Settled in Seattle


Seattle, taken from the NG Sea Lion

Yes, it’s been awhile. I haven’t written on whereonearth in several months for several different reasons. The last time I posted a blog was way back in March when I was traveling around Ecuador!  One of the reasons I’ve been on hiatus is that I recently started school again, which means that my travels and adventures have virtually stopped (although I did have an awesome two week cross-country road trip and I plan on doing many, many mini vacations!). School also magically and dramatically cuts down on free time… Another reason is that I felt like I had to write a post everyday or at least five days a week. It was a lot of pressure on myself and even though I like to write, I didn’t necessarily want to write everyday. So this time around, it’s going to be a lot less stressful. I want to write posts that I don’t rush through and not just put them up because I feel like I have to put something up. I also want to work on my writing skills because I’m taking a writing course next quarter (writing about food and health to be exact), and I would like to – maybe, possibly – start writing for magazines and/or online blogs or publications. So we’ll see how it goes!

Now for an update on where I’ve been and what I’ve been up to for the past few months. I mentioned in this post that I’ve decided to go back to school. Well, I’ve officially been back in school for three months and I love it! Bastyr is a really great school and even though this quarter has been a quarter of sciences  because I’m in the post-bacc program, I love that I’m learning (academically) again. After a year of post-bacc classes, I’m hoping to start the Master’s in Nutrition and Clinical Health Psychology.

Along with going back to school, I’ve also been exploring my new city: Seattle. Being in a new city is not so revolutionary for me (check out this series of posts), but what is new to me is the fact that I’m staying in this city, for more that a few days or weeks, at least. I love discovering new places and getting lost amid the gridwork of city streets (as long as I have a map or GPS). Here are a few places that I’ve discovered and love about Seattle:

The Burke-Gilman trail – runs from Ballad to Kenmore and connects to a number of other paved bike trails/lanes. I can bike to Bastyr almost entirely on the trail!

Sutra Restaurant and Yoga Studio – an all-vegan, set-menu, local-food restaurant. What more could I ask for? Also attached to the restaurant is a yoga studio. I’ve been volunteering at the owners farm in Monroe for one day a month in exchange for free yoga. Perfect! Here’s a pic of a greenhouse that we helped build.

Chocolati in Wallingford – my go-to study spot. Amazing almond milk hot chocolate!

Value Village – not very classy, I know, but you can find some amazing discoveries there. Sometimes. A lot of the times it’s all junk, but I’ve gotten some pretty nice plant pots and kitchen stuff for cheap!

I’m still exploring and still discovering, so these are only a few of the places I’ve found. There’s lots of great restaurants and things to do and see in Seattle, so keep checking back! Now on to studying…

Guayaquil is the new Detroit


View from my room

To be honest, I wasn’t that impressed with Guayaquil in the first place, and when I was stranded there yesterday after a cancelled flight to Loja, I liked it even less. Maybe you have read about my troubles in Detroit, but if not, check them out here and here. Guayaquil now reminds me of my misadventures in the mid-west. But fortunately, myself and the other unlucky passengers were taken well care of. It was a little hard for me to figure out what was going on because all the agents spoke in rapid Spanish and I could only pick up a few words, but I gathered that the airline (TAME) would put us up in hotel for the night at the Grand Hotel Guayaquil, transport us there and back to the airport in the morning, and send us on a 5:45am flight to Loja. Although frustrating because I had just spent an entire day in Guayaquil trying to fill the hours (which included moving from one hotel to another just to have a decent lunch and get a free ride to the airport), I was impressed with how the TAME agents handled the situation. The Grand Hotel Guayaquil wasn’t so grand, but it was fine enough to spend one night. We’d be leaving at 4:30am anyways. My only qualm was that my server at dinner tried to serve me panza de vaca soup (cow stomach) after I told him that I was a vegetarian. The stomach parts looked faintly like mushrooms and I almost took a bite, but was still skeptical. Even after a broken conversation and a lot of hand gestures around the stomach area he didn’t seem to get it that cow stomach is still considered meat by vegetarian standards.

But all that is in the past now (something that yoga and a lot of traveling has helped me with is the idea that ‘this too shall pass’) and now I’m sitting in the open air dining area at Madre Tierra in Vilcabamba, the Valley of Longevity as it is so nicknamed. It was an hour and a half drive from the Loja airport (which isn’t even in Loja, but I had arranged for transportation earlier) and I have to say that this is perhaps the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen in Ecuador yet. Steep, green mountains with patchwork farms, valleys filled with clouds, small towns doting the countryside, and a perfect climate that’s not too hot (Guayaquil) and not too cold (as Quito can be). The early morning sun on the rugged mountain ranges was a beautiful sight as I descended into southern Ecuador’s picturesque terrain.

Madre Tierra is a pretty cool place, too. Very eclectic, but with a new-agey charm. The room I’m staying in is painted in shades of pink with butterflies climbing up the bricks and the walls of the bathroom are a mosaic of broken mirror pieces. I have my own private patio with a hammock and there’s so much green vegetation and flowering bushes that each cabin is very private.

Pathway to my room

Entrance way to my room

Walls in my room

Bathroom – notice the shards of mirror on the walls!

They also have a spa (which I’ll be checking out soon), a pool, a fresh fruit juice and smoothie bar, and a restaurant that serves luxuries like brown bread, unsweetened juices, green smoothies and other healthy options. It’ll be a nice relaxing week and a half I think!

Pool

Dining Area

Beautiful multi-color-eyed kitty

Madre Tierra is located just over one kilometer outside the town of Vilcabama, so I haven’t checked out the town square yet, but that’s on my list to do over the next few days. There’s also Podocarpus National Park nearby and guides that offer mountain biking tours, horseback riding, or guided hikes. Not sure what’s on the agenda yet, but I’m hoping to get caught up on labeling my many Ecuador pics, updating my blog a bit, and continuing to make headway on the new path that I have chose – the Master’s of Nutrition Program and Bastyr University in Seattle. That means looking for apartments, applying for financial aid, figuring out schedules, etc… Ugh. It also means that I’ll be rooted in one place for awhile! Which, despite my wanderlust, I’m very much looking forward to.

Cajas National Park


Well, we didn’t make it to Cajas National Park yesterday, but we did enjoy a day of doing nothing. We’ve been pretty much on the go ever since we arrived in Ecuador with the 9-day bike trip, Galapagos (where we were kept busy from 7am to 5pm most days), and bus, plane and taxi travel, not to mention walking around the towns and cities we’ve visited along the way. So it was nice to have a day where we did nothing! Actually, I’m pretty incapable of doing nothing all day, so I did walk around a bit and spent some time at a great little cafe called Cafe Austria (fresh juices and apple kuchen!) writing emails and such. For dinner C and I went to Cafe Eucalyptus, which is owned by a British and Romanian couple (Cuenca is chock-full of expats) and it was awesome. The best food I’ve had in awhile! We’ll be back tonight…

But today we did make it to Cajas National Park. We had hired a guide yesterday through Apullaca and he picked us up this morning at 8am with rubber boots and rain jackets. It was 45 minute drive into the park and all along the way the views were stunning. We lucked out with no rain and a high cloud cover, so the visibility was great. Our first stop was at a place called Tres Cruces where there were three crosses almost buried in fist-sized rocks. Apparently the crosses are situated on the Inca trail and each cross represents either the sun, the moon, or the mother earth. As the Incas and other Indians traveled along the trail, they would make an offering at whichever ideology they believed in, placing a stone at the bottom of the cross.

From there we climbed a humbling few hundred feet (made difficult by the 12,000 foot altitude) to the top of a lookout that had great views of lakes and ponds below. In addition to its rugged beauty, Cajas National Park is well-known for its plethora of lakes and ponds, many of which supply Cuenca with fresh, clean water.

We descended down the wooden staircase and got back in the car for a short drive to Toreador Lake where Gustavo, our guide, would lead us into the moorland of Cajas National Park. He gave us the option of doing an easier, flatter route, or to head up into the hills for a longer and more exacting hike. C and I chose the longer more exacting hike, of course. We soon found out the need for rubber boots. The ground in Cajas is saturated with water and much of the ‘trail’ is a mud trap. It reminded me of hiking in Alaska! Interestingly, Gustavo informed us that the water comes from underground springs that keep flowing all year round.

After skirting the edge of Toreador Lake for a bit, we entered a paper tree forest. I felt like I entered the Lord of the Rings! The paper trees are native to Cajas and their bark looks like brown paper peeling off the trunks and limbs. They’re also twisted and gnarly, giving the forest a eerie, yet enchanting feel. It was so green, too, with all the moss, ferns, lichens and ground plants.

I was glad that we had decided on going with a guide because the trail we were following looked like an animal path diverging and converging in ten different directions. Not surprisingly, we were told that it’s not too uncommon for hikers to get lost in the park.

We hiked for three hours up and down the hills, learning interesting facts and tidbits from Gustavo and enjoying the dramatic and breathtaking landscape of Cajas National Park. Both C and I were immensely impressed. Just as we were returning to the trailhead and visitor’s center where we started, the sky darkened and I felt raindrops hitting my cheeks. Just like at Chimborazo, we had impeccable timing! Back in the car the raindrops started to fall more heavily and the park was consumed by low, grey mist.

I took a series of black and white photos that I thought turned out really well:

By that time it was 1pm and I was starving. We stopped at a restaurant/hotel just outside of Cajas called Dos Chorreras – or two waterfalls – because it faces a hillside with two white cascades trickling down. The restaurant normally serves trucha (trout), but had a vegetarian option as well, which was decent (I’ll have to try making yucca fries when I get home!). The adjoining hotel is a beautiful lodge made of wood and stone with several fireplaces and large windows. Unfortunately, it’s about $200 a night :( Gustavo said that a lot of honeymooners head there for a getaway.

Then it was back to Cuenca in the late afternoon and after a shower, I returned to Cafe Austria for a beet, carrot, apple, and ginger juice and kept my head turned away from the apple kuchen.

Tomorrow we leave the lovely colonial Cuenca for Guayaquil. C flies out to Baja where he’ll start a new rotation on the Sea Bird and I’ll head south the Vilcabamba and Madre Tierra!

In Cuenca and Back on a Bike



Cuenca is such a great city! Tons of beautiful churches and green parks. Last night, after C and I arrived in town after a four hour bus ride from Guayaquil, we explored the cobblestone streets of Cuena and admired its old colonial building, remnants of Spanish colonizations in the mid-1500’s. We had a late afternoon snack of hummus (yay!) and then a light dinner at Raymipampa. I’ve been craving salads and luckily they had a great lettuce, bean, and avocado option for me! The hotel we’re staying at – Macondo – is on the outskirts of the center of town, which is fine with me because it’s quiet at night. The hotel reminds me a lot of the place we stayed at in San Jose (Aranjuez) because it’s an old converted house centered around an open courtyard.

In the morning we ate breakfast with some other travelers and had a leisurely start to the day. The plan was to walk around Cuenca some more, but other than that our agenda was open. We found our way to a giant indoor food market with vendors selling everything from fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat, cooked legumes and almost anything else you can think of, including fresh carrot and apple juice! Except for a juice and some bananas, we didn’t buy anything, but vowed to return later to stock up on a few mangos and avocados.

Our next destination was the Museo del Banco Central. Now, I’m not a museum person, but we spent about an hour walking through the exhibits showcasing the history and archaeology of indigenous populations. By that time I had had enough of museums for a week, so we continued on our way. We stopped in at a local travel agency and inquired about bikes to rent. We were in luck because they had two brand new bikes for only $8 for half a day. C and I said we would return after lunch and take them for a spin. For lunch I was eager to try a restaurant called Nectar, which is %100 vegan. The inside was really cute with wooden tables and nice decor. The menu was a set lunch, so we sat down and waited to be served. We had broccoli soup topped with popcorn (per the Ecuadorian way), fresh tree tomato juice (also an Ecuadorian special), a mix of potatoes in some sort of gravy, cabbage, beets, and a small salad. For dessert, it was some sort of sweet barley (I think) pudding. It was good, but not exceptional.

After lunch, we returned to the hotel to change into biking gear, and then returned to the tour office. Our speedily devised route was to bike up to the Mirador de Turi, a lookout point about 4km outside of town and then continue on 8km to a small town called Baños (not the one we visited on Arie’s bike trip) where there are several thermal hot springs. The bike up to the top of the lookout was somewhat challenging (we’re at 8,000 feet here), but felt great after being at sea level for a week and a half. I’ve wondered several times these last few weeks about how frequent and rapid elevation changes affects your body and mind…

After snapping a few photos of Cuenca from above, we coasted back down the hill and pedaled on to Baños. According to our guide book, the best place for a soak is at Hosteria Durán, so that’s where we went. We payed the fee and brought our bikes inside the gate where we were could see the large thermal pool occupied by several bathers and a small building up on a hill that housed the steam room. We opted for the steam room first, which felt great, and then headed down to the swimming pool filled with warm volcanic waters. It felt fantastic! We soaked for awhile before returning to the steam room and then settling down into wicker chairs for a cup of tea (me) and coffee (C).

It started to drizzle a bit, but nothing too depressing and as we bundled up and rolled out of the parking lot, we could barely tell that it was raining. Luckily, the ride back into town was mostly downhill because I felt pretty rubbery from all that warm water. We sort of zig-zagged back into the city without a direct route, but we did find a nice gravel path that ran alongside the River Tomebamba that splits Cuenca in two. The light was fading as we brought the bikes back to the tour office and since it’s a 10 minute walk back to the hotel, we opted to stay downtown for dinner despite the mud on our faces and clothes.

Tomorrow, depending on the weather, we’re hoping to do some hiking in Cajas National Park, dubbed “one of the most beautiful wilderness areas in Ecuador” by our Rough Guides guide book. Can’t wait!

On the road again


We’re off to Cuenca!

The Galapagos Day 7: San Cristobal & Leon Dormido


This is the second of two posts I put up today. Check out the first!

Our last full day in the Galapagos! This week went by extremely fast, but at the same time it feels like we’ve been on the boat for weeks. Maybe it’s because we spend most of our time on boats… Anyway, we spent the morning on San Cristobal Island where we went for a nice hike along a rocky and relatively steep trail and eventually found ourselves at a lookout point with a great view of the beach below and the Endeavour anchored just off shore. When we first landed on the beach we were greeted by several male sea lions who had no interest in us and were content playing in the waves or rolling in the sand to ward off buzzing flies.

From the lookout point, we continued on down to the trail to a flatter and more open part of the island. Behind us were tall jagged cliffs that made up the remains of a volcano and all around us we could see the blue ocean. In addition to its beauty, San Cristobal Island is also well known for its colony of nesting red footed boobies. I’ve seen blue-footed boobies, brown-footed boobies, and Nazca boobies, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen red-footed boobies. And guess what? Their feet are red! We saw several of them sitting on their nests made out of twigs and grass and one even had a baby chick it was sheltering beneath her wings. Others were perched on the cliff walls along with Nazca boobies and frigate birds.

Back at the beach we had some time for swimming and sunbathing before returning to the ship for lunch. Then around 3:00 we had our final snorkeling outing at a barren rock island called Leon Dormido. The island is the only remaining evidence of an ancient volcano that erupted thousands of years ago. As always, we snorkeled from the Zodiacs, staying close to the walls of the island and diving down to see what we could see, since there was no bottom in sight. The walls were incredible. They reminded me of miniature apartment complexes because there were small pockets carved out of the coral and in each pocket lived a different creature. Some had sea urchins, others were inhabited by fish, barnacles, and sea stars. But the highlight of the snorkel was a narrow channel between the larger rock island and another smaller piece that at some point had broken off. In this channel we were pretty much surrounded by sharks. It was eerie, a little bit frightening, and absolutely incredible all at the same time. Watching the sharks emerge from the blue waters in front of us and lazily swim beneath our floating bodies is something I’ll never forget. We mainly saw Galapagos sharks, but we also caught sight of several hammerheads as well. Once through the channel, we continued on around the island. There were so many green sea turtles that I wish I had kept count, but I would guess that we saw at least 30. At one point, while trying to swim around a corner, the current was so strong that I had to swim as hard as I could and it didn’t feel like I was gaining any ground. We made it though, and our Zodiac picked us up almost at the same place where we had started. All of us were so excited about the sharks that our Zodiac driver dropped us off at the channel again so we could swim though one last time. It was just as amazing as the first pass through! It was a great way to end the trip.

It was a pretty mellow last evening on board. The captain took the ship around Leon Dormido while the sun set and C and I relaxed out on deck, enjoying the cool air and nice breeze. After dinner it was time to pack and tomorrow we say goodbye to the Galapagos!

Galapagos Day 6: Santa Cruz Island


What’s with these early mornings when you’re on vacation? We had a 6:30 breakfast this morning and then we were all shuttled to shore at Santa Cruz Island (population 20,000) via Zodiac. As I mentioned yesterday, we were reentering civilization today for a tour of the Charles Darwin Research station, which is home to the giant tortoise breeding program. Giant tortoises nearly became extinct due to over-harvesting for food by pirates and other mariners who visited the islands in the eighteen and nineteen hundreds. Now, though, thanks to the breeding program, their numbers have risen dramatically and scientists know much more about the reptiles than when they first began their program. For instance, each island has its own species of giant tortoise and those tortoises have adapted to the conditions on each specific island. The shape of their shell is an indicator of where they came from. You may have heard of Lonesome George, who is the last and only known living tortoise from Pinta Island. The researchers are trying to get him to mate with other females (from different islands), but it took him 12 years to finally befriend one of them (he’s somewhere between 90 and 120 years old), so progress is slow. Nobody knows exactly how old giant tortoises can live to be, but estimates exceed 200 years old! Here he is:

Our guide gave us a tour of the research station, starting with the baby tortoises in their nursery and moving on to the older ones who, for some reason or another, can’t be reintroduced into the wild. Some of them are GIGANTIC. Like over three or four hundred pounds. I couldn’t get over them and snapped photo after photo. They’re so slow and sedated, so it’s fascinating to watch them.

After the research station, C and I walked through the town Puerto Ayora, which is the largest town on the island. Both sides of the street are flanked with souvenir shops and cafes and typical tourist haunts. C and I picked up a fresh coconut each and slurped down the sweet water while wandering downtown. Everybody met at a restaurant called The Rock and there we boarded buses that would take us into the highlands. Our first stop was at El Trapiche where we learned how they processed sugar cane into just about everything. They press the cane into sugar cane juice, fermented it into strong (and barely consumable) alcohol, boiled it down into molasses, and evaporated it into sugar cubes. It was really interesting. We also saw how they processed coffee beans by smashing the pods, fanning away the husks, and roasting the beans over an open fire.

Once we had our fill of sugar can juice and coffee, we boarded the buses again and continued up the road to our next destination: lunch. The place we were eating at was tucked away on a dirt road without much of a sign directing you there. I’m not sure who eats there when we’re not in town, but it was beautiful. It kind of struck me as belonging in a rural setting somewhere in Tuscany. There was a pool and gardens, a volleyball net and several tiers of open-aired dining rooms. The food was ok, not great, but I’ve been spoiled on board anyways.

After lunch we got back on the buses and headed even further into the highlands. We were in search of giant tortoises in the wild. At our disembarkation spot, we divided up into smaller groups, each with a naturalist, and set out to see what we could find. We walked for about 2 hours and I think we came across 4 or 5 in total. All were massive and happily munching on green grass. I liked how our guide said that we should take tips from them if we want to live longer: eat vegetarian and exercise a lot. It doesn’t look like tortoises exercise much, but carrying that heavy shell around day and night is quite demanding, I’m sure.

After our walk, we returned to Puerto Ayora with the option of staying in town to do more shopping, or returning to the boat for a nap. C and I chose the boat (although we didn’t nap). I can’t believe tomorrow is our last full day in the Galapagos! It feels like it’s flown by, but we have seen some awesome stuff and been some incredible places. Hopefully tomorrow will bring more of the same!

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