A Travellerspoint blog

A cruise through paradise (part 1)

Some snorkelling, spirited sea lions and short spells of seasickness

sunny 27 °C
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Not-the-captain's log: Tuesday 27 October, 10pm

An exciting day has turned into a pretty painful night on the Encantada.

We met our guide and our fellow passengers at the airport. Guide Rodrigo is a rotund and cheerful mainlander, and our small boat has one other Australian, two Swiss friends, a couple of Dutch girls, and three Austrian colleagues, a total of ten. It's a fairly young group; the oldest would be one of the Austrians (37) and I'm probably the youngest. And there's six crew - Rodrigo, a mechanic, a chef, the captain and his deputy, and a 'cabin boy', who is actually a girl.

We were allocated our cabins and spent the next three hours on board watching (harmless) sharks circle the boat and waiting for the food packages to arrive. The small boat was rocking around quite a bit in the tiny waves - a prelude for later events.

But we finally got going, and enjoyed the sunny two-hour trip to Dragon Hill, our first stop. Some frigate birds hitched a ride with us, too.

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When the boat pulled up, we noticed the Flamingo there as well - the Macindoes' boat. We ended up running into them on dry land too.

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The Flamingo

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Dragon Hill is so named because of the masses of land iguanas that live there. We saw a total of zero, a reminder that nothing is guaranteed, I suppose, but we did see marine iguanas and a great view.

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We went snorkelling from the beach. The visibility wasn't great but the water was fairly warm, and we saw lots of small fish and a sea snake.

After dinner we played a ten-person game of Uno as the boat made its way to the largest island in the archipelago, Isla Isabela. The game was only broken up by people getting seasick. Caroline threw up a couple of times but seems to be a bit better now. I'm very close, actually, and I think the most reliable cure is sleep.

Wednesday 28 October, 9pm

Another brilliant day and a rocky night. We started at small, rocky Tintoreras Island, where hundreds of marine iguanas and sea lions lay across our path, forcing us to climb over.

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We also saw this mother and baby sea lion make a trip from the beach to the sea. And our first Galapagos penguins, and a Sally Lightfoot crab.

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In Puerto Villamil, the main settlement of Isla Isabela, we saw a flamingo feeding lagoon. They're very graceful animals.

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Less graceful are the giant tortoises. We saw another breeding centre next, which is rehabilitating different species than those the Charles Darwin Research Station.

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I haven't slowed this down at all

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A walk through wetlands took us to a lovely wide beach, where pelicans were diving for fish.

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Back on the boat for lunch, and then off again for more snorkelling. It was again a bit disappointing, but we saw a few large parrot fish.

The biggest highlight was yet to come, a contender for the best thing we've done for the entire three months so far.

From the beach, we went snorkelling again with fellow Australian Ben, while the others had cocktails in town. There were few fish, but we saw a couple of penguins up close, and two frolicking sea lions. And the sea lions certainly saw us too - they wanted us to play with them, and kept swimming towards us only to turn away at the last second, and swam rings around our legs, and snorted water in our faces. They even followed us to shore when we eventually got out. Luckily Ben had an underwater camera that he used to take this footage:

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Courtesy of Ben from Perth

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Sea lions playing on the beach

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Found lounging on all the town's benches

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We even found one on the back of our boat

Afterwards, we walked into the small town, and found our boat mates in a bar by another beach. They were quite inebriated by the time we got back to the boat for dinner.

It's another rough night, but we had a bit better idea of what to expect and how to deal with it, and we're going to bed early. Poor Caroline still vomited once though.

Posted by samoline 15:06 Archived in Ecuador Comments (2)

The coast with the most

After the altitude of the Andes, the tropical weather of Guayaquil and the beauty of the Galapagos is a welcome change

semi-overcast 27 °C
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Sam

On Saturday we caught the bus down from Cuenca, dropping more than 2500m as we reached coastal Guayaquil. With 2.3 million people, it's Ecuador's biggest city, and has a reputation for being crowded and crime-ridden.

But that's not what we found. We only spent six or seven waking hours there, but I thought it was lively, quite beautiful, and very easy to get around. There's not much competition yet, but still, it is my favourite city in South America so far.

For example, Quito's parks were nice, but lacked a few key ingredients, like a hundred or more iguanas.

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In the Parque Bolivar in central Guayaquil. Apparently the Galapagos donated a few iguanas and the population has exploded

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Adjacent to that park is this lovely cathedral

Guayaquil's waterfront makes Lima's beach look like a dump (which it actually is in parts).

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A peaceful protest on an unknown subject

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There's ice cream sellers, families, entertainment, and blue skies, something we've been sorely missing

And Cusco's artsy San Blas district looks pretty dull, at least compared to colourful and charming Las Peñas, just north of Guayaquil's city centre.

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So stuff the guidebooks, Guayaquil's great. (To be fair, Linda did catch a young kid trying to stick his hand in her empty pocket. But all's well that ends well.)

We had a nice farewell dinner on the beach with the adults, who are also in the Galapagos at the moment, but we're not meeting up again. We wish them all the best in Peru!

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The next morning it was taxi-plane-bus-ferry-bus to Puerto Ayora, the major town of the Galapagos Islands. We're staying in this ridiculously abundant island chain for a bit over a week, but that hardly seems enough. On our first morning we saw diving boobies, soaring pelicans and a couple of sea lions lazing by the waterfront.

Then we walked for about an hour to get to Tortugas Bay, a beautiful white sand beach that goes for miles. The current makes it dangerous for swimming, but turn the corner and there's a patch of water protected by a spit, as calm as a lagoon.

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Darwin's famous finches hop around scavenging, and marine iguanas surf the waves and bask in the sun.

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It's an expensive exercise to get here, but it's a pretty spectacular place.

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Today we headed out to the Charles Darwin Research Station. It's an important scientific institution that monitors species health and tries to protect the islands' magnificent biodiversity. We met a guy doing surveys about sharks for Massey University (NZ) and later in the day, a bird expert from the States who was working there.

Anyway, the main reason for going there was the breeding programs they run. The famous giant tortoises are making a big comeback, and some of the breeders are cared for at the Station. They're really slow, and incredibly ungraceful, and with all their wrinkles they look as if they've lived forever (well, they can live for around 200 years, so it's not far off).

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There's also land iguanas, which are more colourful than their marine counterparts.

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Caroline cooling off at the small beach at the research station

Back in town, we caught a glimpse of the tiny fish market, where sea lions flop around and beg for scraps, and pelicans are drawn by the fresh catch.

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Not ten seconds after the picture above was taken, that pelican on the right made the most of the fishmonger's turned back and gobbled up a huge, whole fresh fish. The storekeepers tried to stop him/her, but it was too late, and the pelican flew away with the fish in its expanded throat.

In the afternoon we took a water taxi to a nearby point, and walked to a fissure in the volcanic rock.

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It runs all the way to the sea, and the calm saltwater environment is great for fish. We went swimming and saw plenty of parrot fish, most longer than my forearm.

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On the way back we saw an egret stalking its prey, and went for a swim at the beach. Not a bad day.

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We're off on a cruise tomorrow, and we'll have no internet access for six days. We'll try to publish another entry soon after that. Until then, adios!

Posted by samoline 18:26 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

Cuenca-mazing

Another charming Ecuadorian colonial city

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Wednesday was fairly dull; we spent most of the day on the bus going through clouds.

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We arrived in the colonial city of Cuenca in the evening, and wandered around the square and through the cobblestone streets. In the evening we met up again with fellow tourists Linda, Al, Jan and Tony. They told us some stories of their exploits over dinner.

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Scenes in Cuenca

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Yesterday the more adulty adults had a private tour, so Caroline and I went out ourselves. First we had to deposit an obscene amount of cash in a local bank to pay for our Galápagos cruise coming up. That was harder than it sounded given our lack of banking-related vocabulary.

That done, we visited the deserted Museum at the Ministry of Culture, which had some delightful shrunken heads. Just behind the Ministry are the ruins of Pumapungo, an Incan site. It's not an impressive as some in Peru, but it's extensive nonetheless.

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A hallucinogenic plant

Apparently the Incas displayed their wealth with exotic animals and birds. So today, there's a little aviary (far too small, really) with beautiful toucans, macaws, buzzards, parakeets and other Amazonian bird life.

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Then we went back to the main square and visited the 'new' cathedral. Construction started in 1885, and only finished in 1975, so it's pretty grand. (Although some of the delays were due to the chief engineer being a priest who was completely unqualified as an engineer. There's still a massive crack down the middle of the facade because of his dodgy calculations.)

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Fortuitously, we met the awesome foursome inside. We walked with them up the huge spiral staircase to the top of the tower, to top off a good day's work.

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I got a quick haircut this morning, which makes for a pretty dramatic change of appearance since a few days ago. Then we dropped in to the Panama Hat museum, showcasing an industry that was once hugely important, but fell on rather hard times as fashions changed.

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Looking south from the museum
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Then off to the Cuenca Flower Market, rated by National Geographic as the best flower market in the world. It is indeed impressive, but then, I don't have many other flower markets to compare it to.

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In a church next to the flower market. Often locals will just drop in to a church, say a little prayer, and move on

And then to the 'old' cathedral, which was decommissioned when the new one was built. It has now been restored and functions as a museum for religious art.

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For lunch, we caught up with Linda and Al for some sandwiches, while I tried to recover a corrupted memory card. I failed, and in the process I even managed to lock Al out of his computer.

So while I took many hours trying to fix that (I eventually succeeded), the three Macindoes went to some nearby thermal baths. I am told they had a good time.

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We went to the Eucalyptus Cafe for dinner and I had a green curry - just like being back home!

Posted by samoline 20:53 Archived in Ecuador Comments (3)

¿Dónde está el baño?

We go to the town of Baños and realise 'baño' actually means 'bath', not 'toilet'

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Caroline

For our last day in Quito, we joined Mum, Dad, Jan and Tony for a trip to Otavalo, a town to the north of Quito famous for its market. The market has been going strong since pre-Incan times.

Adriana, our guide, explained everything to us as we drove the two or so hours to Otavalo – from the rose exporting business, to the war with Peru, to the President of Ecuador (he sure is a character - see here), she had it covered.

On the way we stopped off at Cayambe, which is known for its bizcocho (like Italian biscotti but nicer). We also sampled colada morada, a warm dark purple drink made of berries, and a pastry in the shape of a baby. The baby pastry was not as disturbing as I imagined. It is in honour of the ‘Day of the Dead’ coming up in November, aka ‘All Souls’ Day’.

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A delicious baby

In Otavalo we wandered around the food market, sampling fried beetles (crunchy and juicy – photographic evidence to come) before heading over to the more touristy market to peruse the handicrafts. Dad almost bought a poncho, but decided to go with the slightly less outrageous llama hoodie.

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Caroline and a beetle, about to be eaten

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Al and his (eventually rejected) poncho

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For lunch we stopped at Hacienda San Isidro, a secluded homestead in the mountains. Haciendas used to function like big plantations, using indigenous people as unpaid workers. In 1964 the government, under pressure from the indigenous people, made hacienda owners split up their property and give a portion of land to their workers. The Haciendas are mostly hotels now. We had the most delicious three-course lunch at Hacienda San Isidro, featuring a traditional potato soup and chocolate cake made from local cacao for dessert.

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Relaxing at the Hacienda

On the way back to Quito the threatening clouds finally opened and Sam took this artsy shot.

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Yesterday we caught the bus from Quito to Baños. Baños means ‘baths’ in Spanish and just like its English namesake, you can ‘take the waters’ here. However, unlike Bath, you can also try a lot of extreme sports.

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Today, we had a go at white water rafting in the nearby Rio Pastaza. Our instructor was very enthusiastic and possibly mad. He seemed to enjoy himself more than anyone else as we were propelled down the fastest rapids, laughing like a drunken hyena and shouting ‘no mercy!’. I had a go riding on the front of the boat and actually managed not to fall in, though many waves completely engulfed us.

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Practising pre-soaking

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Sam with the red sleeves, me at the back

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Holding on tight at the front of the boat

One of the more violent moments of the cruise

This afternoon we hiked 2km out of town to soak in the hot springs. After our battering this morning, the warm water was a welcome relief.

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Tomorrow we’re heading to Cuenca, Ecuador’s third largest city, to meet Mum and Dad again.

Posted by samoline 18:34 Archived in Ecuador Comments (3)

Singing in Quito

Not literally. But having a ball sightseeing in the world's highest capital city (or second highest, if you count La Paz, Bolivia, which is the seat of government but not the constitutional capital. But I digress)

overcast 22 °C
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We flew from Cusco to Lima to Quito on Thursday. That was fairly painless, but a three-hour journey on public buses to get from the airport to our hotel made us pretty tired. We had another early night.

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I took a 'selfie' with a llama at Lima airport

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The next day we explored the historical centre, which was itself designated the first World Heritage Site in 1978.

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Plaza Santo Domingo, near our hostel

We visited the main square, the Plaza Grande, which has the main cathedral on one side. We popped in, but they don't allow photos. You're going to have to trust us when we say it's beautiful inside.

Then we went to the presidential palace, where El Presidente struts his stuff. We took a guided tour inside, but unfortunately the main man Rafael Correa wasn't in. We still saw some cool things though, and looked out on the square from the balcony.

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Mural in the presidential palace

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Meeting room

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The Plaza Grande

We walked up the hill to the Basilica, and climbed the towers for great views:

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We followed that with a visit to Ecuador's most beautiful church, La Compañia, which is covered in gold. Not exactly subtle, but certainly impressive. No photos allowed again, so I got this one off wikipedia.

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Then the Museum of the City, where we learnt a bit about Quito's long and colourful history. It started pouring when we were inside, and we had to scurry back to the hostel.

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But some very important people had just arrived in town, so after drying off we walked over to a nearby hotel and met Caroline's parents! We'll be trailing and scrounging off them for a little while. We took them (and travel buddies Jan and Tony) on a short tour of the old city, and they took us out for a lovely dinner.

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The restaurant

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Another church we visited in the evening, Santo Domingo

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Today we looked around the New Town, which is much more like a normal, modern city. We bussed it over to Parque El Ejido, and looked around the weekend handicraft markets. There were some very talented artists selling their wares.

Then over to Parque La Carolina and the Botanic Gardens. Lots of orchid associations from around the country had sent their prizewinning plants to Quito, and there was a lot to see.

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Our final stop was Oswaldo Guayasamín's pad. He was a Picasso-inspired indigenous Ecuadorian artist who died in 1999, leaving behind a beautiful house, and a chapel-themed museum, with multiple large-scale works. Yet again, no pictures allowed inside, but it was pretty spectacular in parts, if a bit pretentious.

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The 'chapel of man' and the pool at his house
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The three pictures above are all from the quiet suburb of Bellavista, where Guayasamín lived for the last 20 years of his life

A bus took us back to the old city, and we hung out with Linda, Al, Jan and Tony for a bit, helping Al publish his first blog from the trip.

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Caroline and Al hard at work

We went out for dinner with a lovely view over the city.

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Posted by samoline 19:29 Archived in Ecuador Comments (2)

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