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Old 09-05-2012, 11:51 AM   #1
familygoboston's Avatar
Join Date: Jan 2011
Location: Massachusetts
Posts: 340

Trip Report: Ecuador-Andean Highlands and Galapagos Islands August 2012

Andean Highlands and Galapagos Islands Adventures By Disney August 2012

Ordinarily, I write a very comprehensive review of my trips, but I'm torn about this one. One of the very special things about an ABD journey are all the special surprises and unexpected touches. I want to provide information for people who are planning an upcoming journey, but don't want to spoil all the fun either. So I am going to review my ABD here in DIS with photos and lots of planning tips included, but I'll put in a disclaimer if I'm going to reveal the surprises..

For this review I will post the day by day travelogue review in black and include "TIPS" in bold italic blue. I do intersperse these in the travelogue so that the reader can see exactly why I make the suggestion, but if you are just looking for planning can just look for the bold italic sections and the photos, and skip the travelogue.

A disclaimer: ! I am pretty honest, I enjoy traveling, but tell it like it is. I know this board tends to be pretty Disney positive, but if something isn't quite right I'll say so. Of course this is my opinion, someone else on the same trip could have a completely different experience. It will be very long! Already I have 17 pages of narrative with 10-25 photos per page. Also, some people may not enjoy my reviews, I ramble, I digress, I speak parenthetically and lots of people probably find it very annoying. If you are one of those folks, there have to be better reviews out there for you! But if you like to come along for the ride, hear some humble opinions about what worked ( and what didn't), maybe laugh a little, then maybe this is for you! In either case: you've been warned!

Photos: Almost all of the photos are by my DH, who is extremely patient with my art direction (me: "Take that picture, I need it for my review" DH: " yes, dear" ) For those interested he shoots Nikon D 4 for most everything. He also carried the D 800 in the Galapagos and used it in DX mode for the long telephoto shots. I also carried the Nikon AW 100 for video, and DH shot all the underwater shots with it. Additionally, he carried a small Nikon V1 to shoot in the city of Quito, as it is unobtrusive, but still has much of the functionality he wanted. So there are the details about the photos for those of you interested, I actually have no earthly idea what ANY of that means, but will gladly pass along any photo specific questions to the expert;-) Also, if its a bad photo- ( and if you are like me and 95% of the people who see DH's photos, you will not be able to tell its a "bad" photo, but if you are in that 5% and see a bad one, its either one of mine or because I insisted it must be used to illustrate my review over his objections.

A little back ground first:
Our traveling party is my DH and I ( late 40's) our teen daughters, 17 and 15, and we brought my parents ( early 70s) along to celebrate their 50 th wedding anniversary. We have been to WDW more times than is convenient to calculate, done a Disney Cruise, been to Disney Paris, and took a previous ABD to Costa Rica in 2007. We've taken plenty of other trips and cruises too, both with tour groups and independently, DH travels internationally for business frequently, but for this trip chose ABD for a combination of reasons. First, traveling with elders who rarely travel outside the US, I knew they and we could trust the Disney brand to help everyone feel safe and well taken cared for. Secondly, having seen how ABD handles multi generational groups, I knew they would pace the adventure with different options for everyone, and make sure that anyone opting out had a comfortable experience as opposed to being pushed beyond their limits. And lastly, for this particular itinerary, I was very impressed with the wonderful mixture of wildlife viewing balanced with a chance to meet local people, explore local culture and food and see more than one area of the country.

Very few Galapagos trips I researched offer this level of cultural exploration. Not to digress ( ok, I digress) but when we traveled to Africa for a safari, we included a few days to explore some of the local culture in one area where we stayed. What I had originally thought of as an add on, turned out to be a highlight. And I learned something very important about myself; I don't want to explore beautiful natural and wildlife settings without also getting to know the people and the culture of the place. It's important to me to have that context, and connection. Travel to me is not simply a parade of sites or animals, that can happen in a zoo or on TV. Meeting and interacting with real people, being exposed to their culture, foods and lives is the best way to know a place and enrich any natural setting. Given that the Galapagos were settled very recently in human history and only in a very limited number of places- you won't see many local folks (outside of your guide) in the Galapagos, and thus, the ABD with its Andean highlands visit was the perfect set up for us!

Now we are really ready to start!

August 12: The Night Before
Everything is packed. My folks got here from Maine with a dog and a cat to join our dog for 2 weeks. The house and pet sitter was briefed and everyone is ready to go. All was good till my DM wanted a shower before our early flight only to discover that all our plants are in the shower in her bathroom! ( this is a little trick I do to make plant watering easier for our house sitter- who is excellent with animals, but not so great with plants!) I thought we were doing well to have the guest bed made!

TIPS Advance planning and packing tips :
To plan this adventure, I read the anything I could find on the DIS boards ABD section. There was not too much! I am very thankful to Tufbuf for her recent review and to several others who were kind enough to answer questions that I posted. I also researched the Celebrity Expedition boards on Cruise Critic pretty extensively for planning and Galapagos cruising information. And I trolled Trip Advisor to find information about things to do during the pre and post days I planned in Quito.

I also read two guide books; Frommers Ecuador (2nd Edition 2009) and Insight Guides Ecuador and Galapagos (2010). These were woefully out of date and had a lot of misinformation in them. Ecuador, as we learned form our local guides, has been changing rapidly in the last few years, and I found several instances where information was flat out wrong. ( for example - most of the shops and O2 bar at the top of the Teleferico are now closed, it opens earlier than listed, and the names of several museums have changed recently- making it very difficult to communicate with local guides about what we wanted to visit)

My best advice is to go ahead and read them; much of the historical and cultural information was very good, and we found the maps helpful, but get the latest details on pricing, open hours and even museum names from the websites or Trip Advisor destination experts. My best source of help with planning was my TA. We have an excellent TA who put together our African safari and since then I have booked this trip, our upcoming trip to French Polynesia, and a trip to WDW, because I've been so happy with their service.

After all that research; I put together a packing list (an adaptation of one I use for all our trips) and pre departure check list of things to be done before the trip. I almost always start my packing list 6 months in advance. Especially when traveling to places that have a different " season" than the one I will be in a few weeks before departure. Here in NE it can be tough to find shorts in December, so if I have a January departure to a warm place, I like to have my packing list together so I can pick up items in the season they are available and put them aside. About 4-6 weeks in advance I start pulling together the things that I won't be needing to wear and my dedicated " travel" items and lay things out to see how they will fit in my bag, and make sure everything is in good repair ( and fits!).

I know this probably sounds like and excessive amount of planning, but I am actually a very light packer, so this allows me to really pack only exactly what I need, rather than throwing everything in at the last minute and having to sit on the suitcase to make it close;-) I curb my anxiety about whether I have "it all " by remembering there are really only 3 things you MUST bring- your documents, any prescription medications, and lastly the one thing that covers you for anything else- your cash and/or credit cards. Everything else can be improvised, purchased at your destination, or you can live without. This mantra frees me from the craziness that usually characterizes the frenzy before departure.

For this trip we have each packed a roll aboard carryon and a back pack. We checked one large roller duffle to accommodate the extra bathing suits, and sunscreen we need. This larger bag will also make it easier to consolidate dirty laundry as we go, freeing up space in our roll aboards to pack souvenirs we are sure to bring back. I'll put the complete packing list at the end of my review.

(photo of packing)

(photo of packing list)

(photo of pre departure to do list)

Aug 13: Departure Day
Left the house at 6- we were pretty happy to get 6 of us the door on time.

TIPS Not forgetting the important things:
we have a family tradition of checking 3 things. As we drive out the driveway, we stop at the end and I lay my actual hands on all the passports, and other documents we MUST have to be admitted, the prescription medication and at least one credit card. After that- I let it all go, what's remembered, what we've forgotten, from here on out we are on an adventure and will figure it out.

Its always tricky negotiating airports with a large group. Even more difficult with my mom and dad who rarely fly on airplanes and haven't traveled internationally in decades. Due to DH 's frequent business travel along with a pretty hearty serving of vacation travel we are lucky to have " Priority" with American Airlines. So check in goes quickly but after getting in the priority security line, TSA agent eyes my mons carry on and decided moms bag was not carry on size.

We went back to check the offending bag, luckily, being able to once again use the Priority line again, but first had to remove the pills that mom was carrying in her offensively obese carry on. Like dating a tree by counting rings, you can tell a persons age by how many pills they take. I think the ratio goes something like this....1-2 pills for every 10 years of life. So by 70, you've amassed a really lovely, colorful collection of pills and supplements that must be taken every day. My parents are no exception, and as dad says " getting old sure beats the alternative!) Of course the removed pills (cases and cases of them) didn't cooperate by going gently into the back packs- oh no! They pretty much started popping open and rolling around in the bag. Of course this would only be the first time the pills try to make a break for it, but that's a story for later.

(photo of pill cases)

After the contested carry on and pill debacle, we head back to the Priority security line, which luckily is even shorter now, and we zip through security. No thats a complete lie- we hold up security and dozens of irritated and busy business people while hollering at my deaf and incredulous dad that he has to take off his belt..."my belt? Do I have to take off my clothes too?" Did I mention dad hasn't flown in a decade? My mom has a replacement knee that sets of alarms and must be wanded. But is more fun to think we "zipped"!

After security we make our way without incident to Miami...there weren't anymore incidents till it was it was time to deplane in Miami. Then my mother singe handedly held up the plan by forgetting her purse on the seat and having to swim back upstream to get it. And if that wasn't disruptive enough, she also caused my daughter to forget her roller bag. Now, I have trained my girls to be good little travelers; they move through the airport at their fathers pace ( which is quite quick with his height at 66) and they have always pulled their own little wheelie bags, ( we trained them on the kind where you can strap the baby doll to the front, now they've graduated to full size!) So missing her roller bag- DD1 gets up and immediately says to her grandmother " I have to get my roller bag" to which Grandmother says " oh not to worry, I saw your dad take them all down". So we start off and get into the terminal and just as we are about to get on the first escalator DD1 says " where's my roller bag?" would still been the plane in the overhead. So now dd1 and DH are swimming upstream to get back on the plane to reclaim the bag.

Bag saved, lunch at the food court and it's time to sit and wait for our Mia- Quito flight. Which was uneventful- except for another pill incident. This time DF and DM must take some of those pills they packed since its lunch time. Unfortunately, pills end up on the floor of the plane, DF is very upset that a pill might be lost ( except that in fact they packed two extra weeks worth of pills - just in case. Just in case what, I'm not exactly sure, but if Armageddon happens and we need to stay on this trip an extra fortnight, my parents are prepared!) )I come back from the lavatory to find my mom on her hands and knees on the floor where she is sure she sees a pill she missed. In fact, she rescues... a cocktail peanut, that just looks like a pill!

The rest of the flight was unremarkable- except for the part where the flight attendant asked if all 6 of us were together and when we told her it was to celebrate my folks 50 th anniversary, she proceeded to slip me a big bottle of champagne to celebrate. Except, did I mention my DF is a recovering alcoholic? Well, it was very thoughtful!

After landing in Quito at about 6:30 PM, we proceeded downstairs to a queue where we filled out a customs form. We had already filled out the immigration form onboard the aircraft, one per passport. The customs form is one per family. They are particularly looking for people bringing boxed electronics back for the US to sell ( we saw at least two boxes of brand new electronic items go into the overhead on this flight) . We had plenty of electronics, but everything was coming back with us in 2 weeks! The line was a bit slow, but because of our large flight, a couple of extra immigration agents were added and things moved pretty well, about 15-30 minute wait. Then we picked up our luggage, which you can actually see on the carousel from the immigration line ( there's our bag...there's our bag again, there's our bag...well, you get the idea! )
We collected the bags and queued up again, this times for customs. They looked at the customers form and were scanning every single bag coming into the country, with one single scanner. This queue was about 30-40 minutes long, but the ABD guides told us some have been held up as much as an hour or more if more than one flight comes in at a time. We could see our ABD guide holding the sign outside the secure area every time the door opened. Later he told us that the customs agents have been checking everything because of this tax on new electronics coming in, and not wanting people smuggling electronics ("nope, officer, no electronics to declare, we are just here to see ****ies!")

Our ABD transfer guide then led us through the airport, which was pretty chaotic with families greeting arrivals, little children selling candy, and plenty of porters and cabbies. It was busy, but no one bothered us, or appeared to be overly aggressive about approaching people. My 70 YO parents were each pulling a fairly large bag, my father carrying a 3rd, plus small back packs (at that elevation and tired form flying all day) and they were finding it hard to keep up with the transfer guide. He was parked easily a 1/4 mile from the terminal and I felt he should have at least offered to assist the elders with a bag. He dashed ahead with his sign, while my folks were huffing to keep up. I was disappointed because I had specifically booked ABD because I could assure my parents that they would not need to touch their bags once we were being handled by ABD. As the host of this adventure for my parents, I was disappointed that this was their first contact. Not cool, and definitely not very ABD like, since we had no problem the rest of the trip; with our guide Laura even joking with the group on our last day at the Quito airport when folks went to pick up bags... "step away from the bags!". So this was unusual IMO. The transfer guide was otherwise informative and helpful on the bus, and it took about 20 minutes to get to the Marriott in fairly heavy traffic for 8:15 PM on a Monday night.

Upon arriving at the JW Marriott, we were greeted by a hotel staffer in traditional dress and offered a local juice and hot towels. Very nice!

(photo of JW Marriott)

The ABD transfer guide gave us our room keys, and said his goodbyes. We did go to the desk to get the room keys changed over to reflect my DH Gold Elite Marriott status so we would have access to the Elite lounge on level 9, and to have a credit card on file for incidentals. We did head to the lounge to get the teenagers some desserts ( served 8-10PM) and stock up on water bottles for the next mornings tour. There was a lovely deck overlooking the city, and this was our first night time view of Quito.
After getting to our rooms and cleaning up a bit, we hit the hay! We had a guide from Ecuadorian Tours that had been set by our TA for 10 AM the next day. We had a note in our room from our Adventure Guides, Laura and Robby, that they would be in the lobby at 9:30, and (again in the evening), so we would have a chance to " check in" before our day tour.

TIPS Arrival Day and Travel Tips:
We decided to book our pre and post nights and air through ABD. The air cost not one penny more, we were able to choose our preferred flights, my DH was able to use his FF# to access his favorite exit row seats. He also has status at Marriott, booking through ABD cost us no more per night, and we had breakfast and transfers included, even 2 days AFTER our adventure was over. It was a completely seamless vacation and cost no extra. My DH was also able to get "credit" for the nights in Quito with Marriott. There was no reason not to book it all directly through ABD ( via my wonderful TA)
Also, we planned to arrive one day ahead, which in retrospect was a very smart thing to do. While we may not have had a big "jet lag" to deal with (only 1 hour time difference in the summer because of DLST here in the Eastern US), some people had flights arriving into the late evening the night before our journey to the Otavalo valley area started. Others were arriving from the West or Midwest, so Jet lag would have more of an effect. The first day on the ABD bus is a long one, starting early, so I really recommend trying to get in the night before, (pay for a pre night)so you have the "first" day of the adventure to relax at the hotel, meet the guides and other adventurers or explore a little of Quito.

JW Marriott is a very high end Marriott and one of the best accommodations in Quito. It is very much designed to cater to the international business person, so you will find that most of the amenities and design is similar to what you find in other parts of the industrialized world. A gleaming lobby filled with roses, a very efficient front desk, a well stocked Elite lounge on the 9th level. Several excellent (and expensive by Ecuadorian standards) restaurants and shops.

(photos of lobby)

The rooms were very large and well appointed, with plenty of outlets for charging and a clock radio with and ipod dock. The beds are huge, comfortable and have loads of pillows. Service and housekeeping was excellent, and prompt.

(photo of the room)

The bath was large with a single sink, soaking tub, separate shower and toilet enclosures. Free bottled water was provided in both the bath and bedroom, for teeth brushing, however my DF and I each accidently brushed with tap and had no ill effects. Also, JW Marriott has a more up to date plumbing system and items such as TP can be tossed into the toilet. Here is a good place for potty talk...

TIPS Potty Talk Tips: (I work with pre schoolers so am quite comfortable with potty talk, if you are not, just skip past this section)
-OK, here it is...the water: As Americans were are told not to drink the water in South America, as the sanitation of water is different and can upset US travelers tummies. This is known as Tourista, Montezuma's revenge and other fun names. But bottom line (no pun intended) is its best to drink bottled or purified water. In the hotel rooms, this includes not brushing teeth with tap water. In all our ABD hotels, we were provided with bottled water for this purpose. Any water served at hotels and restaurants on the ABD tour and in the Marriott were assured to be using purified water for their juices and foods. No one in our family suffered with this problem, so they obviously do a good job.

-I always eat yogurt when traveling, without getting to graphic the probiotics in yogurt are very protective from getting bouts of so called "tourista" . Both DH and I have had very good luck since eating yogurt, or in his case taking a daily probiotic. One difference is the yogurt here is very thin, no difference in taste, just the consistency, I actually drank it like a smoothie a couple of days.

-The toilets: In most of Ecuador, the plumbing is designed in such a way that nothing, including TP, can be tossed into the toilets. Most public bathrooms in non tourist or low budget areas do not offer TP at all. In some places there is a small charge (10-25 cents)that you pay the woman attending the restroom (and I must say its usually a family affair, she will be there with her mother and several young children who wander in and out of the bathrooms) at the entrance. For this, you will get a little wad of paper. This paper and anything else that you might think about tossing into a US toilet should be thrown instead into the basket in the stall. In nicer places, it is a covered foot pedal can, in lesser spots, an open basket. Attended "banos" will also have soap, others may not. In the case of your ABD, your guides will always have TP and hand sanitizer for every bath stop. If there is an attendant, the guides will pay them after the group has finished, so no need during the tour to worry about these things. If you are moving around on your own during your pre or post nights, I recommend that you carry a packet or two of kleenex, some hand sanitizer, and a few coins (US coins are legal tender in Ecuador)for this purpose. Hand sanitizer is worth using even after washing with soap and water. We washed often and avoided being sick! In the end (ok, I planned that one!)its a good idea to have your doctor give you a prescription for antibiotics in case you do end up with a protracted problem. A bout or two is just your bodies way of getting rid of what it sees as a threat, but more than that and you might find relief with the antibiotic. We get them whenever we travel to places where we are concerned about health care access and never use them, but better safe than sorry!

Up Next: Our first day in Quito!
EuroDisney, Paris 1994
Disney Magic Bahamas Cruise 2002
ABD La Pura Vida Costa Rica 2007
ABD Andean Highlands and Galapagos Islands 2012
Photo Review:
WDW- visits since 1976, lost count a long time ago.
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Old 09-05-2012, 12:01 PM   #2
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Join Date: Jan 2011
Location: Massachusetts
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Day 1 Aug 14 Bienvenidos, First day in Quito

Day 1 Aug 14 Bienvenidos, First day in Quito

We were up at about at 6 due to the time change. ( because we are from the East coast in DLST we moved the watch back 1 hour when we got to Quito; winter trips will not need to change time at all from the East Coast) We had planned to meet for breakfast at 8:30 ( included in our pre night rate). We actually headed down just after 8 since everyone was up and feeling well. We had been concerned about managing the altitude in Quito. When you fly into Quito, you arrive in a valley surrounded by volcanoes as high as 18 thousand feet; a valley that is 9000 feet high, so what look like 9000 foot peaks are actually higher and what appears to be "sea level" is in fact, very high altitude. We had read about the altitude and were concerned about it, so we were wondering how we would feel the first day.

(photo of Quito valley graphic)

TIPS Managing the Altitude Tips: - We had done some reading and talked to our travel Dr about the altitude, he prescribed diamox in case of a bad reaction to the altitude, but we again expected not to need this and didn't. We had read a study which concluded that ibuprofen taken a day ahead and then during the high altitude stay can be preventative. They reported that more research is needed, but it seemed a simple low risk thing to try, and we are often taking ibuprofen for muscle aches or cramps or headaches anyway, so we did try this. We also hydrated on plane and on landing and made sure we took it easy (no working out at the club the first day- or any day for that matter). DH was unwell with a headache in the early morning the first day, but he's susceptible to migraines triggered by any number of things we experienced that day ( changes in temp, atmospheric pressure, missing meals, dehydration.) So as he started to feel a headache coming on, he took one of his migraine prescriptions on an empty stomach and then suffered with a bit of nausea. This could have been related to the altitude, but he's had this problem before many times at sea level, and since none of the other 5 of us had any ill effects, I'm inclined to say it was just him. The rest of us did feel a little winded if walking up stairs or doing something vigorous, ( like carrying luggage through the airport)and DD1 and I both had the slightest of headaches, which went away immediately when taking our ibuprofen. So all in all, I would say this is a " don't worry, but be prepared "scenario, it seems only a very small percentage of people are bothered enough to affect their trip, and if you prepare as if it was like the chance of catching a cold- could happen, so have some medicines and a plan, but it's unlikely. Its a good idea to have a good travel physician to work with, we have one who is excellent at assessing the real and perceived risks of a place and counseling and preparing us for what we can expect to happen and be ready if a worst case scenario comes up.

The included breakfast was held downstairs in Bistro Latino, the indoor cafe with a view of the pool area. It's an extensive buffet with an omelet and egg station. In addition to all the usual eggs, bacon, pappas, ( breakfast potatoes), pancakes, there was hot cereal, cold cereal, yogurt, sushi, ceviche, breakfast meats and cheeses in addition to pastries and fruits I would never have imagined existed ( but also all your comfortable favorites). 3 juices were offered, neat blends of strawberry and papaya, and all those other fruits, as well as orange.

Coffee is poured- be aware that it is offered as " black" and "con leche"; con leche is really half coffee half milk, so if you want coffee with a splash of milk or cream, you'll need to get black and just get some milk or cream from the cereal bar. Communicating to the waiter that you only want a little is tricky as most of the waiters don't speak much English, so unless you know enough Spanish to explain the nuances of American coffee, you are probably better going with the Ecuadorian flow, (when in Rome) or fixing up your coffee yourself!

My girls had a ball at breakfast, eating shrimp ceviche ( which in Ecuador is made with cooked shrimp and is easier on our American digestive systems than raw ceviche found in other areas) and banana leave wrapped corn and chicken empanadas as well as all those wonderful friuts? Every day we played a tropical fruit version of name that tune ..." this one has a tomato/kiwi taste, that one is like mango peach " Man, fruit is fun here! My personal favorite was guaynabana, which I had in yogurt and as helado (ice cream) whenever I could. It has a green spiky avocado look, but tastes like a kiwi mango mashup...really, its impossible to describe these fruits, you just have to try them all!!

(photo of gauynabana yogurt)

After an enormous breakfast ( in our family we tend to eat only 2 big meals so we can be on the go the rest of the time.) We went to meet Laura and Robby (our local guide) at 9:30 AM.

(photos of Robbie and Laura, and a little preview of the GI)

They had the table set with guest rosters, ( thank goodness, or it will be the last day before I remember everyone's names!) the " Story" and the other surprises...those on prior ABDs knew what was coming...but for newbies, it's fun to just be surprised a bit! We got the run down about our official first morning ( bags out by 6:30 and breakfast all together at 7:00.) Then they helped folks to who had come in a day (or more) early to plan their day in Quito. We meet several other ABD families, and as usual, we found them to be the same kind of positive upbeat people we've met on our other ABD journey.

This is another advantage to ABD's in our opinion. We've been on trips where we've met some real jerks; snarky, entitled, jaded , negative people who go to a new place with a closed mind. We've found that the very nature of the Disney Brand seems to self select people who are not like this. How many of you fellow "Disney -philes" out there have seen the eyes roll when you say Disney...yup- those people, they won't be on your adventure, and that makes it better before you've even stepped foot on the bus;-)

And yet...While I love Disney, I don't want my trips to foreign countries to be anything but authentic, otherwise, I could just go to EPCOT. What I learned after being a skeptic myself ( but not being able to resist a kids travel free with parents special in 2007 that saved us 5 grand.) was that ABDs provided some incredibly authentic experiences, that I couldn't arrange on my own. A HS dance troop, native Costa Ricans sharing their art work and history in their native language translated to Spanish then to English by our guide. A trip to the pineapple plantation that I was sure would be hokie, but instead was a real look at an important agricultural business and the real people who make it work. I came home a convert. Paraphrasing the worlds most interesting man from the beer commercial " I don't always take an organized tour, but when I do, I often take ABD. But I digress!

We took a map of Quito they offered and met our driver from Ecuadorian Tours in the lobby. We had expected Pablo to be just a driver, possibly with limited English skills. Instead we met Pablo, with impeccable English, and an extensive knowledge of his city and country- the history, the geology and the flora and fauna. He not only drove but provided narrative about things we passed and while we were expecting to just be dropped off at the Teleferiqo and the Museum , which were on our agenda for the day. Instead, provided we paid the $4.50 for his ride on the tram, he not only accompanied us up the mountain, but led us on a tour of the geological and geographical features, as well as pointed out plants and talked about their traditional uses by native people. We quickly decided, we would increase his tip from driver level ($5 pp per day) to guide level ($10 pp per day) he was worth every penny!

Teleferiqo is a must do we almost didn't do! We had read on Trip Advisor not to attempt the gondola ride in the first 24 hours upon arrival at that altitude. Quito sits at about 9 k feet and the gondola whisks you up mount Pichincha in 10 minutes, another 4 k feet to 13 k feet! That's some thin air! But out group really wanted to get an early overview of the area, and we decided if we were all feeling ok we would do it. We were so glad we did! The views are amazing. Our guide told us that the gondola is made by POMA, who make most of the major ski lifts in the world and have a good safety record if maintained. Our guide assured us it was safe, but warned us off of ziplining in Mindo later in our trip, so I have no reason to think he was not being honest with us.

(photos of teleferiqo prices and cars)

You can see ( if the weather cooperates) for miles in every direction. This is where having a good guide is worth it. Certainly you can take a taxi and go up the gondola and see the view. But the guide was able to point out key volcanoes (though on this day we couldn't see the snowy peaks above the clouds), show us the direction in which we would be heading on later parts of our trip ( Mindo and Otovalo ) as well as point out the geological forces and features that create this landscape. There is a net work of worn dirt tracks, and they are easy enough to follow on your own, as you are above the tree line, so you can see where you've been and where you go. But we did feel the altitude, especially climbing. Despite being in very good physical shape ( vigorous New England hill cycling 50-75 miles a week) we did feel winded when walking up hill. My older folks did fine, but we took it slow. And DM only went 1/2 way then headed to wait inside.

Do walk to the area where the horse back riding concession is, there are the most amazing views along this route, and an incredible " gorge" that you can overlook right by the stables. Just follow the dirt track and stairs up past the concession building and follow the signs for " caballo" ( horses for rent) The whole walk is short - cant be more than a mile, but at that altitude it's a good hike and has amazing views.

(photos of teleferiqo views and summit)

When you see this sign...keep going...

for this beautiful view!

TIPS Teleferiqo Tips:
-the guidebooks all say it opens at 10 weekdays, 9 on weekends, but it really opens at 8. This is because mornings are often clearer, and the best chance to see the snow covered peaks. Be prepared for the weather at the top, its a mountain!
-dress appropriately, it is windy and maybe 20 degrees cooler at the top. We wore fleece tops, long pants and windbreakers, a nice hat for our ears and possibly light fleece gloves if you are sensitive to the cold. My DF did the whole hike (1 hour ) in short sleeves, but he's a nut! The rest of us wore our fleeces, windbreakers and hats and were comfortable.
- the guide books also mention shops, concessions, and an oxygen bar. Most of that is not there anymore; our guide told us the shops could not make a go of it with the cost of rents, and they are abandoned concrete buildings now. This is for the better IMO, and seems to bring the place back to its more " natural state"
- there were 2 food concessions at the top, but beware! One had a huge orange sticker taped crime scene style over the door deeming it closed ( and to the best of my Spanish ability, the notice was from a governmental public health inspection agency) My mother witnessed this at the other open concession; a worker took 4 used mugs into the men's room, rinsed them out in the sink and returned them to the cook, who filled them with hot soup to sell to patrons. As you can imagine we didn't eat there, and I don't recommend you do either unless it is a packaged snack.
-the bathrooms are like many public flush toilets in Ecuador, toilet paper and soap is not provided, so it's a good idea to get yourself a couple of packets of Kleenex to carry around ( not needed on the ABD, guides carry TP for you! So add that to threads about whether an ABD is "worth it")
- buy the express pass, it's $2 more, but they alternate taking people from the regular and express, but because the express is shorter you will get on and back down quicker.
-enjoy the families around you...this is a popular day trip for local families and we enjoyed watching the families enjoying their day!

After descending, we walked back down the hill to our van, and headed over to the Museo Nacional Del Banco Central, which is now called the National Museum of Quito. There used to be an entrance fee, but now it is free to all.

(photo of sign)

This museum is essentially an art museum. It has ceramics, and metal work organized by the periods they were made and by the peoples (tribes) who made them. So the art becomes a remarkable chronological journey through the anthropological and geographical history of the earliest peoples of Ecuador. There are excellent Spanish and English descriptions introducing each time period and the peoples, but the individual artifacts are described in Spanish, so here again, it was well worth having a knowledgeable guide. Our guide was able to share the nuances of the materials used in the art and how they related to where the people were from (such as shells used by coastal people)

Each time period also included a diorama of the villages of those people's including earthen features they created that still exist throughout Ecuador today. The dioramas clearly show the people engaged in all their living and art pursuits, so that especially for children, they can get a clear picture of these peoples who created the interesting art they see.

(photos in Museum)

(Over view of the museum)

(ceramic work on display)

After that gallery, we moved on to the Incan conquest and occupations, and displays of incredible gold works. We ended upstairs in the Spanish Colonial works on the second floor, with excellent examples of the Quito School, when the Spanish forced indigenous people to make religious art, and developed their own unique style.

(photos of gold and Quito school works)

(entry to the "Gold Gallery" Incan works)

(The pregnant Madonna- example of Colonial era "School of Quito" work)

I must say, due to our short 5 hour day with the guide, we only had about 1 1/2 hours at the museum, you could easily spend 2 or more, but we were pretty much done in by 2:30 PM and after a quick detour to see Plaza Foch, which is lovely tourist area with outdoor cafes and shops, we headed back to the Marriott.

We decided on a "lupper" at the Mexican Restaurant at the Marriott, enjoying fajitas and steaks at the Don Porfirio. The food was excellent, and we the dining room to ourselves! After lupper, we went back to our rooms to relax a while and pack up for the early bag collection. After packing and resting, we decided to wander a bit and take some photos of the hotel, and DD1 sketched some of the beautiful flower arrangements in the lobby.

At about 7:30 we headed back up to the lounge on 9 to get the teens some snacks ( the rest of us still weren't very hungry,) and then we went to get some gelato from the coffee shop in the shopping center that is attached to the hotel. This can be billed to your room. It is at hotel rates, vs buying food on the street, which would be far cheaper, but less convenient since its recommended that evening visitors to Quito use cabs rather than walking. There is also an art gallery and a jewelry shop as well as the usual hotel shop and an upscale ladies shop.
After gelato, it was back to the room to relax and get ready for an early bedtime!

TIPS Tips for Quito on your:
-the elevation is very high, for the Teleferiqo, a warm fleece, windbreaker/rain jacket over, hat and lightweight fleece gloves. It's very windy and cold at the top. For walking around town, I found long pants, a short sleeve shirt with a light layer ( fleece or safari style short) over it to be comfortable.
-We did not wear jewelry ( I left my diamond home and wear a simple white gold band I travel with in the developing world) on this part of the trip. We carried small cameras in our pockets, rather than a large camera bag. I used a money belt with copies of our passports and the bulk of cash we needed. I used a small ID wallet with a clip that I clipped to my belt loop and tucked into my front pocket to access quick cash at entrances etc. If I needed more cash for the next stage or place, I'd use the ladies room or a quiet corner of a museum to access more cash from the money belt into the clip wallet. We had no problems as we had a private guide and car, but we used the same precautions we would gave for walking or talking public transit in any large city.
-As mentioned earlier we packed some Kleenex packs and wished I had remembered my own hand sanitizer.
- (tips on tipping;-) Some internet research told me that for private guiding in Quito to expect to tip $5 per person per full day for a driver, $10 per person per full day for a guide. You will have both a driver and a guide if you book tours with Ecuadorian Tours, unless you request just a driver. Remember once with only tip the adventure guides... that's it!
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Old 09-05-2012, 12:05 PM   #3
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Day 2 Aug 15- Middle of the Earth, Out to the Otavalo Valley

We have our first official ABD breakfast this morning. We get all our trip details from Robbie and Laura and all our fellow adventurers introduce themselves. We are out onto the bus by 8 AM and meet our driver for the trip, Miguel. With about a 2 hours drive ahead, we settle in for a narration by Robbie of some basic history and culture of Ecuador, while watching amazing scenery roll by and chugging up and down the Andean foothills, on the Pan American High way.

(photos of driving on the bus and Miguel)

Our first stop ( except bath breaks) is the Quitsato Mitadad del Mundo- the monument to the middle of the world. The popular equator line where you can straddle both the north and south equator or hop back and forth from summer to winter. The guide for Quitsato does a little talk in which they introduce a new map where the equator is in the middle of the map. It's an interesting perspective...I'm sharing the map with you-'whether it catches on- we will see;-)

(photo of Quitsato map)

(photo of monument)

After the monument, we travel another 20 minutes to a Rose Plantation, this one uses organic methods, such as planting mint with the roses to prevent pests, and raising their own animals and plants to make a fertilizer cocktail to feed the roses. We see the rose operation from plants to shipping; all narrated by Carolina in Spanish, then translated by Robbie to English. Carolina is a professional botanist who runs the whole operation. Digression here: She is one of the few women we see "in charge" of anything here, except for Sra. Cotacachi, the weavers wife... we noticed she handles all the money;-). We do see several women officers on GE II and some business women in the hotel, whom we notice all wear grey suits, which makes me think of the 1990's in the US, and that seems just about right;-)

Back to the roses! We learn that the reason roses are a major export for Ecuador is because the sun is directly overhead, all year long the roses grow very straight. many of these roses go to Russia where the market is for very long roses.

(photos of the Rose plantation)

Back on the road again, our next stop is lunch at the Molino San Juan. We have a hot drink of conalazo there, which is like a mulled cider, and hear a brief history of the Hacienda from the owner and her representative. This lunch is Ecuadorian specialties and is very, very good.

(photos of Molino and food)

On the road again after lunch we head to the village of Peguche, here we visit the home of a well know family band, Nanda Minachi, who also shows us how to make pan flutes (called zampona) and he plays many other South American instruments for us. His family performs a tune and then we make our own zampona, with lots of assistance!

(photos from Minachi home)

Coming up: more Day 2
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Old 09-05-2012, 12:10 PM   #4
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Day 2 Aug 15- Middle of the Earth, Out to the Otavalo Valley (con't)

We also visit Jose Cotacachi , a well known artisan weaver, who demonstrates weaving and Sra Cotacachi demonstrates how dyes are made from a beetle found on cacti and natural additives such as sulfur from the volcanic eruptions, juice from limons (there is no word to differentiate lemons from limes) that grow on trees here. There is a chance to buy woolens and weavings here and they are of amazing quality. I'm a llama and alpaca wool fan, and often shop for these in the States, and for work of this quality I would see prices 2-3 times higher in US shops!

(photos of Cotacachi)
(the European loom on which Jose weaves most of his work)

(at an Andean loom, sitting on the floor)

(Sra. Cotacachi explains how dyes are made)

(and the kids get to try it!)

This village is a highlight for us. Many local people are doing laundry in a flowing stream, others are cooking "tipico" typical Ecuadorian food on open fires in their homes. We are invited to shops connected to their homes and it was clear that both were family run operations. It is fun interacting with the local folks and they seemed happy to share their crafts with us. It doesn't feel "staged", but rather like someone arranged for a special visit with local artisans, which is in fact what happened!

(Peguche Village photos)

Our next stop is our hotel for the next 2 nights, Hacienda Pinsaqui.

(photos of HP)

We were greeted by a musical group and walked to the entrance and were provided with a delicious fruit drink and the owner gave us a brief history of the plantation. Then we walked the grounds in the shadow of the volcano, which were lovely! There are horses and llamas on the property as well as beautiful trees and flowers. There are fountains everywhere and a beautiful chapel. But the whole place is very rustic, and old, if you prefer everything very new and modern, this is not it. However, these are considered the best accommodation in this area.

We were led to our rooms which are set up in a group of 4 rooms surrounding a courtyard with a fountain and outdoor seating. The rooms have a huge armoire and either a king and small daybed or a set of twins. There are wood stoves in some rooms and they placed an electric heater in our room too. There are very high ceilings and the room is painted yellow ochre. The best part is the windows, one overlooking the courtyard, one overlooking the horse corral and another overlooking a small porch. The bath is simple, a tub, shower, and vanity. As with most Ecuadorian plumbing, a trash basket for all toilet paper, which cannot be thrown in the toilet. The only toiletries on offer are a bar of soap and a plastic packet of shampoo. Another thing to note- face clothes are not used here and therefore not provided.

TIPS Toiletry Tips: We don't usually pack shampoo because we carry on our bags, but here I would, (or carry the provided shampoo and conditioner form the Marriott with you on the rest of the trip)both the HP and the ship offered only shampoo, and with the dry season, I felt like I needed conditioner. We ended up buying a bottle in a shop before going on the GEII. Also, in Ecuador, all the plugs are compatible with US appliances, so you will have no trouble with razors or charging electronics. Every bath on our tour had blow dryers in the room, so you don't need to bring that.

We were in room 28. 25 - 28 were located in one building. Our room had a king size bed and a small daybed (therefore it could be a triple). It had a large armoir and two nightstands, an electric heater and a wood stove.

(photos of HP room 28)

We had an odor or sewage near the bed, which is quite far from the bath, so we can only speculate it's near the leach field or a pipe servicing this building(it is on the down hill side of the building) it's not noticeable the second night, so maybe it had just been pumped? Additionally the horse starts before dawn prancing near his oats dish in the corral and this sounds just like people rolling luggage above you. This went on off and on all morning from 4:30-6:30 till I looked out the window and noticed the horse. ( boy, those hooves are loud and reverberate on hard packed ground!) I took a video of him and when he spotted me in the window, he moved on! So if you are in this room or room 27 and it bothers you I'll bet if you make some noise or flash you light or cameras flash, he'll move.

(photos of horse)

There is a dance troupe to entertain us before dinner, which has some Ecuadorian specialties like shrimp ceviche and potato soup, but also familiar things like steak, chicken breast and spaghetti bolognese. After dinner we head to bed because it was such a busy day!

(photos of the dancers)

Up next: Day 3
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Old 09-05-2012, 12:16 PM   #5
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Day 3 Aug 16-Where Condors Soar, more exploration of the Otovalo Valley and Peguche

Started the day at 4 AM with the horse just outside our window stamping his hooves around his bucket- hoping I guess that I'd wake up and give him some hay and oats! And this was supposed to be sleeping in day! We are still adjusting to the hour time difference and are up early anyway, so we were off to enjoy our breakfast buffet.

At 8:30 we headed out on our bus with Miguel and the guides to go to Peguche Water Falls. We had a nice hike up to the falls, and lots of photos, then a hike back. Disney even tips the ladies managing the rest rooms for you!

(photos of Peguche Water Falls)

After the falls we go to Park Condor for a discussion about the parks mission and to see the giant condor- a symbol of Ecuador and other SA countries. The Condors cannot fly, but we see them in their enclosure and they are magnificent if rather ugly birds. But this male does his best to pose for the cameras and we enjoy seeing him, even if we cannot see one in flight!

(photo of condor)

We watch a flying demo and see several birds of prey including two noisy kestrels and an owl as well as an eagle that flies off and returns to its handler.

(Photos of birds- scroll through them really, really fast...see it flies!)

We hike around ( actually up and down, it's quite hilly here) several cages with resident birds that were either born in captivity or are too injured to be released.

(photo of the view and the "corazon" the heart shaped landslide on the volcano)

After returning to the bus, we are take to a small field overlooking the volcano to fly kites. It's a very windy day and the kite strings keep breaking and the kites fly away to the edge of the field, where we chase them around and rescue them to give to the local children who are attracted by our kites from the village below and know if they come up, they will get to see the " gringo" kids and bring home the kites afterwards. They are shy, hanging by the edges till our guide Laura encourages them to join in and some of the adults offer up their kites.

(photos of kite flying)

Finally the wind and flying sand send everyone back to our bus, where we drive down the hill to lunch at Puerto Lago on Lake San Pablo, in the shadow of the Imbabura Volcano. Here in a beautiful lake side dining room with a view of the lake and Imbabura beyond, our family tries the " Tipico" a typical Ecuadorian lunch of pork, plantains, sweet potato patties and corn. For dessert we all enjoy the Guanabana helado. A sherbet made from local fruit that I have been enjoying in yogurt and helado, but cannot pronounce for 2 days! Finally, my daughter reminds me of the muppet song do do dodoot. And after much practice I get it;-)

(photo of Peurto Lago)

(photos of lunch)

Puerto Lago appears to have motel style rooms and several people seem to be envious we are not staying here rather than the Pinsaqui.

(photos of Puerto Lago)

Coming up: more day 3
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Old 09-05-2012, 12:27 PM   #6
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Day 3 Aug 16-Where Condors Soar, more exploration of the Otovalo Valley (con't)

After lunch we head to the Otavalo Market, Laura prepares us all for what to expect and encourages everyone to get involved in shopping by explaining a little game. The market is colorful, and when we go, very quiet. We are pretty much the only tourists going through.
Before we go to the market though, Robbie offers to take us 5 blocks away on foot to where the people themselves buy their food, clothes and staples. This is eye opening...whole roasted pigs laying out ready to be cut and sold. Because the Spaniards claimed all the best parts of the animals for themselves and left the offal for the native people; traditional cuisine often includes food made from the hooves, intestines tongue and brains of animals.

Though most Ecuadorians have access to cuts of meats today, these dishes are traditional and many families still enjoy them on certain occasions. The people in this part of Ecuador are very short in stature, largely because so many generations were denied those good proteins.

Only 6 of us chose to go with Robbie to this Market and we made more of a spectacle for the people there than they did for us! Marching through their market was my 6 foot 6 inch tall blond husband and my nearly 6 foot tall blond daughter! Everyone was looking way up at us with big smiles and much awe!

(photos of the real market)

After seeing the real market, we make our way to the Otovalo craft market, which is really set up for tourists. Overall, we did not find the people here to be aggressive (in keeping with the culture of the people of Ecuador, who are very peaceful) A vendor might pick something up to show you, or wave their hand toward their stall, but there is none of the aggressiveness we have experienced in other markets in the world.
We tend to be power shoppers, so we quickly home in on the items we want- a panama hat for DH (exact same brand hat as he saw at Tommy Bahama for 130 he negotiated from 30 to pay 20) a colorful scarf of the type the local people wear for DD for 8 ( negotiated from 12) and a blue woolen poncho for DD2 for 20 ( started at 30). We also purchased a water color painting (which adds to my native art collection that I buy and never get around to hanging!)

(photos of Otavalo craft market)

(Photos of stuff we bought from the craft market)

While my DH and the girls continued shopping, my mom and I met Raoul, our ABD shadow guide, or as I like to call him - the advance man. Side note about Raoul, he was the classic fixer, local guy with the contacts who made sure when we arrive everything is ready to go, he also provides a little muscle when we walk around Peguche with the female guide, though I can honestly say, we never saw anyone that looked threatening or drunk or disorderly on the streets. We saw fewer beggars than I do on an afternoon trip into Boston.
I found that people in general, everywhere we drove or walked seemed to be very industrious, lots of people heading to work or doing chores (such as washing clothes in a creek alongside the road).

At first I thought that may be because Raoul had arrived to Peguche in advance and paid off the ner do wells to move along so we wouldn't see them. But this trip Raoul drove with us in his private car with mom and I and another lady on our trip, back to Peguche where the 3 of us wanted to buy some more woolens from Jose Cotacachi's workshop. They weren't expecting us in Peguche on this day, and pretty much we experienced the same environment, so I truly believe this is how the village and it's residents live, rather than something that was "arranged" to look a certain way for us.

At Joes Cotacachis, Jose and his wife, the Señorita of the house, helped us pick out more woolens we wanted. I got a beautiful scarf and had admired the turquoise sweater purchased by the Dear Other Lady on our tour (would this be DOLOOT? - this is getting just ridiculous, let's call her C {since that's the first initial of her name;-)}) I hadn't seen that sweater on our first stop, and wanted to get one. I promised her I would not wear mine on the trip and they live in Indianapolis, so I could get away with buying the same one;-)

In all I probably spent close to 500 dollars on woolens, here, for 2 beautiful baby alpaca sweaters, an art weaving for my daughter 1 to take with her to college next year, a pair of fingerless gloves for DD2 ( for photography!) as well as the scarves for myself and DH. As far as comparisons, similar woven scarves by an artisan in Maine would be priced 200-250, while in Jose's shop I paid 40 for the same excellent quality. You could pay 20 at Otavalo, but it would not be near the same quality. The similar sweaters that I have priced (Alpaca and Llama) in shops in Maine, are well over 100 per sweater. Here they were 45 and 65. My daughters knit poncho was only 20 at Otavalo, again, not near art quality, but still lovely. I bought a similar woolen wrap in the airport shop, a little higher quality by a local designer and it was 62. This gives you some idea of what things might cost, and help with how much cash to bring. Jose's shop did take credit cards for big purchases, but you would not get the discounts of $5-10 per item that he gives for cash. A reminder that Ecuador uses the US dollar, so once you get the Spanish numbers down, you don't have to do a conversion! Our guide told us for the Otavalo craft market to offer about 50% of the asking price (Quanta Questa?- how much?) and expect to negotiate to 75 percent of the asking price. I dont ordinarily post pictures of stuff I buy, unless they are representative of the art and artisans in a place, so I share these so you can get an idea of the beautiful things made in this area!!

(photos of Jose C's woolens )

TIPS for shopping:
-Its a great idea to familiarize yourself with basic Spanish phrases of how much? Thank you, Please and the Spanish numbers.
-vendors aren't pushy and they wont hold your change trying to get you to buy more, or claim they don't have change even for close purchases (like $8 out of $10). Overall we found the people just lovely!
-if we purchased something, my DH would ask if he could get a photo; most glady obliged, ( as you can see from the smiles) but random snapping is discouraged and we were also discouraged from paying people for photos, especially children, as it might encourage people to take their kids out of school for that purpose.
-Ecuador uses American dollars but often vendors can't break large bills. We found it really useful to have lots of 10's, 5,s and 1's for the market
-pack an extra duffle to stash your dirty underware in and put your finds in a better quality suitcase for the journey home, many of the wood crafts are delicate.

So after the private shopping trip with Raoul, he took us back to the Hacienda, with a side trip through a town with many witch doctors offices. It was fun to see their interesting signs and again, another industrious little village. We never felt unsafe anywhere around here, though, these were not Disney recreations of villages, they are real towns with dirt and some trash and old buildings as well as half completed buildings. It felt very different from what I know, but also very authentic and Ecuador is very family oriented and we saw families together everywhere we went. I was again reminded about how people in the world are more similar than different!

Back at the Hacienda, our group had been briefed for our busy travel day to the Galapagos the next day, and I headed back to my room to show my DH my purchases and get the details. The details are likely to be somewhat different for each adventure, but the general jist of it is that we would bus back to Quito, await our flight in a VIP lounge (with free wifi!), fly to Guayaquil and then onward ( while staying on the same plane) to the islands, where we would then have a couple more bus and ferry transfers before arriving at the ship. It would be a long travel day and much thought needs to be given tonight to what things ( such a souvenirs and heavier clothing) could go back for storage at Marriott, which things needed to be tagged to be checked through to the ship and which things we would need to hand carry on the planes. While there was a painting demonstration and craft and cooking lesson before dinner, we had to do some packing first!

Our girls did some painting while we got packed up. Then we had about an hour for them to pack, and wander around getting some photos and just enjoying the Hacienda. At 6 we watched and the kids got a chance to try making empanadas. DD 2 participated while we relaxed on a bench and watched. She is our cook, and she reported that this was easy, and we would try it when we got home.

The kids then also made guaynanaba helado and had little samples of that. Fully formed and cooked empanadas appeared as if by magic, and were passed around. Our planned BBQ turned into a kitchen meal when it started sprinkling and the owner decided to take it inside. This was a little disappointing because the courtyard is beautiful, but in either case we would have take our food to the dining room to eat. Being a BBQ tonight's meal was heavy on meats, with a nice soup to start. If you don't like something or have special dietary requests (such as vegetarian or you don't want pork on your plate) you will find they make every effort to substitute for you. I find this overly accommodating, given how much food is offered in any given day...if you miss a soup, or leave something on your plate, it won't be more than 2-3 hours before another snack or meal is offered. I find it hard to believe that even the pickiest or most restricted eaters could go hungry!

After dinner everyone hit the hay early...a 5:30 AM bag call motivating everyone to get bed early. Tonight, as soon as I heard my stallion starting his stamping 3 feet outside my window, I shone my headlamp out the window and flashed it; he quickly stopped and move away, and I didn't hear him all night!

TIPS Packing recommendations for the highlands:
-Be sure to have a very warm sweater or fleece, the Andean foot hills get very cool at night.
-A flashlight or head lamp is useful here as the fluorescent lights are dim and it helps seeing into your bags and also for making your way on the cobbles stones at night after dinner.
-Shoes with socks. Lightweight fleece gloves for evenings walking around the hacienda. The hacienda had electric heaters and cozy fireplaces, and we were never cold in our room, but at night the dining room is open to the outside ( the doors are left open) and it gets cool. I'm a hearty new Englander, not prone to feel cold and even I wore a lightweight fleece and a rain coat every night at dinner. I wore my fleece gloves to walk from home from dinner. Several folks bought wool sweaters in Otavalo, and wore those. It's definitely cool in the evenings, and even during the day, pants and short sleeve shirt are fine even in the afternoon.
-When moving on from the Highlands, you have the option to send stuff back the Marriott- it will be in your room when you get back. These heavier items (except the rain/widbreaker, which you'll need to see the tortoises on Santa Cruz) can go back in your "extra duffle". There is also a little surprise that will help with carrying your toiletries and pjs onto the bus on days when you have to get your luggage out bright and early.
-a map or guide book, to follow along the route, and make notes. This was enormously helpful in learning the names of the towns, and which volcano we were looking at. If you don't care where you pictures are taken and prefer to just " go along"; that's fine too, but we like to be able to names to the places in our photos and reviews and this was very helpful! I like that the notes are on the map rather than just in a note book, where I would have trouble remembering exactly where something was.
-pack a roll of colored duct tape- this is handy for marking your similar looking "surprise" and ABD backpacks and as you will see later, useful while snorkeling.

Coming up- heading to the Galapagos!
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Old 09-05-2012, 12:39 PM   #7
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Sorry to interrupt but those photos are simply amazing!! Oh my gosh! Your hubby has quite the eye and the lighting is just perfect. Makes me think of upgrading to a 1-series Canon... I'm not a Nikon person. You forgot one detail about his gear, what lenses did he use? And are all those handheld shots?

I am just going through the photos and will read it extensively tonight. At first when you posted the photos of the guides, I was wondering what water activity you had in Quito since it is right at the start of the post. I realized those were photos from the Galapagos.

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Old 09-05-2012, 12:40 PM   #8
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Loving your trip report! It is so comprehensive. My pre-planning travel style is very similar to yours. I also check for passports before we leave the driveway!

Can't wait another instalment.
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Old 09-05-2012, 12:45 PM   #9
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Day 4 Aug 17 Highlands to the Islands- the big move!

This is the most arduous travel day. 5 am wake up call, but we had bags all ready to go, clothes laid out and little left to do except dress, brush our teeth and do one last sweep for wayward socks. The breakfast buffet was the same as the first morning, and subdued as people woke up and prepared for a long travel day.

This is another day when I truly appreciate the ABD touch. In the countless "is it worth it ?" threads, I often make the argument that one thing is the experiences of the past two days; the exclusive access to unique experiences you couldn't arrange or wouldn't be safe to do in your own. And the second "worth it" piece is the way ABD smoothes the path of travel. Today's journey from Quito to the islands, would have been confusing and overwhelming without our guides and the ABD arranged conveniences.

To start, we bus back to Quito, two hours, lots of folks napped, but I enjoyed watching the traffic, an elaborate dance of ignoring road markings completely, while a whole set of unique gestures, honks and lights create a polite and orderly way of driving around here. While it looks completely hairy, it seemed to work. When the bus would come upon a loaded truck it needed to pass, and being an ABD bus, and more or less following the rules or just the laws of nature ( if we pass now, we will certainly slam headlong into that truck coming the other way at about 80 KMph.) So Miguel would wisely decide to wait. But not so the three drivers behind him who would whiz around him on the left and barely escape certain death to squeeze in front of us and the car in front of us.

This only worked because of some indecipherable system of flashing lights, all traffic moving into the breakdown lanes to accommodate them and the vehicle being passed politely breaking to prevent the death of the passers. In Boston the passee would speed up, the oncoming traffic would lay in the horn and gesture (not politely) and there would certainly be a funeral to attend somewhere. So it was a very entertaining ride, definitely E ticket. And I haven't even mentioned the pig in the truck bed that we followed for quite a while. His funeral was pretty much assured!

(photo of pig)

(unique "passing zone")

( yes, that would be 4 vehicles in a two lane road...eek!)

(photo from bus of local woman walking)

(scenery from the bus)

Once in Quito, through the magic of ABD, our luggage was unloaded at a VIP line at the airport, this is the only place where you must put your own bag on the conveyer, but you dont actually have to carry it more than two steps from the pile to the conveyer. We were literally through security in 10 minutes- all 34 of us, and up in a VIP lounge with snacks, drinks, comfy couches and the most used amenity....WIFI!

(photo in VIP lounge- see this is a terrible's mine;-)

After a relaxing wait in the lounge, we boarded first, ABD had arranged for all of us to be in the front of the plane so that when we deplane, we will be at the head of the line in the islands. When we have landed in Baltra, they open both doors which actually puts is smack in the middle of the plane and pretty much last to get out. Within a few minutes, a few more examiners arrive and the line moves along reasonably.

We head to our bus which takes us about 20 minutes through Baltra to the ferry to Santa Cruz. On this bus we are introduced to our Galapagos Explorer 2 guides and given our bagged lunch. While waiting for the ferry we see our first Galapagos wildlife: blue footed ****ies in flight, a sea lion splashing by the pier, an iguana making his way to a warmer spot, a pelican and a little lava heron sitting by the shore. Did I mention we were only there 10 minutes?

After crossing a small channel for about 5 minutes, we were on Santa Cruz. Another bus met us and we drove about 30 minutes through SC to the Puerto Ayora. During this time our GE2 guides went over the National Park rules and we were broken into our groups of 10-14 for the small group activities we would do while on the island.

(photo of Santa Cruz welcome sign and the 42 KM to Puerto Ayora)

Once on the other end of Santa Cruz, we visited the Charles Darwin Research Center, where tortoises are raised to preserve the species. This was one of the few times I felt we weren't adequately prepared for an activity. We actually hiked about a mile from the bus through an outdoor area, a lot like a zoo. Some people in our group didn't have appropriate hiking shoes, several of us left the bus without hats on for the sun, thinking a "research center" might be indoors, and most of us, having been on busses and planes all day hadn't really prepared with sun screen. I was expecting a sort of indoor interpretative center with tortoises outside, but in fact it's a hike of probably 1 and 1/2 miles round trip past pens of baby tortoises being raised and lonesome George's old pen as well as several senior tortoises and some land iguanas. There is a snack bar and a small shop, but it's mostly an outdoor park. I was disappointed with the center itself, but I tell you this to be prepared, once on Santa Cruz, wear good walking shoes, bring your water, hats and sunscreen as you will for the other outdoor activities in the islands.

The groups are named after animals and the first letter corresponds with the letter on your snorkel equipment bin and you have the same guide for the whole trip. We seemed grouped by similarities to the families, so we were put with another family of hard charging easterners also with anxious but excited older kids. We get along fine with this family, so we were pleased, though really, any of the groups would have been great; this was one of the best groups we've ever traveled with! The nice thing is there are only 10 in our group.

Unfortunately, our guide Gustavo, was pretty soft spoken and seemed more interested in greeting and socializing with his buddies guiding other groups at the same place than really showing any interest in what we wanted to see and do. He spent too much time in spots where we all had little interest and moved us on too quickly when we clearly showed interest in something. With my dads poor hearing and Gustavo's weak English, it just felt like a disconnect. He was misunderstanding questions and my dad couldn't hear him well. He never once asked our names- everyone is "my friend", though to his credit he did manage to learn most of them by the last day. This was a low moment in the tour for me, first, I felt unprepared for the activity, and then my next thought was "we came all this way and spent all this money to get a bad guide all week", because this will be our group and our guide for all our Galapagos activities.

The Darwin Center itself was interesting, the little tortoises were fun to watch and I think with another guide, you would get a better overview of the work the station does and the differences about the tortoises evolved from different islands. It was exciting to finally be in the Galapagos, we just hoped that things would get better from this day forward.

(photos of Darwin Center)

(baby tortoises being raised in captivity)

(tribute to Lonesome George, the last tortoise of his species)

After leaving the Darwin Center, we had a few minutes in PA to shop. DD1 buys a suede tortoise purse and DD2 gets some patches that she collects. We buy a few toiletries we need and head back to our group, which has started queuing up to board.

This was a disaster as various tour groups (the ABD, which was in front, and English and Japanese) just wander up to the front of the line, a mob of people try to grab life jackets and wait for the panga. One old guy and his wife pushed their way between my DH and I and our two kids and the guide at the dock stops us after our children have already made their way onto the panga without us. The guide at the ramp stops us, and we are pretty upset that we can't follow our kids and tell the guide, we aren't letting our kids go on their own, either we go down or they come back. He says that we will get on with them, he's just holding us up so not so many are on the ladder at one time.

So we apologize saying we are protective parents, and the guide snaps that he's protective of all passengers. Not a great start. Can you see how this day is going so far? So far we've travelled forever, eaten crappy snacks all day, been unprepared for an activity, learned we have the bad apple guide and now have boarding chaos. We are all very tired and the pace of this trip is a little to punishing for our group. I'm not too happy as we board and am hoping things improve and soon!

Once onboard, check in is very quick, we are simply given our keys, and walked by a crew member to our cabin.

Our cabins are 340, 342 and 344 on the Columbus deck. Our cabin - which has no drawers in the cabin, but has 2 big closets with a single drawer under it, is close to the lobby. Our girls in 342 can hear people laughing and partying a little if they are in the lobby, but mostly its very quiet. The bath has a wooden floored shower, good water pressure, but the water is only lukewarm when everyone is taking showers at the same time (such as after the afternoon excursion, before dinner). There is a big sitting area, and roomy bed- but it's rock hard and the pillows are old and compacted too. We have a window cabin which looks out onto the Promenade, so we have to keep the curtains closed or risk a peep show. The good news is not many people walk by, but we do see a crewman every once in a while when they are getting the ship anchored and lowering the panagas from the bow.

(photos of cabin)

We get to our cabins, luggage is already there but there is little time to explore or unpack because it's muster drill time. The ABD group has their own muster in the piano bar, you must wear your life vest and we also walk down to a muster station to see what that looks like. We return our PDFs and have about 10 minutes before dinner to clean up. We have a private section of the dining room and we dine about 1 hour before the rest of the pax. We don't see many other kids, so this early seating seems to work for the ABD group.

TIPS ABD advantages on the GEII- There are several "benefits" to being with the ABD group on the GE II. I will summarize them here:
-we have snorkel gear delivered to our room, having previously given our guides our sizes, won't have to wait to pick it up tomorrow morning and we get first pick of the sizes; the ship can run out, so even those of us who need different sizes or in my case, never got a mask and snorkel, can go 15 minutes before everyone else in the morning to get outfitted.
-every day there is a specific ABD planner left in our rooms, with the itinerary and times for our group.
-we get to leave for excursions 15 minutes before the other groups on board.
-we have dinner in a private room, dining about one hour earlier than the general guests (7:30 vs 8:30; though the schedule does fluctuate depending on return times from excursions )
-private bridge tour for our ABD group
-private stargazing for our ABD group (though you are welcome at the general ship events too, if you want to do it twice or miss it)
-on the last day we get to stay aboard till 9:30; the last to debark, so that less time is spent waiting at the airport, which is not as comfortable as the piano lounge onboard.

Every night before dinner we get our next days briefing from the naturalist guides onboard. At that point it was completely overwhelming, to hear about what tomorrow would bring- there were details about making sure snorkeling equipment would fit and how to exchange and honestly, I just wanted to go to bed! My only hope was that we wouldn't be too tired tomorrow to enjoy our day.

The food the first night was excellent, a delicious shrimp bisque and 3 huge jumbo shrimp with veggies and potatoes. The guys have steak, they say was very good. Service is quick and efficient.

TIPS GE II Dining Review for those who don't want any surprises! :
-you review the dinner menu each AM at breakfast. You make your selections at breakfast, but could change your mind if your tastes changed later.
-Every menu had at least two appetizer(called entrees in Ecuador) two soup, and two dessert options each night. There were 4-5 main dishes offered each night, most nights there was a fowl (chicken or duck or ostrich depending on the night), a beef option or pork, usually at least two seafood options, a fish and/or a shellfish and a vegetarian option. There was also a section with selections for "kids" of all ages. These included hamburgers, or pizza, or pasta, usually with different options each night. The childrens options didn't always resemble their United States counterparts according to the children we traveled with who tired them, but were more familiar than shrimp (with the heads and tails on) or ostrich.

(Photo of menu)

(photo of lunch buffet)

-Breakfast was a large buffet with hot and cold foods and also and omlette station.
-Lunch was also a buffet with a ceviche of the day, a soup of the day, a salad bar that featured several unusual salads, such as pickled vegetables and things we in the US think of as dinner vegetables ( like broccoli and peas). There were at least 6 salad dressings. Next to the salad bar were chafing dishes with at least two hot entrees, rice and grilled vegetables. Most popular was a daily pasta station where two chefs prepared pasta dishes with your choice of sauce.
-Best of all: the dessert buffet at lunch which always offered a selection of 4 or more sweet desserts and a fruit salad, strawberries in skewers, with strawberry, chocolate and dulce de leche sauces to add to any of the desserts.
-Service was speedy and polite. The senior officers working in the dining room went out of their way to make sure you were comfortable and were enjoying your meals. Waiters went the extra distance inquiring after ones health if one left a meal early due to motion, or offering to fill our water bottles for us when they saw we had brought them to lunch empty, meaning to fill them after lunch before the excursion. And unlike other areas of Ecuador, the ship is excellent at understanding cultural food differences; coffee was offered with a splash of milk for North Americans, traditional juices and yogurt drinks for South Americans, sushi was offered at breakfast for folks on a Japanese tour, many traditional British breakfast foods were offered for the British tour group on board.
- Our party of 6 really enjoyed the food, and had no problems selecting something yummy, including my teens (who I admit are adventurous eater and are willing to try things that are new). Everything is prepared very well, fresh and well seasoned and sauced, beautifully presented. I felt that for an expedition vessel the food was excellent!

The kids are pooped and cranky, so we call it a night; I gather laundry (it will be at least $100 dollar load I think with 46 pieces!!) and everyone showers and tries on their snorkel gear. The ship sets off late to another part of this island for our hike and beach snorkel in the morning.

I miss my balcony, but am happy to look out and see when we are under way and know I'll be able to check the weather in the AM with our window. I've been told you can upgrade to a suite with a balcony on a an upper deck, but given the significant extra price and the additional motion that might be felt on a small ship; for our group, deck 3 is just fine!

TIPS Tips for the Big Move and embarking on the GEII:
-pack A LOT of patience...everyone will be tired and cranky, ( and sometimes pushy as we found with other groups on GEII) but as we say at preschool, our guides Robbie and Laura were "modeling appropriate behavior", I tried to take my cues form them;-)
-Its a good idea to have that extra bag to send back to the Marriott with your purchases and heavier clothes, which you won't need in the Galapagos- except leave at least one pair of long pants and your rain/wind breaker for the Santa Cruz Tortoise day.
-use your "surprise" to pack up your night clothes and morning toiletries, there is always a safe place to leave these and you wont get stuck carrying them around on the excursions of this day, it will allow you to get your bags out early and then get ready for the day.
-the only options on the bag lunches are PB and jelly and a ham and cheese, a chip product, and a piece of fruit; these are prepared by the GEII. I was happy I packed nuts and my own snacks, but the guides also have a large bag of snacks if the bagged lunch doesn't work for you.
-pack your own mask and snorkel from home; my ship gear leaked a bit and a good fit is critical.

up next- better days are ahead!!
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Old 09-05-2012, 12:54 PM   #10
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Day 5 Aug 18: Viaje Fantastico- excursions on Santa Cruz and Santiago

There is a 6:30 am wake up call every day. This is a nice lady saying "Beunos Dias" with gentle music and waves sounds in the background. At 6:45 AM snorkel there is gear swap out if our gear doesn't fit for the ABD group. I'd say at least half of us need something different. I didn't even get a mask in my bag, and again wish I'd brought my own. So we get up, get sun lotioned and into our suits to do the swap, except, that our door lock malfunctions and Jeff stays to wait for repair. The guy comes in 10 minutes as promised, I swap out our gear and we are good to go by 7 for breakfast.

TIPS Gearing up for excursions:
-do check your snorkel gear and consider bringing your own mask and snorkel. I ended up with one that leaked a bit and was sorry I didn't have my own. Also once you've got stuff that fits, just bring it all back to your room after you dunk it; ours went missing when others on the ship had an early excursion and it had clearly been pulled apart. The bags will fit under the sink in your bath and you can just put it in the appropriate lettered bin
-if you use the GEII gear, and even if you use your own, you will get a mesh bag- note the number in writing so you can find it again. Also, your gear will go in a bin with a letter matching your group name, make sure your bag is in there before you leave for your excursion.
-hang the wetsuit to dry in the clip hanger in your shower- it wont be so cold when you put it on the next say.
-for wet landings, you can just roll up your pants and remove your hiking shoes and put them back on once on shore, but there are no benches, so you'll be doing that on the beach, my 71 YO mother found this hard. If you have amphibious closed toe sandals you are comfortable taking about a mile or 2 walk in, these are ideal for wet landings. In any case good hikers, ( you won't need your heavy duty hiking boots) sneakers with good tread, or amphibious sandals are a far better option than open backed wedges, flip flops or smooth bottomed sandals or sneakers.
-be sure to pack a suit without a "skirt" for wearing under the wet suit.
-pack a day pack with; camera, binoculars, notepad for wildlife sighting notes, sun lotion, water ( you will be given a GEII water bottle, these can be filled outside the piano bar with cold filtered water, ask the front desk for a sharpie to mark the caps so the family knows whose is whose.) We carried bug stuff and never needed it on the islands.
-I recommend getting your kids a water bottle strap that goes around their neck, as often this is all they need to carry (if you are carrying lotion for them)and makes them less encumbered.
-don't worry if you don't want to carry all your stuff on the walk- the excursions begin and end in the same place; no one is there but folks from the GEII, so most anything can be left on the beach safely while you hike.
-you will get details at each briefing about what to wear and bring each day, so don't worry about having to remember all's just to help with packing!

(photo of snorkel gear)

After breakfast we go to our piano bar meeting spot and prepare to leave the ship at 7:45, as promised 15 minutes before the others, which means our group are the first 3 groups to hit the island in the morning.

To be honest, even 100 people still feels like too many. I have friends who have taken 20 -30 pax boats and this would be ideal for excursions. 100 people on the beach for snorkeling and 6 groups hiking around or snorkeling did feel like the pristine quality of the islands was a bit spoiled. It was only on this stop that everyone was in the same place at the same time. In Africa, we had the experience of being the part of only 10-20 people in a multi acre concession and it made it more amazing. But for us, this trip was a compromise of the needs of 6 people, including my mom with limited mobility, and at least 2 people in the group very susceptible to motion sickness. And I've read those small boats really MOVE in the water here. So ABD was a perfect fit for our family at this time.

Also, if you are going to go to a wildlife area with a group this size, Galapagos is a good place to do it. The animals, even the birds are literally unfazed by the people, their noise, and even the kids excitement. Many times, someone in our party nearly stepped on an animal because it was so well camouflaged and unfazed by us walking by. I made sure to be extra careful! In other wildlife areas, this crowd would have been a disaster, scaring away all the animals, but in the Galapagos, it really doesn't affect the animals at all, which is partly what makes the place so amazing.

Our walk this morning was along the Bacchus beach in Santa Cruz. We see an amazing amount of wildlife here. One of the highlights for me was a small interior body of water where 4 flamingos were wading. This was an exciting find since they are seasonal and only number in the 400's in the Galapagos.

Our Guide Gustavo had his shining moment here...we saw a bit of a broken lobster shell and my dad, who was very interested in the differences between our Maine lobster and the Galapagos lobster asked some questions. Gustavo then looked on the rocks and saw a complete molted shell, and grabbed it so we could have an up close look. This moment of genuine connection and his sharing really encouraged me that if he puts the effort in, Gustavo could be a good guide as long as he pays attention to his group and puts in the effort.

(photo of Gustavo with lobster)

* a note about the walks- I plan to let the captioned photos do the talking here rather than just spend time saying "we saw this, then that"...if we see a particularly fascinating or unusual sight, I will elaborate, but otherwise...isn't this review already boring enough;-) Enjoy the photo tour!

(photos from morning walk)

(a look at the terrain of our walk in Santa Cruz)

(Sally Light Foot crab- no retouching;-)

(this fella was on his way briefcase, so I guess not going to work)

(ahh this is where he was headed)

Can you guess what "truck" made this track on an uninhabited beach? Answer below:

Sea Turtle!! She laid her eggs on the beach and then headed back to the sea!

(Ghost crab)

(an interior lagoon yielded two birds I enjoyed watching fish; a black necked stilt)

(and flamingos!)

Then we snorkeled for an hour off the beach. The guides bring the snorkel gear bins onto the beach and you find your bag which has a number on it (remember this number, I wrote it down on my note pad!!) Except for losing my DD, who lost her buddy and decided stay out in the water after all of us came back in, causing me to panic while looking for her -it was fun;-)

On this snorkel, I felt there were too many people in the water to see any really amazing sightings and to keep track of my kid who was wearing the same snorkel as everyone else. My kids are not young and are very strong swimmers, so I didn't let it panic me, but if you have younger children I highly recommend bringing some colored duct tape (remember the duct tape) to mark the top of their snorkels so you can spot them quickly. They all look alike in the same gear! There is always a panga (or 2) watching the group very carefully, but still...I'd feel better if I could more easily identify my kids in the water, especially if they were younger.

This is shallow snorkeling and people kept standing up, and stirring up the sand on the bottom, making it murky. We did see several schools of very nice fish, but didn't see any of the other things we had heard about like, penguins, rays, sharks or sea lions. We couldn't believe how many fish there are and although it's not as colorful as the Caribbean, it's definitely more and larger schools of fish than any place I've snorkeled other than Bonaire.

(except for a few murky fish, this was the main animal sighting on Bachus Beach)

But we did see this strange little guy when we got back to our cabin

Anyone have an idea on his species??

After the AM excursion, we return to the ship for showers and to explore the ship a bit. There is a nice sundeck on 6 and we check out the Jacuzzi, (which can only fit 2 adults , maybe three, who know eachother realllly well!) library, shop, and lounges too.

(photos of GEII)

(main lobby)

(Sun deck)

(piano bar)

(stern lounge area outside piano bar)

hot this over the limit?)

Lunch is a wonderful buffet with two 45 minute sittings. There is a pasta station where the chef will put together pasta with a variety of additions to the sauce. After lunch there are several naturalists talks, but I opt for a nap instead. At 2pm our group does a group activity in the lounge...I don't want to give away the I won't post pics.

The ship is on the move again, heading to Santiago. There is a really great map in the dining room, where you can check out where you've been and where you are going.

(photo of map in DR)

TIPS Debarking the ship and riding the pangas:
-Some folks have concerns about getting on and off the ship and doing the wet and dry landings, so here is a little review of what happens and some tips
-your group will meet in a lounge
-your guide will lead the group to the deck
-a guide will supply you with a PFD, and help you secure it if you need help
-the group will wait at the top of the ladder while the guide boards the panga
-another guide will be at the top of the stair and direct you down the ladder when its time to board
two guides at eh bottom of the ladder will assist you onto the panga, taking your back pack and handing it back to you if you are not wearing it.
-once on the panga, stay low with your knees bent and move as close to the stern (back) and sit so others can board.
-once everyone is on board the operator will head out, it is not usually wet in the panga, but you might get a little spray if it's rough, but you shouldn't get soaked.
-wet landings, will be you swinging your legs off the side of the panga and jumping into about knee deep water, the guides will keep your stuff dry and hand it to you and assist you with mobility
-dry landings are actually trickier, you will be landing on a rock covered by a towel for traction, and have to step off the boat onto the towel, again, guides are very helpful and careful.
-amazingly, this is very well organized and the guides do an excellent job keeping you safe and assisting those with mobility issues. We had 3 70 yo grandmas in our group and they all did just problems at all! By 2 excursions, everyone has the process down and it goes amazingly fast!

(photos of ladder and pangas)

Coming up: More Galapagos; afternoon excursion
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Old 09-05-2012, 01:02 PM   #11
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Day 5 Aug 18: Viaje Fantastico- excursions on Santa Cruz and Santiago (con't)

At 3:45 we are headed out to Santiago for our second excursion, another wet landing on the black sand volcanic beach of Puerto Egas. The highlights are seeing the sea lions, Galapagos fur sea lion, and a green sea turtle surfaces in a fur seal grotto, much to the delight of the group. There are more marine iguanas than people and when walking over to see something on the lava, you must be careful not to step on one by accident! One time I almost walked into a baby sea lion- they honestly don't move and are so well camouflaged in the sand, that in my distraction, I simply didn't see it! Luckily our guides are good about keeping us on the path. I notice on this part of our trip that our guide relies on the other guides to spot interesting things, such as a small scorpion pointed out by the guide in front of us, and this is where he misses the circling Galapagos hawk that our ABD guide points out for us.

(photos of afternoon walk )

The terrain and views of our walk at Peurto Egas on Santiago

(the Sugarloaf at PA)

(no, they don't make you climb it;-)

Sea Lions! our first up close sighting and the kids were all really excited, the sea lions...not so much!

(do you see the pattern here? Excited kids, oblivious snoozing sea lions!)

( and here is the one photo that is very, very rare!! This animal is almost never captured on film or memory card...a shot of our photographer!!)


(ready for his close up, marine iguana)

(sally lightfoot crabs; the mature ones are colorful and too crunchy to be edible, the young ones are dark and tasty, but not very visible to predators...ingenious, huh?)

(marine iguana colonies are large here)

(but they are not the only cold blooded creatures- here is a lava lizard)

(lava heron)

I simply couldn't believe how many birds you can literally walk right up too, its is the strangest thing! Our entire group of 30 + people were standing around these agrottos; making noise and wandering, and this little heron just never moved! See thre is he is watching us watching him without a care in the world!

heres a "where's Waldo" for already saw this picture...

But did you notice this guy?

He's a fur sea lion, which is another (furrier and fatter) species...look at him, he's like a face on a tube of fat!!) And he and his other sealion friends have ears, that and living in the pacific is what makes him a sea lion and not a seal!!

Another "where's Waldo" ...where do the iguanas end and where does the lava start? Hard to tell and on this walk, many of us had "near misses" and nearly stepped on one. You have to watch your feet carefully!

This is a good place to get your holiday card "kids squatting behind a sea lion" photo; I'll spare you our own, but trust me when I say we have more of them than people on our holiday card list!

Returning from our excursion, we dress a bit for dinner and relax, then head to the dining room. We order dinner each AM at breakfast, so the kitchen know how much to prepare, but its flexible enough to change your mind if your tastes change in the interim. We have shrimp again, and the boys have pork medallions and pasta. After dinner at 9 we have a chance to stargaze on the sun deck with our lead guide Israel. It's a little cloudy so we only get 1/2 way through the sky before a big cloud obscures it. This was a private showing for just our group, the others will have it another night, so anyone who wants, can get the full version then. After the stargazing, karaoke is held in the lounge and several from our group get up and sing.

Spoiler alert: Don't read if you are celebrating a special occasion on your ABD:

When my folks went to bed tonight, they were greeted by 4 Lilly pads and two swans necking made out of towels, from their room steward and a bottle of wine, card and two "special occasion" Disney pins from our guides. They have been tired, but they are enjoying this trip and they were excited by this acknowledgement of their 50th anniversary!

(photos of anniversary decorations)

We are approaching 25 years this fall, so we only got one lily pad and a ray!)

Up next: Genovesa Island
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Old 09-05-2012, 01:10 PM   #12
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Day 6 Aug 19: Darwin Discovers- Genovesa Island

Up at 6:30 after a smooth evening, it's rocking pretty good this morning until we anchor. A few people in our group decide not to do the El Barranco, (which is billed as 30 steep stairs and then mostly level sand and some lava fields) on Genovesa due to health problems (one boy, and his grandparents only just made the trip after the grandsons leg injury, but like most 10 year'd never know he had been on crutches and only got the ok a few days before leaving!) and some motion sickness.

My mother is concerned, but after a talk with Laura, decides to go and uses the walking stick offered and is very glad for it. It's actually easier, once up the steps than the walk yesterday in Santiago. First, the ABD group goes over to the steps, while the rest of the ship lands at the beach. This is nice since the big group is broken up and it feels much less "crowded". This is a dry landing, with a step from the boat to a rock laid with a towel. Then there is a walk up 30 stone steps of varying sizes. Guides are extremely helpful with elders and people with limited mobility. After Quito, where a walk up a regular staircase leaves you breathless, this was not hard for anyone without physical limitations, just tricky to negotiate with large and small steps at varying heights.

(photos of the "steps")

This walk is amazing for the sheer number of sea birds nesting within touching distance (of course we did not). There are fluffy little chicks under their mothers, and red footed ****ies doing mating ritual grooming. Because these birds breed all year, we had the opportunity to see the whole life cycle; mating pairs, 2 day old chicks, fluffy 2-4 month old chicks and chicks nearly ready to fledge all in the same visit. We also spotted 3 short eared owls which sit in the lava and try to capture storm petrels swirling around them. We do also see a fur and regular sea lion resting on a rock ledge, and a few smaller marine iguanas- but this place is all about the birds!

(photos of El Barranco walk)
to give you an idea of the terrain and trail after you make it up the stairs

(nazca (masked) ****ies)

(Galapagos doves)

Nazca ****ies nest on the ground (watch your step!!) I was just ticking off a couple more places in my "1000 Places to Visit Before You Die" book, and the description of the Galapagos mentioned that the animals are more curious about you than you are of them. Doesn't this little fella look that way? He's a juvenile nazca ****ie, he's so ugly he's cute!

(some nazca ****ies are brown; it's just like hair color)

also on this walk are red footed ****ies, which nest in trees, but look like they shouldn't fit there
(a new red footed ****ie couple)

see what I mean about not looking like it should work? But here is how they do it!

This is a nesting greater frigate bird and it's chick...isnt it great?

("what's for dinner???")

This was of the few animals in the Galapagos you actually have to "look for". Luckily the guides ahead of us had spotted him and Laura helped the youngest ones "find" him with the binoculars. She did not rest till every last person had seen it!

(short earred owl)

Here's our hero, Laura, getting a snap of some nazca love!)

(2 nazca chicks...days old...only one will make it)

(another, slightly older, so ugly its cute juvenile nazca)

I show that series to depict one of the other amazing things about the Galapagos; because food is so plentiful and conditions are always right, any one time visitor can see the whole reproductive spectrum of these animals in one trip; we saw it in one walk!!) And now, so have you;-)

After a 2 hour walk we headed back to the ship for a rest and an early lunch. Our group had a private bridge tour at 1:30.

(bridge tour)

(this map is in the bridge- we were on "cruise B" the yellow line)

We are supposed to put our wet suits with our gear bags on the stern, but we couldn't locate any of our four mesh bags since the rest of the ship did AM snorkeling, and rearranged or used the equipment. Eventually our guides locate all 4 bags, but not before my overly anxious daughter has a breakdown over it.

Since other guests must pay to rent equipment, we noticed that people used the equipment assigned to us while we were on a dry excursion. This might be explained by people misremembering their own bag number, but our ABD group was missing a lot of equipment, so that's a lot of bad memories, or someone was trying to get away with something. Not only was this icky, since we couldn't be sure it was rinsed properly, but it was confusing as they didn't return it to the proper lettered bin. When they assign you snorkel gear, keep it in your own in your cabin, on the floor of the bath, under the vanity till just before your snorkel- then leave it in the appropriate lettered bin for your guide to transport, or carry it on to the zodiac yourself.
Up next- More Genovesa Island
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Old 09-05-2012, 01:15 PM   #13
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Day 6 Aug 19: Darwin Discovers- Genovesa Island (con't)

The afternoon walk on Genovesa at Darwin's landing was better than the snorkeling. The wind had picked up significantly, and our beach landing is quite tricky, but we all get out safely, but the high wind is not so safe for a tiny shearwater chick we see floating helplessly in the water, its been blown from its nest and is not a water bird. Our guide scoops him up to at least warm him in a towel and leave him near the cliff. This type of intervention is frowned upon, but the guides do occasionally try to help out wildlife in small ways, I suppose it's human nature! Then we have a walk the beach with our guides.
This beach is home to Galapagos swallow tail sea gulls and their nesting young. Again, due to the ongoing cycle of theses birds mating cycles, we get to see fluffy chicks and tiny chicks without feathers literally within inches of the paths. There are also nesting frigate birds and red ****ies in the trees.

The highlight here though is several sea lion pups, one nursing, one tiny one curled up on the beach sleeping and one curious one cavorting in the water at our feet and with the kids body surfing. One swims right up to the shore to "play" with the children in our group. It seems as fascinated and delighted about our children as we all are about the young pup. It comes right up to our toes to have a look and later, as the children are in their wet suits surfing in the waves, it comes to join in the fun with the other young "sea lions" in wet suits.

(photos of sealions)

because of the rough seas, some of the mom sea lions had moved their pups and into this bay and little lagoon for protection from the pounding sea, again, we stood our ground and they came up to us to see what was going on! (BTW- the kids in the photos are most usually the children of the other family in our small group...their kids are so much more photogenic than our own:-) The whole family was! We joked with them that they could be the brochure family! Our family looked like juvenile nazca ****ies...but not nearly as cute!)

(now, this is what you see when you look up "cute" in the dictionary!!)

We are excited for snorkeling, but the sea was very rough and a beach snorkel is too rough, and nothing would be seen in the sand that is stirred up on the beach anyway. We decide on the deep water snorkel hoping to swim with the sea lions, see sharks and maybe rays. But visibility is terrible, we see lots of fish, but they are difficult to see and with the combination of this weather and the dark lava rock, they don't show much color. We all snorkel for about an hour then return to the panga.

(photo of deep water snorkeling and the panga)

When we get back we are cold and shivery, so most of our group heads to the hot tubs. They are small but at least 6-8 kids pile into one and are having lots of fun! Because of the rough windy weather, the boat is really rocking when we return. Lots of people in our group are feeling a little queasy. I am too due to being hungry and from swallowing bits of seawater during snorkeling. I take a Bonine and am fine for dinner.

TIPS Tips for the Motion on the Ocean: This is a good place to talk about motion, there are obviously several health concerns people have when they look into this trip; altitude, the Um...potty talk, (both of which we've discussed already) and now we are at the part where we worry about motion sickness on a fairly small ship in an area where there are two pretty strong currents meeting and some good winds. 4 of the 6 of us did have some short time in which we felt effects of the motion. Only my DD 2 actually lost dinner, (but we joke with her that she gets sick in all the best places, and her dad congratulated her on having tossed her cookies on 3 separate continents!) the rest of us found some combination of these tips to alleviate the problem pretty quickly. A few people in our ABD group had effects of motion sickness or a combo of that and a little GI distress. But in general, with these tips, only a few were bothered enough to have to skip activities.
-try not to be caught with an empty tummy, proteins work best to alleviate the nausea, and since you cant bring any food on the islands, try to have a nut snack or enjoy something with protein on the jacuzzi deck between excursions.
-my DD1 and several of our fellow adventurers found the sea bands to work well for them.
-I also carried ginger gum, when I or DD 1 started to feel dizzy from motion we chewed this and it prevented nausea from starting.
-on the days when I let myslef get too hungry, I took a less drowsy Bonnine, (meclizine) and thoroughly enjoyed my lobster dinner!
-I carried both of these things in a small clip wallet that I kept on my belt loop or in a pocket that I also used to hold my room key. This way, no matter where we were I could instantly treat the start of symptoms with the gum first, waiting only makes it harder to reign back in. DD1 started getting a bit woozy during our "activity " and I just handed her some gum and some water and she was all set and having a great time 5 minutes later.
-DD2 and my mom who one night had problems after dinner both took Dramamine (dimenhydrinate) and went right to bed and were fine in the morning.
- I did see some folks just wearing the Scopolamine patch and they seemed to have no trouble.
-in the end, even if you are sensitive as my DD2 is, the ill effects are fleeting enough and easily prevented/treated so that in my opinion, I wouldn't let the fear of this keep you from taking this trip and we didn't find any level discomfort that interfered with our enjoyment of the trip. My parents skipped a few snorkel excursions, just out of sheer exhaustion, but otherwise felt well. Pretty much every person over 50 on our trip took at least one excursion off to rest or recuperate. It's a very demanding trip...but there is no rule saying you must do them all, the ship is a very comfortable place to hang out and maybe it was more the wisdom of the older people knowing when to say when! :-)

Tonight is Junior adventurer pizza night, so the adults have lobster, duck, salmon, while the kiddies have a movie and pizza in the piano lounge. It's a nice dinner, where our ABD group sits at 6 rounds and socialize with each other. Each table lingers long after dessert, enjoying each others company and conversation. Usually at meals the larger families sit together, this chance to socialize with our fellow adventurers is really fun!

After dinner, I do feel a bit queasy again, even though I felt great during dinner. I think I am mostly tired, so I take a Dramamine and hit the pillow for a long sleep.
Coming up- North Seymour
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Old 09-05-2012, 01:22 PM   #14
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Day 7 Aug 20: Tortoise Race- a busy day at North Seymour and Santa Cruz

Another 6:30 wake up call. We have a dry landing in North Seymour for a hike. I should mention that while the terrain of all our hikes is a mix of sand or dirt tracks, lava rocks and lave rock scree, while the rocks can be tough for some to manage, the elevation is almost always flat except where there are natural stairs to climb up to the island. The pace is quite slow, with many stops to discuss the animals.

Our guide doesn't seem great at spotting hidden wild life, though he is knowledgeable. He seems to rely in the more experienced guides to spot the harder things like the little owls we saw yesterday. Often times it is our ABD guide or one of the kids in the group who spots things and points them out to the group. He seems especially interested and talking about the adaptations and natural history vs the animal behavior. He's happy to answer questions.

Anyway, it's worked out ok, mostly because there is no way to not be amazed by the accessibility of these animals!! But my deaf father has really missed a lot of the details, we knew that could be a possibility, but our ABD guides do a better job of trying to help him understand. Add that to another one of my "is and ABD it worth it" evidence;-)

This walk is also really great. Here we see Blue Footed ****ies nesting and some adorable chicks. We even see a red footed ****ie perched in a tree that doesn't belong there and probably landed there by accident since the terrain is similar to Genovesa. Gustavo even snaps a picture of this lonely, lost guy...proving my theory that you know how unusual your sightings are if your guides are taking photos!

We see more swallow tail gulls and chicks here, and this is where the great frigate birds nest, so we see lots of them on their nests with chicks too. Several of the males have their red chests puffed out and it's fun to see them in the trees.

Another highlight here is the land iguanas, which are larger and yellowish compared to smaller black marine iguanas. We see at least two eating cactus fruits that fall to the ground. First they find them by listening for the vibration of them falling to the ground. Then they roll them in the dirt to rub of the spines, then eat them. It's fun behavior to watch. We see lots of sea lions and young on this walk too.

As we are heading back to the ship, we spot a huge group of the golden rays swimming and many schools of fish near the surface of the water, this is where we will snorkel this afternoon, so we tell them all to stick around we will be right back. We are due for a great snorkeling activity!

(Headed out on the pangas- GEII in the background)

(photos of North Seymour Walk)

(Here we see nesting swallow tailed gulls and their chicks)

(more sea lions!)

( for the new edition the dictionary could use this one too;-)

hummm..the editors of the "cute" dictionary entry have some tough choices to make!

And finally the highlight...the blue footed ****ies!

(oh you wanted to see the rest of the ****ie? Here you go!)

(ahem, this is my better side)

(also on this walk, we saw magnificent frigate birds - which are more iridescent than the greater frigate birds and just...well, I think quite frankly they are starting to run our of adjectives to capture the awesomeness of this place and maybe could use a little help from the dictionary editors!)

Again, due to the awesomeness of the Galapagos...we saw every age and stage of the frigate bird life cycle in one walk!
(nope, not good enough for these ladies...)

(Now, we're talking!)

(and here is a little one)

Another interesting sighting...the land iguana, which is yellowish, lives in the higher ground and doesn't swim.

He eats this stuff...yum!

by rolling it around in the dirt till the spines are gone

Fun to watch...but I'm hoping this local delicacy isn't on the menu tonight!

More to come- Tortoises!
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Old 09-05-2012, 01:28 PM   #15
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Day 7 Aug 20: Tortoise Race- a busy day at North Seymour and Santa Cruz (con't)

The snorkel is 10:30-11:30 off the pangas, so we simply show up on deck with our wet suits on and our gear in hand. We travel the short distance to the wall of the island and gear up and hop off the panga. One panga watches the back of the group with a guide, and the other watches the head of the group with a guide. At least one guide and one ABD guide is in the water with our group.

This is the most amazing snorkel of the trip. We see so many colorful fish, but also a white tipped shark, 3 kinds of rays and the highlight is swimming with a baby sea lion under water. He seems fascinated, but a little nervous about the kids all exclaiming and swimming around him. He goes deeper and then comes back for another look. The snorkeling here is the most diversity and quantity of fish and marine life I have ever seen, but the lava rock is not as beautiful as the corals in other places. Also we see no anemones, sea stars or other marine life that thrives in a coral environment. There is coral on the beach and we see a few, but not many coral. But this is made up for by just the most incredible diversity and quantity of marine's no wonder no one is competing or predating on each other...there are just plenty of fish in the sea! Just as we are about to come out of the water, we spot the school of golden rays swimming together. I swim along behind them for a while and really feel like I'm in a National Geographic special! All in all it is the most incredible snorkel experience I've ever had. I leave the water with such joy, all of us breathless comparing our sights!

(snorkel photos)

(spotted eagle ray)

little sea lion that was swimming with us)

(golden rays)

(white tipped shark)

Returning to the ship, we shower to warm up and get some lunch. I was hoping to have a's about $1 minute for treatments here, which is an incredibly good deal, but I cant fit one in. My DM had one the day before and loved it!

(spa menu)

The ship moves to Santa Cruz and At 1:45 we head out for our afternoon excursion. This time we take the pangas to the dock and then a bus into the highlands to see the tortoises. I find myself a little disappointed to be back in "civilization". I'm learning this about myself; I really prefer a very remote wildlife experience. It is hot and sunny on the dock, 80s. But as we drive through the arid zone on the coast to the transitional zone, we see a change in the flora; it becomes more green and lush. The cactuses give way to epiphytes on trees. As we enter the highlands, the temperature drops by about 15 degrees and the clouds cover the sun and a light mist seems to rain down.

(photos of elevation changes)

(Coastal Zone)

(transition Zone)


Once at Primicias, we go into a lava tunnel to get a sense of what these look like. Our guides explain that each island was formed by a hot spot- spewing lava and ash as it built up into an island above sea level. But the crust of the earth keeps moving past the hot spot, so the island moves on and a new one is made in the crust below where the hot spot is now. The already created islands get more and more eroded and less high, and this is how they know the ages of the islands.

(photo of graphic of island formation)

On Santiago, the lava flowed and while the top of the lava field cooled and hardened, the lava below continued to flow to the sea. Once all the lava had flowed out, a lava coated tube (or tunnel) was left. These go for several km and we walked just a short portion to get an idea about it and " see" how this geological process happens. There is a fairly significant stairway down into the tunnel, but all of our group gets down and back up with a little help from the handrails. Inside the tube is very dark and wet, but our guides give us some information about the tunnel and how it came to be and again, they are concerned about the safety of the group.

(photos of lava tube)

After the Lava tube, we drive a short distance to the Primaicias tortoise reserve. Here we don boots (European sizes) and leave our shoes on a self. Then we hike in 6 inch deep mud through the fields to find the tortoises. This isn't difficult to do! They are huge, and they move slowly. Our guides discusses their adaptations - these are domed because they eat low grasses in the highlands, and the tortoises at the Darwin Center, are saddle backs, adapted to eat shrubs and trees on islands where it is drier. We also talk about how all these are male as the females will travel to the coast to lay eggs (25 km away) and will not come back till they need to mate again. It's interesting, although the animals themselves are pretty sedate, obviously. After a boot wash, we replace our shoes and have a little shopping time at the gift shop. They have a good selection of maps and animal charts, but those are not cheap.

(getting boots)

(photos of Tortoises)

We return to the coast, again noting the change in terrain, temperature and vegetation as we descend 400 feet back to sea level. We take our panga back to the GE2 to rest and pack before dinner. The transportation required to fit in these excursions makes for a longer day, so if you are thinking of a massage or other onboard activity, Day 2 or 3 is a better choice.

TIPS for Santa Cruz touring:
-wear your oldest shoes for the mud at the lava tubes
-wear "day old" pants because it's cool, can be buggy (again , despite warnings- we saw none), you'll want long pants but the bottoms will get mud spattered. We had all worn just washed pants and were disappointed that we could not get a second day out of them.
-Raincoat with hood or hat for mist
-As part of your planning; look at a US/European shoe size conversion chart, especially if you have kids, the boot are all sorted by Euro sizes and having a general idea where to start, it will go faster.
-this is one of the few excursion days where you could possibly spend money, so you can bring some if you'd like to hit the gift shop.

Dinner included some special surprises for our group, since it's our last night on the ship. My own kids are nervous, and packing seems to be a logistical nightmare. Part of it is emotional, they are tired, but they are also sad to see the end of their ABD trip is near. If they were little, I'd just pack them; it's almost more work when they pack themselves, and then panic that they've forgot something, or put it the wrong bag, coming to us to fix it! Finally we are packed.

ABD has arranged for us to be LAST getting off the ship (though we still have to vacate cabins by 8), the flight is not till 1:45, so even with the next days activities, there needs to be about an hour and a half of sitting somewhere, and in this case it's better at our piano bar and lovely outdoor stern lounge area than in the hot tiny airport benches in Santa Cruz. We go to bed early, knowing our bags must be out at 6:30. DD 1 is not feeling well (digestive irregularity that she suffers from often when traveling, nothing specific to this trip.) and my nearly 18 yo daughter ends up snuggling between us till she feels more comfortable. She eventually ends up on our couch for the night with an extra blanket, but feels better in the morning.

Time for a little pause...our last ABD day is still to come, plus two post day tours around Quito.
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