Ecuador wrap up…

One more post to recap our final days in Ecuador.

Wendy has already done a great recap of our time on San Cristobal and Isabella Islands. As she mentioned, there were a few activities that I enjoyed on my own or with Caleb. The first was a kayaking and snorkelling tour in Las Tintoreras (with Caleb), the second was visit to the very moving Wall of Tears and the third was a hike up to the crater of the largest volcano in the Galapagos, Volcan Sierra Negra.

Las Tintoreras offered Caleb and I the chance to see many of the same wonders that Wendy wrote about during her Las Tuneles tour (minus the tunnels!) by kayak. We saw penguins and blue footed boobies up close and snorkelled with sharks, rays and sea turtles – all very cool. Kayaking is definitely one of my favourite ways to immerse yourself in nature.

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Penguins and Boobies from our snorkelling trip

While Wendy and Kieran did their snorkelling tour, Caleb and I rented bikes for a ride to visit the famous Wall of Tears. Built over a 14 year period period in the mid-20th century, the Wall of Tears is a monument to a less flattering aspect of Galapagos history.

The rugged environment and relative isolation of the Galapagos has led to a number of attempts at populating them. Many of these attempts were unfortunately led by unscrupulous leaders and on more than one occasion drew heavily on taking convicts from mainland Ecuador either to facilitate their punishment or provide cheap labour to support whatever enterprise said leaders had in mind. The prisoners brought to Isabela in the 1940s and 50s were tasked, as punishment, with chiseling volcanic rock from a quarry on the shore and carrying the rock several kilometres into the jungle to build a completely pointless wall.

The hot and fatiguing bike ride Caleb and I completed to get there gave us little doubt as to why many of these prisoners died in the creation of this cruel enterprise (reportedly resulting in thousands of deaths during it’s construction). Caleb and I were both very moved both by rugged beauty we passed through to get there and the horror the site represented. Another aspect of what made our time on Isabela Island so memorable.

The volcano hike I did on my own (no one else was up for the 16km and rainy hike for some reason 🙂 ). I was really glad to have spent our last day on Isabela appreciating this wonder, however. Volcan Sierra Negra was one of the largest and most active volcanic craters on earth, having erupted 8 times in the last 100 years (including a modest eruption in 2018). The 11km wide caldera at the top of the mountain was very impressive, even more so were the lava fields from the most recent eruption where you can walk around and see clear demonstration of the layered lava from different eruption events and the sulphur deposits that come out of the mountain.

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The Lava Fields at Volcan Sierra Negra, the black lava here is from the most recent (2018) eruption, the red shown behind from a previous event. You can see the 11km wide caldera in the video below (You can see a little steam coming out on the far side)
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This is the center of the most recent eruption a side tube of the volcano referred to as Volcan Chico

Wendy has also written about our less than enjoyable departure from Isabela. I’ll pick up the story after we reached our third Galapagos Island – Santa Cruz. While Isabela was the winner for most amazing wildlife experiences the few nights we spent on Santa Cruz were probably the most relaxing and enjoyable.

We stayed in a beautiful cottage nestled in fantastic gardens, just a couple of hundred metres off the “main drag” of Puerto Ayora, the population centre on Santa Cruz (and largest town in Galapagos). The more private and comfortable accommodations gave us some great opportunities for relaxation after a pretty busy schedule on Isabela and San Cristobal.

Isla Santa Cruz is home to a truly stunning and mostly empty white sand beach (Tortuga Bay), as well as some other unique environment for swimming and snorkeling. We got a chance here when we weren’t relaxing to swim with (small) sharks, hang out with a lot more Marine Iguanas and enjoy a number of nice hikes. Santa Cruz also gave Wendy and Caleb another opportunity for Scuba Diving (at nearby Seymour Island) and Caleb and I a chance to see more amazing Galapagos Giant Tortoises in the wild and explore some long lava tunnels in the Island’s highland interior.

 

A Few Thoughts on Food and Cooking:

None of our Top 100 Food and Drink items were from Ecuador, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t get up to some good eating. There were a lot of rice dishes on the menu and a lot of seafood, especially in the Galapagos. We posted on Facebook a couple of weeks ago about some of the fantastic seafood we enjoyed on the street in Santa Cruz. The boys are also slowly starting to become more adventurous with local food, which is great.

Two other highlights: the delicious Canelazo cocktails (Sugar Cane alcohol with Lemon and Cinnamon) we enjoyed to warm up a cool night wandering the streets of Quito and Ecuadorian Locro de Papa (potato) soup, another cool weather treat. Wendy has become quite adept at whipping this up for us as we travel and it is a recipe I expect will will bring home to Canada for regular use.

Ecuador Highlights:

The primary reason we put Ecuador on the itinerary was for the Galápagos Islands, a bucket list destination for both Wendy and I. Encounters with the Galapagos Giant Tortoise and Galapagos Penguins both made our Top 100 Activities list. Our experiences there, as I hope our previous posts have communicated, did not disappoint. The unique and unspoiled ecosystems found on the Islands are amazing to behold, the proximity we had to the wildlife was really neat, the diving was unique and they were really nice places to hang out as a family. We’d recommend them to anyone looking for a unique travel opportunity, especially with kids.

Most visitors to the islands visit by private boat cruise which can make for a very expensive trip. We found visiting them independently and staying land based (apart from day trips) to be very effective for our plans and made the experience significantly more affordable. Occasional rough seas and the brutal at times equatorial sun were the only things that got in the way of our enjoyment (the kids would probably add lack of useful wifi to that list).

In addition to the Islands, the cooler climate cities here were also very pleasant. We enjoyed the days we spent poking around both Quito and Guayaquil, which I think many travellers pass over (unwisely) in favour of the going straight to the Islands. Ecuador as a whole seems a relatively clean, relatively safe place to visit, I hope we will have a chance to return some day.

On to Peru!!!

Ecuador/Galapagos Islands

Quito

In Quito we didn’t do much because we were only there for four days but at least we did something. We went on a walk to see different things that helped Ecuador claim Independence. On the second day we went on an adventure up to the top of a mountain and went to a museum on the Equator, I thought that was cool. On the third and pretty much final day we went to the park: we went paddle boating, walking and taking pictures. I enjoyed our stay in Quito I recommend it to travelers looking for somewhere to go.

Me, on the Equator

San Cristobal

In San Cristobal we walked around, went to a museum and walked to a beach to swim and watch the sunset. On day two we went snorkeling at Kicker Rock. That was pretty much it. Did you know that the Galapagos Islands were made from volcanoes?

Playing with the Sea Lions on San Cristobal

Isabela

On the first day on Isabela we went to a five star restaurant (or at least that’s what the sign out front said!). The next day we split up and me and my mom went to Los Tuneles and Caleb and my Dad went to Tintoreras. All of us went to the wetlands to see the flamingos, but not all together at the same time. I thought that Isabela was the best island. My favourite part was seeing penguins.

Getting to see penguins was the best!

Santa Cruz

On the first day we did nothing at all but on day two we bought ice cream and went to Tortuga Bay. On the third day mom and Caleb went diving. On the last two days we did nothing. My favourite part was doing nothing.

I ate a local lunch with my mom and I actually liked it!

The Middle of the World

The two weeks we spent in Ecuador gave us an opportunity to pass over the area which gave the country it’s name – the Equator.

There are a handful of countries around the world that pass through 0 degrees latitude and all of them mark the site in some way. Ecuador is the only one on our itinerary and visiting here was included as #99 on our list of Top 100 Experiences.

A monument was erected in the 1930s to recognize the spot and commemorate the 1736 French Mission that calculated the exact location of the equator for the first time. Unfortunately, the 1736 calculations were not exactly correct (off by about 240m) so the monument is not quite in the right spot. We visited the monument (actually an upgraded version built in the 1980s), the associated museum and also a second nearby museum (the Intinan Solar Museum) that also claims to be on the actual equator (they are also not). The Intinan museum features some cultural history exhibits and many of the hands on “equator experiments” that are also featured at other equator sights around the world.

The most famous of these is the demonstration of the Coriolis Force, which is responsible for making large storms spin clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere and counter-clockwise north of the equator. This same force is often cited as being responsible for making toilets flush one way in the north and the other in the lands down under. Modern-day scientists, however, disagree.

Nonetheless, these experiments (along with some other debunked demonstrations) continue to be shown to thousands of people around the world every year. The equator activities were an enjoyable day trip for us, just 26km north of Quito, and also an opportunity for some impromptu science learning.

Given the chance to view the Coriolis Effect demonstration and read the rebuttal linked above, however, both of my kids felt seeing was believing. In their own words:

Caleb: “I think the Coriolis effect is real as it actually affects major things like hurricanes and tornados. So the Coriolis effect should effect water too as it was shown at the equator in the north it spins clockwise and the south counter-clockwise and they made it very convincing so I can’t come up with anyway the could be faking it. The thing about the article is they say it is fake but don’t have any explanation of how they are faking it so they could just be lying to decrease the tourist population. To sum it up I think it is a cool experiment that is totally work showing off even if it is fake.”

Kieran: “I think the experiment was not a lie because it was explained so well and made so much sense to me. I mean yes the article makes sense, but not one goes to a museum to get lied to. Plus the Coriolis effect must be real because how could anyone fake water spinning in different directions?”

The actual demonstration we got is in the video below. My best explanation is that the illusion is all in the pouring (or lack there of). Bonus points to anyone who can convince my kids by debunking what we saw below in a more convincing way to change their minds 🙂

Until next time…

Isabela Island

We spent the next few days of our time on the Galapagos on Isabela Island. It’s such a lovely, quiet little place with not a lot going on but lots of character and a relaxed atmosphere. We stayed again in a hostel – Hostel Jeniffer – that was much nicer and cleaner than the first. Everything is within walking distance on Isabela and it offers quite a bit to do at no cost. I think Robin and I both wished we’d spent a least one more day on Isabela.

The only downside to visiting Isabela is the requirement to take a ferry to get there and back. We had to take 2 ferries to get to Isabela – a 2 hour ferry ride from San Cristobal to Santa Cruz at 7:00 in the morning followed by a second ferry trip in the afternoon from Santa Cruz to Isabela. It’s the rainy, warm season right now so the seas were not too rough for our journeys but the boats are small, uncomfortable and even when the water is relatively calm, the ride is still pretty rough. On the trip from San Cristobal to Santa Cruz, our boat broke down briefly in the middle of the ocean, leaving us bobbing around for quite some time while the captain and assistant worked to repair it. In the end, they were successful so certainly not a worse case scenario and I was thankful when we arrived safely on the dock. The second trip from Santa Cruz to Isabela was better – the seats were forward facing and more spacious than on the first boat and I was relieved to be able to relax a little more. I insisted that when booking our return trip to Santa Cruz that Robin ask specifically to be placed on a boat with forward facing seats again. Clever me! Thinking ahead like that and ensuring that we got placed on the “best” boat rather than randomly. Oh boy, did I ever have a chance to eat crow over this little assertion later.

Over the course of the two and a half days we spent on Isabela, we used our time as wisely as possible to try to experience as much as possible of what the island has to offer. There is a little town square where all the action is and where you go to eat or book tours. All the restaurants line the “main road” (a path of sand, really) and offer more or less the same thing at any given time of the day. There is a green space (featuring astro turf) across from the line of restaurants and little park where the boys enjoyed running around and playing while we waited for food or Robin and I just sat relaxing.

On the first full day on Isabela we opted to split up and try 2 different tours – Robin and Caleb went on a kayaking tour to Tintoreras (more on that from Robin in another post) while Kieran and I did a half day trip to Los Tuneles. Both turned out to be very fun and worthwhile trips and each was the perfect choice for the boys respectively.

Robin and Caleb’s kayak tour was in the morning, so while Kieran and I waited to start our afternoon tour, we did a little exploring around on Isabela on foot. We hiked the wetlands path up to the giant tortoise breeding centre and were rewarded with lots of close up iguana and sea lion encounters (not hard to come by!!), wild flamingo sightings and of course, getting to see the giant tortoises.

One of the only checklist items I had for our time on the Galapagos was for Kieran to be able to see a penguin. The kids LOVES penguins and knows everything there is to know about them and can identify different types of penguins instantly. Kieran is always sensitive about not putting pressure on other people and not wanting to create disappointing situations so he wasn’t saying much about it but he knew that there was a chance that he might be able to see a penguin on this trip. Thankfully, he was not disappointed!

We snorkeled around for a while and Kieran had a much better experience than at Kicker Rock. The water was shallow so we were able to see lots of sea life – sharks, sea horses, tons of colourful fish and huge sea turtles. Kieran got so comfortable with snorkeling that after a short time in the water, he was free diving to be able to get a closer look at some of the animals! After an hour and a half we climbed back into the boat and went a short distance to Los Tuneles, which are tunnels that were formed by cooling lava. There is little sea life to see in the tunnels (except for a few turtles here and there) but it’s really cool to be able to snorkel through the tunnels. Diving them would have been even more exciting 😉 After the snorkeling, we did a little hike on top of the tunnels and got to see some blue footed boobies up close.

On our last morning on Isabela, while Robin did a volcano hike, the boys and I rented snorkel gear and visited Concha de Perla. Despite hearing that this was a must-see, we were all a little disappointed. The lagoon was crowded, there wasn’t as much to see as our other snorkeling experiences and I worried the whole time about our stuff, which was just hanging on a hook on the little dock (with tourists and locals alike just hanging around).

Leaving Isabela was by far the most challenging part of our trip to the Galapagos. As I alluded to above, despite the forward facing seats, our ferry was far from “the best”. It as a little like crossing the ocean in a sardine tin and I maintained a white knuckle grip on the seat in front of me throughout the entire 2+ hour journey as the boat heaved and rocked and tossed around on the sea. I know some have had far worse experiences (Lori and Kyle!!) but this one was as bad as I could handle. While I didn’t feel seasick at all, I did fear a little for our lives for the entire trip. Between being violently tossed around on the water and the suffocation of the carbon-monoxide filled cabin (because none of the windows could be open without water pouring in), that was the last ferry ride I want to be on for the foreseeable future.

Galapagos – San Cristobal

We’ve spent 10 days in the Galapagos Islands and the experience did not disappoint. I didn’t have very many expectations coming` in to this part of the trip, although Robin did remind me that coming here was something that I insisted on early in the planning. So much time and energy has gone into planning the whole trip that I had forgotten all about my enthusiasm for including the Galapagos. That’s not to say that I didn’t want to include it or that I regret making that assertion so long ago! When we would tell people about the bigger trip, almost everyone asked if we were coming to the Galapagos and it’s clear after being here for 9 days now and visiting all of the 3 major islands, that most people come here with very high expectations. Rightfully so; it’s an incredible place.

We started on San Cristobal Island for just 2 nights and stayed, for the first time on this trip, in a hostel. All 4 of us in one slightly smelly room. They were not the best accommodations but we managed for the couple of nights we were there and really, we didn’t spend much time in our room anyway with so much to see and do. On the first day we walked to the Interpretation Center at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and did some learning about the history of the Galapagos. Right near the Interpretation Center there is a small beach called Playa Punta Carola where we had our first real encounter with sea lions. They were lying all over the beach, letting tourists get quite close to take pictures and selfies with them. The sea lions swim in the water near people as well and they can be dangerous but are kind of playful too. One sea lion tried to steal Kieran’s water shoe! Kieran freaked out a little and moved to where the water was more shallow and we sent Caleb out to retrieve the shoe that had been forcefully removed from Kieran’s foot. The boys stayed quite close to the sand after that, not wanting to interact that closely with the wildlife anymore. We stayed into the evening to watch the spectacular sunset from the beach before heading back to grab some supper.

The strip along the waterfront near the pier at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is a fun little spot in the evening. The sea lions and iguanas provide abundant entertainment and it’s not nearly as expensive as one might think to sit and have a simple meal on the waterfront.

The main attraction while visiting San Cristobal is to take a tour to Kicker Rock, also known as Leon Dormido depending on your interpretation of the shape of the formation, and we did so on a lovely sailboat. It was a nice day and we had mostly good weather, the other people on our trip were very nice and we enjoyed a relaxing day and some good conversation together. The most amazing thing about this trip was the dolphins we saw on the way to Kicker Rock. They were very close to the boat and almost wanting to play with the boat! They put quite a show on for us, jumping up out of the water and swimming right up close beside the boat. They stayed with us for quite a while and it was just incredible. Shortly after the dolphins moved on, Anne Marie (one of our fellow tour goers) and I were sitting on the bow of the boat, enjoying the sun and she noticed an eagle ray jumping out of the water. She explained that she had heard this could happen but neither of us had seen it before (and I missed it!). A few minutes later it happened again and I saw it this time. It was breathtaking!!! The eagle ray was about 2m across and just majestic! It came so far out of the water that it looked like a huge bird. Unfortunately I was not in any way prepared to capture a photo of this remarkable sight but I will not soon forget the image.

Upon arriving at Kicker Rock, we snorkeled between the 2 rock formations, which some of us enjoyed more than others, and saw some turtles and fish. The water was pretty deep so the sea life was not abundant but we did see some frigates, nazca boobies and blue footed boobies on the rock itself. We stopped at a beach for a little while but the water was pretty choppy, preventing us from actually reaching the beach, and the boys and I only got off the boat into the water long enough to cool off a little. It rained the entire way back to port so everyone was huddled either in the cabin of the boat or on the back under a less than adequate tonneau cover.

I’m glad we only opted to stay a couple days on San Cristobal; while it was a lovely little town with interesting things to see and do, it was definitely our least favourite of the 3 islands that we visited and we left feeling satisfied with our experience there.

We keep things real by vegging out from time to time with TV shows and movies (both Robin and I as well as the kids); my friend Daryl has been awesome at supplying us with all the media we can ask for and it really helps bring an aspect of normalcy to our busy and constantly new stream of experiences.

Walking in a Cloud (Forest)

In Costa Rica we had the incredible opportunity to visit Monteverde – the Cloud Forest – also #69 on our list top Top 100 Sights. This was by far my favourite thing that we did in CR!

While in Monteverde, we stayed at a little cottage on a working coffee farm, just outside Santa Elena. It was very cute and rustic and our host was a lovely woman named Hermida who runs the coffee farm – Finca Lluvia de Gloria – with her family. If you follow us on Instagram, you will have seen our not so little visitor to the cottage (a tarantula), but we did not let that get in the way of our thoroughly enjoying this tranquil little farm. The cooler climate was also a much appreciated reprieve from the sometimes oppressive heat of Ocotal/Coco.

Clockwise from top left: rainbow over the coffee farm in the morning; cabin #2 where we stayed; enjoying a dinner prepared by our host Hermida; sunset over the coffee farm; coffee plants!

Getting to Monteverde was a bit of an adventure in itself. We decided to rent a car in Coco and drive ourselves to Monteverde, thus avoiding the public buses and saving several hours of travel time but also allowing us to have our own transportation while in Monteverde, which actually proved to be the greatest benefit of having shelled out for the rental. However, in keeping with our effort to be frugal, we rented a compact sedan for the journey (a Toyota Yaris) and this turned out to be like driving a go-cart up and down a black diamond ski hill. I do all the driving in our family so by the time we reached the coffee farm, my nerves were shot and I was in a less than great mood. Over the next few days navigating around the roads of Monteverde I got used to the terrain and we slowly and carefully made our way around in our eco and budget-friendly little ride. We returned the car in one piece after thankfully avoiding any damaging incidents so I can’t say it was a terrible idea…it would just maybe a little less nerve-racking to be in a higher, possibly 4-wheel drive vehicle.

While in Monteverde, we were able to experience the cloud forest in 3 different ways – a suspension bridge walk above the jungle, a night walk, and a day hike on the jungle floor. They were all incredible and unique in their own ways. We started with the suspension bridge walk. Initially Robin and Caleb were going to do this while Kieran and I went ziplining (again) but when we arrived at Sky Adventures and got a look at the suspension bridges, we quickly changed our minds and decided to go on the suspension bridge walk as well – this is definitely saying something if you’ve been paying attention to how enthusiastic I am about ziplining 😉 This turned out to be my favourite experience in all of Costa Rica. It was breathtaking to see the jungle from up above, marvel at the more than 7000 organisms and over 500 species of plants growing on a single host tree (including several species of orchids), and observe the variety of birds flying around this unique ecosystem. The thrill of being suspended several hundred metres above the jungle floor did not disappoint in the category of adrenaline-producing experiences either.

The same day that we did the suspension bridge walk, we did a night hike in the jungle with Kinkajou Tours. We don’t have many pictures of the night walk, for obvious reasons 🙂 Both Caleb and Kieran said this was their favourite thing to do in Costa Rica and despite our concerns that it might be a little scary to be in the jungle at night, neither were at all nervous and they had a great time searching for wildlife and critters in the dark with their flashlights. We saw tarantulas, a kinkajou, a viper snake, and lots of exotic birds trying to get some shut-eye. Sadly, the sloths eluded us on this particular adventure. You have to be able to keep up on this tour as the guide was pretty aggressive with the pace of the hike. Several people in our group got left behind a couple times and they were not pleased (understandably) about being stranded in the dark without a guide. It’s not as scary as it sounds as there are lots of groups of tours going on at the same time and they were easily pointed in the right direction by another guide before they could freak out too much.

The last way we experienced the cloud forest was hiking through the jungle in the Santa Elena reserve. It was beautiful and breathtaking and WET. The paths were relatively well maintained but there had been a fair bit of rain over the past few days and the deeper we got in the jungle, the wetter and muckier it became. After hiking for a couple hours we stopped to eat some lunch that we’d brought along – grilled cheese sandwiches and whole carrots (a Robin brown-bag special) – and then decided to split up. Robin and Caleb wanted to do a much longer hike that was going to take another 3 hours or so but Kieran wasn’t feeling up to it or just wasn’t in the mood. He and I took a shorter loop but were rewarded with a path that featured a lookout tower that put us literally right up in the clouds. It was pretty spectacular. We got soaked and pretty muddy but it was well worth it and we still had about an hour left to wait for Robin and Caleb while we warmed up and dried out a little inside with some hot beverages.

On our first night in Monteverde we got take-out from a famous taco joint in Santa Elena called Taco Taco. It was a slightly underwhelming experience as the boys both seemed to be too tired to eat much (!!!) and when you get take-out, you don’t have the option of a side of margaritas. Santa Elena is a lovely little town though and I commented to Robin that if we had been there just the 2 of us, I would definitely have opted to stay in one of the little boutique hotels or B&Bs. A different trip for another time I suppose.