A Decade of Changes in our Visits to Costa Rica

Our current stay in Costa Rica has given us the the time to consider the stark contrast with our first visit here in 2007. The changes in our lives over that time have made us look at travel quite differently.

DSCF2438 (2015_10_17 13_44_39 UTC)

Our son, Erik at 12 years in 2008 during our second visit

We had booked a ten day package that included stops in Tortuguero, Arenal and Flamingo Beach with plenty of activities at each. It was the first winter vacation for all three of us away from the beaches of the Caribbean and Florida. We arrived sick, never shook off the bronchitis we were fighting but went straight out anyway and fell in love with Costa Rica.

DSC_0032 (2015_10_17 13_44_39 UTC)

Yes, that’s us at the back of the raft

Those were the days when two weeks was all we had, perhaps twice a year if we were lucky, and it seemed important to cram as much as possible into that short period of time. As a result we often returned home as tired and stressed as when we left. Plus we had to save for the next six months to pay it all off.

DSCF2839 (2015_10_17 13_44_39 UTC)

Manuel Antonio in 2008

The more we travel the more we have found that we are not much different from many of the travelers of our age. For most, it has only been since their 50s that they have had either the time or the money to be able to travel in the way that they choose. A recent article in Intrepid Travels, The Journal, by fellow Canadian Alison Armstrong provides some excellent insight on changing attitudes to travel as we age.

IMG_8497

An expat band performing in Atenas

There are an increasing number of digital nomads and others who find a way to fund their travels at an early age. We continue to be amazed and surprised by the sheer number and diversity of long term travelers “out there” and by their determination to experience the world on their own terms. Some of the lifestyles are at odds with our preferences but for the most part we applaud their curiosity and ingenuity.

IMG_7641

This restaurant and cafe in Cuenca, Ecuador targets the large expat community there

Back to the present, we have been perfectly content to relax at our hilltop house in Atenas, Costa Rica for the past three weeks. We don’t feel the need to explore, to fit in, or tick off boxes in a guide book. Although there are literally years of exploration left in this beautiful country we can choose to return if the timing is right.

IMG_8290

The very pleasant Central Mercado in Atenas

We are of course older now but by far the biggest change is in our lifestyle. Gone are work commitments, looking after the house and yard, and meeting the expectations of modern North American society. Of course many people are quite content without making the dramatic changes we have, but it has certainly changed our approach to, and appreciation for life.

IMG_8209

Blue grosebeak – Atenas

One major change we have noticed since we began this journey is that there is no longer the sense of wanting something more. This not only applies to all the “stuff” like clothes, gadgets, cars etc. but also to travel. Of course we would love to be able to indulge in an extended African safari, pamper ourselves at an over-water bungalow in the South Pacific, or cruise the Caribbean for an entire year but those are just fantasies that we may or may not make reality.

IMG_7272

We were able to make a trip to the Amazon a reality this year

Our current lifestyle has given us much more freedom and mobility. If we don’t like the weather it will always change, or we can move. If we don’t like the neighbourhood we can easily change that too. And perhaps what is most important is that if we enjoy where we are and the people we are with we can stay longer or return.

IMG_4727

Enjoying lunch in Cordoba, Spain with great friends we met in Portugal

15785678_10155012969678694_135644799_o

The fabulous Markham family – Family Feud winners on New Year’s Eve in Lagos, Portugal

It is these type of relatively simple concepts that have made our minds lighter, our bodies healthier, and allowed us to enjoy more of the simple things that are so often right in front of us. We certainly enjoyed the Eiffel Tower, the museums of London, the remarkable castles of Sintra, and the breathtaking cathedrals of Seville and Cordoba. But apart from all of these wondrous sights perhaps what stands out most are the cafes of Spain and Portugal, the natural wonders of the Amazon, the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean from the cliffs of Cabo de Sao Vicente, Portugal, and the stunning wildlife of Costa Rica.

IMG_5291

Relaxing on a warm December day in Silves, Portugal

IMG_5169

Headland near Cabo de Sao Vicente, Portugal

IMG_7132 (2)

Channel-billed Toucan – Cuyabeno Reserve, Ecuador

As we enjoy the fabulous view across the Central Valley in Costa Rica from our rental home in Atenas we have been pleasantly surprised at how quickly times go by without feeling the need to do more or have more.

IMG_8052

IMG_8075

Watching young doves hatch, fledge and leave their nest, excitedly spotting a different species of trogon, or simply marveling at the changing cloud formations above the volcanoes in the distance all relax our minds and give us peace and contentment. Daily swims provide physical activity, twice a week we venture into town to pick up groceries and practice our Spanish, we communicate with friends and family from the comfort of our open living room, and this is enough for now.

IMG_8329

Keel-billed toucan – Atenas

IMG_8063

Our backyard oasis

In a few days Erik and his girlfriend arrive and we will do some exploring and share with them some of the beauty of this country before we head south to our house sit in Playa Matapalo. We feel relaxed, comfortable and secure in the knowledge that we are living our life the way we choose and that the future is ours to shape in the way that suits us best.

crbeauties28_1 (2015_10_17 13_44_39 UTC)

From Atenas we head to the southern beaches for six weeks of house sitting

We have plans in place to return to Portugal this summer that hopefully will work out, but for now life is good. We will take our new attitude with us and enjoy the time and opportunity that we have – beyond that it is hard to predict – and what this life has in store for us remains to be written. As they say in Costa Rica, Pura Vida (Pure Life!).

P_20161218_121941

Looking westward towards the coast from Aljezur, Portugal

 

Posted in Central America, Slow Travel | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

A Brief Introduction to Quito

IMG_6630

Approach to the airport – Quito is still about 25 kms away.

As our recent visit to the Amazon Basin took us through Quito we decided to take an extended layover and spent two nights in the Ecuadorian capital. It sits at an altitude of 9350 feet on the slope of the active Pichincha Volcano, and on a clear day the views are stunning with mountain peaks and volcanoes visible in all directions.

P_20170217_203724

We were amazed at the physical extent of the city within the mountains

Many people suffer altitude sickness, but the effects on our bodies were minimal. We had slight muscle pain and were a little lightheaded. Drinking plenty of water and taking ibuprofen helps. An anti-nausea pill can also help until your body adjusts.

IMG_7454

City suburbs on the slopes of the active stratovolcano Pichincha

The historic center is recognized as one of the the most well preserved colonial cities in the Americas and along with Krakow, Poland was declared the first UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1978. This area was where we chose to stay for our brief visit.

IMG_7368

Plaza Grande or Independence Square

IMG_7365

Some of the fine colonial buildings surrounding Independence Square or Plaza Grande

IMG_7436 (2)

The Quito Virgin on El Panecillo through the Calle del Hospital Arch

We arrived at Mariscal Sucre Airport which is located about 30 km from the city center. This airport was opened in 2013, replacing the older airport which due to its location was frequently closed because of nighttime fog and the proximity of tall buildings. A taxi costs about $25 USD but you can take a cheaper shared bus service.

IMG_6642

We chose the Hotel Colonial San Agustin, located in a renovated Spanish colonial building and found it to be very clean and welcoming with plenty of character. Arriving after dark and without having had something to eat, we were disappointed to be told it was too dangerous in the neighborhood to go out at night and that most stores were closed early. The young man on the desk accompanied Tim to find an open store to get a few snacks for our supper! We usually try not to arrive too late in a new destination but our flight was delayed more than an hour.

IMG_7340

Hotel Colonial San Agustin on Calle Juan Jose Flores

IMG_7441

The very welcoming lobby from above

After a very good and very inexpensive breakfast, we spent the early part of the next day wandering the heart of the historic center. The narrow cobblestone streets were full of life and flanked by fine examples of Spanish colonial architecture. There was an abundance of interesting shops, restaurants and services throughout the area with several inviting plazas.

IMG_7439 (2)

One of many small plazas off the main streets

IMG_7343

IMG_7431

A whole street was dedicated to pinata shops which were common throughout Ecuador

Fabulous churches and cathedrals rise above the streets and plazas and could easily make for several days of visits. We did go inside of the Iglesia San Agustin and were particularly impressed by the colours throughout the nave.

IMG_7370

On the steps of Cathedral Metropolitana

IMG_7346

Entrance to the Iglesia San Agustin

IMG_7347

The pastel colours were beautiful

In the lower portion of another church, the Iglesia San Francisco, is a wonderful craft market and gallery. Spread throughout the winding catacombs of the church are well presented displays of fine examples of traditional arts and crafts. Jewelry, pottery, hats, chocolate, sculptures and paintings depicting the traditions of the pre-colonial period, along with well documented historical references made this feel as much of a museum as a shopping experience.

IMG_7416

IMG_7415 (2)

We have seen many street venders throughout Ecuador but nowhere to the extent that we did in Quito. Not only were there the usual street food and souvenir venders, but also literally hundreds selling everything from scarves, hats, vegetables, cigarettes, knock off CDs, underwear, plastic boxes, clothes pins and much much more.

IMG_7434

Women sold hundreds of bags of vegetables and fruit in these bags

IMG_7398

Clothes pins anyone? Or on the right you can buy candy.

IMG_7396

Anne bought two scarves from this lovely lady ($5 USD)

IMG_7405

All of the traditional venders and then a row of formal wear stores and some awesome manikins

It seemed that you could get just about everything if you looked hard enough. People carried bags, boxes, knapsacks and plastic bags full of these items. Of course there were many shoeshine boys but also something we hadn’t seen before, and that was men with scales who would tell you your weight. Not sure what they were asking for it but probably a few cents.

IMG_7399

One man was selling your weight and the other we assume sold ladies shoes. We actually saw this several times. We should have asked about the scales!

There was a very large police presence throughout the central area. On every corner, in every plaza and lane were dozens of uniformed police. In fact other than in the train stations of Paris, the most we had seen anywhere. It seemed that their biggest concern was moving the venders along and trying to stop them from harassing people on the street.

IMG_7367

Police were everywhere – on foot, horseback, bicycle, motorcycles and even Segways

IMG_7374

There was one stop that we had to make while we were there and that was to visit El Panecillo and the madonna statue which overlooks the city. The statue was inspired by the famous Quito Virgin and erected in 1976. We took a taxi to the summit of the hill where the statue sits and weren’t disappointed with the views.

IMG_7380

View of the statue from the historic center

IMG_7472

Spanish artist Agustin de la Herran Matorras created this 45 m statue from stone and aluminum

In all directions the city and its suburbs crawl up and down the sides of the mountains with the volcanic peaks serving as a backdrop. This was certainly one of the most jaw dropping scenes we have seen in our travels. There were surprisingly few people there and an hour passed by quickly as we absorbed the spectacular setting.

IMG_7446

P_20170217_200415

A coincidental meeting with Chilean friends from our Amazon trip

IMG_7448

Looking across the historical center to the new part of the city

We only scratched the surface of Quito during our short visit but it certainly is a unique and vibrant city. You could feel the life of the people on her streets, see the history in her colonial architecture and get a sense of native traditions through the arts, crafts and cuisine which were prominent everywhere.

IMG_7420 (2)

Who is enjoying this the most – the little girl, the family or the pigeons?

IMG_7419 (2)

Posted in South America | Tagged | 6 Comments

Our First Travel Fail: Yellow Fever Requirements for Costa Rica

We are both planners by nature and we might be accused of over-planning and not leaving enough to chance. However on our most recent trip from Ecuador to Costa Rica we were caught by surprise and forced into a week long stay in Panama to meet the Yellow Fever entry requirements for Costa Rica.

P_20170318_181445

The Puente Centenario spans the Panama Canal just north of the Pedro Miguel Locks

The bottom line is that anyone entering Costa Rica from Ecuador (or many other South American countries) requires a valid Yellow Fever vaccination which we did not have. We weren’t aware of this and normally the airlines advise passengers of the requirements when they sell you a ticket.  The reason that the airlines are so strict is that they have a responsibility to fly you out if you are refused entry into a country.

IMG_6575

Welcome to Guayaquil

In our case we weren’t advised and as near as we can tell it was due to the manner in which we booked our tickets. We had complicated flights originating in Canada in January, then from Ecuador to Costa Rica and finally returning to Canada in June. We were able to secure a good price and both Ecuador and Costa Rica require proof of departure. We bought our tickets through United but the flights from Ecuador to Costa Rica were on Avianca through Colombia and Panama. It was the Avianca agents who refused our boarding. Imagine our surprise and dismay when we arrived at the Guayaquil Airport and were told that we could not board as our final destination was Costa Rica and we did not have Yellow Fever vaccinations. We had to quickly decide what our options were and choose one!

IMG_5749

After some time with a very helpful information agent we confirmed that our options were to get the vaccination in Ecuador at a health clinic (for free) and stay in Ecuador for 10 days; get the vaccination and try to persuade the clinic to back date the shot over 10 days ago (this happens!); or there was an “exception” that you could leave Ecuador and stay in a Yellow Fever free country for 6 days. We did not want to stay in Ecuador and with 2 hours before our flight, getting to the clinic and relying on a back dated card was too risky.  We decided to head to Panama! Keep going forward! The Costa Rican Embassy in the USA’s site states clearly that if you remained for 6 days in a Yellow Fever free country you could enter without a vaccination.

P_20170320_234741

Off to the ticket counter for Avianca and we were told they couldn’t change or cancel our original leg from Panama to Costa Rica because the ticket had been purchased through United. It was getting closer to our flight! A lengthy call to United and we cancelled the last leg of the day’s flights then rushed back to the Avianca counter and were allowed to fly as far as Panama.

IMG_6581

Guayaquil Airport

We arrived at Panama City’s Tocumen Airport four hours later (via Bogota) and were happy to be let into the country. We stayed at the Crowne Plaza Airport Hotel that night while we searched for accommodations for the next 6 nights.

P_20170318_180208

Panama City skyline from the north

The costs were already starting to add up. United had a cancellation fee of $168 CAD each, and we were too late to cancel our reservation at the Hampton Inn in San Jose that night. We had a taxi arranged to pick us up the next morning to take us to our Airbnb home in Atenas. And of course we were too late to change that reservation so we have to pay for a week that we didn’t use.

IMG_8005

The Radisson Summit in Paraiso, just outside of Panama City

After looking through where to stay in Panama we decided on the Radisson Summit Hotel just outside of the city. They offered good rates, full breakfast, good birding and a local shuttle. It cost $50 US to be driven there however.

P_20170318_204817

Great view from our balcony

In fact we were very comfortable there and enjoyed our stay. We received many suggestions from friends as to where we should visit while we were in Panama and all of the wonderful things to do and see. There are attractions for sure, but given that we were a little put off and we would be spending a lot of extra money, we chose to stay close to the hotel.

IMG_8044

Saffron Finch

IMG_7910

A nearby trail led to these tracks – after that – who knows?

Meanwhile we scoured the web for more information on the entry requirements for Costa Rica as we wanted to verify that we would be allowed in after 6 days. The only “official” confirmation of the 6 day exception we could find anywhere was on the aforementioned Costa Rican Embassy to the USA and also on their Belgian Embassy site. We couldn’t find it on the WHO site, the Canadian Embassy or the Costa Rican Immigration site. We did find many people who had experienced similar situations!

P_20170320_161330

Waiting room at the government clinic

It seemed like an ideal opportunity to get Yellow Fever vaccinations so after reading a great article on the Tofu Traveller blog we went to a local government clinic and for $5 US each and a short wait we both now have 10 year vaccinations and the official “yellow” cards. It was easy to find and although no one spoke English, we had no problems.

P_20170320_165805

The nurse was very efficient, especially since it was 11:55 (almost lunch!)

We also took the time to visit the Miraflores Locks and do some shopping (mostly window shopping) at the Allbrook Mall. The Panama Canal and the Miraflores Locks deserve a post so perhaps we’ll talk more about them in the future. Unfortunately on the day we were there, no ships passed during our three hour visit. We thoroughly enjoyed the Visitor’s Centre however.

IMG_7924

Visitor’s Centre at Miraflores Locks

IMG_7935

Looking towards Pedro Miguel Locks

IMG_7925

Another step we took was to call the Canadian Embassy in San Jose who called Costa Rican Immigration on our behalf. We were relieved when they confirmed that we would be able to enter after 6 days in Panama. So we booked a flight out on the seventh day (another $400 CAD) and settled in.

IMG_7919

This coati didn’t care if the fruit was for the birds

So on the seventh day we were totally prepared to leave and out of the blue we received an email from Avianca that our flight had been cancelled and they had booked us out the next day, but through Bogata (backtracking to Colombia!). Another day in quarantine! The last thing we wanted to do was go back to Colombia and risk raising additional questions, so a call to Avianca secured us a direct flight early the next morning.

IMG_8050

Despite much anxiety and trepidation we had no problems at all with boarding and we were so happy to be on a plane to Costa Rica. Now we just had to deal with an unknown Immigration Officer.  The immigration lines at San Jose’s airport can be very long (especially when you’re anxious) but it wasn’t too bad when we arrived on a Saturday morning.

IMG_8051

On the tarmac in San Jose

After all of the hype, anxiety and consternation the Immigration Officer barely looked at our passports and the only question she asked was how long were we staying. We showed her our ticket to Canada in June and we were in!!!

IMG_8059

Can you tell someone is happy!

So the bottom line is, be diligent about the entry requirements for any country you are planning to visit. We had been to Costa Rica many times before so we neglected to check on entering from South America. This was compounded by the fact that United neglected to inform us when we purchased our tickets. We are in the process of submitting claims through United, our credit card, and World Nomads (our travel and health insurer). We would like to say a big thanks to the San Jose Hampton Inn who graciously refunded our full night’s charge.

Posted in Central America, South America, Travel Tips | Tagged , , , | 8 Comments

The Amazon Basin Part 2: Making the Most of the Experience

A small lodge provides you with a unique opportunity to experience the rainforest in as natural a setting as possible while still maintaining comfort and safety for its guests. Falling asleep and waking to the sounds of the jungle, the insects, the birds, and often the rain dripping through the trees takes you away from the distractions of the modern world, and is something we would recommend to anyone. Our last post described getting here, and now we are here.

IMG_7088 (2)

Oropendola nests were a common sight along the banks of the river

The Guacamayo Ecolodge understands this concept and provides its guests with an authentic experience. Limited electricity, local food, knowledgeable staff and guides, traditional building styles, and sound environmental practices exhibit an appreciation for this sensitive environment.

IMG_7297

Looking down at the lodge from the birding tower

We arrived with a small group of 6 people and over our first meal we got to know each other and our guide better. As we came to find out over the next several days, we were extremely fortunate to have Gido as our primary guide as he was a wealth of information about the reserve and had a profound respect for the environment. A member of the Siona indigenous people, he added to his traditional knowledge through personal interest, much dedication, and a university education. He was the perfect interpreter for the reserve. For us an added bonus was that he was a keen and knowledgeable birder!

IMG_6904

Gido was one of the best guides we have encountered anywhere

Our first afternoon provided an excellent introduction to the reserve and one of its key features. Heading back along the river we entered an inland lake known as Laguna Grande. Again we were treated to many sightings including long-nosed bats, many bird species, several species of monkeys, and a wonderful view of a sloth!

IMG_6901 (2)

We loved the Laguna Grande and its ethereal feel

IMG_6856

Long-nosed bats

As we entered the lagoon three pink river dolphins were spotted feeding near the surface of the dark and placid water. Reliant on water levels these mammals migrate throughout the Amazon basin feeding on fish. Unlike their more well known marine counterparts, river dolphins cannot jump due to their vertebrae so we watched carefully in order to see them breaking the surface nearby. We were rewarded several times with clear views of their feeding activity.

IMG_7012

You never knew where exactly they would surface next

As we headed further into the lagoon we entered a mystical flooded forest and as the water levels were quite high we were able to take the canoes deep into the shoreline. Anhingas, woodpeckers, flycatchers, parrots, swallows, herons, and many other species of birds were all around us and we were captivated. The abundant wildlife combined with the surreal vision of the giant trees emerging from the lake created a scene that we had only seen in documentaries. This was why we had come here.

IMG_6942

IMG_6868

Then came the time for the daily ritual of swimming in the lagoon in the late afternoon. Canoes from several of the lodges converged on the central part, shut off their motors and anyone who wanted (or dared) dove into the tea-like water to cool off, refresh or fuel their adrenaline. Yes, there are caimans and other interesting residents of the lake but the deeper central portion was perfectly safe and very relaxing.

IMG_6919

Can you tell everyone is having a great time?!

A night walk is a feature of most trips into the rainforest and provides you with an altogether different perspective on the jungle. Your usual sense of sight is diminished to a small ray of light, your hearing is subsequently enhanced and together these will let your imagination run wild. Additionally, night is when many different species of animals, birds, and insects are at their most active.

IMG_6893 (2)

Before arriving at our trail we motored slowly along the shoreline and were treated to the sight of dozens of boat-billed and night herons taking flight in the shadows. As the light began to fade, dozens of fishing bats appeared, swooping closely overhead and gracefully skimming the water’s surface. All the while Gido swept the shoreline for the bright red eyes of caimans who feed in the early evening.

IMG_6883 (3)

We were completely awestruck at the skill at which the boatman navigated the difficult waters in almost complete darkness with no light. How they unerringly took us through the myriad of flooded trees, mudbanks and other hazards and arrived at our destinations time after time amazed and delighted us.

IMG_6874 (2)

Walking single file through the jungle in complete darkness is a very interesting experience. For those at the front of the line you have the large beam of the guide’s flashlight while those at the rear tend to look over their shoulders and become startled at every sound or perceived movement. On our walk we saw tarantulas, scorpions, and very large crickets, but no snakes. It is an experience we highly recommend to anyone.

IMG_7022

Whip spider

IMG_7027

Scorpion!

On one evening we were astonished (again) at the skill of Gido. We were slowly motoring along the riverbank towards our lodge in almost complete darkness while he swept both banks for the red eyes of caiman. A quiet call to the boatman and we turned towards the left bank and into a fairly large thicket of small trees. Pushing several aside we glided into the shore and there before our eyes was a small boa constrictor curled up on a branch. We still have difficulty believing him that he spotted it from the middle of the river and through the trees. He swears he did!

IMG_6898 (2)

There was a common joke among some of us that the guides placed plastic and stuffed animals, birds, and insects along the river and paths to amaze the tourists, creating a Disneyland like experience.

IMG_6821

A sloth calmly having a late afternoon snack

Evening meals and a cold beer afterwards were great times to chat with our new friends, reminisce about the days’ experiences, and conjure up exotic images of the next day. After the long day spent in the outdoors, the good food, and the amazing night sounds of the rainforest it only took a few minutes to drift into a very peaceful and relaxed sleep.

IMG_6929

Relaxing over the evening meal

Four days pass very quickly and it is amazing how easily you can fall into the rhythm of the rainforest. We were up early for a hearty breakfast and then Gido would have us out onto the boats for our first activity of the day. A full morning of hiking or paddling would last until 1:00 or so before we arrived back at the lodge for lunch. Some days you might have an hour before heading out again. Some people opted out of the afternoon activities and chose to relax at the lodge which was a wonderful experience in itself.

IMG_6945

Preparing for a hike

IMG_6988

All set to paddle back to the lodge

On our last full day we visited a Siona village several kilometres downriver. We passed several lodges, spotted many birds and monkeys, and as always were moved by the beauty of the river system.

IMG_6848

An ancient bird – the Hoatzin (He has claws on the end of his wings and two stomachs)

IMG_7070

Green Forest Ecolodge

After about an hour we arrived at the village. Several women, children, and dogs were on the bank to welcome us. Obviously this takes place every day of the year but it still felt like a privilege to spend time with people who continue to live in their traditional lands, albeit with some modern conveniences.

IMG_7173

Ecuadorian Presidential election signs are even in remote places

IMG_7177

Our welcoming committee

For the most part we were quite impressed with the condition and infrastructure of the village. To us it appeared that they were living much better than a large number of Ecuadorians in many of the towns and villages we had seen throughout the country.

IMG_7178

IMG_7182

This little boy was a delight and accompanied us all morning

They had a large community soccer pitch and a recreation centre. Most of the homes we saw were in good repair and it was far cleaner than many other places we had seen. The most impressive feature was the extensive community gardens, fields and orchards. Pineapples, yucca, sugar cane, bananas, corn, papayas, mangoes, and many many more fruits and vegetables were tended by the women and children.

IMG_7204

Cutting yucca roots after pulling them from the ground

IMG_7213

Always a smile!

Of course there was a demonstration for the visitors. In this case it involved pulling yuccas from the fields, transporting them to a specially created building and then going though the whole process of making making yucca bread. The Siona woman (she sure could handle a machete!) who led us though the process spoke little English but was proud and gracious and even though she does this every day made a great effort to be engaging and friendly. We all helped out and enjoyed the tasty and warm yucca tortillas (gluten-free) with our box lunches provided by the lodge.

IMG_7230

Grating the yucca roots

It was a very interesting and informative morning spent at the village. We were impressed with how the people seemed to be adapting to modern living while retaining many of their traditional beliefs and practices. On the surface they seem to be taking the best of both and making it work for them. There is a mandatory $6 US donation that everyone makes to the village in return for the experience.

IMG_7270

Preparing to head downriver

Our next stop was one that many of us had mixed emotions about. It was the possible meeting and demonstration by a local shaman. We had read many varied reviews commenting on the authenticity of the shaman and the fact that it was simply a show for the tourists. This type of tourism is common throughout the world and the subject of ongoing debate, but in reality he clearly had trained extensively, honored his beliefs and was carrying on the traditions of his people.

IMG_7274

The second village we visited was home to the shaman

Whether you believe in supporting local communities in this manner or not, the shaman that we met and who performed a cleansing ritual was honest, genuine, and proud of his role in his community. We were pleased to leave a donation.

IMG_7278 (2)

A proud Siona Shaman

The last day of a trip like this is always filled with mixed emotions. There were a couple of people who appeared more than ready to move on but most of us were sad to leave the natural, unhurried life in the Amazon rainforest behind. No contact with the outside world, minimalist living, and feeling part of the local ecosystem is good for you both mentally and physically. For us, we were genuinely sorry to be leaving.

IMG_7064 (2)

There was one last reminder for everyone of the true nature of the place we had visited. A large tree had fallen across the river the night before. The hard work and sharp machete of one of the guides cut through it, allowing the boats to continue to transport the dozens of tourists and locals along the Cuyabeno River to the heart of the reserve.

IMG_7316

It was amazing how many ants and spiders came off of this tree into the canoe!

IMG_7317

Waiting for the river to open

The two hour trip up the river passed far too quickly and we just relaxed quietly and contemplated this wonderful corner of the world we were leaving behind. We may never have the opportunity to return again but it will always remain in the forefront of our memories.

IMG_6970 (2)

As we got off the canoe at the reserve entrance, sure enough there were many “newbies” just like we were a few days ago awaiting their chance to experience the beauty, diversity and challenges of the upper Amazon Basin.

IMG_6745

Locals enjoying the water and watching the tourists come and go

IMG_7333

The buses bring groups in and pick up outgoing groups

People we spoke with before and after this trip expressed a range of ideas about this type of a trip. Some were genuinely concerned about spiders and snakes, some about mosquitoes and others didn’t want to be cut off from the their cell phones and wifi signals. As for insects, we saw very few mosquitoes and almost none at the lodge. Sure there were spiders around, some cockroaches and lots of butterflies, dragonflies, and wondrous beetles. We did see a few snakes but had to look hard for them. As for no cell phones or wifi – it was a perfect way to ensure you get the maximum experience possible and does us all good once in a while.

IMG_6875 (2)

Posted in South America | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

The Amazon Basin Part 1: Planning and the Journey

IMG_6665 (2)

The Rio Napo as you approach Lago Agrio

The Amazon rainforest is the world’s largest by far, and the Amazon Basin covers over 6.9 million square kilometers and forms parts of eight countries including Ecuador. In addition to its critical role in the generation of water and carbon storage it also contains approximately 10% of the world’s biodiversity. A visit to this amazing and vast ecosystem has always been a dream of ours so it was incredible for us to be able to include a trip during our time in Ecuador.

IMG_7084

The silt-laden water of the Cuyabeno River

The two most popular ways to visit are either to an ecolodge or on one of several river cruises operating within the basin. After looking at both options, we chose to visit a lodge and immerse ourselves in the rainforest experience.

IMG_7297

Looking down at the Guacamayo Ecolodge

There are a large number of lodges within several different areas of the Ecuadorian portion of the basin, so it can take a bit of research to figure out which one is right for you. Cost, accessibility and location are some of the main factors. In the end we chose the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve as the right area for us. A national park and protected area, it has high biodiversity and is dominated by sediment rich black-water rivers and seasonally flooded forests. The newly created and neighbouring Yasuni National Park has even higher biodiversity but is typically more expensive and harder to reach.

IMG_6867

The entrance to “Laguna Grande” which includes a flooded forest

There are about a dozen lodges in the Cuaybeno Reserve ranging in price from about $250 US to over $1200 US for a typical 4 day 3 night visit. We arranged ours with Imagine Ecuador and chose the Guacamayo Ecolodge based on reviews, price and the availability of a bird watching tower. We noticed in looking through the itineraries of all the lodges in the area that they were basically the same regardless of price. It seems you are paying for extra comforts and perhaps nicer rooms in the more expensive lodges. In fact we regularly saw groups from other lodges on the same trails or stretches of river.

IMG_6858

What did they spot?

Once you have chosen your lodge you have to figure out how to get there. If you are coming from outside the country tour companies will make all of the arrangements for you, but it adds to the total cost. As we were already in the country you would think it would be straightforward, but it was still quite a journey. We started with a two hour bus ride to Guayaquil, then a short flight to Quito and an overnight stay at an airport motel. The next morning we took an early flight to Lago Agrio where we would be picked up by the lodge’s staff. All of the Cuyabeno lodges do a pickup in the morning at the airport. You can also take a bus to Lago Agrio but it is quite long and involves an overnight in Lago Agrio.

IMG_6672

Landing at Lago Agrio

From the airport it was a warm and bumpy two hour bus ride to the entrance of the Cuyabeno Reserve which is the staging point for the lodges in the area. By this time we were pretty excited but also very hot. It is an interesting spot as there are people from all over the world arriving back from their lodges and the newbies like us just getting off the bus.

IMG_6733

The reserve entrance on the shore of the Cuayabeno River

IMG_6742

This rhinoceros beetle was almost the size of our hand

Luggage, food for the lodge and everything else gets manhandled onto the long canoes which serve as the main mode of transportation within the reserve.

IMG_6732

The canoes are owned and operated by the Siona people who live inside the reserve

As you head downriver you are immediately immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of the rainforest and the river. The trees are taller along the riverbank, vines reach for water, blue morpho butterflies  flutter beside you and flowers provide bright contrast to the many shades of green. The warm breeze feels wonderful after the hot and sweaty bus ride.

IMG_6784

Really enjoying the ride!

Very soon we start to spot various birds, monkeys and even an anaconda sleeping along the banks of the river.

IMG_6779

A common potoo was just far too cute. They believe that you can’t see them.

IMG_6801

A wooly monkey was one of several species we saw

IMG_6814

Anhingas were common along the banks of the river

The ride to the lodge is about two hours in length and we loved every minute of it! The deeper you go into the reserve the more you feel like you have entered another world. We have done a similar trip to Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica and particularly enjoyed travelling by boat as you experience the rainforest from a very different perspective.

P_20170213_194842

Every stretch of the river was different

The Guacamayo Ecolodge is a relatively small and intimate lodge perched on the banks of the Cuyabeno River. There are a variety of shared or private rooms spread through four huts. In addition there is a dining hall, two common areas as well as a bird watching tower. As is common practice for these type of lodges, everything is raised off the ground on walkways. This reduces the ecological impact and also protects guests from some unwanted visitors. There are solar panels which provide electricity for charging phones and cameras and a generator provides electricity from 6 PM to 10 PM each evening.

IMG_6820 (2)

The landing at Guacamayo Ecolodge

P_20170213_212031

Our room was in the lower right of the “Sloth Hut”

IMG_7305

Very comfy!

The cost of the trip includes three full meals a day and all activities and tours while you are in the reserve. The meals were excellent and they easily accommodated vegetarian and gluten free diets. We were very pleased with the value we received at $249 US per person.

IMG_7309

The dining hut where we had all our meals

A full meal awaited us when we arrived in the afternoon. As we adjusted to our home for the next few days and met our companions we knew that we were going to love our stay. The next post will cover what types of activities we took part in and introduce more of the scenery and wildlife of the reserve.

Posted in South America, Travel Tips | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Living Life Slowly on the Ecuadorian Coast

We had planned to write about our amazing trip to the Amazon next, but before we leave Ecuador we wanted to share a little more about our version of slow travel. Our experience here in Ballenita has shown us more of the pros and cons of this lifestyle than anywhere else we have lived over the past year. The pictures also provide an insight into this region; Santa Elena, La Libertad, Ballenita and Salinas.

img_6034-2

A carpenter at work in Ballenita

We regularly receive comments that “we are living the dream” and in many respects we are. We love our current lifestyle and are so happy that we chose to make this happen. We want to continue to experience as much as we can of how life goes on in communities across the globe. This includes the good and the not so good aspects of daily life in our temporary homes.

img_5926

Part of the beach front in Ballenita

 

p_20170129_223954

A typical scene in Ballenita

What we tend to write about and photograph are the road trips and adventures that we take while we are living in a location for an extended period, so it often looks like we are on a permanent vacation.

img_2035

A beautiful morning in Cascais, Portugal

However our slow travel lifestyle isn’t all beaches, stunning cities and rainforest adventures. The vast majority of our time is spent on normal everyday activities.

img_5995

This array of communication towers is prominent above Ballenita

img_7485

Along the main street in Ballenita

Staying in one place for a month or two at a time can be wonderful or it can be a disaster, depending on many factors. Generally optimistic by nature, we tend to focus on the positive aspects of an area and minimize the downsides. Photographs can be deceiving as we are drawn to the beautiful, quirky or different and tend to overlook the not so pleasant.

img_6534

A bizarre indoor market/mall in La Libertad

img_6536

A fun group of manikins in the same mall

Nowhere more than here in Ballenita, Ecuador has this been the case.  Take a look outside the concrete and barbed wire walls surrounding our cozy little home and pool and you will see a very different version of life. Muddy and dusty dirt streets, stray dogs and cats, homes with no windows and the lives of everyone exposed can leave you with a knot in your stomach at times. In fact that is one of the main reasons we have difficulty fitting into the expat lifestyle in Central and South America.

img_7489

The view directly behind our casita

img_5962

Salinas is a favorite expat destination

We choose our locations based on a number of factors including climate, access to services, public transportation, green space, walkability and of course cost. We typically stay at least one month or more to cut down on rental and travel costs. We prepare most of our own meals, enjoy our own company and like a fair degree of privacy.

img_5812

Buses are cheap ($0.30) and regular. Taxis are also cheap and are literally everywhere

p_20170209_161933

One of Anne’s favorite gluten free options was yucca bread or pan d’yuca

Once we settle into our accommodation we lead a pretty basic and normal life, based as much as possible on the local culture. We enjoy our coffee in the morning outdoors and our ideal setting is with a nice view and the sounds of nature, although the city view from our patio in Lisbon was wonderful. Breakfasts (and all our meals) are preferably outdoors as well so we have a preference towards warmer climates.

img_1659-2

Sunrise from our apartment in Lisbon

An average day involves a good walk and/or swim, picking up groceries, some computer time for photos, writing, communications and travel research, some down time for reading and relaxing in the afternoon followed by an evening meal. These are activities and a lifestyle that is transferable most anywhere.

img_5941

A typical evening meal on our front porch

We have enjoyed walking and explorations in the immediate vicinity in an urban and rural environments as both have plenty to offer. Marketplaces, beaches, interesting neighbourhoods and country roads are probably our favorites.

img_6528

This vendor was having a great time selling his small conchs at the mercado in La Libertad

p_20170209_150759

The scene behind the stalls at the same mercado

img_6481

A local family waiting for sunset in Ballenita

While we enjoy outdoor living and warm temperatures we find that many places here in Central and South America are too hot for many activities during the day so we tend to get up early and enjoy the early morning and late afternoon hours. The birding is best early in the morning and everyone is drawn to sunsets.

img_5824

A family of vermilion flycatchers kept us company every day

p_20170209_163825

Enjoying a granizado pina – shaved ice with pineapple syrup at the malecon in La Libertad

img_6060

Sunset over Salinas from Ballenita

In our accommodations we look for enough space to be comfortable, decent cooking facilities, an outdoor space, reasonable peace and quiet and good internet. It is sometimes hard to meet all of these criteria but we scour Airbnb, property management sites, holiday rentals like VRBO and Homeaway and for the most part we have been very pleased with what we have been able to find within our provisional budget. However many countries are outside of our price range so house sitting augments our budget and allows us to splurge every now and then.

p_20160914_112733

House sitting allowed us two weeks in London

We try not to plan too much sightseeing and leave down time between our road trips and adventures. This allows time to reflect on our experiences, interact on a local level and ensures we don’t get run down. Everyone can relate to those two week vacations where you returned home more tired and stressed out than when you left.

p_20170209_154508

A typical side street in La Libertad

In fact other than being too cold in our apartment in Lagos, Portugal, we have been very pleased with what we have had until arriving here in Ballenita. We have disturbing (on several levels) neighbours, many stray dogs and cats in very poor condition, far too much garbage littered everywhere, poor internet and a town that while very friendly isn’t all that appealing for exploring and walking. We don’t regret coming here but will be ready to leave in another couple of weeks.

img_7499

Many vehicles get stuck in the clay-like mud

Is this a lifestyle for everyone – of course not! You need to be adaptable, tolerant and willing to embrace different approaches to all aspects of life. We spend all of our time together so you need to be very comfortable with your traveling partner. But the rewards are immeasurable and overall it has been a wonderful introduction to several countries and their way of life and we couldn’t be happier.

img_6072

Our favorite spot in Ballenita – the malecon. We enjoyed many great suppers here.

As we move forward over the next year we expect to be based out of Portugal but won’t give up exploration, experiencing life to the fullest and travel to as much of the world as we can.

p_20161218_154919

The stunning Cabo de Sao Vicente, Portugal

 

 

Posted in South America | Tagged , | 14 Comments

Slip Sliding Away in Machalilla National Park

During our recent trip to Puerto Lopez, Ecuador, we signed up for a rainforest hike / horseback ride with Palo Santo travel. We had been to Isla de la Plata with the same company the day before so we were pretty excited to experience some of the rainforest of Machalilla National Park. This turned out to be a case of expectations being far different than reality!

img_6412

Our intrepid guide Rosendo

After an interesting 20 minute drive into the hills behind town, we arrived at a small park bungalow and met our guide Rosendo. His wife Bettina was charming and showed us around their gardens with obvious pride. They had a wide variety of plants including pineapple, yucca, coffee, lemons and a wonderful range of herbs, most of whose names we didn’t recognize.

p_20170202_140834

Young pineapples

Our next introduction was to our small but sturdy horses which we would get to know very well over the next few hours.

img_6414

It all looked so charming and tranquil

We set off with smiles on our faces, looking forward to a peaceful day with nature in the rainforest. We weren’t exactly sure where we were going and just knew that we were being picked up in about 5 hours. Rosendo’s English was on par with our Spanish but we managed to understand one another with our common vocabulary of about 100 words.

img_6416

We were quite secure on the horses as they subscribed to the slow but steady approach. Actually when they occasionally broke into a trot it was pretty uncomfortable on the western saddles as it had been a couple of years since either of us had ridden.

img_6435

After a few minutes along the dirt road we turned onto a small trail leading into the forest. The path was twisted, narrow and uphill from the beginning. We felt very comfortable and loved the lush vegetation, the earthy smell of the rainforest, the raucous singing of the cicadas and the bird calls that reached us from the canopy above. This soon changed.

img_6428

One of the words we had in common with Rosendo was mirador (Spanish for a view point) so we knew we were headed to a ridge somewhere, with what we expected to be a great view. We soon became consumed with keeping the horses going when the terrain became very steep and concentrated on this more than our surroundings. After about an hour of riding we were overheated and a little sore. We had been climbing steadily and eventually Rosendo had to tie the three horses together and lead them, and we had to walk as the path became too steep and narrow to ride them further.

img_6433

A little further along (up!!) we both agreed that all of the walking we have done over the past several months served us well as our muscles and legs were holding up, but even so we were both winded and extremely hot. It didn’t seem to bother Rosendo in the least and he kept smiling and laughing the whole time, which amazed us!

img_6420

In fact he led all three horses the final several hundred meters (up!!) while we panted, sweated and asked ourselves what we were doing! Finally we reached the top of a ridge and were rewarded with what was in fact a spectacular view. The summit was at nearly 2,000 feet and was topped by a concrete and log observation tower that Rosendo and his co-workers had erected by hand.

p_20170202_170505

He never stopped smiling!

p_20170202_170533-2

The original observation tower

The views from the top of the tower were certainly impressive. A 360° panorama stretching all the way from the coast to the interior mountains lay before us. We took in the beauty of the scene as well as plenty of water.

p_20170202_164535

The view towards Puerto Lopez

img_6436

Looking north along the coast

After a rest and having our fill of the fabulous landscape we climbed down the tower and prepared for the trip back down.

p_20170202_170629

The path initially was quite steep so once again Rosendo had to lead the horses and we had to go on foot. As we descended it began to rain very hard and the horses slid and stumbled their way down. The soil which was mainly clay, very quickly turned into a small mudslide. They weren’t your typical horses and more like mules which enabled them to endure the conditions. We, on the other hand, were having a very hard time of negotiating the slope. As well as being worried the horses were going to break a leg we were concerned we would end up sliding downhill out of control.  We were more than a little anxious and very wet, muddy and uncomfortable by this time.

img_6465

As always however, Rosendo took it in stride and somehow managed to get himself and all three horses through the worst of the steep, muddy hillside and onto firmer ground. With his usual smile and words of encouragement he came back up to help us through the worst parts.

img_6467

The rain gradually eased and we soon began riding through a dried up stream bed. The rest of the trail was very pleasant as we rode through the fresh smelling forest on relatively firm ground. We could finally take in a bit of our surroundings! Even being relieved to be back on the horses, our backsides were starting to complain a lot and it was with relief that we emerged onto the road after another half hour of riding. The day ended with a wonderful meal of soup, chicken, vegetables and yucca prepared by Bettina in their modest home. We were glad when our ride arrived on time so we could relax and clean up back at our room.

p_20170202_134341

As we discussed before and after our trek, it wasn’t quite what we had in mind. It turned out to be 11 kms either uphill or down on some very muddy and narrow trails. Even though we are used to the rainforest, have ridden before and are in decent physical condition, it was still very uncomfortable. It certainly would have been a nightmare for anyone with mobility issues or who was used to wide-open and easy trails.

img_6421

Was it all worth the effort? We would not have done it had we known what was involved, but it was certainly a day that we will remember for quite some time and the views from the summit were undeniably breathtaking. In many respects it was similar to much of our experience here in Ecuador. The natural beauty and the wonderful people tend to balance the poverty, neglect and lack of infrastructure that have characterized much of what we have seen in the coastal regions.

img_6440

Up next – the stunning Amazon Basin!

Posted in South America | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Isla de la Plata: The Poor Man’s Galapagos

One of the (many) questions we asked ourselves when we decided to spend some time in Ecuador was could we afford to visit the Galapagos Islands? Along with the Amazon and Machu Picchu they are near the top of our “must-try-to-experience” locations. As we did the math for all three it was clear that for us a trip to the Amazon would work the best. It was a tough decision as we really wanted to get to the Galapagos but we just didn’t feel comfortable with the over $3,000 CAD price tag that we were looking at.

img_6391

Blue-footed boobies on Isla de la Plata

Then we heard about the “Poor Man’s Galapogas” and started doing a little research. As it turned out Isla de la Plata is located just about 100 km north of our base in Ballenita, so it was an easy decision to make the relatively short trip.

img_6276

The protected island is part of Machalilla National Park and is well managed

The main departure point for Isla de la Plata is Puerto Lopez, a fishing town of about 20,000 located in Manabi Province along the northern coast of Ecuador. We traveled by bus to Puerto Lopez from Santa Elena.

img_6159-2

The beach in Puerto Lopez

Most of the tours leave the main jetty around 10:00 so there is a large congregation of tourists, tour guides and other spectators milling about. It is a fairly new and attractive pier and loading the boats is well managed and done quickly from the floating dock.

img_6226

There is plenty to watch while you wait as the fishing fleet lands their morning catches right beside the pier. Dozens of boats ride the surf to the beach where they are greeted by as many trucks, workers and hundreds of pelicans and frigatebirds looking for any unguarded scraps.

img_6225

img_6229

We booked our tour with Palo Santo in Puerto Lopez based on reviews of their commitment to environmental protection and promotion of the local community. Many companies are available to chose from in the local area but from what we saw Palo Santo was a good choice. Their boat was clean and in good condition, their guides were knowledgeable and friendly, and they paid attention to the safety and well being of their guests. The cost for the tour was $45 US each which is very reasonable.

img_6244

One of the guides relaxing on the trip out to the island

Isla de la Plata lies about 40 km from Puerto Lopez and takes just over an hour to reach by boat. Our boat, as well as all the others we saw, was covered and had a toilet aboard. Everyone is required to wear a lifejacket. During the months of June to October humpback whales migrate through this area and the town swells with visitors to see these magnificent marine mammals. The tours at that time include several hours dedicated to whale watching. At this time of the year however the boats head straight to the island. We did see 5 resident tropical whales on our trips back and forth.

img_6239

The name of the island is derived from one of two sources. Some say it is because of the treasure supposedly buried by Sir Francis Drake on the island. Others say it is because of the glistening silver colour of the large deposits of guano (bird droppings) which builds up on the island. Take your pick!

img_6257

The cliffs of Isla de la Plata

The island itself is about 4km long and is accessed by a small cove on the eastern shoreline. Wading ashore you are greeted by National Park staff and have an opportunity to wash your feet, use the facilities and receive a stern reminder of the rules of the island. As it is a protected area there is absolutely no collecting of any materials, you cannot leave anything at all on the island, you have to stay on the trails and are not to approach within 5 feet of the birds. You must be accompanied by a guide at all times and the numbers are limited to 10 per trail. These strict rules are necessary to ensure the birds are protected, are successful in their breeding, and the island remains in as natural a state as possible.

img_6271

The main landing area and visitor’s centre

As you head onto the trail you immediately notice how dry and arid the island is. The soil is brown and dusty and the vegetation is thin and sparse. Apparently conditions had been particularly dry over the past few months. The paths are well maintained and the first 800m are pretty much uphill culminating in 150 steps to reach the junction point of the main trails.

img_6283

There are three main trails and as the number of people are limited on each, our group of 16 was split into two smaller groups and we opted for the 2 km Fragatas loop which provided fine overviews of the island.

img_6298

Did we mention that the sun is very hot on the equator? It was clear in the late morning and after the climb to the top of the hill we were all sweating profusely.

img_6293

A few minutes later we had our first close up encounter with a blue-footed booby. It was a juvenile and not in its full plumage and distinctive blue webbed feet. As we soon discovered they paid little attention to us and went about their activities which at that time of day was mainly trying to stay cool.

img_6305

Juvenile blue-footed booby

It soon became apparent to us that we were at a privileged location. A male and his week-old chick were particularly endearing and the helplessness of the young featherless bird was obvious. The parents will stay with their young until they are proficient fishermen and then they are left on their own.

img_6317

Male blue-footed booby and a week old chick

Numerous small lizards inhabited the island and were equally as approachable as the birds. The island is also similar to the Galapagos in that it is a critical breeding area for many endangered birds such as the waved albatross. We were told that the collared-warbling finch, which we did spot, is endemic to the island. Other breeding birds on the island include red-footed boobies and red-billed tropicbirds which we spotted on the trip back.

img_6330

Following the path along the spine of the island we were treated to panoramic views of the shoreline below, the western tip of the island and suddenly scores of magnificent frigatebirds. As with the boobies, there were many young adults and fledglings. We only saw a few of the males with their characteristic inflated scarlet breasts inflated and these were at a distance.

img_6348

img_6352

img_6365

Juvenile magnificent frigatebird

The opportunity to approach these birds in their natural surroundings is a once in a lifetime opportunity. We were fortunate to have had this experience. There are far too few places left where human impacts have not left a negative impression on natural habitats.

img_6373

Female and young magnificent frigatebird

After about 2 hours we descended the stairs and hillside to the landing area with its dark sand and gently rolling swells. We were exhausted from the heat and very sore, but undeniably satisfied with our experience.

p_20170201_182848_bf

Boobie Selfie! Corny yes – but we couldn’t resist capturing this memory

img_6278

The main landing beach

Back on the boat we had a welcome meal of sandwiches, watermelon and cold drinks. The afternoon concluded with a snorkeling opportunity along with several other tour boats just off the shore of the island. We were pleasantly surprised by the health of the coral and the multitude of fish, several species of which were new to us.

img_6398

It rained on the ride back to Puerto Lopez, but we did see some stingrays jumping and a couple more whales. The group was quiet, several falling asleep, after a combination of fresh air, hot temperatures, a good hike and swim and the rolling of the boat.

img_6368

If you are in this part of Ecuador and don’t feel you have the means to make it to the Galapagos Islands we would highly recommend this trip. Regardless of how many offshore islands you have visited you will appreciate the natural beauty and balance of Isla de la Plata.

img_6323-2

Posted in South America | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Puerto Lopez: A Visit to an Ecuadorian Beach Town

About 100 kms north of Ballenita sits the beach town of Puerto Lopez. With a population of about 20,000 its main industries are fishing and tourism. It is also the gateway to Machalilla National Park which includes Isla de la Plata or the “Poor Man’s Galapagos” which was our main reason for visiting.

img_6227

Fresh fish are landed on the beach each morning

We booked two tours and three nights accommodation through Palo Santo travel and boarded a bus at the nearby Santa Elena Terminal for $4 USD each for the 2 hour trip. The bus was comfortable, air conditioned, wifi equipped and there were few people aboard on a Tuesday morning. There was however the usual loud and violent movie dubbed in Spanish playing over the entertainment system.

img_6076

The bus system is comprehensive, cheap and colourful!

img_6092

The scenery on one side was spectacular views of the Pacific coastline and great looking beaches. Inland was mainly dry scrub land with a mix of pretty bleak looking towns and villages. We passed through the surfing town of Montanita where there were scores of hostels and seemed to be a much younger crowd.

img_6108

img_6114

A typical small town along the Pacific coast

There is a major bus terminal (Terminal Terrestre) in Puerto Lopez, but we got off the bus in the centre of town. The major mode of transport is by tuk tuk which costs $1 US wherever you go. With our basic Spanish and some directions provided by the tour company we found our way to our accommodation.

p_20170203_145002

Tuk tuks were the best mode of transport – they were everywhere!

What we had booked for $20 US was somewhere between a motel, hostel and guest house. It was in the lower level of a large home that, like the grounds, seemed to be either not quite finished or in the early stages of decay. It was a comfortable enough room with a kitchenette and welcomed mosquito nets. There was even a large turtle to greet us in the hallway. The pool sure was refreshing!

img_6181

Bosque Marino guesthouse

p_20170131_200710_ll

The rooms were comfortable and spacious

p_20170201_222400

We were so surprised to see this guy “strolling” down the hallway

Walking through the town we found it to be similar in many respects to most of the towns we have seen here. They are generally poor with dirt side streets which can be either very muddy or very dusty.

img_6137

Cinder block construction is the norm and most buildings are not painted. We have been very disappointed in the amount of trash that is common everywhere, even in people’s yards. There are many small shops that sell an assortment of food items, household goods and seemingly hundreds of flipflops.

p_20170131_163919

Along the main street of Puerto Lopez

p_20170131_184609

Unfortunately this is a common sight

p_20170131_184051

The entrance to a fascinating local clothing and dry goods market

We have been very impressed with the Ecuadorian people however. Wherever we go they greet us with smiles and a friendly hola or buenos tardes. This is not the same response that we have received in many European, North American or Costa Rican communities. From the youngest children, teenagers, working people and the elderly we have been treated with openness and courtesy.

p_20170131_174547

We felt comfortable and welcome everywhere we went

img_6201

The beach is a central point for tourists and locals and is also home to a wonderful daily fish market. A pleasant malecon (boardwalk) runs the length of the beach and there are numerous beach bars, small restaurants and shops, tour companies as well as public washrooms. The waves were quite high and we watched young people surfing and boogie boarding.

img_6165

Restaurants, souvenir shops and beach bars along the malecon

img_6160

We had supper at a couple different restaurants and the prices were very reasonable. You can pay $5 for a fish, chicken or meat dinner with rice or fries and $8 for shrimp. They also have a good range of ceviches, tacos, soups or spaghetti with various ingredients also for under $10 US. Drinks cost $2 US for a beer and $4-5 US for a glass of wine or a cocktail.

img_6220

After a good meal we really enjoyed watching the sunset with a cold cocktail at one of the beach bars.

img_6207

The main choices for finding food in Puerto Lopez are limited to either local markets or the Tia supermarket in the center of town. The local market is excellent and is located in a large building with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Smaller concession shops provide dry goods, milk and eggs. The Tia supermarket is located on the main street and carries a fairly good range of products at higher prices.

img_6171

Grilled chicken is common throughout all the towns we have seen

We were quite happy with our 3 night stay in the town but were ready to head home afterwards. We did the 2 tours which we will cover in our next posts.

p_20170203_150242

Terminal Terrestre at Puerto Lopez

A tuk tuk took us to the bus station for our return trip to Ballenita. This time it wasn’t air conditioned and was very hot, quite crowded and the movie was more violent and louder than the one on the ride up! We were relieved to get off 2 hours later at the Santa Elena terminal.

img_6170

How can this not put a smile on your face?

 

Posted in Slow Travel, Travel Tips | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Changing Continents One Flight at a Time

p_20161213_112022

Common wisdom tells us that it’s the journey and not the destination that matters, but that expression doesn’t always apply, especially with air travel. It is challenging to get jazzed about security checks at airports, long flights in small seats with no elbow room, paying hugely inflated prices for food and the seemingly endless stream of overwrought and impatient humanity. We had six flights on four different airlines ahead of us when we left Lagos, Portugal for our new home in Ballenita, Ecuador so it’s safe to say that we were looking forward to the destination.

img_5747

Manhatten skyline from Liberty Airport, Newark

In addition to the travel we would be facing several days in Nova Scotia in mid-January which can bring anything from brilliant sunshine to cold rain to blowing snow and bitter winds. As it turned out we were quite fortunate in that during the six days we were there the coldest temperature was -14 degrees Celsius and we only encountered about 2 cms of fresh snow. Coming from the Algarve and traveling to the Equator we would go through some pretty dramatic climatic changes.

img_5617

Praia de Luz – Algarve

As it turned out everything went quite smoothly and as we relax by our pool in 30 degree weather it seems a good time to go over our experience and see what we can learn for the next time.

img_5773-2

Our “front yard” in Ballenita

Our total distance traveled came out to 15,762 kms of which 14,426 were by plane, 1112 by rental car, 129 by bus and 95 by rail. On top of that were several taxis, hotel shuttles and airport terminal transfers. After we left Lagos on January 8th we spent 5 nights in hotels, 2 nights with Tim’s parents and 2 nights with friends.

img_0072

Thanks to our good friends Dave & Diane for hosting us in Nova Scotia

A lot of planning goes into these type of trips including hours of computer time and in this case some additional time on the phone trying to finalize our return flights in and out of Ecuador and Costa Rica. We try to cut costs whenever we can but sometimes shorter layovers, not travelling all night, or arriving in the middle of the night at unfamiliar destinations take precedence over cost. As a case in point, we elected to pay more at the Halifax Airport to stay in the adjoining Alt Hotel so we could avoid waiting outside in -14 degree weather for shuttles in the middle of the night. Choices!

img_4176

The train from Lagos isn’t pretty but is very efficient

The main airport in the Algarve is Faro, which is about 100 km from Lagos. We chose to take the train which is very reasonable at €7.30 each. Regular buses or a shared shuttle are other options. Our return tickets from the fall were through London and we flew on British Airways which operates regular flights due to the Algarve’s popularity as a vacation hotspot with UK citizens. There are cheaper flights available, however we had checked baggage and wanted to chose our seats so we opted for the $115 CAD one way cost to London. The checked bags fees alone are significant so always make sure you check the final price.

img_4039

We were sad to see Portugal fading into the distance below as we headed into the clouds. As you know from our last post we were leaving behind good friends, fond memories and a feeling of much more to see and explore. However we are returning in the fall and we knew that we had several months of tropical adventures ahead of us.

p_20170108_123732

Our flight back to Canada was with Westjet through Gatwick airport. We arrived fairly late that evening so an Ibis airport hotel provided a good night’s sleep before our departure the next morning. Gatwick felt familiar as it was where we had started our European adventure in September.

p_20170109_095203-2

We never miss an opportunity for a Star Wars plug – Gatwick Arrivals

Trans-Atlantic and other long flights can be tiring or they can be a good chance to read, do some writing, edit pictures or other pastimes. We are getting better at being prepared and making ourselves comfortable. Westjet has good inflight entertainment and we had snacks and water so the 7.5 hour flight to Toronto passed quickly and quite pleasantly. We would much preferred to have flown direct to Halifax but very few flights arrive there from Europe.

p_20160905_042949

Waiting for our flight in Toronto that evening we experienced one of those quirky and unexpected encounters that seem to happen so often when you are travelling. A family friend of ours, who is a young pilot, happened to be waiting for a flight to Nova Scotia at the same gate as we were. He was waiting in line but didn’t hold out much hope as the flight was completely booked. Much to our surprise as we waited for the cabin doors to close he walked aboard and had the last seat which was next to us! We had a great chat and laughed about it all to Halifax – sharing selfies with his girlfriend.

p_20170109_233058_bf-2

Welcome to the reality of Nova Scotia in January. We were so pleased we had spent a little extra and didn’t have to go outside at 11:00 at night in -14 degrees as we are getting used to warmer weather! We rented a car for our 6 days in Nova Scotia. Believe it or not the rental agencies still charge extra to have snow tires which seems ludicrous in this part of the world. We headed out in our little Nissan Micra for several days of errands, dental appointments, restocking essentials and visits with friends and family. We were extremely fortunate in that we drove across the province twice and into New Brunswick and the roads were clear and mostly dry the whole time. We know from many years of experience that is not always the case in January!

p_20170110_153319

Our time in Nova Scotia turned out better than we hoped and we accomplished everything we wanted to without too much difficulty. It was our first experience with changing clothes in our storage locker and living out of our suitcases in Nova Scotia. Overall we were pleased with our whole visit and enjoyed catching up with family and friends along the way. We had some pleasant evenings with good friends and a wonderful lobster dinner with family.

img_5735-2

Relaxing at Tim’s parents home

Back at our airport hotel we arose at 3:00 AM to catch our first flight of the day to Newark, NJ where we had a 6.5 hour layover. Liberty Airport isn’t the most attractive but we always find it efficient and relatively easy to get around in. As we boarded our 5 hour flight to Panama City we were starting to get excited about going to a new country and the adventures that lay ahead. Our one concern with our flights was a short stop in Panama City and if our bags would make the connection. Fortunately we were a little early arriving so we had time to stretch our legs and enjoy the lively atmosphere in the departures area of the airport. We have never been to Panama before but the (loud) latin music, smiling faces and Spanish signs all seemed familiar to us.

img_5743

A short time later our COPA flight landed in Guayaquil, Ecuador. This was our first time south of the equator and in South America. It had been nearly 24 hours of continuous flights, security lines and airport terminals so we were getting a little weary. Clearing Customs was a bit of a wait but very simple when we reached the counter. We were thrilled when both of our suitcases appeared on the carousel and there was a smiling young man with our names on his placard to take us to our hotel, the Sonesta Guayaquil.

img_5757

The balcony courtyard at the Sonesta Guayaquil

The next morning’s experience at the Terminal Terriste was an introduction to both the seeming chaos of the terminal and the efficiency of the bus system here. With a little help we bought our tickets to Ballenita for the princely sum of $2.40 USD each and headed to the departures area where our bus was scheduled to leave in 11 minutes.

img_5753

View from our hotel across the airport

The bus operated by Liberpresa was comfortable enough and we settled in to get a glimpse of the scenery. The first part of the journey was through the suburbs and outlying districts of Guayaquil and it was eyeopening. The homes and most buildings were basic block construction with no paint, many dirt streets and seemingly thousands of small structures perched on the hillsides. Garbage was strewn along the roadside and seemed to flow over the embankments in places. We did keep in mind that this area is particularly susceptible to earthquakes due to its soil structure and location.

img_5760

img_5764

As we approached Santa Elena, the provincial capital, the landscape was dry, parched and brown with scattered settlements along the way. As we pulled into the terminal in Ballenita the views were quite similar with the exception of many tankers anchored just off the coast awaiting their time at the nearby oil refinery in La Libertad.

img_5819

Looking west towards the Pacific from our street

A few blocks away was our Airbnb casita which is in a little oasis behind concrete walls on a dirt street about 5 blocks from the shore. The sun’s heat could be felt right away but there is little humidity so we weren’t overwhelmed.

img_5818

It has been several days since we arrived and we are starting to get a better sense of the town and its inhabitants. Very little English is spoken here and there are little to no tourist services but the people are friendly and helpful. The condo developments in the nearby expat haven of Salinas are visible just down the coast. Bird species which are new to us are everywhere and are attracted to the pool and trees on our property.

img_5923

The skyline of Salinas can be seen from the Ballenita shore

img_5855

Snowy-throated kingbird

We feel safe and welcomed here, the weather is great (if you like hot and dry), groceries are readily available, there are local markets and our little A-frame feels comfortable to us with the pool right outside. Drop back in and we’ll give you some glimpses of this part of Ecuador in the coming weeks.

img_5772

 

Posted in Europe, South America, Travel Tips | Tagged , , | 8 Comments