Exploring Ecuador: July - August 2016

Four weeks hardly seem enough to explore Ecuador, but we’ll do our best. This nation is compact — about the size of Colorado — but hyper-diverse. The weather stays fairly consistent year round, but climate varies drastically by region. We’re visiting the cool Andes; cloud covered Choco forest; rainy Amazon Basin; steamy coast; and the sunny Galapagos Islands (where the wildlife viewing is world class). Still, we managed to pack just one suitcase (49.5 lbs) for all five girls.

Commitment

For more than 15 years, I’ve dreamt of taking my kids to Ecuador. Before my girls were born, I ran a non-profit in the South American altiplano. But I thought it was one of those destinations that would have to wait. That mistaken impression was two-fold:

  • I wanted my youngest daughter, Minerva, to be old enough to really remember the wildlife experiences of the Galapagos.
  • I didn’t want to worry 24/7 about my young children on a cruise ship in the Galapagos. (I know there are vessels well-equiped for young children, but I’ve suffered far too many drowning nightmares to be relaxed on a cruise.)

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But our girls have been talking about Ecuador ever after John returned from a visit to the Huaorani people. He taught our girls how the Huaorani dressed and showed them the basics of blow-dart hunting. Of course, the girls were hooked.

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In January 2015, I revisited the Galapagos as part of a site inspection for our travel company. I toured a few land-based options — perfect for families with young kids. Since then, our youngest kept telling me about the things she remembered from last year’s extended stay in Colombia.  She was two on that trip, but told me details of our excursions, hotels, swimming pools, and meals. I also wanted my older girls (10 and 12) to visit the Galapagos at a time when the wildlife encounters — observing iguanas, swimming with sea lions and sharks — would still elicit wonder. Ecuador, we’re coming!

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Day 1: July 24 - Arrival

Months ago, when I purchased air, I distinctly remember going with the least expensive option. Who cares if it means three flights when you’re paying for six tickets, right? I recall the timeframe (considering length of layovers) was equal to the next rate, which was almost $200 more per ticket.

I conveniently forgot that the probability of delays and missed connections increases exponentially when more flights are involved. I’m sure I’ll forget this again when I’m thinking about the per person airfare cost of future trips.

Flights one and two went as planned and everything was in order when we boarded our final flight from Atlanta to Quito. Then, we sat on the runway for nearly two hours for a “mechanical issue” that was supposed to be resolved in five minutes. FIVE MINUTES! I tell my kids, “wait five minutes” a lot and I admit, it’s usually more than five minutes, but it’s never two hours. Pip fell asleep, and woke up asking, “Are we there?” We’d been sitting on the runway the whole time.

Delta handled it as well as they could, I suppose. When we finally deplaned to await boarding a new aircraft (and a new crew due to air restrictions) they were offered free snacks galore. Great. Keep my kids strapped in seatbelt for two unproductive hours and then load them up on sugar and caffeine. That’s like handing them a Red Bull and a blow horn.

We were five and a half hours delayed by the time we arrived in Quito at 4AM. We were exhausted.

Day 2: July 25 - Quick stop in Quito

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Because of the delay, our plans changed. We slept in and started the day late. I’m so grateful the kids adjusted, but I think it’s in large part to focusing the day on kid-friendly activities. We still explored a little of historic Quito, walking the Colonial streets and visiting churches, but we limited our museum experience to one that caters to kids, and then learned how to make chocolate truffles.

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Casa del Alabado is a beautiful museum that displays pre-Colombian art. Some of their pieces are more than 6,000 years old. The kids loved it, partially because they received an “animal bingo” game upon entry. When they found a relic representing a specific animal, they placed a small magnet on the square with a photo of that animal. The squares are arranged in a 6 x 6 grid. The competition was on to complete a row and yell “Bingo!” It helped them look more carefully at the collection and maintain interest after a night of insufficient rest.

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Their reward was a chocolate-making class at the Pacari Chocolate workshop and showroom. Since cacao is one of Ecuador’s main exports (and since chocolate always makes us happy) we thought it would be a great way to introduce the kids to this beautiful country.

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Day 3: July 26 - Entering the Cloud Forest

We started early to make the four-hour drive to Mashpi Ecolodge. John made the commute before, when the property was brand new. He recalls the drive as the most awful he has ever encountered, which is really saying something. He’d made that first journey with a friend — a hearty Scot –and she agreed the trip was awful.

I considered Dramamine, but in the chaos before departure, it didn’t make the cut. Instead, I armed myself with the only item I could: plastic bags for anyone who was going to lose their breakfast.

Several people were being transferred from Quito to the lodge that day. Although the idea of putting my four kids on a bus with eight other passengers made me nervous, we quickly discovered that the panoramic, functional windows and more stable turning radius made for a much smoother ride. Additionally, some sections of the road have been improved over the last two years.

Miraculously, we made it without using my Ziplocs.

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En route, we stopped at the Tulipe archeological museum, which was a nice transition from busy Quito to the very remote Chocó Bio-Region, where Mashpi is located.

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One of the things I love most about Mashpi is how the owner (a former mayor of Quito) purchased the land to protect it. Years earlier, loggers destroyed part of this region without regard to the local communities. The Mashpi Project has worked tirelessly with the Municipality of Quito, which declared a larger reserve of 17,200 hectares as protected area. In addition, over 80% of the Mashpi staff are local residents.

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We spent the afternoon meeting our guides, taking our first nature walk, swinging on vines, and finding one of several waterfalls.

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That first afternoon nature walk left us in awe. The diversity of each plant is thought provoking, the way the rain and clouds disperse continually is mystifying, and the incredible vastness of the area and range in species of plant and animal is humbling.

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Day 4: July 27 - Mashpi Magic

Pinch me. I feel as though I’ve fallen into a magical world. Truth be told, I often don’t do well in jungle environments. Two things make me want to tap out after 24 hours: humidity and mosquitos. I love living in our dry-climate mountains. It’s exciting to visit something so different, but once I start getting bit, crawl into sheets that never quite feel dry, or find breathing a chore, I cave.

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Mashpi really does feel like a cocoon in the cloud forest. It’s probably because of the air conditioning, great food, and comfortable rooms (with terrarium-like floor-to-ceiling windows). When I hit my typical 24-hour maximum, I was grateful we’d planned to stay three nights.

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Today we hiked, rode a sky-bike, and held butterflies. Did you catch that part about riding bikes in the sky? Go ahead and Google it, because I don’t think it exists anywhere else.

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This part was pure magic for my little people. Living jewels and fairy analogs.

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Day 5: July 28 - Wet & Wild

We got wet and fell in love with the wild. As it turns out, that’s an awesome combination. Hiking to waterfalls each day has been a real highlight.

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I packed so little for this trip. Our clothes for hiking and waterfall exploring were always covered in water and mud so we wore the same thing every day when outside the lodge. We were the main nightly contributors to the property’s “dry room” where items were hung near a heater.

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Thankfully, the kids didn’t really care. They were so happy to explore.

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Then, we soared through the sky again, this time on the property’s cable car. The structure itself if a miracle — six high towers set on deep steel-and-concrete foundations, transported by people-power through this ever-wet forest for assembly. The vision and sweat required to construct this conveyance is deeply impressive. The ride through the cloud forest canopy is even more spectacular.

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In the afternoon we visited the colibri, or hummingbirds, and couldn’t believe the variety. North America has 11 species of hummingbirds compared to more than fifty in Ecuador. These living jewels, and their tanager, toucanet, and honey creeper friends left the girls smiling in wide-eyed silence.

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Day 6: July 29 - Jungle Journey

We woke up with the need to visit one more waterfall before departure. Many of us were on the fence about whether we wanted to get drenched. We were leaving at noon and the hotel’s “dry room” didn’t stand a chance against our soaking shenanigans.

I brought swimsuits just in case. But one person insisted that he didn’t need one and would go “au natural” if so inclined. He was inclined. The guides laughed, and our gaggle of girls giggled.

It was a fun way to say goodbye to our guides. Oscar and Carlito had shown sweetness and patience with our family.

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Our journey from Mashpi to Otavalo was private, which meant a smaller vehicle, lurching stomachs, dizzy heads, a lot of complaining, plus a few tears. Most everyone fell asleep for part of the winding road in an effort to sedate the nausea. I kept wishing I had made more time for getting some children’s Dramamine.

When we stopped five hours later, we cleared our heads with the scent of fresh roses.

Ecuador-Family-Vacation-La-Compania-Roses-9-TOCThe estate of Hacienda la Compania dates back to 1919.  The French decor is from that era, imported from Europe. The Jesuit church next to the home was constructed in the early 1700. Enjoying herbal tea and fresh fruit with Martin, one of the hacienda’s family, was just what we needed. After days of green, these blooms seemed even more vivid.

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Roses are Ecuador’s fourth largest export, and we wanted the girls to see where most commercial roses come from. Martin explained the preferences of the European, North American, and Asian markets; cutting times; the four-week bloom durability; and how that durability turned roses into our holiday flower of choice (sort of the Red Delicious of the flower world).

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Day 7: July 30—Otavalo Market

I lost my phone last night on the long drive from the cloud forest to the highlands. We arrived late to SashaJi, a lovely little wellness hotel with incredible mountain views near the town of San Pablo. After so long in the car, we just wanted to get the kids to bed. With so many pockets and backpacks, I figured the phone must be somewhere among our things. It was not.

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This morning I was still feeling hopeful the phone would be recovered; we had booked the same driver for each day of our time in the Andean Highlands. It must be in a door pocket or under a seat, I thought. When he arrived, we did a quick search (and tried calling my number) before everyone piled into the van. No luck.

I tried to remain calm, but kept thinking of where it might be. I can manage without a phone, but it is a helpful travel tool. I needed it to stay on top of work, to take photos, as a clock and alarm (I hate watches), and to communicate with John during the week we’d be apart.

Still, I’d manage. I had another, more pressing concern. I pack the same amount of clothing for a five-day vacation as I do for a five-week vacation. My entire team was on their last pair of clean under-goods. The cloud forest was too humid for anything to dry, and we’d arrived late last night. As we left the hotel, we grabbed a bag full of dirty laundry. Our first stop was a kilo laundry. They weighed our load, and told us we’d have it by the afternoon. Five dollars later we were on our way to have fun.

Our first planned stop was Otavalo Market—the largest market in South America. Otavalo is known for it’s indigenous textiles, handcrafts, and a separate market where livestock is traded. As vegetarians, my kids were adamant about avoiding the animal market. As a photographer, John was determined to go.

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The kids hated the animal market. As you can see. They liked the fruit and the textiles, but have seen enough of markets in Central and South America. Only one of us (little Pip) is a “shopper” and a lot of the goods were factory made, or things we’d seen countless times before. We found ice cream at a mercado, marveled at the variety of vegetables, and left Otavalo in favor of something more exploratory.

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My kids don’t like to hike—or at least that’s what they think. We’ve learned to mask the activity with creative word choice. We go “exploring” or take a “nature walk.” Once they are “hiking” they can walk for hours; the trick is getting them started. We asked, “Do you guys want to climb a volcano?”

As it happens, most kids love volcanoes. One of the great things about the Cotacachi Volcano is the Cuicocha lake crater. We circled the rim, collected rocks, watched birds, and made necklaces and crowns from fallen flowers. After lunch by the lake, we took the cold, lame boat ride around the island. When you have the chance to boat inside a volcano, you’ve got to go for it.

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Day 8: July 31—Kayaks and Condors

Today was a better day. We kayaked across San Pablo Lake with friends from Quito, enjoyed the crisp air and stunning views, and visited Parque Condor—a rescue center for raptors. On every trip, Pip asks if she can hold a birdie on her finger. Mimi has adopted that wish, which was granted today. Thank you, Parque Condor.

Day 9: August 1—Hacienda Zuleta

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Some places are so special that you know, in the moment, you’re experiencing travel success. Hacienda Zuleta is that kind of place. It’s a working farm surrounded by steep green mountains covered in eucalyptus and pine. The valley is lush and fertile. Wheat and vegetables are planted in neat rows near pre-Columbian pyramids dating to 700 AD. Trout fill the ponds. Dairy cows smile and munch on flowers and long grass. Prized horses canter and play in the corrals. This may be the finest hacienda in the Andes.

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Zuleta belongs to the Galo Lasso Plaza family, which has owned the estate since 1898. Two Ecuadorian presidents were raised here. The main house has a presidential library with furnishings and photos from all over the world—gifts from French, English, North American, and South American dignitaries. But even with all that history and dignity, it feels warm and welcoming to my family of chattering children. The presidential family still visits often, but I was surprised when Doña Fernanda, a daughter of President Galo Lincoln Plaza Lasso de la Vega, welcomed us to her home. With a lovely smile, she joked with my kids and promptly filled their hands with candy.

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Zuleta has 14 guest rooms and welcomes children. The farm-to-table food is honest, fresh, and flavorful. We spent much of the day on horseback, exploring the fields and trout farms, and visiting the condor rescue center. Everywhere we went, another dog appeared. I’m sure there are more dogs, but our companions were named Fito, Canela, and Mambo.

We made our way back to SashaJi before sunset. As we navigated the bumpy forest road up the hillside to the hotel, Philippa opened my pocket book and found Cora’s earring studs. Pippa loves anything that sparkles. In her excitement, she dropped one of the earrings under the seat. When we parked to get out, everyone joined in the search. The stud was never recovered, but deep in a crevice between the middle seat, Hero found the cracked corner of my phone. We celebrated! The seat had to be unbolted and removed before the phone could be reached. This was the very last chance I would have had to find it. Philippa felt awful about loosing the earring, but we were all so relieved that something good came of it.

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Day 10: August 2—On Our Own

I’ve travelled many times as the only adult with my four daughters. Often, the people we meet are surprised to see a mother and four young ladies traveling alone. I love it. More than when John or friends can travel with us, when I’m alone with my girls I set the pace. I call more shots and decide what’s best.

We travel as a family for fun, but we also travel for work. We’re constantly doing site inspections, meeting contacts, and testing tour options. Sometimes the work can be taxing on our little people. Still, the advantages outweigh the difficulties, so we continue to take the girls with us for at least a month of foreign travel each year.

We seldom travel with clients. When we do, it’s because they are high profile and their trip involves complicated logistics. John had one of those trips to manage for the next seven days. We drove to the Quito airport early in the morning and prepared to say goodbye. He kissed all of his girls, and we were on our own.

It’s a short flight to the Amazon. One of our lodge’s guides was booked on the flight. She volunteered to hold Minerva’s irresistible hand. We hustled to the gate and began to board. Paola stayed with us during the boarding process, but looked around a little frantic when she realized John wasn’t with us.

“Where is your husband?” She asked.

“He’s staying in Quito and then going to the Galapagos.” I replied with a smile.

“You’re going to the Amazon with four kids? By yourself?” She looked worried.

“Yep. I think we’ll be okay, don’t you?” The smile might have faded a little. I’ve been to other parts of the Amazon, but never with kids.

“I should bring my own daughter soon,” she said. I nodded.

The flight was only an hour. Soon, we embarked by motorboat for a two-hour journey on the Napo River. We then walked a mile on a forest trail and canoed another 30 minutes through a black-water lake before reaching Sacha Lodge.

The main lodge rises above the mirror-like water. The water lacks the sediment of the Andes and also contains a high concentration of tannic acid, which “stains” the water like tea. You can’t see your fingertips if you put your arm into the lake up to your elbow. “Who knows what’s living in there?” We laughed.

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The main lodge also has lots of walkways, staircases, and banisters built to the safety standards of the Swiss Family Robinson or Tarzan. Lots of swing-and-fall opportunities for my monkeys. After talking with the staff, we learned the lodge rarely sees so many young children from one family—and never with only one adult as supervisor.

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I was feeling a little nervous that I wouldn’t have Internet or be able to stay on top of work emails—this is a work trip, and not pure vacation. Then again, no signal meant I wouldn’t stay up late working. I needed to be on my A-game tomorrow.

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Day 11: August 3—Shanshu

It’s hot in this jungle. You already knew that, but I need you to understand how truly, deeply hot and humid it is. You’ll be sweaty wet by the time you reach breakfast. All of your papers and books will curl themselves into scrolls within 24 hours. Cotton is useless here. The lodge provides a dry box—a wooden cupboard perpetually lit by an incandescent bulb—to dehumidify your electronics.

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To keep guests comfortable, touring is scheduled for the morning and evening. Afternoon is siesta time, when swimming or sleeping is the best option. The morning tours begin much too early for my little people, with a wakeup knock at 5AM. Tired as they are, we’ve come here to see and experience this place, and sleeping late is not an acceptable option.

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Shanshu was assigned as our naturalist guide. At first I felt sad that we weren’t assigned to Paola; she was so sweet to my daughters on our trip to the lodge. Shanshu is a bit of an unknown. He’s small in stature, soft spoken, and his English is often difficult to understand. He quickly proves to be the perfect match. The girls listen intently. He’s comfortable with young kids and has two of his own. He is a local, and knows every bird, bug, and plant by their Latin, Spanish, and English names. He senses when the kids are interested, and anticipates when it’s time to move on.

Shanshu helped me remember how much I love plants. While the kids were wowed by the birds and butterflies, I was drawn to the leaves and trees. With a sincere reverence, Shanshu explained the medicinal or practical purpose of the native plants. Although I struggle to keep green things alive in my desert home, I feel a deep connection to them. In this temple of ancient trees, giant leaves, and filtered sunlight, that connection was vivid. At one point, he introduced us to a plant used to create sterility in women. When I saw it, I felt a shock of unfamiliar familiarity. Many of these plants spoke to me. This one shouted. He smiled at my response, and asked if I would be having any more children. “No.” I replied, “As you can see, four is enough for me.”

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Day 12: August 4—Heights and Depths

This morning’s early morning nature walk included some bird watching high above the canopy floor. This suspension bridge is what sets Sacha apart from other Amazon lodges. I wasn’t sure how all my girls would respond to a narrow bridge 36 meters (118 feet) above the air, but there was only one way to find out.

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A family from Israel was staying at the lodge with their four kids. They were already climbing the bridge tower when we arrived. I had noticed them earlier at the lodge, laughing and having fun. Their deep love for each other shone in their faces, and I couldn’t help but think that it had grown over many years of family travels.

We had the opportunity to meet them on one of the towers. One of the daughters was struggling with the height and half the family stayed back until she was ready. My kids took one glance at the situation and then darted for the bridge. From my perspective, it was as though they were saying, “Ha. She’s scared. Let’s R-U-N across this thing.” Instead of taking the opportunity to say hello, be compassionate, and hopefully be a calming presence high in the sky, I had no choice but run after my unruly kids.

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No fear. Pure awe. And I’m grateful for that, but it was also crazy. We came to the next tower to set up the spotting scope to witness the early morning magic. Everything was still, except my children. I couldn’t help but think through some implausible emergency scenarios.

When we met up with the family from Israel, they were once again happy and whole. I apologized for my kids’ rudeness in butting across the bridge. They laughed and smiled. Watching my girls turned out to be the motivation their daughter needed.

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Back at the lodge, we needed to escape the afternoon heat. We headed for the submerged enclosure where guests can cool off in black-water Lake Pilchicocha. The kids loved the idea of swimming in the lake, and started taking turns jumping from the dock.

The dock house is among the few places where I could get a decent signal. I needed to check in with the office. But I also needed to keep four kids safe in a lake that is a habitat for caimans. My two youngest are not strong swimmers. The swimming enclosure is 8-feet deep, and the dark water prevented me from seeing their feet.

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It took all of 2.5 minutes of downloading emails before I realized the office would need to work without me. I swam my youngest daughters back and forth in the cage. As we swam, little fish take nibbles at our feet.

Meanwhile, Cora and Hero were having a grand game of trying to push each other in the water from the small, wood dock that supported the enclosure. I asked them to be careful, like all mothers do. I yelled at them to stop, like most mothers must. And then, as I watched an 8-foot spectacled caiman swim by, I banned them from the water. Even though they were safe from these reptiles and the more dangerous giant otters, they wouldn’t listen. That was definitely the most stressful moment in the Amazon—more than the wasp sting and the many tarantula sightings. But swimming in the Amazon will always be a highlight of our time at Sacha. That, and running across the sky.

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Day 13: August 5—Worms and Worries

Before I became a mom, I worked for a humanitarian organization serving some of the poorest communities in South America. That work served many purposes, but two things surprised me most: it gave me incredible hope and it left me feeling completely incapable of doing long-term good.

While in the Amazon Basin, we had the opportunity to visit a village. Entering that community, I felt flooded by the remembered stress of running a non-profit. I was instantly grateful for my current role: focusing on my own village.

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The local women demonstrated some of the day-to-day of their way of life. We played with their babies. We prepared traditional food. I ate a worm—a big, fat juicy one that tasted a little like bacon. I don’t eat bacon, so no part of that similarity appealed to me. But I believe in trying new things and in showing respect for other cultures. I want to instill that in my daughters, so I chewed my way through that buggly bacon. My girls, so brave and adventurous on the sky-bridge and in the dark lake, were horrified. One of them said, “I don’t want you to hug me, talk to me, or think of kissing me until you go poo. Twice!”

“Twice?” I laughed.

“Yes! In case it didn’t come out the first time.” She was adamant.

Our community tour included another stop at a nearby turtle rescue project. En route, I was careful not to talk, or even breath, on my daughter.

I was torn once again by our experience with the tiny turtles. As a professional, I worried about the many consequences of inviting locals and tourists into this “conservation” program. I’ll share my thoughts more about this later, but in the end I had to remember that saving people, plants, animals, and the world is a process. Step one, in this case, was helping the locals think of the turtles as something other than food.

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I was conflicted over my tourist role—holding and releasing the little creatures back into the water. I felt the donation requests (demands) were a poor way of distributing project funds. But then, my daughters squealed with delight, released the baby turtles, and cheered for the hatchlings as they disappeared into the water. I didn’t have the heart to tell my girls what a bad idea I thought it was.

If I had known more about how the day would go, I might have taken our chances with the caimans near the swimming enclosure. Doing “good” through community outreach is often complicated. More on that later.

Day 14: August 6—Contrast

We left Sacha early. Every day was early in the Amazon. We will miss Shanshu and the way he taught us to eat worms and shoot blowdarts. But we are mountain people and it’s time to go back to familiar territory.

We took the short flight to Quito where our friend, Jascivan Carvalho, was waiting. He loaded us up on ice cream and headed to his latest tourism project: Chilcabamba Lodge with panoramic views of Cotopaxi and other nearby volcanoes. As an avid mountain climber and adventurer, he and his family wanted a refuge in Ecuador’s Avenue of the Volcanoes region—a place other climbers from around the world could call home base before and after expeditions.

With in-room fireplaces, good food, and acres of paramo where our kids could play, we are glad it is our new home away from home.

Day 15: August 7—Chilcabamba

The air is cool and crisp here. I’m tired, but inspired. The views of Cotopaxi and its neighboring volcanoes are stunning.

Today we hiked to waterfalls and played with the Carvalho family’s dog.

The big campfire close was perfect for S’mores. Now we are cuddled around our in-room fireplace, cozy and content. Little mouths are yawning, and tired eyes are closing.

Day 16: August 8—Shook Up

Happy Anniversary to my love. We don’t travel often with our Mosaico clients, but occasionally it’s necessary. Months ago, John talked to me about needing to be in the Galapagos with a large, multigenerational family of clients. The dates coincided with our anniversary. I agreed, and thought maybe I would take our girls to a national park in the western USA while he was away. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized our family was ready for the Galapagos. We would spend a few weeks in Ecuador and meet on the islands to celebrate 19 years of marriage. We’d arrive in the islands just one day late.

I have traveled with our girls, and without John, frequently. I was looking forward to exploring some places in Ecuador I hadn’t seen before. Chilcabamba and the Amazon filled in some gaps, but now I am feeling the need to reconnect with our team over a day or two with strong Internet.

Two of our friends, who have two young children, have invited us to stay in their home while they are traveling. An actual home! Better than our home in some ways; all the toys and games are new to my girls. They’ve been playing tirelessly while I work and make sure we will arrive in the Galapagos with clean underwear.

I finished the last load after midnight. A magnitude-4.6 earthquake just hit. Everything went dark. I had been working on the computer, upstairs from where the girls are sleeping, when the earth began to shake. I started to run downstairs to be with them when it stopped. My heart is still pounding, 20 minutes later. This area of Quito has had several aftershocks since a 7.8 quake a few months ago. I’ve been in big earthquakes before, but don’t think I’ll ever get used to having the ground shake beneath me—especially when that ground separates me from my children.

Day 17: August 9—Galapagos Safari

I tried to prepare the girls for what they would see and do in the Galapagos Islands. We read about the giant tortoises, the tree-sized cacti, and the creature that surprised them the most: the blue footed boobies. I told them about my visit last year and how the sea lions would fearlessly swim around my body or how the birds would hover right above my head.

But the Galapagos is something one has to experience to believe. Within 15 minutes on Santa Cruz, they were amazed—screaming and squealing with delight. The roadside boulders were really giant tortoises. We had to stop the car so that a large male could cross the road. Our guide opened the doors for their first formal introduction to these creatures.

The girls were in awe. Reverent. Entranced. They were mesmerized, watching another male eat windfall guava, when John arrived. The tortoise stood between them and their dad, who they had missed all week. With a gentle gesture and wave of his camera, they knew hugs could wait. As much as John wanted the embrace, capturing the awe in their faces took priority.

 

We journeyed on, to Galapagos Safari Camp—a tented lodge in the highlands of Santa Cruz. This place has an excellent understanding of appropriate luxury and a strong sense of place. Stephanie Bonham-Carter and Michael Mesdag had visited this land more than a decade ago while they were dating. They fell in love with the destination, and decided to make it home. In the process, they’ve helped local farmers understand water collection, reforestation, and other conservation techniques.

 

Although we’d visited the lodge before, this was the first time we’d stayed as a family. Although the lodge has a three-bedroom / three-bathroom family suite that would have been ideal, we booked two neighboring tents. How can you beat sleeping under canvas, with a view of the Pacific, while giant tortoises graze under your front porch?

Day 18: August 10—Close Encounter

Little Pip has only been timid about one thing in life: swimming. This was the year that swimming lessons paid off. She began to love the pool. I wasn’t sure how she would do on her first snorkeling attempt, but she did have the looking-adorable-in-a-wetsuit part down.

She slid calmly from the boat into the water and my open arms, but immediately started a high-pitched pant in response to the cold water. As she began to relax, and float on the water’s surface, I prompted her to take a look through the mask into the water. That lasted less than a second. She popped her head back up and exclaimed, “Mom! Did you see all those fish down there? It’s amazing!” For the rest of that swim, she only lifted her head again to giggle. We saw sharks, a manta ray, sea turtles, more fish than I could count or name, a marine iguana, and more sea lions.

We spent the morning watching sea lions sleep on a warm Santa Fe Island beach. The piles of lounging pinnipeds made us laugh, reminding us of how we look cuddled up in my bed on lazy Sunday mornings. The similarities kept coming; young sea lions slid their bodies over their mothers, barking for premium spots, nudging siblings, biting, and angling to nurse.

The pups were curious and loved to sniff and sometimes chase my girls. It’s no surprise dogs and sea lions are closely related; the pups are especially playful and friendly. Instead of begging for a family dog, the girls begged for a pet sea lion. We’d been briefed repeatedly on the park rules, but the girls found it very hard to watch the pups without touching.

The day exceeded our expectations. So much so that Minerva didn’t hesitate to ask when we would see dinosaurs. Thankfully, the land iguanas were sufficient.

 

Although every part of this day was amazing, Mimi’s encounter with a hawk was the highlight. A Galapagos Hawk was perched on a cliff-edge near an Opuntia. Mimi wanted a closer look.

As she and the hawk drew closer, she started whispering—telling him a story. At one point, the hawk cocked its head and looked at her as if to say it knew she was telling a fib. This went on for what seemed like ten minutes. Eye to eye, species to species story telling. Magical!

Day 19: August 11—Santa Cruz Island

Ever since our surfing trip to Nosara, Costa Rica our girls have wanted to refresh their skills. We spent the morning surfing and playing on boogie boards at Tortuga Bay. The sand was so soft, and the waves were fairly easy rollers.

We shared the beach with a sea lion, marine iguanas, and pelicans. The girls could have stayed all day, but we remembered that getting back to town involved a 45-minute walk. Mimi had fallen asleep. We have empirical evidence that our children weigh twice as much asleep as awake. By the time we reached town, we parents had temporarily renamed her “big fat baby.”

 

While there are some setbacks to traveling with kids who are old enough to have strong opinions, I’m enjoying some of the conveniences of traveling with our growing children. It’s especially fun to see the nighttime pull-up diapers disappear.

After our morning at the beach, we visited a chocolatier. He makes little tortoise-shaped chocolates in a variety of flavors. Chocalapagos was far better we’ve come to expect in South America. The owner hand-tempers every batch. He explained that 4% of the world’s chocolate is exported from Ecuador, but that it makes up over 70% of the finest chocolate worldwide. I didn’t believe him until I ate the head off of one of my shiny tortoises. Our last stop before returning for a late-afternoon swim and barbeque at Galapagos Safari Camp was the Cerro Mesa tortoise reserve. At the top of a cinder cone, we would see far out into the east toward South Plaza and San Cristobal.

Day 20: August 12—Isabela Island

We had a very early morning departing Galapagos Safari Camp, saying goodbye just as the sun was coming up. We needed to get to the dock to take a two-hour fast boat to Isabela Island. I wished we had planned more nights at Galapagos Safari Camp, but John and I were both familiar with Santa Cruz and its nearby islands and wanted to understand the others as well.

Leaving Puerto Ayora, we crammed onto a motor yacht with 20 other passengers. A fleet of these white, no-frills yachts tears across the 47-miles of open ocean to Puerto Villamil, Isabela Island each day. The journey was better than expected. Read: no one threw up or cried. Pro tip: bring ear plugs.

Once we reached the port, we quickly changed into swimsuits and crossed the channel to the Tintoreras islets. We saw penguins, blue-footed boobies, and hundreds of marine iguanas. Afterward, we snorkeled with a trio of huge sea turtles.

We also visited Shark Alley where whitetip reef sharks assemble to enjoy warmer temperatures. These are the same species of shark we met earlier this week. They are rarely aggressive to humans. Still, watching my girls hoist themselves onto a rickety wooden fence to get a better view was a little nerve-racking. So was the idea of accidentally dropping sunglasses into Shark Alley, which almost happened. Those shades would have stayed.

Afterward, we rode in the back of a pick-up truck taxi through lava flows and up onto the leafy slopes of Sierra Negra Volcano for a two-night stay at Scalesia Lodge.

Day 21: August 13—Volcan Negra

Isabela Island is a seahorse shaped chain of six volcanoes. Today we hiked through forest to the top of Sierra Negra, which last erupted in 2005. Its crater is has a circumference of 14 kilometers. Below, on this sea of black rock, we could see how plant life is just starting to emerge.

Although Isabela is the largest of the Galapagos Islands, it draws far fewer tourists than Santa Cruz. Sierra Negra is the most accessible of the island’s six volcanoes, but we saw only one other group of hikers.

After a picnic, we visited a former quarry—now a brackish lagoon, to view flamingos. Minerva calls them “wet mangos.” We continued to the tortoise-breeding center. With the introduction of domesticated animals to the island, it has become nearly impossible for giant tortoises to survive. Creatures like ants and wasps attack the hatchlings. Dogs and pigs eat the eggs. Cows and horses stomp on the nests.

This breeding center was booming. Hundreds of tortoises of various sizes and ages were being raised here. Most are release into the wild at age seven, while a few are kept on property for breeding. This place feels the way I wish the Darwin Center (on Santa Cruz) felt—a lot more science and a lot less gift shop.

The rest of the day was spent enjoying the nearly vacant brown-sugar beach at Iguana Crossing—and saving Philippa from a riptide and exploring the tiny town.

Day 22: August 14—Goodbye Galapagos

Today we flew back to the main airport on Baltra Island. The Puerto Villamil airport was virtually deserted, and the girls took turns playing airline manager. The flight back to Baltra was a nice alternative to the fiberglass flotilla.

After a few hours of waiting at the Baltra airport, we were on our way back to the mainland—this time to the coastal city of Guayaquil. This is Ecuador’s economic capital, and most of the hotels here are more focused on business than leisure. After all the lodges and tents, the girls were over-the-moon to have their own room, with air conditioning and a television at Hotel Oro Verde. We made a trip to the swimming pool, called room service, and called it a night.

Day 23: August 15—Hacienda La Danesa

We were prepared for a travel day. Just a day, in the car, with a few inspection stops en route. But no! This day was a highlight. We arrived at Hacienda La Danesa, about an hour from downtown Guayaquil, to find a perfect picnic set just for us on the lawn of a historic country estate.

Niels Olsen, the owner’s son, took us horseback riding through the teak plantation, tubing on the irrigation canals, a fat biking to his cacao orchard.

The girls made their own raw chocolate, played with puppies, milked a cow, and devoured their lunches. All this put them in a sleepy state that made our three-hour drive to Cuenca much quieter. Thank you Niels!

Day 24: August 16—Gualaceo and Chordeleg

We spent last night in the countryside surrounding Cuenca, in a hotel that looked like Dracula’s summer estate. After sleeping later than we should have, we met our guide and headed to a town market for fruit juice and fresh bread. Maybe I shouldn’t admit it, but I love to see how uncomfortable my kids get in the local supermarkets. They often wander unsupervised (un-approvingly) in the isles of our nearby Costco, but they don’t want to leave my side at a warehouse full of unrefrigerated, dangling meats and rows of individual vendors.

Next up, shopping for hand-made silver jewelry in Gualaceo, followed by a worthwhile visit to a traditional back-loom weaving workshop.

 

By the time we reached the orchid farm, we were running out of steam.

We spent the rest of the day wandering the streets of Cuenca, eating ice cream, playing in the main plaza, and entering every open church.

Poking our luck with a sharp stick, we then tried taking the kids out for a special night in Cuenca. That dinner was a total disaster. No more will be written about that night.

Day 25: August 17—Ingapirca

We love Inca sites. The Inca have been a lifelong obsession for John, and we hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu on our first trip to South America. John got “attacked” by a llama on that hike, and he’s kept his distance ever since. The “Llama Chase” story is one of the girls’ favorites. The story really comes alive when the scenery matches, and an odd handful of llamas roam into our day.

Ingapirca was worth another long-ish day in the car. The kids loved the site, the landscape, the hike, the llamas, and the corn on the cob.

We visited one of the Panama Hat (Montecristi Hat) workshops as our final stop. We made short work of the tour (review for John and me) and exited through the gift shop. Yes, we now each have a hat and have finally checked all the “I am a tourist” checklist boxes.

Still, we thought it would be a good idea to bring our tired kids to a ceramics studio and then a steep, hillside viewpoint. We may never learn.

With the kids exhausted, and room service delivered, John and I snuck out for a re-do of last night’s dinner—just as a couple.

Day 26: August 18—Cool Cuenca

Cuenca is bursting with charm: flower markets, leafy plazas, inspiring sacred spaces, random urban hummingbirds, and loads of ice cream shops.

We expected to leave for Quito early this afternoon, but our flight was cancelled. They say the cancellation is due to weather, but from the ground, this day is clear and perfect. So, we’ll explore Cuenca again.

We’re scheduled for the 8PM flight. I’m sure hoping we make it, because we’re all longing for home. With less than 36 hours left in Ecuador, we’re glad our last sleep will be at Casa Gangotena, arguably the most beautiful city hotel in South America.

Day 27: August 19—Mitad del Mundo

It’s been a long road back to Quito. No better way to spend this morning than packing for home and enjoying a perfect breakfast at Casa Gangotena.

We loaded up, and took the kids to the Mitad del Mundo equator monument, so we could take photos of Minerva crying in two hemispheres at once, and so we could be scolded for touching the exhibits in the “interactive” museum.

Afterward, we had dinner with Jascivan and his family in their home. Oh, we love these people.

Now, we’re off to the airport for the final leg.

Day 28: August 20—Home Sweet Home

We are home. Washing machine! Beds! Vitamix! Thank you, beautiful Ecuador. We’ll be back.

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