Joined January 2020 Message
  • Day159

    Time To Go Home

    June 10 in the United States ⋅ 🌧 66 °F

    Well, I got tired of the gloom and doom of tracking the cases and deaths here in Ecuador. It's been over 10 weeks since I've written anything. Part of that was because we weren't traveling and were stuck in quarantine. And part is because we were stuck in such a nice place with amazing people and I didn't want to rub it in to anyone in quarantine back home. After a few weeks, we dropped the social distancing pretense while here. Our group of international misfits dwindled from the upper 20's to a core group of about 22 for two months. There are about 15 of us here now and 7 of us will be leaving in two days for home.

    Fortunately, nobody here contracted the virus and there were only two known cases in the village during the pandemic so far. Apparently, two shopkeepers contracted it. They interacted with people daily and dealt with distributors coming from Loja. Meanwhile, we were here in our happy little bubble with good, safe food, friendly staff, and the abilty to hike, swim, do yoga, and ride this out in shangrila. We studied the situation here and at home and now that regular flights are scheduled, we decided it's time to move on. We'll miss our new family here at Izhcayluma and will have many fond memories.

    It was surreal to see how Guayaquil went from prepared to overwhelmed in such a short time. There are many reasons why that happened. A lot of it was because many people didn't heed the social distancing rules. It's really hot there and there's massive poverty. Lots of poor people eke out a living selling things on the streets. Their houses are tin roofed and there's no AC for many, so sitting outside and socializing is the norm. I have to say the government did a pretty good job of implementing measures early on, but Ecuador still got whalloped by the virus. And you can probably double or triple any death figures you see coming from Ecuador. In March, there werre 5,000 or more deaths than normal in Guayas province that weren't counted as Covid 19 cases.

    We ended up staying here 3 months. We planned on 5 days. It's been an amazing experience, mostly due to the kind owners of Hosteria Izhcayluma. I'll add my review I posted to Trip Advisor and Google to give you an indication of how amazing this place is. If you ever head to Ecuador when things are safer, you should check this place out. I doubt it will lose any of its magic.

    Here's my last photo album , from the last two months.

    https://photos.app.goo.gl/uz45jdraDDXtr7tS7

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>
    My stay at Hosteria Izhcayluma was unlike anything you might experience here. My wife and I were looking for a safe place to hunker down at the beginning of the Covid 19 pandemic in March, 2020.  We contemplated getting an apartment on the coast, or sticking with our reservation at Izhcayluma.  Raik, the manager told us that we could cancel it for free because if we come, we may be here for awhile.  What an understatement! Our original 5 day reservation turned into a 3-month quarantine with 20+ other foreigners from around the world.  I can’t think of another place in the world I would rather have been.

    The owners Peter and Dieter, along with Raik made sure our safety and comfort was more important than profit. I’ll never forget their generosity and their concern for us and their staff.  We were never left wanting for anything and the food and service remained top notch throughout the quarantine, even when we shifted to 2 meals a day to accommodate the staff who had to meet curfew requirements to get home in time.

    And so, over time, we grew into a family of sorts. I’m writing this 3 days before we check out and go home and as of today, no staff or guests contracted the virus and we owe this to our vigilance, but also to heeding the advice of Peter, the owner.  He also made sure his staff were paid when not all of them were needed. For this alone, you should spend your hard-earned travel money here.

    But enough of that.  What about the place? It’s heaven on earth!  I feel like we were sentenced to stay in the Garden of Eden.  The landscaping and gardens are top notch. What was a cow pasture 20 years ago is now a garden paradise. There are lots of fruit trees and flowers in bloom, connected by trails throughout the large property. All those bushes with red beans? That’s the amazing coffee you’ll drink in the morning. It’s roasted at the neighbor’s business. Someone had the audacity to tease Peter because the coffee isn’t local enough.

    The pool (cleaned daily) is an oasis and lounging by it became an almost daily habit. It’s big enough for swimming laps also. The rooms are stylish and very comfortable and the nicest we’ve seen in Ecuador. We ended up being upgraded twice for free and most of the other guests were eventually upgraded also to give more space and because they’re just so damn nice here.

    An amazing yoga shala is just down a trail and up a small hill. After 15 years of trying, my wife finally got me to try yoga. Why not? What else was I going to do? I ended up loving it and the view of neighboring mountain “Mandango” makes for a great backdrop. Yoga is free and what a deal that is considering what many yoga retreats charge. We were provided with twice a day yoga for 2 of the 3 months we were here, until people and instructors started heading home.

    Each unit has at least one hammock and there’s a bird-watching spot with two hammocks where you can laze the day away. I’m not a birder, but there are so many here, including a nesting pair of Andean Mot-Mots that make their presence known.  Sunsets behind the majestic Mandango are a perfect end to the day.

    There are several maintained trails on the Izhcayluma property that allowed us to get exercise without leaving. And once the curfews lifted a bit, we were able to go on longer hikes through the area that staff have marked. Don’s miss the Izhcayluma Loop! Afterwards, you can head to the bar for the namesake drink. Yes, when everything in the country was shut down, they were able to pay for Dennis the bartender to stay onsite and keep the bar open. There, you’ll find a cozy open bar with cheap and delicious drinks, a pool table, ping pong, a large TV, and games. Remember, we were all quarantined together, so we dropped the social distancing a bit after a few weeks. 

    And the food? Well, it’s pretty top notch. It costs slightly more than the basic restaurants you find throughout Ecuador, but the quality is excellent and well worth it.  There are several Ecuadorian  dishes and some classic German dishes included on the large and varied menu. Vilcabamba locals come here often for some variety. And after working our way through every item over 3 months, we never really got tired of the food.

    So, like I said, you will not have the experience we had because of the quarantine, but I can almost guarantee you will love it here. There are rooms for all price ranges, including cheap dorms and an upscale house with 2 apartments (which I highly recommend if you can afford it).  Hopefully you’ll also make lifelong friends here like we did.
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  • Day82

    Covid-19 Quarantine - Week 2

    March 25 in Ecuador ⋅ ☀️ 75 °F

    This post may be a tad dry, but it's my daily notes on what's going on here at Izhcayluma Hostal in Vilcabamba while we are quarantined during the Covid-19 crisis. I figure I'll enjoy reading this years from now. We are safe and consider ourselves VERY lucky, especially since we were considering hunkering down in Guayas province, where 80% of the Ecuadorian cases are.

    All photos and vids are here. https://photos.app.goo.gl/HdLcFFsi4FbkLsnb7

    Friday March 20

    43 Spanish nurses and doctors are trapped in Guayaquil since the mayor blocked their plane out.

    260 infected and 4 dead in Ecuador as of last night.

    Loja province, ours, has 4 cases.

    It’s our 4th day here and nobody has any symptoms. I’m taking my temperature daily just to have a baseline.

    It’s 1:40 pm and I just found the Ecuadorian Health Dept. website with up to date stats at El Ministerio de Salud Pública del Ecuador (MSP) informa: Situación coronavirus 24-03-2020  Now there are 367 cases and 5 dead. 74% are in Guayas province.

    Saturday March 21

    426 infected, 7 dead

    Hostel is moving to 2 meals a day since the curfew in town is shortened to 7 pm to 5 am. That means they need to leave by 6:30. But the bar will be open since the bartender will be sleeping on the property. Whew!

    After 10 am today, the totals are 506 and 7 deaths.

    Sunday March 21

    Totals are 532 and 7 as of 5:00 yesterday. They are posting updated stats at 10 am and about 5 pm each day. Guayas still has 75% of the cases.

    Some Dutch and Americans are planning on leaving soon. They need to coordinate getting to Quito and then booking a charter flight with their embassy. We have ZERO intention of leaving.

    After 5 days here for us, nobody here has any symptoms.

    There have been roadblocks put up by some villages/towns. They were literally putting logs in the road to prevent traffic. The military was called out to remove those and they and local police are manning the roadblocks.  As of yesterday pm, the roads are all under government control. You need a pass to get through. Peter had a pass to drive the 35 minutes to Loja and went through 3 roadblocks and it took over an hour to get there. At least one cop had to call the chief of police of Vilcabamba to verify.

    The Ecuadorian Health Secretary just resigned. So did the Labor Secretary. No word on why, but I assume the stress got to the Health Secretary.

    New stats as of 1 pm: 789 and 14 deaths. Not flattening the curve yet, not by a longshot.

    An article in a Guayaqil paper (El Universo) said that in one barrio of Guayaquil, it was like a normal Saturday there, with people out and about, no masks or gloves, shops all open and lots of people walking and talking together. “That’s very Guayaquil” said Peter. The rest of the country seems to be taking it more seriously.

    Monday March 23

    789 and 14 in am

    An american who lives in Cuenca tried to leave to go home. He coordinated papers with a lawyer in Cuenca and hired a driver from there to pick him up. He couldn’t get through Loja yesterday and had to come back, even with legal papers to get him through.

    Several people have booked flights to home (Europe) but they have to figure out how to get to Cuenca.  Most are afraid of going through Quayaquil.

    Curfew in Guayaquil is 4 pm to 5 am, in the rest of the country, it’s 7 pm to 5 am.

    As of 10:30, the new numbers are 981 and 18.

    Tuesday March 24

    1,049 and 27 is the latest number. I don’t think they posted any data on Sunday, so this may be a 2 day jump in numbers.

    President Morena just announced a nationwide curfew of 2 pm to 5 am, starting tomorrow! Ouch. Our staff here that cook for us will have to leave by 1pm so we may have to cook for ourselves now. I’m sure Peter will call a meeting soon to discuss.

    We had an 11:30 am meeting today. Three people made it to Quito for a flight out to Europe.  Also, the German embassy is coordinating evacuating EU citizens on several flights from Quito to Frankfurt.  Alas, Brits are not eligible now. No real word from the US embassy for Tim and Denise, who are dying to get back to Madison.

    Peter said to expect to stay here for a couple months if you don’t get out now.

    We paid our first weekly bill. All food, drinks, lodging, and yoga was $610/week for both of us. That’s about $87/day. We consider it a huge bargain because we’ve had several drinks in the bar and the occasional bottle of wine with dinner. Peter is not charging for yoga or breakfast even though there’s no reason not too. Peter and Raik are so good to us.

    Not sure how dinner is going to work now. There is PLENTY of food here and in the markets; no run on anything in the country. However, staff need to be home by curfew. The fines for being out after curfew are huge, like one month’s wage for a 2nd offense. Recidivists face jail time.

    I took my first yoga class today at 7 am with Deanne. It wasn’t as hard as I thought.  It was a good hour of stretching and I enjoyed it. They offer yoga twice a day but I’ll try to stick to the am session for now.

    I’ve been doing laps at the pool and pushups and situps. What else am I going to do?

    On that note, I’ve been reading a LOT of novels since we are no longer traveling.  One of our two e-readers broke though. It was a little wonky after I left it in the rain at Yellowstone last year. After Deanne left it in the hot sun for a couple hours here, it was DOA.  We’ll share our one good ereader and Deanne has also found a small library here with real books.

    Thank god I bought a new Chromebook when in New Orleans. It’s super fast and we have several movies/TV shows we can watch. Even though there’s a big TV in the bar with Satellite TV, I don’t feel like hanging out with a group of people each night.

    It’s been 8+ days with the same people and no symptoms with anyone!

    Colin, the Irishman, and an American woman are still in isolation here since they passed through Guayaquil last week. 7 more days to go for them.

    Wednesday March 25

    1562 and 28 deaths as of 10:30

    Peter held a meeting last night and said he got permission from the police to get an exemption from the 2 pm curfew for his cooks. The police will drive them to their houses when the dinner shift is over. It only costs 2 six packs of Corona and some chairs, which oddly, the police station is short of!

    We said our goodbyes to Stina from Denmark, Chris from the US who lives in Cuenca but is going to the US to visit his mother, and an older German woman who wants to stay, but needs to get back to her 92 year old mother. They leave this morning for Cuenca and will try to get to Quito tomorrow during the short non-curfew hours.

    The US embassy sent all US citizens in Ecuador an email saying they are coordinating evacuation flights tomorrow and Friday. Flights are from Quito to Miami and should cost the average price before the virus hit. They are making people sign promissory notes to pay the US government back. No credit cards or cash accepted!  This is different than the German flights which seem to be costing a lot more and payments must be made up front. However, the US is not coordinating land travel to the airport in Quito. Roadblocks could still be a problem, even if you have a pass. In rural areas, locals are putting boulders, logs, etc. in the roads to block traffic, despite local police and military policies. Peter said this is a normal type of reaction in Ecuador.  Again, we are staying put and are happy to be here, even if it’s for a couple months.

    Ecuador has a slightly higher population than Illinois. I’m comparing Ecuador’s cases and deaths with them now.  The confirmed cases is about the same, but the death rate is much higher here, for now. The US is still not taking drastic measures, and instead seems to be taking baby steps.  I think it’s going to get pretty bad there, but I hope I’m wrong. If you want to know what it will be like in the US 2 weeks from now, look at what’s happening in Italy and Spain now. A friend of ours just flew into Chicago from Ethiopia and Somaliland and passed right through customs and immigration - no questions asked, no temperature readings, nothing.  This is a problem.

    It’s day 2 of yoga for me, and it feels great. Alas, we’re not studying Spanish as everyone here except the staff are speaking English. The staff are too busy to converse with, except maybe the bartender but we’re trying not to spend too much time there.
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  • Day76

    Izhcayluma Hostal in Vilcabamba

    March 19 in Ecuador ⋅ 🌧 64 °F

    Monday March 16, 2020

    We arrived at Izhcayluma (pr. ISH kai LOOM a) in Vilcabamba at about 6 pm after a 5 hour journey from Cuenca.  There were 11 passengers in their shuttle van, all foreigners, and we had an Ecuadorian driver. He wore latex gloves and a mask. We were all given alcohol sprays on our hands after we loaded our luggage and were seated.  An older gentleman in the front seat was coughing a lot and wiping his nose a lot with kleenex. I wasn’t the only one that noticed. Deanne gave me the only face mask we had. She found it buried in her stuff. I bought a package of these in Hong Kong 5 years ago because the exhaust was so bad and I had a bad cough from that. This was during the Ebola scare of 2015. Since I have asthma, I’m at an increased risk to have complications if I get Covid-19, so Deanne was being very thoughtful, even if there is conflicting info on the use and effectiveness of the face masks.

    At a bathroom break a group of us huddled and talked about that guy’s coughing. An Irishman named Colin said he had extra masks and I asked the coughing guy if he’d wear it. He said he had altitude sickness, not the flu or Corona Virus, but he wore it anyway.  A young couple next to me had just come through Guayaquil, along with Colin. That’s the hotspot here in Ecuador. Later, we started worrying about them, and whether they passed it on to everyone in the van.

    I had been in communication with Raik, one of the owners, via email and was thinking about canceling.  He gave me the truth and told me that our scheduled shuttle was the last one here because of a ban on all vehicles nationwide the next morning at 5 am.  Monday morning, we were torn. It was getting serious and we had to decide where to be hunkered down for up to several months. We spent a half hour looking into car rentals when we heard the buses were cancelled nationwide, along with taxis and shuttles. Then another announcement came out that no cars would be allowed to travel on the roads!  That did it, and we decided to stick with going here to Hostal Izhcayluma in Vilcabamba. It turned out that the ban was on alternating days, depending on your license plate, but we didn’t want a car and didn’t want to pay a lot while a car just sat in a driveway.

    Raik told me he had a few cancellatations, and I had asked for an upgrade to a private cabin because of that. We had a smaller room reserved.  We were given a great cabin for no extra charge. So, our first order of business was to order dinner at their amazing restaurant. They said there would be a meeting in the bar at 7 and about 30 foreigners huddled around for the updates. 

    Peter, the other German owner looked exhausted. He has been running around making accommodations for everyone and also meeting with the local police and health authorities. He gave us updates and assured us we wouldn’t be kicked out and that there was plenty of food.

    We were asked to not go into town for 3 days because the locals are getting wary of foreigners. Peter said he’s lived there for 22 years and he’s starting to get the “Gringo Eye” in town.  Everyone is OK with that. There are people from all over the world including several from the US, (and in an amazing coincidence a couple from Madison named Tim and Denise Gomez), an Estonian woman and her 2 year old, a German or 2, a New Zealander, an Aussie,, a few from England, and who knows where else. During the first group meeting, 2 naked two year olds ran around while Peter told us we could be here awhile. He started by quarantining those who had passed through Guayaquil, on police orders. The police happened to stop by during our meeting in the bar and about shit bricks. After that, they quarantined all of us for 14 days and had the health department visit to give recommendations. Those that passed through Guayaquil are stuck in their rooms and food is delivered, but the rest of us can go anywhere on the huge property.

    Each day the numbers of infected increase in Ecuador, like everywhere else. The bulk are in Guayas province, where Guayaquil is the biggest city.  We meet twice today for meetings in the restaurant in the morning and at the bar in the evening for updates and I wondered why we’re all meeting in the same room.  They are collecting cell numbers for What’s App texting, but haven’t used it yet. I downloaded the app begrudgingly since Facebook owns it and now they have all my contacts.  It’s a slight sacrifice, but I cringed while accepting those terms of service. But within 2 days, the meetings tapered off and we’re getting texts with info now.

    Peter and Raik are soooo kind. They are not charging the usual $4 for breakfast for anyone for some reason.  They have nearly emptied the dorms and upgraded as many people as they can to private rooms. They are not charging for yoga in the pm like normal. And they literally upgraded us twice to a much better room than even our first upgrade. We have a huge private cabin with 2 queen beds, a large, private patio with furniture and a hammock, and great wifi.  There’s a pool, a bar, a ping pong table, an amazing restaurant, amazing people, free yoga (they used to charge for the pm session but they are waiving it.) I haven't gone yet, but will probably start if the groups are small. Man, these guys are really amazing and kind. They are not at all worried about profit and just want to make sure we’re all taken care of. There is no place on earth we’d rather be right now. Just 3 days ago, I planned on buying all the rice and beans I could. Now it seems we will not be short of food or supplies. This could change, but they assure us we live in a breadbasket and the government is ensuring that food continues to flow and there are strict new laws banning price gouging. It’s nothing like what we are seeing in the media in the states. There’s no hoarding and no fighting in stores.

    Each day, the Ecuadorian government responds to the numbers and tightens up restrictions as the cases go up. I’m in full agreement. Here’s a rundown, more or less. This may be kinda boring, so skip over it if you want. But I am seriously impressed and can’t believe the US isn’t doing more at this point. It’s much easier to do this kind of thing in a smaller country and sometimes I feel like the US is 50 countries. It’s times like this that our demand for independence is a hindrance. (Damn, I’m old. I never would have thought that when I was younger, but I’ve seen too much in 63 countries).  Anyhoo, here are quick notes I jotted down. I’m reading the largest papers in Cuenca, Guayaquil, and Quito each day to get my info. (El Comercio, El Universo, and El Mercurio). Google automatically translates them, which is super convenient because my Spanish didn’t increase that much in 9 days of classes.

    Nationwide Public Schools close on about March 11 or 12.

    No gatherings of over 500, concerts cancelled March 11

    No gatherings of over 250 March 12, museums and public spaces close.

    Public and National Parks close March 14

    No gatherings of 100 (March 14)

    March 15 - All borders closed! This was a big one and not even EU countries or the US did this. Ecuador did this before neighboring countries, Panama, and most other SA countries. This includes flights, buses, and land crossings. Nobody is getting in now. Flights out will continue.

    No public bus travel as of March 15. We came to Vilcabamba on the last shuttle and our hostel, Izhcayluma is closed to the public now and nobody else can check in. There are about 30 of us, including many in a dorm.

    Since Guyaquil is the epicenter here, on March 17, they don’t allow anyone in or out of the province of Guayas!

    Peter and Raik are moving people from the dorms to private cabins that are now available since a few people left.  We were bumped into an even better, larger cabin with 2 queen beds and private balcony.

    The Dutch couple that passed through Guayaquil and changed buses at the Terminal Terrestre are put in voluntary quarantine here by the police on March 17. So was Colin, the Irishman, who also transferred via Guayquil. We also passed through Quayaquil from the Galapagos, but it was 2 weeks earlier and we’re not being isolated.

    March 16 - People can only drive every other day, depending on the last digit of the license plate. Exceptions are made for deliveries of food, medicine, EMTs, police, etc.

    Fines are implemented for price gouging in stores.

    March 16 there is a nationwide curfew from 9 pm to 5 am. Our staff here need to leave by 8:30, so dinner schedules are being changed.

    On March 17, the first person is convicted of driving on the wrong day. He’s sentenced to 4 months in prison. The possible fines are $6,000 and/or 1-3 years in prison!  Can you imagine that happening in the US, let alone so fast? $6K is about ⅓ the average annual income here. The man pleaded guilty so he only got 4 months. 

    March 17 - nobody over 65 in Quito can go out of their houses!  Wow.

    As of March 18, there are 3 deaths and 168 contaminated, with about 500 more in mandatory quarantine.

    March 18-  none of the staff or guests at Izhcayluma are showing any symptoms. They have been taking amazing precautions here: multiple cleanings of handles, no house cleaning, we clean our own dishes quickly in a tub first before staff touches them, no more than 2 at a dinner table, we take pictures of the menus instead of touching them, and also they ripped out pages and taped them to a table. No more sharing a pen to sign for our food/drinks. Here, we will pay one large bill when we leave instead of dealing with money at each transaction. We’re not being the best at isolation since this type of guest is pretty open and sharing. The bar is still open too!  I played pool with fellow Madisonian Tim last night but wouldn’t share my cue and first wiped it down with alcohol (the rubbing kind, c’mon, gimme a break), along with the table.

    Wednesday March 18, 2020

    A woman at the hostal left to get a private apt. In town. She thought she’d be better off alone and with her own kitchen. Two days later she asked to come back and was refused. We’re so happy we didn’t pass back through Guayaquil to go to Salinas or Playas, big beach towns near Quayaquil. We’d have been stuck in a soulless place and probably quarantined longer. And we’d be using a shared elevator in a big highrise rental condo most likely.

    Thursday March 19, 2020

    199 cases in Ecuador, 3 deaths. But 157, or 79% are in Guayas Province.  None in Loja province, where we are.

    The mayor of Guayaquil is confirmed to have Covid-19. Just before she announced this, she illegally prevented a plane from landing in Guayaquil. An empty Iberian airlines plane that was to evacuate foreigners out of Guayaquil was blocked from landing when the mayor ordered vehicles to block the runway. The plane was diverted to Quito and landed safely and took on 170 evacuees there instead.

    As of yesterday, the curfew in Guayas province was changed to 4 pm to 5 am.

    I feel guilty for being in such a nice place while so many people are hurting. But we feel like we were pulled here. Deanne found a pamphlet for this place at our Spanish School and we booked the reservation a few days later. They don’t use credit cards here and we could easily have cancelled our reservation with no recourse.  Each time we talked about going somewhere else (a beach in Guayas province!), we kept deciding to come here. When I was ready to book a car to drive to the beach (through Guayaquil), moments later I read a newspaper that said all transport would be banned. Fuck it. We are destined to go to Vilcabamba I guess.

    All photos and vids are here. https://photos.app.goo.gl/HdLcFFsi4FbkLsnb7
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  • Day72

    Cuenca Week 2

    March 15 in Ecuador ⋅ ⛅ 68 °F

    Wow. So much has changed in our 2nd week in Cuenca due to Covid 19, the Coronavirus outbreak. We've been watching and reading the news from other countries, especially Italy and have had a "wait and see" attitude. After finishing our 2nd and final week of Spanish school, we are looking to rent an apartment and hunker down with stocked food and supplies in a safe space. More on that later though.

    While it seems lame to describe our adventures here during a world-wide pandemic, I want to do so just for the record. At the beginning of this week, the Ecuadorian government announced that there were a couple cases in Ecuador. They were brought in by an Ecuadorian National visiting from her home in Spain. The other seems to have been a Dutch National on vacation and was in the Oriente, or Amazon basin when he showed symptoms. Each day, the government took more and more precautions and we kept at our classes. By the other day, all schools were cancelled and groups of more than 500 were banned. By today, groups of over 100 are banned nationwide and the borders are closed to incoming people. That includes land borders. Everyone is ecouraged to stay at home. There are 31 testing centers available nation wide and 2 deaths to date, including the woman visiting from Spain. These tallies change daily, but it seems that the rate is about the same as in Wisconsin as of today, with the notable exception that there are 2 deaths here and none in Wisconsin as of today (March 15, 2020).

    But we continued with business as usual and went to a hat museum the other day that showed how the unfortunately named "Panama" hat is made. They are made here in Ecuador and were misnamed when Teddy Roosevelt was seen sporting one in Panama, where they were popular. Anyway, it was quite intersting to see how they're made. The "super fino" hats can cost over $1,000!

    By midweek, we were both getting tired of classes but stayed with it. I actually missed a day of class from stomach problems that came and went within a day. The water is safe to drink here but something got me. We had been buying water or using iodine treated water mostly and the day after I switched to tap, I got sick. But 3 days after that I switched back to tap and have been fine for a week, so go figure.

    We continued to eat out at some good restaurants, alternating between cheap and good ones to expensive and good ones. And Deanne found out that a band from the Congo was giving a free concert at a mid-size concert hall. We went to that and had a great time but wondered if they would close this venue soon. Yep, 2 days later this and all venus holding 100 or more were closed. Also, as of yesterday, all museums were closed nation wide. It's getting real.

    We see the fear and hoarding going on in the states, but it's not happening here, yet. I am actually happy I'm here. The Ecuadorian government health department is top-notch and seems to be much more organized than the states and seems to be in front of this. Oh, and speaking of health, there are all of these labs all over town where you can get your blood tested for just about anything for relatively cheap. Deanne and I went and just started checking boxes for tests we wanted, no doctors script needed! I asked my physician friend Mike for what tests I should get. Within a half hour we had our blood drawn and paid about $125 for 8 tests between us: lipid panel, PSA, cholesterol, thyroid, and many more. We could see the results online by 4:00 that day. And yes, this was a new, modern lab. Try getting that done in the states, and for anywhere near that price with no insurance. And the best part? The data is ours and not a health insurance company's. They could use these tests to deny us coverage in the future. Without getting into details, we're both healthy and there were no issues. Deanne was absolutely amazed at some of the tests we could take, including ones that tested for various types of cancer. You can't normally get those if you wanted in the US unless your physician had good reason to suspect. Good job, Ecuador!

    The only problem we've seen is that handi-wipes are impossible to find. I set out one morning to get a haircut and maybe find some rubbing alcohol or handi-wipes. I found a grocery store that just opened up and they had a big selection of rubbing alcohol. I was considering buying a liter when a woman came up in front of me and grabbed 4. I decided I'd get 2 and some alcohol free baby wipes and just add the alcohol to it. The psychology of that purchase is so interesting. I was going to skip it until I saw her grab four. Should I grab 4? Or more? I settled on 2 since we're traveling and they're heavy.

    I also found a couple gel dispensers, which are rare also. We''ve been trying to wash our hands or sanitize them hourly now and clean our phone several times a day. That's quite a change. Deanne has had over 30 years experiance as an eye doctor and never touches here eyes, nose, or mouth. Conjuntivitus is so easily spread in an eye doctor's office, and she is very disciplined. I need to learn to stop that bad habit, quick like!

    But the main problem we seem to face in the future is food, and where to isolate. We booked 4 nights in a town called Vilcabamba south of here that is at lower altitude but considered a paradise. We're in an inexpensive boutique yoga hostel (yeah, I know....) that is highly recommended. But we are dailly changing our minds on what to do: find an apartment there and stock up on food? Our main concern is that if they close all restaurants (like in Italy) we'd be screwed pretty quick. The alternative for us is to head to a beach town and get a monthly rental and stock up there. Sea, sand, and sun are the enemy of a virus, right?

    To hell with our return plans and scheduled flight on May 7 and planned visit to Colombia before that. We are in full survival mode now and are looking for the best place to wait this out. We have lots of ebooks and 2 eReaders and we can go anywhere. A plus for Vilcabamba is that they grow lots of veggies there and it's not too populated. We're torn, so tomorrow we will go to Vilcabamba and take the fear temperature and look at some apartments. And I'm concerned about runs on ATMS. We haven't seen any of that, but once panic sets in, all hell will break loose. We've started withdrawing the max amounts for 3 days now. Normally, we'd NEVER carry so much money, but Ecuador is very safe outside of main tourist areas and bus stations. We hired a van from the hostel, so there will only be 6 people max in it and we can avoid the bus station. Actually, I just heard from the hostel. Last week, we barely got a reservation and now they have lots of empty units! Maybe our shuttle will be just us and the driver? Not bad for $30 for two and a 5 hour drive that would take about 8 via taxi to the bus station, a wait, and then the bus that stops a few times on the way.

    Speaking of which, we decided to take public buses to 3 villages today. It's Sunday, which is market day and this is when all the people come from surrounding small villages to the closest markets. We went to Gualaceao, Chordeleg, and Sigsig. It was fun and interesting and the views from the bus was amazing. Only a few people were wearing masks and we did find hand sanitizers at 2 markets that the health department put up. Deanne has this cool small hand pump for alcohol she got as swag at a conference years ago. On a whim, she packed it months ago and now we were using it every half hour on our buses and after walking through the markets. I'll be refilling it daily, I think. It was a great day and we feel like that might be the last time we're in crowds for some time.

    As we hopped in a cab from the bus station to go home, I saw a sign on a hotel across from the bus station : Closed due to the Cornon Virus. I think we really need to find an apartment with a kitchen sooner rather than later. If people start dying here, they'll close all the restaurants.

    In a couple hours, we leave our fun homestay. The Polos are a fun and loving family and seem to always have a good time. We feel so lucky to have been placed with them and to be in such a nice, new neighborhood with lots of restaurants and shops. Our first 2 nights in the old town got pretty bad because the bus and car exhaust went right into our room, even with doors and windows closed. We are also so lucky because this weekend our Spanish school closed its doors indefinitely. That happened 2 days after our last class.

    I hope everyone reading this stays safe and practices good health habits. As my mom and dad used to always say, "This too shall pass."

    All photos and vids are here. https://photos.app.goo.gl/uwwPrVxpRBnm2eJ37

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  • Day67

    Cuenca - Week 1

    March 10 in Ecuador ⋅ ⛅ 68 °F

    I'll split up the Cuenca visit into 2 posts since we're here for 2 weeks. We enrolled in Spanish courses with Estudio Sampere, a Spain-based school that has offices in Quito and Cuenca. We had poor internet connections in the Galapagos and were having so much fun there that we never got around to booking a school and homestay until we got to Cuenca. We arrived on a Sunday night and showed up at this school on Monday morning. Within an hour we had a family to stay with for 2 weeks and enrolled in classes for the same time. We started classes that afternoon. What luck, since schools here only let you start on Mondays.

    I preferred to have 1-1 instruction and Deanne wanted a group beginner class. My private tutoring only cost $40 or so more per week. Sheesh. That's cheap. I think it cost us about $8-9 per hour of instruction. The homestay included room and board. All told, 3 hours of Spanish instructions and full room and board for 2 weeks was about $1500 for both of us, or a little over $100/day. That's great value. Our teachers were great and had been teaching Spanish for over 20 years each.

    Our family was the Polo family. Benigno and Lorena are about our age and have 4 kids. One is a doctor, the 20 something twins are in medical school, and the youngest at 19 is thinking about med school. We're in good hands! The house is awesome and has lots of light. It's in a newer, nicer neighborhood just south of the old town center, south of the Rio Tomebamba. It's a 15 minute walk to classes. We walk through the lovely Parqe de Madres every day at least once. This is a really nice park with a running track, new exercise equipment, a basketball court, a small plantarium, and room for concerts. It's awesome to see so many people exercising and hanging out every day. A couple nights a week, there's a large Zumba class and on weeekend mornings, there's a yoga class in the corner.

    It's a little bit of a shock for us to live with strangers, but the Polo family is awesome. Benigno Sr. lived in the US for a year as an exchange student in high school and Lorena lived in Miami for 2 years. They've forgotten about as much English as I've forgotten Spanish, but we get by. Benigno Jr. lived in Chicago while studying for US medical schools and speak English fairly well. He hopes to pass a test so he can practice in the States. We miss a lot of the conversation once they get going, but they slow it down for us and can translate when needed.

    The morning slots at the school were full, so we had to study between 3-6:15 pm each day. Not my most attentive time of day, but hey, we got in the school at the last minute, so we took it. I took a month of lessons in Quito 25 years ago and lost a lot of it since I don't study or practice. I picked up a lot of bad gringo Spanglish since then and I've had to unlearn some bad grammar. The first hour and 15 minutes is grammar lecture and the last hour and 15 minutes is conversation. Deanne had some basic high school Spanish, but is starting from scratch, basically.

    Cuenca really is a lovely city. It's grown a bit since I was here last. My first visit was April of 1992 and I visited one other time a few years later. I remember it being the "conservative, quiet town." Not anymore. The fist visit I remember walking around town alone on a weekend night and there were no bars open. Now, almost 30 years later, the streets are full of them and restaurants, many of them ethnic restaurants from other countries. It's a lot cleaner and busier. There are 3 Universities here so there are lots of young people. I remember bringing a few beers down to the Rio Tomebomba with my friend Bill Henry and watching Kichwa women do laundry on the rocks in the river. Now, the river is a parkway with pedestrian paths, a bike path, and absolutley no clothes washing is allowed.

    I told Deanne about an embarrasing incident from that first trip. I was wondering around Calle Larga alone when I saw what I THOUGHT was a beautiful antique shop. I wondered in and glanced at a few nice pieces. An elderly woman asked me if she could help me. I said (In Spanish, of course) that No, I was just looking. She glanced up and yelled for her grandson who came out onto the balcony looking down on me and he said "This is our house!" I was mortified and apologised profusely. But now, 30 years later, I'm pretty sure I found the spot on Calle Larga. And guess what it is now? An antique shop! I told the story to my conversation teacher and she laughed and said that sounds like the place down the street and there's an elderly lady that is a tad lonely and likes it when people stop in to chat. Too bad is was closed when I found it again.

    Lots of expats have chosen to live here for the year-round spring-like weather. At 2500 meters and near the equator, it's about 53- 75 degrees each day and this time of year, it rains about every afternoon. There are about 8,000 expats that call Cuenca home, and about 5,000 are Americans! That's a lot. And they've changed Cuenca quite a bit, for better or worse. Housing costs are up but there are so many more cultural events to see/do. For a gringo, it's still pretty cheap. Many live in one area NW of town in new condos in an area the locals call GringoLandia. But I don't feel any animosity here. People are incredibly friendly until they get behind the wheel. They are not the safest drivers. There are few pedestrian lights, so you have to crane your neck to look for the one car light per intersection and try to guess if it's safe to cross. But, there are lots of good sidewalks and it's really a safe city. There are lots of cops in the parks and central city, and many neighborhoods like ours have private security guards. I haven't heard of any crime but I'm sure there is in other parts of town. And beers are still cheap. A 750 ml beer costs about $2.50 - $3 here. In the Galapagos, they were $5-6. And wow, there are a LOT of microbreweries here, like maybe 8 or more. That's a huge change.

    Our school sponsors events for us and we're taking advantage. We went to a nearby National Park called "Cajas" which means boxes. Supposedly, the many lakes up there in the mountains look like boxes. We had a great guide who was a biologist and he explained all the unique plants to us. There are so many that only grow in this area, at 3500-4000 meters. One green plant looks and feels like astroturf. It has to withstand the high wind. Our guide found a small flower that when plucked, looks like a tiny bird. He said it's eaten by a tiny bird that looks just like it! That freaked me out. We went on a long hike from the Continental divide and down to some Podocarpus trees, these unique trees from the area. It was a great day and a nice break from school. I gotta say that learning a language at this age is much harder than 25 years ago, so we appreciated the cultural breaks.

    With the Polo family, Almuerzo (lunch) is the main meal. It's very formal and the entire family is there. Breakfast is light and is fresh fruit, juice and some eggs. But we need to be back by 1 pm for the big lunch. I have no idea what they do for dinner because we're the only ones that seem to eat it at home. It's included with our plan. Many times we have leftovers, but we've started going out for dinner so we're not a bother to Lorena and also because we want to explore the restaurant scene. It's good and varied here. A set lunch or dinner can be as cheap as $2.50. It's basic, but includes a juice, protein, and 2 starches. But we've been opting for better fare in the $10 range each. We splurged a couple times on the nicest restaurants with wine, and that sets us back about $80 for an amazing seafood meal with a bottle of wine for 2.

    Before classes, we either study or hit a museum or the local market. There's a place with a LOT of hustle and bustle. There are lots of women in their cool hats selling the veggies they bring in from the countryside. One of the more intersting museums we went to was the Museum of Forbidden Art. It's nice to know there are radicals in a conservative Catholic city. Check out the pics. Think: possessed babies, fallus faucets in the bathroom, caskets for selfies, etc.

    We also visited a 100 year old chocolate factory in town that was sponsored by our school. That was fascinating. I've taken chocolate tours before but this was different. The machines were made by the owners dad when he started the company. They only make 100% pure chocolate from cacao. They sell it to bakeries and chocolatiers in Ecuador only since international shipping and taxes are crazy expensive. Everything is by hand and by very basic machinery. See the pics. Basically, once they separate out the dried seed from the shell, they grind it and it turns into a thick liquid chocolate that then cools to a solid. They make (for lack of better words), a blob, a pancake, and a large banana leaf imprint and then package these by weight for confectioners or bakers in the area.

    Deanne found some nightlife for us on Facebook. We saw an Argentine rock band called Espiritus at a really nice hostel. It cost $25 each, which is pricey if you're in Cuenca and don't know their music. The warmup band wasn't very good, but we really liked the band. We were definitely the oldest ones around and the only gringos. There's so much more we've done and seen that I probably have forgotten. But after studying in the morning a bit and (gasp!) doing homework and then having 3 hours of PM classes, many nights were were just pooped and hung out in our private room. And yes, we got a private bathroom too.

    All photos and vids from Cuenca's week 1 are here. https://photos.app.goo.gl/DNnq8go5ca5sbPWx9
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  • Day54

    Galapagos - Isla Isabela

    February 26 in Ecuador ⋅ ⛅ 84 °F

    Puerto Villamil on Isla Isabella

    We checked in our hotel in Puerto Villamil and I tried to start booking tours with the woman at the hotel. But she didn’t speak English and my Spanish wasn’t doing it for me. She and her sister wouldn’t slow down for us, so I said we’d think about their offers for tours. Just a few buildings away was a travel agency with a guy, Carlos, who spoke English. Within 20 minutes, we booked a tour to the Tuneles, the Volcano Sierra Negra, and we had 2 mountain bikes rented for that day. All of this was for $350 and the 2 tours included lunches and drinks.

    It's been a week since we've left the Galapagos as I write this. A lot of people wonder what a trip like this costs. We wanted to compare what someone living large on a yacht spends compared to us. When we came into port from a tour one day, I spotted a beautiful new yacht that hosted tours. I looked them up, and on average people are spending at least $1,000/night/person. Granted, that's much better food and you can see more of the islands, but not much more of the wildlife. We spent $3,000 total for 2 people for 11 nights and 12 days. That's about $136/person/night. And we had the flexibility of leaving when we wanted by buying 2 one-way tickets. All in all, we were super happy with what we did, but understand that few people have the time to do something like this. But you could also just show up one any of the Galapagos islands and DIY.

    Los Tuneles, or The Tunnels, are volcanic tunnels and arches and channels formed by molten lava that cooled and created really cool features on land and in the water. This makes for perfect homes for lots of fishes and sharks and the famed Blue Footed Boobies.  It’s like coral, except it’’s lava. The reason you go to the Galapagos is for this kind of tour. You can see lots of wildlife in 4-5 hours.

    The Sierra Negra is a volcano that erupts every 15 years or so lately. You get transportation up to it and hike for a few hours around it.  And the bikes were to just get around town to the beaches, snorkeling spots, and the Muro de Lagrimas, or Wall of Tears. That’s a wall built by prisoners on the island for absolutely no reason, other to torture prisoners and keep them busy. Many died building it when this island was a penal colony until 1959.

    We grabbed a quick set lunch for $10 which included a choice of seafood, a salad, a juice, fries, rice, and a dessert.  What, only 2 starches? Ecuador, you’re slipping. I used to get plantains with this kinda meal. All in all, it’s a great deal even if it’s $5 a few blocks in from the beach.

    The mountain bikes were in decent shape considering most roads here are sand. It has been 2 months since I rode a bike and I was in heaven with the heat, beaches on my left the whole way, and mangroves to my right most of the way.  After 4 miles, we came to the wall and took some photos. Behind and above it was a lookout where the US built and maintained a radar station until the 60’s. We didn’t see pink flamingos at the brackish pools we stopped at, but we’re all but guaranteed to see some here.

    The next morning we got an amazing breakfast at our place. I think we’re the only guests at our hotel. It’s not bad for $65 or so with a king bed, full breakfast, fridge, AC, and a view of the sea and pond from the room. At breakfast, we could see a lone pink flamingo in the brackish pond.  Fresh juice - check. Eggs - check. Coffee - check. Fresh fruit - check. Flamingo - check.

    Then it was off for our tour to Los Tuneles. We were fitted for mask, fins, snorkels, and wetsuits the day before and were set to go. We had fellow tourists from Annapolis, MD, Brasil, Croatia, and France.  Our speedboat went about 45 minutes up the coast to the lava formations and we spent a good hour in the water. 

    Wow!  What a jackpot. This is the place. It’s probably the spot where I’ve seen the most interesting marine species. And within 3 minutes of getting on the boat at the dock we saw a Stingray and a school of 20 or so blacktip sharks. Our guide Gabriel said he’d never seen a school of them there before so close to the dock.

    Here’s a list of what else I can remember we saw:

    - 4 large sea turtles, including one that was about 300 pounds and another couple that was having sex as we sped by. Now I’ve seen the giant land tortoises and sea turtles mating.  Happy turtles here!

    -Another Stingray

    - Three species of seahorses, about 5 in all.

    -8 or so large white tip reef sharks, including one that was about 2 meters. We got within a few feet of them. They hang out on the sand in 1 meter of water or so under shelves.

    -Rainbow fish

    -Sea lion pups - one of which played with us and swam around us for 10 minutes. The day before, I swam with one at a snorkel spot in town and he rubbed his whiskers on my leg and nibbled at my ankles like a puppy.

    -A chocolate chip starfish - I spotted this one and asked Gabriel to come over. It was shaped like a starfish but it looked like a plant. It was 2 shades of brown and had dark spots, so it looks like (and is named for) a chocolate chip cookie!

    -An absolutely adorable Galapagos Penguin.  One of the crew on the boat spotted him and made a call and the penguin responded and swam over. They continued to call to each other for a few minutes while we watched and filmed.

    -Various sea cucumbers and anemones.

    -Other schools of fish that I couldn’t name.

    Later, we went to a different spot with a lot more light and we saw more turtles and fish and another reef shark swimming.  After a quick lunch, we got on land and walked among the candelabra cacti on lava and found a few nesting boobies and we FINALLY got to see some blue feet. We’ve seen these guys flying and diving for fish, but you only see the blue feet when they’re on land and only if they’re older than 2 years. Yay! We saw all we wanted to see while on the Galapagos between this tour and the Kicker Rock tour on Isla Cristobal.

    The next day we took the land tour to the Volvano Sierra Negro. We drove about 20 minutes north in a pickup and joined a tour group waiting. It was a long hike that day, about 16 kilometers and thank god it wasn't hot and sunny the whole way. We would have baked. At about 1000 meters, it was cool and misty before noon. The mist burned off and we could see the caldera by the time we got to a viewpoint. It's not a huge volcano and it's not cone-shaped. It's kind of flat on top like many Hawaiin volcanos. It's been erupting every 15 years or so lately, but by erupting I mean kind of spilling some lava on the north side, away from the village. No evacuations have been necessary.

    It only got interesting after we hiked on to Volcano Chico, a missnamed spot which is actually a vent of Sierra Negra. We hiked on hard lava and could take photos of some interesting tunnel formations that were created when the outer shell of lava cooled and the molten lava inside kept flowing out. The vistas from up here were great too. We got a snack provided but we're glad we brought a lot of water with us, because the sun came out on the long walk back to the truck.

    On our last day, we're skipping any tours. We've seen all the wildlife we came to see, and more, so we're going to relax one of the many beaches nearby and wait for our 3 pm taxi back to Isla Santa Cruz where we'll spend one more night before flying back to Guayquil.

    After a few emails back and forth and a bit of research, we finally booked a Spanish school in Cuenca. We start on March 2nd. Unfortunately, we were a bit late in organizing a stay with a family and will stay in a hotel and try to do a homestay during our lessons. We're shooting for 2 weeks of 20 hours/week.

    All photos and vids are here. https://photos.app.goo.gl/apSz4KkRYzxZRiMN8

    And since our guide took so many vids and photos, I'm putting most of them in a separate album here. https://photos.app.goo.gl/eUxwfiYnEp4fufMV7
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  • Day53

    Galapagos - Isla Santa Cruz

    February 25 in Ecuador ⋅ ⛅ 79 °F

    We took a really nice high speed ferry to Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz. It had four 300 HP engines and scooted us right along. Our hotel was about a mile out of town up a hill, but it had a really nice pool and the taxis here are super cheap, $1.50 per ride, not person. And they also were relatively new pickups. We checked in early and went swimming right away. That was a weird business plan at the Desconso del Guia: build a really nice hotel on the biggest hill in town and disregard that you can barely see the sea, are surrounded by slummy houses and the power plant. But we didn't mind. We read the reviews and the pool was worth it. Besides, there aren't any dangerous areas on these islands, it's just that people can't afford to live in the touristy areas and can't afford to build a house all at one time. They buy bricks when they can and put their houses together piecemeal in many places like this.

    There's wifi in each restaurant and hotel on these islands, but it's incredibly slow and there's no way to upload photos or videos until back on the mainland. That's why these Galapagos posts are posted so late. It took me awhile to stop trying to upload the photos. I thought they might upload at night, to no avail. One sign at a hotel said "The wifi is slow, but you have the internet and you ARE in the middle of the ocean. "nuff said.

    We walked arount the town and were surprised at how big it is. Wow. There's 20,000 people that LIVE here. That's not counting the tourists, which must at least double that on any given day. My, how things have changed in the last 20 years. After the recovery of the market downturn in about 2010, tourism here skyrocketed, according to one guide. At one pier, we saw a guy cleaning fish and he had about 5 species of beggars waiting for scraps, including the Frigates stealing from a Sea Lion. Check it out here. https://photos.app.goo.gl/9opVwU53MKssFYTW6

    Kiosko street was where we ate a lot.  Set lunches (Almuerzos) were $5 and most were pretty good, including great soups.  We went back for dinner twice and had 2-3 set lunches on this street where you sit outside. There are about 15 or more kiosk restaurants and they put the tables in the streets. The best part was Happy Hour, which seemed to be all day. Drinks were 2 for $8 or 3 for $10.  When we saw the “Saltamontes” I had to look it up. They’re Grasshoppers, a classic Wisconsin digestif. We ordered them 2 nights in a row.

    You can choose your own fish here and Deanne told me about looking for the clear eyes on the fish.  Many were cloudy. We had a delicious Bruja (Scorpionfish) which seems to be the most popular type of fish. Worst mistake many times was the BlueFin or at least that's what they’re calling it. I got duped 3 times into eating this rubber/hard crappy fish. We’ve decided not to get any fish from the menu del dia because it’s usually this chewy crap.

    In the morning, we hiked to Las Grietas, a series of natural pools that connect to the sea underground. On the walk, you go through a desert like area of cacti and you see lots of Marine Iguanas and finches. The first pool is crowded with people but we brought snorkels and swam out to the 2nd pool and from there you can climb over sharp lava rocks or dive about 4 feet under some rocks to get to the 3rd pool. Few tourists do this and luckily, the couple from Quito we met told us about the "hidden" 3rd pool. The pools are about 10 meters wide and 15 meters deep. The water is crystal clear and you can see lots of large fish. There's a trail above that follows the pools and you can see the fish from up above also.

    Puerto Ayora was packed with middle and upper class Ecuadorians for Carnival. That was nice to see because I don't think there were many Ecuadorians that could afford this just a decade or two ago. There was a DJ each night in the Malecon, but there was a LOT of people just standing around and there wasn't much action.

    On the next day, we went to another Tortuga sanctuary at the Darwin station. This is a reseach and tourist area that was instrumental in starting a breeding program for the tortoises. There were great displays and it was very informative. On the way in, a security guard motioned us towards a desk. We usually have to sign in at National Park sites, but this was a tour guide with a schpeel and he pretended to be part of the park. I knew it was free and he finally admitted he was a private tour guide. Lame! Watch out for that stuff. He must have paid the guard to motion people over and a lot probably got suckered. The signs explaining things were everywhere and in English, so no guide was necessary. A romanian guy named Jonuts was with us and we became fast friends after that. We kept running into him on this and the next island.

    On the way out, we noticed constructions workers feverishly finishing up a nice building. Apparently, the 7th Day Adventists are building a Creation Museum right next to the Darwin Institute! I can only imagine the pack of lies that will await inside. (side note: 5 days later it opened and they had a big opening gala for churchmembers only, complete with people in tortoise outfits.) I tried to get in, but they wouldn't let me.

    Later, we spent the day at Tortuga Bay and ran into Jonuts again. It is a beautiful, LONG beach but the snorkeling was bad.  And it was HOT! But it was a great dayn nonetheless. A bad snorkeling day at a Galapagos beach is better than a good day at the office, I always say. We also met some Canadians there and chatted with them a bit. There are lots of Canadians here.

    After our 2nd day, we were a little restless. This was the most crowded island and most people take boats to leave it, including to Kicker Rock or Cristobal or Isabella islands. There really isn't a whole lot here for more than 2 days and we feel like we booked one or two nights too many here.  But hey, it's still paradise and just being able to walk around and see giant tortoises and funky iguanas isn't half bad.

    We decided not to pay for a tour of a lava rocks field because the tour/taxi was in the $40-$50 range and included more Tortugas. We’re so lame, we’re already like “nah, seen em before and it’s not worth it.” We bought a round trip ferry ticket to Isabella and back and booked one last night here in Puerto Ayora because we have an early flight back to Guayaquil on Sunday.  

    All in all, we liked the island because the Malecon is nice and there are a ton of restaurants. Kiosko street is fun, but as far as wildlife, you’re better off on the other islands.

    See all photos and vids here https://photos.app.goo.gl/FRrPQzD8a1Gj3V856
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  • Day50

    Galapagos - Isla San Cristobal

    February 22 in Ecuador ⋅ ⛅ 86 °F

    Our plane from Quayaquil was uneventful and as we approached the Galapagos after almost 2 hours, we crossed a lush island and I wondered why, since our first stop, Isla Cristobal, is the eastern-most of the 13 or so Galapagos islands. Then we banked left and crossed over the unmistakeable Kicker Rock, or known locally as Leon Dormida, the sleeping Lion. We were just turning around to land in the other direction at the south end of the island. Lucky for me to have had a window seat. We'd heard great things about the snorkeling tour to Kicker Rock and we couldn't wait. The chance to see Hammerhead sharks was enticing.

    There are 4 inhabited islands here, and most people live on 3. Before I did a deep research dive, I had no idea that so many people lived on the islands and that there is SO much lodging available. Even though it's Carnival week, we're not having a problem with that or finding tours. Lots of Ecuadorians visit here this week for the vacation of a lifetime. The easiest thing to do, and this is what most people do, is book a tour with an agency online or in Quito or Banos, or another touristy city in Ecuador. You'll pay twice as much for half the time here if you do it that way.

    We're doing our trip in the reverse of many travelers, just because we found a cheap one-way flight to this isand. As it turns out, we may have done a great thing, because we can see so much on this island and we might not want to pay more on the other island to see the same wildlife. We booked a room for 2 nights with AC and breakfast included for about $65. Hostels are much cheaper and of course you can pay a lot more. But Ivan and Trudi at Hotel Cattleya are great hosts. Ivan met us at the airport and we grabbed a $2 taxi to the hotel, just 1 Km away. We could have walked, but the heat is brutal here during mid-day. And contrary to what some blogs say, the arrival was easy. Foreigners pay $20 in Guayaquil for one permit, and then at arrival, they pay $100 more just to land here. Ecuadorians pay about $10 I think. Since we got out of the back of the plane quickly (they use 2 exits on the tarmac with ladders), we got to the lines quickly and were soon on our way.

    Since we're DIY, we walked around the small town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno to research tours and snorkeling spots. We have a mask and snorkel and just ordered some fins via Amazon when in New Orleans. They're a little smaller and fit easily in a bag.

    There are a few thousand inhabitants here. One of the problems with studying this area is that each island has 2 names (Ecuadorian and old British/pirate) and then there are the cities on each. It can get confusing. Right now, we're in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on Isla San Cristóbal. The island used to be called Chatham and you'll still see both names on some maps.

    The city was pretty dead except for the numerous sea lions everywhere. And the iguanas. The main beach in the center is fenced off and it's their beach. But many get into the city and take over the sidewalks, steps, malecon, and also ships in the harbor. It's fun. They're loud and are always moving around and playing in pools, especially the pups. They sound like a drunken college student dry-heaving after a night of partying. We found out later that early afternoon is siesta time and many businesses and restaurants close for a few hours at the hottest part of the day. It got much more festive later after the sun set. 88 degrees on the equator feels like well over 100F.

    Our first 2 meals here were pretty bad and we were adjusting to sticker shock of being on a touristy island. Prices are about double than those on the mainland and service is not so great. But the next day we found better restaurants and snorkeled at La Loberia, a nearby beach. And we went to the very informational Galapagos Interpretation Center. Behind it were paved trails to another snorkeling spot and viewing tower on Frigate Bird Hill. I saw an Eagle Ray, a type of Manta, and a Sea Turtle, but not much else.

    Frigate birds are everywhere. They're called kleptoparasites because they rob other seabirds for food sometimes.They're large and have a distinctive split tail and can fly for weeks without landing because they ride thermals. On land the males have a large red neck that balloons out during mating season. Those make for great pictures.

    We spent most of a day just exploring the island and looking for a tour to Kicker Rock. We finally found a tour with a sailboat the next day and spent the evening enjoying the nearby beach of Playa Mann. Our hosts are great and provide a big breakfast.

    We left at 6:30 to catch our sailboat. We were already fitted with our gear. You need a wetsuit here because the water can get pretty cold while the exterior temps are in the upper 80's. Since we're on the equator, you'll burn pretty quickly without protection. We didn't use the sails on the way out, but there was a lot of room since only 2 other couples booked the tour: a Dutch couple traveling for a few weeks and an Ecuadorian couple from Quito. We went along the west side of Isla Cristobal for a couple of hours and did a circle of the rocky outcrop. It juts straight up and has a split in the middle where small boats can get through. It's special because strong ocean currents from different directions push currents full of wild things here. We snorkelled for an hour and a half and went into the split, which was amazing. We saw sea turtles, white tip reef sharks, black tip reef sharks, a Galpagos shark, a pufferfish, sea lions, a tuna, and lots of smaller fish.

    But the highlights of the tour were 2 things that are fairly rare in other parts of the world. We swam for a minute or two with a school of Eagle Rays, a type of Manta. They're so grafeful and beautiful! I counted 6. And then finally at the end of the trip, we saw a school of Hammerhead Sharks. They stay down about 12 meters and it's hard to see that deep unless you're in the right light on a sunny day. We had that, and thank god. I missed the first one that everyone else saw earlier, but when we saw the school, I dived down a bit for a better look and counted about 6 or so, but there were more. I just had to surface for air.

    Back in town, we finally found a good restaurant with good service and ate there 4 times! No more messing around. The seafood is fresh and good, but not everyone seems to know how to cook it. And we enjoyed the menus del dias, which are cheap set meals for about $5 with juice. The best part of those is the first course of a hearty soup. Few Jewish grandmothers can make as good of a chicken soup as the ones we've had. So it's nice to know that there is good food out there and we just had a bit of bad luck. Eating hot soup in the midday heat seems counter-intuitive, but soup at lunch is a standard here.

    The next day, we booked a taxi to take us on a land tour. Taxis here are all big, white, newish pickup trucks. They're really nice and not too expensive. They have set prices for everything and an island tour to 3 spots was $60 and the driver waits for you on the 4 hour tour. We went to El Junco Lagoon on the highest part of the island. It's a freshwater lake in a caldera that is misty and has unique plant life, the Miconia. The frigate birds come here to wash the saltwater off their wings, but we didn't see any. We did the hike around it and then skedaddled as a group of Ecuadorian junior high kids showed up.

    Next was a Tortoise center called the Galapaguera. They've moved some tortoises here from the natural habitat on the north side of the island to protect them. There's a breeding center there too. We finally saw lots of these huge guys. They're pretty amazing. If you get too close, they sound like dragons. After taking lots of pics and vids, we had a rare experience of seeing Galapagos Tortoises mate. It was interesting to say the least. We were like "how the hell did this species survive with that akward armor?" But they found a way. And it was nowhere near as brutal as the Orangutans we saw mating in Borneo.

    The last stop was at a pristine beach on the east end of the island where you could chill and swim with sea lions. We had already booked a ferry ride to the next island of Santa Cruz for the next day. It's the main island because the airport is at the tip of another small island to the north. It was built by the US military after Pearl Harbor to help protect the canal in Panama. And that's why so many people go to Santa Cruz and book trips from there.

    See all photos and vids here https://photos.app.goo.gl/zvBFuWy89PpgFk8U8
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  • Day45

    Guayaquil, Ecuador 2020)

    February 17 in Ecuador ⋅ ⛅ 86 °F

    I've been to Ecuador three times before and never made it to the Galapagos or Guayaquil. The first because it doubled the price of my trip and I didn't have the money. And the second because nobody ever recommended it and it was definitely considered a place you should miss.

    Our Copa airlines flight took us from New Orleans to Guayaquil and from there we were going to go to Cuenca. Eventually we'd go to the Galapagos since we had a lot of time. But we thought better of it and said why not just go to the Galapagos from Guayaquil, where every plane leaves for the Galapagos even if you're from coming Quito.

    We have time and things have changed a bit. Guayaquil is the largest city in Ecuador and a large port city. But most people have never heard of it because Quito takes all the glory. The city spent a fortune fixing up their Malecón, or river walk, about 20 years ago and it's a fantastic place for tourists and residents alike. Oddly, there are few foreign visits there, but many Ecuadorian ones. That actually is a bonus. I've been to so many overtouristed areas (yeah, I'm part of the problem) and to see a place that doesn't have cruise ship visitors, doesn't have large groups of Chinese, and doesn't have lots of hostels is actually quite refreshing.

    Our hotel was in the middle of the downtown and just a few blocks of the Malecon. It was totally safe to walk around at night. During the day, the center is a caucophony of honking cars. People are everywhere and it's definitely a huge city. But at night, things quiet down. After a dinner of seafood and a few Pilseners (oh how I missed them!) we spent a freezing night because we couldn't regulate the AC temp and had no idea that the random switch on the wall would turn it off. Outside it was 100% humidity and 88 degrees and inside it was just like Madison in the winter.

    In the morning, we got breakfast included and I tried my first Bolon, along with eggs. It's a fried ball of plantain with cheese inside. As a Gluten Senstive, I was thrilled. But it's kinda tasteless and I'm already getting tired of the plantanas. After that, we stopped at Parque Simon Bolivar to see the iguanas. This seemed too good to be true. There is a colony of them that live in a park in the middle of a city of over 2 million people. And nobody messes with them! And the don't mess with anybody, including the pigeons. That was fun and we didn't even have to go to the Galapagos to see them.

    Then it was on to the Municipal building, one of the more beautiful buildings in the city. The Malecon was next. It's a gated stretch along the river and goes for about a mile and a half. There are only about 3 pedestrian entrances and it is NICE. Guayaquil is pretty ugly to be honest, but this is an oasis. Smooth pavements with no holes (I'm looking at you, Panama), nice restauarants, a couple mellow bars, pools, fountains, LOTS of security guards, underground parking, statues, gardens, vendors, an amusement park, museums (some free), etc. And they're building a gondola system in the city that stretches across the river to a suburb. There are no bridges in the center that cross the Rio Guayas, so this seems to be a cheaper way to alleviate traffic problems. They're almost done, and I"m sure it will be a cheap ride. Hell, a roller coaster ride costs $2.50 there. And they have a large ferris wheel as big as the London Eye that costs something on the order of $4 or $5 on weekends. We took that ride in London and it set us back a pretty penny, something on the order of $40.

    At the north end of the Malecon is the Las Penas neighborhood. It's a quaint hood on a steep hill overlooking the city and they have done a great job of preserving the houses and they're painted in pastel colors. Restaurants here were hit or miss. Crabs are popular here but a tad out of season. All in all, I'd recommend a visit here, but 2 nights was plenty for us and we were itchin' to get to the Galapagos. Instead of booking an expensive boat-based tour, we are doing a DIY visit. We have that sweet, sweet luxury of time and are going to wing it. Tomorrow we fly on Ecuador's LATAM air on a one way ticket to Isla Cristobal and when we've had enough wildlife, we'll book another one-way flight back to Guayaquil. But we'll probably just jump right over to the humongous bus station near the airport so we can head to Cuenca.

    All photos are here.
    https://photos.app.goo.gl/3S8S8Xvcw76gj4Cz8
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  • Day42

    Mardi Gras in New Orleans

    February 14 in the United States ⋅ ☀️ 52 °F

    Suffice it to say that a good time was had by all and our first Mardi Gras in New Orleans. After over 20 visits to NOLA, I finally made it there for the Big Show.

    Deanne joined the Krewe of Freret when she heard that Trombone Shorty was the
    Master of ceremonies. Our great friends Mo and Anita joined us, and Anita joined the krewe with Deanne.

    Mo and I just watched the parades from the streets while Deanne and Anita did a lot of prep work. That included buying tons of beads and throws and loading in early and starting the pre-party early.

    This is the second to last weekend of the parades of Mardi Gras. It was actually a nice introduction because it didn't seem quite as crazy and the day parades were very family-oriented. In the city alone there were probably 12 or more parades over three days. And that's not counting another dozen parades in the nearby towns and parishes.

    We did so much it's not necessarily worth mentioning. The biggest risk of the trip was not having insurance for 5 days while in the United States. We let it lapse because we can pay as we go for any medical problems while traveling and it will be so much cheaper than just a health insurance monthly premium in the US. And I knew that I could still get COBRA coverage backdated if anything happened. Thank God it didn't, because one small injury would have cost us about as much as our 5 1/2 weeks of travel in Panama. I'm not kidding. I did the math. That includes flights, tours, hotels, food, drinks, you name it.

    I did get whacked in the eye with some beads on Friday night and I ended up losing a hard contact lens, but at least my eye healed quickly. This is a pretty common injury and from then on I wore sunglasses at parades.

    Deanne and Anita loved the whole experience of being in the krewe in the parade. Mo and I loved being able just to walk around from parade to parade and stop in a bar for a bathroom break.

    We planned to meet up with Carolyn Freiwald, a friend from Madison, and she told us about a spot on the parade route. Bathrooms can be hard to come by and we went to her friends recommended bar for the bathroom, which were never crowded.

    That spot on St Charles during the day was very family friendly, with lots of kids sitting on makeshift seats on ladders, with a parent standing behind. Look for the pics below.

    I did manage to get a vid of Anita and Deanne's float as they went by. It was awesome to see her dream come true and she couldn't have been more happy with the experience.

    After the parades on Saturday we went to Shorty Gras, a big party the krewe of Freret sponsored at Mardi Gras World. Trombone Shorty headlined it but a fun up-and-coming band, Boyfriend, was probably the highlight of the night. The Revivalists backed her up.

    About 10 years ago when Mardi Gras World was in Algiers, across the river, we probably paid $20 to see how floats are made and see the amazing floats they recycle year to year. It was a blast. Now, that same tour costs $44. See https://photos.app.goo.gl/WFsijuqmgxBMqczU7

    The concert at the new venue with Big Freedia, Soul Rebels, Boyfriend, and Trombone Shorty was only $55. Such a deal! And we got to walk around and see many of the same floats, but this time we got to see them lit up.

    On Sunday, our last day, we walked around Frenchmen Street in the French quarter and took in one last parade, the Krewe of Barkus. That's a dog parade spoof of the more famous Krewe of Baccus.

    MoNita had a flight out that pm and Carolyn drove home a bit earlier. We spent our last few hours getting Oysters at Felix's and a couple drinks at the Chart Room, a wonderfully gritty dive bar in the Quarter.

    And then we woke up at 3:30 a.m. to catch our 6 a.m. flight to Guayaquil.

    All photos are here.
    https://photos.app.goo.gl/CHyy7MiXdTDVmmkU9
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