The decision to go to the Galapagos Islands was one that surprised us all. Prior to coming on this trip, we hadn’t even considered going to the Galapagos. As we’ve travelled through Columbia and Northern Ecuador, we’ve met person after person, mostly backpackers, who gleamed and glowed about their Galapagos adventures. Many, who had opted out of exploring the islands, expressed regret for not doing so. We bit the bullet, my mom found us a last minute deal, and we forgot the rest. We flew out of Quito early in the morning, to clear skies and a view of Cotopaxi that made us drool. We landed on Baltra island and were transported to the 14 passenger boat that would take us around to 4 different islands. The water was clear as crystal and turquoise blue. The Islands were uninhabited and barren of vegetation, except for cacti, mangroves, and small endemic brush. For us, guide-shy people, Edison was the low key, laid back guide we were meant to have. Our friend, Cindy J. would have marveled at the birds, which included frigates, nazca boobies, red footed boobies, pelicans, galapagos hawks, galapagos doves, and on and on.
On one particular snorkeling trip, as Darin and I were putting our masks on, I saw two sets of large shark fins and finally saw the 10-12 foot bodies attached to them. While I was trying to hide in the bottom of the dinghy, the guide urgently started yelling “VAMOS!”, telling us to jump in right away to swim with the gray monsters! Uhm, I’m sorry but innately, uhm, HELL NO!
Ok, so we jumped in and swam with huge hammerhead sharks, galapagos sharks, reef sharks, and manta, eagle, and cow rays. I figured it was good training for the next time we see a shark while surfing.
The galapagos islands have some of the world’s strictest restrictions on the number of visitors permitted. This makes for a feeling of being nearly alone, with only the occasional sighting of another boat or two, holding no more than 20 passengers. This place epitomizes eco-tourism. From the careful attention paid to proper disposal of trash and recyclables, to the assurance of keeping invasive species out, to keeping every grain of sand on the beach, the people of Ecuador have a deep respect for this archipelago.
The kids were so very happy about being on a boat for 4 days. I’m surprised that they (Marco) didn’t suffer from more sea sickness as we made the 11-12 hour night time traverses from island to island. We had lower bunked cabins that enthusiastically rocked and rolled while we slept.
Actually, I thought for sure that Darin would lose his cookies, as always, but no, he managed to remain puke free.
Like no other place in the world, in the Galapagos islands, the animals have no fear of humans. They stay perched, or beached, or treading water while one walks or swims by. Apparently, it’s been this way since Watkins and Darwin explored the area. They’re said to have effortlessly picked up and held the fearless birds and animals. It’s like they’re all on drugs, but not at all…it’s fascinatingly strange.
When we weren’t exploring one of the islands or its’ water, we were on the boat reading, napping, eating, and enjoying a cold beer or glass of wine. We felt spoiled, to say the least. We got off the boat and spent an extra 2 nights on Santa Cruz Island in Puerta Ayora. We walked around the few tourist trap shops but still couldn’t help but buy a few t-shirts. Lucky for our friends, we refrained from buying any of the “I love boobies” shirts donning blue bird feet.
Darin and I spent a morning surfing at Tortuga Bay. We hiked 6 km under the beating sun carrying our boards, hoping we’d be rewarded for our efforts. The white sandy beach was isolated, soft, and the waves looked big and awesome. We had a most excellent time, while catching some waves that splashed the ants out of our pants and left us looking forward to plenty more Ecuadorian surfing. I was thankful for our previous shark training as a shark zipped by twice in a big wave in front of us. I looked over at the 2 other surfers in the water to make sure they were ahead of me, that way, they’d get eaten first.
The seafood and tuna were fresher than fresh. I’m now planning all sorts of seared tuna salads and Eurovan based sashimi parties in the weeks to come.
On our last night on the Island of Santa Cruz, we went out for what was to be a slow dinner, with crazy good Passionfruit Mojitos and grilled fish and seafood. We were relaxed, the kids were busy with the coloring posters my mom had brought, and we were enjoying a relaxed conversation about surfing. We were waiting for our food, when the waiter came to tell us we needed to evacuate immediately due to the severe probability of a Tsunami that would touch land 90 minutes later. Apparently this was coming from a 8.2 earthquake off the coast of Chile.
We left our drinks on the table, grabbed our nice food in styrofoam containers and took off for higher ground. The Tsunami evacuation area was the community center area of town, about 120 feet above sea level. We immediately regretted having watched the movie “The impossible” with the kids. Simon was in a pure hysterical panic, thinking this meant death. Marco on the other hand, was calm but wanted to find a basement and shut the door. The tsunami sirens rang out as people were hurriedly running around and emergency vehicles navigated the streets, making evacuation announcements on their loud speakers. We ate out our nice grilled dinner, and watched locals play “Ecua-ball”, which is played everywhere in Ecuador and is like 3 on 3 volleyball with a much higher net and pretty much no rules. The tsunami warning was cancelled by 9:30pm and we all walked back to our “habitacion” as though nothing had happened.
We now find ourselves looking forward to tourist free $1.50 meals again and to being reunited with our dirty van. This was an unplanned, vacation from vacation that we’re thankful to have shared with my mom and we won’t soon forget.
As soon as we crossed the border into Ecuador, we realized that overlanding in Ecuador would be much faster and easier. The roads are smooth, fast, and seem much less curvy. The roads’ life threatening thermometer has cooled off significantly. In remembering Marco’s 4 episodes of throwing up in the car, we’re hoping to be puke free from here on out.
Within an hour, we were pulled over by the Policia de Ecuador. Unlike the boisterous, pleasantly curious police in Colombia, these guys were all business. The 4 police officers approached the van and as the fist one made it to Darin’s window asking for “passaportes”, the second one was opening my door and helping himself to my door pocket’s contents. He picked up and inspected our first aid kit, hair ties, old wrappers, my glasses, etc…how rude! As I was biting my tongue, the third officer was knocking every few inches of the length of the passenger side. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to be intimidating, or if he was trying to find his inner percussionist. After wanting to know our occupation, our plan, and all the usual, the officer at my door nicely placed everything back where it came from and said “tank yo vary much!”.
The Northern central highlands are mostly farm country, with mountainous fields that look like quilts of greenery. Their patterns and beauty seem to have the power to grab ahold of our gaze and redefine it.
Our intention was to stop somewhere in the northern highlands but all we saw were farms and a few very strange highway side “resorts” with scary pools and waterslides that looked brittle. We felt like we needed to just drive further south than we’d planned on, but the driving is so easy here, we travelled in 2 hours what could have taken 2 days in Colombia.
We spent 5 days in the town of Otavalo at a hostel called Riviera-Sucre, which was basic and comfortable.
We spent our days walking down to the town’s food market, where we ate amazing meals for a dollar. We were so inspired by the freshness of the food, that we spent most of our time cooking meals that we couldn’t get out of our heads.
The market had the best grapes I’ve ever had, along with corn nuts that blew our minds, and things like the most beautiful bunches of spinach for $0.25. The meat vendors were plentiful, selling every part of the cow imaginable, sheep heads and whole roasted pigs garnished with tomatoes.
Darin had an inkling for a rib roast. Even after we figured out how to say it in spanish “rosti de costella”, the butchers had no idea what to make of this cut of meat. After many attempts to explain what we wanted, Darin ended up behind the counter, holding the giant piece of meat, and helping himself to the butcher’s saw while everyone stared open mouthed. As we walked away, Simon said “Daddy, you gotta admit, that was a bit ridiculous!”.
Darin carefully cooked his meal and we all hungrily and excitedly sat down to eat. The first bit of meat revealed something analogous to fresh leather. We all sat and chewed and chewed and chewed, and still we couldn’t swallow. We later found out that the beef in Ecuador has a reputation for being tough and not so good.
We spent one afternoon in Cotacachi, a small neighboring town, known for it’s incredibly inexpensive leather. We’re not really leather people but we did walk away with 4 custom fit belts. I haven’t owned a leather jacket since 7th grade and I never thought I’d own another one but MY GOSH, I’m so excited about the one I bought.
We drove 10 km east of Cotacachi to Volcan Cuicocha, where the volcano’s crater is drowned out by a beautiful lake. The dome sits in the middle of the lake, like an island.
The kids and I told stories and played for an hour while Darin ran back to Otavalo. A tour bus of South American tourists took turns getting their picture taken with Simon and Marco, saying things like “muy lindo, que bonito!”.
We’d been told that saturday is the happening day in Otavalo, with it’s world famous markets, apparently it wasn’t to be missed. We woke up early saturday morning and took a one dollar taxi ride to the animal market. Simon had heard about the animal market from a lady at lunch a few days prior, and he wasn’t gonna miss it. When we got there, we were surrounded by the local Otavalo people who were either selling or buying cows, chickens, pigs, guinea pigs (a frequent source of food, known as “cuy”), rabbits, chics, puppies, geese, ducks, cock fighting roosters, and kittens.
A few days prior, I’d given the kids $5.00 to spend on something at one of the markets. They’d perused and debated and considered many things, but had decided to wait and see. When we came across the baby chics at the animal market, Simon asked “cuanto cuestan?” and the man said 4 for a dollar. The boys, wide eyed and bursting at the seams, were immediately pulling out their money to buy a chick. When we told them no, they were dumbfounded. We moved on to the puppies, and when we were told they were $1.00 each, they were 100% ready to buy one. We left the market with Simon saying “great! this was my favorite thing on this trip and I can’t even get a souvenir!”.
The Artisan market was by far the best market we’ve ever been to. I don’t even feel any animosity at the fact that someone, a particular old woman comes to mind, who cut my purse with a box knife but was unable to unload any contents. I guess she wasn’t prepared for my lightning fast reflexes. The local craftsmanship is outstanding and incredibly low priced. We spent hours just weaving in and out of stalls, only to find more stalls that we couldn’t wrap our minds around. It’s a good thing we’re very limited on space, just saying.