Christmas Card 2016

img_82812016 was a year full of changes – both disappointing and welcomed. First was the disappointing, our plans to move to Australia went up in smoke. Rather than heading down under, we spent 6 months in hot and humid Houston. However, rather than focus on the lost opportunity to move to Australia, we focused on making the best of the temporary move and learned to sail and spent time with family. After the brief stint in Houston, we have now relocated to the Dallas, TX.
Even though we didn’t move to Australia, we did get to spend some time in Brisbane in January, for what we thought was going to be a house hunting trip. We had everything arranged to meet with a realtor, provided by Todd’s company. We timed the trip to correspond with Kelly’s birthday so we could be together, knowing that Todd was about to be relocating full time and Kelly was going to be staying behind until the pets were ready to go in April.

A feimg_6900w days before we were to leave Todd was informed that our relocation was going to be delayed. He was involved in an arbitration and had just transferred it to someone else for handling when it escalated in importance; resulting in Todd’s company asking him to delay the move to Australia and manage that arbitration until it was complete. Even though our permanent move was to be delayed, we enjoyed our trip to Brisbane and made a point of scoping out potential areas we would want to live, so it would be easier next time.

The arbitration Todd was involved in was located in Houston, so his company offered to relocate us there and pay for our housing, since we had sold our house in Denver and had no more need to be in Denver. As much as we would have rather stayed in Denver, the free housing part and the fact that Todd would have to be traveling to Houston every week anyway made Houston the only real option. So by mid-March we had relocated to a corporate apartment in Houston and most of our belongings had been placed in storage in Denver, since we were still anticipating the move to Australia.

img_7462We took advantage of being in Houston to make several trips to Galveston and the Gulf coast area. Dharma is still a little timid in the water, but has definitely gotten more comfortable swimming about in the Galveston Bay. We took sailing lessons and spent several weekends enjoying the Galveston Bay area and even enjoyed an overnight sail to Galveston when we completed our certification for off-shore sailing.

For our 11th anniversary we decided to get back to our tradition of a weeklong camping trip. Todd’s work had been stressful and things seemed up in the air with regard to moving to Australia, it seemed less likely with every passing day as corporate reorganizations in Todd’s company were happening on an almost weekly basis. With all the pressure and uncertainty, we needed a break and some time away from work. So we decided to hit the Appalachian trail!
img_5349We choose the part of the Appalachian Trail that goes through the Great Smokey Mountains. We had a lot of fun, got to relax and meet a lot of interesting people with different stories about why they were hiking the Appalachian trail. We learned that many of the hikers used trail names while hiking and we spent the night of our anniversary in a shelter trading stories with 9 other hikers all lined up on the bunks. Even though we had a few rainy days, we ended the trip convinced that we need to do more of the trail, maybe some day we will have time to do the whole thing.  We even got trail names, Smiley and Grumpy… guess who is who.

The last night of our trip we were back to civilization and in our hotel. Of course the hotel had wi-fi so Todd was back to checking in with work. They had announced a major re-org while we were away and Todd’s position was suddenly changed as the company collapsed the business unit for which he was responsible in order to eliminate costs. He called his boss to see what it all meant and was reassured that he still had a job and that the Houston arbitration was going to be his main focus now and they would put him in charge of “special projects” in the future. He confirmed there would be no re-location to Australia and that Dallas would make the most sense for us to move next after he finished the Houston arbitration. We were devastated, but at least now we knew.

img_7943The rest of the year was a blur with Todd working, finally finishing the arbitration and us moving to Dallas. We did spend some time with family in August with a trip to Put-in-Bay on Lake Erie to visit Todd’s bother, Charles and his niece Laiken. We also spent Labor Day week checking out Vermont and Thanksgiving camping in our familiar Texas haunts.

As we settle into our new home in the Uptown area of Dallas, we are grateful for where life has led us. While we were excited about our potential international move; we both acknowledge that with all the changes that happened at Todd’s company, we would have been in a much worse place if we had moved.

img_8164So while the door closed on one adventure, we enjoyed our year of challenges and changes and are ready for our next adventure over Christmas and New Years – Cuba! We will be exploring the island of cigars, rum, classic cars and salsa dancing with a biking and people-to-people interaction tour. We are excited and ready to see 2016 come to a close. We look forward to 2017 and what will be next for us.

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Smokey Mountain Anniversary

This year we mark our 11th anniversary!  Can’t believe we have been together that long.

We decided we wanted to get back to our old way of celebrating, by taking a week off and back country camping at a national park.  We were trying to remember the last time we did that and we think it was for our 5th anniversary.  It’s definitely been too long!  But we are in need of some time away together without a cell phone signal. So we are going to the Smokey Mountain National Park for some back country camping and knocking off another state while we are at it (Tenessee).

We had a 5am flight out of Houston, so we stayed at the on airport hotel the night before so we didn’t have to wake up any earlier than necessary.  Turned out to be a really good call because we received an update that our plane was delayed 30 minutes at 3am.  We were able to rest in our room a bit longer before heading down for our flight.

The delay meant we were going to have a tight connection in Charlotte, but we have been in the airport before and were comfortable that we could make the quick dash between gates.   The gentlemen that sat next to us on the delayed flight had a 5 minute connection window and he was headed to St. Marteen!  We are hoping he made it, although we doubt his luggage did!

We amazingly made it along with our luggage to Knoxville, grabbed our rental car and headed to the local REI.  A downside about flying and camping is that we always have to buy fuel and matches after landing and then leave them behind when we head home.  We are hoping to find some fellow trekkers  to pass our leftover items on to after we are done.

It was a very curvy and slow but beautiful drive from  Knoxville to Gatlinburg.  We got to the Tree Tops resort, checked in and immediately laid down for a two hour nap.  We were exhausted from our early morning flight.

We wandered to downtown Gatlinburg and were amazed (and a little disappointed) at just how touristy the city was!  There were crazy tourist attractions everywhere and plenty of people to pack them all.  We are looking forward to getting out into the backcountry of the Smoky Mountains and getting away from all the tourists tomorrow!  We did however enjoy a moonshine tasting and found a Mellow Mushroom pizza (a favorite of ours from Denver) for dinner!

Day Two:

After a long discussion about whether to beat the crowds and get moving
early, we opted to sleep in. So when we finally headed into Gatlinburg for breakfast
at around 10:30 a.m., the traffic was ridiculous! Out of frustration we pulled
into a parking lot and paid $10 just to park and walk next door to the McDonalds.
Probably the most expensive McDonalds breakfast we’ve ever eaten!

Then it was back into the line of the slow moving traffic as we crawled up the
twisted road the the park. After what seemed like forever we arrived at the
trailhead where we started our anniversary trek. We plan to spend 4 nights and
5 days hiking a loop that will include about 10 miles along the Appalachian
Trail and return back close to where we started.

The hike to our first campsite was a 6 mile hike straight uphill. While there
were a few downhills, they were immediately followed by an uphill. However it
was a nice hike through the forest and the constant tree cover kept the sun away
and a few nice breezes kept the temperature reasonable.

We reached our first camping spot a little after the 6 mile mark. After
selecting our spot (the sites can be reserved by up to 10 people at a time), we strung up the hammock we got in Knoxville and spent the
rest of the day relaxing and listening to the birds and chipmunks chattering.

We only ended up sharing our campsite with one other person. A girl who was
hiking alone and hoping for a quiet night. She told us she had spent the
evening before with a rowdy group at one of the Appalachian Trail shelters and
now we are nervous about the next two nights as we are spending both in
shelters.

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Day Three:
Today is our longest day of hiking, with about 7.5 miles until we hit our
shelter for the night. It’s also our first day on the Appalachian Trail!

We got a good sleep last night so we were up and going around 7am. We took our
time packing up and eating breakfast and got on the trail around 9am.

The trail to the Appalachian Trail was covered in high brush and we spent about
two hours pushing through brush and singing our “Hey Bear” song, to ensue we
were making enough noise and letting the bears know we were passing through.

Once we hit the Appalachian Trail we stopped for a snack and soaked in the
differences that we noticed right away from the trails we had been on… the
Appalachian Trail was more defined and open, less brush and a lot more people.
In the 10 minutes or so we sat there, we saw 5 people hike by; having not seen
anyone the day before.

The trail was easy-going. There were constant ups and downs but nothing too
strenuous. We stopped at the first shelter we came to, about 6 miles into our
hike for a lunch break. There we met two other gentleman who are doing the same
hike as us for the next two days. So we will see them again tonight and
tomorrow night at our shelters. They are brother-in-laws and both in their 60s.  They introduced themselves as Colonel and Grampy Mij.  They are section hikers, just doing the part that runs through the Smoky Mountain National park (72 miles) this time.  They have already done the section from Georgia to the park and plan to do the other sections as they can in the coming year.

Thru hikers doing the entire or major pieces of the Appalachian trail are supposed to come up with a trail name, so most people along the trail don’t use their real names.  We spent our anniversary dinner in a shelter with 5 other hikers, enjoying a campfire and trading stories with Teacher, Colonel, Granpa Mij and a couple from Houston (who were doing a loop hike like us so they didn’t have trail names).

We enjoyed a delicious and romantic meal of freeze dried mystery meat and noodles and a delicious chocolate soup for desert (that was supposed to be freeze dried chocolate cheesecake).

As the evening wore on, a few other hikers straggled in, exhausted from the day’s hike and collapsed into their sleeping bags.   In total we ended up sharing the shelter and our anniversary with 9 other hikers. 11 little hikers all lined up on the bunks grateful to be out in the wild and enjoying the windy and rainy evening.

Happy 11 years to us!

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Day Four:

The day started with a heavy down-pour of rain that brought the fog rolling in. We were getting to experience the true smokiness of these beautiful mountains!

To start off year 12, we enjoyed a celebratory breakfast of freeze dried breakfast scramble (aka “anything-but-oatmeal”), and began the hike up to Clingman’s Dome. This is the highest point in the park and along the Appalachian Trail, topping out at a bit over 6,600 feet. Once we summited the observation tower, we had clear views of about 10 feet as the Smoky’s were living up to their name – the fog was so think that you could barely see the ground from the top of the tower.

After leaving Clingman’s Dome we enjoyed a nice hike downhill for a bit before heading back up for final two miles to our next shelter. Most of the hike was spent in the drizzling rain, but we stayed relatively dry due to the dense forest canopy overhead. The drizzling rain, rolling fog and thick trees made us feel like we were walking through a scene from Sleepy Hollow.  At times the fog and trees were so thick that it was almost too dark too enjoy the lichen covered forest.

We rambled into the Mount Collins shelter around noon. Soon after we arrived and started unpacking for the evening, several college students showed up.  Apparently they were there to check out the many types of lichen in the area and seemed genuinely fascinated by all the fuzzy green stuff that had us thinking of leprechauns all day.

Soon after, Colonel and Grandpa Mij showed up again.  They had started out after us in the morning and seemed to have kept a pretty good hiking pace.

We all ate lunch and got our water refills and soon more people were arriving.   The next group to arrive were Pebbles and her two boys.  They had all started out as individual hikers but had recently all decided to hike together because they were lonely.   The two guys didn’t seem to have firm trail names yet; but we heard them throw out things like “tatter chip” and CMac.   They seemed to be very obsessed with food.  They had just gotten off the trail for a day in Gatlinburg and from the sounds of it they ate everything they could get there hands on.

That got me asking about how and why people got trail names.  How long do you have to be on the trail to get one?  Why do some people have them and some don’t? Apparently it is not a formal process and you just get a name when someone comes up with one and you or the people around you use it.   If the nickname sticks – it’s your trail name.

Around diner time a girl and guy strolled up with just a small backpack.   Apparently there was a parking lot near by and they were hiking around trying to gather AT hiker stories for a college project the girl was working on.  She is working on her photojournalism major at University of Tennessee and her instructor noticed she didn’t like to approach people so he challenged her with this project.  After some awkward moments of them standing there quietly observing us, we got them to come over and start talking to us.  Kelly and Pebbles picked up on her discomfort and started asking each other and the other hikers questions they thought she might ask.  That seemed to calm her down as she got caught up in the storytelling that was going on.

Partway through her “interview” a young girl showed up with no backpack or supplies  and informed us that she was lost and had been wandering around for 4 hours, unsure of how to get back where she started.   After she was given food and water she calmed down and was able to give us more info about where she had been and the couple that were interviewing us promised to drive her back to where we thought she had last seen her family as soon as they were done.

So they quickly wrapped up with a few questions, took photos of everyone and got our information and they headed out with the girl.   Within 30 minutes of them leaving a park ranger showed up looking for the girl.  Joining him was Colonel’s wife and Grampy Mij’s sister!  She surprised them with a visit since we were staying so close to a parking lot for the night.  She is here to refill them tomorrow with supplies but just couldn’t wait to see them. They caught up while the park ranger verified the information about the missing girl and they soon headed back to the parking lot together.

During all of that we were joined by an Australian and his father in law, and a daughter and dad duo and several others.   We ended up with 13 people sleeping in the shelter and two in a tent outside.  While we were shoulder to shoulder sleeping in the shelter, everyone was nice and considerate.  

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Day Five:

We woke to another foggy morning and made our coffee and oatmeal as the rest of the hikers were waking and getting ready for the day.  Colonel came by as we were preparing breakfast and declared that he had trail names for us.  Kelly was given the trail name Smiley and Todd was given Grumpy. So if we ever decide to hike more of the Appalachian Trail we will be known as Smiley and Grumpy. 🙂

After breakfast, we said our goodbyes to Colonel and Grampy Mij (Pebbles and her entourage were still asleep) and started our hike down the mountains and off the Appalachian Trail.

Since we were going downhill, we made great time and the covered the first 5 miles in almost no time.  After a brief break, we turned off to head to our final campsite for the week.   It was a steep downhill trail that was seldom used so the brush was high and we were often walking through brambles up to our shoulders.

As we followed the switch backs down the mountain we eventually came to a creek and followed it down the steep trail with white and pink-flowered rhododendron climbing up high above us.

Along the way, we encountered the couple from Houston, who we met at the first shelter – they warned us that our next campsite was pretty, but covered with bees and that there were signs warning of bear encounters. We hiked the last two miles with worries that we might have to hike more than double our planned mileage if the site was closed.

When we arrived at the site, we met a wild-life warden who was in the process of closing the campsite due to bear activity!   Apparently someone left a bag unattended and a bear had been making multiple trips to the site over the past couple of days looking for yummy human food.  When this happens they close the site for two weeks, and the bear finally gives up and doesn’t come back to check on the site regularly.  

We were glad our timing was so perfect.  If we had gotten there much later we would have just seen the closed signs and not known what to do.  The warden radioed the main office we were assign another site about 2 miles away.  With the additional two miles of hiking, this became our longest hiking day of the trip.  Lucky for us most of it had been downhill and the remaining two miles was fairly flat.

When we arrived at the new site, it looked perfect. There river was right next to the site. A welcoming fire ring and even a few trees to provide some shade and to hang our hammock from. And then the yellow jackets came.

First, Kelly was stung on the foot while we were attempting to hang the hammock. Then while we were at the river soaking her sting in the cool water, more bees started buzzing around. By the time we got back to the tent there were dozens of yellow jackets buzzing madly about. We ducked into the tent and zipped it close and watched the bees swarm on the other side of the mesh.

We decided to take a nap and hope that the yellow jackets would calm down and buzz away as long as we weren’t bothering them. We were wrong.   For the next several hours the bees angrily swarmed around the campsite, covering our shoes, hats and other gear we had left outside the tent.   All we could do was watch and keep the tent zipped up tight so that none were able to get to us. Our plan was to relax in the tent until the sun started to go down and the yellow jackets returned to home with the cooling temperature. At first our plan was working as the sun dropped, the yellow jackets slowly started to disperse.  And then the second plague hit in the form of a thunderstorm and a torrential down-pouring of rain!

As soon as the rain hit, the yellow jackets disappeared and we dashed outside to secure our shoes and other gear in an attempt to keep it all dry. But the rain was too much too fast and we got soaked. Thankfully our tent stayed dry even though the campsite was flooded so bad that there was at least an inch of water under out tent!

After another dash outside to move the tent to higher ground, we dried ourselves off the best we could and resigned ourselves to a night without dinner. While we may have been hungry, we were at least safe and dry!

The rains continued for several more hours and we eventually fell asleep while listening to the rain and thunder booming and echoing off the mountains.

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Getting away every chance we can

We have been in Houston for only  two months, but it has felt like an eternity.  It’s been an transitory  two months as we try to not get too attached to our surroundings and remain hopeful for what is next; however we aren’t getting much feedback about the move to Australia.  As Todd’s company adjusts to the downturn in the economy, we’ve become less hopefully that Australia is going to happen and more concerned about what’s next.

Of course we can’t complain too much because we are living without any housing expenses; so we are just trying to take this time for what it is, save money and spend our time visiting family and getting away and having fun as often as we can.

So far we have spent a weekend in Galveston and taken advantage of our closeness to the water to take sailing lessons.  We got our ASA 101 certification last weekend and next month we are going back to get our ASA 103&104.


This weekend we are taking advantage of the long, holiday weekend to head to our time share in Cancun and relax.  We plan to spend a day SCUBA diving and of course trying out our newly gained sailing skills.

Kelly purchased this time share right after we met and we have only visited 4 times in the 12 years since we met.  In those 12 years the hotel has changed name three times and ownership twice, but it has  been a consistent place to come and relax.  We threaten to get rid of it every year and every year we decide it’s worth keeping.

Day 2:

Today we SCUBA dive.  It’s been over a year since our last dive so we wanted a refresher and we have purchased regulators that we wanted to try out.  So with those two things in mind we booked a two dive trip with SCUBA Cancun, whom we have dove with before.

On the first dive we came upon a large green turtle that did not seem to be bothered by our presence. He floated around feeding and swimming along side of us for quite a while. It was a good drift dive with plenty of fish and small coral formations.

The second dive was another relaxing drift dive – this location was filled with large schools of fish darting around.  The regulators seemed to be performing well on both dives, with Todd coming up from the first dive with more air than Kelly (definitely a first!).

After we were done with our dive we headed back to our resort to relax and enjoy the all inclusive amenities.  While relaxing on the beach late in the evening, we think we have discovered what we are considering the 10th level of hell that Dante was not yet aware of when he wrote the Inferno…  Beach maintenance! It may sound silly, but as most people slept we watched hotel employees spend hours in tasks such as raking the beach and meticulously removing the seaweed that had washed up on shore. Of course, first thing in the morning the beach will be covered in footprints and the seaweed will continue to accumulate endlessly ( waves were bringing more seaweed even as the poor worker hauled another wheelbarrow full of the endless stuff) yet every night hours of time are put into this fruitless effort to make the beach look nice for us guests…


Day 3:

Today is a lazy day.  We slept in and rolled out of bed around lunch time.  The resort has an area on the beach where you can walk up and use any of the available equipment.  We saw two catamarans and since we just got certified to sail we thought we would take one out to practice.  When we asked the employee manning the area about the catamarans he just laughed and in broken English he informed us they were not working and just for show.

Since sailing was out, Todd grabbed a kayak and Kelly pulled out a SUP board and we paddled around the inlet. Aside from a short walk down the road, the rest of the day involved being lazy in different beds and swings on the beach and some time swimming in the ocean.  We are forcing ourselves to just relax for this vacation and while neither of us do that well, we gave it our best effort today.

Day 4:

Sadly we head back home today. This trip was just what we needed, a chance to relax, disconnect from work and reconnect with each other.   We have decided we need to use this timeshare more often for a couple of quick getaways each year; it is a  perfect spot for us to recharge over a long weekend.  So until next time, Adios Cancun!

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House Hunting Down Under

Todd’s job asked if we wanted to move to Brisbane, Australia.  We jumped at the chance and have been doing everything  required to get ourselves and our pets ready to move. We sold our house in Denver, had our visas lined up and were down to a couple of weeks before were to head to  Brisbane for a house hunting trip; when we were informed that they want us to move to Houston first and delay our move to Australia by 6-9 months.  With our travel plans already booked we decided we would go ahead and use our time in Brisbane to check out all the areas we have been looking at online and see what the look like up close.

Our trip was originally planned to correspond with Kelly’s birthday (why not?!) We also realized that Australia has its version of the Fourth of July (Australia Day) on January 26th, 2 days after Kelly’s birthday.  So Kelly is excited that every year, near her birthday she gets fireworks!  The negative being a lot of things are closed this week for the holiday; however, since we don’t have any important business to attend to, it isn’t too much of hindrance.  Plus Todd doesn’t have to justify taking several days off this week to check the area out.

Day 1:

We had a long but uneventful flight into Brisbane.  It messed a little with our heads because we left Friday evening and due to the time difference and crossing the international date line, we arrived in Brisbane on Sunday morning.  As a result of the time change, we lost Saturday, but Kelly got to celebrate her Sunday birthday early.  She has since claimed that every year we live in Australia she will be claiming a two day birthday to account for the fact that no one in the US acknowledged her birthday until the day after.

The cab ride from the airport to the hotel quickly reminded us that Australians drive on the opposite side of the road than we are used to.  We giggled when the cab driver got into the “passenger” seat, and flinched every time we turned into what we were sure was oncoming traffic, it’s going to take a little while to get used to that.

We arrived at our hotel, Mantra South Bank, at 8am and they were gracious enough to let us into our room early.  We enjoyed a much needed shower and teeth brushing and headed out to start experiencing Brisbane!
Our hotel is in a touristy area, so it was actually pretty busy for a Sunday morning.  We are right across the street from a beautiful park area that lines the river and has a man made beach and swimming area for kids and families to enjoy.  While Brisbane is along the river,  we are actually an hour or so drive to any ocean beach and the river is a brown color and apparently home to some sharks, that would lead us to believe there isn’t much swimming going on in it.  So the “beach” by our hotel was packed.

We spent the day wandering around the South Bank, CBD and West End areas of Brisbane.  The CBD is the central business district and the heart of the city.  We enjoyed walking up and down Queens street, which is a pedestrian only street lined with shops and malls.  We found the local Target and there are actually several 7-11 stores around, but that was about the only recognizable names we found.  We now have to get used to going to Coles for Groceries and Meyer and David Jones being the main department stores.  We walked into Coles and did not recognize a single brand name, except for Pepsi.

It’s been a long time since we have lived anywhere hot and humid and it is definitely that here.  Some people have compared it to Houston and while it’s not that bad; it is close.  After a day of wandering around we were hot, sweaty, tired and ready to relax.  So we decided to grab the City Cat, which is a water taxi that runs up and down the river, and check out the city from the river.

The Cat is a great mode of transportation. It zig zags back and forth to both sides of the river, making it a great way to get around.  It allowed us to realize that there is a pedestrian walkway/bike path that runs most of the length of the river on both sides.  We are more and more encouraged that we can live anywhere and easily commute by bike or Cat to work.

We spent the evening hoping restaurants and bars in the area around our hotel in celebration of Kelly’s birthday (day one).  We made a valiant effort to stay up as late as possible, but were both completely worn out by 8pm.  Hopefully we will do better celebrating Kelly’s birthday – day two! 🙂

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Days 2-4:

We have successfully checked out all the neighborhoods on our list.  While none of them have been somewhere we absolutely wouldn’t want to live (other than Paddington, way to far for us), we definitely have our favorites. Right now we are leaning toward South Bank (where Todd’s office is), Kangaroo Point, and Bulimba which was actually not on our list but suggested by one of Todd’s co-workers.  Now we just have to wait until it’s closer to our move and find a place for rent in one of those areas that will allow the pets.

We did get to enjoy the fireworks for Australia Day on Tuesday, although we lost track of time and ended up watching the from the restaurant we were having dinner at, rather than along with river shoreline like we had planned.

Todd had to go to work starting today, so Kelly is on her own exploring the area further.  She intends to make a run for the Gold Coast tomorrow and check out surfers paradise.

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Day 5:

We are absolutely loving the ease of the public transportation in Brisbane.  Even more amazing is that you can use it (and the same pre-paid Go Card) to get yourself to the Gold Coast in under two hours.

Kelly wanted to at least get to the beach this trip.  Even though we’ve been to Australia twice now we have yet to SCUBA dive, guess that will have to wait until we move here.  For now, just a trip to the beach will have to suffice.  Todd seemed really nervous to let Kelly explore the public transportation to the coast, but she was determined and promised to check in regularly.

It turned out to be even simpler than anticipated (and cheaper, it was like $20 roundtrip).  You catch a train that runs every 30 minutes and takes about an hour to one of 6 “Gold Coast” stops.  Kelly Chose the Nerang stop, since she had read that was the closest one to Surfers Paradise, her destination for the day.  The Nerang station is in the middle of nowhere and when you get off you would have no idea that there was an ocean or beach anywhere near you.  But if you go to the bus station attached to the train station and find the 740 bus, it’s less than a 30 minute bus ride to the beach.  The bus drops you off right at the tram that runs up and down the different beaches in the area, but Kelly was ready to walk and being able to see the beach from the bus stop was even more incentive.

The town of Surfer’s Paradise is a haven for high end shopping and high rise buildings.  So Kelly knew she wouldn’t be spending much time in town, but did make a quick stop at Starbucks to get on the internet and reassure Todd she had made it one piece.  With that done, it was time to head to the beach.  It was quickly apparent where the city got it’s name.  While there were only a handful of swimmers in the water and no one on the beach (it was drizzling a bit at this point), about 50 yards out in the ocean there were over 50 people bobbing in their wetsuits, on their surfboards, waiting for the perfect wave.

The plan was to walk to the far end of the beach (it stretches on for miles), but when the drizzle turned into a pouring rain and even the multitude of surfers decided to call it a day, Kelly decided it was best to seek some cover.  She grabbed some lunch and after holding out as long as she could to see if the rain would let up, she decided to take the public transportation, in reverse, back to Brisbane.

Tonight we have reservations for dinner at the Black Hide steakhouse.  Kelly’s mom got us a gift certificate there, knowing we would be in Brisbane for Kelly’s birthday.  We aren’t huge steak people, but Black Hide was amazing.  We got there a little early and apparently right as they opened.  We were the first ones there and received the full attention of the French manager, who gave us a lesson in Angus vs Wagyu beef.  That is Black Hides specialty, they offer every cut in either Angus or Wagyu.  Since we were by no means experts, we decided to try once of each and we were informed of a wine that would go with both well.  This was one of our most attentive meals ever.  The French manager took a liking to us and came by to check on us regularly and give us more tidbits of information about what we were eating and why it tasted the way it did.  We are very grateful to Kelly’s mom for the experience!  Oh and we have to mention the dessert, we had the strawberry and rhubarb decomposed.  It… was… amazing!  I can’t even describe it sufficiently, but it’s topped with cotton candy, I think that says enough !

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Day 6:

Our last day together in Brisbane.  Todd agreed to take off work early so we could pick up our debit cards (we have an Australian bank account now!!!) and go out to Bulimba (he still hasn’t seen it).  While Todd worked, Kelly went for a run and then decided to hop on a double decker tour bus and see any of the sites we had missed.  The tour bus wasn’t that great (and definitely not worth the $35 is cost).  They hand you headphones as you get on and as you get close to each of the 15 sites on the tour, you get a 5 second explanation of what it is.  There were a couple of sites we hadn’t stumbled upon, so it was somewhat useful, but we would definitely want to go back and explore ourselves some more.  To be fare, the real purpose of the tour bus is as a hop on/hop off way to get around the city.  So for that it would probably be useful, but it’s such a walkable city there is really no point.

Once Todd got off work, we made our way over to the Queen Street Mall and found the Westpac bank we had set up an account with, in order to pick up our debit cards and finalize opening the account.  From everything we have read it’s really important to have a local bank account setup before you start trying to apply for housing, utilities, etc., so we wanted to make sure we got that done on this visit.

Then we jumped on a City Cat to the Bulimba area.  This is a cute area, that is a little further out that we had planned to live, but because it is right on the cat and the riverfront trails, it’s still an easy commute to work for Todd.  The housing out there is reasonably priced and the area seems to be generically dog friendly.  By dog friendly, I mean we actually saw dogs.  We are realizing that Brisbane is not a terribly dog friendly area in general.  Most rentals don’t allow them and if they do, they need to be less than 10 kilos (22 lbs).  Dharma weighs in at a solid 40lbs (18 kilos), so we have been getting more and more nervous that we would be able to find a place to rent with her.  But, in Bulimba we actually saw a German Shepherd out walking and there are water bowls out in front of the many restaurants and shops on Oxford Street (the main drag).

After exploring the area a bit we settled on an Indian restaurant for dinner.  There are a ton of restaurants in this area of all nationalities.  It reminds a lot of the area we live in currently in Denver.  I think by the end of the night we both agreed Bulimba feels the most like a place we would want to call home.  Now we just wait and see what’s available when we finally end up here!

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Day 7:

Sadly today we woke up, jumped on the train and headed for the airport.  Todd is going on to Melbourne for a week to work with that office, while Kelly is heading home.  We rode the train to the international terminal and had breakfast together.  We then kissed good bye and Todd headed to the domestic terminal.

 

Now we just wait for our next adventure together…

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Christmas Card 2015

2015 has been another crazy year in the Burke-Haba household!

IMG_3499 We started the year in Ecuador with a diving trip to the Galapagos Islands. We saw more sharks, turtles and sea lions than on all of our entire previous dive trips combined – the huge sun fish and hammerhead sharks were a special delight that were amazing to see! Of course, we also saw plenty of the famous Galapagos tortoises and Darwin’s finches as well!

IMG_3649After diving and touring the islands, we returned to the mainland of Ecuador and visited the area around Quito and the magnificent volcanoes that surround the city. We spent New Years Eve in Quito and enjoyed the local tradition of jumping over a burning effigy at midnight – any year that starts like that has got to be good. J

IMG_3974This year we decided to focus on family visits and we traveled to visit family several times and enjoyed their visits to Denver. Todd’s nephew, Dane, joined us for another ski weekend and Kelly’s sister Colleen and her family trekked all around the country in an RV this summer; stopping by Denver on their way home. Spring break was spent in Florida with Todd’s brother, Charles, and niece, Laiken. We spent more time with family over the Memorial Day weekend by attending the wedding of Kelly’s cousin, Mike, in St. Louis. As part of our goal to visit all 50 states, we flew into Indiana and drove down to St. Louis for the wedding. Along the way we got to see World’s Largest Golf Tee and the World’s Largest Wind Chime! There’s nothing more American than combining cheesy road-side attractions with family visits!

IMG_5073We also expanded our family this year with a new puppy. Her name is Dharma, and she has become a valued member of our household already. She loves camping and being outside (in addition to harassing our two cats), so we ended up spending most of our summer weekends enjoying the great Colorado outdoors with her.

IMG_4099This year was our 10th anniversary, so we made a trip back to Italy; where it all began. We are always trying to get new countries checked off, so we began our trip in Nice, France and headed for Monaco before moving on to Italy’s Cinque Terre region and eventually ended up in Rome. Hiking the Cinque Terre, swimming in the Mediterranean and enjoying the local wine made for a relaxing yet adventurous vacation.

IMG_4120These past 10 years have flown by so fast. Time does indeed fly when you are having fun! And we’re not anywhere close to being done; so who knows where the next 10 years will find us!

This year was also Kelly’s 40th birthday. Kelly celebrated late with a trip to Oregon in September, with her friend Nicole (who is also 40 this year). For Todd’s birthday in November this year we finally made a trip to Aspen. We lucked out with some early season snow and got to ski while we were there – two weeks earlier than they had anticipated opening!

IMG_5238Thanksgiving was spent wandering down memory lane for Todd. We went back to Cambridge, Maryland to enjoy Thanksgiving with some family friends and actually got to stay in the house that Todd grew up in! The current owners now rent the room above the garage on AirBnB!  They were gracious enough to take us on a tour of the house and we got to see the place in the attic where Todd & his brother, Charles, signed their names on the wall. Thanksgiving was enjoyed greatly with Miss Doris (as Todd calls her) and her family. From there we moved on to check off yet another state (we are down to 9 remaining states!), West Virginia. There is a lovely area at the confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah rivers called Harper’s Ferry. It is preserved as a historic site now because of its importance in the events that started the Civil War. It is a beautiful area and we spent our time there hiking the West Virginia mountains and biking along river and enjoy the outdoors.

futurehomeFor those of you who haven’t heard yet, we are also getting ready for a big move! Todd has gotten a promotion and we will be moving to Brisbane, Australia for the next 2-3 years. We have sold our house (had a signed offer less that 24 hours after listing it) and the people that bought it have been gracious enough to rent it back to us until we leave for Australia. Todd has already started his travels there and will be back and forth until about March when he will settle in there full time. There are some complicated steps to get our pets over to Australia, so Kelly will remain in the US until the end of April ensuring that all the logistics, testing and paperwork is completed for our four-legged family members.

Of course, once we settle in Brisbane, everyone is welcome to come and visit! We plan to do a better job of keeping our blog up to date for everyone, so keep an eye on it at www.livingthelifeextraordinaire.com

We wish everyone a very Happy Holiday season!!!

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Ten Years and Still Going Strong

Ten years, seven continents and over 20 countries, we have been busy!  To celebrate our ten year anniversary we decided to go back to Rome, where we got married.  In true Burke-Haba style we included a stop in a new country and visited several areas of Italy that we had not experienced last time.

Our trip took us to Nice, France; Monaco; the Cinque Terre in Italy, Pisa, Florence and finally Rome.   See our pics below:

Nice, France:

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Monaco:

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Cinque Terre:

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Pisa:

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Florence:

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Rome:

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Quick Stop in Alabama

We managed to cross off Alabama with a quick overnight stay on our way to meet Todd’s brother and niece in Florida.

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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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Seven Continents in Seven Years

So it was almost seven years ago to the day that Todd and I made ourselves a goal, while we were in Australia. We thought, if we can get to Australia, what’s stopping us from seeing all the continents. So we set the goal of visiting all seven continents in the next seven years. That was May 5th 2007… And now on April 25th (or 24th depending on what time zone you are in) we are about to attain our goal when we land in Asia, our final continent!

Day 1:

Those of you who have followed us know we use points whenever we can and only pay to travel when really necessary. We’ve been to Australia, France, Prague and many other places all by efficiently using travel rewards.

We are proud to say the airfare for this trip, including business class and first class upgrades has been completely covered by the points Todd has racked up with his frequent travel to South America over the last couple years. All we spent was $92 for a transaction fee to book it all. I think outside of Australia this is our best bargain trip yet! And an added bonus is that we are enjoying the benefits of our upgraded tickets by relaxing in the first class lounge while waiting for our plane to Hong Kong.

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Day 2 (well three because of the time difference):

Well it’s official, we made it to Asia! We have now been on all seven continents! We are sitting in the Hong Kong airport, enjoying the airline lounge (free access for business class tickets) waiting for our next flight to Bangkok. We spend a couple days in Bangkok and then we head to Bhutan. Other than the fact that we have gone through security three times (we are pros at taking steps to ensure a quick inspection, so the process isn’t too bad), this has been the smoothest, most enjoyable set of flights we have ever taken. Of course that may also be due to the fact that we have managed to get upgraded to first class and business class for the whole trip! We have never been in a plane seat that lays completely down! We both slept like babies and Todd didn’t even have to take his sleeping pills.

Here’s our first Asian meal… Apparently this is breakfast:

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Days 3 & 4:

We have spent the last two days in Bangkok and the biggest thing we’ve noticed are the contrasts. Rich vs. poor. Religion vs. con artists. The intricate and meditative architecture of the Wats(temples) vs. the chaotic and dirty traffic.

One contrast that stood out were the monks in orange robes compared to the con men that hovered around the tourists visiting the temples. It was actually a bit funny because the sales people are barely awake much less harassing in any way, but then there are random people throughout the city telling you things are closed or you can’t walk this way, you must walk this other way (which just happens to go in front of the jewelry shop they own). We’ve also been told several times that there were protests going on and should therefore avoid the place we were heading to and instead go visit some other place. Of course there were no protests and the other place is likely a shop that the “friendly helper” gets a kickback for directing tourists to. It’s rather frustrating… of course we stand out like sore thumbs here as it’s very evident we aren’t locals. Todd keeps getting asked if he’s from Germany or Holland because of his height, as he is at least 2 feet taller than most everyone we’ve seen. Even Kelly feels tall here.

The beauty and uniqueness of the city makes up for the typical tourist traps and oppressive heat and humidity. That and the fact that everything is so cheap! It’s hard to get really upset when the expensive scam is really only costing you a dollar. The frustrating part stems more from the fact that it was wasting our time.

We spent both days visiting the major Wats and the Grand Palace. We saw hundreds of statues of Buddha, walked several miles, wandered through countless street markets, caught a ride on a tuk-tuk, and even enjoyed an ice cold beer in a water-front restaurant.

We saw a lot and completely exhausted ourselves. Luckily our hotel had a lovely pool with a swim-up bar that was the perfect way to relax and cool down in the evenings.

We have to be up at 3 am tomorrow to meet up with the group and head out to catch our flight to Bhutan! We have enjoyed our time in Bangkok, but are looking forward to the next part of our trip.

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Day 5:

We are now at the Bangkok airport getting ready for our flight to Bhutan! We met our Backroads travel group and everyone seems very nice and we appear to be the only ones that haven’t taken a trip with Backroads before.  Several people are in the double digits for Backroads trips they have taken !

The trip to Bhutan included a stop at a small Indian airport to drop off and pick up passengers, so we are now claiming we’ve been to India too :).

The ride into Bhutan was rather bumpy as we snaked through the mountains that surround Paro and landed on a very short runway. We were the only plane at the small and beautifully decorated building. It looked as if we had flown straight up to a temple. We stood for a short time in the immigration line and made our way out of the airport.

We drove along bumpy, almost non-existent roads and arrived at our hotel, Uma Paro, which is perched on a steep hill overlooking the valley and town below . Our hotel was a beautiful building constructed in the traditional style, but surprisingly with all the modern amenities. We have wi-fi, a spa, sauna, and a pool.

After checking in, we got fitted for our bikes and then had lunch of yak burgers and salad. After a long discussion among our fellow Backroads travelers we decided yak tasted a bit like ostrich meat.

Then it was off for a 3.2 mile hike to an abandoned Dzong and an active Dzong with stops along the hike to inform us about Bhuddist and Bhutanese culture and symbolism.

Our first stop on the hike was an abandoned Dzong and then we headed down to the valley floor and got to tour the local Dzong and the temple there. There were a lot of ornately painted walls with historic stories covering the temple. They have started to explain some of the symbolism involved in Bhuddist art, and will be slowly explaining it to us over the next 7 days.

We finished up the hike back to the hotel and we are relaxing as we wait for dinner to start and getting to know our travel companions. It will be an early evening since we have be up and out to breakfast by 6:30.

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Day 6:

Our first day of cycling in Bhutan was quite the adventure. The route started off with several miles of coasting downhill and once we reached the valley floor it was fairly easy except for a last, optional 3 mile climb up to our hotel.

What they failed to mention was that we were riding on the main, trafficked roads in town and that those roads aren’t always paved. It was a crazy, bumpy ride in which Todd managed to shatter his chain. Kelly road on ahead to get the shuttle to help him and they ended up just bringing him another bike to finish the ride. There was an option to add on a longer flattish route, but Todd was itching to climb so we skipped that piece and went straight for the climb to the hotel. Only a few people made the full climb, Todd and an amazing 61 year old woman who put the rest of us to shame both made it. Kelly made it about 3/4 of the way up before she gladly accepted a ride from the sweeping van.

While the ride was definitely a workout we couldn’t help but notice how friendly ( and happy of course) the Bhutanese people we encountered were. The vehicles sharing the road with us always gave us a little honk to let us know when they were passing and most people smiled and waved or gave us a head nod along the way. Our favorite though were the children, they are so excited by our presence. Locally they don’t ride bikes as a mode of transportation (only us crazy Americans were on bicycles), they just walk everywhere. Everytime children saw us they would start yelling huuuulllllloooooo and waving like crazy. We had some reach out their hands and ask for a ” hand slap” as we ride by. There were even a couple girls that chased along with us yelling huuulllloooo for as long as they could, we were riding slowly uphill at the time but they quickly retreated when we hit a straightaway.

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Day 7:

Today was an amazing day! I feel like we hit the pinnacle and nothing will come close to the experiences we had today! We started with a car ride to a picturesque Dzong at the confluence of two rivers. We lucked out as today was an auspicious day with a partial solar eclipse here. This meant that the villagers were visiting the Dzongs in droves and there was much more activity then usual. We got to experience the chanting of the young monks (the guides like to call them monklets) as they practiced a ceremony they had been learning. At the same time our local guide Namgay took us around the temple and pointed out special symbolism and stories that are typical in Bhuddism. The interiors of the temples are so amazing, but unfortunately no photography is allowed so hopefully our memories will hold the images we have seen!

Next up was a 6 mile hike through rice terraces to reach a monastery. It was a rough uphill climb, but we stopped along the way to learn how to make hats out of foliage to cool us in the hot sun and how to grow and harvest rice. Even though the hike was steep, it was worth the climb when we arrived at the monastery.

First of all some of us were lucky to briefly interact with a monk, who they have determined to be the reincarnation of a very important monk from the 1600s and considered quite the VIP for this small monetary. He gave our guide a blessing and some blessed seeds, which he then shared with all of us.

Backroads has taken this monastery and their “monklets” on as a charity project to support the local community. All of the boys that stay here are either orphans or for some reason their parents were unable to care for them. They, along with our local guide have funded the renovation of the building and the care of the boys.

The monklets were so fun to interact with. They spoke amazingly good English and kept asking to have their pictures taken… By themselves, with us, wearing our sunglasses and hats. They also begged us to send them print outs of the photos, which our leader has promised to do if we send them to him. Apparently they enjoy hanging the pictures in the lockers they have for their personal items. They also enjoyed watching us point out on a large world map, where we were from and the long path we had taken to get to them.

After leaving them we made our way down to where they had our bikes set up and did a quick few miles on the bikes. Todd of course had to do the climb to the hotel a second time, while Kelly didn’t even bother to try this round.

This evening we had our first non- hotel meal while in Bhutan. We drove into a nearby city to enjoy a lovely dinner with several local dishes, served family style. Before the dinner we had a Q&A session with our guide to learn more about Bhutan. We also got volunteered as the models for the demonstration of how the local Bhutanese dress. While the men’s Gho looked a little short on Todd, I think we both looked rather handsome in our getups.

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Day 8:

We had to wake up early again this morning, because we are moving on and heading to the city of Thimphu for the evening. But first, we got in a bike ride and some rafting. The bike ride was great. It was mostly on a dirt road and followed the river through a undeveloped part of the valley.

Apparently we were the only ones who had ever gone mountain biking and we were quickly in the lead. They have started referring to us jointly as “Colorado”. One gentlemen likes to call out “Colorado on the right” whenever we pass him. Of course the 9 mile ride wasn’t enough for Todd, while we were waiting for the others he found another hill to climb and enjoyed the views of river below.

Then we loaded up into rafts and headed down the river. Unfortunately our raft guides announced that they were guides in training and due to their inexperience and the low water level, we proceeded to get stuck on several rocks during our trip, but we had fun and got back to the vans in one piece.

Next, we loaded into the Coasters (aka vans), for what was supposed to be a 3 hour ride to Thimphu, but turned into more like 5 hours because of traffic. It was a crazy thing to watch, traffic would come to a dead stop, with no one moving in either direction because the road wasn’t wide enough for two cars to pass one another. The funny thing was no one would backup or move over to let anyone pass, it was everyone for themselves. It took two of our guides stepping out and standing in front of vehicles before we were able to finagle enough space to get through the area. We hit three separate traffic jams and each one took 30-40 minutes to untangle. It was quite the mess.

Our hotel for the next two evenings, the Taj, is beyond description. We checked into our enormous room and Kelly immediately booked a massage for later tonight. Tonight we were on our own for dinner, so we grabbed some appetizers and drinks at the bar and sat outside on the patio to watch the hotel’s nightly performance of a traditional Bhutanese dance. Afterwards Kelly enjoyed her massage while Todd rested his sunburned legs.

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Day 9:

Today was a tiring day. We hiked straight up for 2km, gaining about 1000 feet in elevation. The trail was steep and our destination was a small monastery on top of a mountain. The views from the top were incredible, but the monestary was under construction, so we did not get to see all of the structure.

The main building had definitely seen better days; however, most of the paintings and structures were from the 1600s when the monastery was originally built. So we got a small glimpse of some beautiful, original artwork sitting amongst dilapidated buildings.

After hiking back down we jumped on our bikes and road 17 km of hilliness to get to our lunch destination… The Royal Bhutan golf course. After lunch some members of our group stayed behind to play some golf, most of us went back to the hotel to relax and shop. Of course Todd hadn’t gotten enough climbing in so he and one other crazy guy in our group took on the Bhudda challenge, which was a 5k uphill climb that ended at a giant Bhudda that sits on a hillside overlooking Thimphu.

When Todd got back we headed out for a rainy evening of exploring Thimphu. After checking out several shops and getting thoroughly drenched, Kelly managed to find a singing bowl that she liked and a few gifts for the nieces and nephews.

For dinner, we took one of our guide’s suggestions and checked out a local restaurant called The Bhutan Kitchen. We were the only people at the restaurant and they had a fixed menu, but we enjoyed the large variety of local Bhutanese cuisine. After that, we headed back to the hotel, enjoyed a bottle of wine and relaxed.

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Day 10:

Today was another tiring day with our longest and last bike ride of the week. They shuttled us out into the middle of the Haa valley, which is a beautiful, lush valley that is a little south west of Paro. The ride was hilly with several long climbs and some fun downhills.

The scenery made up for the climbing and we cautiously enjoyed it as there were a lot of work trucks in the area, one of which tried to run us off the road. The one benefit of this trip is Kelly has realized that she is capable of much more bike climbing than she ever realized! She can’t keep up with Todd by any means, but hills that looked incredibly intimidating were climbed with much more ease than she had anticipated.

Our hotel for the next two nights is beautiful. We have been told it is the nicest Bhutanese owned hotel. They are working towards a self-sustainable model where they grow their own food and they have a water recycling plant onsite. They are also working with the local community and other hotels to share their knowledge. Apparently this unusual as Bhutan has no recycling and the trash is burned or often dumped in places close to the river. Although they have made an effort to restrict plastics (plastic bags are illegal here) and other non-biodegradable items, it is obvious there will need to be something done in the future as the country continues to grow.

The hotel also has a small “temple” inside of it that allows pictures.  So we have shared some of the pictures so you can get an idea of what most of the temples we have seen, look like.  They are very colorful.

For dinner we went to a local farmhouse that had been built in the 1600s, that has now been turned into a museum. To see the simplicity in which these people lived, even as late as the 1960s, is humbling.

After dinner we spent some time talking with our local guide, Namgay. He has many wonderful projects he supports here in Bhutan from helping orphans to getting girls educated. We have been very moved by the work he has done here and hope to find a way to support him in maintaining and growing his charities for the future.

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Day 11:

Backroads did a great job of saving the best for last.  Today was the day we hiked to Tigers Nest.  It was a difficult hike with a lot of elevation gain over a short distance, but totally worth it.  The hike was made more manageable with a stop mid-way for tea, bathrooms and some much needed rest at a small teahouse.

When we finally reached Tigers Nest we were instructed to leave our cameras and cell phones outside and the men were frisked by guards (apparently there were no female guards for the ladies) as we walked in.  Tigers Nest is made up of 13 temples, but because of the number of tourists it draws (the only place we have run into any other visitors on the trip), we only went into three.  One of the three temples we visited has a diety in it that is “guaranteed” to grant your wishes in exchange for an offering.  So we all took turns presenting our offerings, making our wishes and receiving a blessing from the monk that mans that temple.

One of the amazing things about Tigers Nest is that a large part of it burned down in 1998.  This had been predicted many years earlier by the reincarnate monk we met a few days again.  He predicted he would rebuild Tigers nest and indeed he did.  The crazy thing is, if someone hadn’t told us this we would have never guessed.  They have done a perfect job of rebuilding the damaged parts so that they match exactly with the other parts that were built in the 1600s.

After we made our way back down we headed back to the hotel and enjoyed some archery and darts in the afternoon.  Several people managed to hit the targets in our group, but Todd & Kelly settled for getting really close. 🙂

Dinner tonight was a kind of farewell ceremony with a slideshow of pictures from our week and a few parting gifts.  We have enjoyed ourselves so much on this trip, we are sad to see it ending.

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Day 12:

This morning we had an emotional good bye not only to the amazing people we have traveled with this last week, but also to this beautiful country that we have grown to love in the brief time we have been in it. They had a monk perform a blessing for us where he chanted and blessed some scarfs and prayer flags. We were then presented with the scarves and we each took a turn touching the prayer flags and filling them with our prayers and wishes for the world. We were told it was a way for each of us to leave a little bit of ourselves in Bhutan.

Bhutan is such an amazing country and they are doing a wonderful job of having the forethought to control tourism and immigration in order to keep a balance between their tradition, culture and modernization. We hope they are able to stay true to their motto that ” happiness is a place”.

 

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Perks of Work Travel

We mentioned in previous posts about Todd’s travels to South America, well he’s still traveling there… a lot. Enough that we decided to pay for the Global Entry program at the airport, so he can sail through customs. Kelly isn’t traveling internationally other than for vacations but there was no way she was going to stand in line for customs and watch Todd skip all the lines, so she joined as well. So no more waiting in lines when we return to the USA and we get the added bonus of using the TSA Precheck security line!

Since Todd has been traveling so much he has been racking up the miles, mostly on American Airlines where he now has Platinum status. This has afforded both of us the opportunity to upgrade seating and some first class rides. Kelly gets to enjoy his perks when we travel together. Which unfortunately doesn’t happen as much as she would like.

After several months at her new job Kelly has finally stockpiled enough vacation time to join Todd on a jaunt to South America. We chose Peru as the destination and coordinated some training Todd needed to give to allow him to have his trip paid for by work. Todd has been down there for a week already in Santiago and Lima and Kelly is on her way down to meet him there in Lima, Peru.

We’re planning a brief stay in Lima and then heading to Cusco, where we will do some sight seeing and then catch a train to the town of Auguas Calientes, which is the base for Machu Picchu. We are so excited about Machu Picchu as it is a place we both have always wanted to visit. We bought tickets for an extra hike up the mountain so we can get a better vantage point and hopefully some amazing views and photos to send to everyone!

Day 1 in Lima:
So while most people would consider staying at an opulent Hilton a perk, Kelly hates Hiltons. They always feel stuffy and she has to bring “fancy” clothes or they won’t let her into the restaurants (she has been refused service before for showing up wearing Birkenstocks). But unfortunately that is where Todd’s company chooses to have him stay. This one seems particularly fancy, as if we are sleeping in a museum, check out our head board:

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Or maybe it’s the stark contrast of where we are staying and what is surrounding us. This is the view from our hotel room…

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And here is the infinity pool on the roof:

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Now Kelly is experiencing the main non-perk of work travel. Todd actually has to work and Kelly is left to explore on her own. Or as she is doing this morning, enjoying some extra sleep time :). So I guess that can be seen as a perk in its own way :).

Todd was able to break away from work a little after 2pm. We took in a late lunch at the local touristy outdoor mall along the coast that was filled with American shop. and restaurants. We chose the one Peruvian sounding restaurant (not the Chilis, TGIFidays or Tony Roma’s) and each had a sandwich. Todd contracted a stomach virus of sorts in Santiago and he has been hit or miss at meals. This one seems to sit with him well, so we continued wondering through the Miraflores neighborhood. We walked along the ocean-side cliffs, watching paragliders perform aerobatics over the ocean as we made our way to the Parque de Amore. The park had a beautiful view of the city, the Pacific ocean and a romantic statute of a couple embracing for a kiss. We took some pictures and watched as the paragliders launched from the adjoining hill.

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From Parque de Amore we headed back to the hotel and grabbed a cab up to the El Centro area, the historic center of Lima. We wandered about for a couple of hours, taking in the Franciscan catacombs (there were over 75,0000 buried beneath a Franciscan monastery) and the Plaza de Armas. The Franciscan monastery was impressive and equalled many European churches, but with a heavy Moorish influence that seemed a bit out of place in South America. The Plaza de Armas was definitely the social spot for Lima as the crowds made walking around the plaza and side pedestrian areas a bit claustrophobic. We decided not to fight the crowds and instead relaxed on the plaza, watching the fountain, the crowds and the conclusion of a wedding at the main Cathedral. After soaking in Lima for a while, we met our cab driver for a drive back to the hotel through the chaotic traffic.

For dinner we chose a restaurant that is attached to an ancient pre-Incan Peruvian ruin. We had an excellent dinner (although Todd’s stomach didn’t agree) and enjoyed a 30 minute tour of the temple ruins in the misty evening. We are now back at our hotel, while Todd wrestles with his stomach and hopes that there will be no more praying to the porcelain gods tonight….it will likely be an early night…..

Some pictures com the day:

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Day 2 Lima to Cusco:

Today is pretty much a day wasted on travel. We have to head to the airport around noon, so we opt to sleep in and grab a quick bite to eat before we jump in a cab for the airport.
When we arrive at the airport we realize that there is a flight leaving for Cusco every 5-15 minutes and if our Spanish was better we would have switched to an earlier flight, but it has been difficult to find anyone in Peru outside of the hotel staff, that speak any English at all. Those that do know English know it about as well as we know Spanish, so there are a lot of hand gestures and slow pronunciations involved in trying to communicate.

When our flight finally does board, it’s a mass push for the plane door and everyone ignored their assigned seats and sat wherever they wanted in the half empty plane. It was an uneventful flight and we grabbed a taxi in Cusco and headed to our hotel. Another fancy hotel, the JW Marriott, but it’s free for two nights due to Kelly’s points that she has been gathering with her travels for work.

Unfortunately we didn’t pay attention to the guide book’s advice to negotiate the taxi fare before we got into the cab. So in front of our fancy hotel Todd and the cab driver get into a negotiation over the cost of the cab fare. Kelly let her self out and waited quietly until a bellboy from the Marriott came over to claim our bags (which were still securely locked in the trunk of the cab). Todd asked the bellboy what a reasonable can fare from the airport and he suggested a price close to what Todd had been offering. The can driver fumed, took the offered amount and finally let the bellboy get the luggage.

By the time we got settled in our room, it was time for dinner. We headed to the Plaza de Armas, which is the main square, and wandered around, taking pictures and avoiding all the peddlers with paintings, hats, gourds, and just about every other cheesy touristy trinket you could imagine. When we had enough of the crowded plaza, we found a restaurant that looked good – Limo. It was a good choice and we had an interesting appetizer of Alpaca (we weren’t quite ready to try the guinea pig) and a steak dinner that we shared. Note to Peruvians – the alpacas make for better sweaters than steaks.

After dinner we headed to the Pisco Museum. A bar located right next to our hotel. We received a thorough education on Pisco by their sommelier. Aromatics, non-aromatics, blends, aged and many more varieties were featured. We tasted a few and then ordered a few Pisco sours and enjoyed an appetizer of chocolate covered bacon. It was amazing! And the pisco sours were perfect!
Sorry to all the Chileans, but Peru definitely has the best pisco sours. After one too many of those smooth Peruvian devil drinks, we headed back to the hotel, already aware that we would be feeling the side effects tomorrow morning.

Day 3 Cusco:
So we didn’t make it out of bed until after 1pm today. We have sworn off Pisco and probably all alcohol for the remainder of our trip!

With a later start than we had hoped we headed up-hill for a mile walk to Saksaywaman (pronounced sexy woman 🙂 ). Saksaywaman is a group of Incan ruins that you can wander through, perched on a high hill overlooking the city. We were at about 12,000ft here and the climb up to the ruins made us glad that we lived in Colorado and had an easy time acclimating to the elevation. Still, the elevation and our rough night led us to wander the site slowly, enjoying the views of the city spread out beneath us, marveling at the Incan stone works and stopping for pictures often.

When we were done we headed back down to the Plaza de Armas to get some day light pictures of the square and relax on the steps of the Cathedral. As the sun set, we thumbed through our guide book looking for a dinner spot, while we sat in Starbucks. We came up with a local organic restaurant called Greens that the book highly recommended. The book was right and we enjoyed quinoa and vegetable soup, homemade ravioli and homemade pasta. We left stuffed and ready to relax and turn in early for the night. We have a train tomorrow at 8am, so it’s going to be an early morning and another travel day.

Some pictures from the day:

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Day 4 Cusco to Aguas Calientes:
We got up bright and early this morning, finished the last minute packing, grabbed breakfast and waited in the cool morning air for our taxi to take us to the train station.
Today we head to Aguas Calientes, which is the city at the base of Machu Picchu. It is possible to take the train, wander around Machu Picchu and take the train back to Cusco all in the same day, but we wanted to do the extra climb that is only available at 7am. So we are spending the night in Aguas Calientes and hoping to get into Machu Picchu right as they open at 6am. We plan on enjoying the sunrise before we start our hike up to the top of Machu Picchu Mountain.

For the train ride today we chose the Vistadome. It has large windows that provide an almost 180 degree view of the surrounding scenery. For the return trip we are taking the budget train without the fancy windows, but wanted at least one opportunity to enjoy the scenery of the Sacred Valley.

After an hour delay for an unspecified “problem with the rails”, we were on our way! The ride was beautiful as the scenery changed from wide open farms with cows, sheep and pigs roaming about, to towering canyon walls, and finally mountainous rain forests. There are definitely no cars or roads out here as there was usually no room for anything but the train as it squeezed alongside the river beneath the looming mountains.
We arrived at Aguas Calientes and were pleasantly surprised at the beauty of the area. The guide book lead us to believe it was a bit of a pit. We agree the buildings in the town are not anything great and there is no hotel claiming more than two stars, but the natural beauty of the area makes up for it.

We spent the afternoon checking out the town, which took all of 30 minutes. :). There are only two main streets, both lined with shops, restaurants and hotels, heading up the river from the train station. The town ends about 10 minutes from the station and there are multiple bridges crossing the river, so getting around is a breeze.

We wandered around a bit, checking out the colorful market and the town square. After we grabbed a bite to eat for lunch, we headed up to the end of the town.

At the top of the town the restaurants and hostels end and the river resumes its natural cascade down the canyon. Right where the street ends is an entrance to the hot springs for which the town is named. We decided to pay the $3 entrance fee and check them out. Things were a little sketchy. First of all there was a swarm of 20+ teenage boys that had taken over the place. Secondly the water was brown and emitting a not so lovely smell. After verifying that the smell was due to a high sulfur content, watching the group of teenagers leave en masse and of course having a beer to gather our courage, we finally hopped in.

We only lasted about 10 minutes before the lukewarm, sulfuric water got the better of us. But it was an experience we can say we did and, well, there’s not much else to do in this town. So we freshened up and are now contemplating our dinner options.

Pictures from the day:

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Day 5 Machu Picchu!!!:
Today is the long awaited day when we see Machu Picchu, in person! The day started a little after 4 am :(. Todd questioned our sanity waking up this early for a bunch of “old rocks”. Unfortunately we were not the only crazies up that early. As we rounded the corner for the bus station at a little after 5am, we saw the the line for the Machu Picchu bus stretching out for at least two blocks. Fortunately they had lots of buses and the line moved quickly. We hopped on the bus and went up, up and up. After a 20 minute ride along a narrow, steep and twisty dirt road, we finally arrived at the gate of Machu Picchu to behold ….. another line!

This was the ticket line and once again, it moved quickly and we were inside! A quick 20 minute walk and we were in position to get a great shot as the sun rose, along with 300 of our closest friends. We relaxed and waited for the sun to make its way over the surrounding peaks and after about 30 minutes we were rewarded with views of the golden sunshine illuminating the wonder that lay out beneath us.
After jockeying with our “friends” for the photo opps we had wanted, we were all too glad to head the opposite direction of the hoard of tourists and keep heading up.

We were very grateful for the foresight we had to purchase the extra tickets that would allow us to climb Machu Picchu mountain. It turned out to be a grueling hour and a half, straight up hill climb that left our lungs screaming. Yet, it was totally worth it! It allowed us to get away from the crowds and to get some amazing photos of the whole Machu Picchu mountaintop complex as well as the surrounding mountains. We were more than 1000 feet above the ruins so it looked like there was not a single person in the complex.

As we headed back down with our legs tiring, we breached the waves of tourists and quickly made our way through the complex. Or as quickly as we could with people blocking traffic for their photos every 5 steps. As our frustration level with the tourists and the number of stairs we were climbing grew, we realized it was the perfect time for a lunch break!

Another advantageous foresight we had was to pre-pay (at a discounted rate of course) for a buffet lunch offered at a hotel right outside the gates of Machu Picchu!
So we claimed our buffet lunch and relaxed as we ate and drank as much water as we could consume. As the crowds thinned we headed back into Machu Picchu where we have claimed a shady little spot where we can enjoy the view, relax and do a little blogging! 🙂

With Kelly worn out for the day, Todd headed out for some last minute exploring. After we are done for the day we head back a grab a train back to Cusco for another couple nights there.

Some of our outstanding photos for the day:

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Day 6 Cusco:

Today is a day to relax and recover. Of course the hotel we chose, Rumi Punka, has us on the third floor and there are no elevators :(. Other than the required stair climbing, the hotel is beautiful. There are several outdoor courtyards and the rooms wrap around these courtyards. The perfect place to sit and relax.

We enjoyed the courtyards a bit this morning while we caught up on emails from work, then it was off to explore the city some more. We have enjoyed wandering through the many picturesque squares and exploring the alpaca sweater stores that are located every 5 feet.

Lunch was enjoyed at the El Map restaurant at the suggestion of our Frommer’s guide book. Our server, Tania, was the perfect hostess. She tested our Spanish by speaking to us only in Spanish and switching to English when we weren’t getting what she was saying. When we raved about the stuffed rellano we were eating, she informed us that it was a traditional Peruvian dish served at birthdays and anniversaries. When we asked if she made the dish at her house, she informed us that she would be making it for her birthday later this month and invited us to her house to prove that her recipe was better. Instead of coming back for her birthday, we convinced her to write down her recipe and we are going to attempt to make the dish when we get home.

After lunch, we wandered about some more and decided to check out the main cathedral of Cusco. It was really three churches in one – each so impressive that they left us wondering why Europe is so well know for its cathedrals, but you never hear about the beauties right next door in South America.
We toured the three buildings, watched some restorative work on some paintings and then headed back out to the bright sun light.

At that point our legs were begging for a break, so we headed back to our hotel and paid the extra price to access the “spa” for up to two hours. It was just a jetted bath tub with access to an endless supply of hot water ( which has been lacking elsewhere) , but it felt luxurious to our tired feet and legs. So we relaxed and enjoyed our two hours of spa time.
Next we pulled out the trusty guide book and after craving pizza all day, we found a listing for the best pizza place in Cusco… Justina’s. It was a quiet, hole in the wall restaurant. But the guide book was right, it was great pizza!
After dinner we did a little shopping on the way back to the hotel. Kelly found a great deal on a 100% Alpaca turtleneck sweater and well… Todd couldn’t bring himself to spend the money to get anything so he’s going home empty handed – but he did meet some interesting friends while Kelly was shopping (see picture below).

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Day 7 Cusco to Lima:
Well today is another wasted travel day and we won’t end up with much time in Lima to do anything. It’s been a great trip and we have truly enjoyed our time exploring Peru. It was surprisingly safe and clean everywhere we went and the weather cooperated to give us a rain-free visit with cloud-free views !

Some unique things we noticed about Peru…
1) it is a country under construction. Almost 50% of the buildings are in some stage of construction. It appears they build in phases, as they get the money to finish the next stage.
2) as we mentioned earlier there is very little English spoken here and the English that is spoken is very bad (but not as bad as our Spanish). So it’s almost useless to obtain a tour guide as you will have no idea what they are trying to tell you most of the time.
3) there are no elevators and everything is uphill, both ways! You will also notice the total absence of bicycles, baby strollers and wheel chairs. We have climbed soooo many stairs on this trip, but we made up for it with the food…
4). The food… It is all heavy and delicious! There is no such thing as fat free, diet, or light here. You won’t find a diet coke anywhere in this country (you will find a yellow super sugary drink called Inka Cola that will certainly keep the local dentists secure in their jobs for years to come). But the food is delicious and you just climb back to your hotel afterwards and you’ve burned it all off ;).

5) always have toilet paper with you, there will never be any in any public restrooms. The hotel, nicer restaurants, and restrooms you have to pay to use (like at Machu Picchu ) will be well stocked, but definitely not at the airport, train stations, etc.

6) taxi prices vary widely, make sure you negotiate the price before you get into the cab. That same cab ride that caused us a scene at the Marriott ended up costing us half as much when the hotel arranged the can for us… And that is after we paid the first can driver a third of what he demanded.
7) it is a wonderful country with an extreme amount of diversity in geography, people, food, cultures and history. Well worth a trip to explore all that it has to offer!
8) while you will get hit up to buy trinkets, take pictures with an authentically dressed local, and eat at each and every restaurant that you walk by… They almost never ask more than once and if they do it is usually with a humorous, “but why not”?, followed by an overly pathetic attempt at a puppy dog look.
9) there are stray dogs everywhere… But not a single one of them is any way aggressive or even bothers to bark.
10) it is a very clean and safe place to travel. If you can relax and get past the lack of English being spoken, you will be amazed at how much can be communicated indirectly by tone of voice and hand gestures. Don’t do anything stupid that you wouldn’t do at home (like walk down a dark alley or pull out all of your money and count it as you walk down the streetcar) and you will be fine.

Day 8 Lima to home:
Another day of travel. Up before 4 a.m. and in the taxi heading to the airport before the sun was even shining. The only eventful thing about today was that Kelly managed to loose that small piece of paper that you are supposed to keep track of and present to customs at the end of your trip overseas. Luckily a trip to a different line and a $6 fee and she was free to continue through immigration and say farewell to Peru.

We got upgraded to economy plus, so we had a bit more leg room for the flight to Miami. Kelly slept, Todd got a bit of work done and it was a nice and uneventful flight.

And then events started happening … While walking to our gate at the Miami airport we have hit a road block… An overflowing toilet has shut down a stretch of walkway and we are hanging out in another area, further from the stench until we get closer to our flight.

Next we got some good news… We just received notification that we have been upgraded to first class for the trip from Miami to Denver! Yet another perk of Todd being a Platinum level member at American Airlines!

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