Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Riding the Devil's Nose, Epic Cuisine in Cuenca, and a Surprise Summit in Loja

An old railcar in Alausi.
Chris described our experience with La Nariz del Diablo (the Devil's Nose) as the first time we've done something of touristic proportions comparable to attractions in Canada. 

The aforementioned is a mountain found along a short stretch of the Ecuadorian railway, famous for traversing the steep cliff-sides between Alausi and Sibambe. When the tracks reach the Devil's Nose, the train descends the mountainside via a series of switchbacks that require the train to travel both forwards and backwards as it zig-zags its way down to the Sibambe station. Until a few years ago, it was possible to ride on top of the railway cars, affording passengers a panoramic view and a pretty thrilling ride above a deep river valley. And then someone died so now people have to stay in the railcars.  :( 

After an early morning bus ride from Riobamba, we arrived in Alausi and hiked down from the Panamerican Hi-way to the train station. The entire town seemed to be suffering a power outage, a seemingly regular occurrence, if the number of generators vibrating noisily outside banks, stores, and hotels were to be taken as evidence. Thus, the railway staff were unable to look up our reservation to print our tickets. Nonetheless, they assured us everything would be ready by the time the train was ready to depart, so we forked over the $40 (outrageous by Ecuadorian standards) and followed the security guard to the luggage storage room (a bathroom).

Buildings across from the train station platform.

Admiring the green mountains that tower over the Alausi townsite.

Great HDR of a train-bus in Alausi.
After a light breakfast, we returned to the train station and boarded the train, grumbling when we realized our seats were on the left side of the car (we'd requested the right side as the views are known to be better) AND were so close to the front that we could almost touch our noses to the wood-paneled divider we were facing. However, a few minutes after leaving the station, the guide noticed Chris's (fancy) camera and moved us to the front two seats on the right side, which were probably the best seats on the train!

Not as awesome as being on top of the rail car but still pretty neat.
Workers on the train.
As we wound our way towards the Devil's Nose, the guide gave a bit of history on the Ecuadorian railway and the particular section we were travelling. Notably absent was any mention of the death that resulted in us having to stay in our seats... The views were pretty great and it was cool to see the engineering feat that permitted Alausi to be connect by rail to Sibambe... but overall I think the hype surrounding this attraction mostly revolved around the novelty of riding on top of the railcars and it's nowhere near the same experience nowadays. Frankly, the views during all of our bus rides throughout Ecuador have been as or more spectacular. And travelling by bus is definitely more terrifying! We also could've done without the hour of free time in Sibambe. Not much to see aside from locals who are paid to dress up in traditional clothes and dance for the supposed entertainment of us tourists. Ahh well. We did get a complimentary sandwich and juice at the station cafeteria.

La Nariz del Diablo (The Devil's Nose). Switchbacks allow the train to descend the mountainside.
From Alausi we caught a bus to Cuenca, a medium-sized city in the central south of Ecuador. We'd heard from some other travellers that Manu Chao was playing in Cuenca that night and it turned out that the stadium was quite close to our hostal. We thought about going but were starving and exhausted... I looked on the internet and found that it was his first concert series in Ecuador in 13 years. We figured we probably wouldn't be able to get tickets at the door and decided just to listen to the music from our hostal. I sort of wish we'd tried to go but we really weren't up for it at the time, after two days of travel. 

One thing I have not yet commented on in these blogs is how frustrated we've been with our Lonely Planet guide book. The edition is 3 years old but was the only one available when we needed it. We've been finding that the majority of the restaurants listed in the guide are no longer operational. Unfortunately, we've typically walked several blocks before finding this out and are so hungry by that point that we make a hasty decision on an alternate eatery only to be very disappointed with our meals. Cuenca was no exception. So, we decided to try a different resource, Tripadvisor, and Chris found a restaurant called Tiesto's near our hostal with exceptional reviews. 

Beautiful Cuenca. The basilica is unique due to its short towers. I think they ran out of materials or something... 
Our first attempt to go there found us staring angrily at yet another empty building and we thought even Tripadvisor had let us down. It turned out we'd just had the address off by a block. We returned the next evening around 6 pm and strolled into the restaurant, only to notice immediately that every table had a reservation placard on it.... The staff took pity on us, probably because we were so much earlier than the majority of the reservations, and let us have a table with the caveat that we vacate by 8pm. 

We scanned the menu, which consisted of mostly family-style dishes to share among 4 people. There was a note that the dishes could be prepared for a minimum of 2 people, however, so we selected The Festival de Carne, a platter of several different grilled meats, and informed our server. She uttered a few sentences in Spanish and appeared to be trying to suggest we eat something else, gesturing to another option on the menu. We were confused but resigned and when she left we were wondering what we were going to end up with for dinner and did she really just tell us we couldn't have what we wanted to order? A moment later, a man approached our table, clasped my hand and, after the typical formalities, said "You wish to have the Festival de Carne?" to which I replied, "Si", which he immediately countered with an emphatic "No!" .........Chris and I exchanged bewildered glances while the man informed us that he was the chef and launched into a speech (in Spanish), the gist of which was that he knew better what we would like and would prepare it for us straightaway. Dumfounded, we agreed, and he returned to the kitchen while we stared at each other, shocked by what had just transpired and dreading yet another disappointing meal. 

Stairway graffiti in Cuenca.

Meanwhile, the server brought us a tray of small clay dishes filled with assorted salsas, including aji (tipical hot sauce), hot peppers, white onions marinated in herbs and oil, an apple chutney, pineapple chopped with star anise and onion, chimichurri, and many other mixtures I couldn't discern. We began sampling them on some bread and were blown away by the complex flavors. Amazing! Then the chef returned with our main dishes - 1. chicken breasts in a curry sauce with macadamia nuts and fresh herbs, and 2. medallions of beef in a tomato cream sauce with a slice of fresh tomato and parmesan cheese baked on top of each. He served me a piece of chicken and then assembled 3 of the salsas in front of my plate, instructing me to have my first bite with this one, followed by that one, and finally that one. I obliged and was absolutely blown away. Again. Each combination was different and brought out unique aspects of the main sauce. It was delicious!!! 

While Chris dug into his steak and I watched his face melt into absolute bliss with every bite, the server brought bowls filled with various side-dishes including a fresh salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, and gooseberries, as well as a mango salad with chives and a creamy dressing, a pasta salad with tiny spherical pasta beads (looked like couscous), a bean salad, rice, potatoes.... so many dishes! So many flavors! It was totally amazing. After we'd switched and each sampled the other main dish along with the many sides, we cleaned our plates and still somehow managed to find room for dessert. We enjoyed a chocolate mousse cake on a plate decorated with chocolate and fruit sauces such that the cake appeared to be sitting on a bed of flowers. It too was incredibly delicious. We were so pleased with our experience that we requested a reservation for the following night. The chef, grinning, obliged. Now, get this: our entire meal, including a $32 bottle of wine, cost $61. Yes, that's right. The meal itself only cost $30!!! And it was seriously the best meal I have ever eaten. Yah. Amazing.

The next day, all we could think about was what we were going to have for supper that night. We distracted ourselves by going to the movie theater to see Tower Heist. When the movie started I was annoyed because the picture was out of focus. Chris seemed irritated too and a few minutes later he leaned over and said something about it being ridiculous and maybe we should leave. I said they'd probably fix it shortly. What I didn't realize was that he was referring to the fact that the movie was playing in Spanish, overdubbed instead of with spanish subtitles as the schedule had said. I hadn't even noticed! Haha. We left and got our money back. Not THAT confident in our spanish. Plus, as Chris pointed out, so much of Eddie Murphy's comedy is simply his delivery! Doubt they could've replicated that in Spanish.

A similar incident occurred the previous day when we walked to the river valley to read our books in the sunshine and. I turned on my Kindle and started reading. After about half a page I thought, 'that's strange... I don't remember these characters... Hmm, I must've been really tired the last time I was reading.' I flipped back to the start of the chapter to refresh my memory and read for about 15 minutes before finally realizing that I was reading Chris's book. He'd borrowed my Kindle and loaded his book because I was using his Kindle for the travel guide. Oh boy... 

We had a good laugh about it but the truth is, the source of my distraction is rather sad. I've been hesitant to mention it in this blog but I now think it should be included in this account of our trip because it's affecting me quite significantly. Shortly after we left Canada my gramma was admitted to hospital. Although she'd seemed in fine health at Christmas time, she became ill in the new year and was diagnosed with cancer. My parents told me about this while we were still in Costa Rica. At that time, my gramma was undergoing tests but was able to be at home while her treatment was being developed, etc. Unfortunately, she began suffering from some other complications and things have started looking less optimistic over the past few months. She was hospitalized again recently. Last week my parents told me that she will not be able to return home. I have so many wonderful memories of time spent with my gramma and those are what have been foremost on my mind, often distracting me from our daily activities. I am very sad about this turn of events and hope my gramma will recover despite the way things are sounding. It's hard to be far away, in another part of the world when someone who has been so important, so influential in my life, is seriously unwell. I'm glad the rest of my family is there to support her and let her know what I'm thinking about her a lot. 

Our second dinner at Tiesto's - Langostina (jumbo shrimp) in a butter, garlic, herb sauce,  and beef medallions in a bacon mushroom cream sauce. Note all the little pots of salsas and side-dishes. Amazing dinner!!!
So, dinner number 2. We arrived punctually and the chef, waving at us from the kitchen, shouted, "Surf and turf tonight?" to which I replied, "We will eat whatever you want to serve us. You're the boss!" He laughed and we settled into our seats, mouths watering in anticipation. He soon brought us a steaming dish of langostina (jumbo shrimp) in a salty, buttery, garlicy sauce. The shrimp were fully intact (i.e. not peeled or beheaded or anything) and, after watching me struggle for a moment to peel it, the chef stepped in and took care of it with ease, even cutting the meat into bite-sized portions for me! Haha. He then convinced me to eat part of the shrimp that sure looked like the head but he swore it wasn't... it was crunchy and buttery - pretty good but I was still a little squeamish about eating innards or something...

The second dish of the night was beef medallions, this time in a creamy mushroom sauce with bacon. It was delicious. And the meat was so tender! I don't know where this guy gets his beef, but it's better than any beef we've had on this trip and as good as Alberta beef! We had dessert again, this time a praline torte. Mmmmmmmmm. I think it was probably a good thing that we had to leave Cuenca the next day or we might've been making a third reservation!

Dessert - praline torte amazingness.

From Cuenca we traveled further south to the small city of Loja, located adjacent to Parque Nacional Podocarpus, which is famous for it's impressive biodiversity, including several endangered species such as the mountain tapir, spectacled bear, and northern pudu. Boasting a variety of microclimates, the park also hosts an exceptional range of vegetation. We prepared for a day-hike on the following day and hired a taxi to take us to the park. Contrary to what our Lonely Planet said, the taxi refused to take us all the way up to the refugio, dropping us instead at the control point, leaving us with an 8.5 km hike up to the trailhead. After signing in with the park staff we began our ascent, happy to be in the fresh air after our long bus ride the previous day. It was a beautiful setting with great views of the surrounding mountains and agricultural practices that include crops sown into even the steepest slopes.

We'd walked for barely a kilometer when a guy in a pick-up truck offered us a ride to the top. He was an electrician from Quito and had been hired to do some electrical work up at the refuge. Since we'd been lucky to avoid the pre-hike hike, we decided to do the longest self-guided hike in the park: a loop called La Mirador. It turned out to be an incredibly challenging hike over rocky and muddy terrain, with a long stretch across ridge with steep ravines on both sides. We had to climb parts of it because it was so steep and we both had minor falls a couple of times. After reaching the first mirador (viewpoint), we figured out out that we were basically summitting one of the mountains. My legs and lungs were burning but it seemed we had no choice but to press on in the hopes that the return portion of the loop would be easier than returning the way we'd come. The views were incredible from so high up and it was even clear for all but the very last part of our ascent (hence no photos from the summit).

View from the first lookout, about halfway up.
View of Loja to the northwest.

Our path, visible along the top of the ridge in the foreground, climbing up and down and up up up into the clouds! This stretch was about a kilometer but there was a major elevation gain and we above 4000 m, according to the map at the refuge.
Making my way up the ridge. The path is visible behind me, stretching into the distance, back down to the first viewpoint. You can also see the hi-way below. Waaaay below.
Out of breath... I mean, stopping to enjoy the view.

We returned to the refuge and nursed our aching muscles while scarfing down our packed lunch. The electrician was still on site but it was only early afternoon and neither of us were brave enough to ask what time he'd be returning to the control station. We packed up and started the hike down, making it about a kilometer before we perked up at the sound of the truck approaching us from the road behind. We hopped into the back of the truck, extremely grateful for the lift, and enjoyed the views without the need for any further exertion (save to hold onto the truck-bed frame). The electrician was staying in Loja so he actually drove us all the way back to town! Such good luck!!!

After showering and resting for a bit we were famished. Chris was keen to try the local delicacy called cuy, more commonly known as guinea pig, and our guidebook recommended a place called Salon Lolita. We arrived to find it still there (hurray!) and were directed to the kitchen to place our order. Chris requested a medium-sized cuy and I ordered pork. As expected, the cuy arrived, roasted whole on a platter of potatoes in a savoury sauce. I can imagine few less appetizing things... Chris graciously covered the beast's head with a napkin so I could eat my own meal without staring into its gaping mouth, which still contained a set of tiny charred teeth!

Cuy!!!! So named for the sound the make as they are... yah, you get the idea.

Chris, ready to dig in!

Chris, maybe not so read to dig in after all. 
It wasn't so bad - I ate a small piece that Chris slid onto my plate (no way I was going to touch the thing with my fork and knife) and it had the same texture as chicken only slightly more rubbery and definitely had more flavor than chicken. I almost thought it tasted a bit fishy. Not sure why, but Chris didn't agree. He made a valiant effort, eating most of the meat that was easily accessible. After dinner we treated ourselves to some cake from a local bakery and ate it in the central park, feeling like we'd really earned it after our strenuous hike up the mountain.

We've had a few conversations about what food we miss most from home and what we will want to eat first when we return. We both agree that we miss home-cooked food, listing Chris's mom's thanksgiving dinner and my mom's prime rib roast with various sides at the tops of our lists. We also said we will have to request that Chris's dad make Chinese food for us again or, at the very least, hot and sour soup. And then we skyped with Chris's family and found out they'd had hot and sour soup for dinner that very night!! Strange. Anyway, yes, we also miss cooking together. Maybe some of the hostals we'll stay during the next leg of our journey will have decent kitchens.

Today is our final day in Ecuador! Aiyeee! Hard to believe it has been almost 2 months since we arrived here. What an amazing experience so far! Tomorrow we will take a nine-hour bus ride to Piura, Peru. If all goes well, we'll be across the border by mid-day and on to the next chapter of our adventure.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Baños de Agua Santa

About a week ago we left Quito for good and headed south to Banos, a small town popular for its thermal pools and countless spas that proffer every sort of self-indulgence you could imagine (they also conduct intestinal cleansing, if one is inclined or in need of such a thing). The setting is gorgeous, as you can see below. The town is perched on the banks of a river surrounded by steep slopes of the Andes. The weather is much nicer than that of Quito and the town has a decidedly laid-back feel to it, which we welcomed after our few days back in the chaos of Ecuador's capital. 

View of Baños de Agua Santa from across the river.
Having neglected to write down the address of our hostal, we asked a local policeman for directions and set out based on his guidance. We ended up a few blocks short but a pharmacist was happy to point us in the right direction. The hostal was really nice and even had a pool! And, of course, a plethora of aesthetic treatments and massage options were available onsite. We had a great view from our balcony and could even see the small waterfall behind the hostal, near La Virgen hot springs.

The day we arrived just happened to be St. Patrick's Day, which just happens to be one of my favorite "holidays" of the year. We'd originally planned to be in Quito but our early return from the Galapagos put us in Banos instead. I was a little concerned about finding a proper venue in which to celebrate, but my fears were assuaged after Jill did a quick google search at home and discovered an establishment called "Leprechaun Bar" located a hop, skip and a jump away from our hostal. How lucky, I thought!  ............... we left our hostal ready for fun night of beer and all things "Irish" only to discover that Leprechaun Bar was closed. As in, NOT open. On a Saturday. On St. Patty's Day!!!!! What?? We couldn't help but laugh at the absolute irony, commenting on how all the pubs at home would've had line-ups outside them by 10am and been busy all day.
View from our balcony at Hostal Chimenea in Banos. 
Fortunately, I'd made a back-up plan just in case something like this happened (which it does a lot in Ecuador...). We rerouted ourselves to Jack's Rock and were encouraged by the loud music audible from far down the street. Upon entering the bar, we found only the bar man crouched at a computer behind the bar and a lone cat, curled up on a speaker under the stairs. Not a four-leaf-clover or pot of gold in sight. We decided to have a beer anyway and see if things picked up after a while. In the meantime, Chris tried unsuccessfully to befriend the cat and we surveyed the vast array of band posters including Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, and Nirvana. Wait, what? Yep, Nirvana is now a classic rock band. Apparently. 

When things didn't pick up at Jack's (and we'd had our fill of Metallica), we wandered around Banos in search of another establishment that might satisfy our desire to celebrate St. Patty's Day. We found another bar that had more people in it and settled onto some stools overlooking the busy street. It wasn't long before we started seeing other gringos prowling around, wearing something green in the spirit of the holiday, looking thirsty and keen to party. And then increasingly confused when they couldn't find somewhere to unleash their inner leprechaun. 

We watched one couple walk in the direction of Leprechauns only to return a few minutes later. They saw us from the street and ended up joining us in the bar where we commiserated about the lack of St. Patty's Day cheer. They told us that Leprechauns had opened but was empty. Haha. We played a game of pool and then walked over to see if the atmosphere had improved. The bar was very busy but it was the farthest thing from an Irish pub that I can fathom. It was several floors of strobe and flashing colored lights, pumping dance music loud enough that I'm sure it could be heard in all the nearby indigenous villages. And then there was the giant bonfire centered on the patio in the rear of the bar. It seemed rather out of place considering the rest of the scene. And a rather dangerous furnishing for a drinking establishment. I guess people drink around campfires all the time though... We ended up getting a table close to the fire and enjoyed a few beers with our new friends (who were from New Zealand; she a family doctor, he a physical trainer) and another couple from Chile who had remarkably good English. Despite not being the most Irish St. Patrick's Day I've ever had, it ended up being a pretty fun night! 

The next day we wandered down to the river where we watched daring tourists bungee jump off the bridge. It cost less than $20, which immediately got my spidey senses tingling... After crossing the pedestrian suspension bridge and taking note of the numerous missing panels and others that were in bad need of replacement, I was certain I didn't trust the local safety standards enough to throw myself off a bridge with only their equipment to protect me... All four of the people we watched jump came away unscathed though.

After lunch we treated ourselves to an afternoon at the spa. First, pedicures (yes, even for Chris, though he opted not to get polish), then herbal facials and full body massages. It was SOOOOOOOO nice. The facial was very different from what I expected from past experiences. There were no harsh exfoliating treatments or close inspections of every flaw and spot on my face followed by a long list of products that could help restore/improve/turn me into a beauty queen... Nope, just homemade masks of honey, chocolate, beans, avocado, mint, cardamom, clay and lots of other ingredients I couldn't detect (or translate from Spanish). They felt nice but I'm pretty sure they didn't do too much in terms of rejuvenating or purifying my skin. Oh well. It was a treat. The massage was really good, however. Not nearly as good as the ones I get at home (love you M.J.), but very relaxing and thoroughly enjoyed after >3 months of deprivation!

We'd planned to rent bikes in Banos to bike a portion of the Routa de las cascadas (route of the waterfalls), also known as the hi-way to Puyo, but the weather was pretty crummy the first day we were there (hence the spa day...). The weather was better on our last day so we decided to ruin all the good done by our facials and massages and head out on a ride. Although the route is mostly downhill from Banos, the wind was in our faces, making pedaling necessary more than we'd hoped (haha) but it felt good to get some exercise. And the views were spectacular!! Riding on the virtually shoulderless hi-way was pretty nerve-wracking as the kamikaze buses and transport trucks whipped past us at ridiculous speeds, but it was all part of the adventure. The route has a few long dark tunnels that are really unsafe for cyclists. Fortunately, the province has built paths around the tunnels so cyclists can avoid being hit in the dark narrowness. Unfortunately, a major rockslide blocked the path not far from the start of the first detour. It looked like it had happened quite some time ago but, perhaps not surprisingly, the bike rental shop neglected to warn us about this fairly significant obstacle before we set out on the route. Undeterred, we very carefully "portaged" our bikes over the heap, acutely aware of the deep gorge immediately beside us, and continued on our way. 

After biking about 20 km we made it to the small town of Rio Verde where the trailhead for La Cascada el Pailon del Diablo can be found. It's a 2.5 km hike down to the viewing platforms and the trek was well worth it. The falls are spectacular, pounding down into a deep rocky gorge from 80 meters above, and the platforms allow you to get really up close and personal (i.e. drenched). If you're brave enough to crawl under a rock outcropping "braced" with some wood supports, you can make your way up to a closer platform and even go behind the falls! Chris went up to the viewing platform and touched the water but didn't go behind - it looked sketchy. Shocking. Surprisingly not sketchy was the suspension bridge spanning the gorge. The other side offered a nice view of the falls from a distance and the opportunity to dry off after getting soaked by the spray. After hiking back up to the town, we rode to the hi-way and caught a bus back to Banos. It was a great excursion and, although the spa experience was pretty awesome, I'd say it was the highlight of our trip to Banos.

At Cascada El Pailon del Diablo near Banos, Ecuador.
From Banos we headed to Riobamba to spend one night at a super cute hostal (Oasis) before busing to Alausi to ride La Nariz del Diablo (the Devil's Nose), a famous portion of the Ecuadorian railway. Chris hasn't had a chance to edit the photos so I'll leave that experience for the next post, which should wrap up our time in Ecuador!

Friday, 16 March 2012


So. The Galapagos. Wow. Our trip was positively amazing. The islands are truly remarkable; and very different from what I'd imagined, even after reading about them in our guide and various internet resources. The landscapes are magnificent and the wildlife is abundant and unique. I really can't do it justice in text so I'll let the photos Chris took tell the story and add in a few anecdotes of interest about our experience. But I think to really appreciate how awesome the Galapagos is you have to visit yourself.

---- Our day began with a free ride to the airport courtesy of the travel agency we used to book our cruise (CarpeDM - highly recommend!). After checking in we went to the waiting area with a Dutch couple and Swiss girl that also booked their cruise with CarpeDM but were going on a different boat than us. We'd each received a pin with the name of our boat, which we promptly pocketed because we were far too cool to wear them! We noticed that most of the other people in the waiting area had donned their pins (some people got stickers - they must've been going on economy boats... chumps) and immediately began surveying the crowd for our shipmates, praying that we wouldn't get stuck with anyone too old or unfit for the various activities/hikes. Or with a bunch of obnoxious kids. Or with a whole boatload of hoity-toity folks... we weren't being picky at all...

We arrived at the stiflingly hot airport on Baltra and were greeted by our Naturalist Guide, Tatiana, who ushered us to a gathering point where we finally got to see our shipmates. There was a complete mix of ages and groupings, including some couples, a trio of young aussie guys, and a small family. A short bus trip, ferry ride to Santa Cruz, and a panga ride from Puerto Ayora took us to the Odyssey, the luxury boat we would spend the next few days on. We were shocked by how big the room was. And the bathroom was enormous too! Definite luxury. The entire boat was fancy-schmancy.

Before leaving Santa Cruz, we visited the Darwin Research station and got to see the giant tortoises for which the Galapagos islands are named. They were so big!! It is possible to see these guys in the wild but our tour itinerary didn't include hikes to where they are found. So we were happy to have the chance to see them at the station.

Our next few days were spent taking day trips to Isla Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos Islands. We did several hikes and there were many opportunities to snorkel. I wasn't able to overcome my lifelong aversion to snorkelling but Chris really enjoyed swimming with all the fish, sharks, turtles, sea lions and other marine life. Most of the snorkelling excursions were done from the pangas but one was from a gorgeous sandy beach. I braved a quick dip before settling onto a piece of driftwood to watch the ghost grabs haggle over beachfront property. A little bird got curious enough to try landing on my hat but chickened out at the last minute.

The terrain at our first landing site on Isabela - lava rocks with white lichen. It looked like we were on another planet!
We also visited Fernandina, Santiago and a few of the smaller islands around Isabela, hiking over lava rocks to see hundreds of marine iguanas soaking up the sunshine in the blistering heat. We saw galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants, great blue herons, pelicans, pink flamingos, frigates, and, of course, the infamous blue-footed boobies. One highlight for us was visiting the Sierra Negra crater - it's the largest active volcano crater in the world, measuring 11 km in diameter. And let me tell you, it was breathtaking. I also really enjoyed our tour through the mangroves, though I would've preferred to do it by canoe or kayak. The drivers did paddle the pangas a bit but it still would've been fun to explore the mangroves in our own vessels.

Blue-footed booby.

Great Blue Heron hunting.

Booby, flightless cormorant (drying its wings), and sea lion. Relaxing in harmony on a small rocky island
View from the edge of the Sierra Negra crater. 

One hilarious moment on the boat occurred on the birthday of one of the passengers; Arthur (pronounce AH-ther), from Boston, turned 69. During the nightly briefing session the lights went out unexpectedly and then the boat crew burst in wearing ridiculous costumes made from tin foil and assorted medical/kitchen gear. They proceeded to act out a scene that had something to do with us crossing the equator and having to answer to King Neptune to pay for our passage. One of the couples on the boat was dragged into the play and forced to submit to an impromptu marriage ceremony. The lucky couple was then permitted to force another passenger to simulate the behavior of any Galapagos creature they wished. They chose Arthur and commanded that he act like a sea lion. His attempt was far more chicken-esque than sea lion... It was bizarre and hilarious. The best part was when we found out a few days later that the whole thing was Arthur's idea! We'd assumed it was a silly ritual of the boat crew. I can't believe Arthur convinced them to participate!

At Darwin's Lake - it was SO hot!!

One of many piles of marine iguanas. 

This sea lion was making eyes at me. Oh how I wanted to pet it!

Yellow sea turtle (yep, they all look orange, despite the name).
Our cruise ended on Isla San Cristobal and we'd planned to spend a few extra days there to unwind from the boat and see a few more sites on the island. Oh, I forgot to mention that Chris did really well on the boat! He barely suffered any motion sickness and was able to mitigate it with medication. Yay! I found the motion at night made it hard to sleep but didn't get sick either. Anyway, we were initially looking forward to a few more days on the island but quickly decided that the extreme heat and slooooooooow pace of the town were not really to our liking. We ended up changing our flight to an earlier date and stayed for only 2 nights in the town. We still managed to have a few adventures in that short timespan though.. The first day we went to a restaurant near our hostal and ordered the set lunch. I was starving after walking around town searching for a hostal so when the soup arrived I was eager to dig in. Until Chris lifted up his spoon to show me what was lurking in the murky broth... chicken feet! Blech!!!!! Chris managed a few spoonfuls but I couldn't do it. Not that into typical food I guess!

We went for a stroll along the waterfront, which is a favorite napping spot for sealions. They are seriously everywhere. And they are stinky! There was a little park set up on the shoreline that becomes partly submerged during high tide. We watched as the local children played along with baby sea lions who thought the enclosed area was just perfect for their games too!

Distracted by the sea lions we accidently forgot Chris's kindle on a bench after taking a break from our stroll. When we realized it, we ran back and our kindle was still there! LUCKY. That definitely wouldn't have happened in Quito...

One of the couples from our cruise (actually, the same couple that got "married" on Arthur's birthday) was also in town for a few nights so we had dinner with them. They've been travelling for about 4 months and are doing sort of the opposite itinerary that we have planned. We got some good tips from them about places to visit and things to avoid. Really looking forward to Bolivia and Lake Titicaca after their reviews!!

They are just so cute!
All in all it was an amazing adventure, worth every penny. I really can't put the experience into words and there are too many great photos to post here. Check out our Flickr site for the rest!! They will be up as soon as I relinquish the computer to Chris so he can edit/add descriptions. Note that you have open a Flickr account and add us as a friend in order to see all of the photos (it's free and quick - we just like our privacy).


Wednesday, 7 March 2012

A tale of two volcanoes


Okay, that's not what this blog is about. But that's why I'm blogging now because after galapagos I'm only going to want to write about that place and will neglect documenting our last week in the Quito area.

We moved back in with our homestay family on Monday morning last week. There was a new houseguest: Zina, from Germany. She was also studying at Quito Antiguo Spanish School. What we didn't find out until almost the end of the week was that our return meant she was moved out of the dorm room for our benefit. Ooops. That's not the worst of it though... She was moved into Lucas's room (the homestay family's son) and he was moved to some other part of the house, probably sleeping on a couch or something. We sort of felt like jerks but I guess they could've just told us it was a fairly significant inconvenience for us to come back... Oh well.

Our homestay family: Beatriz, Lucas, and Danilo.
Our Spanish teacher, Christian.
As per the plan, we wrapped up our Spanish lessons, completing the basic/introductory level, which included how to conjugate verbs in present, active, reflexive, past and future tenses as well as a wealth of practical vocabulary that should come in handy for the rest of our travels (provided we retain any of this knowledge...). During our final class, the other professors and students burst into our classroom with an enormous cake to, presumably, celebrate our "graduation". They'd also learned an Ecuadorian folk song, which they recited as one of the professors played guitar and pipe-flute. That part was sort of awkward. It was also awkward when one of the new students repeatedly tried to ask me how old I was because she'd misunderstood the reason for the cake, and thought it had to be one of our birthdays. The most awkward part was after the completion of the song when we all sat/stood around eating cake, not talking because we all speak different languages and didn't really know eachother. The cake was good though.

On the next weekend we left Quito with Christa for a tour of Volcan Cotopaxi and Laguna Quilotoa, both located south of the city. Our first stop was Hosteria PapaGayo where we picked up bikes - our mode of transportation down from Cotopaxi. We then began the ascent to the parking lot adjacent to the trailhead for the Cotopaxi Refuge. It wasn't long before we were absorbed by the cloud-cover and felt a noticeable drop in the temperature. We reached the parking lot and got out of the van in the midst of a gale force wind, complete with ice crystals but lacking the "fell voice on the air" a la the pass of Caradhras (Lord of the Rings). Oh I listened for it alright. But I'm no elf.

Puffing up our Canadian chests, we refused to be stymied by a bit of nasty weather and set out on the path up to the refuge. And I do mean "up". It was only a 300-m gain in elevation but over a linear distance of just ~1 km. Still not impressed? Well, I should mention that the ascent begins at 4500 m above sea-level. That is some serious altitude, amigos. I felt like I was 100 years old. Each step required an unreasonable amount of effort and I was out of breath in no time. It didn't help that the path was loose volcanic rock. With the wind and the cold and the lack of oxygen I honestly wasn't sure that I'd make it to the refuge. But I did. And I totally treated myself to a $2 hot chocolate, thank you very much. Christa and I decided not to make the additional ascent to the glacier after the guide took one look at our ankle socks and made a face that I easily interpreted to mean we'd be crazy to try it. Apparently there was a fresh "dusting" of 10+ cm of snow that we would've had to trek through; something no one thought to warn us about before we dressed for the day. Chris hiked up and took photos so it's like we were there anyway.

We returned to the parking lot (significantly easier than the hike up) and prepared for our bike ride down the remainder of the volcano's slope. Initially, I was very excited about biking down because I imagined an effortless cruise while admiring the scenic terrain of the Andes. In fact, I found it really difficult. Not because you had to pedal at all; quite the contrary, actually. You had to brake almost incessantly to avoid careening recklessly down the surprisingly steep road! My hands fatigued from strain and cold not far from the parking lot but I had no choice other than to press on. Or speed on, as the case was. The road was also really bumpy, making for a whole lot of jiggling and jarring. My arms felt very peculiar after a few kms... The drop in altitude took its toll too. I had to stop at one point for fear of passing out. Not sure what the physiological reason was but I definitely wasn't feeling too well. Once we'd dropped to a low enough altitude that I began to warm up, and the road flattened somewhat, I did enjoy the remainder of the ride. Christa and I had left Chris far behind as he stopped to take some great photos of the scenery. Good thing he did because I wasn't really paying attention while I held on for dear life! Ah well, it was an adventure. On a nicer day, it probably would've been much more fun.

We returned to Hosteria PapaGayo where we enjoyed some fresh chocolate cake, followed by some wine while we waited for the staff to prepare the jacuzzi. We then enjoyed a thorough soak and it occurred to me that that was the first "bath" I'd had in 2 months! Normally, at this frigid time of year, I take baths almost nightly to warm up before bed! Could've used a nice bath for the coldness of Quito... We had a reasonably good dinner and then dragged our tired selves to bed early.

The next morning we were picked up by the tour van and headed further south and west towards Quilotoa. We wound through some pretty rugged terrain but Chris did really well. I think the small passenger vans may be our ticket to travelling on the windier roads of South America.

Our first stop was at a market where we tried a hot drink made with mora (blackberry) and some quesadillas. Our tour guides took donations to purchase some food for an indigenous family whose home was the next stop on our tour. It was pretty neat but also sort of sad to see people living in such poor conditions. The guide told us that they used to just give the family money but stopped when the little girl told them her dad spent all the money on booze and would get rough with her mom when he was liquored up.  :S   Tragic.

It was another 2 hours to the town where we were able to access a trailhead for Laguna Quilotoa. As we walked past a row of market stalls and emerged onto a hill we were absolutely blown away by the stunning view. The trailhead is about 400 m above the lake and we were able to stand right on the edge of the crater rim before beginning our descent. The going was much easier than our experience at the volcano of the previous day. For one thing, the weather was far more civilized and, moreover, the starting altitude was a mere 3900 m above sea level. It wasn't easy but the views were breathtaking and we were actually able to visit along the way instead of gasping for air with every tiny step.

It was possible to hire a mule to take you back up but a bit of chiding from Chris quickly erased any inclinations I had towards exercising that alternative.... Okay, he didn't really chide me; he just suggested it would be good training for the Inca Trail and even though I didn't totally agree, my competitive nature kicked in so I had to do it. It was actually a really nice hike! A good workout, earning us another piece of PapaGayo's chocolate cake before we drove back to Quito.

We've spent the past few days in Quito resting and preparing for our upcoming trip to the Galapagos. Part of this preparation involved getting haircuts! You can get a haircut for $4 in Quito. And not a crappy haircut either! I was first to test these waters and am quite happy with the result although I did have to argue with the stylist regarding the minimum length of layers I was willing to accept... A few hours later, Chris decided to join the club and we found a barbershop. For only $18 he got the supreme treatment, even enjoying a massage with a strange, hand-held vibrating machine. Sorry folks, but the hobo beard is gone. Chris figured it was for the best, considering we are about to take a luxury cruise through the Galapagos Islands and then attempt to cross the border into Peru. I think he looks very handsome, though I'm not against the beard (within reason). We also caught The Artist playing at the Quito cinema and really enjoyed it. 

Now we are packed and ready to leave for our adventure in the Galapagos. We managed to get a good deal through a tour agency called CarpeDM, which is actually owned by a guy who grew up in Canada! Anyway, we are really excited and know that this will be a worthwhile splurge! Stay tuned for the photos... We're back March 17.