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!


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.

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!

Galapagos, Day 1: Baltra & Santa Cruz

Well, it’s time to act like sheep. I guess we were kind of shepherded around by Arie during our biking trip as well, but with Lindblad the feeling of being part of a herd is even more so. We woke up early this morning after a great night’s sleep at the Hilton Colon in Guayaquil, put our bags outside the door (which we wouldn’t see again until we were on the ship), and went down the elevator for some breakfast. The buffet spread was enormous, but I’ve been craving fresh fruit (after too many days of white bread!), so that’s what I had. Then we, along with 90ish other Galapagos-bound Lindblad guests, were herded onto three buses and away we went, back to the airport. We got our boarding passes on the bus (I’m not sure how they finagled that one) and then we were guided through security and, after only a few minutes in the waiting area, onto our plane. It was the fastest I’ve ever been in and out of an airport for a flight. From there it was only an hour and a half jaunt to the Galapagos! We landed on the tiny island of Baltra, which is flat and veiled in a ground cover of green vegetation. There were buses waiting to take us to the dock where we were greeted with a sign saying “Welcome to the Galapagos” and from there we boarded a Zodiac that whisked us off to the blue and white National Geographic Endeavour anchored several hundred meters offshore.

C and I were shown to our cabin (212) and after a quick inspection we set off to explore the ship. One of the first things I noticed was that the carpet is the same as on the Sea Bird and Sea Lion! There are so many small things – like the carpet – that remind me of the ships I work on, but a lot of things that are very different. The size, for one thing, is quite a bit bigger than the comparatively tiny Sea Bird and Lion. Not that the Endeavour is huge by any means, but it carries 96 passengers to the Bird and Lion’s 64. There’s also a lot more outer deck space including two sun decks (one with a pool), the bow, and several outer walkways. Trying to find our way around the ship is sort of like a maze because there are numerous doors and passageways and we have yet to figure out how they all connect… Maybe we’ll have it down by the end of our week on board….

We eventually found our way to the lounge where our Expedition Leader, Paula Tagle, welcomed us aboard and went over a few necessities and logistics. We also reunited with Brian Christiansen, a former deckhand on the Sea Lion that C and I had previously worked with, and has since been promoted to Video Chronicler. It was great to see him again! Then it was time for lunch – green salad and veggies! –  before we had our first shore landing. This was very foreign for C and I because we never do a shore landing on the day guests arrive because they usually board in the late afternoon/early evening. But here in the Galapagos, last week’s guests get off around 8ish and new guests get on around 10! That’s an incredibly fast turn around and I have no idea how they manage it. On the Bird and Lion we typically have five or six hours to get the ship ready and people are still scrambling to get everything done.

The first place we visited was called Las Bachas on Santa Cruz island. It was a nice sandy beach with a path through some lava rocks and low, green vegetation. We divided into groups and off we went with our naturalist guides. On the path we saw some lizards, turtle tracks and hollows in the sand where they laid their eggs, a few birds (don’t ask me what kind), and hundreds of bright yellow, red, and blue Sally Lightfoot crabs. I’ve seen the crabs before in Baja and Costa Rica, but never so close up. I expected them to scuttle away as soon as I approached, but they were fearless! They aren’t joking when they say Galapagos critters aren’t afraid of anything.

Back at the Zodiac landing beach, we had our first opportunity to get in the water with our snorkel gear. The visibility was horrible, but we’ll be snorkeling every day here, so it was more just to get wet than to see schools of fish.

Then it was time to return to the boat where we met the captain and crew at cocktail hour and had our first dinner on board. Lots of healthy options to choose from! Tomorrow is a full day of more walks, snorkeling, and hopefully Galapagos wildlife. Stay tuned!