The big question: what’s the difference between tortoises and turtles?

On our flight to the Galapagos Islands, one of us napped and the other crammed like a school exam would be given on arrival. So, the big question: what’s the difference between tortoises and turtles? Did we somehow miss this in grade school science? We had no idea what the answer was. How humiliating would it be to not know such a basic fact when we met our guide and fellow tour members?

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Megan, a fellow tour member, took the challenge and squeezed into the dome-shaped tortoise carapace. Her comment: “It’s heavy!”

We found a simple answer: tortoises live on land and turtles live in the water. Both are reptiles and have shells.

We viewed the Galapagos tortoises at the conservation and breeding center on San Cristobal Island where these two bickered over a piece of food.

We viewed the Galapagos tortoises at the conservation and breeding center on San Cristobal Island where these two bickered over a piece of food.

Tortoises roam wild on Santa Cruz Island, freely across the preserve but sometimes stray on nearby farmland.   The farmers in the area have been given payment to offset any crop loss.

Yes, turtles live in the water, and hanging over the side of the panga is not an easy way to get a clear photo. Let’s just say this photo is proof we saw Pacific green turtles.

Yes, turtles live in the water, and hanging over the side of the panga is not an easy way to get a clear photo. Let’s just say this photo is proof we saw Pacific green turtles.

Other reptiles that we learned about were the iguanas and lizards.

We walked down a path spotting male land iguanas every few minutes, protecting their territory. We did see female land iguanas, too, on their own walks to check out the males.

We walked down a path spotting male land iguanas every few minutes, protecting their territory. We did see female land iguanas, too, on their own walks to check out the males.

A common ancestor iguana came to the Galapagos Islands from the mainland South America. They split over ten million years ago into two groups: land and marine iguanas. The only place in the world to see marine iguanas is the Galapagos.

A common ancestor iguana came to the Galapagos Islands from the mainland South America. They split over ten million years ago into two groups: land and marine iguanas. The only place in the world to see marine iguanas is the Galapagos.

With so many imposing and photogenic iguanas to see, we realized (too late!) that we’d taken only a few photos of Galapagos lava lizards.

With so many imposing and photogenic iguanas to see, we realized (too late!) that we’d taken only a few photos of Galapagos lava lizards.

We started the trip with little knowledge of reptiles (Galapagos or not) and enjoyed observing all the tortoises, turtles, iguanas, and lizards that we saw on the islands. We started with only a few basic facts as the trip began, like the difference between the tortoise and turtle. During our week in the Galapagos, we learned a lot more from our Ecoventura guides.

 

April 2016

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The 1,000th

We had not been chasing numbers, only delighted to see new birds and record them on our list. Before we arrived in Ecuador, we had seen 970 birds on our travels across North America, Asia, Africa and Europe.   There are approximately 10,000 bird species world-wide, so having seen roughly 10% is a number we never thought we’d reach.

One of the Galapagos Islands that we visited, Genovesa, is a prime spot for watching birds.

Owl, short-eared

We took the short-eared owl by surprise. It was only about 5’ off the walking path. It arched and spread its wings, then finally relaxed but never gave up its territory.

Genovesa had a large nesting population of blue-footed boobies who were all more concerned with nesting than with us.

Genovesa had a large nesting population of blue-footed boobies who were all more concerned with nesting than with us.

We’d first seen red-footed boobies in Costa Rica, but were pretty excited to see them again.

We’d first seen red-footed boobies in Costa Rica, but were pretty excited to see them again.

At this point we saw that we were inching towards the magic number of 1,000. Only a few more new bird species and we’d be there.

Lava gulls are only found on the Galapagos Islands and are the rarest gull in the world, with only 300-600 individuals recorded in 2015.

Lava gulls are only found on the Galapagos Islands and are the rarest gull in the world, with only 300-600 individuals recorded in 2015.

We saw the endemic Galapagos mockingbird on most of the islands. It’s thought that all the Galapagos mockingbird are descended from a mockingbird that made its way to the Galapagos many years ago. The mockingbirds on different islands are all slightly different subspecies.

We saw the endemic Galapagos mockingbird on most of the islands. It’s thought that all the Galapagos mockingbird are descended from a mockingbird that made its way to the Galapagos many years ago. The mockingbirds on different islands are all slightly different subspecies.

So, you may wonder what bird now holds the place of honor as the 1,000th bird species we’ve seen?

The Galapagos penguin! This is the northern-most penguin in the world and 2nd smallest. This penguin was seen on the island of Isabella. We find it rather strange to think of a penguin living on the Equator - and in a mangrove swamp!

The Galapagos penguin! This is the northern-most penguin in the world and 2nd smallest. This penguin was seen on the island of Isabella. We find it rather strange to think of a penguin living on the Equator – and in a mangrove swamp!

Now that we have seen our 1,000th bird, we can go back to not worrying about the numbers and just enjoy watching and learning about them.

 

 

April 2016

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A surprisingly creepy and dangerous place

When we stepped onto the sand beach, the warm summer sun and turquoise water gave us the feeling of a tropical paradise in the Galapagos Islands. Things are not always as they seem on the island of Fernandina.   As we walked further across the lava rocks, we saw images reminiscent of a horror film crossed with a “Mad Max” movie.

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Marine iguana heads turned to face the sun

A portrait of two marine iguanas

A portrait of two marine iguanas

Fernandina Island, the youngest island of the Galapagos, is about 700,000 years old and is still short on vegetation. It was extraordinarily beautiful.

Fernandina Island, the youngest island of the Galapagos, is about 700,000 years old and is still short on vegetation. It was extraordinarily beautiful.

But something was happening here. An alarming number of dead marine iguana bodies littered the lava rock.

But something was happening here. An alarming number of dead marine iguana bodies littered the lava rock.

The important thing to know if you’re a creature on Fernandina Island is that while you are on the lookout for something to eat, something is waiting to eat you.

Galapagos hawks sat on low trees keeping a watchful eye for prey. One of their favorite foods is the marine iguana. With their sharp talons, they strangle their prey and eat the highest protein parts of the lizard – the tongue and eyes. The rest is left for other scavengers.

One of those scavengers is the Sally Lightfoot crab.

One of those scavengers is the Sally Lightfoot crab.

We watched the marine iguanas scurry down the sand to the water’s edge. It took just a second before they were moving quickly through the water, propelled forward by shimmying their body and tail.

We watched the marine iguanas scurry down the sand to the water’s edge. It took just a second before they were moving quickly through the water, propelled forward by shimmying their body and tail.

At least in the water they would be safe from the Galapagos hawks.

 

 

April 2016

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Things happen no matter where you are

A few years ago, we slept through a typhoon in Kyoto, Japan; and now we’re faced with an earthquake in Ecuador.

We were having our last dinner on board the ship, a grand finale to our week-long visit to the Galapagos Islands, when our guide, Ivan, interrupted with an announcement.   An earthquake had struck the mainland in coastal Ecuador twenty minutes earlier, and we were under orders, as were all ships in the harbor, to head out to the open ocean in case of a tsunami.  Minutes later we heard the anchor coming up and the ship was underway.

Our ship docked at the island of San Cristobal the next morning, and we flew on to Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador and near the coast. We heard that roads were damaged, and on the drive in from the airport saw buildings cordoned off with huge cracks. A bridge had collapsed. In Ecuador, more than 400 have died and perhaps thousands have been injured. The country has mobilized to aid the hardest hit coastal communities. Donations centers have been set up around the country.

Our travel plan had been to hop on a bus the next day to head up the coast to spend a month at the Spanish Language School in Canoa. Now, with the earthquake, that area of the coast had been devastated and in a state of emergency. We came to understand after watching the TV coverage that a trip to Canoa was not going to happen for us.

Clearly it was time for a reassessment.

Rule #1: Don’t live in fear of what’s ahead. No matter where we are and what we do, there are risks.   Traveling to other places has its risks but so does staying home. (For example, a friend warned us of potential earthquake dangers in both California and Oregon. Don’t spend time there, he said. He was so worried about those places that he forgot to mention Ecuador!)

Rule #2: Be flexible. Expectations sometimes need to be adjusted as well as plans. That’s true whether you’re home or abroad.

In less than one day, we had new plans formulated, researched, and confirmed.

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The Cathedral in Guayaquil appears untouched, and we hope tourists will not cancel travel plans to any of the areas of Ecuador not affected by the earthquake.

To be continued … but before going forward, we’ll start with going back in our next posts to our Galapagos Islands’ trip.

And, yes, we did see the Galapagos tortoises.

And, yes, we did see the Galapagos tortoises.

 

 

April 2016

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Open the door – a thought on travel photography

Huntington Gardens

The key to improving travel photography is focusing on buildings, architecture, and cityscapes. Image taken in Bodrum, Turkey.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then travellers’ photos of iconic buildings tell the tale of magical places. Some places are so recognizable that no further explanation is required, and so photogenic that it would be hard to take a bad photo.

You knew with just a glance this is Venice, Italy.

You knew with just a glance this is Venice, Italy.

You also guessed this was a Greek or Roman ruin, and it is: the ancient Greek ruins of Hierapolis in Pamukkale, Turkey.

You also guessed this was a Greek or Roman ruin, and it is: the ancient Greek ruins of Hierapolis in Pamukkale, Turkey.

When we relegate buildings to be just an out-of-focus backdrop when taking photos of loved ones, we might be missing something. So, instead of concentrating on people’s portraits in front of the buildings, why not take portraits of the buildings themselves?

When we look at this photo of a building’s interior, we see “bold,” “20th century, ” “urban,” “architecture as art.” This is the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

When we look at this photo of a building’s interior, we see “bold,” “20th century, ” “urban,” “architecture as art.” This is the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

It’s not just focusing our attention on iconic architecture. On the plains of the western U.S. we see the squat, earth-colored houses under the impossibly huge sky in Marfa, Texas.

It’s not just focusing our attention on iconic architecture. On the plains of the western U.S. we see the squat, earth-colored houses under the impossibly huge sky in Marfa, Texas.

Another favorite subject for our photography is building details unique to a region.

Everywhere we went in northern Spain we admired the terracotta roofs, so when we visited a fortress with commanding views of the countryside, we got the images we’d been waiting for. Every time we see this photo we can feel the warmth and sun of Spain.

Everywhere we went in northern Spain we admired the terracotta roofs, so when we visited a fortress with commanding views of the countryside, we got the images we’d been waiting for. Every time we see this photo we can feel the warmth and sun of Spain.

Once we opened the door to photographic studies of buildings, our travel images were enhanced with a stronger sense of place.

 

April 2016

 

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Landed from the air, shipping out to sea

The journey from Portland, Oregon to Guayaquil, Ecuador required three flights. The first went well. The second was delayed. The third was cancelled. So it goes in the new era of air travel.

Still, we are grateful to bounce across the United States and then ricochet to Ecuador in the space of a few days. The time to spend relaxing in Guayaquil was now reduced to a day and half. Not much time before we head off for a week at sea visiting the Galapagos Islands, but we are not complaining.

We emerged from crazy traffic on the drive from the airport to our light, airy hotel, the Unipark. As soon as we entered our 10th floor hotel room, we could see the Cathedral through the massive windows. Wow! We looked down to see Parque Seminario, right across the street. A lot was happening at the little park, complete with statue of Simon Bolivar and enough water features and benches to draw a crowd. We were definitely ready to see this area.

Iguanas call the park their home.

Iguanas call the park their home.

Despite the sign that prohibits feeding them, about 30 iguana gathered waiting for a handout. Others climbed trees or wandered off exploring other areas, eating fallen leaves whenever they appeared.

Despite the sign that prohibits feeding them, about 30 iguana gathered waiting for a handout. Others climbed trees or wandered off exploring other areas, eating fallen leaves whenever they appeared.

We passed some older buildings as we walked the few blocks to Malecon 2000, the pedestrian walkway along the Guayas River.

We passed some older buildings as we walked the few blocks to Malecon 2000, the pedestrian walkway along the Guayas River.

Gardens, cafes, and children’s rides line the 2.5 km walkway, with shops at one end and a museum at the other end.

Unfamiliar birds flitted around, and some really squawked at every passerby. This was a new bird for us, a Pacific hornero.

Unfamiliar birds flitted around, and some really squawked at every passerby. This was a new bird for us, a Pacific hornero.

The mosaic murals glinted with dazzling colors (which don’t really show on the image. Trust us, they were beautiful!)

The mosaic murals glinted with dazzling colors (which don’t really show on the image. Trust us, they were beautiful!)

At the end of Malecon 2000 the view of the brightly colored buildings hugging the hillside was the perfect viewpoint for taking photos.

At the end of Malecon 2000 the view of the brightly colored buildings hugging the hillside was the perfect viewpoint for taking photos.

Our time was up in Guayaquil. We won’t have wifi connection on the boat so our next post (on travel photography) is scheduled to publish while we’re floating in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador. As soon as we return to land and an internet connection, we’ll share our Galapagos experiences. Until then…

 

April 2016

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one way to plan a BIG trip

It all started with three great destinations: Galapagos Islands off Ecuador, Machu Picchu in Peru, and Bahia Bustamante in Argentina.  How could we possibly choose between them? They’re on the same continent, so we reasoned, “Wouldn’t it be possible to plan a trip where we could do them all?”

After many months of research, we determined the answer was YES! Then it took over another year to figure out the arrangements for what we think will be one amazing trip.

Weather  

We began planning by plotting out the weather for each destination. High and low temperatures was well as rain. For us, Spring would be the ideal time to visit the Galapagos. The weather would be sunny and warm (good for Beth) and the water would be calm (best for Joe’s tendency to seasickness); the season is prime time for mating tortoises, blooming flowers, and sea lion cubs.

The decision when to visit Machu Picchu wasn’t based on air temperature, which is about the same whenever you go, but on rainfall. We’ll take low rainfall (5-10 mm average) in May through August rather than take our chances with a deluge in January (150mm average).

Bahia Bustamante, in northern Patagonia on the Atlantic Ocean, presented a challenge. The choice was 80 degrees and more rain or low 70’s with less rain. We chose the latter for a November visit.

Filling in the secondary destinations

With this research behind us, we had chosen April in the Galapagos Islands, July in Machu Picchu, and November in Bahia Bustamante. That left big blocks of time in between our destinations, so here’s where the research intensified. We talked to others, read blogs, and consulted guidebooks. Little by little we found wonderful places we wanted to see, things to do, and towns where we just yearned to stay awhile. We started to sketch out an itinerary; then we added destinations, and, not long after, some of those might disappear to make room for a new and better discovery. This went on for a year.

A balancing act

The plan needed to be carefully balanced. We knew our budget, and, if a more expensive destination was chosen for a few days (trips to Manu Biosphere Reserve and Colca Canyon, both in Peru), then less expensive weeks would be needed for balance (studying Spanish for a month on the beach in Canoa, Ecuador staying in their $18/night “deluxe” lodging).

Money wasn’t the only balancing act. We needed to balance our time. Sightseeing is intense and tiring. We’ve learned to set aside and equal or greater amount of time to do our usual routine of reading-writing-walking-eating. Friends will join us for almost 3 weeks in Peru where we’ll tour Manu Biosphere Reserve, head for Machu Picchu, and explore the Sacred Valley. After those busy days our friends will fly home, and we’ll settle into a quiet routine for a few weeks in Cusco.

We started with three destinations (the three blue circles): Galapagos Islands off Ecuador, Machu Picchu in Peru, and Bahia Bustamante in Argentina. Then we “connected” the destinations with other places of interest to fill our planned 7+ months itinerary.

We started with three destinations (the three blue circles): Galapagos Islands off Ecuador, Machu Picchu in Peru, and Bahia Bustamante in Argentina. Then we “connected” the destinations with other places of interest to fill our planned 7+ months itinerary.

The final details

The final step for us is key to our tried-and-true system: we make our arrangements before we leave home. If you’re thinking – “Where’s your flexibility? What if you don’t like a place once you arrive?” – then consider this: we’re been traveling non-stop for over 3 years and haven’t regretted for a minute the careful planning ahead. We’ve researched where to stay and chosen accommodations based on value and many great reviews.

Booking early means that we rarely miss out on a place we want to stay; our expenses are known and fit our budget; and many hotels (outside the US) offer free or modestly priced airport pickup.

We spent many months happily looking at places to stay in South America, juggling location, price, recommendations, and amenities. We’ve chosen AirBnBs, boutique B&Bs, lodges, hotels, backcountry camps, and a small ship. Our air tickets are booked. Spanish language school and several multi-day outdoor tours are all arranged.

Does this seem overly scheduled?   On a trip of over 200 days we will still have more than enough time to wander aimlessly, explore and discover.

As we depart for South America, we’ll be relaxed knowing that we’ve done what we needed to do to make our trip a success – and that’s one way to plan a big trip.

 

March 2016

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