In Review: Our Top Ten

Though narrowing a year’s adventure down to pick out our top ten experiences is a nearly impossible task, we tried to do it anyhow. After all, it seems to be what everyone most wants to know. So here it is, the ten experiences we most loved, ordered not by rank but in the order in which we did them.

1. Hiking Torres del Paine

Of all the landscapes we saw on our trip, I think the mountains of Torres del Paine were the most majestic. The sheer beauty of this place was breathtaking for each and every moment of the four days we spent hiking the W.

2. Traveling the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu itself is mindboggling and not just because of the altitude. The amazing architecture and well-preserved state of this city in the sky wowed us. But what made seeing it really special was the intense three days of hiking through the Andes that we had to do to reach it. We also got to enjoy the company of my brother Gregory on this part of the adventure.

3. Cruising the Galapagos

This was eight days of pure bliss. From swimming with sea lions, sharks, and penguins, to laughing at the antics of blue-footed boobies, to marveling at the beauty of the natural landscape, to watching the stars rise from the deck chairs of our catamaran, our experience in the Galapagos was top-notch. It was far and away the most budget blowing of our adventures, but it was worth every single penny.

4. Living it Up in Buenos Aires

An apartment in a nice neighborhood, big steak dinners, ice cream every day (at least once), and a visit from my parents…our stay in Buenos Aires was like a vacation within a vacation. The city is vibrant and easy to get around with great architecture and atmosphere and tons to do.

5. Going on Safari in southern Africa


We saw our first lion in Kruger, got up close and personal with rhinos in Hluhluwe Imfolozi, encountered more elephants than we could count in Addo, found a few new species at Mountain Zebra, and became king of cheetah spotting in Etosha. We did a lot of safari-ing and never once got tired of it. In fact, I’m ready to go again.

6. Seeing the Surreal Landscapes of Namibia


Namibia might not have many inhabitants but they sure do have impressive landscapes. At Fish River Canyon, in the Quiver Tree Forest, atop the red dunes of Sossusvlei, in the forests of Naukluft, or along the Caprivi Strip, we were pretty much constantly snapping photos.

7. Meeting the Lovely People of Likoma Island


Until we ended up there, Likoma Island was never even on our radar. Malawi was supposed to be more of a pitstop on our way up east Africa, but it turned into one of our favorite spots. There’s not a lot to do on Likoma Island besides lounge on the beach and enjoy the turquoise waters of Lake Malawi, but the people are among the most friendly, welcoming, and fun loving that we met on our journey. I think we wore a constant smile the entire week we were there.

8. Trekking with Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas


Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is not a misnomer as trekking through the dense forest is not easy, but every step is worth it for the opportunity to spend one hour in the presence of mountain gorillas. These magnificent creatures left us all awestruck. They are impressive in size, in expressiveness, in the way they reflect so much of us and we of them. Another pricey experience, but again worth every penny. Plus we had the good fortune to get to share the experience with Jeff’s parents and sister.

9. Learning to Scuba Dive


Experienced scuba divers claim that once you start, you can’t stop, and they know what they’re talking about. We’re already addicted and can’t stop thinking about when and where we can next dive. Take any of the underwater shows you’ve ever seen and multiply the magic quotient by 100. It’s that good.

10. Exploring Rajasthan


India was tough, but we did greatly enjoy our foray into Rajasthan. The forts, palaces, and heritage hotels preserved fantastic architecture and the feeling of glory days now gone. Though hassle was still present, it was low in comparison to other parts of the country, and we met some very friendly and interesting locals. This seemed to be the India of lore.

Ole!

The largest Carnival celebration in Ecuador is in the large city of Ambato. It is surprisingly large for how little you hear of the city, but yet, you understand when you get there because there is not much going for it really. Even for Carnival. We made a morning parade, which was flashy, wacky and colorful, but after that we were at a loss for what to do, as the only activity seemed to be drinking into oblivion. That and giant, city wide water and foam fights (with the occasional extra nastiness mixed in).

But then we saw a ‘corre de toros’ on the schedule. Taking this at a literal translation, we thought we were heading to a running of the bulls type event. Turns out ‘corre de toros’ is a bull-fight. But controversy aside, we both agreed we had never been to one of these either and it would be a fine experience to round out our Carnival celebrations.

We were treated to the full spectacle. We saw six fights. We saw a matador gored, only to return and triumph.

We saw a bull outlast a matador and get chased out of the ring, a ‘vive toro.’ Of the other four, we saw two daring and highly skilled matador performances, and two pretty pathetic ones. So we had a pretty broad experience.

But after all that, I’m not sure what to think. On the one hand, it’s a brutal way for a bull to die. On the other, when it’s well done and the matador is on top of his game, it’s incredibly thrilling to watch the control he has over the bull, and the daring feats he accomplishes.

It really becomes a dance with bull and matador, very artistic. And to me, in a ring, free and with a ‘fighting’ chance is a better way to die than in a slaughterhouse. Nevertheless, we decided we probably wouldn’t be going to any more bullfights. Except maybe an authentic one, in Spain. I’m sure those matadors are incredible.

The Loop

After Saquisili, the road heads up into the western Andes and a series of small, mainly indigenous villages popular with us gringos, the Quilotoa Loop. What’s great about the loop is there are small hostels in almost every town you can stop in where you can drop your things. So wherever you are when you decide you want to stop, well, you can stay there. It creates a real sense of comfortable adventure.

And some adventures we had. If there was anything to set the tone for our three days, it was our bus ride into Isinlivi, our first destination after the market. We climbed steadily into the clouds, and soon, a light rain. As we neared Isinlivi, the bus stopped before a sharp corner and the driver and ayudante got out and started going at the road with a hoe. Many other people got off and started moving rocks around, much to our confusion. It was then we noticed the mudpit in front of us. After twenty minutes of digging, we tried to pass, and while it felt like the bus was going to topple over, we made it through. But looking back after we passed, it was evident the bus behind us wasn’t going to make it. But they did try. And failed.

So we spent the next two hours trying to get the bus behind us through and then repairing the road so that the busses could make it back through the next day. The rocks that were moved with so much effort only made things worse. So then very muddy men hauled all the rocks out. The mudpit was drained and drainage ditches cut, leaving a very heavy road angle, but passable. So we moved on. The two hour bus ride took over four, and the hostel in Isinlivi, Llu-llu Llama, was all but shuttered thinking no one was coming that day. After a stroll through the one street town, we purchased lunch for the next day at THE store and settled in for a comfortable night.

The next morning, armed with a hiking guide from the hostel, we set off to walk to Chugchilan, many hours by a detouring road, but only a five hour hike from Isinlivi through gorgeous terrain and across a canyon. The recent rains made the ground pretty muddy and more than a few mudslides had wiped out sections of the trail, but we picked our way down to the river and back up into the clouds, finding a Don Bosco Italian woodworking carpenter student at the top of the cliff, anxious to sell us his crafts. While we were completely exhausted from our climb, he was friendly, did beautiful work, and comforted us by telling us it was only a half hour flat walk to our destination. Unfortunately, we had no means of carrying a four post bed away with us.

We arrived, sure enough, a half hour later, to Chugchilan filthy and just in time to witness an epic Carnival waterfight between the female workers at our hostel and the male construction workers. Both sides ended up soaked and covered in mud, flour and … other things. We felt downright clean by comparison after just walking through five hours worth of mud. We steered clear and observed the merriment from our second story balcony. Later, a volunteers birthday meant an evening party at the hostel, and being the only guests at the hostel (again), we were invited. It was a really nice evening of chatting at length with the owners, the three German volunteers and many of the locals they knew. The cuba libres flowed freely and regueton (I think every country has a different way of spelling this …) played loudly. Everyone was festive and cheerful and so friendly and easy to talk to, and really, so was everyone we met on the entire loop. I don’t think we passed a single person who didn’t initiate a buenos dias, buenos tardes or buenos noches, and often followed it with more conversation.

While we had originally planned to hike to the crater of Quilotoa the next morning, we were convinced by everyone at the party that it was a bad idea and we were better off hopping a ride with theĀ  hostel owner the next morning who was making the trip anyway. So we sat in the back of a seemingly shock-less pickup truck as it sped over potholes and around tight corners, though as we climbed and climbed we were quickly thankful to not be walking.

Instead of hiking up, we decided to hike around the crater, a striking beautiful set of cliffs diving down to an emerald green lagoon. The views out over the surrounding farmland (including almost all the way back to Isinlivi) were more striking than the the scenery within the caldera, at least until the clouds rolled in and all became shrouded.

Tired and dirty and ignoring the “warnings” from local hostel touts that there would be no more busses out of Quilotoa that day, we lucked into two direct bus transfers back to Latacunga, which also meant we missed the end of the market in Zumbuhua, much smaller than Saquisili, and the local art gallery in Tigua. Looking back on it, this is the kind of short trip I really enjoy, just a few days with a pack and the ability to piece together a trip, be it hiking, hopping a bus, or making friends and hopping a ride. It’s the kind of short trip that really feels like an adventure.

To Market, To Market To Buy a Fat Pig

Well, at least that’s why some people were there. We, not knowing international laws on transporting livestock, stuck to just browsing at the Saquisili market (though at only $1 each, Jeff was tempted to buy a chick, set it free, and see what happened). Held every Thursday, the Saquisili market is one of the biggest and most important markets in Ecuador. Along the Quilotoa Loop, a rural region home to primarily indigeneous families, the market is the main source of practically everything for people in the area.

In order to really experience the market, we got up early and headed out to Saquisili in time for the animal market, which is well on its way to shutting down by 8 a.m. when the rest of the market is just getting underway. From the bus, we followed the scent of livestock and found ourselves in a large area packed with people and their animals—sheep, goats, llamas, cows, and pigs. Who was buying and who was selling was nearly impossible to distinguish, but with some close observation we did see one transaction go down.

After a close inspection of the sheep, which involved grabbing them by the legs, flipping them over, and feeling around their breast area (all accomplished in less than 5 seconds), and some bantering over price, a couple walked away with two sheep for what we think was $120.

Tiring of the sheep, we headed to the pig section of the market, which was much, more noisier. I could only wonder how anyone can stand to work in a slaughterhouse. These pigs weren’t facing the hatchet (well at least not yet) but they sure did scream bloody murder as they were taken off of or loaded onto trucks.

From the pigs, we made a brief stop in the cow area, but weren’t nearly as entertained here, as the cows did nothing but chew their cud or nibble the grass.

In addition to the animal watching, we also did a good bit of people watching. The indigeneous people here amaze me. I think they can carry absolutely anything on their back. And watching them work in whatever conditions—mud and muck almost always present—while wearing skirts and shawls and hats and stockings makes me feel a bit self-conscious about how much thought I put into having the “right” clothes for whatever activity I’m doing.

As the animal market drew to a close and all the families settled in for hearty lunches (yes, it was only 8 a.m., but I imagine many of these people had been up since 3 a.m.), we headed for the seven squares of the town, in which vendors were selling just about anything you could want.

We saw women selling sugar cane and men sewing.

We saw huge bags of grains and pastas, baskets full of guinea pigs, some seriously silly looking chickens, worn (but not yet worn out) shoes, all the fabulous fruits and vegetables that they grow in Ecuador, blocks of sugar, and much, much more.

It was a fascinating look at local culture, and though we didn’t buy anything—except food (red bananas, small plums called claudias, mandarins, fried corn and cheese patties, fry bread, popcorn balls, and a grilled banana), I think it’s our favorite market experience so far.

A Few Days in Banos

Banos, which pretty much sits smack in the middle of Ecuador, is a popular tourist town, both with gringos and Ecuadorians. People are attracted to the thermal baths from which it takes its name (no, it’s not named after the bathroom, though every time we saw the city name included in a sign, such as the one that read “Civil Registry of Banos,” we had a good chuckle), as well as the splendid scenery around the town, which includes an active volcano as well as many, many waterfalls.

Riding bikes along the route of the waterfalls, a road leading from Banos towards the jungle town of Puyo, is a favorite activity, and we weren’t immune to its charms. Although I have to say that almost getting squashed by a load of paving stones that a dump truck tried to unload on us wasn’t my favorite moment.

No, the best part was stopping at the Devil’s cauldron, an immensely powerful waterfall that you could observe from various platforms and bridges as well as go behind for an up-close and very wet look.

As for the baths, well, I’ll take Papallacta any day. On an evening visit to the baths, Jeff was the only one of us to venture in. Personally, I just don’t like pretending to be a sardine and having other people I don’t know, most of whom are wearing much too small bathing suits, touch me. But hey, that’s just me. Apparently lots of other people find it to be extremely enjoyable.

So while we did take in the tourist highlights of Banos, what we really enjoyed about the town were the small things.

Like the store called “No somos Chinos … pero estamos de promocion,” which translates to “we are not chinese, but we are on sale.”

And the streets filled with taffy shops, where young men slung long strings of taffy up onto a nail in the doorframe and then stretched it out over and over and over.

And the shacks that sold pure sugar cane, which people chewed or drank by the liter. After trying it both ways, we decided we prefer the chewing rather than the drinking, though either way makes your teeth feel as if they are rotting.

And the crazy fools who jump off the bridge in town while local people watch and wonder what they hell they are doing and the local cops provide pointers to nervous jumpers while making their rounds.

And the oh so weird and wonderful church museum filled with items that people have donated either as a means of asking for a favor from the Virgin of the Holy Water or in thanks for one granted.

Really, is it any wonder Banos is such a popular town?

Welcome to the Jungle

During our years of thinking about, dreaming about, and planning for this trip, we came across many, many places that we wanted to visit. Some eventually got dropped. Some became maybes. And some became priorities, places we felt we just had to visit. The Amazon jungle was one of those places. If you recall, in an earlier post before we departed, we asked you all to vote on how and where we should experience the jungle. In the end, time and circumstances dictated, and we opted for a jungle lodge experience in Ecuador, 4 days at Jamu Lodge in the Cuyabeno Reserve.

In the end, well, it was okay. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great. Of all the must-see places that we’ve been to so far, the Amazon jungle is the only to disappoint. It’s really hard to say why. We had a good guide; he could spot things in the dark that I couldn’t have seen in the day time.

We saw lots of wildlife: squirrel monkeys and woolly monkeys, giant sloths, goliath tarantulas, anacondas, boas, tiny tree frogs, toucans, caimans, river dolphins, piranhas, lizards, and all kinds of other insects, birds, and other animals.

We didn’t have any bad experiences (though I have to say I wouldn’t particularly recommend our lodge to anyone looking). So what was wrong?

Well, have you ever been on the Jungle Cruise ride at Disney World, the one where you float around on a boat and random animals pop out? That’s how it felt to me. I never really felt a sense of adventure. Maybe it’s just that we got lucky and always easily spotted the animals we were searching for; we didn’t have to go too far or look too hard. It was too easy almost.

Or maybe it’s that we spent almost all of our time in a motorized canoe.

Every once in a while, when the motor was cut, and we could hear the sounds of the jungle around us, it felt like a cool place. But as we buzzed down the river, nothing but the sound of motor in our ears, it felt very much like an adventure park, and very little like an authentic adventure.

I don’t regret going. And I might even go again. But next time, I’d do it differently. I’d go for a longer time—say a few weeks. I’d take a small canoe and an oar to paddle it with. I’d go deeper. I’d move slower. I’d have a real adventure.

But that’s next time. And between now and then, I have a lot more places to go.

Snorkeling in the Galapagos: Don’t Forget the Fish

I’ve been fortunate to snorkel in some pretty amazing places: off the coast of Hawaii, in the Red sea, over the reefs of Belize. I’ve seen amazing coral formations, swam through a swarm of non-stinging jellyfish, been brushed by huge rays, and shared space with a green sea turtle. But snorkeling in the Galapagos tops all of that.

We were pleased in that during our 8-day tour, we were able to snorkel almost every single day, generally twice a day. We’d flip off the side of our panga (the inflatable boat that took us to and from landing sites) or wade in from the beach, stick our head in the water, and instantly be taken to another world. The water was, except for on one occasion, crystal clear with excellent visibility and, at this time of year, warm enough to swim in without a wet suit. Nearly constantly, you’d hear a faint yell and life your head to hear another snorkeler announcing an exciting discovery, or you’d follow the outstretched arm of the snorkeler next to you to see something amazing.

Upon reboarding the boat after an hour or so of snorkeling, we’d all share what we saw. Every day we’d hear something like this:

four white-tipped sharks!

White-tipped Sharks Shark Alley

a huge eagle ray!

three Pacific green sea turtles!

two penguins that torpedoed right past me!

a couple more penguins just bobbing on the surface!

a pair of sea lions that kept circling me!

a huge bull sea lion that was making sure we knew he was boss!

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And then, after we’d marveled at all we’d seen, someone would usually add a final thought: “The fish were pretty nice, too.”

Baby barracudas, orange puffer fish, trumpetfish, a highway of damselfish, blunthead triggerfish, parrot fish, and more—in a normal snorkeling situation, they’d all be worth an individual mention, but in the Galapagos, these brightly colored beauties were just an afterthought. I’m afraid that we’ve been spoiled.

Galapagos Reptiles: From Real Life to the Big Screen

Reptiles make up an important part of the Galapagos population, with the two most well-known reptiles being the famed marine iguanas—which propel themselves through the water with long tails and then dive down to feed on underwater algae before returning to land to recover their body temperature with long rests on hot rocks—and the giant tortoises—which can live upwards of 200 years.

Beyond sharing the commonalities of reptiles, the marine iguanas and the giant tortoises also share another feature: a face only a momma could love. And oh yeah, movie directors too. Take a look at these two animals and see what first comes to mind.

Did the tortoise make you think of E.T.? Legend has it that Stephen Spielberg fashioned E.T. after a tortoise, and hey I believe it. When they extended their long necks, I half expected them to voice, “E.T. phone home.”

The only noise they made, however, was a deep breathing sound reminiscent of Darth Vader and some pretty nasty masticating sounds (they’re messy eaters!).

As for the marine iguanas, well, I just can’t look at them without thinking Godzilla. This thought is especially prominent when they stick their head up over the top of a rock, like Godzilla towering over a building. Don’t tell me that you can’t see it.

Land iguanas, a species closely related to the marine iguanas, but without the ability to swim, also look quite similar to Godzilla but their more rounded faces and bright yellow coloring makes it not as much of a match for me. Decide for yourself, however.

Birds of the Galapagos

I’ve always sort of mocked birding. You walk for hours, trail whispers and sounds in the forest, only to catch the briefest of glimpses of a wing as it sails away from you. It never sounded like my idea of fun. Sure, I like hiking, and we tend to see a fair number of birds doing that, but to go out with the express intent of looking for birds has always seemed to me to be silly.

But there’s nothing silly about birdwatching in the Galapagos. It is just outstanding. You can’t help but be captivated by them and want to find out their names and what they eat and their courtship behavior, and so on. It’s the accessibility that makes all the difference. First, the terrain is very open. And second, the birds have absolutely no fear of humans. They nest right onshore and often right on the designated people trails. You can walk up to within mere feet of their nests full of baby birds. They will fly in and land directly next to you, or sail a few feet above your head. Boobies and pelicans will dive headlong into the water, splashing you in the process, and come up with a mouthful of fish. The frigate bird will then swoop in and a battle will ensue as they try to steal the catch. All this within an arms reach. You could join the fish fight too, if it wasn’t for that pesky no touching rule.

So I think you get my point, birdwatching in the Galapagos is awesome, and I’m sure all you want to see is the pictures. So here we go. I’ll just go ahead give you what you all want, Boobies! (the Blue-Footed kind).

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There are two other boobies, the Nazca Booby and the Red Footed Booby. Nazca’s just aren’t as pretty, as you can see, and we didn’t see any Red Footed Boobies as they were nesting on far away islands we didn’t visit.

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But don’t quit on me now, because there are lots of other really cool Galapagos birds, starting with my second favorite, the Frigates. They are just a strange bird in general. They don’t catch their own food, they steal it from other birds. When they’re young, they can get their own food at six months, but if their parents don’t feed them until they’re two, they’ll starve. Lazy birds. And the males during courtship inflate these red membranes under their beak and sit there all day courting females … but since they mate for life, they only accept “their” female. The Magnificent Frigate makes a drumming sound by pounding his beak on his red “drum”, while the Great Frigate makes a turkey like gobbling sound by shaking his whole body (hilarious to see!). That’s how the two species (which look very similar) keep from interbreeding.

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The other really beautiful bird is the Red Billed Tropicbird. It has this extra long tail feather. Aparently, Frigates are fond of pulling on this to make them drop their food.

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There’s also two different kinds of gulls, the Swallowtail Gull (the only nocturnal feeding gull in the world, for whatever that means to any of you) and the Lava Gull (of which there are only 400 or so in the world, all in the Galapagos).

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The Galapagos Hawk, which I don’t know from a regular hawk because I’ve never been this close to a hawk before.

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Flamingos, which are like Flamingos elsewhere in the world, so there’s nothing unique for me to explain here. We never saw too many of them, except for one young one that almost walked into a sea lion on the beach.

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Pelicans were always diving into the water, left and right, and generally looking rather comical for our amusement.

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There’s also a variety of herons who’s names I can’t remember any more, but they are, as always, very pretty birds.

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Sea Lions: The Welcoming Committee of the Galapagos

I have to admit that sea lions weren’t at the top of my list of animals I was looking forward to seeing in the Galapagos. Before we came, they seemed so, well, ordinary. They’re at every zoo and aquarium in the world, and it’s not rare to spot them in the wild. Practically any wharf has its share of sea lions begging for food from the fishermen.

But once we made it to the Galapagos, it didn’t take long for the sea lions to change my mind and quickly become one of my favorites.

At the port, as we waited to board our boat for the first time, the sea lions lounged on the benches, lazily opening an eye to survey us, as we snapped way too many photos, excited to be in this wildlife wonderland.

On the first morning, we woke to find that sea lions had decided to join us onboard our catamaran, and they amused us through breakfast as they’d jump off the deck for a swim and then haul themselves back up, non-paying but most welcome passengers.

With nearly every landing, we were greeted by a committee of sea lions that would surround the boat. The beachmaster male would bark to let us know that he was boss, but then would always let us pass without trouble.

Once on shore, we received a cacophonous welcome as the sea lions communicated with noises that sounded like they had serious cases of indigestion. For our entertainment, they would lie right at the edge of the surf and roll with each wave or literally ride a wave in from the ocean to the sand. They’d log roll themselves along the beach until they were covered in sand, or for sport chase an iguana or crab.

Sometimes they’d just wave a flipper or stretch into a picture perfect pose.

Posing Sea Lion Sea Lion Checking Us Out

Most endearing were the many, many pups, which didn’t think twice about coming up to us to nibble on our shoelaces or squeeze between our legs.

Sea Lion Pup Playing with Jeff Pups Checking Out Jeff

Though I don’t think it’s possible to be in a bad mood in the Galapagos, if you were, one look at these pups and you’d have a smile on your face.

And nearly every time we dove into the water for a snorkel, the sea lions joined us. They’d buzz past us quickly, moving with complete grace. They’d swim slowly under us, checking us out as we checked them out. Or too lazy to move from the rocks on which they’d perch, they’d only stick their heads in, keeping an eye on us privileged guests as we spent a little time in their home.