Monday, August 20, 2007


The wait is over! The post is done. And Ecuador was great! Yes, I lucked out and got to take a trip to Ecuador with my parents and sister. It will probably be our last family vacation together just because it is getting to complicated to have vacations at the same time. But you never know. Ok, so this blog is the longest I have ever done, with over 100 pictures and several videos, but don't worry, it is also organized into chapters to make it easy to read.

Day 1 - In Transit
Actually took more than a day thanks to the international date line. Flew from Narita to Houston, Texas where I met up with my family in the Houston Airport. Went to a seafood restaurant where my sister decided to get a salad. This is what passes as a salad in Texas. Every time I come back from Japan I am shocked by the amount of food that they serve in restaurants in the US. So was my sister.
Flew from Houston to Quito, Ecuador. Slept.

Day 2 - Quito City Tour
We were met by Luis, who ended up being one of the best guides we have ever had, and began our Quito city tour. Here is the group in front of one of the senic overlooks of Quito. Quito, by the way, is a high altitude city with parts of the city over 3000 meters. This made it hard to breathe and very cold.
Here is a major church in Quito. Notice that instead of gargoyles there are Galapagos Iguanas. The other gargoyles were also animals native to Ecuador.
This is the main square of the city, an architectural relic of Spanish colonial times.
One of the streets of the older part of Quito.
Another major church.
A view of downtown Quito from the top of a hill. Old and new buildings are quite close together as you can see.
And a part of Quito that wasn't on the city tour, but would have been interesting to go to.
America is hardly popular anywhere at the moment. This was the jovial graffiti, the other graffiti I saw on occasion was "kill the Yankees". Still, people were nice in Ecuador. I never had a problem.
Here is the Equator. Didn't think it was a physical line in the sky, did you?
And here is the family, all of us with one foot in the northern hemisphere and one foot in the southern hemisphere.
Here is a guy weaving. As it turns out, in this part of Ecuador, weaving was traditionally men's work. Women were supposed to carry things.
Day 3 - Cuenca and Cajas
So the next day we flew to Cuenca, a city in a diffrent part of Ecuador, but still high in the Andes.
A church.
The flower market.
The main church, based on Notre Dame in Paris.
Inside. This is not what I expected to see in South America. This church was huge.
Cuenca is famous for making Panama hats, which, despite the name, come from Ecuador. These hats are all hand woven by indigenous people. Weaving a hat can take anywhere from a day to a month depending on the quality of the hat.
Here they are bleaching.
The hat store room. As it turned out, this factory was one of the major suppliers for Hermes.
These are the raw, untrimmed and unpressed hats.
After the hat factory we drove up to 4000 meters to go for a very difficult hike in Cajas National Park. This is the continental divide of South America.
Me in the Andes. Totally out of breath. My family made fun of me for wearing my bandanna this way, but I didn't get sun burned!
A wild Llama!
Sunset over Cuenca. Right after this we saw a guy jump out of a bus, punch a time card and jump back on a bus. The bus never stopped going full speed.
Day 4 - Ignapirca and Cuy
The next day we left early in the morning to go to Ignapirca, the major Inca ruins in Ecuador. On the way we saw this town, in which the major industry had been mercury extraction. I would have liked to have known more about it, but it wasn't on the tour.
Typical Andean countryside. Farming up a hillside is the only way to do it here. Some of the hills that had fields had to have had a slope greater than 45 degrees.
A house under construction. Time for a story. Ecuador is full of houses under construction. This is because a huge percentage of Ecuador's male population leaves the country to work abroad. Usually in New York or Spain. Let's focus on the United States. It can costs up to $12000 to get into the United States by way of Mexico. Once there, men don't leave very often because it is so hard to get in again. Rather, they work and send whatever money they can home to their families. With this money, they slowly build a house. The whole time they are gone, running the family is in the hands of the women who got left behind. Farming, raising children, maintaining the house, all these tasks fall to the women. Sometimes the children have no choice but to help with the farming, which means they can't go to school. Yup. Few problems in the world are local.
A more ancient construction. Ignapirca.
The Incas selected a good place for their major temple in Ecuador.
The temple of the Sun. Observe the stone work. The stuff on top that does not fit perfectly is reconstructed.
Here you can see how solid the temple is. That tiny hole in the bottom right of that rectangular alcove is where somebody used dynamite to try to blow a hole in the temple walls. They thought there was gold on the other side. Hardly a dent.
Here is a guy who lives in New York visiting his family. Observe the traditional costume of the women.
Alright. Now a little story about me. I used to take Spanish. In fact, I took Spanish for 4 years in high school. I was actually able to converse in Spanish before I took Japanese. After Studying Japanese for 3 years I have lost the ability to speak Spanish, but I can still understand around 40-50% of what people are saying when they talk to me. Why I try to talk, however, only Japanese comes out. Not very useful in Ecuador.

But there is still one word that I learned in high school Spanish that I can say with ease: Cuy. I learned Spanish from a Peruvian woman, and one time she told us that in the Andes people ate Cuy, and that it was delicious. Since that time I have always wanted to try Cuy. So much so that a major reason I wanted to go on this vacation was to try Cuy. My family did not share my enthusiasm for trying Cuy, but I persisted because I knew if I didn't try it I would regret it. So finally, on our last night in Cuenca I had the travel agent call a Cuy restaurant and order us a Cuy. Here are the Cuy roasting on the spit.
And, at long last, after waiting 8 years, Cuy.
Here I am, happy with my Guinea Pig.
My high school Spanish teacher wasn't wrong. Cuy was delicious. It tastes like a really juicy, very tender Turkey. I really, really liked it. In fact the whole family did, and for the rest of the trip, whenever we thought of Guinea Pig our mouthes watered. If you go to the Andes, you should try Cuy.

Day 5 - On the way to Otovalo
We flew again from Cuenca to Quito, and again met up with Luis. Here are the Andes from above.
Well, we were all very tired, and the car ride was long, but along the way Luis stopped in little villages that were famous for certain things. This village was famous for making figurines out of "bread". All the figures shown here are made out of a mixture of flour, salt and water. Basically Play-Doh. There is an edible version, but only at certain times of year.
Kind of creepy.
Oh, and here is Highway 1. The Pan-American Highway. If you kept driving the same direction you would eventually end up in San Francisco.
A Llama and it's mama.
So that night we stayed at this very interesting hotel. Part of the hotel was a 400 year old estate that had been inhabited by the same family until the last hundred years. It was basically a huge piece of property with very old buildings. The other part of the hotel was 10 years old. However, the 10 year old part somehow looked similar to the 400 year old part. We stayed in the "Monastery" part of the hotel (the new part, which was built because the English owner had once been a monk and always wanted his own monastery).
The grounds were huge and full of secrets. This is the secret passage that we discovered. It lead to a secret meeting room. There were dozens of hidden alcoves and places to hide in this hotel.
One of the rooms.
A well in the middle of the gardens.
The dungeon underneath the main house. At one point this was used as a cage to keep "wild animals" in, whatever that means.
The English guy who owned it had collected dozens of clerical robes. Here are just two.
And he also commissioned a native Ecuadorian artist to draw a mural depicting heaven and hell. He showed the artist some pictures of medieval European depictions of heaven and hell and said that he wanted something like those. So the artist drew George Bush, catholic priests and the hotel manager in hell, and filled heaven exclusively with indigenous Ecuadorians.
Day 6 - Otovalo Market
The next day we got up early and went to go see Otovalo Market, the largest craft market in South America. On our way we stopped at the Otovalo Animal Market, notable in my memory because it restored my commitment to vegetarianism.
At least we saw people in traditional dress.
Anyway, here is the start of many pictures of Otovalo Market.
Handwoven scarves. About $3 a piece. Ecuador uses US Dollars, which made things easy. Unfortunately, since everything is so cheap, the fact that we had mostly $20 bills became a problem. Shop owners would have to borrow money from their neighbors to make change for us.
Table cloths.
Pants. By the way, this is the traditional costume of Otovalo.
Here is a video of Otovalo.

An interesting thing about this market was that it was so big and there didn't seem to be that many tourists (in general, Ecuador had very few tourists). Some places of the market even seemed deserted.
Me wearing "The Mask of the Devil", made of yarn and used in local religious festivals.
A busier street.
After the market we went to a very scenic volcano. This volcano had collapsed and the crater had become a lake. We decided to hike to the other side of the lake.
Easier said than done, since the altitude was over 13000 feet.
We were exausted when we got to the top, but were pleased to learn from Luis that we were the only tour group he had ever had who had walked for more than 10 minutes.

On the car ride back to Quito we asked if we could stop by an electronics store to pick up a card reader for the camera. Then Luis began to test us on all of the names of the places we went and the things that he told us. Well none of us remembered the names (I swear they all start with "C"), but when it came to facts we got every one. We all had a good time, Luis relishing in how much we had forgotten. Then we asked him a question: where are we going? He had forgotten. Here is Luis, one of the best guides we have ever had.
Day 7 - Arrival in the Galapagos
We flew from Quito, in the cold highlands of Ecuador, and flew to the Galapagos, tropical islands which turned out to be almost as cold. We were met by our next guide, Juan Carlos, and met the people who would be joining us on our tour (7 from Wisconsin). Then we jumped into the Galapagos version of a Taxi (a white pick-up truck).

My first impression of the Galapagos was "this is just like Hawaii". Same type of vegetation, same type of landscape. Soon, two major differences appeared. The Galapagos is really, really cold (despite being on the equator), and it has interesting native wildlife. Here are some Marine Iguanas sitting on a rock wall on the island of Santa Cruz.
And a sea lion in a boat. Lots of sea lions.
This is a bird called a Blue-footed Booby. Stupid name, but an awesome bird. All the white is bird poop.
This is why the Galapagos is cold enough for Sea Lions, Seals and Penguins (yes, penguins, though we didn't see any). There is a current of cold water which follows the sea floor at the equator. The Galapagos is in the way of this current, so it brings the current to the surface. This means that the water around the Galapagos is both nutrient rich (because all the good stuff has been sinking to the bottom of the ocean) and around 60 degrees since it hasn't seen sunlight for months. We were expecting a regular tropical island, and brought light clothing. I ended up wearing almost all the clothes I had all the time. It stank when we were done.
You get some funny cactus at the Galapagos.
These are Galapagos Tortoises. Galapagos Tortoises are now so endangered that they don't let them reproduce in the wild any more. All Tortoise eggs are collected and hatched in captivity. Baby Tortoises are very vulnerable, but once they get to a certain age they become invulnerable. Plus they live for 150 years. But the little ones are squishable, so protection is important.
Lonesome George. He is also the last male of his species. Hence the name. He is one of the only animals on earth to be declared extinct while he is still alive.
Here is another Tortoise. The shape of the shell is indicative of the vegetation of the island that the Tortoise comes from.
Land Iguana. Fatty.
Giant Tortoise. Ugly.
Tourist. Stupid.
I shouldn't be derogatory towards the subjects of the photos I took. This bird for one was smart. You know how the Darwin finches all have different bills designed for the specific food that they eat? Well this is the Darwin Snickers finch.
There, now that maybe you have laughed, back to the boring stuff. Cacti. And by boring I mean spectacularly beautiful.
Just like this beach. Finest sand I have ever felt.
Rocks. Or not. Look close and see if you can find something.
Marine Iguanas.
Cute little suckers.
So, it goes without saying that Soccer is huge in Ecuador. Even in the Galapagos, Soccer is huge. Here is the victory parade when the closest professional team won a big game.

Day 8 - Hike n' Bike
So, here I am, living my dream, being a tortoise.
How great would it be to be a Galapagos Tortoise? Live for 150 years or more. Short of humans, nothing can kill you once you reach a certain size. And, going this fast is considered speedy. Very relaxed life, if only you had the cognitive capability to appreciate it.

Here you can get a sense of how big they are. You'll see this picture again come X-mas since it will probably become the family card.
After seeing tortoises in the wild, we took a hike to the top of the island of Santa Cruz. Native vegetation everywhere. Wind and rain. Felt just like Hawaii actually.
And then we rode bikes.
These are the Taxis which followed us. All Taxis in the Galapagos are white pick-up trucks.
Day 9 - Boat rides that weren't fun, and swimming that was
So we were on Santa Cruz island, the most populous island on the Galapagos, and we had to get to San Cristobal, the capital. Right now the airport of San Cristobal is under repair, so we had to take a 2 hour boat ride through heavy seas to get there. A little rough on the people from Wisconsin who were traveling with us. We didn't really do all that well either. If I had been on that boat for another hour, I too would have been feeding the fish. Here is dad, braced for the journey.
But we got to San Cristobal. Here is a pelican.
Now, our hotel in San Cristobal was nice, I thought. Of course, I can overlook details like this.
It was kind of funny. When my sister went to flush the toilet, water poured everywhere. There were other problems like 30 gallons of hot water for the whole hotel, windows that didn't shut, leaks coming in from the floor above, etc, etc. The people were nice, and I have stayed in much worse. Here is the little town.
An example of Ecuadorian construction. I am terrified by Ecuadorian construction. If they have a medium sized earthquake thousands are going to die because the buildings are so poorly built.
The island of San Cristobal was famous for its Sea Lions. They are everywhere, including the center of town.
So, part of the package tour that we paid for included a Kayak trip. So, even though it was stormy weather, gosh darn it, we were going Kayaking! I was freezing cold, so I put on all of the clothes I brought, including my rain coat.
Observe, the horrible Kayaks and the storm we Kayaked in.
These Kayaks were not fun at all. They were an awful design. There was no way to paddle the Kayak effectively with two people. My sister and I kept trying, but mom and dad gave up and dad paddled while mom just sat there.
At least we saw one cool thing while Kayaking.

Here is the beach we stopped at. Covered with Sea Lions.
Males fighting.

A little baby.
Well, we went for a little hike and ended up in a little bay with cliffs. Those of us who wanted to swim (me, the guide and two others) got in the water. The guide and I swam over into a little cave and were looking around when suddenly a 300 pound very territorial male sea lion swam in after us and started telling us to leave. In my experience, it is never a good idea to turn your back on an animal, so I started backing up, preparing to leave through the one way out of the cave. I was filming the whole time. When I turned around the guide was no where to be seen. That is when this happened.

After being charged and kicked by an angry male sea lion, I decided to turn my back and leave as fast as possible before he could block my only exit again. It was a really amazing experience.

Day 10 - Snorkeling with Sea Lions (and Sharks?)
The next day we took a small boat out to a place called Kicker Rock, shown in this photo.
Kicker Rock is no where near land. Maybe a mile or two away from shore, and the water is very deep, cold and murky (10 foot visibility). While we were getting ready for the dive, Juan-Carlos, our guide announced that we would be seeing Sea Lions, and maybe Hammerhead Sharks. We got in the water and sure enough, Sea Lions appeared.

Things were alright, until we went in between those two rocks. At that point the Sea Lions suddenly disappeared, the water got murkier, and it got dark because it was in the shade. In short, terrifying. We all couldn't get out of the water fast enough. Sadly, for some of the folks from Wisconsin, this was the first time they had been snorkeling. We were quite happy to say goodbye to Kicker Rock, despite its beauty.
We ate lunch then went to a bay where we saw a male Frigate Bird puffing up his neck pouch.
Then some of us got back in the water for more snorkeling. Then this happened.

Here is the same baby Sea Lion that kissed my camera nipping at my sister's fins.
And a Marine Iguana underwater.

Here is dad getting out.
From there we Kayaked again, this time into the wind so it was even more unpleasant. Upon returning to port we found this bizarre statue in the middle of town. "Poaching make Hulk mad!!!" was all I could think.
To give you an idea of how normal Sea Lions are on San Cristobal, here is a video of toddlers playing on the beach, feet away from adult Sea Lions.

Day 11 - Isabella Island
The next day we took a plane to Isabella island. Isabella had the smallest town of all, and streets made of sand to boot.
Here is some awesome ceviche! The best I have ever had.
A flamingo.
More tortoises in another breeding center.
Here is a bird of some sort doing something that probably comes naturally.
That is the town in the distance.
This is a place where white tip reef sharks come to nap.

Half an hour later, we went snorkeling about 500 feet away from this spot. It's alright. White Tips are not dangerous unless you provoke them.
I suppose the sharks also like this spot because they can get an occasional Iguana snack.
Here is a mother Sea Lion who was protecting her pup. Beautiful isn't she?
Heron and Iguana.
Sea Urchin.
Why are Blue-footed Boobies so cool? Watch this video and find out.

Here is the shower head in Dad's room. Pro: first hot shower in Ecuador. Con: touch the head while wet and you get zapped!
Day 12 - Horseback Drive
So the next day we went for a Horseback drive up to the rim of a volcano. Here I am on my horse.
Why do I say horseback drive? Well, these horses were not happy horses. They were not going to move unless they had to. So the cowboy, the guy in the back, had to beat them to make them go. And they didn't walk. They either stood there, or galloped. Whenever the cowboy came close they would gallop so they would not get whipped. Once they got far enough ahead they stopped until the cowboy came again.
My family had a horrible time. But quite honestly, despite the atrocious treatment of the poor animals, it was still the most positive experience I have ever had on a horse. It made me interested in giving happy horses another chance. We dismounted and hiked to a recently active volcano.
Day 13 and 14 - The Return Journey.
Getting to California from Isabella island took over two days. Here we are at the start of the journey (the boat part). This is right after leaving the harbor. Now Isabella doesn't have much of a harbor. It is just a natural little bay. It is very shallow, and the waves that break across the bay are huge. To get out of the bay we had to wait till high tide and then ride the boat over the waves that were about to break.
So here is the transportation I used to get home. Each thing I mention is I thing I took to another thing. Car-boat-boat-boat-truck-boat-bus-plane-plane-bus-hotel-bed-taxi-plane-plane-plane-car. Glad when it was done.

And there it is. My trip to Ecuador. Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. Writing it took a really, really, really long time. Just doing the pictures took 4 hours. The movies took 3 and writing the thing took another 5 or 6 hours. Now I am off to enjoy my last night in Hawaii. Tomorrow it is back to Japan and back to work. It feels like time, to tell you the truth. I miss my kids. They are more fun then any of the wildlife I saw in South America, but sometimes just as wild.