Ecuador – Jungle, Tortoises, Turtles and Sea Lions!

The next adventure. Ecuador!

Lane and I flew into Quito and stayed a few nights before our Local Living Jungle Tour. I had chosen a hotel/hostel in the Old Town knowing our tours would be based out of the New Town.

Well, the place we stayed was fabulous. Right in Old Town right on a square and just around the corner from La Rhonda street, which I considered to be the epitome of the Old Town charm. Plus check out these views and what an amazing (included) breakfast and the view from there!!

Beautiful indoor courtyard of our hostel in Quito.

Gorgeous view from the breakfast room.

Beautiful breakfast – my eggs arrived later.

View from my bed. Santo Domingo square.

Beautiful plant on the outdoor patio.

While I was outside enjoying the view from this hidden smoker’s patio, a woman came and hung up these plastic sheets then hung the meat. I guess she was drying it? This is one time I wish my Spanish was better. Ha. If we tried this at home the seagulls would steal that meat in a minute!

I took some time to explore Quito a bit. I walked to the Plaza Grande which was beautiful and bustling with locals and travelers. I walked (uphill quite a ways) to The Cathedral to see the gargoyles.

Vendors selling hard boiled quail eggs. A pretty healthy street food snack!

There is some gorgeous architecture in Quito, particularly in Old Town

I bought some of these not really sure what they were but it met my criteria for street food. Hot and the locals were buying it. It was good. Like not sweet cornbread with crumbly cheese inside.

This is the Basilica of the National Vow in Quito. It is gorgeous and has gargoyles of the native Ecuadorian animals all around.

There was some construction/repair going on while I was there – not surprisingly. The belief is that when it’s complete, the world will end. HA.

Anyway, I got some help from my friend Google in order to show you some good photos of the gargoyles on this beautiful church.

 

 

 

 

I think this one is my favorite. Sea birds. Left to right, I’m thinking boobie, red-throated frigat, and pelican.

 

 

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While exploring around town, I saw this music man. Pretty talented, I say!

 

 

So I think I’ve said before how I don’t do as much research as I should when going to a new place. Well, imagine my surprise when American money came out of the ATM! Oh and this is where all the dollar coins are. Ha. Oh and there are American outlets – unfortunately, we didn’t have any American-type plugs left (except my toothbrush). HA. So, I bought some!

Plaza Grande – This is La Catedral. You can climb to the top, and now down a tiny set of corridors that were previously unaccessible. I didn’t do it, but my friend Geraldine (from the Jungle tour) did.

But the big reason for being here was to visit the jungle and the Galapagos

We had a great group of people on the jungle tour. I like this type of tour because it includes some local or indigenous type experiences and tends to draw likeminded travelers. And this was no exception.

For the first time, we had a handful of Americans on the tour!  4 independent travelers, actually.

On this tour, we would be traveling 6 plus hours out of the city. On a public bus. I was a little concerned about Laney’s motion sickness but she made it through.

We stayed at an indigenous homestay which, as I expected, was a modified version of actual indigenous living. We had rooms of 3 or 4 beds with mosquito nets. Bathrooms and showers were downstairs around the corner, detached. There was a dining area in another building. Everything was open air and in the spirit of traditional living but clearly expanded to host groups of travelers like us. Plus, well, plumbing. Ha. I appreciate the accommodation.

Pathway to the homestay. It was a short walk, and uphill. Fortunately, Laney and I had pared down our luggage to only one bag. We left the other at the hotel in Quito – this move is common for us on a tour. Since usually on a tour like this we start and end at the same hotel, it’s convenient to leave things behind. Like the cold weather clothing since this IS the jungle. HA. Anyway, Laney was nice enough to carry the big bag. HA!

in the photo above the building front and center are the hammock and grill house. Lots of hammocks and an outdoor wood grill where the fish was cooked – also where we cooked up the chocolate.

To the left is the building with bedrooms.

Behind and to the right are the dining and hangout areas.

While there we experienced and learned a lot about the local Quichua people and the jungle life both past and present

Upon arrival, we had lunch which the family prepared for us. Typical Ecuadorian food includes plantains and yucca and rice at pretty much every meal. Made in a creative variety of ways. It is the staple of their diet. For the sake of the tourists, a meat or fish was included in each meal. The food was very good – especially the fish which was cooked in a large leaf which is also used for making tea and could be seen strung and drying from the porch nearby.

After lunch, we walked up the road and into the jungle following a stream and proceeded to be mud-masked by our hosts. One was the son, the other the son in law of the shaman host Delphine and his wife Stella.

In the jungle that big knife is called a problem solver Ha.

Our hosts. And guide, Franklin above, went a little beyond the mud mask. HA

One way to bond a group of strangers together is to make them look ridiculous shortly after they meet. Ha. This was truly a great group.

Gorgeous sunset from a high viewpoint in the jungle

This snake crossed the road on our walk back. Awesome.

My favorite meal the fish dinner. I’m pretty sure it was tilapia with lemon

After mud masking, we all washed up at the nearby stream and relaxed until dinner time.

The next day we took a (powered) canoe ride to an animal sanctuary and also spotted some wooly monkeys along the way. It rained the entire time we were at the sanctuary so some animals were hiding but it was still pretty cool

When we got back it was hot and sunny so we decided to take a dip in the stream. It was gloriously cold and great except for the GIANT SPIDER that jumped out when Ruth sat on a big nearby rock. This thing was the size of my hand! Laney was shocked to the point of being speechless. Ha. It hopped right in the middle of the pool we were dipping in and then hopped it’s way over some rocks and downstream away from us. Many screams and a few seconds later it was over – but not everyone wanted to hang out too much longer. Ha.

That wasn’t the only spider experience we had. One night we went up the hill to have a campfire in a nearby building with hammocks and tables. And on the way to the bathroom, Laney and some of the other girls started screaming. They came across a scorpion spider. Again as big as my hand but this one has CLAWS like a crab. Very creepy. I was taking a photo, and they were looking on as one of our hosts tried to scoot the spider under the building (with a broom). Well, it suddenly started scrambling towards us. HA. I definitely moved quickly to the porch. Laney and the other girls ran like 100 feet away, screaming. HA.

And to top off the night, upon entering a bathroom before going to bed, there was a scorpion on the wall. It was quite busy and content munching on a large cockroach. Ha. Needless to say, I chose another bathroom for the night. Ha. And yes, I had to go to the bathroom multiple times each night. (freaking beer) – Involving shoes, a flashlight and a walk in the dark to an outdoor, dark bathroom – and I didn’t have contacts so I couldn’t see much. Even with my phone light. I definitely wouldn’t see any  spiders or scorpions on the walls. I checked where I was stepping but that’s about all I could do. Perhaps it’s just as well. Probably don’t want to see what’s there anyway. Ha!

 

This photo of the scorpion is a little blurry because it was pitch dark – no lights in the bathrooms – and I had to turn off my phone flashlight to take a photo. Kinda creepy. Ha.

One night we got to witness a mock Quichua marriage ceremony and also saw how traditional chicha is made. Chicha is an alcoholic drink made from yucca. First, the yucca is boiled and peeled (or peeled and boiled) then the woman of the house chews multiple mouthfuls and puts the mouthfuls back in the pot. It’s all mixed together and then set in the kitchen and covered, stirred every day. The saliva starts the fermentation process. Water is added to create the right consistency. Yes, of course, we had some chicha while there. No, I don’t know if it was chewed, I assume so.

Funny thing while we were there-there was a film crew doing a documentary on ethical travel. Some of our tour group is bound to be in that film!

This is the powered canoe we took to the animal sanctuary.

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Wooly monkeys we saw on the way. These are now wild, having been previously residents of the sanctuary. They are on a somewhat secluded island in the river. Unfortunately, ‘exotic’ animals are sometimes captured and smuggled to other countries for sale as pets.

Please – if you are considering an exotic pet – don’t. Yes it’s cool and novel, but for every pet adopted, probably MANY had to die in the capture and transport process.

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Beautiful toucans at the sanctuary. Most, once pets, can’t be released to the wild, but some are being bred and their offspring will be released to the wild to replenish the population.

This is a walking tree. It can move! As you might imagine, it releases one root (the above-ground part you can see here), and grows the other, allowing it to move and survive as the landscape changes. For example, in the case of erosion near a stream. Pretty COOL!

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One afternoon we went to the nearby Laguna Azúl (Blue Lagoon). HA. Like Iceland or that forbidden movie when I was a kid/teen. Anyway, it was gorgeous clear water with a rope swing and some pretty serious currents.

Waterfall upstream of the lagoon.

There were lots of butterflies in the area. In fact, the name of the town of our homestay means butterfly in Quichua language.

We saw these blue butterflies everywhere. They are quite large, about the size of my palm. I wasn’t able to get a good photo, so I’m borrowing this one. HA

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During our jungle walk, Delphine showed us many things, including how to pan for gold. There’s a lot of panning for just a little gold, but can be worthwhile for some people.

Delphine also showed us a variety of traps that are used to capture wild animals for food. Including pigs, snakes and even monkeys.

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Check out this palm tree – very spikey.

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We all tasted this leaf, which tastes like cinnamon, but obviously is not. (Cinnamon is a bark, not a leaf).

 

.This is George and of course, we called him George of the jungle like ALL the time HA

We all got jungle-ized for our jungle walk. HA. The symbols on each of our faces meant something different like fertility, or warrior strength, etc.

.Delphine had a little fun with his jungle attire.

 

Delphine climbed this tree with only a circle of rope he made from a nearby plant. A few of us tried it – he made it look so easy. Ha it was not!

One of our favorite activities on this tour was the white water rafting. Supposedly 3 or 3.5 rating and in COLD water.  A couple of us took turns riding on the very tip of the bow of the boat with legs dangling the edge. Hang on cowboy! Ha, it was definitely a rough and wet ride!!

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Another favorite activity was the waterfall hike. Basically a hike upstream, and then up a few waterfalls. Ending with a solid dousing in the waterfall. Very fun, a little challenging/dangerous, but at least we wore helmets! Ironically, I was actually quite cold! Once I got wet the jungle wasn’t as hot as you might think!

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Next activity, chocolate making. We had seen versions of this elsewhere, but we really got to see the full process (and taste the results!) this time.  First pull the seeds from the fruit (you can eat the fruit that clings to the seed, it’s quite good).

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Then roast the whole seeds.

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Then grind the roasted seeds (in this case, in a hand grinder that looks a lot like a meat grinder).

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.Then cook the grinds with milk/cream and sugar.

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Here you have it! Chocolate fondue!!

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Next up, blowdarts! Unlike actual hunters in the jungle, we had a stand for the blowgun. It was SERIOUSLY heavy!

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The winners of the blowdart contest were given a present. This is it. It’s called Chontacuros by the locals. These Amazonian grubs are the larvae of the palm weevil. They were presented live (and lively). The ladies receiving the gift (Christene and Lauren, if memory serves) nearly dropped them when they opened the leaf. HA

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These are still live -I didn’t eat them that way. HA

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The preparation was pretty interesting. First, each one is ‘cleaned’ meaning the guts are taken out. One of our hosts managed this while we watched. Interestingly, they were still moving after this process.

Then, they were put in a pan. I’m not sure if there was any butter or oil involved, I have heard they have their own ‘oil’ so it’s not necessary. They squirmed for a while as they cooked. Then they stopped moving and a few minutes later….

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I was enjoying them!! Quite tasty actually! Some said they had a bacon flavor. It was definitely buttery and smokey and a bit like seafood. I would say similar to softshell crab or scallops.

On the way back to Quito we stopped and enjoyed a soak in the hot springs. Well, I did. Laney enjoyed soaking up some wifi at the nearby hotel HA!

 

After the tour, Lane and I were headed to the coast hoping for some surfing and beach time. Our new friend Matt was headed that way so we asked him to join us on our car ride. It was a long day and I was grateful to have another driver with us.

At the coast, we didn’t do much. We were pretty worn on out. It was nice to have a spacious, air-conditioned apartment after those nights in the jungle.

We did enjoy some beautiful sunsets from our porch, though.

 

Before we knew it, it was time to go back to Quito for the Galapagos tour.

Galapagos!!

Galapagos is a good example of me booking things with only a high recommendation and very little research. And very little by way of expectations. The days leading up to the tour I was thinking ‘gosh I hope there is more than seeing tortoises’. Ha. Wow. Yeah. There definitely was.

From Quito, we flew to Santa Cruz with a stop at Guayaquil which, ironically, we flew from to get to Quito. Just the day before. Ha.

Landing on Isla Santa Cruz we had a short bus ride to the channel where our bags were loaded on the roof of the boat. All of us were a little nervous about this. I mean the bags weren’t tied down. There was no railing or ridge on the flat roof. Won’t they fall off!? Well, this was the first of many of these experiences and frankly, it was the safest – things got much hairier from here on out, from a luggage perspective. Ha. But it all worked out ok.

We drove across the island and stayed in the town of Puerto Ayora for a night and explored the Charles Darwin Research Center.

 

These cacti grow a 3 meters in 100 years. That makes this one pretty old! This is a prickly pear cactus.

 


The tortoises above were hatched at the center and these are about 4 years old. At 5, they will be released into the wild. This is the age when their shells are hardened enough to survive in the wild, from native, and non-native predators (like goats and dogs).

We learned the story of Lonesome George

 

 

 

 

 

It wasn’t easy getting into and out of that shell! HA

 

Puerto Ayora is an adorable town with enough tourist amenities to be comfortable but still pleasantly small and extremely walkable. Our hotel here was quite adorable as well.

Above, that’s a real tortoise shell with wooden legs.

 

Inside that turtle shell/table.

Above, a map of the Galapagos Islands.

Some of the native animals around Puerto Ayora are pretty comfortable with humans, we saw some even just walking around!

 

This guy is no doubt worn out from begging for scraps from the people cleaning fish at this fishing-boat harbor.

 

Begging for scraps.

Also looking for a free meal!

Water Iguanas were everywhere!

The mom is begging for scraps, the baby is nursing!

 

The next day we had a kayaking and snorkel trip. It was really great. We kayaked first and most of the time we were paddling near the mangroves and the rocky shore. From the beginning, and for nearly the full hour we kayaked, a sea lion followed us. Laney named him Finn. He popped up regularly see what we were doing. SO GREAT! We spotted sharks swimming in the shallows, saw many pelicans resting on the mangroves and saw the famous blue-footed boobies diving in the water and also resting on the rocky cliffs as we paddled past. WOW.

The snorkeling was also really cool. The visibility wasn’t awesome but we saw some big sharks, some fish and lots of sea urchins. I left the water earlier than most because I was freezing but the others saw swarms of small and medium-sized sharks by the mangroves. Laney loved it. Of course.

After that, we dried off and drove a bit. We explored a nearby lava cave which was HUGE in parts (think 1-2 car tunnel) and very small in others (like belly crawl, but only for a few feet). These are caves formed many years ago by flowing lava from a volcano. The best part was the barn owl that we saw at the entrance to the cave. Just sleeping. Not caring at all that we were there. Ha.

Then a nap and dinner at a local street food type place. I had langostino which is pretty much the same as the Morton Bay bugs I had in Australia only these were HUGE so I only had one. Ha. Laney had grilled fish (shocking, she usually eats beef. Ha. )

The next morning we had breakfast and then some time shopping before we boarded a water taxi and then a bigger motorboat to drive to the island of Floreana.

Each of these drives between islands was about 2 hours, and every time it was pretty rough. Just a PSA for anyone looking to do a Galapagos tour. Laney was ok, I think she actually does better on boats than on buses. HA.

As soon as we got to Floreana (transferring from our big motorboat to a water taxi, to the dock) we spotted sea lions and water iguanas at the dock. We went to a local shop for snorkel gear, dropped our bags at our waterfront huts and hit the beach! Snorkel time!  Well apparently the Galapagos is known for wildlife that isn’t afraid of humans (I told you I didn’t do much research – HA) and boy is that true!! In a short time snorkeling from the black sand beach, we saw a few turtles and a few sea lions. WOW. The best part was the sea lions that swam past Laney and I were a mother-daughter pair – just like us!!

 

 

It was pretty chilly – we were going to get wetsuits for more snorkeling the next day. So we didn’t snorkel too long and soon headed beak for a miraculously hot shower (I think only ours was hot. Ha. ) and then a group dinner and a couple drinks at the local bar. There is only one bar on Floreana, the population being something like 141.5 – one resident is pregnant. Ha. The bar was great, we enjoyed the campfire until the rain kicked in.

 

After a good nights rest, we had a lovely breakfast and headed to another snorkel spot. This one was part of a national park and included a sea lion ‘nursery’. Well, I have never seen so many turtles – so close! I hung out near one HUGE one and watched him/her carefully nibble seaweed from the rocks in the shallow water. His/her head was as big as mine! Such an amazing experience. At times I could see as many as three turtles at once. At one point I was watching one turtle when another one joined from the right and a third one came up behind me and swam under me to join the other two!! Scared me for a second. Ha.

Also, the sea lions were coming and going from the nursery beach and would swim up, around and past you. Let me tell you they are FAST!

 

 

 

 

Even from the beach, you could see turtles and sea lions constantly. Popping up out of the water. Such a great experience. I would have stayed in the water all day except that, even with a shortie wetsuit, it was still cold! I thought we were on the equator! That’s the Pacific for you I guess. Lesson learned. Ha.

I napped after that while Laney went snorkeling again with some people from the tour group. After that, another good local dinner –  no bar for us this night – we were tired!

The next morning a nice breakfast and then off to Isabella island. One of the larger islands with a population of about 2000 if memory serves. This island is the home of our guide Linka, and was formed into the shape of a seahorse by its 7 volcanoes (6 are considered active, and one was expected to ‘erupt’ any day while we were there!)

Upon arrival our rooms weren’t quite ready – so, I went to the store with Kristi and bought some snacks for Laney and a can of Gin and Tonic for later for me. Then we chilled in the hammocks for a while.

 

 

 

 

Isn’t that a beautiful staircase? IT IS! Until you have to lug your big, heavy bags up 2 flights (eyeroll).

Later we went for a trek to Sierra Negra, one of the 7  volcanoes on Isabella. Because one volcano was currently a little too active we didn’t get to hike as far as usual. Just as well, the hike was at times really muddy and it rained almost the whole time. On the way back we stopped and switched from the van to bikes for a downhill ride. It wasn’t quite as downhill as I hoped but of course, I was too stubborn to quit. Ha. Upon returning to the Hostel, that G and T tasted so good I went to the store for more.  Ha.

 

That night we went to an international place for dinner and I had some Mexican shrimp fajitas. Yum. And margaritas. Yum. In Ecuador, they have happy hour pricing. It’s not at a particular time of day it’s more like bulk buying. You order 2 or 3 of your drink for a set price and they bring you one after the other as you are ready. I’m not sure how this works out for the restaurant but it works for me. Ha.

 

The next day we had an early start to snorkel a place they call the tunnels. Another boat ride for about 30 minutes. It was pretty rough going. I stayed dry. Not everyone did. Ha. Getting into the tunnels area was pretty interesting – I have to give these boat captain credit. They have to navigate into shore with lots of rocks, shallow areas oh and BIG BREAKERS. I did not envy their jobs. And once inside, there are some tight spaces they navigate to get to small, protected bays where they moor the boats. Very tricky.

The snorkeling there was pretty cool. Lots of fish, including big schools of tiny fish and small sharks looking for breakfast. Also a big ray. More turtles. And some bigger sharks. Some swim through tunnels, also with sharks. Laney spotted a moray eel. And we saw some puffer fish. Near the mangroves, I spotted some small mullet and some tiny shrimp swimming around. The best part, though was when our guide Gabrielle pointed out some seahorses.  2 separate ones, each clinging to a branch or stick on the bottom not far from the mangroves. Thing is, they were HUGE. I expected them to be small like my finger. They were bigger than my hand. Wow. First time seeing one of those in the wild.

I will say that snorkeling was a bit frustrating at times. Some people in our group seemed to have zero experience snorkeling (our tunnels group included people not on our G Adventures tour) and so they were kicking up sand and silt and standing and generally messing up the visibility. So that was annoying but Laney and I found some opportunities to get away from the group like when we found our own cave full of big sharks. Very cool. Ha.

When we came out of the water we had hot tea and lunch. The hot tea was quite welcome. Once again I was FREEZING in the water.

We had a walk around the tunnels area as well. By the time we walked it was full-on high tide, so we didn’t see as much as the other group. My friend Carol caught these images which are pretty representative of the boobies in the area.

 

 

 

On the boat ride back I spotted something unusual on the surface and sticking out of the water. It was vaguely fin-shaped but with a hook/knob at the end. It was a manta!! Swimming upside down on the surface I guess. Very cool.

Upon returning to the hostel I had a quick nap and then we headed out for a kayak and snorkel trip. I wasn’t sure I could get back in the water – I was cold at the tunnels with a shortie wetsuit and this time we had no wetsuits. Yikes!

Well, we paddled, saw some sharks in the water, red-throated frigates flying around and we saw PENGUINS on the rocks and swimming in the water. So so cute. This is the only place you can see them wild in the Northern Hemisphere, I am told.

It took all my willpower to get into the water -I was cold sitting dry in the kayak! But I did it and I am so glad I did. We saw, of course, lots more turtles. And schools of parrotfish. AND the best part. I swam off a bit away from everyone to some mangroves and a sea lion approached me. He/she swam toward my feet and somehow I sensed it was playing with me. It swam toward my feet and I swam towards its back fins. We circled each other a few times like this. Then it blew bubbles so I took out my snorkel and blew bubbles. Then it swam right up to me and looked me in the face. Titling its head like in curiosity ‘what are you?’  I mean, it’s adorable little face was about 10 inches from my face. It was looking me RIGHT in the eyes. What a crazy cool experience. I will never forget it. Wow.

So glad I got in the water and got cold. Ha.

We paddled back into shore and Laney and I surfed a few waves to the beach where a small sea lion was swimming around in the shallow water only a few feet from me. Very cool.

We certainly slept well that night! Ha. The next day was to be mostly a free day. And of course, given the opportunity, Laney wanted to surf! Fortunately so did several other members of our group.

We started the day with a visit to another tortoise sanctuary where we saw lots more tortoises of varying ages, including one pair of tortoises that were mating. The male was grunting and making all kinds of noise. Linka says it can go on for two or three hours!!  Ha. Laney of course was mortified. Ha.

 

 

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After that, we walked through a park of sorts and saw pink flamingoes and water iguanas and some other birds. This was a brackish water area where fresh and salt water mix. It was also a major crossing for the water iguanas and they were everywhere, like constantly. Very cool.

 

 


 

 

 

 

Iguana crossing!!!

Patiently (HA) waiting for the surf guy (and boards) to show up.

I was a bit obsessed with these crabs that were always on the rocks. They varied in color. I was told they are brown/black when they are young and develop the red/bright colors as they get older. Wow, talk about killing off the old. I have to imagine these colors make them easy prey for the many birds here!

A well-camoflauged group of small water iguanas resting on a rock.

 

A bit later the surf rental/instructor came by and drove us all in the pickup to the surf spot. It was a beautiful sandy beach and no one else was there!

The surf was great – though waves were a bit frequent so getting out was a bit of a challenge. There weren’t enough longboards so I waited until someone got tired. That didn’t trek long. Ha. Fortunately the water on the beach was warm so finally, I wasn’t cold in the water. It was really great getting on a board again. I’m not good but I do enjoy riding the waves in. The best part was, every single first-time surfer taking a lesson was able to get up and ride for at least a little bit. Yay!!

After that, a quick pack up and back to Santa Cruz. Another rough 2 hour ride but we saw dolphins. Cool!

One last night in Santa Cruz back to the same hotel and then the flight back to Quito.

Above, tiny tiny little lizard at our hotel.

Below, our tour friend Carol composed this video from her Go Pro footage.

 

We enjoyed a ‘last group dinner’ with most of our group at a nearby Italian/pizza place, had another night in Quito, then off to Peru!

Lima, here we come!

Japan – OMG THE FOOD!!!

Hi everyone! thanks for checking out the blog on Japan!

I’m going to apologise in advance that this is a LONG blog. HA but it’s mostly pictures.

Our travel to Japan was a bit of a long haul. Ha. First an 8 hour flight then a more than 10 hour flight with less than 2 hours between. Yikes. However I have to say international long haul flights are so much better than the domestic flights I’m used to. For one there is more space; and then there is great in-flight entertainment. Literally hundreds of movies to choose from. Not that I watched much. I slept SO much. Laney enjoyed them though.

Arriving in Tokyo at 11 pm – knowing we have to do a final hop the next morning – we stayed at a simple airport hotel and had our first Japanese experience. Ha. For starters,I thought it was just the airport hotel but every single hotel we stayed in (in Japan) provided toothbrushes and toothpaste. Then of course the slippers. You’re not supposed to wear your shoes in the room.  Then there’s the 100 buttons on the toilet. Ha. And warm toilet seats. I swear almost everywhere we went except the most basic of public bathrooms had a heated seat and usually a bidet function. Oh and the Japan sizing of the rooms. Ha. Yes, quite small in most cases.

 

The next day we take a quick hop flight to Osaka where our tour begins. We are a full day ahead so we head out for some Kobe beef. Which was so good – but not nearly what we experienced in Tokyo at the end of our trip – but more on that later. On the way home I had to try these octopus dumpling looking things they were selling everywhere.  Takoyaki.  They were OK, but I didn’t love them  HA. We also stopped at a convenience store and Laney – my favorite child- spotted my favorite sake – the same one that I buy at home!! Whoo hoo score!

 

 

 

 

The next day we walked around Osaka a bit and rested some. We met our tour group at 6 pm for the kickoff meeting,  and it was quite a varied crew. I was afraid of it being a bunch of older people but it was more young by far. We chose not to do an Osaka walking tour with the tour CEO (chief experience officer as they are called at G Adventures) so we headed to a Japanese restaurant. I had sushi. I think Laney had noodles. The sushi was SO Amazing. Ha. So was the sake! We also picked up these crazy good cookies. YUM!!

 

 

 

 

 

The next morning we met in the lobby at 8am to start the tour. When I booked the tour I thought ‘Express’ meant short tour. It actually means you do A LOT in a short time. Ha. Here we go!  Not like we’re tired from that Africa thing. NO Not at all! Ha!

We headed to a to a subway then train station to get to Koyasan –  Mount Koya  – we were going to stay at a Buddhist Temple. Our CEO Natsu said  it was going to be cold because of the elevation . She wasn’t kidding – it was freaking COLD and our walls were made of rice paper!! Fortunately, there was a space heater in our room so we CRANKED that and hoped for the best as we dressed in our kimonos and headed to dinner. We had a traditional Buddhist vegetarian dinner called shojin ryori. It was good although Laney and I didn’t much care for the jello-ish texture of some of the tofu.

The temple was beautiful inside and out. Particularly with the leaves changing during the fall. Our rooms were traditional Japanese, so no beds. HA. They come in during the evening to lay out futon mattress and the bedding. It was quite comfortable!

This is the entrance to the temple where we stayed

This is the doorway to our room, from an outside wooden walkway

This is the same spot but ‘turn around’ so with my back to the paper door to our bedroom, this is our view. A garden with beautiful fall foliage.

This is also in the entrance to the temple where we stayed. The man building is to the right.

These are the futons they put in our rooms for us at bedtime. they were quite comfortable.

This is multiple place settings for the dinner.

Here is the food for the evening. I really enjoyed most of it. I would hate to be the one doing the dishes though. ALL THOSE DISHES!!

Laney and I worked on making our paper cranes, which we were given by our CEO (paper and instructions) We had quite a few laughs about our mistakes. But it was fun. Paper cranes are the symbolic gift that you are to bring to the Children’s Park at the Hiroshima Peace Museum. There are thousands gathered every year. The story behind them is here.

After dinner some people went for a tour of the Okunoin cemetery, which is the largest in Japan. We had seen it during the day, though, and with it being SO COLD we opted not to go and we spent the time warming up in our room instead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next morning we were invited to attend a fire ceremony, which was very cool.

 

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We learned that all everyone in Japan is either Buddhist, Shinto or both. Many times both. People practice both religions, believe it or not. Shinto is the original religion of Japan, and Buddhism was introduced in the 6th century. They now coexist peacefully and in some cases have blended a bit in Japanese culture, as with shrines and temples.

We visited both shrines and temples in Koyasan. We utilised a purification trough to cleans our hands and mouth before entering. And we saw the shimwnawa, which is a rope with paper tied to it, representing the entrance to a sacred place. We saw pagodas as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loved these sand/rock gardens. It was so peaceful

 

 

 

 

 

We left after the fire ceremony and headed via bus, then train again to Hirshima to the Peace Park and Peace Memorial Museum.  I didn’t take any pictures inside the Museum because it seemed disrespectful.  I did learn about why the bombing was deemed appropriate by the allies, but the effect on the people and the devastation was heartbreaking. This probably affected me more than the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camps – probably because in that case I felt we were on the ‘good’ side. In this case, while still the ‘good’ side, we caused something terrible. I learned, though, that the bombing was chosen as the solution because it was estimated that war would cause significantly more casualties on both sides. Still, it’s hard to see.

Children’s Monument

 

This building still stands from before the bombing. It’s interesting how it was left to show the damage and remains there today.

Near the center of the park is a concrete, saddle-shaped monument that covers a cenotaph holding the names of all of the people killed by the bomb. The monument is aligned to frame the Peace Flame and the A-Bomb Dome. The Memorial Cenotaph was one of the first memorial monuments built on open field on August 6, 1952. The arch shape represents a shelter for the souls of the victims

The Peace Flame is another monument to the victims of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, but it has an additional symbolic purpose. The flame has burned continuously since it was lit in 1964, and will remain lit until all nuclear bombs on the planet are destroyed and the planet is free from the threat of nuclear annihilation

After visiting the museum and the parks, we had a group dinner. It was one of my favorite dinners of the whole tour. We met and Natsu took us to a building that contained MANY Okonomiyaki restaurants, but ours was supposedly the best. Okonomiyaki are basically a type of pancake filled usually with cabbage and noodles and other ingredients. They are usually cooked in front of you, as they were in this case. The food was amazing and the restaurant owners were great too. Of course, I had sake with mine. HA.  The picture with all the ‘banners’ – each of those banners is a different Okonomiyaki restaurant – and that was just on one floor. Each restaurant is literally an L-shaped grill with seats on the opposing side. As others did, I left half my Okonomiyaki on the grill while I ate the other half. This kept it hot and fresh.

This was towards the beginning of the cooking process

This is the finished product, only some of it on my plate with some ‘special sauce’. OMG so delicious. I can’t wait to have these again. My friend Karen says she knows a place in NYC that makes them. YAY!

This is the line of restaurants, each one its own banner.

As we were leaving, they cooked some scallops on the grill. I had to take some pictures because the scallop contains a muscle/piece that I’m not used to seeing.

Later that night, the group rented a Karaoke room and we enjoyed some bad singing for a while. HA. It’s a Japanese thing. It was fun!

Our next stop was Kyoto, which I expected to be a smaller city, but actually was quite big and bustling!

In Kyoto we saw The Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, which contains over 5,000 Torii gates. This intriguing shrine was dedicated to the god of rice and sake by the Hata clan in the 8th century. YES!  A shrine to SAKE!! My kind of place. HA!

 

 

 

 

 

We also saw Daisen-in’s Zen Garden, which was really amazing and peaceful, but sadly we couldn’t take any pictures.

We saw the Bamboo Forrest, which was a little bit damaged from the recent storm that hit the week before we were there. But it was still pretty incredible to see!

 

 

 

We saw with Kinaku-ji Golden Pavillion. The entire garden and ground were amazingly beautiful

These are not ‘real’ geishas. It’s common in this area particularly to rent the ‘costume’ and get hair and makeup done to match.

After the Bamboo Garden, we got some ice cream and tried one of our favorite things we had in Japan. Taiyaki. It’s a dessert. A soft cake/cookie shaped like a fish with filling and another cookie. The filling could be chocolate, or custard (our favorite), or even ice cream. All other flavours too.

 

 

 

Finally we saw the Nijo Castle and Gardens.

 

 

WHEW. BUSY BUSY

After that, some of our tour mates went to do some ‘experiences’ like a traditional tea ceremony, learning samurai skills, and dressing up like a Geisha. Unfortunately, we were just too tired and Laney was feeling a little punky so we just chilled in the room until dinner.

The next morning we visited the Buddhist temple Kinkaku-ji also in Kyoto, Japan. This is translated as “Temple of the Golden Pavilion” or “Golden Pavilion Temple” in English. The views all around were completely spectacular.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We also visited some additional temples that day, and had an amazing dinner at a Japanese ‘tavern’ so to speak. Like a pub. HA. It’s called an Izakaya – a type of restaurant.  Ironically, probably my #1 favorite restaurant in the US is Izakaya’s (asian infused restaurant) in the Borgata in Atlantic City. HA!

Tuna over avocado. SO GOOD!

Dumplings

Octopus

The visual menu outside the restaurant. This is pretty common in Japan.

Name of the restaurant (I forget what it means. HA)  Something like Happy Heart or something.

The next day we took a trip to Hakone, where we stayed in a Japanese hotel with a traditional Japanese bath, fed by a natural hot spring.

And we donned our kimonos again for a multi-course Kaiseki meal (not vegetarian this time). I think this is where Laney discovered her love of salmon sashimi. And of course the miso soup was amazing as was the beef! YUM!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last but not least we landed ourselves in Tokyo. We enjoyed exploring the city with our tour mates and we spent quite a bit of time in the Shibuya area, and got some good film of the famous crossing.

The meal below was quite interesting. I had heard of these but this was the only time we ‘did it’. Some casual restaurants in Japan, at or near the door, you place your order in a machine, like a vending machine, and pay through the machine as well. It prints you a receipt which you give to the hostess and she seats you and brings your food (and drink) to you when it’s ready. This was a noodle type place and it was SO GOOD!

Most exciting for me (Laney opted not to go) was the Tsukiji Fish Market. We saw both the retail and the wholesale area (where, technically, we aren’t supposed to go or it’s discouraged).  What an amazing array of food here. And do you know there is $13 MILLION of fish and shellfish sold here EVERY DAY?? That’s a LOT OF FREAKING SEAFOOD! WOW.

 

This, above, is a sunfish. I didn’t think people these. It’s a HUGE fish.

Those white things are frozen tuna. Frozen to something like negative 60 Celsius and then the guy is cutting them with a band saw (I think it’s a band saw, it’s been a long time since my shop classes at OCIS). CRAZY!

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A famous green tea shop was also in the Tsukiji market area, and this is the different types of green tea. They made us hot tea of two different kinds, including Macha, which is the best, to compare.

 


Dried octopus. Saw this everywhere. No I didn’t try it. It just didn’t look appetising to me.

OK, so this may be where my food fascination started (If you saw my recent post on facebook asking people to identify a food in it’s natural state). Above, this is rice. It was being sold for decorative purposes. But its interesting to know that it needs to be taken out of the shell before it can be eaten (cooked, etc.). I had no idea how rice was grown.

The guy above is cooking scallops in their shell with a butane torch. I wasn’t hungry at the time, but when Laney and I came back a few days later I had these. They were AMAZING!!

Giant tuna head.

SO, along the food lines, this is wasabi in it’s natural form. Who knew?

More amazing food on offer at the Tsukiji fish market.

With our tour mates, and then again a couple days later on our own, we had the BEST BEEF OF OUR LIVES here. If you’re in Tokyo you HAVE TO GO to this restaurant. It’s not EASY to find, but you can google this name (starts with the Han….) and then look closely for this sign. The restaurant is in the basement.

 

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Also in Tokyo with our group, we visited an English pub, called Hobgoblin. Rather ironic since a few people were from England. HA. Laney and I visited a few days later on our own as well. We really enjoyed playing darts!

 

 

Pretty good shots for me considering I’d had quite a lot to drink. HA

Cool Guinness labels.

LOVED this IPA!!!

 

I took Laney back to the Tsukiji market a few days later to see the sights, try some foods, and pick up these HUGE crabs I saw.  The pictures don’t really do them justice. They were ENORMOUS.

Sweet potato ice cream, I believe

 

Healthy street food at the fish market.

Got my scallops!

This is a traditional Japanese dish, made slightly differently by region. It’s mostly egg, and it’s VERY FLUFFY. This on (Tokyo region) is slightly sweet.

 

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Check out these crabs – didn’t by these. they look like ugly spider crabs!

 

 

The claws were spotted and slightly less bulky than crabs in NJ/MD.

 

 

Laney and I mostly vegetated the last few days in our Airbnb once the tour ended. We were PRETTY TIRED! HA!

Here are some random pictures and descriptions. I can’t recall exactly when/where they happened but I don’t want to leave them out. Some are kind of cool or funny


Above – tiny crabs. Cooked, I assume and dried I guess. Sold unrefrigerated and when I asked, yes, you eat them like potato chips. Just pop them in your mouth.  I wish I had tried them but I didn’t want to buy the whole bag. .


Vending machine – the item with red below them are sold HOT and items with blue are cold. Took me almost a week to realise this. HA.  At least once Laney was surprised that her tea was hot.

A funny visual about keeping your hands clear of the door of the subway train.

Vending machines are everywhere in Japan. You don’t need any kind of license to put one on your property. The vending machine company will bring it and install it and supply it regularly for free. And you get something like 20% of the profit for having it on your property. Free money. No wonder they’re everywhere.

A cool railing. It matches the steps. Makes sense. HA

 


Laney next to the Honey Toast statue. not actual size. Though, doesn’t seem far off when they put it in front of you. HA.

Above – actual Honey Toast. This was a random lunch with a couple tour mates (Patrick and Izzy). We had no idea it was going to be bigger than our head! And SO INSANELY GOOD. Like slightly sweet bread, fluffy, but not as sweet as cake. Drizzled with a honey-like liquid but a thinner liquid. topped with all kind of good stuff! It was to die for !

Mochi. But filled with all different things (in my experience the US they are filled with ice cream). The white strawberry is a specialty, not an unripe one. A special white strawberry supposed to be very good. Tasted like a red strawberry to me. HA.

This darker panda is a sweet one – filled with chocolate I think.

The white one, which Laney had, was a pork dumpling, similar to the ones we had at 551, a famous place for dumplings in Japan.

just a cute sign in a train station

OK so I have always thought this. We should use sink and shower ‘dirty’ water to flush toilets. This isn’t quite there but pretty cool. There was another sink in the bathroom but this one ran after you flushed, to fill the tank and to wash your hands as well. PRETTY FREAKING COOL.


Bento Boxes. Great food on the go in very neat and tidy packaging. Very Japanese. Loved these. They are sold (and consumed) at room temperature. And perfectly fine!

 

Amusing toilet instructions.


Interesting translation of instructions.


Every day, pretty much, Natsu would give us a written detailed agenda like this. Including weather forecast and exact train times. She was INSANELY meticulous and detailed and energetic and wonderful.


At a bus station. I think it’s just a calendar. I think it was Nov 1.


Famous dumplings from 551 (Go Go Itchy. Go is 5 in Japanese. Itchy is One).

Itchy. Knee. Sun. She. Go. That’s 1, 2,3,4,5.


More of Natsu’s instructions. Wish I had take a  pic of them all. I would have had everything I needed for this blog HA. Don’t compare, I probably got some things/days mixed up.


Reality of travelling. Laundry drying on the patio. I don’t think I’ve had/seen/used a dryer but one time since I’ve left home. Crazy right? but it’s worked really well. I actually prefer it now.

Laney bought this candy (along with ‘Russian roulette iced tea’ – several bottles of unknown tea type) when we first got to Japan. And proceeded to buy a few more packs of this crazy purple taffy-like candy.