Week 6: Quito, Baños & Cuenca



After the Galápagos, I headed back to Quito for a couple of days. I took the TelefériQo up a mountain which overlooks the city. The ride takes about 20 miles and goes up about a half a mile in elevation! Once I got to the top, it was really cloudy, but at some point, the clouds finally parted and I could see a little bit of the extensive city below.

quitopanoNot much was open because it was a national holiday, the celebration of the Independence of Guayaquil. I decided to head to a giant tourist trap – El Mitad del Mundo – the self-proclaimed middle of the world. The yellow line is supposed to indicate the equator, but really it’s off by more than a few meters. Photos3Because I’m a huge nerd, I wandered down the main highway quite a bit and finally found the actual GPS-based equator. 🙂


Before I left, I also stopped in La Capilla del Hombre, the museum dedicated to the work of the Ecuadorian painter Oswaldo Guayasamín. He was outspoken about human rights violations and his art relies heavily on symbolism. During the personal home tour, one room was full of paintings of Jesus while the next contained a huge glass cabinet of pre-Columbian ceramics depicting different sexual positions. Inspiration can come from all sorts of places I suppose.guayasamin.jpg


Up next was the tourist town of Baños. Some people stay here for a week, but I just popped in for a couple days. The town is beautiful and there are waterfalls everywhere.


town church, waterfall in town, biking sign on Ruta de las Cascadas, waterfall outside of town, ponche suizo (a mix between a milkshake and a mousse) – still not sure how I feel about it.

I biked about 20 km to see a bunch of the waterfalls outside of town. My two favorites were El Pailon del Diablo (Devil’s Cauldron) and Cascada Machay. I had to hike and then crawl through a small cave that was less than a meter high in some spots to get close to the giant Pailon del Diablo. I emerged soaked, but the rainbow was beautiful. Cascada Machay seemed almost elegant in its simplicity.


El Pailon del Diablo, perpetual rainbow at its base (as long as there is sun), Cascada Machay


Next up was visiting friends of mine from Peace Corps Morocco. They own a farm on the outskirts of town and it was definitely one of the highlights of my trip because I got to milk a cow for the first time!!!


cow milking, farm family photo (including volunteers staying on the farm)

In addition, Julie & Luke invited me to learn how to make cheese (in industrial farm-sized quantities). They can make more money in town selling their cheeses than they can selling milk. In the photos below, we’re making manchego. FYI: Hacienda Chan Chan has rooms available if you want to learn about cows, sheep, pigs, turkeys, ducks, chickens, milking, cheesemaking, etc. They were such gracious hosts and are such down-to-earth people. ❤


cutting the curds, whisking them to make them smaller, stirring for hours as the heat is raised, the whey is emptied and fed to the pigs, the curds ready to be pressed into blocks of cheese

After a much too short reunion, I headed into the city of Cuenca. The town is full of colonial architecture and is known for making Panama hats. Panama hats were always made in Ecuador, but exported to Panama to be sold because there was more tourism there. People took them home and when others asked about the hats, they said they had gotten them in Panama. Over time, the hats became popularly known as Panama hats. Locally, they are called el sombrero de paja toquilla. As it was a Sunday, there wasn’t that much to do, and I didn’t have a chance to buy a hat or tour one of the many hat museums. However, I did get this shot from the Mirador de Turi looking out over town.


Week 5: Galápagos Continued


The last 5 days, I lived aboard a beautiful sailing catamaran in the Galapagos and I’m not even sure how to describe all the incredible things I saw. Every day was filled with gorgeous new marine and land creatures. Probably the best way to share is to continue with another picture dump of awesome animals! (As always, there are probably mistakes in my species identification.)


This island is all about the birds! I booked this day trip just so I could see that crazy red-puffed up chest which the frigate bird is doing to attract females.

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top (l to r): male magnificent frigate (inflating chest), male magnificent frigate sitting with new chick (maybe a week old), land iguana
bottom (l to r): juvenile great frigate, juvenile magnificent frigate, blue footed booby


Before the boat set sail, I did a little exploring on Isla Santa Cruz on my own.

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top (l to r): polychaete worms, bullseye pufferfish, sponge, sea cucumber (with poop)
middle (l to r): hard coral, lava lizard, ground finch, Galápagos dove
bottom (l to r): me being silly, juvenile turtles at the breeding center at the Charles Darwin Research Center, posing with Santa Cruz land tortoise (in a reserve), Santa Cruz land tortoise


Everything from here on out is from the cruise! Most of these places you can’t see unless you book a cruise ship. It’s expensive, but there are no words to express the beauty of the western Galápagos Islands.


top (l to r): Isabela marine iguana, Galápagos flamingo, lava heron, lava cactus
bottom (l to r): Isabela land tortoise (in the wild), Isabela land iguana, iguana vs turtle faceoff (guess who moved? answer at bottom), me with a land iguana


top (l to r): sea anemone, spotfin burrfish, octopus, polychaete worms
bottom (l to r): Panamic cushion star, yellow sponge, gorgonia corals, giant porcupine fish



top (l to r): swimming marine iguana, marine iguana eating algae (yes, underwater), baby Galápagos sea lion, Galápagos sea lion sunning itself
bottom (l to r): Sally lightfoot crab eating a squid, blue-striped sea slug, Galápagos penguin, flightless cormorant

One of the few places on earth you can actually swim with penguins.



top (l to r): female Galápagos fur seal (which is actually a sea lion not a seal), baby Galápagos fur seal (right before it vomited), yellow-crowned night heron, cushion sea star middle (l to r): green sea turtle, guinea pufferfish (mid-color transition), Moorish idol angelfish, king angelfish bottom (l to r): sea anemone, polychaete worms, barnacle, me snorkeling!


The Galápagos is truly one of the most incredible places I have ever been in my entire life. Shout out to the amazing crew and guide on our boat as well as sharing the last few days with great company. This is one place I would love to come back to. There is still so much more to see!


Answer: The land iguana moved out of the land tortoise’s way!

Week 4: Galápagos



To start my trip, I flew into San Cristobal Island to spend a few days exploring. I booked myself what is known as a 360 tour and headed off for a complete circuit of the island with a stop at Kicker Rock (a.k.a. Leon Dormido in Spanish – completely different names both related to the shape of the rock itself). I’m just going to include tons of beautiful photos from the trip around the island. *Note, I’m not an expert, so feel free to correct or help identify species if they’re incorrect.*


top: black tipped shark, Galápagos shark, hammerhead shark, slate pencil urchin 
 middle: sea cucumber, yellow-tailed surgeon fish, blue chin parrotfish, puffer fish  
bottom: sting ray, eagle ray, green turtle, green turtle


frigate bird, blue footed booby, swallow tailed gull, brown pelican


 great egret, great blue heron, Galápagos sea lion (these guys are lying around just about everywhere, blocking sidewalks and piers), San Cristóbal lava lizard


Sally lightfoot crab in various stages of development

The last day on the island, I went snorkeling near Cerro Tijeretas and found these:


(l to r): sea anemones, green sea urchin, hieroglyphic hawkfish (upside-down, as usual), sea star


I managed to book a day trip over to Española Island to see the animals that live there. We almost tripped over the pile of marine iguanas on the way up the path. Española is also known as the nesting site of the waved albatross, a very large flying bird. During our snorkeling trip, we caught sight of the nocturnal swallow-tailed gull which has brilliant red eyes it uses to see at night.


top (l to r): Galápagos sea lions, pile of marine iguanas, Española marine iguana, Nazca boobies 
bottom (l to r): baby waved albatross (~3 months old), adult waved albatrosses, Española mockingbird, swallow tailed gull

Short video of the marine iguana in water:

Snorkeling in Española was also pretty rad.


(l to r): Galápagos sea lion, coral hawkfish, chocolate chip sea star, Mexican hogfish


I took a speedboat over to this island and spent my first afternoon here at Las Grietas, a beautiful canyon filled with brackish blue water. Just a few fish are inside, but the views of the narrow rocky walls make up for it. At one point, I had to swim through an underwater tunnel to get to the next pool.

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(l to r): Las Grietas, Santa Cruz marine iguana, tiny fish (maybe a sculpin?), parrotfish

Up next: More Galápagos!

Week 3: Quilotoa, Latacunga & Cotopaxi

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Quilotoa is famous for a beautiful bluish-greenish lake that has formed inside of the caldera of an extinct volcano. Due to the rock and gases emitted by the former volcano, the water in Laguna del Quilotoa contains very little life. In order to get there, I walked a path known at the Quilotoa Loop, although in actually it is a complicated set of many different trails that zig zag across a valley in a southerly direction. Over three days, I was able to look out over beautiful Andean landscapes as I huffed and puffed through the rising elevation.



I finally got to the lake at a height of 3,914 m (12,841 ft) and took a hilarious photo celebrating my accomplishment. It was ridiculously windy at the top, but the view was gorgeous.



The La Mama Negra Festival is held twice a year in Latacunga. The September version is, supposed to be a tribute to the Virgen de las Mercedes who has protected the town from the eruption of the Volcano Cotopaxi. There is a giant parade that goes all morning and then repeats again with a more alcoholic-infused crowd in the afternoon. At first, the parade seemed like a standard cultural celebration, with lots of well-choreographed dance groups performing to bands marching behind them.


Intermixed between the bands, groups of people were carrying large, hollowed out pigs on giant altars, decorated with skinned chickens, guinea pigs and giant bottles of alcohol. Groups of men were taking turns lifting these altars and when they got tired, another member of the group put a short table out for them to balance the altar and take a break. Oh, and usually, all the members of the group were in blackface. WHAT? It’s 2018, people. My American upbringing had me baffled as to how this was okay, but maybe the racial dynamics in Ecuador make this more acceptable. Honestly, I need some more insider expertise here. There’s also La Mama Negra herself who is a rich mestizo businessman from the community dressed up in a black mask, riding around on a horse, holding a black doll, and squirting what is supposed to be breast milk on the crowd. Her entourage was also all in blackface.


Huacos also walk the parade route and they are supposed to represent shamans that can cleanse your body and spirit (for a fee, of course). Curiquingues represent birds of the local area and are apparently performing mating dances.



Cotopaxi is the most recent volcano to erupt in Ecuador. Its summit is at 5,897 m (19,347 ft), which beats the mountain I climbed a few years back, Mt. Kilimanjaro, by only two meters.  Cotopaxi Volcano is on the left in the photo below and Rumiñahui Volcano is in the middle. (Aside: Rumiñahui was a general who led the resistance against the Spanish after the Incan Emperor Atahaulpa was executed by the conquistadors. He hid some of the empire’s treasures and then later burned Quito to the ground so the Spanish would get nothing from the city. Definitely an Ecuadorian hero.)


Cotopaxi is also more technical, requiring crampons to walk on the glacier and a single overnight push to the top, which requires more acclimatization before doing the trip. Instead of attempting a summit, I took the relatively luxurious route of just hiking up to the refuge at a height of 4,800 m (15,748 ft). Another 700 m of walking brought me to the bottom of the giant glacier. The walk itself was only a couple kilometers, but it was mostly uphill, at ridiculously high elevation, and took almost 2 hours. (The two arrows in the photo point to the refuge and the glacier.) Sitting in the refuge, drinking hot chocolate I was completely satisfied with my choice.


Bonus: The hostel I stayed at had some awesome llamas running around.


Portrait of an Amazon Guide

If you know me at all, you know how much I enjoy asking about people’s stories. Our first guide down the river was a well-to-do Quiteño who had actually spent a few months improving his English and working at the Six Flags in St. Louis, Missouri in his teenage years. (Small world, right?) After we arrived at the lodge, he turned us over to our guide for the remainder of our time there.

img_20180917_104633.jpgHe introduced himself as Francisco, but everyone kept calling him Chilango and I was getting really confused because chilango is a slang term for someone from Mexico City. I was in the middle of the Amazon, nowhere near Mexico, and I was trying to figure out how a Mexican guy had ended up there. I expected this would lead to a great story, so, of course, I asked him and he explained that when he was a little kid, he liked to go fishing all the time. There is a local bird that also likes to go fishing that is called a chilango and that’s how he got the nickname.

Over the next four days, I kept peppering him with more questions in my kindergarten level Spanish and I found out that his mom was from the Siona community nearby (in the north) and his dad was from Loja (in the south), both of his parents born within a few hours of opposite Ecuadorian borders. He grew up nearby, speaking Paicoca and Spanish, and his love for his community and the Amazon is evident in how he talks about the area.

Before he became a guide, Chilango was in the military and worked other random jobs. Eventually, he found his way into the guiding business, and passed the test the government gives to certify local guides, passing with a score over 80%.

Guides work for about 22 days and then have 8 days of vacation. Chilango owns a house just across the border in Colombia that he goes to when he gets time off. It’s cheaper to own property in Colombia and he can get there in a couple hours on his motorcycle. He’s been in one serious accident from an oil slick that left him with a straight raised scar on his neck and a more nebulous, sprawling one on his arm. The two roundish scars on his hand are from a cigarette he used to burn himself during a drunken moment after a girlfriend of six years dumped him as a reminder of what happened. She couldn’t get used to him being gone for so many days every month once he became a guide and left him for someone else.

One day he dreams of opening his own lodge in the Amazon, but it would take years to accumulate the money he would need. Chilango likes the other guides (mostly male), but he doesn’t really trust them enough to go into business with them. The day I left, he had gotten a call to stay on for another month of work so he wasn’t going to take his upcoming vacation to make extra money. The lodge owners determine who works when and guides only work when lodges ask them to, so it’s not always steady business, especially during the dry season.

Right before I left, I watched one of Anthony Bourdain’s shows where he questioned ecotourism as a return to colonialism. Ecotourism in the upper Amazon has clearly allowed the local community and certain individuals to have more income, but at what cost to their own personal lives? They are constantly and consistently dependent on mostly Westerners (both lodge owners and tourists, like me) for their livelihood. Chilango said that he was thankful for his job and that he got to work in such a beautiful and serene place near where he grew up, but all his stories were touched by a sense of loneliness.





Week 2: The Amazon


Wow. Just wow. La selva is so beautiful. It’s hard to capture that beauty on film. It has to be an immersive experience. You have to jump in and feel the cool river water on your skin, squish your boots into the muddy swamp, and hold a frog on your fingertips. You have to see the red streaks of bromeliads poking out of trees, the orange sun reflecting over the water, the yellow chest of a flycatcher fluttering by, and the infinite shades of green that dominate the landscape. You have to smell the sweetness of the natural mosquito repellant created by fire ants, as well as the awful stench left behind from wild boars taking a bath in a pool of muddy water. You have to hear the monkeys howling, the birds squawking, and the rain plunking down in big, solid, unforgiving drops. It’s incredible.

On the river, we found quite a few animals: anacondas, yellow flycatchers, bats (hidden on the underside of logs), and squirrel monkeys.amazon week 21.jpg

We also saw pink dolphins (which really don’t photograph well at all) and four other types of monkeys (I even got to see woolly monkeys swinging on vines). I saw and heard so many different types of birds that I can’t even remember their names, but definitely macaws, toucans, and stinky turkeys (which are loud and smelly).

Some night time finds: opossum (hanging out above the kitchen), big scorpion spider, frog, and white caiman.

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Some nocturnal insects (and apparently some kind of nest a larvae was hanging out in).

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One of the highlights for me was making cassave in the nearby Siona village. Cassave is bread made from the root of the yucca plant (also known as cassava and manioc in other places). To make the bread you peel off the outer layer of the root, grate the root into tiny pieces, squeeze all the water out of those pieces, and then push them through a sieve. Then you just put the small, dried pieces of yucca on a hot stone and push it down with your hand as it cooks. After smoothing it out with the bottom of a bowl, you flip it over and cook the other side. The cassave tasted great and I couldn’t believe that it didn’t require any additional ingredients, it just kind of melted together. Yum! Also, Maria was kind enough to let me make the last one.

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I’ll leave you with some beautiful views from my time there: hiking through a swamp forest, macrolobial trees in Lagunda Grande, boats on the river near the Siona village, and a beautiful sunset on the lake.

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Week 1: Quito, Otavalo & Mindo

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Quito is high up, really high, like 9,350 feet high. I was out of breath walking up three flights of stairs to my room. But somehow I managed to walk slowly around the Old Town.

First stop was the stunning Basílica del Voto Nacional and climbed to the top to look out over the city. It’s currently being restored and I loved the variety of local animal gargoyles (iguanas pictured below).

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Apparently I was in the mood for art because I visited the Contemporary Art Museum of Quito, the Museo Camilo Egas which is full of his paintings which were part of the Indigenismo movement, Yoko Ono’s exhibition in the Cultural Center, and a convent hosting an exhibit of the Oaxacan artist Rufino Tamayo (who really loved watermelon). I also walked around the streets and enjoyed some delightful street performers and ate some uvillas.



On my way to Otavalo to meet up with an old friend and her family, my phone was stolen, so pictures are a bit sparse from this part of the trip. 😦 Otavalo is known for its strong indigenous culture that has survived successive periods of colonization. It’s also famous for its huge Saturday market. I did manage to try a new fruit I’d never had before: madroños. Ecuadorians walking by had never seen them either. Google says that it translates to the strawberry tree fruit, but this is clearly something different. If anybody has any ideas, let me know.


At El Parque Cóndor, I was introduced to this hilarious looking Stygian owl, got to hold an American kestrel, and also managed to see my first Andean condor (in captivity).



Mindo is gorgeous. So much green. In order to get into the forest you ride the tarabita, a cable car that pulls you across the lush canopy below. I wasn’t early enough to see all the birds, but there were definitely some butterflies hanging around as I was hiking.


I headed for the Santuario de Cascadas and found myself hiking along a river to see these beautiful waterfalls. I jumped in a few times on my way back even though it was a bit cold. The second one (Cascada Guarumos) was my favorite!


Ziplining is always fun and in spite of spending years doing this every summer at Girl Scout camp, they never let us try the mariposa position.


Up next: The Amazon!