Thursday, September 19, 2013

Day 14 Off to Mishualli

We left for Mishualli after breakfast, which is about 1.5 hrs from Puyo by Taxi (cost us $55 for anyone planing to follow the same route). The road was nicely paved and in very good condition, but it snakes around and over many hills, so it is like a roller coaster ride. When we arrived the taxi driver did not know where the hotel was so we stopped in the town center where he asked for directions. During this time the mischievous monkeys that live in the town plaza stole a water bottle from a man walking by, they opened it and tried to drink. To their surprise the bottle was empty, so they dropped it and allowed the guy to take it back.

We stayed at the lovely Banana Lodge, which is just a 5-10 minute walk out of the town center or a $1 taxi. It is located right on the river and had the best/fastest internet we experienced in the entire country.

We had lunch at a restaurant just off the main square and for a couple bucks each, we had the set lunch. This included the best soup we had on our entire trip and then a plate of fish, rice, salad, beans, and fried plantain. It was delish! While we were eating a storm came to town and brought with it torrential rain. We tried to walk around and explored, but the rain was just too much and we were entirely soaked. We ended up spending the rest of the day just relaxing at the lodge until the rain went away.

For dinner we walked all the way to the other side of town, over a sketchy suspension bridge, to the El Jardin restaurant. Yes, that is the same name as the place we stayed in Puyo and this restaurant is owned by the same people. The grounds of the restaurant were superb. It contained a very well manicured garden with koi ponds/rivers running through the property. One of the koi we spotted was HUGE. Say 2-2.5 ft long and nearly 1ft in diameter! The food was as well prepared (if not better) and tasty as the main El Jardin in Puyo. I had the shrimp with pasta, which came in a creamy pink sauce, and tiramisu for desert.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Day 13 Puyo and Paseo de Los Monos

After breakfast we took a taxi to the road that Museo Ethnographica Huaorani was supposed to be on. After asking a local, we found the building, but now it is only the Huaorani organization offices. I guess the museum no longer exists. This was sad as it seemed like it would have been a good learning experience according to Lonely Planet.

So to occupy some time, we went to the Waorani shop in town to buy some nice items handcrafted by the Huaorani tribe (with the proceeds going to them). The shop was filled with really nice jewelry, bags, and other items; all of which was really reasonably priced.

We wandered around town waiting for lunch time, then had lunch at a little Chifa, which is a Chinese food restaurant here, but with an Ecuadorean flare. We had some pretty good stir fried rice with shrimp and, unexpectedly, chicken and, of course, French fries, which seems to come with every meal in this country.

After that we grabbed a cab to Paseo de Los monos. I believe this reserve has had to undergo several changes recently due to new government regulations and most of the animals are now in large fenced areas and we are not allowed to touch them. In the past, I believe that the monkeys were free roaming and would climb all over you when you entered the reserve. We only saw three monkeys free to roam and two of them seemed like major trouble makers and at one point we really thought they were going to attack us. To make the whole experience even a bit more adventurous, the guy working there at the moment didn't speak English and all Dylan could make out was "beware of snakes on the trail"! So here we were wandering around the jungle without a guide after being told to look out for snakes and we had two scary, seemingly angry monkeys chasing after us! I think we were both terrified. Haha. 

The monkeys are in this sanctuary either because they are injured or too domesticated to return to the wild. They were rescued from the animal trade or the like. Besides the monkeys, there were at least 2 coatis, which I had not seen that close before. Boy are they cute! 

We had to walk half the way back to town (read LONG walk!) before we could get a taxi to stop for us. I think the guy who did stop had pulled out of a bar just down the road from us, but if he was drunk, I couldn't tell.

We once again had dinner at our hotel, El Jardin, after trying to eat at the hotel next door and finding the place empty with all the lights off (they did turn them on for us), but they had no beer or bottled water so luckily that was a good enough reason for us to leave. 

The dinner at our hotel was once again amazing. We split a papas de locras soup that is made from potato, cheese (queso fresco), and avocado that was light and had a perfect mix of herbs as seasoning. We also split a Greek salad and a vegetable casserole with oven-crisped cheese on top.

We ended the evening in the Japanese wooden hot tub (ofuro) with a large bottle of beer. Ah relaxation!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Day 12 The Oriente, Finally!

Today we had an amazing pancake breakfast at our hotel! Finally not eggs!

Our first stop for the morning was to the hot springs near the hotel called Las Piscinas de La Virgen. They were only $2/pp. They had a hot pool (118 Deg F), a warm pool, and a cold one. We were the only obvious tourists there which was pretty cool. It almost seemed like a seniors water aerobic class as the vast majority of people there were elderly and using the pool to swim and do other exercises. 

After relaxing for a bit at the hot springs, we changed and then walked around town to do some shopping. We found some very nice leather worked goods and some handmade pulled taffy which is the candy of choice in Banos. Also, there was a lot of amazing graffiti in Banos.

After a healthy lunch of ice cream and taffy, we got a taxi ride to Puyo. Our driver was very jovial and really enjoyed talking about monkeys. He spoke pretty decent English and I think he was very happy that he could communicate with us. He let us stop at two beautiful waterfalls along the way and gave us tidbits of information about each town we passed through. 

Puyo is the capital of the Pastaza province in the Oriente (known to the rest of the world as the Amazon basin). The town itself is uninspiring, but our hotel set across a foot bridge from the city in secondary forest is beautiful. The hotel is El Jardin and has very lovely grounds with 3 ducks, 2 macaws, 2 cats, and a small (compared to the Galapagos) tortoise. I'm not sure if they are pets of the hotel or were just passing through the grounds.

Next stop was to visited Parque Omaere which is right next to our hotel. This is an ethnobotanical park, which is right up my alley of favorite things! We were guided by Chris Canaday, an American biologist, that runs the park with his wife Teresa who is a Shuar (one of the local indigenous groups in this region) plant expert. This tour was most excellent, while I have researched a lot about the Huaorani peoples and medicinal plants, I still learned a ton of information. 

We got to see a couple of examples of indigenous houses and learned a lot about their clothing, weapons, hunting traps, and just the general way of life about both the Huaorani and Shaur tribes. What is most amazing about this park is that it was cattle pasture just twenty years ago and was hand planted back into the lush jungle it is today. Dylan got a plant tea to snort as a way to get rid of his sinus issues. You can see him snorting some below! Ha!

We had dinner at the hotel, which is supposed to be the best food in the Oriente according to Lonely Planet. Dylan ordered nachos and guacamole as an appetizer this evening, which turned out to be Doritos and guacamole. Surprisingly good, but very unexpected.

Then for mains Dylan got the trout in a caper sauce and I had the grilled shrimp. Both meals were very good and the sauce on Dylan's fish was absolutely amazing. The food was also plated in a very interesting manner, quite pretty.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Day 11 Banos

This morning the hotel went out of their way to go buy me a yogurt for breakfast, which was totally unnecessary, but highly appreciated. By this time I am feeling a little egged out and still sick from the altitude.

I just rested in the room until lunch and then Dylan and I found a great little vegetarian restaurant called Restaurante Vegetariano Ari. We had a very filling lunch for $2.50 each! It included a delicious potato soup, a cup of fresh juice, a slice of watermelon, an overflowing plate of fried sweet potato, a cauliflower and bean dish, rice with gravy, and a coleslaw type salad. 

When we got back to the hotel our taxi to Banos was waiting. Unfortunately, we had to travel to the very north of Quito to pick up the others for the ride, which added about 2 hours extra to our drive. But I guess that is the price you pay if you want cheap taxis. We used Executive taxi door to door service $20/pp (taxi would have been $95) and our driver was really wonderful. Our drive from the airport to Quito was crazy and erratic and this guy by contrast was cool and relaxed. I felt very safe with him driving and would definitely recommend this company.

We shared the ride with an Ecuadorian med student and her mother that were heading back to their hometown of Ambato. The student seemed to enjoy chatting with us so she could practice her English. She told us about the popular foods in each town along the way. Overall, it was a pretty enjoyable trip.

Our hotel in Banos was a lovely little place near a very high waterfall and hot spring. We stayed at Posada de Arte and had a room on the second floor Canela 2 that had two Juliet balconies facing the waterfall. 

I should note that by the time we reached Banos my altitude sickness was nearly all gone and would disappear entirely by the next morning. 

We wandered around town for a bit and then it was time for dinner, so we headed back to the hotel as the meals there were recommended in the Lonely planet guide book. I had a quinoa soup and Dylan had two yummy appetizers and a nice salad. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Day 10 Quito and a bad case of altitude sickness

We explored 2 museums in the morning. Both were quite well done.

The first one was Museo de la Ciudad (museum of the city) which did an amazing job of explaining the history of Quito and how the people lived during each time period. The building itself was the former city hospital from 1563 to the 1970's. We were even given a private English tour for no additional cost.

The picture above shows one of the rooms in the museum. You can see a typical home of the area prior to the Spanish conquest in the back. The floor was a map of the city at that time all made out of wood. It was stunning!

The next stop was Casa de Alabado which was also an unexpectedly good museum. In this one, we were given headsets with an English guide so that we could get more out of the museum. The museum was filled with pre-Columbian art made from stone, pottery, wood, and metal. We learned about the ancient peoples who made the artwork and their belief systems about life and death, the spirit world, the role of shamans, and ancestors.

We got lunch at Tianguez in the Plaza San Francisco and I had a sudden onset of altitude sickness. Thought I had the flu, but it was much worse. I'm pretty sure that I passed out momentarily at the restaurant. I forced myself to drink some Mate de Coca (yes, that is the plant cocaine is extracted from, but no worries Mom and Dad there is not enough in the tea to get me high!) as it is a natural cure of altitude sickness. I couldn't eat what I ordered and I left Dylan at the restaurant to go back and rest at the hotel.

The sickness hit so quickly and I was on and off with fever and chills, a headache, entire body was sore, and I was severely nauseous and didn't think I could eat anything. This basically lasted until I left Quito, but with some rest I could walk around for a bit.

After resting for a few hours, I ventured out again with Dylan and we checked out the San Francisco church which was started in 1534, only a few weeks after the founding of Quito. 

We went to a pizza place called Pizza SA, unfortunately it took too much walking to get there and I started feeling very ill again. So Dylan had the best pizza he has eaten outside of America and I was stuck sitting outside by myself with a cup of tea for fear that I would vomit in the the restaurant.  Boy. What a day!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Day 9 A birthday filled with travel

Today we head to Quito which requires us to take a taxi, which are white pickup trucks on the islands, to the channel where we take a water taxi to the island with the airport and then a bus to the airport from there.

Once we arrived in Quito we got a taxi to Old Town for $26 and it took about an hour. We had to get out and walk a few blocks from the hotel since the traffic was so bad and some streets were blocked off. I could really start to feel the altitude at this point. We had to hike 4 blocks up hill with our heavy backpacks at an altitude of over 9k feet.

Our hotel is right off the plaza San Francisco and is called Hotel Boutique Portuna de cantina. It is a beautifully restored colonial building with a glass atrium that has a lovely metal and recycled glass work of art set just below the glass roof. 

We got our room and then went to find some dinner. We followed some fireworks going off in the sky to Plaza Grande a few blocks away where there was a stage set up and a band playing (very horribly off key I might add). The presidential palace is on this square as is the Quito cathedral. We went to the old archbishops mansion which has now been converted to shops and restaurants for dinner. This building was also a historic colonial building with a central courtyard and many rooms opening onto the courtyard. 

We went to Cafe del Fraile and had a delicious meal (Dylan had the trout with an almond sauce and I had the sea bass in a wine and butter sauce). We followed up dinner with some amazing hot chocolate. Mine had some chunks of thick, yummy cream and they were both served with a side of queso fresco. During our meal there was some beautiful live music being played on the balcony above us. It was a great way to end my birthday. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Day 8 Back to Santa Cruz

We took a very early boat back to Santa Cruz at 6am (though we did find out that there was a later option in the afternoon with some, but not all ferry companies) the ride was much less bumpy than normal and I am happy to report that I did not get sick!

We dropped our bags off at Hotel Santa Fe and headed off to find some snacks. We had a cappuccino and cookie at Galapagos deli which was a good place for a snack, ice cream, sandwiches, and pizza. 

We then began our walk to the Charles Darwin research station and along the way our first taxi cab driver from the island pulled up in front of us and pulled out my prescription sunglasses that I thought I had lost forever. I guess that there really is no stealing on this island (I should note though that they did have red lipstick on them, which I surely don't wear, so I assume someone tried to keep them until they realized they had prescription lenses). In any case, I am so excited and relieved to be reunited with my glasses!

At the Charles Darwin Center we saw a few varieties of giant tortoises large and very, very small. This is a breeding center in addition to a research station. They also had some land iguanas that we had not seen in the wild. They were an interesting yellow color. 

On our way back to the hotel we stopped off for lunch at a place called Lo & Lo and I had a traditional fish dish with the fish baked in a plantain leaf packet. Super yummy!

After a quick rest at the hotel we walked to Tortuga bay, which is said to have one of the nicest beaches in all of South America. The walk was long and we were very tired at this point so when we finally arrived at the beach we just hung around for a bit and checked out the animals.

Our hotel (Santa Fe) was ok, but there was no hot water while we were there and in the morning there was no electricity which made it difficult to get ready. At least they gave us 20% off the price for that.

We grabbed dinner at a Japanese restaurant and we both had a sort of veggie burgers cooked on a heated volcanic rock and split a soup made from yuca, corn, and queso. An excellent dinner. 

On the way back to the hotel for the night we grabbed some ice cream --more likely gelato-- at the Galapagos deli and then went back to the hotel to pack and get ready for tomorrow.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Day 7 Los Tuneles

We took a tour today to Los Tuneles which started at 8:30am. We paid $70/pp which was a discounted price since we have our own wetsuits and snorkel gear.

After a 20 min boat ride we stopped at a large rock that jutted out of the water, it used to be a volcano, and has just crumbled into the ocean over the years. This rock is a favorite of Black-footed (masked) Boobies. I might have some photos on my other camera, but for now I have no photos to show.

After another 20 mins of boat ride we reached the Tuneles which are old lava tunnels in the ocean. We arrived during high tide so we could mostly see only the tops of the tunnels, but during low tide the view is spectacular. Because of the reef and volcanic tuneles the boat has to surf the waves going into the area. 

We got off the boat and explored some of the lava tunnels on foot. There we found tons of blue footed boobies, including some fuzzy white babies. I promise, when I get home I will update this post with some cute pics. We then went snorkeling outside of the tunnels area where we saw turtles, lots of sharks, puffer fish, and tons of rainbow fish. I took an underwater camera and am hoping to have some decent photos when I get home.

Lunch on the boat was a meager roll with butter and queso on it. However, as we don't eat meat, we pretty much expected to get something like that. 

We arrived back on Isabela around 2pm and had the guide leave us at the docks so that we could walk back to town and check out some sites on the way.

Right next to the docks is a boardwalk leading to Concha de Perla. The boardwalk runs through the mangroves to a small bay with calm waters. What is so interesting about this place is that the boardwalk is littered with lounging sea lions. When we got to the end there seemed to be two friendly sea lions playing and posing with a Japanese family. One of the sea lions then dived into the water and came back with a changed attitude. Perhaps it was a bull (male) as he kept charging us and blocked the path on the boardwalk so that we couldn't get by. Luckily, the Japanese couple decided they were leaving soon after we tried and failed and they had learned how to move the aggressive sea lion. Apparently, if you clap you hands while moving away from the sea lion, it will follow you. So that was our chance and we snuck out with the family. This was good timing for Dylan as it allowed him to practice Japanese.

For dinner we went to Isabela Grill which had a modern exterior and tables and chairs, but the walls and ceiling, and etc showed the age of the building. In any case, the food was good. Dylan had a stuffed Lobster, which is different from our Maine lobsters as they have no claws. I had another fish dish, which was pretty good.

The most interesting thing by far at this restaurant was the dessert. I got a grilled peach with ice cream dessert that came with strawberry whipped cream and chocolate sauce. It was such a crazy mix of flavors that it reminded me of something a little kid would make for their first try at making a desert. Of course it was still good and I promptly devoured it all! 

Day 6 Wall of tears and Centro de Crianza de Tortugas

Today we had a nice breakfast at our hotel with made to order eggs, toast, fruits, yuca with cheese fried "dumplings", and bread. There was also some nice looking bacon. 

We took a taxi ($5/pp) to the wall of tears (Muro de las lagrimas). This was a Penal colony in the 1950's and as a way to keep the prisoners busy they were forced to build a large wall that is now 100 meters long and 7 meters tall. The horrible conditions endured by the prisoners resulted in the wall being named the wall of tears. 

We then began our LONG walk back to our hotel and stopped at a bunch of lookout points and other sites along the way. We saw lots of giant tortoises just roaming in their natural habitat, lots of black marine iguanas, and our first look at blue footed boobies.

Once we finally made it back to town, most of the restaurants were already closed for siesta time. So we had to grab some snacks from the mini markets to eat. The pickings were very slim and we ended up with just some chocolate and some cookie type crackers.

We the explored the dock area to see hundreds of small black marine iguanas basking in the sun.

The last excision we took for the day was to walk the lagoon path behind our hotel to the tortoise breading center. Along the way we saw lots of birds, but the most magnificent ones were the two flamingos. The breeding center had tons of baby giant tortoises. Talk about cute!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Day 5 Los greitas and the horrible horrible boat ride

We started today with our last breakfast at Angermeyer hotel, which was again shared with the birdies. We then packed up our bags and got into our swim suits. We left our bags at the hotel and then went for a walk to Los Greitas, a wonderful crevasse filled with clear blue water. There are some large fish that got into the crevasse as babies and then could not get out, so snorkeling is pretty good here. There was a group of local young girls who need to ask an English speaking person some questions for school, so of course they came to me. They video recorded the conversation too. This is becoming a common occurrence for me when I visit other countries! 

We made our way back to the hotel to grab our bags and brought them to the company running our next ferry to Isla Isabela. We grabbed a quick bite at a restaurant on the same road as we had dinner a 2 nights ago with John. After some confusion I ended up with a dish of grilled pork and rice and beans, while Dylan got a salad with rice and grilled fish. If you don't know, Dylan and I do not eat any meat other than fish. However, given our rush to get back to the ferry and lack off ability to communicate, I just ate the pork. It was very good as was the fish. And low and behold neither the pork nor the horrible bumpy boat ride made me sick! I think the secret is 2 Dramamine pills and sea band.

Our boat to Isla Isabela was even worse than the one to San Cristobal. Everyone was packed so tightly into the boat that we were squished, probably 4 more people in the boat that there should have been. Everyone kept sliding to the back of the boat with each successive bump on the water and us at the back of the boat kept getting squished even more than I thought was possible! One people got sick and there was no room for her to throw up off the boat, so she just went on the floor. I'm so glad that wasn't me, but boy did I feel bad for her.

On a good note, our hotel on Isabela is beautiful. The Iguana Crossing hotel is located on the western side of town and is quite the luxurious eco-hotel. It has a salt water pool and hot tub, though you have to give 2 hours advance to use the hot tub so they can warm it up. There is also a nice restaurant and bar. The hotel takes Eco to the extreme. When you use the shower or water from the facet it only turns on for 8 seconds and then you have to press it on again. 

We just wandered around town and then had a nice dinner at our hotel. 

Day 4 Kicker Rock and Los Loberas beach

Last night we requested an early breakfast so that we could still eat before our snorkeling tour. When we sat down at a table, directly facing the water and nearly over the water, we were brought plate after plate of food. They served us plates of fruit, bread, eggs, and yogurt. It was too much food, but oh so good. We had lots of Darwin's finches trying to share our food.

We then set off for San Cristobal in a small boat for a very LONG and bumpy ride. Even with me using Dramamine and sea bands, I was still horribly sick the entire ride. To make it worse, I was sitting  in the back of the boat and had a stream of water poring on me the entire ride, so  I was soaked and sick. However, I was quite impressed that I made it about 2 hrs before I finally let go of my breakfast into the ocean! 

I was so sick the entire day, so I didn't take any photos except for a few under the water. So I don't have anything cool to show for today. 

Once we arrived at San Cristobal port, we were quickly sent back to another boat. Luckily, it was a catamaran an was a pretty smooth ride. We had three chances to go snorkeling and a bit of time to spend on a beautiful white sand beach. The first snorkeling site had almost no animals, I don't know that we even saw any fish. However, the second site at Kicker rock was teaming with animals. We got to see some sea turtles, hammerhead sharks and another type of shark, a sea lion, and lots of fish (though the fish lacked the brilliant colors we have seen elsewhere). I passed on the last snorkeling opportunity which was back at kicker rock as I was not feeling well. To tell you the truth, the water was very rough near kicker rock and the first time I was about to go in and threw up right into the water where I had to jump in. I jumped right into in! Ick right? Well there were about 5 people behind me that still had to jump in and they all had just seen me throw up where they had to jump in. Sorry!!

The lunch on the boat was surprisingly good, but I really could eat too much for fear that I would get sick once again on the boat back to Santa Cruz. 

Somehow, with a bit more Dramamine and a better seat where I could try to sleep, I didn't get sick. We ended up eating dinner at our hotel where we shared a salad and Dylan had a plate of quinoa tortillas and plantain tortillas and I had a fish dish with rice and a creamy white sauce made with wine. The meals were small and good, but certainly not the best of the food we have had so far.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Day 3 Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

IThis morning started with a flight on LAN Airlines to the Baltra airport on Santa Cruz island in the Galapagos. Once at the airport we had a long process to go through. We first had to register and pay a $10 fee, then our bags had to be checked for any fruits or nuts that could grow on the island, then bring our bags to be checked for the flight, then finally we went through security. LAN always has nice plane with comfy leather seats. The flight was a quick 2 hours though the guy on the side of me was a bit camera crazy, taking pictures out the window incessantly. 

The first view of the Galapagos from the plane fits the typical description of a desolate uninhabitable land reminiscent of the surface of Mars or the moon. At first look it seem a wonder how any animals could survive here. 

The Baltra airport is very small but modern. We had to get our bags inspected again and pay another fee of $100 to enter the national park.

As luck would have it, we met another American, John from San Francisco, while waiting for a bus to take us to the channel we had to cross to get to Santa Cruz. This first bus was free, then the ferry across the strait was $0.80 each. When we got off the ferry I decided to find John and see if he wanted to share a cab so we could split the cost. When planning the trip I had wanted to check out the highlands on my way from the airport to Puerto Ayora, but was worried about the safety of our bags. It turns out that our cab driver was willing to take us for a bit extra dinero and claimed that there is no stealing on the island. So we took a chance went for it. We stopped at Los Gemelos (the twins), a pair of volcanic craters, then the driver took us to Rancho Primicias where a lot of giant galapagos tortoises call home, and finally, we explored a lava tunnel. The tortoises were very cute, but didn't seem to like when we got close. It was very common for them to growl or hide their heads in their shells and we never even got that close. We saw at least a few different types of tortoises, but since we didn't have a guide I don't know which was which type. 

The lava tunnel was cool, but the fact that it has lights strung throughout the tunnels made it seem like a tourist trap. There was a cool section where we had to crawl to get through, but over all, I would say there are better tunnels/caves to explore.

We then headed down to Puerto Ayora and John was dropped off first at his hotel and then we were dropped off at the water taxi dock where we grabbed a ride to our home for the next two nights, Hotel Angermeyer. 

After checking in, we took the water taxi back to town and walk around. We ended bumping into John getting a town tour from his hotel manager and we joined them. The we spend a lot of the afternoon trying to find tours we wanted to do for tomorrow. We couldn't decide, so the decision was put off until after dinner. We went to a street that is closed down at night and the many small local eateries spread out there chairs and tables into the road. They all had big grills at the front of the restaurants and serve up cheap, delicious food. 

We end up spending a lot of time with John while he was on the island and chose to do a day trip together to Kicker Rock and Los loberas beach near San Cristobel.

And I leave you for today with this cute little bird that helped me eat breakfast.