Thursday, September 29, 2016

A few more days in Quito

Quito is almost 2 miles above sea level and some people are affected by the altitude. I haven't noticed it too much except for 2 things: 1) I get slightly more winded than usual walking up stairs and hills and 2) my skin burns really easily! My nose is currently peeling and I think that my scalp is burned… (Note to self: bring a hat when you’re out all day.)

Quito is high, but it’s surrounded by mountains that are even higher. Quito is sort of like a sandwich - the middle of the sandwich, the peanut butter and jelly, is the city itself, and the two slices of bread are big mountain ranges. Locals say the city is like a banana - long and curved (between the mountains). The altitude didn’t keep me from having a few outdoor adventures, including a steep climb up another volcano and a city bike ride.

There is a cable car (called Teleferiqo) on the west side of Quito that takes you up to a point where you can hike ~3 hours to a peak near the Pichincha volcano. This is supposed to be the easiest hike in this area, but I would not call it easy. The last bit of the hike is more of a climb. I was on my hands and knees navigating around rocks for the last 45 minutes. (Coming back down required a lot of sliding…) It was good that I went on a Saturday when there were plenty of other hikers out, because the route isn’t well marked and it’s relatively easy to get lost if you don’t know the way.

I hiked to the point at the top, into the clouds!

This hawk flew in and sat right next to me for a few minutes at the top of Rucu Pichincha:

Proof I reached the top of the peak (4,696 meters above sea level is about 3 miles!):

Here are some intrepid hikers walk-sliding back down the mountain:

Sunday is the day of ciclopaseo in Quito. Almost 20 miles of streets in the city are closed to vehicles between 8 AM - 2 PM so that cyclists can ride freely. I rented a bicycle and rode around for 3 hours straight, seeing parts of the city I never would have seen on foot.

I've already left Quito (for the 2nd time) and am at my next destination - Otavalo - a town 2 hours north of Quito known for its huge Saturday crafts market and stunning mountain setting. It’s colder here because it’s at an even higher elevation than Quito. The hotel where I'm staying has an open plan with a central courtyard and balconies, which is very pretty, but also means there is no heat. Last night it was so cold I had to wear my wool hat and gloves to bed! I might have to buy a nice warm sweater at the crafts market on Saturday... If I can last that long. I'll write more about Otavalo soon with pics. Until then, ¡buenas noches!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Galápagos, Part 2: Swimming with sharks, etc.

The last part of my Galápagos trip was on Isabela Island, the largest island in the Galápagos with five active volcanoes. (It's the island on the map that looks sort of like a seahorse.)

I flew to Isabela from San Cristobal on this 8-seater plane:

I was directly behind the pilot.

(By the way, I WALKED to the aiport in 15 minutes in San Cristobal and WALKED from the airport to the town of Puerto Villamil on Isabela Island in ~25 minutes. I don’t think I’ve ever walked to or from an airport in my life.)

I stayed in the town of Puerto Villamil, which is tiny and relaxed, with a dirt road as the main road. Using Puerto Villamil as a base, I went on three excursions, one hike around Sierra Negra Volcano and two snorkeling + animal-viewing trips. 

The Sierra Negra Volcano was active in 2005! This volcano doesn’t spew lava like Mt. St. Helens, rather it sort of just gurgles lava when it’s active. When it was active in 2005, people could still hike around the crater and observe it. This is a picture of our guide Daniel (originally from Quito) in front of the enormous crater with a diameter of ~10 miles (the 2nd largest in the world).

On my snorkeling excursions I swam with sharks, sea lions, sea turtles, seahorses and more!

I swam with this shark! The sea lions were my favorite. They swam in circles around me and one looked at me directly in the eyes as if s/he wanted to play. (Sadly, no pictures of this.)

I saw many more animals endemic or unique to the islands, including the blue footed booby, the Galápagos penguin, and the famous giant tortoises. Also rare animals like flamingos.

Above is a nest with two baby blue footed boobies, which don't yet have blue feet (they get them after puberty... that is, if they survive through puberty; usually only one of the two babies survives to adulthood). Here's a short video I took of a booby "in action"!

After my time on Isabela Island, I took a speedboat back to the island where I started my trip - Santa Cruz - and spent about 24 hours visiting its beaches, lava tunnels, huge inland craters and the Charles Darwin Research Station before flying back to mainland Ecuador. 

In total, I spent time on three different islands: San Cristóbal, Isabela and Santa Cruz, and flew in and out of a fourth island Baltra. Even though I really enjoyed my time on the farm with the family in San Cristóbal, Isabela was my favorite island. I loved the wildlife, the gorgeous views, the volcanoes and the tour guides, who managed to be champions of the islands while at the same time being laid back and friendly (all the guides were Ecuadoreans). 

I am now back in Quito. Quito is a great city and there's a lot to explore here in mainland Ecuador, but I'm having a little bit of post-Galápagos depression. It's hard to say goodbye to such a unique place.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Galápagos, Part 1: On the Farm

My mind is blown by this place. I'm still processing it all, but I want to share some photos and impressions with you while they're still fresh in my mind.

First, the farm. But before I talk about the farm I have to explain a tiny bit about the geography of the islands. When hearing about the Galápagos, most people think of this:

But volcanic rock and exotic animals are only part of the Galápagos. Two of the eastern islands - San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz - were volcanoes millions of years ago but turned into non-volcanic islands whose centers are now lush and green, practically rainforests. The volcanic lava turned into fertile soil for plants and trees to grow. These areas support a lot of life forms (including humans!).

It was in this jungle-esque part of the island of San Cristóbal where I was volunteering on a farm. The farm isn't a typical U.S. farm. It's called a finca in Spanish, meaning a small private farm or homestead. The best way I can describe it is a scattering of plots of vegetables and trees in the middle of the jungle, situated on a slope looking out over the ocean.

This was my cabin. I had a view of the ocean from my room!

Some of my activities at the farm included planting and transplanting endemic trees and plants, clearing and burning invasive plant species, and tilling potatoes. The worst invasive plant species is the blackberry bush, which has spread its thorny branches all over the islands. (It sure tastes good in milkshakes though!) 

I also got to go on a lot of excursions, mostly hiking through the jungle, collecting wild fruits and even swimming in inland waterfalls. I sampled close to a dozen different types of fresh fruit either directly from the tree or the next day for breakfast with granola and yogurt.

left: papaya, banana, and "badea" with yogurt & granola; right: fried plantains and eggs

From trees we picked red and yellow bananas, papayas, passion fruit, guava, red pears, oranges, lemons, and avocados.

...And also this exotic fruit:

This fruit is called badea in Spanish which the dictionary translates as "giant granadilla" (which doesn't mean much to me). The flesh is mild in taste and its color a bit like honeydew melon with much sweeter, even tangy, seeds and pulp. 

My hosts were Milton and Norma Aguas. Milton was born and raised in the Galápagos and Norma has spent more than half of her life here. Milton grew up farming, fishing, etc., but spent many years in politics, including 8 years as mayor of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the capital of San Cristobal island, from 1992-2000. I also spent time with others members of their family, especially Milton’s nephew and neighbor, Fabricio. No one spoke more than a few scattered words of English. Thus, My time on the farm was as much Spanish immersion as it was volunteering activity and I learned a boatload of new words ranging from farming tools to fruits to general vocab, including one of my favorite new words chévere "cool" (pronounced sort of like "chebberay" with stress on the first syllable).

I also made friends with their Spanish-speaking farm animals, including the dog Lu (above with bananas), donkeys (burros & baby burros - burritos!), cats, and chickens.

Stay tuned for blog #2 on the Galápagos, including more of the "exotic" side of the islands!

Saturday, September 3, 2016

A few days in Quito

I made it to Ecuador! I arrived in Quito, the capital, late on Thursday evening. No jet lag, but I was still pretty exhausted. I’m going to try to blog a bit while I'm traveling this fall, at least to share photos. 

Here is the Airbnb I booked in the Mariscal neighborhood. I love the colors.

I had cake for lunch (apple cake with dulce de leche frosting). Don’t judge. I’m on vacation.

This isn’t the best pic of Quito’s Old Town, but it gives you a taste.

Ecuador uses US currency, but their old money is still floating around. I received this medley of change yesterday.

OK, I realize I just said I’ll be blogging again, but actually there will not be another post until around September 21. Tomorrow I’m leaving for the Galápagos to volunteer on a farm where there is not internet or cell phone service. I’m not sure what to expect or what I’m actually doing on the farm, but I’m hoping during my visit there to see giant tortoises, blue footed boobies, and amazing ocean views, and to get photos of all of this and more. So, sit tight and I’ll be back in a few weeks with more.

p.s. HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Christine Iwan Gardner!