(While we have so much time on our hands, I have decided to write the stories I never got around to. This is the first hopefully of many. It is long, but I tried to make it entertaining. Enjoy!)
Isla de Plata
When Kyle and I got married, September 2, 2006, Kyle was finishing what we thought was his last semester in school. The wedding took place the first weekend of the fall semester. We knew when planning the wedding we wouldn’t have the resources, aka: mula, to take the honeymoon we had always dreamed, so instead, we took what we dubbed “minimoon” to the hill country of Texas for three nights and two days. It was a lovely couple of days but was lacking significant factors that we felt were inherent in a proper honeymoon. A “proper honeymoon” needs to have the following qualifications; beach with warm, swimable water, relaxation, nice accommodations (not hostels) and plenty of sun/ sunbathing and it needs to be at least a week long. Obviously the Texas hill country is lacking in a beach, and the honeymoon was only a couple of days, therefore it did not meet the qualifications and could not be considered a proper honeymoon. Around the time of our one-year wedding anniversary, Kyle and I decided it was time to take the honeymoon of our dreams with the little money that we had. The main deciding factor in choosing Ecuador was because we had heard from our good friend and fellow Chile volunteer, that Ecuador had humpback whale viewing which was amazing. For any of you that know Kyle and I well, you know that we LOVE nature and things to do with learning and experiencing nature. We were big nerds in our Texas Tech biology class, and would stay after class to talk with the professor; NERD ALERT!!! We even took a two week camp, herpetology course with this same biology professor where we spent our days chasing snakes, reptiles, and other scaly, slimy green creatures, despite our mothers’ fears. That course was one of the highlights of our Texas Tech careers. All of this to say, we love the outdoors, animals and biology, so when we heard about this opportunity to see humpback whales, we couldn’t resist. Now, I know some of you might be thinking if you love animals so much, and you decided on Ecuador, why did you not choose the Galapagos Islands. We definitely did consider the Galapagos Islands, but in the end, decided that however much money we were making up just to make this trip in the first place, we couldn’t spend the amount necessary to visit the Galapagos Islands, but make no mistake, we will someday make it there.
The trip started September 18, Chile’s Independence day. We wanted to make sure we had some good solid celebration time with our host family before we headed out on our vacation. Chileans receive an entire week off for Independence Day, and it is by far the most important holiday because they can revel in their pride for their country and culture, which they believe to be an outstanding culture. We, the country and I, have differing opinions on whether their culture is amazing or not, but we wont go into that now. After attending the parade of all the schools with their children and teachers walking through the streets of downtown Pichilemu, displaying their school banner, a fascinating spectacle, we jumped on a bus to Santiago to catch our plane to Lima. After our Peru trip, we had become excruciatingly familiar with the Lima airport, and felt as though it had become our second home. Our flight to Tumbes was not until the wee hours of the morning, but we didn’t feel it was worth our time and money to catch a taxi to a hotel/hostel, sleep a couple of hours in a real bed, take another taxi back to the airport to catch our flight. Instead, we toured around the airport, ate Papa Johns pizza, that’s right Papa Johns, we were so excited to find it, visited the tiny chapel, discussed whether they would take offense to the pews being used as beds, ultimately decided against it, and finally settled down to sleep/pretend to sleep on the chairs adjacent to the entrance of the airport.
Ecuador/Peru border crossing
Our arrival in Tumbes, was an experience in itself. Tumbes is on the Peru, Ecuador border and is not considered one of the most safe of border crossings in fact, it is considered by some to be quite dangerous. Gathering around the only conveyer belt in the tiny airport the size of a large office, a man came around offering taxi rides over the border, including to the immigration office and check points. He sat in the front seat next to the driver of the taxi. Kyle and he made small chat, as I stared out the window at the gray skies and desolate, dead fields, trying to quiet the overweight butterflies crashing into my stomach lining. I was wondering if we had made a mistake in coming to this country. I am not going to lie; I was scared. We were seasoned travelers, and we had been through many border crossings before, but this one seemed the sketchiest of them all. Although our guide assured us that he was trustworthy, we didn’t know who to trust or what to believe. The butterflies only seemed to put on more weight as we drove through the town. Women walked down the dirt streets wearing, tight, unflattering shirts that exposed their midriff. Little boys ran around in raggedy clothing, barefoot. The streets were chaotic, and full of people, animals and vehicles. As our taxi came to the border between Tumbes and Haquilles, we were halted by a police officer eating a burrito. He wouldn’t look directly at us, but wouldn’t let us pass. The taxi driver got out of the car to explain that he had a license to cross the border and that he did this everyday, but the police officer stared into his burrito chewing meticulously, unmoved, as our taxi driver grew angrier, throwing his arms wildly in the air. By this point our car had been surrounded by 12 to 13 year old boys offering to help us with our bags. I clutched on to my belongings until the cords cut into my hand, watching the boys carefully to make sure they didn’t run off with any of our bags or money. We gathered our luggage and walked two blocks through the chaotic streets to catch another taxi. The man, who rode in the front seat, stayed with us throughout the entire trip, for which I was grateful. We jumped in another taxi for $2 and rode 2km to the Peruvian checkpoint to let them know we were leaving Ecuador. We then had to jump in another taxi to the Ecuadorian checkpoint, to inform them that we were arriving in their country. Outside the checkpoint, friendly men with fixed calculators were happy to exchange money for a good deal, in other words, pay you 60% of what you should receive. We politely declined. We were really on edge and felt extremely vulnerable throughout the whole process, but somehow we made it through without being robbed. After the checkpoints, we walked to a station where our guide said we could catch a ride to Guayaquil. However before we were to depart from our guide, he asked for a tip. Now when we negotiated the original price of the trip “only $10” was his response. Evidently that $10 was to go to the taxi that couldn’t make it across the border. We then had to pay more money to take more taxis, not part of the deal. We gave him $5, nearly all of the cash we had left. He wasn’t satisfied, but after haggling with us for sometime, left grumbling. We paid much more than what we had read it would cost to cross the border as it was, and $10 was the agreed upon rate. In my opinion, he needed to take up his complaints with the taxi driver.
The trip to Puerto Lopez
We had arrived in Tumbes around 7am in the morning. The border crossing although it had felt like days, only took about an hour. The red van, equipped with AC, would take 4 hours to arrive to Guayaquil, the main hub for Ecuador and we were just in the initial stages of this epic journey. We piled in to the impressively clean van for South America with three other men. Our stomachs ached from lack of food, rumbling and grumbling in an attempt to display their unhappiness, but there was no guarantee that the food at our food stop wouldn’t anger our already disgruntled tummies with unknown bacteria. Although we explained this to our digestive organs, they didn’t want to listen to our logical arguments and continued their squabbling. Between the seats in front of us lay a cardboard box labeled sandwiches, and for a fleeting moment of illogical hunger-driven thinking, I thought that the box was filled with food to feed us. What a kind bus driver to think of his potentially famished clients. However, t as I stared at this box that could hold my potential lunch, I observed holes which I thought strange for a sandwich box, since we all know sandwiches don’t need to breath. And then the box moved. Out from one of those curious holes flashed a brown oddly shaped object, only for a brief instant. Perplexed and a little alarmed, I leaned in closer to get a better look. When the object poked through once again, a small thin dark tongue emerged, and to my horror, I realized that within this box, not more than four inches tall, lay a parrot desperate to escape. The hole grew as I watched the beak rip at it’s cardboard prison. The owner of the box/illegal parrot, sat with his head leaning against the window, mouth open and snoring. We decided to wake him, only when fear that the parrot might actually be successful in it’s getaway attempt became evident. My heart hurt for the trapped parrot in it’s unnaturally small box, but I also didn’t want to be a sitting duck, confined in the van with a maddened parrot, squawking and flying around looking for another escape route and/or someone to blame. Not to mention, the legal ramifications of smuggling a parrot might not mean prison or capitol punishment for all in the van with the criminal party, but I didn’t want to take my chances in country with a corrupt government. He patched the hole with tape, and although it slowed the determined creature, the call of the wild was strong in him, and if left to his efforts for just a couple more hours, his attempts would have probably been successful.
We jumped out of the van, almost literally, at the bus depot in Guaquille and ran to catch our next bus that was leaving within five minutes. Kyle’s bladder had been full for over an hour, but rather than risk missing the bus and having to wait for several more hours until the next one, he crossed his legs and stepped on to the seedy bus for yet another 5 hour bus ride. The bus jetted almost as soon as we stepped on making several stops to pick up vendors selling everything from bottled water, to fruit, to ice cream and candy. We were parched and starving by this point, but had been advised by more than one source not to eat street food, and we figured food sold on buses were included in that category. We did break down and buy a bottle of water, but when we opened it, we discovered that it had been opened before and had probably been filled with tap water. We were parched but our desire not to have Mantasuma’s revenge on our honeymoon took priority; we didn’t drink it. The ride was bumpy and long and poor Kyle had to endure almost the entire trip having to pee. Several hours in, we made a quick stop at a gas station to refuel. Seizing his only opportunity, Kyle jumped off the bus to find a restroom. Visions of the bus leaving with Kyle running behind, permeated my mind. I was in a delicate state, and although my fear had mostly subsided by this point, my senses were on high alert until our arrival to our hotel. Luckily Kyle returned, safe and sound without having to race after the bus.
The sun retreated behind the mountains, and darkness slowly sprinkled the sky until it was fully saturated in black, but the bus driver seemed to take the lessoned vision as a cue to drive faster up mountains. I tried to look out the window as we drove at lightening speed, but Kyle assured me, it was best that I couldn’t see anything.
When we arrived in Puerto Lopez, we took a motocab, a motorcycle with a cart attached to the back to carry people, to our Hotel. We were relieved to have arrived at Hosteria Mandala alive, and with all our belongings. We had been traveling for 30 hours straight. We were wearied and famished, but we were home.
Hosteria Mandala was an amazing hotel. A labyrinth of paths, fringed by exotic and colorful plants connected the individual cabins. The rooms were small, but held the essentials. A large bed covered by a mosquito net took up most of the room. There was a closet, a small bathroom and a porch with a hammock and chair. It was a perfect paradise in the sea of chaos that colored our journey up till that point. At the restaurant connected to the hotel, our red eyes from lack of sleep, our slow yet deliberate motions and our near silence as we ate might have led some to believe us zombies and another day of hectic travel like the one before might have sent us over into the zombie realm, but luckily the longest travel portion of our trip was over, and we were glad of it. That night we went to sleep zombies but awoke live humans, refreshed and ready for whale watching. The whale watching journey included much more than just watching for the large knobby sea mammals; a boat ride for the whale watching, a guided tour of Isla de Plata, named for silver supposedly hidden on this island with the blue-footed boobies, and snorkeling for anyone who dared. Our boat ride was over an hour, and during that time we saw many humpbacks breech the water, unruffled by our presence. Their stunning yet peculiar bodies surfaced not 20 feet from our boat and as their tales hit the surface of the ocean, the upset water splashed the boat. It was the end of mating season, and during peak season, the males jump out of the water, performing whale acrobatics to impress the choosy females. At the end of mating season, less jumping and impressing is to be had, but they remain in the area for humans to enjoy. We were lucky in that we did see one jump clear out of the water, creating a tidal wave to be envious of any cannon ball connoisseur. These resplendent creatures range from 40-50 ft and weigh approximately 79,000 lbs. “The humpback has a distinctive body shape, with unusually long pectoral fins and a knobby head. It is an acrobatic animal, often breaching and slapping the water. Males produce a complex whale song, which lasts for 10 to 20 minutes and is repeated for hours at a time. The purpose of the song is not yet clear, although it appears to have a role in mating.” (wikipedia)
We arrived on Isla de Plata (Island of Silver), and took a guided tour by our Spanish only speaking guide. The main draw to this island is the blue-footed booby, a clumsy bird with blue feet. We couldn’t get over these birds and their blue feet. We must have taken over 30 pictures of just these birds and what’s more, their feet were not homogenous in the chromatic sense, their feet varied in the color blue from one bird to the next. These colorful birds made delightful models for our ever snapping camera, seemingly indifferent to the humans with the black boxes attached to their heads. Occasionally the birds would block the path across the island, and because coaxing was punished with a swift snap of the beak, we would have to wait for them to cross. The trip didn’t end there however, because after ogling came snorkeling. The water was clear but not exactly warm, and although the sun was out, the day was not HOT. We jumped in the water for all of five minutes, partially because of the temperature, but also because of the invisible, microscopic jellyfish, stinging our bodies. We never identified the stinging culprit, but whatever animal or thing was guilty of the crime, we didn’t like it.
The following day, we rented bicycles and road what we were told was 12km, but what takes 30 minutes by bus, you do the math. Either that bus moves at tortoise speed, or 12km was not an accurate distance. Nevertheless, we road bicycles to Los Frailes, reputedly the most beautiful beach in Ecuador. The bikes were old, the road, bumpy, in poor condition, and much in need of a repavement. By the time we arrived to Los Frailes, our legs were sore and I was sure my butt was black and blue from bruises since it felt as if someone had used it as boxing practice. The warm and inviting sand made an excellent bed for our bike worn bodies. Soon the dampness that hung lightly from the grey overcast sky like spider webs that brush lightly against your skin, progressed to an unwelcome misting. From vibrant tropical green to desolate, near death brown, the mountains that surrounded the white sand beaches were not the mountains from the brilliant posters, rather in the dull light and mist, they looked melancholy, but none-the-less they still held a certain awe-inspiring quality. The misting continued to thicken as we hopped on our bikes for the ride back into town. Contrary to what the bike shop said, the ride back was not easier. The soft sand had not healed the bruising on our behinds, and despite the rain, we walked the last five blocks back to the shop.
The next day was our relaxing day. We slept in, ate a large breakfast, lay reading in our hammock and took a stroll on the beach collecting shells, rocks and sand dollars.
Montinitas (little mountains) was the next town on our trip. After an hour long bus ride in a beat up puke green school bus speckled in mud from the unpaved roads, we arrived at our destination. It was a cute, colorful hippie surfing town that has become an international hub for arts and crafts vendors. A quiet city by day, and a pueblo loco by night. Famous for it’s nightlife, Montinitas comes alive by dark. Our hotel, however, was situated away from the hustle and bustle of the famous nightlife, tucked away in a quiet corner far from the craziness, or so we thought. Because we were only spending one day and night in Monitinitas before dragging our lifeless bodies on a bus at 5:30 am the following morning, we specifically picked the hotel known for it’s peaceful and quiet evenings. Our heads hit the pillows by 9pm but by 10pm our beds were jumping and jiving with the rest of the wedding situated directly outside our hotel. Eighteen huge speakers, 300 crazy Ecuadorian guests, and a blushing bride and groom were to blame for the lack of sleep that evening. Luckily our bed was not agile enough for swing dancing and we were spared acrobatics. By 5 am the party raged on as we left the hotel, giving our saturated ear-drums and vibration worn bodies a reprieve.
Three bus rides, fourteen hours and one swollen and itchy foot by an unknown bug later, we arrived to heaven on Earth, Vilcabamba. The Valley of Longevity as is it often called, is not only known for it’s outstanding beauty, perfect all year climate, but it’s inhabitants who live well into their 100’s with the oldest reporting 135 years of age. Located in a valley at the foothills of the perpetually green and beautiful Andes mountains, Vilcabamba, because of it’s stunning beauty and magical air, could be the home to the supernatural creatures found in fairy tales. Our lodging, Madre Tierra hotel and spa (Mother Earth), was a paradise within heaven on earth, and had the most outstanding accommodations yet. The rooms, tucked away on the mountainside, were individually designed and decorated and included a large stylized porch with an amazing view of the valley. An organic breakfast and dinner were included in the price of the room, only $70 per night and 50% off all spa treatments.
After passing up Madre Tierra after having explained three times to the bus driver our destination, we arrived just in time for a romantic dinner, outside, under an awning dotted in Christmas lights. The tables were long, family style, and covered in colorfully striped tablecloth. The food was delicious, a perfect reward for our long, arduous day of travel. On our first day we spent our time between leisurely strolling through the tranquil, and quaint town and fabulous treatment at the spa designed to feel like a tropical cave dwelling. (For all of you who are wondering, Kyle has been converted to that of a spa-going and spa-enjoying male.) The spa had a special sample treatment deal which included a foot massage, a facial, a mud bath, a salt rub, a sauna treatment and a hair treatment. In total the treatment took three hours and only cost $45! (If I sound like an advertisement, I can’t help it, it runs in the family, I love a good deal!) One of the most interesting of the treatments was something we dubbed sauna box. After having our feet rubbed, our heads massaged and conditioned while listening to the extremely soothing and relaxing music our bodies were no longer our own, but had been molded into rag dolls. We were told to strip down to our Adam and Even suits, sit in this specially designed wooden box with a hole on the top. The hole’s purpose was so that while the body was being steam-cooked like a vegetable, the head could rest above with the cooler, fresher air. However, the seat within the box was crafted for one much taller than I, and I strained and stretched my neck to keep my chin above the hole. After steaming for a while, the lady came back in to let us out of the melting pot. It was a strange feeling standing naked and vulnerable in front of this stranger, but I did as I was told. She stood me up and using a hand towel soaked my wilted body with cold water. At first I shrank from the stark change in temperature, but I slowly felt my body rejoicing in the refreshing coolness. But we were not done yet. After fully adjusting to the coolness, I was placed back in the oven. This routine happened three times with only how I was drenched in cool water changed each time. The second time, I sat in what seemed to be a sink and had water poured on me. The third, I stood in a shower and was sprayed with water like I was car getting a spray down. There is sometimes a fine line between torture and pleasure, with this activity slightly leaning towards the pleasurable side.
Our activity for the following day was a guided tour to a hidden, therefore magical waterfall. (Ok so it wasn’t actually supposed to be magical, but it makes the story all the more interesting when there are magical elements. Am I right?). Our tour guide was very nice, spoke English well, and was eager to share any and all information on his country. Although, I found the waterfall to be plain and not as magical as I had hoped, the hiking was lovely. Had we come across the waterfall unexpectedly on our trek, I might have found the waterfall to be one of the most spectacular sights in the country, but because it was our destination, the goal of our entire trek, my expectations were high and in the end, as with most high-expectation situations, I was disappointed. On our walk back to the hotel, our guide took us to a sugarcane factory where the raw sugarcane plant is processed in a huge tub of boiling goo. We were given samples of the golden magma goo, which was delightfully sweet and lovely.
That evening we had a charming dinner with some volunteers on a medical team from California who had come to Ecuador on a mission to repair skin damage on fire victims. One of the benefits of the long, family-style tables was that it supported a community feel, and we got to know many of the other travelers at Madre Tierra, including a crazy Austinite who had come to Madre Tierra for a week, but had stayed five and counting. After dinner we watched The Year of Living Dangerously, an old Mel Gibbson movie in the ballroom. The wind, which can often be playful in the valley, was serious and forceful, howling into the night as we walked up the mountain to our room. Not minutes after we had climbed into bed, did the windows start rattling. I thought the wind was up to it’s mischievous and odd behavior once again, until the bed that we were in began to shake. It felt as if a giant was trying to jiggle his favorite toy out of the room. Afraid to move, I asked Kyle what one might find an obvious question, “Is this an earthquake?” Neither one of us had experienced an earthquake before, nor as the shaking continued did we know what actions to take while in an earthquake. As a child, we had tornado drills in elementary schools where all the students kneeled in lines against walls and covered their heads, but never had we practiced what to do in the case of an earthquake. For a moment I became aware that our room overhung a cliff, and feared that if the quake continued much longer, our room may be found at the bottom of the valley. After what seemed like hours, but was probably only 45 seconds, the shaking ceased. Our friend whom had befriended at dinner and had the room adjacent to ours, called through the wall, “is everyone ok?” Shaking and strangely excited, we threw on light jackets and headed next door. From this incident, we learned that the latest reports on safe procedures in an earthquake are to stand against a wall instead of a door frame like previously suggested, and being under a heavy object that could fall and crush your body, was not a good idea. An hour later, still jittery, we crawled back into bed.
I was surprised, the morning after that the workers seemed unfazed by this 6.0 earthquake, brushing it off as “solo un temblor,” (only a tremor). We might not have been at the epicenter of the earthquake and I might not be an expert, but a tremor does not shatter the glass walls to a spa.
Paradise, although near perfect, can sometimes have it’s draw backs. For me, these draw backs came in the number 60. Our very first evening, one of the first questions I asked was if bug spray was necessary. I have a special relationship to bugs, I hate them, and they love me. In fact, you could say I am a beacon in the night, a lighthouse, for all those creatures who seek blood. My blood is like the holy grail of bloods according to the mosquitoes and their kin, and is sought after like Pooh bears to honey. I was assured that this was not mosquito season and bugs were not an issue. This statement might have been true for a person like Kyle who only received 5 bites during our stay, but not for an attractive blood donor like myself who by the end, had over 60 bites. Yes, I said 60, not 6, not 16, but 60, 15 at least on each limb. But what made these even more special was that these weren’t just regular bites, they were unique. Two of my bites on my ankles caused swelling and discoloration with a diameter of at least three inches. Another bite bubbled up in a form of a blister that had to be popped. By the end, I was like an art project gone wrong, splattered in colors and shapes, but not very sightly. But despite my multiple itches covering my body, we had a fantastically romantic time in Vilcabamba.
Zorritos (little foxes) was the last stop on our honeymoon. We were the only guests staying at the hotel, situated on a picturesque and serene white sand beach. Zorritos itself was a dump, but we hadn’t come for the town, we had come for the sun and the beach, a last repreive before we returned to cold Pichilemu. We spent one day on an unexciting tour of the mangrove forest while the other was spent lounging on the beach. The chef at Costa Azul, our hotel, had amazing hands for seafood and we dined in ecstasy nearly every night. Our time in Zorritos was relaxing and uneventful, unless you consider my crisply burnt feet, but nearly a perfect ending to a perfect honeymoon. On our last day as we walked along the beach, holding hands and reveling in our perfect honeymoon , a fin penetrated the water. A pod of dolphins of at least 6 swam along the shore as if to say goodbye and good luck.
Our honeymoon, unlike the easy uneventful, resort honeymoons that many people enjoy, was full of wild border crossings, long bus trips, and painful bug bites. But as we are not most people, and enjoy adventure and all the hazards that come along with adventure, we consider our honeymoon a success. It was a fabulously romantic adventure always to be remembered. It was the best honeymoon we could have asked for, and I loved it as I love Kyle exactly the way he is.
Kyle crossing a very scary bridge