It was time for some down time, and the beaches were calling
our names. After much deliberation, we
opted to split our time between Samara and Mal Pais on the Nicoya Peninsula.
We lucked out and had the shuttle to ourselves for the 3-hour
trip from Monteverde to Samara. It was a beautiful drive descending from the
forests to the beach. Our coffee break location
even had a few macaws to observe in addition to their delicious pineapple shakes
and strong coffee.
Samara Beach is described in Lonely Planet as a “blackhole
of happiness.” Also, it is supposed to
be one of the best swimming beaches and an easy place to learn how to surf. It
sounded like a nice place to spend a few days.
We stayed in a B&B that felt a little like The Twilight
Zone, even though the place was nice enough. Our hosts were an American couple, Marlene
and Allen, originally from Boston who had been married 65 years and had 6 kids
and 30 grandkids. They retired here 15
years ago. Marlene is an artist, and Allen was a lawyer who was recovering from
a recent heart attack. At some point,
they had evidently been part of a travelling puppet show, and their grandchildren
made it to America’s Got Talent with their River Dance routine. They
also had a story to tell or a song to sing, so it was a pretty memorable stay!
Breakfast was served family style in the garden. The breakfast crew included our hosts, one other
guest, their neighbor/friend Murry, and us.
Breakfast was an event lasting 1.5 hours with quite the daily
conversation. Murry is a former smokejumper
(his last jump was at age 60!), author of several books and built his own log
cabin in Northern California near Ashland.
He spends the winter here and enjoys chatting with the various guests at
the B&B daily. He always had a good
story to tell over breakfast. Despite
the interesting company, it was always great to hit the beach afterward!
Samara Beach is a long, curved beach with white sand and
gentle waves. The beach is protected by
an offshore reef which makes for gentle but still fun waves. The water was a perfect temperature, so we
spent a lot of time swimming as it was very hot on the beach! We did splurge daily for 2 chairs and an
umbrella to allow us to read and relax while not in the water.
The town was very much an expat town with mostly expat owned
restaurants. So, we opted for the
locally owned sodas (small family owned) where Mike ate fish for every meal and
I enjoyed the typical casado meal (rice, beans, meat, daily vegetables and
plantains). Even though most Ticos speak
English, we always try to do our best by speaking as much Spanish as we can,
and my Spanish has improved on this trip!
Well, I’m not as shy about trying!
Our main activity in Samara was taking a surfing
lesson. The last time we surfed was 8
years ago in Australia, so we were rusty and needed help. Our instructor was excellent providing us feedback
for both our successes and our failed attempts.
As we continued to practice, he would help a little less to give us the
confidence to do it on our own. By the
end of the lesson, we were both catching a few waves on our own!
The surf lesson included free board rental for 5 days, so we
took advantage of it the next day. We
were both sore but wanted to try out our new skills. It was a rough start, but then we got the
hang of it again and caught some on our own.
By the 3rd day, we were both way too sore to go again.
After 3 lovely days in Samara it was time to head south to
Mal Pais. We were not as lucky with our
shuttle and were jammed into a van for 5 hours.
The bus company was disorganized, so we had to shuffle at a gas station
with a few other vans to make sure each of us were going to the right
destination! It was a mess, plus our
driver was more concerned about running personal errands along the route than
getting us to the beach!
When trying to decide which second beach town to check out,
our trusty Lonely Planet picked Mal Pais as the number one destination in all
of Costa Rica, so we just had to give it a go.
Looking back on it, we should have read the fine print a little more as it
truly is mostly a surfers’ destination, and the waves are not beginner
Since our shuttle took forever, we really only had one day
to spend on the beach. The views were
incredible, and it was fun to watch the surfers. However, the waves and rip currents made the
swimming not so fun.
We did have one of our best meals of the whole trip in this
town at a Basque tapas place called Bajo Arbol.
The restaurant is set in a pretty little garden with views of the open
kitchen. The food was excellent, and Mike
said his fish was the best of the whole trip.
We even splurged for dessert – triple chocolate goodness!
The area near our hotel was home to a troupe of Howler monkeys. Every morning, we would wake to their howls
which almost sound like growls.
We spent our last night watching an amazing sunset at the
beachside bar. The sky was peach, orange
and pink. Tons of people were out to
watch plus lots of surfers in the water catching a few last waves. They made a cool silhouette against the
A week at the beach was truly a vacation from our vacation. I enjoyed our daily swims, long hours of reading on the beach and good food. Our time in Costa Rica was winding down, and we were rested to take on our last destination before heading back to the States.
Costa Rica is the land of tours. Wanna’ zipline? There’s a
tour for that! Wanna’ “adventure hike”? Join our tour! Wanna’ swim with sloths?
Simply sign up for this…wait.
With a few exceptions, Sarah and I prefer do-it-yourself
travel to tours. We like the freedom to explore at our own pace and the
flexibility to adjust when an opportunity arises. We’ve traveled enough that we
rarely need the logistical benefits of a tour, and good research often comes
cheaper than a guide.
So, it was funny that we were excited about having booked
not one but two tours for the same day in Bosque Monteverde Nuboso, a private
reserve in Costa Rica’s cloud forest. The place has an interesting story; it
was started in part by Quaker expats who were conscientious objectors during
the Korean War. Established in 1972 (I know those timelines don’t match up, but
damn it, these things take time!), the reserve is now run by a biology research
center, and proceeds from the reserve go back into conserving the land. The
lodge is often booked for researchers, but we lucked out and got to stay right
in the park!
Our tours were set for the next day, but that didn’t stop us
from getting a head start exploring the park. We hiked some easy trails in the
pleasant cloud forest, which was surprisingly sunny for the duration of our
stay. Giant ferns, large vines, liana trees, and oodles of moss hung from a
thick canopy of large trees in the primary (old growth) forest. Many of the
oldest trees held about twice their size in other species of plants growing
from them; one medium-sized tree in front of us hosted over 70 separate
Several types of flowers caught our eye as well. There were
pretty little orange trumpets and delicate white blossoms to contrast the green
forest….pollinate me! In the same fashion, trees that couldn’t attract
pollinators by produce their own buds managed to fake it ‘til they make it
by disguising their leaves as “false flowers.” Also interesting were the
bundles of dark fruit called mountain corn for their kernel-like shape; the
plant is a relative of coffee plants and provides food for both animals and
Since it was a busy mid-afternoon, we didn’t expect to see
many animals but did encounter a few treats: coatis (a very common relative of
raccoons)—including a baby, a small black hawk, and a puffy-breasted mountain
thrush. Some other people pointed out a tiny hummingbird nest—we later learned
that hummingbirds steal spider webs to build elasticity into the nests in case
they need to expand them. A coffee shop right outside of the park put out
feeders, so we saw tons of hummingbirds too.
Our birding tour was a splurge, but it was also a good deal
for a nearly private (one other person joined) guide and six hours of
birdwatching. Plus, the first hour was before the park even opened—perfect for
spotting shy birds. Our guide was a young man named Juan; although a trained
naturalist, birdwatching started as his hobby but became a career. I think he
was 22 with only 4 years of experience, but he really knew his stuff! When he said
he goes birding during his vacation, I knew we had the right guide!
Juan suggested we poke around the entrance because he
suspected the park’s main attraction, the Resplendent Quetzal, might hang out
there early in the morning. He knew where they tended to go later, but he’d
been trying to figure out where they started their day. Well, he knows now
because we saw one within five minutes of starting the tour! He spotted it in
the viewing scope, but it flew away after just a brief glimpse. Luckily, Sarah
found it again a couple of minutes later, and it had been thoughtful enough to
perch in full view from our vantage point! Quetzals are quite rare, and
Monteverde is the best place to spot them; apparently, they are Guatemala’s
national bird, but Guatemalans come here to see them. I’ve always thought that resplendent
is a stupid word (thanks mostly to an episode of King of the Hill), but
this bird actually deserved the fancy descriptor: emerald feathers on its back,
a bright red breast, a fancy crested green head, and beautiful long tail
Later, Juan found one more quetzal hanging out in a tree. It
was digesting its avocado breakfast, so we had time to admire it while Juan
told us more about the birds. Quetzals have some crazy parenting habits—they
share all the tasks from building the nest all the way up until the chick
leaves for the first time. At that point, whichever parent is closest takes
full responsibility for one week before leaving the chick on its own…the other
parent evidently enjoys a luxurious week of rum daiquiris or something.
Another highlight was the Northern Emerald Toucanet. We saw
several of these green delights high up in an avocado tree; they are smaller
than other toucans but still feature the large beak and crazy eye. I think
between Ecuador and Costa Rica we saw most of the main species of these exotic
birds, and they are one of the animals that sort of excite me like every time I
see them is the first time.
Some of the medium-sized birds were also very cool. The prettiest were the Prong-billed Mot Mot and the Red-faced Barbets. We’d seen both in Mindo the previous month, but I think we enjoyed better views here because they were chilling out after breakfast. The Mot Mot was calling out, and through the scope you could clearly see its throat expanding to emit its song. Barbets are apparently somewhat rare in Monteverde—at least that early in the year—so Juan was pleased to find one that day.
We probably only remember a portion of the small birds we
saw during the tour. Many times, we would only get a quick peek through the
scope…one per branch as they flitted about…before the busy little things would
bump out of sight. Some of the coolest were the Black and White Tanager with
its zebra color scheme, the tiny green Chlorophonia, and the even tinier
Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant with the big-ass name. As I mentioned earlier,
hummingbirds were very common, and they seemed to relish the chance to buzz me
while I was intently focused on the binoculars; Sarah enjoyed watching me jump.
What a tremendous morning! We were fortunate enough to see
nearly all the main attractions during our tour, and we even lucked out to see
some rare ones. While this was nice for us, it is not necessarily a good sign
for the forest. It was unusually dry and warm in Monteverde for the time of
year, and birds were appearing at high elevations earlier than normal. Juan
noted that abnormal is fast becoming the new normal in places like Monteverde as
Global Warming changes our world. I try to keep things light on this blog as
much as possible, but I also hope that people will demand the changes necessary
to keep beautiful spots like Monteverde special for many generations to come.
Birding is Monteverde’s big draw, yet much of the park’s
wildlife is nocturnal—particularly everything that is not a bird. We’d
done a night tour in Amazon during our time in Bolivia nine years ago and
really enjoyed it, so we signed up for one here as well. Our guide, Felix, was
another naturalist superstar who was not only great at spotting animals but
also offered excellent commentary on the importance of the research being
conducted in the park. Like Juan, Felix’s enthusiasm for both animals and
humans was evident throughout the tour.
We got off to a pretty amazing start when Felix led us to a
tree just inside the entrance (which was also basically our front porch);
little did Sarah and I know we’d walked underneath a sloth about a dozen times
in two days! It wasn’t active quite yet, and even in the scope I wouldn’t have
identified it myself—it was just a big grey ball that seemed like a node in the
tree. Sloths can stay up in a tree for a week before climbing down to poop in a
different location to divert potential predators. I can’t even make it an hour
most mornings! At night, they lock their toes (we were watching a 2-toed
Hoffman sloth) around a branch, which allows them to hang from one foot without
fatiguing their muscles—sort of like good rock climbers hanging on their
skeletons—while they slowly pluck leaves for their dinner.
Sloths have come into vogue in recent years, so many people
know crazy facts about them already; for instance, I am certain that our niece
could tell you that sloths grow their own moss! I did not know, however, that
researchers currently believe that the…um…sloth moss may be able to fight
certain cancers in addition to another fatal disease that stems from bug bites
but doesn’t manifest for 5-10 years. Remember that preachy paragraph
earlier…well the bugs are relatively common in Ecuador, so there’s a method to my
During the rest of the tour, we hiked the popular waterfall
trail that Sarah and I had actually explored on our own that afternoon (We saw a
couple of Mot Mots, a coati, and a Yellow Warbler and felt pretty good; we also
heard a quetzal but never spotted it.); it was interesting to revisit the area
at night because we most likely had passed some of the same animals unknowingly
earlier in the day. For instance, Felix pointed out two huge orange-kneed
tarantulas, a bunch of tiny spotted rain frogs, and two poisonous side-strike
pit vipers. One of the vipers was high above us in a tree, but the other one
lived in a stump right beside the trail.
We expected to see the animals listed above, but some other surprises featured wings. The first treat was a Masked Trogan sleeping in a tree near the trail. This was one of the few highlight birds we hadn’t seen that morning, and we had only enjoyed a partial glimpse of them in Mindo. This one was easy to see, which was great because its red feathers glowed beautifully under the viewing scope’s interior light.
Another winged highlight was the barn owl butterfly…it even got Felix going…and I had to agree that it was the coolest butterfly I’ve ever seen. About the size of my fist, this sleeping butterfly was aptly named for its color and spots. It also featured an interesting decoy that had nothing do with owls—the bottom of one of its wings looks just like a snake’s head!
The coolest, though, was the sleeping quetzal! Remember the
one that Sarah and I heard but couldn’t spot earlier? It was now asleep in the
same exact area we’d searched that afternoon. Felix was able to position the
scope perfectly and adjust the lighting so that we could admire its impressive
long brown but light-catching tail feathers before readjusting to focus on its
magnificent green face!
What could make the night tour even better? Stumbling upon
an armadillo did it for me. It was on my wish list for Costa Rica, but I didn’t
really expect to see one. It was pretty small, but we got a decent look at its
puffy armor-like hide and long head before it darted off surprisingly quickly.
Felix thought it might be injured, which would explain why we snuck up on it
right on the trail. Armadillos don’t fight well, thus the thick hide, but
evidently even coatis are strong enough to take one down sometimes.
After an eventful couple of hours, we finished the night tour back with our buddy the sloth. It was creeping around the tree branches now, feeding itself at a super slow pace while hanging by its locked-off toes from the tree. What a great ending to a very special place…Monteverde actually hadn’t even been on our original itinerary, but it ended up being our favorite place in Costa Rica!
Costa Rica has been on our must-see list for a long
time. We were planning to visit during
our Many Moons trip in 2011, but ran out of time, so when we were planning this
trip, we made it a priority. It would be
our last planned international destination of the Still Moonin’ trip.
We had a 12-hour long travel day from Uruguay via Bogota,
Colombia. We did luck into exit row
seats for both flights which helped make it more tolerable. By the time we arrived, we were pooped,
especially with the 3-hour time change, and had a bit of culture shock to see
so many Americans in the airport! Since
we arrived late in the afternoon, we decided to stay in a town near the airport. The town had a great English bookstore, so we
loaded up to ensure plenty of reading material for our upcoming beach
time. English book exchanges have been
limited versus traveling in South America 8 years ago. I’m guessing it is due to e-books, so no one
travels with paper anymore. We wrapped
up the day with dinner at a Tex-Mex place with amazing guac and strong
There are three transportation options in Costa Rica that we
looked at… rental car, local buses or shuttle buses (aka Gringo buses). By the time we started organizing, rental car
prices were outrageous, so a no- go although the flexibility sounded nice. The local buses were cheap but very time
consuming as there are few direct buses, and we would need to make many
connections to get from place to place. So,
option 3 it was, the Gringo buses. They
are basically 12 passenger vans that travel between tourist destinations and
deliver you hotel to hotel. They are not
cheap but very convenient. Our first shuttle
bus was squishy, but all the travelers were friendly. It was fun to swap travel
stories, plus talk a little politics for good measure. Throughout our travels, Brexit and the USA
presidential election are the hot topics.
Our first destination was La Fortuna which is the adventure
base for the Arenal Volcano. At first
glance, the town is super touristy with travel agents and souvenir shops
everywhere. But the town has a beautiful plaza that was always busy with
locals. It ended up being a nice mix.
On our first day, we visited Arenal National Park. There are no local buses from town, so we had
to take a taxi. We had a great driver,
and he gave us his card to call for the return trip. It was a cloudy day, so the park ranger
warned us that the chances of seeing the volcano were slim, but we were looking
forward to a nice hike.
The hike was a loop through a rainforest with huge trees and a few delicate flowers along the way. We learned about buttress roots which make sense once you look at how they support the tree!
We stayed between two big groups for most of the hike, so we
got lucky and saw a few animals including coati which are part of the racoon
family. We saw a group of 11, but they
were quite shy so no pictures. They quickly
crossed the trail but did parallel it for a bit, so we could see them in the
Great Curassow are big birds that reminded me of
turkeys. The males are black, and the
females are brown. They were busy
pecking the ground and walked quickly.
We also saw a few perched in the trees later in our hike.
We hiked up to a great viewpoint and could see the lower two-thirds
of the mountain with its perfect cone shape.
The 1992 lava flow was easy to spot as it was the only black in the sea
of green. From here we could also see
the top of the canopy, so it was easier to spot 2 Yellow-Throated Toucans. Their calls are so loud, and they like the
treetops, so it makes them a little easier to find.
Back at the entrance while waiting for our taxi, we spotted
4 Keel-Billed Toucans with colorful bills.
They were all in one big tree which made it fun to take their
pictures. Their call sounds more like a
frog than a bird! It was also cool to
see them fly, as they look off balance with their long bill.
It was a great day and a nice change from the 3 travel days
in a row!
On our second day, we opted for some relaxation time. With the nearby volcano, the area is well
known for its natural thermal baths. We
decided to check out Eco Thermales hot spring.
It was a bit pricy, but since we picked the morning time slot (9-4), we
pretty much had it to ourselves. The
pools were set in a tropical forest, and it felt like a little oasis. There were 7 in total ranging in temperature
from 80-105. Around the pools were lounge
chairs to relax and a bar nearby. We
started with the cold pool and worked our way up to the hottest. The 80-degree pool felt chilly, but the next
one felt like bath water! I could stay
in it for a long time. After our first
round, we got passion fruit smoothies and cooled off in the lounge chairs.
We continued our circuit of going in each pool and then
cooling off in the lounges for most of the day.
It was very relaxing and a nice way to spend the day. We did see a little wildlife in our oasis… a
huge iguana was eating flowers in a tree above the pools. Eventually he descended the tree to eat the
fallen flowers poolside, allowing us to get a good picture. He was very long and bright green with a cool
fin on his back. He could move quickly!
After two fun days in La Fortuna, we had yet to see the full
volcano. As we were waiting for our
shuttle bus on the third day, I saw the very top peek out. So at least we technically saw the whole
thing, but not all at once. But luck was
with us that day and by the time we arrived at the lake to catch our taxi boat,
the volcano was out in full glory. It
was beautiful, and I loved the perfect symmetry.
La Fortuna was a great place to kick off our adventures in Costa Rica. The town gave us a small insight into Tico culture plus we got to see an awesome rainforest and animals. The healing thermal waters restored our travel weary bodies to continue our journey through Costa Rica.
We recently found some photos and our checklist from about this time last year. It got pretty hectic before we left, so the blog we envisioned to kick off the trip never happened, but I thought you might enjoy these photos and the checklist that got us organized. Sarah did most of the planning, but if you look closely at the checklist, I think you’ll find that I helped.
To Do List
Pay off Van
Replace Hot Water Heater
Remove Car Seats from Van
Make mosquito netting for Van
Re-make front window curtains
Call IQ for new debit cards
Call Schwab for new debit cards
Mike – Leave of absence
Do radios work?
Build new platform for van
Fix garage door opener
Paint basement bathroom and ceiling
Rental Company for house selection
Buy Mike beer
Storage Unit – Determine size and reserve.
Price out movers?
Sell/Donate: Bed, chair, desk
Repair foundation leak
Paint front fence
Stop IRA payments
Call Insurance – Change house to rental and get setup for van to be storage for Sept-Feb?
Wine tasting in Carmelo was easily the highlight of our ten
days in Uruguay, but the beaches were also a big draw when we planned our time
there. Apparently, they are absolutely packed in December and January, so we hoped
to hit the sweet spot with great weather but fewer crowds in mid-February. Our
past six weeks had been awesome, but we’d also kept a hectic pace, and two bouts
of the flu had left us in need of recharging. Punta del Diablo has a reputation
as being very beautiful but also really low-key, and we were looking forward to
a few days of chilling out on golden sand.
The only problem with our planning was that Carmelo and Punta
del Diablo are nine hours apart by bus, so we renamed Valentine’s Day as “The
Raffs Sit Our Asses All Day on a Bus Day” (I think it has a nice ring to it,
and so did my butt at the end of our sweaty rides). The first bus between
Carmelo and Montevideo was a cruiser 3 hours. However, I think we purchased the
last seats on the bus to Punta del Diablo because we sat only a few feet in
front of the stinky toilet in the back. We did have it better than some riders,
though, because they continued to pick up passengers along the route, and some
folks must have stood in the aisle for over two hours to reach their
destination. I know that I had at least three different bodies pressed up
against me who were definitely not my valentine that day.
The Lonely Planet called Punta del Diablo a Top 10
Destination in 2008, so it has grown significantly in the past decade but still
has only one paved main road. Every other road is red dirt and gravel; some
people described it as a rustic beach town, while others referred to its hippy vibe.
Both descriptions ring somewhat true, but there were also a couple of good restaurants
and some fancy vacation houses. We stayed at a small, quiet B&B/hostel (a posado)
about 10 minutes from the beach and 20 minutes from town, so we really got to
enjoy our own little pocket of serenity. We did have a little adventure that
first night, however, because the town’s electricity was out during dinner
time. Sarah and I found ourselves joining about half the town rummaging through
a grocery store by flashlight in search of cookies, crackers, and water…our own
version of a romantic candle-lit Valentine’s dinner.
Our next three days were similar versions of the same chilled
out day: a tasty breakfast around the crack of 8:30, a few hours of way low-key
beach time of laying out, reading, and wave hopping in the refreshing but rough
surf as the tide came in. The sun was blazing hot in the afternoon, so we relaxed
in our air-conditioned room and dialed in our plans for Costa Rica, our final
stop before flying back to the States in March. A tube of sunscreen costs about
$17 in Uruguay, so that may have been another motivation to get indoors for a
siesta each afternoon! I think the most exciting thing we saw was some dude
catch a stingray near where we usually swam; he was showing it off to his kids
before releasing it, so we could see it trying to defend itself with its whip-like
stinger. Other than that, the only thing diverting us from total beach
isolation was having to just say no to special brownies once or twice a day.
Weed is legal at government-run dispensaries in Uruguay, but it was illegal for
hippy entrepreneurs to sell and for foreigners to buy (even if that were our
All of this might sound mundane, but it (the beach, not the brownies)
was exactly what we wanted at the time…slow, beautiful, and carefree. We both
read two books in three days, took daily naps, and recharged. I’m pretty sure
Punta del Diable has a low-key party vibe for backpackers and surfers who seek
it, but the cool thing about the place is that it can really be whatever you
want from it. Top ten? I don’t think so, but it was still a great place to
Before moving on, I need to give a shoutout to Sebastian, Posada
de la Viuda’s owner. Not only did he run a nice place to stay, but he went
above and beyond normal hospitality. Our bus left town before breakfast was
supposed to start, and he not only got to the guesthouse a half hour early to
feed us, but he also gave us a ride to the bus station during the busiest part
of his day. Just one more example of why we love travelling in South America.
After a much easier Wednesday morning bus ride back to
Montevideo, we enjoyed a leisurely transitional afternoon as we prepared to
move on to Costa Rica the next day. Plus, we had some celebrating to do that
night…it was Sarah’s 40th birthday! It’s a little difficult to do a
partner’s birthday justice on a trip like this; you have minimal time alone to
plan and a limited budget to spend, and I honestly didn’t do as much as Sarah
deserved. At least Montevideo has some very good restaurants, though, and the
one we picked—Baco’s—stocked 150 South American wines to pair with its
steak-centered menu. She was able to celebrate with something sparkly and
something red during dinner, and we shared something chocolate for dessert. Not
the most exciting celebration for a big birthday, but maybe Sarah would be okay
turning 40 again next year (with more fanfare) instead of turning 41…
I think I mentioned in my last blog that Uruguay is being
touted as a must-see travel destination this year—largely for the three
attractions that drew us to visit. I’m not convinced that the country is ready
to be a world tourist stop; it’s a country that is currently better built for
living than for visiting. It’s certainly not cheap, either. Having written all
that, we had a good time—Montevideo is pleasant, Carmelo’s wineries were a blast,
and Punta del Diablo was relaxing. Uruguay was an excellent Plan-B. It is very
doubtful we’d ever go back, but we were both glad we revisited the country for
more than one day.
One of the big draws for us to visit Uruguay was the wine. The Carmelo region was described in a New
York Times article as “the Tuscany of Uruguay” and explorable via bicycles. Based
on that article and a few blogs, we were all in to experience it ourselves. What better way to see the countryside than
by cycling through the vineyards and working up an appetite between stops!
Carmelo is 3.5 hours from Montevideo on the Rio de la
Plata. It is a small working town and
hasn’t been built up for the tourist industry.
Most of the tourists, primarily Argentine and Brazilian, stay outside
town at the wineries, but to save $250 a night, we were willing to ride a few
extra kilometers a day. English is not
widely spoken, so we practiced our Spanish and tried to get used to the fast
pace and new phrases.
The town’s pride is a red swing bridge. Throughout our time here, many people asked
if we had seen the bridge and showed us pictures from a flood last year. The view was nice, and we enjoyed watching the
local swim club practice.
The best restaurant in town was a bakery with empanadas and
homemade alfajores (chocolate cookie sandwiched with dulce del leche).
Our hotel receptionist told us there was a parade that
evening to celebrate the town’s 200th birthday. Much to our surprise, we got to enjoy a little
taste of carnaval in this tiny town as this parade was similar in style to the
large parades in Montevideo.
The parade had 6 troupes from different neighborhoods. Each
troupe had a similar setup but different colors and level of talent. First would be the banner carriers displaying
the neighborhood’s troupe and sponsors. Next
were the flag twirlers with huge, colorful flags. The twirlers were strong men who somehow never
hit a bystander with their flags. Usually
there were a few boys in training with smaller flags in between the men. Next were dancing ladies ranging from young
girls to older ladies constantly swinging their hips to the beat of the drum. Following the dancers, was a family of
clownish people including fake grannies and an old man with cane. After the family was a young man with 2
really good female dancers. Finally,
there were the drummers, the soul of the troop.
Both girls and boys carried the drums, but mostly boys.
It was really special to experience this parade, as this was
the part of carnaval we were most excited about. It was cool to see pretty much the whole town
out watching the parade. The kids were dancing
along the sidewalks and the ladies swaying their hips to the beat.
Following our night on the town, we headed out for our first
day of wine tasting. We rented bikes
from our hotel. They were single speeds
with a basket and fat tires, so it was going to be slow going. The first winery was 6km away via the main road
but had minimal traffic. We had a head wind,
but it was flat, and we had all day so pedaled along earning our wine.
On our way out of town, we saw a couple of horse drawn
carts. The saying in this area is, “if
it ain’t broke, why fix it”! So, I guess
it is the norm as we saw lots of them over the course of 3 days. My picture isn’t great, as the cart was
hauling, but the kid’s grin made me happy.
Our first winery was El Legardo, a very small boutique
winery. They produce 8,000 bottles a
year. The grandfather planted the grapes
when he settled the land, but due to a recession, he had to sell most of the
land. In 2007, the son decided to
replant on the remaining land and start up the family winery. We met him and our tour guide was his son. It was a true family business. They are 1 week from harvest, so we got to
see the grapes looking juicy and dark.
The tasting was 3 wines paired with a charcuterie board. The wines were all excellent… Syrah, Tannat,
and a Syrah/Tannat blend. The blend was
a barrel tasting, and we both had fun using the wine thief!
While we were tasting, we enjoyed chatting with a couple
from London, Kerry and David. They have spent the last 3 years traveling
Central and South America, so it was fun to swap stories. We also enjoyed talking politics between our
Our second winery of the day was a short ride to Almacen de
la Capilla. We missed our turn so ended
up riding a little farther, but it was along a nice dirt road and allowed us to
regain our taste buds.
Our tour guide was the winemaker herself, Anna. She is the 5th generation wine
maker and first female wine maker in the region. Traditional expectations kept her from studying
to be a winemaker at university, but when her father died, she took over the
family business. The front of the winery
is an old general store selling dulce de leche, local olive oil and jams. There were lots of family antiques, plus the original
trap door cellar that we got to explore.
Our wine tasting was 6 wines, 2 grappa and another huge charcuterie
board! The wines were more varied and
included… Chardonnay, Rose Muscat, Rose Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tannat and
a sweet Muscat. All were excellent.
We stayed quite a long time chatting again with our UK
friends and meeting the winemaker’s husband, Diego. By the end of the tasting, we were fast
friends and Anna invited us to join their harvest the next day!
Riding back to town was easy with the wind at our back and
cooler temps. No parades tonight, but we
did hear a troupe practicing in the neighborhood.
The next day, we were up early to ride our bikes to Almacen
to help with the harvest. We were
greeted by Anna who handed us clippers and sent us to the field. Once there, we saw our UK friends already at
work. Diego gave us a quick 3-minute lesson
and a section to work. We picked a few
crates worth, only clipping the large, lower clusters. It wasn’t easy because it took so much work
to untangle the leaves from the bunches.
After picking our crates, Diego picked them up with an old tractor, and we
headed back to the winery to watch the crush.
As this is a small family run process, Anna inspected each cluster
before it was crushed. It was neat to
see it all in action as we have learned about the process often enough
throughout our wine tastings over the years.
We even got to taste the juice from the crush which was yummy and sweet
which is good for the alcohol. What an
incredible experience to be part of the team helping with harvest and
crush. Something we will probably never
After saying our goodbyes, we hopped back on the bikes to ride 10km to Narbona winery. The first 8km were pleasant with huge trees giving shade and lots of birds to watch. Then the road turned, and we started our climb into the wind with no shade and temps in the 90’s.
I was very happy to arrive and see lots of shade! Narbona is the largest winery in the region and owned by an Argentine family. They kept the original name from the Italian family who planted the grapes. They were also harvesting, so we got to see the live crush, but on a much bigger scale than Anna’s.
We tasted 3 wines which were paired with 6 cheeses, also
made on the property. Rose Tannat, Pinot
Noir, and Tannat. All were great and the
cheeses were fantastic. At first, I
thought the pours were a little stingy, but then once we finished one, she
started refilling. In the end, all 3
bottles were left to be consumed by us and a Brazilian couple. We enjoyed chatting with them, and they were
both Industrial Engineers. We shared our
favorite places in our home countries, and by the end of the tasting we each wanted
to travel to the others’ country.
After our tasting, we ate in their highly rated restaurant. It lived up to expectations and my homemade ravioli
was amazing! Plus, we got to enjoy more of their amazing wine! It was a great way to spend the afternoon.
The ride back to town was a breeze, downhill with the wind
at our back. We giggled and reflected on
the experiences that we shared during the day.
I would not say that Carmelo is the Tuscany of Uruguay, but it is its own special place in this world. The small, family run wineries with warm welcomes and amazing wines were pretty special. Plus, the opportunity to enjoy the countryside via bikes was a fun way to spend a few days.
Some people might wonder why we chose to visit Uruguay. It was
a backup plan; we’d wanted to go to Colombia, but the national park we most
wanted to see would be closed for the entire month of February. We didn’t have
a ton of time built into this part of the schedule, so we needed a small
country. We’d been to Uruguay for one day in 2012 and enjoyed the vibe. It is
gaining a reputation as an world tourist attraction (The Lonely Planet
listed it as a top destination this year) for its beautiful beaches and
delicious red wine. Thus, Uruguay it was!
We weren’t sure what to expect from Montevideo. We’d read that
it was a nice small capital city with good food, great music, and a European
vibe. On the other hand, since it is known more for its culture than its
sightseeing attractions, it isn’t the easiest city to decode. We had a little
over 48 hours after arriving at 6:00 AM after basically a 24-hour travel day!
It was the first weekend of Carnaval (they spell it differently than we would),
though, so we were hopeful of seeing some drums and dancing.
Sunday is not the best day to stay in the old city (Ciudad
Viejo) because most businesses and restaurants are closed so that people
can be with their families. The little hotel we found was an absolute gem, but
the owner couldn’t meet up to let us in so early in the morning. So, we walked
around the ghost town streets and down to the Rio de la Plata, and then we sat on
a bench near the hotel. The place is small, brand new, and doesn’t even have a
sign outside, so I doubt neighbors even know it’s there. Anyway, we only sat a
few minutes before a concerned old lady called down to the vagrants below her
window to tell us there were plenty of hostels nine blocks away! We had mixed
results in convincing her we were in the right spot (Uruguayan Spanish is next
level); luckily our dude showed up a little early, let us in, and told us where
we could get a pretty damn good breakfast in a neighborhood of closed metal
This might sound like a rough start, but we had a plan to
keep the day from being wasted. After a short nap and some lunch, we did what
the locals do on Sunday: take a stroll on the riverside Rambla and visit
the pleasant Parque Rodo. The Rambla is a boardwalk along the river that
runs the length of the city (13.7 miles); however, it looks more like you are
walking alongside the ocean! We walked about 2.5 miles away from our
neighborhood, joining tons of Uruguayan bikers, fishermen, runners, and other
strolling couples. Kids seemed to favor rollerblading, and I think Sarah wanted
to join them. Pretty much anywhere you look, you could find someone with a
thermos under their arm and a tall, metal mug and straw in the other…mate herbal
tea is a way of life in Uruguay.
Parque Rodo is a large green park around a lake, as well as
the surrounding area that includes a public beach and small amusement park.
There were a ton of families spending quality time and also some cool statues
of a random combination of influencers…not sure Confucius was ever in
Montevideo! Usually on Sundays, groups of traditional drummers and Samba
dancers practice in the park, but we didn’t see any that day; since it was
actually Carnaval, they probably had real gigs coming instead. The giant
opening parade was supposed to have been the previous night but was postponed a
week due to rain forecast.
Sometimes, I guess you have to make your own fun. Luckily,
The Montevideo Wine Experience was open and only a few blocks from our place.
They feature solely Uruguayan wines, so it was our introductory session before
hitting wine country later in the week. The national grape is tannat.
Originally a French grape, it is bold and full of tannins…a perfect compliment
to Uruguayan beef. We shared a flight that included other varietals, but the
tannat was most interesting and the best of the bunch. Interestingly, most of
the nation’s wine is produced right outside the capital, but that is simply
because the Spanish needed to stay close to the city in order to retain power. It
had nothing to do with the best soil! While we sipped, an old-timer came in
with his guitar and sat with his buddies at the next table over; together they
sang a couple of gaucho songs. A perfect early evening for two tired travelers!
Monday morning brought a much more bustling Ciudad Viejo,
which was all right with us. Most of the stores are actually very nice when
they raise their metal doors, and much of the neighborhood is pedestrian-friendly.
We’d heard the colonial architecture there was cool, especially on upper
floors. That stuff was present but often a work in progress. For every
charming, curvy balcony façade, there were two more unfinished ones for sale
and in need of whitewash, repair, or paint. It reminded us of our day in
Slovakia—architecture with good bones but lacking TLC.
Top on our list for the day was the Andes 1972 Museum
dedicated to the Uruguayan rugby team and other passengers whose plane crashed
in the Chilean mountains. If you’ve read the book or seen the movie Alive,
then you know this story. Of the 45 passengers, 28 survived the initial crash
but faced starvation, infection, freezing temperatures, and even a deadly
avalanche. For 72 days, they did everything they could to survive. The ordeal
ended when two of the boys climbed through the mountains for 13 days and found
their way into a valley. They encountered a gaucho who rode several hours on a
horse and then a car for help (he died at the age of 91 the day after we
visited the museum). All 16 survivors were rescued over the next two days. The infamous
story was the group’s impossible decision to depend on cannibalism, but the
museum humanizes the people aboard that plane.
The proprietor of the museum is best friends with one of the
climbers and wanted to make sure their story is not lost as they age. He added
personal details to the fine displays and relics in the museum. He also offered
a touching story on the perspective his friend gained in surviving. Up in the
mountains, the survivors sometimes burned their spending money trying to thaw
out their fingers. When the proprietor’s family was struggling during a major
recession twenty years ago, Robert (the survivor) insisted on offering help
despite his own probable struggles. The proprietor tried to refuse, knowing
that Robert must need the money as well, but Robert replied, “You forget that I
am one of the few people in the world that knows first-hand that $1.00 and $100
bills burn at the same rate, my friend.”
The museum was small, but it was so fascinating that we
spent hours there and were overdo for lunch. Luckily, one of Montevideo’s main
attractions is also its tastiest. The port market is a bunch of small parillas
(asado restaurants). Many of you are familiar with Argentine beef, and
Uruguayan beef is just as good. We scored seats right in front of the wood-fire
grill at the best one and dined on mouth-watering baby beef (rib-eye) and tender
lomo (filet mignon), both accompanied by chimichurri sauce and washed down with
delicious tannat. It was also a great show; waiters whisked along the narrow
aisle between the bar and the grill, while the grillmaster tended to the meats—chorizo,
blood sausage, chicken cutlets, ribs, and at least four cuts of steak—and moved
the coals around to adjust the heat. Yeah, baby!
I think we expected Carnaval shows to be everywhere we
looked, but that wasn’t the case. We did run across impromptu street shows that
can be seen all year long, but the actual Carnaval mostly takes place on stages
around town, and they don’t start until late at night. Like I said, we didn’t
really have time to get the hang of Montevideo, and it seemed doubtful we’d see
We did the next best thing and popped into the small
Carnaval Museum. They had a bunch of traditional masks and costumes, a stage, and
videos from last year’s festival. Some of the shows are tablados, which
are mostly drumming processions honoring the influence slaves had in creating a
Uruguayan identity. Others are called murgas; they are satirical musical
comedies that focus on current Uruguayan events (the only show we could get to
that evening was a murga, which seemed skippable). The revista is the
dance most familiar to Americans who hear the word Carnaval. The museum
wasn’t the real deal, but at least it gave us a taste of Montevideo’s soul.
Montevideo wasn’t a carnival for us, but it was a pleasant
city to visit, and we had great food. If you know us, then you know we aren’t
city people anyway. Bring on the wine and beaches!
The Galapagos was Mike’s number one pick when we were first planning this trip. He didn’t have to try hard to convince me… awesome animals and beautiful landscapes, sign me up! I was a little hesitant based on our budget, but after working through the numbers it was a go and our big-ticket item of this year-long adventure.
We opted to take an 8-day cruise of the western islands with a locally owned company called Tip Top which was founded by the first person born on the islands – Rolf Wittmer. We would learn more about him and the first settlers on the island while watching a documentary on our first few nights on the cruise. It was drama filled with several un-solved murders and land struggles. Interesting to learn the background, and it was made even cooler to learn that our naturalist guide, Edu, was Rolf’s grandson.
Back to the actual adventure itself… We took a flight from Quito directly to
Baltra island where our catamaran awaited us.
Our boat had 15 guests with a crew of 10. We were pleasantly surprised with the size of
our cabin and the nice common areas aboard including the bar and shady sundeck
on the very top.
Our daily itinerary had us on the go for most of the day,
which was great. We would wake up early
for breakfast before taking the dingy boats to our morning location for our
wildlife hike. Then we headed back to
the boat for a morning snorkel before lunch.
After lunch, the boat would navigate to our afternoon location, while I
usually enjoyed the sundeck with an afternoon nap or reading. At our next location, we would hike again and
sometimes have a second snorkel as well.
Then back at the boat for everyone’s favorite reward… happy hour at the
bar watching the sun set. Finally, we
wrapped up the day with our daily briefing reviewing what we saw and learned
during the day and going through the next day’s plan. Sometimes, we had some lectures as well to
learn about fish or the volcanos/landscape.
All of this was led by Edu, our amazing naturalist
guide. He was very knowledgeable and a
great teacher with tons of patience. He
could keep the group organized and on track while never losing his sense of
humor. He was super passionate about the
environment and an expert diver. I
really enjoyed learning from Edu.
The crew was also outstanding. They always had a smile on their face even
when no one was looking. Our dingy
drivers were constantly on the lookout for animals and ensured we safely got on
and off the boats. The food was excellent,
and we were well cared for onboard!
Staying on the topic of people, we also had great fellow
passengers. There was a family of 5
celebrating their mother’s retirement, 2 brothers and their wives, a soon to be
married couple, and a couple from Switzerland.
One of the brothers and his wife were also named Mike and Sara, so we
always had a good laugh over who was who!
We really enjoyed getting to know everyone on board.
There are too many details to do a day by day in this blog,
so I am going to break it up by animals and then our favorite places. Animals first…
Sea lions were everywhere and always a crowd favorite. I love how playful they can be and their
beach waddle. They are very friendly and
curious. The young pups were fun to
watch playing with each other in the water.
We also saw the males being quite territorial swimming in the water
looking for females to mate. The females
have 1 baby each year and will nurse up to 4 years (unusually long for sea
lions). This causes quite a bit of
sibling rivalry, so the number one killer of sea lions is your siblings. There is only so much food to go around and
the bigger ones beat out the babies. We
also learned that only blood relatives will cuddle on the beach. I never got tired of watching or taking
pictures of these adorable animals!
Marine Iguanas are the only lizards in the world that can
swim and are endemic to the Galapagos.
60% of their body is their tail.
They have long toes and sharp nails to hold onto the rocks. They swim to eat green algae usually once a
day. The rest of the time, they spend
sunning themselves. If the algae is not
abundant, they can actually shrink their entire bodies, bones included so they
need less to eat!
The males are territorial and will do a head bobbing dance
to show who is boss. If another male
challenges, they will get into a head-butting match to shove off the other
males. The main male will do all the
mating in the colony, but there are satellite males that come to mate when the
main guy is busy. There is no parental
care, so the babies need to find the colony on their own. They do not have the proper enzymes yet to
digest algae, so they eat the adults’ poop!
Galapagos Penguins are the northernmost penguins in the
world. They are the second smallest
behind the New Zealand species. Each
penguin has a unique pattern of black dots on their belly like a
fingerprint. They are easy to spot on
the black rocks with their white bellies.
I really enjoyed snorkeling with them.
They were like little torpedoes under water! They also look a bit like a duck when their
head is above water.
During one of our navigations, our captain spotted a pod of
dolphins. They were feeding in one spot and
there were over 100. The whole crew was
on the decks watching and taking pictures.
They were super active, jumping far out of the water. Plus they got really close to the boat, so we
could see their elegance swimming under the water.
The animal that I was most excited about seeing was the Giant
Tortoise. We saw females in the wild in
Urbina bay as they were close to the beach in the grass where the soil is
softer for them to dig their nests. They
are massive! They often live to 150
years old. You can get a gage of their
age by their shell size and ripples. They
have the opposite of tree rings… The less ripples the older they are. There is no parental care, and the mating takes
up to 4 hours. Mike got to see the
turtles “do it” on Santa Cruz! They have
no vocal cords, so only make noise 2 times… grunting while they “do it” and
hissing, made by expelling air, when they withdraw into their shell.
Land Iguanas are orange/yellow in color and are large! I had to navigate around quite a few who were
hogging the trail! They primarily eat
cactus and can climb to the very top.
Fur Seals are sea lions, not seals. They are shyer than Galapagos sea lions and
smaller. They have 2 hair follicles per
pore, so they can stay super warm. Since
they have such a heavy coat, they like to be in the shade when on land. They dive very deep for food so prefer to
stay on rocks that have a steep drop off, unlike the sea lions who like the
beach. The fur seals are graceful
swimmers and pretty agile on the rocks as well.
Adult Sally Lightfoot crabs are red and look so dramatic
against the black rock. When they are
small, they are black to blend into the rock.
As they age, they get redder and redder.
They are everywhere and make for fun pictures.
The Flightless Cormorant have little wings, but as the name
implies, they cannot fly. It was
originally thought that over time their wings shrank, but it was a form of
dwarfism. Since food is so plentiful
here and there are no predators, they were able to adapt to become very strong
swimmers. The adult eyes are a startling
turquoise color which is a big contrast to the black bodies. The males take care of the young, so the
females can mate again. We were able to
watch a juvenile near the shore hop into the water to get fed by dad! It looked
a little like force feeding, but the kid was happy! Back on shore, he dried his wings while playing
with the marine iguanas nearby!
Blue footed boobies are famous for their booby dance – feet
shuffling to attract the lady. No one
knows why their feet are blue, the hardest color in nature to achieve. They are
curious and even approached a fellow passenger to check out his vivid blue
sneakers! They lay 2 eggs, but only 1
chick makes it – darn sibling rivalry again!
The chicks are very white and fluffy.
Frigates birds are very large and graceful fliers. They often flew alongside our boat during
navigation. The males have a red chest
that they can inflate into a red balloon to attract the ladies. Frigates cannot swim, so they are master stealers
of other birds’ fish and catching their own flying fish!
On to the island highlights.
I was surprised at the diversity that we saw in each place from new
black lava flow, to red beach to white sand beach to mountains.
Sullivan’s Bay on Santiago Island. We hiked a lava flow from 100 years ago. Most of the lava was Pa’Hoe Hoe Lava which
means smooth and rope like. It was neat
to see the different patterns along the way.
Espinoza Point on Fernandina Island. This is the youngest of all the islands and
the volcano is currently active, but we couldn’t see anything from our location. The hike was great with a variety of
landscape and animals. We saw loads of
Marine Iguanas, and we could see them swim.
We snorkeled here as well and swam with them in the water. We also saw tons of sea turtles and even a
seahorse! The sea turtles would just
swim under us while we observed from above.
Elizabeth Bay on Isabella Island is fragile mangrove inlet
which we explored via the dingy.
Highlights included watching a school of golden rays, penguins swimming
everywhere and sea turtles.
Urbina Bay, Isabella Island – Our longest hike which was a really
awesome loop covering a variety of ground.
We started on a sandy beach, then grassy lands into green spine brush
and finishing on a rocky beach with some scrambling!
Tagus Cove, a very protected inlet where pirates anchored. In fact, most boats used this cove over the years
and even carved/painted their boat name and year of visit in the rock. The oldest is from 1836. We hiked up to a viewpoint of the cove and
Darwin Lake. The lake was created by a tsunami
a long time ago and is brackish. The
color was gorgeous almost reminding me of a glacier lake.
Bartolome Island was a fun stop with a great snorkel. We saw lots of fish, penguins and marble
stingrays. We also hiked to the summit
for an amazing view of Pinnacle Rock and Sullivan’s Bay.
Chinese Hat, Santiago was a mellow hike with tons of baby
sea lions. One was only about 1 month
old and was still trying to figure out how to balance and walk on his
flippers. He was super adorable. I really enjoyed the snorkeling here with
warm, calm water and our first good look at white tailed sharks! We saw several with the largest 4’ long! Super cool!
Darwin Breeding Center. Their main goal is to help
animal/plant population that are in critical danger. They are working island by island to control
invasive animals/plants, re-plant native vegetation and reintroduce species or
help species grow their population. The
highlight was seeing the baby tortoises!
The smallest were only 1 month old and were the size of softball. The tortoises stay in captivity until they
are 5 years old and then released to their island. They have over a 90% success
Wow, what a trip and we learned so much! Unfortunately, we did get a GI bug that hit
both Mike and I hard. Mike had to skip
one full day and I had to skip one afternoon.
I think our immune systems were run down from the flu the prior
week. It was pretty awful, but glad it
was over fairly quickly and we didn’t miss too much!
The Galapagos were truly amazing to explore via our cruise. I’m so glad that Mike picked it as his number 1 and that we made it happen. The animals were super cool to see and learn about. The landscapes were gorgeous, and we just had an amazing time. Ecuador has been full of adventure for the Raff’s and after 5 weeks, I was feeling a bit sad to say goodbye. It was time to move south to Uruguay.
Following our amazing 2 week climbing adventure, we had a
few unplanned days prior to leaving for our Galapagos cruise. Since we were both still feeling terrible
from the flu, we opted to take it easy in the cloud forest in a tiny town
called Mindo. The town is mostly known as
a birder’s paradise as there are over 400 species in the area. It sounded appealing to us to try our luck at
birding while trying to feel better.
Mindo is a quick 2-hour bus ride from Quito. Due to the mountains, we crossed the equator
twice on the way. Once we arrived in
Mindo, we realized it truly is a small town with just one main street and is surrounded
by tree-covered mountains slightly shrouded in the clouds. It was perfect for a little R&R.
The next morning, we woke up early to meet our guide, Neicer, at 6AM for our first day of birding. After a 20-minute drive out of town and up into the forest, we started our adventure by trekking along a road listening to the birds’ wakeup calls.
Neicer had a great scope along and could set it up in a blink of an eye. He was also able to use the scope to take closeup pictures with our phone, which was awesome! He was super knowledgeable and got very excited about showing us his favorite birds. The morning highlights included:
3 types of Toucan – black/yellow, chocolate/yellow and green. They hang out at the very top of the trees to
catch the bugs, so it makes them somewhat easy to find.
Laughing hawk which we found by following the loud, laughing
Many different colored tanagers… golden, flame-faced, blue,
Red Motmot. Very shy,
but we were able to see both a male and a female!
After a few hours of birding, we headed back to the hotel to
rest. We pretty much did nothing all day
trying to get well. The highlight was
going to a Venezuelan café for Arepas (fried corn meal sandwich stuffed with
meat, beans, cheese and avocado). It was
The next morning, we met Neicer at 5AM to drive to a nature reserve
farther out of town to see the much-anticipated Andean Cock of the Rock. We hiked a few minutes to a covered shelter
in the dark to await. A few minutes
after dawn, we could hear the birds calling and then a few males landed in the
trees in front of us. The males are
famous for their brilliant red heads and large crests. Their eyes are yellow, and they have a tiny
yellow beak. The males congregate in the
trees to perform little dances and show off their colors in hopes of attracting
a female. We didn’t see a lady, but we
saw many males strut their stuff!
After an hour of watching the show, we headed to another viewing
area to check out the many tanagers and hummingbirds. Ecuador has over 100 types of hummingbirds,
and they are so beautiful! My favorites
Violet-tailed Sylph with its long glorious tail
White-booted Racket-tail with its little white pants
Back at the hotel, it was time to pack and catch the bus
back to Quito. Mindo was a perfect place
to rest and allow our bodies to recover from the terrible flu. I really enjoyed birding and seeing so many
colorful creatures. It got us in the
right mindset to continue our animal exploration in the Galapagos!
We left the Cayambe region with high spirits but also really
hoping for better weather and a chance to climb. Cotopaxi is the
picture-perfect mountain of Ecuador; it’s got the classic Andes snow line about
2/3 way up the mountain, and that perfect conical shape that defines the classic
volcano. Luckily for us, it also usually has better weather than Cayambe,
although it would be a bit steeper and higher (the summit is around 19,300 ft.)
than our previous objective.
Before leaving Cayambe, though, we had a very interesting
stop to make: the Quitsato Equator Monument. This 52 m. sun dial marks the true
latitude of zero degrees, exactly on the Equator. A separate monument exists
just outside Quito, but it incorrectly identifies the line. While the Europeans
erred in their measurements, indigenous Ecuadorians measured it correctly as
early as 1500 years ago; after all, their crop seasons depended on the sun! You
might notice the similarity between Ecuador’s name and the word Equator;
it got this name from the French who came here because the mountainous
landscape provided landmarks for mapping the line; neither Brazil’s Amazon or
African countries on the same parallel offered such good markers. The young man
I am blatantly plagiarizing explained all this in about five minutes before telling
us how the sun dial works and where the sun would shine during each solstice or
equinox. He noted that traditional maps may be incorrectly aligned—north to
south assumes we are on the sun; they should be oriented east to west (like the
sun’s path) because we are on the earth, which rotates around the unmoving sun.
He added that the word north actually comes from a Latin word meaning left.
I thought it was an interesting viewpoint and would make a great hook for a
lesson in perspective when I get back to the classroom next year.
Our entrance into the Cotopaxi region that afternoon was a
little disheartening—pouring rain! I guess that’s common in the mid-late
afternoon, though. By the time we got to our night’s destination, Tambopaxi
Lodge (12, 162 ft.), it stopped raining; however, it was hard to be excited
with the mountain hiding behind the clouds. The park around Cotopaxi is
somewhat barren, or at least open and rocky. Considering Cotopaxi is an active
volcano that erupted as recently as 2015, I guess that shouldn’t have surprised
me. Tambopaxi is an eco-lodge with bunkhouse style lodging and a nice
restaurant, so we continued to sleep and eat well in preparation for potential
The following afternoon, we took our bus partway up to the
mountain hut before hiking the last 500 ft. or so with full packs. Jose was
impressed with our time of 35 minutes, and we found ourselves feeling strong at
15,700 ft. The hut was pretty cool—flags signed by climbers from different
countries adorned the walls, and it even had a small indoor bouldering wall
(Sarah immediately traversed the whole thing). After lunch—complete with the
world’s best hot chocolate—we took naps, only to wake up to freshly falling
snow! I think it dropped about 3” before fizzling out that evening, but we were
happy with what we couldn’t hear—there were no winds!
Our attempt started with a wake-up call at 11:00, but snow
sliding off the roof outside the window by my bunk had kept my attention by a
couple of hours by then. We set off around midnight, zig-zagging our way up a
gradually steep snow field to reach the glacier. After roping up, we made a
long rising traverse up a mellow glacier until the climb became more technical.
In this section, we had to navigate through several crevasses—one of them quite
large—with snow bridges of varying conditions. We were through here early in
the morning, but one of the bridges looked pretty thin.
By now, we were probably halfway on the climb; we’d made it
to the point where the steeper “Heartbreak” route joined the main climber’s
path we’d taken. Our team was moving well and making good time. As long as I
ate a little and drank a bit each hour, I continued to feel strong as we
climbed higher and higher, and our guides continued to keep a great pace. It
wasn’t as cold or windy as I’d feared, and the sky was starting to show hints
of glorious morning light.
After another long, fairly non-descript traverse, we began
climbing more steeply. There was some backup among parties (this was the busiest
mountain we climbed), the fresh snow was a little slick, and inexperienced
climbers around us kept blowing out the steps made by others. These factors
probably made this section more tedious than necessary. Sarah started feeling
the altitude and dealing with some calf cramps, but she just dug down in that
way she sometimes does and found a way to get it done!
The morning light was on us now, and the sky was clear above
us. We were now above the clouds, and the views across the glacier were
awesome! The path to the summit alternated between steep and gradual
switchbacks, and soon we found ourselves at 19,300 ft! Cotopaxi’s summit was a
new elevation best for Sarah and the 2nd highest I’d ever been! Our
entire team summited…just the win we’d been hoping for the past few days. While
I tend to do okay ascending high elevation climbs, I often get pressure
headaches on the way down; I could feel one coming on at the summit, but that
didn’t lessen my excitement! As I sometimes do on our crazier adventures, I
teared up right before summiting…what did I do to deserve this beautiful place
and amazing experience with my wife and friends?
We made our descent quite rapidly, which was fine with me
considering the hot sun now blazed over us to shine on fresh snow from the
previous afternoon. That iffy looking snow bridge wasn’t exactly calling our
names. I was glad to find that the guides planned to take us down the
Heartbreak route instead; it was steep snow but avoided the worse crevasses.
Sarah and I were positioned fairly close together on our rope, so it was
challenging to descend without pulling her. We did pretty well, though, and
made it down the steep slow without any falls and only a plunged ice ax or two
serving as the emergency brake. I think our time to the summit was about 7
hours, while our descent took only 2!
Back at the hut, we did our best to stomach a snack despite low
post-climb appetites; luckily, they gave us more of that delicious hot
chocolate! I don’t think any of us were excited about hefting full packs back to
the bus, but we were happy to discover a short cut from the day before.
Showers, a good lunch, and well-earned naps awaited us at Tambopaxi. This trip
would have been a success without summitting a big mountain, but climbing
Cotopaxi was still a great moment for our team!
Our final objective was also the highest and most remote;
Chimborazo is over 20,000 ft. high, and it has the special characteristic of
being the furthest point from the center of the Earth. It was just a tad more
technical than Cotopaxi, which is why we’d practiced some crampon techniques
for steep snow the previous week. For the moment the morning after our climb, though,
we were putting that out of mind because Cotopaxi was out in full force above
Tambopaxi Lodge. What a stunning mountain!
Unfortunately, on the 3-hour drive between regions, Sarah
started to feel quite sick; she had a fever and was developing a bad cough. By
the time we reached our destination for the day, Urbina Lodge, she crawled
right into bed. The nap didn’t seem to help much, though, and it looked like
she would be out for climbing Chimborazo. She made sure that I knew that she
expected me to climb without her…not my favorite plan, but I also knew she’d
probably feel better without having me around to bug her while she tried to get
better the next couple of days. I also appreciated the way she supported me
when she probably felt disappointment herself.
Urbina Lodge, like all the other places we stayed, had its
own cool vibe going. A former train station, the lodge is small and rustic with
cool black and white photos of the station and Chimborazo. They have an
indigenous house behind it and a small workshop/store full of nice homemade
crafts. The interior has interesting murals and paintings, including one of
Alpine Jesus relaxing in a lounge chair with a post-climb brewski! More
importantly, they have a llama that seemed to make a very special connection
with Mac. The views of Chimborazo around sunset were pretty okay, as well.
We headed up to the mountain late the next morning; Sarah
was going to ride with us to the base of the climb before continuing down to
the thermal-springs town of Banos (remember, the word means baths not bathrooms),
where we’d meet her after our climb. Mac had also fallen ill overnight and
would be going with her. The timing was bad for catching colds, and I was glad
that we’d been successful on Cotopaxi before anyone got too sick to climb. For
the record, the last time I climbed something without Sarah was July 2018, so I
was going to miss her on Chimborazo.
The Chimborazo park area is home to 3,000 Vicuna (like
skinny miniature llamas), and a good number of them were out as we approached
the mountain. They were the main entertainment for the drive because the
mountain was hiding behind the thick clouds we’d come to expect. Well, we had
another fun moment picking up a very confused European hitchhiker who seemed
unsure when Jose told him we were heading to the beach and also looked hesitant
when I asked him if he was hunting Vicunas like we were. The fun couldn’t last
forever, so we dropped him off near the hut and said goodbye to Sarah and Mac
before grabbing our big packs and hiking up to our high camp.
Our high camp consisted of a few large tents at 17,400 ft. It
was maybe an hour and a half above where the bus dropped us, and we weren’t far
along the talus ridge before the weather turned. While it was technically snow,
the pellets were hard and small. All our high elevation exercise over the past
couple of weeks paid off, though, and we made steady progress towards camp. Not
long after piling into our large tents for a quick nap before dinner, a thunderstorm
hit along with a couple of inches of fresh snow. When I got up to go to the
bathroom before dinner, it felt like the ice pellets falling from the sky were
stabbing the back of my head! That didn’t make sense because I had on multiple
layers. A.T. figured out we were getting shocked with electricity! Needless to
say, we didn’t spend too much time outside at this point, although we got some
nice views—sans shocks—after dinner.
We awoke at 11:00 PM once again, but our numbers had dwindled.
Linda had suffered from a bad cough for several days by now, and it got worse
as the night went on. Our guide Mauricio had also been sick for the entire week
and decided to stay back once we’d determined our team would be so small. I’d
be climbing with Pepe, while A.T. and Sophie were to climb with Jose. I noticed
I was also getting a bad cough, and I hoped that I could beat the cold to the
summit, for lack of a better term.
Our first section was up a tame ridge that seemed like it
would normally be scree this time of year but had a thin layer of fresh snow
from the afternoon. We donned crampons almost immediately above camp. After what
seemed like quick work through this section, we continued to make a rising
traverse along the ridge—now snow—until we came to the short, steep mixed
climbing section we’d practiced for last week. It required a couple of pick
points from our axes, front pointing from our crampons, and an easy rock move
or two. After the fun little mini-pitch here, our rope teams took a break.
Luigi the Cook, who had borrowed gear from Linda and Mauricio, caught up to us
at this point and jumped on my rope team—apparently, he felt like climbing too,
and I can’t say I blamed him! So far conditions were warm and calm, but above
the ridge, it was about to get windy and quite cold.
Based on our final ascent time, I think we probably moved
efficiently throughout the night, but the next hill seemed to take forever! Not
only was it long and somewhat steep—I don’t think we encountered much more snow
less than 40-45 degrees below the false summit—but no one had climbed the route
in several days. It seemed like there was at least a foot of new snow that we
had to break trail though. As we climbed higher, I really appreciated Jose and
Pepe’s efforts to reduce both the angle and avalanche potential through their
Finally atop the giant hill, I was happy to find that my
legs still felt strong. However, I was starting to hack more and more, and my
nose had become a non-stop snot dispenser. I couldn’t breathe with my buff
covering my mouth, but climbing without was very cold. Jose told us we had
three more hills to climb before reaching the final false summit.
These three hills became increasingly windswept, and our guides
took turns kicking in a switchbacking trail, trying to find the best angle and
snowpack. As great as their steps were, Gordo Nino (yours truly) outweighed
everyone else significantly, so I repeatedly found myself post-holing from a
few inches up to my downhill buttock! Over time, this was absolutely
exhausting, and I don’t know that I’d ever struggled to breathe like that at high
altitude. For me, the climb had definitely switched to type-2 fun.
Once we reached the false summit, however, I knew we were in
a special place! The day’s first light emerged all around us with the actual
sunrise beaming from beyond the summit (which seemed deceptively far away). It
was gorgeous, and we were going to have it to ourselves because none of the
parties who started at the hut below us had continued to climb above the glacier.
The path to the summit was flat for a bit before steepening
as our rope teams began to be more plodding. A.T. and Sophie had a moment of “Can
I do this?” that instantly became “Let’s get this done!” I needed that little
bit of fire as well because the last few meters up to the summit felt very
steep, and I was pretty frickin’ tired of sinking in up to my butt! Pepe let
Luigi—who is really, really strong—take the lead, and he began to literally
pull me up to the summit. I pulled up several times, leaning over my ice ax and
coughing up a lung, before realizing that I better just try to keep up for the remaining
five minutes to the summit.
What a magnificent panorama we enjoyed in the early morning
sun! It seemed that every mountain around us came out to congratulate our team,
with Cotopaxi front and center, and at least one other mountain (Antisana, I
think) releasing a plume of steam. We took summit photos and tried to take care
of ourselves before descending after a few minutes—our hands were cold, and the
sun was only going to get stronger on the soft snow! It was a bittersweet
moment without half of our team, but I was proud of myself and happy to be
there with new friends. At 20,690 ft., this was the highest I’d ever been.
We descended quite rapidly, and I got a chance to use some
of those new crampon techniques in the soft, steep snow. I couldn’t remember
the last time I felt this wiped out after a climb…not just tired, but
absolutely no appetite either (if you know me, your jaw may have just dropped).
What I didn’t fully realize is I was getting a full-on case of the flu. Back at
camp, Luigi somehow conjured up some pan pizzas, which may have been the only
food on earth I could scarf down at that point, before we packed our bags and hobble-sprinted
down to the bus.
A few hours later we found ourselves in Banos with Mac and
Sarah, who were both feeling better. It was Saturday night, and Banos loves to
party—what a great place to celebrate! We all went out to a nice steak dinner,
but I could barely eat. I went directly to bed after we finished dinner, but
the rest of the crew joined our guides for some salsa dancing late into the
night! The next morning, Sarah joined the others for some hot spring therapy,
but I took a little nap. The flu really sucks, and this was a bad one that
stuck with both Sarah and I for a week, but I wouldn’t take back the climb for
As I reflect a few weeks after the expedition, I’d say that our
time in Kalymnos last fall is still my favorite single thing from the Still
Moonin’ Tour, but this climbing trip was also everything that we wanted it to
be—we were successful on three peaks, every experience with Andean Face was
amazing, we saw a ton of beautiful places in Ecuador, and our group was
one-of-a-kind awesome! Sarah and I have been talking a lot recently about just
how lucky we are, and our time climbing in Ecuador is an experience that neither
of us will soon forget!