably best try to avoid the suds, since the foaming was likely caused by the ingredient that is the bane of my existence, cocamidopropyl betaine. My allergy to it is very strong and usually causes blisters which become easily infected. So I left Matt with the bicycles and went down to the river to wash the suds off.

There were lots of kids in the water, having water fights, so I found a spot where I’d be easily able to retaliate when necessary. Sure enough, it didn’t take long before a couple of boys started sneaking up behind me to my right, and a girl behind me to my left. A group of adults nearby, including that woman in the green trousers on the rock, were watching with eager anticipation. It came from the boys first, a light splashing. With no hesitation, not even looking, I reached into the river and started scooping it back at them, as fast as I could.

Everyone was laughing pretty hard as the boys continued their attack, using a shoe to scoop more water at me. The girl backed off, probably because she’d have ended up on the side the boys were attacking. It was good fun, and after a few minutes I headed back to shore, while the green-trouser woman instructed me, “more water, more, more!” to which I replied I only had 2 hands.

Matt saw none of this, but I took a picture of the scene, without half the participants, when I got back to my camera.

Beside the river was a tiny man-made lake, where people were renting huge rubber rafts and paddling about. One family of 3 was swimming, and one kid was rolling around in a floating hamster ball. Water fights between the boats were happening, but far more on shore.

We ate there, at the food stands. I had more cevichochos and Matt had fresh-caught grilled trout. I also had a small fried empanada of plantain and queso fresco, yum.

Then we headed over to the entrance to walk to the last, and biggest, waterfall, Pailon del Diablo. First you walk quite a ways down a steep path, then back up to approach behind the waterfall itself. The steps at that final approach were very crowded.

We took turns standing under the waterfall, which was really great. Not everyone did it, so that part wasn’t crowded. To get there, there were some carved tunnels with fences to keep you from falling. We were on our hands and knees for part, and frog-walking at others. Matt helped a young mother and her small daughter through some of the more difficult parts, where you had to climb from crouching to a high shelf. Matt lifted the daughter from above while her mother stabilized her from below.

Here is the view from the bridge you can see in one of those earlier photos, after we had come back up.

As you can see, it was getting dark as we finished. We suddenly remembered we were supposed to bring the bikes back by 19:00. Checking the clock, we saw that it was already 18:00. We still had to climb back up the steep path!

It’s a good thing that we have been hiking up and down hills so much already on this trip. We walked really fast up the path, doing it in about 20 minutes, which is faster than we’d gone down. The other people on the path thought we were insane, and laughed a lot at us, admonishing us to slow down and take it easier. Nearing the top, I was reminded of going running all that time with Annemette, and how she’d always say that no, I didn’t need a break, I could do it if I just kept concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other and not on how far away the destination seemed. I was really proud of myself.

Unfortunately, all that amazing speed amounted to nothing. At the top, it was full disk and all the other bicycles were gone. All of the tricks for transporting bicycles back to Banos were gone. Most of the festivities and festival-goers were gone. With no lights, and mostly uphill the entire way along busy highways, there was no way we could bicycle the 25 or so km back to Banos. And certainly not before 19:00.

I started asking everyone if they knew how we could get back to Banos. Everywhere the answer was no. It was getting even darker, and I was getting worried. We called the bicycle rental place. They suggested that we walk back up to the highway and try to flag down a Chivas bus, colorful open buses filled with local party-goers. We had seen many of these earlier, but not for quite a while. There weren’t many people left now in the parking lot at all.

Luckily for us, however, all the asking-around had notified pretty much everyone of our plight. A middle-aged man approached us wearing a very carefully pressed white shirt and grey slack, and offered us a ride to Banos. He led us to his truck, where his family was heading home from a day’s festivities in Rio Verde to their home in Latacunga, which shelters under the beautiful volcano Cotopaxi.

We were loaded with our bikes into the back with their three children, Emily, Santiago, and Diego. I think Emily may have been lying about her name, as the boys both giggled a lot when she said it. Diego was the biggest joker, and asked us more questions than we could possibly answer. When we didn’t understand the question, he’d repeat it faster and louder until sometimes Emily would jump in and clarify in simpler Spanish and gestures. There was a lot of laughing and goofing off, until the kids fell asleep, wrapped up in blankets on their mattress.

The ride was much longer than I could have expected, especially with a solid traffic jam along the way. It also rained, so with the great company and the cover of a tarp over a bamboo pole, we were really grateful that this family had taken us along.

They dropped us right outside the GeoTours office where we had rented our bikes, and continued to crawl along the traffic jam that was Banos city center. We returned the bikes then Matt had a heart-attack: his mobile phone was not in his backpack! He pulled the whole thing apart but it wasn’t there. We thought it may have fallen out when I took out my camera during the ride, to take the above pictures. I pointed out that it couldn’t have got far, so Matt chased after them while I paid for the bikes and repacked the backpack.

Luckily, it occurred to me that he might have put it inside the case that held the lock and chain, in order to protect it further from water bombarding. Indeed it was! Hurray! So I thanked the rental operators and ran off after Matt and our friendly locals. We thanked them too, as they drove off, and as we continued walking back to our hotel, they passed us again, Diego sticking his head out the top front and waving at us. We waved and shouted “Adios, Adios, Ciao, Ciao!!” back at them as we ultimately parted ways.

We were so tired and grimy by this point that we showered and didn’t even go looking for dinner, only eating what we’d had in the room and sitting on our balcony watching the winding down of the day’s parties.

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Banos day 3: adventure!

I’m writing this the next day because I was just too tired last night, and pretty much passed out. Matt took this picture of me and our new friend Melissa pretending to be passed out at the bar of the Stray Dog, trying to drink sample-sized glasses of beer as late as about 21:30.

Anyway, yesterday was brilliant. We woke up early and had breakfast upstairs inside, because it was raining. Then we went across the street to meet our guide for canyoning. He showed up shortly after on a motorcycle with his son in front of him. His son looked about 2, maybe 3. David, the guide, is 24 and has been rock-climbing since he was about 8. The 3 of us jumped into a taxi, which drove us a short distance from Banos, to a canyon where the water formed several waterfalls in a row. I’ll try to look up the name later, but it started with Ch, I think.

We put on wetsuits and hiked up to the top of the canyon. I was struggling to keep up with David, who was lugging the ropes but who was practically sprinting up the steep trail.

When we got to the first waterfall, Matt went first because he has some climbing experience. He had his camera with him in the waterproof Ben (mobile phone plan) case we got from Nicola, so we don’t have any pictures of him going down. In fact, his battery died before we got many pictures at all, but then we were able to get some if we kept it off for a while.

We did 5 waterfalls in all. The first 3 we rappelled down then jumped backwards the last meter or so to splash in the pools. Of those 3, the first was both the biggest and the scariest, although the scary mostly came from the initial feelings of, “oh what!?!? You want me to lean backwards and trust my weight to what?” The next 2 were much easier.

Then for the 4th waterfall, we sat on our butts and slid down facing forward. I went first on this one and really liked it, but when Matt went he was pretty scared and kept trying to put his hands out to grab at passing rocks as he went. Both David and I were shouting at him to put his arms out in front of him, and eventually he locked eyes with me and safely finished the full way down.

When I saw what was coming up next, however, I was really scared. It was a 40m drop, and at first I thought we’d be rappelling again. But no. Instead we were rappelling just a meter or so, then blindly jumping, trusting David to let us down gently. I made Matt go first, and concentrated on my breathing.

Actually, I didn’t jump very convincingly. I kind of just let go. Matt says that when he went, he made his first really good jump (those earlier ones he just let go), but then nearly hit the stone outcropping just below. I nearly hit it as well, but with much less velocity. Then indeed, David gently lowered me down to the bottom, which was actually really beautiful. And, full disclosure: that photo you see with one person in blue coming down that last waterfall is actually David, using his ropes very cleverly to belay himself down. But that’s basically what we looked like coming down.

After this adventure, we had some tea at that departure point area, then climbed into a truck with David’s mom and dad, who drove us back into Banos.

It wasn’t noon yet, so we showered and then went hunting for food. First we went to the plaza in front of the cathedral, a block from our hostel, where we finally tried cevichochos. Yum!

Then we went to the big indoor market, where we decided to have more of the delicious food I’d had at Cafe Hood the night before, only this time it had chorizo, and Matt went to order fresh fruit smoothie from one of the many stands.

After lunch we decided we were up for a hike, so we walked up a steep trail above the town for an hour or two.

The view was amazing, as you can see, and I’m living in this hat, which is increasingly in need of a wash. I think I’ll add it to our next laundry load.

We were really glad to be wandering downhill again when we finished at the top. I decided I needed to get a massage at one of the many massage parlors in town. I chose one of the bigger ones, and thought it couldn’t go wrong, but alas it joined the ranks of one of the worst massages. Fortunately, while waiting for my appointment, our new friend from the previous night popped her head in, and we exchanged phone numbers to meet up for drinks later.

We met up at the Stray Dog again, but went to an Argentinian place for dinner. The restaurant was really good, with a really great staff and crazy decor, but by the time we finished eating, we were exhausted. Still, we headed back to the Stray Dog just one more time, which is where that picture at the beginning of this post comes from.

Right now I’m finishing this the next night, and this one was an even crazier day…

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