Posts Tagged With: Ecuador

Nine Months, Ten Countries- Ecuador into Peru

After picking up our special coolant hose delivery from California and patching up the van, we decided to blow off the rest of the Ecuadorian coast due to the abundance of grey skies and lack of waves. Instead, we headed southeast to explore the high altitude lakes and paramo of Cajas National Park. When we reached the park after a long day of driving we both felt terribly nauseous and lightheaded. Perplexed by what it could be, we realized that in one day we drove from sea level up to 14,000 ft. That sort of abrupt elevation change can wreak havoc on the body.

Feeling better in the morning, we hiked through a section of the park in which we saw many beautiful lakes, wandered through forests of trippy looking quinua trees (paper trees in English), and even encountered some high altitude shaggy llamas.

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We didn’t last long in the bitter cold so we made our way down to the lower altitude portion of the national park where Aron fished for miniature trout along a beautiful creek as a herd of llamas looked on curiously.

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Got one!

Ready for a hot shower, we drove the final half hour stretch to Cuenca, a beautiful university city of rivers and trees surprisingly full of American ex-pats. Without planning to, we spent nearly a week in Cuenca, camping at Cabanas Yanuncay alongside a river just outside the city center. When we weren’t strolling around the city, we were hanging out with chickens and eating fresh cherimoyas from the orchard on the property.

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Camping at Cabanas Yanuncay in Cuenca

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Street art along the river in Cuenca

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Cathedral and central square

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Had to buy a handwoven basket from this sweet little lady

Our new friend Taylor (one of the students we stayed with in the Galapagos) and her now fiance Bassem (congrats guys!) happened to be in Cuenca at the same time, as were our friends George and Teresa of Road Adventure. The six of us piled into the van for a Sunday outing exploring the nearby villages and markets. Our first stop was the market in Gualaceo, famous for it’s roasted cuy (pronounced koo-ee), also known as guinea pig! Although extremely unappealing with their little claws and gaping mouths, we felt that we had to try one for the sake of the experience. George bravely stepped up and chose out the cuy on a stick that would be our lunch. The woman manning the coals brutally chopped it up and presented it to us on a paper plate. None of us were quite sure how to begin when I looked over and saw the woman next to us break off a crispy cuy ear and happily crunch it in her mouth. Dig in I guess! Although I only managed to try one little sliver, the overall verdict was that it tasted like chicken, but greasier and with less meat. Checked off the list… never again.

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Guinea pigs roasting over hot coals

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How about a little drumstick

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Market in Gualaceo

From Cuenca, we headed south into Peru, country number ten! As soon as we hit the coast and crossed the border, the landscape changed into dry, dusty hills and sand dunes as far as the eye could see. Apparently they call this the Sahara of South America.

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Our first stop in Peru was Mancora, a super touristy, party surf town with streets full of hawkers trying to sell things. While not our scene, the weather was beautiful and we were happy to be at the beach. We found a place to camp at a nice hotel right on the point where the waves rolled in and Aron headed out for a surf while I went for a walk on the beach. Bad decision apparently, because within twenty minutes two thieves ran by and snatched the little iPod I was carrying. Pinche ladrones!

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Mancora, beautiful despite my bad luck

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Nice bronzing center at Punta Ballena Hotel where we camped in Mancora

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George and Teresa caught up with us in Mancora and we headed down the coast together in search of waves. We stopped in Lobitos, a dusty ghost town that originally sprang up as an English oil development but is now a surf hub due to a long firing point and a number of other nearby waves. The English were eventually kicked out but left behind old colonial buildings made of beautiful Oregon pine which is rare and expensive these days. The oil extraction in the area is visible everywhere, from “caballitos” pumping oil out of the ground to enormous offshore oil platforms visible from the beach. Despite the crowd of Brazilians and kite surfers in the water, Aron had fun surfing nice waves a few times a day during a week of camping on the beach.

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Remnants of English oil exploration

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Waves rolling in at the point on a small day

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Our next stop on the coast was Pacasmayo, an hour north of the famous Chicama which is known to be one of the longest left point breaks in the world. Pacasmayo is less known and is said to be even longer with a proper swell. Aron surfed the point and other empty spots nearby with a fun group of Aussies and we enjoyed some fresh, delicious Peruvian ceviche before leaving the coast.

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View of the point in Pacasmayo from El Faro Adventure Resort where we camped

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Beautifully restored colonial buildings on the Pacasmayo boardwalk

Up next, we head into the Peruvian Andes for some mountain adventure!

Categories: Ecuador, Peru | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Birthdays and Boobies in the Galapagos Islands

For days I had delayed booking spots to snorkel at Leon Dormido (Sleeping Lion) a huge, steep mass of rock jutting out of the ocean a few miles from the shore. Sharks are known to congregate in the channel created by a large crevasse that splits the rock all the way into the ocean. The thought of swimming with sharks was thrilling but also terrifying. Knowing we couldn’t pass up this once in a lifetime opportunity, we nervously made reservations for the next morning.

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Leon Dormido (sleeping lion in English), also known as Kicker Rock

After an hour’s ride in a little white fishing boat, we arrived at the magnificent rock. We pulled on our wet suits, donned our snorkel gear, and jumped off the boat into the frigid blue water. As we peered down into the depths we saw the first shark, swimming along the bottom of the ocean far below. I squealed into my snorkel and started pointing excitedly as Aron dove down to take a video. We thought this might be the extent of what we would see since we had heard one needs to scuba dive to really see the sharks since they prefer to swim deep. But when we turned and started to swim through the channel between the two enormous rock faces, we were surrounded by sharks. Schools of large Galapagos sharks smoothly glided through the water right below us as hundreds of black tipped reef sharks swam past us near the surface- I could have reached out and touched one.

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Galapagos Sharks

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Black tipped reef shark

The sharks acted as if we weren’t there and tranquilly swam past us in large groups. We watched the beautiful creatures in awe as they swam peacefully in the rays of sunlight that shone through the dark water. A large spotted eagle ray joined the procession, slowly flying through the water. Sea turtles and fish happily swam around but we were nearly too absorbed watching the sharks to bother with anything else.

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We had been debating on whether or not to make the expensive leap to the Galapagos Islands when a coolant hose on the van blew while traveling down the coast of Ecuador. Realizing the van would be out of commission for two weeks while we waited for parts to arrive from California, we decided to go for it. And thank goodness we did! Sun, waves, white sand beaches, crystal clear water, and wildlife galore, the Galapagos Islands turned out to be at the top of all the places we’ve visited in our nine months of traveling and we are already plotting ways to go back for more.

As the plane descended we were giddy with excitement when we caught our first glimpse of the islands. It kind of felt like a vacation from our travels. We arrived on San Cristobal Island without much of a plan (as usual), but determined to find a way to experience the Galapagos Islands on the cheap despite what we read in the guidebooks. As we wandered the streets trying to get our bearings while struggling under the load of our heavy packs and Aron’s surfboards, we ran into Steffi, a surfer girl from Germany who invited us to stay at her place for a few nights. Steffi was living in the Galapagos with her Ecuadorian boyfriend who was in Quito at the time handling paperwork for the gorgeous bay front hotel he and his brother are building on the island.

We woke up the next morning to a beautifully blue day which was all I could have wished for on my birthday. Steffi showed us around the island and took us to La Loberia, a beautiful beach popular with sea lions (or lobos, thus the name loberia) and known for its waves and amazing snorkeling. The outer reef that the waves break on also shelters a calm inner bay where sea turtles and sea lions like to frolic. As always, Aron headed straight for the water, excited to get his first taste of waves in nearly two months. Steffi and I sat on the beach, soaked up the hot sun, and fought off Darwin’s famous finches that boldly hopped on and all around us looking for a snack after having been fed too often by tourists.

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After we had our fill of sun we suited up and slipped into the cold, clear water and immediately found ourselves swimming with sea turtles. They gracefully swam around, eating green moss off of the rocks not seeming to mind us one bit although in our excitement we were pretty much chasing after them with our cameras.

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Harassing the sea turtles

As the afternoon clouds rolled in, we took a stroll along a path between dark black volcanic rocks lining the ocean and encountered our first marine iguanas. Aron nearly stepped over the first one without noticing it- they are as dark and rough as the rocks they hang out on and can be difficult to spot until they make a move.

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That evening after returning to Steffi’s place sunburned as can be (that equatorial sun is strong!), our lovely host and some of her boyfriend’s family cooked up a delicious birthday dinner featuring brujo (wizard fish) freshly caught off the islands that morning.

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The next day we strolled to Las Tijeretas, another epic snorkeling spot. The calm bay is sheltered from wind and waves and you can see straight to the bottom through the clear water. We snorkeled across the bay admiring colorful corals and schools of fish as playful sea lions swam right up and swirled around us.

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Photo courtesy of Steffi Herrmann

DSCN9347 (640x480)While doing some research in mainland Ecuador, we had read that it is possible to camp for free on some of the islands. Both agreeing that camping on the Galapagos Islands would be pretty epic, we decided to lug all of our backpacking gear with us and were determined to put it to use. While on San Cristobal Island, we discovered that in order to camp one has to request permission from the national park and all camping gear must be quarantined in a giant freezer for 48 hours to kill seeds and anything that might disturb or alter the natural environment. After dully going through this process we got clearance and a permission slip from the national park. We loaded our gear in the back of a cab, and headed to Puerto Chino, a beautiful white sand cove on the southern side of the island. We set up our tent on a little grassy knoll at the edge of the beach, right next to a group of sleeping sea lions. From there, we could see turtles swimming near the shore and blue footed boobies dive bombing into the sea in search of fish. It was a spectacular place to camp with no one on the beach but us and the sea lions- well worth the back strain.

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This adorable baby sea lion hung out in front of our tent all afternoon

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Blue footed boobies

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Although cute and graceful in the water, sea lions on land are pretty brutish. They are constantly sneezing, coughing, and barfing up fish, not to mention that they stink terribly. We thought they might deprive us of a peaceful night’s sleep, but each evening at sunset the sea lions woke up from their lazy day of sleeping and farting in the sand and headed into the ocean. We were surprised to notice that they would be out all night and watched them return one by one at sunrise. Very curious…

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Classic sea lion pose while his pals dash into the sea for the night

With a swell heading our way, we decided to push back our return flight another week so we could enjoy some more sun and waves and stay on the islands through Aron’s birthday. We posted up at Hotel San Francisco at a whopping $20/night for a clean, private room right on the boardwalk (who says you cant do the Galapagos on the cheap?) and made friends with the surfers in town. Along with two Brits, a Frenchman, and a couple of Ecuadorian locals who owned a bar in town, we trekked daily out to Tongo Reef, an awesome rocky left point break.

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The boardwalk in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island

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Marine Iguana in the path to Tongo

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A rocky entrance/exit at Tongo Reef

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It was on one of these beach adventures that we ran into some graduate students from my alma mater, the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California Santa Barbara. They were in the Galapagos doing research on the sustainable management of the local lobster fishery for their Master’s Thesis Project. It just so happened that we were on this same island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, surfing the same waves at the same time. To say small world would be putting it lightly. After being away for so long I was overjoyed to meet people from back home who were familiar with the world we left behind.

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Lounging in the sun with new friends

We spent day after day on the beach under a brilliantly blue sky with Aron surfing fun, peeling waves while I enjoyed the sun and watched turtles pop their heads up out of the crystal clear water. On our last day at Tongo Reef a whale played out on the horizon, breaching out of the water over and over while Aron and our British friend Liam traded waves in the foreground. It’s moments like these (and swimming with sharks) that I hope we remember for the rest of our lives.

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Even with the swell pulling back and the waves subsiding, I had to drag Aron away from San Cristobal Island. After a week and a half, we finally hopped on a ferry for the two hour ride to Santa Cruz Island where we had been invited to stay with our new Bren friends for our last four days in the Galapagos. Upon arriving at their house we found Norah in the kitchen, filleting a huge, fresh local tuna. She pleasantly informed us that we were going to be dining at their co-worker’s gorgeous family villa overlooking the bay. Oh la la! Thanks to Norah and Laura’s amazing cooking skills, we enjoyed a fabulous seared rare tuna dinner on the patio overlooking the glimmering lights of Puerto Ayora and the boats on the water. Definitely an unforgettable night with wonderful people and some of the best tuna we have had in our lives!

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Master chefs Norah and Laura whipping up an amazing dinner

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Lights of Puerto Ayora, the main town on Santa Cruz Island

While our hosts were busy at work Aron and I had the day to explore Santa Cruz Island. We rented bikes and took a cab up to the highlands in the center of the island for a little downhill tour. We rode alongside the road with rolling green hills and farms on both sides of us and were surprised to see herds of grazing cows. Definitely not how we imagined the Galapagos islands!

Our first stop was a ranch where giant tortoises roamed freely. We walked right up to them as they happily chowed down in grass in the middle of a field. Too occupied with eating, this guy barely even looked up as I inched in for a picture.

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And this guy just blended in perfectly.

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Although reluctant to leave the turtles behind, we had to keep moving in order to make it back to the coast before dark. As we rode along the red dirt roads reminiscent of Hawaii, we stopped to let a tortoise slowly cross the road in front of us. Along the way we spotted a number of other giant tortoises hanging out in the shrubbery. Funny to see these huge creatures roam freely in their natural habitat.

Our next stop was the lava tunnels, actual passageways that lava once flowed through when the volcano on the island was still active. Pretty wild to imagine hot magma once flowing where we were walking.

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Laura and Aron happen to share the same birthday so on Saturday night we went out for a lobster dinner to celebrate. We splurged on langosta encocado- lobster in a creole coconut sauce- and washed it down with giant cold beers.

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After dinner we surprised the birthday kids with the most deliciously rich, decadent chocolate cake before heading out to the bars.

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The next morning after a big breakfast, we enjoyed our last day on the Galapagos Islands by hiking out to Tortuga Bay, a gorgeous powdery white sand beach with the most crystal clear turquoise water you can imagine. The sky was as blue as can be and we all played around in the little waves and enjoyed the deliciously cool water.

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Leaving the Galapagos Islands was harder than we could have ever imagined. When traveling, it’s not just the places that leave their impression on you, it’s the people you encounter and the experiences that you share that really make a place so amazing. We could not have had a better experience on the Galapagos Islands and hope to find our way back someday soon.

Categories: Ecuador | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments

High Altitude Adventures

Quito, the highest capital in the world at nearly 10,000ft, was our first big city in South America and the first capital we visited on our trip. We normally steer clear of big cities since they can be a mess to drive in and in general we prefer to explore the outdoors, but cities contain loads of history and show us a part of the country that we otherwise wouldn’t experience.

We were encouraged to visit Quito by Paula and Jeremy of Seventeen by Six, fellow overlanders from England also traveling in a VW van. Although we had not yet met, Paula kindly wrote us and offered up the spare bedroom of their apartment. On a whim we decided to take them up on their offer and are enormously glad that we did. Immediately feeling at home with Paula and Jeremy, we swapped travel stories and they filled us in on the places in Ecuador they had explored.

In the morning Paula and Jeremy took us on a tour of the old center of Quito. We visited the stunning Basilica del Voto Nacional which was so big it was difficult to photograph. The outside of the basilica is decorated with stone gargoyles resembling Ecuadorian animals, such as armadillos, marine iguanas, lizards, and tortoises while inside light shines through hugely ornate stained glass masterpieces.

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We strolled around the bustling old streets and sat in the city’s beautiful, open squares which Quito has no shortage of.

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Around the corner from one of the main squares we visited a church with an interior completely plated in gold. We sat in awe looking at the beautiful patterns along the walls and ceiling and marveled at the insane amount of gold all around us. Imagine what could be done with all that gold! Photos are not allowed but I couldn’t contain myself and managed to successfully sneak one.

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La Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus (Church of the Society of Jesus)

Next we hiked through a bit of a sketchy neighborhood up to El Panecillo, a hill where an angel sits looking over the capital. High above the city, happy families flew kites as we all enjoyed the breathtaking views of Quito, sprawled between mountains as far as we could see.

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Enjoying the views with our kind hosts and new friends

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The basilica towering over the old city center of Quito

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A family flying a kite high above the city

After a couple restful days and lovely evenings of wine, beer, vodka flavored alcohol, and delicious home cooked dinners, we bid Paula and Jeremy farewell with hopes to meet them down the road.

As we made our way southeast to Cotopaxi National Park, the sky turned grey and a light rain began to fall. We drove through pine trees until we rose above the tree line and the scenery changed to shimmering gold and silver high altitude grassland. The dirt roads were rough and rattling but soon enough we made it to Tambopaxi Lodge where we set up camp. Every once in a while a rocky mountain crag or a snowy peak would peek through the thick, grey clouds, but we didn’t really know what we had in store until the next morning we woke up to this:

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The view of Cotopaxi, the second highest active volcano in the world, was breathtaking. We couldn’t look away. Our campground was surrounded by majestic peaks, a setting different from anywhere we have ever been.

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Cotopaxi and the surrounding mountains are very popular with climbers. I spoke to a few who told me they were setting out to summit the peak during the night when there was less threat of avalanches. Wow, scary! Non-climbers like us could hike up to the Refugio, a climbers refuge at 15,950ft, and then continue on a few hundred feet higher until the edge of the glacier after which proper mountain climbing gear was required. That was our plan for the day. We hopped in the van along with a German couple we offered a ride to and slowly made our way up the winding road toward the parking lot at the base of the volcano. We climbed higher and higher, slowly and more slowly, until finally the van couldn’t go any higher. The thin, high altitude air is as hard on the van as it is on people trying to climb the mountain. Being stuck on a steep slope, Aron backed the van down to a turnoff in the road where we parked and left the van to catch it’s breath.

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Although it was only 9:30am, clouds had started to roll in and cloak the volcano. Instead of walking the rest of the way to the parking lot and then hiking an hour up to the Refugio in the clouds, we decided to try again tomorrow with an extra early start when the skies would be perfectly clear. Defeated by the mountain, we cruised the van back down to 12,000ft and did a little stroll around Laguna Limpiopungo, a high altitude lake with high altitude gulls surrounded by pretty grassland with little purple and yellow flowers.

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The next morning we ambitiously woke up at 6am to a thick blanket of fog. When Cotopaxi did momentarily peek through the clouds, we saw that overnight it had been blanketed by a powdery layer of fresh snow. Oh well, we decided to do the hike anyway. It’s not often that you have a chance to climb an ice volcano.

We set out up the road and the van slowly but surely made it all the way to the parking lot this time. With clouds all around us, we bundled up in all the warmth we had and set off. We slowly trudged through the dark sand which made up the slope of the volcano. With every step forward we would sink in and slide half a step back, making for slow progress. After stopping more than a few times to catch our breath in the thin air, we made it to the refuge and warmed up with some cheese sammies and hot chocolate. From there we hit the snow and slowly trudged further up the volcano until we reached the glacier.

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At this point, we were being pricked by cold, wet mist so we snapped a few photos and made our way back down the volcano as fast as we could. Having been at over 16,000ft and as close to mountain climbing as we’ve ever come was a pretty exciting feat for us!

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Since we can’t get enough of volcanos these days, we hopped into the van and headed west to Laguna Quilotoa, a lake in the crater of an old volcano. The road winded through dry mountains covered in a patchwork of fields spotted with grazing sheep.

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The entire day was rainy and grey but when we arrived at the edge of the crater we were surprised by the gorgeous view of the teal lake.

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We saw some tents on the lake shore down below so we packed our packs and hiked down into the crater to camp for the night.

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At night the skies cleared and we popped open a box of the ever-so-classy Clos wine, a staple on this trip, and watched the stars flickering in the sky. In the morning the lake shone brilliant cobalt blue in the sun. After some coffee and granola bars we hiked up and out of the steep crater, enjoying the views of the lake along the way.

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Our campsite on a little hill overlooking the lake

Next, we excitedly head for the coast to search for waves and blue footed boobies!

Categories: Ecuador | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Into the Southern Hemisphere

We arrived in Colombia’s zona cafetera (coffee zone) after a hellish ten hour drive up, across, and down the central mountain chain of the Andes. Although the mountains were gorgeous, the one lane road that sinuosly winded through them was steep, narrow, and crammed with huge, slow trucks. Some of the turns were so tight that we had to stop and wait while oncoming trucks took up both lanes around the turns. Thanks to Aron’s fabulous driving we made it safely to Salento in only ten hours and never wanted to drive again.

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Salento is a cheerful little town in the coffee zone with brightly painted shutters and a friendly vibe. The surrounding green mountains create a beautiful setting and provide a wealth of outdoor opportunities.

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We set up camp at La Serrana, an eco farm in the hills just outside of town and got so comfortable that we stayed for nearly a week. When we weren’t busy just hanging out and enjoying the spectacular views, we went on some nice hikes, did a little mountain biking, and ate $2 trout burgers with pineapple sauce while strolling through the town.

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The highlight of our stay was a hike through the Valley de Cocora in the Nevados National Park. The path traversed rolling green pastures with grazing cows before following a creek through the forest and climbing up the side of the mountain to reveal magnificent views of the valley below. The area is known for its abundance of palmas de cera, or wax palms, that shoot up out of the ground like candles. They are the national tree of Colombia and are supposedly the tallest palm trees in the world.

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Deciding to skip Medellin, one of Colombia’s largest cities, since it would add ten hours to the massive amount of driving we had already done in the country, we headed south for Ecuador. To break up the long drive to the border, we stopped in Popoyan, a pleasant city of white colonial buildings and many churches. We had a nice evening strolling around and shared a lovely dinner with our new friend Ines, a traveler from Belgium we had picked up in Salento.

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Just before crossing the border into Ecuador, we stopped at the Las Lajas Sanctuary, a spectacular church built into the side of a mountain to commemorate the apparition of the Virgin Mary. The story supposedly says that in 1754, a mother and her mute daughter saw the Virgin Mary between the mountains and the daughter began to speak. Since then, the location has become a popular pilgrimage spot. People from around the world visit the site to ask for miracles and the stone walls along the path to the church are lined with messages of thanks from those that have been healed by the Virgen of Las Lajas.

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Fifteen minutes down the road we crossed the border into Ecuador without any hassle and weaved through the Andes mountains to Otavalo, a city famous for it’s market selling everything from live animals to fruits and vegetables to fake alpaca wool blankets. After driving through the patchwork created by farms reaching up the mountainsides, we found a lovely place to camp above the city which provided spectacular views of the surrounding volcanoes and the city below. We wandered down to the Saturday market where we bought fresh veggies and sacks of sweet strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries for a dollar.

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Camping at Rose Cottage with Volcan Imbabura in the background

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Fruit, veggie, and food market in Otavalo

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Central square in Otavalo

After our visit to town, we drove up a rough dirt road to the top of the surrounding mountains to visit Laguna de Mojanda, a gorgeously blue lake in the crater of an old volcano. We struggled to take a full breath at the extreme altitude of 13,000 ft as we walked the trail through the paramo, or high altitude grasslands, around the lake while and marveled at yet another majestic setting.

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The chilly high altitude temperature created the perfect opportunity to cook up some hot soup with fresh vegetables from the market. Overlooking the distant glow of the city below, we enjoyed a cozy night of dinner and a movie in the van.

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South America has revealed itself as a continent filled to the brim with endless mountains, lakes, and rivers, so naturally we visited another lake in the vicinity the next day. Laguna de Cuicocha is another beautiful crater lake nestled in an old volcano. The name means Lago de Cuy in the old Kichwa indigenous language which translates to Guinea Pig Lake in English, supposedly due to the shape of the two islands in the center of the lake. We hiked up along the rim of the volcano and enjoyed beautiful views of the surrounding volcanoes and the valley below.

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Next, we headed south toward Quito, crossing the equator into the southern hemisphere! A first for both of us. A different sky, new latitudes, water swirling in the opposite direction… it’s a whole new world down here! We felt like silly tourists when we stopped at the Mitad del Mundo (middle of the world), a landmark with a monument at the equator, but of course we had to take some pictures of this historical moment of our lives.

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Already loving Ecuador, we are excited to explore another amazing country! What lies ahead could be anything: beaches, volcanoes, and maybe even the Galapagos Islands…

Categories: Colombia, Ecuador | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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