Ecuador, The Outtakes Part 2. Photos from the Edit Room floor.

Here is the last collection of photos that didn’t make the first cut but fill in a few of the gaps and flesh out a few of the adventures in Ecuador.

Thanks to everyone who has been following along. It’s been satisfying to know that people have been tuning in for this trip with me, I had a damn good time putting it together.

Ecuador, Day 15. Quito to Toronto.

We got up to catch our flight home – 3am! – and the boys were great about it, jumping up and getting ready with less moaning and groaning than I myself was making. It had been recommended to us that we arrive at least 2 hours before departure time because Ecuador airport emigration is not known to be speedy, and it was good advice. The flight was delayed a short while so that people stuck in customs could make it through and get on board.

After an stopover in Miami (Starbucks!), we were on our last leg home. It was back to Toronto where the ocean, the mountains, and the jungle were behind us. But where instead we find family, friends and reliable wifi.

As we left the airport in Toronto to drive home, there was a heavy blanket of fog rolling in off the lake. It wasn’t a normal fog that you get on a cool day, but a thick, isolated cloud that covered the entire shoreline of the lake from one end of the city to the other. It was strange and completely out of place. Props to the weather for reflecting how I feel being back after a long time away.

And now, we’re home. There’s always a danger in high expectations, in a long anticipation. But this trip, one whose plan was hatched 30 years ago, did not disappoint. Traveling with family, experiencing the culture and wildlife, watching the boys expand their horizons; this trip brought all the very best that travel has to offer. The places we visited were varied, exotic and impressive. I feel fortunate and don’t take for granted, even for a moment, anything about it. There was Quito, an enormous concrete city. The Galapagos Islands, a burning hot moonscape. Mindo, a chilly, bug-infested cloud forest. Pappallacta, a hot spring resort in the Andes mountains. All of it Ecuador. The country exceeded every single expectation I had of it.

(March 20, 2012.)

Ecuador, Day 14. Pappallacta to Quito.

I got up early this morning to shoot the view from the Cruz Glorioso, a tall cross at the top of a hill that overlooks the resort and the town of Pappallacta, down in the valley. The Antisana Volcano can also be seen, but it was overcast and the low clouds meant there were no photos to be had. Instead, I sat at the cross and simply took in the nearby scenery, the sounds, the moment. It was almost meditative, and I became completely present, watching and absorbing the details of the things around me. There are some feelings that just can’t be captured in a photo.

After breakfast I returned to same hilltop with Fawn and the boys, but before long the 3 of them headed back to the room. I decided I would go on, continuing along the path that passes the cross and heads uphill. A great decision as it was one of the best hikes of the trip. Up into the hills there is a fast moving river that rushes through the jungle. The path, narrow and often overgrown, goes up one side and down the other, sometimes crossing over with rickety bridges. Spanish signs accented the path, likely telling me to “Go No Farther!” but I couldn’t tell. Photo ops along the way, with cool epiphytes and enthusiastic vines hanging everywhere. A great hike and nice time alone.

Each day the sky has started clear, with clouds gathering around the treed mountain tops mid-morning. Then, over the course of the day, the clouds descend, first blanketing the trees and then rolling slowly down the hillsides until they reach into the resort itself. It’s like the clouds are keeping time, part of an enormous natural clock.

It’s our last day here, so we packed up and went for an early lunch. Remember the music at the restaurant that I mentioned? After just 3 days we all want to stick forks in our ears. There’s only so many times you can take the muzak version of My Heart Will Go On. That number is 0.

Fernando showed up at 1 to pick us up and we all piled into the van to head back along those twisty mountain roads to Quito. He was a little bouncy on the gas and I wasn’t sure if we’d make it without one of us throwing up, but a well timed stop for drinks got us through.

We made it into Quito, arriving at the JW Marriott by 3:30. This ended up being a culture shock I wasn’t expecting. What a big, expensive, decadent line of hotels. In fact, I had some genuine trouble with the English-only signs, the rich white people, the huge outdoor heated pool, the big gym, the steam room, the sauna. So did I boycott the excessiveness in a hotel that ultimately fuels the American economy and not the local Ecuador people? Puh-lease.

I headed for the gym right away (Fawn and the boys went swimming in the rain). I was surprised the altitude didn’t affect me while working out. Well, I got light headed once or twice, and feeling like I’m just a little bit drunk all the time is now the norm. It’ll be disappointing to lose that when we go home. Or perhaps just more expensive to maintain.

Into the eucalyptus steam room and then a shower, complete with dual massage shower heads. Yes, yes, I know.

Back in the room, I was able to get online and finally download the emails I had been missing over the past two weeks. There were about 150 total (reasonable), and ignoring work emails as best I could, I sorted through the rest. I was disappointed to see that the world had got along fine without me.

End of the day now. Beer, food, and very, very tired. Next, the promise of a 3am wake up call…!

(March 19, 2012.)

Ecuador, Day 13. Pappallacta.

Restless sleep. I had that dream that I was in a play, about to go on stage but I realized I hadn’t memorized my lines. That dream. I also woke up a number of times during the night feeling short of breath and after a while I got a headache and started feeling nauseous. These are the first symptoms, apparently, of altitude sickness. I took medication for it in the morning and though I’m still feeling light headed, I don’t feel sick anymore. And because the symptoms are similar to having a hangover, you know what that means. I’m banking this medication for my next bender.

Buffet breakfast, typical hotel style (fresh pineapple so good I plan to smuggle some back to Canada), and then a whole lot of… nothing. I read by the poolside, took a very leisurely walk with Gary and the boys while Fawn was at the spa, then slipped into the hot pools (holy caliente!) and had a shower. Such is the life we’re living this morning.

Fawn bowed out from lunch, her turn not feeling well, and it was quickly back to doing nothing. Well that’s not true. Importantly, I got past a level in Angry Birds that I had been stuck on. I plan specifically to make that my greatest accomplishment of the day.

This afternoon I took a walk with the boys while Fawn slept, checking out the beginning of a self-guided trail up the hills behind the resort. Bridges, mud and dirt, horses, cows and llamas. And a clear view of the snow peaked Antisana Volcano to the South. Oakley was really excited about it, quite amazed by the detail in the rock and snow, saying that it was so much better to see it in person than he could have imagined, even after seeing pictures of other similar mountains. I completely agreed. On the way back, we sang to the llamas and made Dalai Lama jokes. I think the llamas liked them, but one did look like it was going to spit on us, so maybe not.

On then for a massage I had booked at the spa (me, at a SPA!). Holy crap, did it feel good. Back, neck, shoulders, scalp. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to wind all the way down, I need to do that more often. My back has improved so much since those days in Galapagos. Having a problem like that definitely makes you appreciate when your body is working well.

Dinner and drinks then, and the day ended the same way, relaxed, sleepy and uneventful. Perfect.

(March 18, 2012.)

Ecuador, Day 7. Galapagos Islands.

We traveled overnight to Santiago Island and learned that rocking while sleeping is both a side to side and head to toe affair. Your best bet is literally just to roll with it, from one side of your bed to the other, hoping you don’t roll right out. Up at 6, soon taking the pangas to a long sandy beach lining the bay where the boat had anchored. We walked the length of it, the sand littered with ghost crabs, small, quick buggers that scuttle into holes almost before you’ve even seen they’re there. Cool little birds (I’m showing my Audubon knowledge now) that ran out into the surf, and then dashed madly away from the waves as they came in, over and over again. Griffin and Oakley followed suit. The Boobies were out too, diving after fish like sleek missiles, dropping straight down into the water.

The beach was book-ended by lava jetties where underwater sea life gathers, so we suited up in our snorkel gear and headed out. We immediately found schools of fish, each a thousand strong. Flashing silver, they moved as a whole, making room as we swam through and then closing the gap behind us. Griffin and I often dove down right through the middle of them, a wall of life surrounding us. Fawn, the boys and I were swimming quite near each other and suddenly a sea lion joined us, clearly coming to play. The water was perfectly clear and Griffin immediately dove down to be closer to her. Suddenly I’m watching him below me, the sea lion swimming circles around him, both of them twisting sideways, swimming together. Incredible to watch my son doing that, to see him experience it. A while later Fawn and the boys continued on while I headed back to the beach. At one point a puffer fish was swimming near, maybe 10 feet away. It was calm, the water clear and still, with no other fish around. A small, isolated moment. As I watched him, a Blue Footed Boobie suddenly shot into the water from above to catch it, a flash of lightning directly in front of me. It was one of the most unexpected things I’ve ever seen, shockingly fast. Incredibly, the fish got away, and the Boobie bobbed back up to the surface. I came up too and as he lifted from the water, he flew directly over my head, not 6 inches above me. Getting back on the beach was a little tricky with fins, with large rocks hidden under the waves of the shallow shore. I eventually decided to just let the waves roll me up onto the beach. Everyone had a pretty good laugh at that and I had more sand in the crack of my butt than I’m willing to discuss. An early lunch during which the boat traveled over to Puerto Egas. Another walk then, this one over mostly flat terrain. The path was sandy, leading to a lava coastline farther along. Again with many different types of lava – sharp spires, round and smooth boulders, undulating waves that had solidified, craggly rocks, etc. Here they had formed tunnels in a few places, the water from the ocean rushing 50 feet inland, spraying up, and retreating again.

Many sea lions here, sleeping lazily, like they had nothing better to do. Marine iguanas too, a different subspecies and the biggest yet. There were many cool, small tide pools on this island, with small birds pecking for food and Sally Lightfoot crabs crawling creepily (it’s the only way they crawl) along the lava at the edges. A little further along was a baby fur sea lion, a different and apparently more rare species. Whatever, it was crazy cute. It was soon joined by two others, making a trio of big-eyed, furry, barking baby sea lion goodness. Griffin approached them, and they didn’t shy away. In fact one of them took notice of Griffin and became curious in return. Griffin got down on his belly on a small outcrop of rock directly in front of them. He had his camera and was taking pictures of them up close, less than 12 inches away now. One of them took a waddling step and leaned in closer still. Quietly, in one of those moments when time seems to slow down just a bit, they inched even closer, staring at each other, Griffin and the baby sea lion. Soon they were actually nose to nose, touching. They stayed that way, each looking at the other in an amazing, magical moment. I will never forget it.

By 4 we were back on board and headed for San Cristabel, a long 12 hour cruise across the open water between islands. The ocean was rougher, the swells deeper. All of us started to feel sick and dinner was ruled out (though Gary was robust enough to endure it). I went to the briefing at 6:45 and took notes. Gathering the emigration forms that Peter needed, I started to feel sicker still and barely delivered the paperwork before I got back upstairs and threw up. Griffin had been in the room with me, but I could hear a mad dash of footsteps as he bolted, retreating into Fawn and Oakley’s room. I couldn’t blame him, I was being loud and completely disgusting.  (Thankfully, I felt better and went straight to bed.)

(March 12, 2012.)

Ecuador, Day 6. Galapagos Islands.

When I woke up my back pain was no better, and in fact it kept me up most of the night. It’s starting to get me down, but now I’m just more determined to get up and go. Sitting around doing nothing is for iguanas, and I’m hoping that moving and going and doing will help.

We headed out first for a hike and I traveled as light as possible. I left my camera behind (iPhone in pocket), and took just a bottle of water. Getting in and out of the panga was pretty difficult, but we were soon off to the East side of Fernandina Island, the youngest of the Galapagos Islands at 500,000 years old. The landing path was covered with iguanas. COVERED. We had to step carefully, slowly, making our way through them. Have I mentioned they smell? They smell. On this hike we saw hundreds, easily, in every direction.

We walked along marked paths across lava that was alternately sharp, smooth, rolling, gravelly. Almost everything, everywhere, is made of black lava. We saw many sea lions too, including something rare – a baby sea lion feeding from one mother, and then from another. Peter, our guide, figured the second mother was too lazy, lying in the sun, to protest. On land, sea lions are pretty awkward with that waddling run they do, barking as they go. But as they dive into the water, they’re incredibly graceful, rolling and twisting through the blue. Frigate birds are pretty much omnipresent, and Sally Lightfoot crabs crawl the rocky shores everywhere. They’re bright orange and red, a sharp contrast against the black rock. We also saw a couple of dead iguanas, skeletons bleaching, and a collection of minki whale bones.

Back to the boat where cold iced drinks and snacks were waiting. Very nice. An hour’s break before we were back in the pangas to a secluded lava cove to snorkel. The snorkelling was better here, the water clearer, and there were dozens of different schools of fish. The shores were low and shallow, the underwater lava looking and acting like coral for fish. We saw Yellowtailed Surgeons, Damselfish with bright yellow lips, puffer fish, a couple porcupine fish (those suckers were huge!), and more penguins. It was incredibly fun to swim here, to share this with the boys (swimming with penguins!). We also saw a ray, a moray eel, tiny freaky shrimp of some sort, and Fawn saw a sea lion that came right over to swim with her.

During lunch (there’s always a tasty dessert too), the boat took us across the channel, back to the west coast of Isabela Island, where we headed out for a ‘power hike’, a climb part way up the side of Darwin Volcano to Darwin Lake. It was challenging, but for the first time the pain in my back changed from sharp to dull, a definite step in the right direction. The more I pushed, the more it stretched and eased into something better. On the way up there were 4 or 5 places to stop for the view, each more impressive than the last. Darwin Lake is isolated, a big, round, dead lake up above sea level with a view of the ocean down below. And here we were again on the side of another volcano. That was cool, and it was hot. Really, really hot.

Peter is a great guide, giving us constant information as we go, from details about the animals to the pea-lava formed when water drops were petrified during the last volcanic eruption. Even though the Islands have been protected on and off by various international laws over the years, there is evidence that people have been visiting – and leaving their mark – since the Darwin’s time. Though it’s not common, if you look for it you can find carved in rock and painted on cliff faces the names of explorers, sailors, WWII soldiers, and unfortunately, a few modern tourists.

This walk was tough enough that not everyone made it to the top, but the effort was worth it. Darwin Lake far below, boats in the ocean beyond that, and behind us an incredible valley. I was sorry I didn’t have my camera gear, but happy I didn’t have the weight. My back needed a break and that seemed to be helping. The panoramic shots I got with my phone made me wonder what I even have a DSLR for. Okay no, not really, but that phone does a damn good job.

Back down, the walk was even hotter somehow than on the way up. Peter has a great watch with a thermometer on it that read 36, but I know it got a few degrees hotter than that and by the time we reached the bottom Oakley was overheated. He was red all over, face and arms, like a little volcano himself, but with water and rest he felt better before long.

Off again in the pangas to a nearby cove for another round of snorkelling. The water is colder here, so we were given wet suits to wear. Here more sea lions, but these were the friendliest yet, swimming with us, zooming below and circling around, clearly curious and glad we were there. One of them paused, stopping just below me, and looked at me directly. She just floated there, watching, interested. Suddenly she blew out a burst of bubbles that rose directly into my face and waited, it seemed, to get my reaction. I’m not sure what she thought of me laughing, but she waited a few moments more and then barrel rolled away. By then the rest of our group had joined Griffin and I and we in turn were joined by a very rare bird, a flightless cormorant (there are only 1500 left in the world). Perhaps protecting his endangered status, he immediately attacked us, pecking at us with his beak! It got a few good nips at 2 or 3 of the group, and actually latched onto the end Allan’s finger for a moment.

Fawn and Oakley soon joined us and I made the mistake of telling Oakley about the biting cormorant. He was (understandably) reluctant to go near it, but it was between us and the sea lions where we wanted to be. Suddenly, it came at us, so I immediately moved in front of Oakley, ready to protect him. The cormorant and I faced off, and I was ready to go to battle, determined to keep Oakley safe. So you know what I did to that underwater-swimming water bird? I SPLASHED him. And he looked at me like I was idiot. But before long we saw it swim under us (also cool) and soon we were all swimming with the sea lions too.

After a while Oakley and I swam back to the pangas where we loaded next into a kayak to check out the shoreline from above the water. We went over to where Griffin and Fawn were now snorkelling with a few penguins. It’s almost becoming passé. On then to the last challenge of the day, kayaking back to the boat. With no kayaking experience and a headwind, it was a challenge. Oakley was in the bow, and it was not easy going, but he dug right in. I was damn proud of him, he’s a great paddler. Before long, Griffin and Fawn pulled in behind us, digging hard against the same wind we fought.

Back on board, I got into talking about photography with Allan, an enthusiast who brought an arsenal of lenses. He let me try his 100mm macro prime and his 400mm monster that looks more like a bazooka. The conversation was satisfying and nerdy about all the gadgets we have and want and what you can do with them. The photography here has been, of course, fun and satisfying. The wildlife is unique, the landscapes are amazing.

I’m feeling happy and relieved that my back is feeling better than before. It’s not 100%, and in fact it still hurts all the time, but it’s not as bad and it seems that it will be fine with stretching.

I might also be getting my sea legs. The boat has been rocking as it travels between islands this evening and even without medication, I haven’t felt sick. It’s a strange thing to get used to, the floor being constantly unstable, moving, rocking, swaying. But it’s starting to become second nature. Give me another day and I’ll be like a pirate sea captain. I’ve always wanted a parrot.

During dinner Peter told us that before long we would be crossing the Equator and the boat’s GPS will read 0 degrees latitude as we do. When the time came, a handful of us went up to the bridge. It’s quiet and dark there, but we all burst in, way too excited and way too loud. We had a big countdown and at that very moment we were half way between the Earth’s poles, we erupted into big cheer, with high five and hugs. No doubt the guys on the bridge were very happy to see us go.

I’m feeling already that this is turning into one of the best trips I’ve ever taken. We’ll see what Quito holds for us when we get back to the mainland, but of all the places I’ve been – and I’ve been very lucky to travel to some very exotic places in the world, none of them I take for granted – this place is just constantly great.

(March 11, 2012.)