Tag Archives: Ecuador

Galapagos!

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Bring on the dancing boobies...

Bring on the dancing boobies…

The Galapagos Islands. It’s one of those iconic destinations, the name itself evocative of an unspoilt world, something special and removed from the modern world of hurly-burly, hustle and bustle. The land of Darwin’s inspiration, a cluster of jewels in the Pacific Ocean.

At Laguna Darwin, Isabela Island, Galapagos

At Laguna Darwin, Isabela Island, Galapagos, with our boat in the background

We’d well and truly blown our budget coming here, but what a place for a splurge. Eighteen islands marooned in the ocean, right on the Equator, quietly going about their own business for millenia and creating a unique environment. Huge quantities of fearless wildlife will pose for photos, largely oblivious to any threat posed by humans. In a way the whole place feels like a vast open air museum/zoo/laboratory, like a pristine paradise set aside for an evolutionary experiment. Without knowing quite why, it feels like nowhere else on earth.

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After Colombia we had a quick stop in Otovalo before returning to Quito to finish paying for the cruise. We then flew out the next day to Baltra in the middle of the islands; after disembarking we were stood at the dock waiting for our transfer to the ship when a couple of sea lions swam over and flopped inelegantly onto the jetty – it was at this point that we felt like we’d really arrived. A quick skitter across the water in a panga boat and we arrived at the Santa Cruz, the ship that we’d call home for the next five nights; we’d been assured this was one of the more luxurious vessels in the Galapagos, and as we were shown to our two adjacent cabins we were not disappointed – this was certainly a couple of notches above most of the places we’d stayed!
The travel agency in Quito (Midland Travel, just in case anyone is ever looking to book a trip!) had been really helpful throughout and we were very pleased to find that they’d provided exactly what we were hoping for – having handed over a small fortune, mainly in cash, it was a relief to know we’d got what we’d paid for, and that it was fantastic! (Big thanks to Alejandro).
We also met a lovely British family with kids the same ages as ours and we set off for an afternoon expedition to North Seymour Island with contented smiles and a tingle of anticipation, especially as this island was one of the best for seeing the famous Blue-Footed Boobies and Magnificent Frigatebirds that adorn pretty much every piece of literature about the Galapagos. We could blether on for ages about these wonderful, absurd creatures, about how the Boobies mesmerize with their comical dance, and how the Frigatebirds puff our their red throat pouches in a bizarre, ostentatious courtship ritual to attract a mate, but it’d be much easier to just show you the pictures!

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Over the next four days we cruised around various islands, seeing amazing sights – there’s so much you could say about the Galapagos and its wildlife but it wouldn’t really do the place justice. Where else can you see dancing boobies, walk through ancient lava tunnels, climb inside a giant tortoise shell and then finish the day watching the sunset from a hot-tub on the top deck of a luxury boat?

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Not to mention seeing Sally Lightfoot Crabs, Pengiuns, lumbering Giant Tortoises and more iguanas than you would have thought possible. The lava tubes were quite something – formed when the outer layers of a giant lava flow cooled and solidified as the inner core flowed onwards. Inside they looked pretty much just like any other tunnels, and the amount of rocks lying around inside made you wonder how stable they were, but they were interesting and certainly provided shelter from a torrential downpour. The marine iguanas were also fascinating – they are the only lizards that can live in the sea and they have an interesting habit of snorting out salty ‘snot’ from glands near their noses. They are sometimes camouflaged against the rocks but are more often piled on top of one another in a writhing mass, like a wriggling rock of sneezing, crawling strangeness – even Darwin described them as “hideous-looking”.

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We’d learnt quite a bit about Darwin and evolution during this trip and the question of education is one that crops up continually. Shortly after meeting new people they would almost inevitably ask what we were doing about the girls’ schooling. We’d generally say that we were doing some ‘road-schooling’ and that they were picking up lots of different skills and knowledge along the way. Most people seemed to agree that they were getting a different kind of education and learning all kinds of interesting stuff.

Whilst we were walking to the Laguna Darwin above, we got chatting to an American man and he said something that really struck a chord with us. He passed on to us the saying that ‘Education is about starting a fire, not filling a bucket‘. Apparently this comes from an ancient quote from the Greek philosopher Plutarch and it sums up something about the nature of learning – it’s not just cramming in facts but trying to ignite some interest and inquisitiveness, some sense of wonder and hunger for finding out about the world. Hopefully the girls will have picked up some of that spirit!

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Lorenzo, the pied piper of guides, with his following flock!

So, what more is there to say about our time in the Galapagos? The kids loved the boat, the free hot chocolate, the hot-tub, and playing with their new friends. We loved the surprisingly superb snorkelling, the wildlife, the comfort and being able to share a sundowner beer with new friends. (Also, another small but significant plus point for the boat was the rare chance to flush your toilet paper down the loo! Almost throughout the whole of Latin America the sanitation struggles to cope with paper and there’s a ubiquitous bin in the corner – it felt strangely like home to be able to flush!)

The boat contained an interesting mix of people. Along with the British family (Stuart, Esme, Joe and Thea) there was a Chinese couple with a love of photography (their camera bags were nearly as large as our main luggage!), and a very friendly Peruvian family who kept wanting to give us advice on places to stay in Peru (however they kept recommending places way out of our budget, no doubt fooled by the fact we were on this particular boat!) There were also lots of other kids for the girls to play with – again the lack of a common language proved no barrier and they got on really well with an Ecuadorian girl called Emma. All in all it was probably the most relaxed time of our whole trip – it was like a holiday within a holiday, a treat within our travels, and provided a level of luxury we rarely experienced in the rest of our journey. The Galapagos themselves were as fantastic as people say – I’m not quite sure why but there is something magical about the place. It cost us a lot of money but was worth every penny and cent.

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As you can imagine, we took a load of photos and we really have tried to edit them, but there’s a few more here…

Hitching a ride, lizard-style!

Hitching a ride, lizard-style!

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Ecuador part three: teleferiQo, trains and topiary…

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After our quick trip to Mindo we found ourselves back in Quito, so we decided to go up the TeleferiQo cable car. This is highly expensive, has a bit of a daft name, but takes you up to over 4,000m for an impressive view of the city.
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We had a wander around at the top but the girls were feeling the altitude a little and soon wanted to go back down. We’re sure this had nothing to do with the fact that there was a theme park waiting at the bottom of the cable car. This was quite strange: almost deserted and still at some absurd altitude, but you can’t beat rolling around in an inflatable ball at 3,000m.
Back in town we popped into a travel agency, just to enquire about the outside possibility of maybe doing a Galapagos trip – this was to prove an influential moment in our trip, as we quickly went from “We can never afford that” to “Ooh, maybe we could manage it” to “Oh, hang the expense, let’s go on a luxury cruise!”
The trip was due to set off in a couple of weeks so we had a few more decisions to make: all through our journey we’d met people who’d loved Colombia and we really wanted to go, so we had to work out how to fit in a quick trip there. We also had to figure out how to pay for the cruise – if we elected to pay by Credit Card it would add an extra 10% to the bill, but our bank wasn’t making it easy to transfer the money directly; on the other hand we didn’t want to keep taking out lots of money and then have to carry it as we went to Colombia. In the end we decided to worry about it later, and set off to Ibarra, on the way to the Colombian border.

To get there, first we had to get a taxi to the far-flung bus station – this was miles out, way past the airport on seemingly never-ending dual-carriageways, and the taxi cost almost as much as the bus tickets. Once in Ibarra we booked into Fran’s Hostal and then went out for pizza. The owner of the pizzeria seemed a little surprised to see us and asked how we’d heard about the place – he was even more surprised when we showed him our guide book with his restaurant listed. Unfortunately the food wasn’t so good, or we might have done a Trip Advisor review for him.

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Ecuador used to have a spectacular rail network and travelling by train would be one of the most enjoyable ways to see the country. Unfortunately, most of the tracks have fallen into disuse or been destroyed by the relentless effects of the weather, and at the moment it’s not possible to get very far by train. Tren Ecuador have, however, restored a few sections, and now run tourist ‘excursions’ at vastly inflated prices – they do have some dancers at the destination station though, so that’s ok. However, we really wanted to see at least a bit of the countryside from the comfort of a carriage so we bit the bullet and paid through the nose, mixing our metaphors as we went.

The journey was something a little different right from the start: the train sets off through the town’s crowded streets with security men on motorbikes racing ahead to stop the traffic and clear the way. It then rattles its way down a valley and the views get more scenic and the engineering more impressive, as it negotiates iron bridges and dark tunnels. After an hour or so, we screeched our way into Salinas station, where the aforementioned dancers were limbering up to herald our arrival – we’re not sure we’ve ever felt more like tourists!
After a walk round the small town, and a look at the even smaller salt museum, we had some lunch and then got the train back. It was all a little odd, but pleasant enough, and we met a family with a little boy called Darwin, so the girls had lots of fun on the return journey.

P1030214Whilst in Ibarra we’d seen adverts for the Ecuadorian National Ballet Company, who were playing the next night – obviously this was too good a chance to pass up, so we decided to stay for another day. This also gave us the chance to visit the small animal rescue centre on the top of the hill overlooking town. This was very low-key, and we met a couple of the young volunteers who were helping out. They’d obviously got quite attached to some of the animals – quite literally in the case of the monkeys who clung to them and wouldn’t let go!

The night of the ballet finally came and it must have been the most middle-class thing happening in Ecuador that particular evening. The great and the good of Ibarra were out in their finery, along with the trendy twenty-somethings and a slightly shabby backpacker family of four. The theme seemed to be experimental dance, but this was preceded by almost endless speeches, punctuated by occasional applause and barely concealed boredom. When the dance got under way it was, how shall we put it, a little on the dark side. There was no narrative to speak of, but lots of anguished movements and moody lighting. All in all, it was quite an experience.

Next stop on our northwards trajectory was Tulcan, just before the Colombian border. We’d read that this otherwise nondescript little town had one must-see attraction – its cemetery. Sometimes you read about a place and think it sounds interesting: sometimes it turns out not to be; sometimes it turns out to be worth a small detour; and sometimes it turns out to be quite amazing, and provides an unexpected highlight.

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Tulcan cemetery very much fell into this last category. Sometime back in the 1930s the gardener, with an eye for art and a nifty way with hedge-cutters, decided to start doing some topiary around the place. It seems like a hobby developed into an obsession, and then into a family tradition, as he and his sons created hundreds of living sculptures in a place reserved for honouring the dead.
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Cemeteries in this part of the world consist of long buildings with hundreds of coffin-sized niches built into them, like long walls of windows, or holes for the souls. Between these buildings are gardens, and here in Tulcan, these gardens are galleries, containing the most amazing topiary you could imagine. Figures both real and imagined, from nature and history, myth and cartoon; geometric shapes, three-dimensional shapes, and reliefs carved into hedges. It was all quite spell-binding, and we wandered around in awe, sharing the moment with lots of Ecuadorian sightseers, some people paying their respects, and hardly another backpacker in sight.

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Perhaps we got a bit carried away with the place, (we certainly took enough photos), but it seemed like a great way to round off this first visit to Ecuador – next stop, Colombia…

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More belated Ecuadorian stories, and a trip to Mindo… (Warning – post may contain photos of frogs!)

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We’d got quite used to Quito after the last few days, but it was time for a change of scenery.

We’d decided to go to the cloud forest: we’re not entirely sure how one defines a cloud forest but it seems to be like a jungle in the mountains, usually drizzled in mist. As we checked out of our hostel (the highly recommended Casa Helbling) we asked the owner about our destination – he said something along the lines of ‘It rains every afternoon, torrentially, for hours…’ – oh goody, just like home!

We were heading for Mindo – it’s only a couple of hours from Quito, but might as well be a different world; it’s several hundred metres lower in altitude, and tucked away on the other side of the Pichincha volcano from Quito, drenched in cloud and draped in the lushest of greenery. Not having done the most thorough of research, we didn’t realise it was one of the bird-watching locations in the world: we just thought it sounded like a nice place to visit – though to be honest, we were mostly sold on staying in one of these cute little caravans…
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The journey there was mildly interesting, as this was our first taste of bus travel, Ecudorian-style. The bus was reasonable enough, but it felt slightly strange that after you got on, the driver and mate shut themselves off behind a door, closing off the front of the bus completely, with curtains blocking any forward view. It also seems to be frustratingly common for buses over here to have a metal bar running across the side windows at eye-level – there might be wonderful scenery outside, but you’re going to get a crick in your neck if you want to see it. However we could just see enough to know that we passed ‘El Mitad del Mundo’ on our way to Mindo, and so were briefly back in the Northern Hemisphere.

As the altitude decreased, the oxygen and humidity increased, and soon we were in the cloud forest, and checking in to our posh caravan at La Roulotte (if posh camping is ‘glamping’, what would that make this – glaravanning??!) It really was lovely – double bed bunk-beds, a luxurious en-suite and a wood-burning stove. In the middle of all the caravans there was also a great central restaurant/seating area, surrounded by bird-feeders and beautiful gardens. We soon saw lots of birds, including quite a few hummingbirds, and realised why bird-watchers flocked to Mindo. Nearby, there was also a ‘Mariposario’, or butterfly farm, and this too had beautiful gardens and bird feeders. There were even more hummingbirds here, as well as hundreds of, yes, butterflies, in every stage of their short (double) lives.

Hummingbird, Mindo, Ecuador

Hummingbird, Mindo, Ecuador

Now, it’s usually very difficult to catch a hummingbird in flight, as they’re maddeningly quick little things – they’re like little sprites, with unpredictable, sudden changes of direction, and sometimes it’s as if they’re being radio-controlled by someone watching you line up your camera shot, jerking them away just as you hit the shutter release. However, there were so many of them here that after several hundred attempts (and that’s only a slight exaggeration!) we managed to photograph some, delicate wings beating like crazy. There’s a couple more shots below, for anyone who’s twitching to see more.

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We were also offered the rare opportunity to smear over-ripe banana on our fingers and feed the butterflies – it’s a rotten job, but somebody’s got to do it – here’s Kiah taking up the challenge.
That night back at the hotel, the lovely staff took us on a walk to find some frogs, to round off a fantastic, nature-filled day.

P1030129P1030136The next day we set off on an adventurous ramble through the jungle; this included having to propel ourselves across a river in a little cage (via a rope and pulley system), and having to clamber up a densely forested hill, complete with ropes to get you up some rocky parts. We were really proud of the girls as it was tough going, though to be honest they seemed to find it easier than us.

P1030149P1030158Once at the top, we dropped down the hill on the other side to find a huge rope swing, and steps leading to a waterfall and riverside swimming pool. It would have been lovely to relax in the sunshine after such a tiring walk, but the weather had other ideas and the promised rain duly fell, and fell, and bucketed down. It didn’t stop the girls going for a swim though, but they did opt to wear their waterproof coats, which seemed a little ironic, and amused the local family who were the only other people still braving the elements. To get back to our comfy caravan we had two options – walk several miles in the pouring rain, or get a pick-up to pick us up. We took the latter, and shared it with three other people who were also waiting. As there weren’t enough seats inside, Pete had to stand in the back for the twisting, bumpy, half hour journey, dodging low-hanging branches and riding the sudden jolts and jumps, swaying to the rhythm of the road – it prompted one of those moments of reverie when you hope you live to a ripe old age so you can look back and smile at days like these…

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Mindo had been a great destination, and we were genuinely sad to wave off the staff at La Roulotte as we headed back to Quito…

Here comes a belated post about Quito, or Ecuador Part One…

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After spending Christmas and New Year in familiar surroundings it was time to get moving again, and start the second half of our travels.
Had we learned anything from the first three months of travel? Well, yes and no. As anticipated, we’d found that it was more difficult travelling with kids than without. It requires a bit more planning, a bit more restraint and a fair bit more money. We’d also had to adjust to spending pretty much every moment together, and again, as anticipated, this took some getting used to. However, during the times when we’d got into a reasonable rhythm we’d had a lot of fun, and in those 92 days we’d packed in enough adventure to fill many photo albums and several lengthy blog posts – if the next few months were as exciting we were in for a treat…(though whether the readers of those lengthy blogs were, is an entirely different question!)

So, we were back on the road again, or back in the air again, and off on a long journey to Quito via Atlanta. The first flight had decent food but lousy entertainment, the second decent entertainment but inedible food. Over four flights we hadn’t been overly impressed with Delta, apart from their amusing safety videos, and we were very glad to finally reach Quito. We’d booked a hostel and a shuttle transfer as we were landing late at night, and for the first time in our lives we walked out of customs to see someone holding up a clipboard with our name on it – it was unexpectedly reassuring! So, as midnight passed, we reached our hostel safe, sound, sleepy and sore after a hard day’s flight.

Waking up the next day we had breakfast in the hostel and looked around – they had lots of flyers about and there was a sense of a new world waiting to be discovered. However we had to get used to a new country and to the altitude – Quito sits in a bowl at around 2,850 metres above sea level, surrounded by mountains that pierce the clouds close to 5,000 metres. So we had an lazy day, and the kids ran off some energy in the fantastic Parque El Ejido, which had more slides, swings and climbing frames than you could reasonably expect in the centre of a capital city.

Old Quito, from the tower of the Basilica.

Old Quito, from the tower of the Basilica.

P1020960The next few days were spent exploring the city and getting used to life, both back on the road and up in the rarified Andean air. We visited the quite fantastic Basilica, which our friends Isabel and Byron had told us about. Here you climb up inside one of the clock towers, (emerging behind the clock face, ‘Hugo’ style!) then walk along a wooden walkway above the ceiling of the church, to then clamber up incredibly steep ladders to the top of the central tower, where breathtaking views of the city wait beneath you. This was breathtaking in more ways than one, as the climb up those extra few metres of altitude was quite an effort!

Meanwhile, Rach was struggling with strange aches, pains, pins and needles in her leg, and after two days we thought we’d better get it checked out. So we found a local, modern hospital and in our best Spanish tried to find out what was wrong. Rach was quickly ushered through a security checkpoint, plonked on a wheelchair and whisked away, leaving Pete and the kids sitting in the waiting room wondering how long to wait before trying to get past the security guard to find her! A couple of hours later we left with several x-rays, some medicine, a large bill and not much more clue as to what was wrong. We later worked out it was sciatica, and only needed some stretching exercises, not expensive x-rays – the nerve of these private hospitals!

P1020991We visited the Museo del Agua, which is set in Quito’s original water treatment plant, and has great interactive displays about water and science. It’s set high up above the city, but doesn’t seem to be high on the tourist agenda. When you read guide books about Quito you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a dangerous city where it’s not safe to venture out at night, use public transport or step off the beaten tourist track – we’d found some fantastic things to do, meandered slightly off that track and had no trouble, though the crime figures are still rather intimidating. You try and take the safer options but just taking a taxi can be a confusing lottery if you’re not careful – there are official licensed taxis, seemingly official community taxis, and then those guys who’ve just written ‘Taxi’ on a piece of cardboard and stuck it in the windscreen of their clapped-out old banger – we always took the former, even if it meant waving away unofficial taxis who pulled up when we were looking for one.

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The next day, after a good, cheap lunch in a pleasant veggie cafe, we went to ‘El Mitad del Mundo’, or the self-proclaimed centre of the world, or to be more accurate, the Equator.

Depending on whose GPS measurements you trust, this may or may not be on the actual equator, but this hasn’t stopped them building a giant monument with huge compass markings, plus the obligatory line on the floor marking the supposed equator. Everybody poses with one leg in each hemisphere, and when you’re actually there it’s hard not to join in! It’s all good fun, and there’s ample opportunity to buy tourist tat, though the girls were much more impressed with the various playgrounds dotted around the hemispheres!

It was all a bit different to the last time we were at the equator, in Kenya – this just had a 6ft high concrete circle by the side of the road, with ‘Equator’ written on it, though I suppose it may have changed in the last 13 years – perhaps there’s now a lion standing majestically astride the equator line.

P1020964P1030024However, the middle of the world also hides another treat within its grounds -a scale model of Quito, lovlingly recreated in amazing detail. Here are two pictures, one taken from the Basilica, one of the model – if we show them in low enough resolution, they may look quite similar!

And so that was that for our first taste of Quito. Next up was a visit to Mindo, but we’ve got so far behind with this blog that we’re going to try and do a few quick posts to catch up, so hopefully that chapter will follow soon!