After much planning and organizing, we were finally ready to hit the road again, this time in our newly-purchased 1987 Terrapin.
We booked our first trip in mid-November: one night at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, located just 45 minutes from home. This was all new to us, so before we committed to too long of a drive or too many nights away, we wanted to make sure we were comfortable with all the ins & outs of RV life.
But as we started coming up with places we wanted to go, we quickly found out that we weren’t the only ones with this idea. Many campgrounds are booked far in advance, especially the more popular dates and locations. If we wanted to go anywhere over the next 12 months, we needed to make our reservations as soon as possible. So before we even took that first trip, we had already booked several more dates including the Great Smoky Mountains in April.
One overnight does not require a whole lot of advance prep: making sure we had coffee for the morning and all necessary camera gear was about the extent of our packing.
Kissimmee’s check-in is a breeze and the equestrian campsites are laid out such that you don’t feel like you’re on top of your neighbor. There is plenty of space between each and the sites are angled so that you aren’t looking straight into someone else’s tent. There are two single-occupant restrooms with flush toilet, sink, and shower stall located near the entrance of the campground area.
We pulled into our campsite at 2pm and by 2:30 we were ready to relax.
I wanted to explore some of the paths we rarely hike on our day visits but I could not get too far: they are still quite flooded from all the recent rains.
So I stuck to the main gravel road.
It was a beautiful afternoon and I saw many of the prairie’s “usual” residents.
Dinner was pumpkin-lentil wraps under a tree canopy …
with Oscar and Maddie keeping watch over us …
while we watched the setting sun paint the sky pink and orange.
Just as dusk turned to dark, a herd of deer walked through our site, much to Oscar’s chagrin.
By 7pm the skies were dark and clear, and we were treated to a spectacular view of the Milky Way and Leonid meteor shower.
We set up our tripods for continuous 15-second exposures and then sat back and enjoyed the stars shooting through the sky while fireflies danced above our heads. Bedtime came early after sitting in the fresh air for several hours.
We woke before dawn the next morning and enjoyed sunrise coffee along with the deer and turkeys.
After another short walk, it was time to pack up and go home.
There were a few things we forgot and notes were made on what to do different next time.
But all-in-all, our first trip in Terrapin was a great success and we can’t wait to get back on the road again!
TG and I love to travel and over the past decade have been methodically checking off international “Bucket List” trips. In March of 2020 we had managed to save enough frequent flyer miles for another trip-of-a-lifetime: first to Finland to see the Northern Lights, then on to Nepal for a trek to the Everest View Hotel, the highest hotel in the world.
And then the COVID hit and international travel was canceled for the foreseeable future. “Maybe in the fall,” we thought as spring turned into summer. By mid-August, with no end to the pandemic in sight we knew we were not flying anywhere any time soon.
But we live in Florida, a vacation destination itself, with more national and state parks than anyone could possibly visit in a year.
And after that there is the whole USA to explore!
After doing the math, we decided the only way to affordably travel with two dogs was to purchase a camper.
The last time TG and I camped was in 1986 when we drove down to the Keys and pitched a tent.
Camper shopping is a little more complicated. How much did we want to spend? What did we really need? How big of a vehicle with how many “bells and whistles?”
Must-have’s included cabin A/C so we could leave Oscar and Maddie alone during the day, a big enough bed for two adults and two dogs, a bathroom, and a kitchen. Since we would take turns driving, we also both had to feel comfortable sitting behind the wheel.
TG spent hours combing through the many For Sale websites and together we made several trips to check out likely prospects. Some were too used, some were too big, and some TG could not even fit his legs under the steering wheel! He’s not called “Tall Guy” for nothing!
And then we found her: a 1987 Terravan turtle-top with a Ford 460-cubic inch engine. She was 21 feet long with plenty of storage and priced well within our budget. She had everything we were looking for including cabin A/C, a bathroom, a little kitchen, and even a generator!
The Autocheck score was great.
And as luck would have it, she was being sold by a mechanic who was willing to customize a few things before we even picked her up including a pull-out queen size bed,
a table big enough for both our computers,
and a roof rack that will double as a night-sky photography platform.
With the name Terravan Turtle-Top it was only fitting we re-named her “Terrapin.”
We drove the 200 miles home to Okeechobee,
and dropped her off at Total Roadside to have the tires replaced, oil changed, and a few other odds & ends.
While we waited, I sewed new curtains and cleaned the existing seat cushions. TG shopped for some of the items we will need while out at campsites, such as an outdoor dining table and a bike rack.
Since she’s been home, we’ve spent the last few weeks making her our own and learning our way around the cabin.
Back-up camera? ✔️
Fresh/gray/black water systems? ✔️
House battery? ✔️
Propane fridge and stove working properly? ✔️
Awning pulled down and rolled back up? ✔️
The next step will be sleeping in her in our driveway one night and then we will be ready take her on the road.
Our first night camping will be at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, just 45 minutes away and one of our most favorite places in Florida. We’ve always wanted to spend the night there, so we’re very much looking forward to it!
We plan to spend this first year traveling around Florida and have penciled in destinations from the Panhandle south to the Keys.
So, stay tuned … Tall Guy and JET are back on the road, and oh yes, Dashboard Jesus stays!
We are planning a move out of the US sometime in the next 12-15 months. We’ve considered several countries in South and Central America and although most have been wonderful places to visit, we’ve found enough reasons to think “but we wouldn’t want to live there.” Our most recent trip to Colombia is a perfect example: we absolutely loved the country, but the government is not making it easy for foreigners to take up residence.
We recently shifted our focus to the Caribbean and specifically the Dominican Republic. Having never been there, we researched as best we could the cost of living, healthcare, safety … all those things you need to think about when contemplating a move like this. On paper, the D.R. looked promising.
Tuesday – Shorthorn It Is
Our flight left from Orlando at 5am, too early to make the drive from Okeechobee that morning. We drove up the evening before and stayed the night at the Hyatt inside the airport. And I mean literally inside the airport – an escalator ride down from the lobby and you are at your gate!
Santo Domingo is a short two-hour flight and we were outside waiting for our ride in no time. First surprise: we had been warned that the “touts” at the airport are relentless, constantly harassing you to carry your bags or get you a taxi. Not one person bothered us as we waited for our driver, Michael.
Michael took us to the Radisson Hotel, our home for the next five nights.
It is a lovely hotel with attentive staff, spacious rooms, and a wonderful breakfast buffet. It is located in the central part of Santo Domingo, convenient walking distance to many of the areas we wanted to explore.
TG had created detailed routes that included things like checking out the local grocery stores. He had also found restaurants we’d hit each day around lunchtime. Today we headed towards the Botanical Gardens but first zig-zagged our way through every aisle of a National (grocery store) and Pricemart, which is like a big Costco.
We found the prices slightly less than the US, and the stores carried most everything we’d want. We continued our walk past the “Jardin Botanico Nacional” – a beautiful park I could spend years exploring.
The streets were relatively clean, for the most part. There was a lot of traffic, but the drivers were courteous and more often than not, stopped to let pedestrians cross the street.
Our first impressions of Santo Domingo:
No one stares at us – people are friendly and helpful
Very few loose dogs (we did see a few but not like in Ecuador)
By now we were getting very hot, tired, and hungry. And the Mexican restaurant TG had picked out was closed! As vegetarians our options were limited. We kept walking, hoping we’d spy something suitable. A steakhouse “Shorthorn” was open up ahead. It looked cool and inviting and we thought surely they’ll have something we can order. The menu offered a veggie parradilla, which we assumed was some sort of shish kabob. It was actually a table-top hibachi, piled high with still-steaming vegetables: tomatoes, onions, peppers, zucchini, mushrooms, and eggplant. Washed down with an ice cold El Presidente beer, it was perfect.
Refreshed and ready to go, we found our way back to the Radisson. Total mileage: 13.8 kilometers.
Later that evening we walked to a Mediterranean restaurant for dinner. The food was delicious, but it was the sign across the street that caught our attention. Yes, we both did a double take!
Wednesday – Fat Bottomed Girls
Today’s plan was another full day of exploring. Unbeknownst to us, Tuesday was a national holiday and the energy level this morning was considerably higher.
There was a lot more traffic, including ever-present motorcycles zipping between the cars, paying no attention to the rules of the road.
There were also a lot more people out and about, but no one seemed to give us a second glance as we wound our way towards the Zona Colonial.
The Colonial Zone is the oldest European settlement in the Americas and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A pedestrian-only street is lined with tourist shops and stalls selling amber or larimar jewelry, gaudy artwork,
And Dominican cigars.
This street spills onto a main square, bordered on one side by the impressive Catedral Santa Maria la Menor, built in the sixteenth century and the first cathedral in the Americas.
It was a kaleidoscope of colors and sounds and we were ready to sit in a cool spot and relax for a bit.
Even in this busy touristy area there were very few “touts” – no one bothered us after our simple “no gracias.” Once again, the restaurant we’d picked for lunch was closed so we headed south towards the Malecon.
The Santo Domingo Malecon starts at the Rio Ozama and continues west for over 14 kilometers, bordering the Caribbean Sea the entire way. The sidewalk is wide with plenty of areas to rest and so beautiful you’ll forget the bustling traffic beside you on George Washington Avenue.
We stopped at Adrian Tropical for lunch. This restaurant sits overlooking the sea, with good food and even better people-watching.
It was here that we finally took notice of an interesting aspect of Dominican culture: the appreciation of feminine curves. Even I was impressed and gave TG permission to stare!
After lunch we headed north to check out a language school and then zig-zagged our way back to the hotel. There is a bit of garbage on the streets and in the ocean. But as TG said, no worse than New York City. And due to the constant ocean breezes, very little smell. Total mileage: 14.8 kilometers.
Craving traditional Dominican food, we ate dinner at Pepito’s Arepa Bar – a delightful spot close to the hotel with plenty of vegetarian choices.
Thursday: Beaches and Whales
Roughly the same size as the state of Georgia, the Dominican Republic has a lot to offer. The middle of the island contains the highest mountain in the Caribbean and the north coast has some of its most beautiful beaches. In addition, humpback whales gather in Samana Bay during the winter months to mate and calf.
Today we had arranged for Michael to drive us to Samana Bay and the northern beach of Las Terrenas.
It was a beautiful drive through the mountains, with very little traffic and excellent roads. With an 80 kph limit (and hefty fine for speeding), no one goes very fast. We arrived in Samana in a little over 2 ½ hours.
If you aren’t going out on a whale excursion there isn’t a whole lot to do in town.
After taking a few photos we headed towards Las Terrenas. This is a typical touristy beach town, with plenty of shops, hotels, vacation rentals, and people.
Even so, we found a quiet spot for lunch.
On our way back to Santo Domingo we stopped at a beautiful mirador to admire the northern coast. While we watched, a whale splashed his tail in the water far below us.
Michael dropped us off at the Radisson around 5:30pm after another full day.
Friday: Santiago es Arte
Today we drove north through the mountains to Santiago de los Caballeros, the second largest city in the D.R. It was a beautiful drive and gave us a taste of interior of the country.
Santiago is one of the D.R.’s cultural, political, industrial and financial centers. Due to its location in the fertile Cibao Valley, it also has a robust agricultural sector and is a leading exporter of rum, textiles, and cigars.
We found it to be a vibrant bustling city, full of beautiful murals on its buildings, walls, and fences. A poster exclaimed “Santiago es Arte!” And as we drove around it certainly seemed to be.
Although we liked it very much, we determined it was not quite right for us. We prefer to live along the coast and the Santo Domingo Malecon was calling us.
Saturday: The Accidental Hagglers
On our last day, we decided to re-trace the same route we took on Wednesday but walk the Malecon first. The ocean was calm this morning and that impossible shade of blue that is the Caribbean Sea.
We zig-zagged our way though the neighborhoods, past small houses with windows open to the street, beautiful high-rises, and private homes hidden behind high walls.
We hadn’t planned on too many purchases, but I always like to pick up a little something for our dog-sitter. We headed back to the Zona Colonial with its many tourist shops.
I wanted to buy an amber necklace and some mamajuana, the local drink purported to have all sorts of medicinal properties including being an aphrodisiac. TG was taken with the local baseball team, Los Tigres del Licey, and wanted a cap.
We found a shop selling everything we wanted. The shopkeeper gave us a price, saying “todo” or “all.” TG gasped, misunderstanding her and thinking she said “solo” for just the necklace. She asked well what do you want to pay? Again, assuming it was for just the necklace I quoted what I thought was a fair price. After some furious pecking on her computer she agreed to a new, much-discounted amount.
We drove a hard bargain without even realizing it. We would have paid her original price had we known it was for everything! Total mileage: 16.6 kilometers.
For our last night in the D.R. we had dinner at the hotel restaurant. It was my birthday on Sunday so of course TG told them. They brought a little cake with sparkler and the waitstaff sang “Feliz Cumpleanos.”
Happy Birthday indeed.
Sunday: Home Again Home Again
Sunday morning, we were up bright and early for our 7am ride to the airport. It was an easy flight home and we pulled into our driveway in Okeechobee at 1:30pm.
The Dominican Republic surprised us: the friendly people, the solid infrastructure, the ease of getting around, and the security and well-being we felt walking through the different neighborhoods. It’s a beautiful country with so much to offer in terms of natural beauty: ocean, beaches, mountains, and whales! It seems everyone has a friend or relative who has either lived in the US or is married to an American. In our experience walking for three full days and driving for two, we found that Spanish is a must – perhaps 5% of the population speaks English with any fluency. Even so, there is a strong tie between our two countries and the people seem genuinely pleased to see “Americanos.”
We are hard-pressed to think of a good reason to NOT move there!
We are planning a permanent move to South America sometime in the next 12-15 months. Over the past ten years we’ve traveled to Peru twice and to Ecuador more than a dozen times. But recently Colombia has risen to the top as a place to consider, in particular the city of Medellin.
As luck would have it, I connected with a classmate of my older brother who moved to Medellin about five years ago. Janet proved to be of invaluable help. She put us in touch with Angie, a professional driver who knows the Medellin metro area better than anyone. TG had already spent countless hours researching potential neighborhoods, and between them they put together an itinerary that covered as much ground as possible in our six-day visit.
Sunday: Running on
Our flight left FLL at 7am, and we are a two-hour drive from the airport. That meant we were up at 1:30am for the drive from Okeechobee. After an uneventful flight, Janet and Angie met us at the airport and we took off running.
That afternoon we had planned to explore the suburbs closest to the international airport. First stop, the delightful little finca town of El Tablazo. A “finca” is a small farm and the surrounding area was indeed picturesque and pastoral. From there we drove through Rionegro, Zona Franca, and San Antonio Pereria. The townhouses and parks were charming with lots of open, green spaces.
We were already beginning to fall in love with Colombia. After a quick lunch at a local chain “Crepes and Waffles” (quinoa and kale salad!), we headed towards Medellin via the suburb of Guarne. We felt it was a bit crowded for our taste but did manage to spy one interesting little apartment: a 3 BR, 2 bath for one million pesos per month. (about $310)
By now it was getting close to 4pm and we were fading fast. As Angie drove into the city, we got our first glimpse of Medellin. With a population of about 2.5 million, it sprawls through a narrow valley surrounded by mountains. The view from the road is spectacular.
Janet had recommended the Hotel Asturias in the upscale neighborhood of Laureles. It is located on a quiet side street, close to shops and restaurants, and also near her apartment.
Our room was tiny but comfortable and extremely quiet.
A full breakfast with plenty of fresh Colombian coffee is included in the nightly rate.
Monday: Old Friends/New Friends
Angie picked us up at the hotel promptly at 8am and drove us
to Janet and John’s apartment. It is a
beautiful 4 bedroom on the 8th floor, with gorgeous views from every
There is also a rooftop terrace with 360 views of the city.
Then it was off on a whirlwind tour of the neighborhoods. We covered Belen, which sits against a hillside park called Tres Cruces, or Three Crosses. This is a popular hiking spot for folks in the city with many tall high-rise buildings. After driving around some, we stopped in a “Home Center,” which is a bit like a Home Depot and Bed, Bath & Beyond all under one big roof.
We priced everything from coffee pots and dishes …
to refrigerators and washing machines.
After lunch in the vibrant town of Sabaneta, it was time to visit another new, old friend.
Although Janet and I were years apart at school, we bonded instantly. Because of our common background I felt like I had known her forever. Another classmate of my brother’s is also living in Medellin and wanted to meet us. Barb lives in a long-term care facility with a full-time private nurse, and besides meeting Barb, we felt this would be the perfect opportunity to visit such a place without sitting through a sales pitch.
It was beautiful – with none of the “old people/disinfectant” smell you might expect.
Barb’s room opens onto a tiny garden with hummingbirds flitting about. It was charming. Monthly price for private room and full-time nurse: $4000. Barb smiled when she met me. She said, “your brother was a real hoot!” Yes, he was!
We drove through more city neighborhoods and then dropped Janet off at her apartment. We kept going on to Bello, which is in a lower-income and a bit edgier part of town. We came upon literally miles of young people lining the sidewalk on either side, the crowd and noise growing larger the further along we went. Angie finally asked a taxi driver what was going on. “A free Metallica concert!” he said.
We kept driving, further out of the city: Las Cabañas, Copacobana, and finally Girardota.
Then up and up into the surrounding hillside.
We passed a group walking up the hill. Angie said, “that one in the blue shirt is American” and promptly stopped to say hi. Sure enough, Rob is from Utah and lives part-time in his beautiful hillside casa outside of Girardota. He invited us in to see the property – a big 4-bedroom house inside a walled garden with a pool. The view from his upper balcony was spectacular. He offered to rent the house to us for $700 a month. We exchanged emails and promised to keep in touch.
By now it was almost dark, and we hit rush-hour traffic
heading back into the city. We were too
tired to go out – we noshed on fruit and cheese from the local grocery store
before calling it a night.
After two days we wrote down some of our first impressions
streets with very little litter
streets with little signage – easy to get lost if you don’t know where you’re
Mostly beautiful but with a few dodgy parts
women who are very proud of their long hair
Wood, and Waterfalls
The plan today was to drive south and east out of the city into the flower region.
This area sits at a higher altitude than Medellin and the air was much cooler as we drove up the mountain.
We passed through the towns of Las Palmas and El Retiro, both of which are notable for their woodworking.
Shop after shop lined each side of the road as we wound our way towards La Ceja, with many this time of year selling wooden Christmas trees and other holiday decorations.
On the way we stopped for a quick photo-op at a beautiful waterfall, Tequendamita Falls.
The greenhouses in La Ceja spread out across the valley. The town itself sits surrounded by mountains on all sides. It felt very quiet and peaceful – possibly made more so by the numerous seminaries and convents scattered throughout the area.
We wanted a typical Colombian lunch so on our way back we stopped at Kioskos for patacones and “Frijoles Triple Ah” (Triple AAA): beans with arroz (rice), avocado, and arepa.
Angie taught us the proper way to eat the small, dry cornmeal cakes: piled high with fresh avocado and a liberal dash of salt!
Then we checked out a house we had found on-line in an
exclusive Rionegro neighborhood. It
turned out to be in a gated community with a no-nonsense guard. Angie disappeared for a few minutes and came
back smiling with a set of keys. We were
able to go inside and see how much house you can rent for 3.9 million pesos a
month (about $1200).
Dinner that night was at a Peruvian restaurant very close to our hotel. Maybe it was because we’ve been off rice and potatoes for so long, but dinner never tasted so good!
Wednesday: To Market to Market
Today was our first free day and we planned to spend it comparison shopping at the grocery stores and market. While I enjoyed a cup of coffee and reminisced with Janet, Andy took our regular weekly shopping list to the store and priced everything – apples to apples (or should we say papaya to papaya). We found, for the most part, that prices are far below what we would pay Stateside for the same items.
After my visit with Janet we walked to the local produce market. Here the fruits and vegetables are even cheaper as you are buying directly from the farmers.
We searched for kale with no luck. We didn’t know the Spanish word, and no one could understand what we wanted. Finally, one of the vendors asked another shopper who could speak English. She had no idea but typed it into Google Translate. The translation came back “kah-lay.” Of course.
After the market it was time for lunch. We walked back towards our hotel and stumbled
upon a delightful little place called “The Art of Pizza.” The walls and menu were decorated with
classic masterpieces, except with a pizza twist.
TG’s veggie pizza was indeed a work of art and as a friend said “For $8! How can you go wrong?”
Well, apparently you can go very wrong. I made the mistake of insisting on ordering in Spanish. I could read ensalada, aquacate, and queso (salad, avocado, and cheese). As a vegetarian it looked divine. What I failed to translate was the word tocino and the salad came buried in it: BACON! Too embarrassed to order anything else, I nibbled a few bites of TG’s pizza and looked forward to dinner.
We wanted to check out an apartment we had found on-line so after lunch we continued our walk. We found the apartment but then got totally turned around. As soon as we passed the porn shop, we knew we were heading in the wrong direction. Fortunately, Janet had given us a map of the area and we quickly straightened ourselves out. Not, however, before logging 15,000 steps on my Fitbit.
That night we had arranged to meet Janet and John for dinner. It was a delightful evening getting to know
them both as well as picking their brains regarding their move to Colombia and
their impressions of Medellin.
Thursday: The Business of Coffee
When we parted ways with Angie on Tuesday, she had given us three options for today: Fredonia, Santa Fe Antioquia, or Barbosa. All three towns are in opposite directions, and we only had time for one. “Research and let me know” she said. We settled on Fredonia, located in the coffee region south and west of Medellin. This turned out to be the best decision we could have made. We were literally on our way to heaven.
The hillsides are lush and green, with coffee plantations scattered about. Mountains grow tall inside the deep valleys and the air smells fresh and sweet.
This time of year, the coffee berries drip bright red against the dark green leaves.
The quaint town of Fredonia sits on a steep hillside with the
ubiquitous cathedral towering over the center square.
We stopped in a small shop to purchase some of the locally grown coffee: Café Don Chucho.
Francisco Javier (Don Chucho’s son) has the nicest smile you’ll ever see and a warm personality to go along with it.
After our coffee his wife escorted us to an upstairs restaurant overlooking the cathedral and square – a place we never would have found on our own.
Angie ordered without a menu: traditional Colombian food similar to what we had at Kiosko’s on Tuesday.
Although Fredonia is at the beginning of the coffee region, we were still in Antioquia, in an area called Sur oeste, or the Southwest. “Here begins the business of the coffee” Angie said.
Friday: The Four Elements of Rap
It was our last full day, and we had covered everything we wanted to see. As much as we loved Fredonia, we realized it was too far from Medellin to seriously consider for our new home. We want to find a quiet place close (but not too close) to the city, a short ride to the airport and where we can walk to the markets and shops.
So, we decided to do something touristy that afternoon. We made a reservation with Free City Tours for a tour of comuna 13. Colombia is a country of resilience and no place embodies that quite like comuna 13. Until the late 1990’s, this community was considered The Most dangerous in the world. Around that time, the people took control of their neighborhood and turned it into a place of hope, peace, and beauty.
The focal point of the tour is the area around the escaleras electricas, the outdoor escalators that provide access to homes in barrios high up on the hills and formerly isolated from the city below.
The area is awash with murals and graffiti, while at the top there is a lookout and boardwalk offering beautiful views of the bustling city.
We met at the San Javier metro
station and then together took a local bus up the winding hillside to the start
of the tour: the U.V.A., or local
community center. This place, located
next to a new high school, provides art and sports classes for children and
adults. The words on the building’s
exterior represent everything the community reclaimed as their own: things like “honor”, “justice”, and
In order to fully understand the violence and difficulties that have plagued this area and its impressive reformation, it’s best to go with a local guide. Our guide, Alejandro, was born in comuna 13 and his family was forced to flee during the worst of the violence. His uncle and cousin were killed, accused of being part of the “guerrillas” or drug dealers. His eyes glistened with tears as he told us about this difficult time and the transformation of his town.
We started up the hill.
Alejandro said he had some surprises for us and a short way up he gave us the first: ice cream popsicles.
I tried the avocado and TG had the soursop. We found them both creamy and delicious.
Up more stairs to a coffee museum
where we were shown the proper way to make Colombian coffee (NEVER add sugar!)
and then were each given a sample cup.
After coffee we stopped at the beginning of the six escalator sets for freshly made (and piping hot) empañadas. Still eating, we ducked into another small coffee shop and enjoyed a shot glass of cold coffee-lemonade. It was interesting and refreshing.
While there, we were treated to our third surprise: a short rap concert by two local musicians, who each performed an original song. One of them sang to me; I think he was saying I had a nice smile, but it could also have been that my hair is gray.
Up more escalators to a lookout
point and our last surprise of the day:
a break-dance performance by some very talented young men.
All along the way, the walls of buildings are covered with murals and graffiti – so many that it’s hard to take it all in!
At the top of the hill, Alejandro stopped to explain we had just experienced the four elements of rap: art, music, poetry, and dance – which is the true spirit of comuna 13. He said “Don’t ever stop dreaming. Let comuna 13 be your inspiration – you can do anything you set your mind to. Live your life every day like it is the last.”
He gave us each a friendship bracelet made with Colombian colors and we said our good-byes.
We re-traced our steps back to the bus stop and San Javier metro station where we caught a taxi for our hotel. It was truly a memorable afternoon.
On our last night we enjoyed
another traditional Colombian dinner at a nearby restaurant, Mondongo’s. By now we were old pros with the patacones,
arepas, avocado. But a banana?
The grinning waiter explained that bananas go in “everything!” “Add it to your beans, put it on your patacones, anywhere!” he said gesturing across the entire table of food.
Saturday: Home Again Home Again
Saturday morning Angie’s husband, Jorge, took us to the airport via the tunel. At five miles long it is the longest tunnel in Latin America and connects the city to the international airport in about 18 minutes.
It was a short, easy drive and we arrived in plenty of time to stop at the duty-free shop and catch our flight back to Fort Lauderdale.
Medellin ended up being everything we had hoped for and then some. Our research into South America is not yet complete, but it will be hard to find a better place to live. Many thanks to Janet, John, and Angie for making this such an extraordinary week! “Hasta pronto, Medellin.” See you soon.
I’m not going to sugar coat it. 30 hours of travel is brutal. But in spite of a lost boarding pass in Miami, navigating the maze that is London Heathrow, and a slight “security breach” (whoops) we made it. We. are. in. South. Africa. We’re sitting in the Priority Pass lounge at Johannesburg airport, waiting for our domestic flight to Skukuza. We’re sitting on the top of the world!
They say there are five animals that should be on everyone’s bucket list when visiting Africa, commonly referred to as the “Big Five.” Cape buffalo, lion, leopard, elephant, and rhinoceros. In fact, these five animals decorate the first five denominations of the South African Rand.
We arrive in Skukuza around noon and have a couple of hours to kill before picking up our room key. We’re too tired to do much more than sit at the cafe on the river, watching a cape buffalo graze and sun bathe.
We pick up our keys and settle in before heading out on our night game drive with guide, Lloyd. This is a big open air vehicle like an Everglades swamp buggy. Two guests, one on each side, hold spotlights which I’m sure works out better on some nights than others. Tonight’s light holders: not so good. But in spite of that by the end of the night we have seen two white rhinos, a herd of elephants, a leopard, a lion, a serval (apparently extremely rare), long-eared hares, many impalas, and a spotted genet. Wow! Not even twelve hours in the Kruger and we have already spied the big five!
Exhausted, we crash at 11pm, sleeping in a real bed for the first night in the last three.
Up at 6am for a full-day game drive. We are pleasantly surprised that it is Lloyd who greets us again this morning. Today we dub “hippo day” as it seems they are at every river and water hole we cross. We also see cape buffalo, lions, elephants, a leopard, impalas, baboons, monkeys, warthogs, giraffes, many beautiful birds, leopard tortoise, kudu, water bucks, steenboks, and oh did I mention hippos? I’m sure I’ve forgotten something! Our cottage sits on a beautiful property overlooking the river. Before I even go inside I walk down to the railing. Below me bathing in the river are seven hippos.
This morning we drive from Skukuza, located towards the southern end of the Kruger north to Letaba. We know it will take at least eight hours, so fortified with multiple cups of coffee and a good map, we head out at 7am. The roads are easy to follow: mostly paved with good directional signage. You would have to work very hard to get yourself lost.
It’s not that far in terms of distance; around 100 kilometers. But the speed limit is only 40 kph and you don’t want to go any faster as you are constantly looking from side to side for animals. Plus you never know when a rhino (or two), or a giraffe, or a hyena, or an elephant momma and baby might decide to cross the road in front of you.
You never know when you might spy a herd of zebra or black-backed jackal, or two young lions lying sleepy and bloated under a tree, the carcass of freshly-killed buffalo at their feet.
We stop for lunch at Satara, which is about half-way between the two camps. It feels good to stretch our legs and relax. The camps are simple to navigate. We find the restaurant (“Mugg & Bean”) with no trouble.
Today is our best yet in terms of sightings. I’ll just run down the list, starting with the Big Five. Cape buffalo, two white rhinos, elephants — so many I lost count — two young male lions on a fresh kill, a leopard, crocodile, hippos, storks, herds of zebra, herds of giraffes, black-backed jackal, impalas, kudu, multiple monkeys, steenboks, hyena, warthogs, 4 ostriches, wildebeest, adult fish eagle, red-billed horn bill, and many other beautiful birds I do not recognize.
We arrive at Letaba shortly after 4pm. The Fish Eagle house is spectacular. There is a huge great room with kitchen and bedroom wings on either side, each with two identical bedrooms. It sits on private property adjacent to the park border, over looking the river. It will be a wonderful place to spend the next four nights.
After driving for almost nine hours Tall Guy is exhausted and skips tonight’s game drive. We have a 3:30am wake-up call for tomorrow’s sunrise drive. I join the night group solo. We see a lot of small nocturnal animals: spring hares that look like a cross between a rabbit and a kangaroo, scrub hares, hyenas, an African wild cat, and the highlight for me: a chameleon!
Meanwhile back at Fish Eagle, TG has an adventure of his own:
As we were unloading the car the deafening noise of the cicadas was impossible to ignore. But we were in such a rush we barely gave it a second thought. Besides, once inside the house the sound softened to a dull hum. Click on the YouTube link below for one of the loudest insect sounds on the planet.
We switched on the porch lights and hurried off to dinner. We agreed that TG would meet me in the reception parking lot after the night drive — around 10:00pm. He planned to take a hot shower and just relax after the long day of driving. But who knew cicadas were attracted to light? Expecting a quiet evening alone at home, TG arrived back at Fish Eagle only to find the ENTIRE HOUSE COVERED with thousands of 4-inch buzzing bugs. There was no way to turn off the lights from outside the house, so opening the front door lets several hundred inside. He spent the entire evening getting them out of the house. Totally harmless, they look like giant flies and make a high-pitched screech when captured with a broom. We continue t find them the entire week. Lesson learned: when going out after dark in cicada country, do NOT leave the lights on.
Our sunrise drive on Tuesday turns out to be just the two of us. It is fantastic! Hippos fighting at the river’s edge, a great southern hornbill, herds of impalas, an amazing sunrise, and a most unusual bird: the red-crested korhaan. It walks around making a clucking sound, then without warning flies into the air and dead-drops like a clay pigeon. Less than 15 feet from the ground it takes flight again. We are so surprised by this we do not get a photo. Eric our guide explains this is mating behavior but rarely seen close up.
Back to camp for some breakfast, a nap, and shower before heading out for our afternoon walk. John Adamson, lead ranger at Letaba, leads our group. He drives us to the river’s edge where we get out of the vehicle and are given our instructions: stay together as a group, walk quietly in a single file, and whatever you do: DON’T RUN! It is thrilling to be on the ground, walking on the same paths as the animals. We see incredible birds, crocodiles, hippos, and even three cape buffalo. John points out a porcupine burrow with needles strewn about the entrance.
Wednesday morning we are up at 3:30. John meets us at 4:30 for our full-day game drive. As a park ranger he has access to all the roads, even the “no entry” roads, and he takes full advantage of this opportunity to give us a behind the scenes tour of the Kruger few ever get to see. On top of this, his passion is birds. He knows every bird in Kruger by call, by sight, even by nest. He has worked in the park for eleven years and between his stories, bird ID’s and general info the hours pass quickly.
We see elephants taking a mud bath, a group of wildebeest at a water hole by the power lines, lions, zebras, giraffes (including one bending waaaaay down to drink).
It is almost 5:00pm and we are far from Letaba. But no worries about camp curfew when your guide is the head ranger. I say I am happy we are still out and able to take a photo of the gorgeous African sunset. Then I joke “but it would be nice if I could get a giraffe against this brilliant sky.” A few minutes later we come upon a mother giraffe and nursing baby. We stop to take photos as the sky turns a beautiful orange-red. As we continue on our way, another huge giraffe is standing by the side of the road, looking towards the west, his long graceful neck and head perfectly silhouetted against the sky. I get my shot.
We arrive back at Letaba at 7:30. We have arranged for a private guide on Thursday. In order to get an early enough start, the plan is for our guide to spend the night with us at Fish Eagle. Armand is waiting in our driveway when we finally get back from our 14-hour day with John.
Out the door at 5:30am on Thursday for another full day with Armand. He is nervous. He knows we spent Wednesday with John Adamson, one of the best guides in all of Kruger. In spite of our assurances he does not want to disappoint us in any way. As we drive he talks about the mopani trees, which the elephants love to eat, facts about the birds we were seeing, and teaches us much about the ubiquitous impalas.
Impalas are everywhere and we are so used to seeing them we barely give them a second glance. But Armand explains why they are so clean (they groom each other), that they have voice boxes which allow them to mimic lions (which we listened for and heard), and how they all give birth around the same time of year (a survival technique that floods the bush for predators). I say I would love to see a baby impala. No more than five minutes later we do.
As we continue on our drive, a car from the other direction stops us. They have spotted lions six kilometers away. We head there, looking anxiously beginning at 5km. Nothing. Nothing at 6km, or 7, or 8. Armand suggests we head back to the river we crossed around the 4km mark. We are distracted by a red-creasted korhaan for a moment and then are on our way. As we get close to the river, we see a huge herd of cape buffalo gathered in the water. A lion races across the road in the blink of an eye. We are thrilled but the lion is gone so we drive down to the middle of the river bed to watch the buffalo.
Suddenly a lion bursts from the thicket behind us and charges the buffalo, sending them off in a stampede up the side of the bank. The lion skids to a stop, water and mud flying everywhere. He turns back and trots to the other side, where he is joined by three more. The buffalo are gone but the lions stay long enough for us to take many photos. It is a National Geographic moment we can hardly believe. I say “See? Nothing to worry about with us.”
With absolutely no pressure for the rest of the day we end up seeing multiple elephants and at the end, a beautiful leopard very close to the road.
Today is TG’s and my 33rd wedding anniversary. We’re on the road by 4:30am. We are driving back south to Skukuza today to begin our long journey home and want to detour past the “Nat Geo” lion spot, which will take us a bit north. No lions this morning but we do see two playful hyena cubs, little balls of energy under the watchful eye of momma. Further along we see a group of baboons with many babies. And even further, another antelope calf standing close to its mother.
A very baby-ful morning so far. Then a fantastic spy: a pair of secretary birds! These are extremely rare, skittish birds and we are lucky to see them. I fire off a quick shot and catch one in flight.
We stop to stretch our legs at a small picnic spot overlooking a waterhole. Two cape buffalo are resting by the water’s edge. The area is fenced, and a lone guard stands watch. A reminder that a small fence is of no use to a charging elephant or lion.
We turn off the main road to take a gravel road the remainder of the way to Skukuza. A huge herd of cape buffalo are standing off to the side.
There is a car stopped ahead, looking at a small group of elephants partially hidden in the thicket. Fifty yards later we see more movement. More elephants. This appears to be a much bigger herd. TG backs up a little but suddenly they veer towards us.
They burst through the thicket and cross the road directly behind our car. A steady stream of at least fifty, including several babies so small they must be only a few weeks old. We watch, scarcely daring to breath. Mother elephants are extremely protective of their young and we do not want to do anything to agitate them. We wait until they are long passed before TG starts the car and we move on.
Further along the road is blocked by a herd of zebra. We spy a baby amongst them. While waiting for them to cross, four giraffe amble through. More roadblock.
We arrive in the general area of Skukuza too early to check in so we continue our drive. A white rhino crosses the road ahead of us. We stop for photos. A car flashes their lights so we roll down our window. The lady tells us of lions ahead. Sure enough, there is a pair of magnificent adult males, sleeping in an open field on the side of the road in clear view for all to see. We watch them for a while with no action and agree to give it another 15 minutes. At minute 13 one lifts his head and looks our way.
Total animal list for today: waterbucks, kudu, impalas with calf, hyena with cubs, klipspringer, baboons with babies, zebras with baby, elephants with babies, wildebeests, ostriches, leopard tortoise, giraffes, secretary birds, hippos, warthogs, cape buffalo, pearl spotted owl, red-crested korhaan, male lions, white rhino, and many more birds we cannot identify.
Our cottage at Skukuza overlooks the river so after we drop our bags I walk to the railing. There is a herd of elephants with babies grazing below me. The eyes and ears of a hippo are breaking the surface of the water, and a pair of impala are picking their way through the rocks. I watch until it’s too dark to see.
We do not want to waste one second of our time here in Africa. Our rental car is not due back until 11:00am so we are up at 4:00 for one last game drive. TG has a “feeling” about rhinos this morning. We follow the same route we saw the rhino and lions yesterday. No rhinos but we do see three beautiful kudu and a hyena runs alongside the car so close we cannot get any photos. We see lots of elephants again, some very close to the road.
Up ahead we spy first one and then a second rhino. It appears to be a mother and calf, grazing some distance apart. Spread among them are several impalas also grazing on this quiet morning.
Usually a sighting like this creates a traffic jam but it is still early and we are the only car on the road. We are able to maneuver for the best possible angle. Suddenly the baby flops down on the ground. Momma looks up and ambles over. As we watch, she gently nudges the young one encouraging him to stand up. Not nap-time now. They move away, disappearing into the thicket. Three big ranger-guided vehicles pull up. We tell them about the rhinos but fear they arrived too late to see anything.
This trip has exceeded all expectation. We keep pinching ourselves to make sure it has not been a dream. It is hard to get our heads around the fact that the animals we see belong here. This is their home and we must stay in the “cages” (cars).
We have traveled to Quito so many times in the past year that it is easy to breeze through customs and we are at our hotel in no time. We are hopeful that tomorrow will be clear. Our flight to Cuenca does not leave until 6:30pm. We have the whole day and want to visit Teleferico, a cable car attraction that gives visitors a breath-taking view of the city and surrounding mountains.
We are not disappointed. The day is sunny and bright, with a clear view of the snow-capped peaks. We are the first to arrive at the base of the mountain. There is no line and we hop on the first cable car available.
It is a long way to the top: Quito sits at 9,000 ft. The base of the park is at 10,000 and by the time we exit we are 12,500 ft above sea level. It is hard to breathe at this altitude but the view is spectacular. We can see all of the surrounding peaks: Cotopaxi, Antisana and Cayambe.
We hike up the hill. The Cruz Loma crater, part of a still-active volcano, is three miles further along the steep path. Horses are available for hire but TG chooses to wait while I hike for another twenty minutes.
The volcano is no closer and the thin air makes me short of breath. I turn back. A family has stopped along the side of the path. I say “Es difícil respirar.” It is difficult to breathe. “Sí.”
It is a short, one-hour flight to Cuenca and we can see the mountains clearly from the plane window. Even from this height they are massive. We collect our bags and arrive at the Hostel Chordeleg by 8pm. This will be our home for the next six days. We walk to the main square for dinner.
If you travel to Ecuador for peace and quiet, you will be sorely disappointed. It is many wonderful things but it is never quiet. The streets are crowded and bustling, with every car beeping its horn as often as possible. Street vendors loudly hawk their wares and fireworks ka-boom at all hours of the day and night.
We are awakened by sunshine pouring through the slits in the wooden shutters and the sounds of traffic on the street below. We walk south, towards the river. The city is still waking and the stalls in the square are not yet open for business. The market, however, appears to have been bustling for hours.
We wander through aisle after aisle of produce: mountains of bananas, mangos, strawberries. The meat counters overflowing with slabs of thick red meat, piles of plucked yellow chickens, and cakes of white lard. A pig hangs from a steel hook. We are astounded at the variety of it all.
Upstairs we share a table with another couple while we drink our coffee. The people-watching is incredible and we try to be discreet as we take our photos. The upstairs vendors sell cooked foods: beans, corn, and sheets of chocolate. Later we will learn that city women buy their beans pre-cooked to avoid the long soaking process. And the chocolate sheets are bitter: you must add sugar and milk to make hot cocoa. But for now we are content to just sit and soak it all in.
The afternoon has grown warm. Before we left home the forecast for Cuenca was overcast, drizzly and 60’s. We brought long-sleeves and down vests. But it is sunny and in the 80’s. We return to the hotel to cool off and plan the week. There is a tour company across the street and we sign up for a day hike in the Cajas National Park tomorrow and a city tour on Wednesday morning.
The bus picks us up at 8:00am. Cajas National Park sits just outside of Cuenca. The highest elevation is 14,000 ft, at the continental divide. Even though it is only 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean, all waters east of this point flow across the continent of South America to the Atlantic Ocean. The national park land was formed during the ice age by glaciers moving across the mountains. There are over 320 lakes in the region along with beautiful “paper” tree forests, whose bark is so thin the Incas used it for paper. The micro-climate is called a cloud forest because of all the vegetation that grows at this altitude.
We did not know what to expect. The tour operator said a “short walk through the hills.” We hike, some of it quite arduous, for three hours. But are rewarded with one incredible view after another. The guide warns us to stay with him. It is easy to stray off the path and lose your way. Every year people are lost on the mountain after dark and die from hypothermia. It is sunny and warm again today but at this altitude once the sun sets temperatures will drop quickly.
Ten miles later, we finally arrive back at the bus. We are taken for a traditional Andean lunch: potato soup and fried trout. The soup is delicious. The trout is presented with head and eyes fried along with the rest. We are no longer hungry.
Our guide, Juan Carlos, meets us promptly at 9:00am. He takes us to the Homero Ortega panama hat factory.
Cuenca is the birthplace of the panama hat and we learn much on this tour. Hats are still made as they have been for centuries: by hand. Local craftswomen deliver the hats to the factory where they are sorted by quality. The finer the straw, the better the weave, more expensive the hat. Each hat goes through a process of bleaching, pressing, and shaping before it is ready to be sold.
The factory walls are lined with photos of celebrities: Sean Connery, Johnny Depp, Bruce Willis, and Julia Roberts have all worn Homero Ortega hats. This is the largest exporter of panama hats in Cuenca: they export over 600,000 annually.
After the tour we drive across town and up the hill for a view of the city. Cuenca is very red – the clay used for much of the building materials and tiled roofs is from the local hillsides. We stop at Eduardo Vega’s studio. He is the premiere ceramicist in Ecuador and I instantly recognize his work. I purchased some of his pieces the last time I was in Quito.
Juan Carlos drives us back into town. We start our walking tour. We visit the Museum of Modern Art, where we find the hummingbirds and gardens far more interesting than the art.
We walk through the market and Juan explains the various fruits and vegetables. He points to a narrow passage and tells us that is the best place to purchase handicrafts and panama hats. He takes us to the cathedral. Until this point it has been a dominating force in the center of town but we have not gone inside. We stand in awe. He describes in detail the history of this beautiful building, the story of each stained glass window and statue. The church comes alive and we will visit it often during our stay this week.
We visit the flower market where discreetly tucked in one corner is the entrance to the Monestario del Carmen de La Asuncion. There is much mystery surrounding the monastery, home to an order of cloistered nuns. Even the locals tell conflicting stories. We hear somewhere between 16 and 18 nuns, all university graduates who must first serve as a novice for somewhere between two and nine years. Once accepted, they will never leave the monastery and can never be seen again. If they have visitors their faces are covered with a thick veil. They raise money by making various products. Juan Carlos tells us the pigeon jelly (geletina) cured his daughter. We purchase as much of the locion for sore muscles and crema for dry skin as we can carry home.
Today we look for panama hats. Buying the right hat takes patience and stamina. We walk from one store to the next. Nothing speaks to Tall Guy. We end up back at a shop we visited on Monday. I like a blue hat with blue band I find laying on the table. We explain to the clerk what Tall Guy wants: a good-quality weave, black, with narrow (pork-pie) brim, green band, size XL. They can make it. It will take about an hour.
While we wait, we happen upon the Cuenca Zoo. It is no more than a storefront, with cages and tanks full of all manner of strange reptiles and insects. It is fascinating and ever so campy. There are two albino things in a water-filled tank. I am obsessed with finding out what they are. I can hardly believe that they are real. The docent speaks no English. I get (somehow) that they are juveniles as he shows me a photo of an adult. Ah! Definitely some sort of lizard (thing). We turn a corner in the tiny room and are surrounded by snakes including a thick python. Most are sleeping with their heads away from us. But a yellow one dances in front of the glass while we take photos.
I am so mesmerized by the snakes that I almost miss the green iguana sitting on a tree next to my head. He is not in a cage. Up a flight of stairs and I am looking down at a 6 ft crocodile, sharing his pen with a small Galapagos tortoise. The next room is full of slimy snails and spiders. We are happy to escape this strange little place and spill back into the bright sunshine on the street.
Our hats are not yet ready. We are brought upstairs to a balcony with a beautiful view of the city. We wait high above the street and traffic. It is worth it: TG’s hat is exactly what he wanted.
Hats on head, we walk back to the flower market. We did not have time yesterday to take as many photos as we wished. The perfume from the flowers fills the air. We sit in the shade and enjoy the beautiful colors and smells.
Today is Thanksgiving. Someone tells us that a restaurant is serving a traditional American dinner: turkey and all the trimmings. We stop in to confirm. “Yes!” they tell us. “Wonderful,” we say, “we will be back for dinner!” I have the pasta primavera and TG the mixed grill.
We have reservations at the Piedra de Agua thermal hot springs & spa, a short ride outside of Cuenca. We arrive when they open at 9:00am. There is no one else here. We are treated to a 15 minute eucalyptus sauna, followed by cold rinse, and then repeat. We are coated in red mud, baked in the sun, rinsed, coated in blue mud, baked in the sun, and rinsed. We are brought into a small cave. At the bottom on the steps, lit with small candles, is a thermal pool of very hot water. We soak for ten minutes, and jump into a freezing cold bath. We sit for two minutes, gasping for breath, and then repeat the whole process three more times. David, our attendant, asks if we would like a glass of wine. “Si.” After wine, we are encased with only our heads through a round opening at the top of a wooden steam box. A Canadian sitting next to us jokes about the James Bond scene in Thunderball when the box is jammed shut with a mop handle and the steam turned on full. We laugh, nervously.
It is time for our massage. TG is on the other side of the screen from me and we finish at the same time. After lunch it is time to head back to Cuenca. We are utterly relaxed and our skin is baby soft. We were at the spa for six hours and the total cost was only $80 per person.
The office calls and TG must crunch numbers. I go for one last walk around Cuenca. I am drawn to the cathedral, the flower market, and the monastery. I try to absorb everything, not knowing when we will be back.
We have a five hour layover in Quito. We have checked our bags straight through to Miami and have plenty of time to go to the market. We are almost there when a horrible hail storm hits. The hail is the size of gumballs, pounding against the taxi. We dash into the market, seeking cover in the narrow aisles of the stalls. This is awful! It is wet and chilly. We head back to the airport. Traffic is backed up and the streets are flooded. They are shoveling the hail like snow. We are grateful we gave ourselves plenty of time.
Our first visit “Chasing Silver,” watching the humpback whale migration off the coast of Ecuador
It took a full day to get here: two planes, a five hour layover in Quito, another flight to Manta, followed by a two hour drive south to Puerto Lopez. Hosteria Itapoa is simple but clean and comfortable. It sits at the north end of the malecon, directly across from the beach. The rooms are small bungalows. Ours comes with a tiny second floor and balcony. Including full breakfast it is $13 per person per night.
Situated within easy walking distance of restaurants and shops, we head to Exploramar Diving first thing Thursday morning. I sign up for a two-tank dive to Isla de la Plata on Friday. And then we go whale watching.
We surrender our shoes to a large rice sack and walk across the beach. It is a cacophony of boats, fisherman still unpacking their gear, fish caught fresh that morning chopped and bleeding on blocks of ice, dogs chasing each other and birds swirling about.
We spend close to an hour searching before we find our first pair of whales. They stay close to the boat, surfacing to breathe and shoot water from their blowholes. They show us only their large hump backs but even that is magnificent. They are every bit as long as our boat – maybe longer. In the distance we see one breach. The boat races but by the time we are close enough for photos it has stopped. We do manage to capture a fluke, dripping with water. We are hooked.
After waiting for an hour at the dive shop on Friday morning I am told that the boat was overbooked. I cannot dive today day. I return to Itapoa. Not expecting me home until 5:00pm, TG is pleasantly surprised to see me. We hire a moto-taxi to take us to Las Frailes, one of the most beautiful beaches in Ecuador. It is almost deserted and we are not disappointed. It is beautiful. We walk for an hour along the beach, photographing the pelicans and tiny sand crabs. In spite of the overcast sky it is a perfect day. I may (or may not) dive this week. The whales are calling.
Later that evening a young man tracks me down at the hostel. He is from Exploramar Diving. Management just found out what happened and he has come to apologize. They will have a space for me whenever I wish to dive. Regardless of whether or not I accept their offer, I appreciate their follow up.
Saturday we have arranged for a horseback tour through the jungle. No waivers are signed; no one even asks if we have any experience. If they had asked, we would have answered we have ridden an elephant more recently. At times it is absolutely terrifying. I am certain my horse will slip on the narrow path and we will slide down the side of the steep, muddy mountain. Our guides whack a path ahead of us with machetes.
But we are treated to panoramic views every where we look; we see rare capuchino and the more common black howler monkeys.
Roberto and Policarpo speak no English. They point out various plants as we struggle to understand. My pockets are full of tobacco leaves, coffee beans, and a tagua nut. “This leaf is good for medicine. The wood from this tree is used in constructing houses.” By three o’clock we are back at the road to meet the moto-taxi. We are exhausted but exhilarated.
It is Sunday and we have booked an all-day trip to Isla de la Plata. Barely twenty minutes out and we already find whales. At first we see only their backs. Suddenly one breaches. It is so close to another boat! We are at the perfect vantage point to photograph both the whale and the boat – giving perspective on how big these creatures really are. We spend an hour with him as over and over he rises up out of the water, showing us his enormous size before splashing back down beneath the waves.
It is time to move on to Isla de la Plata. “The Poor Man’s Galapagos.” It is a wind-swept island in the middle of nowhere, covered with palosanto trees. We recognize the sweet earthy fragrance. We smell it even before Sandra, our guide, points it out.
We see blue-footed boobys, their webbed feet dipped in bright blue “paint,” red-breasted and brown frigates, warbling finches, and albatross.
The landscape is rugged and somewhat barren this time of year. Sandra tells us that during rainy season everything is green and flowering. Off shore in the distance we see whales breach.
Back at the boat we are surrounded by huge green sea turtles. They are drawn to the pineapple chunks our crew is tossing overboard. We spend thirty minutes snorkeling in a quiet bay. The corals are pretty and I see many unfamiliar fish.
The boat heads back to Puerto Lopez. It has been a long day and the crew is anxious to get us home. We see whales breach and more water spouts during the hour-long ride back but it is full speed ahead. If Saturday left us exhilarated, today we are giddy. The camera is full of photos.
We try a different restaurant every night. Puerto Lopez is a fishing village. We order fish; none prepared quite the same way.
After dinner we have taken to stopping for a drink. Last night we found a quiet bar called “Bambu.” There is a sign on the wall: “Buena Vibre” Good Vibes. Tonight Jaime pours us home-made caña, a traditional Ecuadorian drink made fermented sugar cane. We are living on the edge.
After another full day of whale watching, we have decided to stay on dry land today. We hire a moto-taxi to take us to Agua Blanca, an archeological site dating back to pre-Columbian times. We have no idea what we are in for. There is a small museum filled with artifacts: funeral urns with human bones still tucked in the fetal position in which they were cremated. Alejo, our guide, patiently teaches as we struggle to understand his Spanish.
And then we set out on a two kilometer trek through the dry jungle, past a small banana plantation, over a river where women are hand washing clothes and on to a sacred pool. It is healing sulfur water. We coat our hands and arms in thick black mud, let it dry for twenty minutes and then rinse off in the pool. I lie on my stomach and let my arms dangle in the egg-smelling water. It feels silky. There are two toads on the bank next to me. Tall Guy says his arms are as soft as a baby but it does nothing for my dry hands.
After all the excitement earlier this week there is little whale activity on Wednesday. We are disappointed. We’ve been spoiled. We see one whale breach but are not in the right position for a photo. We see a few hump backs and one fluke. We spend too much time drifting, the engine idling. One person is sick, and then another and another. It is the domino-effect. TG and I sit towards the front of the boat, away from the diesel fumes, frustrated with our fellow passengers and the crew.
Once again back we head to Las Frailes. There is a small hill we want to climb. The view from the mirador at the top is breath-taking.
Thursday is our last day in Puerto Lopez. I have booked with a different boat. The captain and crew take care to position us so that everyone has a perfect view. They move the boat so that we are always at the best vantage point to see the whales.
It is, in a word, spectacular. Multiple breaches, a fluke (“cola”) so close I can almost touch it, and a pair that roll on their backs like overgrown puppies. But I am not feeling well. Not seasick, I have succumbed to Jaime’s fermented sugar cane drinks. I go straight to bed.
It is unfortunate as we have been invited to dine with a German couple also staying at Itapoa. They were fishing early this morning and have caught enough to feed everyone. The hostel kitchen is a beehive of activity: Maria, her mother, and daughter bustle about filleting fish, dicing potatoes and chopping onions. TG contributes two boxes of wine. I am sorry to miss the festivities.
By Friday morning we are both sick. We’re certain it was the caña. We will find out later there were bad batches of caña being served all throughout Ecuador. Many people died.
We manage to arrange a taxi to Manta. In spite of everything, I am happy to see this drive in the daytime. The coast of Ecuador is beautiful – nothing but rolling hills and unspoiled white beaches. The landscape is dotted with palosanto and ceibo trees. Between the magnificent views are tiny towns: one after the other. Machalilla. Puerto Cayo. Jipijapa. The main street of each village is lined with vendors, all featuring the same specialty. In one village it is beautiful wood carvings. In the next it is small loaves of bread, the women waive handkerchiefs to flag down the cars. In a third town all the shops sell grotesque ceramic piggy banks and urns. In yet another it is stall after stall of honey. They have recycled every conceivable glass container. We see honey in pickle jars, ketchup and Snapple bottles. All this flies by us at 70 kilometers per hour. We are both slightly queasy and wonder if it is even real. We are on to the next town before I can say for certain.
We land safely in Quito. The Mercure Hotel is a perfect way to end the trip: a comfortable king-size bed and plenty of hot water. We had plans for our last day. Jaime told us about a magic lake, a holy waterfall, and a mystic tree just outside the city. And we wanted to check out the thermal baths in Papallacta. But tonight we are content to order soup from room service and fall gratefully into bed.
Saturday is gloriously clear. We can see to the top of the mountains that surround this city. We had planned to take the cable car to the top of the volcano, Teleferico, at 13,000 ft. Instead we walk to the market. We are feeling better but we have a long day of travel ahead.
Magic lakes, holy waterfalls, and mystic trees will be here – for next trip.
P.S. In March of 2012, we returned to Ecuador to spend a weekend at the Otavalo market. We also visited the Mojanda Lake, Peguche Cascade, the sacred waterfall, and El Lechero, the mystic tree. You can watch our video slide show here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLdcvrSMQ1o
We are in the domestic terminal at the Quito airport; the monitor reads our flight to Manta is now boarding at Gate 16. There is no Gate 16, only Gates 1-5. I ask the ticket agent if we are in the right place. She replies, “yes, you will board at 12:05.” I look at my watch, and then back to her, confused. It is 12:15. She taps my watch. “Don’t worry about it.”
Barely an hour later and we are touching down in Manta. By 3:30 we are lying flat on our bed under a cool ceiling fan in our hostel in Bahia de Caraquez. Cocobongo Hostel is simple but clean. The shower begrudgingly gives up a trickle of tepid water, the bed is hard, but the ceiling fan runs strong and we are steps from the ocean.
Bahia sits on a thumb of a peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides. To the west is the Pacific Ocean. To the east, the Chone river and estuary. It is spectacular. The vibe is beachy-touristy, similar to tourists towns in Florida. This trip is about more than simply a relaxing vacation. We want to live as close to “local” as we can. We want to experience the trickling shower, the power outages, and shop at the produce market.
The produce market!! An entire city block filled with stall after stall of succulent vegetables and fruits, fish caught that morning, live chickens, hot-from-the-oven breads, freshly made cheeses, plus all manner of herbs, spices, and little sticks in bags. Over the week we will spend hours wandering the market but very little money. Three huge avocados and three juicy tomatoes cost a total of $1.00. Paired with a soft roll and some queso (cheese) it will make lunch for days. We will eat for pennies all week.
We take a panga across the river to San Vincente. They recently built a beautiful bridge, so it is possible to walk or drive across the river.
But pangas run a regular, inexpensive ferry service and are quick. Only ten minutes shore to shore. The capacity states 20. I count 27 on our boat, not counting the two infants and a small dog. On the way back a tiny abuela (grandmother) boards after us. Her face is wrinkled, her hair is white. She looks ancient. She hesitates at the top of the steps, the small boat rocking in the waves. TG offers a strong, steady arm and her face lights up. She grasps his arm and comes aboard. I scoot over so she can sit next to him on the narrow bench.
There is a different sense of personal space in this country. No one seems to mind sitting so close together. We find this everywhere — not just on the pangas. Shop aisles are narrow and crowded. At 6’4″ TG towers above everyone. We pass another tiny abuela. She is literally the size of his leg. She is walking with a young woman and as they pass, they gasp. If one can communicate “holy sh**t!!” with a gasp, they just did.
New Year’s Eve in Ecuador is like nothing we’ve ever seen. All day we have been accosted by “widows” – young men and boys dressed in black funeral drag, symbolizing the loss of their husband (the old year). They beg for coins to purchase fireworks for later tonight.
At 10pm we gather for a “concert” on the point of the peninsula. It turns out to be two hours of canned rock music, blaring from speakers. There are many families here and everyone is happy and friendly. Roman candles, bottle rockets, and sparklers explode over our heads. At midnight, everyone kisses. “Feliz Nuevo Años, Año Viejo!” Happy New Year, Better luck next year!
And then the bonfires begin. We had seen the paper mache effigies for sale on the streets but were not prepared for the fires — everywhere. Figures, good and bad, symbolize out with the old and are burned along with any bad memories from the previous year.
Someone throws a brick of firecrackers into the middle of a burning pile. The streets are smokey and our throats hurt as we walk home. It’s a wonder no one is hurt, that no fire burns out of control.
New Years Day. We take a panga across the river to San Vincente again. We arrange transportation to Canoa. Canoa is like an overly crowded Miami Beach. We cannot see the water for all the little tents, the areas between the tents are crawling with people.
We sit at a street cafe and watch the crowds go by. The mood is light-hearted and happy. Used to the Florida sunshine we forget how close we are to the equator. TG has a horrible sunburn. A young man calls from a truck “Oh my got, meester! Mucho sol!” We laugh. “Si.”
The traffic is a snarled tangle of buses, trucks overflowing with people, motorbikes, and bicycles. People and dogs scurry back and forth between the stopped cars. Someone jumps off his bike to direct traffic. Soon everyone is moving again. It seems there is always a guy willing to jump in and get things moving. We saw the same thing at the concert on New Year’s Eve.
We stay in Bahia today. We walk for miles, all around town. Atop one of the hills is a lookout point with a huge cross. You can climb the stairs to the top of the cross for a spectacular panoramic view of the coast. We hike the road up to the cross and down the other side. We are comfortable on these streets — they are easy to navigate and we quickly learn our way around.
On our way back to Cocobongo we pass a small storefront restaurant with rows of chickens roasting on spits out front. It smells delicious. We purchase a chicken for dinner. It comes with rice, beans, and a small salad, more than enough for the two of us, for $10.
Marcelo meets us first thing in the morning. We are getting a tour of the nature reserve and his important reforestation work. But first we stop at the local grade school to meet Miguelito. American classrooms might have guinea pig or hamster for a pet. The grade school in Bahia has a 150-year-old, 525 lb Galapagos tortoise. We find out later that Miguelito has been at this school for 80 years. He was brought from the Galapagos when there were no laws protecting his status and at one point they tried to relocate him back. But he grew sick from missing the children so they returned him to happily live in the grassy playground.
A veterinarian by degree, it’s difficult to explain all that Marcelo does. He is a respected scientist who has traveled all of the world, lecturing on ecosystems. But he has chosen to live in his hometown of Bahia and tend land set aside as a nature reserve. He teaches us much about the tropical dry jungle as we hike. He offers me fruit from the Hobo tree. He says it is good for my brain. I eat it. It tastes bitter, like an aspirin. Later I will pay dearly for this.
We are far from fluent in Spanish, but Marcelo speaks clearly and slowly. We understand everything he says. He points to tracks in the dirt. Ocelot. He is excited. He has not seen any evidence for six months and now look, he says, father, mother and baby!
We reach the bottom of the valley, filled with towering ceibo trees, trunks thick as elephants. They are stately: royal. As we head back we hear the hooting of howler monkeys. I peer into the trees hoping to catch a glimpse.
It is James and Anna’s last night in Ecuador. They leave tomorrow for their long trip home to Tasmania. They have been watching Cocobongo for the past two months while Suzy, the owner, is in Australia, and tonight marks the end of a year of travel in Central and South America. We will miss them. They have a gift for bringing people together. We meet for a farewell dinner at one of their favorite restaurants. Anna, James, Marcelo, Teresa, Nick, Uli and Cleo: our new friends in Bahia.
We are up early to say good bye to Anna and James. We wait for them to leave and then walk to the ocean. The tide is out. We walk on the hard packed sand for many miles. Cars pass us, driving on the beach. At the white retaining wall we turn in and head up the road. This will take us back to Bahia. It is a beautiful walk through more of the same dry tropical jungle as Marcelo’s reserve. We are on the outskirts of Bahia and rather than head straight back to town we walk over the hill past the big cross again.
Later Dr. Don and his wife Marian seek us out at Cocobongo. TG has been communicating with Dr. Don via email for the past year. We go for helado (ice cream). They share their experiences of moving to Bahia two years ago. Others pass by as we sit: ex-pats, Mary Lena – the local tennis coach, our waiter from the restaurant last night. Hola! Hola! We’re finding Bahia to be a very small, very friendly town.
Lars meets us at 9:00am to show us his house and land. Lars and Lone are originally from Denmark, but after sailing around the world for ten years they settled here in Bahia about five years ago. They built a beautiful home on the hillside just outside of town. The view across the Chone and to the Pacific beyond is breath-taking.
After lunch we visit the archaeological museum. Carlos is as passionate about the fascinating history of this country as Marcelo about his reforestation. His English is fluent and we learn much.
We have made two special friends since we arrived. Teresa is Canadian; she is on hiatus from her job and has escaped the cold to stay in Bahia for four months. We are kindred spirits with potential to be great friends. Rosita is a small Chihuahua-Min Pin mix. She is the sweetest, friendliest dog I have ever met. Although she does not belong to anyone she has adopted Cocobongo as her home. She follows us everywhere and sleeps outside our room at night. I hope that Suzy will keep her. I will miss my friends Teresa and Rosie very much.
Our last morning in Bahia. We have arranged for Carlos to pick us up at 11:00 to drive us to Manta. But this is Ecuador. Carlos’ car was impounded for non-payment. Uli quickly helps us arrange another taxi. After breakfast we walk to the ocean once last time. The tide is high this morning and the surf rough. It is untamed and beautiful. Rosie follows along behind us.
I have never been so heartbroken to leave a place.
By 2:30 we are in Quito. It is easy for the taxi to find our hostel. The room is small, even by New York standards; we can barely squeeze around the bed with our two suitcases. It is in the middle of the old city, with ancient churches and buildings crowding in upon narrow cobblestone streets. Quito is 9000 ft above sea level. The altitude has affected us both with a mild headache. I find myself short of breath walking the hilly streets and up the stairs to our third floor room.
On our flight to Manta a week ago, a woman gave us a business card for her shop. After dinner we visit. It is located right across the street from Quito’s largest market and is filled with beautiful Ecuadorian handicrafts. Between the market and Plaza Naya we purchase many gifts.
Quito sits in a valley surrounded by mountains. It is like a large bowl and the houses and buildings sprawl up the surrounding hillsides. They are piled haphazardly on top of each other, every one of them ramshackle and wonky. If you tried to fix one, you would need to tear down the entire mountain. With their faded pastel colors of blue, yellow and pink the hills around Quito look like a Dr. Seuss illustration.
We take a taxi to the Mitad Del Mundo Ciudad: the equator.
There is a line extending through the park and we have fun taking photos at 0°00’00.” We down-dog yoga style across the northern and southern hemispheres. TG lays flat on the line, like he is taking a nap. There are shops surrounding the plaza and in one a man offers to stamp our passports.
The line runs straight through a little church: I name it Our Lady of Zero Latitude. It seems an appropriate place to say a prayer for Rosita. I slip into a pew and pray that she will be adopted. I am overwhelmed and my eyes well up with tears. Just then the music from the nativity scene at the front of the church registers in my brain: Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. I smile and leave Rosie in God’s hands.
Home to Miami today. At this early hour it takes us no time to get to the airport. We arrive at 6:00am for our 9:30 flight. We check in. Our flight has been delayed for four hours for “maintenance issues.” This is Ecuador. They give us a voucher for breakfast. We have a massage and browse the shops to pass the time.
We are already making plans to go back. This is Ecuador.
The altitude hits us the minute we step off the plane: an excruciating headache. As promised, the hotel is there to meet us and after collecting our bags we speed off to Torre Dorada, home base for the next ten days. Cusco is a blur of tin houses, dusty roads, and loose dogs. The poverty is overwhelming – made more so by the beauty of the valley in which the city sits. The mountains rise up around us: now brown during dry season. We muddle through check-in, thinking only of our bed upstairs. Raphael is eager to explain all that Cusco has to offer. We can barely concentrate. Finally we’re allowed into our room and fall gratefully into bed.
We’re given a ride into the city. The Cathedral dominates the main square: huge and imposing. The street vendors are relentless; they have taken pestering to an art. A young girl recites the US presidents from George W. Bush back to George Washington. She caps it off with “Hasta la vista, baby!” Impressed, we buy a puma finger puppet.
We wake up feeling better and head into town to explore. Torre Dorada offers chauffeur service whenever and where ever we wish to go. The roads are a well choreographed ballet of near misses. As passengers, it’s a thrill-ride that leaves us giddy. We’re dropped off at the market at San Blas. We plan to walk downhill to the main square. A man has a table full of intricately carved gourds. He captures our attention by carving a llama on the bottom of one before handing it to us.
The road is so narrow we hug the walls as cars speed by. The steepness does nothing to slow them down. We end up at Jack’s Café. We had lunch here yesterday. We head towards the main square but on the way stop at the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art. The ancient pottery, silver, gold, and shell jewelry are as striking today as when they were crafted over 1,000 years ago.
We walk to Qorikancha: The Temple of the Sun. It is a beautiful amalgamation of Inca and Spanish architecture. Later tonight we will drive by and see it lit with dozens of spotlights. But now the altitude overwhelms us. Heads pounding, we head back to the hotel. A nap perks us up but we begin to worry about the hike, just a day away. After dinner we stroll around the main square. There is a live band playing on the steps of the Cathedral. The cold air and frenetic pace revitalize us.
We wake early and head to Pisac with Dayana, our guide. She is young, charming, and a wealth of information about Inca culture.
We drive up and up from Cusco and then start our descent into the Sacred Valley. The valley is named for the Urubamba River, we learn, not the many ruins. It is so fertile crops grow year round. The view is breath-taking.
Santiago, our driver, takes us to the top of the mountain. An archeologist once suggested that all Inca terraces were built to resemble sacred animals. Pisac is supposed to be the shape of a condor. I can see wings – sort of. Dayana suggests that the archeologist may have been smoking something.
Our memories of Pisac will forever be accompanied by the song of the Andean flute. We hear the haunting melody long before we see him and long after we have passed him on the path. Dayana is so passionate. We learn much about these ancient people. It takes us 2 ½ hours to hike through the ruins, some parts so steep and narrow we cling to the rock walls. The headache comes back. Dayana picks wild mint and crushes the leaves in her hands. We inhale the sweet, strong smell. The headache retreats. “Remember this on the trail,” she says. We start our final ascent up to the parking lot where Santiago is waiting. Dayana stops to rest and entertains us with a beautiful Inca song.
We drive down the mountain to town. Perched on a balcony for lunch we have a birds eye view of the bustling market. A solemn procession of St. Joseph parades past, church bells clanging. We peruse the market: a kaleidoscope of colors and textures, sounds and smells. Overwhelmed we purchase almost nothing. TG buys an Andean cross pendant and two stone bracelets for me. We find our way back to the car where Santiago and Dayana are waiting.
Next stop: Awarakancha, the alpaca farm. Delighted we feed the gentle animals handfuls of alfalfa. I am swarmed by five calves, tugging at the greens in my hand. We see how the wool is dyed using natural plants, minerals, even insects, and then how it is woven. Lastly we visit the shop but are too tired to do more than look.
We meet at the SAS office at 6:00pm for our briefing. The worst of the altitude sickness is past. We both feel well enough to go. I have sworn TG to secrecy regarding my stroke. I am confident in my ability but do not want anyone to worry about my health, not even for one second. Our group numbers twelve and we are by far the oldest.
The bus leaves Cusco at 5:45am. Another couple has dropped out: we are down to ten. It climbs high through the mountains to the town of Ollantaytambo. The trail begins at Km 82. By 10:00 we are through the formalities and on our way. The sun is hot, the path dusty. The Urubamba River roars to our right, surrounded by towering peaks. The glacier, Veronica, rises above: snow-covered and majestic.
The pace is easy but we are grateful for the rest stops. Virgilio, our guide, pauses to let us cool off in a mountain spring. The water is icy cold, glacier fed. The path takes some strange turns. At times it seems to run straight through someone’s front yard. By lunch we’re starving. An unexpected surprise: all the campsites have running water and flush toilets. This is a land of abundant water. After lunch the real work begins. The plan is to climb past the village of Wayllabamba, two kilometers up the mountain, in order to shorten tomorrow’s climb. We have enough time to stop at a trout farm. We negotiate 4 soles, about $1.30, and a chocolate bar for the ten of us to tour the farm.
The path has turned upward; we are climbing through the high jungle. Through the thick growth we catch glimpses of towering green peaks to our right, on the other side of the rushing stream. The air smells clean and sweet.
By now the group has split. There is the A-team, very fast and always ahead. And there is us. Virgilio tells us that we are average, not slow. We arrive at camp at 5:30 – just before dark.
The porters are there, the tents set up and waiting for us. We have already come to respect these men. They race ahead carrying our food and supplies, most in bare feet with simple sandals. One carries a propane tank on his back. Although we don’t know it yet, we will dine like Inca kings this week. After dinner the sky is ablaze with more stars than you can imagine. We see the Southern Cross right above our heads. Virgilio points out an Inca constellation: the puma’s tail.
5:45 wake up call. A quick breakfast and we resume our ascent.
We are still in the high jungle. The trees form a canopy so thick overhead that we cannot see the mountains towering above us. The stream runs along side. It is an enchanted forest. The path continues to rise, relentlessly up and up. Lungs burning we try to pace ourselves: we have a long way to go before we reach the top of Dead Woman’s Pass.
We started early to avoid the hot sun on our steep ascent. The trees give way to smaller bushes and shrubs. We are at the frost line. At this hour there is still frost on the ground. Our guide Elvis tells us that the glacier on the far mountain has been shrinking: a result of global warming.
Still we climb, up and up. It seems forever. We are grateful for the extra 2 kilometers we put in yesterday. We see the sun rise over the mountain. By the time we have taken off a layer and applied sun screen we are bathed in sunshine. It is warm and bright. We can see people high above us, crawling up the side of the mountain like ants. Gradually they take human form and then finally the summit: 4,215 meters. We pause to catch our breath. The whole range of the Andes spreads out before us in all directions. I feel I can see forever. The view is beyond words.
We start down. It is another 1 ½ hours to camp for
lunch. Imagine the steepest set of
stairs, now replace with jagged rocks.
Andy’s knees are screaming and I am in absolute terror. The more fatigued I am the worse my balance,
and I am exhausted.
The afternoon is more of the same. First we climb up again, the rocks just as jagged and steep. We have come to appreciate the ascents. As much as our lungs burn and hearts pound it is a welcome relief to our aching knees. After 300 meters we reach the top of the second pass. Our lunch camp is a tiny dot below us.
We start down; this time Elvis stays with me. He holds my hand and asks me to teach him American slang. I teach him peeps, bling, and comfy. It keeps my mind off my lack of balance.
Far behind the A-team, we choose to skip the last ruin and head straight to camp. The porters are laughing at us. In Quechua they say “Look — the old people arrived first!”
Final day to Winaywayna. We are allowed to sleep until 8:00 this morning. The first part of the walk is the most beautiful thus far. The views of the 6,000+ meter glacier, Salkantay, are amazing. Virgilio points out a dry lake – basically a marsh but so deep horses have been lost. The mountainside is covered with moss. It looks like a coral reef. He pushes in a walking stick as far as the tip.
We see beautiful orchids, lupine, and other native flowers. Blue and green hummingbirds flutter back and forth across the path. The Andes are a continuous line of pointed M’s, colored green, with the white peaks of Salkantay, Veronica, and other glaciers looming up in between. Awesome, wondrous, beautiful all seem to fall short. I know I will never be able to describe this back home.
Virgilio talks about the construction of the trail – every detail designed for safety and speed. From the white granite stone to prevent slipping to the slight inward incline of the path itself it is an architectural wonder. We climb only 300 meters today. It seems easy after yesterday.
We stop at Phuyupatamarka; a remarkable ruin Virgilio tells us was for spiritual and astronomical study. We christen ourselves with cold water from the Fountain of Youth. At the top he points out holes perfectly aligned with the four points of the Southern Cross. He talks about the Inca: their paths of communication, the strange ways of their nobility. These people had running water, proper plumbing, and a sophisticated calendar for planting. They had figured out morphine and were performing successful brain surgery during the same time our ancestors in Europe were living in mud huts and fighting off the plague. He talks for a long time. We grow cold standing on the mountain but it is fascinating. We hang on his every word.
We start down. It is a long descent of over 2,000 stone stairs. They are not as jagged as yesterday but just as steep. Elvis helps me down the mountain. He is my guardian angel. We join the group at the power lines.
Workers spent most of the 1950’s and 60’s connecting the town of Aguas Calientes to the rest of the world. Then in the 1970’s discovered the ruins of Intipata, right next to where they had been working. We pause to rest and admire the view. We can see the town far below, nestled along the river. We can see the train as it winds its way to Machu Picchu. We know the end is in sight. We head down to Winaywayna for our last night of camp.
We are at Winaywayna by 1:30. Plenty of time for a hot shower before the crowds arrive. We celebrate our accomplishment with cold beer. I sit at the table, tears streaming down my face. Just a year ago I lay in the hospital, swearing to myself that I would walk again. And today I have climbed a mountain. Never mind the last three days, the distance I have come in the last twelve months overwhelms me.
We walk to the ruins of Winaywayna. We stop at the Temple of the Rainbow. There are seven windows that each frame a rainbow when the sun and clouds are right. We get a small taste of what we will see tomorrow.
4am wake up call. We’re already up, eager for the day to begin. Our group is second in line at the control point and by 5:30 we are on our way to Machu Picchu. It rained last night and the early morning air is heavy with mist. The sun has not yet risen and behind us stretches an eerie trail of bobbing lights.
Gradually it lightens but there will be no sunrise at Intipunku, the Sun Gate, this morning. The stairs turn steep. I feel like I am climbing a ladder. More ruins appear out of the mist: a burial site for priestesses. I touch a small pile of stones and wonder who left them and why.
We are at the terraces above Machu Picchu. This first view is solemn and holy … nothing can capture the sheer physical presence of the place. The mountains surround the stone city like sentries. We descend through the checkpoint and walk among the ruins. It is an architectural marvel, an astronomical wonder, an engineering genius: a city of impossible construction. All tucked away in the middle of the Andes mountains.
Virgilio continues our tour. We stop in a room that has 3 walls of blind windows. We say ohms into the walls and listen as the sound resonates around and through us. Next we climb to the top of the Observatory. A condor soars above our heads. Virgilio says we are blessed; it is only the second time in nine years he has seen a condor. He says we called it with our ohms.
The group splits. The A-team wants to climb Wayna Picchu. It towers above the ruins, tall and steep, but with spectacular 360 degree views from the summit. We continue with the tour. A chinchilla scampers across our path. Lizards crawl along the walls. These present day inhabitants share this sacred city with the ghosts.
There is a holy feeling about the place – like a temple. We feel compelled to speak in soft voices. A group walks by laughing loudly. It seems somehow inappropriate.
We ride the bus down the mountain to Aguas Calientes where we meet the group for a celebratory lunch and goodbyes. We are staying the night in town: a chance to recharge. We skip the SAS hostel and check into our room at the Sumaq. It is a beautiful hotel under any circumstances but for us, fresh off the trail, it is the epitome of luxury. We are both too exhausted to fully appreciate what we have just accomplished.
The Inca trail is 49 ½ kilometers. There are many steep up and down hills with the highest peak over 4,200 meters. Nothing can describe the huge expanse of valleys, the towering peaks, and the glaciers rising even higher: the view around every turn more breathtaking than the last. We learned much about the Inca but there is so much more that we will never understand. Virgilio says for every answer there are a hundred questions.
We take the 8:30 Vistadome train back to Ollantaytambo. Pretty as it is, the view along the river valley does not compare with the beauty of the trail. We look up to the top of the ridge, where we walked two days earlier, and think about all that the riders are missing. Music starts and a strange masked man dances through the aisle. Then an alpaca wool fashion show. The 90 minutes pass quickly.
In Ollantaytambo we arrange for a taxi back to Cusco. We feel we’ve arrived home when the driver drops us at Torre Dorada. Miss Peggy, Raphael, and the rest of the staff are eager to hear about our trip. Their eyes glow with pride as we talk about the magnificent trail and wondrous beauty of Machu Picchu.
We arrive in Lima. The sky is gray and overcast. That, combined with the exhaust fumes, makes the city seem ugly and polluted. The traffic is the worst we have seen. Vendors weave through the cars: scissors, air fresheners, cinnamon rolls. It’s a mobile flea market.
Our 3:15 wake up call comes at 2:45 but we’re already up. The main square is a cacophony of cars honking and people milling about. We know New York never sleeps; apparently Lima does not either. It’s time to go home.
We promised ourselves that one day we would return and stay one night at the Sanctuary Lodge, located outside the entrance to Machu Picchu. In May of 2017, we did just that. You can find photos from that whirlwind weekend here:
We’re standing at the dock, waiting for the pangas to take us to the boat. The benches are inscribed with “Welcome to the Galapagos” but we cannot take a seat. They are all occupied by the local population of sea lions, too sleepy to care about this latest arrival of turistas. We find them charming. A delightful welcome indeed.
Later Ruly gives his first of many briefings. He concludes by saying he hopes that the islands will sprinkle some of their magic upon us. We hang on his words, eyes shiny and bright as children on Christmas Eve.
Dive #1 Baltra Straights — A quick skills check and then we are off to enjoy the calm, cool water. A sea lion whooshes by. A white tip shark hovers just out of camera range. Lots of unfamiliar fish … we’ll be studying our ID books later this evening. A bright blue sea star waves its leg as I glide past.
June 19, Isabela Island
We woke this morning to the boat rocking full speed ahead towards Marshall’s Cape. We’ll be diving off this island three times today. The water is gray and choppy — exactly what we expected. The topography of Isabela is untamed and mountainous, scarred with deep lava flows: this land is still evolving. Everything is different, wonderful, and carved from another world.
Dive #2 Cabo Marshall — Right at the start, a magnificent yellowfin tuna, easily five feet long. Another sea lion whizzes by. Lots of beautiful blue, yellow, and red sea stars. We drift into a school of bluestriped chub, so large it blocks out the sun.
Dive #3 Cabo Marshall — We descend through another huge school, this time amberstripe scad. These are new to us; they resemble small wahoo. A marbled ray nestles in the sand below while a spotted eagle ray floats out towards the blue. We see more sea stars: blue, bright orange cushions, and chocolate chip.
Dive #4 Cabo Marshall — The now ubiquitous sea lions bark at us from the rocks above. We are overwhelmed by the abundance of life. A clam peeks up from a rock, a Mexican hogfish swims straight towards my mask, guineafowl puffers, both the yellow and black & white phases, are everywhere. Wahoo float above our heads. We spy a bravo clinid camouflaged against the rocks, orange triggerfish whir by the Galapagos pikeblennies suspended on the wall.
We return to the boat and gather on the second floor sundeck. We consult our ID books and compare photos. So many new fish … we repeat the names awkwardly: “loosetooth parrotfish, gringos, leather bass.” “Ok” Wil says. “Now we write.”
June 20, Darwin Island
Dive #5 Darwin’s Arch — Backwards roll off the panga, kick down down down and grab on to the rocks. The current is so strong it threatens to tear our hands away. A lone Galapagos shark silently floats by. Our senses are overloaded. Massive schools of creolefish are everywhere. I nestle into the rocks and glance around; a moray eel is nibbling on my fin. A green sea turtle hangs above me, a long fishing line dangling from his mouth. One, two, then three scalloped hammerheads appear out of nowhere, their bodies silhouetted against the surface. A big tuna passes, followed by a pair of wahoo. Suddenly Ruly shakes his rattle: a whale shark! At 40 feet she’s as big as a school bus. She barely notices us as she swims by.
Dive #6 Darwin’s Arch — We can’t wait to get back into the water. Another adrenaline-charged descent and before we’re even to the rocks we drop through a school of Galapagos sharks. They ignore us. We back into the crevasses and watch as a parade of hammerheads passes by. They are curious; many look our way. One tank is not enough … too soon we begin our ascent. At 25′ another whale shark, this time so close I could touch her with my fins.
I climb into the panga. In broken Spanish I say “sin palabras, muy bonito.” It’s too beautiful; I am speechless. Words are superfluous in the face of such raw nature.
Dive #7 Darwin’s Arch — The schooling Galapagos and hammerhead sharks begin the parade before we’ve even settled on the rocks. The currents are stronger than this morning, with lots of particulate in the water. I’m afraid our photos will not be as clear as our memories. A school of bluefin trevally surround us. We are escorted by wahoo on our safety stop while big Galapagos sharks circle below us.
Dive #8 Darwin’s Arch — Current like nothing we’ve seen. Hang on for dear life and watch the show! Schooling hammerheads drift along, seemingly motionless in the fierce current. A sea turtle flies by. I look beneath me: a spotted moray eel lies coiled like a snake in the rocks. A trumpetfish swims above me, reef cornetfish hang out with the schooling creolefish in the blue. I glance to my left: a school of butterflyfish with one king angel in their midst.
Our first day on the Arch has been incredible. There are more fish than one can ever imagine — every direction we look our senses are overloaded. There is such variety we don’t even bother with the commonplace — there is too much to see, too much to absorb. We can’t check off our ID lists fast enough. We have many “money shot” photos. Dolphins and sea turtles escort us to and from the dive sites, foretelling what is to come. Back on the boat, sea lions play in the water beside us. We are giddy; the magic of the Galapagos is upon us.
June 21, Darwin and Wolf Islands
Dive # 9 Darwin’s Arch — Same dive plan as yesterday – totally different dive. The currents are strong. We wonder: is that Ruly’s rattle or sand scraping across the rocks? A few circling hammerheads and Galapagos sharks drift by. We swim out to the blue looking for “her.” But the whale shark does not answer us this morning. We head back to the rocks and I am caught in a rip current. My group disappears in an instant. I am surrounded by nothing but blue and bubbles as I am pulled down in tumbling somersaults. I am confused, at first I don’t recognize the down draft. At 80′ I am suddenly heading back up, too fast! I slow my rate and ascend safely. A panga following my bubbles is there to pick me up. Later the rest of the group surfaces far from the boat. It takes the pangas over 20 minutes to find them.
Dive #10 Darwin’s Arch — The plan is simple: head to the rocks and stay put. The current is the fiercest yet. Barnacles pull off in our hands as we try to hang on. A massive school of bigeye trevally swims by. We see turtles, morays, and Mexican hogfish. Ruly signals us to move so we let go and fly past fish safely tucked in the rocks. A fin in front of me bumps a scorpionfish. I can almost hear the “ha-rumph” as he resettles. We finally stop at The Theatre — another dive site on the Arch. We’re barely there when a manta ray drifts silently and majestically above our heads. As he disappears a lone hammerhead rises from the depths. We are again escorted by wahoo on our safety stop.
We’re pulling anchor and heading to Wolf Island. After two dives with rapidly deteriorating conditions, the decision has been made to move on. A few divers are disappointed — hoping for another glimpse of the whale shark. But by moving now we stand a better chance of getting two dives at Wolf this afternoon. I, for one, am thrilled. Two whale sharks, multiple schools of hammerheads, Galapagos sharks, turtles, dolphins, sea lions, and every fish in the book! And then, on this last dive, a manta ray! How much more do we dare ask for?
We arrive at Wolf. The basalt rock cliffs rise dramatically above us, up to 600 feet. Frigate birds and boobies soar over our heads. Dolphins and sea lions plan along side the boat, popping up to look at us before moving on. The wildlife is abundant and amazing.
Dive #11 Landslide, Wolf Island — We have dubbed this dive “Turtle Mania.” They are beside us in the pangas, alongside us on the dive, and hovering on our safety stop. We drop to depth and see hammerheads and Galapagos sharks. We move out from the rocks and are caught in the current – soaring along at a breakneck pace too fast to absorb all that we see. The fish are a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes that blur as we fly by.
Dive #12 The Anchorage, Wolf Island — The last few days have been adrenaline-charged rides. Tonight is just plain fun. We giant-stride off the back of the boat and drop down. A turtle, then a slipper lobster appear in the darkening water. Ruly says if we see one redlipped batfish we will see many. We see one, then another and another. At one point we trying to take a picture of five together. We climb back on the boat. Soon after, a batfish surfaces next to the dive platform. Those who passed on the night dive get to see this shy fish after all. Chuck exclaims for everyone “Check!“
June 22, Wolf Island
The dives have been challenging – with fierce currents, strong surge, cool temps, and low visibility. Many in our group are having ear trouble. We understand now why they say that the Galapagos is not for the novice diver. But what wildlife! We’re checking off our ID lists as fast as we can dive.
Dive #13 Landslide, Wolf Island — Strongest surge of the trip but not much current. We stay close to the rocks and let the water push us forward. A big ray drifts by, then a lone Galapagos shark. We look around the rocks beneath us. They are alive! Eels everywhere, tiny crabs peeking out beside sea urchins. A lobster covered in jewels. Fanged blennies using their fins as feet. A squadron of five Moorish idols. I grab a rock to get closer to a banded sea star. Oops, it’s a stone scorpionfish. I jerk my hand away in time. The surge moves us along as schools of tiny rainbow wrasse dance underneath us.
Dive #14 Shark Bay, Wolf Island — Fast current again. We cling to the rocks and wait for the parade of hammerheads. They school in front of us but we can barely make them out in the particulate-filled water. A turtle heads towards the blue. AJ is in her path. I laugh as she bumps him and he jerks back in alarm. She does not alter her course.
Dive #15 Shark Bay, Wolf Island — Lots of strong current but turtles turtles everywhere! We never thought we’d say “just another turtle!” Two hammerheads swim close overhead, as they pass they split and go their separate ways. A school of Galapagos sharks glides in front of us. A spotted eagle ray appears out of the blue. We cling to the rocks, careful of the pencil urchins and watch the turtles floating in the current. As we ascend I look down. Is that a turtle or a ray nestled in the rocks? We are up and away before I can say for certain.
Dive #16 Shark Bay, Wolf Island — Once again we are speechless. The dive started as all others: ripping currents, clinging to the rocks for dear life. We skip along: eels, angelfish, puffers, clams, and butterflyfish all tangled in our vision as we fly past. We find another spot to hang on. A lone hammerhead swims past. A turtle swims out towards the blue. Without warning, the symphony begins. Hundreds of hammerheads drift past us — far too many to count. We watch, amazed. One leaves the school and approaches me. She’s curious about my blonde hair. She’s so close I can see the whites of her eyes. I hope that someone gets a picture. We stare at each other for an eternity. Finally, unnerved, I put my beanie back on. She swims away. The parade ends. And a lone turtle swims back from the blue.
We have crossed the equator twice as we journeyed to Darwin and back. Late one night we climb to the top deck. Rees has promised to show me the Southern Cross. It is there, high above the horizon. It looks like a tilted kite.
June 23, Santiago Island
Dive #17 Cousin’s Rock, Santiago Island — Easy current after the heart-pounding rides of Darwin and Wolf. Just as we descend a white-tipped shark silently glides out from underneath a rock ledge. We’re looking for seahorses and frogfish. We spy many seahorses in the tall sea grass. The corals look like beautiful flower gardens. A blue octopus focuses into view. We ascend to sea lions and fur seals snoozing on the rocks above us.
Dive #18 Cousin’s Rock, Santiago Island — Still hunting for the elusive frogfish we see several more seahorses. A huge scorpionfish lies on a ledge. We ascend to 20′ and a sea turtle indulges me. Together we pose for the camera until he gracefully swims away.
June 24, San Cristobal Island
Our last day on the boat. Tomorrow we fly to Quito before heading home. We need at least 24 hours to gas off so no diving today. We take a bus to the tortoise sanctuary. Ruly talks above the conservation of the islands before we head out to watch the giant tortoises at the feeding station. One crawls over the low rock wall and stops on Dave’s foot. Ruly says “don’t move, even if she bites.” Luckily for Dave she does not.
We drive up to the top of El Junco, a crater lake. The highlands are so different than the arid land at the coast: lush, green, and cool. A light mist covers the morning sunshine.
We pile into taxis and head to the beach. The waves are crashing against the rocky shore. Sea lions are everywhere. I get too close to a bull and his harem. He roars at me to back off. “Sorry!” I cry and move away. Further down the coast we find marine iguanas, their bodies as shiny and black as the rocks they sit upon. Sally lightfoots scurry about. We are told that the crabs were named by English sailors, after a beautiful woman who danced all night.
Our gear has been rinsed and is scattered about the boat, drying. A baby sea lion as crawled up onto the dive platform. She is sleepy but has treated us to as many photos as we wish. Bookends of the trip: sea lions welcomed us the first day on the pangas and now a sea lions has climbed aboard to say farewell.
Special thanks to dive buddies and fellow travelers: Edward, Simon, Rees, and Wil for providing all of the underwater and most of the topside photos used in this blog.