Ecuador Part 3 – The Galápagos Islands

October 8, 2019

We were up early for breakfast in the hotel before heading to the airport with our tour group at 6:00 am. Originally, we were going to leave at 7:00 am, but they were unsure about the time it would take to get to the airport due to the protests. We ended up getting there with tons of time to spare before our 10:13 am flight to the Galapagos. We gave our passports to our GAdventures Representative with $20 USD and she obtained our transit control cards for the Galapagos. We took out a lot of cash at the airport as we were warned there isn’t a lot of opportunity to get cash on the islands and most places would not take credit card.

Our tour group at the airport in Quito

The flight had a stopover in Guayaquil to re-fuel and some people departed and new people boarded. We stayed on the plane and headed off to San Cristobal Island. Upon arrival at the airport in San Cristobal we had to show our transit cards and then pay a $100 USD Galapagos Island Park Entry Fee. The fee funds the maintenance and supervision in the Galapagos, as well as ecology study, conservation and infrastructure development.

We met our GAdventures CEO, Dario, outside and loaded onto the bus. It was about a five minute drive to our hostel. The capital city of San Cristobal has 9,000 inhabitants. To live in the Galapagos you must be a resident or marry a resident.

We dropped our bags in our rooms and changed into our swim suits. We were able to rent snorkels for $25 USD for the week. I rented one, but Danny had brought his own that he had purchased on our round the world trip. The bus took us to the Interpretation Centre where we learned about the history of the Galápagos Islands and how they were formed. The islands were formed in the Pacific Ocean by the interaction of the plate tectonics and hot spot volcanism. The Galapagos lie on the Nazca Plate which is moving to the southeast towards the South American Plate at 5 cm/year. Volcanoes are formed in this hot spot creating new islands. Previously formed islands slowly move away from the hot spot allowing room for new islands to be formed. Older volcanoes eventually become inactive and erode into the ocean. Hot spots created the Galapagos as well as the islands of Hawaii.

There are thirteen major islands with hundreds of smaller rocky formations. A single volcano formed each island except for Isabela which was formed by the union of six different volcanoes. The majority of the islands were formed less than one million years ago. The islands were originally devoid until eventually, seeds carried by the wind arrived on the islands. The pioneer species were lichens and cactus capable of living with little water. Vegetation rafts from the continent would take a minimum of two weeks to reach the islands and only those capable of living with a lack of water such as reptiles, would survive. Just outside the interpretation centre were some candelabra cacti that grow only one metre every 100 years.

Candelabra cacti

There are two seasons in the islands: between June and November the average air temperature is 22 degrees Celsius and between December and May the average air temperature is 25 degrees Celsius. It is not quite as warm as one would think being so close to the equator. This is due to the predominant current coming up from Antarctica.

We walked along a trail behind the Interpretation Centre to a bay. There were steps down to the water. We left our clothes and grabbed our snorkels and jumped in the water. It was absolutely freezing. I think we lasted in the water for 30 minutes and really didn’t see much except fish. We got out and Danny was shaking from the cold.

Snorkelling in the freezing water

Some others that had gotten in the water later were still swimming when a sea lion came over to swim with them. We were a bit jealous. We got dressed and headed back to the hostel. Along the way we were shown some other beaches that we could go to the next day.

We had showers and got ready for supper. After supper we went for a walk around the town. There were tons of sea lions on the beaches. Most of them were resting. They make some very interesting noises that don’t suit their looks. After getting our fill of staring at the sea lions, we returned to our hostel for some sleep.

Nap time in the streets
October 9, 2019

In the morning, we had breakfast in the hostel then went for a walk around town. We bought some groceries for lunch and then went down and sat on one of the piers. We watched the sea lions for a bit, saw some iguanas and then a bunch of different birds.

Iguanas

When it had warmed up a bit from the morning temperature of 15 degrees Celsius, we changed into our swim suits and packed our bags to head to Playa Mann. The beach was about a 45 minute walk from our hostel. It was quite a large beach that was mostly covered by sea lions. We took our snorkels into the water and immediately saw a huge sea turtle.

Swimming with giant turtles

There were also sea lions swimming around. They were a bit scary because they would come up and swim past you very quickly. The sea turtles would just float in the water and you could stare at them for awhile.

Swimming with sea lions

When we walked along the beach we found a little sea lion that still had its umbilical cord attached and was laying next to its mother. The male sea lions will stay with their mother for three years, while females will only stay for one year.

Mom and baby sea lion

We spent most of the day at the beach and left when we realized how burned we had gotten. We returned to the hostel and along the way stopped to watch the sea lions again and then saw some blue footed boobies and more iguanas. We had supper then returned to the hostel to pack up for the next day.

Napping sea lions
October 10, 2019

We were up fairly early for breakfast and then caught our bus down to the pier. Each of our bags were looked through to make sure we weren’t smuggling any sand, plants or iguanas. We took a private boat to the island of Floreana which has approximately 150 inhabitants.

Danny on the boat to Floreana

We saw some more iguanas right when we arrived on the island. Apparently the red colour on the iguanas means they are males that are ready for mating. We hung out at a bar on the black sand beach. According to the bartender the bar was opened two weeks ago just for us.

Beach on Floreana

Some of our group including Danny went snorkeling out in the water. I was feeling too sun burned and didn’t want to make it any worse. After snorkeling we walked up the road to a little restaurant for lunch. It was a GAdventure supported community restaurant.

We were also able to purchase postcards there. At the pier there was a barrel you put your postcard in and other visitors that lived nearby would pick it up to hand deliver it. I found this idea very exciting and was hoping to find one near Edmonton to deliver, but the closest was Vancouver so we left it there. We will see if the postcards we wrote to our parents ever make it to them. An address in rural Alberta may be hard to find…

We hopped back on the boat for another 2 hour trip to the island of Isabela. Isabella has a population of about 2,200 inhabitants. A bus picked us up at the port and drove us into the highlands where we were staying at a camping site. Each set of two had their own tent. Inside were mattresses and towels for us. We had time at the campsite before dinner for a little ultimate frisbee game.

Supper was served at the campground and then after we had a fire. Danny and I had heard there was going to be a fire so had purchased cookies, chocolate and marshmallows the previous day while we were in San Cristobal for s’mores. The s’mores went over very well. No one had the traditional scary stories to tell, but we did have a lengthy discussion about serial killers. We knew we had an early morning so we didn’t stay up too late.

October 11, 2019

We were woken up very early by the roosters next door to our campsite. They seemed to have woken up at 4:00 am. We had breakfast at the campground then hopped on our bus to head up further into the highlands. There we hiked about an hour up to a viewpoint of Volcano Sierra Negra.

Volcano Sierra Negra

Volcano Sierra Negra has the largest caldera (bowl shape) of all of the Galapagos volcanoes. The volcano area is approximately 10 km x 8 km. It is a shield volcano which means the eruption occurs along the edges and is therefore less explosive than a strata volcano. It is also one of the most active of the Galapagos volcanoes. The last eruption was in June 2018 and locals hiked up to edge to watch. The green part of the volcano is lifting at 15 cm per year and the black part is lifting at 5 cm per year.

There is another volcano on the island that has giant tortoises living inside it. Goats also used to live inside, but would compete for food with the tortoises. Hunters have had to kill the goats to save the tortoises.

We hiked back down and drove into town where we walked out to a marshy area to see some flamingoes. There are about 250-300 flamingoes in the Galapagos and they fly between the islands. The dark pink colour indicates they are an adult and the lighter pink indicates they are younger.

Flamingoes

In town we met up with a local tour guide that would take us on our next adventure. We took a boat out to Los Tuneles, an area created from the Sierra Negra volcano. The many bridges are simply collapsed lava.

Los Tuneles

We were able to walk around the interesting landscape and view the entire lifecycle of the blue footed booby. There is no specific mating season for boobies. It is more dependent on food availability so differs between the islands. Males make a whistling noise while females make a honking noise. A male will flap out his wings to attract a female to mate with him. The female will choose the male she wishes to mate with.

Male booby dancing on the left, disinterested female in the middle and second male on the right

The parents will poop around an area to mark out their nest and usually they have one or two eggs. There is a 35-40 day incubation where one of the parents will stay at the nest while the other goes fishing. Once the babies are a bit older both parents will go fishing while the youngings stay at the nest. They eat fish exclusively and mostly sardines. Children start with white feet and develop their blue feet in adulthood.

Blue footed booby nest

After our walk we had lunch on the boat. Ecuadorians eat a lot of rice and beans which is what we had for lunch. After lunch the boat took us out to another spot along the shore where we put on our wet suits and snorkels and hopped in the water. There we saw a huge sea turtle who must have been about four or five feet long.

Sea turtle

We also saw a bunch of small black tipped sharks swimming around. The guide then pointed out a little tiny sea horse. The Little Mermaid really disillusioned me to the size of sea horses. Danny also saw an octopus.

Black tipped shark and seahorse

We swam over to this underwater ledge where you had to peak your head under to see the cave below where there were a set of white tipped sharks. They were really cool looking. We did see a lot of cool things there, but the way it was described to me I thought it was going to be so much more so I felt a little let down.

The boat took us back into town where we sat and relaxed for a bit. There was a bit of a protest going on in the main square, but nothing as large or as climactic as what was going on in Quito. Just before 6:00 pm we headed out to the beach as a group and watched the sunset. We met up for a spaghetti supper before heading back to the campground.

Sunset
October 12, 2019

Our morning started very early for us to catch one of the public boats to our next island, Santa Cruz which was about a two hour ride away. Santa Cruz has a population of about 12,000 residents making it the most populated island of the Galapagos. We arrived at our hostel, but were unable to check in so early. Instead we all walked to the Darwin Research Centre and Fausto Llerena Breeding Centre to see all the giant tortoises. In the Galapagos there are 12 of 15 species of giant tortoises still surviving.

Giant tortoises at the breeding centre

In the 18th century explorers would take the tortoises for food on their ships because they would live without food and water for a long time. Their heart rates can drop to 3-4 beats per minute at rest. Apparently the taste is a mixture between chicken, pork and beef. Tortoise oils were also burned in lamps before electricity and the shells served many purposes before the invention of plastic. There are only 30,000 giant tortoises remaining in the Galapagos. Volcanic eruptions kill a lot of tortoises and there is an ongoing black market for tortoises. A small one can cost $65,000 on the black market.

The breeding centres search for eggs in the wild. Only 1-2 of twenty eggs will survive in the wild. At about 3-4 years old the tortoises are released back into the wild. The temperature the eggs are kept at determines their sex: warm breeds females and cold breeds males. This means that there are more males in the highlands. The males will walk to find the females to breed using the smell of their poop. Females walk away from the males and do not want to breed. The males continue their pursuit until the females cannot escape, the males hop on and essentially rape the females. Giant tortoises move at a rate of 1 km/h. Tortoises can live up to 200 years. The breeding centre pays about $1,000 per tortoise per year.

Baby tortoises

Dome shelled tortoises are adapted to wet zones where food is close to the ground. Saddleback tortoises are only found in the Galapagos and have long neck and legs adapted to finding food in desert zones.

Super Diego is a famous tortoise from the breeding centre. He was one of the last males of his kind and the breeding centre found him at the San Diego zoo. They brought him to the breeding centre where he repopulated the species producing approximately 2,000 offspring.

Super Diego

We walked back into town and I was getting very hangry. It took us forever to get to our lunch place. After lunch we took a bus about 45 minutes into the highlands. We were able to walk through a lava tube that was found when a farmer kept losing his cows. The last eruption there was 2.5 million years ago. The lava tubes are essentially arms of the volcano.

Inside a lava tube

Next we walked around an area with a ton of tortoises in the wild. We saw a couple that were over 150 years old. They didn’t seem to care too much that we were there. They have no predators in the Galapagos except for humans. They are herbivores that mostly consume grasses and leaves.

Wild tortoise

At the end we were able to look inside a tortoise shell to see where it’s spine is attached to the shell. We were also able to crawl inside to get a sense of the weight of the shell. Male tortoises can weigh more than 500 pounds and females average about 250 pounds. The shell encompasses the spine as well so a tortoise cannot leave its shell.

Danny as a tortoise

We returned to the hostel where we were able to check in and rest a bit before supper. We had some delicious sushi for supper and viewed another calm protest in the town square. It seemed more like a celebration of culture with singing and dancing. Danny and I got some ice cream on our way back to the hostel before bed.

Protest on Santa Cruz
October 13, 2019

We slept in a bit then had breakfast at the hostel. We chatted with some of our tour group about the situation in Quito. We had been hearing the situation had gotten much worse with the protests. Many others on our tour had rescheduled their flights to leave from Quito right when we would be arriving back from the Galapagos. Danny and I looked into it, but the cost to change our flights would have been $300 USD each. We decided to wait and see what the situations as like in Quito when we arrived. We also found out that the same flight we were taking out of the Galapagos was canceled today so we didn’t want to change our flight and then have to change it again.

We decided to head into town and grab some food to pack for lunch. It was an hour walk along a hilly path to Tortuga Bay. When you reach the water there is a beautiful beach that you cannot swim at as it has strong rip tides.

Tortuga Bay

We walked passed a bunch of iguanas that were swimming.

Iguanas basking in the sun

Up further there was a cove that had calm water for swimming. We found a spot in the shade to lay out our towels. We took out our snorkels and jumped in the water. The water, however, was not clear enough for snorkelling. We could barely see our hands in front of us. Instead we swam for a bit, lounged for a bit, swam for a bit then decided we were a bit bored and worried about getting more sun burned. We walked back to the hostel and relaxed for a bit.

We met the group and went for supper together. I had a big lobster which was pretty exciting. After supper we walked down to the main pier and were able to see a ton of sharks swimming around. Then we enjoyed a quiet walk back to the hostel.

October 14, 2019

We were up pretty early to take our bus down to the pier where we caught a boat out to Isla Baltra, an island just north of Santa Cruz. The island used to be a US Military Base during WWII to patrol the eastern Pacific and protect the Panama Canal. At the Pier of Isla Baltra we caught another bus to the airport on the island. Here we said goodbye to our guide Dario and went through security to wait for our flight back to Quito.

Our flight returned to Quito as planned. We said goodbye to many of the people from our tour at the airport as they had their next flights to catch. We returned to the original hotel we had stayed at in Quito with a set of five others from our tour.

We checked in and relaxed for a bit. We met our remaining group and walked up the street for supper. I had a plate full of vegetables and Danny had a quarter of a guinea pig. It tasted like rabbit and was actually very good.

Quarter guinea pig

Following dinner, we walked back to the hotel and went to bed exhausted.

We booked a nearby Airbnb to stay at for the next couple of days. The President met with the leader of the Indigenous the day before and everything seems to be going all right now. On our drive back into Quito there were people cleaning up the blockades in the streets so that is a good sign. Everything seems to be calm in Quito now so we plan on keeping our original flight and spending the next couple of days checking out Quito.

M

Ecuador Part 2 – Banos, Cotopaxi and Quito

October 5, 2019

Danny was up bright and early to participate in La Selva or the jungle marathon. The Guayaquil Marathon was canceled so the running club had decided they would host their own. They made their own running tags with their names and measured the distance from the lodge to Misahualli and back. For a full marathon they would have to do this track twice.

The race started at 6:30 am with two rocks banged together. I stayed and watched the water and snacks table at the lodge while one of the ladies went up to get some other things. Danny returned after just under an hour and a half. He had reached the 5 km point and the sun was starting to come up so he decided it was time to turn around. He was happy to finish the 10k especially since the sun just kept getting hotter.

La Selva, Jungle Marathon

I had breakfast at 8:30 am and then a man showed up at our table to ask us about what we wanted to do with all the protests going on. We determined after a few minutes that he was Santiago, the guy our original driver had mentioned. Santiago was a manager at Suchipakari Lodge. He had been stuck in Quito the last couple of days helping some other travellers get to Quito and then to the airport. He told us that the southern route in to Quito was where the main blockades were located. The cab and bus drivers had been appeased with a raise in fairs, but the Indigenous continued their protests south of Quito. He told us we could make it to Banos, but we may not be able to enter Quito from the south. If this happened, the plan would be to go back towards the jungle and get back to Quito from the east. We agreed to head to Banos and see what happened from there.

Following breakfast, we made fresh chocolate. We took cacao beans fresh from the jungle and roasted them. After a couple of minutes they were hot enough that we could roll them to get the peel off. After the beans were put through a grinder until it was a sticky powder. Next the ground cacao was put in a saucepan over the fire and milk and sugar were added. We ate it with some fruit like a fondue.

Chocolate making

Cacao beans were originally found in the Amazon of Ecuador and now can be found on the coast as well. On the coast they grow very well and can be exported. In the Amazon, the cacao is more for family use. The cacao are harvested twice a year and inside a plant there are 50-60 seeds.

After chocolate making, we packed up our bags to get ready to go. Santiago drove us and another couple at the lodge to Tena. From there, the other couple would be heading northwest towards Quito with another driver. Santiago continued driving us southwest to Banos.

He told us how there are lots of towns named after oil companies such as Shell and Texaco. He was saying that nowadays the Shuar, an Indigenous community within the Amazon, are not part of modern society. They live on land where oil still remains. Ecuador believes in protecting the Indigenous culture and have created Reservation de production de Fauna Cuyabeno. However, many oil companies choose to go through Peru to get to this area.

Electricity has changed sleeping patterns. Roads have made the cities more accessible. Young Indigenous people feel stuck between two worlds. This has led to an increase in youth suicides.

We had lunch just outside of Banos. Banos was named after all of the waterfalls in the area. After lunch we walked out to Pailon Del Diablo. It is the second tallest waterfall in Ecuador at 80 m. There is one higher waterfall in the northern Amazon at 120 m. The waterfall was very powerful and the view was spectacular.

Pailon del Diablo

Next we visited Agoyan Waterfall where we were given the option to do a $15 USD zip line across a canyon, over the waterfalls and to the other side. Danny chose the sitting up version and I chose the Superman version. We were put into harnesses and taken up to a platform.

I watched as Danny was attached. They took the rope from the harness and looped it around a T-bar on the line. I expected something to be fit on the ends to prevent the rope from coming off, but then Danny was sent down the line just like that. I watched as they attached me the same way. I was freaking out. If the zip line were to sway a bit or I were to move too much the rope could slip off the ends and splat. I did not enjoy the zipline. I was basically praying the whole time over the waterfalls that I would not slip off. Thankfully, I made it to the other side. I guess that’s what you get with a $15 zipline.

Terrifying zipline over Agoyan Waterfall

Our next stop was La Casa del Arbol, Swing at the End of the World. There were a bunch of swings there with a view of Tungurahua, an active volcano whose peak is at 5023 m. The way the volcano opens, eruptions go the opposite way of the valley of Banos. I very much enjoyed this place. Apparently it is usually very busy there, but due to the situation in Ecuador we only had to wait a bit to get on a swing.

La Casa del Arbol with a view of Tungurahua

We walked around and there was a cow with mountains in the background. It looked very similar to pictures we took in Switzerland.

View at La Casa del Arbol

On our drive into Banos we stopped for a view overlooking the city. The hotel we stayed at had a thermal bath. We enjoyed some time relaxing there before supper. Santiago took us to a restaurant where we had mojitos and steaks. It was amazing! After we went up the street to a bar where we had some more drinks and did some dancing before heading back to the hotel for bed.

October 6, 2019

We had a bit of a sleep in before breakfast at the hotel. We left Banos at 10 am to head to Cotopaxi. Santiago informed us that we would not be able to make it Quilotoa, a water filled caldera volcano, that was supposed to be part of our itinerary. The way there was blocked by the Indigenous protests.

Our drive to Cotopaxi was interesting. We took some back roads until Santiago believed the way was clear back on the main highway. We returned to the highway and then saw a bunch of vehicles heading the wrong direction towards us. The highway must have been blocked further up. We ended up taking back roads all the way to Cotopaxi. We drove past remnants of blockades on those roads as well. There was burning ash and trees and rocks pushed to the road side.

Remnants of blockades along the back roads to Cotopaxi

At Cotopaxi National Park, we checked in then a guide drove with us to the visitor centre. She explained that the trees in the National Park were from Canada, California and Chile and used for export. Cotopaxi means “throat moon” in the Indigenous language because the way the moon sits in the volcano at night makes it look like the throat of the moon. Cotopaxi volcano started to be active again in 2000, but it’s last major eruption was in 1817. History shows that it erupts every 100 years. It is the second highest active volcano in the world. Technology is able to give 20 minutes for people to escape the volcano. They have found that horses will leave the area 15 days before.

Our national park guide left us and we drove on to a nearby place within the park that had horses to ride. Santiago had called to arrange in the morning, but when we arrived there were no horses. He explained that the Indigenous people bring in the horses, but they were away protesting. We drove out of the park and further up the road to a little resort which had its own horses.

We were given an explanation on horseback riding that was much more extensive than when we were in Mongolia. The horses we had were quite calm. We were given furry chaps and a traditional poncho to wear. It started to rain not five minutes into our ride. Rain jackets were put over us and the rain did not stop.

Our clothing for horseback riding

We rode for about 45 minutes to the top of a hill. There was supposed to be a view of Cotopaxi and some of the other nearby volcanoes, but it was much too cloudy. We could just make out one of the smaller ones closest to us. My horse and I were very happy when we started heading back.

View from the top of our horseback ride

We had some locro de papa, potato soup for lunch which was very enjoyable. We added avocado, cheese, seeds and corn on top. At this point it was already 4:30 pm. We left the resort and continued on a back road until we reached the main highway. From there, it was clear all the way into Quito.

We stopped at a place to have a burger for supper then Santiago dropped us off at our hotel where we were supposed to start our GAdventures tour. We were a day early, but they had room for us to stay there. Santiago left us to relax and we planned for him to pick us up the next morning at 10 am. He asked if he would be able to bring his son as well because school was canceled for the next day. We agreed and planned for us to go to the Quito Cable Car and out to the equator line.

October 7, 2019

We had breakfast in the hotel then saw a message from Santiago telling us we would not be able to go to the equator line as the Indigenous had blocked the route. He asked if maybe we could move this day until we returned from the Galapagos. He phoned the reception at the hotel and she printed us off some maps to show us places we could go within Quito.

We started by taking some laundry to the nearby mall to get washed then we walked up the street to the Ethnohistoric and Crafts Museum of Ecuador. We saw a bunch of ceramics and textiles.

Exhibits in the Ethnohistoric and Crafts Museum of Ecuador

We had lunch right beside the museum then walked up the street to the Mercado Artesanal La Mariscal. They had all sorts of knitted clothing, t-shirts and other souvenirs for sale. All the stalls seemed to blend together after awhile. We think we got some good deals though.

We returned to the hotel to chill a bit before we met our GAdventures tour group at 5:00 pm. This tour was set up a bit differently. We had a GAdventures representative meet with us to explain the airport procedure for the next day, but she was not going to be the guide with us for the whole trip. We would meet our guide when we arrived in the Galapagos.

A bunch of us met for supper just up the street. It was a fancy meal, but we enjoyed it. We returned to the hotel to pack our stuff to leave for the Galapagos the next day.

With the situation with the protests in Ecuador we have been very lucky to avoid any issues. We were unable to see Quilotoa which was a bit disappointing, but we were able to make it back to Quito in time to start our Galapagos trip. We are excited to be on our way to one of the most unique places on earth.

M

Ecuador Part 1 – The Amazon

Day 1: October 1, 2019

Our flight left from Edmonton at a very acceptable time, but we still had to be up at 4:30 am. We had a five hour flight to Houston where we spent a five hour layover grabbing lunch and just relaxing. Then we had another five hour flight to Quito, Ecuador. On this flight we had the row in front of the emergency exit which meant we couldn’t lean our seats back. This was a big mistake. It was so uncomfortable and all we wanted to do was sleep.

We arrived in Quito just after midnight, cleared customs fairly quickly and picked up our bags. We then went outside to catch a taxi. The official taxis have orange license plates. There was a set price from the airport into the city. It was $26 USD for our cab ride. In 2000 the Ecuadorian sucre was given up for the US dollar after the sucre dramatically lost its value.

We checked into the Masaya Hostel which was suggested by our tour company. It was a nice quiet hostel. We had a private room with our own bathroom. We dropped our bags and went to sleep exhausted from a long day of travel.

Day 2: October 2, 2019

We woke up around 7:00 am to have breakfast and get ready to meet our tour guide in the hostel at 8:00 am. Around 8:10 am we started getting worried. Then at 8:30 am we looked up the tour company’s phone number and were just about to call when a man came in. He asked if I was Merai Downey to which I replied yes. He said Santiago sent him and we kind of shrugged not understanding who Santiago was. We had booked the tour online using Viator and the tour company just said Live Ecuador. We went with him because he knew my name.

We had dressed in all of our clothes because our itinerary said we were going to Cotopaxi where the weather was supposed to be -15 degrees. The driver then said he was driving us to the hot springs and then to the Amazon. It turned out we were doing the itinerary we had seen online in reverse.

Our first stop was Papallacta Hot Springs. The temperature was a little on the chilly side and these hot springs were outside. We changed into our swim suits and ventured into the pools. They had a bunch of smaller pools around the site and then a bigger one. It was nice and relaxing and not too busy. We spent about an hour there.

Enjoying Papallacta Hot Springs

As we were leaving we got pulled aside by one of the employees at the hot springs to watch a mock exercise with paramedics. All we saw was them carrying a man in a blanket to the meeting point. We aren’t quite sure why we needed to see it.

We returned to our driver and he drove us to a nearby town where we had trout for lunch. The portions were very large. There was a bowl of popcorn to start, our main meal and then a bowl of rice came out. We also tried a homemade alcohol made from fermented sugar cane with different tree barks.

On we drove, into the Ecuadorian Amazon. We drove to Suchipakari Lodge located near the small town of Misahualli. Our driver dropped us there and one of the staff helped carry our bags to the lodge which was about a five minute walk along the nearby river.

At the lodge we were shown to our room which had a beautiful heart display of flower petals. It was very cute and thoughtful.

Our bed at Suchipakari Lodge

We chilled in our room until just before supper time when we met our guide for our time at the lodge. His name was Dorian and his community was about 20 minutes up the Napo River. He told us about our plans for the next day and got us fitted with some rubber boots.

Supper was held in the main area of the lodge open to the Amazon breeze. There was another large group there from a running club. We went back to our room right after and went to sleep.

Day 3: October 3, 2019

We both had really good sleeps the night before. I think we both needed to catch up. We had breakfast at the lodge and then Dorian met us with three other travellers for a walk through the jungle.

Our guide, Dorian, on the far right

We saw lots of different plants and Dorian explained their different uses. Our walk ended at the Napo River where there was a motorized canoe waiting to take us to a nearby Kichwa (Indigenous peoples of the Upper Amazon Basin) village.

In the village, we were greeted and given braided head bands that were supposed to keep away the mosquitos. We were also given face-paint using a plant then when broken open has a red liquid.

Danny’s head band and face-paint

We were shown how to take a plant (we think it was a palm leaf) and scrape off the green skin to get a fibrous rope. The community uses the rope for fishing and for making different items such as net bags.

Making rope

Next the lady showed us how they take clay from a certain part of the river and are able to use it to make pottery. They paint the pottery with different colours of clay using a brush made from the hair of a young girl since it is softer.

Making bowls from clay

The last item they showed us was how they make chicha, a fermented beverage made from cassava in this case, but can also be made from grains, maize or fruit. They boil the cassava for 30-40 minutes then mash it up. They then leave it to ferment. It used to be fermented by chewing and spitting the cassava, but when the Spanish arrived it increased the spread of tuberculosis so they stopped that practice. We were given a taste of the unfermented chicha which tasted like yogurt.

Danny helping to make chicha

We thanked the women for showing us a part of their culture and continued in the motorized canoe. Along the way we saw some squirrel monkeys jumping through the trees along the river.

Our journey continued to an animal refuge centre. They take in animals that have been apprehended by the government because they are illegal to have as pets. We saw parrots, turtles, monkeys, caiman and pecari.

There were two especially sad looking monkeys. Both had mental health problems due to how they were treated in the past as well as their previous diet. One was a capuchino monkey which are known for being very intelligent and are often used in movies because they can be taught tricks. However, this also means that being locked in a cage can have devastating effects.

Capuchino monkey

We returned to our canoe and took a ride to a picnic spot. We were able to go for a swim there in the muddy water.

After we walked up the trail a bit to a small group of houses where we were able to try to shoot a blow gun. The blow guns typically shoot 20-30 m and are used to hunt monkeys and birds. The darts and gun are made from palm trees. There is cotton on the end of the dart to keep it straight. The bag of darts had a set of piranha teeth hanging from it which was used to sharpen the darts. They also will boil a dead poisonous frog to add poison to the darts. Our practice involved shooting a wooden owl. I don’t think we did too terribly.

Blowgun practice

Our canoe returned us to our pick up point and we walked the 30 minutes back to the lodge. Danny and I played some cards until we met Dorian again for a night time walk through the jungle. We stayed nearby the lodge and took a trail around to look for different insects. We saw lots of different types of frogs, crickets, spiders, moths, walking sticks and caterpillars.

Creatures from our night walk in the Amazon

Back at the lodge we had supper and went to bed.

October 4, 2019

At breakfast the tour guide for the running club started explaining something about protests. We had no idea what was going on and had to ask their group. It turned out the Ecuadorian government had removed fuel subsidies causing diesel prices to rise from $1.03 to $2.30 per gallon and gasoline from $1.85 to $2.39 per gallon. In Quito, the taxi and bus drivers were protesting this increase and transportation was shut down. The running club had been planning to go to Guayaquil for a marathon, but now weren’t sure if they would be going.

We started our day by taking a taxi ride to a waterfall just outside of Misahualli. There was a little falls right near the start, but we hiked up another 30 minutes to a larger one. There was a pool there to swim in which was very refreshing.

Waterfall near Misahualli

On the way back down Dorian broke open a yellow cocoa to show the beans inside. We each took a bean and stuck it in our mouths. It was covered in a sweet film that had a hint of chocolate taste. We had lunch back at the bottom and did some more swimming by the first waterfall. Then we waited for our driver to pick us up to take us back into town.

Our driver never showed up and we found out later that when Dorian called him he said that due to the protests, he wasn’t allowed to leave the town square. There was someone there with a clipboard checking to make sure no one was working. We walked out to the main road to see if we could catch a ride back. Within five minutes a truck stopped to pick our group of six up and take us back into town.

The town was dead. I guess there are normally a lot of tourists there, but the protests had stranded a lot of people. We walked to “Monkey Beach” where there are usually lots of monkeys in the trees, but they must have been at the protests as well. Back in town there were a couple of monkeys hanging around looking for food. One came over to see us by sliding down a telephone wire.

Monkey in Misahualli

Dorian had to do some improvising and hired us a water taxi to take us to another Indigenous community along the Napo River. One of the members of the community explained to us how 17 years ago they had been digging foundations for a building and found this gigantic rock. He showed us all of the different animals and rivers that could be seen in the rock face. Some scientists had taken a sample to see if it was actually a meteorite.

Rock found in one of the Indigenous villages

After a group of women performed a traditional dance for us. We were encouraged to join in which as pretty cool. We thought they would show us more dances, but after one dance we left. The water taxi had waited for us and took us back to our pick up point from the previous day. From there it was only a 30 minute walk back to the lodge.

Traditional dance

When we arrived back to the lodge, the women from the village had beat us back there. They were there performing a wedding ceremony for a couple from the running club also staying at the lodge. They had gotten engaged before the trip and since they were stranded at the lodge decided why not get married.

We arrived just as the ceremony was starting. It was very moving. It reminded us very much of the way we got married when we were in Nepal. We both had tears in our eyes as they said their vows. They had a bit of a dance party afterwards with some special drinks.

Wedding ceremony

Just before supper Danny and I decided to play some pool in the main area. The running club had mostly sat down at the nearby tables. One of the men stood up and asked for everyone’s attention. We assumed he was going to give a toast to the new couple, but instead he said how disappointed he was to see people from their group drinking alcohol. One of his friends who was only recently sober was very upset seeing other people drinking and was thinking about leaving. It was explained that the running club was created to help people who were at the bottom and there were people who were recovering addicts and alcoholics. The conversation ended with the creator of the running club, “The Judge” saying that he understood and all events going forward would not have alcohol. It was a really touching moment and showed how expressing your feelings openly can be met with understanding. It was inspiring how much the group cared about each other.

When I googled their running club later to see if they were on Facebook, I found that they actually have a documentary coming out October 14, 2019 called “Skid Row Marathon”. I’m very interested to see it now.

The running club is called “Skid Row Running Club” and was created in 2012 by a Judge after a man he’d sentenced to prison returned to thank him. The runners in the club are from all walks of life. Some members are homeless or in recovery and others are lawyers, social workers, students or off-duty police officers.

We were served a barbecue supper which was delicious then we returned to our room for sleep.

The Ecuadorian Amazon has been a real treat for us. We added this tour on because it fit in before our scheduled tour to the Galapagos. We didn’t really expect much from it, but feel pleasantly surprised. We loved visiting all of the Indigenous communities and walking through the wilderness. It will be interesting to see what happens tomorrow. We are supposed to head to Banos, but are unsure if we will be able due to the protests.

M

Jamaica

April 2019

A couple of months after we returned from our round the world trip, I started to really feel like traveling again. I wanted to go anywhere. Jamaica had been on our original list to travel to after Christmas following our round the world trip, but then we ended up staying at home after Christmas.

One day WestJet and Air Canada both had seat sales to the Caribbean. We found an all-inclusive hotel nearby Montego Bay and booked the trip before we could talk ourselves out of it. We have always been critical of all-inclusive resorts, but we had never been to one before so we thought this would be our chance to give it a try.

Tuesday morning, we were up early to fly four hours to Toronto with a quick hour layover followed by another four hour flight to Montego Bay. We took a cab to our resort. The cabs had set prices, but they were expensive ($30 USD for a 15 minute ride).

Amenities

We arrived at the Holiday Inn Montego Bay. The main building had a bar, some shops, a spa/salon, slot machines and table tennis. For food, there was a main buffet area, a Japanese restaurant, a Jamiacan and an Italian restaurant, as well as a pub on the second floor. The resort also had a seafood restaurant near the water, a “Jerk Hut”, a stand with ice cream, nachos and hot dogs, a grill with hamburgers and fries and then numerous bars scattered about.  There was also live entertainment throughout the day and evening at the main stage.

Holiday Inn Montego Bay

There was a fitness centre, a basketball court, a beach volleyball net, mini golf and four tennis courts. They also had kayaks, catamarans and paddle boats. You could pay extra for motor sports. There was a regular pool near the main building and then an adults only pool on the other side of the resort. They had a bit of trouble finding us a room, so we ended up getting a VIP wristband which from what we understood just meant we were in an adults only building right beside the adults only pool.

One of the things that made the resort so beautiful was an island just out from the main beach that you could walk to very easily. The water in between got up to just above my knees.

We started off our resort life with supper at the buffet. I was already judging the place. I love buffets, but I really didn’t need to fill my plate twice or have four desserts. There was so much unnecessary eating and wasted food. When I think about it, it makes me feel sick. Here we are wasting tons of food when there are people that don’t know where their next meal will come from.

Resort Life

We spent our days at the resort swimming and snorkeling. There were some fishies and even a sting ray around the pier and behind the island. 

Fishies Seen While Snorkeling

One morning after breakfast we took in a free tennis lesson. Neither of us have played before so it was really interesting to learn the grip, swing and follow through.

During one of our lounging days, we also took a short catamaran ride. We also ate at some of the restaurants and had lots of drinks.

Lounging on the Beach

One of the nights we went to the Seabreeze restaurant on the resort for a seafood dinner. You had to make a reservation, but the cost was included. It was a good excuse to dress up and the food was pretty good.

Sunset at the Resort

Excursions

We had planned to book our excursions when we got there, but dealing with the hotel seemed too complicated and talking to the cab drivers we felt like we were going to get ripped off. Instead we went online to our trusty Viator and booked some excursions their website.

Appleton Estates

Our first excursion was to Appleton Estates to discover how rum is made. The drive took us about 2.5 hours from Montego Bay and was on a winding road over the hills. Our tour started with a welcome drink then we were shown how they used a donkey powered press extract juice from the sugar cane.

Donkey Powered Sugar Cane Press

We got to sample the raw sugar cane as well as the juice. The juice was then boiled to make molasses and sugar crystals which are then distilled into rum. It was cool to see the unaged rum all the way to the 30-year rum and how the colour changes. We were given samples at the end and then our driver took us to YS Falls.

Rum Aging

YS Falls

YS Falls is a more local version of the popular Dunn’s River Falls. We arrived and changed into our swimsuits in the changerooms. I only had my waterproof running shoes and really should have had some water shoes. We walked up to the base of the falls and there were guides there to help you climb up the falls themselves. We linked hands in a chain with the guide going first and telling us where to place our feet. It was very exhilarating and a bit terrifying not knowing if your next step would be a slippery one.

At the top there was a rope swing into the falls that I chose to do. I don’t have much practice with rope swings, so I basically just stepped off the side and dropped. The depth was a bit of a surprise which is probably an indication of how much cliff diving I have done.

The night before there had been a big rainstorm so there was more water at the falls than usual and the water was more brown than teal. The large amount of rain meant we couldn’t climb higher than where the rope swing was located as it was dangerous.

We tipped our guide and changed back into our clothes. On the drive back I felt like my ears weren’t popping properly. I started to feel a build up of pressure. By the time we got back to the resort I was in a lot of pain. We ate a late lunch and then went to the nurse’s station. She said it was likely just water stuck in my ear and gave me Cetamol (acetaminophen) to relieve the pain. The pain did disappear right away, but my ears still felt very muffled.

Luminous Lagoon

We were picked up from our hotel on the Sunday evening to see the Luminous Lagoon. The drive took about 45 minutes. We were taken to a lagoon side bar, given a welcome drink and then we waited for the sun to go down. There were about 14 of us in the boat. Up the shore there was a much more commercial operation. It seemed like they were herding people onto boats.

Swimming in the lagoon was pretty incredible. As you moved your hands, the microorganisms were stirred up causing a photochemical reaction making the water streak with a green/blue light. I felt like I was magical moving my hands through the water.

Our driver returned us to the resort and we had a nice chat. We asked him how he felt about the resorts as a local. He said we can build more as they bring money to the Jamaican economy and employ many people. This made me feel a little less bad about staying at the resort.

On Monday morning, we packed up then I decided to return to the nurse’s station to confirm I was okay to fly as my ear was still muffled. It was a different nurse this time and she said they never recommend flying with an ear infection. She said I might be able to take some sinus medication and be all right, but there was a risk of rupturing my ear drum. This did not sound good. I asked to see a doctor so they could confirm if my ear was in fact infected. The nurse called and was able to get a doctor to drop by the hotel (for only $180 USD). The doctor looked in my ears and confirmed they were both infected. He advised me not to travel.

We returned to our room and I called our insurance company to start a claim. I was told to wait to cancel our flight until I heard back from them. I was also advised they likely would not cover Danny staying with me.

We checked to see if there were rooms available where we were staying, but they said they were fully booked. We looked online and found a place that looked similar but was on the “Hip Strip” in Montego Bay. We took a cab there but weren’t able to check in until 3:00 pm.

Montego Bay

Hip Strip

While we waited to be able to check in we decided to walk to downtown Montego Bay. To get there, we walked along the Hip Strip. The Hip Strip is located within Montego Bay and consists of a bunch of shops and clubs. It seemed to be where most tourists hung out. Margaritaville, a water slide and giant trampoline, is also located on the Hip Strip. There were lots of souvenirs to purchase and lots of women asking if I wanted my hair braided. Now looking back I wish I had gone full Monica 🙂

Harbour Street Craft Market

On the way, we also walked through a local flea market, Habour Street Craft Market, on the way. There were lots of different touristy items to buy there: Rastafari hats, shirts, masks, baskets, local paintings and lots more. It wasn’t too busy there and there were lots of vendors.

Sam Sharpe Square

We continued on to the middle of downtown to Sam Sharpe Square. Sam Sharpe was born into slavery in the early 1800s. He organized a peaceful general strike to protest working conditions which became the 1832 slave rebellion. He was singled out as starting the rebellion and hanged in the area now known as Sam Sharpe Square. Slavery was finally abolished across the British Empire in 1838.

Sam Sharpe Statue

At the Sam Sharpe statue a man came up to talk to us. We are always suspicious because it seems friendly people are always looking for something. The man started with just talking to us about the statue and then wanted to take us around the square. I ended up getting a call from the insurance company who advised that they would cover Danny staying with me. We told the man that we had to go and he insisted on getting us a cab. We then said we were just going to go to a restaurant. He put out his hand asking for a tip which we disagreed in paying and walked away.

We walked to a nearby restaurant to discuss what we should do. Danny had prepared himself to leave in a couple of hours, so this changed it all. He decided to stay with me <3. We returned to the hotel and were able to add him to the room I was in. We checked in and the hotel was not near as nice as the Holiday Inn. Luckily, the food was really good. There was a small pool, a small gym, a BBQ place and table tennis. Across the street we had free access to a very nice beach called Doctor’s Cave.

The next day we took a cab down to the doctor’s office to get him to fill out a form for the insurance company. He checked my ears again and they were still infected.

City Tour

The next day we booked a tour around Montego Bay. Our driver took us through the downtown then around the “old money” houses. These houses were almost like mini acreages. Then we drove up to where people had seized land to build homes forming a ghetto. Apparently, crime is bad in that section. Our driver said its not somewhere he would drive at night. Then we drove to the “new money” houses. There was less space between the houses there. Next were the middle-income houses where our driver lived. He said most people start with a small house then build additions onto their houses. They rent out the additional rooms to supplement their income. Our driver said he makes $80 USD/week. In Montego Bay there were a bunch of call centres where people make $2-3 USD/hour.

Next we drove up through the hills to see some rural communities. There were mango, orange, breadfruit, ackee and banana trees. Our driver was telling us that the Chinese have done some investing in road construction in Jamaica. We drove on part of a newer road that was paid for by the Chinese. It seems like they have their fingers in everything. It’s worrying what kind of deal Jamaica signed based on what we have heard about it other countries regarding Chinese investment.

We drove back to Montego bay and up to Richmond Hill. In the 1700s there was a sugar cane plantation located there. From the balcony there was a wonderful view of Montego Bay.

View of Montego Bay from Richmond Hill

We were returned to our hotel by lunch and played quite a few games of pool and did a lot of scrolling through Facebook. We may have also spent quite a bit of time in the bar.

Doctor’s Cave

The beach included in our hotel stay is a very famous one. Doctor’s Cave is a private beach located in the middle of Montego Bay’s Hip Strip. It is rated as one of the best beaches in Jamaica due to the clear turquoise waters, white sand and calm waters. There were changing rooms and showers right there and beach chairs and umbrellas could be rented. It also had a restaurant and bar right there. We spent one morning here enjoying the sun and Danny did some snorkeling. It got very busy in the afternoon and we were glad we had gone early.

On the Thursday we decided to head back to the doctor’s office to get my ears checked out. The same doctor wasn’t in, so another doctor had a look. She said there was no infection and that I was good to fly.

There was a flight leaving in a couple hours so we decided to just go to the airport to see if we could get on the flight. I called the insurance company to let them know and asked if they would cover the additional cost of the flight.

When we got to the airport, we looked online, but were unable to book as it was so close to the flight time. We went up to the WestJet desk and they were checking in people. We asked about getting on the flight and they were able to get us on. However, they were unable to use the money from our account that had been transferred from us cancelling our original flights. I was nervous about doing this because I didn’t know when we would use the money on the account otherwise as it expires in a year. Danny just really wanted to get home and back to work so we booked it.

Our trip ended up being more than we expected. I was happy for the extra stay, but Danny felt anxious about not being home. We are glad that we were able to experience resort life, but I don’t think we will choose to do it again. The excessiveness of the food and drinks bothered me a lot and it felt like we had little access to actual Jamaica. I was glad we had the extra days to get more of an experience within Montego Bay even though it was in the touristy section.

M

Canada

Day 269: December 5, 2018 Again

Flying in to Vancouver got me really excited. I started bouncing in my seat once I saw the Canadian coast. There was something about seeing a piece of Canada. There was so much openness and wilderness. Exhausted, we landed in Vancouver around 10:30 am. Neither of us got any sleep on the flight.

View of Canada from the plane

We didn’t have very much time in the Vancouver airport. We had to go through immigration, collect our bags, drop our bags, then find our gate in only one and a half hours. That may seem like a lot of time, but anyone who’s done a lot of travelling understands that it really isn’t.

As we handed over our immigration form the officer asked where we were traveling from. We both replied, “Seoul”. He then asked for how long and we replied, “Five days”. “Were you anywhere before that”. Danny replied, “We were in Vietnam. We’ve been travelling for ten months”. The officer then looked questioningly, “Are you employed?” To which we had to reply, “Not currently”. He then asked how we paid for the trip. I replied, “With our savings”. The officer then nodded and motioned us to pass. I was worried that could have been a lot longer of an exchange. During our immigration exchanges I didn’t like bringing up that we were unemployed or how long we were travelling. I think it made us seem suspicious, but I guess there are quite a few people like us.

We went to our gate with about half an hour to spare. Surprisingly, we passed no Tim Horton’s walking through the terminal! I was a bit disappointed. Instead we went to one of the mini marts to get some water. I also picked up some Ruffles All Dressed chips. I had been craving some really good chips while we were away. They were everything I wanted.

Canadian chips

Looking around the terminal I realized how Canadians have a certain look. There were a lot of hoodies, jeans, camo, Carhartts, hi-vis jackets and baseball caps. You don’t see any of that elsewhere, especially in Southeast Asia.

We got on the plane more excited than ever. On this flight our exhaustion overcame us and we fell asleep before we had even taken off. We landed in Edmonton around 3:00 pm. We had to use the washroom before we exited into the arrival area. Even the Edmonton Terminal felt like home. It was all familiar.

My parents were waiting in the arrival area. My dad looking at the board, wondering where we were as our flight had landed awhile ago. It was so nice to see them and I gave them both huge hugs.

We drove out to my parents acreage that is about an hour outside of Edmonton. It is crazy how much open space we have in Canada. You take it for granted when you are surrounded by it all the time.

Danny’s parents were waiting for us at my parents’ place and we gave them big hugs as well. For supper we all share “Chinese food” which we now know is not as good as actual Chinese food.

December, 2018

The next couple of days of our return we spent trying to figure out how to sleep normally. Our systems were so turned around. Every time I woke up I had to remember where I was.

We both kept our vehicles stored at our parents so once we put full insurance back on them and updated our registration we were able to get around. I thought it would feel odd driving again after 10 months, but it was just like riding a bike. I had really missed the freedom of driving. We both also feel we are much more chill about driving now. After seeing the lack of rules of the road in the other countries, we feel less upset when someone slightly cuts us off.

Since we’ve been back, we’ve really noticed the friendliness of Canadians. The door gets held open for you and if you hold the door open you receive a thank you in return.

The open space and fresh air is still a wonder to me. The first couple of times Danny and I went for a walk outside, we couldn’t get enough of taking deep breaths and staring in amazement at the wilderness.

Our Christmas and New Years were spent with our family. We both agreed that this was one of our best Christmases yet. We both were so thankful to be back and really able to be present and mindful of what we have.

January, 2019

Danny is back to work now and absolutely loving his job. He says work is just him getting to hang out with his friends all day. We have moved in to my parents’ condo in Edmonton for awhile to save up some money for a house outside the city. We still have a spare room so if anyone from our travels wants to come visit we have the space! After travelling for so long we would love to show someone else our beautiful country.

Jasper, Alberta

When I think back now to our travels it all seems like such a dream. Did we really just travel for 10 months around the world? We have so many amazing memories that I wouldn’t trade for anything. We made so many new friends that I feel so close to even though we only met briefly and are now oceans apart.

Recently, when I’ve watched the news, everything seems closer and I relate more to it. When the story of the Sri Lankan Prime Minister being ousted came out, I thought of our GAdventures CEO, Udi and the family we stayed with in Negombo. How did they feel about this change? When news comes out about North Korea, I think of our guides, Miss Chang, Miss Rim and Mr. Ri. How are they doing? Marta, our Airbnb host in Slovenia and Catherine, our guide in Beijing seem to come into our conversations quite often. Marta, we think of her kindness and hospitality. Catherine, we think of her spunk and energy.

For now, its about trying to get back to normal after being away from so long. I already can’t wait for our next trip. It probably won’t be near as long though.

M

South Korea – Seoul

Day 264: December 1, 2018

Our flight left Hanoi at 1:50 am for Seoul, South Korea. It was about a four hour flight. We arrived, exchanged some money, took out some more cash and bought a new SIM card. Then we walked to the train to take us in to Seoul from the airport. It was about an hour ride. Our Airbnb host had given us amazingly detailed notes on how to get to the apartment using the train system.

When we arrived at the Airbnb, we were too early to check in, but we were able to store our bags in the luggage room. We walked up the street to order some food for breakfast. I had sweet and sour chicken with a sliced up raw onion and Danny had noodles with a black bean sauce.

The street our Airbnb was on was in the middle of an area with tons of restaurants. We were worried at night it might be a party street, but it was mostly young professionals walking around.

Street our Airbnb was on

After breakfast we walked north to Gyeongbokgung Palace which was the royal palace of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1897). It was built in 1395. Much of the palace was destroyed by Japan during the 20th century.

Gyeongbokgung Palace

Next we walked to Bukchon Hanok, a traditional Korean village. It was the residential quarter of government officials and nobility during the Joseon dynasty. The narrow streets were very interesting. There were people with signs saying to keep quiet. It seems the residents have only allowed the continued tourism if it is less noisy.

Bukchon Hanok

We then went back up a walking street and entered a cat café. It was $12 to enter, but entry came with a beverage. There were lots of different looking cats: one with stubby legs and a long body, one huge one, one without hair (a Canadian sphinx), one grumpy faced, etc. There were even two adorable kittens: one orange and one black. How crazy is that!

Cat café

We sat in the cat café enjoying our time then realized we could check in to our Airbnb. We were both super exhausted. Our room was very tiny, but worked for the couple of days we were there. Prices for accommodations were fairly expensive.

We watched some Netflix then went down to a Korean BBQ restaurant for supper. We were rather disappointed. The meat was great, but the only sides were pickled vegetables.

Korean BBQ

After supper we went to Baskin Robbins to end our day on a better note. I love the vibe of Seoul. Out on the main street we passed one store a couple of times playing Christmas music. I just wanted to stand outside the store. It made me super homesick and excited to just be home already. The streets in Seoul aren’t very crowded. There is little to no traffic noise. You don’t have to fear for your life crossing the street like in Vietnam. It’s very chill so I think we will enjoy our time here. We returned to the Airbnb and watched some Netflix before an early morning tomorrow.

Day 265: December 2, 2018

We ate yogurt and cereal in our room then walked up the street to a popular nearby hotel for the pick up for our tour to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) of Korea. The hotel was all decked out in Christmas decorations.

Lotte Hotel

Seoul has a population of 10 million. The satellite communities have an additional population of 10 million. South Korea overall has a population of 50 million. The distance from Seoul to the DMZ is 50 km. Pyongyang is 200 km from the DMZ.

Our tour started at the Freedom Bridge where 12,773 prisoners of war were exchanged in 1953. On holidays, South Koreans with a North Korean background come to the bridge to pray for their ancestors. Ribbons tied to the surrounding fences are prayers for reunification. According to our guide, the younger generation seems less motivated to reunify because they see things as fine the way they are and they lack the connection to North Korean family.

Freedom Bridge

Next we went to Dorasan Station. In 2000, the South-North Joint Declaration was made by the two Koreas. They agreed to connect the railroad line between the two nations. The Trans Korean Railway would connect to the Trans Siberian Railway and the Trans Chinese Railway. In November, 2018, trains were sent north from South Korea to survey the railway.

Dorasan Station

Six million people had died in the Korean War by 1953. A ceasefire was signed, but the country is still at war. Our tour guide told us about some incidents in the continued fighting between North and South Korea. In 1968, 31 North Koreans came up the river and attacked the Blue House, the official residence of the South Korean President. In 1983, North Korea assassinated 17 South Korean politicians in Myanmar. In 2010, the North Koreans bombed an inhabited island in South Korea.

In South Korea, every male is required to participate in mandatory military service at 19 years of age. If he goes to university the military service can be postponed. At 29 year old he must do service or go to jail. According to our guide, in North Korea, every male has compulsory military service at 16 years old for 10 years. Our guides in North Korea had told us that military service was completely voluntary.

Our next stop was the Dora Observatory where we saw across to North Korea. There was a complete lack of trees on the North Korean side which we hadn’t noticed when we were on that side. An industrial complex built by South Korea within North Korea could be seen from the observatory. It used North Korean labour and South Korean raw materials.

View into North Korea from the Dora Observatory

Korea has a multi party system with two major political parties: Liberal and Conservative. When the Conservatives are in power there is a poor relationship with the North Koreans. When the Liberals are in power there is a focus on reconciliation. The current party in power is the Liberals which have been bringing forward many steps to better relations.

Next we went to the “Third Tunnel”. Defectors have been interrogated and advised there are more than 20 tunnels from North Korea heading towards Seoul. Only four tunnels have been discovered. The one we visited was found in 1978 and was 70 m deep.

The climb down through the tourist trail to the tunnel was 350 m long. At the bottom we were in the original tunnel and able to walk 265 m along it. At the end there were three blockades to block the North Koreans. The distance from the third blockade to the military demarcation line was an additional 170 m. The tunnel is 1200 m in the North and 435 m in the South.

Sadly, we were unable to visit the Joint Security Area (JSA) where the two sides have buildings facing each other. A joint effort was underway to remove land mines from the area while we were visiting so the JSA was closed off. There are more than one million land mines spread across the DMZ.

We also read on the news later that day that a North Korean soldier had defected and crossed the DMZ into South Korea the previous day. Around 30,000 North Koreans have defected to the South since the ceasefire.

We returned to Seoul to a ginseng centre then were dropped off at City Hall. From there we walked to Namdaemun Market which we thought had street food, but it was mostly clothes and household items. We walked a bit further to Myeongdong Market where there was street food and tons of cosmetic stores. We had mandu (dumplings), a chocolate ball smashed with a hammer, pajeon (Korean pancake) with beef and vegetables, hotteok (Korean donuts) filled with cinnamon, sugar and sunflower seeds and gyeran-bbang (egg bread).

Danny smashing the chocolate ball with a hammer

We walked around the area quite a lot checking out the different shops. After we walked back to the Airbnb then went up the street to a Mexican food restaurant for supper. It was very yummy.

After supper we went across the street to a bar. We asked if there were karaoke rooms inside and they replied, “Yes.” We were charged a $10 per person cover charge which we assumed would cover the karaoke. We were wrong.

In the private karaoke room, the server tried to explain the pricing. His English wasn’t great and our Korean is non-existent. We eventually figured out that we had to buy a certain set of drinks then the room was free. We ended up paying an additional $30 for two beers, a bottle of Soju (Korean alcohol) and a plate of nachos. We then got the room for one hour. It was becoming an expensive night!

The karaoke system was started, but I had no idea how to use the machine and the key pad was in Korean. I tried pressing every button possible to switch the song, but couldn’t make it work. Eventually, I went out to grab the server and he explained the three basic buttons.

Figuring out the Korean karaoke system

Then Danny and I rocked out! There was a pretty good selection of English pop songs. We almost wished we had paid for two hours by the time it was done because we were having such a good time.

Karaokeing

After karaoke, we went to a Virtual Reality (VR) café we had seen the day before. We paid for 30 minutes only because they were closing in less than an hour. The first game was Skyfall where you ride up an elevator then walk off a plank and fall. That was the whole game, but it was pretty adrenaline pumping. We tried another game, but Danny couldn’t get his to work. I played by myself while he tried a different game. Before we knew it our 30 minutes was up. We left and returned to the Airbnb to sleep.

Day 266: December 3, 2018

We slept in a bit and watched some Netflix. When we finally got out of bed, we walked across the street to a bibimbap restaurant for lunch. Bibimbap is rice topped with sautéed vegetables, chili pepper, soy sauce or soybean paste. Meat or egg are then usually added on top. This was one of our favourite Korean meals.

Bibimbap

After we took the train to the west part of the city to go to the Racoon Café. We were both pretty excited. We ordered drinks then sat outside the racoon room to watch as we couldn’t bring our drinks inside.

As we watched our opinion on our visit slowly changed. The raccoons seemed significantly overweight and not happy about being there. We had thought they would be more domesticated and enjoy the company of humans. They seemed to just be looking to escape. We decided it wasn’t our thing and left.

We walked up the street to the Trick Eye Museum, which has 3D optical illusions set up for Instagramming. We enjoyed walking through although there were a few more people than we would have liked.

Trick Eye Museum

Next we went to the Ice Museum which was an ice house built inside a giant freezer. There was even a slide.

Ice Museum

After we went to the Love Museum which was an adult version of the Trick Eye Museum. It was less busy, but the pictures were maybe not appropriate for this blog.

On our way to the train, we stopped at a stand selling poutine. It was pouring rain so we stood under an overhang and ate. It was a much better poutine than the one we had in Thailand or the cheesy fries we had in Cambodia.

Poutine in the rain

We returned to the Airbnb, watched some Netflix then walked south to a restaurant near Myeongdong Market that was suggested to us by a friend. We had the bulgogi which is thin, marinated slices of beef or pork that is grilled. Traditionally, the meat was reserved for nobility. It was very delicious.

Bulgogi

After supper we walked around the market a bit then made our way back to the Airbnb to sleep.

Day 267: December 4, 2018

The excitement of going home just keeps building. I’ve found I need to put it to the back of my head or I just start vibrating. We are getting so close! I almost don’t remember the last 266 days. The start of our trip feels forever ago and I wonder if it was all a dream. Am I still in the dream? Will home feel like reality again?

Danny went for a run and I went to Starbucks to catch up on blogging. There are so many Starbucks here! Danny met me after his run and we went upstairs to a pizza place for lunch.

After we went up the nearby walking street to do some tourist shopping. On our way back to the Airbnb we stopped at another cat café. We played with the cats for over an hour and a half. Then we chilled in the Airbnb until we were hungry.

Cat café

We walked up the street looking for a cheesy rice dish we had seen on signs. We found a place, but it didn’t end up being as amazing as it looked. Korean restaurants really like cooking food at the table.

Ready for cheesy rice

After we got ice cream and sat on the second floor looking out over the street. We watched a truck promoting the bar we had gone to a few nights previously doing laps around the streets. Danny started announcing it like a race and I timed the amount of time to do a lap. We were also watching a lady handing out pamphlets. She was targeting couples, but we still don’t know what she was selling because when we left an hour later to go to sleep she didn’t approach us.

Day 268: December 5, 2018

I woke up fairly early and couldn’t sleep any longer due to excitement about going home. Danny called his parents then we packed our bags and put them in the luggage storage. We went down the street and got Taco Bell for lunch as not many restaurants were open at 11:00 am. After lunch we picked up our bags and took the train to the airport. We had to wait about an hour then we were able to drop off our bags. On the other side we found a place with salads for lunch. Vegetables were a bit hard to find in Seoul, along with fruit. All of their vegetables were pickled.

I called my parents while we waited to board. The Air Canada plane wasn’t as large as I thought it would be and there were many empty seats including the one beside us. Our flight was a bit delayed leaving, but only by about 15 minutes.

We are so excited to be heading back home. It all feels a bit unreal. We aren’t sure how we will fit into life back in Canada after being away for 268 days. I’m most looking forward to all of those hugs that I will receive from the people I love.

M

Vietnam Part 4 – Hanoi

Day 259: November 26, 2018

We had breakfast in our Hanoi Airbnb then I went for a workout. When I got back Danny went for a workout. I called my parents then cut a mango. We had ramen for lunch then took a Grab car to the Old Quarter of Hanoi.

https://www.facebook.com/tripsroundthesundm/videos/512475065916948/

Danny wanted to get the jacket he bought in Hoi An taken in a bit. The first tailor we went to only made clothes. The second didn’t really speak English, but using Google Translate we communicated and she sent us to another shop. The lady there didn’t speak much English, but Google Translate saved us again. We were able to say what we wanted and by when. We will see how it works out!

We walked down to Hoa Lo Prison which was constructed by the French in 1896. The people in the village that was there prior were relocated in order to construct the prison, court house and secret police headquarters. The prison had space for 500 political prisoners, but a maximum of 2,000 prisoners were held there.

From March 11-16, 1945, over 100 prisoners escaped through an underground sewer. On December 24, 1951, 16 prisoners escaped again through an underground sewer. The guillotine was also used by the French in Hoa Lo.

Sewer prisoners used to escape

When the French left Hanoi in 1954, the prison’s ownership fell to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. During the war with the Americans, pilots shot down were held in Hoa Lo prison. They sarcastically called it “Hanoi Hilton”. The museum said this was a little joke of the Americans as they were treated very humanely and given many luxuries. Americans, however, describe unsanitary conditions along with torture, beatings and poor food. John McCain was held in this prison during the war when he was a US Navy pilot. Every country seems to have its own way of displaying events to make themselves look better.

Prison uniforms of the Vietnamese and Americans

We left and walked up the street to a café called Cong Ca Phe which had the decor of the Vietnam War and the staff in army uniforms. We had a tea, but both of us weren’t really enjoying the busy streets of Hanoi. The traffic and honking was constant.

We walked north to Hanoi’s Train Street which squeezes between residential buildings. Many homes had coffee shops on the edge of the tracks. It was a very photogenic place to walk. We left the residents behind and thinking there would be an exit from the tracks further up, we kept walking. The train crossed bridges over the streets so where we thought we could exit we could not. The tracks were elevated from the street so there was no escape.

Hanoi’s Train Street

After going ten minutes too far we had to turn back. I felt anxious being trapped there especially since we didn’t know when the train was going to come. Back at the exit we caught a Grab car back to the Airbnb. Danny made supper and we watched some John Oliver videos before bed.

Day 260: November 27, 2018

We were up early for a quick breakfast then took a Grab car to the Old Quarter to be picked up for our day tour. The pick up was about 15 minutes late which made us both feel a bit nervous that no one would show up.

Our tour went to the province of Ninh Binh about two hours south of Hanoi. Our first stop was Hoa Lu, the first capital of Vietnam established in the 10th and 11th centuries. The local warlord Dinh Bo Linh, known as the First Dinh Emperor, created the capital in 968 after years of civil war. A majority of the capital no longer exists.

We walked through the main gate to the city which led to an open square. The city was located in a valley between steep limestone mountains making it easy to defend. There was a river running through the capital providing water and a food source. The population eventually became too big for the area between the mountains and the capital city was moved.

Main gate of Hoa Lu

We visited the Dinh Temple which had an area behind doors with a statue of the king. Businessmen will pay money to get inside to touch the statue for luck.

Dinh Temple, Hoa Lu

Outside we could see the flag of the first dynasty. It had red in the middle with yellow, blue, white and green outlines. The colours represented the five elements: fire, soil, water, metal and wood.

Flag of the first dynasty, Hoa Lu

The first king was assassinated and his general, Le, came to power establishing the Le dynasty. He married the first king’s wife to provide legitimacy to his rule. He was not as respected as the first king and therefore his temple, which we visited next, was not as ornamental.

We left and drove to a restaurant for lunch. Sadly, the food wasn’t that great. We enjoyed talking to some of the people on our tour. It is a bit sad now when people ask us about our trip. We don’t sound as excited as when we started our trip. Now we are just more excited to go home so we enjoy talking about that more than where we’ve been. It does make us seem a bit like downers, but I think we are just tired.

After lunch, we went for a boat ride. It was a row boat with space for two people. A lady rowed the boat while we sat enjoying the view. All the rowers used their legs to row instead of their arms. It was pretty impressive and they seemed to have more power.

Row boat ride, Ninh Binh

We floated passed the steep mountains and went through a few caves. Our rower was super quick and we passed everyone. Back at the dock we walked up to a restaurant and were provided some lemon tea and fruit.

Going through the caves, Ninh Binh

We then hopped on some bicycles for a short ride through one of the villages. After the bike ride we hopped back on the bus and drove to Mua Island which had a little cave at the base then a 500 stair climb to the top.

Hiking up Mua Island

The view from the top looked down at the river our boat ride had been on. The other way looked over the rice fields we had seen on our bike ride.

At the top of Mua Island

We climbed back down and then returned to the bus for our two hour ride back into Hanoi. We were dropped off in the Old Quarter and walked to a pizza place. The pizza was very yummy! There were many people working there, but we were the only customers. It was similar at the convenience store next to our Airbnb. There were about four or five people working there, most just standing around. Back at the Airbnb we fell asleep early.

Day 261: November 28, 2018

We were up early again and took a Grab car back into the Old Quarter. Our Airbnb location has been a bit inconvenient because we keep having to catch rides into the centre. It is about a 25 minute drive one way.

Our tour to Bai Tu Long Bay picked us up and drove us to the harbour about three hours east of Hanoi. Bai Tu Long is right next to the famous Ha Long Bay, but much less busy.

A small boat took us out to our larger boat which had about 24 cabins. The cabin was perhaps the nicest room we have stayed in on this trip. Our window was huge and looked out at the steep mountains in the bay. The bathroom had a two person tub with another huge window.

Our boat to Bai Tu Long Bay

I called my dad to show him the gorgeous view then we went up on the deck for lunch. We had a bit of relax time then got ready to go kayaking. We went out into the bay and rowed over to a cave. When we got back to the boat we were able to jump in the water for a swim. The water was not as warm as in Thailand or Cambodia.

Kayaking in Bai Tu Long Bay

We returned to the room and cleaned up for supper. It was nice to dress up a little bit since we were on such a fancy boat. We sat at the front of the boat before supper with a bottle of wine and talked about home.

Sunset view from our boat, Bai Tu Long Bay

We went to the dining room for supper and enjoyed a very nice meal. The chef brought out some very fancy food carvings. Then one of the crew members played a beautiful melody on a flute. After another member of the crew did some magic tricks. He was looking for a volunteer and I quickly pointed to Danny. He went up and did an awesome job.

Danny participating in a magic trick

After supper we looked up at the stars from the sun deck. Then we returned to the room to sleep.

Day 262: November 29, 2018

I didn’t sleep very well so I was up early enough to participate in tai chi on the sun deck. The scenery as we moved through the islands was beautiful. We had a buffet breakfast then got ready to go for a walk on one of the islands. We walked out to a small sandy beach then climbed the stairs up to a large cave. Local fishermen use the cave during large storms for protection. It was a very beautiful cave to walk around.

View from outside the cave, Bai Tu Long Bay

We returned to the boat and sat on the sun deck enjoying the view going by. Lunch was a buffet. We returned to the sun deck then until we arrived back at the harbour. Our van to take us back to Hanoi picked us up there. We stopped once to view a water puppet show. It was funny, but not as amazing as I thought it would be. Apparently the one in Hanoi is a lot more impressive.

Water puppet show on the way back to Hanoi

We were dropped back in the Old Quarter of Hanoi and took a Grab car to our Airbnb. It was in the same building as our previous one in Hanoi, but a different apartment. We relaxed for a bit. Both of us were exhausted.

We took a Grab car back in to the centre around 6:30 pm. We had supper at Bun Cha Hang Manh which is famous for its bun cha, a dish of grilled pork served with rice noodles, herbs and a sauce (fish sauce, sugar, lemon, vinegar, stock). The sauce definitely made the dish.

Bun cha

After we walked up the street to the tailor we had dropped of Danny’s jacket at to have it taken in. He tried it on and it was a bit too tight. Uh-oh! Nothing she could do. We will have to let it out ourselves.

We stopped at a convenience store to pick up some food items for tomorrow. Then we returned to the Airbnb and went to sleep right away.

Day 263: November 30, 2018

Neither of us slept very well again. I’m not sure if its just nervousness or excitement for going home so soon. We chilled in the room watching TV then Danny called his parents. After he went to the gym while I caught up on blogging.

For lunch we went into the Old Quarter to Banh Mi 25. Banh mi is a Vietnamese sub. These ones were delicious! We sat in a park eating them and watching a legit cock fight. I had no idea that they were still a thing. Between fights the “trainers” would rinse their birds with water similar to a boxing trainer rubbing down their fighter in the corner.

Cock fight

We walked up the street and I went for a massage. Danny went across the street for a haircut then walked over to the government buildings and square in front of Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. He met me back at the spa and we returned to the Airbnb.

Ho Chi Minh Square

Danny made supper while I packed up. We ate and watched videos. Then we thought we should try to get a bit of sleep. Our flight to Seoul was scheduled to leave at 2:00 am so we would not be getting much rest.

While I was getting my massage I started really thinking about being home again. I think it finally sunk in that in less than a week we will be home. Danny and I talked a bit about this then eventually fell asleep.

The alarm at 10:00 pm was a very rude awakening. We got about an hour and a half of sleep. We packed up and caught a Grab car to the airport. Everything took awhile to get through because it was fairly busy at the airport. On the other side I gave my parents a call while we waited to board.

I don’t think either of us really enjoyed the city of Hanoi. It was so busy and noisy we really didn’t want to spend much time in the Old Quarter. I was glad we had two trips booked to get out of the city. Bai Tu Long was absolutely beautiful and I don’t regret us spending the money to go there in class. I’m getting more and more excited every day to get home. The flight to Seoul feels like the first step towards home and I can’t wait for the flight after that takes us back to Canada.

M