Sunday, December 27, 2015

Anniversary in Ecuador

Just as we were about to leave the whale town, fate pulled us back in. We walked down to the grocery store for dinner supplies where and bumped into our friends Lise and Laurent (affectionately called "The Frenchies") whom we thought we had said goodbye to a few days ago. We lured them to our campsite with promises of good wifi and a nice fire. A random conversation got Laurent and Chris thinking of aliens, and that was it, we would spend the rest of the night watching a bootleg version of Aliens. Lise and Mallary gave in, seeing as how it may be a good opportunity to pretend to watch a movie whilst actually playing online for a bit while the guys zoned out to this dumb movie, made even worse with its dubbed over French and very horribly inaccurate English subtitles! Oh the things we succumb to for entertainment while on the road!

The Frenchies’ plan was to camp out at some overlook a few miles down from Puerto Lopez… so we decided to join in for perhaps one of the very best campsites so far! This stunning location, perched on a cliff side a few hundred feet above the ocean with more than 180 degree views of the sea, even included a view of the occasional Humpback breaching! We would each take turns scanning the sea and if we saw a splash, would quickly grab the binoculars and enjoy the show! It was never as impressive or as long lasting as our close up sightings on the boat trip, but this was amazing in its own right cause we were watching them without any boats around, as they played away out in the middle of the open sea.

Best camp spot ever
Whale watching with binoculars

It just so happened that our two year anniversary was coming up, so the decision to stay in place with these perfect temperatures and a nice sea breeze and view was an easy one. We had no problem occupying our time with finding secluded beaches for a quick dip, planning our next moves, and cooking good food with our friends. Our last night there, Michael and Veronika showed up, completing our party! We all pitched in and made some camp style chicken parmesan and homemade Italian sauce before gathering around the campfire overlooking the water. We were all the sudden taking this mid life retirement thing to a whole new level!

Chris and Laurent proving that real men still use paper maps


Late in the night, when our anniversary hit and our friends were tucked into bed resting up for their boat tour the next day, we were popping open the champagne by the fire. Mallary baked for the first time in our dutch oven, and the midnight anniversary cake over coals was the perfect addition to our little party for two on the cliff that night. We stayed up later than we have the whole trip just listening to old school love songs, stoking the fire, and reminiscing about the past two years feeling thankful to be exactly where we are right now with each other. Go ahead and gag a little right now...

We said an early morning goodbye to our friends, for real this time, and moved on into the interior of the country. The scenery on the drive was a bit mind blowing, in 7 hours we went from sea level in shorts and tanks to a chilly 13,000ft with snow capped mountain views. We had no idea Ecuador was this beautiful, and honestly didn't have huge expectations of it after leaving the mountains in Colombia, but Ecuador was putting up quite a fight for gorgeous views in our book!!

A quick stop in Cuenca camping at a horse farm was our base to seek out an improvement in our upcoming travels. We already have one spare 5 gallon fuel tank, however that won’t be enough to cut it in remote parts of Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. In a movement to get rid of the clumsy bike rack, we set up the roof with a heavy duty Thule carrier basket. The new setup will allow us to carry an extra 12 gallons of fuel and 5 gallons of water. The city itself seemed nice, unfortunately we had very little time to explore it past partaking in one of the best things about Latin America, the lunch "menu of the day" for $3 a plate! Going to miss that when we get home! Instead of lingering in the city we choose to work our way to the town all the hippies and expats in Ecuador rave about, Vilcabamba.

Lola leveling up with a new addition!
Our version of tailgating
No he's not napping, this party animal is passed out drunk while life goes on around him. Not an uncommon sighting on this trip

Vilcabamba also happens to be in the so called Valley of Longevity. Locals supposedly live longer, are generally healthier, and have much more vigor in their old age then elsewhere on the planet. Whether or not this is true is certainly up to skepticism. However, one thing that is science based is the fact that the Vilcabamba drinking water has a unique balance of enriched minerals ideal for promoting optimum health, and there are also remarkable medicinal values in the plant life in areas around the equator, this valley being one of them! After arriving in this town we could see how it might be possible to live til 120... Year round pleasant weather, great soil for a wealth of organic foods, clean air and water, and a lifestyle requiring moderate exercise. Some people say that a person of 100 here is comparable to one of 45 in a city!! Should be a good place to settle down for a bit and hopefully add a few days onto our own life expectancy while we are at it!

This woman is featured on a Vilcabamba postcard, the best part is that she was sitting outside her house just like this every day!

We made camp in a gravel lot at an eco-resort-esque hostel called Izhcayluma, where we indulged in tasty fresh meals from their restaurant with a view while making plans for Peru and meeting some really great seasoned travelers from the US. Izhcayluma offered free yoga in the mornings, sported beautiful gardens all over the property, and also had an onsite spa with super cheap massage deals. This place was doing practically everything right, and since we were just sleeping in the car as usual, we were enjoying all the fringe benefits of the fancy cabana dwellers, at a fraction of the cost! Man it’s good to take your house with you everywhere!

Free yoga in this open aired platform, yes please!
Post yoga breakfast with a view, yes please!
Yes please!

Izhcayluma had an awesome folder full of hiking guides, to complimemt the already impressive trail system in the area. Our favorite kind of trail guides have become the personally written treasure hunt style instructions like these! They were even complete with warnings of grumpy land owners who may try and tell you to leave (just in case, they sited the rules regarding the land and its free use to anyone for you to rebound with) and possible wrong turns not to make! We choose the "Izhcayluma route" along the "D" trail to a high ridgeline. After following the instructions through a neighborhood, skirting a little farm, through a gate or two, across the highway, under a few barbed wire fences, and up to the ridge, we had phenominal 360 degree views of the entire area. We followed the trail on top of the windy ridge for a while, then scurried down the steep side into the dry riverbed for the hike back!

How cool is that
Barbwire fences, a common obstacle here apparently
On our way up the ridge with valley of longevity in the background

After slurping down enough organic green smoothies and Vilca-agua whilst over hearing the varied conversations of the hoards of eclectic expats taking over the town, we were intrigued at what actually brought so many people here. One American woman next to us in the bakery who has been in Vilcabamba for a decade told us about how the influx has changed the dynamic of the whole town. It is evident, even in the market where you see traditionally dressed woman selling fruits and veggies at a stall to wealthy upper class ex-pats. She told us how this place that was once a gem of a town with local folks living into their hundreds, was now looking like your run of the mill ex-pat town that may have lost its charm through the changes. We had heard from a woman who left everything and moved here, but it just wasn't what she had in mind and was now going back home. But everyone else seemed to love this cheap little ex-pat utopia... we had been hearing quite enough people raving about their latest amazing dinner party and most recent ayahuasca journey with "the best shaman ever". The hippie folks letting their dirty barefoot kids running around the park square and messing with peoples livestock seemed to be content too. We just couldn't shake the feeling that the locals were looking at all these foriengers with their expensive little cafes and matching bohemian clothing and wondering what the hell happened to their paradise?? We left loving Vilcabamba, but feeling confused about how it has been impacted from the influx of a completely different lifestyle and ecomonic status. Good or bad, or a little of both maybe??

It was once again time to move on, and we needed to choose our route into Peru. There are three entry points from Ecuador; the easy way along the coast that most people use, another mild route in the foohills, OR the muddy, remote, and seldom used crossing at La Balsa closer to the Amazon basin that often sees road closures due to landslides. We knew which one we wanted to do… and with a little reaching out to question another couple overlandering who we had heard recently crossed there, the decision was made. Bring on the adventure to La Balsa! After a 5am early morning wakeup, we high tailed it to the border, occasionally dropping into 4Lo to tackle some pesky mud. By the early afternoon we had made it to the quirky little border post, giving us plenty of time to charge into Peru.

Pushing through a section of recently plowed out landslide
This intimidating bamboo pole of authority keeps cars from running the border



Saturday, December 26, 2015

Whales, Turtles, and Boobies oh my!

The time had come to finally break away from our little caravan and get moving south! It wasn’t easy to speed up, we have been used to moseying along without a care in the world or appointment in the books for the past 7 months, but with each passing day we were thinking about the hefty miles between us and Cusco, the countdown to the upcoming family vacation was officially on! We headed down the coast and regretfully stopped in the town of Mompiche. We drove down the wide beach, got ourselves a spot in with the locals and soaked up the sun. It was Sunday, and apparently that meant that it was illegal to buy beer in this town… of course it won't stop us from trying at least! We strolled into a couple stores that looked like they had been raided, sporting just a few dusty items and wrinkly veggies in addition to their limited drink selection. They first told us "No", when we asked about beer, but as they said it they peeked around a bit nervously checking the streets, and then made a big fuss about hiding it before the police walked by. We complied and promptly slipped the Sunday contraband into our backpack, and carried on with our beach day. Despite the desolate store fronts, the town seemed ok during the day so we decided that bush camping on the beach would be a great idea for the night. Mallary went and knocked on the door of a house situated behind all the fishing boats on the beach, and although a bit curious and surprised at the request, after getting to know us with a game of 20 questions (only 15 of which we understood) assured us that it was ok to park there and sleep in the car. We paid them in beer headed for a restaurant in search of dinner, but as the sun went down the town became more and more deserted, with just a few people wandering the sandy streets and the occasional lonely drunk in the odd restaurant. With hunger pains setting in, we desperately scoped out a couple places, nothing felt right, so we flipped to some tactics learned in Central America and checked the bathrooms before ordering. Bathroom conditions can be an amazing barometer of the restaurant, do you really want people handling your food when the bathroom doesnt have running water and feces everywhere? Sure enough, bathroom check failed hardcore at every joint in running water, no TP, no soap, and a sad disgusting bucket full of ocean water for blasting Number 2's down the toilet gravity style. This town is on the verge of a Hep A outbreak! We had been on a roll with not getting sick for a while, and we sure as heck didn't want to risk it for some crappy food that night! We ended up back at the car, being questioned and visited by random kids who were super curious about these gringos parked up with the boats for the night. We didn't have any fresh food on hand, so we went to bed full of beer and cookies sans salmonella, wishing we were anywhere else than by ourselves in this wierd little beach town!

Chris drinking dinner

The next day we headed further south along the coast, and eventually pulled into the sleepy town of Canoa. There were dozens of shack like bars and restaurants right on the sand, but most were still closed up from low season. The weather was perfect though, and in some way we could tell that this cute town with it's sandy main street might be overwhelming if it was filled with tourists. We came at pretty much the perfect time for a low key kinda experience. A running water check tested positive, so we went to a highly recommended Cevicheria situated right on the sand, and chowed down on the most delicious fresh ceviche and their local specialty called encocado, a coconut curry like seafood sauce!

Shrimp encocado and ceviche

Canoa is one of those towns where you can see and experience the whole shebang in just an hour or two, according to Chris at least. Mallary had other thoughts though, so we managed to compromise (doing what Mallary wants) and spend the whole day bumming around the beach in a rented makeshift cabana thingy. Evening was approaching and we needed somewhere to crash asap. The local police were passing by, so we asked them if the end of the boardwalk was kosher for car camping. The spot was in iOverlander with recent reviews, but we always like to check with the locals first. No way they said, too dangerous, thieves apparently were targeting this dark spot lately. Time for plan B, we dropped into a gringo bar called Surf Shack on the main strip after conveniently positioning the car outside, and threw back cervezas over games of checkers until closing time. By then we had the wifi password and the staffs' blessing that we were cool to park out front and would even get checked on by the watchful eye of the their overnight security guard. This ended up being our first night of street camping...with the ability to stream Youtube videos to boot. Not a bad deal. It took a little getting used to, as there were still people out and about and no one walking by or stopping for a chat or a kiss outside the car knew we were inches from them, concealed by our tinted windows looking on! We got a little creeped out and had to think fast when we felt someone messing with one of the bikes on the back of the car... quickly engaging the alarm system scaring the culprit away, only to see that it was just a kid spinning wheels for fun! We laughed and realized we had nothing to worry about. The next morning was the cherry on top of our street camping... crawling out of the car with the same cloths on, no brushing of the teeth or fixing of the bed head hair, and back into the same bar for some awesome french press coffee after a prompt run to the loo.

Barside camp spot!

Doped up on strong coffee, we pushed further south to Puerto Lopez. The town comes heralded more so then any other place on Ecuador's coast, the main reason being the humpback whale migration here from June through September. Our timing was accidental, but impeccable to see these ocean giants up close... one of Mallary's top bucket list items! We found a cool campspot right outside of town, complete with a chocolate lab puppy ready for kisses (aka torture), wifi, and a fireplace. We promptly signed up for a boat tour with an added option to go to Isla de la Plata, affectionately called the Poor Man's Galapagos Island. The excitement built over the next few days as we spent time roaming the streets of the "everything whale themed" town and talking to a bunch of random tourists about their experiences with the whales. To our concern, none of the other folks we talked to were fortunate enough to see the breaching, but everyone at least saw whales, the whales were hanging out just under the surface though! All we could do now was hope we would get lucky on our upcoming trip! Time to eat more ceviche and fresh fish, and enjoy this quirky little town with all its friendly and chatty locals and tourists. We loved to watch the spectacle of a beachfront covered in boats and fishermen delivering loads of fish, selling it right off the boat if you are inclined for the freshest of the fresh! The entire town showed up there, including plenty of seafood loving street dogs and hundreds of pelicans showing off their own fishing skills in the nearby waters. There was so much to take in, that observing from the pier every day never got old.

I'm gunna hug you and squeeze you and kiss you my little puppy wuppy!!!

When our morning arrived, we excitedly milled around on the docks watching the pelicans sync up with each other and dive for their breakfast until boarding time. All of us eager tourists piled into a sleek boat with three outboard motors, and within a moments notice the boat shot off like a rocket. After we were all paid up and locked into this day, the guide got right to explaining that we would be lucky to see the whales breach, they don't do it everyday, and it is quite unpredictable where and when they may be. Quite frankly it felt like he was setting us up for a let down... but Mallary had her heart absolutely set on seeing them breech so she put all the good vibes for the day out there, while also stating that we would take this tour each day until we got lucky, no matter how many days and dollars it took! That was that, those whales were calling her name! Even with lowered expectations, nauseous diesel fumes, and choppy waters, the excitement of those of us on the boat could not be suppressed. As Isla de la Plata came into view, the boat suddenly slowed and the guide told us that there were whales to the right! We scanned the water with the video rolling in case they decided to jump, and if they did, we wanted to catch it cause it might only be a single jump for the fun of it or to remove barnicles or parasites from their body. Then, as we sat and scanned the water patiently, an enormous 40-50ft long beauty came flying up out of the water, arching, and slapping back into the water causing a giant splash and intense sound! We are freaking out on the boat at this point, frantically trying to soak it up all at once!


Little did we know at that point that this wasn't one of those fun little jumps that happened spontaneoulsy... there was an underwater courting process happening! The two males and one female would move closer and closer to our boat over the next half hour, continuously breaching and slapping their pectoral fins on the water in an effort to impress a mate and imtimidate their competitor to establish dominance. The feeling of being there with those whales was incredible... not only did we feel the strength of this huge, smart, emotional being in front of us... here we were witnessing a freaking courting process. Unreal! As the show went on, we were able to appreciate the intricacies of these animals more and more. At first it is a stunned feeling, like "holy cow what was just happened in front of me", and a little bit of shrieking and ohhing and ahhing. Then, it got silent, we learned to expect the rush, the noise, the action, and all the sudden you could see the features of the whales. The mottled gray and white of the underbelly, the chin, the eyes. The show went on, the breaching got fewer and farther between each one, and the captain said it was time to go. Mallary pleaded for "one last breach" about 3 times, then reluctantly took her seat and cherished the slapping pectoral fin that seemed to be waving us off as we headed for the island finally, happy and souls full from a magical time with the whales!!

The guide snapped this incredible picture!!!
Fin slapping
One last breach as we were heading off!
Dopamine running through us, we headed for Isla de la Plata. We weren't really sure what exactly gives this place the nickname of "Poor Man's Galapagos" but one thing we knew right off the bat was that it was nothing like Galapagos. Not in a way of complaining whatsoever, cause the island is great... but lets just call it what it is... a beautiful island with a rare bird that you can also see in the Galapagos, the Blue Footed Booby. The island is somewhat desert like, with its small dry shrubs and the only thing occupying it being the Booby birds and Frigate birds. The birds get their name from the Spanish word "bobo" for clown, and are known for their color and amusing mating dances, as well as their silly fearlessness of humans. We have to admit, they were cute, and their dancing was funny! All over the island we would see pairs of them, the males trying relentlessly to impress the females by shaking their boobies and pointing their beak to the sky as they spun in uncoordinated circles. All afternoon our guide was very strict about staying away from the birds, even when the birds decide to come up to you and hang out in the trail, he was rather funny about constantly reprimanding the group. This provided for some good entertainment all afternoon, as we had in tow a bunch of fun companions including a couple of trouble makers who loved to just push his limits, causing the rest of us to linger at the back and giggle like children everytime one of us "got in trouble" for going off the path, taking too long, getting too close to the cliff edge, and on and on! Tour group activities are always an oddball and peculiar experience!!!
Our friendly guide in white, reprimanding us to "stay away from the boobies!!"

As the group huddled together to listen to one of the guides speeches, there was a moment where Chris watched one of the Boobies go airborne, as the bird soared higher overhead, he started to say "I think...." but it was too late. A cluster bomb of bird poo rained down on the group, blasting five or six of us. Hair, faces, arms and clothing were speckled in white. The amount excreted by one bird was very impressive, and the guide got a kick out of the troublesome bunch's karma!! Back on the boat we encountered a couple dozen sea turtles swimming playfully around us hoping for a few leftover pineapple and watermelon slices before jumping in the chilly water for a short lived, but nice snorkle. All in all the day will go down as one of the best on the trip so far... it will be hard to beat being up close and personal with so much incredible wildlife off the coast of Ecuador! Life is good. Nature is amazing. Feeling lucky...