The Amazon Basin Part 1: Planning and the Journey

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The reserve entrance on the shore of the Cuayabeno River

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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.

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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.

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Really enjoying the ride!

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

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

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A wooly monkey was one of several species we saw

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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.

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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.

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The landing at Guacamayo Ecolodge

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Part of the beach front in Ballenita

 

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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.

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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.

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This array of communication towers is prominent above Ballenita

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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.

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A bizarre indoor market/mall in La Libertad

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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.

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The view directly behind our casita

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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The scene behind the stalls at the same mercado

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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.

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A family of vermilion flycatchers kept us company every day

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The stunning Cabo de Sao Vicente, Portugal

 

 

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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He never stopped smiling!

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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.

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The view towards Puerto Lopez

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Up next – the stunning Amazon Basin!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The bus system is comprehensive, cheap and colourful!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Bosque Marino guesthouse

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The rooms were comfortable and spacious

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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.

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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.

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Along the main street of Puerto Lopez

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Unfortunately this is a common sight

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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.

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We felt comfortable and welcome everywhere we went

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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.

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Restaurants, souvenir shops and beach bars along the malecon

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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How can this not put a smile on your face?

 

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Changing Continents One Flight at a Time

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The skyline of Salinas can be seen from the Ballenita shore

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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.

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Slow Travel in Retirement: First Year Reflections and Looking Ahead

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New Year’s Eve in Lagos

We will look back at 2016 as a year of change and new beginnings. We have both been through some major changes in our lives, some good and some that were pretty tumultuous. In many ways however the leap that we finally took last year was one of the very biggest. If you have been following along this was the year that we actually did sell everything and head out to experience more of the world.

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Anne retired in April and we left Nova Scotia to spend three months in the beach town of Playas del Coco, Costa Rica. After over three decades of working lives and the attendant stresses we were ready for a break. In reality that is what the time in Costa Rica turned out to be. We still had our house in Nova Scotia to sell and it seemed that we were still tied to our old way of life.

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Minas Basin, Nova Scotia

We’ve written a lot about Costa Rica and still love many aspects of that beautiful country. The natural beauty, ecological diversity, tropical climate, laid back lifestyle and wonderful fresh foods are very appealing.

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Sunset at Playas del Coco, Costa Rica

However the increasing cost of living, cultural divide between the local and expat community and logistical challenges will in all likelihood preclude us from ever living there on a permanent basis. We can see ourselves spending more time there in the future and are going back this year for three months.

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Early morning in Atenas, Costa Rica

When we returned to Nova Scotia we realized for the first time the changes that our way of life had wrought in our relationships. We looked at life differently than most others around us and it was hard to settle into any sort of routine that we felt comfortable with. We had mentally committed to our new lifestyle and were anxious to start living it. Everything was complete except for the house which to this day remains a source of anxiety for us.

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Habitant River, Nova Scotia

So when we set off in September for England for two weeks of sightseeing in London and our first house sit, we felt as if we had really begun. And in many ways it was the first time that we began to comprehend the reality – and we loved it.

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In London we played the tourist but with our own spin. Extended hotel stays and restaurants are expensive and get tiring, so our first Airbnb experience provided us with a home base for two weeks. Very slow travel is our preferred way to go and we reconfirmed that after two weeks of rushing to see as many sights as possible, but it was a great visit.

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Our first house sit in Swindon was a good introduction to this great way to meet people, travel slowly, help others out and spend time in a local community. We learned a lot about German Shepherds, met a lot of friendly people and gained a better understanding of life in the English suburbs.

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You can read all about our train trip from London to Lisbon which speaks for itself but we can reiterate that it was a terrific way to see the vast countryside of France and Spain – plus we got to spend a night in Paris!

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Lisbon was our introduction to Portugal and what a great place to start! This was our first extended city stay but in many ways it felt like we were living in a smaller community. The atmosphere throughout the city was so different from anywhere else we have been, but yet it felt like home in many regards. The streets, the colours, the cafes, and the history all combined to put us in a good frame of mind.

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We had excellent day trips to both Cascais and Sintra and each one charmed us in its own way. Our son, Erik, and a friend came to Lisbon and they loved it as much as we did. It was especially good for us to be able to share the experience with Erik which is priceless. We will not forget the time we had in Lisbon and will return.

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Along the Cascais to Estoril boardwalk

Sometimes when you arrive in a new location something clicks and you feel comfortable right away. That’s pretty much how it was for us when we arrived in Lagos, and in fact the feeling has grown over the past two months we have been here.

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We had already spent over a month in Lisbon so we were getting used to the Portuguese lifestyle. When we got off the bus in Lagos, it looked different but had a lot of the things we loved about Lisbon.

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We do have to keep in mind that we are “winter-letting” (October – March) and here during the off season when the weather is cooler and there aren’t crowds of people. This has been a perfect time to slowly get to know our new home and we have discovered many aspects of Lagos that work really well for us.

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A great Indian restaurant in Lagos

The weather is a big draw. We had a few days of wind and rain but that was a great excuse to stay indoors and catch up on writing, reading and editing. The remainder of the time has been sunny almost every day. As soon as the sun comes up the temperature climbs and we were surprised at how warm 18 degrees Celsius can feel. There are very few days that you can’t get outside and explore, be active, or have a coffee or lunch by the beach. On the down side the evenings and nights are cool and our apartment is very cool.

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We have met some wonderful people here and have made great friends already. It helps to have the experience of people who have been on the ground in an area. The companionship, support and sharing of ideas and experiences is a comfortable feeling. We have been so fortunate to have found a group of friends we enjoy spending time with.

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The transportation links in Lagos are good in that there is both bus and rail service from here so it is relatively easy to get to Faro and beyond. Having a direct bus to Spain is a big bonus and we don’t have to tell you how much we enjoyed our trip to Seville and Cordoba. We are looking forward to more trips within Portugal, to Spain and beyond.

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Real Alcazar de Seville

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Cordoba Mosque-Cathedral

Not to diminish the joy of exploring nearby towns and villages. We have been to Sagres, Cabo de Sao Vincente, Luz, Portimao, Silves, Aljezur and Ferragudo and thoroughly enjoyed them all.

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Picturesque pool in Silves

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The spectacular coastline at Cabo de Sao Vicente

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Silves

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A wonderful restaurant in Luz

The town of Lagos itself feels just about right for us. While it does cater to tourists and the marina dominates much of the harbour it retains a lot of charm and personality. There is a great range of restaurants and cafes, a local movie theatre (which is great), and the streets are fun to wander and explore. All of the shopping and services you need are available either in Lagos or nearby.

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We are outdoors people by nature and love walking beaches, marshes, trails and country roads. Birding is a big activity for us and from what we have seen there are some excellent marshes, estuaries and woodland areas to explore.

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So at the end of the day we knew that we had no choice but to extend our time in Lagos. We had lamented the fact that we could only stay in Europe for 3 months so now we will base ourselves here and enjoy the best of both worlds. We can enjoy and explore Portugal as well as foray to amazing destinations within Europe at our own pace. We will also use the base as a staging area for future trips to Asia and Africa where we have dreamed of going.

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Cabo de Sao Vicente

The steps are now to apply for a 4 month Residency Visa which we will do this summer in Canada. We will return to Lagos in the fall and apply for a Residency Permit which we can renew after a year. Our fingers are crossed that everything will fall into place and we get the required approvals.

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We are getting ready for our first trip to South America and will be in Ecuador for two months, followed by three month in Costa Rica. Crossing the Equator, seeing the Andes and venturing into the Amazon rainforest are all exciting prospects and who knows what else fate will throw our way. Thank you all for following our little adventure this year and keep checking in with us to see what 2017 has in store.

Posted in Europe, Slow Travel | Tagged , , | 17 Comments

Uncovering the Diverse Culture of Cordoba

We hated to leave the wonderful city of Seville behind but were excited to visit Cordoba, so we boarded an early morning train with anticipation. Another adventure in this most fascinating part of Spain. After a pleasant hour on the train through the Andalusian countryside we arrived in Cordoba.

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Cordoba is an ancient city with a turbulent history. Conquered by the Romans in 206 BC it was an important part of their empire for hundreds of years. After a brief rule by the Visigoths it was captured by Muslim armies in 711. During its time under Moorish rule it became one of the most important cities in the world and was a cultural, political, financial and economic centre. Both Christians and Jews were heavily involved in the life of the city.

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Cordoba’s importance faded through the 11th Century and it was eventually recaptured during the Reconquista in 1236 by King Ferdinand II of Castile. The population of Cordoba fell from well over 500,000 to just over 20,000 at one point in the 18th Century. It is amidst the changing fortunes of its rulers that the fabulous Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba was constructed.

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Cordoba today is a provincial capital with a population of just over 300,000. It has evolved into a modern city, but the centre retains much of the history of its storied past. The area surrounding the Mosque-Cathedral was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

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We stayed at the pleasant family-run Pension El Portillo which was clean, friendly and in a wonderful location in the old Jewish Quarter. Like so many of the buildings it had an interior courtyard that was decorated for Christmas.

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As you know by now we enjoy rambling these twisting streets and alleys and taking in the medieval charm and unexpected surprises.

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For us the highlight of our visit was the Mosque-Cathedral. Construction began in 784 AD as a mosque and was a monumental task, employing thousands of artisans and labourers using ivory, jasper, gold, copper and brass as decorative materials. It reached its current size in 987 with the completion of the outer naves and courtyards.

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We have visited many churches, cathedrals and palaces over the past few months but the magnitude, splendour and feeling of this one is beyond any others we have experienced. The exterior is grand in scale but when you first enter the hypostyle hall you will be in awe. There are 856 columns made of jasper, onyx, marble and granite. Pictures or words cannot recreate the feelings it invokes.

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The hall is surrounded by resplendent chapels which were reworked after the Reconquista. We were overawed by the art, the colours and the obscene amount of silver and gold adorning them.

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In the mid 12th Century the central nave was converted to a Catholic Cathedral and the effect evokes mixed emotions. The beauty and craftsmanship is beyond question, but like so many other parts of the mosque you are vividly reminded of the juxtaposition of Christian and Muslim architecture and the differing beliefs.

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We would challenge anyone not to be moved by the experience. It reminded us that in too many ways humankind is no more tolerant today than centuries ago.

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Just around the corner from the Cathedral stands the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos. Imposing on the exterior, walking the walls gives fantastic views across the city and the Roman Bridge which crosses the Guadalquivir River.

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p_20161208_101105There are some interesting Roman mosaics in the rooms of the Alcazar, but it was the gardens which captivated our imaginations.

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Being the holiday season it was quite busy but we still had many corners to ourselves and were delighted by the symmetry and elegance of the gardens. They must be particularly lovely in the spring!

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The Roman Bridge is big drawing point for the city and a walk across is a must, although we did find the modern walkway somewhat out of keeping with the ancient structure. For Game of Thrones fans you will be rewarded with some familiar views. Street performers and souvenir peddlers jostled for our attention and we had to have patience to get pictures without groups of people in the views. The walk across at night gave us some rewarding photo opportunities.

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The streets surrounding the Cathedral are fun but crowded with tourists, souvenir shops and some overpriced cafes and restaurants. However, with careful searching you can find reasonably priced restaurants that serve excellent food in superb settings like this courtyard restaurant we discovered.

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Another interesting visit is the Centro Flamenco Fosforito which according to Lonely Planet is one of the best flamenco museums in Andalucia. It is located in the legendary inn Posada del Potro of Don Quixote fame. There are some engaging exhibits which trace the history of flamenco and showcase some its greats. Entrance was free on the day we visited.

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To cap off our visit we took in the show “Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse” at  Cordoba Ecuestre which is housed at the Royal Stables of Cordoba. It combined superbly trained Andalusian horses with traditional music and dance.

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The show lasted 1.5 hours and the small grandstands were packed. The skill of the horsemen and the  rapport with the powerful animals was mesmerizing, especially when paired with the music and setting.

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The cost of €15 seemed very reasonable. In addition to the show the price of the ticket entitles you to watch the training sessions throughout the day. Located next to the Alcazar a visit to the stables allows you a more intimate encounter with the horses and a chance to enjoy the facility.

img_4675All too soon it was time to leave Cordoba and head back to Seville and then back home to Lagos. We were so fortunate to have uncovered some of her past and present treasures.

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Savouring the Andalucian Sunshine and Spirit of Sevilla

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One of the awesome aspects of being in Europe is that there are so many opportunities for travel to new destinations within a few hours by train, bus or air. So when our friends Dick & Anita suggested a trip to Seville and Cordoba we and another friend jumped at the chance. It was a 4 hour bus ride (€82 total return) to Seville from Lagos and then another 1.5 hours to Cordoba by train (€46 total return).

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Crossing the Spanish border from Portugal

We spent three nights in each city and loved them both. We left Lagos in the midst of pouring rain but after our first day we had brilliant sunshine and pleasant temperatures for the remainder of our trip!

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In Seville we stayed in the old Jewish Quarter and loved everything about the location. Our hotel was nice but a little overpriced for the services it offered.

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The narrow streets of Barrio de Santa Cruz formed a fascinating maze of courtyards, cafes, tapas bars and intimate plazas lined with orange trees.

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We were just a 10 minute walk away from the Seville Cathedral which is truly amazing. It is the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world, the third largest church and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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The central nave is awe-inspiring and pictures cannot capture the splendor that surrounded us. It is also the final resting place of Christopher Columbus, although his tomb is a recent addition from 1892. The entrance costs €9 and is worth every euro. There are significant reductions for retirees (over 65) and students, so don’t forget your identification.

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The final tomb of Christopher Columbus

The climb to the top of the La Giralda bell tower provides you with breathtaking views across the city and beyond.

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The view to the west from the bell tower. The bull ring is in the center.

The cathedral is right next to the Alcazar so the plaza can be quite crowded and hectic. There were plenty of carriages selling tours but in spite of how romantic they are (and how much Anne wanted to take a ride) we both declined the €45 cost for a one hour ride.

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All the streets we walked were decorated for Christmas with wonderful lights, poinsettias, and a large tree of lights in one of the squares.

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To add to the Christmas atmosphere an excellent market was set up selling every type of creche figure you could imagine. Many homes and businesses have extensive nativity scenes that are open for public viewing and are marked by a large star on their doorways.

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While the Alcazar of Seville may appear a Moorish palace, most of it was built for the Christian king, Pedro the Cruel of Castile during the 1300s in the Mudejar style. Much remains of the original elegance but numerous restorations have been required due to fires and earthquakes. It has also been the location of filming for several Game of Thrones’ episodes.

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Be sure to allow yourself time to explore the adjacent gardens as they are splendid at any time of year. Wandering through them you are easily transported to another time.

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The short walk to the spectacular Plaza de Espana through parks and along bougainvillea lined boulevards was very enjoyable. The temperatures were in the low 20s and just right for being outside in this vibrant city.

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Plaza de Espana was built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition and is a grandiose structure that has become a major attraction and landmark in Seville. It consists of an immense Renaissance-Moorish structure with towers at either end. The entire plaza is ringed by a circular canal with arched bridges leading to the central building. Ceramic tiles are everywhere and the benches representing the Spanish provinces are quite dramatic.

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Major films including Laurence of Arabia and Star Wars have used it as a location. It was used as the setting for Padme Amidala’s palace in the city of Theed on Naboo, in Episode II: the Attack of the Clones (2002). Being huge Star Wars fans we were especially excited to be there!

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Do you think I’m excited?

The entire city was full of life and vibrancy and you could feel the passion of the people on the streets. We were there on Constitution Day and the streets were full. The tapas bars were packed between 2-4 on all days and then it gets quiet from 4-6 so for us a good time to have our evening meal as we are not late night people.

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The selection of tapas was endless and we found that 2-3 would suffice for a full meal. They are generally around €3 each and most of the ones we had were excellent. They provide an excellent opportunity to try some local dishes like ox tail, Iberian ham or shrimp cakes.

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Andalucia is the home of flamenco and its influence was strong everywhere in both cities. The shops are filled with flamenco dresses, postcards and even dolls. Street performances were fairly common and attracted a large audience.

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An evening flamenco show for €18 was well worth the cost. It was about an hour long in an intimate setting. There were several to chose from in the area at around the same price. The one we attended had an audience of about 50 people and seemed to be a mix of locals and tourists.

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For more modern tastes the Metropol Parasols are worth visiting. The contrast between the 2012 structure and the classic Seville architecture is stark. It isn’t surprising that it created quite a conflict when it was erected. There is a winding walkway along the top for great views of this part of the city. To add to the contrasts a museum underneath preserves extensive Roman ruins and excavation is ongoing.

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This part of the city was quite interesting and was full of expensive boutiques within the charming old buildings. As always quirky and interesting sights were around every corner.

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The Barber of Seville?

As with any visit the time to leave arrived far sooner than we wanted. It was surreal to be here after all the travel shows and videos we have watched on Seville! The fond memories of this city will always remain with us and we will return.

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Up next, a short train ride away, we visit the charming medieval city of Cordoba.

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Welcome to the Algarve – Lagos in November

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The stunning cliffs of Ponta de Piedade

The Algarve region of Portugal is a very popular summer tourist destination, mainly for Europeans. We arrived in mid-November after most of the thousands of tourists had returned to their working lives, however there is a year round population of expats who make this southern part of Portugal their residence.

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Getting here for us was a pleasant 3 hour bus ride south from Lisbon to Lagos with the bus company Eva, one of the larger carriers in Portugal. We were fortunate to be picked up by our friends Richard Nash and Anita Oliver who maintain the excellent blog No Particular Place to Go. They have been living here for a year and introduced us to Lloyd’s Property Services who we are renting a condominium from until early January. It is wonderful to have friends in the area as they have been very helpful getting us acquainted with our new home.

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The view towards town from our 3rd floor condo

Lagos is one of the most popular Algarve towns and from what we have seen so far, for good reason. It is quite charming with a walled old town, a waterfront boardwalk and all the conveniences that you would expect in a large community. It also boasts the beautiful Meia Preia and the spectacular Ponta de Peidade which we will dedicate more time to in later posts once we have spent more time exploring.

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Meia Praia towards Portimao

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A very windy day at the harbour entrance

Lagos is a coastal town with over 2000 years of rich history.  It has a strong maritime tradition, and in the 1960s began to embrace tourism which is now the main economic driver. On a darker note it was also the gateway for the first African slaves into Europe in the 1400s. The current population of about 40,000 grows substantially in the summer. There is a large fully serviced marina that is well known to long distance cruisers. The marina is surrounded by shops, restaurants and a myriad of tour companies and is connected to the main town by a drawbridge.

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We are already quite taken with the old town which is partially surrounded by the remnants of a 16th Century wall. Fortifications from the same time period as well as beautiful churches offer further reminders of the past. The narrow cobbled streets, tiled buildings, street art and cafes all feel very Portuguese. We feel very comfortable here as there is much to remind us of Lisbon and we are looking forward to more time for our wanderings around town.

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We have a lovely one bedroom condominium with a gorgeous view across Meia Praia which offers stunning sunrise views.

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We are currently the only people in our entire building as it and the many others around were built primarily for the summer tourists. At a price of €600 per month plus utilities they offer great value in the period from late fall until spring. It is a spacious and modern unit with a pool but alas it is too cold to swim in this time of year. Our only complaint is that it is quite chilly with the concrete construction and tiled floors.

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We are on the third floor

As usual we are within walking distance of all of the conveniences we need. The Pingo Doce supermarket is 10-15 minutes away and we can walk to town in the same time.

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The town doesn’t have major malls but a short drive away brings you to the commercial area of Portimao. We did go there with friends and it has everything you would need and a whole lot of what you don’t need! We did like the fact that much of it is open to the air which is very appealing.

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We have much still to see and do over the remaining time we have left here. Walking the beach is always a favorite for us. We found a beachside restaurant about 1 km from our place which serves great cappuccinos – perfect for watching the waves in the sun of the afternoon.

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Bocce on the hard packed sand bike and walking trails

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On sunny days you can enjoy  beachside coffee in the afternoon

Dozens of nice looking restaurants and cafes can be found in town and around the marina complex. In the afternoons you can find a sunny spot for a coffee and while away a couple of hours chatting and people watching. For those couple of hours you can easily forget that it is late November.

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We are very happy to have access to green space after city living for the past few months. Several good spots are nearby for birding and we have already added some new species to our life list. A path around the pond behind the condo provides some great viewpoints and is a quiet place for a morning stroll.

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Eurasian coot

At the end of Meia Praia beach is a productive estuary which shelters many wading birds including flamingos. There are several species of shorebirds along the beach and the harbour’s edge.

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Sanderlings

We are just starting to get acquainted with the famous storks of the Algarve. There are two species here, the white and the black stork. They nest on the top of available chimneys, telephone poles, churches and other spots. We haven’t had the opportunity to observe them closely so we will add that to our ever growing to-do list!

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Both the birds and their nests are protected under law and are one of the icons of the Algarve. Portuguese farmers appreciate storks as they feed on small lizards, snakes, mammals and large insects which in turn protects the important bee population and reduces the use of pesticides.

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We are definitely enjoying our time here and will have plenty to do in the coming weeks. We are planning a trip to Spain with our friends for a few days, we will observe Christmas celebrations here and know that January will come all too quickly.

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We enjoy the relative peace and quiet of this part of the Algarve at this time of year and will use our time to continue to explore and learn more about this fascinating region.

 

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