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Colonial Culture in Quito

all seasons in one day 21 °C

Ola Amigos and Amigas! This will be a short post on our 3 days in Quito, with our Amazon adventure up by tomorrow. We're in Cusco at the moment, following the expert advise to do nothing but acclimatize for the first day.

When last I left you, we were in the lovely colonial town of Quito, which is so well preserved from its early Spanish heyday. It was founded by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 1534, on top of a razed Incan city. When the Incan king learned of the Spanish advance, he destroyed his town rather than have their treasures fall into Spanish hands. Quito is nestled in a valley between 2 Andes ridges and ringed by 3 volcanoes – the last eruption being in 2006. It’s at a pretty high altitude, 2800 metres above sea level, so walking up stairs and up the winding and hilly streets is a bit of a challenge. But after all our activities in Galapagos, we’re OK.

Christa joined us our first night in from the Galapagos, ready for our Andean and Amazonian adventures, so the gang’s all together. Early morning saw us taking off through the mountains, volcanoes and valleys leading up to the popular market town of Otavalo, which was interesting. None of us are really big shoppers (we need you here Sandra) and we found most of the stuff similar to what you can see in Canada, but the local food market and outdoor food stalls were really cool. Fabulous foods – odd and familiar meats hanging, piles of vegetables with mysterious fruits, and mounds of peppers and spices. Then we were off strolling through the stalls set up for local lunch, with covered boards set up as makeshift tables, bringing amazing smells from the roasting pigs and fish and chicken.
Food market in Otavalo

Food market in Otavalo

This market is important for the local Quechua (indigenous) peoples, both to market their handicrafts but also as a means for socializing and catching up with the events of friends and family spread out through the valleys. They are really small! I’ve never been somewhere where I feel so gigantic! Even Christa towered above people strolling through the market place. Probably on average 4 ½ feet tall.

Cayambe Volcano

Cayambe Volcano


We stopped in a small town of Cayambe where they are famous for their volcano, and for incredibly delicious, light and crispy biscuits called bizcoches. You eat them with string cheese and we all fell in love with them. It seems like the entire village is involved in making these tasty treats with every 2nd store or restaurant advertising the best in town. Yum!!
Making bizcoches in Cayambe

Making bizcoches in Cayambe

Back in Quito, the clouds had rolled in and we had a big thunder and lightning show. We have decided we would take on the task of determining the best Pisco Sour in Ecuador and Peru. It’s a tough job, but I think we’re up to it. Pisco is a Peruvian brandy made from grapes, which is then mixed with lime juice and bitters and topped with egg white. With that very difficult and strenuous obligation in mind, we decided on pisco sours in the hotel bar, and so far, it currently ranks #2. So far, our scientific investigations have determined:
1 – Eco Lodge Santa Cruz: Wonderfully sour with nice amount of bitter, excellent foam
2 – Quito’s Patio Andaluz: Good foam, could be colder, not quite sour enough
3 – La Pinta boat Galapagos: Not enough foam, quantity is a bit small, nice flavour and bitters
Will keep you updated as this important work continues.

Presidential Palace in Plaza de Independance

Presidential Palace in Plaza de Independance


Our hotel is in a lovely old colonial hacienda, and is located in the old part of town, which is really beautiful. On Sunday, Quito closes down the streets to traffic in old town so we were able to stroll the beautiful colonial streets freely. Of course for this part of the world, city life is centered around the church, primarily the Roman Catholic Church. Two lovely squares are the main gathering places for locals and tourists, and they are bordered by elaborate and decorated churches and colonial government buildings. One of the churches – surprisingly, Jesuit – was the most elaborate I’ve ever seen. The outside is intricately carved out of stone, with curling columns and beautiful friezes. On the inside, the carving gets more elaborate and is almost entirely covered in 23 carat gold leaf. Incredible! Unfortunately no pics allowed inside, so you’ll have to take my word for it, but spectacular doesn’t even cover it.
Jesuit Church

Jesuit Church

As a final touristy thing to do, we went up a cable car to the top of a peak, overlooking the town. It takes about 8 minutes to ascend to 4100 meters, which is by far the highest I’ve ever been, and higher even than Ladakh in the Himalayas and Cusco in Peru. Was a bit nervous about how the height would affect me, but no big problem. My camera bag felt like it weighed a couple of tonnes instead of ½ a tonne, but otherwise was all good. It is strange to feel like you’ve walked up a few hundred steps when you’ve only walk 10 though. I’m sure in Cusco we’ll acclimatize after a few days. We’ll be drinking a few cups of the Coca tea, which is supposed to help with altitude adjustments. Made from the cocaine plant, it is a staple tea and chewing tobacco in the Andes. We tried the tea in Quito and it’s very good. No need to worry tho folks, it is nowhere close to the processed drug version we know about. Will have to stay with the Pisco Sours for that ;-)

Next stop, Amazonia!
Cathedral in Plaza de Independance, Quito

Cathedral in Plaza de Independance, Quito

Posted by LisaOnTheRoad 14:30 Archived in Ecuador Tagged travel volcano church colonial quito otavalo cayambe bizcoches Comments (0)

Adventures in Paradise...with Boobies!

sunny 24 °C
View First Foray into South America on LisaOnTheRoad's travel map.

Blue footed Boobie - starting his dance

Blue footed Boobie - starting his dance

Finally back on land and sitting in an atrium of our converted hacienda hotel, high in the Andean Mountains in Quito. Haven’t got my land legs back though. Periodically losing your balance when you move without thinking, or feeling the room sway while you are sitting, is a little disconcerting, not to mention very strange looking! Pretty sure people think we have had one too many cervezas! There is a wonderful thunder and lightning show going on outside and I thankfully have my pashminas doubled up. The changes in climate and temperature on this trip could not get more varied.

Sorry for the large post, but strangely, cruising around the middle of nowhere on the equatorial Pacific Ocean didn’t allow for easy internet access, so, this will be a combined update of our adventures in the Galapagos, or as we all referred to it, Paradise.

Yellow Crested Night Heron & Galapagos Sea Lion

Yellow Crested Night Heron & Galapagos Sea Lion


There was no easing into our adventures in Paradise. We flew into the island of San Cristobel by late morning and had our first sea lion encounter. A youngster greeting our group on the gangplank as we boarded the zodiac to take us to our boat, La Pinta. Of the 50-passenger capacity, we are a group of about 17 as the high tourist season winds down. Awesome! Carlos, one of our 2 naturalists, welcomed us aboard and after lunch, we had our orientation, info on how to jump ship in an emergency, and our instructions for the dry and wet landings into and out of the zodiac. Then came the hilarious kitting out of wet suits, snorkel and fins – just have to say, wet suits, not my best look :-)

Sally Lightfoot Crab - sitting on rocks everywhere in the Galapagos

Sally Lightfoot Crab - sitting on rocks everywhere in the Galapagos

Once that was taken care of, we were off for our first excursion, a trip to a bay off San Cristobal. Where we donned the beautiful wetsuit attire and entered the water. It was our first wet landing too, which just means jumping out of the zodiac into the ocean and wading ashore, trying not to get knocked over by waves, and trying not to notice how cold the water was that we were about to snorkel in.

Galapagos Sea Lions

Galapagos Sea Lions


A small herd of sea lions were on the beach and you can’t believe how close they let you come to them – seemingly oblivious. The whole of the islands are like this. Life is very hard on the for species to survive and the remoteness and isolation means that the only animals to make it there and adapt were reptiles, birds and seals. There are no land predators to speak of, so they are completely unafraid. I’ve never seen anything like it. Beautiful and strange birds nesting right by the paths you’re hiking through, going about their daily routines without a care and totally dismissive of the tourists gawking and taking pictures. It helps a lot that the government does a really good job of managing this special ecological resource. The numbers of visitors are strictly controlled, the routes taken carefully managed and well-trained naturalists are always present. First and foremost is the preservation of this singularly unique habitat. Only 3% of the islands are populated, the rest designated preserved parklands.

School of fab fish

School of fab fish

So day 1, and we were already hiking and snorkelling. The younger Galapagos sea lions doing drive-bys while we were in the water, coming so close to us we could feel the current of the water as they sped by. They’re especially fascinated if you blow bubbles from the snorkel, coming right up to you to investigate. A big sea turtle also came over to check us out, and countless weird and wonderful fish. This was mostly a learning day, but for all that, we had such great animal sightings. Frigate birds soaring all over the skies and dive-bombing the storm petrals dancing on the waves. Frigates look strangely like prehistoric flying dinosaurs when they’re in the sky. They’re the 2nd largest bird on the islands and fantastic fliers, but not very good in the water, so they make their living as pirates. Harassing other birds to drop their catches and sometimes sweeping down and plucking smaller birds, like the petrals, up for a snack. The aerial acrobatics were wonderful.
Male Frigate Bird - Males have a red sac on their chin that they inflate to attract females

Male Frigate Bird - Males have a red sac on their chin that they inflate to attract females

Baby Blue Footed Boobie

Baby Blue Footed Boobie

After cruising overnight, our first expedition in the morning was a dry landing and a hike over the volcanic rocks of Seymour Island. Pablo was our naturalist today and he had me demonstrating the blue-footed boobie mating dance with him – I think I make a rather good boobie! And after that, everyone on the boat knew my name!
Boobies dancing up a storm.

Boobies dancing up a storm.


The name Boobie means clown. An apt description! Their courtship rituals involve a lot of honking, dancing to show off their bright blue feet and elaborate back arching with wings outstretched. We saw lots of blue-footed boobies nesting, displaying, and with various aged young. The landscape was interesting with black lava porous rocks, large cacti like prickly pear and lots of varied low lying succulents. Also really cool white barked trees – the ever-present San Palo trees -- whose sap is a beautiful blood-red and smells like incense.
Galapagos0..bieBaby.jpg

Back to the boat, into our wetsuits and off to our first deep-water dive. Cool!!! And I mean that literally as well. The waves were pretty rough so was a bit scared but turned out to be no problem, especially once your head was under the water. The parrot fish are particularly large and colourful. Also, they’re responsible for most of the white sand beaches. They eat coral and other calcium-heavy foods and consequently poop an average of 1 tonne of white sand each year! Makes you rethink white sandy beaches doesn’t it? Our dive had to be cut short about 30 minutes in when we started to run into increasing numbers of jelly fish. The water also became dotted with little round floating ‘pearls’ about 3mm in diameter. They looked like millions of eggs, but Carlos said they were dead jellyfish. So we started swimming and weaving through the water dodging, the little critters to get back on the zodiac. One of the group got stung, but not seriously – they had vinegar on the boat to reduce the stinging.
Parrot Fish

Parrot Fish

Land Iguana

Land Iguana

Next up, a 3km afternoon hike clambering over black lava rocks on Dragon Island. Named for the many land iguanas that dot the hillside. Land iguanas are about ½ metre long and wonderfully colourful, especially the larger males. It was mostly sunny for the first half of the trip, so very hot with the equatorial sun, but always breezy, which is good for the hiking. My Orissan cotton scarf proved to be a great head covering for the hikes here, providing a great covering that didn’t blow away in the wind and provided an extra towel on the beach, so a bit of India made it to the South Pacific. And, I have orders from the other folks on the boat for them.

After a wonderful dinner, we were standing on the back of the boat looking at stars and wishing per usual that we knew more about astronomy when we saw some shadows in the water. The crew turned on the lights and we saw 4 sharks swimming around, periodically chasing schools of flying fish. Long silver fish that skimmed the water in panic periodically as a shark got too close. The 4 sharks gradually turned into 7 and were joined by a large sea lion and the occasional pop ins of a sea turtle. We watched mesmerized for a few hours and when we finally decided we’d head for bed, a school of the fish came right up to the boat, and then the seal made a mad dash into the fish, and caught one! Chaos ensued. Fish flying everywhere and the sharks circled. Was rather like a fireworks show finale. Getting ready for bed, a smaller sea lion swam past my window. So awesome!!

Bottle Nosed Dolphin off the ship

Bottle Nosed Dolphin off the ship


On average, we would do at least one hike and one snorkel excursion a day, sometimes two. On the way to Floreana Island, we ran through a huge pod of bottlenose dolphins. At one point they seemed to be everywhere as far as the eye could see. The snorkelling was absolutely amazing but cold, strong currents that you could literally feel tugging at you. Still, we snorkelled for an hour and it was stunning. Schools of brightly coloured fish, swimming with waters teaming with schools of bright silver salema fish – we’d swim into a huge school and watch the fish part around you as one shimmering mass. As you’re swimming along the islet’s sides, it is a bit intimidating to see the sheer drop-off into the black abyss. These volcanic land masses have no gradual slope into the ocean.
Ian diving down through a school of salema fish

Ian diving down through a school of salema fish

After yet another wonderful lunch, we were off for a wet landing at Punta Cormorant beach and then back into the water to swim with the many giant marine sea turtles we saw grazing on the seaweed of the rocks. Punta Cormorant beach has a slight green cast and sparkles because the volcanic eruptions of that area created the semi-precious gem peridot during its eruptions, and you can pick small stones up off the beach pretty much anywhere.
Giant Marine Turtle

Giant Marine Turtle

On Monday we arrived at the largest of the islands, Isabella. This island is on the major hot spot of the Galapagos and has 5 active volcanoes. We hiked up to the rim of one that last erupted in 2005 – Sierra Negra – to breathtaking views of the caldera, the volcanic depression, which was 9km in diameter. Absolutely breathtaking, and not just for the view. After that meal, and my relative lack of hiking history over the last few years, it was a real workout. At the rim, we could see sulphur rising across the black lava flow basin of the caldera. The thought of all that volcanic pressure underneath us was a bit intimidating.
Small Ground Finch, Darwin Finch

Small Ground Finch, Darwin Finch

The seas are getting rougher and getting into and out of the zodiacs is quite a challenge in these conditions as the sea would rise and drop 5 or 6 feet. A rapid drop occurred while Ian was getting off the zodiac and onto our boat platform – good thing he has long biking legs!

Giant Galapagos Domed Tortoise

Giant Galapagos Domed Tortoise


Our next stop was at Santa Cruz, the most populous town, with 20,000 people living here. We started our morning with a visit to a tortoise breeding centre and visited massive domed tortoises. So strange, looking kind of like old men. Then a drive into the incredibly lush highlands to visit 2 twin pit crater formations – Los Gemelos. The forest surrounding had loads of canopy trees – scalesia forest – covered in mosses, ferns and orchids. Tres cool. Then off to visit lava caves, and then back to Puerto Ayora for lunch at the Finch Bay Eco Hotel. Best Pisco Sours so far. For the afternoon we visited the Charles Darwin Research Centre, which houses breeding programs for all the remaining species of tortoises, land iguanas and various flora and insects. Here we were able to see the saddle-backed tortoises for whome the islands are named. Galapago is Spanish for these tortoises.
Giant Galapagos Saddle-back Tortoise

Giant Galapagos Saddle-back Tortoise

Galapagos Penguin

Galapagos Penguin

Wednesday and another great day in paradise. Our first stop at Bartolomé Island had us swimming with penguins, and then hiking to the summit of a volcanic peak to see the surrounding amazing landscape.
Pinacle Rock and lava flow.

Pinacle Rock and lava flow.


The lava flows just opposite us were incredible. From an eruption 150 years ago, it flowed down into the sea in a mass sheet, engulfing a bunch of smaller islands forming new mainland. Very little lived on this new island but live was starting to establish – lava cactus, lizards and grasses had gained a foothold and started the cycle of life already flourishing on other islands.
Lava Catcus with La Pinta in background on right

Lava Catcus with La Pinta in background on right

Nasca Boobie

Nasca Boobie


It’s Thursday, and I couldn’t believe it was our last full day in paradise. This last day brought us to Espanola Island. What an amazing place but really tough trekking and climbing over small and large volcanic rocks and boulders. But all of that effort brought us past nesting blue-footed boobies, nasca boobies and billions of marine iguanas piled on top of each other to keep warm. Including “Christmas” marine iguanas. During their mating season, male marine iguanas start to turn bright red.
Marine Iguana Orgy

Marine Iguana Orgy

Waved Albatross

Waved Albatross


The piece de resistance of this island though, is the encounters you have with the largest bird on the islands, the waved albatross. What beautiful birds, nesting everywhere with ugly-duckling chicks and elaborate greeting rituals that resemble fencing match. Baby waved albatross

Baby waved albatross


Galapagos0..0182Alb.jpg

There were so many animals here it was a fitting end to our adventures. Seals with their pups, a dominant male showdown when we arrived, and a bachelor pad hangout for the poor males ousted from their prides. The surf was awesome and rocky landscape awe-inspiring, but as usual, the animals stole the show. You didn’t know which way to look and had to be careful you didn’t look when walking to avoid a broken leg. Carlos lost his walkie talkie somewhere on the island so we were all at the landing area jumping up and down and waving to the boat, as well as setting off our camera flashes. We had visions of being stranded on the island and wondering who we’d eat first! But, we finally got their attention and the zodiac came to get us.

Our cruise overnight back to San Cristobal for the departure back to Quito was the roughest journey yet. Ian set his GPS tracker thingy on for the 6 hour journey. He uses it to track the overall height he travels when biking, and for those six hours it said we ascended 1200 metres! That’s totalling the height of each wave the boat hit! I’m not sure I’ll ever stop swaying!!!

Some cool-looking duck

Some cool-looking duck


Vermillion Flycatcher

Vermillion Flycatcher

Darwin Finch

Darwin Finch

It was very sad to leave here, and we left with a desire to see more of these remarkable islands, so I leave yet another place vowing to return one day and explore further. And also with a new love, snorkelling and underwater photography. There is simply no time to work!!!
We’re off to the Amazon jungle tomorrow, which I imagine will be just as ‘unconnected’ as the Galapagos, so the next updates will likely be from Lima.
large_Galapagos2..gSunset.jpg

Posted by LisaOnTheRoad 19:24 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals snorkelling volcano la iguana galapagos boobies seals albatross pinta Comments (0)

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