Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Last MONTH (sorry so late) My DJ and I headed to South America for 3 days in Quito, Ecuador, 3 days in the Galapagos Islands, and to watch the toilet bowls drain the wrong direction. Below are the details of my trip, some interesting facts, some interesting analysis, a few videos, and of course, HERE ARE THE PICTURES (though I link to individual pics throughout).

Friday, July 16, 11:55pm: JFK --> GYE --> UIO
We took a packed flight (except first class) on LAN Airlines and we were the only Gringo’s on board. Additionally, all the passengers had ~9 bags each, and duct taped each one with name and address. Our bags were the only ones w/o duct tape. To say the plane was disgusting was an understatement as one month old magazine looked like it had been chewed on by a Rottweiler. We read our itinerary 4 times before we realized that our 9 hour flight with a 3 hour time change was, in fact, a 7 hour flight with a 1 hour time change. We took our drugs and passed out…

Ambien Hangovers:
I don’t know why, but I love talking about Ambien. Ambien hangovers are truely surreal, though you only realize this well after the fact. When you wake up after you’ve gone unconscious for at least 4 hours, your cognitive processes are working just fine, but you have no short term memory. You have no problem getting your bags, getting in a cab, getting home, but a few hours later you’ll have no recollection of what your cabbie looked like or even which doorman was working. This is what I “remember” from my Ambien hangover (which I find usually impairs short term memory for a few hours but doesn’t alter motor skills or awareness).

*I vaguely remember Billy Elliot on the Airplane TV after I’d woken in the morning.
*I vaguely remember putting it on myself.
*I vaguely remember standing in a line with 200 people while 2 AND ONLY 2 customs agents took an average of 6 minutes to check each person.
*I vaguely remember it taking us 45 min to get through the line and we were 15th.
*I vaguely remember it only taking us 2 minutes for us to get through customs, b/c who would suspect a nice white couple on vacation of any wrongdoing (more on this later)
*I don’t remember our flight to Quito at all.

Saturday July 17th: Quito
We arrived at our hotel at 9:30am, and took a quick taxi to the Capilla De Hombre. It was $8 to enter but they didn’t have change for a $20. This would prove our biggest obstacle on the whole trip (or one of them). When we got a hot chocolate later in the day, I had to buy 2 chocolate bars just so they could make change of a $10. Yes, the country’s currency is the $, and yes, small bills are appreciated. The Capilla De Hombre (man’s chapel) is dedicated to a famous Ecuadorian artist, Guayasamin, who had a dark side, was friends with the world’s communist leaders and endorsed Club beer. (Pics Here and Here) We took another cab to Mariscal Sucre for lunch & sunglasses before taking a cab back to the hotel. Everything was pretty cheap, especially the cabs which were all under $5 and one was $1.91.

We passed out for 3 hours before heading to La Ronda for evening activities. La Ronda was full of tourists, and bars, and bars with bar food. We tried canelazo, which was hot apple cider with sugarcane, cinnamon and alcohol. The alcohol was added to each glass before it was poured from the giant cauldrons it was made in, so that it wouldn’t evaporate as it was cooked. It tasted like a molten Jolly Rancher. There weren’t many restaurants were to be had, but after walking up and down the street 2x, and looking at 15 menus, we settled on a pretty empty place around 8pm. After dinner, we found out, that on a Saturday night, dinner is after 10pm. We were entertained by some local singers and took the best picture ever (that I set up). We had a few communication issues, including how to tell the waiter you want medium well. He asked if we wanted “red” and we said “more than red.” I’m not sure if he thought we wanted more red, or more cooking… or if he understood, but just in case, he undercooked so he wouldn’t ruin it.

Info on our “tour”:
We booked with latinamericaforless.com due to a “tip” from travelzoo. After we’d booked, I did some googling and find out this was just a travel agency, not a tour site, and that it wasn’t really the highest regarded (unlike latinamerica4less.com which is highly reputable). After doing some reading and asking some questions we found out that LAFL booked us through an Ecuadorian travel agency called RTA. They turned around and booked us with local guides in Quito and with other companies/boats/hotels in the Galapagos. Honestly, this could have been an absolute disaster. However, I would say that it went extremely smoothly. Flights were relatively on time (esp when necessary), and guides/drivers/English speakers were there waiting for us when we arrived and woke up every day. If they hadn’t, we had no number to call, and would have had to book things on the fly. Of course, if we’d spent the 20 hours to book ourselves, the whole trip may have been half price.

Sunday July 18th: UIO --> GYE --> GPS
We were picked up early (like 6am) and had tons of time to kill at the airport. What we thought would be a 90 minute flight, turned into a 45 minute flight to Guayaquila and a 45 minute layover in Guayaquil, before that 90 minute flight. Who knew that every flight in the whole country goes through GYE. Gandhi met us at the “airport” and was our tour guide for the day. I put airport in quotes, because it was more like a barn and a runway. Once you got off the plane, they’d call out your flights name and you’d walk to the side of the barn where someone had put everyone’s luggage against the wall. Of course, there were like 200 people waiting for them to call flights (TAME air). We took a 3 minute bus ride to the side of the island where our while flight squeezed on the slowest moving boat I’ve ever been on. Considering the amount of people in the boat, and the luggage stacked on the roof, this was by far the most dangerous part of our trip. 20 minutes and 200 feet later, we arrived on Santa Cruz Island and got in a car for a 40 minute drive to town. We’d end up taking this ride 2x a day to and from the dock. Besides town, this was probably the only road on the whole island. Town was bustling, except on a Sunday, when we needed to grab lunch quickly, rent wetsuits, and get to our boat in 50 minutes.

We got on what was likely the oldest glass bottom boat ever and headed to a local snorkeling hot spot, which turned out to be way to rough for snorkeling. It rained a bit, we watched a bunch of sea lions playing in the surf, and took off to another snorkeling destination. Of course, due to the rain and choppiness, the visibility was pretty terrible. We got in the cold water anyway. We took a few hikes and saw lotsa see lions, crabs and iguanas. We took a 30 minute hike into the mountains (past the Italian Consulate), and up to a fresh water hole that Gandhi used to go to as a kid. Of course, considering we’d taken a ghetto boat, and had a pretty ghetto tour guide, we had not time to swim up there. We got back around 6 and were happily told that we’d be snorkeling again the next morning. We were unhappily told that we’d be leaving at 6am for our tour the following day. We ate at The Rock, which is apparently the TGI Friday’s of the Galapagos. We passed out at 9:30pm.

Levels of Hotels:
I’ve been to quite a few hotels in my day that I’ve decided to update the 5 star (*) rating system that is used. It seems pretty obvious to me that there are certain features some hotels have that hotels below them don’t, and that all hotels above them do have. Below is a list of those features, or pretty much how I would order hotels.

* Personal Bathrooms – All hotels that have communal bathrooms are automatically 0 stars while all w/o are 1 or higher.

** Shower Curtains – What is with hotels having baths w/o curtains? Not only do you have to hold the un-mounted shower head, you have to make sure it doesn’t spray all over the room? How hard is it to put up a rod and mount that damn shower head?

*** Sewing Kits – Trust me, you’ll never see free sewing kits in a hotel w/o shower curtains. If I’m staying at a hotel, I know to expect some semblance of service and cleanliness as long as they’re giving me a free sewing kit.

**** Free Wi-Fi – Not only do these places always have the 3 previous items, they realize they’re not glam enough to make you pay for Wi-Fi. Downside to the next two levels – They make you pay for Wi-Fi, and everything else.

***** Bathrobes – I don’t need golf courses, spas, gyms or tennis courts. I know a good hotel, when the room has nice, soft, bathrobes.

****** Electronic, Metal, Blackout Window Shades - Ever go to bed as it was getting light out, wake up at noon and tell your friends to get up, only for them to respond that I’m nuts and obviously it’s still nighttime? This only happens in one place, 6 star hotels.

Monday, July 19th: Galapagos
We woke at 5:45am for a 6am bus to a 7am boat for a 3 hour boat ride. Realizing our room had no phone, we weren’t that surprised when our wake-up call was a knock on the door. At least our boat was big and had breakfast. Abbie had an Ethiopian breakfast full of bread and water, while I had ham and eggs. I remembered my pressure point wrist thingies to help me from getting sea sick and My DJ and I spent the 3 hours on the front of the boat (cloudy), watching the islands go by, and the sea turtles, and the sea lions, and the dolphins, and the jumping sting rays.

3 hours later, we arrived at Bartolome Island, a recently “grown” island that was 700,000 years old. We climbed to the toptook some pics, and spent 3 minutes with our “doc master.” Eddie (short for Umberto?), our tour guide, was a quite a contrast to Gandhi. He was older, more professional, and def didn’t get high as often as Gandhi

Onto snorkeling! For My DJ, it was her first time in ~15 years! She was amazing and brave considering how uncomfortable and foreign it really is when you’re face down in the water breathing through a tube with bad asthma. The water was surprisingly cold for the Ecuador, so we used wetsuits that were too lose on her to keep her warm and too tight on me to allow me to breathe. There was great clarity but not much sun. I was so excited about how well she did that when we were finished, I pulled off my mask and pretty much spit in her face. We also saw a penguin and played with a few sea lions that were just hanging out on the beach.
The 3 hour ride back was much choppier than the way there, and we sat at the top of the boat, where the captain was, to avoid seasickness. Back in Puerto Ayora we had a traditional dinner for $5 each on a little local street they close down and put tables out on. We walked to El Chocolate for some bad service and good hot chocolate.

Random Galapagos Facts:
*They only paint the fronts of many buildings and houses. So it looks like nothing is finished, and kinda dirty.
*Cheese is served with almost every meal. 3x4 inch slabs of goat-ish cheese.
*The “wet season” is actually the high tourist season b/c the air and water are warmer. We were not there during the wet season.
*At one of our hotels, they asked us not to flush TP… I’d rather not use it than not flush it.
*The Island of Santa Cruz, which takes about 40 minutes to get across, has 3 distinct temperate zones. A dessert, a foggy wet zone, and a normal temperate zone.
*The islands are much bigger than I expected, possibly the size of NJ all put together. It would take months to see it all. Darwin apparently only spent 5 weeks here (but years analyzing data and creating ideas after he’d left)
*The land is like earth probably was 2m years after forming, much of the ground is lava rock and many plants can’t grow. Additionally, there aren’t many beaches, most our getting on and off of boats took place on rock cliffs. I had pictured a rain forest.
*I asked Gandhi what time Sunrise and Sunset were. He replied that it’s always at/around 6, always. It's the Equator, DUH.
*They use American Dollars everywhere. Since their banks don’t print new money, the currency stays in circulation much longer than it should. Dollars are in terrible condition, falling apart.
*Water from the Galapagos isn’t clean enough to drink, but they have Galapagos branded bottled water, which is purified.
*The airport in the Galapagos is only 2 bus rides and 1 boat ride from the main city.
*Before landing in the Galapagos, without warning, 2 men come through the plane spraying a “non toxic” concoction to protect the islands from unwanted intruders.

Tuesday, July 20th: Galapagos
Day 2 with Eddie was a similar length tour but a 2 hour shorter boat ride. Thus, we only had to leave at 8am. After bumping into a group of orthodox teens at the port, we headed to North Seymour Island (bird island) to see some Boobies and other birds. We bird watched for a little over an hour, with a baby sea lion (no you can't have one) and iguana’s mixed in. We saw a Blue Footed Booby with its 2 day old baby underneath it, and one with a 3x larger 16 day old baby below it.

After lunch (My DJ ate Ethiopian lunch of rice and water), it was more snorkeling on Santa Cruz Island. DJ didn’t really want to go again, but after considering the argument that we have no idea when we’ll go snorkeling again, she relented. Of course, I had to promise that I’d warm her up faster than the previous day this time. The clarity wasn’t as good as the previous day, but since the sun was out, it was a much “warmer” experience. Most importantly, we saw a 3 ft long SHARK. DJ surprisingly didn’t grab my arm to tight, but instead let me ditch her to swim after it to get a good picture. As we warmed on the beach, we watched pelicans take off and dive head first from 50 ft in the air into the water, over and over again. While the shark was exciting, the most amazing part of the day was that on bird island and at the beach, we didn’t get pooped on.

After the boat tour, the bus gave us a ride to the entrance to the Charles Darwin center, which was located on the outskirts of town. The walk from the entrance from the center was likely 2x longer than the walk to the entrance from our hotel (or anywhere in town). We had one goal, see giant turtles! We excitedly asked the first tourists we saw, “Where are the turtles?” and received the response “There are no turtles here!” WHAT!?!?! “Only Tortoises” WHEW! When we finally made it to the exhibits at the far end of the center, we saw tortoises, and baby tortoises, and very old tortoises, and took videos of 4-6 year old tortoises. We saw Lonely George, the last of his species of Giant Tortoise, and the 2 lady friends he’d been put in a cell with to mate. He’d been in captivity since 1971, and they’ve been trying to breed him ever since, with no luck. All of them reminded me of old people, with wrinkly old people skin. The young ones move slowly but steadily, while the old ones hardly moved at all. It’s not shock that there were only 15 left when they were first protected and a shock they survived evolution in the first place.

We left the center and shopped along the way home, somewhat successfully for me, and somewhat unsuccessfully for My DJ. We had dinner at an Italian place where I had them combine the pene quarto formagi with the grilled chicken. The waitress was a bit shocked, but for under $10 each, it was a no brainer for me. For dessert I found a place with a nutella crepe, while DJ had some homemade lemon & berry sorbet. If I were to guess as to why she was very sick for the next 3 days and slightly sick for the next 2 weeks, this would be my guess.

Here's a video of a few of the animals we saw (Iguana, Tortoise & Baby Sea Lion)!

Galapagos By Number:
3 – times we went snorkeling
2 – times we saw fish while snorkeling
2 – Sharks Abbie thinks she saw
1 – Sharkes Ben thinks he saw (same one twice)
2 – Hours Abbie was cold after snorkeling in wet suit
Uncountable – Boobies we saw
20 – Daily inappropriate/immature jokes Abbie made about boobies
10 – Daily inappropriate/immature jokes Ben made about boobies
30 – Minutes spent watching baby tortoises
300 – Minutes Abbie could have spent watching baby tortoises
2 – People who wore SPF 55 sun block
2 –People who were sunburned
100 – Cost per person in dollars to get into the Galapagos Islands
6 – Cost per person in dollars to get into the Galapagos Islands...if you are from Ecuador
0.1 – The scale, in miles, of the map of Puerto Ayora, which meant it took about 7 minutes to walk across the whole thing.
97 – Percent of land in the Galapagos that is national park, which leaves some land for a town or 2.
15- Giant Tortoises in 1971 left in the world when they started to protect them
1,000 – Giant Tortoises now in existence

Wednesday, July 21: GPS --> GYE --> UIO
DJ skipped breakfast b/c she wasn’t feeling well and we took a 9:00 AM bus to an 11:30 plane. Normally, considering an hour-ish commute you’d think that was perfect timing. However, we had about a 45 minute wait until we were allowed into the gate area (really they only had 1 gate). Abbie was a disaster, tired, achy, and stomachy. A perfect travel day!
We arrived back in Quito around 3pm, and got to our hotel around 4. Our hotel’s “inconvenience store” was closed, and DJ hadn’t eaten all day, so embarked on a quest, a quest to the supermarket. The hotel said it was a 10 minute walk down 1 street with no turns, but suggested I take a cab instead. HA! One of the most fun things, and most interesting things to do in a foreign country (besides getting lost wondering through town) is going to a supermarket. I purchased some bread and olive oil and vinegar and chips and ginger ale, but couldn’t find pretzels. We later discovered that they don’t sell pretzels anywhere in Ecuador. (Apparently that was the deal breaker for DJ ever considering living there). I had a 10 minute “conversation” in broken Spanish with someone working in the bakery area about if a piece of bread was made “con leche” or not. DJ had me all worried about walking to the Supermaxi, that she’d given me strict orders to be back by 6:15. This had made me worried enough that I took the memory card out of my camera, so that when I was inevitably mugged, I’d at least have the pictures. On the way home from the store I stopped at an ATM, which gave me 20’s, 10’s, 5’s, and 1’s! I really wish the guide books would have told us how important it was to have change, I would have stocked up on singles.

Back at the room I forced DJ to eat something and a few hours later ordered room service (ribs and fries). I love pork and there was lots of it in this country. My DJ passed out while I watched a horrible Dane Cook / Jessica Alba film about clumsy people which I have no idea how it ever got made.

Considering that this was a travel day, and considering that My DJ told me she’d chop off my hand if I took a picture of her, we took only 1 picture today. Here it is.

Thursday, July 22: Quito
DJ skipped breakfast and we jumped into a car with Vicky and her friend / driver. Our private tour started at the scenic overlook right behind our Hotel. Lucky it was so close, because this is when I realized that my camera’s memory card was back in the hotel room! We drove north for 45 minutes to the US GPS equator center, where we were given a tour by one of the employees. We took pictures on each side of the Equator, we watched water drain in different directions, we felt some weight and resistance differences and we attempted to balance an egg on a nail head. We also learned about the art of head shrinking, and about the ancient inhabitants of this land, who somehow knew that there was something special here.

From there we went to the Equator Center, which was where French scientists in the late 1,700’s had studied the equator. Of course, the French were wrong by a few hundred feet, but it’s not a bad attempt considering they were 300 meters away and 200 years earlier. This was now a somewhat empty huge space that had concerts and festivals as well as some science centers. There was a planetarium we didn’t see, but I enjoyed a ghetto ice cream pop. We learned a bit about the whole Quito valley and a little Ecuadorian history before taking pictures of a guinea pig cooking on a skewer over a barbeque.

Here's a video of water spinning different directions on each side of the Equator (and no spin on the equator):

Back to Quito for our afternoon tour of Old-Town, but the first stop was a massive statue on the top of a hill of The Virgin Mary with wings. It was a gift from Spain. We headed into old town with Vicky, and after I had my ham, salami and cheese with an orange Fanta, we checked out the archbishop’s palace. We learned that the Patron Saint of Quito, may have been crazy, and the church was paid off to take her off of her rich family’s hands. We stopped at a few other churches which were all within 5 blocks of each other. There was so much gold, but distinct differences between them due to when they were created, and what denomination. Interestingly, we saw a gold sword encrusted with diamonds that Chavez gave to Ecuador in 2002. I’m pretty sure that type of gift, which will sit in a case that 20 visitors will see a year, doesn’t really mesh with Chavez’s socialist mantra.

All the while, during this tour, Vicky kept taking my camera and taking pictures. When we stopped at the Presidential Palace, and Vicky asked to take a picture, I said “no” but she proceeded to anyway. At the San Franscisco Church, I was “accosted” by 3 little 6 year olds who just wanted my Orange Fanta. I wonder if they split it, one backwashed sip each. Underneath the San Francisco church was a fair trade shop, which paid fair wages to the artists and workers who were Ecuadorian rain forest inhabitants. The shop twisted and turned through the old underground church corridors yet Vicky kept taking pictures. (I’m not posting narrow hallway pictures).

We headed back to the hotel and then to Café Mosiaco, for dinner, hot chocolate, and views of the city. After her 2nd day of fasting, she finally ate some french fries. When back at the hotel she finished off the bread and olive oil, before happily settling into CSI and Law & Order, SVU.

Random Ecuador Facts:
*Some people in Ecuador think it’s ok to live & and farm inside an active volcano (“active” according to our tour guide)
*The basilica in Quito was started in 1896, and still isn’t done being built.
*The highest peak in the world is in Ecuador, when measured not from sea level, but from the center of the earth.
*The airport in Quito is absurdly convenient, located in the center of the city, literally like Central Park. A new one is being built an hour away.
*You can’t use your cell phone on an airplane, while it is at the gate, when a gas truck is refilling the plane (in Guayaquil).
*When I got my bags at every airport, the bag had been locked with plastic zip ties. Of course, since you are not allowed to have scissors in your carryon, it becomes virtually impossible to get your bags open.
*Don’t eat / drink: Veggies (uncooked), strawberries, homemade sorbet, water, homemade juices/shakes, other fruits w/o peels and guinea pigs. (DJ actually told me to take the lettuce off of my sandwich).
*Guinea Pigs are a delicacy, and as a tradition, brides to be must cook one for her future mother in law before the wedding to show how good a wife she will be (with potatoes and peanut sauce).
*Urinating in public is ok, but burping in public is very rude.
*It’s not hot at the equator, but the sun is very strong. You’re cold in the shade but can easily get sun burned. This means you have to dress for 4 different environments at all times (especially during wet season).
*Eggs are not refrigerated; they are brown and just sit on the shelves.
*Gatorade is in glass bottles, as are almost all sodas.
*Hot chocolate is sold everywhere.

Friday, July 23: UIO --> GYE --> JFK
For the 4th time on this trip, we got to the airport way to early. Better safe than sorry I suppose, but it can be really boring…especially when you’re traveling with a sick person. We arrived in Guayaquil for the 4th time, but this time we had a 3 hour layover. After shopping and shopping and going back to the same stores again, we hardly purchased anything and sat at our gate waiting. Why would you board a plane to sit, cramped, for 6 hours when you can sit relatively comfortably at the gate. The only possible problem with this strategy arises when, as they check your name at the gate, they pull you out of line and escort you down a stairway. At the bottom of the stairway, you are then handed off to a different security guard who takes you across the tarmac underneath the terminal where there are a bunch of dogs and police men with machine guns, none of whom speak your language except for the words “passport.” Then you wait in line for 10 minutes as they go through every pocket of every piece of luggage from others on your plane, and different planes. You watch as they stick knives into aluminum foil wrapped food and sniff the food to make sure there isn’t anything sinister in the food. When they finally realize that you are the last person from your flight on line, they whisk you to the front and open all of your things, sticking knives they’d just used on poultry through your organic dark chocolate (I still gave it to my mom as a gift). Then, when done, they jog you back to the plane so the plane can take off 15 minutes late. This type of scenario is the only problem I see with being the last person to board the plane. Of course, I blame the drug sniffing dogs.

The rest of the day was uneventful besides our drunken pilot (that's 7 loops). I did watch the end of Billy Elliot, but as I watched many parts, I started to realized that I’d seen them before…but I couldn’t remember how far I’d watched at all. These are the leftover Ambien effects from my flight to Ecuador…as I remembered the things that actually happened, after I woke up, it seemed more like recalling a dream than reality.

Ecuador by Number:
7 – Days we were gone
8 – Flights taken
4 –Times we landed in Guayaquil
2 – Times we left the plane in Guayaquil
0 – Times we left the airport in Guayaquil
¾ - Amount of the Fanta bottle I drank before 3, 6 year old kids, harassed me for the rest.
3 – Places in Ecuador where the Equator is actually is.
10 – Cents it costs to use the toilet, if you want toilet paper, at the center of the world.
2 – Dollars it costs to take a picture with a beetle the size of your hand crawling all over you.


Mom said...

Great post and pix. Rate the hot chocolate. What's NSFW?

DJ said...

AMAZING TRIP! Just reading this again for fun! I still have to make your mom a guinea pig?!?! :)