Following the steps of Darwin

With Kelly’s 40th birthday quickly approaching, we decided to take advantage of her mandatory time off at Christmas to make the trip to the Galápagos Islands that she has been wanting to do for years. The idea of fauna and flora that doesn’t exist anywhere on the earth except this small chain of islands has us intrigued. That and the fact that there is also supposed to be amazing SCUBA diving there made this an easy choice for our next adventure.

There are some restrictions on the travel to and from the Galápagos Islands; therefore, we needed a tour company to help plan the trip. The one we selected also offered additional tours of Ecuador’s mainland . So we decided to see some of Quito and the surrounding area before and after our time on the Galápagos.

Our Bhutan trip helped us realize that organized tours can be a great way to see a country without the hassle of figuring out the logistics ourselves. Of course, we are picky about tours as we have no desire to shop or stand in lines at museums. So after a bit of investigation, we decided to try it again and see how it goes. This time we have the luxury of having a private tour guide, so we are hoping we can speed through the things we don’t like and linger at little longer on the things we would like to learn more about.

Day one: We left Denver at 1:00 in the morning. We spent the majority of our flight to Miami and then on to Quito sleeping. Upon arriving in Quito we flew through customs and immigration in about 5 minutes (with no checked luggage it goes really fast!) and found our driver and headed into the city.

We had an hour drive from the airport to the hotel. Our driver said it used to take three hours, but the new road and the bridge that was finished two weeks ago cut the drive significantly.

Upon arriving at our hotel , La Casona de la Ronda, we dropped off our luggage and decided to wander around and see a bit of Quito. We found a scenic walk described in our guide book and decided to follow the route to see the highlights of the El Centro area. El Cento is the old town colonial area that has all been historically preserved due to its designation as a UNESCO world heritage site. Roaming through the narrow streets and broad plazas was the perfect way to spend the afternoon getting acquainted with Quito.

After roaming around Quito for several hours and getting soaked by the afternoon rainstorm, we made it back to our hotel for a much needed afternoon siesta. Later we enjoyed dinner at La Vista Hermosa, which
lived up to its name with great views overlooking the city.

As we strolled back to our hotel, we noticed a large police presence and a crowd of people walking up and down the street – apparently our hotel is in the hopping night life area. But after a long trip to get to Ecuador with little sleep, we decided that sleep was a better and necessary choice. We may check out the nightlife tomorrow.

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Day two: Today we have an organized tour of old town and an excursion to the Mitad del Mundo or “middle of the world” – the exact spot where the equator line passes through the Quito area.

Before the tricks of Mitad del Mundo, we started with a tour around the Old Town focusing on a few of the many colonial churches. At one of the churches we got caught in the middle of a Las Posadas or a procession with all of those present at the birth of Christ. There were a lot of angels, several Mary’s and Joseph’s and quite a few wise men. Mixed in with the traditional figures there appeared to be children who had re-used their Halloween costumes to be every animal you can imagine . There were mice, dogs and a bull with red horns. It was a cute spectacle and the kids seemed to enjoy us taking their pictures as they marched around the plaza. The procession did cut short our visit to that church, but we had already been through several churches and they were already starting to look alike, so we weren’t heartbroken.

After several more churches (there are 17 in the old town area alone) and a brief political history of the country at the presidential residence, we jumped in our tour guide’s Mazda truck (made in Ecuador!) and headed for the middle of the world. And we got there …eventually. The traffic around Quito is horrible – it is similar to driving in Rome. The streets are narrow, there are no lanes and cars aggressively maneuver to get where they need to go without regard to what might be coming. We just closed our eyes and trusted that our driver would get us to our destination without injury.

At Mitad del Mundo, we learned that in the 80s they used triangulation to calculate the position of the equator and they built a large monument to mark the spot. And then GPS came along and showed they were 240 meters off. Not too shabby, but now they have a very touristy village that has taken over the exact spot and they try to show you all the crazy things that supposedly happen at the equator. We felt it was a little hocus- pocus, but it was entertaining to watch as the guide took a water basin and showed us that when the basin is on the equator, the water rushed straight down the drain. Then, when the basin was placed just north of the equator the water formed a clock-wise rotating funnel as it drained. Finally, when it was placed a little south of the equator it formed a counter-clockwise funnel. We will be checking our toilet and sink tonight to see if we have counter-clockwise rotating water. Follow up note… The water is in fact flowing counter clockwise in the toilets at our hotel, but Todd is convinced it is only because of the direction that the water is being forced into the toilet.

At the museum we also learned about the natives in Ecuador and the actual process involved with head shrinking (a very useful bit of knowledge that we will hopefully never have to use).

After the visit to the middle of the world, we headed back to old town Quito for lunch. We had a very fancy lunch at one of the most expensive hotels in town. Our guide told us rooms there go for $900 a night! We can not even begin to fathom why someone would spend that much money, but obviously there are people that do. We enjoyed a traditional lunch of ceviche and pork and potatoes. It was all amazing and probably the fanciest place we will eat at on this trip.

After lunch our guide took us to the top of the hill at the southern end of the old town. There were great views of the city and a giant 82 foot tall statue of Mary. The statue had wings and is apparently a much larger representation of a statute of Mary in one of the churches we visited this morning. Apparently these are the only two representations in the world of Mary with wings.

The top of the hill was also being used to display a gigantic lighted nativity scene that can be seen from almost anywhere in town. After some pictures from the great vantage point over the city, we headed back to our hotel for our afternoon siesta.

We enjoyed a traditional Ecuadorian dinner and had ice cream for dessert. Then it was back to bed, we have an early morning tomorrow.

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Day three: Crazy busy day! Our guide picked us up at 7 am and we were off. Driving through the relatively empty and winding roads on our way north of the city. Today’s destination is Mindo.

On the way we stopped at a national park to get a quick view of a volcanic crater. The volcano is no longer active and the caldera has been transformed into a lush farming community.

We jumped back on the road and made another stop on the way at an orchid sanctuary. We walked along a short hiking trail as our guide pointed out dozens of different types of orchids growing all around us. As we were wandering up to a photographic waterfall we noticed a North Face banner. Turns out they were doing a promotion where if you took your picture with the banner, they would give you a 20% coupon. So of course we obliged and took our photos and got our coupons. They appear to only be good in Ecuador and our guide tells us there is a 200% markup on North Face products here, so we probably won’t be using the coupons after all.

It took over 2 hours to finally get to Mindo. The town is solely supported by tourism. A lot of the shops are owned by foreigners, we even met a fellow Coloradan who is now running the tours for the chocolate factory.

Our first stop was the zip line. Neither of us had ever done it before, but it was definitely on our to-do list. We had so much fun zipping from place to place – sometimes hundreds of feet above the jungle canopy. There was a lot of uphill hiking in between lines, so we ended up spending over two hours doing 10 different lines. They even offered us the options of doing a butterfly (on your back) or superman (on your stomach) run with a guide attached to us. We both took the butterfly option and enjoyed the up-side down ride while gazing up at the sky. Kelly’s guide got a little playful and swung her around, while Todd’s guide had him almost completely upside down.

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Next up on our busy itinerary was a stop at a butterfly sanctuary. We walked into a canopied area where they had several types of local butterflies breeding and hatching. You could put a little bit of banana on your finger and the butterflies would sit on your finger and eat the banana. It was beautiful and almost magical to be surrounded by so many butterflies.

After that it was on to the chocolate factory. Our fellow Coloradan gave us a very informative tour showing us how chocolate is grown, harvested, fermented and turned into chocolate bars. At the end of the tour we were all give a small cup of liquid chocolate and he came around with different items to mix in with our chocolate. We got to try ginger, coffee and peppers. We enjoyed every bite.

Finally we got to our place of lunch which was also a hummingbird and native bird sanctuary. We saw several different varieties of birds and hummingbirds while we ate at our outdoor table. We also wandered around a bit and got several great pictures of many of the birds.

Then we had the 2 hour drive back to Quito. Kelly snoozed while Todd tried to enjoy the roller coaster ride as our tour guide whizzed in and out of traffic. Tonight will be an early night to bed. We have our ride to the airport at 4am. Tomorrow we will be in the Galápagos !

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Day Four: To the Galapagos we go.
The combination of an early wake up (3 a.m.) and extreme chaos at the airport left us exhausted, but glad to be in the Galapagos.

The gentleman that picked us up at 4 am and drove us to the airport seemed to want to help us with the airport process, but unfortunately he knew very little English and the check-in process was a mess. Kelly had to point out to him where we should check in and what the appropriate process was. He grudgingly agreed that she was right and continued to act as a limited interpreter. Unfortunately all we got out of him as he went back and forth with the ticket agent was “the seats are blocked, you wait here”. He lasted through five minutes of “waiting here” before he disappeared; not to be seen again. We proceeded to stand among the chaos for over an hour, checking in with the ticket agents every 15 minutes or so to no avail. Finally about 45 minutes before our flight, a new ticket agent showed up and when we asked her for an update, she seemed appalled that we were waiting and immediately printed our boarding passes and sent us on our way. Luckily security was a quick process and we were at our gate with plenty of time.

Our flight had a stopover in another city on the way and we had to switch seats, even though we stayed on the same plane. They also had several strange demands as we were waiting to take off; making us all take off our seat belts while we waited and demanding that everyone remain seated. Also, when we were about 10 minutes from landing in the Galapagos, the crew went through a dramatic display of spraying down all the carry on luggage with disinfectant. We are assuming that this was an attempt to insure that no new viruses or insects made their way on to their pristine island.

We landed and quickly made our way through the entry, paying our $100 per person fee, and met our naturalist guide. She took us to a bus and explained that we would take the bus to a ferry that would make a short trip across the Canal Itabaca that separated San Cruz island from Baltra island. We would then be taken by taxi across the island to Puerto Ayora, our home for the next couple of days.

As we drove across Baltra, we learned that the U.S. built a base here during WWII in order to protect Pacific Ocean around the Panama Canal. The runway we had landed on was from that base and there crumbling foundations from the building scattered across the desert-like landscape.

Once across the Canal, we hopped into our taxi and sped toward Puerto Ayora. At first the scenery was the same as Baltra – dry with scrub trees and cacti. However as we approached the summit, the land became a lush green oasis. Our guide explained that the difference was due constant moisture provided by low-lying clouds that hung about the highlands area.

As we approached Puerto Ayora, we noticed that the vegetation was not as lush as it was in the highlands, but we had also left behind the ever-present clouds.
And as we drove through the small town our guide pointed out the numerous papier-mâché figures around the town. There were ones shaped like various cartoon characters, smurfs and comic book superheroes. We learned that they were effigies that would be burned on New Year’s Eve symbolizing the end of a bad habit or practice from the previous year.

We were deposited at our hotel, Villa Laguna, and made arrangements to meet up with our naturalist guide later for a tour of the Darwin Research Center.
We wandered around the town a bit, got lunch at La Garapatta (one of two places that we would be eating at for our stay as we pre-paid for meals) and walked down to Scuba Iguana to get fitted for our wetsuits and other diving gear.
After getting our SCUBA gear squared away at SCUBA Iguana, we met our guide for the Research Center tour.
As we walked to the Center, she pointed out the dozens of iguanas sunning along the road and explained that these were marine iguanas and that we would see the orangish colored land iguanas on other islands.
The highlight of the Center was, of course, the tortoises. They breed the tortoises and release them when they reach 4 years old. There were several pens containing 2 year old tortoises and another for the 4 year old. They were all about the size of regular turtles.
And then came the adults! They were enormous! The oldest ones were 70-80 years old and were about 3 feet long and 2 feet high.
We marveled at the old tortoises for a bit and then bid our guide farewell as we went off to explore the town a bit more and get dinner back at La Garapatta. As we strolled down the main strip, Charles Darwin Avenue, we noticed more of the effigies (including a 6 foot tall Homer Simpson) and the fact that many of the Christmas lights displayed were accompanied by the same high-pitched electronic Christmas music that you hear in those cards that play a song when you open them. It was as if someone was opening dozens of the cards at different times so that they were all playing the same song, but none were playing in unison.
After hearing too many of the out-of-sync squeaky carols, we turned in, so that we would be well-rested for our diving early tomorrow morning.

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Day Five: Our first day of diving and we were excited!

We arrived at SCUBA Iguana at 7:30 a.m. After a briefing of the process and the day, we headed down to the harbor and were transported by water taxi to the dive boat.

We settled in for the hour long ride to Gordon Rocks. The time passed quickly as we got to know our fellow divers. We chatted with Nathan, a college student from Chicago and Amy (aka the Inked Adventurer) from Oregon. Amy has only been diving for a year, but had already managed to rack up over 100 dives!

Upon arriving at Gordon Rocks we learned that it was a submerged and partially eroded volcanic caldera. We would be diving on the inside of the ancient cone and exploring the sides as we swam around the rocks. With a final warning from the dive master that the currents were really bad and that we could expect to feel like we were inside a washing machine, we somersaulted off the boat backward and plunged into the cold water. The first dive was spent clinging to the rocks on the bottom as we were pulled and pushed every which way by the strong currents. As we swam about we were greeted by 3 sunfish! Imagine a large silvery disc and add a fin on the top and then put one on the bottom with an eerie eye on each side and you’ve just pictured these odd creatures. These were pretty big and we were told that they were likely juveniles as adults can weigh as much as 1000 pounds!

After surfacing and shivering in the boat for the sixty minute surface interval, we flipped back in and went exploring a bit more. This time we saw hammerheads! Towards the end of the dive a group of 5 – 7 hammerheads swam beneath us. Unfortunately they were too deep for us to get closer to, so we watched them swim about as we began our timed safety stop.

Once we were all back in the boat, we learned that this was Nathan’s third time to the Galápagos Islands but his first time to see hammerheads – we were grateful that we got to see them on our very first day of diving!

The boat motored to Canal de Itabaca where it would be anchored for the night so that it would be closer to tomorrow’s dive sites. We unloaded our gear and hopped in taxis to take us on the 45 minute ride back to Puerto Ayora.

After our day of diving we wandered around town for a little bit and then headed back to our hotel for a brief nap and shower before dinner.

Tonight, dinner was at Isla Grill. Rather than the limited menu we had been provided the night before at Garapatta, we were given the full menu and told we could order anything but the lobster and steak. We had an amazing meal of tuna and chocolate fondue for desert.

 

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Day Six: Another day of diving. We were up early and walked down to the Scuba Iguana in time for the 7:30 a.m. departure. Today we were diving at Seymour Island – another day of back-to-back drift dives.
After the 45 minute taxi ride across the island to the boat and a 25 minute boat ride, we arrived at the dive site and plunged in.  As soon as we leveled off at the bottom, we encountered a cave with several white tip sharks sleeping. A bit further on a sea lion came down to entertain us by chasing a shark around and actually nipping at the shark’s tail!
When we were all out of air and Todd had been sharing the dive master’s tank for a while, we surfaced and spent the 60 minute surface interval getting to know the other divers. There was a couple from Greece, Australia, North Carolina, Nathan and Amy from yesterday’s dive. A very nice group to share our hot tea and snack.

For the second dive, as soon as reached the bottom, we were greeted by a sea lion chasing a large manta ray as a large turtle gracefully glided by. And the dive only got better!
We saw so many white tip sharks that we lost count. We saw them sleeping in almost every hole in the rocks and just cruising around. And the sea lions kept up their antics by chasing the sharks and playing with our cameras and the bubbles from our regulators. Of course the dive did eventually have to end … so we surfaced, had a lunch of mystery meat and headed back to shore for the cab-trek across the island to our home base of Puerto Ayora.
After a brief stop at the hotel, we decided to throw two beers in our backpack and check out Tortuga Bay. It was a 45 minute walk on a paved trail that cut through an endless landscape of cacti and every other type of thorn covered plant you can imagine. The monotonous trek was worth it, as we were greeted by a mile-long stretch of crashing surf and white sand. We splashed around a bit, took some more iguana pictures, got run off by a park ranger for having alcohol in the national preserve, enjoyed the beautiful scenery and relaxed with the sand between our toes – a perfect way to start our Christmas Eve!
We made the trek back through the prickly landscape, showered, put on our freshly laundered clothes (a much welcomed Christmas treat!) and headed out to our Christmas Eve dinner. After dinner we turned in early as it was to be another early morning.

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Day Seven: We were awake by 5 a.m. and on the bus for the drive back across the island to the canal where our yacht was waiting for us. After boarding, we were treated to a nice breakfast as we started our two hour cruise to Bartolome. Along the way we passed a few smaller islands (Daphne major and minor) and got to know a bit about some our shipmates; some of whom were transplants from India now living all across the U.S. We also discovered that Bartolome is supposedly good for snorkeling and of course we left our snorkeling gear and swimsuits at the hotel!
Upon arriving at Bartolome, we put ashore for a brief hike up a large hill while learning about the local plants, animals and geology. There were very few plants on the island and the only animals were lizards and grasshoppers ( or as our guide said “lava hoppers”, because there was no grass). The top of the hill provided a wonderful view of the bay and Pinnacle Rock. We enjoyed the views and then went back down to relax on the beach while the rest of the group attempted to go snorkeling. We found a shady spot on the beach, watched the snorkelers flounder about and took some pictures of the lizards and crabs that seemed to be posing for us.

Alas our peaceful “Feliz Navidad” morning at the beach ended when the snorkelers sputtered back into the bay. We joined them back on the boat for lunch and started the two hour ride back. On the way back, we meet the parents of Nathan, with whom we spent the past two days diving. They were just as nice and interesting to talk with as their son.
When we arrived at the Canal, we saw the scuba boat pulling into the dock, so we wandered over for a quick “hello”. Amy & Nathan told us that the diving today was not good, so we hopped on the bus glad that we had not been out diving today. We jumped off the bus ride back to our hotel early to go into town and grab a Christmas drink. We are enjoying our exceptionally strong Christmas drinks while several of Charles Darwin’s finches hop about begging for food.

We were both pretty tired, but we had planned on a Christmas dinner of fresh lobster, so we showered and headed back to the Isla Grill to enjoy some freshly caught lobster. It was a delicious break from the traditional ham or turkey served in the US.
After dinner, we decided to walk around the main road and look at the dozens of tourist shops and then head to bed.

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Day Eight: We got to sleep in until 7 a.m.!
Then it was back in the bus, across the island, on the zodiacs and then finally to the waiting yacht. Today is a tour of Seymour Island.  As we motored over to the island, we felt the first drops of rain for our trip. It was a short ride and we were jumping on the sea-lion-covered rocks of Seymour island in no time. It seemed to be baby season on this island. Everywhere we turned there was a chick squawking for regurgitated fish from its mother or a sea lion pup squeaking for milk.

We watched as both frigate birds and blue-footed boobies fed their young. We walked past dozens of frigate birds crouched over their nests, keeping their tiny chicks warm and dry from the rain. There were also quite a few sea lions and what appeared to be a nursery area that had dozens of pups bumping about and mewing for their mothers.

As we continued our walk around in the misty rain, we encountered a young blue footed booby. It waddled right up to our group and put on quite a display for us. It stood right in front of us like an excited pre-teen human and proudly practiced his fishing by throwing a stick into the air and catching it and then showed off his wings by waddling about practicing his flying. If he could talk, we’re sure he would be saying “Look at me! Watch what I can do!”

We also got our first glimpse of a land iguana on Seymour. We had only seen marine iguanas on the other islands. The land iguanas were more colorful and looked a bit more like little Buddha lizards because the all seemed to be smiling. However, they were just as consistent in their ability to remain stationary for long periods of time.
It was a great day trip and we are coming back with some great photos; it is amazing how the animals here don’t seem fearful of people. Most likely this is because they’ve never been hunted or had humans as predators on these islands.

After our land tour we headed to another small island that was rumored to have flamingos for our snorkeling. We did not see any flamingos but we did find some feathers as evidence that they do indeed habitate the area. The snorkeling wasn’t great; we have definitely been spoiled by our first two days of SCUBA diving.

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Day Nine: The final day of diving – this time it was Beagle Rocks. We enjoyed the long ride out to the site chatting with a father and daughter who were from India/Toronto/Brazil/Washington DC (born in India, moved to Toronto, father worked and retired in Brazil, daughter was in the Foreign Services currently on tour in DC).
Upon reaching the site, we noticed that it was another eroded volcanic caldera and that we would be diving on the inside of the caldera and swimming to the outside. Once we submerged, we fought the current as we enjoyed the fish and turtles. We did encounter a huge school of medium sized fish that we swam through. There were so many, that once we were inside the school and completely surrounded, they blocked out the sunlight and we were awed by the millions of fish circling us as the dim light reflected off their silvery bodies.

This time there were not as many sharks or playful sea lions, but there were more turtles. It was great to watch them glide through the water as we clung to the rocks fighting the current. They were so graceful while we were clumsily banging around with each shift in the current.

After an hour surface interval that included watching the sea lions bask in the sun and a marine iguana go paddling by, we dove down again. This time we navigated along a dramatic cliff that dropped off into blackness. We swam along the top, observing the fish while always checking our depth gauges as the cliff dropped off to a depth of over 100 meters. It would be a long way down and back up with not nearly enough air.
We saw more sea lions, a Galapagos shark and a few eels. Upon surfacing, we tried to relax in the boat, but the hammering of the hull against the waves kept us awake for the hour long ride back to the dock. After the taxi ride back to Puerto Ayora, we decided that a refreshing beverage was needed. So we stopped by an Italian restaurant that had an eating area overlooking the street and enjoyed an Argentinian white wine and snacked on some deliciously fresh ceviche, while watching the pedestrians file along beneath us.

We ended the day with our typical shower, dinner and early bed time that has become our norm here on the islands. Which has us thinking that perhaps we could make the switch from big city Denver to small town island life…..

 

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Day Ten: The day of bad plans and great improvising.
There is a saying that “where the adventure begins when the plan ends.” And our plans came to a rather rude end today.

We were up extra early, anticipating our day trip to Isabella island. It all started going bad the moment we saw the boat that was to take us – it was a nice motor boat that looked like it could fit 5-6 people comfortable. Unfortunately, they had already crowded about 10 people on the boat and there were another 10 in our water taxi waiting to board. It was starting to remind us of a ferry capsizing that you read about in the news (the ones that always leave you asking “why would someone get on such an over-crowded boat?”).
We did get aboard, but we lasted through about 10 minutes of our Napoleonic tour guide and the Skipper and his Gilligan crew. First, there were no more places to sit, so after moving some luggage around we perched ourselves in the forward berth next to the pleasantly smelling head. Almost immediately, our tour guide/naturalist/Napoleon yelled at us for sitting away from his group (he seemed oblivious to the fact that there was no where else to sit). We moved to the back of the boat where it was standing room only and rather than proceed with his talk he yelled to the world that the overcrowding was not his fault. Then all of the passengers started yelling back that there was no place to sit and that there were too many people on the boat. After a few minutes of some very loud shouting, the captain came down, yelled a few words about how we were going to be late, our tour guide decided to again announced several times that the overcrowding was not his fault and he then screamed for us to go back to where we were sitting (again completely oblivious to the fact that the boat was now packed with luggage and people such that it was impossible to get back to the front of the boat).

When someone asked if there were enough life jackets and the crew responded with “no”, we knew it was time to get off the boat.

We wanted no part of this “Minnow and her 3 hour tour”!

Once we jumped back to the water taxi with one other couple (who also had more than enough of the screaming-short-man syndrome who was passing himself off as a naturalist guide) and said a glad farewell to Gilligan and crew, we motored back to the dock. The gentleman who had picked us up earlier that morning and accompanied us out to the boat expressed his apologies for the debacle and did tell us that there actually were sufficient life jackets. However, the thought of spending 4 hours in the over-crowded confines of the small boat, made us sure that we wanted to leave Skipper and Napoleon to their tour and start our day again.
And start it again we did – with a nice refreshing nap.
After the nap, we decided to rent bikes and check out some of the island.
We found a rental place, put the bikes in the back of one of the many white pickup truck taxis and had then drop us off 20 kilometers outside of town, where there were some volcanic craters we wanted to check out.
The craters were actually massive holes formed when the roof of a cavern collapsed. There were two craters, each about 100-200 yards in diameter.
After the craters, we mounted our bikes and coasted down the road to the village of Santa Rosa. Our next stop was to be a wildlife reserve where they had plenty of tortoises that you could approach without the fencing and rails found at the Darwin Research Center.
The only directions we had were to follow a muddy trail south of the village. We found several muddy trails, picked one and enjoyed downhill ride for about 2 miles. After a while we concluded that we chose the wrong muddy trail and turned around for the slow ride back uphill.
We were slowly making our way up the path when Kelly shouted “Tortuga!”.
Right beside the trail was a fully grown enormous Galapagos tortoise! It was a great treat to find one in the wild, so we stopped to observe the old fellow from a safe distance.
He kept us entertained by peering cautiously around his shell to see if we were still around while continually munching on some grass. After a few minutes of observing the tortoise, we decided it was time to continue on. So we said our goodbyes and thanked him for the important lesson – be willing to adjust plans, go slow and enjoy the surprising tortugas that life throws your way.

As we pedaled back to Santa Rosa, we saw a few more tortoises scattered across the fields. Finally, we crested the last muddy hill and turned our bikes in the direction of Puerto Ayora. It was an easy ride back with some long down hills and only a few short uphill sections. And as we got closer to town we were greeted by three more tortoises!
The were just walking along the road, giving us one last time to observe these seemingly prehistoric creatures.

As we rolled into town we decided that a cold cerverza and a late lunch was needed. We found a pizza joint on the main strip and ordered two slices along with two draft beers. The pizza was delicious and the beer was surprisingly great! Apparently a US expat moved to Ecuador and started a brewery – Roche Brewery. It was almost as good as the beer we have become accustomed to in Colorado.

We enjoyed the beer and relaxed on the patio and after our second beer we noticed the “no credit card” sign and realized that we didn’t have enough cash to pay the bill! Luckily it’s a small town and Kelly was able to hop down to an ATM while Todd stayed and “guarded” our backpack and the beers. Once Kelly returned and we settled our tab, we headed to the hotel for a much needed shower.

After dinner at the Isla Grill we saw a couple that had remained on the boat earlier in the morning. They told us that the trip to Isabella was miserable. Apparently even though 5 people got off the boat, it was still a cramped 2 plus hour passage.
We both smiled and told them that we spent the day bike riding so we had no regrets about missing the tour.

We turned in a bit later, both glad that we had been able to visit this amazing place and grateful for all the surprising tortugas that life can bring!

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Day Eleven: A travel day. Today we head back to Quito. One final ride across the island and then the disorganized chaos of checking in began. Even though there was only one group in front of us, it still took nearly an hour. And when we finally got to the front of the line; they closed the window! While we do like traveling to remote places that require non-traditional means of transportation, there are times that we miss the efficiency found with the major airlines.
The flight was uneventful and upon landing we were transferred to our next hotel – Posada Mirolindo. It was a lovely hacienda perched on hill on the outskirts of Quito. It sits on about 2 acres of old farm land and has a resident donkey, a llama and a couple of cows.
We were greeted by one of their friendly dogs – Nacho, an eight year old partially bling pug.
After checking in and meeting the wonderfully nice owners, we decided to relax in the sun on the grass and catch up on our blogging and emails while enjoying a nice bottle of wine.
We did little else for the rest of the day other than give Nacho and friends a few ear and belly rubs. We turned in, looking forward to seeing some more of the Andes and to ending our adventure back here in the peaceful place.

Oh and a note about the toilet water… It is spinning clockwise even though we are south of the equator here. Guess that blows that theory out of the water.

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Day Twelve: After a relaxing day off we are back on the road. We were picked up by our tour guide at 8 am and headed toward Otavalo, which is known for its large textile market. It is listed in a book we have of “1000 places you should see before you die”. While we do not plan on doing much shopping, we are looking forward to exploring the market and seeing all the hand-crafted goods.

We had several stops on our way to Otavalo. First our guide pulled over to a roadside fruit stand to introduce us to and Ecuadorian fruit called cherimoya. To us it looked like a pear; however, it tasted like a cross between a banana and an apple and had the texture of a banana. According to our guide these fruits help cure lung cancer. Although we are not sure how accurate his data is, since almost every plant, fruit, vegetable and flower we have been shown has been deemed to cure either cancer, a sore throat, or the flu.

Next, we headed to the city of Cayambe which is known as the rose capital of Ecuador. As we drove into the valley, we noticed that the town was speckled with rows and rows of green houses where they grow their roses.

Our first stop was at a restaurant for some bizcochas. These are popular breakfast breads that they eat with a Carmel dipping sauce. A lot like a donut, but not as sweet. We left with a doggie bag of the bizcochas and then moved on to a rose farm.

At the farm, we saw all kinds of beautiful varieties of roses, most of which get exported to either the U.S. or Russia. The rose farm we visited was working on being as organic as they possible. Currently they are 20% chemical and 80% organic. They compost the rejected roses along with the “shit of cow”, as our guide told us in his limited English, to create a lush fertilizer. The owner of the farm joined our tour and was bragging about his business and how they were ramping up for Valentine’s Day; their busiest day of the year. Apparently they ship around 1.5 million “freedom” roses ( deep red, velvety roses) to the US for Valentine’s Day alone. Also on this farm were several vegetable and fruit plants, including a unique plant in Ecuador – the tomato tree.

There are several different kinds tomato trees; some sweet, some orange and some a blood red that look like a pomegranate when cut open, but tasted like a slightly sour tomato. When Todd tasted one and said he liked it, our tour guide from the farm brought over two handfuls for him to enjoy later.

We were soon back on the road and within an hour we were in the town of Otavalo. The market is mainly a weekend thing and since it was a Wednesday, we enjoyed a limited, one block version (it supposedly is more than 8 blocks on the weekend). Our guide asked us how long we long we would like to roam around the market and seemed disappointed when we agreed to a half an hour of shopping. We set a meeting place with our guide and headed out to “shop”. Of course we had no intention of actually buying anything, we travel too much and like to keep our luggage to carry on only, which limits our ability to bring things back home.

But the handcrafted items in the market were definitely worth a visit. They were many brightly colored scarves, hats, sweaters, table cloths, etc. There were also numerous stands with piles of yellow and red men’s and women’s underwear for sale. When we met back up with our guide we asked him about the underwear. Apparently it is an Ecuadorian tradition for New Years Eve to wear yellow underwear if you want money in the new year and red if you are looking for love.

Next up was the town of Cotacachi which is the leather capital of Ecuador. We stopped for lunch where we had Ecuadorian barbecue and the sweet tree tomato for dessert. Kelly can no longer claim she doesn’t like tomatoes, as the sweet ones were quite yummy.

We were then dragged up and down the streets to look at leather stores by our guide. Todd decided to do some actual shopping and look for a wallet. He is very picky about his wallets as he follows the travel light philosophy even when it comes to everyday accessories. His refusal to buy a traditional wallet, no matter how cheap, kept the guide entertained trying to help him find the perfect one. The prices on leather goods was amazingly low. We saw nice women’s knee high leather boots for $35, leather and suede jackets for under $75 and Todd found the perfect wallet for just $5.

With the wallet purchased, the guide finally realized it was pointless to drag us to anymore stores, so we headed back to Otavalo where we checked into our hotel for the night, the Coraza Hotel.

On our way to the hotel we received a call from the company we had booked our trip through ( Galapagos Travel). We had sent them an email detailing the experience we had with the over-booked tour that we got off of and had asked if there was any way to get a refund. They apologized profusely and not only did they refund the cost of the missed tour, but they offered to pay for our dinner tonight at a fancy restaurant near by. We were definitely impressed by their desire to ensure that all aspects of our trip went well.

So after relaxing in our hotel, cleaning up a bit and a brief walking tour of the city, our guide drove us to Cabanas del Lago. It was a lovely restaurant set on the shore of Lake San Pablo. They seated us next to a window and we enjoyed the beautiful view and amazing food. Today was our best and most adventurous food day yet!

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Day Thirteen: We awoke to the sounds of the dogs, car horns and the shops opening. We left our hotel staff with a gift of the bizcochas and tomatoes we hadn’t eaten and the roses we received during yesterday’s tour. After a quick breakfast, we were on our way to Cuiconcha – “Guinea Pig Lake”.
It was an lake in the caldera of an extinct volcano that had two islands in the middle that were apparently shaped like guinea pigs.
During the short drive up to an overlook, our guide expressed his concern that the short hike would be too difficult due to the altitude. However we quickly showed that hiking at a mere 12,000 feet above sea level was no problem.
We took a few pictures and motored to the base where we were to then hike back to the top on a trail that circled the crater.

Once we started the climb, our guide seemed to be having more troubles than we were with the altitude. We hiked for about an hour and were enjoying the sweeping vista of the caldera and lake on one side and the valley filled with Otavalo and Cotacachi on the other.

When he told us it was time to turn around, we were disappointed that we hadn’t made it to the end of the trail, knowing that we would have easily made it on our own. But it was definitely nice to stretch our legs and be active.

From there we made the short drive to Peguche falls. After another short hike we were standing at the base of a beautiful water fall. Our guide talked us into climbing right up to the waterfall. He claimed waterfalls had energizing effects. The only thing we felt was drenched and cold by the spray, but it was fun none-the-less.

Lunch after the falls was at a quaint place called Hacienda Cusin. It was a beautifully restored hacienda that was surrounded by a lush and colorful garden. We had yet another yummy, huge meal. We are pretty sure we are going home with a few extra pounds after these excessive feedings.

As we headed back to the car, we noticed a group of children holding a rope across the street. Apparently this was another New Years Eve tradition. People (mostly children and college age boys) dress up as widows and use a rope or log to block the road and in order gain passage you must pay a toll to support them when their “husband”, a.k.a. the old year of 2014, passes. They also all had an effigy or “money God” that would be burned at midnight as a symbol of the year being over. It was cute the first few times we saw this. But as we made the drive back to Quito, we encountered at least 20 of these traffic stops, demanding change to pass. Luckily our guide was prepared and has plenty of pennies for each stop.

We arrived at our hotel for the night, Vieja Cuba. Our guide told us there would be a large celebration to burn the effigies just a few blocks from our hotel. We saw people gathering, but figured it was likely people trying to get a good spot for the night’s festivities. We were exhausted so we decided to take a nap and slowly get ready for the late night festivities. We awoke and decided to head to dinner around 7pm at a place we had read about called Zazu.

Zazu was amazing! After lingering for two hours over a multi course delicious feast, we decided it was late enough to make our way out to the festivities.

As we headed to the area we heard was going to be party central, we noticed festively dressed and costumed people walking towards us and all the vendors and stores in the area packing up and closing. When we saw the piles of ashes; we realized we had missed the celebration. Apparently they have the major celebration at 6 p.m.!
We were later told that New Years Eve is more of a family celebration and that the major city festivities happen early.

As we wondered around the empty and closing city, we found one bar, The Corner Bar, open. It appeared to be an ex-pat hang out and we ended up spending our evening there, talking with our fellow bar mates. At midnight the bartender lit their effigy on fire outside the bar on the sidewalk. We all took turns jumping over
it while it burned, to symbolize our readiness to cross into the New Year.
We finally wandered back to the hotel around 1:30 a.m., dreading waking up in just a few short hours.

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Day Fourteen: After ringing in the new year with a bit of excessive effigy jumping, it was difficult to drag ourselves out of bed. As we stumbled down to the breakfast room, we noticed that the city smelled of smoke from the thousands of effigies burned last night.

We sipped our coffee and nibbled on a bit of food and then packed up to meet our new guide, Henry, and the driver, Maurice.

Our first stop was an overlook from which we could see Quito spread out in the valley below us. We hopped back in the van and spent the next two hours on our way to Cotopaxi learning about Ecuador history, culture and politics from Henry. Henry knew English well and it was much easier to communicate with him than our past guides. He was a wealth of information and was more than glad to answer our questions and he even patiently helped us practice our Spanish.
The drive flew by as Henry taught us all about Ecuador and continued the impromptu Spanish lessons.

Upon arrival at the national preserve, we bounced along the unpaved road for about another hour before the towering volcano, Cotopaxi, came into view. Our tiny van scrambled up the steep road to a parking lot where we were asked to walk around and adjust to the more than 14,000 foot altitude before beginning our trek up to a shelter at the 16,000 foot mark.

While the climb to the shelter was only about 2 miles up, it was a long breathless slug along a steep and sandy ridge. We were definitely feeling the effects of the altitude this time! (The excessive effigy jumping from New Years was also taking its toll).

After an hour climb that included multiple stops to allow our lungs to acclimate and listen to Henry tell us about the volcano and surrounding area, we reached the shelter at the 16,000 foot mark.

The tiring climb proved to be worth the effort as we were rewarded with a fantastic view of the valley and neighboring volcanoes. We explored the shelter, caught our breath and marveled at the glaciers that started less than 100 feet from where we stood and covered the top of the volcano.

Henry finally reminded us that we had to head back down and so we made our way quickly down the steep slope, reaching the van after a short and easy 20 minute downhill hike.

For lunch we stayed in the national park and ate at the park lodge. Once again the standard meal of soup, chicken/pork, potatoes and a dessert was served to us in heaping portions.

After lunch we did a quick walk around a glacier fed pond and then it was off to our destination for the night, Hacienda Cuella de Luna. It was a beautiful farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. It was nice to enjoy a peaceful afternoon and catch up on our sleep. We also enjoyed the company of the chickens, a cow and several of the farm dogs, who seemed to enjoy our attention.

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Day Fifteen: Our final day of exploring Ecuador and the Andes. We started off with a scenic drive through a valley of fields climbing up the steep slopes creating a patchwork of greens, yellows and browns.

As we wound around the twisting road, we approached the small village of Tigua, known for the brilliantly colored artwork done on sheepskin. We stopped briefly for a look at one of the artist’s workshops and admired the brightly painted scenes of local sites and customs.

Next was Quilotoa, another water filled caldera. As we approached the rim of Quilotoa, we were amazed by the view. The lake was about 2 miles across and nearly 1000 feet below us.

We admired the view and then set off down the steep and windy trail. At some points the trail was so steep that our way down was more of a controlled fall through the dust-filled trail than a hike. Our sliding and braking down the slope created puffs of volcanic dust that filled our faces and coated our clothing. We quickly reached the bottom and strolled around the wide blue-green lake.
We enjoyed the sun-filled day and relaxed at the tiny beach, watching the shadows of clouds glide across the smooth lake – delaying what we knew was going to be a tough climb back to the top.

As we lounged by the shore, we noticed dozens of mules kicking up dust as they were herded down the trail. We learned that they were available, for a fee, to take hikers back to the top. We decided to rely on our own legs and started the climb back up.

It was a long and dust-filled climb.
Since the caldera bottomed out at 11,000 feet, the effects of the altitude weren’t too bad. However, the groups of tourists and mules coming down were kicking up clouds of the dust and sand that covered the trail, making the thin air even more difficult to breath. We noticed that many people had bandanas or scarves to cover their noses and mouths, to filter out the dust – unfortunately we were not prepared with bandanas, so we took plenty of breaks to catch our breath as we slowly made our way back up.

After what seemed like an eternity we finally reached the parking lot and headed to lunch which ended up being at a small farmhouse on the side of the highway. We were greeted by a young women that we guessed was the daughter of the owners of the farm. She proceeded to bring out course after course of delicious, fresh home cooked food. So fresh that the chickens clucking outside made it hard to eat the chicken on our plate.

Our guide asked us if we would like to try a local alcoholic beverage called chi… We agreed and we were brought a small cup of warm juice (it tasted like hot apple cider to us) and the we added what our guide described as moonshine (unrefined rum basically) to the beverage. It was delicious and we didn’t really notice the alcohol, but there was less than a tablespoon in our drink.

After lunch we made the long drive back to Posada Mirolindo, which would once again be our home for the night. We made a brief stop at a suburban grocery store that put our Super Walmarts to shame; it was huge! We quickly navigated through the crowds of shoppers and bought a bottle of wine for the evening.

We arrived at peaceful Posada Mirolindo, checked in and cleaned ourselves and our clothes up a bit. We then found a relaxing spot and opened our bottle of wine while we worked on updating our blog. Soon another guest arrived and joined outside in the sunshine. We talked and offered her a glass of wine. She was from Holland and traveling alone. It sounded like her and her “husband” ( she said they weren’t actually married but she didn’t know the English word to explain their relationship) alternate staying home with their 16 and 18 year old while the other goes on vacation. Apparently Europeans get at least six weeks of vacation a year, so she was spending four of them wandering around Ecuador by herself.

We gave her all the tips and information we had accumulated from our brief time in the country over dinner and then wished her good luck as we headed towards bed.

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Day Sixteen: The final hours of Ecuador. Since our plane wasn’t departing until the afternoon we slept in until the sounds of roosters and the braying donkey woke us up.

After breakfast, we lounged on the front lawn, enjoying the clear-morning views of the surrounding mountains.
We finally broke ourselves from the views and lounging to go pack our worn and smelly clothes up for the flight home.

As we piled into the car, we said our goodbyes to the family running the delightful retreat, gave Nacho one last ear-scratching and headed to the airport.

On our way to the airport,
we learned that Pasada Mirolindo is currently the closest accommodations to the new Quito airport, but there are signs for a Holiday Inn and other chain hotels that appear to be coming soon. The owners are worried about the competition, but are setting themselves up as an organic working farm in hopes that it will attract people who want a local farm experience to stay with them. It was so quiet and peaceful there, it definitely would be our preferred place to stay.

Getting checked in and through customs was a breeze and before long we were on the plane saying a fond farewell to Ecuador. We will miss the high volcanoes of the Andes, the wonderful people and the almost alien wildlife of the Galápagos.

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