The Adventure Begins Tomorrow-Rio

So they sat down and nobody spoke for some minutes.  Alice thought to herself, ‘I don’t see how he can even finish, if he does’t begin.” But she waited patiently. 

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Prepare yourself for the most action packed blog of all time.  I landed in Rio after a whirlwind trip through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Galapagos, Bolivia, Chile and Easter Island. Exhausted. And tired of lugging my camera everywhere. So I jumped right into all that Rio had to offer.  Brace yourself.

Day one- Copacabana Beach. I read one whole book laying on the beach. Tomorrow I would begin the adventure.

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Day Two- Ipanema Beach. Where I read another book on the beach and sitting by my hotel pool.  Tomorrow I would begin the adventure.


Day Three- I finally muscled myself out of my swimsuit and made my way to the Christ the Redeemer Statue. I booked a tour because, let’s be honest, I had reached full on sloth mode and couldn’t be bothered to find my own way. It was a genius idea as myself and the only other person on the tour were the very first people at the statue, providing a rare photo absent of all other people. From atop the statue’s platform, we were able to overlook Rio and see the beautiful bay, one of the seven natural wonders of the world (well deserved) and the favelas, the poorer parts of town. I learned that Rio is obsessed with Michael Jackson and the work he did to highlight the neglect of the people of the favelas.

After Christ the Redeemer, we made our way to Sugar Loaf Mountain to ride up the Sky Road, built by one of the many coffee barons. Turns out these barons did quite a bit to develop Rio in its early days, including building this “sky road”, creating a cinema town and roller coasters. Not what one might call humanitarian work, but it certainly brought fun to Rio early on.

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I can’t say that I came close to embracing all that Rio has to offer but exhaustion prevailed and the enticement of the beaches was too much to resist.

Off to Cuba. Where the adventure begins tomorrow. 

What Shouldn’t Be Understood- Chile But Mostly Easter Island

‘What do you know about this business?’ the King said to Alice.
‘Nothing,’ said Alice.
‘Nothing whatever?’ persisted the King.
‘Nothing whatever,’ said Alice.
‘That’s very important,’ the King said, turning to the jury.  They were just beginning to write this down on their slates, when the White Rabbit interrupted: ‘Unimportant, your Majesty means, of course,’ he said in a very respectful tone, but frowning and making faces at him as he spoke.
‘Unimportant, of course, I meant,’ the King hastily said, and went on to himself in an undertone, ‘important-unimportant-imprtant-‘ as if he were trying which word sounded best. 
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
After admiring the unexpected beauty of Bolivia, we did a land border crossing into Chile where I had wifi again! Our first stop was San Pedro de Atacama. As was true for most of this trip, I neglected to adequately research my travel plans and therefore didn’t know anything about where I arrived. I have always been fascinated with space and would have loved to have become an astronaut- my lack of ability to understand complex algorithms and paralyzing fear of floating through space quickly eliminated that plan. The Atacama desert gave me a good taste of what I was missing.  The combination of low light pollution, very little rainfall and high altitudes make it one of the primary locations for stargazing.  And so I forced myself to stay up late into the night, coming up with a million excuses about why I could skip it, to attend a star gazing outing. Sometimes ignoring your manipulating mind is the best thing you can do. It was one of the coolest things I have ever done. We drove without lights into the outskirts of Atacama and found ourselves with some really energetic astronomers, spending the first hour staring up into the sky at the Milky Way, the southern constellations and a few planets. Then, we got to play with the eleven telescopes- pointing at four additional galaxies and some really cool star clusters. But the highlight for me was viewing Jupiter, both the big red dot as well as four moons in its orbit, and Saturn, the rings shining brightly around it. Not feeling even an ounce of cold or exhaustion, we then listened to stories inside the astronomer’s hut. I looked like a kid, perched on the edge of my seat, listening intently to every word from our astronomer’s mouth, sipping on my hot chocolate. Had I known about this, I would have spent a week in Atacama, every night in this very spot, already armed with more space knowledge than anyone wants me to have.

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Keeping the space theme going, the next morning was scheduled time off and it was off to The Meteorite Museum. My inner space dork was let free and it needed to be fed. Not only was this museum super cool (did you know that meteorites hit the ground and break apart in an elliptical pattern) but the guy who runs it is a meteorite hunter who cuts and polishes pieces he finds into jewelry. Hmmm. Career possibility? Could I survive the heat of the Atacama desert? The Valley of the Moon was the afternoon destination. Had I known this was there, it would have further solidified my need to stay in this place for much, much longer. I could bike and hike for days here (early morning of course). It resembles the Grand Canyon, but has a large, oval, flat area covered with salt that resembles the surface of the moon. The next day was a flight to Santiago for a winery tour and farewell dinner with the group. But the Chilean adventure was only just beginning. Easter Island was my next destination.

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Easter Island is one of those places that you don’t think of often. But when booking my flights in Chile, my mind kept drifting to it. Sometimes it is good to trust your manipulative mind! It takes about five hours to fly to Isla de Pasqua (aka Easter Island aka Rapa Nui) and I would easily fly twice that far to visit this place. The island is small. Theoretically you could walk around it in about two days, hiking 8-10 hours per day. NASA extended the airpot runway many years ago for a Space Shuttle emergency landing site (keeping my space theme going) so it literally goes from one side of the island to the other.  Hanga Roa is the only town on the island and I loved it. After four days, I had made enough friends that I could walk through the harbor and run into people I had met, some of which were dogs and chickens.

I had booked two half day tours so that I could get a taste of the legends and histories as well as be driven to the really cool sites. I could write pages on the history so if you are curious, use the Google. But I do love the theories about the demise of the Moai. At some point between 1722-1838, all of the Moai were pushed onto their faces. There are quite a few theories, but my favorite is also the saddest. The Rapa Nui people believed strongly that the statues protected their villages. Then the Europeans landed on the island and proved they were stronger and could defeat the Rapa Nui (not really a fair fight as the Europeans had firepower and the Rapa Nui had rocks). The Rapa Nui people were so devastated that their statues failed to protect them and their long believed tradition/religion was wrong, that they pushed them all onto their faces, blocking their view.

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I was also able to visit the sacred village of Orongo, where the annual Birdman competition was held. Each of the village Chiefs chose a competitor to race down the side of a rocky cliff, swim to an island and wait for a bird to lay an egg. First one to grab that egg and swim back, climb up the cliff and deliver it to their Chief was the winner.  The Chief then got to rule all of the villages for a year.

The best thing on the island was the quarry, which was basically the production facility and distribution center for the Moai, making my supply chain mind quite giddy.  Orders would be placed for statues and the statue makers would carve them into the rocks, leaving them attached at their spine. Once mostly complete, they would detach them, slide them slightly down the mountain and partially bury them.  Here they would finish carving and use gravity to force them upright. They would then be transported upright to the ahu (platform) where they were destined. If they fell during transit, they were left as they were, either too difficult to put back upright or believed to be cursed for falling. There were a great many Moai in process at the end of the religion, making the quarry look a bit like a graveyard, a fantastic Moai covered graveyard.

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Much of Easter Island cannot be understood, but I loved learning about all of the different theories. I also could have stayed there for far longer than four days, staring at the amazing stars and visiting the Moai scattered all about the island.

But I had a flight to catch to Rio. Off to Brazil.

How Many Changes Are Possible- Bolivia?

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.
This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation.  Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I- I hardly know, sir, just at present- at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Arriving in Bolivia after Peru, I realized I knew nothing about this country. I think, in the end, I am quite grateful for that as every moment was a surprise. This country has one of the most diverse landscapes I have ever seen, one that changes every hour of every day. We did our border crossing by land and journeyed to La Paz, the fake capital (most of the government buildings are here yet the capital is actually Sucre). We dumped our luggage in the hotel and headed off to the Witches Market. While we hoped for lots of crazy shops, it is really a handful of cool shops and lots of souvenir stands. The witches stores were pretty interesting and had plenty of potions, lotions and talismans to cure any ailment, find love or revenge and make millions. While much of it was a bit ridiculous, I did really appreciate the all natural lotions for muscle aches and pains. After the market, a few of us hopped on the cable car for a 360 view of La Paz and its mountainous landscape and massive hillside cemetery.

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Day two in Bolivia may perhaps be my absolute favorite of the trip- the Death Road Bike Ride. My trip around the world has given me many opportunities to ride bikes and helped me rediscover my love of riding. This ride took me to a whole new level. The Death Road is a 35 mile ride, given its name from when it was built, but appropriated by the cyclists who brave its nearly 12,000 foot descent. Approximately 200-300 people per year die on this road, most of them being motorists. The highlight is the 3000 foot cliffs with sheer drops, which I, of course, road past as fast as I could (at least 50 mph- only slight exaggeration). I loved racing down this mountain at full speed for me (even my guide was impressed at my bravado) and am now officially addicted to mountain biking. I was a changed person! My warthog, George, joined me on this ride and at one point, had nearly as much mud on him as I did on me.

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After the adrenaline rush of the Death Road, it was time to rejoin mundane. We flew to Sucre, the real capital of Bolivia and began two days of sloth. While I did manage to get in a few miles of walking through parks, I also squeezed in an entire book and several ice cream stops. Sucre has a somewhat limited English speaking population and I had a birthday party to plan. It is unfortunate that a documentary crew was not present to film my highly amusing attempt to locate balloons, candles, cards and presents in the local market using my limited Spanish but very animated sign language. Feeling empowered with my success, I joined two others in our group for dinner in a local man’s home. We had found a restaurant in town that was literally the man’s living room. You have to locate a small sign, ring the doorbell and hope someone answers. Luck was on our side and we were admitted into his home, surrounded by neighbors and friends, the only non Spanish speakers in a 3 km radius. Of course, imagination took over as we gave him his own name and history and created his wife and mother cooking away in the kitchen. It was my favorite dinner of the trip, enhanced by the 80’s Alternative Music being played in the dining room.

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Needing to expel some energy, we moved on to Potosi, a mining town in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, the drive to nowhere was a beautiful drive (one which I imagined seeing on a bicycle instead of a car). Potosi is a cool town, which I liked until I remembered that it is a mining town and my environmental senses tingled distaste.  Fortunately, this was a brief stop en route to the second highlight of Bolivia, the Salt Flats.  It was another beautiful drive. I wish Bolivians knew how unique and beautiful their country is and find other ways to dispose of trash other than the side of the road. The gorgeous landscape is continually dotted with garbage. Perhaps a bit of national pride might change that mentality.  We found another town, Uyuni, in the middle of nowhere, an oasis of 18,000 people and a stopping point for those entering the flats.  Walking around this town, we came across what appeared to be something resembling a 5K race.  Only the participants were wearing handmade numbers on their chests and many of the girls running in skirts, native clothes and sandals. Permanently humbled, I will never complain about running in my overpriced running shoes again.

IMG_1568Entering the salt flats is like nothing you have ever seen. At over 4,000 square miles and can easily be seen from space. It is white ground and blue sky as far as you can see. We drove for a bit before stopping for the tourist required shots playing with perspective. I really liked our driver as he seemed to march to the beat of his own drummer, listening to gangsta rap and taking different paths than the other cars. Kindred spirits I suppose. In the flats, it seems like you can drive for miles and miles….at least until your car breaks down and you see nothing around you.  Anywhere. This allowed us to spend our first evening on the flats entertaining ourselves with photography and one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. You can really tell the makeup of a group when confronted with unexpected issues and delays. This group made the most of it and had a fantastic time- which was good because the following day we would be challenged again as another vehicle broke down completely losing a tire not long after we left the flats.

While the flats were lovely, I was ready for something different.  Time to move on to my happy place, the mountains. My driver had switched to 90s Alt music and it was probably the first time I listened to Creed and not changed the station. We were on the Chilean border and there were snow capped mountains everywhere you looked. There was even a smoking volcano. And the Seven Color Mountain was one of the most beautiful mountains I have seen.  While I would have given anything to hike or bike these mountains, time was not on my side. Perhaps another day. There should be a million photos of this place, but I find pictures taken through car windows can’t possibly do justice to the beauty of the landscape. So, I watched through the window and enjoyed my solitude, interrupted occasionally by horrible Coldplay songs.

And because we were in Bolivia, it was time to change again. This time to the desert, where at 4600 meters is a bit chillier than the deserts I know.  The Bolivian desert is filled with lagoons, red, white, blue and green, many with flamingos. Unfortunately the flamingos were a bit camera shy and most of the photographs look more like white spots than birds. The highlight, though, was the hot springs, a lovely dip in the hot water in the slightly chilly desert.

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And so we exited Bolivia, my mind in awe of the beauty and diversity I had seen. I was glad I didn’t know much about this country. Its ability to change before my eyes forever imprinted in my memory.

Off to Chile.

A Head Filled With Crazy Ideas-Peru

“It seems pretty,” she said when she had finished it, “ but its rather hard to understand!” (You see she didn’t like to confess, even to herself, that she couldn’t make it out at all.) “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas- only I don’t exactly know what they are!” 

Alice Through the Looking Glass

After Ecuador, I headed south to Peru where I had a few days alone in Lima before i started a three week tour. I find it is usually best to spend some significant time alone before embarking on 21 days with people. I spent these days wandering around town, eating street food, roaming the beach and going to the cinema. And laundry. There is always laundry. I stayed in Miraflores in Lima where I did manage to find excellent coffee and decent gelato. Miraflores has a beautiful beach front where you can walk along the cliff for 12K, the city on one side, the ocean on the other. I found myself returning to this spot regularly just to people watch, filling my head with all kinds of ideas about who they might be.

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While my tour started in Lima, we spent only one evening there, most of which I spent hanging out in a bar with an Alice in Wonderland painting with two of my fellow travelers, knowing immediately that this was a great group of people. We flew early the next morning to Cusco, a city that was once the capital of the Incan Empire. This is a great city, filed with locals and tourists alike. After our arrival, we visited Saqsaywaman (pronounced sexy woman), an old Incan holy site and Cusco’s version of Christ the Redeemer. Then, we made the huge mistake of going yarn and blanket shopping. The very clever sales staff had us feel sheep and alpaca wool and then reeled us in with the big one- baby alpaca. Once you feel baby alpaca, no other wool will be good enough. We were hooked. I managed to escape with just a few skeins of yarn. I was one of the lucky ones!

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Cusco was the stopping point to put some ideas about Incan civilization in our head before we headed to Machu Picchu. It also turned out to be a culinary adventure. A visit to Mercado San Pedro presented a massive warehouse of any type of food you might imagine and plenty you didn’t want to actually see. I loved it at this market and could have spent hours lost in the aisles. But it was time to move on….to the Gastronomia Cusquena Para Todos- or The Taste of Cusco as I have named it. Here, you could choose the guinea pig you wanted roasted- your choice being one stuffed with an onion or a pepper in his mouth. Instead, I opted for some local empanadas and a quick visit to the Sun Temple. This was rumored to be a highlight, although the allure was lost on me. It is an Incan Temple with a Christian Church built on top of it. It felt like a missed opportunity, they could have made it so much better than it was. I had tons of ideas for them!

After one day on our own in Cusco, we hopped on a bus to Ollantaytambo for more crazy Incan ideas as well as a new crafting addiction for me. If you know me well, or even a little, you will understand how giddy I was when we arrived at a Women’s Weaving Co-Op. And how I had to be physically dragged away when it was time to go (exaggeration alert). After meeting their alpacas, we learned how they clean and dye their wool and then spin it. Watching them spin peaked my interest and will be the first hobby I acquire when I return home. They then knit or weave this yarn and sell it to us. I was in heaven. Pure heaven. I did learn a few other random things- the women do not have gray hair for the rumored reason that they use a special aloe shampoo. Also, the altitude is too high for snakes and nearly everything they do is in support of Patchamama or Mother Nature.  I suddenly had the crazy idea that I might just live there forever.

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Next stop- Pisac and a chance to see Incan ruins. The first thing I learned is that Inca is the name for the king and therefore the people are not Incans, making everything I have written in the blog so far completely incorrect. Rather than correct, I will let you learn from my mistake. I also learned that there are 2800 varieties of quinoa, most not edible. We did get to see the largest Inca burial ground where the bodies are buried in caves in the mountain in fetal position. Much like how Chicago got the nickname “Windy City” or how the name “Hoosier” came about, no one knows why but everyone claims to. After Pisac, we went to Ollantaytambo where, you guessed it, there are more Inca ruins. Only these are some of the few unfinished ones. I have a million ideas about how they built all of these buildings and terraces, but I am sticking with my aliens theory. They built these things to withstand earthquakes and tourists.

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The next morning, a handful of us climbed up one of the mountains in Ollantaytambo and had one of my favorite travel moments- talking about random topics, big ideas, dreams and histories. Then, we boarded the train to Machu Picchu. Our guide forced us up at 3:30 AM to be one of the first on the mountain. Don’t tell him, but he was right. We arrived and were greeted with rain and mist. First thought- this sucks. Second thought- it adds a whole new level of mysticism to the site. And gives me an unruly head of curls. I didn’t know a whole lot about this place before I arrived and honestly expected a more spiritual place. Nope, it is an old Incan town, divided into three sections, agriculture, urban and religion. It was a primary trading post which is why it is so important and needed to be protected from the Spanish. It was a meritocracy so status was based on intelligence. I couldn’t help but get the idea that it might be something worth pursuing. There are 30,000 kilometers of trails and they used hydraulic engineering to provide drinkable water. It is also the entrance to the Amazon jungle. Most importantly and most dear to me, they invented french fries. Now these are some people I could dig. After repeated moments of having my mind blown with moon circumferences, Incan calendars and on and one, the sun came out and I hiked up for the tourist shot of Machu Picchu. Alas, it was time to move on.

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Back to Cusco we went to do some laundry (there is always laundry to be done) and pick up our luggage. While we were there, we took an excursion to a Rainbow Mountain, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen and one in which any photograph could not possible do justice. Rainbow mountains are unique to this area look like multicolored striped mountains. The striping is due to weathering and mineralogy. Tectonic activity has turned the mountain on its side, exposing the stripes. Crazy idea from Pachamama.  We drove a few hours through untouched lands and villages holding tight to tradition when we arrived at approximately 4700 meters above sea level. We then hiked the remaining 300 and looked around at rainbow mountains, grassy fields and the snowcapped Andes. And because it could get even better, it started to snow. Pelting snow. I was in my element- snowy mountains and I have always been close. I was quite content. Today was a good day. Time to leave Cusco and move south through Peru.

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We arrived in Puno after a seven hour bus ride, the only highlight being a roadside stop to taste Kopi Luwak coffee, made from coati animal poop. They feed the coati the coffee beans and get them when they come out the other side. A fermentation type process happens in the digestion process. As I love coffee, it was a must to taste. I was not let down- it was close to the most delicious coffee I have ever tasted. It was Good Friday and Puno was ready to celebrate. They had a big parade where each of the churches carried Jesus through the streets followed by their parishioners and bands. It was fun to watch, but late in the night, I was ready for them to stop celebrating and go to bed!

A visit to Lake Titicaca was on the next day’s agenda and Pachamama cooperated. She took most of our clouds out of the sky and gave us blue skies to match the blue waters. It was so perfect, my camera had trouble focusing. This is a massive lake, the highest navigable one in the world. Despite its size, it houses only 7 kinds of fish but has the added bonus of giant frogs. We sailed to Tequile Island first. This Unesco site is home to 2000 people who make their own clothes and hold tight to tradition. We climbed halfway up the island and split into those who wanted to stroll and those who wanted to climb. Clearly, I chose climbing and was rewarded with an amazing 360 degree view of the lake and its islands. While my preference would have been to continue hiking around the island with the sheep and cows, I had to meet the strollers. The local people had put together a demonstration of their weaving, knitting and dancing. And of course, the opportunity to purchase their homemade goods. Most of our group loved the idea that the men do the knitting on the island. For me, however, that thought terrified me. To not be able to knit because I was a women was a horrible idea and I knew straight away I would not be staying. After dipping my feet in the rather chilly Lake Titicaca, we went to another island for a lunch made panchamanca style- cooked on rocks buried in the dirt. One last stop at a floating island, where about 5 families build their own island on the shallower part of the lake and cover it with reeds. The showed us their homes and lifestyle and then offered us the opportunity to purchase their handicrafts as well. This was now more shopping than I do in a month.

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So my time in Peru came to an end, we had a bus to catch super early to take us to Bolivia. One of the group had the brilliant (at the time) idea of hitting the bars and disco after dinner, making that early wake up call ever more painful. I vowed to keep those crazy ideas out of my head for at least ten minutes and boarded the bus.

Next stop….Bolivia.

My Very Own Wonderland-Galapagos

So she sat on, with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

After Colombia, I continued my trek through South America and found myself in Quito, Ecuador for a quick stop before leaving for the Galapagos Islands.  I was on an organized tour which included my hotel and they had booked my in a rather decadent one- it had fancy shampoo and everything- so I spend a good deal of time relaxing.  And it was a good thing I did, because the next week would be exhausting!  We had a 4:00 AM departure so sleep was a luxury of the past but we were in Galapagos by 10:00 AM- essentially another world.  You land on Baltra Island, one of the flatter of the islands (I am told flat is a key factor in landing strips). It is an old island and very desert like.  After the dogs sniffed my bags, identifying the ginger candy I had, we were whisked off for the first adventure. Along the way, I learned a few things about Galapagos- 97% of the land is national park and humans can live and work on 3%.  If you ask me, 3% is too high! There are only two native colors of flowers, white and yellow as the local wasps were attracted to only those two colors. Every 300 feet you climb results in a temperature drop of 1 degree celsius. No new cars are allowed on the islands- swapping is the only option and a new car costs about $100,000 USD. There are 30K people on the islands and I am pretty sure I saw that many turtles as well.

We stayed in Puerto Areyo for the first day where we threw our luggage in the hotel and hit the hiking trails. And by hiking trails, I mean a paved walkway to the beach. The walk was a beautiful one through cacti with birds and lizards everywhere. We hiked to Tortuga Bay where we went “swimming” (body surfing as we were thrown about by massive waves with a huge undertow) and then kayaking. I am a big fan of kayaking, but this one was special. We made our way out to where the sea turtles were hanging around waiting for dark to come ashore. They were everywhere, poking their heads above water all around us. The shoreline offered us a pool of sharks.  Sure, because that is what I always see kayaking. I slept really well that night!

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The next morning began at the Darwin Center where I was in heaven with the information overload. When you arrive in the Galapagos, you pay $100 USD. You can really see where this money is spent when you see the work they do. They work hard to ensure the survival of a species without introducing anything that might hurt another. For example, goats were brought over years ago for farming and they have done a great deal of damage. Goats became the most expensive animal eradication project. They also introduced Australian ladybugs to eliminate parasites after years of study to ensure there would not be any other impacts. Galapagos is a marvel in evolution and balance with nature. It is also proof that humans suck. We got to see Lonesome George at the Darwin Center. I confess I was somewhat oblivious to this tortoise’s legacy and need to research him some more. But now, he is a big stuffed turtle in a rather elaborate air conditioned room- a nice afterlife in the heat and humidity of these islands.  The afternoon’s adventure was a visit to a Giant Tortoise site- where they just hang out, posing for photos for tourists. Then, it was off to our boat for the overnight sail to the next island, Floreana, named after the Ecuadorian president who finally claimed Galapagos after years in which it was left independent.

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I opened my eyes the next morning and was amazed at the beauty of yet another different looking island. We hopped on our zodiacs and went ashore to Cormorant Bay for a hike. Along the way, we passed flamingoes (super up close, which I hear is rare) and blue footed boobies doing their mating dance. Along the way, our guide shared more information than I could possibly remember, even though I kept say “wow” all morning. We hiked to a bay that had tons of sting rays and crabs, which kept us from swimming much deeper than our ankles! After the hike, it was snorkel time! We were the only group approved to snorkel Devil’s Crown that day and lucky doesn’t begin to describe it. It wasn’t the easiest snorkel I have ever done and I have to admit that at one point, I gave up fighting the current and hopped in the zodiac (I felt better when all but one of my fellow travelers was getting in the boat as well!) but the rest of the snorkel was amazing. We saw tortoises and starfish and sharks and rays and fish and Nemo and even an octopus. Unfortunately, the photos never really do it justice, but it didn’t stop me from taking 132.

After lunch and a siesta (which I spent downloading and editing my morning photos), it was snorkel time again- this time with sea turtles and penguins. We hung out on the coastline where the turtles had a hard time keeping their 2 meter distance from us and were not super helpful in posing for photos. I couldn’t help but remember how much I used to hate snorkeling. How wrong I was. Exhausted from the snorkeling, we then headed out to Post Office Bay. This is a traditional sailor to sailor post office, where you drop off your mail and pick up any mail going to a future stop of your own. I dropped off a few for my parents and nieces and picked up one each for Chicago, Oakland and Cape Town. Let’s see how long until my postcards arrive! Then, back to the island for dinner, drinks and sleep…and the journey to our next stop, Cerro Dragon.

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Another early morning wake up call presented yet another new wonderland. We went ashore and hiked across a very volcanic island, complete with very cool lava tunnels and sea lions playing randomly on beaches. One even posed with George, my warthog travel companion. We watched giant rays jumping out of the water to remove parasites and dodged waves splashing onto the rocks (and by dodged, I mean I ran to them and got soaked). This island was so different than the others, showing us the clear impact of volcanic activity. After the walk, we got to snorkel again, this time in a relaxing, current and wave free zone. The fish in this island were amazing and a few sharks even posed for photos for us. I have never seen such beautiful fish and starfish. I could have stayed in this water for days.  But alas, we had to get to Chinese Hat, yet another different landscape. This one is covered in trees and plants and so many land iguanas, we were tripping over them. One more night on the boat took us to Black Turtle Cove.

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If you have picked up on the theme, we awoke in yet another new land, filled with mangroves and mosquitos. As we had a 10:00 AM flight and required one more adventure, we boarded the zodiacs just after sunrise for a ride through the mangroves, where turtles and sharks swim about leisurely. At this point, we were a bit desensitized to seeing them so often, that the whole morning became more of a comedy show than an animal quest. After that, we headed to the airport for the trip back to Quito, craving pizza and beer. Sadly, though, it was election day in Ecuador and nearly everything was closed, including alcohol sales. Channeling our best “A Christmas Story” thoughts, we managed to find a Chinese restaurant open and they even agreed to sell beer. After nearly falling asleep at the table, the Galapagos adventure was over. I had one last day in Quito by myself, and back to the dull reality of urban life.

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I left my fancy hotel and headed to the real Quito, the Old Town. It was busy and crowded and very cool. There were lots of squares, including the Independence Plaza where the executive power of Ecuador sits and where the previous night’s election celebrations had been held. It was still filled with banners and confetti, but most importantly, contained a gelato shop. Ecuador still has some work to do on gelato, but I was happy to compare. The Old Town isn’t the safest place, mostly due to pickpockets and outright bag thieves so the police are literally everywhere. I took this as a sign that I was better suited for being out alone during the day rather than night. I did manage a trip to the Basillica which sits high on a hill and allows you to climb even higher to the top, looking over nearly every building in Quito. It is the oldest Neo Gothic church in the New World, a title which amused me quite a bit.

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And so ends my wonderland stay in Ecuador, primarily the Galapagos Islands. Off to Peru in search of a laundromat and another adventure rather than a dull reality.

Make Your Memory Work Forwards-Colombia

‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice “its dreadfully confusing.’
‘That’s the effect of living backwards,’ the Queen said kindly, ‘it always makes one a little giddy at first-‘
‘Living backwards!’Alice repeated in great astonishment.’ I never heard of such a thing.!’
‘-but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.’
‘I’m sure mine only works one way,’ Alice remarked, ‘I can’t remember a thing before they happen,’
“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.
Alice Through the Looking Glass
After a few days in the United States, primarily to switch to summer clothes and to grab my South American visas, I hopped a flight to Cartagena, Colombia’s fifth largest city.  I really didn’t know much about this country other than the memory of the guerrillas and drug trade…and Romancing the Stone. Therefore, I had no idea what to expect. Fortunately, my backward looking memory was not a reflection of Colombia today. Normally when I arrive in a new country, I go to my room and relax a bit.  Not here. The energy of this town makes you want to get outside and explore. Cartagena reminds me a lot of Mexican cruise ship towns before the cruise companies took them over and turned them into shopping malls. It is raw. On the street, you can buy absolutely anything you need, or didn’t know you need. As a result, every male tourist is wearing the exact same hat. My hotel was in the Old Town, which is filled with life. It is crowded and loud and oh so fun. They do make things a bit difficult for vegetarians but if you are good with queso, especially fried queso, you won’t starve. After walking a few miles around town and getting my daily quota of fried cheese pastries and salted mango with lime sauce from a street vendor, I found a gelato shop run by a lovely Irish lady. It officially settled my future relocation to this city. And my Spanish acquired from Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer was better than I realized. The subsequent heat I would feel, did alter my relocation plans. Fortunately, my memory works well enough to remember the melting sensation I felt.
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My second day was set to be a beach day. I headed to Bocagrande, the view made famous by Miami Vice.  Here, I rented a chair and umbrella for $3.50 for an afternoon of people and water watching and reading. It all felt less decadant with the memory of the 4 miles I had walked to reach this beach. That night was the first night of my tour and soon found that I had yet another fantastic group of new friends on this adventure. We started off the tour with visits to the fortress, the monastery and the Old Town. Despite the heat, I did manage to learn a few things about Colombia. First, the government reports an 8-10% unemployment rate, but locals feel it is much higher (could explain all of the entrepreneurs on the streets). Second, much like the United States, the British could not defeat Cartagena and despite being outnumbered, Cartagena outlasted and bested the British attacks. Finally, 73% of Colombia is safe to travel (I have no idea how they have determined this number but it seemed to be quite exact). We capped off the day to a visit to the famous volcanic mud baths outside of Cartagena. Filled with visions of luxury, we were quite shocked to find what resembled a giant termite mound filled with mud so thick you were suspended upright in it. The laughter made it all worthwhile.

Our next day took us Minca, about four to five to six hours (Colombian time) from Cartagena. Along the way, I learned that it is 4 degrees from the equator and therefore has only a rainy and a dry season….nothing else. We saw both. Colombia is broken out economically into six strata, the lowest group earning about $230 USD per month. In Minka, we stayed at a fantastic, backpacker hostel complete with chickens and hammocks and a beautiful view of the sunset over the ocean. It was a 400+ step climb to the hotel and we all climbed with plans of heading back into town for dinner. Those plans quickly died as the memory of the climb was too fresh to inspire a second one the same day!
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After climbing back down the stairs the following morning, we headed off to La Victoria coffee farm. This farm was atop a mountain, on a horrible winding road. It sucked. I am pretty sure I was the same color of green as the trees when we finally arrived and I promptly announced I was NOT doing that again. My love of coffee though, helped me forget the memory of the ride and the aroma lured me into the building. We had a volunteer tour guide (wait, you can volunteer on a coffee farm- sign me up!) who taught us tons. Colombian coffee beans are broken into three categories by a 120 year old machine based on how long they float in water. The beans that sink first are exported and become the delicious Colombian arabica beans we love and is about 55% of the harvest. Third quality stays in Colombia, which explains the horrid coffee we had been drinking, so bad that Colombians POUR sugar into it. It was so sad that most people never taste the amazing coffee they grow. After the coffee farm visit, we hiked to a waterfall, a very chilly yet oh so refreshing, waterfall and then learned how they make chocolate in Minka. This visit was most notable as they served us homemade hot chocolate spiced with cardamon.
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We awoke the next day in Tagonga and had an incredibly slothful day at the beach. We hired a fisherman boat to take us to a somewhat remote beach (the road being too dangerous to walk). For 40,000 Colombian pesos ($14 USD), we had the boat ride, covered lounge chairs, lunch and a cocktail. Hmm. Maybe I should reconsider living here! I both started and finished a book on this beach. We did burn off some of the sloth that evening when we took on the local kid’s soccer team (and by “we”, I mean most of the group played while I ran around and took photos).
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After laying on the beach all day, it was time to get active. We were headed to Tayrona National Parque. This area was very active during the drug trade era of the 70s, 80s and 90s, but had been taken back by the government. Four indigenous tribes live here, all suffering huge losses during the days of guerillas. The government had taken back the land and it was a protected beautiful park. We hiked five miles into the woods and along the shore to a beautiful beach where we collapsed into the water. Removing our pruned bodies from the water, we dressed for the five mile return hike. I would sleep well tonight.
Having had one inactive day and one active day, it was time to combine the two into hiking and river tubing. We took a bus outside of town, hopped on some motorbikes and rode to the mountain. After scaling what I am quite certain was a 90 degree hike up, we hopped on the tubes we had carried and floated for nearly two hours down the Palomino river. We also brought new meaning to sloth as, despite floating towards rocks and trees, we failed to assist in paddling.
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The last stop in Colombia was spent in Santa Marta, the oldest city in Colombia and very susceptible to pirate attacks many, many years ago. After several of the group headed off to their next adventure, the remainders took a cab to a beach where we took a boat to another beach, Playa Blanca. The beauty of this beach was that the the mall came to you. If you sat long enough under your tent, anything you might need would appear in front of you.
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Colombia is yet another country that exceeded my expectations. It certainly isn’t the Colombia you remember from decades ago. Don’t get me wrong, it still isn’t the safest of places so you have to make smart choices about where and when you move about. But if you do that, you will love this country. The people are lovely and learning the ropes of customer service. The landscape is one of the most beautiful you will see with everything from mountains and beaches to forests and cities.
Forget what you remember and go. Make your memory work forwards.
Off to Ecuador and Galapagos.

Where Shall I Be Tomorrow? Athens and Rome

“How puzzling all these changes are!  I’m never sure what I’m going to be from one minute to another.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I arrived in Athens after a flight from Dubrovnik through Istanbul.  It was late at night but, as expected, Berlin was hopping and I was staying in a very active part of town.  I found my hotel, settled in and put together a plan.  I was expecting only one good day of weather so outdoor stuff was first on the list.  And bonus, it was free admission day to all of the outdoor ruins- thank you Melina Mercouri (a proponent of restoration of Greek ruins and access for Greek citizens).  It saved me a ton of money, but also meant that they would be packed!  I headed to the Acropolis first and it was a good thing I did.  By the time I left, it was filled with groups of school kids and groups of adults behaving like school kids.  Acropolis hill was cool- it is so odd to think how old it is and how advanced this architecture really was.  I think My favorite part of all of the ruins I visited is the wildflowers growing in and around them.  Mother Nature always takes back what is hers.

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That same day, I also visited a bunch of other old stuff- all outside as the weather was fantastic.  I particularly loved the Temple of Hephaistos and the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios, all sitting among tons of wildflowers.   Athens does a great job of signage around their ruins so my brain was filling quickly with lots of facts that it promptly forgot.  Thank goodness for Google!  After ruins, it was time for the flea market.  Smack dab in the middle of the flea market, surrounded by tons of junk, was a gelato shop.  Hmmm.  Gelato.  A seed was planted.

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Mother Nature threw me a bone the next day and pushed the rain until later that evening.  So I decided to take advantage and spend more time outside.   I made my way over near the Acropolis again and climbed the Hill of the Muses, which provided a beautiful view of Athens (which is HUGE), the Greek Islands and more ruins.  I was able to hike all around, past the Observatory and back down.  It was pretty warm and I knew I needed gelato to cool off.  Hmm.  Gelato.  I found a different shop and headed to Syntagma Square to people watch and shop.  But I kept hearing the voice in my head yelling, “You want gelato? Rome is RIGHT OVER THERE!.  GO!”  After all of my travels, Rome is still my favorite city.  So, I headed back to the hotel, booked a flight and hotel room for the next day.  Two bonus days in Rome!  Think of the gelato!  Sorry Athens, but I saw your ruins and Rome was so close.

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The Athens airport is a carbon neutral airport which I loved. I also liked that they have an archeological museum inside- good since my sudden departure cost me my trip to the Athens one.

And so to Rome I went.  As I flew, chatting with the people around me and those waiting for their luggage, I realized the difference between the different areas of Europe.  I hadn’t been able to strike up conversations with random people for several weeks but since I got to Croatia, Greece and Italy, I hadn’t stopped talking!  I made my way to the hotel and literally threw my suitcase into storage and ran out the door. I only had two days and I had to get the most out of it.  The Trevi Fountain was being refurbished last time I visited so I wanted to swing by and see how this beautiful Baroque fountain turned out. Plus, I needed to throw in some coins to ensure I would return to Rome.   Then, it was off to my favorite gelato shop near the Pantheon- dark chocolate and orange- and people watching in Piazza Navona.  A quick hike to Vatican City and it was time for dinner.  And let’s be honest, it was only time for dinner because I was anxious for Second Gelato.  I tried a new gelato shop near my hotel and went with the recommendations of a guy who works there.  The cherry nut crunch was delightful.

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I have been to Rome several times already so I was going to skip all the touristy stuff.  But….I really wanted to go to Palatine Hill.  I have always visited Rome with other people so my timeline hasn’t been my own.  This trip was different. It was my agenda.  So, yep, I was going to do tourist stuff.  You see, the ticket to Palatine Hill is the same ticket as the Coliseum and the Forum.  And, it would be foolish to purchase a ticket and not see all three.  I am so glad I did.  The Coliseum has a new exhibit which was super interesting, and I had tons of time to walk through the Forum and see stuff I had missed in previous visits.  After a few hours, it was time for gelato. I grabbed some and window shopped Via Condotti and made my way back to Trevi Fountain to throw my coin over my shoulder and partake in a glass of wine.  Dinner and Second Gelato rounded out my day and it was time to pack to head back to the States for a few days.

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So, back in the United States for a few days.  Until Colombia…..