YEAR IN REVIEW – Our Trip around the World

27 Jul

YEAR IN REVIEW – OUR TRIP AROUND THE WORLD

After:

* Visiting 14 countries, 52 cities and…

* 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites

* Taking 30 flights

* Riding on 5 trains

* Bumping around on 26 different busses

* And….sleeping in 54 different beds The Watanabe-Swagemakers family is back in Canada.

To reflect, appreciate and let our world experiences settle in, I did a family interview to get everyone’s perspective on the past year. As this journey has ended, a new one is beginning: we are moving to Bangkok, Thailand in September! As a family, we are thoroughly thankful for this past year (an amazing dream come true), and super excited about our new, upcoming life in Asia. We can only wish (and encourage) everyone to pursue their dreams – it makes you come alive in ways you didn’t know were possible.

Thanks to you all for following our adventures on Facebook, and on our blog (http://yolomomonthgo.wordpress.com) – your enthusiasm (even when you despised us as we were posting sunny beach pictures of Thailand during one of the worst winters in Canada) has meant a great deal to us. So, dank je wel, muchas gracias, thank you and merci!

I will try to keep writing about living in Thailand but now we are signing off to spend some quality time with family & friends…Y.O.L.O everyone!

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1. BEST MEMORY OF THE COUNTRIES WE VISITED:

CANADA

Anthony: Driving around Newfoundland in an RV made me proud to be a Canadian. The natural landscape is absolutely stunning.

Rose: Lobster feasts in Nova Scotia with grandpa Jichan, James & Ayako. The kids skinny dipping in the ocean at “Happy Beach”.

Emile: Catching the big codfish with Captain Dave in Newfoundland.

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Felix: Very peaceful RV travel around Newfoundland; you can sleep anywhere you want.

 

HOLLAND

Anthony: Great weather with Oma and Opa in August, as opposed to our many visits during Christmas holidays over the years. The B&B in Maastricht where, without the kids, Rose and I awoke each morning to a breakfast of classical music, linen tablecloth and lekker Dutch treats.

Rose: Seeing my parents show Emile & Filou their country of heritage for the first time….Such joy! Eating herring up-side down, tasting delicious cheeses, climbing windmills, riding bikes in the beautiful countryside, going to the Aalsmeer Flower Market etc.

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EmileThe best was my 10th. birthday celebration with Opa and Oma. And I loved eating all the delicious food.

Felix: Spending amazing times with Opa & Oma. Eating kroketten and Dutch cheese.

 

FRANCE

Anthony: Emile heading off to the supermarket by himself (his independence was starting) and returning not only with a baguette but also a Parisian accent!

Rose: Strolling the local food markets and re-living France memories with the love of my life. This is where it all started!

Emile: Eating Japanese food while dancing in front of the Eiffel Tower.

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Felix: Playing in the beautiful parks of Paris, especially the play park in le Jardin du Luxembourg, one of papa’s favourites.

 

CHINA

Anthony: Walking the labyrinthine streets of the Dong Cheng area of Beijing where there were tons and tons of people walking and eating at all hours of the day. “Shuffling” was the only way to move through the crowds. And rock climbing, it all started in Yangshuo!

Rose: Hiking the wild and most preserved part of the Great Wall of China while taking in the stunning scenery (China & Mongolia). Such a privilege to walk on this incredible structure & piece of history!  And gliding down the beautiful Li river on a bamboo raft in Yangshuo – taking in the stunning Karst mountain scenery.

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Emile: First time rock climbing experience, great food & friends.

Felix: Running ahead of the family on the Great Wall and getting my head shaven.

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VIETNAM

Anthony: First morning in sweltering Ho Chi Minh City, the first taste of Vietnamese coffee knocked me over. By the end of our month, I was making my own and loving it! Pho soup on the streets of Hanoi with Emile and riding a motorcycle in crazy traffic!

Rose: Enjoying the peaceful beach life in Hoi An and riding a motorcycle on the Hai Van Pass – right into the clouds.

Emile: Living through the aftermath of Cyclone Hayan; one of the world’s biggest hurricanes every recorded (lots of rain and wind).

Felix: Everything, especially eating Pho Soup!

 

CAMBODIA

Anthony: Filou getting chased by a monkey at the Angkor Wat temples! Sleeping in a tree hut in the middle of the jungle at the incredible Jasmine Valley in Kep, and helping make a new roof for a family in need in Siem Reap.

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Rose: Seeing the sun come up over Angkor Wat. These temples are truly one-of-a-kind magnificent! And going by boat to gorgeous Rabbit Island in Kep.

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Emile: Tarzan jumping into a beautiful river in Kampot.

Felix: Driving around Phnom Penh with Mr. Key, our amazing tuk-tuk driver

 

THAILAND

Anthony: Booting around on motor scooters, on the left side of the road! The ocean water being almost too warm. Rock climbing with locals and visitors from around the world. Christmas day boating and snorkeling around the islands. New Year’s eve on the beach – kids stayed up until 1am – barely! Hanging with our dads in and around Chiang Mai.

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Rose: Too many great memories – can’t choose one: Christmas Day exploring the stunning islands around Krabi by boat. Riding the back roads of Chiang Mai on a scooter with my 75 year old Dad (and having both grandfathers spent 2.5 weeks with us), seeing the children’s commitment to the Elephant Nature Park (ENP) where we volunteered; an incredible love for animals (elephants, dogs, cats etc.) came to light and….Dancing my way into a new year: 2014 while lighting & lifting lanterns into the sky…projecting that one day soon we would come back to this amazing country. Our two months here were paradise!

Emile: Amazing people, fun on motorcycles, and the awesome experience of helping the elephants at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. Thank you Lek for the amazing work you do to save these beautiful animals. I am going to adopt one (or a dog at your shelter).

Felix: Swimming in the pool at the Best Western. Playing with Zack & Sara on the beach and eating the incredible foods, such as garlic chicken on rice.

 

MALAYSIA

Anthony: Penang and Fiji were tied for hottest places we visited. Fortunately, both had pools. Incredible vegetarian food right outside our apartment – ate lunch there every day after discovering it. Kids’ first music lessons with Nelson near Island Plaza, something which has given us a lot of joy and connection ever since.

Rose: Exploring the amazing street art of Georgetown.  And eating some incredible street food: what a wonderful mix of cultures and tastes, you can find in Penang!

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Emile: Going to the amazing ESCAPE climbing park to celebrate Ian Minton’s birthday (my new friend from the US).

Felix: Starting to take music lessons for the first time: now I love to play the piano!

 

NEW ZEALAND

Anthony: Filou playing non-stop piano in every hostel we visited. At that time, he only knew 2 songs: Mary Had a Little Lamb and Happy Birthday. Just imagine. Great mountain bike ride in Rotorua, stunning scenery and sparking my interest in trail riding.

Rose: Seeing the geothermal activity, geysers and hot mud pools at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland and learning about the fascinating Maori aboriginal culture. For the first time eating lamb that I actually liked! 

Emile: Cool geysers!  Eating delicious lamb, and taking a nice walk around the Auckland Harbour.

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Felix: Incredible poi dance at the aboriginal Maori show.

 

FIJI ISLANDS

Anthony: Definitely the impromptu and incredible dinner with local Japanese eccentric, Taku Murai. In his self-designed house mixing both Fijian (think ventilation) and Japanese features (think sliding walls), he prepared us a feast. After dinner, he shared his philosophy of life with us, much of which was written in English and Japanese all over his wood, unpainted walls. These are the experiences you cannot find in guidebooks. 

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Rose: Being invited by a Japanese man to his house. He promised that he would prepare us a meal we wouldn’t forget. And so he did – scrumptious sushi dinner and interesting conversation with this eccentric, lovely man! And lots of fun pool time.

Emile: Funny Japanese guy and cooking with Seria, making a delicious parrot fish dish.

Felix: Building a fort on the beach and the Japanese man.

 

USA

Anthony: Airport reunion with mom and James, kids screaming and jumping for joy. Family bowling and everyone’s body gestures to help guide the bowling ball. After a delicious Mexican meal, singing Karaoke in the bar, complete with cowboys, line dancing and lots of twang! We sang the Bare Naked Ladies.

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Rose: Hiking the Santa Monica Mountains – enjoying a nice pic-nic lunch and seeing crazy YiaYia (grandmother) still climbing trees to make the kids happy!

Emile: Having fun jumping in the trampoline park and bowling with YiaYia and Nuno.

Felix: Playing in the park with YiaYia and Nuno.

 

PERU

Anthony: Great community in Cusco. Buying the kids their first musical instruments – game changer for their progress. The restaurant owner beside our apartment with gold stars on her teeth – fashion without function? Machu Picchu and other incredible Inca sites. Climbing La Rocca with other families and our guide, Tiffany. Oh, and altitude sickness at 3300 metres during the first week.

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Rose: Taking part in a traditional Depacho ceremony – giving thanks to Pachamama (Mother Earth) for the abundance she provides us each and every day – surrounded by some amazing friends. Spending 3 days on the edge of the Amazon making a commercial for Scotia Bank …and of course, exploring the stunning archeological site of Machu Picchu.

Emile: Making great friends such as Kane Crawford and learning Spanish.

Felix: Having lots of fun with the many friends we made and hiking the hills around Cusco.

 

BOLIVIA

Anthony: Seeing Lake Titicaca as we arrived in Copacabana – reminded me of how much I love water. Our snail-shaped house at Las Olas Hostel. Oh, and the killer llama there – could tell by his gaze. Snow storm during our tour of the Salt Flats, French tourist falling through a hole during a snowball fight with the kids, sleeping in winter coat, gloves, etc.

Rose: Taking incredibly fun pictures on the Salar de Uyuni  (Salt Flats) and taking a boat ride on Lake Titicaca, Copacabana to a floating reef village.

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Emile: Long but beautiful hike on Isla del Sol.

Felix: Uyuni Salt Flat – we took fun pictures and I scooped up lots of salt.

 

ECUADOR

Anthony: Hanging with Filou in Quito while Emile suffered through chicken pox and Rose tended to him. The incredible lightness of being, after yoga sessions in Canoa. Getting into World Cup frenzy with Emile, talking schedules and stats and of course watching the Dutch win their first 4 games. Beautiful beach in Canoa and truly wonderful people there, locals, expats and travellers we met.

Rose: Yoga mornings on the beach with Leanne & bonfires with friends… Of course HUP HOLLAND, and let’s not forget PARAGLIDING!!!

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Emile: Cheering for the Dutch. World Cup frenzy!!!

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Felix: Learning to surf on some amazing waves.

           

GALAPAGOS ISLANDS

Anthony: Snorkelling through the incredible, glass-like water, being a guest in another world while holding Emile’s hand

Rose: Being the first person in the family to see a white-tip reef shark that was swimming right below me!  I screamed loudly so that everyone could swim back and see him too, but they were too late – it was a real big one too! And having a sea-lion play and swim all around me and the kids…so much fun!

Emile:  Snorkeling with the turtles and sharks

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Felix:  Playing with the sea-lions, and playing soccer with David and Martin.

 

2. WHAT WAS THE SINGLE BEST MEAL YOU ENJOYED, AND WHERE WAS THIS?

Anthony: Very difficult, but if I must: Pho Ga on the streets of Hanoi with Emile for $1.50. For each of our 2 nights there, we took a foot massage, followed by the best Pho we have ever tasted.

Rose: Ginger Crab in Kep, Cambodia overlooking the beautiful ocean.

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Emile: Morning Glory (green vegetable dish) in Thailand.

Felix: Noodles in China.

 

3. WHAT WAS YOUR WEIRDEST EXPERIENCE OR OBSERVATION DURING THIS YEAR?

Anthony: I saw anti-corruption messaging on billboards, TV, magazines and newspapers in virtually every country we visited. And at the same time, I was following news of scandal, misappropriation of public funds and dishonesty at every level of government in Canada. Corruption in government is, alas, universal. The difference is the degree and the level of transparency.

Rose: Seeing a skinned dog hanging up-side-down in a Chinese food market (during my cooking class market tour), and learning that many petdogs are killed each Fall as it’s a delicacy on menus during that time of year.  So sorry for the loss of all your dogs ahLong and Jessie!

Emile: Eating Guinea Pig in Peru.

Felix: A lady in a village in Hue, Vietnam grabbing my private part 3 times! Just to be friendly (bit of a crazy custom)!

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4. WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITY COUNTRY TO VISIT AND WHY?

Anthony: Overall, Thailand had the most checkboxes. But really, every country created unique experiences and memories for us.

Rose: Thailand without a doubt! The amazing hospitality of the Thai people, the scrumptious food, the stunning beaches and mountains, the fun of getting around on motorbikes and the SUN, SUN, SUN!

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Emile: All of them: every country had something special.

Felix: Thailand – cause the food always has a little kick to it and you can swim around some beautiful islands.

 

5. WHAT WAS YOUR SINGLE MOST FUN, EXCITING/THRILLING ACTIVITY?

Anthony: Rosie, you’re killing me – boiling it down to one thing is tough. But I realized that Vietnam had a number of thrilling experiences. Driving through the huge, jam-packed roundabouts in Danang on a motorbike en route to the stunning Hai Van Pass was a nail-biter. Then there was the adventure Emile I took to get to Cat Ba Island from Hanoi, including early morning bus with Vietnamese Karaoke, getting swindled at least twice and seeing a motorcycle death along the way. And once there, we did deep water soloing – climbing rocks without a rope over water – that was also pretty thrilling. Then of course, we returned to you and Filou in central Vietnam only to be evacuated from the beach to an inland hotel because Typhoon Haiyan was coming towards us. So the most thrilling “activity” would have to be Vietnam.

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Rose: Riding a motorbike in Thailand in my bikini – and trying not to hit an elephant – and motoring on a motorbike in the absolute insane traffic of Vietnam where lights or traffic rules do not exist! Paragliding in Canoa, Ecuador and swimming with sharks, huge tortoises and sea lions on the Galapagos Islands.

Emile: Paragliding in Ecuador.

Felix: Climbing up on tall, funky looking climbing walls, playing laser tag, skating and going to the science lab at Kid’s World in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

 

6. BESIDES FAMILY AND FRIENDS: WHAT WAS THE ONE THING YOU MISSED MOST ABOUT HOME & THE ONE THING YOU COULD NOT HAVE DONE WITHOUT ON THE TRIP.

Anthony: Missed most: I didn’t realize how much I missed the clean and green spaces of Toronto until I got home. The world is not so proper and organized. Couldn’t have done without: Besides my co-travellers? My iPhone. Might sound trivial but it was my camera, my connection to locals and folks back home through phone, email and social media. I could have survived with half the clothes, my guitar and my iPhone alone.

Rose: Missed most: Fresh green salads with lots of yummy things in them. Couldn’t have done without: Earplugs; the world is an awfully loud place…and my I-phone for pictures.

Emile: Missed most: Sushi, Greek and Indian Food. Couldn’t have done without: I-Pod to read and contact friends.

Felix: Missed most: Canadian Summer Camp. Couldn’t have done without: My mom.

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7. WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT TRAVELLING THE WORLD?

Anthony: I learned that there are many, many different models for how people live and work and that around the world, some folks actually build their work around their lifestyle – foreign concept for us in the West. I consider myself a tolerant person but I tried even harder not to snap judge those who come at life from a different perspective and who have made choices different from mine.

Rose: Our “once-in-a-lifetime” travel experiences have made me live more in the moment.  They’ve also shown me to value friendships more and be more accepting of others – as people from all around the world have accepted our family this past year and showered us with their kindness. I have learned to have deeper compassion – as it is amazing to see how the rest of the world lives. How can you not care? I also hope that we as a family have lost our sense of “entitlement” and that from now on, we will appreciate that the truly important things in life are not material items, but the creation of unforgettable memories with those you love!   Also, I learned that world schooling is amazing (although I have a whole new respect for teachers) and that travel brings out enormous creativity in children. And finally I have learned to appreciate that there are many ways in which to achieve work-life balance and enjoy life!

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Emile: That I am very lucky to have what I have!

Felix: I never thought Asia would be so poor and that you can make nice friends all around the world.

 

8. WHAT NEW THINGS HAVE YOU TRIED DURING THIS TRIP

As the list would be very long, here is a family recap:

A = Anthony, R=Rose, E=Emile, F=Filou

Family: Paragliding, swimming with white-tipped fin sharks, huge turtles, sea lions, penguins, rays and other amazing marine creatures, eating guinea pig, sitting in a cave mud bath, swimming in a hot & cold geyser stream, floating on a bamboo raft down a beautiful river surrounded by Karst mountains, dancing on stage in front of the Eiffel Tower, going out on a night boat to see fire-flies, rock-climbing and deep-water soloing, eating cricket cookies, flying on a 6-seater plane, volunteering at an amazing Elephant Park.

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Plus for….

Anthony: Let’s just say that I am now a Spanish-speaking rock climber and yogi who has reconnected with his musical sensibilities and enjoys reading somewhat esoteric French novels. Oh, I have tried, and succeeded, in not wearing a tie for a year!

Rose: Blogging, learning to deep-sea dive, be an actress in a commercial, riding a motorcycle on the left side of the road, in insane traffic with no rules, with a child in the back, preparing to be evacuated for a hurricane, learning what world and un-schooling is all about, taking a Chinese and Vietnamese cooking class in the local countryside.

Emile & Filou: Learning to surf, zip-lining, fishing a 30LB lake fish (E), learning to play the guitar (E) and piano (F) and sing, performing music on stage, presenting world travel to a group of Dutch school kids (E), cheering on the Dutch soccer team like never before (E), standing up in the back of a pick-up truck that was driving fast, making a bon-fire by myself (E), learning Spanish, hand-weaving a bracelet, poi dancing (F), skinny dipping, holding a live lobster, taking a Vietnamese cooking class (made a delicious curry – F), riding on a FAST motorcycle with no helmet while being squeezed between mom & the driver (F), learning to compose my first original song (F), karaoke singing, volunteering in a dog shelter, collecting starfish out of the ocean, sleeping in a hotel completely made out of salt, being chased by a monkey (F) and getting our first massages in Cambodia and Thailand.

Boys Massages 

9. DESCRIBE WHAT THIS PAST YEAR HAS BEEN LIKE FOR YOU. WAS IT WHAT YOU EXPECTED IT TO BE?

Anthony: On the surface, it was an unforgettable experience of new places, new friends and tons of discoveries, both geographic and gastronomic. But below that surface, I think we will realize gradually how the year has taught us to communicate better, to appreciate more and to contextualize our life through a broader perspective. As a parent, one of the profound takeaways was of course sharing these experiences with the boys, discussing their impressions and watching them learn and develop. Virtually everyone we met was excited about how such a trip would shape them as men. And while I, too, am eager to see how they develop following this year of privileged family time, there’s a part of me that just wants to hold on to those moments of holding their hand while walking on a beach in a far off country somewhere in the world.

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Rose: I only had one major goal for this year and that was to experience, learn and grow as a family: to create unforgettable memories for a lifetime. This year has given me all that and sooooooooo much more!

Emile: It was so much more exciting – and we made so many more friends than I expected!

Felix: Exactly what I expected. Very best year of my life!

 

10. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT STARTING A NEW ADVENTURE IN BANGKOK, THAILAND?

Anthony: I’m inspired and grateful that we have found a way to combine the adventure of travel and so-called normal life. Thailand holds new opportunities for growth for all of us: the kids in an international school (or any school, for that matter!) and Rose and I starting a business in the ASEAN region. We are also fortunate that all family members are unselfish and lovingly supportive of our decision.

Rose: Just thrilling…A new start which will once again bring many new learnings, challenges and incredible joys.  Thailand, here we come!

Emile: Can’t wait, it’s going to be awesome!

Felix: I am excited about going to Lycée Français International de Bangkok as this school has a science lab, track & field, pool etc. Here I will be meeting lots of new, international friends.

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11. WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE OTHERS ABOUT FOLLOWING THEIR DREAMS?

Anthony: I don’t have any advice. While I realize this year of travel was a big deal in many respects, for me it was just something we needed to do. The tour itself was truly amazing, but I don’t think that our decision to do it was amazing. It just felt right for our family at this time, and so we went with that feeling.

Rose: As one who LOVES to travel and enjoys being on the water, this quote sums it up for me: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

Emile: Just do it. It’s awesome…make the most of it!

Felix: Following your dreams will make you HAPPY!

With incredible thanks and gratitude to Anthony, Emile and Filou for their exploratory and open minds. You guys have made this world travel experience for me what it was; a life-changing, incredible journey that I will carry in my heart forever. You are the loves of my life. Now and always!

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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….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BOLIVIA: Sucre and the Uyuni Salt Flats

3 Jun

Sucre

Sucre, the symbolic heart of Bolivia (as it was here that independence was proclaimed) is a real showpiece of a city. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991, the nation’s capital has a rich historical past that is reflected in its many whitewashed buildings, churches and mansions. Sucre is one of the most representative colonial cities of America and during its time, it was very much a Spanish one.

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The multitude of narrow, quaint streets gives the city a definite European feel. And, we instantly fell in love with the beauty and warmth of this ancient South-American town (how delightful to wear our sandals again!). Sucre’s lower elevation of about 2800 metres (compared to La Paz) and its beautiful valley setting (surrounded by low mountains) give it its wonderful temperate climate.

The city is also known for its culture and art. Our hostel; Hostal CasArte Takubamba was decorated with numerous original art works (made by the establishment’s owner). It was a nice hide-away place for a week as it had a wonderful courtyard to enjoy meals (with new friends) and a spunky black whisky dog that the kids adored.

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One of the art pieces at Hostal CasArte Takubamba

 

Festival de Teatro Escenctual Boliviano

We were lucky to be in Sucre during the time of “Festival de Teatro Escenactual”; a local film and theatre festival. Anthony’s love of the theatre compelled him to attend one of the plays called “El Pacto” (the pact); a funny staging about a research couple making a pact to research “love” but then fall for each other in the process.

Anthony really enjoyed his evening (although he had to concentrate to get all the finer details in Spanish).  But then, to his delight, he found the play’s director Fernando Arze, and principal actress Andrea Ibanez Pantoja at our hostel’s breakfast table the next morning. This of course sparked a stimulating conversation about the intricacies of the play and theatre in general.

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Anthony and with his theatre friends from El PactoDirector Fernando, actress Andrea and technician Brian.

 

Dinosaurs

However, it was not the art but Sucre’s dinosaur discoveries that intrigued the children.  This town actually offers evidence of their existence – how cool is that? So off we where to Parque Cretácico!

The Cretaceous Park is home to the largest paleontological site in the world and it’s here that you can see the largest collection of dinosaur tracks. We were excited!

For starters, the entrance had welcoming dinosaur heads. And, included with our admission was a complimentary guided tour. But first, we sat down and watched the BBC production: “Walking with Dinosaurs” which was quite informative (I’ve never seen the kids sit so still for 1 hour – they were intrigued!).

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At the entrance of Parque Cretácico!

Then, we strolled the outdoor exhibit that showed life-size replicas of various dinosaurs, complete with recorded sounds of ferocious roaring (the replicas were apparently made by sculptors who worked under the direction of renowned scientists). There was one HUGE dinosaur (couldn’t even take a picture of it – it was so big); apparently the largest replica in the world, of an impressive Titanosaurus. Now we have some impressive dinosaur replicas at our Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto and perhaps our friend Kiron Mukherjee from ROM Kids (http://romkids.tumblr.com) can confirm/deny who has the biggest replica but nevertheless, it was a cool, large dino!

Ps: Emile and Filou are writing regular posts for ROM kids about their world travels (with Kiron as their cool, encouraging mentor!)

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Life size dinosaur replica

Finally, we got to see the massive limestone cliff that reveals 5055 dinosaur tracks of at least 8 species. There are even continuous tracks from a mid sized carnivore, which apparently is a world record. Definitely, a very unique site!

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Limestone cliff that reveals 5055 dinosaur tracks from at least 8 different species

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Dinosaur footprint

 

Origenes Cultural Show

On our last night in Sucre, we took in some local culture and attended the Origenes – Espacio Cultural (http://www.origenesbolivianos.com)Folklore show.

This 2-hour performance featured many of the traditional Bolivian dances, plus a theatrical rendition of Bolivia’s colonial history.  The children loved it as the show was very colorful and gave us the opportunity to see some of Bolivia’s elaborate Carnival and dance costumes, as well as many cool moves (especially by the male dancers)!

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Origenes; a Bolivian Folklore Show

 

Uyuni Salt Flats

After our relaxing days in Sucre, it was time for a long bus ride to get to the Uyuni Salt Flats. We chose Red Planet Expedition (www.redplanetexpedition.com) for our 3-day, 2-night tour. Together with our funny driver Pepe, informative guide Carlos and fellow world-travellers Pierre and Isabelle from Lille, France we set off in our packed, white, 4×4 for adventure.

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Our 4×4

Salar de Uyuni is the world largest salt flat at 10,582 km2 (4,086 square miles) – it’s huge and so impressive!  The salt flats are part of the Altiplano of Bolivia that is a high plateau that was formed during an uplift of the Andes Mountains. This plateau includes fresh and saltwater lakes as well as salt flats – and is surrounded by the most stunning mountains and semi-active volcanoes.

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Semi-active Volcano

It is estimated that Salar de Uyuni contains 10 billion tonnes of salt, of which less than 25,000 tonnes is extracted annually. The plateau is covered by a few metres of salt crust, which has an extraordinary flatness – with average altitude variations within one metre over the entire area of the Salar. The crust serves as a source of salt and covers a pool of brine, which is exceptionally rich in lithium. It contains 50 to 70% of the world’s lithium reserves (used to make such things as car and cell phone batteries).

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Emile with piles of salt

The incredibly large area of the Salar de Uyuni with its clear blue skies, and exceptional flatness of surface make it an ideal object for funny perspective photos (there is a mirror like effect as if you were standing on sheets of ice). As we took too many funny and beautiful shots, a separate photo blog will be dedicated to the Salt Flats, but for now here is Filou’s favorite picture:

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Filou crushing his family

After some fun picture taking time, we moved onto Inca Huasi Island or Fish Island (due to its shape), which houses about 4030 giant cacti.

These cacti grow at a rate of about 1 centimetre per year to a height of about 12 metres (39 feet)!  The hike to the top of this island gave us a remarkable 360-degree view of the amazing Salt Flats.

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Emile on Inca Huasi Island that houses 4030 giant cacti

In the desert wastelands that surround the Salar, we also saw some interesting rock formations that had eroded, shaped by the wind and rain over time.

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Rock formation looking like a condor

And of course, we saw the pink flamingos. There are about 80 species of birds in the National Park but the flamingos are the most common. There are 3 types of them; the Chilean Flamingo, the Andean and the James Flamingo – all of them get the pink colour in their plumage due to the red algae they eat.

Here is me with a James Flamingo (soft pink with a black tail):

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With a James Flamingo

And of course, we saw several llama and vicuna herds roaming the plains.

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Herd of Vicunas

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And llamas 

Due to some unexpected, severe weather (snow and hail), the last two days of our tour kind of bombed.  Although we stayed in a fun salt hotel (where everything from the walls, to the tables and chairs were made of hardened salt) and made some great connections with the other group members on the tour (Filou was the evening’s entertainment with his wide range of jokes), we were absolutely freezing and ready to get back.

We had the option to get get dropped off at the Chilean border, and although that sounded very tempting, our flight to Ecuador made more sense from La Paz.  Therefore, we took the very bumpy, Todo Turismo Bus (http://www.todoturismo.bo/?&lang=en) ride back during the night to the capital city of Bolivia. And it is from here that we are taking a flight to our 15th and last country.

Ecuadorian beach and Galapagos Islands, here we come!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Uyuni Salt Flats – Salar de Uyuni – Photo Essay

27 May

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BOLIVIA: Copacabana, Lake Titicaca and La Paz

17 May

With Tour Peru (http://www.tourperu.com.pe/), we took the apparently “dangerous” bus trip into Bolivia.  It all worked out just fine: our journey from Cusco to Puno was overnight – and having booked the cama seats, we settled into oversized, leather chairs that turned into comfortable beds (although the road was rather bumpy; a great sleep tool for some!).

From Puno, we took another bus and drove to Yunguyo, where we crossed the border into yet again, another fabulous country. As Canadians, we are lucky that good relations exist and we do not have to pay hefty entrance fees (like e.g. our American counterparts who pay $135.00 US per person to enter Bolivia).  However, the border process is still an interesting one.

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First, we needed to get exit stamps at the Peruvian side (we couldn’t find the white exit ticket from my passport so that involved more bureaucracy; copying passport pages, paying extra fees etc.). Then we lined up for two different Bolivian state offices to get our entrance documentation. Once completed, we walked across state lines and got back into the bus (with some cheers as we were the last ones!) for our final leg into Copacabana.

Copacabana – Lake Titicaca

Copacabana is a delightful, small town on Lago (lake) Titicaca. The first thing you’ll notice driving into town is this breathtaking lake (apparently the largest freshwater lake in South America and the highest of the world’s large lakes at 3,810 metres or 12,507 feet above sea level). We all quickly realized how much we missed WATER. The sight of this stunning blue body of agua, overshadowed by rays of sunshine put our bodies at ease and gave smiles to our faces.

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Lake Titicaca

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The picturesque town of Copacabana

We smiled even more when we saw what our accommodations were going to be like for the next 3 nights. Our apartment was a 2 level deluxe house, shaped in the form of huge snail shell. The boys were thrilled! Moreover, two free-roaming llamas and colourful hammocks in our garden and in-room fireplace made it the coolest place we stayed in so far. Our “snail house” was located high up on a hill – and had many, small circular windows that gave fabulous views over the lake and nightly spectacle of stars. Hostal Las Olas (http://hostallasolas.com) was the place to be in town and honestly, we had the best hideaway. What a treat!

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Our fabulous “Snail House”

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Our llamas – here in a cage but usually roaming freely in our garden

After a good coffee at El Condor & The Eagle Cafe, we set off to explore the town. We noticed right away that the merchants in Bolivia are much less commercial (“pushy”), then their Peruvian counterparts; we could easily browse without being bombarded with selling tactics. It was a refreshing change and speaks to the less-developed and down-to-earth nature of this country.

When we walked towards the Lake, we met a nice American-Bolivian family (the mother Sonia had left the United States to return to her roots in Bolivia after her divorce. Her daughter Sylvia who still lived in America was visiting her mom & new husband). Together with the three of them, we took a boat tour on Lake Titicaca to one of the floating islands (that the area is so well-known for).

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With Sylvia, Sonia & husband

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Floating Reed Island

The islets are made of reeds, which grow in the lake. The dense roots that these plants develop and interweave, form a natural layer called Khili (about one to two metres thick) that support the islands. They are anchored with ropes attached to sticks driven into the bottom of the lake. The reeds at the bottom of the islands rot away fairly quickly, so new reeds are added to the top constantly, about every three months (or more in the rainy season). These islands are constructed so smartly and apparently last about thirty years.

Although we carefully stepped onto the reed island (the reeds break more and more as they are walked upon), we still sank about 3 inches and had to stabilize ourselves. Once settled, we were invited to come and scoop our own “truita” (trout fish) out of one of the ponds (the trout fish was introduced into the Lake in 1940 from Canada). Five jumpy fish were caught, killed, filleted and cooked to perfection within 20 minutes. Freshness never tasted better – so delicious!

After a nice meal and wonderful chat, we climbed a nearby rock to take in the stunning surroundings from above. It was so nice to be on the water again and for me to take pictures of the colourful, local boats. We all thoroughly enjoyed our day on this famous lake.

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On top of the mountain, enjoying the view over Lake Titicaca

 

Isla del Sol

The water kept pulling us and the next day we set off on another boat tour – this time heading for Lake Titicaca’s largest island; Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun). This gorgeous, rocky, hilly island (with harsh terrain, no paved roads or motor vehicles) is located about 2 hours from Copacabana.

Upon arrival, we were told that hiking from the North to the South part of the Island would take about 2.5 hours (3 hours max).  We enthusiastically took off walking, on a very picturesque mountain path  – with stunning views of the lake all alongside us. Filou was so in his element; he must have climbed every steep slope he could find in the first couple of hours (we told him to conserve some energy but he wouldn’t hear of it)!

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Isla del Sol

We had about 4.5 hours to make it in time for our return boat so felt that we could easily accomplish this task (although Anthony was limping a bit as he had twisted his ankle in the morning and we had forgotten to take extra money out of the bank machine so we had some pressure to make it back to our boat in time, as we had no funds to stay the night).

We admired the island’s many rolling hills that contain beautiful agricultural terraces. These terraces adapt the island’s steep and rocky terrain into agriculture – the main activity of the approximately 800 families living there. It was quite laughable that several much older, native ladies with their donkeys and extremely heavy back loads were quickly surpassing us while climbing the hills (and we thought we were somewhat in shape after globetrotting for 9 months)!

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But we enjoyed the spectacular views, had great family chats and were happy for the first 2-3 hours. It was then when we realized we were up for a major challenge. Crossing this island was not a small task at all – and it took us much longer then anticipated (it didn’t help that there was no signage at all which made us take a wrong turn and that Emile also started to limp as he had made a small slip down a rock).

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Our climbing goat on Isla Del Sol

We were already envisioning what sleeping on the beach would be like…but the kids really wanted to get back to our beautiful “Snail House”. They tried to help and rushed out in front of us to make it in time for the boat. By this time Anthony’s foot was really hurting and although he was a trooper – he and I were exactly 5 minutes late for the boat. Do you think they would wait for us (even with pleas from the children)? NO! We couldn’t believe seeing the boat take off right in front of us.

Thank goodness there was another boat that took us back ½ hour later…and although we accomplished one of our hardest hikes to date, the beautiful start to the day, had a bit of a nasty aftertaste.

However, our last day in Copacabana was a good one again as we bumped into the lovely French family we had met in Cusco. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner out with Renaud, Severine and their 2 children; Mahé and Delpheé, as well as their friends from Germany. There were some great laughs all around and I was happy to have a drinking buddy for the night (and a French one no less!). Together Severine and I finished a nice bottle of red, which was the perfect ending to a wonderful stay in Copacabana!

And so we left the city, after being chased down the many stairs of Hostal Las Olas by the llamas in our garden (we did not want to leave with some llama spit on us, so made a real bee-line not to cross them). One of the more determined llama’s chased another couple in so much haste, that it tripped over a water hose and almost landed on Anthony and our suitcases. What a story that would have been! But full of gratitude for our fantastic stay at Las Olas and unharmed from llama attack we left to take a bus to La Paz.

 

La Paz

Driving into the city of La Paz was quite a unique experience, and one that quickly had us in awe. We were first welcomed by the imposing, triple peaked and snow-capped Illimani Mountain (6402 meters) and then by the city itself. La Paz sits in a bowl surrounded by high mountains. As it grew, the city climbed the hills resulting in varying elevations of 3,200 to 4,100 meters. It was quite the sight!

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La Paz and Mount Illimani

To learn about La Paz, we took the city’s FREE walking tour organized by Red Cap City Tours (http://www.redcapwalkingtours.com). We gathered at 11:00 am at Plaza San Pedro and were welcomed by two bright, well-informed, English speaking ladies that were ready to show us their vibrant town.

They first taught us about the infamous San Pedro prison. This correctional facility is quite a unique one! There are no uniformed prison guards but elected inmate leaders enforce the laws of the community (with stabbings being commonplace!). Not only is the prison home to about 1,500 inmates, who are there mostly because of drug-related charges, but their spouses and children also live with them inside.

What is so unique is that inmates have to buy or rent their accommodation and the sale of cocaine to visiting tourists helps them make money (how ironic as they were incarcerated for drug offences in the first place!). The prison has many living quarters and the wealthiest area “La Posta” provides inmates with private bathrooms, a kitchen, and even cable television or a hot tub! And there is a hospital inside the prison, as well as multiple churches and a hotel for visiting guests – how bizarre!

Although no longer allowed, due to several accidents (who would think?), the prison was an infamous tourist attraction until recently. Youngsters had the opportunity to pay a fee and go into the facility to visit with inmates for fun. The book Marching Powder by Rusty Young describes the experiences of the British inmate Thomas McFadden who became known for offering prison tours to tourists. However, one should think before getting involved with drugs in Bolivia and ending up in this jail as most of the inmates are still waiting (15 years!), to get their “fair” trial.

From there we visited Rodriguez Market – a lively street market where the prominent item sold is the potato. In just Peru and Bolivia alone there are some 10,000 different varieties of potatoes, in colours ranging from green, to black, to pink and white (we saw a lots of chunos; white potatoes that are freeze-dried and can last up to 20-30 years).

Another market of great interest in La Paz is the Witches Market. We were looking forward to passing through this neigbourhood with its colourful stalls and fascinating ingredients (herbs, parts of frogs and insects used for rituals as well as colourful soapstone figurines and other offerings). However, we were quickly a little disturbed as the most prominent product available here are dried llama fetuses (fairly large ones too!). The locals believe that a llama fetus needs to be buried  in the foundation of their new house or business as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth). 

And the girls of Red Cap Tours told us the crazy story that sometimes street people are buried alive in the foundation of large buildings as a larger offering – we all just focused on believing this was a true urban myth as it was too crazy a story!

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Llama fetuses in La Paz’s Witches Market – good luck offerings for Pachamama

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Soapstone figures and other colourful offerings

Upon departing the area, we also saw a yatiri or witch doctor, all dressed in black with a dark hat. He was carrying his coca pouch (used to help him tell fortunes). But we are not superstitious and prefer to leave the spirits where they belong so passed on getting details about our future. Why jinx our awesome travelling fortune when we have great wealth and happiness already?

We then saw the gorgeous cathedral at San Francisco Plaza and moved to Plaza Murillo where we learned about Bolivian politics and history. By this time the kids were losing a bit of interest and wanted to feed the pigeons in the plaza – what a delight; there was crazy laughter!

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Feeding the pigeons in Plaza Murillo

All in all a fantastic tour… and from the top of Hotel Presidente (where we had an awesome view of the city), we said goodbye to our lovely tour guides.

The next day was Mother’s Day, which we celebrated in style at Sol Y Luna, a wonderful Dutch café, decorated appropriately with Holland flags and orange banners.  The best was the “Broodje Kroket Sate” (bread crumbed fried meat roll on bread): we all were in heaven. So delicious!I was in my element and happily hummed along with some great Dutch tunes (which I unfortunately didn’t recognize – must have been away from Holland too long) and after we played a fun game of billiards, it was time to wrap up the day.  I received a beautiful orange llama poncho as my mother’s day gift and with that, our visit to this interesting city was complete.

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Dutch style; orange Ponchito for Mother’s Day

Next it is onto the Bolivian capital of Sucre!

PERU: Cusco and the Sacred Valley_2

4 May

Choco Museo

In the days leading up to Semana Santa (Easter), one of the things on the children’s mind was chocolate (and eggs)! A fabulous Easter egg hunt, such as the one we did annually at Deerhurst Resort or my friend Marie’s house, was not in the cards so we opted to go to the Cusco Choco Museo (http://www.chocomuseo.com) to learn about Peruvian cacao and make some yummy Easter treats.

Emile, Filou and I (together with our new travellingfriends; Rachel Greenley & family), signed up for a 2-hour workshop where we were promised to learn the chocolate making process from cacao bean to bar. Everyone was excited and when we entered the Choco Museo, we knew we were in the right place; sweet cacao smells and cups of cacao husk tea (to die for!), were awaiting us.

We first learned how cacao is harvested in the plantations. From there, we went onto roasting the cacao beans in a beautiful clay pot. When cooled down, we peeled the beans and got to grind them into a paste using a mortar and pestle. This was harder then it looked as strength and a consistent pressing and turning motion was needed to get to the paste stage (in a machine, beans are crushed for 24 hours to make them into refined chocolate!).

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Emile roasting his cacao beans in a clay pot

Our cacao paste was then used to prepare the first known cacao drink, invented by the Mayas (a people from the northern regions of South-America). Our lovely Peruvian instructor explained to us that the Mayas prepared this chocolate beverage, using a secret ingredient. She continued to say that in order for us to re-create this sweet drink, she needed 3 volunteers.

Of course our boys, together with Rachel’s son Sean, were eager to sign up for this volunteer task. However, once they got the explanation of what was involved, only our brave little Filou was still game. She mentioned that 3 drops of blood were to be added to this drink. The Mayas collected this blood by piercing the bottom of their tongues.

We couldn’t believe it but Filou was still up for the task after the explanation! The instructor then showed him a pin and told him to put his mouth over a bow while sticking out his tongue. She kept such a straight face that we all thought it was for real…but when push came to shove she touched his tongue with a piece of soft thread…you should have seen him smile when he realized it was all a joke and he got a chocolate for being such a great sport! We all had a good laugh and finally got to taste the “non-bloody”, delicious coco drink!

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Filou getting his tongue pierced for our “bloody” chocolate drink

Then, we received a large bowl of refined dark or milk chocolate and some molds to get our creativity going. We had such a fun time making a variety of tasty chocolates using spices such as mint, cinnamon, chili, sea salt etc. Also, there were different kinds of nuts and fun items on hand for the kids, such as crushed Oreo’s, M&M’s and coconut pieces.

We took our artisanal chocolates home – after they had cooled down in the fridge for about 1 hour and savoured our delicious creations for days to come (even after Easter).

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Easter

The Easter spirit in Cusco came alive by the various street decorations (red flags), sales of many different kinds of Easter cookies in the markets and on the streets, as well as the procession of Señor de Los Temblores. On the Monday of Semana Santa, a procession followed this patron saint of Cusco (a black jesus on the cross who is believed to have limited the damage from an earthquake in 1650) through the local streets.

During this procession, there were such masses of people and police around Plaza de Armas that it took Anthony and Emile about 1 hour to fight through the crowds to get home (after music lesson). On Good Friday, the local tradition is for women to cook 12 different vegetarian/fish dishes. And with a beautiful church on every corner of the city and many spiritual people (mainly catholics), religion appears to be alive and well in Cusco.

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Procession of Señor de Los Temblores, in streets of Cusco for Semana Santa (Easter)

On Easter Sunday, we fled the masses of tourists and took a colectivo to the beautiful town of Pisac.  This little village in the sacred valley on the Urubamba River is full of history and charm and boasts a large Sunday market.  After some nice strolling around, we met up with friends that live up in Gringo Ville; a lovely community of houses that are surrounded by ruins and mountains – what a beautiful spot!  We had a lovely bohemic day chatting with Brie & family and several of their friends & neighbours.

Speaking of friends, it was a real delight to have good friend Jeannette Lee and her partner Dave in town. They came to Cusco to trek the Salkantay Pass (apparently more beautiful and less touristy than the popular Inka trail) – and we ended up having a nice catch up over lunch. Afterwards, there was some fun jamming going on in San Blas Plaza all together – what a treat for the boys to learn from such a great friend and accomplished musician!

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Jamming in San Blas Plaza with good friend Jeanette Lee, from Canada

Depacho ceremony; honouring Pachamama

Our new amiga Lainie suggested that we go for a hike in nature to give some love and appreciation to Mother Earth. Her friend Ceasar, led us up into the hills above the Sacsayhuaman Ruins (where a few days before the kids had enjoyed the natural rock slides).  The nature was beautiful, with hardly anyone around. We ended up at a place near a river with a large rock that had some impressive Inca carvings (huge Inca cross). Following some fun climbs and getting in touch with nature (we all had to take off our shoes and it was suggested we lie down in the grass, stare up into the sky and take in nature), Ceasar started the Despacho Ceremony.

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Ceasar with traditional headpiece

In the Andean traditions of Peru, a Despacho is a ceremonial offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the Apus (mountains).  It is the Inka’s believe that the land, earth and universe will take care of them if they take care of it. They consider a Despacho, an offering or fair exchange for what was taken from the land and to preserve their relationship with it (Ceasar urged us all to re-gain our relationship with nature as he believes many of the harms and illnesses nowadays are due to our lost connection with Mother Earth). Our Despacho focused on thanks for the bountiful offerings Mother Earth gives us each day, personal gratitude for the beauty in our lives and prayers for those in need that surround us.

We gathered in a circle around Ceasar and watched him make the preparations for the ceremony. He placed a wide variety of symbolic offerings on a large colourful blanket in front of him, all with great care and intention. There were sacred rocks, crystals, flowers, dried corn, coca leaves, strings, candies, wine etc.  He then arranged bundles of coca leaves (3 in each bundle with pointy leaves representing the mountains, and rounded leaves representing the earth) and handed a bundle to each one of us (we were there with 3 wonderful families).  We were then instructed to blow on the leaves, give a prayer and send thanks and good wishes into the universe.  Also, a type of flowery alcohol was poured into our hands three times, We were to smell the liquid and rub it over our entire bodies as a type of cleansing.

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Filou receiving the “cleansing” liquid 

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Ceasar blowing prayers onto the coca leaves

Ceasar then took our leaves back, dipped them in wine and arranged them, together with many beautiful flowers, candies and confetti, into an amazingly colourful ensemble. Once completed, the bundle was folded, tied up into a package and burnt ceremonially over a large fire. It is believed that the fire allows the spirits to “eat” the offerings in peace and that any heavy energy is turned into ash for Pachamama to consume and compost, transforming into fertile ground for new endeavours.

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Prayer to the mountains

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Depacho offering of flowers, candies, feathers and many good wishes for Pachamama (Mother Earth)

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Final thanks and prayers with the offering package in hand, before it is being burnt and given to Pachamama and the mountain spirits

We all felt very privileged to have been part of this sacred ceremony; a wonderful practice of gratitude. Thanks to Lainie for organizing, Ceasar for leading the ceremony and Carrie for translating and explaining the interesting, local traditions & beliefs.

Filming a CSR documentary-commercial in Santa Teresa

A few days later, I was also grateful for Emile who found an interesting posting at his Spanish school. A film crew was looking for seven people to participate in the filming of a documentary-commercial for ScotiaBank. I was in the mood for doing something crazy so I signed up and, together with six 20-yr old cute backpackers (I was thankful they included my 40+ face), I set off to Santa Teresa. In true Peruvian style we spent the first day waiting (all day!!!) for people and lost luggage to arrive, and after a 6-hour bus ride we finally arrived at our destination.

Santa Teresa, a town deep into the mountains, on the edge of the Amazon, is situated 6.5 km from Machu Picchu and is at the axis of several alternative routes leading to the archeological site. In 1998, a landslide completely buried the town and destroyed that bridge that connected it to Machu Picchu and Cusco. Since then, the people of Santa Teresa have been a true example of what determination, hard work and a fighting spirit can do to resurrect a community.

It was because of the needs in this area that ScotiaBank (http://www.scotiabank.com/brightfuture/) – in cooperation with the humanitarian organization CARE (http://www.care.org) – decided to focus on one aspect of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiative “Bright Future” here. To celebrate the end of their 4-year commitment and successful launch of initiatives and entrepreneurship in this region, a documentary was commissioned.

The crew, a group of about 12-15 funky, hard-working, independent filmmakers from Lima (one was the spitting image of film star Johnny Depp), came together to make some magic happen. We were asked to bring at least 3 different outfits as several scenes were to be taped over the next couple of days.

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Part of the crew at work

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With sound technician, Mario Rivas

For example, we pretended to hike the Inka Trail (which in reality, was us walking up a steep set of stairs with heavy backpacks – 3 times!). We also acted that we were visiting a plantation and strolled the “coffee route”. It was here that we learned how the locals had turned their coffee beans into a sellable product and an educational, tourism opportunity. I was asked to do a scene in which I used a very large rock to grind coffee beans by hand. It was in the traditional way, that a stone was moved in in a back-and-forward motion to crush the roasted goodies. It was fun to do but harder then it looked!

Besides coffee, Santa Teresa also produces some delicious, organic honey and we got to witness the launch of the first honey store in town! The opening of this commercial outlet was inaugurated with the breaking of a bottle of honey liquor. In the honey scene, Sophie (another Dutch girl) and I, had to taste and buy honey (after 3 scenes of tastings, we had had our fair share of the sweet stuff!).

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Scene in the honey shop, being filmed by director  Jorge Carmona

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With Sophie van der Ploeg; honey shop scene

Lastly, the locals have learned to use their beautiful pieces of land into camping opportunities for trekkers. Our film crew set up 10 tents on one piece of land and mounted a “Camping” sign. We pretended to drink coffee by the campfire and unpack our backpacks. It was all a lot of fun!

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The “film stars” from L to R: Diego, Camilla, Iris, Melissa, Kyle, Sophie & me

It was an amazing weekend of connections, Spanish practice, and fun activities such as salsa dancing. The crew took amazing care of us – feeding us local dishes such as Pachamanca (fried yuka root, sweet potatoes, lamb and chicken cooked underground) and Cuye (guinea pig).

The guinea pig, a true local delicacy, took us all by surprise. The animals were cooked over a large fire and served in its entirety (complete with head, arms, legs and fingernails!). We all wanted to be respectful of local traditions and gave it a try, with some of us liking it more then others (it tasted like a piece of salty rabbit!). Thanks to sweet Sugey, director Jorge Carmona and its amazing crew, we were all a very unique experience richer; one that I will certainly remember for a long time to come!

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Our lunch; guinea pigs (a Peruvian delicacy) and chicken

And with that wonderful memory and many others, it is time for us to leave Peru. We say Hasta Luego to the lamas, the colourful people, lomo saltado and the numerous magnificent ruins. Our time here was one of many connections – Kim, Lainie, Brie, Rhoni, Raisa, Rachel, Mel & families – we thank you for your warm friendships.

Kim & Scott– you guys were the sweetest for throwing us a good-bye party! We hope our “Inka” paths with continue to cross. Now we’re set for a long bus ride and get into the beautiful country of Bolivia. Hasta que nos encontremos de nuevo Perú!

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Natural rock slides at Sacsayhuaman Ruins

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Lainie, me, Kim & Rachel

Farewell Peru

At our Cusco Farewell party; beautiful Buen Viaje sign made by Kat and Kane Crawford