Sunday, December 6, 2009

Ecuador: Day 11 – No more shorts and T-shirts

Early in the morning, we said farewell to our hotel and grabbed a cab to the Quito airport. As usual, we were sad to see our vacation coming to an end but grateful for all the amazing experiences we'd had on our trip to Ecuador. We flew to Miami where we went through customs and connected to a flight to Dallas. A nice gate agent in Miami was able to get us on a flight from DFW to Seattle 2 hours earlier than our scheduled flight. That left us with only 30 minutes or so to zip between planes. It was no problem, however, and we were grateful to get back to Seattle 2 hours early. It felt good to be home!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Ecuador: Day 10 – How can it be time to go home already?

Our morning excursion for the day was to Bachas Beach. We were hoping to see some flamingoes feeding on the shrimp there, but none were to be found. Still, it was a beautiful beach to walk along, and we got to see a few sea turtles swimming around the island. When the US was building its military base on nearby Baltra, they would park their barges with supplies near the beach. Because the locals couldn't say the word "barges", the beach got the name "Bachas" instead.

Then it was time to pack up our stuff and head back to shore. For the last time, the Zodiacs drove us to the dock where we boarded a bus to the Baltra airport. We were sad to say goodbye to the Galapagos Explorer II, but we'd always have our fond memories of the time we spent aboard. Jon and I both decided to go back some day and do the other 4-day route that the GEII covers to see the rest of the Galapagos.

We had plenty of time in the tiny airport to chat with our fellow cruise passengers. Many of them were avid travelers and had lots of interesting stories to share about their adventures in other countries, and they were interested to hear about what we'd seen in our travels. Finally, we boarded our plane back to Quito.

Back on the mainland, we caught a taxi back to the Hotel Sebastian. We checked in on what we'd missed in the US over the past few days and then set out for a nice dinner in Plaza Foch. Quito was poised to celebrate with a festival going on that weekend, so we spent a little time wandering around the streets before finally going back to the hotel to rest.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Ecuador: Day 9 – Finally, some giant tortoises

This morning, the boat let us off in Puerto Ayora to visit the Darwin Center. This is where most of the giant tortoises on the island hang out. As they are endangered, scientists have brought the tortoises here to mate and hatch the next generation.
After a few years in captivity, they are then returned to the same island where their parents had been found. It was unbelievable to get right up next to these creatures as they were eating their lunch. They are quite interesting, and I enjoyed seeing the adaptations of some of the tortoises to various environments. For instance, one species from an island with ground vegetation might have a shorter neck than one from an island with more trees.

Probably the most famous of the tortoises at the Darwin Center is Lonesome George. He's the last one of his species, and scientists have yet to find a female for him to mate with. He was hiding in his habitat when we first went by, but he came out a little later in the day so we were able to snap a photo of him.

Back on the ship in the afternoon, Jon and I took a class in towel folding. We learned how to create various birds and other animals out of towels from the helpful housekeeping staff. I think it's safe to say that I was not cut out for a career in towel-folding, but we had a good time anyway!

The afternoon excursion was to the island of Radina. The entire island here is red because of the type of rock that makes up its mountains. The red sand beach with, of course, more cute sea lions was a relaxing place to spend the afternoon. After seeing all the other amazing sites of the island, however, I must say that Radina paled in comparison.

After dinner in the dining room, we all went up to the bar for a drink. We split up into teams for a trivia competition. My team tied with Jon's team, but alas, his group got the tiebreaker question correct. Their reward was a couple of bottles of wine, which they nicely shared with everybody. On the side of the boat, we saw a few sharks, dolphins, and sea lions swimming around. It was neat to see but very difficult to photograph.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Ecuador: Day 8 – A pirate’s life for me!

Our usual wake-up announcement came from Ruth, the cruise's "Julie McCoy", at 6:30am. This is probably as good a time as any to talk about life on the boat. Everything that will happen for the day is spelled out rather clearly in a schedule provided the day before. Every activity has a specific start- and end-time, and there are announcements 15 minutes before anything major happens. As you might imagine, anything with a set schedule appeals to me, so adjusting to life on the boat wasn't all that difficult. Every day there'd be a buffet breakfast, then an excursion for the morning, followed by a buffet lunch back on board before another excursion out to one of the island. After that, there would be a happy hour followed by dinner. So there's a fair amount of time to socialize with the other guests on board.

We were placed into four different groups for the excursions: the albatrosses, the boobies, the cormorants, and the dolphins. Jon and I were part of the albatross group, and we really enjoyed the group we were in. The British folks were in the booby group, and then the cormorants were a group of tourists from all over the US. The dolphins spoke Spanish, so it was a little harder to get to know them. I'm terrible with names, so Jon and I came up with nicknames for the other travelers to help us identify them. One mother and two-daughter group were from the Boston area, so we called them "Bean Town" and had a great time getting to know them over the course of the cruise. I think we lucked out in that everybody on the cruise with us seemed like such nice folks!

This morning's outing was to Punta Suarez on Espanola Island. Our naturalist for our walk was Hernan, and his English was excellent. We landed on a beach with the standard assortment of sea lions frolicking in the water. Also hanging out on the beach were a group of marine iguanas, so-named because they like to head out into the water to feed on algae. There were so many of them that we had to watch our step so as not to accidentally trample one of them! Hernan explained to us a bit about the island and what we would see on our nature walk. Here, we encountered our first Blue-footed Booby! They really are beautiful birds. The younger ones actually have white feet, but as they mature their feet turn the bright blue color often seen in photographs. Also hanging out on this island were Nazca boobies with what looks like a masked face. We saw a few of them performing their mating ritual by pecking at each other's beaks. The main attraction of this side of the island was an albatross colony. Many of the albatrosses had already migrated away from the island (as they do from December to April), but we did get to see a few of them still hanging around.

In the afternoon on the boat, we got a lecture from Billy, the head naturalist, about reptiles in the Galapagos. Our afternoon excursion took us to Gardner Beach on the other side of Espanola Island. It was a beautiful, white, coral sand beach with a colony of sea lions hanging out. Our naturalist explained to us a little about their living arrangements.

That night, Jon and I were the only English-speakers to join in the karaoke activity after dinner. Always the good sport, Jon sang "New York, New York" in Spanish, much to the delight of the other folks in the room. We sang along to a few of the Spanish songs before calling it a night.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ecuador: Day 7 – Come aboard, we’ve been waiting for you!

Rolling out of bed and eager to start the next phase of our trip, we took a cab to the national departures area of the airport. Our flight that morning would leave Quito, make a stop in Guayaquil on the coast, and then continue on to San Cristobal in the Galapagos Islands. We met up with our cruise representative at the Quito airport who gave us all the documents and instructions we'd need to hop on to our cruise ship, the Galapagos Explorer II.

The flights were very comfortable, and we had room to spread out on both legs. San Christobal was more inhabited than I had expected it to be, with about 8,000 full-time residents. We hopped off the plane, paid our entrance fee into the national park and met up with our GEII reps quickly and efficiently. Once we were all corralled, a bus took us to the waterfront where we walked to the town pier. From there, we were taken by Zodiac out to the ship (the largest one floating in the crowded harbor). I didn't really know what to expect, but the ship was much more beautiful and comfortable that I had imagined. We boarded, checked in, unpacked in our cabin and looked over the schedule for the day.

The first stop on our trip was on the other side of San Christobal Island at a beach called Wizard Hill. Wizard Hill is a large volcanic rock formation, and over time its erosion created a green sand beach. The waves were too high for any good snorkeling, so all of us set off for a walk down the nice beach. Jon and I were amazed at how close we were able to get to the sea lions who were taking a nap on the beach! It was quite incredible to see.

Sea lions live in colonies, so there was an alpha male patrolling the area and barking while the rest of the sea lions stayed in the sand. Looking around, it was hard to believe that we were in such a beautiful place.

Back on board the ship, we dressed for dinner and had a nice meal in the dining room. Earlier in that day, one of our British fellow cruise guests had told us we'd be "plum knackered" by the end of the day, and she was right! We both slept soundly.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Ecuador: Day 6 – On the Road Again

After another leisurely breakfast at the hacienda with the same crowd we'd shared dinner with the night before, Jon and I had to get started back towards Quito. We strolled around the grounds a bit with some of the local dogs, trying to put off our inevitable return to the big city.

With no more time to dawdle, Paty drove us back to the side of the highway pointed north to Quito. I had assumed that we'd take a bus back to the southern bus terminal and then perhaps a cab from there to our hotel. As we were leaving, though, Gabriel told us to grab a green bus to a shopping center and then hit the trolley bus into town. I was apprehensive since we had our bags, but we weren't on any particular schedule until our flight the next morning, so it was worth a shot.

The first bus was very comfortable and eventually arrived to the mall that we were looking for it. "You can't miss it," insisted Paty, and sure enough, we got our bearings as soon as we saw the mall approaching. Another 25 cents later, we had entered the metrobus system from yet another point.

Surprisingly, this station had a trolley bus "map" of sorts that listed some of the stops we'd see. Joining the giant crowd surging towards each trolley bus that arrived swallowing what seemed like zillions of passengers, I was relieved when we scored some of the coveted seats on the bus, our bags securely in our laps. The bus only got more crowded as we zipped into central Quito. I'd figured out the grid address system of the city by this point, so I could keep track of our progress as we passed each stop. Finally, one stop before we were to get off, we started to make our way towards the entry/exit door. As the doors opened, Jon was able to push his way off the bus, but I was trapped on, unwilling to use my backpack (now strapped in front) as the battering ram that would have been necessary to exit as well. I wasn't too concerned: the north side of the new city was familiar to both of us by now, so I figured I'd just get off at the next station and walk back south. Luckily, the very nice folks on the bus saw my plight and stepped aside to hold the doors open as I jumped off shouting "GRACIAS!", grateful for their kindness towards the hapless tourist. I made a mental note to offer similar assistance to the next confused passenger I see on a bus in Seattle.

We walked the few blocks to our hotel, Cafe Cultura, and got rid of our bags. Now on foot and much lighter, we walked back through the central park to the old city again. We did some looking around at the secondhand electronics shops for Jon's iPhone to no avail. The only one we did see was in the hands of a policeman, but he did not seem to think the one he had belonged to Jon. We ducked into an Internet cafe to get the latest from the outside world, and an hour later a large hailstorm had begun in Quito. We tried to wait it out for a little bit, but there seemed to be no change in the intensity. The clouds reduced the visibility which kind of cancelled our plans to take a cable car to the mountaintop. So, we grabbed a cab back to our hotel. It was a slow trip as most of the streets were flooded by all the rain. Somehow, our cab made it back north, and we did some reading until the evening brought some relief from the rain.

Again on foot, we checked out the area around our hotel and then headed back to the old city for some local fried chicken. The place we ended up seemed similar to a KFC, but the fried chicken is supposedly a local street food favorite. Our meals came with a helpful plastic glove for picking up the greasy chicken, in addition to the usual knife and fork. Another cab ride took us back to our hotel where we did some reading in the cozy lobby and turned in early. The next day would bring an early departure to the islands!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Ecuador: Day 5 – Giddy Up!

We woke up and met up with Gabriel around 8am for breakfast. It was to be quite an eventful day at the Hacienda. The first visit was from Chris and Abe, two folks who were visiting, coincidentally, from Index, WA. We learned over breakfast that Chris was there advocating for a new alternative to shoeing horses. While I didn't particularly understand the mechanics behind it, she was hoping that Gabriel would try out his method on his horses to see if the local folks would then decide to use it as well. She and Abe would be conducting a 2-day clinic with Gabriel's staff and working with the horses.

After breakfast, we met Gabriel's llama and alpacas, who were wandering around in a pasture adjacent to the stables. Jon and I walked around with them for a while and met Gabriel's cousin who was visiting for the day. Next, Gabriel put us one some horses so we could get accustomed to them for our ride later that morning. Far from being ready to take on the label of "Chagras" ourselves, I can happily say that neither Jon nor I fell off our horses the whole day!    

After successfully mastering walking and trotting and, with a little less luck, some galloping, a "bus" arrived from Quito with a group of tourists. They had ridden on this bus down the train tracks for a demonstration of some chagras activities. Jon and I helped by herding the alpacas and llama out of the arena. It turns out that both of us could take up alpaca herding, if our day jobs don't end up working out! We watched with the other tourists as Gabriel and his cousin lassoed a bull in some traditional chagras costumes.

Then, the fun began! Jon, Gabriel, and I mounted our horses and took to the trail to the mountains. Jon's horse, Armiga, was quite amenable to the walk, as was my horse, Copper. This was our second excursion on horseback, and also our second in South America. Gabriel led us along the railroad tracks for a while before we headed off into the foothills. It was a beautiful day for a ride as we made our way past some local residents and their dogs going about their usual business. I was surprised by all the different parcels of land even in this rural area. Gabriel explained that the US had advocated this system of small agricultural plots as some sort affront to Communism, but I wasn't exactly clear on his explanation. Still, it seemed a shame to me that property lines encroached upon the natural beauty.

Eventually, we had ridden so far up into the mountains that we were actually riding through the clouds! It was absolutely amazing to be up that high on horseback, and our horses were more than happy to take us up to about 10,000 feet with no complaint. The clouds were moving quickly, so we had some views of the nearby volcanoes, but for the most part we just enjoyed the ride. We reached a good stopping point high in the hills and gave the horses a rest as we marveled at our experience. Descending the mountains, we got caught in a bit of a hale storm, but the horses didn't seem to mind. The weather cleared as we headed down, and the sun was out by the time we got back to the hacienda.

Jon and I were a bit tired from the ride, but we knew we'd never forget having the chance to ride horses in the countryside of central Ecuador. For dinner that night, Paty (Gabriel's wife) had returned from her trip to Quito and joined Gabriel, Abe, Chris, Jon and me for another nice meal. It was soon clear to Jon and me that we were out of our league in the presence of such experts on horses, so we just sat back and listened to their conversation about the day's events in Chris and Abe's class. We did get to learn that Chris and Abe had been stunt coordinators for ABC's reality show "The Mole" which I watched religiously! Initially, I thought this seemed like an interesting job, until Abe revealed that he had to test out a lot of the stunts before the contestants performed them. I'm not so sure I'd want to be the guinea pig in that particular situation.

After dinner, Gabriel wanted to show the videos from a recent ride he had done of quite some distance. I watched for a while, but Jon and I were soon overcome with fatigue and had to call it a night.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Ecuador: Day 4 - You can't get there from here

Always on the move, Jon and I woke up, enjoyed a protein-filled breakfast and set off for a walk in the hills. We walked up the streets of San Pablo Del Lago from the hacienda which afforded us some great views of the nearby lake and some of the local residents herding their cattle...down the same streets we were on! Eventually we wound our way to the center of town and it's central plaza where we picked up some baked goods for our travels that day.

With regret, we took off from Hacienda Cusin and got a ride up to the main road where we stood waiting for our bus back to Quito. About 2 minutes later a bus slowed down enough for us to hop on and get going back south. This time we got proper seats, although not together, and had a much more comfortable ride back to the northern bus terminal. Our final destination for the day was Aloag, which is about an hour south of Quito. That meant we had to arrive at the northern bus terminal, then somehow get to the southern bus terminal before finally hopping a bus to Aloag. I thought that it would make sense to get between the bus terminals by cab as opposed to navigating the metrobus system through town with our bags, but the lowest price we could find on a cab was $12! That seemed a bit high, but some folks at the bus terminal were able to direct us to a $1 bus which would take us straight there. What luck!

Quito is built on the hillsides on the surrounding mountains, which means that many geographic barriers exist as you go from one side to the other. With the new bus terminal layout and a new airport opening in 2010, the city has built new higher-speed belt highway systems to the east. They're great, and our bus trip was very quick, but because they've been built out of necessity on the side of mountains, there are few to no straight sections! Our bus ride from North to South reminded me of a roller coaster which made eating our sandwiches and drinking our Cokes an adventure in and of itself.


We got to the south terminal and asked for tickets to Aloag. Everybody seemed to think we were crazy, but they sold us tickets to Santo Domingo which would at least take us through Aloag. Another run to a bus had us on our way south. I kept the map close by to point to if necessary and tried to keep a close eye on where we were headed, still a bit concerned with the lack of road signs that we'd end up where we wanted to go. Soon enough, however, we were in sleepy Aloag on the side of the road with every business around us closed (it was Sunday, after all, in a fairly Catholic country).

One place seemed kind of open, so we walked in to use the phone to call Hacienda La Alegria, our ultimate destination for the next few days. The two girls and their mother there spoke no English, but eventually they tried to help us call the Hacienda. We couldn't get an answer there, and I figured we'd soon have to set off on foot to get there. But the mother went to get her son, who offered very kindly to drive us to the hacienda! I feel like there's always one point in all of our trips where I'm overwhelmed with the kindness of the folks we encounter around the world. This was that moment on that trip as the son went out of his way to drive us two crazy Americans and fill in the blanks between all of our advanced planning and our ambitious travel plans "off the beaten path" to a hacienda down some random cobblestone paths deep in the Avenue of the Volcanoes. We thanked him profusely, offered him a few dollars for his trouble, and were delivered to a gorgeous hacienda adjacent to some stables.

Unfortunately the innkeeper, Gabriel, wasn't there when we arrived, but one of the workers and her children welcomed us and called him on her cell phone. He explained that he'd be there in an hour as the worker showed us to our room. One of the smaller children saw us and immediately shouted "Gringos!!" upon seeing us. Jon and I had a good laugh over that one as we had to admit that we were, indeed, Americans!

We had some tea, and Gabriel soon came to introduce himself and show us around the place. He told us a little bit about the Chagras (the cowboys of the Ecuadorian highlands) and a little bit about the hacienda itself. Jon and I soon came to realize that we were about to hear a lot about horses, and they seemed to be Gabriel's passion. The hacienda has been in his family for many generations but had converted a few years ago from an agricultural farm to a tourist destination in an effort to make it profitable. If it had remained a farm, there's a good chance that after it is turned over to his daughters upon Gabriel's death, it would be parceled off and sold.

We had a nice dinner with Gabriel and then settled in for bed. It had been quite a day!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Ecuador: Day 3 - Becoming Ecuador bus travel experts

Having earned our wheels on the previous day's bus adventures, we set out confident for our next destination: Otavalo! This was to be the site of one of the largest markets of the country, and I was eager to get a look at the country outside the confines of Quito. The first thing we discovered was that our bus information from the Frommer's book mentioned the old bus terminal which has since closed. A friendly cab driver, however, set us straight and said he'd take us to the correct bus station for the 1.5-hour bus ride to Otavalo.

As we drove the polluted and crowded streets of northern Quito, I began to get alarmed by the distance to the north interprovincial bus terminal. I had no idea it would be as far as it was from the city center! Eventually, however, my fears were unfounded as the cab pulled up to a brand new bus center alive with activity even at the early hour. We thanked our driver as he wished us safe travels in Spanish.

Soon, he was yelling at us that the bus that had just passed was the one we wanted. They run every 10 minutes or so, but there was no reason to wait as we chased the bus down the street. That's when the fun began! All the seats on the bus were full, but there was a bucket up near the driver that Jon could (partially) sit on while I stood next to him. The advantage to this arrangement was that we could keep our bags within sight as the bus labored northward. Every so often, more passengers would jump on to fill the aisle of the bus, and folks selling papers and all varieties of fruit and ice cream would occasionally jump on and off. Soon, a lady was sitting on a pillow wedged against my foot. I was happy for a little stability as the bus continued, but it did make it difficult to shift my weight from one foot to another.

Leaving Quito and passing a tollbooth, an air brake system providing a screeching soundtrack coming down from Quito's high elevation, I attempted to keep from watching the clock that seemed to tick off the 90 minutes more slowly than usual. I had a great vantage point to see the vistas of the Andes out the side window. The driver spent a fair amount off this time either dialing his cell phone or texting as the vehicle careened from cliffside to cliffside. I took some comfort in thinking that he'd probably driven this route often and knew it well.

Eventually we arrived at Otavalo, hopped off, and caught a cab to Hacienda Cusin in nearby San Pablo Del Lago. What a beautiful place! The hacienda and connected monastery have a long history but were restored to their current condition in the 1990s with modern conveniences.

Our room was on the second floor with a little balcony overlooking a nice courtyard. Another cab ride later, we found ourselves at the Otavalo market. It's a great collection of vendors all hawking food, clothing, and everything else pretty much to all the folks walking by. My first purchases were a hat and some sun block, however.

Jon and I walked around a bit and discovered a nice runner for our coffee table which will be a nice reminder of our trip. We got some lunch in town and stopped by an ATM before taking another cab back to the hacienda. There, we walked around to explore the grounds, the stables (complete with turkeys, chickens, etc.), and the monastery where we discovered a secret passage to a small watchtower.

The cooling afternoon rain was a welcome break from the sunshine and gave us a chance to do some reading and relaxing. In the evening, we had a nice dinner in the hacienda's dining room with our fellow guests. It was a grand room with great service and decent food. Afterwards, we rented the movie "Ray" on DVD from the reception desk and settled into the library to watch it. One of the hotel staff even brought us some popcorn to go along with it! After an eventful day and the long movie, we enjoyed a great night's sleep.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Ecuador: Day 2 - A trip to the middle of the world

Well-rested and eager to explore, we woke up and carried our bags to Mansion Del Angel: our second Quito hotel. Despite the early hour, they were able to give us access to our room so we could set down our gear and set off to see what Quito and its environs would have to offer.

I had been studying up on the trolley bus system around the new city, so we walked a few blocks to the main street. First, we decided to stop at a local bakery for some breakfast. As we were walking down the street with our Pan De Yuca, somebody threw some orange substance on our jeans! Not seeing the offending party anywhere around, some local folks at a nearby restaurant offered to help us clean off our pants. The orange liquid had gone conveniently on the back pockets of our pants. Sensing a scam, Jon and I made eye contact and then moved our wallets quickly to our front pockets. One of the men told Jon that a bird had caused the stain on our pants, but that seems unlikely. I hate to be suspicious without any true grounds for it, but after having my wallet stolen in India, I think we're both pretty careful to make sure that our valuables are protected. As usual, most of my cash, passport, and credit cards were tucked safely under my shirt in a hidden pouch. The most that would have been lost would have been about $10 and a soon-to-expire driver's license, but still it's an unpleasant event to have anything stolen.

So, perhaps a little dirtier but with undampened spirits, we took the crowded trolley bus towards the center of the city. Eventually, everybody got off and the bus turned around, which indicated that we had reached the end of the line! That was unexpected! So, we got off that bus and decided to get some better information from the helpful locals. Throughout our entire time in Ecuador, I saw very few printed bus guides which made navigating the system a little tricky. Jon used his Spanish skills to ascertain that we could take a non-trolley bus from where we were to the end of the line and then transfer to another bus up the highway to the Mitad Del Mundo (the Equator). So, paying another 25 cents each, we boarded a bus headed north. About 45 minutes later, we reached a far north bus terminus (also devoid of bus schedules or a formal information booth). Leaving the metrobus system again and going to the intercity bus area of the station, we found out that the bus we wanted was also a metrobus...costing us yet another 25 cents to get back in the system. Whoops!

Now headed in the right direction and silently cursing myself for forgetting my GPS, Jon and I arrived at the Equator! Even though it took longer than it should have, it was quite a site! There's a large monument and a nice collection of museums and shops. We took the standard tourist shots of straddling the imaginary line that defines quite a bit of my work. Looking down at the painted line that marks the Northern hemisphere from the Southern, Jon remarked, "Hm, I had no idea that the Equator is actually yellow!"

After a nice visit and a little snack, we headed back to Quito, this time via taxi in order to save some time. We got to the old city in the mid-afternoon and set about on foot to take in the stone buildings, narrow streets, and grand plazas. It's always interesting to see these venerable structures and churches in place for years, some now transformed for modern purposes like convenience stores and pharmacies. We visited the Plaza Grande and then the Plaza Del San Francisco.

After a few blocks of walking, Jon felt a tugging on his backpack. At the next street corner, a kind woman pointed out to Jon that his bag was unzipped. Unfortunately, somebody had relieved Jon's bag of his iPhone. And on his birthday, no less! We walked the block of the offense and the surrounding area a bit, but by then the phone was gone.

As sad as it was to be robbed on one of our trips again, I think it's important to remember how lucky we've been with the sheer volume of travel that we do and how rarely things go wrong. I don't think I would trade in the experiences of seeing the amazing things we saw on our trip just to prevent the theft (probably easy for me to say since it wasn't my phone that was taken!) All that being said, the theft did briefly put a damper on our outings for the day.

A bit deflated, we caught the next trolley bus back to our hotel. We beat the afternoon rainstorm that would happen pretty much every day we were in Quito by a few minutes and rested up for a few hours. Later, Jon chose a nearby restaurant called Azuca for his birthday dinner. The live DJ and happening crowd kept things lively as we ate a pretty good meal complete with excellent mojitos: mine was traditional, but Jon's included passion fruit. The nice food and jubilant atmosphere of Plaza Foch lifted our spirits as we strolled around. Finally, ice cream cones in hand, we walked back to our hotel for the evening.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Ecuador: Day 1 - Flight 1...of 10!

Very early on another Thanksgiving morning, Jon and I took to the friendly skies once again. This time the destination would be Ecuador! Despite the early hour and the rain that fell on a still sleepy I-5 as our cab hurtled towards Seattle-Tacoma airport, Jon and I were excited to get started on our latest international adventure. Our first flight left on time at 6:10 am to DFW. We checked in with our families during a quick layover before heading to Miami.

Soon, our connecting flight took us down to Quito, Ecuador a few minutes late. The flight wasn't very crowded at all, so we had plenty of space to spread out and read through the travel articles that Jon had located about our various destinations. Eager to get started exploring, but overcome by a long day of travel, we got to Quito around 9:40pm and made it to Hotel Sebastian for our first night. The hotel wasn't particularly remarkable, but it was comfortable, clean, and only a $6 cab ride from the airport.

We settled in for some news of the day's events on the local Miami stations and took advantage of the free Wi-Fi. What a change this was from a late night arrival in Southeast Asia on previous trips, where we'd comb the streets for an Internet cafe to check in with everybody back home! Soon we got to sleep so we could get an early start to our sightseeing the next day.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Barcelona: Day 6 - They Say That All Good Things Must End Some Day

Jon still wasn't feeling 100% great, but we had quite a bit of traveling ahead of us. We left the hotel and took the subway/train back to the airport. Check-in was easy, and we lucked out with exit row seats for our flight back to New York. I spent most of the flight reading and finished off my second book of the trip.

We had a long layover at JFK, which gave us a chance to ease back in to regular life by checking e-mail and catching up with the news online. Then, it was time for the flight back to Seattle, again in the exit row.

It was pretty dark and rainy by the time we got back to Seattle, just as we had left it the week before. Although we had a great vacation, it was a nice feeling to be back at home!

Monday, April 27, 2009

Barcelona: Day 5 - Foiled By Hours Of Operation

Our plan for the day was to go up north of the city to a Dali museum. We had both read good things about it, and I was excited to see a bit more of Spain beyond Barcelona. Unfortunately, the museum is closed on Mondays, so it will just have to wait until my next trip back!

Instead, we took a train south to the seaside town of Sitges. The mood was very relaxed here as we strolled along the beach and had lunch. The weather was a bit too cool to hang out at the beach, but it was still pleasant.

Once we were back in Barcelona, we took a funicular up to Montjuic park on the south end of the city. We strolled through the botanical gardens and checked out the Olympic stadium. By the Olympic Plaza, there is a large communication tower from the 1992 Olympic Games, which was kind of neat to see.

The plan for getting back to the hotel was to take a cable car, but high winds meant we were stuck hunting for a cab instead. This turned out to be a difficult search, as many student drivers in Barcelona practice driving around this park. These student drivers were all driving yellow cars (similar to the taxis), but eventually we found a taxi to drive us down. I thought it might be fun to ask one of the student drivers for a ride, I wasn't sure if they'd know the location of our hotel.

Instead of trying out a new place for dinner (and perhaps for the first time ever in our travels), we opted to go back to the same tapas bar we had enjoyed so much on Friday. Luckily, it was just as fantastic the second time around! After that, we called it a night since we were flying out the next morning.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Barcelona: Day 4 - A Rainy Trip To The Hills

Today we took an excursion up into the mountains. The Seattle rainy weather had finally caught up with us as we took the train to Montserrat: an old monastery. The train ride was pleasant, despite the darkening skies as we reached our destination. Next, we hopped on a cable car up the mountain. It's a very steep trip up!

Despite the rain and clouds, the monastery and attached church are gorgeous. We were able to see some of the Sunday mass that was going on and smell all the incense from the service. We waited in line to see the famous statue of the Virgin Mary there along with a few other tourists.

A little bit of blue sky was just peeking out as we took the cable car back down and the train back to Barcelona, and by the time we exited the subway on the north end of the city it was another gorgeous day. We hiked up a steep hill to Parc Guell. Along with great views of the city, we saw some structures and sculptures designed by Gaudi.

It was very crowded with locals and tourists, but we had a great time walking around the quirky buildings.

That evening, we walked to a tapas bar for dinner in an area of the city called El Born. We encountered many candles that had been spread out along the street. I have no clue if it was some sort of public art exhibition or what, but it was quite a dramatic site.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Barcelona: Day 3 - Let's See What This City Has To Offer

We covered quite a bit of ground making our way through the city. Our first stop was the market for breakfast. After that, we wandered through the older section of the city, Ciutat Vella, which still maintains its stone buildings, narrow streets, and various plazas. In one of the plazas, we encountered a wedding party, and in another, a church under rehabilitation (prominently sponsored by the local telecommunications company). Eventually, we ended up at Parc De La Ciutadella.

A short stroll later, we were at the Arc De Triomf and the Placa de Catalunya, both of which were teeming with activity. Although we had an 8-course lunch coming up, I wanted to grab some caffeine, so we stopped into a small cafe for cokes. We had been warned that this touristy area would have high prices for things, but nothing prepared me for our bill of nearly 10 Euros for our two sodas!

Lunch was quite an event: we went to a fancy restaurant and had an 8-course tasting menu. Everything was very good, starting with a mussel and asparagus dish and ending with a nice almond, chocolate and macadamia nut dessert. Some highlights in between included a turbot dish and some foie gras.

Full and content, we continued our ambitious sightseeing for the day. We took in a few nearby buildings designed by Gaudi before heading up to La Sagrada Famillia. This church was designed and started by Gaudi, but it's not yet complete. The plan is to finish it before about 2019, which will be 100 years since construction began. One side is a bit whimsical, looking like melting wax, and the other side is much more traditional. It was quite an interesting site, and I'm glad we had a chance to go see it.

That evening, Jon wasn't feeling well, so while he rested at the hotel, I took a walk over to La Barceloneta, which is another coastal area not far from where we were staying. It's a very nice seaside location, and I enjoyed taking in the sights before attempting to find some food to take back to the hotel. I entered a restaurant where I was successful in ordering two ham sandwiches with my limited Spanish, but the problem came when I wanted to get them to go. I tried "to go" and "to take away" in English to no avail. Finally, I used French, explaining "you make the food here, and then I eat it at my house." To this, the waitress responded "Ah, bien sur!" (Of course!). Sandwiches in hand, I returned to the hotel where we ate and turned in for the night.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Barcelona: Day 2 - Back In Europe

We landed a bit later in the morning than scheduled in Barcelona and hit the ground running. We had read about a bus that ran from the airport to the city, but we decided to take the train instead. That way, we could easily connect to the subway and end up just a few blocks from our hotel. So, we took the train a few stops to the Sants station where we wandered over to the subway tunnels. It ended up being quite a walk to the subway platform underground because of the location of the different train lines! Still, the signs were helpful and we eventually emerged at the end of La Rambla (the main shopping street) by the coast.

Our hotel was situated at the end of a long pier, as I suspect it's set up mostly to accommodate cruise passengers. Walking down the pier was nice (it's landscaped as a park with a large cable car tower in the center)...the first time. Eventually it became a bit of a chore! Still, it was very pleasant to be down by the water.

We checked in, set our stuff down, rested for a little while, and then headed back out in search of lunch. The nearby market was our first stop, with its large hams and salted fish swinging from every booth, but we ended up at a small restaurant nearby. The food was OK, and the setting was interesting: it seemed to be a neighborhood place where locals came to hang out for a few hours. We were easily the only ones there under 50!

Our next venture out was that evening for dinner (we both indulged our jet-lag with an afternoon nap). Jon and I aimed for a tapas bar in the Eixample neighborhood. Armed with a subway map and the 3 maps I'd purchased at Metsker Maps before leaving the states, we found the place with no problem. We got off the subway a bit south of where we wanted to be so we could enjoy a walk through a different part of the city from where we were staying. Dinner turned out to be a great experience with friendly staff, a nice festive setting, and fantastic food.

Stuffed and ready to get some rest, we walked to a different subway stop. Because of subway construction, we had to take a bit of a detour, which is when we ran into a large group of rollerbladers. There had to be at least 100 of them! I was tempted to join them, but I had left my blades back at the hotel.

At right: clearly I'm violating this sign for a mandatory hula hoop zone near our hotel.