"To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield"
- Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1833

"live deep and suck out all the marrow of life"
- Henry David Thoreau, 1845

"Some guys, they just give up living
And start dying little by little, piece by piece
Some guys come home from work and wash up,
And go racin' in the streets."
- Bruce Springsteen, 1977

"...to the heart, there's no time for you to waste.
You won't find your precious answers now
by staying in one place."
- Frank Turner, 2009

"The best things in life aren't things.
They're living and breathing."
- Michael Franti , 2011

"I owned every second that this world could give,
I saw so many places, the things that I did"
- Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic, 2014

All written content and photos by Rob Fulfer unless otherwise indicated.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

HERE WE galapaGOs!!

We recently undertook one of our most ambitious trips to date to celebrate our 14th wedding anniversary and to mark off one of our biggest Bucket List places in the world to visit:   Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands!!! 

Friday, May 15, 2015 - Along with our friends, Wayne, Chris and Tarryn, we flew American Airlines from Nashville to Miami and then connected on a 4-hour flight to Quito, Ecuador, that landed late in the evening for our first time ever being on the continent of South America.

This was also our first time flying directly over Cuba (photo above) thanks to the recent trade embargo and restrictions with them being lifted.  Passing through immigration in Quito and the 45-minute ride from their beautiful, new airport to the NU Boutique Hotel downtown went smooth, and we were happy to crash (after a couple of complimentary drinks in the Q Bar next door) after a long day of travel.
Wayne's view from his room at The NU Hotel was much better than ours, so I stole this picture from him to show what a pretty, mountain-ringed city Quito is and what nice weather we had on Day 1 there.  Thanks, buddy.
Saturday, May 16 -  We had a full day in Quito before our official tour with G Adventures (the same travel company we went with in China) started the next day.  We booked a local four-hour tour to visit the nearby equator.
Our first stop on our tour from Quito was an overlook of the extinct(?) Pululahua Volcano crater.  To know and see that people are living and farming in a former volcano crater is pretty amazing (and ballsy on their account).
We went to the "official" center of the world first (as calculated with GPS) which is about a quarter mile from where they originally thought it was based on previous technology.  The equator line is surrounded by a pretty good museum and learning center with a lot of interesting exhibits regarding Ecuador and the surrounding region. 
You can do some pretty cool tricks at the center of the Earth including being able to balance an egg on the head of a nail.  Now while none of us could achieve it, our guide did it, as did a few other people we watched and can attest that the photo above is legit.  Other experiments such as watching water drain out in different directions within just a few feet and the gravitational pull as you try to walk on the equator with your eyes closed were pretty astonishing.
The originally-thought (and much more grand) center of the Earth indicator is in a beautiful park surrounded by the neighboring mountains  just down the street from the corrected site.
After returning back to town, we walked to an artisanal microbrewery a few blocks from our hotel called Abysmo for dinner and some very good libations.  This would be the last good beer we would see (and drink) for a while!
Sunday, May 17 - We officially started our G Adventures tour today with a morning flight to the Galapagos Islands.  After a quick stop in the big coastal city of Guayaquil, we landed on San Cristobal Island and the province capital city of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.  

The famous wildlife of The Galapagos was ready and willing right of the gate. There were sea lions all over the port when we arrived just lounging, barking and swimming in the harbor like no one was around.  Thousands of clattering red and black crabs covered the rocks and sand around the bay also.  Sea birds of several different kinds wheeled in the skies as well.

Our first glimpse of the Galapagos Islands from the plane window.  Note the wonderful LACK of development
Greetings from Galapagos Islands.  Our plans for the day...NOTHING!  - sincerely, the sea lions
Our first official "activity" on this trip was snorkeling in a lovely cove near town.  I grabbed this cool rainbow pic right after getting out of the water.  A beautiful start to this trip.
My first dinner on the islands was a whole scorpion fish with salad, potatoes, rice and beans.  It was outstanding.
Monday, May 18 - Our second day on San Cristobal had us taking a very smooth catamaran trip out to the iconic Kicker Rock for one of the most amazing snorkel experiences we have ever had.  The following two pictures are not mine, but thanks again to Wayne, and our new friend from Australia, Ben, for these great underwater shots.

Now THAT is a tricky Par 3 hole!!  That was my best joke as we sped toward the iconic volcano-formed monolith known as  Kicker Rock.  We snorkeled all around it and even between it's fissures.  Truly an amazing experience.
We even saw sea turtles and manta rays on our way to Kicker Rock before we ever got in the water.  See the cool video below while trying to ignore my thumb (doh!).  It's worth the wait to the end:

We got some private beach time after our snorkeling and we had our first close-up encounters with marine iguanas.  The black speck in the middle there on the beach is the first one we spotted from the boat.
When we got back to town we did a fun little impromptu bar crawl around town and the harbor before dinner with Wayne and our new friends from Pennsylvania, Joe and L.A.
Tuesday, May 19 - Happy 14th Anniversary to us!! In all honesty the start of the day with a trip by speedboat over to Floreana Island was rough.  While we didn't get seasick, it was three long hours of monotonous, stifling hot travel on "the Dorito" as we called it.  The Dorita is nothing fancy and only designed to do one thing:  shuttle people back and forth among islands as fast and as cheap as possible.  Above was your view for the whole trip and spotting a few islands on the horizon and a couple of passing schools of dolphins were our only reprieve.
Our attitudes changed greatly upon arrival to tiny Floreana Island as we were greeted by a throng of marine iguanas on the dock as well as few more lounging sea lions.   The tiny town of Puerto Velasco Ibarra, only has about 120 people in it as does the island itself.  We had a delicious lunch at Lelia's upon arrival.  
The "crowded" port at Floreana Island.

It was on Floreana Island that we got first glimpse of the iconic giant tortoises that the Galapagos are known (and named) for at a rather remote breeding center located in the highlands.

Near the breeding grounds was where some of the first European settlers came to this island in the 1930's resulting in a wild story of murder and mystery told to us by our guide.

We took a "Cheeva" ( kiddingly referred to as a "cattle truck" by the locals) out to our tiny cabins for the night situated right on the ocean.    Watch our for the sea lions, driver!!
The a/c and shower didn't work in our beach-side cabin very well, and there were a good amount of bugs out and about, so it was hard to enjoy our ocean view from outside.  We also had to "evict" two lava lizards from inside our room before going to sleep all the while wondering if others were inside that we couldn't see.  Dinner was back at Lelia's and it was surprisingly not as good as lunch was for some reason.  So to say this was our best, most-romantic anniversary evening would be a lie, BUT there were great things like the walk to a beautiful cove for a private sunset snorkel with just our group where we had even more great close encounters with sea lions and sea turtles.  And, when we found this heart-shaped plantain among our dinner serving that night, we knew we were in the place we should be because despite all the small annoyances, we were in the FREAKIN' GALAPAGOS ISLANDS!!

Wednesday, May 20 - Today was another sweltering, albeit shorter, "Dorito-ride" over to the much larger Isabela Island and the port town of Puerto Villamil which happens to the be hometown of our guide, Fabricio.  I bowed out of the afternoon volcano hike due to some tummy troubles (no comment on that), but Ashlee went and said it was a nice, albeit, quite strenuous trek.  I rested a bit and took a nice sunny walk down to the beach in town, so it wasn't a total loss for me either.  My "troubles" cleared up pretty quick as it seemed to be just a 24-hour bug of some sort.

Thursday, May 21 -  I was able to join Ashlee and the rest of the group this morning for a bike ride from the nearby highlands back down toward town with two great stops along the way:

Bike Stop # 1 was a flamingo lagoon.  These beautiful birds are just another star-attraction in this amazing natural zoo.
Bike Stop # 2 was our second tortoise breeding center.  This is the 2- to 8-year-old class out for their morning strolls.
Our afternoon outing was "off the books" a bit as most of us in the group ponied-up an extra $60 to be taken by boat out to Los Tuneles, a series of lava tunnels that you can snorkel through.  The place is other-worldly and we had an amazing time seeing small sharks hiding in caves, more sea turtles, tons of fish, an octopus and the biggest sea-horse any of us had ever seen.
My favorite picture I took on the trip is this one.  After our snorkeling in Los Tuneles we had a little time to wander around on the volcanic rock to check out the blue-footed boobies nearby.  They didn't seem to mind us getting pretty close to them as they were preoccupied with their dancing and mating calls toward each other.  
Before getting in the water at Los Tuneles we cruised by scores of blue-footed boobies sitting on, wheeling above and diving into the water in front of a cliff (video below).

We also spied a few Galapagos penguins from the boat before snorkeling at Los Tuneles,  They are the second smallest penguin in the world and the only one found north of the equator.

The ride back from Los Tuneles was memorable as well.  While the fishing boats we took were smaller and more open than the "Dorito" they were also VERY OPEN and our last 20 minutes into the harbor were in a driving rainstorm.  We were soaked from head to toe.   Let's just say that boating in The Galapagos is always an adventure!!

Friday, May 22 - We took our last long boat ride over to the more-modern Santa Cruz Island in some of the choppiest ocean so far,  We were relieved to arrive (even if it was raining) and to say GOODBYE TO THE "DORITO" FOREVER!!

There was an afternoon activity to a farm to see some giant tortoises in the wild (yeah, but still on a farm) and check out some lava tubes (ho-hum).  We passed.  The rain continued to pour and the location was up in the mountains where even more rain was guaranteed.  We opted to dry off in our room and take a much-needed nap.  Reports back were that only two tortoises were seen and the rain was almost non-stop, so we feel like we didn't miss much.

Saturday, May 23 - The weather improved greatly the next morning and we were ready for the day.  It started with a LONG walk to the ocean from our hotel to Tortuga Bay for some sight-seeing and kayaking in the mangroves nearby.

The trail to Tortuga Bay was long (and surprisingly busy) based on the distance.  We estimated that we walked over 11 miles today with this round trip and another trek to the Darwin Center at the far end of town and back.
The long walk was worth it.  Tortuga Bay is amazingly beautiful and the strong waves are constantly roaring.
While kayaking we got fairly close to this large frigate bird.  He never ballooned out his bright red throat for us as they are famous for during breeding season, but it was really cool to see him up this close.

The man. The legend.
The video above shows a large marine iguana emerging from the ocean after a swim in Tortuga Bay.  We would have loved to have spent more time in this area as it was active with wildlife despite a good number of people around.  The Galapagos have a strict 2-meter rule when it comes to how close you can get to the animals and people seem to abide by it religiously, and the animals, in turn, feel free to move around among us on their daily routines.

After lunch we visited the famous albeit-now, rather-quiet, Darwin Center whose authority and purpose have mostly now been swallowed up by the Ecuador National Park offices in Quito, leaving the large complex almost like a ghost town. Evidently, the government felt this complex was making too much money as a non-profit organization and they wanted their fingers in the pie, clearly forgetting that the name "Darwin" brought most of the notoriety (and tourism dollars) to these islands long before anything or anyone else did.

There was more tortoise breeding going on here as this was the home of the famous Lonesome George until his passing a couple years ago (RIP, big guy).  He was the last of his kind and there is hope a few of the females still here might have some of his "love-juice" within them which they can amazingly store in their bodies for later use for up to five years...wow!! We also got to see a rather rare yellow land iguana, the long-lost cousin of the famous marine iguana.

We spent the rest of the day shopping and relaxing in the rather-modern town of  Puerto Ayora, We closed out the day at the Bongo Bar where I had a cool Cuba Libre (rum and Coke).  We had a final dinner as a group tonight at a local place picked out by our great guide, Fabricio.

This is a closed-off street in Santa Cruz where tables are set up in the road flanked by restaurants on both sides.  It's basically the best "food-court" you will ever go to eat at with tons of fresh seafood waiting to be ordered and cooked.
 Sunday, May 24 -  We got up early today for our transfer to technically our fifth island of this amazing archipelago.   Baltra Island is a very short ferry ride (thankfully) from the north end of San Cruz Island and where a nice, small airport is located for our flight back to Quito.  We had a crazy experience getting on the bus to the airport (too long to tell here), but we all made it on and made our flight back to the mainland.

 That afternoon back in Quito we took a $5 cab ridge (what a deal) and visited the Old Town area that includes the amazing Gold Church (left - no photos allowed inside where all the gold is).
What a beautiful, vibrant city this is!  Although it does seem to have its share of poverty and slums as well.  High atop El Panecillo Hill in downtown is the Virgen de Quito (Quito's Madonna)
The Ecuadorian people seem to be a happy lot who take pleasure in the simple things in life.  A humble street show drew this large crowd in a square in front of the presidential palace and seemed to delight everyone greatly.
Twitter photo by  Martin Díaz Zúñiga 
Monday, May 25 - We flew home VERY early via Miami again and were in our house before dark today.  While en-route back home we got quite a shock when the news started reporting that the Wolf Volcano had erupted on the north end of Isabela Island where we were just a few days ago!!  It hadn't erupted in over 33 years and was not predicted to now.  I guess we have quite an effect on places we visit!  

The entire trip was a great adventure that we will never forget and the bonus of making great new friends including Ben, Darcy and Casey from Australia, Joe and L.A. from Pennsylvania, and Rachel from Toronto, just adds to the value of this amazing experience.

A special salute to Ashlee for enduring this already-tough trip with one of the worst cases of poison ivy that I have ever seen.  She was a trooper throughout.  So much so, I even forgot at times she was suffering through it.  Anyone that says women aren't tough can stick it where the sun don't shine!!

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