Monthly Archives: September 2014

Quito, Ecuador – A Pleasant Surprise

9/14-9/18

Quito was supposed to be a quick stopover before we headed to the Galapagos. I chose Quito because my oldest brother said it was worth a stop. He was more than right. First, it’s so much cleaner than Panama City. I was really looking forward to Casco Viejo and not so much to Quito. My expectations were completely opposite of what we actually found. Quito has an amazing Old Town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I could spend several days in that part of the city alone. I had read about pick-pockets, but heard they are no worse than any large city. I felt much safer in Quito Old Town than I did in Casco.

We visit Old Town on September 15, the Day of Independence from Central America. It’s a big deal. We stepped out of our taxi and headed toward la Plaza de la Independencia. My heart sank as I saw more police than in Casco. Was this the norm? Crap. We walked to the middle of the square and saw a display of flowers. A policeman told me they were preparing for the Changing of the Guards. Wow, there sure are a lot of cops around for that. We decided to stick around and see what would happen.

I heard someone speaking English, so I asked him what was going on. “The President is supposed to make an appearance at 11:00.” “SHUT UP!” He gave me that look they all give me when I accidentally say, “shut up”. Ugh. I’m working on it. Progress, not perfection. Anyway, we found a spot right in front of the police line and waited. During our wait, the “street vendors” offered us a myriad of items – gloves, umbrellas, coca leaves, coca tea, coca candy, scarves, baked goods…etc. We opted out and kept our eyes on the goings on around the plaza. Chairs were being set up; I especially liked this guy’s idea – why put them on a dolly when you can do it this way?

Yellow tape was put up around the gardens, more police filed in and my favorite guy started testing his lapel mike. “UNO, DOS, TRES…UNO, DOS, TRES.” His voice was so deep I could see why he was the announcer. Schoolchildren filed in and walked past in their sharp uniforms. I’m hoping Lilly will complain less about her uniform after seeing these kids. Various people (I’m assuming they must have been very important) started showing up on the balcony of The Carondelet Palace (the seat of the Republic of Ecuador and the residence of the President). A soldier with a few machine guns was posted on either side of the balcony.

The announcer finally introduced several people as they appeared on the balcony. I wish I had recorded it to listen again – I’m sure they were super important. Finally, President Rafael Correa appeared and the crowd cheered and clapped. The ladies next to us were especially enthusiastic. The President did not speak, but we got quite a show. There was a marching band, soldiers parading on horses, a flag raising ceremony and singing of several national songs.

What a treat to be in Quito on Independence Day! After the ceremony, we walked around exploring the area. I could have spent hours peaking in the stores. Each street had a specific type of store. I loved the colors of the sewing stores. The “party store” street was full of piñatas, toys and party decorations. On each street, there were stands selling sweets, eggs, vegetables…etc. We had to end our visit to Old Town after about half a day because we all were getting headaches and nausea – thanks to altitude sickness.

On day two, we took a 45 minute taxi drive through winding roads to get to El Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) monument in San Antonio parish. It was pretty cool to walk with one foot in the Southern Hemisphere and one in the Northern Hemisphere. There’s a problem with the placement of the monument…it’s about 240 meters south of the actual equator. Maybe GPS is wrong. Either way, it was fun to explore this touristy place. There are tons of shops, restaurants (I did not order the baked guinea pig) and a few playgrounds. Lil had fun in the playgrounds; I may or may not have gotten too dizzy on the rotating swings. We did witness the mating of llamas. No one I know can say they’ve seen llamas mating at the equator. At first we thought they were making sounds to warn us…after taking a video and doing a little research, it has been confirmed that they were mating. Awesome. Here are some during and after shots…

We mostly ate in here in Quito to cut down on spending. The grocery store here was just like home…although finding “taco mix” was next to impossible. Tortillas were difficult to find too. We finally found several packets of spices that smelled and looked like taco mix. At 33 cents each, we got them all and found one that worked. We had breakfast one morning at the Radisson next door – it was a treat.

This is our last day and we’re laying low to get caught up on laundry and homeschooling. I’ll be glad to ditch the headache and nausea, but I’d like more time to explore. We head to the Galapagos tomorrow…yeah, I’m a little excited.

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Isla Isabela – Island Life at it’s Best

9/23/14

Waiting in the deserted airport is as good a time as any to write a blog post. Our flight has been delayed for an hour and a half and there is no one here but another couple and the three of us; a perfect time to reflect. Here’s what’s great about traveling with our little family; it’s so darn easy. No one is complaining that we have to wait or that they’ll be hungry later. It is what it is. We’ve got a bottle of purple Gatorade for crying out loud; it’ll last us for a few hours at least.  The only downfall I can find is what appears to be a certain lack of hearing that necessitates the locals playing their music (on their cell phones) loudly. The older couple sharing our airport space have their cell phone cranked; first to a medley of oldies and now to “Happy”. I’m OK with that. It gives us something to listen to. So, let’s see what I can come up with about this beautiful island.

They all left for lunch after our flight was delayed for 1.5 hours.

They all left for lunch after our flight was delayed for 1.5 hours.

Isla Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos, has been our home for the last five nights. Our trip here from Quito was a series of small simple steps:

  • Cab to airport
  • Plane from Quito to Guayaquil
  • Plane from Guayaquil to Baltra
  • Bus from airport to little boat
  • Boat across channel
  • Taxi (truck) to ferry in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island
  • Ferry-taxi from dock to Ferry (this is an awesome way to make 50 cents a person)
  • Ferry (more on this later) to Puerto Villamil on Isla Isabela
  • Taxi to hotel

The “Ferry”. When I think of a ferry, although I know it’s not right, I think of a big boat with seats and a snack bar and lots of opportunity to relax and enjoy the journey. This did not happen. None of it. Fourteen of us put on our life vests and set out on a two and a half hour journey that is the reason we are sitting in the airport today. There was no way in hell we were getting back on that boat. I’ve gotten really seasick once in my life that I can remember – and that was on a 83ish foot boat. We all took Dramamine and shared some with our new Australian friend Cara. I’m sure I said, “Keep your eyes on the horizon” about twenty times before we arrived. The waves were bad; we’re guessing 10 feet at times…maybe bigger. The boat was about 20-25 feet long. Occasionally the three outboards came out of the water as we went over a wave. I’ll give the captain credit – he was amazing. His “first mate” didn’t seem as confident. The boat travels between the island of Santa Cruz and Isabela twice a day, so I’m guessing their used to it. I made a plan with Peter, Cara’s husband, to get Lilly to safety should anything happen. It was that scary. The three of us started seeing fish jumping (didn’t happen), whales breaching (nope) and various other exciting “hallucinations” after staring at the horizon for so long. A woman and her boyfriend moved to the bench in the stern so he could barf if he needed to. He didn’t, but she did. Jim just said, “don’t look, it’s contagious.” As we arrived in the harbor, we were treated to Blue Footed Boobies and a shark. Worth the trip.

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There are no ATMs on Isabela, so we came prepared with cash to last throughout our stay. What we weren’t prepared for was the hotel bill that was only guaranteed with a credit card. Oops. I told Jim starting out that I was bound to have made mistakes. We’ll deal with them when they happen. I knew that there were about 2 places that we could not pre-pay for. Murphy’s Law states that one of these places MUST be on the island with virtually no access to cash and no credit cards accepted at the hotel. *#$@&*%!   We had enough to pay for the hotel and found a few restaurants that would accept our debit cards. Jim offered to take the ferry back to Puerto Ayora to hit up the ATM with both our cards, but after the grueling ferry ride, there was no way I was letting him do that. I felt like a drug dealer as we sat in the room that night pulling out our hidden money to see what the total was. In the end, all was fine. You don’t need much money here except for food and we had that covered. We were even able to take a tour and rent bikes. Living small has not only afforded us the opportunity to take this trip, but also the wherewithal to function in less than perfect conditions.

Lilly and I usually wake up early, so we headed out for a walk. Lil was swinging at the playground on the beach when she noticed a sea lion coming out of the water. Not bad for our first morning. He (or she) scratched his head on a lava rock wall, sat in the road for a minute and headed back in the water. We found marine iguanas (the only marine iguanas in the world live here) and their babies (born this year between January and April) sunning themselves on the pier. Frigate birds, pelicans and other birds flew around. We eventually ended up snorkeling with sea lions and a penguin, visiting a giant tortoise breeding center and riding our bikes to the marsh where the flamingos hang out. We took a tour to an island that reminded me of the beginning of life. The volcanic rock had lichen growing on it, which would be followed by moss. Moisture would collect on the moss and grasses or other plants will eventually grow. As it is, I felt like I was on the moon. Amazing and raw. No one would snorkel with me, so I ventured alone to see what I could find. I stayed away from the shark-seeking group and found lots of fish without big teeth and scary fins. We did, from the safety of land, get to see white-tipped reef sharks sleeping. This was the deal breaker for Lilly to snorkel with me.

The food here is exceptional – and I’m not a foodie. I was forced to try different things because they would inevitably be out of whatever I wanted for the night…meat one night, tempura another. We tried new things and loved them all. Like Panama, ceviche is the dish every restaurant touts.   Octopus, shrimp, lobster, calamari and fishes of all kinds made up the ceviche offerings. Seafood will never be on my menu, but Jim has enjoyed it so far.

9/27/14

I wrote that before our big adventure on the plane. Funny how you never know what’s coming. I know this is long, so I’ll stop for now and write a brief post on Santa Cruz in the next few days. We leave for France tomorrow; will arrive the morning of 9/30. Until then…

NOTE:  After losing WIFI several times trying to post more pictures with the post, I have given up.  Will make a photo post when I have stronger WIFI.

Casco Viejo and Panama City Pictures – Part 1

Casco Viejo, Panama

Let me start by saying that I have postponed writing this because being in Casco wasn’t what I thought it would be like.  I have dreaded writing about it. In the end we were comfortable, but the first few days were depressing.

Casco Viejo was a big and scary change from our time on Isla Taboga. We arrived around lunch time and were shown around our apartment by the kind Adrianna. We dropped off our bags and headed to lunch at our (new) favorite restaurant “Feeling”. The waitress Julieta quickly became our favorite person in Casco. In the first few days, she was really the only highlight to our day. This was our first visit to a UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS) and I was excited to explore the area and see the architecture.

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Because Casco Viejo is a WHS, I naïvely assumed it would be in pristine condition. It’s not. There is a mix of squatters (living in abandoned buildings not yet bought by foreign investors), families living in a few rooms in dilapidated buildings and families living in apartments. On every block there was construction. Many of the buildings have been bought by foreign investors and are being restored. Our host on Taboga told us he wished he had bought property in Casco before it became expensive to do so. There is a mix of colonial, French and Spanish architecture. The layout of the streets hasn’t changed since the area was settled in 1673 (after the destruction of the original Panama City in 1671 by the pirate Henry Morgan). Casco is built on a peninsula and is completely surrounded by walls to protect it from attacks. Navigating it was difficult for the first few days and we stayed close to our Plaza.

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The heavy police presence was a big change from the laid back atmosphere in Taboga. Police = Danger, right? Well, yes and no. Our apartment shared a square with government buildings and that was part of the reason. This eased my mind a bit. There were several different types of police in Casco – Army police in their red berets, the NIS (Panama’s equivalent to our Secret Service), Tourism Police and regular old city police. The Palacio de las Garzas, the official residence of the President, was on the block next to ours. It’s the white building in the picture.

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The narrow roads were often cordoned off for various unknown reasons. Cars “por uso oficial” were everywhere in our little section of Casco.

On our first day, we were directed to a grocery store in the area known as Santa Ana. It’s one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Panama City. We had no clue. We took a taxi and he dropped us off a block away from the store. That one block walk was terrifying. Jim walked confidently ahead of us and I kept Lilly close. The homeless population in Seattle or Bellingham has nothing on Santa Ana. Shifty eyes glanced at us and the police presence did nothing to ease my mind. We passed six police at the door to the grocery store. Police or security were stationed at every turn in the store. We got what we needed and left – but not before dry heaving in the milk section. I couldn’t walk close enough to get what we needed. When we got back to our apartment, I googled the area and found out how dangerous it was. I really felt lost in Casco, unsafe and disappointed. How were we going to spend five nights there?

We got out of Casco on day three and headed to the Armador Causeway. It’s a super touristy group of small islands connected to the mainland by a causeway. The causeway was built with rock from the Culebra Cut of the Panama Canal and it’s the entrance to the Panama Canal. It was clear and hot when we left but raining by the time we tried to get a taxi back home. We had lunch, walked around in the shops and attempted to visit the marine science center run by the Smithsonian. There were school groups visiting and the ticket-seller suggested we visit another day because of the crowds. The Smithsonian has its Tropical Research Institute on the Amador Causeway – we walked by each of its buildings on our way to lunch.   After taking some pictures of the crazy buses the kids rode in, we headed back home.

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The next day, we headed to the Biodiversity Museum: Panama Bridge of Life. It was designed by Frank Gehry, which was my main reason for wanting to visit. It’s not finished yet, but when it’s done it will be quite the museum. Our $55 got us entrance into 2 exhibits – a little disappointing. The exhibits detailed the history of the people of Panama and the biological history of the Isthmus of Panama. History of Panama homeschool lesson – check. Science of the isthmus – check. I felt like we should go through twice just to get our money’s worth, but that never happened.

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Our last full day in Panama was the one I’d been looking forward to – the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal! I had read to get there between 9-11 a.m. in order to see some ships going through. Bam!

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I can’t tell you how exciting it was! The guys on the ship looked like toys. The train-like contraptions that guide/pull the ship zoom around like rollercoaster cars when they’re not “working”. The lock fills with water quickly – I thought it would take hours. We got to watch two ships go through and it was worth every second. We waited until the restaurant opened and got the BEST TABLE.

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Are you kidding me?? That was our table!  Tourists kept coming up to our table and taking pictures; it was annoying. They should have waited like we did.  Smart tourists…that’s what we are (in this exact moment).

2014 is the 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal. It was pretty amazing to go through the museum and learn about the construction, history and politics involved in building the canal. They are currently adding new locks to shorten the wait to get through and to allow for larger ships. The current wait during a busy time is approximately one week and the average cost for transit of a container ship carrying 4,500 containers is $450,000. Almost 70% of the ships passing through the canal every year are headed to the US. Do we need ALL that stuff?

Each afternoon we explored a little more of Casco and started to enjoy it.  I think we became more comfortable and were able to explore new streets that had great architecture, restaurants and history.   The stray cats and dogs looked as if they were waiting to die. Our apartment was the highlight. The Arte Deco lamps and chandelier were beautiful. There was a small rooftop pool that we enjoyed when it wasn’t raining. It was our own private oasis. The only downfall was the baby scorpion I found in the bathroom on the day of our departure. I wouldn’t visit Casco Viejo again, but I’m sure grateful we got to experience it this once.

Leaving Taboga

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We left Taboga yesterday. I was ready to continue on with the adventure until we tried to navigate the busy streets of Casco Viejo. We are definitely more island people than city people! Saying goodbye to my Red Sox hat-wearing buddy Eddy was sad.

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Ramone paddled by as we stood on the dock and said his goodbyes too.

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The ferry was almost two hours late. It gave us time to enjoy the last little bit of Taboga we had. For some reason, I think we’ll be back.

Isla Taboga, Panama – Pictures