Monday, July 31, 2017

Living the Boatyard Dream

Our flight from Bogota to Cartagena was cancelled leading us to spend the night in Cartagena because we got in late. We spent the evening grocery shopping and stayed in the best little hotel near the airport. If you find yourself in need of a place to stay near the Cartagena airport Hotel Mangler is the place to go. Our hosts, Ingrid and Edgar, were so helpful and welcoming. They let us use their fridge for our groceries, made us coffee the next morning, made us Colombian flag bracelets, and even drove us all the way to our boat!! Such amazing people, we are constantly taken aback by the warmth and real hospitality of Colombians.

Our hostess Ingrid 
Once we arrived in the boatyard we were met by Jose the foreman. He helped carry our groceries and welcomed us back. We were a little nervous to see what was in store for us as we hadn’t been aboard in four months. We were very pleasantly surprised - other than being incredibly hot down below (our saran wrap melted!) there didn’t appear to be any issues and the boat barely even smelt moldy! We spent the entire day putting away all our belongs that had been packed away. The extreme heat definitely takes some getting used to and caused us to move a little slower.

The next day we met Eduardo, a Cuban guy who works on the barge next door to our boat who offered us the use of any tools we might need or any other help. It seemed like the guys who work in the yard were quite happy to have new people around and all day people came and went to say hi and ask where we are from. The yard even has the most adorable little cat who is so affectionate and playful - of course this is animal number one that I want to adopt going into season three ;) 

Best boatyard cat

Getting my morning cat love!

Eduardo has lent us a few things and has brought us a bowl of ice cream when were outside working and even brought us pizza for lunch one day! When we made him coffee one morning he returned the mug along with an apple :) Several afternoon we hear a knock on the hull and he throws us an apple - we're hoping to see him in Cuba when we go this year!

Pizza Lunch

We have been in the boatyard for 15 days now and while all the guys who work in the yard are so friendly and nice we are definitely over the place and dying to get back in the water. For those of you who don’t know what a boatyard is, picture a train yard where old trains go to get repaired. There are around 50 guys in jumpsuits all working on different projects - most of them noisy projects. On the barge next to us where Eduardo works, there are at least 5 guys welding so all we see all day is bursts of blue and orange light. They only turn the welding off when they have to hit the metal as hard as they can with a mallet - pretty awesome. The barge in front us has metal grinders going ALL day. There are two travel lifts hoisting boats in and out of the water and since we are right next to the dock the travel lifts pass us constantly.  We have to wear hard hats whenever we’re not on the boat. Even a simple thing like going for a pee involves finding our hard hat, climbing down the ladder and dodging forklifts to get to the toilet. To top it all off, it has been 44 degrees celsius most days!

We have crossed some important projects off the list which is a great feeling. We painted the bottom and boy did she need it. We had been agonizing over whether to paint the bottom navy blue to match the new enclosure we hope to have made in Panama or grey to match the stripe around the hull. We didn’t need to worry as when we went to buy the paint the guy told us “we have black or red”! Seeing as the old colour was red and we both hated it, black it was. I was afraid she would look like a biker chic pirate ship with a black bottom and burgundy stripe around the hull but it’s definitely an improvement over the last colour. 



Of course as all boat projects go everything take three times longer than you think it will and as one project gets finished you discover something new that has broken and needs immediate attention. We’re so close to being ready but now we’re stuck waiting on people to return or finish items we had sent out to be fixed. These were all things that were “one day or same day” repairs but 6 or 7 days later we’re still waiting. 

The good news is, we have a launch date of tomorrow! It was supposed to be today but apparently they were “too busy” for us to go back in the water. We still have several projects left and hope they go smoothly as another week in this place might be the end of me! With the "extra" day yesterday I even painted our dingy.

All ready for Season 3

Saturday, July 15, 2017

12 Days in the Galapagos

Galapagos has been one of my all-time dream destinations ever since I was in grade school. As we slowly bused our way down the backbone of Ecuador, we realized we would likely never be closer to this exotic archipelago made famous by Darwin and his evolutionary theories. (Yes, you can sail there but the current regulations and fees make it very prohibitive to do so.)

Mainland Ecuador


We were doing a fairly good job keeping to our budget and with some inspiration from a couple of backpacker blogs (here and here) we set out to make a plan to visit this wonderful place. We decided that we wouldn't take one of the long boat tours since (a) we already live on a boat and (b) we don't have the thousands of dollars this would require. As recommended by so many others before us, our strategy was:
  • sleep in hostels on the three islands where the villages were
  • do as many free activities as possible
  • be very flexible and book last-minute day tours to bargain for the best price
  • eat rice and beans for each meal to scrimp and save
Spraying the Luggage
We hopped on a short flight from Quito to the island of Santa Cruz. Before landing the flight attendants sprayed some kind of insect spray in the overhead compartments to ensure we weren't bringing any nasties to the ecologically sensitive islands.

Arriving at Isla Baltra

Santa Cruz

The airport is actually on a separate island devoid of vegetation and looks a bit like walking on the surface of the moon. To get to the main town on Santa Cruz, Puerto Ayora, it's necessary to take a bus, a ferry, and then another bus. From the bus we saw a giant tortoise walking down the bike path so we were able to cross of the first animal from our list!

Sea Lions Everywhere!
Finding a place to stay was no problem, there are plenty of small hostels in Puerto Ayora. We knew we would get gouged a little bit if we stayed near the water but it was late and we were happy to pay a premium not to lug our bag all over town. The hostel even had drinking water and hot water to shower so it was definitely a good start.

The Cheap Seats


The next day we explored the town and got to work hunting down the best deals on the day trips we were interested in doing. Puerto Ayora and the other Galapagos towns are full of tour agencies. Only a few agencies actually run tours themselves - the tours are typically run by separate tour operators or boat owners who set the base price. The job of the agent is to call the tour operator to sort out price and availability and then add their own commission. By doing a last minute booking of a tour it's possible to fill an otherwise empty seat and bargain hard on the commission which is just extra money in the agent's pocket. The prices we found were at least 25% off the advertised price and less than half of what people that had booked online from home had paid. The downside? We spent a lot of time hoofing it around Puerto Ayora in the heat wheeling and dealing.

A Swimming Marine Iguana

This tortoise probably has 100 years on us... 

While sorting this out, we were able to take advantage of several free or almost free activities on Santa Cruz. We checked out the Charles Darwin Research Station (the home of the creepily stuffed Lonesome George tortoise), the fish market, snorkelled at Las Grietas, El Chato tortoise reserve, walked through some lava tunnels. We found a much better place to stay ("The Dove", with big rooms and a very relaxing outdoor hammock area) and discovered the much less expensive local markets further back from the water. Much time was spent wandering around watching the sea lions and marine iguanas which seem to have overtaken the port area.
Yeah Overlanders!

Nesting site near Isabela

Isla Isabela is a much smaller island west of Santa Cruz. The island has much cooler water because of the currents hitting its west side so the chances of seeing Galapagos penguins were slightly higher than nil. We took a "ferry" which are little speedboats with massive outboard engines doing the two-hour run twice a day. The ferries were either a lovely experience with great views and an opportunity to have a nap, or a horrible experience crowded in with other seasick passengers in the heat or rain.

The "Tunnels"

The Tunnels

They may have been attracted to my watch?
As soon as we saw Isabela we knew we would like the island much more than Santa Cruz. The bay was somewhere we would have definitely anchored had we been on the boat. And the best part was that our new friends, James and Belle, were also there and would be able to hang out for a few hours before they headed back to Santa Cruz and their van, Butch, parked safely back on the mainland. We went for a nice swim near the dock amongst marine iguanas and sea lions. We were all jonesin' for an ice cold beer but couldn't seem to find one, let alone four, for less than 7USD. We settled for climbing up to the watchtower on the beach and having a laugh while we watched the waves roll in - utterly lovely.

A Seahorse!

The World's Most Peaceful Creatures

Sunset on Isabela
One tour we had heard a lot about was Los Tunales (The Tunnels) trip on Isabela. It was a short boat ride to a tiny bay which had been formed from hardening lava. The entrance was surrounded by a reef with massive breakers that would have been impossible to attempt in a sailboat. We were trying to figure out how the captain was going to do it. He circled a couple of times and revved up the three 400hp outboards before powering diagonally through the trough of the wave. It was very impressive and he hadn't even appeared to have broken a sweat. The Tunales definitely lived up to the hype. In addition to seeing blue-footed boobies very close up, we swam with white-tipped reef sharks and went "face-to-face" with them in their den, sea turtles galore, and even saw our first seahorse!
Despite being almost an hour late and our kayak taking on water, the short kayak/snorkelling tour around the bay in Isabella was enough to strike another animal from our list - the Galapagos penguin. Even though it was pushing 30 degrees celsius, these guys were happily sunbathing on the rocks. We were amazed at how tiny they were!
They might need to get that professionally cleaned...
Kicker Rock

Swimming with these guys never gets old.

Very hazy outline of a hammerhead shark

San Cristobal

San Cristobal Sea Lions

We made our way to our third and final island town, San Cristobal. We negotiated hard for a day trip to Kicker Rock, a very tall boot-shaped island just around the corner from the port. This was mostly a site for divers but the snorkelling was decent and we saw many turtles, some manta rays, and even the very hazy outline of a hammerhead shark! The bird life was abundant with blue-footed boobies, nasca boobies, and the frigate birds with their red throat-pouch (?) inflated for breeding. San Cristobal was a pretty laid-back spot to wind up our Galapagos trip. We especially liked the hike to Frigatebird Hill and La Loberia beach where we watched young sea lions play for an hour with a stick we had thrown to them.
Tortoise in Captivity
When it was time to fly back to Quito, our feelings about Galapagos were mixed:

  • Our strategy had definitely worked, although Galapagos is very expensive relative to South America, we were able to experience it on a budget, spending not much more that we would have on the mainland. (Beware though, many of the prices in the other blogs we've linked to above have already risen 20-25%.)
  • We had seen all the animals we had wanted to see, just as many as the people we had spoken to that did 5-7 day boat tours.
Tortoise in the "Wild"
  • The animals are definitely the stars here. With a few exceptions the locals we met were mainly grumpy, occasionally rude, and in general looked upon tourists as an unlimited ATM from which they could demand any sum of money they required.
  • Conservation efforts in the Galapagos appear to be lacklustre at best. We aren't experts in this area but we've definitely seen a few tropical islands recently. Although Galapagos isn't the dirtiest, it's definitely not the cleanest (Bonaire would probably win this award). And as is usually the case, money is definitely the culprit. Tourist demand to visit the islands has grown exponentially each year, resulting in a massive increase in population, especially in individuals that don't have the same connection to the islands as those that have lived there for decades. Attempts to limit migration from mainland Ecuador have largely been unsuccessful since Ecuadorians can essentially come and go as they please. You can clearly see from aerial photos how the towns have grown in the last several decades, destroying vital habitats for creatures that exist nowhere else in the world. The towns are unable to support the freshwater needs of their inhabitants with just wells and reverse osmosis so a large portion of drinking water is shipped in bottles from the mainland. Despite the vigorous spraying of the overhead bins on the airplanes non-indigenous plants and corresponding insect species have been brought to the islands both accidentally and on purpose. Mainland animals (cows, horses, chickens, dogs, cats, rats) seem to be uncontrolled and certainly step on and eat tortoise and turtle eggs. Giant tortoises are reportedly unable to sustain their population by breeding in the wild so their eggs are brought to the sanctuaries until they reach a suitable age to be released. We wondered if the various conservation groups are even doing more harm than good - by raising animals in captivity are we not disrupting the evolution whose hypothesis was confirmed on these very islands? 
It would seem that the fate of Galapagos was decided as soon as the first settlers arrived two hundred years ago. Although we felt very fortunate to be able to go there we left feeling that the only real way to conserve the unique ecological situation in the Galapagos is to prohibit people and all of their destructive belongings from going there.

Thursday, July 13, 2017


Welcome to Ecuador

Crossing the border into Ecuador was a true South American Adventure. We took a collectivo with one other lady from Ipiales, Colombia and asked to be dropped off at the border. When we saw the crowds of people, cars, and money-changers, we knew we were there. But hang on a minute - why were we immediately being offered rides to Tulcan, the first town on the Ecuadorian side?

It turns out it is possible to drive from Colombia to Ecuador without being asked for any documents or being stopped at all, which is exactly what our taxi driver did! We got out of the car and gingerly asked the machine-gun-toting Ecuadorian army guards if we could walk back to the Colombian side to get our exit stamps. Once the formalities were taken care of we climbed into a full bus into Tulcan.

If you have been to Niagara Falls, New York, you have essentially been to Tulcan, Ecuador. We were able to find a decent almuerzo before catching a luxurious bus southbound to Otavalo.
Otavalo Market

Otavalo Market

Otavalo is notorious not only for being the first city of any size between Quito and Colombia but also for its large, very wealthy, indigenous population that hosts a daily market with handicrafts and weavings from several Andean communities. For some reason the bus dropped us well outside of Otavalo just as it started to rain and get dark. We were also having some serious trouble finding our AirBnb on Google Maps and none of the taxi drivers had heard of the address. A couple of shop owners turned us away with a frown when we asked to use a phone to call the B&B. When we arrived at the central plaza where the market is held we stopped into a little coffee shop to see if we could use their wifi to call the hosts. The family that owned the coffee shop offered to call for us and when the host picked up the phone realized that it was their very good friend! They were very apologetic about the difficulty finding their place and drove down to pick us up.
Traditional Dress

Otavalo Concert

Our Wonderful Hosts
Magaly and Martin were the most welcoming hosts and their condo was amazing! They gave us loads of tips about touring around Ecuador and even took us to one of the neighbouring towns. I think they took pity on us for not having warm enough clothing as they gave us a wool sweater and hat! We had a great time browsing the market and even got to see a concert in the park.

Making Bizcochos

Fresh Flowers 

Tailor of Cayambe

The next town we came to, Cayambe, is known for excellent views of the nearby volcano Cayambe, but unfortunately for us it was shrouded in clouds. Fortunately for us we sampled the local treat "bizcocho", chatted with the flower vendors (at 0 degrees 02 minutes N, the proximity to the equator makes this area ideal for growing roses with straight stems), and even found a tailor that fixed James' sandals and our hiking bag for only $10USD!

Arriving in Quito was like landing on another planet. Although it has a population comparable to Medellin, Quito is much more developed with condos, massive grocery and department stores, and a very developed tourism industry. The highlight is certainly the historical centre complete with churches, plaza, and cobblestones.
No Shadow!

To make our visit even more special it was the equinox and we were essentially right on the equator. The reality of this bizarre situation presented itself when at 12 noon the everyone in Quito began taking pictures of the ground and our almost complete lack of shadow. With everyone bumping into each other, the novelty of the situation quickly wore off.

Being a vegetarian in South America can be a bit of a struggle. With meat a cheap option on the menu for almost every meal, South Americans don't understand why anyone would not want to eat it. Typical conversations:

  • "I'm a vegetarian." "But you eat chicken and pork, right?"
  • "Do you have any vegetarian options?" "Yes we have salad or we can make the main dishes without the meat!"
The one saving grace is the prevalent "Veggie Almuerzo". We first encountered such a restaurant in Popayan but thought it was a one-off. Nope. These beacons of vegetarian light in a dark meaty world are everywhere, and people love them. Typically you take your seat at a no-frills cafeteria style table and check out the menu, a whiteboard with 8-10 unrecognizable/untranslate-able dishes in handwriting that looks more like hieroglyphics. You then look around at what everyone else is eating for a few things that look extra tasty and call out to them "Que es eso?" and they kindly point out the dish on the menu. You usually get to choose about 5-7 including salads, soups, mains, juice, and postres (dessert). Typical ingredients are beans, rice, quinoa, tofu, cauliflower, carrots, onion, potatoes, and other fresh fruit and vegetables - all creative and delicious. Meals like this would typically cost a fortune in the usual crunchy granola places on the west coast of North America. But all this veggie goodness can be yours for the low low price of $2-4. Veggie Almuerzos were again abundant in Quito and we even found an Asian Veggie Almuerzo... so good!

We returned to our apartment stuffed to the gills and ready to sit down and do our homework on.... the Galapagos.
Quito Basilica