The Galapagos Islands: Barracudas, Eels, and Sharks, Oh My!

The Galapagos Islands

One of the biggest question marks we had in South America was whether or not to visit the Galapagos islands. We were on the fence mainly because of budget concerns. While the Galapagos islands are one of the coolest places to visit in the entire world, it is also very pricey. After doing some research, we decided to just go ahead and book the flight there and hopefully get on a last minute cruise once we arrived.

The instant you land at Baltra airport, there is a unique feeling of excitement. The volcanic archipelago that makes up the Galapagos islands is home to some of the most interesting wildlife in the entire world. The arrival was a bit of a culture shock for us as well. We haven’t seen so many older white people in a single destination in a very long time, and this particular bunch seemed to exclusively adhere to a dress code of goofy looking hats and fishing/exploring gear clearance racks. We weren’t the only younger people to visit, but the vast majority of visitors are of the older variety.

Most people opt to start their cruise immediately upon arrival in the Galapagos, but we chose differently. Our plan was to shop around on the island for the biggest savings available on a cruise. But our other objective was to schedule two days to go scuba diving. In addition to some of the incredible wildlife above ground, the Galapagos hold some of the world’s greatest and most well preserved underwater wildlife, and we have been looking forward to diving since our sea lion dive in January.

We booked our two days of diving with Scuba Iguana, one of the best diving outfitters in the Galapagos. Both Dana and I were excited and a little nervous, because this was only our seventh dive and it’s been almost four months since our last one. It took a couple hours to reach our dive destination by boat, and we met a very nice couple from Australia named Mike and Sandi. They were our age and had almost 50 dives under their belts! Mike and Sandi would be the other two people who made up our dive group, so it was nice to be divers who had a lot of experience.

When we reached our dive location, the divemasters gave us our safety briefing and then it was time to suit up our gear and get in the water. We managed to acclimate ourselves to being underwater quickly and comfortably. Now it was time to see why the Galapagos is known as a world-class diving destination.

Getting ready to dive

A unpuffed pufferfish

An eel sticking his head out of a hole

A school of barracudas

Rockfish (can you see him?)

Big stingray

Parrotfish (Dana's favorite- they look much better in person)

Another eel we encountered later on

The sheer number in the schools of fish were amazing

As you can see from the pictures, our first dive was great. We saw a great variety of interesting marine life, and both of us had a great time. Our second dive brief was where things would get interesting. We were told we had a great opporunity to see white tip sharks and maybe even some hammerhead sharks! Dana wasn’t thrilled with this news, but as always, she was a trooper and was ready to go for the second dive.

A napping shark, up close and personal!

These guys were thankfully uninterested in us, but breathtaking to see swim around our group

I know its a bad photo, but it's still shows our view of our first Hammerhead shark!

A shark swimming below Dana

You can see the full view, but that's a shark swimming below me

A Nudibranch - one of the coolest small lifeforms in the ocean

Another miniature creature of the sea, stick his head out of his house

Heading up to the surface with our other diving partners, Mike and Sandi

Heading to the surface

 Our experience with the sharks was incredible. They were pretty indifferent to us observing them, but to see such a fearsome creature in their habitat was exhilarating for us. We only were able to see the hammerhead for a few seconds before it disappeared, as they are shy towards humans. We have one more day of diving and then we hope to have a cruise booked to see the rest of the less inhabited islands of the Galapagos.

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Ecuador: Beaches, Seafood, and Sunsets

Jumping off the bus and into the throng of people in the Guayaquil bus station, we immediately started looking for our friend’s parents, Jorge and Matilde. Somehow it turned out to be one of those things where you immediately recognize one another by instinct. Either that or they can point out a couple gringos pretty easily. I bet it was the latter. Dana and I followed them to the car…. only they didn’t have a car. They had a TRUCK. A serious, rally edition Land Rover Defender 110. These vehicles make a Hummer H2 look like a toy truck. Needless to say, their choice of vehicles excited me greatly. Their house was in a really nice part of town, and the neighborhood reminded us of being in Florida again. Jorge said he already had a full day planned for us the next day, and that sounded great to Dana and I.

The big, bad, Defender 110.

We took off the next morning to Montanitas, a little beach town off the coast of Ecuador and only about 90 minutes from Guayaquil. The first stop was to get an early lunch, and we tried the Ecuadorean version of ceviche. At this point I think I had ceviche for about 9 of the last 10 days, and I’m well on my way to becoming a full-fledged ceviche connoisseur.

Adam, Matilde, Jorge, and Dana at lunch

After lunch, it was time to hit the beach. it was pretty busy, but not overcrowded. Jorge is pretty much the Ecuadorean version of Superman. He surfs, scuba dives, free dives (a type of diving where you simply hold your breath), and rock climbing. Today he immediately got in the water to do some surfing. We hung out and had freshly made caipirinhas and mojitos on the beach. Dana and I could get used to the laid back beach lifestyle here Ecuador very easily.

The colorful beach in Montanitas

Drinks made right on the beach... for $2

A beautiful monastery along the coast

Dana with Jorge and Matilde along the coast

After watching the sunset, we stayed with some of their friends who owned a ranch nearby. The place was off the beaten path and very unique. In fact, they had one of the most interesting pets we have seen on the trip: a miniature pony named Flachi.  Flachi is allowed free reign of the property, including inside of the house. We saw him walk through the house and eat some fruit off the counter, which was hilarious.

The gorgeous Ecuadorean sunset

We got to stay in our own cabin while visiting

The miniature pony, FLACHI!

The next day we started to make our way back to Guayaquil but not before one more seafood-centric lunch. I got to experience Ecuadorean seafood cazuela, something that could be classified as a seafood casserole. We would like to take this opportunity to once again highlight the tremendous hospitality shown to us by the Marcets. They treated us like we were their own kids visiting for a weekend. Our experience throughout South America has no doubt been highlighted by the unparalleled welcoming receptions we have received, and the Marcets were no different.

Ecuadorean cazuela. Incredible.

 

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Vamos a la playa! Time to hit the beach in Mancora, Peru

Our departure from Lima to northern Peru and into Ecuador was just in time- we were due for some warm weather along the Pacific coast beaches of South America. Another (what now seems to be mandatory) 18-hour overnight bus ride, and we showed up at around 6 am to the sleepy beach town of Mancora, Peru. We caught a quick nap at our guesthouse, and headed out to the beach around mid-day. The warm weather was a nice departure from some of the cool, damp weather we experienced through much of Bolivia and Peru in the Andes.

A view of the beach from Mancora, Peru.

Mancora doesn’t have much in the way of entertainment or activities- just one main street lined with restaurants and a few shops. The benefit of such a laid-back place was not too many tourists and amazing food at great prices. One of the places we found to eat was a place called Papa Mo’s. Created by an older couple from the United States, they had a few things on their menu we haven’t seen in a while- the most important being real waffles. That was a random surprise, and they were fantastic. It was closed for dinner though, so Dana and I had to find somewhere else to eat in the evenings. After a tip from a local, we checked out a cevicheria nearby, and wow, it did not disappoint. They served a mountain of seafood in their ceviche, and it was just as incredible as what we had in Lima.

Main St. in Mancora

When you see the Dr. Seuss sign, its gotta be good

Some of the freshest seafood in the world, all for about $5

We spent four days in Mancora enjoying the sun and getting ready for another move northwards to Ecuador. You might remember we met a nice couple named Jorge and Carla from Ecuador back in Egypt. They were supposed to be back from their travels by the time we reached Ecuador, but wouldn’t you know it- they are still travelling the world, in southeast Asia when we last checked with them. I gave Jorge a quick e-mail the day before we were ready to head up to Guayaquil (Ecuador’s largest city), and within a couple hours he had me in touch with his dad, Jorge Sr. about our visit. He asked for our bus information and when we were scheduled to arrive, and a sign with our names on it. Did we make it there safely? Check the blog later this week to find out.

 

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We Interrupt this Regularily Scheduled Blog Post….

…. for a (shameless) plug in hopes of winning a photo contest!  See, we are currently in second place of the winkflash.com landscape photo contest, and the winner gets a nice $100 gift card. You can vote right here. Now if you either go ‘like’ us on facebook and leave a comment here, or leave a comment on the Travel Go Lucky page saying you voted, and we win first place…. you’ll be entered to win a 12-month calendar, courtesy of our winnings! It will feature some of the best photos we’ve taken all trip. So get going and vote for our wonderful Antarctica Landscape photo! More posts to come soon.

Our submittal in the landscape photo contest!

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Peru-sing Through Lima

With all of the long bus rides we’ve endured the past couple months Adam and I opted out of a 24 hour bus ride through the Andes mountains and chose a 1 hour flight to Lima, Peru. The price was only $30 more per person, and we both thought it was worth it to save 23 hours of our time. I was very excited to get to Lima because we would be meeting up with my cousin Jessie, and I haven’t seen her in a long time. While checking into our flight from Cusco we met a great couple from New York City, Rocio and Bernard. We instantly clicked with them and when we heard our flight was going to delayed we decided to head over to the bar and talk over drinks. We enjoyed our South American special, the Pisco Sour. The airport restarant bar wasn’t anything fancy, but the drinks were pretty good. After a few delays taking off from Cusco, we were in Lima in what seemed like a flash. We shared a ride with Rocio and Bernard and their hotel was right next door to Jessie’s apartment, so our carpooling worked out perfectly.
My cousins apartment was beautiful and had an awesome location and view of the Pacific ocean. Adam and I were truly lucky to have family to stay with especially in such a great part of town. One of the coolest things about visiting Jessie was being able to enjoy a few “American” things such as Blue Moon beer. Because Jessie works for the U.S. Embassy in Lima, they have a special program where people who work there can specially order products that normally wouldn’t be available in Peru.

The tremendous view from Jessie's apartment

Dana and Jessie enjoying the view of the sunset from her apartment

While visiting we went to one of the highest recommeded cevicherias, where ceviche is the main dining attraction. The dish is usually made from fresh raw fish marinated in lime juice and spiced with peppers. The acidity of the lime juice actually cooks the fish. In Peru they add red onion and a side of large kernel corn. Adam loves the stuff and I’m pretty sure he’ll be having a lot more of it as we head north up the Peruvian coastline.

This stuff is GOOD.

One night I tagged along to a ladies night happy hour sushi at the Marriott next door and met some of her co-workers, and celebrated a friend’s birthday party while Adam stayed back and napped. It was  a great visit and very relaxing which was welcomed after all the hiking in the rain during the Inca Trail on the way to Machu Picchu.  The next day we met Rocio and Bernard and had a great time checking out the main plaza, a few churches,  and heading over to Lima’s Chinatown and trying their highly recommended Chifas that everyone was raving about. Chifa is a version of South American Chinese food. It’s awfully similar to what our Chinese restaurants are like in the States, but it was a nice change of pace. After a couple more days or relaxing, we needed to get ready for (ugh) another bus ride along the coast through northern Peru.
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Machu Picchu: Running on Empty into The Lost City of the Incas

If you had to give us one word on how to describe our day at the site of Machu Picchu, it would be: miserable. Now don’t go feeling all sorry for us, because it was a miserable in the “exhaused, tired, and the weather didn’t work out exactly how we wanted it to,” as opposed to the “man, this place is a disappointment” miserable. The place is absolutely every bit stunning and mythical in person as it is depicted in photographs. Ok, I feel better now that that’s out of the way.

Our day started with a 3 am wake-up from our tent, then a quick breakfast, and then it was time to jump in line and wait for the gates to open for the final 3 mile stretch of the Inca Trail to go see Machu Picchu. The good news was we got to ditch our sleeping pad and sleeping bag. The bad news was there was a steady rain falling. Since this is when the entire group of people eligible to hike the trail all start at the same time and place, it is more or less a single file march the whole way to Machu Picchu.

As daylight started to break, it was quite apparent we would not be seeing any breathtaking sunrises over Machu Picchu. Heck, at this point Dana and I were just hoping for the fog to clear so we could see anything.  The Sun Gate is the first point where Machu Picchu is visible, but had I taken a picture it would’ve been a big gray blob. The fog wasn’t going anywhere for awhile. We kept going, hoping that something would be visible sooner or later.

Once we arrived near the main entrance, features started to become visible.  The whole place had a spooky, eerie feel to it, as if it were slowly uncovering whatever it chose to show the visitors for the day. A few llamas were visible in the distance, put in place by the Peruvian government to be living lawn mowers and keep the grass in check. Much of the morning time was spent learning about the history of Machu Picchu from our guides.

Our first view of Machu Picchu

As the day went on and we explored more and more of the ruins, one more hurdle was left on our checklist of the whole Inca Trail/Machu Picchu extravaganza: to scale Huayna Picchu, the imposing peak that looks over Machu Picchu. Only 400 people are allowed to visit it each day, and you need to check in and check out at a control point. There have been a few deaths from people falling over the years, and if the weather is bad enough, they will close it to visitors. Measuring just shy of four football fields in height, scaling Huayna Picchu is rough, especially after just completing the Inca Trail.

Yea, let's climb this... it's not like we've done much hiking lately, what's one more mountain?

Well, we scaled Huayna Picchu safely, and once we reached the top, we were greeted with….. more rain. The valley in which Machu Picchu sits feels like there are about a dozen different micro climates present, which didn’t work out so well for us in terms of timing. We stood and the top and watched clouds form into a perfect blanket to cover the astonishing view of Machu Picchu below. After a good 45 minutes of watching this tedious process, Dana and I began to slowly head down. Luckily for us, we were able to snag a few photos of as the clouds lifted their seemingly permanent veil of the ruins.

The view from Huayna Picchu

In case you were keeping track, there was no mention of any food since our 3:30 am breakfast. At this point, we were running on fumes. Just as we think it’s time for us to depart, the sun decides its time to show up and grace us with its presence. So food was on hold about another hour or so while we wrapped up another hour or so of finally being able to see everything.

Finally, a nice clear view!

The living lawn mower - a llama

It was finally time to depart this amazing destination. The beauty of Machu Picchu was unforgettable, and our exhaustion at the end of the day turned into a distinct feeling of appreciation on the bus ride back to the town of Aguas Calientes. Sure, things don’t always work out like you imagine them, and the weather may not always be perfect, but the memories of such a special place will never be forgotten.

 

 

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The Inca Trail: A Prelude to Machu Picchu

Of all the places in South America, the Inca Trail is easily the most popular answer of the “Did you do the (insert blank)?” question.  The four day, 28-mile hike is capped off by none other than Machu Picchu, the ancient Incan settlement that is at the top of many people’s bucket lists. As usual on this trip, we approached the Inca trail as a last-minute option that would be figured out once we arrived in Cusco. One afternoon of going door-to-door and doing price comparisons, we had found a tour group that had a great price and even included our sleeping bag rental.

Our trip began with (you guessed it) a bus ride that began at 5 am, and had us out on the trail a few hours later. Of course our tour operator somehow botched the registration process, leaving us to sit around for a little over an hour. It actually ended working out okay because all the other groups got a head start and kept the trail clear for us. The first day is the easiest of all, with only a minor rise in elevation.

The beginning of the Inca Trail.

The first day was a breeze. We got to see our first ruins, and our hiking group of eleven were brave enough to even play some soccer at lunch. Let me tell you something: I’m terrible at soccer at sea level. I’m incredibly terrible at soccer at 9,000 feet. Running around at that altitude makes you feel like the world’s most out of shape person. Luckily, the first day turned out to be pretty easy, and we were at our first night’s camp site before you know it.

Dana found this little guy on day one.

Without a doubt the coolest place I will ever play soccer... too bad I'm so awful at it.

The first visible ruins on the Inca Trail for us

Our first campsite

What a difference a day makes. Day two is known as the toughest, and boy it did not disappoint. With over 5000 feet worth of incline and another 3000 down to our scheduled camp for the night, the second hiking day was brutal. A few things become apparent on this day’s hike. One, you will be drenched in sweat only minutes after beginning your hike. Two, the altitude here is no joke. Getting to the top of Dead Women’s pass at 13,000 feet is like walking up ten flights of stairs while holding your breath. The final observation is that not all tour groups are created equal. Let me tell you something: When cheery European kids (18ish?) on their gap year waltz by you because they’ve paid three times what our tour costs and don’t have to carry ANY of their own equipment… well I challenge you to not try and stick your foot out the next time one is about to pass you (kidding. But only kind of). Now why don’t they have to carry any of their own equipment, you ask? What a perfect segue into the realm of the Porter.

Porters are the special group of men who carry all the equipment necessary for the hike: food, tents, cookware, etc. A little over a decade ago, these men were exploited to carry insane amounts of equipment and receive next to nothing in payment. The Peruvian government then instituted a new series of laws to limit the amount that porters can carry along with minimum payment requirements. I’ve seen a lot of interesting people on this trip, and Peruvian porters rank right near the top. Waves of them whiz by during the hike, only unlike the Euro gap year kiddies they have 50 lb+ bags of gear strapped to them. To top it all off, they often wear simple sandals that look like flip flops. To see the pace that they attack the trail is nothing short of astonishing. My ankles would be shattered into millions of pieces were I to try to descend the stone steps of the Inca trail as fast as them. I will never again complain about a job again without taking a moment to appreciate what these guys do for a living.

A porter as seen on the Inca Trail. (Aside his poor choice in NFL teams, a very special type of person)

 

A curious donkey seen at the beginning of Day 2

 

While proud of our accomplishment, we were pretty beaten up at 13,000 feet.

Dana checking out what we just completed

 

Our campsite on Day 2, as we descended from Dead Woman's Pass

Campsite on Day 2

Day 3 was supposed to be a moderately strenuous day of hiking. Well, it would’ve been, had it decided not to rain. Yep, the rain came down for most of the day, making the trail very slick. The stone steps were a royal pain to walk on, always having to check your footing so there was no chance of slipping. Normally I’m the clumsy one, but Dana had a few moments of slipping on the rocks, leading to a famous exchange between her and myself that was capped off with this quote directed towards me: “The next big city we get to, we’re going to a McDonald’s, and I’m ordering whatever I want, AND I’M NOT SHARING!” I don’t know what that had to do with slipping on the rocks, but whatever made her feel better at the time. The gigantic silver lining came within the last half hour of the hike. Rounding a corner, we had our first breathtaking glimpse of what was in store for us once we reached Machu Picchu. The green peaks were bathed in low-lying clouds, and the canyon seemed to go down forever. The view definitely made all of the rough patches the past days disappear.

Ruins from Day 3

The view was incredible

An unbelievable backdrop

The view from the ruins to our final campsite

It was a lot of hard work, but we did it!

Only one more day remained, the final hike through the Sun Gate and into the lost city of Machu Picchu. We had a wake up of 3 am for the big day, so it was time to get some sleep and rest up for the final leg of the journey.

 

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