Horses, Volcanoes and Kitsch in Baños

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We´ve been in API Call ErrorBaños for a couple of days, and have spent some of that time resting in the very nice room we found – it overlooks a lovely garden, and has plenty of hot water! Baños hasn’t quite been the town that I expected it to be – instead of being a sleepy tourist town in a quiet and beautiful mountain setting, it is a noisy, trafficy town in a API Call Errorbeautiful mountain setting. Many of the tourists here appear to be Ecuadorian – we had heard that it´s a popular weekend destination for ‘Quiteños’, and it most certainly appears to be. There are odd theme-park style trains running around the town in the evening, complete with loud theme-park music. Lots of motorbikes, quads, and dune buggies, which do look like a lot of fun, but are quite noisy. I´m kind of thinking it’s like the Ecuadorian Disneyland (it even has weird API Call ErrorDisney character heads on top of the garbage cans). It’s an interesting town, to be sure, but not the serene town I was for some odd reason expecting.

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Mad Dash to Cuenca

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When we’d booked our flights to the Galapagos, we’d arranged to fly back into Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city. While it sounds like there is a lovely riverfront promenade and some neat historical districts, Guayaquil itself wasn’t really the attraction, just where the flight lands. Mostly, we’d heard great things about Cuenca, which is a good 12 hour bus ride from Quito, but only a mere 3-1/2 from Guayaquil. Theoretically.

When we’d booked them, we’d intended to spend a night in Guayaquil and then head up into the Andes the next day, but having just had a one night stay on San Cristobal, we weren’t really up for another night of just unpacking our bags so that we could pack again. We decided that though it would make for a long day, we’d head straight through to Cuenca.

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Swimming with the Sharks, amongst other things

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Our past few days on a boat have been fantastic. The scenery and animals have been fantastic, as has been the food and the snorkelling.

Day 1

Our schedule worked out well, since the boat had gone to the Darwin centre in the morning, something we’d already done, and in the afternoon the API Call ErrorSanta Cruz highlands were on the schedule. The main attraction was the API Call Errortortoise API Call Errorsanctuary, basically just some private property that has ideal conditions and lots of food for the tortoises, but with open access to the national park. Our guide talked about how the tortoises had been decimated during the 18th and 19th centuries, when they were a popular food supply for pirates. Since the API Call Errortortoises can live for up to a year without eating, they can be a fresh source of meat when a ship doesn’t have many ports it can safely stop in for resupply. It’s estimated that about 300,000 tortoises were taken or killed during this period, and since they have such long lives – 150-200 years or so – recovering the population is a slow process.

Also on tap was a walk through a lava tube – basically just a cave, though interesting in that it was almost as perfectly regular, more like a subway tunnel than a cave.

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Dancing in the sand and sea

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We arrived in the Galapagos on Tuedsay morning, and have been having a great time. The first night we stayed in a not so nice motel type place, but have since moved to a very nice hotel, complete with air conditioning and hot water – aren’t we spoiled!

We were planning on travelling over to Isabela island, but decided against it for less travel time, and more bumming around time. It was a good decision.

The first day we pretty much walked around town, got a feel for the place, watched the local wildlife – API Call Errorpelicans, API Call Errorsea lions, API Call Errormarine iguanas, crabs, etc. We took a walk over to the Charles Darwin research station, which was nice, but crowded with tour groups (one of which I’m sure we’ll be a part of on Friday). We got to walk through a couple of enclosures with the giant tortoises, and got some really nice pictures (as above). The better photos will come once we’ve returned home, as the files from the Canon are very large, and cumbersome to upload, and we’re not sure that these computers can handle raw image files. Unfortunately, there were a couple of tour groups at the centre that were not really obeying the ‘don’t get too close to the animals’ rule, and were getting right up close and personal to one tortoise in particular so they could all have their pictures taken.

The town of Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz (the main island), has a very nice small town feel to it, despite all the tourism (ie, gift shops and overpriced tourist restaurants). The people have been very friendly and welcoming, and have been humouring us with our broken and minimal Spanish. Though we are improving. Today is our last full day on Santa Cruz, and we’ve finally figured out where all the local restaurants are hidden – sort of on a side street a few blocks away from the main strip. We had a set lunch there today, including pop, for $8, which is less than what one main dish costs at most of the restaurants on the main strip. And it was quite good.

Yesterday, we switched hotels and signed up for a snorkel trip. About 20 minutes or so out by motorboat, to a small island, and along the way we watched marine iguanas swimming in the bay, and saw a couple of blue footed boobies along the rocks. The snorkeling was really nice, once I got over my water panic (tends to happen with me every time I try diving or snorkeling – it takes a few minutes to convince my mind that I CAN actually breath under water). We saw many colourful fish, including a large school of them that swam all around us – what a neat experience. The second stop we made was near a small cove – we swam around the rock outcropping, then got out and climbed over some rocks (not easy in bare feet!), and back into the cove, where we swam near sharks and tortoises! We missed the tortoises, though our guide borrowed the underwater camera (thanks Beth!!), and hopefully we’ll get a picture. We did see the sharks, and I must say, that’s a bit of a freaky experience. They were about 1 to 1.5 meters in length – not huge, but not exactly small either.

The last stop was at another part of Santa Cruz, where we hiked a bit to see some sea lions, and many marine iguanas, sunning themselves on rocks. We got to see what the inside of a large cactus looks like, and I regret that we didn’t have the camera to take a picture – the inside looks a bit like a beehive, except instead of individual cells, the cells are formed by long ligaments that touch in intervals all the way up the stock. Very fibrous.

All in all, sunburn aside, it was a very fulfilling day. The water was fairly warm, and wildlife amazing, and the excercise felt good. The air is clean and fresh, and we’ve been taking a very relaxing pace. And the air conditioned room has done us worlds of good!

Thus far, coming here has been a great experience. There’s all sorts of amazing animals around. Today we took a walk to the API Call Errorbeach, an hour long slog which was great fun going out at 8:30, when the sun was still low in the sky. There were API Call Errorchirping birds that will come right up to you (I later had trouble with one at the beach that wanted to API Call Errorland on my foot – not the most comfortable experience). They even seem to be happy to pose for pictures. At the first beach along the path (you can’t swim there, due to currents), there were probably 30 or so API Call Errormarine iguanas hanging out sunning themselves. They’re really strange creatures to watch, as they kind of waddle to get around. The iguanas at that beach were probably the most active we’ve seen, since most seem to prefer just to stick to their rocks and sun themselves ’til the tide comes in. The walk back at noon was not nearly as fun, as the sun was overhead in full force – we were happy to get back to our A/C and shower.

We’re off on our cruise tomorrow. We’ll see how well it goes…we’re a little concerned we might end up with a tour group with whom we have absolutely nothing in common – a lot of the cruises seem to be filled with people who freak out when they get asked a question they don’t know the answer to. Either way, though, it’ll be a great chance to see some of the other islands.

Adventures in a New City

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We awoke today to pouring rain. Pouring.

The rain stopped around 10, about the time we stepped off the most sardine-packed tram I have ever ridden in my life. But that’s part of the adventure. We wandered around Mariscal Sucre, also known by some as Gringoland, or the tourist district. Travel agencies abound! We were in search of one, though one in particular that had been recommended. We did inquire at the travel agency located in the hostel, but didn’t think the offered deals were really great.

We ended up at the Galasam travel agency, where we booked our Galapagos cruise – 4 days on a first class boat, for $700 USD each. That was a much better deal than others we’d seen, albeit a day shorter than we were hoping for. I think she said regular price for this was $1300. She offered us 8 days, which would have been great, for $2200 each – and that was the last minute deal. Ouch.

So we leave for the Galapagos first thing tomorrow morning, will spend a couple of nights on our own on a couple of the islands (there are local boat ferries between some), then hop on the cruise on Friday morning. Yay! We’ll also get one extra night on the island of San Cristobal at the end, and fly out from there.

We’ve also changed our plan a little bit, in that instead of flying back to Quito afterward, we will instead fly to Guayaquil, then maybe make our way over to Cuenca, which we initially thought we wouldn’t have time for. From there we’ll head north, making our way slowly back to Quito. There is the possibility of a brief jungle excursion, but we haven’t figured that out yet.

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Getting there is half the fun?

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We have successfully arrived in API Call ErrorQuito, but the getting here was quite a stressful ordeal. Winter flying is rarely a pleasant experience, and yesterday was no exception. We had a very early flight from Edmonton, so wakeup was at 4am. That means I had to operate on 4 hours of sleep, since we had a symphony concert the night before, followed by me being a bit too wound up to go straight to sleep.

The delays began early. Boarding started as expected, but the lineup quickly stopped moving – the people at the front of line were being stopped at the plane end of the tunnel. The gate people then told everyone to sit back down, boarding was delayed, as the de-icing fluid was frozen…a more concentrated batch of anti-freeze had to be whipped up before we could get underway. That was only about 15 minutes, and then we boarded the flight, still enough time left to get going on time.

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Money’s Such a Pain

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After stressing about it for a couple months, our savings plan is back on track for the trip, so we should be about where we should be come departure time. Which has left me some time to start worrying about another problem – how to get our money out.

Normally, this hasn’t been a problem, I just pull out my bank card and get some cash out. But with the favourable exchange rate earlier in the year, I changed about half the trip budget into US dollars, since that’s what’s used in Ecuador, and this has complicated life a bit. Currently, it’s being held in an ING direct account – to earn some interest – which can only be transfered to another Canadian bank, it can’t be withdrawn directly. I’d figured that all I’d have to do is open up a USD account with a regular bank, and then I’d be able to withdraw the money from an ATM in Ecuador. Turns out this is not the case…none of the major banks allow ATM access to their USD accounts.

So I’ve come up with two possibilities. It looks like some of the big international banks – HSBC and Citi – might let me open a regular chequing account denominated in US dollars, and I’m waiting for HSBC to get back to me about whether or not this will come with a debit card. If that doesn’t pan out, the last resort is RBC, which allows you to open an account with RBC Centura – their American subsidiary – and transfer money between that and a Canadian account…this seems a little over complicated.

Really, I’ve done pretty well for having exchanged the money early, all I want to do is not lose out on those savings by having to cycle the money back through a Canadian account in order to actually get cash out in Ecuador. It just seems like this really shouldn’t be so hard.

Islands in the sun

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Or rain. But hopefully sun.

We are off to beautiful British Columbia for a week. Lots of ambition to go cycling, canoeing, kayaking, spelunking, hiking… but chances are there will be a whole lot of laziness and reading involved. Either way, it’s good to be getting away for a few days, especially since Neil didn’t get quite the same holiday as I did back in May, as he worked for a good part of the week, while I was enjoying museums and parks and such.

Speaking of work, a quick update on Kathy’s ever-changing employment status – I have just accepted a one-year contract at Epcor, in the accounts payable department. A great company to work for, and I’m excited about the long-term prospects. The short term will be good, too.

So, off to BC we go, with about 70 pounds of luggage in tow. Good times! Of course, we’re renting a car, or else we’d have to re-evaluate the luggage!

We may or may not get the chance to post and upload photos as we go, so check back in a few days. I intend to practice lots with the new camera.
🙂

Ecuador Bound

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We’ve long been talking of a trip to Ecuador, but I had serious doubts whether it would happen. But as of last Friday, we have tickets. These are probably the messiest set of tickets I’ve ever had to book. I was buying one ticket with Aeroplan points, and they won’t make arrangements for a cash ticket, nor will they sell tickets for any airline outside the Star Alliance. So I had to book a ticket to Bogota, Colombia on points, and then separately booked a flight to Quito, Ecuador through Expedia. Kathy’s ticket was booked through Air Canada all the way to Quito. We’re on the same flights, though, just possibly not sitting together. And I never before realised how much of a pain online booking can be. I think they go out of their way to make the process complicated.

But it’s done now, so its official. January 24 to February 15, 2009, Kathy and I will be in Ecuador. I, for one, am really excited. I’ve started looking up things I’d like to do and see while we’re there. I really want to get off the tourist trail a bit, so that makes it a little more difficult to research. So far, the coolest thing I’ve found is the Santa Lucia Cloud Forest, which looks like it’ll be loads of fun.