Archive for the ‘The Americas’ Category

Galveston, Oh Galveston

Posted: December 7, 2012 in USA

After our marathon yesterday, and two weeks of early starts in the Galápagos we were really looking forward to a sleep in and a slow start to the day. It was nice to have a leisurely breakfast and enjoy Tiki Island hospitality.

Once we finally got ourselves organised Jan, Keith & I drove into Galveston for a look around, without any specific agenda. We followed the coast admiring the beachfront architecture, while Jan pointed out landmarks. We stopped at a new housing development called Beachtown, which would be a very nice place to live. Lovely coastal architecture with a feel of old Galveston – 2 and 3 story houses clad in white weatherboard / Hardiplank, painted in soft pastel colours with wide verandahs and big windows. We had a look inside the display house, and could certainly imagine living there! We forgot to take photos though!

Back in the car we headed for a little car ferry that goes from Galveston Island to Bolivar peninsula. We spotted dozens of dolphins in the bay, though it was a challenge photographing them, since you never knew where they'd pop up. We drove around Port Bolivar for a while, stopping at an old jetty. We walked along the old concrete jetty for some distance (it was so long we couldn't see the end of it) photographing the incredible array of bird life we saw there. Who needs to travel to exotic destinations!?

The ferry crosses the main shipping channel - those big boats definitely have right of way!

Just a few of the birds we saw at Bolivar Jetty. Don't ask me to name them all!

One of the striking things you notice driving around Galveston, is the impact of Hurricane Ike, which hit Galveston in Sept 2008. The city was completely devastated, and there is still much evidence of the damage.

Some before and after Ike shots. Many houses remain derelict, or have been demolished.

Back on the ferry we spotted yet more dolphins, and tried vainly to get a great photo of them. We had a latish lunch at a lovely Greek Restaurant on the waterfront, where we enjoyed great food (I had a tilapia wrap – tilapia is a local specialty but apparently a noxious pest in Australia, I discovered – but it was delicious), and watched a solitary dolphin frolicking and a big storm come rolling in.

My best dolphin efforts so far.

After lunch Jan and I treated ourselves to a much needed pedicure and enjoyed a lovely hour of pampering. As we came out the storm hit and we raced back to the car and home, where we spent a quiet night in, where Jan cooked us a truly delicious dinner, and we watched American football and basketball on TV.


Quitting Quito

Posted: December 5, 2012 in Ecuador, USA

Some days are long, and some days are really loong.

We have said lots of goodbyes, and this morning it was our turn to leave. Our flight was scheduled for 10.15, so we caught the 8am shuttle from the hotel. Max & Kerry came down to say goodbye in their jammies & waved us off. And then there were two.

We found our queue for checking in with a little difficulty, and were lined up by 8.15. The queue was long but really didn't seem to be moving very fast. By 9am there were still so many people ahead of us I was sure we would not make our flight. I tried not to worry as it seemed everyone was waiting for the same flight. Soon we heard a rumour that the flight was delayed until 2.26pm. I checked the board and it still said 10.15. I was sure someone would have notified us if there was a 4 hour delay, and I was getting worried since we only had a 90 minute turnaround in Miami to catch our next flight to Houston.

At this point we remembered Keith has Priority Access so joined the shorter queue and eventually reached the front. The board had finally updated to reflect the 2.26 departure – still no announcement, but it seemed the rumour was true. When we eventually were served the American Airlines staff were very helpful. They had already rescheduled us onto a later connecting flight, gave us a lunch voucher, and even escorted us to an office and made a call to Jan to let her know we'd be late, since she was picking us up in Houston.

We had 4 hours to fill in at the airport – a sleep in would have been better! It turned out the incoming flight had had mechanical problems and was diverted to Panama, so I was glad we weren't on that plane! We found a cafe with decent food and free wi-fi, and filled in the time until we had to go through security. On the other side we found some nice shops, and more free wi-fi so the 4 hours went quickly enough. The flight was not full and we had an empty seat next to us, so were able to spread out, which makes a lot of difference.

We arrived in Miami International Airport, which is a seriously big airport. We managed to clear customs and negotiate the various queues with only a moderate amount of confusion (Keith's Priority Access was a huge help), caught the Sky Train to gate 51, found a cafe to get some dinner (It was around 7pm, and we knew there would not be food on the domestic flight to Houston) and then settled down to wait. The flight before ours at the gate was still being called about 30 minutes before ours was due, so we got that sinking feeling again that we were not going anywhere soon.

Eventually our 9.20 flight took off at around 10.30pm. It was a 3 hour flight, and I pretty much slept the whole way, thankfully. We landed in Houston at 11.45 local time (that was 12.45 Quito time) and went to collect our luggage, optimistic that our long day was coming to an end. But there was no sign of luggage, nothing to indicate it was coming soon, and no-one to ask. After maybe 30 minutes of waiting and wondering the bags appeared on the carousel marked with the details of a flight from Chicago – I guess there was no-one still there at that time of night to update the signs. Jan was waiting for us, and we gladly hopped into her blue Prius for the drive to Tiki Island.

By the time we had a cuppa and a bit of a catch up, settled in our room and collapsed into bed it was 2.45am (or 3.45am Quito time). What a long and exhausting day!

First world problems!


Out and About in the Andes

Posted: December 3, 2012 in Ecuador

As a rule I plan my travel very thoroughly, and know exactly where I want to go & what we are doing. That didn't happen today. We had booked a bus trip to some markets in a nearby town which Jess & Chris recommended. I assumed we would just be driven to the markets & collected, but it turned out to be that and so much more.

Our guide for the day was our old friend Oscar who accompanied us to the Cloud Forest yesterday. He was eager to show us much more of the area than just a market, and we had a wonderful day. Around half the group have already left Ecuador, so there were only 7 of us on the bus (plus Oscar and Marcelo the driver). We were collected at 8.30 and headed out of Quito.

Quito is situated in the Andes Mountains. It is a very hilly city, and surrounded by towering peaks, some snow covered. Driving through the surrounding countryside was just lovely, with mountain vistas, small villages, and cultivated fields. The mountains are permanently covered in clouds, but it was a clear day with blue skies, and quite warm, which was a bonus.

The first port of call was “La Mitad del Mundo” – the middle of the earth, which is a sundial marking the site of the equator. It was fun to stand with one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern, and there was a surprisingly interesting presentation about the solar clock, the equator, pre-Incan archaeological sites and how we draw the map of the world the wrong way.

At the middle of the world.

Nearby, in a small town called Cayambe, Oscar took us to a little bakery where they make the local speciality, Biscochos, a crumbly pastry/biscuit and a cheese called Queso de Hoja, which was a little like fresh mozzarella. Of course we all had to taste the product – both were quite delicious.

Biscochos - Oscar explaining the fine points of cooking biscochos - the cheese doesn't look appetising here but it was scrummy

We stopped at a little view point to admire the snow capped mountains and the lake beneath. It was a lovely view, even if the lookout was somewhat touristy – there was a young boy in traditional dress posing with a llama and an alpaca for photos, the look somewhat spoiled by the fact that he was eating his lunch out of a styrofoam bowl. When we left there we were accompanied by a young native Ecuadorean woman called Christina who demonstrated the national dress and sang a couple of songs in the native tongue. She also had some shawls she happened to be selling, but since they were pretty and very inexpensive we all bought a few.

Views from the lookout, alpaca, llama & a couple of locals. We noticed many native Ecuadoreans wearing the traditional costume, not just for tourists.

Eventually we reached Otavalo, the site of the market. On Saturdays it is a bustling farmers market, but the rest of the week they sell local handicrafts – alpaca wool jumpers and ponchos, rugs, jewellery, carvings, musical instruments and more. We had an enjoyable wander and bought a few things, but didn't get too carried away. There was a bit of the usual hard sell, but we didn't find it too intimidating. We probably paid more than we needed to for what we did buy, but it was all very cheap.

The colourful Otavalo Markets

Some nice doors around the Otavalo main square

By now it was 1.30 and time for lunch. Oscar promised to take us to a little place he knew – it turned out to be a hacienda, a lovely old ranch house set in beautiful gardens. We were welcomed by a mariachi band, and had a great meal in very elegant surrounds. Unexpected but delightful.

Our classy lunch at the Hacienda - my new favourite soup, Locra (potato soup with cheese & avocado), Keith & I with Max & Kerry enjoying the nice surrounds.

The drive back to Quito was quite long but very scenic. I think most of us slept part of the way, but we all enjoyed the scenery of the Andes and were glad of the opportunity to see a bit more of the areas than we had expected. A great way to spend our last day in Ecuador.

Views through the bus window.

We got back to the hotel in time to say goodbye to Chris & Jess. They did such a great job in organising and running this trip, teaching us photography skills, being unfailingly cheerful & helpful. It was a privilege to travel with them!

By dinner time there were 6 of us left, and we met in the hotel restaurant for a light meal and a last catch up. It's a funny thing, travelling for 2 weeks with a group of strangers who quickly become friends. It was a really good group, with people of different backgrounds, ages and careers, but with a common interest in travel, photography and wildlife, and we all got along famously.


Head in the Clouds

Posted: December 2, 2012 in Ecuador

Today was a bonus day, and it was certainly that. As we were all staying an extra night in Quito, Jess & Chris organised an outing to an area in the mountains that surround Quito called the Cloud Forest. It is a beautiful area of deep valleys and cloud-shrouded hills covered in dense rainforest.

After a buffet breakfast at the hotel we were picked up by bus at 8.30. Our guide Oscar was a charming young man who entertained us with stories of life in Ecuador as we drove to the Cloud Forest. Our first stop was a service station for a refueling stop – for the bus and for us. He had told us that Ecuador makes the best chocolate in the world, so we were keen to try some – but all they had were Hershey Bars and the like.

The drive was longish (well over an hour) and I'm afraid I dozed for some of it. It was interesting driving though the city and suburbs of Quito, and then along a winding road through the hills. We arrived at our first destination which was a walk to a pretty waterfall, through an area of native orchids. It was very pretty and we loved being in the rainforest and taking photos of flowers, frogs, lizards and the waterfall. Oscar had to chase us out of the forest and back onto the bus or we would have stayed there all day.

The Cloud Forest

Orchids (mostly) in the rainforest.

We arrived at Bella Vista Lodge in time for lunch. Bella Vista is an ecolodge deep in the forest, where we stopped for lunch but also to photograph hummingbirds. There are many endemic hummingbirds in the Cloud Forest, and Bella Vista has a number of feeders which attract them. We spent a happy couple of hours trying to get the perfect photograph – tricky, considering how fast those tiny birds fly! I dread to count how many photos I took but I actually filled 2 memory cards. Amongst those there are lots of shots of empty branches! Some of the group (including Keith) also went for a rather strenuous walk through the forest, which is a magical place. They saw toucans and woodpeckers, but couldn't get any photos of them. There were however lots of opportunities for macro shots of flowers, berries, mushrooms and a tiny frog.

Just a few of the hundreds of hummingbird photos we took today

It was quite a long drive back, and we encountered a bit of traffic, so we were glad to get to the hotel at about 6.30. We went straight out for dinner at TGI Fridays, which is apparently a North American restaurant – tasty food, huge servings. The menu was amusing – the names of the dishes were all in English, but the descriptions in Spanish, and the waitress seemed to struggle with the English names. Keith & I played it safe after last night and both had steak.

Half the group are leaving tomorrow, either to go home or on to further adventures. It was sad to say goodbye but we will keep in touch. I am glad we still have some holiday ahead of us!


Planes, buses & boats

Posted: December 1, 2012 in Ecuador

Should be a pretty short post today, as we spent most of the day in transit.

We started ridiculously early with a 5.15am pickup at our hotel. We were taken by minibus to the wharf, where a water taxi took us to our boat for the 3 hour crossing back to Baltra Island and the International Airport. The flight back to Quito (with a refuelling stop in Guayaquil) was smooth, and after a bus ride from the airport (squished onto the bus with all our luggage) we finally arrived at the hotel at around 5pm.

We are staying in a Best Western Hotel, and it is very comfortable. We have a little suite, with a bedroom, bathroom (with spa) and a small sitting room, and walk in wardrobe. The lap of luxury. It's not the quietest place as there have been loud functions on each night, but at least there isn't the street noise we had in Guayaquil.

After a meet up in the hotel bar, we headed to a nearby Argentinian steakhouse for dinner. Keith and I ordered a shared platter of meats for 2. Unfortunately our Spanish wasn't good enough to translate all the 'meats' on the platter, many of which were unidentified squishy things that clearly were internal organs of some kind. Fortunately there was way too much food on the platter, so we ate our fill of steak, which was delicious.

Looking forward to a couple of days in Quito, then to Galveston Texas.

Almost Over Already?

Posted: December 1, 2012 in Galapagos

Stunning ocean scenery today.

Our last day in the Galápagos Islands dawned sunny, for a change. We had a relatively late breakfast at 7.30am, and a pretty relaxed schedule planned. It was technically a free day, but Veronica offered to lead us on a 15 minute walk to a lagoon usually frequented by flamingoes. We don't have a great deal of confidence in Veronica's time estimates, since the 45 minute volcano hike turned into a 4.5 hour marathon! But this was on flat, dry ground, and we all took up the offer.

It did take longer than 15 minutes, but mostly because we kept stopping for photos. And there were indeed several flamingoes. Nothing like the numbers we saw in Kenya, but much pinker than those were. I find it interesting that such a pretty bird inhabits such an unsavoury environment (brackish water) and feeds in such an unpleasant way (filtering the mud through its beak). We took too many photos (of course) and waited for a while in the hope that one or more of them would fly away, to get the classic running on the water shot. But these flamingoes were much less skittish than the ones in Kenya, so no luck on that score.

Pretty flamingoes & mad photographers.

We walked back from the lagoon along the beach. It was hot, the sky was blue, the ocean sparkling, and the rocks and sand full of sunbaking marine iguanas. You would think we had enough shots of these prehistoric-looking creatures, but apparently not. There is a timber elevated platform on the beach, as a kind of lookout, so we wandered up there to see what we could see. There was nothing particular to see, but it gave us a great view of the beachfront.

No such thing as too many iguana photos, apparently. I like the tongue shot - since it was low tide, there was algae on the rocks and this little fellow didn't need to go into the water to eat.

Views from the lookout.

Iguana crossing - and he did. Iguana having a swim. Iguanas all over the beach (those black bits aren't seaweed, they are iguanas, Iguana battles on the lava rocks.

We spent quite a while at the beach, lingering and enjoying our last day and the sunny weather. When we got too hot and thirsty we headed into a shady cafe for lunch and a cool drink. We stayed there for quite a while, trying to stretch every moment. While we were there it clouded over and actually started to rain.

We had plans for the afternoon to have a rest and then wander down to the little harbour to take some photos. The evening before when we got back from our boat trip there were lots of boobies diving into the water, and there are usually playful sea lions, iguanas, and even penguins. However our rest extended longer than we planned and we missed that opportunity. D'oh! We did however wake up in time for happy hour. We gathered at Bar de Beto, our favourite spot for one last drink. We have been learning several new South American cocktails, but tonight we opted for the special Cuba Libre (rum & Coke) which was 2 for the price of 1, and seemed to go with the atmosphere of the bar and the island.

The pink bar - the Bar de Beto - Iguana Point Bar - Happy Hour

We had to have our last dinner at El Cafetal again. All the meals there have been great, and the same waiter, Edilbert, has served us every meal – he felt like an old friend. The special of the day was a huge platter of grilled seafood. Mmmm. And to thank us for our custom he treated us all to a slice of Tiramisu for dessert. In such a sleepy place a group of 14 turning up for meals every day (we always booked and usually pre-ordered) must have made a bit of a difference, and we really enjoyed the friendly service and great food – a win-win.

After dinner we headed for the beach for one last bit of light painting – this time with a difference. We each took turns with a small coloured LED light “drawing” Galapagos animals in the air to be captured on “film”. Some of us had more success than others, but considering it was something we hadn't done before, I think the results are pretty impressive.

Fun with lights & cameras (and steel wool)

Despite the fact that we would have a ridiculously early start the next day, a few stayers (Chris, Jess, Vicki, Jan, Keith & I) headed to a different beach bar for a nightcap. The Iguana Point Bar sits at the end of a pier, and is an archetypal beach bar, with a palm frond roof and sand floor. We had tried to go a couple of times before but the hours seemed somewhat random. We didn't stay too late but it was nice to stretch the day a little longer, before heading back to our rooms to pack.

The view from the Iguana Point Bar at night.


A Picnic with a Difference

Posted: November 29, 2012 in Galapagos

It wasn't a promising start to the day. We woke to heavy rain, which wasn't what we had ordered for a day out in the boats. We have not had great weather, on the whole, but this was the worst. So when we arrived at breakfast at 7am, all packed and ready to go, we discovered that our outing had been postponed till 9am in the hope of an improvement. By 9 the rain had eased but not stopped but we forged ahead regardless. A few stayed behind, either because of the weather or feeling unwell, so there were only 7 of us, plus Chris & Jess, Veronica, and the boat crew (2 men on each boat – and we had 2 boats). Since we end up wet after snorkelling anyway, we decided the rain was no big deal, and this time I had remembered a jacket so was not as cold as yesterday.

Our first port of call was a small group of islets called The Four Brothers, or Cuatro Hermanos (no doubt there is a story to go with that name) which were sheer rocky cliffs rising to volcanic peaks. We were taken to a cleft in the rock that lead to a cave big enough to take the boat into for a short distance. I'm sure there is some pirate treasure hidden in there somewhere. A few hardy souls went for a quick snorkel there, but the water was very cold. Apparently the water was the clearest of any snorkelling site yet on the trip.

Sea lions find a resting spot wherever they can - a Nazca booby - the cave we ventured into

Travelling at full throttle we powered on until we reached a relatively sheltered area of small mangrove-lined bays and inlets. The crew of each boat threw out a fishing line (they gave Keith a turn with the rod) with the hope of catching some lunch – it took a while but we managed to catch several small fish (which we threw back) and three large ones (bass I believe), with which the crew proceeded to prepare ceviche for our lunch. While they chopped and diced, most of us went snorkelling. I decided not to go in as I had a bit of an earache, and the water didn't look all that clear. By now the rain had cleared and the skies were mostly blue. The sun shone and it was very pleasant relaxing on the boat and staying dry!

Working for our lunch. The fish at the bottom left was one of the ones that were thrown back, the one on the right became lunch.

It turned out to be the right choice. The snorkellers said the visibility was pretty poor, because of the earlier rain – apparently a sea lion swam right beneath Keith and he didn't see it. Back on the boat we were treated to a great display as the frigatebirds soon heard there was fresh fish on our boat and hovered hoping for scraps (and posing beautifully for photos). Eventually the crew threw them the tails and other scraps and they caught them mid-air. The squabbling over the morsels was fun to watch.

Magnificent Frigatebirds and a Pelican

Once everyone was back on board we motored in one boat around to the next bay for a little beach walk, while the chef/boat crew finished the ceviche on the other boat. The sand was volcanic i.e. black, and there was lots of debris on the beach (seaweed, bones, driftwood) but there were sea lions, including 2 males and one very tiny baby. Usually you only find one male in an area, so the presence of a second meant that the old male was soon to be challenged and probably deposed. Which meant both were fairly aggressive and we were very careful not to get too close. Those guys can move when they want to! We took some photos but the boat crew were getting worried and called us back to the boat fairly quickly.

The black sands of Cartego Bay - a couple of favourite sea lion photos

Soon our lunch was ready and it was spectacular! You couldn't get fresher fish, and the flavour of the ceviche was perfect. They served it with plantain chips and a glass of Coke (or water), and there were sandwiches as well. Then fresh watermelon to round off the meal. Sitting on the water, enjoying the view and the sun and great food – this is what holidays are all about.

Ceviche in the making, and our picnic lunch. So delicious.

The trip back to Puerto Villamil was rather bumpy as we sped over the waves, crashing down with bone-jarring thumps. We hugged the coastline fairly closely, and I enjoyed watching the huge waves crashing over the rocky shores. We didn't get back to the little harbour until 5pm, it was a long but very fun day.

Happy hour tonight was at a different beach bar. This one has a beach volleyball net (which seemingly has a permanent game going on), a fireplace on the sand which we sat around, and very cheap drinks. Another fun place to hang out. It is next door to the Bar de Beto, our usual spot, where we ended up for dinner. We had tried to eat there before but you had to pre-order. The menu was lobster, shrimp or beef (that's all we knew). Keith & I chose shrimp, which was very tasty, though I think there was more garlic than shrimp (and there were plenty of shrimps). They served a little banana with chocolate sauce for dessert – mmm. We all loved the atmosphere at the Bar de Beto, it was such a relaxed, holiday-on-the-beach kind of place.

Sitting around the fire, and another delicious dinner