Category Archives: Ecuador

Galapagos The Unexpected

(Galápagos Islands, Ecuador – 4 September, 2013) One of the mostly highly prized destinations in all the world is the Galápagos Islands….and we were there. Of all the places we plan to travel this year Galápagos sat high on our most-treasured places list. Now we’ve been there and done that. So, in addition to sharing some stories of what we saw and what we did, I will give you the unvarnished truth about Galápagos- the good, the bad, and the snuggly.


“Not What I Pictured”

We landed on Baltra Island, just one of the 18 islands of significant size that make up the Galápagos Islands (officially named the Archipelago of Colon.) Additionally, there are hundreds (perhaps thousands) of tiny islets and rock outcroppings that make up the entire chain of islands. Most people coming to Galápagos land on Baltra Island because it sits close to the middle of all the major islands and is the nearest runway to where the most people are– the city of Puerta Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz.

You may have a notion that very few people actually live on the Galápagos Islands…like maybe it’s just the Park Rangers, a few volunteers, plus a couple of research scientists. Not true. Puerta Ayora alone is a town of more than 20,000 people. They have schools and grocery stores and laundry mats and hospitals, etc. Thousands more live in little towns spread all over the islands, though no other concentration of people is nearly as large as Puerta Ayora.

The islands of Baltra (where we landed) and Santa Cruz (where we stayed) are almost one island; only a narrow strip of water separates the two. It’s close enough to swim, but better to take the ferry for $1 if you want to keep your luggage dry. Baltra, the airport, the ferry, that’s all happening on the north end of Santa Cruz. Puerta Ayora is all south side, bro. To traverse the island, all comers must either take the 1 hour bus ride or slightly faster taxi. (Personal/private cars are not allowed.) Walking the length of the island would surely be a rewarding experience, too, but that’s an all-day affair and probably not the best use of your time.

The highway from the ferry on the north side of Santa Cruz to Puerta Ayora on the south side cuts directly through the island’s middle. Climatologists would surely find the journey interesting because of how much the ambient changes when crossing from one end of the island to the other. The northern half is almost desert, not the Arizona (roadrunner and coyote) type, but very reminiscent of far west Texas. The entrance to Big Bend National Park on Galápagos? Yep! Now you’ve got it.

The highest point on Santa Cruz island is its center. Meaning, the bus ride took us directly up-and-over its raised middle. As we approached “the highlands” (around 1600 ft), we were leaving the desert climate behind; blue skies mixed to gray and the vegetation thickened. From there we practically rolled downhill all the way into Puerta Ayora where we stayed for 5 nights.

I’d seen enough pictures of the Galápagos Islands before coming here to know what to expect, but Jessica had not. I imagine her idea of Galapagos is typical– lush green forested islands surrounded by beautiful translucent turquoise waters. The gorgeous water part is spot on, but “lush green” it is generally not. Galápagos has two seasons, wet and dry, each lasting about half the year. Apparently, however much rain the islands get, it’s not enough to result in greenery typical of tropical islands. The Galápagos Islands are amazing and abundantly beautiful, just not necessarily in the way one might expect.

Here I am with a cactus tree. It is a cactus, but grows up tall like a tree. Check out its unusual bark.


Darwin’s Wild Life

The Galápagos Islands are known the world over primarily for two (intertwining) reasons, the unique wildlife and the hugely important contribution the study of that wildlife made to the scientific community, with special regard to the biological origins of life. While in his early twenties, Charles Darwin spent just five weeks in the Galápagos Islands and only landed upon four of them. But what he observed on those islands in that short period of time contributed to him solving one of the greatest puzzles of science- how and why new species are created.

In case you don’t know the story, here’s the gist. Since the islands were so remote and relatively young geologically, Darwin’s first question to ponder was how did the animals get there? Regarding only the finches, (since they were perhaps the biggest players in Darwin’s story), it was assumed that a few of them must have somehow arrived to one of the Galapagos Islands from the mainland. After all, they were similar enough to the mainland finches. Perhaps they got caught up in a storm or wound up stranded on some driftwood that floated over from the mainland. Who knows? The point is that those first few early birds reproduced successfully enough to eventually populate their island.


From there a few adventuresome birds wound up on a second island and populated it. And then to a third island, and then a fourth, etc. The key was that the finches on each island were slightly different- especially their beaks. And they were each different in ways that better suited them for survival on their particular island. So, if they were all descendants from the first arrivals, how did they become differentiated? Darwin’s ground-breaking answer was: Natural selection.

Did Jessica and I see these finches? You got that right! They are immanently cute and very friendly, especially when there was food to be had.

He comes close….closer….oops, too close! …Ah what the heck.

Tortuga Bay

One of our first explorations of Santa Cruz Island was a memorable trek to Tortuga Bay. Just a few blocks away from our hostel began a nicely constructed stone path we strolled down for about 45 minutes before it delivered us to a beautiful powder-sand beach. Another 15 minutes of walking the length of the beach lead us through a colony of marine iguanas to our Tortuga Bay destination.

Once there we rented a kayak and began exploring the waters by paddle. We’d brought snorkeling gear with us, too, if we chose to look for life underwater. The small bay was protected by mangroves on two sides and a beach on the near end. The side that opened to the ocean was guarded by volcanic rocks leaving the waters of Tortuga Bay forever calm. We were told we might find white tip sharks if we hugged the line of mangroves on the left so we paddled there first. It didn’t take long before Jessica spotted our first shark of the day. About four feet long and sporting a little white color on its dorsal fin, this happy hunter slithered by us like he hadn’t a care. We gave chase in our kayak trying to capture a photo, but this shark wasn’t cooperating. Moments later he was lost to the glare shining on top the water.

Not to worry, apparently we were paddling on the white-tipped shark highway because it wasn’t long before we spotted another. Soon after, a third. None posed for a photo-op, but we managed at least one decent snap.


Eager to try out the snorkeling, I dipped slowly from the kayak into the chilly, “shark-infested” waters. Saw some fish, but no sharks. Once back in the boat, we paddled towards the other side of the bay where they said turtles could be found. Sure enough, Jessica spotted a sea turtle at some distance just coming up to the surface for a breather. We paddled over to snatch a photo, but he submerged himself shyly just as Jessica was lifting the camera. Hey, it ain’t easy to paddle a kayak and operate a camera at the same time. You try it.

More turtle searching lead us to spot some sea birds on the far bank. We paddled closer to find a pelican and several slightly smaller birds with pretty blue feet. We’d found the famous blue-footed boobies! We kayaked closer and fumbled with our cameras. This time, however, there was no need to rush. That’s one thing about much of the wildlife on Galápagos, they don’t have a natural fear of man. We floated right up upon them and they scarcely batted an eye.


Los Kioskos

During our very first bus ride on the island (the one from the ferry to Puerta Ayora), I was last to board and wound up seated next to the bus driver. I learned he was a born and raised 20130911-143851.jpgon Santa Cruz Island so I took advantage of the moment and asked him where he likes to eat in Puerta Ayora. His smiling response, “En mi casa.” Say what?! Okay, turns out our bus driver was also a comedian. After giving him the laugh he deserved, I pressed him for a real answer and he offered, “Los Kioskos.”

Was this the name of a restaurant? A street? Turns out neither. It was simply a term the locals use for a section of a street that food vendors crowd with tables and chairs each evening around dinner time. Hungry diners soon fill the seats. Since Los Kioskos was only a block away from our hostel (and cheap and good), we ate there three or four times including one of our splurge-nights when we decided to share a fresh-caught lobster. It was dee-ee-licious!


Day Trippers

We booked all five of our nights in Puerta Ayora on Santa Cruz Island with the plan of going on day-trips from there. It’s a great hub, but admittedly committing to 5 nights in one location didn’t give us the flexibility to stay over on another island if that is what we wanted to do. It all worked out, but if we had it to do over again, we might have paid for just one or two nights at a time.

The two excursions we chose were a land and sea guided tour of Santa Cruz Island, and a guided tour of Isabella Island which lies 2 1/2 hours to the west of Santa Cruz by boat. On these tours we got up-close and personal with the famous Galápagos giant tortoises, and oodles of sea lions we were warned not to touch, though the urge to scratch their heads like you would a dog was extremely strong in me. Time for snorkeling was included in both our tours giving us additional chances to snap the coveted sea turtle pic we’d missed earlier. We also followed a cool manta ray for a while and got him to strike a pose.


The tours took us to several cool spots we might never have seen on our own. The Muro de Lagrimas (Wall of Tears), for example. It’s a designated international historic site on the island of Isabella, which was used as a penal colony in the late 1940’s. (Ecuador’s version of Alcatraz.) One of the most interesting facts about the prison was that it had no walls. Prisoners could run around the island all they wanted. However, they could never venture too far because the island has no natural sources of drinking water. Their very lives depended on the desalinated water dispensed by the prison guards.

A second charming story we were told about the prison involved a brutal warden that decided his prisoners needed to build a wall around their compound. He demanded the construction of the wall be such that it could not be scaled without triggering an avalanche of the heavy lava rocks from which it was made. Its dimensions were 22 feet high and 22 feet wide at the base. Only a relatively small portion of the wall was ever finished. Nevertheless, many prisoners died from injury or exhaustion (or were outright killed by the guards) during its construction.


To me the wall looked like it would be easy to climb, but our guide told us that a couple of years ago two college-aged visitors tried to scale it for a photo-op. One ended up with a broken leg when the wall did what it was designed to do….crumble on top of would-be escapees (and knuckleheaded tourists).

In, on, and all around the boat dock on Isabella Island were dozens of sea lions. They lazed on top of the streets and sidewalks like stray dogs. Again, so snugly cute, but our guide was clear that we not touch them. (But… “They’re so fluffy!”) Among the not-so-fluffy on Isabella were the largest sub-species of marine iguana; yellow-ish fellows with Freddie Kruger claws. Some say they see a wry smile in each of those little iguana faces, but I have trouble finding it.

Two Views of Galapagos

Most people that visit the Galápagos Islands do so very differently then we did. To stay within our modest travel budget, we spent our nights in a hostel on one of the islands and sought out day-trips from there. The more expensive alternative would have been to choose a cruise package. Cruises can be as short as 4 days/3 nights, or as long as two weeks. When you choose to cruise, you sleep on the boat each night and eat most of your meals there, too. Travel between the islands is done overnight while you sleep (or party) so that each morning you wake up parked smartly in front a new island.

Cruise ship accommodations will range from budget to luxury as will the size of your boat- from smaller and more intimate to larger and more stable, all depending on your preference. Day-trips to the islands from the cruise ships are always lead by a knowledgable (and probably English-speaking) guide. The cost per person per night will start at around $150 and go up from there. Awfully pricey for us, but the advantages of seeing the Galápagos Islands in this way are considerable. You will probably see more of what you came to the islands to see by cruise ship than you could any other way.

However, by cruising you would miss many of the great experiences we had (even through gaining others). For example, I rented a bicycle one afternoon and paid a taxi driver $10 to take me (and the bike) to the highlands of Santa Cruz island. From there I visited two exotic looking craters called Los Gemelos (The Twins), saw roadside tortoises in their natural habitat, and hiked through a very cool half-mile long lava tunnel. I then stopped off at a the tiniest of tiendas for a Coke and to eat my lunch– a homemade tuna sandwich I’d packed for my trip. Afterwards, I rolled back down to Puerta Ayora and rejoined Jessica who had spent her day strolling through the shops and relaxing in a hammock. It was the kind of great day a cruise ship package couldn’t possibly include.

Sad to Leave, But Happy to Whale

Jessica and I both experienced a wave of sadness on the day we departed the islands. Who knows if we will ever go there again? We certainly would like to, but on a cruise ship next time… to get that second view of the islands we didn’t experience this time around.

After leaving Galápagos, we flew to the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil where we caught a 4 1/2 hour bus ride to Puerto Lopez, our final destination in Ecuador. We were heading to this coastal fishing town with one goal in mind… to see some whales! The write-up for the hostel we stayed in said we might even see whales from our couch! We did not, but I have no doubt it’s been done before. The hostel was a little apartment and sure enough we could see a big swath of the sea right through the living room window, but I guess no whales were crossing when we were looking.

We had much better luck once we signed up for a whale-watching excursion. It’s hard to describe the level of excitement one experiences when seeing a whale swimming in the wild. It’s intensely thrilling so say the least; makes you want to take a deep breath and hold it…as if that will freeze the moment a little longer.

The first sighting was of two whales who swam together like a couple out for a stroll. At first they looked like massive black dolphins, their shiny smooth backs and dorsal fins rolling through the water’s surface. But when their massive tales rose high out of the water, they were exclusively and clearly whales; humpback whales, to be specific. One of them lifted his tale and then smacked it down four times in a row before diving out of sight. I think he wanted to make sure nobody missed taking his photo.

We heard our boat’s captain talking on his cell phone. He was checking with his other whale watching boat captain buddies to find out where we might find some more. Moments later we were skimming quickly over the high seas to another (I guess, not so randomly chosen) spot in the ocean. Ahoy, matey! Two more whales were soon spotted. This duo gave us even more of a show than the first couple. As they swam lazily through the surf, one lifted its huge 15 feet long pectoral fin into the air and smacked it down upon the water’s surface. Smack to the left! Then a smack to the right! The whale was practically rolling over onto its back as it splashed those big flippers around. It is called pec slapping. Experts think it’s done to dislodge barnacles and sea lice that will build up on the whale’s skin if they don’t smack it off periodically.

After the pec slapping, the whales momentarily disappeared. I then heard the boat’s driver say, “Mira. Va a saltar.” He was saying, Keep watching, he’s going to jump. Sure enough, one of the whales rocketed out of the water and crashed back down upon the waves in spectacular fashion. Seeing a whale breach the water like that is the pinnacle event for a whale watcher. It is what you hope to witness, and, if you’re lucky, take a picture of. But really, what are the chances? In our case, chances were excellent. Are we good, or what!? (By “we” I mean Jessica. She took the photo and video.)

Whale tale with music…

Our experiences in Galápagos and on the whale watch were priceless. Ecuador as a whole was a great country to visit, too. We are so glad we came. The downside is that now we know there are even more places in Ecuador we’d like to visit. Aaaargh! I guess we’ll have to come back to Ecuador some day. But next is a 30 hour bus ride to Lima, Peru.

Surprises await, I assure you.

Ups and Downs in Tena

(Tena, Ecuador – 29 August, 2013) Amazing highs and terrifying lows were our themes in Tena. Much of our roller coaster ride was powered by the weather. We were in Tena just two full days, plus a couple of half days when you count the coming and going. The weather alternated perfectly between rain and shine as if Mother Nature had programmed it that way.

Reaching Tena

I wouldn’t say Tena itself is a “pretty” town, but it certainly is located in a beautiful part of Ecuador. It sits on the western edge of the grand Amazon about 4 1/2 hours to the east and south of Quito. To get there from our hostel in midtown Quito, we first took a taxi to the bus terminal in the south….only to retrace our route back northward again by bus so we could exit the Quito valley from its northeast corner. But I said Tena lies to the south of Quito. (Glad you’re following along, Magellan!) That meant our northward direction was eventually followed by double-reverse back south again. No doubt these highways were not built by crows.

It was all slow-going, too. I swear we were two hours into our bus ride and we had still not fully escaped Quito’s orbit. Better progress could have been made if the driver hadn’t been moving at school zone speeds and stopping every three feet to let more passengers on….turning a 4 1/2 hour trip into a 6 hour slog. Making matters worse was the parade of vendors who boarded the bus periodically to sell everything from fruit cups to handmade jewelry to religion. At least they did distract us from the on-board movie offering– The Mechanic, a Jason Statham bomb with precious few redeeming qualities.

By the time we reached Tena, rain was falling at a nice clip; not pouring, but hard enough to make us hustle through the streets to a place where we could catch a cab to the hostel. It took us a soaked eternity to find a vacant cab. When the rains come down, the cabs fill up.

Travel days are rarely fun, but this one was among the worst.

Eco and Friendly

All was good once we reached the hostel, the Pakay Ecolodge. It’s run by a young-ish couple, Inga from Germany and her Ecuadorian husband, Tony. I didn’t get the story of how these two met, unfortunately. From what I could tell, Pakay Ecolodge’s primary eco-friendly feature was a “dry” toilet. The concept makes a lot of sense, starting with not using fresh water to wash away our waste. In so many parts of the world, fresh, drinkable water is a scarcity. Using it in our toilets is so obviously wasteful when you think about it. Especially when a dry (albeit odiferous) alternative exists.


Basically, you do your business in a trashcan placed in a cabinet underneath the toilet seat. The can is filled with sawdust so don’t wait for a splash. After each use, you add additional sawdust on top. [Doesn’t seem a whole lot different from a cat using a litter box, really.] Every couple of days you dump the contents of the trashcan into a compost bin. In short order, you’ve got some grade-A fertilizer ready for use in your garden.

You might need some extra candles in the bathroom, if you ever decide to go dry yourself.

White Water Under Blue Skies

A beautiful sunny day greeted us the next morning. We’d signed up for a whitewater rafting trip so the brilliant weather was making us feel great about our timing. Rafting one day after a rain meant we’d find the rapids very entertaining, too.


Jessica and I loaded ourselves into a shuttle-truck with three others from our hostel, Andy, Chris and Daniel, and down to the river we went. Andy (another traveler from Germany) had the challenge of an unsettled stomach that morning and wasn’t sure if he’d make it all the way. Chris and Daniel were second cousins from North Carolina and Tennessee, respectively. Skip the dueling banjo music, neither one of them had southern accents.

Our rafting guide’s name was Diego and he was easy to like from the start– good English, a sense of humor with just the right amount of bite, and 11 years of whitewater experience. After a brief but thorough review of the equipment and safety procedures, we loaded onto the raft and eagerly shoved ourselves away from the bank. Always nearby were two additional single-seaters manned by Diego’s assistants. One was a blue kayak piloted by a 15 year old Ecuadorian hot-shot named Brian, and the other was a yellow sea kayak they all referred to as the “ducky.” Jonathan, a rare tall Ecuadorian with a Castro-esque beard, manned it.

Andy and I volunteered for the front row seats, Chris and Daniel sat in the center and Jessica took up a seat in the third partition…. next to a cooler containing our lunch. We would all switch around to different spots on the raft throughout the journey, that’s simply how we began. Diego sat in the very back to steer while shouting out his commands: “Forward!” “Stop,” And the final command we hoped would never be needed, “Inside!!!” If we heard Diego shout that last one, it meant throwing ourselves into the center of the raft for maximum safety.


The first set of rapids came to us fast and furious. KA-SNAPS! That first splash of snow-melt sure shocked me like a taser. Now I know how those winning coaches feel when their players dump a cooler of gatorade on their backs…only that Andy and I took a direct hit to the front. No time to ponder, more rapids were ahead and Diego was screaming excitedly, “Forward! Forward!” We continued plowing headlong into the teeth of the rapids until finally emerging to a calmer stretch of river. Exclamations of “Wow!” “Oh my God!” and “What just happened?” filled the boat. We all talked at once, instantly recounting what it was like for us to slay our first dragon. Click here to see a video I uploaded to Youtube.

Jessica and I, along with Mallorie, too (Jessica’s daughter), had done whitewater rafting once before in Moab, Utah. Those were class 1 or 2 rapids. Here in Tena, Ecuador, on the Jatunyaku River, we were getting rolled by vicious class 3 and 4 sized rapids. Big diff, I’m here to report. Officially, they were class 3, but as Diego quipped, “I can make them a class 4, if you want.” And he did.

Rapids come in all shapes and sizes. They churn, tumble, swirl and roar. And when the riverbed conditions are just so, they create standing mountain peaks of water; together forming mini-mountain ranges for our raft to plow over and through. Typically, the highest mound of water sits near the entrance to each set of rapids. That’s where Diego was sure to aim our warship every single time with his urgent battle cries of FORWARD! FORWARD MY TEAM!!!


Riding first position delivered the greatest fear factor. As each mound of water was conquered the next towered high overhead ready for its turn to soak you or flip you, whichever was its whim. Imagine looking up and seeing a 10 ft tall linebacker of water in your face and having no choice but to take it on. It was exhilarating!

Not all of my time was spent in the raft. I took a few turns in the ducky, too. (See me in the photo collage, above) This was perhaps even more of an adrenaline rush than the raft. Theoretically, Diego should only let his clients ride the smaller rapids in the ducky, but there didn’t seem to be any smaller rapids on our day. During one particularly turbulent stretch I went charging in with my ducky, paddle whipping furiously from side to side in an effort to keep my nose pointed straight. That’s the secret, too. ‘Cause once you get hit from the side, you are out of the ducky and soaked. This did happen to me once.

The calm-flowing portions of the river were equally rewarding, mostly because it was a such a spectacularly gorgeous day. The scenery was one postcard after another. We stopped for a lunch of burritos, banana bread, and pineapple before continuing through more rapids to the take out point. By the way, Andy, the guy with the upset stomach, decided to catch a cab back to the hostel during our lunch break. I guess swirling rapids and a swirling stomach don’t mix. For the rest of us, it was a perfect day.


Wet Caves and Muddy Canyons

Clouds and rain took over the very next day. They even got a head-start on us by pushing in overnight. Perhaps our scheduled hikes would be canceled due to the inclement weather? Uh, not so fast, amigo. As Tony (owner of the hostel and our guide) explained, we were in a RAINforest. It would make no sense to cancel a hike due to rain. So, we were all out-fitted with rubber “fireman” boots and loaded into Tony’s 1981 Range Rover. You might recall that Tony was also the proprietor of the hostel we stayed in. He grew up in Tena and knew it inside out. No more knowledgable guide existed.

Our excursion was comprised of two parts, a cave hike first and later a steep trek down inside a scenic canyon to a secluded swimming hole. We were mostly the same team from yesterday’s rafting trip- Andy (now recovered from his stomach bug), Chris and Daniel -but also added was a german girl named Yana. Finally, Jessica was not the only girl on one of our excursions. The light but steady rains showed no signs of letting up so those who had rain gear wore it. Chris, who lost his rain jacket in an earlier part of his trip, went shirtless, a bold choice given the temperature.

The hike to the cave wasn’t long and Tony stopped a couple of times to talk about some of the unique plants and animals. He even showed us the ayahuasca vine, used by the local shaman in religious ceremonies. It’s hallucinogenic properties reportedly make many people see God. A lot of people vomit after drinking the ayahuasca potion, too.

The small mouth of the cave was down a scramble of large rocks and extremely well-hidden. It took a lot of ducking, weaving and contorting to slip inside, but once we were all in (and out of the rain) we could stand up without worry. Not everyone brought a headlamp (or other flashlight), so we alternated those with and without. Jessica and I had ours and we were happy we did. The cave was pitch black otherwise.


After walking single file just a short distance we came into a living room sized cavern. Small and obviously man-made mounds of rubble were strangely placed around the room. Tony explained that this was the place the Shaman holds his healing ceremonies with the ayahuasca. Looked like a great place for a bad trip to me. The hike continued deeper into the cave, around, over and under rock formations of all variety. Soon we could hear rushing water in the darkened distance. Louder and louder it echoed with each forward step until soon we were splashing through a subterranean stream. Droplets of water could soon be felt spitting at us from all sides as more channels of flowing water joined to our stream making it roar more loudly.

Finally we arrived to the place we would exit this underground world. Large jagged boulders stacked at all angles would have to be scaled if we wanted to see daylight again. The problem was that a torrential shower was battering the precise spot of our climb. Someone had mercifully left a knotted rope for us to grab and pull ourselves up with, but that lessened the challenge by only a small degree. Jessica went first and clawed her way up into the splattering shower. I followed and got the soaking cold shower treatment all over my head and back. It was exhilarating.

The picture below shows us crawling out of the cave.


Scary Moments on a Muddy Trail

They said that even on days without rain, the hiking trail through the canyon and down to the swimming hole is muddy. After all, it’s a rainforest and always quite moist and humid under the canopy of trees even when the sun is shining. That is why we were all issued rubber boots specifically for this hike. However, on rainy days like ours the mud-factor goes up by at least 20 points. Tony offered us two bamboo walking sticks in case anyone thought they might help. Seeing that no one appeared interested, Jessica ended up using both of them. They totally saved her life, too. With her injured left knee, the walking sticks provided the additional support she needed.

The trail down into the canyon was primitive to say the least. The closest thing we found to man-made help on the trail were a couple of crudely fashioned ladders made from tree limbs. Otherwise, it was slick-muddy stepping the whole way. Thank goodness for the exposed roots of trees that offered an occasional foothold. Going down was really rough on Jessica’s knee. She was wearing her brace, but it’s just slow-going any way you slice it. She fell on her butt once, then twice, and another time over to the side. In one particularly precarious down-step, she lost her footing, screamed, and swung out over the plummeting trail held aloft only by one of the walking sticks. I was on the trail just below her and she says she saw my eyes get really big. The whole episode lasted a split second, but was genuinely scary and could have resulted in a serious fall if she hadn’t caught herself.

Freaked out though she was, there was no turning back. We continued the hike slowly but slowly, descending to further depths on the mud-slick trail, crossing log bridges that hung over raging torrents, rock-hopping through running streams and easing our way down the shaky tree-limb ladders. We had a goal and it would be met…the swimming hole. I’m sure everyone had the same thought, this better be the best GD swimming hole in Ecuador.


The place of the swimming hole was really cool. Just one problem, there was too much swirling water in it for us to safely swim. It was as if all the rains from the entire area had funneled into this one spot. Water tumbled down from the high walls surrounding the space and drained furiously into the hole through an opening in a lower portion of the wall. Under normal conditions, we would have squeezed ourselves into that opening and explored the cave inside, but not on this day. Too much water water everywhere.

We ate lunch in the rain on the banks of the swimming hole. Tony pointed to a relatively calm area of the water and said it’d be okay to swim there if anyone wanted to. There were no takers. Our goal now reached (and lunch eaten) there was nothing left but to hike our way out of there; the rescue helicopter would not be coming for us. Jessica made this video in case she wasn’t able to make it back to civilization…

Transcript of video:

My last hours. It’s not funny, I’m really scared. This has been the most treacherous journey to this spot. I’ve fallen on my butt six times and almost rolled down the hill to my death. Now show ’em the place! Make sure you get ALL of it.

Winding Down Our Time in Tena

We were back to great weather on our final day in Tena. Good thing, too, for we needed the sun dry out our things from the previous day’s soaking. I had one more Tena adventure in me- a climb to the top of an observation tower built just higher than the forest canopy. It was located in a small national park about 45 minutes outside of Tena. I went with Chris and Daniel while Jessica relaxed the morning away in the hostel. After finding the tower, no small feat, we had to climb it. You can see from the photos just how tiny the structure was. Daniel and I both went up, but Chris (who is not a big fan of heights) decided this challenge wasn’t for him.


Tena, Ecuador had its highs and lows. We have no regrets for any of it. This year is ours for adventure and Tena gave us more than our share of thrills and spills.

Next stop, the Galápagos Islands.

Shhhh…Don’t Tell Anyone: Ecuador is Great!

(Quito, Ecuador – 25 August 2013) I could see it in Jessica’s eyes, she was apprehensive and full of nervous energy as we flew from Costa Rica to Ecuador. Traveling to Costa Rica was a snap- it seems like everyone goes to Costa Rica -but Ecuador? Who goes to Ecuador?

First Impressions

It was late afternoon when our plane lowered itself into the large valley that holds Quito in its palm. From one end of the valley to the other, Quito sprawled like Houston. Buildings crept part-way up the valley walls and even dropped inside a deep ravine that snakes right through the middle of Quito. Humanity was intent on occupying every nook and cranny of this spectacular landscape.

We spotted snow-capped peaks in the distance as the flight crew announced Quito’s local time and temperature during our approach. It was 23 degrees in Quito! Relax, people….that’s Celsius. I did my best to remember the conversion formula to Fahrenheit and came pretty close (double the number in Celsius and add 32); it was about 74 F. Hmmm, but shouldn’t it be hot near the equator? It sure can be, but not at an altitude of 9,350 feet. Turns out that Quito has the second highest elevation of any capital city in the entire world (only La Paz, Boliva sits higher).

Quito’s cool air felt phenomenal to us. So much of our time in Costa Rica was spent covered in sweat. We were loving Quito already and we hadn’t even left the airport.

Every time we arrive into a new country, we know there is going to be that inescapable struggle getting from the airport to our hostel. At least at the Quito airport we were smart enough to stop at their information kiosk. And fortunate enough to talk to someone that gave us super clear directions. We were also handed a couple of little touristy booklets and a map of Quito that we have found very helpful. So far Quito, Ecuador was doing everything right.

It took us about 1 1/2 hours to get to our hostel from the airport. While it was dusk when we started our transport, it was thoroughly nighttime as our cab driver dropped us off near the hostel. Unsure of our surroundings, we were the strangers in a strange land. Our large and awkward backpacks told everyone, “we’re foreigners,” though this worked to our advantage as a nice man from the neighborhood pointed us in the direction of our hostel, which wasn’t easily visible from the street.

A staff person at the hostel checked us in and showed us to our room on the 3rd floor. The high altitude had us huffing and puffing up those stairs. It was just two flights, but OMG…we were all drama by those last few steps. At least the reward for our efforts was a beautiful room. Hostel rooms are like a box of chocolates, you never know… Here we’d stumbled upon the best room of our trip so far. And the view from our tiny balcony was postcard perfect, too– Quito’s Catholic Basilica was beautifully lit up at night and the rest of the city sparkled all around it. Jessica’s apprehension was giving way to excitement.


Once we were settled into the room, our attentions turned towards food. The day had nearly passed and all we had eaten were the box-lunches served on the planes. (Yes, non-US airlines still serve you meals at no charge). We were now ready for something more substantial. It was suggested we walk to a small cafe just a couple of blocks away. Small cafe was right; we accidentally hit someone inside when opening the door to enter. All of the 5 or so tables were full as were the 3 spots at the counter. We only had to pause a beat, however; a two-top cleared quickly and Jessica and I saddled right up.

The restaurant’s owner, a matronly dark-haired woman named Alexandria, was also our server. Her husband appeared to be serving some of the other tables and I’m guessing some of the kitchen staff were family, too. Jessica ordered a glass of red wine and I asked Alexandria if Ecuador had a “signature” drink I might try. She poured me a tall shot glass of clear liquid she called “pajaro azul” (blue bird). It had a slight licorice taste and warmed my soul by a couple of degrees. We shared a delicious pizza too big to finish and capped the meal off with a chocolate shake. Our bill was $12! Go Ecuador!!!

By the time we settled into bed for the night, all of Jessica’s apprehension about Ecuador had melted away.

Exploring Quito

Our trusty new best friends (the guidebooks), suggested a few places to visit that would get us acquainted with Quito. Thankfully, they were all within walking distance from our hostel. The skies were blue and the air crisp and cool. The Plaza de Independencia was our first stop, a small square surrounded by the four ruling powers of Ecuador’s colonial period– the government palace, the municipal palace, the archbishop’s palace, and (of course) the Catholic Cathedral. We walked around aimlessly for a time, just enjoying being in this great new place.


From the plaza we strolled slowly down the narrow streets towards the Basilica, the same proud site we had admired from our room the night before. The classically built stone “mega-church,” with its tall spire and two towering belfries, was built on the highest ground in the area, no doubt to maximize its omnipresence.

It cost us each a dollar to enter the church, but that wasn’t the amazing part. For $2 each, visitors had access to explore internal and external parts of the church normally off-limits to anyone but the maintenance crew. Due to the exaggerated size of the mammoth structure we had to ascend 8 flights of stairs just to reach the 3rd level. From there we were able to step through the crawl-space above the nave and scramble up a ladder to the base of the spire. We were crawling all over the church as if it were a child’s playscape. So up the spire we went!


Crossing above the nave of the Basilica. [I love this photo!]20130827-200228.jpg

Each belfry housed three giant clocks, presumably so that no one would be late for mass. Though, not all of the clocks were working. (Great! There’s my excuse!) Inside each belfry was a gift shop and in one, a trendy little coffee shop. Flights of stairs inside the belfry transcended into spiral staircases, and then ladders the higher we climbed. We passed through the room of the clocks and nearly reached the bells before a pad-locked grate stopped us. Another view of the city showed us we were actually higher in the sky than when we’d climbed the spire.


Llamas, Sacagawea and The Beatles

Our visit to the Basilica had us flying high, but our plans for the next day put us in the clouds. Pichincha volcano is the closest of several semi-active volcanos that surround Quito. A taxi ride from our hostel took us to its base where we paid $8.50 each to ride the teleferico to the top.


Okay, not literally to the top. Turns out it takes 2 1/2 hours of additional hiking/climbing to reach the mountain’s true tippy-top. We hiked a small piece of it and found two handsome llamas, but we were not up to the challenge of making the longer climb. We were now at 13,000 feet. Our bodies were still trying to adapt to climbing the stairs to our room at the hostel down around 9,300. A hike of 5 hours (round trip) was out of the question.

From our chilly perch on Pichincha we surveyed Quito much like we had from the airplane two days earlier. We spotted the Basilica, the plaza, monuments, parks and other landmarks. Quito is a beautiful city.


Whenever I mention how much something cost here in Ecuador, I’m telling you in US dollars. No currency conversion is needed either because the local money is oddly….the familiar US 20130827-202808.jpggreenback. As it was explained to us, Ecuador experienced a colossal economic crisis in 1999. It was Ecuador’s “Great Depression.” In March of 2000 the Ecuadorian government made the bold and controversial decision to adopt the US Dollar as a means of stabilizing the country. Apparently, it worked! We just like that it makes it easy on our heads whenever we buy something. Of further curiosity, we figured out where all the Sacagawea dollar coins went.

Later that day we met up with the sister of a friend of mine from Austin, Katie Stone (sister of Jamie Stone). She has been living and working (as a teacher) in Quito since last November. We were meeting her for the first time face-to-face, though we had been corresponding over email with her for 6 months. The day was Katie’s birthday and she invited us to hang out with her and her friends (some Ecuadorians and some from the states) that evening. We gladly accepted the invite and ended up having a great time at a place called BBQ; clearly styled after Buffalo Wild Wings. It was 2-for-1 prices on pitchers of Mojito Tea and we drank our share, not wanting to be rude, of course. Chicken wings and onion rings filled our plates and silliness filled the conversation.

We taught a couple of Katie’s Ecuadorian friends the meaning of the wonderful smack-talk line, “In your face!” Both of these friends (Gaby and Lorena) spoke English very well, but were somehow unfamiliar with this endearing phrase. Of great curiously to us was Gaby’s distinct British accent when she spoke English. She explained this was due to the influence of her first English teacher. (A real English teacher.)

Later into the evening, Gaby and Lorena invited us to come with them to see a Beatles cover band. WHAT!?! This was too good to pass up. There would even be a John Lennon – George Harrison theme to the setlist. We were all in!

What is your guess on how well they did?

Frankly, they were quite good indeed. They played Imagine, Revolution, I Am The Walrus, Strawberry Fields to name a few of John’s. Something, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Here Comes the Sun and even Handle Me with Care (from the Traveling Wilburys) represented George’s talents. They played for two hours so obviously there were many more songs than those I just listed. Impressive also was their choice of playing several of the Beatles more obscure songs, thus demonstrating the band’s true passion for the music.


The wings and rings were good, but not exactly authentic Ecuadorian cuisine. For this, we ventured out to Parque La Carolina on Sunday. It’s one of Quito’s major city parks and apparently the place to be on a Sunday. Ecuadorian families swarmed through every inch of that park providing us with plenty of local flavor. Some lines leading away from the food stands stretched 100 people deep. The longest lines weren’t for the funnel cakes, though that’s a good guess. They were for the Cevichochos. That’s a shortened term for Ceviche de Chochos. Ceviche roughly means “salad” and Chochos are a type of bean. Eureka! Solient Green is people and Cevichochos is bean salad. Yes, Ecuadorians will stand in really long lines for bean salad. Apparently, I will, too.

We found two types of beans in the cevichochos, neither of which am I able to name for you. One was about the size and shape of an M&M, but all white. The other was similar in size, but brownish and tasting roughly like a corn-nut. We learned the true secret of the cevichochos is all in the sauces. Once you wait and wait for your plate of cevichochos, you must wait again for your turn at the garnish table. There you’ll spoon-on some red sauce, some yellow sauce, and some oniony sauce that looks kind of like soup. Squeeze half a lime on top of everything, too. Don’t worry about your cevichochos getting cold while you are standing in the garnish line; it’s served cold from the start. You do get some heat from the pieces of pork and fried plantain they throw on top of your cevichochos… and from some of the sauces.


We were originally planning to stay just 2 days in Quito, but we loved it so much from the start we shuffled our schedule to gain an additional day. Why don’t more people visit Ecuador? They really should. Or, maybe it’s best to keep Ecuador a special little secret a little while longer, so Shhhh.

From here we’ll travel by bus to Tena, a smaller town right on the edge of the Amazon. Stay tuned…