Well, friends, it’s been quite the year! When I’m old and grey and looking back on my travels, this will certainly be one of my favorite years to reference. Here’s how our adventure-filled 365 days played out:
The Galapagos Islands: Back When I Was Fulfilling a Dream of Mine
So, how exactly do you blog about a trip that has meant so much to you for so long? It’s hard to know where to start, friends, I’ll tell you that much.
Let me start from the beginning. When I first started out in college as a bright-eyed freshman, I went in as a biology major, since I had had the dream of becoming a vet for oh-so-very long (nevermind the fact that this dream eventually gave way to my one of being a journalist … let’s skip that part for the purposes of this story). During fall semester of my freshman year, I became obsessed with a school trip to the Galapagos, where we would be following in the footsteps of Darwin, making amazing discoveries and partaking in fascinating experiments.
Not to make things dramatic (who are we kidding — I’m nothing if not dramatic), but my parents wouldn’t let me go. So it became a goal of mine to, at some point, make it to this beautiful, interesting, historic place.
And a few weeks ago, I did, friends — I accomplished the goal. Go me! And it was way, way, way more than I ever could have hoped it would be. Little did I know what adventures awaited both me and Chris when we signed on for the 5-day Aida Maria cruise in the Galapagos (which, by the way, was booked by Southern Explorations on our behalf as part of our whole Ecuador package). Little did I know that we would fall in love with our tour guide (a Galapagos native named Reuben who walked around everywhere barefoot), or snorkel 2-3 times every single day with everything from sharks to sea lions, or see penguins and owls, as well. (Penguins, for goodness sake!).
If you’re an animal lover, you must add the Galapagos to your list, because there is no place on earth like it, my friends. So far in life I’ve had the great opportunity to snorkel in some pretty amazing places (the Bahamas, Jamaica and the Great Barrier Reef, to name a few), and nothing even came close to snorkeling here. (Sorry, Barrier Reef. You were awesome and all, but the Galapagos has my heart.)
Let me start by explaining our boat to you. The Aida Maria is a small-ish sized yacht that fits up to 16 guests, and we had 15 on board for our trip. Lucky for us, Southern Explorations booked our trip early enough so that we got a top room (there were only two available, and we were told they’re booked on a first-come, first-serve basis), because it really helped make the cruise special to be able to open our bedroom door every morning to gorgeous Galapagos waters. The size of the ship also means that space is pretty limited, and while we had bunk beds in our room, Chris and I used the top bunk to store our luggage and we slept together on the bottom bed. I’m honestly not sure what people did who didn’t share a bed, because there would have been very little floor space for luggage.
In terms of our itinerary and the islands we visited, here’s what we did:
AM: Baltra Island
PM: Bachas beach (and our first snorkel!) on Santa Cruz Island
AM: We woke up after cruising all night in the midst of Genovesa, a shield volcano in the eastern Pacific Ocean
PM: The Barranco (aka Prince Phillip’s Steps and the place where we found owls!) at the top of Genovesa
AM: Bartolome Island
PM: Sullivan Bay and its insane lava fields on Santiago Island
AM: Daphne/Black Turtle Cove
PM: Cerro Dragon (a trail that runs through three different environments even though it’s just 1,600 m long) on Santa Cruz. It’s named this because the northwestern side of Santa Cruz Island is home to an impressive population of Conolophus subcristatus, or Galapagos land iguana. We also had our final (and my favorite) snorkeling excursion on this particular outing. It was here that we saw sharks again, and I had one playful little sea lion who swam in circles around me while I snorkeled, waving her cute little fin at me the whole time. Oh Galapagos — you slay me with your magical moments.
AM: The Charles Darwin Station, where we saw giant tortoises! We were a bit bummed as we left that we hadn’t seen these awesome animals in “real” life, but as we were driving back to the airport we saw three or four them along the side of the road — so check that off the list 😉
PM: It was back to Baltra to catch our flight back to the mainland Ecuador
Something else that was really cool about the trip is that everyone’s itinerary was planned by the National Park Service in order to keep as few people as possible on the islands at the same time. So for example, even if we were docked at an island with two or three other ships, we were never doing the same activity at the same time as the people from the other boat. If we were hiking, they would be snorkeling, and vice versa.
The last night of our trip we even got to go out to a bar (which was a good thing because the ship ran out of booze!) with a couple other young people from our boat and our tour guide (there were some restaurants, shops and bars at Puerto Ayora, which is where our tour guide was from. We even got to meet his adorable wife and 5-year-old son!)
Now let’s get to the fun part — the photos!
^^ This (not so) little guy is a land iguana. We came across another one later in our hike that walked a good 100 feet towards our group of 16, bobbing his head in warning the whole while, before getting a couple of feet in front of us and turning around. I think he made his point, though 😉 Land iguanas are pretty territorial, but they’re also pretty harmless.
^^ Pink flamingo!! Look at this scenery — does it not look like another planet?
^^ Clawless lobsters at the fish markets in Puerto Ayora.
^^ A marine iguana just hangin’ out. Watching them swim in the water is pretty amazing.
^^ How cute are the giant tortoises?! They can live to be between 120 and 150 years old, so you just know they’re super wise 😉
^^ These bright red crabs against the black lava? Amazing.
^^ Being in the water snorkeling was amazing, but watching sunsets from the back of the boat wasn’t too shabby, either.
^^ The sea lions would get so close to you! And our tour guide would say, “Just see what happens.” Animals on the islands are super curious, and because humans aren’t their predators here, they are just fearless. It’s pretty cool.
^^ A lava heron (which we concluded looked shockingly similar to a grumpy old man, no?!)
^^ A few minutes after this photo was taken this sea lion would take a big ole’ dump in the water while I was snorkeling, totally bringing me back to earth (and out of the water!) from the surreal moment I was having. See the one in the background, too? With his nose in the air? I always wondered what they were thinking when they did that. So cute!
^^ The blue beaks on the red-footed boobies are simply beautiful.
^^ This was a view from Cero Dragon on Santa Cruz island.
^^ Penguins! Can you believe the Galapagos has penguins? What doesn’t this place have?
^^ Look at our cute little boat — oh how I miss it!
^^ Chris took this photo of me at Sullivan Bay on Santiago to demonstrate how far and wide the lava fields went. And our tour guide went barefoot on this! Poor Reuben — his feet were too big for standard Ecuadorian mens’ sizes, so he grew up not wearing shoes most of the time, and now his feet are tough as nails! (As was demonstrated on many, many, many occasions on this trip.)
^^ The site of one of our many, many snorkel adventures.
^^ “There’s a blue-footed booby on the rocks!” This was an inside joke amongst everyone on our boat, since we came to realize that we could listen carefully for Reuben to call out loudly when we were on hikes or outings and he spotted some wildlife he really wanted us to see. His enthusiasm was seriously contagious. You could tell he loved his job and loved the Galapagos and just wanted to teach us everything he could, and that was just the best.
^^ We took the dinghy’s out one morning to Black Turtle Cove and saw all manner of animals, from the blue-footed boobies above to this green turtle, to mating sea turtles to sting rays and sharks.
^^ Four stingrays in a row, right in front of our boat.
Honestly, we took about a gazillion photos here friends, as I’m sure you can imagine, and culling them down into just a couple is really hard. But I think what I’ve included here gives you a good indication of what the Galapagos is like — and it’s simply a heaven on earth.
So after our five days on the boat we caught a flight back to Quito and Jorge dropped us back off at La Rabida for what turned out to be only a couple of hours, since our flight to Costa Rica was super early in the morning and we basically had to be picked up at 2 a.m. to check in and such.
We leave for Australia this Monday (ah, I can’t believe it!), but I’ll be sure to get my final South American post — Costa Rica! — up as soon as possible next week. So bis bald for now, my friends! I shall see you all again very soon!
Ecuador Part I: Quito and the Amazon
So after our adventures in Peru, Chris and I packed up our belongings and headed to the airport to fly a bit up the continent to Ecuador, where we would be taking part in the second, third and fourth parts of our South American adventure: Quito, the Amazon and the Galapagos Islands.
A note about this part of the trip, before I get into it. We booked everything in this section of the trip with a company called Southern Explorations, which I would highly recommend to anyone looking to book an adventure in South America (they have many different trip options). Here’s what was included in our trip package:
- Our hotel during the nights we’d be staying in Quito
- A half-day tour of Quito
- Our trip to the Amazon
- Our trip to the Galapagos
- Transfers to and from the airport for each and every one of those trips
- Meals for everything except the days we were in Quito
Here’s the thing about booking the trip this way — it was pricey. Honestly, I’m sure we could have put the puzzle pieces together ourselves and paid less, but at the end of the day, it was so incredibly nice to know that we were being taken care of (and that we wouldn’t need to even think about little details like where and when to bring our passports, how much the Galapagos Park entrance fee was, etc., because they reminded us of everything along the way), that we didn’t mind paying a little extra for that sense of comfort. The hotel Southern Explorations booked us at in Quito (called La Rabida) actually turned out to be one of our favorite hotels of the trip, too. The breakfast was always stellar (and we ate dinner here one night, too, and it was super tasty), there was always a fire burning in the fireplace at night and plenty of books to read about Ecuador, and there was even an adorable little fat brown bunny that lived in the garden of the hotel, named Brownie, that you just know Chris and I became obsessed with. Oh, and the coffee!? Amazing.
Here’s a bit of what we saw during our stay in Quito (which was three days before we flew out to the Amazon, then one half day/night between the Amazon and the Galapagos and one more night again before flying out to Costa Rica):
^^ This statue was a gift to the city, but its back faces towards the more poor area, and the people who live there unfortunately took that to be a bit of a slight.
^^ The Old Town section of Quito is beautiful during the day, but our tour guide warned us that it can be a bit desolate, and even dangerous, at night. If you make it here, however, be sure to NOT MISS the Iglesia de La Compania de Jesus church. Unfortunately we couldn’t take photos inside, but I’ve never been to a more beautiful church, and it’s absolutely not to be missed when you’re checking out this part of Quito.
^^ We were in the old section on a Monday, so we were lucky enough to catch the changing of the guard at the Presedential Palace, which really is quite the show.
^^ We also visited the part of Quito where the lines of latitude and longitude are zero, which was fascinating. (There are actually two of these places. The first was the one the French thought was zero latitude, but the Ecuadorian army later scientifically determined the actual spot to be about 200 meters away. Still, that’s not bad for an educated guess!) Anyway, the equator line is so weird! This is me, trying to balance an egg on its end (which our tour guide and someone else in our group successfully managed to do), and you have practically zero strength on the line as well. It’s also incredibly hard to walk in a straight line when you’re directly on the equator (as demonstrated by Chris, below), and the water really does flush in different directions to either side of the line. So cool!
I feel as though I would be wrong to ignore something that came up a lot while we were in Quito — which is safety. We didn’t do a ton of research on the area before heading there, since it was part of our package anyway, and we’d be spending so few days there, but as it turns out, there’s quite a bit of noise on the internet about the safety of tourists in the area. While I think a lot of this has changed in recent years, I think it doesn’t hurt to be on high alert if traveling to this area. (Of course I think it doesn’t hurt to be on high alert when you travel to any area, but perhaps a bit more so in this particular one.) I wouldn’t walk at night anywhere (cabs are readily available, although you need to be sure to get in legitimate cabs with meters, and make sure the cab drivers actually turn on the meters, because they will try to stiff you), and don’t be flamboyant about things that call you out as a tourist — like carrying ginormous cameras or stopping to look at a map every couple of feet. The first day we arrived in Quito it happened to be a holiday, and we found the city to be pretty empty and a bit desolate, which to be honest made it a bit creepy. But after the city filled with people again, and when we roamed around during broad daylight, we found the people to be friendly and helpful, and nothing was scary at all.
We also had some of our favorite meals here in Quito. Our tour guide (Gorge, who was one of our favorite tour guides of the whole trip), suggested one little restaurant called Mama Clorinda, where we ate empanadas, potato soup, shrimp and rice and lamb stew (Chris, not me), that was all totally delicious. Chris also really enjoyed the steak at La Casa de mi Abuela.
After our three days in Quito, we headed back to the airport with Gorge to catch our flight to the Amazon, which was a pretty surreal experience in and of itself. We stayed at Sacha Lodge, which we really loved. The food here was pretty amazing, especially considering the fact that it was buffet style made for dozens of people all at once, and the lodges themselves were gorgeous, wooden cabins with big, bright hammocks on open porches directly in the rainforest.
^^ These little leaf cutter ants were so amazing! They were one of the first signs of life we saw when we arrived, and there was a whole big stream of them running across the path we had to walk to get to our lodge, busy carrying those little leaves to their new destination.
^^ To get to the lodge, we had to fly to another city from Quito, take a 2.5 hour motorized canoe ride, walk a mile through the rainforest, then take another 15-20 minute canoe ride to the lodge itself.
^^ Sunset over the Sacha Lodge lake was pretty epic every night.
^^ The very first night we were there we went on a night hike and saw all kinds of creepy crawlies. You’d think that seeing creatures like this would freak me out, but honestly it didn’t — it was all fascinating.
^^ Baby tarantulas! We would see very many of these during our stay at the Amazon, most of them a whole heck of a lot bigger than this one.
^^ Look at this little cutie patootie!
^^ These parrots fascinated me. They come to the clay lick to eat the clay, which helps neutralize the acid in their stomachs from eating berries and such. Such smart parrots.
^^ One of my two favorite moments in the Amazon occured while I was in the shower. Like I mentioned, our cabins were pretty awesome, and the bathrooms were the absolute best. The back of the shower was just a screen, which looked out directly into the rainforest. So one day while I’m showering, I happen to notice some movement in the woods, and it was this little monkey, along with about five or six of his friends! Monkeys — just chillin’ in the rainforest — which I could watch all to myself while I took a shower. Once in a lifetime experience, for sure.
^^ How cute are these cabins!?
^^ One day we went into the butterfly house, which housed hundreds of amazing, beautifully colored butterflies, along with one nasty, huge tarantula that had moved in and just occasionally snacks on the butterflies.
^^ We took a lot of canopy walks high above the trees, where we saw tons of birds like Toucans and Hummingbirds and even a King Vulture!
^^ This snake, which we happened upon on one of our hikes, is referred to as the Venti Quatro, because once bitten by it, you’ll die within 24 hours. Nice, right? And he was thisclose to us on the hike. This was also right before a tree branch broke and Chris was showered with fire ants that bit him all over his arm. While he was in pain for about nine hours after it happened, he now thinks this is pretty bad ass. I mean, if you’re going to be in the Amazon, you might as well have a story to tell, right?
^^ We went piranha fishing, and I was the first person to catch one! It was so crazy. You put some meat at the end of a fishing pole, and when you throw the line in, you can’t even see the piranha attacking it, you just see the meat moving around in the water as they snip at it. This is a red-bellied kind.
^^ Amazing Amazon hammock views.
The thing that makes both Chris and myself a little sad is that our camera didn’t have a better zoom, because some of the birds we saw were absolutely amazing, and our camera just wasn’t cutting it in terms of capturing their essence. But we spent four days in the Amazon, and it was both terrifying, beautiful and exhilarating. We did a lot of activities during the days, but we also had some time to relax, which was highly welcome.
After our Amazonian adventure, we packed ourselves back up, headed back out on the canoe rides and hikes that would eventually get us to the airport, and flew back to Quito, where we would have a half day before flying back out the next morning to … THE GALAPAGOS!
Guys, if you know me at all, you’ll know that making it to the Galapagos has been a dream of mine since my freshman year of college (so, you know, for a little while now!). Once we got there, it was more than I ever could hoped for. I can’t wait to share that experience with you tomorrow!
Bis bald for now, my friends!
The 52 Project: November 16
^^ Hey guys! So once again our internet abilities is forcing me to post a 52 Project photo on a Sunday instead of a Monday. We are currently in Escazu, Costa Rica, and we leave bright and early tomorrow morning for our 5th and final destination of our South American tour — Tamarindo, Costa Rica. The photo above, though, is from my new absolute favorite place on earth – the Galápagos Islands. There is so much I can’t wait to share about this trip, but I can say without a doubt that the Galápagos Islands are one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been. I’m making it my travel mission to get back to this place again. Bis bald, friends – my next post will be coming at ya from back in the States. Massive bummer.