Friday, April 27, 2018

Ecuador and Galapagos March - April 2018

All Pictures are at the bottom and worth looking at!

Everything you are about to read really happened! Though some things may be stretched a little to increase the enjoy ability of the story.

This time last year we had planned to travel to Iran. Due to changes in the U.S. government‘s policy, Iran held off issue tourist visas to U.S. citizens. We regrouped, changed our plans and headed to Morocco instead. The trip to Morocco was a fantastic adventure.

Over the last year, Iran changed their policy which was in retaliation against the U.S. travel ban and
began issuing tourist visas to Americans. The visa application process typically takes 30 to 60 days. Our trip was scheduled for April 2018. We applied for a visa at the end of December 2017 Yes, Margarite had reluctantly agreed to accompany me. Just 15 days after applying for visas, Margarite had received her approval. We assumed my approval would follow shortly thereafter. Thirty days no approval, forty days no approval, sixty days REJECTED! When your Iranian visa application is rejected that is all you were told, you are "REJECTED", no reason is given. We will try again in 2019, they say the third time’s a charm.

The new plan, Ecuador, why Ecuador? We had visited Dan the Man and his wife Chelie, they told us about an Eco-lodge in Ecuador called Mashpi Lodge. Mashpi Lodge is in the Cloud Forest, a 3-hour drive outside to Quito. The Mashpi Lodge was featured on BBC's Amazing Hotels, which is a travel series on Netflix. After watching the show, we decided, when we have time we would visit this lodge. With the Iran trip on hold, it was easy to slip Ecuador in its place.

With this trip, we did the planning a little different. Through a friend of a friend, we heard of a guy who lives in Maryland and was an expert on all things Ecuador and the Galapagos. Typically we plan our trips on our own and if we hire a guide we will hire a local guide, but with such a great reference we decided to go with this guide from Maryland. His name is "John the Tour Guide" when we contacted him, we also learned he is an expert birder and outdoor enthusiast. "John the Tour Guide" told us he would plan a great trip, what was curious, he did not ask for any input. We did tell him while visiting Ecuador we wanted to visit the Mashpi Lodge. After a few days, we got an email from "John the Tour Guide" it was short and to the point.

"We will be leaving on March 27 for Quito, Ecuador and returning on April 14. I promise we will be visiting the Mashpi Lodge I will bill you at the end of the trip see you on March 27"

Like I said, "John the Tour Guide" came highly recommended, so my response was a simple "OK".

March 27th, we met "John the Tour Guide" at the airport to our surprise, "John the Tour Guide" did not look a day over 16. We asked him how old he was? He proudly said, "17 but I will be 18 in June."

We fly Philadelphia to Miami, where we connect to a flight to Quito. Quito is the capital of Ecuador. Quito is the second highest capital in the world at over 9000 feet above sea level. "John the Tour Guide" had booked Margarite and me in first class and himself in economy class, this turned out to be a good thing. As we were boarding the plane Margarite asked "John the Tour Guide" how many times he'd been to Ecuador?

"John the Tour Guide"’s answer was a shock, "This will be my first time, but I have read a lot about Ecuador and watched a lot of YouTube videos."

As Margarite and I looked at each other, "John the Tour Guide" ran off to the back of the plane. Under her breath, Margarite mumbled, "It is what it is."

We landed in Quito an hour ahead of schedule, so far so good. "John the Tour Guide" had arranged for a driver to meet the three as we arrived. The driver drove us the 40 minutes to a lovely apartment "John the Tour Guide" has booked. The apartment overlooked the Basílica del Voto Nacional, what a beautiful view.

The apartment was perfect, Jackie the groundskeeper met us as we arrived. "John the Tour Guide", had Jackie do some grocery shopping earlier in the day, so the kitchen was stocked for breakfast the next morning. There were two bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room, and bathroom. "John the Tour Guide" gave us a rundown of the next day's activities he had arranged a city bike tour, we would be picked up at 8 AM.

Here is the way "John the Tour Guide" described the bike tour to us: "This Quito City Bike Tour brings you to Quito’s most amazing highlights, riding on quality bikes, guided by a professional English speaking guide! The guide will show you the must-see sites of the Historical Center of Quito which is a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site since 1978. This biking tour includes a visit to the Basílica del Voto Nacional, La Ronda street, La Alameda park, the Independence Square, La Compania de Jesus church, San Francisco’s Plaza and El Ejido Park. The tour will take about 4 hours, of which 45 minutes to one hour will be biking time. And this tour even includes an ice cream and chocolate tasting! Don’t worry, this is an easy to moderate level biking tour because the surface is mostly flat with just two uphills. The city has several biking lanes and trolleybus lanes which are allowed for bikers. This is a great tour for those who want to see the highlights of Quito in an active way, in a short amount of time!"

It had been a long day so off to bed, we went.

Day 1 - Quito
We woke to the smell of bacon and eggs. Yes, "John the Tour Guide" made us breakfast. Our driver arrives right one time. He drove us the 15 minutes to the Mercure Hotel Alameda where we met our guide.

"John the Tour Guide" introduced us to our guide Alfonso. This would be a private bike tour so it was just Margarite and me along with our two guides, Alfonso and "John the Tour Guide".

The Mercure Hotel Alameda is in the newer section of Quito while most of the tour is in the older section of Quito. Our order of business was to ride the few kilometers from the newer section of Quito to the historic section.

Alfonso was very knowledgeable of Quito and Ecuador as a whole. There are over 60 Catholic Church in Quito. We visited several of them. The first church we visited was Iglesia Santo Domingo de Guzman, not just a church, but also a monastery and School. The impressive construction work of Santo Domingo was built by Dominicans beginning in 1580, under the direction of the architect Francisco Becerra and culminated in the early seventeenth century. This building has a museum crammed with extraordinary works like the paintings that allude to the martyrs of the Order of Santo Domingo. In addition to artworks, sculptures like the Virgin of Legarda, made by Bernardo Legarda, are the recognizable example of the artist’s work in “Escuela Quiteña” (Quito Art School).

Santo Domingo church and monastery represent one of the most important religious structures in Quito. Its history is characterized by fortune. It began in 1880 with the arrival of a group of Italian priests who began a modernization process that included aesthetic changes in the temple. They changed the church color, altered the baroque altarpieces and pictorial themes. On the other hand, its neoclassical reforms responded to a new cultural idea brought from Europe.

Alfonso had an in with the priest and got us access to the Monastery and the roof. We got to see the interior gardens of the Monastery. From the vantage point of the roof, we could see much of Quito and also the beautiful domed tiled roof of the church. The day was clear and we have a great view of the Virgin Mary which sits on top of a 200-meter high hill called  El Panecillo.

After visiting Iglesia Santo Domingo de Guzman we visited a few artisan shops. One that was outstanding was a small boutique chocolate factory and shop, the name of the shop is Chez Tiff, if you are in Quito and like Chocolate, well worth the visit. We also visited a honey bee workshop and ice cream workshop.

After visiting the workshops we visited San Fransisco Church or Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco and Convent.

Like Iglesia Santo Domingo de Guzman, Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco has an active monastery.

Much of the tour was Alfonso sharing with us his knowledge of the history of Quito. There were many places we passed by with our intention of returning later in the day.

Our last stop of the day was Basílica del Voto Nacional, yes very close to our apartment.

"John the Tour Guide" had arranged for free time in the afternoon and thought we might go back and visited some of the sites we had just glanced over in the morning.

We had heard that a must see while in Ecuador was the equator. Ecuador is known as the middle of the world. The equator passes through many countries but Ecuador is at the highest elevation the area is known as Matilda Del Mundo or the Middle of the World. "John the Tour Guide" had planned for us to visit the Middle of the World the following day, but with the weather so perfect we all agreed now was the time to go.

Alfonso agreed to drive us to the Middle of the World. On the way, we stopped at a local Ecuadorian Restaurant where I enjoyed freshly prepared Cuy or guinea pig what a delicious meal the best part is
you pick the guinea pig and then they prepare it for you, like ordering a lobster at a fine seafood restaurant.

After our meal, we visited the equator and museum where we did some cool experiments. First, we saw how water in the southern hemisphere goes down the drain one-way on the equator it goes straight down and in the northern hemisphere it goes the opposite direction as in the southern hemisphere. For the second experiment, we balanced an egg on top of a nail head. This has to do with a stronger gravitational force directly over the equator. We even got a special stamp in our passports.

It had rained in the morning before our bike ride. The weather cleared and was perfect for a bike ride and the equator tour. As we headed back to Quito the clouds rolled in and the rain started up again. We arrive back to the apartment at 6:30 PM. What a great day. With lunch being rather large and
later in the day, we decided we would just have snacks for dinner and call it a day. "John the Tour Guide" told us roll call was at 7 AM tomorrow and would be departing at 8 AM for our next day's tour.

Day 2 - Quito
The best-laid plans. "John the Tour Guide" had booked Alfonso to take us to Otavalo Market and a bird sanctuary both about a 2-hour drive from Quito. Early in the morning, "John the Tour Guide" got a text from Alfonso he was in a car wreck and had to cancel. "John the Tour Guide" quickly changed our plans. After breakfast we toured the Basílica del Voto Nacional, this worked out well since the Basílica is just feet from our apartment.

From the Basílica we walked down the hill to the historic section of Quito and took a guided tour of the Presidential Palace. This is a free tour that lasts
an hour and is worth doing. During the tour, we learned about the different leaders of Ecuador, some democratically elected and some military leaders/dictators. The tour included many of the rooms in the palace where official government business, as well as entertainment (state dinners), take place. The palace sits on a beautiful square known as Independence Square.

It was getting close to lunch so we stopped at a local place for a quick brunch before climbing the 933 steps to the top of El Panecillo. We are finding the food in Quito to be exceptional in taste and ridiculously inexpensive in price.

El Panecillo is a 200-meter high hill. Some say the name comes from the hill resembling a loaf of bread. Bread in Spanish is Pan. At the top of the hill is a 41-meter tall statue of the Virgin Mary. We took a tour of the interior of the statue. This allowed us to get great views of the city. After taking in
the sights we walk back down the 933 steps back to the old city.

After the long walk, we stopped to relax and have a nice cold beer. While we took in the sites "John the Tour Guide" broke some news to us. He had read that it was very dangerous to take the stairs to the top of El Panecillo. It is said that there are petty crime and robberies in this area. We all decided that we were glad "John the Tour Guide" ignored what he had read as we thoroughly enjoyed the walk and only ran into very friendly and helpful people, no crime or evil doers.

There was still one more church we wanted to visit. La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús. Alfonso recommended we visit this church, while they do not allow pictures. The church was very ornate almost everything in the church is painted with gold leaf. It was well worth the visit. Alfonso told us that this church has upset many in Quito. The reason being is that there are many poor people in Ecuador and most people do not feel the church should show off its wealth while it's people go hungry.

As we walked back to the apartment we enjoyed taking in the sites and people watching.

Once back at the apartment "John the Tour Guide" had allocated some rest and relaxation time before headed out to dinner. "John the Tour Guide" had made our reservations at La Purisima, about a half a mile walk from our apartment. What a great find, I had an awesome ceviche as an appetizer. We all enjoyed a slow-cooked pork ribs for our main course everything was just perfect.

**** Review of La Purisima - Three of us enjoyed a wonderful dinner at La Purisima. This was our first of three nights in Quito. This dinner set the standard of expectations. The food was all prepared to perfection. The wait staff was fantastic, while we do speak a little Spanish the staff all spoke English. One of us has Dairy and Gluten allergies and the chef made all necessary accommodations. We highly recommend La Purisima. We did not have reservations, but we do eat on the earlier side, by the time we left about 7:30 PM the restaurant was full. This was on a Wednesday night. I guess what I am saying, to be safe make reservations. ****

When we first heard "John the Tour Guide" had never been to Ecuador, to say the least, it was a bit concerning. But so far "John the Tour Guide" is doing a great job.

We had heard it rains a fair amount in Quito, but knock on wood so far we have only had a few light sprinkles. It did drizzle a little on our walk home, but it was rather refreshing.

Once back at the apartment "John the Tour Guide" let us know tomorrow would be a 5 AM roll call with a 6 AM departure. He did not tell us what the activity was but he said we will love it.

Day 3 - Cotopaxi
No rest for the weary 5 AM rolls around fast. As we woke we realized "John the Tour Guide" already had breakfast ready. We departed right at 6 AM. "John the Tour Guide" explained we had a 45-minute walk rather than a 10-minute taxi, his reason made sense. Since we would have a one hour forty-five minute drive he thought a good walk would be best before sitting in a car. How could we argue, so far "John the Tour Guide" has been spot on, plus we had no idea what he had planned for us. We arrived at La Unión bakery and found out "John the Tour Guide" had hired the Dutchman to take us to Volcano Cotopaxi where we would mountain bike.

The tour, "John the Tour Guide" signed us up for is a one day tour. Others in the group are doing either a two or three-day tour. After the one hour and forty-five-minute drive, we arrived at the highest parking area on Cotopaxi, about 15,000 feet above sea level. The weather was cold and there was intermittent hail, luckily "John the Tour Guide" brought foul weather gear for all of us. I think we were the best prepared. Cotopaxi is an active stratovolcano in the Andes Mountains reaching a height of 19,347 feet.

The ride was not physically challenging, mostly downhill. Though it was extremely exciting and invigorating. The sun would peek in and out of the clouds lighting the hillside bringing out beautiful
green colors. After about 7 kilometers of steep downhill, we turned on to a less traveled path. The terrain was now more like rolling hills with a few steep downhills. Not as extreme as the first 7 kilometers. We could see where the river flows were, the flows are caused by glaciers melting when the volcano erupts. After a stop for lunch, we return to the tarmac road for a 10 mile long downhill.

The temperature had warmed but the rain was full force luckily our foul weather gear held its own and we stayed relatively dry. At the bottom of the volcano, we split up our group, the single day folks, headed back to Quito. The rest of the group moved on to their next day's location. Once back in Quito, "John the Tour Guide" thought it best and quickest if we walk back to our apartment. The rain had stopped and the afternoon traffic in Quito is awful, walking is faster.

**** Review of Biking Dutchman - Fast and Fun - We booked the Biking Dutchman based on a recommendation of a friend. We were not disappointed. Everything went as expected. Our guide was very knowledgeable and made sure all riders had an experience that met their ability. The food that was provided was freshly made. They even made accommodations for allergies. The bikes were of high quality and in good working order. It was a fun day and a great experience. ****

Short (20 Seconds) video of Cotopaxi

Once back at our apartment "John the Tour Guide" told us we had about an hour to rest and shower before we were off to dinner. The restaurant only a few blocks from our apartment but straight up the hill. We had no idea how "John the Tour Guide" found this place Saguamby.

The name does not appear anywhere on the building just the name of the hotel, Hotel Castillo. "John the Tour Guide" had to ring a bell at the dark doorway to be let in, we were greeted by the owner she
did not speak English but "John the Tour Guide"'s Spanish is perfect, he advised her we would like dinner for three. The owner took us to the third-floor where she served us a traditional Ecuadorian cocktail and sat us in an area with a beautiful view looking down on to Quito and a great view with the Virgin Mary on top of El Panecillo.

The owner's husband spoke English, he let us know dinner would be in 30 minutes and we should enjoy the view and drink until then. Dinner was definitely in the top 10 best I’ve had anywhere in the world. It was the chefs choice menu, appetizer, main course, and dessert. Everything, the view, the service, and food were perfect. The owners asked how we found their restaurant? Margarite and I look to "John the Tour Guide", "John the Tour Guide" simply said, "The Internet". The owner explained they had only been open eight months and we’re very happy we stopped in.

**** Review - Restaurant Saguamby - Best Meal in Quito - It is not that easy to find, but worth the extra effort. Restaurant Suguamby resides inside Hotel Castillo. This is a small boutique hotel so you may need to ring the bell on the door to get inside (we did). You will be glad you made the extra effort. The Hotel and restaurant are up on a hill. This gives you great views from the restaurant which is situated on the third floor. When we were there the menu was fixed and everything was delicious. The service was perfect no rush very relaxing. Even though it was a fixed menu they made accommodations for allergies. After dinner, the manager gave us a tour of the hotel which had recently been restored. While we did not stay at the hotel from what we saw, I would stay there the next time we are in Quito. ****

Day 4 - Sacha Lodge - Amazon Rain Forest
Today "John the Tour Guide" let us know we had a flight at noon to the city of Coca in the Amazon Rain Forest. We landed in Coca at 12:40 PM and were met by staff from the Sacha lodge. The Sacha Lodge is 50 miles downriver from Coca. To get to Sacha Lodge it is a two-hour boat ride on the Napo
River to the Sacha Lodge river dock. Once at the dock you have a 20-minute walk to the canoe dock. From the canoe dock, it is another 15 - 20-minute canoe ride to the lodge. One might describe this place as remote. Sacha Lodge is a beautiful place.

We met our guide Anna she will be our guide for the next three days.

Anna explained we would have two other gust joining us, a mother and daughter from London. We would meet them at 5:00 PM when we take our evening nature walk. Dinner will be at 7:00 and at 8:00 we will have a nocturnal canoe ride.

The nature walk was nice especially after the long day of travel. We saw wildlife and vegetation that is unique to rain forests. One example is the root structure of the trees. Since the soil is rather shallow the roots grow further out than trees in other areas where the roots go deep into the soil. We also observed and learned about insects, plant life, and birds that reside in the rainforest.

Dinner was just ok. Anna and the wait staff are just ok. Not bad but not great. As our stay continued, I do not think this was a reflection on the staff but rather on management. I believe the staff would do anything the guest wanted, but the behavior was not proactive, which to me is a management/training issue. (See Review)

The canoe ride was interesting we saw one crocodile. To spot the wildlife we used our flashlights to look for the reflection of the eyes. Most of the eyes will glow red when the beam of the flashlight hits.

After the canoe ride, it was off to bed as we have a 5 AM wake up call and it had been a long day.

Day 5 - Sacha Lodge - Amazon Rain Forest
Today we are off to the Napo River, reversing the path we had followed the day before. Once on the
river, we took the boat downriver a few miles to a clay wall. There were many parrots and parakeets on and around the clay wall. The birds use the clay to help keep their digestive systems healthy. They actually eat the clay to get certain minerals they need to stay alive. "John the Tour Guide" spotted a monkey while we were watching the birds. After observing the birds we took the boat upstream to a local community. The people are the "Kichwa Anangu" and their community is in the Yasuni National Park. We got to spend time with two local women. They gave us a talk on how they live, which is 100% off the land with zero impact on the environment, much the way past generations of their tribe lived.

The women made us some of their traditional drinks and food. One item we all enjoyed was fresh larva this larva was a beetle larva. The locals in the community will eat the larva raw. We opted to have it smoked before eating it. All the food was delicious, including the beetle larva.

After enjoying the food. We got to try out our blowpipe skills. This is the traditional way the Kichwa Anangu hunt. They typically hunt monkeys to eat. They will apply an anesthetic to the tip of the dart. The anesthetic can come from the poison frog or certain plants. When hit, the monkey will slowly lose consciousness. It is important for the hunter to track the monkey until it passes out.

Once we learned and enjoyed all the local food and customs we headed back to Sacha Lodge for lunch and a siesta.

Three-thirty, time to go fishing. Piranhas are what we are fishing for. When fishing for Piranhas, bait
is small pieces of fresh meat. We learned Piranhas are scavengers and will only attack live animals which includes humans when they are starving. Our plan, catch and release. We caught about a half a dozen piranhas in a fairly short period of time.

After fishing, we took the canoe further into the rainforest traveling down a natural canal until we reach a structure 150 feet tall. The structure was built next to a large tree. The tree was 40 feet taller than the structure. The top of the structure was attached to the tree with a large platform and there was an observation tower built on top of the tree.

Short Fishing (32 Seconds) Video

By climbing the tower you got a totally different perspective of the forest. Our naturalist, Shanshu was amazing, he would listen and sight birds using his ears and binoculars. Once he spotted the bird, he would use the telescope he carried up and allow us to view many different birds. It was an enjoyable way to see many birds and the canopy of the rainforest.

After dinner, we went for a nocturnal hike spotting many spiders, tarantulas, frogs, lizards, but no snakes.

Day 6 - Sacha Lodge - Amazon Rain Forest
Today will be our last full day at Sacha Lodge. All the guests are leaving except the three of us. We
woke to a torrential downpour, thunder lightning, the entire experience. Boy were we glad we were not leaving this morning. We watch the other guests depart in the canoes in the pouring rain. Next, they would hike the 20-minutes to the river dock in the pouring rain. Then they would take the boat for the one hour forty-five-minute trip on the river in the pouring rain until they finally reach Coca. Just to make things a little more exciting every few minutes the sky would light up from the lighting and there would be a loud clap of thunder to follow.

We decided to delay our morning excursion a few hours until the rain stopped. At 11:00 AM we departed for a 30-minute hike to the old towers. These towers are similar in height as the first or newer tower we climbed the day before. The big difference, there are three towers each 150 meters from the other. Each tower is connected to the other by a suspension bridge. We learn later this is something unique to Sacha Lodge. Other Lodges in the Amazon have observation towers, but none have this suspension bridge system.

It is amazing the how different the rainforest is when you are on top of it rather than in it. We saw
many birds and also several monkeys. Anna our guide and Shanshu are doing a great job spotting the wildlife for us and explaining what things that are unique to the rainforest.

After lunch, Anna and Shanshu took us out in the canoe. We went down a different natural canal than the day before. Our goal was to spot a Sloth which we failed to do. We did see lots of monkeys jumping and swinging through the forest. The canoe trip through the natural canal was exactly what I expected the rainforest to be like. Plants, Trees, Reptiles, Insects, Wildlife, all living in a certain natural order.

Short Video (90 seconds) Sacha Lodge Suspension Bridge

After dinner, we took a short nocturnal hike. We saw more frogs and many insects. There was one traumatic incident, toward the end of the hike Mr. Johnson was not paying attention and a fire ant bit poor Mr. Johnson right on the head.

Day 7 - Travel Day
Today is an early roll call, "John the Tour Guide" has I was heading back to Quito. Five thirty wake up, 5:45 breakfast, 6:15 in the canoes. Then a 20-minute walk to the riverboat dock for our one hour forty-five minute ride up the river to Coca.

Once in Coca, "John the Tour Guide" let us know our 30-minute flight to Quito was which was supposed to depart at 11:25 was delayed about two hours. The bright side we had two hours to walk around Coca.

****Review - Sacha Lodge - I think I’ve been spoiled by the lodges I have visited in Africa both by the service and accommodations. We enjoyed our stay at Sacha Lodge, the accommodations were very nice. There was a lot of construction going on which created both noise and disruption. I think it is great when a Lodge is working to improve, I think we should have been told about the construction when we booked our accommodations. It should not have been a surprise. On a positive note, there were three of us traveling. We had booked a room with 2 queen beds. When we arrived we were given a room that had 2 queens in the main room and a single in a second room. This was a very nice surprise.

Our guide and naturalist Anna and Shanshu were both great. I have no idea how, but Shanshu could spot wildlife both small (microscopic) and large even though most are very well camouflaged.

The staff also worked hard to make sure all our needs where met. The biggest complaint was that there did not seem to be consistency with the staff on policies and procedures. I would give the staff an A+, I would give whoever trained them a B or C+

When we arrived at the Coca airport we were greeted by a staff member. She was very friendly and it was clear she wanted us to have a pleasant journey from the airport to the lodge. We then sat in the office for about 30 minutes. We were offered snacks, but my wife has allergies, which Sacha Lodge was aware of, but the snacks were not safe for my wife. (This was not the case when we ate at the Lodge, they took care of her allergies) There was no real explanation of why we waited for 30 minutes. We then took the boat to the Sacha Lodge River Dock. We again sat, this time for 25 minutes before we hiked to the canoe dock and took the canoe to the Lodge. This was almost an hour of waiting with no real explanation except "They told me to keep you here for a bit". We still do not know the reason, but there must have been one, and everybody should know what it is.

Here is another example, of inconsistency, where a little training or procedure guide would turn a great experience into an excellent one. When we arrived we had an orientation with the lodge manager. He explained that there was filter water at the restaurant and we could fill the water bottle they would be giving us with it. He explained the water in the rooms was ok for bathing but it should not be consumed. He went on to explain there were two bottles of both sparkling water and natural water in the rooms for drinking and brushing one's teeth. Everything he mentioned was also in the brochure we received when we arrived in Coca.

It had been since 11:00 AM since we had water so we quickly consumed the two bottles of water in our room. When we met Anna (our guide) we asked about getting our refillable water bottles she said she will look into it. We explained we needed them so we could have water in our room to brush our teeth. Plus it would have been nice to have water on our hike. After our hike we asked again, Anna said we would get them in the morning. We mentioned brushing our teeth. She said the tap water was safe for brushing our teeth. We explained the paperwork and the manager said it was not. She said they have outdated information. This caused us unneeded stress! Not because Anna was not great, but because of poor training and inconstant messaging. (We had no idea if Anna was correct or the manager and paperwork) Not wanting to take a chance and get sick we asked the restaurant staff for a pitcher that we could use to get filtered water. After not getting any help we just took a pitcher and filled it with the filtered water. About 30-minutes later water bottles were delivered to our room.

The above examples are little issue, but there were several of these little issues. None of which were our guides or staffs fault, all could be linked back to management not giving the proper training or messaging to the staff. Things that made our experience an 8 out of 10, rather than a 10 out of 10. Yes, we had a good experience, but it just as easily could have been a great experience, with better management. ****

"John the Tour Guide" was hoping we would arrive in Quito early enough to be able to go to Otavalo Market this was the market Alfonso was supposed to take us to prior to the rainforest but we had to cancel because of his car wreck. It now looks like we have to cancel because of our delayed flight.

We arrive in Quito at 3 PM too late for the market. "John the Tour Guide" arranged for us to stay at the Wyndham Hotel at the airport we normally would not enjoy staying at a brand hotel, but being just 60 seconds from the airport and having an early flight the next day it made sense.

The Wyndham exceeded our expectations, a very well appointed hotel with great service. The restaurant had great food at very reasonable prices. We really enjoyed our stay at the Quito Airport Wyndham Hotel.

Day 8 - Galapagos -
Today we head to the Galapagos when going to the Galapagos you have to pay $20 fee at the Quito airport, think of it like an entry visa. When you arrive in the Galapagos you pay $100 National Park fee both fees are cash only and per person.

Our flight was from Quito to San Cristóbal. On arrival, we were met by Jorge. "John the Tour Guide"
had hired Jorge to be our guide while we are in the Galapagos. Jorge took us to our hotel the Sea Side Inn. A very charming small boutique hotel. Suzanna the owner got us situated, Jorge said he would be back in 30 minutes to pick us up for our first adventure. We were very excited, neither "John the Tour Guide" or Jorge told us what our first adventure would be. We walked from the hotel to the city dock 5 or 10 minutes. At the dock, we boarded a private boat for a 30 minute trip out to Isla Lobos. The captain dropped us off along with Jorge to hike. We were the only ones on this small island.

Jorge pointed out the different wildlife and birds. We saw lizards, crabs, sea lions as well the Blue Footed Bubis and Frigatebirds. The weather was perfect 80° with a cool breeze and not a cloud in the sky. Once, at the far side of the island, we snorkeled along the rocky shoreline.

After 45 minutes of snorkeling, we enjoyed a relaxing time on the beach. What a great way to be welcome to the Galapagos and San Cristóbal Island. The Captain and first mate were great. They spoiled us with plenty of food to snack on and drinks. We returned to the city dock late in the afternoon.

We had dinner at Casa Blanca a small restaurant and hotel on the main road running along the waterfront. The food was excellent, I would describe the menu as eclectic. The food prices were more than reasonable about 50% the price in the US. We would later find out that that was fairly common at all restaurants on this island, excellent food at reasonable prices.

Day 9 - Galapagos -
In the morning Jorge picked us up at 9:30, we drove about 10 minutes to a Beach/Park called La Loberia. We took a hike where we saw many birds and Marine Iguanas. The Marine Iguanas look like miniature dinosaurs. After the hike, we snorkeled on the beach where we swim with Sea Turtles and Sea Lions.

Short Video (17 Seconds) Sea Lions and Sea Turtles Swimming

It was just noon and it had are ready been a long day, boy was the sun hot. Jorge treated us to lunch at Café Fresco. Café Fresco is on the main road in town across from the water. Another great restaurant the menu had two lunch items cheese quiche and potato salad or stir-fry vegetables. Both very reasonably priced, lunch was perfect. After lunch, we went back to the Sea Side Hotel to relax.

At 4 PM we boarded Sammy Solo III, the captain Franklin was taking us Tuna Fishing. We left the harbor on a 20-minute boat ride out to the bay. We would be fishing by a rock called 5 fingers. The rock used to look like a hand with five fingers. Over time one of the fingers has deteriorated, but they have not changed the name of the rock.

Within 15 minutes of dropping in the lines, we had a fish hooked. The fight was more than I expected but I landed a 15-pound Tuna. Next up was "John the Tour Guide", he landed a beautiful15 pound Yellowtail Tuna, what a beautiful fish.

It was now Margarite's turns. She hooked something that was fighting far harder than the previous two fish. As Margarite was fighting to land her fish, Franklin landed a Tuna with the second rod. Margarite was still fighting her fish when we realized she had hooked a Sea Lion. Hooking a Sea Lion is horrible there is nothing worse when fishing. We all took a second glance and realized Margarite had not hooked a Sea Lion. She had hooked a nice size Tuna and the Sea Lion had bit down on the Tuna's tail and was pulling with all its might. It was Margarite versus the Sea Lion in a game of tug-of-war. Instead of a rope, they were using a tuna. It appeared Margarite was winning with the tuna just a few feet from the boat. For some reason, Franklin insisted on taking over and at that point, the Sea Lion got the upper hand and won. The hook popped out of the Tuna's mouth. It appeared that the Sea Lion winked at us as it swam away with a very large tuna in its mouth.

When we returned to the dock, Franklin invited us over for dinner. For dinner Franklin's wife prepare the fish we just caught, it does not get much fresher than that. What a perfect way to end a perfect day.

I am not sure if I mentioned but the Galapagos part of the trip "John the Tour Guide" use the local company called Come to Galapagos. "John the Tour Guide" said the owner Rick was awesome to work with. Rick and "John the Tour Guide" arranged for us to have a private guide with all of us at all times, his name is Jorge and he is the best. He is third-generation Galapagian and knows the island like the back of his hand.

Day 10 - Galapagos -
Jorge was scheduled to pick us up at 9:00, Margarite and I decided to walk the town before breakfast.
We enjoyed checking out the different houses and business. What a great down, observing it waking up was fun. We walked back along the beach it seems the Sea Lions control this island and sleep where ever they want. Each morning, Suzanna and her staff have been making us a fantastic breakfast and today was no different.

Jorge was right on time 9:0 AM. We headed to El Junco which is an extinct volcano whose crater has filled with rainwater to create a freshwater lake. Many birds, mostly Frigatebirds, come here to drink. This lake is in the highlands about 1,000 to 2,000 feet above sea level. Seeing the island from this elevation gives you a different perspective of the island. We hiked the entire rim of the volcano.

Next, we were off to the Tortoise Breeding Center. There are several species of tortoises in the Galapagos 4 have gone extinct. There used to be hundreds of thousands of Tortoises, today the numbers are now in the hundreds. This is a big issue as the Tortoises are essential to the future of the Galapagos. One example, there is a fruit tree that is toxic to all creatures except the Tortoise. For this tree to regenerate the Tortoise eat the fruit and spread the seeds. Without the Tortoise, these trees will not survive.

The folks at the Breeding Center are working hard to repopulate the Tortoises. It takes 7-8 years for a Tortoise to grow large enough to survive on its own in the wild. Clearly, this is a long-term project.

After touring the breeding center we visit a local farm. The owner Angel and his wife run the farm with the help of two paid hands. Angle gave us a tour the farm. They have dairy cows and grow several different crops including bananas and coffee.

We also got a demonstration of how a certain type of bamboo has a liter of water in each section of the tree/plant. Without hurting the plant, Angel cut a hole in the bamboo and with a straw, we each drank freshwater directly from the plant. After the demonstration Angel's wife served us a great meal of chicken which is raised on the farm, salad, and rice. Everything was perfect after lunch we headed back to the hotel.

There was less of a breeze today and the sun was hot. "John the Tour Guide" suggested we relax until about 4 PM and then we would go snorkeling at a local beach. It was just a few minutes walk from the hotel. The snorkeling was great lots of fish and sea turtles and of course Sea Lions.

We had dinner at Bar Restaurant Rosita. This was our first meal at a restaurant off the main drag. I would say the meal was good, but not great and the prices slightly higher then the very low prices we had encountered up to this point. All in all still a good meal.

**** Review - Sea Side Hotel - Great Place to Stay in San Cristóbal - We spent 3 nights at the Sea Side Hotel. The owner/manager Suzanna welcomed us on our arrival. The room was huge there would be three people staying in one room, but it was so large and L shaped it was like having two separate rooms. Our Balcony looked over the pool and the Harbor of San Cristóbal. Breakfast each morning was great, they prepared for you want you wanted, not a buffet breakfast. We asked about getting laundry done in town and Suzanna offered to do our laundry each day at a very reasonable price. The location is the 5-minute walk to the harbor and restaurants, and 5-minute walk to the beaches. The Sea Side Hotel had more of a personal feel of a bed and breakfast than a hotel. ****

Day 11 - Galapagos -
Today we will be flying to Island Isabella. Before our flight, we took an early morning walk on the beach to visit the birds and Sea Lions of San Cristóbal one last time.

Jorge picked us up at 7:15 AM working with Rick, "John the Tour Guide" has us spending the next two nights on Island Isabella. We flew a nine-passenger plane from San Cristóbal to Island Isabella. The airline was Emetebe The Airlines of the Galapagos, each inter-island flight is about $200.00. You can do the same trip by boat though instead of 40 minutes it would take a few hours. Also, the views are more spectacular from the air. We found out later that "John the Tour Guide" got as a discount by offering to be the Co-pilot.

Short Video (37 seconds) of "John the Tour Guide' flying the plane.

We are staying at La Casa de Marita on Island Isabella. A very nice hotel right on a beautiful white sandy beach. We arrived fairly early though our rooms were ready and we could get settled. Once settled Jorge suggested a walk.

We took a walk north along the beach, spotting crabs, birds, as well as Marine Iguanas. It was only
10:00 but already getting warm. "John the Tour Guide" asked if we would like a drink. We all said, "YES!". The next thing we knew "John the Tour Guide" was up a coconut tree tossing down coconuts for us to enjoy. We found a nice snack shop that cut off the tops of the coconuts for us. We asked "John the Tour Guide" how he learned to climb a coconut tree like that. He said, "YouTube!".

At the end of the beach was a boardwalk that went through the wetlands. We saw many more birds, the highlight was the Pink Flamingos. At the end of the boardwalk was a tortoise breeding center similar to the one we had visited the day before in San Cristóbal.

The two species of tortuous in Island Isabella are different than the species in San Cristóbal. The first species has a shell that is more of a dome and the other species looks like it's shell have been smashed flat, while the species in San Cristóbal was somewhere in the middle.

After the walk we had a nice lunch in town, Island Isabella has about one third the population of San Cristóbal (2,500 vs 7.500). Island Isabella's town is smaller than San Cristóbal and is made up of mostly small hotels and small restaurants. In the afternoon we took sea kayaks out and snorkel. The snorkeling highlight was seeing white tip sharks about five of them swimming right along with us, just beautiful.

Day 12 - Galapagos -
Margarite and I got up early and walked back to the wetlands before breakfast. We got some great pictures with the sun just perfect. We got back to La Casa de Marita just in time for breakfast. A very nice buffet breakfast served on the enclosed rooftop restaurant.

Jorge got us a ride to the dock in a pickup truck, this seems to be the general mode of transportation in the Galapagos. Walk, Bike or pickup truck. We love that we are allowed to ride in the back of the pickup trucks. "John the Tour Guide" through Rick through Jorge had booked a charter trip for us on the boat Tropical.

The Captain Valdamere not Putin and his first mate Goel were brothers. We went north about 30
miles to an area called Los Tuneles, it is considered the most beautiful place to do snorkeling activities in Isabela with various marine species and beautiful flora vegetation. Where the lava from the volcano met the ocean creating beautiful caves and lava tunnels. We hiked on the lava, observing the birds and wildlife. The water was so clear we could see the Sea Turtles and fish from above, including white tip reef sharks.

After the hike, we took the boat to a cove where we saw hundreds of Sea Turtles and Stingrays.

Now it’s time to go snorkeling Goel was not just the first mate he was also a snorkel guide. He showed us Sea Turtles, Sharks that were bigger than us, Seahorses, Moray Eel, and lots of fish, rounded off the snorkeling trip.

Lunchtime, Valdemar, and Goel served us a great lunch on the boat, before departing for the 45-minute boat ride back to the bay. It was about 1:30 when we arrive back at our hotel we decided to hang at the hotel until it cooled down a bit.

Short Video (20 Seconds) Swimming with a Sea Turtle and Shark

At 4:30 we rented bikes and biked about 10 km to the Wall of Tears (El Muro de las Lagrimas) . Back in the 1940s and 1950s Island Isabella was a penal colony this wall was part of the prison.

On the bike ride back from the Wall or Tears we stopped and hike to an overlook. We had to dodge a tortoise to make it to the overlook. About halfway back to town we jump off the path and rode on the beach with a beautiful sunset. Our last night in paradise tomorrow back to Quito.

**** Review - La Casa de Marita - Great location and hotel on Island Isabela - All the staff was great but there are two I need to mention. Carlos, he worked reception when we checked in. Somehow Carlos knew what we might need before we knew, and he would take care of it. For example, we were sitting out looking at the beach, just starting to get hungry, the next thing we knew, there was Carlos asking us if he could get us something to eat. Carlos was exceptional. The next person I want to mention was Isabel. We meet her at breakfast she was the server. While it was a buffet breakfast she made sure we had anything we might want. Remember we had breakfast at 7:00 AM. Twelve hours later we decided to have dinner at the hotel restaurant. Guess who our server is, Isabel. Twelve hours later and she is still working and just as pleasant as she was in the morning. We finished our dinner at 8:30 and Isabel was still working and still pleasing customers. As far as the hotel everything was great. The only negative was our room was somewhat dark but we spent very little time in the room. ****

**** Review - Isabela Beach House - Wanted to stay here - We did not get to stay at Isabela beach house as it was booked for the days we were on the island. We did get to spend some time with Jackie (the owner) and take a tour of the rooms. Jackie was very helpful even though we did not stay with her. She booked some of our transportation and activities (kayaking, snorkeling, charter boat trip), she even arranged to get us wetsuits. The rooms were very nice and cozy. My wife has a very sensitive nose and I wanted to mention none of the rooms had an odor of mildew which is very rare in the Galapagos. We will be staying with Jackie our next visit. (just need to remember to book ahead). ****

Day 13 - Travel Day
Travel day, we flew to the Island of Bartra on a tiny plane then to Quito on a bigger plane.

It had been a couple weeks since either "John the Tour Guide" or I had had haircuts so while walking through Quito looking for a place for dinner we decided to stop and get a haircut what a great decision both of us came out looking much better than when we went in.

Day 14 - Mashpi Lodge
Last night we stayed at the Hilton Colon . Normally I would not stay at a Hilton but "John the Tour Guide" explained we would be going to Mashpi Lodge and the Hilton was one of the pickup hotels.

The Hilton is in the newer section of Quito. This area appears to be a bit seedier then the old section
we had stayed at earlier in the trip. We had asked "John the Tour Guide" to include Mashpi Lodge on our trip after Dan the Man had told us about the Lodge. Dan the Man had seen a BBC special called Amazing Hotels, Mashpi Lodge was one of the hotels featured.

We got picked up at 9 AM. The drive from Quito to Mashpi Lodge is 3 hours including a bathroom break and one culture stop. Everything was going like clockwork.

We stopped at Tulipe ceremonial center and the Yumbo culture center. This is a historic site of the Yumbo people. This group of people were destroyed by volcanic eruption in the 1600's. We visited the stone pools they created for use in religious ceremonies for cleansing.

The last 45-minutes of the drive to Mashpi Lodge is on the original logging road. With about 5 km to go, we hit a bump and the engine stalled. The luxury van was rather new and of high-quality, it seems somehow the fuel line dislodge when we hit the bump. The engine had stalled and there was no chance it would restart. The rain had just started but it was very light. "John the Tour Guide" suggested we hiked the remaining few kilometers to the lodge. We all agreed, our legs would welcome a walk after the long drive. What a beautiful place. About 30 minutes into our walk Marc Bery the operations manager pulled up and drove us the remaining distance to the lodge.

We were welcomed with wet towels and lemongrass tea. After getting settled into our beautiful room. The lodge is spectacular, built on the site of an old logging facility. Every outside wall is glass, giving you a feeling that you are part of the cloud forest. We started in Quito at about 9,000 feet we were now at about 1,500 feet on the west slope of the Andes Mountains, situated between the rainforest and the tropical forest, an area known as the cloud forest.

After a great gourmet lunch and a little time to relax, we went for a hike on the Magnolia Trail. Our
guides Nestor and Jose were great very knowledgeable and could spot wildlife like no one's business. We only hiked a few kilometers through the change in elevation was over 1,000 feet. We enjoyed two stops, the first was a small lagoon fed by a small waterfall. The second was a larger waterfall. Both gave us swimming opportunities. After the swims, we hike back up to the lodge taking in the beauty of the cloud forest.

After the hike, Nestor went over the options for activities over the next few days.

At 7 PM Jose took us on a one hour night hike we saw Frogs, Tarantula, lots of Insects, two Snakes and an Owl. A great night hike.

It was 8 PM time for dinner. It had been a long day, but a very exciting day. Dinner was top-notch the food and service were both great who would think we were out in the middle of a cloud forest. I would put the restaurant from a professional service, food quality, and presentation standpoint as one of the best restaurants I have been too. The attention to detail was over the top.

Day 15 - Mashpi Lodge
What a great breakfast. It was a buffet, but everything was great a huge variety. At 8 AM we departed for a morning hike, joining us are Paul, Stephanie, Lydia, and Holly. They are all from London. They had joined us on yesterdays afternoon hike.

Our destination the Healing Waterfall. Our guide today is Nastor. It will be about two hours to the waterfall. Lots of ups and downs through the beautiful rainforest. Many times during the hike we were not sure if we were on actual trails or ruts caused by rain runoff. Though it was all beautiful just the same.

Seeing lots of birds, butterflies, and unique plants. An hour into the hike José the orchid man joined us. Jose took a root that hung down from a tree. You might say what is a root hanging down from a tree, are you sure it is not a vine. Nope, it is a root that grew from a plant/tree on the top of the tree. Not the tree itself but a separate plant/tree. Maybe the wind or a bird drop the seed on top of the tree and this new plant/tree took root. The new plant/tree roots grow down to reach the soil. José fastened a seat from a piece of wood to the root. We then took turns swinging like Tarzan through the jungle.

Short Video (18 Seconds) Margarite and "Tour Guide John" acting like Tarzan

The healing waterfall was larger than the falls we visited the day before. After picture taking and a swim, we continue to hike we spotted Howler Monkeys  in the trees. The name howler monkey comes from the howl that the monkeys make during mating season and as a warning to the other monkeys.

Our final destination is the dragonfly. The dragonfly is like a ski lift two kilometers long it takes you far above the canopy of the forest. This gives you an entirely different perspective of the forest. The dragonfly takes about an hour round-trip. The guide is able to stop and reverse the dragonfly when you see things you want to get a better view of or take pictures of. We stopped and watch some howler monkeys.

After lunch (which was awesome) we took a drive to the hummingbird area about 7 kilometers up the old logging road. I’ve never seen so many hummingbirds all buzzing within inches of your head. They sounded like jet engines as they passed.

Nestor even prepared snacks and wine for us. While we continued to enjoy the hummingbirds, Nestor took a few other guests back to the lodge in the van. Our plan was to hike back toward the lodge and at some point meet up with Nestor. He would then drive us the remaining distance back to the Lodge.

Three Kilometers into our hike we met Nestor he let us know he had to pick up his pack at the hummingbird area and would return for us in the van. Fifteen minutes later Nestor came running up to us from behind. He explained the van broke down. In fact, it broke down in the same place as the other van broke down the day before. Nestor radioed to the lodge and they were sending someone to pick us up. Yep, it was Marc the manager, the same person that got us when we broke down the day before. Another great dinner and then off to bed.

Day 16 - Mashpi Lodge
Today we got up early to bird watch but unfortunately, the cloud forest was cloudy so there was not much watching. After breakfast, we went out to ride to skybike. We hiked about 30 minutes, once we reach the skybike tower we waited for Holly and Lydia to arrive from the North Tower. Holly, Lydia, Paul, and Stephanie, had hiked to the North Tower while we hiked to the South Tower. The Sky Bike is a one-way ride tower to tower. It was now Margarite and my turn, what an experience, similar to the dragonfly except for you power the bike so you can go at your own pace and even reverse if you want. The one-way trip took about 20 minutes. Two people can ride the skybike at a time the person on the front enjoys the view while the person on the back does the pedaling. While we waited for "John the Tour Guide" to cross, we climbed the observation tower to view the vast forest. On our hike back to the lodge we stopped to bath under another waterfall. Time for another great lunch with great desserts.

Short Video (46 Seconds) of the Sky Bike

In the afternoon we hiked the Aullador Trail to the Life Center. At the Life Center, we sat and observe the birds and wildlife. It was fun watching the Toucans chase the other birds away. After bird watching, we went into the Life Center to observe the many different butterflies of Mashpi. We also saw the stages of the butterfly from egg to Larva/Caterpillar to Pupa to butterfly. After the Life Center, we walked back to the lodge for another awesome dinner.

Day 16 - Mashpi Lodge - Quito - Home
Our last morning in Mashpi, Jose and Nestor met us at 6 AM. We took the dragonfly to the far end, one kilometer away. While we watch the birds, Jose and Nestor had set up a nice breakfast for us.

Unfortunately, we would be leaving this morning so our time watching the birds was short. We took the dragonfly back to the lodge to shower and packed. What a great way to end a great visit.

We departed Mashpi Lodge at 11:30 taking a similar van to the van the took us from Quito to Mashpi Lodge just a few days before. The ride was uneventful until an hour and a half into the trip. That is when we heard a clicking noise coming from the van's engine as the driver was accelerating to pass a truck. The sound got real loud and all the sudden no power, and no more engine noise. The driver got the van over to the side of the road. Clearly, we were not meant to ride in these vans. Three vans rides and three broken vans.

Our guide Diego called Mashpi Lodge to let them know we were broken down. The lodge sent Carlos and Santiago to rescue us. Carlos and Santiago were the driver and guide that were with us when our first van broke down on our initial trip to Mashpi Lodge.

****Review - Mashpi Lodge - An Oasis in the Jungle - What a place. We watch the BBC special Amazing Hotels which features Mashpi Lodge. We thought how can any hotel be this nice and offer this great service in the middle of nowhere. Our expectations were exceeded. From the moment we were picked up at our hotel everything went perfectly well almost. The last few miles of the ride is on an old logging road and our van had a bit of a hiccup, but the staff at Mashpi immediately rectified the situation. Turned a lemon into lemonade. Our room was fantastic. I have no idea how they can keep a place so clean in the middle of the jungle. We had two awesome guides at our service. Jose and Nestor. The jungle is so perfect for hiking and swimming in the waterfalls. It is made even better when accompanied by two experts in the area. The food and dining experience was over the top. One of our servers Erika seemed to always be nearby if we needed something but we never felt she was hovering. All the staff from the folks that cleaned our room to the operations manager Marc had a lot of pride in what they did and it was clear everybody wanted us to have a great time. You will not go wrong visiting Mashpi Lodge. ****

Once we arrived in Quito we left our bags at Casa Gangotena Hotel. Our flight was not until midnight and it was only 4:00 PM. We walked around Quito picking up some last-minute souvenirs, a Panama hat from  Casa Montecristi. While Panama Hats are named after Panama, they are actually from and made in Ecuador. We also got some Ecuadorian chocolate from Chez Tiff.

The folks at Mashpi Lodge had made us dinner reservations at Casa Gangotena Hotel for 6:30 PM. Casa Gangotena Hotel is a sister hotel to the Mashpi Lodge. Before dinner Alfonso, the concierge gave us a tour of the Casa Gangotena Hotel which has a rich history. We even got to go to the rooftop terrace and see the sunlit square as the sun was going down. We had an awesome dinner. Marc even bought us a bottle of wine as his way of letting us know he was upset that we broke three of their vans.

After dinner, we departed for the airport for our journey home what a great country and a great visit to Ecuador.

A big thank you to "John the Tour Guide" and setting this trip up. We are so sorry we doubted his talents.



All Pictures
Ecuador & Galapagos April 2018

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