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GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS

15 Jul

GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS

The ecologically rich islands of Galápagos are a magical place to observe biodiversity and enjoy many enchanting natural wonders. Galápagos is the most important tourism destination in Ecuador and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1979. The number of endemic species of flora and fauna inhabiting this paradise, which informed Charles Darwin’s Theory of the Evolution of Species, was given the nickname: The Enchanted Islands.

The geographic isolation that characterizes this archipelago – located about 1000 kilometers off the coast – has transformed the region into a biological laboratory of great interest for both tourists and researchers.  The province of Galápagos consists of 13 large islands, 6 small ones, 107 inlets and countless rocks, all of them of volcanic origin.

From Guayaquil, we flew into the tiny island of Baltra; the world’s first ecological airport. Here, we took a 10-minute ferry over to the largest and most populated island of the Galápagos named Santa Cruz.

 

ISLA SANTA CRUZ

To think of the Galápagos, is to think of tortoises. The very name, Galápagos is derived from an old Spanish word referring to their saddle-like shape. So on our way to the town of Puerto Ayora, we stopped at the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Centre – where giant tortoises roam freely. They live there in muddy Mother Nature, so we put on some boots and went exploring. Not soon after we left, we found some – and they were so impressive and gigantic!

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Blue boots are on, to go find the turtles in muddy terrain

We learned that the giant tortoises are the most celebrated animal in the region (about 15,000 to 17,000 are left here) and can grow up to almost 600 pounds (270 kg), with a curved carapace length of about 4 feet (1.22 metres). Surprisingly, they live well over 100 years – some reach it all the way to 200!

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The boys with a BABY giant tortoise; only 25 years old

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With giant tortoises at Fausto Llerena Tortoise Centre

On our second day, we took a 40-minute hike up to Tortuga Bay Beach. After about half an hour, we reached a perfectly preserved beach with incredibly high waves. Filou was ready to show off his surfing skills but unfortunately this beach is forbidden to swimmers as it is preserved for wildlife.

After a stroll along this beautiful sandy beach, we reached a gorgeous inlet with stunning blue water. It was here that we were allowed to swim and observe wildlife. We saw a colony of black marine iguanas on the beach, several beautiful pelican birds (one was bathing right in front of Emile & me), a stoic heron and many colourful, large, red Sally Lightfoot Crabs.

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A stoic heron on the lava rocks at Tortuga Bay

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Beautiful red Sally Lightfoot Crab

Our last day on Santa Cruz, we headed by ferryboat for Las Grietas. Once across the pond,we walked for 20-minutes through enormous cacti and over impressive lava rock formations. Las Grietas, which literally means “the cracks”, is a geologic formation; a canal formed between steep lava rock cliffs on either side. It’s a really beautiful hide-away and unique swimming hole (a mix of salt and fresh water come together here which makes for crystal-clear, snorkeling water).

The kids loved swimming in this cove and saw the most amazing blue-yellow fish. Also, as is commonly done here, Filou jumped into the water pencil-style from a high rock ledge. It was then that he made a remark that describes him so well. He said: “But mom and dad, you know – I was born to risk my life” (with the biggest smile on his face)! Anthony too jumped from the high perch, but without the whimsical quotable that Filou offered!

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Snorkeling and jumping off rock ledges at Las Grietas, Santa Cruz

And after 3 wonderful nights at Casa Tortuga (a gorgeous 2-bedroom bungalow with amazing amenities) (http://www.flipkey.com/puerto-ayora-vacation-rentals/p295060/), we were ready for our 2-hour boat ride to the next island: Isla Isabela.

 

ISLA ISABELA

We heard some stories about what the 2-hour boat ride from Santa Cruz to Isabela was going to be like, but nothing could have prepared us. I would say that this was an “once-in-a-lifetime experience” (but then not in a good way). A small boat with 22 people, trying to work itself through extremely rough waters – I counted 16 baggies of puke; need I say more? (and yes, the boat crew is completely prepared with black plastic bags and Kleenex; they know what’s coming! And the 16 bags were only on the lower deck; God knows what was happening above us).

Very happy that our family kept it together! Our strategy: lots of stomach muscle tensing, staring at the horizon and no breakfast. We were handsomely rewarded with the most stunning blue-green ocean waters, a group of cute penguins swimming alongside our boat, and several sea lions sunbathing on deck, as we entered the harbour of Puerto Villamil.

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In the harbour of Puerto Villamil, Isabela

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That afternoon we took our first swim and had the most amazing playtime with sea lions; they were swimming and twirling all around us – just incredible! One sea lion even slightly touched Filou; he loved it and said it had the softest skin.  Emile had the same experience the next day when several sea lions came up close to hang out and play. What a treat!

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Emile playing with a sea lion

The following day, we strapped our snorkeling equipment on our backs, rented bikes and went to explore the island.  First we stopped at the local UNESCO funded Tortoise Conservation Centre, which houses various sizes of tortoises; many of which have experienced high levels of poaching within the last 10-20 years. We saw both hatchling tortoises and older breeding animals. Emile particularly liked the little ones.

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Biking along the beautiful coast of seahorse shaped Isla Isabela

From there, we passed a beautiful pond with 15 majestic, pink flamingos. Then, heading in the other direction, we rode all along Isabela’s gorgeous coastline to find a good snorkeling spot – which we did locate at Playa del Amor. Here we had a refreshing swim and a chance to observe large marine iguanas up-close.

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Marine Iguanas at Playa del Amor, Isabela

All in all it was a lovely, relaxing day of observing wildlife and taking in scenery. However, the next day was even better for “los animales”. We booked a snorkeling tour with Rosedelco Tours and were off to Los Túnelos.

 

Los Túnelos

After a thrilling, 45-minute boat ride with Captain Leonardo (who was the spitting image of John Travolta) & crew – we arrived at our first snorkeling destination. Here, we quickly spotted several large Manta and Golden Rays. Then we moved on, to locate the most anticipated  marine species of all (especially by the boys); the White Tip Reef Shark! We first saw some hiding in a cave, but quickly we had them swimming right by us. Apparently these sharks are rarely aggressive towards humans as they have an abundance of food in the area, but still… pretty exhilarating to see several 5-foot sharks swim right underneath you!

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To prove we really swam with them, here’s a shot of a couple of White Tip Reef Sharks.

Next, we swam against some strong currents (kudos to the kids for keeping up), and arrived at the area of the giant tortoises. It was very cool to see these enormous, pre-historic animals majestically float in the water: especially as they come right up to you.

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Emile having fun snorkeling with a giant tortoise

Then it was break-time and we got back onto our boat for a delicious sandwich lunch and some local, sweet treats. Round two of snorkelling was aimed at spotting the impressively, large Pacific Sea horse (of which we saw several). To conclude the snorkelling part of the tour, Emile braved deep waters to swim under several arched rock formations.

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A very large Pacific Seahorse

After being warmed-up on our boat, we made one last stop at the area known as Los Túnelos. It is here that lava has formed beautiful arcs in the ocean. We got off to walk around a bit, take in the scenery and spot the famous Galápagos Blue-Footed Booby birds.

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The arched lava formations of Los Túnelos

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Filou who loves “boobies”

These birds, especially the males, take great pride in their fabulous feet – especially during mating season, as the bluer the feet the more attractive the male is considered to be. The colour of their webbed feet actually comes from carotenoid pigments that are obtained from their fresh fish diet. And the healthier the boobies are, the bluer their feet.

Also, boobies nest on land and lay only 1-2 eggs each year (of which only the strongest hatchling will survive). Therefore, it was pretty special for us to see a set of boobies safeguarding their egg.

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Famous Galápagos Blue-Footed Booby Birds with egg

 

ISLA SAN CRISTOBÁL

From Isabela, we took a flight, on board a 6-seater airplane (pilot included), to the next and final island: San Cristobál. The ride was thrilling, especially for Emile who sat in front with the pilot (window open and all!). As you can probably imagine, flying over the Galápagos Islands, gave us the opportunity to take in some magnificent views.

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Emile sat in front of with the pilot, during our magnificent airplane ride (6-seater), from Isla Isabela to Isla San Cristobál

Once on the island, we jumped right in with a day tour to the most popular snorkeling spot in the area: Ln Dormido (also called Kicker Rock). We booked with Ln Dormido Expeditions and took a fabulous catamaran boat to this popular landmark and snorkeling spot. It is here that two majestic volcanic rocks (remains of a lava rock, split in two) tower about 140 metres tall above the ocean.

When viewed from the south, the formation looks like a sleeping lion, hence the name Spanish name Ln Dormido, while from another side it looks more like a boot (soccer shoe?), hence the English name Kicker Rock. Apart from its scenic beauty, Kicker Rock is the best place to spot sharks in the Galápagos, so of course the boys were excited to go!

We were instructed to swim through the narrow channel between the two rocks. The water was crystal-clear in there, and the bluest we’ve ever seen. All along the rocks, we found the most magnificent brightly coloured fish, including the spotted Eagle Ray (we saw a massive one!) and many sharks. We saw several Galápagos sharks (and some Black Tips), but unfortunately the Hammerheads were not around during our swim; these were the ones Emile really wanted to see!

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Popular snorkeling spot: León Dormido or Kicker Rock

Nevertheless, we had a fantastic day in the water – in certain spots it looked like we were floating over a carpet of fish (so many of them together)….. and of course swimming with the many tortoises and sea lions was phenomenal; they are just so majestic and impressive in the water.

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Snorkeling selfie at Kicker Rock – Leon Dormido, San Cristobál

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Emile and I, swimming with some giant tortoises. Great fun!

The next day, we chilled out with some great new Ecuadorian-German friends; Bastienne, Pablo and their sons Martine and David.  We first met this lovely family on Isabela and now again on San Cristobál. We had stimulating conversations about sustainability, business and life with them. They live in Quito but run a fantastic lodge in the Amazon Jungle, called Huasquilla Amazon Lodge. Check this out: http://www.huasquila.com

On our winding path leading to Las Tierretas, we visited the Galápagos National Park Visitor Centre with them. Here, we learned about the natural processes that have made the Galápagos such a unique place (a complete and documented history of the Galápagos, its ecosystems, flora and fauna was presented here). As well, there was lots of information about the efforts underway to protect and preserve the islands.

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With new friends Martine and David at the Galápagos National Park Visitor Centre

Then the kids were ready for their last snorkel. And what an amazing one it was – almost like a dance with baby sea lions (Filou got to use the GoPro under water camera for the first time and captured some great shots).

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Filou’s selfie with the GoPro

It was fitting that we ended with sea lions as the island of San Cristobál, is particularly known for them. We got to observe many up-close, both in and out of the water. Our conclusion is this; as majestic as sea lions are in the water, as sleepy, coughing, stinky and awkward they are on land. There are so many of them in the centre of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno that you have to be seriously careful sitting down on a bench as it might be taken!

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The beaches and shores of San Cristobál are filled with sea lions

San Cristobal, the capital of EL PARAISO, quickly became our Galápagos favorite. Efforts put forth to keep this earthly paradise intact have been great; a wonderful conservation example indeed and perfect finale to our REgeneration Tour (http://the-regeneration.com).

And now, I sit here on our 30th and last world tour flight, thinking of my very first international flight to Portugal when I was only 11 years old. I vividly remember the excitement of soaring higher and higher and seeing that beautiful white blanket of clouds that just makes you want you to jump in.

Now here, some 30 years later, I am once again looking out the window of an airplane, marveling at that gorgeous sky (with stunning red glow as the sun is just rising) and that same tingling, travel excitement, feeling is rising. I envision and hope that my boys will have similar vivid memories of their first travel experiences; we have certainly given them some to remember this year.

The world is stunningly beautiful and so worthy of exploring and protecting. Thank you Galápagos, your paradise was our “icing on the cake”; a fitting end to an incredible year of adventure, exploration and unforgettable world-travel with my three wonderful men – for which I am more grateful than can ever be expressed….Y.O.L.O!

Note: There will be one more blog that recaps our round-the-world-trip reflections and thoughts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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ECUADOR: Quito, Canoa Beach and Guaquil (via Montecristo)

4 Jul

El República del Ecuador – a Spanish speaking country in northwestern South America that has a great deal of nature to offer: the Andes Mountains, the Amazon Jungle, the Atlantic Coast and certainly the world-famous Galapagos Islands.  The country is home to such a great variety of species, that it is considered to be one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world.  Needless to say, a perfect destination for us!

 

QUITO

We flew from Peru into the beautiful capital of Ecuador; a city situated in a picturesque valley with surrounding, towering mountains. Last year, National Geographic voted Quito (declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1978 because of its largest, least-altered and best preserved historic centre), as one of the top 20 destinations in the world to be visited. However, exploring this photogenic town with its 17th century churches and mansions, was not in the cards for us. Our 9 days in the city can be summed up with one word: CHICKENPOX.

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The Historical Capital of Ecuador: Quito

 

CANOA

A little disappointed that we had to skip our week in Banos; the adventure capital of Ecuador (rock-climbing, zip-lining and hot springs. were out), but with natural immunity for life in our back pockets, we were off to sunny Canoa – a small beach town on the west coast of Ecuador. We were pleased that the roads leading to this small community were surprisingly good, and that our hotel for the next month was indeed the beautiful beach property it promised to be.

Instantly, we marveled at the under-developed nature of this beach area (some investment opportunities perhaps?). We were but a 15-minute beach stroll from Canoa town, and encountered only a few properties along the way. Long stretches of pristine beach with few people on it, surrounded us both left and right….And of course, the stunning, rolling waves and sunny skies threw out their welcome mats. Canoa is a popular hang out place for surfers due to its consistent surf and so we quickly turned Emile and Filou into little surf dudes… signing them up for surf lessons (thanks YiaYia!).

Guided by surf teacher Walker, the kids quickly found their groove and were up on their boards. They couldn’t get enough of it, and especially liked for us to film their progress – Anthony was eager to oblige with his new Go-Pro camera and I happily jumped some huge waves as not to get my Iphone wet, while taking action shots!

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Canoa, Ecuador

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With surfing teacher Walker

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Emile riding the waves

While the kids conquered the ocean, Anthony and I took 10 classes of beach Yoga with Leanne Holder, a wonderful US expat (https://www.facebook.com/CocoCottages).  Downward dogs and balancing tree poses (“be any tree you want to be”) are quite hard when you are starting out, but having your feet solidly planted into beach sand certainly makes it a little easier (and the “whatever you have available” line of encouragement helped a lot too)!

Guided by Leanne’s wide range of yoga moves and soothing voice (which was amplified by the wonderful sounds of crashing waves in the background), we learned to find some inner peace, balance and ability to stretch. I think Anthony and I are both hooked now and just need to create a big sandpit in a yoga studio in Bangkok somewhere!

Thanks Leanne for the fabulous t-shirt…the saying on it says it all!

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Wonderful Beach Yoga with Leanne and Don

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“Explore your Bliss – Ecuador”. Perfect trip t-shirt!

As equally nice as Leanne was, were her mom Cynthia and her partner Ron – who regularly joined us in yoga. We had the pleasure of attending Cynthia’s local art show that displayed many beautiful acrylics and watercolours (was thinking of you mom!). Inspiration is probably not hard to find in this town as it is surrounded by magnificent nature – and Cynthia’s leaf and flower scenes were full of lovely detail and vibrant colours.

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Cynthia at her art-show, with some of her inspired art pieces (first column)

One day, Cynthia, Ron and Leanne took the kids to the local caves where our fearless yoga instructor saved Filou from what she described as a “near-death experience” when he was taken by some huge waves that would have smashed him into the rocks had she not scooped him up quickly. Good thing, too, because he’s kinda precious to us!  Of course, to this day he himself is absolutely oblivious about this incident – and describes his day with them as “the very best day in Canoa”. 

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Canoa cliffs full of blue-footed boobies and other birds

These wonderful 3 people also invited us for a bonfire to celebrate my 45th birthday! Great memories; connecting with new friends, lovely music, hot-dogs and jumping contests with Annie – an energetic and fun 30-yr old, who has her eyes set on Emile in 10 years. She named herself the kids’ “teacher of fun”, a role that described her joyful nature perfectly!

And talking about joyful….when picturing high altitudes this is NOT a word that comes to mind for me. Not even close…I’m DEATHLY afraid of heights; don’t do anything at high altitude! But Canoa is a key destination for paragliding and the boys had been eyeing the colourful parachutes in the sky.

Could I overcome my fear and let Emile and Filou do something cool that they would remember for years?  There was only one way for our family to find out; locate the safest operation in town!  This part was easy: everyone knows in Canoa that you have to be with Alicia Harmon of Alas Y Olas (http://www.alasyolasecuador.com).

She is a strong, little dynamo who is all about safety and creating the right conditions for an enjoyable flight (we know, as it took us a couple of times of checking out wind conditions before we actually took of).

When the day was finally there, we got our instructions and were buckled into a tandem harness (Watanabe family member in front, Alicia behind)… and were suspended below a lightweight, large wing – looking like a long rectangular parachute; we used a nice bright yellow one.  Filou was giving it a try first, with Emile and Anthony shortly following him. They all had a lovely flight (no fear whatsoever) and were making their excitement known from high in the sky….

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Alica strapping Filou in and doing the final checks

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Emile making a smooth landing

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Thumbs up for a great flight

It was terrifying enough seeing the kids and Anthony held up in the sky by some ropes and fabric, but now it was my turn. Was I really going to risk my life and run off a 200-metre cliff into the abyss? For some reason, at that moment I was really compelled to do it (although with racing heart and very shaky legs)…and there I jumped and flew like a bird. It was AMAZING; so much more peaceful then I imagined it to me.  And of course, the views were magnificent!

The reason for doing this became quickly clear to me – of course, it was important to overcome one of my own fears but more importantly it was a lesson for the boys that if you put your mind to things, you can grow and overcome. In Paris, I had been too afraid to climb the Eiffel Tower as it was so high, and now I was paragliding – a sport many people would never dream of doing. I think I made a little progress – thank you World Tour (and Alicia and Bret for your help)!

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At take-off; smiling but with racing heart and shaking knees

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Spectacular views while paragliding over Canoa

And so Canoa will be remembered for many great things: adventure sports (and yoga), World Cup Soccer & the wonderful beach community.  We cheered along with our new Ecuadorian, US and Swiss friends – but mostly we were there in orange to scream for our Dutchies.  There were the easy wins: 5-1 against Spain (Holland certainly had something to prove after last World Cup’s defeat against them…and they brought it big time), and then there were the nail-biter games such as 2-1 against Mexico (where the Dutch scored two goals in the last 10 minutes).

It was almost more fun to watch Emile than the screen, as he was so into each and every game. What a soccer fan; he knew all the stats, teams and especially the strategies for the Dutch….and that for only a half-Dutchie (mom trained him well!).  While we sat by ourselves dressed in orange for the first game, the fifth time around, we had all of our friends “converted”, and sporting beautiful naranja. What a great group of assistant fans like Gerry and fellow supporters!  HUP HOLLAND!

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JOY and HUP HOLLAND after the 2nd. goal for the Dutch against Mexico; a real nail biter of a game! (2 goals in the last 10 minutes!)

As we are nearing the end of our world tour, it is certainly wonderful to receive, many lovely comments in regards to our boys. Many of the people in Canoa were sharing with us that they are inspired by what we have done this past year: travelling, learning and sharing as a family. And as nice as it is to get this kind of feedback – we are equally inspired by the travellers and expats that we’ve met around the world – such as some of the couples in Canoa.

For example, Ron told Cynthia: “I’m going to sail around the world, are you in?” It didn’t take long for Cynthia to leave her corner office and quit her very successful job to literally sail away with Ron. That first trip lasted 3.5 years. Ever since then, the two of them have been co-pilots, travelling to and living in many places. They are now settled in an idyllic beach-front property in Canoa. Cynthia paints, Ron does boogie boarding and together they are enjoying life- what a lovely couple!

And then there was Gerry and Ursula – a dynamic expat couple from the US who were well connected to a host of locals. They travelled the world, partly working for the Peace Corps and had the best travel stories ever (you could just listen to them for hours!). Gerry, a successful, semi-retired businessman, had a dream of buying cattle in Ecuador. And so the couple settled in Canoa, had bought 60+ cattle and were working with great enthusiasm – and a local partner – to bring their vision to life. It’s called Hacienda Rio Canoa. We had the pleasure of visiting their ranch in Gerry’s new, “photogenic” truck).

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Some of the calves at Gerry and Ursula’s cattle ranch

We love meeting people like this who have an incredible outlook on life, and in return, life has treated them well. They are following their dreams and sharing a bit of the journey with us along the way. And Canoa was chock full of people like this, both long-term residents and passersby.

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Inspirational people; Gerry and Ursula. In their early 70s, he still calls her “cutie” and they laugh together all the time!  

We are in all in agreement that our time in this laid-back Ecuadorian town is going to be on the top of our list of enjoyable travel spots. Main reasons: the incredible community, the beautiful, pristine beach offering a host of activities and of course, the wonderful seafood! (Check out Korayma and find Charlie on the beach for some great local dishes such as my personal favorite: Pescado Encocada – fish in a light coconut curry sauce). Thank you Don – for all your wonderful tips on the town and surrounding areas. You are an ambassador for Canoa and we are grateful…and Gerry, Ursula, Cynthia, Ron, Leanne, Annie, Tom, Willemijn, Alicia, Brian, Josh, Patience and Michael. We appreciated our connection with each of you and you all made for a very fun stay!

And so after a last cook-out (American version of a potluck!) and a delightful Canoa sunset, we moved onto Guayaquil.

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Canoa Sunset

 

GUAYAQUIL  – VIA MONTECRISTI

We left Canoa, took a taxi to Manta and then a bus to Guayaquil – but with an important stop in Montecristi; the town known for the production of the finest straw hat in the world, the Panama Hat. Yes. That’s right, those cool hats do not come from Panama City; they come from Montecristi, Ecuador.

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Montecristi Panama Hats

The hats are made from Toquilla straw, hand-split into strands not much thicker than thread and woven so finely, that the Montecristi Panama Hat appears to be made from linen. Depending on quality, one cost anywhere from $20.00 to over $25,000!! (the best and superfine ones are called Montecristis). And although the Panama Hat continues to provide a livelihood for thousands of Ecuadorians, fewer than a dozen weavers are capable of making these finest “Montecristi superfinos”.

So we were excited to visit a small shop and workshop place (www.montecristifactoryhats.com) where two young guys had lots of hat samples on display. In the shop, a lady was demonstrating the weaving process; she was leaning over a block of wood while carefully moving superfine strands of straw over one another.

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Ecuadorian Toquilla or Panama Hat weaver

The art of weaving these traditional Ecuadorian Toquilla or Panama Hats is so unique that the process was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural List in 2012.  It was really cool, we got to see this up close…and of course indulge in buying an example as a great memory and stylish fashion accessory!

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With our new Panama Hats – pretty cool eh?

And after a restful night and a great swim at the Nucapacha Hostel (http://www.nucapacha.com) in Guayaquil, we were ready for our final stop.

Really hard to believe, but we are off to our LAST travel destination. Galapagos Islands, here we come….