Beach Time in Samara and Mal Pais, Costa Rica: February 25 – March 1, 2020

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 always 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 level. 

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 sunset.    

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.

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, Costa Rica | 2 Comments

Monteverde: It’s a Bird, It’s a Sloth, It’s Super Forest! Feb. 23-24

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 species!

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 humans.

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 feathers.

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 madness!

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!

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, Costa Rica | 2 Comments

A Peek at a Peak in La Fortuna, Costa Rica: February 19-22, 2019

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 margaritas. 

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 distance. 

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.

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, Costa Rica | Leave a comment

Behind the Scenes: The Making of a Craggin’ Wagon–Spr. 2019.

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
  • Sell Versa
  • 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?
  • Cancel Netflix, Hulu
  • Figure out health insurance
  • Buy tickets to Europe
  • Buy Mike beer
  • Have mail forwarded
  • Cancel gym membership
  • Cancel Cable, Electric, Water, Gas
  • Buy Mike Beer
Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, USA - Summer 2019 | Leave a comment

Punto del Diablo: Who the Devil Just Turned 40? Feb. 14-18.

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 thing).

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 unwind.

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.

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, Uruguay 2020 | Leave a comment

The Raffs Become Winemakers: Carmelo, Uruguay: February 11 – 13, 2020

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 two countries. 

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 do again.

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.

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, Uruguay 2020 | Leave a comment

Montevideo: Where is the Carnaval? Feb. 9-10.

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 gates.

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 a show.

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!

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, Uruguay 2020 | Leave a comment

Tip Top Time in The Galapagos: January 31 – February 7, 2020

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 rate!

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.

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, Ecuador | 4 Comments

On the Mend in Mindo, Ecuador: January 28 – 30, 2020

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 calls!

Many different colored tanagers… golden, flame-faced, blue, so many!

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 amazing.

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 included…

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!

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, Ecuador | Leave a comment

Cotopaxi and Chimborazo: A Picture-Perfect Summit and the Closest Point to the Sun–Jan. 20-26.

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 climbs!

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 careful choices.

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 anything.

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!

Posted in 2019- 2020 Still Mooning, Ecuador | 1 Comment