Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Galapagos (pt. 1 - Santa Cruz)

The day we got to Quito we decided to book flights to the Galapagos. We got a great deal on flights that left two days later, which was a relief because Quito is actually pretty cold! We also wanted to find a good last-minute deal on a cruise during our two-week stay, and were able to book an 8-day, 1st class cruise for the second week of our trip for only a fraction of the going rate!

We flew to the Baltra airport and headed to the little town of Peurto Ayora on the Ilsand of Santa Cruz. Immediately, we were both amazed by all the foreign plants and wildlife surrounding us - we almost felt as if we were on an entirely different planet! During our first evening on the Galapagos, we settled down on a bench at the waterfront, grabbed some snacks and beers from the local supermarket, and sat in awe of the view (sorry, we didn't take a camera that time)!

The next morning we set off on the 2.5 km trail to Tortuga Bay. The path felt other-wordly, as it wove through giant cacti and other arid-tempered plants. We had to watch our feet due to the many lizards that crossed our paths, which was hard because we were busy looking into the trees at all the different birds!

Female lava lizzard.

Immediately we noticed how curious the birds were, especially this little mockingbird who decided he would help guide us to Tortuga Bay.

Finally, after nearly an hour (due to all the stops to admire plants and creatures), we saw the ocean!

Our toes were then greeted by the SOFTEST sand either of us have even felt - it had a texture and consistency that resembled all-purpose baking flour!

And although the beach was called "Tortuga" Bay, we saw only giant marine iguanas - and lots of them.

Just off the beach is a turtle-nesting ground.

We decided to follow an iguana for awhile...

Here is a little family of marine iguanas chilling by a mangrove. They subside solely on different kinds of algae.

Around the corner we found a calm lagoon surrounded by mangroves. We were told that one can see reef sharks and other fish snorkelling in this area, but we found the water too murky.

We did, however, swim with a pellican, who was busy chasing a little school of fish along the shoreline.

A view of Peurto Ayora (on Santa Cruz Isl.) from the trailhead.

A resident sea lion taking an evening nap at the Peurto Ayora dock.

On our third day, we ventured over to Las Grietas, a series of tectonic cracks filled with a mixture of sea and rainwater. We took a water taxi across the bay and took a trail that led us past a pink salt flat.

The water was pretty cold, but the surrounding rocks were nice and hot. Some of the local dare-devil teens were jumping from the top left rocks into the pool (a 50 ft or so drop)! We decided not to test our health insurance...

The boats outside the fish market at Peurto Ayora.

Below is a video of the fish market in operation!

On another daytrip, we ventured over to the Darwin Centre where we saw giant tortoises and land iguanas.

Apparently, nobody really knows how old tortoises can get, although it is speculated that they can live around 200 years. We were also informed they can survive without food and water for up to a year!

This happy little muncher is known as "Super Diego". This nick-name comes from his superior baby-making skills! He wasn't the largest or fastest tortoise we saw, but he was certainly the happiest!

Super Diego being super... with a theme song:

A very smily blonde land iguana.

And another very happy critter - a giant grasshopper (he was a good 5 to 6 inches long).

And an extremely happy cactus... a little too happy, in fact...

This guy didn't seem quite as up-beat as the others. His name is Lonesome George, and he is so-called because he's the last of his kind. Apparently all other tortoises like him are extinct (but scientists are still searching for another tortoise of the same species). He lives with two female tortoises of another species, but is unable to successfully mate with them to help save his tortoise race. We figure George may just be gay ("not that there's anything wrong with that").

Another tired looking creature is this "out-of-service" Monorail Lizzard!

And thus concluded our first week and our time on land... Next we headed off on our cruise (pt. 2)!!!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Otavalo, Ecuador

After crossing the border from Colombia into Ecuador, we breathed a huge sigh of relief and headed to the quaint little town of Otavalo. Hidden in a valley surrounded by three massive volcanoes (Imbabura at 4630m, Cotacachi at 4995m and Mojanda at 4263m), the smallish town of 30,000 or so inhabitants seemed even smaller. We were welcomed by very friendly and hospitable people, great and cheap food, and tons of fun stuff to explore.

Below you can see our view from the border, which consisted of someone pulling up bags from the Ecuadorian territory into the Colombian territory and into the bushes...

The clouds are hiding one of the massive, and luckily extinct, volcanoes.

The number one reason for our journey to Otavalo was the Saturday market held year-round in the town centre. The market was huge and consisted of many handcrafts, art works, jewellery, furs, clothing, traditional textiles, etc. We picked up some Christmas gifts to mail home and a few presents for ourselves.

A funny-looking pig and a roast boar.

For a fun day-trip we headed up the hillside to Otavalo´s Condor Sanctuary. We took a cab and on the way, our driver educated us on the different plants grown in the town. He pulled over a couple of times and ran outside to pick us some eucalyptus, quinoa and other random plants to touch and smell!

The bird sanctuary had not only Andean Condors (the largest birds in the world that is nearing extinction), but many different kinds of raptors, owls and eagles.

Below are adult condors, whose wingspans are around 3.2m (well over 10 feet) long!

We opted to walk the 6 or so km back to town along the muddy farm road, which was nearly deserted, except for a few pig and cattle farmers and a sweet little old lady who offered for us to buy the cute puppy she was carrying (it was soooo tempting, but Tyrone unfortunately said "no"). As soon as we left, thunder started to boom in the direction we were headed, but we luckily made it home before the rain started!

We passed San Pablo del Lago on our way home, which looked like it was being hit by the rain.

Just before we got to our hotel, we got to see an amazing panorama of Otavalo in all its glory. Enjoy the video below!

And just for you, Mom (Nina), here is the hostal\hotel room we stayed in! It has a second smaller bed on the other side of the room, a beautiful view of the hill outside, cable TV (with HBO), private bath, etc., all for the reasonable price of $16 per night!

Restaurants - The Good And The BAAAAD (Brau Platz in Quito SUCKS)

A little off topic from the usual blog posts, I´d just like to briefly hit on the food that we have been eating over here, and in particular, a comparison of two very memorable restaurants that we have visited on our travels (one exceptionally good, and the other, exceptionally not so good)!

First of all, the food:

For all of you thinking that we are on the traditional backpacker´s diet of spam, bread, and water..... think again. Throughout our travels so far, we´ve been blessed with copious amounts of grilled meats (in particular steaks and chicken), fresh fruit smoothies, cheap beer, and friendly service. A traditional meal in these parts (comida corriente) consists of: either grilled steak or chicken, rice, beans, salad, and a fried plantain, along with soup. All this runs for about $2-5 depending on the location. The meats are juicy and flavorful and the price is very much right. In my opinion, the best part of South American cuisine thus far*, however, has to be all the fresh fruit smoothies and juices, which can be had for about $1.

*SPECIAL NOTE, we have not yet reached the wine region of South America, so I don´t know if juice will hold its title as my favorite food here for long :)

Postre (dessert) can also be had here in abundance! There are panaderias (bakeries) and heladerias (ice cream parlors) on just about every block (each selling their treats for under $1).

The food here has always been good, but we were once encountered with an almost comically poor dining experience (related to service) in Quito at a bar named Brau Platz. Although we didn´t order food, we ordered a couple of margaritas, which turned out to be a very, very terrible decision. To put things into perspective, here´s a comparison of our favorite eatery thus far (Pacari Tambo in Otavalo), and Brau Platz (the worst bar EVER)!

Pacari Tambo


Brau Platz (Sucks)

+ Pacari Tambo serves a 5 star, 5 course meal, cooked by a gourmet chef, using only the finest local ingredients. This includes:

Freshly squeezed fruit juice

A bowl of popcorn with roasted nuts (to wet the appetite)

A bowl of freshly made soup. Pictured above is an organic cream of carrot with cilantro.

A creative, artistically designed appy. I can´t remember what that was, but it was gooooood! I think it was some sort of chicken in spices wrapped in cucumber.

A full entre of steak, salad, fried plantains, rice, etc. served with delicious sauces.

…And a dessert. (Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture of the dessert, because I was too excited to eat it. Rest assured that it was very, very good)!

- Brau Platz served us ´2 for 1` cocktails, and by 2 for 1, they of course mean that they advertise the drinks as two for one, but when it comes time to pay the bill, they come up with some reason to charge you for both drinks. In our case, it was because our 2 margaritas were two different flavours (even though they are technically the same drink and were listed at the same price!) :S

+ Pacari Tambo wouldn´t let us not have food in our mouths (because the service was so fast and plentiful). The nanosecond we finished one course, we were being spoon fed the next!

- Brau Platz took 30 minutes to bring us our over charged margaritas (which were melted by the time we got them), then another 30 minutes for the bill (which was incorrect and over-charged), then another 30 minutes to tell us that they weren´t going to adjust our bill = 1.5 hours for 2 drinks.

+ Pacari Tambo`s 5 course meal with drinks cost $4.50. Seriously! Half way through eating the meal, we started to think they said the meal cost $45.00, but the food was so good, we would have still been OK with it!

- Brau Platz margaritas cost $7.00 each. Yes, that`s $2.50 more than the entire 5 course meal at Pacari!

+ The owner of Pacari Tambo invited Lydia and I to dine with him and his friend, who was a local spiritual healer.

- The owner of Brau Platz sent me physical threats over Facebook after I added Brau Platz as a friend, only to post a rather discouraging review on their wall (he he he he, how dare he)

And the winner is......... drum roll.............. Pacari Tambo!

Anyone who is near Otavalo has to stop by Pacari Tambo for an incredible feast fit for the gods. Anyone who is near Quito should avoid Brau Platz like the plague!

El Totumo Mud Volcano, Colombia

During our first week in Cartagena we visited the famous El Totumo Mud Volcano, a 45 minute drive out of town. The volcano is apparently a natural occurance, and one of only a few in the world. The cone is approx. 50 ft high, and there is a fairly rickety set of steps leading to the top (and another set of slippery and questionable steps leading down).

The mud pool at the top of the hill was like nothing we've ever experienced before! When you first sink yourself in (or do a cannon-ball, as in Tyrone's case!), you can't move because the luke-warm, silky-smooth sludge is too thick, extremely buoyant, and there is no "bottom" to touch with your feet. One of the masseuses in the pit then tells you to "relax" a few times as you try to squirm along and then pushes you across the surface for the next person to get into the muck!

The mud is so buoyant that it is impossible to sink - no matter how hard we tried, we couldn't dunk each other!

The mud pool comfortably fits about a dozen people, and we were joined by a few fellow travellers from Canada, the U.S., and Ireland, as well as a couple of locals.

Regardless of whether or not you want one, you will get a mud massage by one of the male masseuses (or three in Lydia's case)! The part where they squish mud between your toes really tickles!

After you've been sufficiently rubbed down and covered in mud, you then carefully make your way down a set of slippery steps to a large lagoon around the corner. Here we are making our best mud poses:

A group of local women then splash you with buckets of water, rip off and wash your swim suits, and even help get the mud out of your ears for you (which is extremely necessary)!

The mud volcano is both a relaxing and invigorating experience that is not to be missed if travelling in Colombia! We are sure this will be one of the many highlights of our South American travels :)