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!

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!

Biking Through Ecuador, Day 7: Baños to Misahualli

We set out from Baños this morning, on our bikes, and headed east toward Ecuador’s share of the Amazon rainforest. And guess what. It rained. A lot. We started out dry, but as we steadily biked on, it started to drizzle and pretty soon we were soaking wet. The road we were biking on is nicknamed Ruta de las Cascadas (Road of Waterfalls) as well as Ruta de las Orquideas (Road of Orchids). And it didn’t take us long to see why. As we pedaled gradually downhill (and quite a bit uphill), the vegetation became more and more tropical and waterfalls began appearing after each bend. The hillsides were strewn with purple and white orchids and to our left we followed the curves of the Napo River, which eventually drains in the the Amazon. Along the road were several tunnels that we had to skirt around because they were too dangerous to bike through (cars and trucks only). On one bypass a landslide had blocked the road’s passage and we had to carry our bikes up and over the rubble.

Before the rain got too bad, we took a minor detour from our biking route to hike down into a gorge to see one of the biggest waterfalls along the Napo river, Pailon del Diablo, or Devil’s Cauldron. It was a kilometer descent down to the river and at the bottom we came across a beautifully built lodge that doubled as the entrance to the waterfall. It was $1.50 per person to enter, so C and I paid and then started up the hand-laid stone steps. We could hear the raging water long before we saw the falls, and when it emerged into view, C and I were quite impressed – both with the stone walkway leading up to the falls as well as the waterfall itself. It cascaded down into a roiling pool and then the whitewater continued on down the river, past large slick boulders and green vegetation.

The stone path continued up to the top of the falls via a very low and narrow cave-like walkway. I almost had to get down on my hands and knees to pass through. After we were thoroughly misted by the the Pailon del Diablo, we retraced our steps back down the stone stairway and up the dirt path back to our bikes. At the top we stopped for a refreshing glass of fresh squeezed orange juice.

We continued on the Ruta de las Cascadas, but when the rain got too heavy to bike on, we got back into the jeep and went in search of sunshine. After a stop for lunch by the side of the road, the skies dried up and we got back on our bikes and continued on to the town of Misahualli where we will spend the night. By the time we arrived, both C and I were exhausted, so we rested for about an hour and then headed out to see the town’s main attraction – Cappuccino monkeys who have taken over the center square. We’ve both seen Cappuccino monkeys before in Costa Rica, so we didn’t stay long to watch their antics. Instead, Arie had told us about a large Ceibo tree about half and hour’s walk outside of town. We took off down a dirt road and soon came to a tiny town composed of just a few wooden houses and a large, half-built suspension bridge spanning the roiling brown waters of Misahualli river, which converges with the Napo river in front of our hotel. I was a little hesitant to cross because there were gaping holes where slats missing and steel beams laying in piles waiting to be put in place. But we crossed safely and on the other we were dwarfed by the giant Ceibo tree. It towered over C and I! There’s also a large tree – maybe even bigger – on Barro Colorado Island in Panama, which we sometimes visit during hikes on the island. Then it was half an hour walk back to town and our hotel. We grabbed our computers and books and then walked toward the center square for a relaxing evening of writing, reading, and enjoying the warmer climate.

Biking Through Ecuador, Day 6: Baños

We had a free day today in the town of Baños. Not named after what you might think (toilets), Baños is called such for its warm thermal baths that are filled with heated water from the Volcan Tungurahua. After a good night’s rest – so good, actually, that we didn’t hear the windows rattle as Tungurahua let off an explosion early this morning. Arie informed us of the event when we ran into him before breakfast – we rose early and headed out to enjoy a pre-breakfast soak in one of the thermal baths nearby. The baths are outdoors and the one we visited included several pools with varying degrees of hot/warm/or cold pools. The water isn’t very inviting at first look – it’s a yellowish brown – but we donned our bathing suits and waded in despite the murky color. And it felt delightful. We soaked in the largest pool for a few minutes, surrounded by local residents and travelers alike, and then we moved over the the hotter pool, which was smaller and less crowded. It took a few seconds to get fully in because the water was so hot, but once submerged, it felt blissful. Like an outdoor jacuzzi, but without the bubbles. When we felt sufficiently soaked through and rubbery, we headed back to the hotel for some coffee and breakfast. Since we didn’t have to get on the bikes or drive to our next destination, C and I took the morning easy, catching up on emails and such.

Then we headed out to get some sandwiches to bring along on a hike that skirts the town and climbs a steep mountain up to a lookout. We started off walking through town and then turned onto a side road which led to a dirt path up the side of a mountain. We gained elevation surprisingly quickly and soon we were gazing down on the bustling town of Baños, nestled in a valley and surround by tall, green mountains. The path led us up to a spot called Bellavista where we were rewarded with a gorgeous view.

From there we backtracked a few hundred meters and turned onto another steep dirt trail that took us even higher up to the luxury hotel of Hosteria Luna Runtun, situated on the edge of the escarpment. We just glanced through the gates and saw a beautifully manicured resort with small white-washed cabañas and trees decorating the grounds. We continued on down the trail and stopped at a nice overlook for lunch. The trail led us slowly down to the Mirador del Virgin, a giant statue that watches over the town of Baños. There were stairs leading down from the Virgin, which brought us down from the mountainside and back into town where it was a 10 minute walk back to our hotel. We passed a cemetery city where the graves are actually above ground and look like tiny apartments. There were even roads passing by each complex. Weird.

The whole loop took us about 2 1/2 hours (our guidebook said it would take 4) and even though we didn’t see the the top of Volcan Tungurahua, we still have great views of the valley.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a great little specialty food store where we bought some nuts and seeds to make trail mix and 100% dark chocolate. Yum! Tomorrow we get back on the bikes and head into the Amazon!

Corcovado National Park

Each week, one of our staff responsibilities on the ship is to write a Daily Expedition Report (DER). These can be found on the Lindblad website under “Guest Experiences” if you’d like to read about what’s happening on the fleet’s ships all over the world. I wrote the DER for today, and here it is!

29 December, 2011
Caletas and San Pedrillo, Corcovado National Park

We spent the night anchored in the sheltered waters of Drake’s Bay on the northwestern edge of the Osa Peninsula. During breakfast the National Geographic Sea Lion repositioned a short ways south of Drake’s Bay to a place called Caletas in Costa Rica’s rugged Corcovado National Park. The park is known for its dense vegetation, abundant bird and wildlife populations, and beautiful coastline adorned with sandy beaches and rocky outcroppings. Corcovado is a great place to explore and we had the good fortune of spending several hours there this morning. For our morning activities, our naturalists led several jungle walks through the rainforest, pointing out interesting species of plants and trees and using their spotting scopes and binoculars to find birds, monkeys, and other wildlife. There was an option to do a long, vigorous loop that traversed several steep inclines, or to do a more mellow, leisurely walk that allowed for ample time to search out wildlife. Several guests also took the opportunity to go horseback riding along a trail that paralleled the coast and meandered through both forest and beaches. At the end of the horse trail there was a refreshing river where the riders could cool off and relax before returning back along the same trail.

The hotel staff and galley treated us to a delicious BBQ lunch ashore complete with hamburgers, hotdogs, and blondies for dessert. While eating, we were entertained by several pairs of macaws that flew by and a capuchin monkey perched high in a tree. All too soon it was time to return to the ship for a short reprieve before commencing our afternoon activities.

After a brief reposition down the coast of the Osa Peninsula, we dropped anchor again at a a place called San Pedrillo. We arrived at the sandy beach by Zodiac and after washing the sand from our feet and changing into sneakers or hiking boots, we set off down the trail. Like this morning, there were two hiking options. One was a more strenuous hike to a beautiful waterfall and the other was more flat and ran along the shoreline. Both walks were beautiful and reminded us of what a diverse and lush ecosystem we were visiting. Several guests even spotted a crocodile! But thankfully it wasn’t in the swimming hole they were swimming in.

The National Geographic Sea Lion set sail just in time for us to enjoy a nice sunset on the aft bridge deck. Tomorrow is another full day of exploring and enjoying this beautiful country!

Becky Timbers, Wellness Specialist

Bees Without Stingers Still Bite

I found that out a few days ago. We were hiking at a place called Caletas Reserve just outside of Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica. There was a recently fallen tree that had been partially cleared away by the owner of the land, but there was still some brush and debris that we had to trudge through. Apparently a swarm of bees thought it was a nice place to relocate their hive and weren’t too happy when we happened upon them and disturbed their new nest. Despite being stinger-less these bees knew how to latch on to passerby’s and use their tiny little mouths to inflict pain. They swarmed around our group of about ten hikers and crawled into our clothes, hair, shoes, socks, you name it. Luckily we could feel them moving around in said places and dislodge them before they took their first bite. But occasionally we suffered a blow that left a big red welt. Needless to say, we got out of there pretty fast, but we were still pulling them out of each others hair 20 minutes later.

On a happier note, my parents met up with me and the ship yesterday at Manuel Antonio where we spent the morning looking for monkeys and sloths and lounging on the beach. They joined us for lunch back on board then sailed with us from Manuel Antonio to Herradura, where the guests disembarked early this morning. Mom and Dad had to get off last night around 8:30 and find a place to crash. I haven’t seen or heard from them since, so hopefully they found a place. Many of the guests they talked to on board were incredulous about what they were doing – taking a month off to backpack around Costa Rica without any definite plans or itinerary. Although it sounds like my type of vacation, I’ve come to learn over the years that our (meaning the Timbers’ family) idea of a holiday isn’t what most people envision.

So three weeks have come and gone and now I only have one more trip back down to Panama before I head to Mexico for my long-awaited vacation. I’m very excited to have Karen Sweeney come join me on both this weeks voyage and next week in Maztlan. I’m sure I’ll have lots to blog about and many stories to tell!