Week 46: Warm Island Breeze and Crisp Mountain Air
With a myriad of insects ranging from speck-sized to large enough to confuse them with our shoes, nighttime trips to the facilities were often met with a “shriek” (Hil) or a “whack” (Dave). The humidity and ocean air was warm and calming but unfortunately Hil awoke with some serious abdominal pain. Being a drive, a puddle-jumper, a commercial flight and a drive from a hospital, we had a few moments of concern. A restful day napping and a soothing hot water bottle helped to alleviate the pain, and by evening we were out on our rented bikes loving the light pink and orange tones of the sunset. We walked our bikes along the sand streets passing by coloured plastic chairs and tables on makeshift sidewalk patios. Biking home in the dark with the thick sea air and our headlamps we laughed and smiled as the occasional palm tree shadow broke up the smooth dirt road terrain.
A fruit-filled breakfast in our little apartment was bolstered by some ‘treats’ from the mainland like peanut butter and granola. Hil decided that her morning would consist of some writing and photo editing while Dave opted for a solo snorkel. There were no other swimmers in the bay and with the volcanic basin to himself, Dave tethered a GoPro to his arm and jumped in. The light tide surged and swirled around, suspended shadows traced on the ocean floor’s varying depths. Striped, coloured, speckled schools whisped by. Rays hovering along the bottom as Dave tried to follow their gently flapping path. The visibility was good but the shallows were stirred up and through the wafting clouds of silt the image of a sea turtle became more and more clear. Old face, deliberate movement, and peaceful paddling. The turtle floated and flapped its fins up to the surface, breaking the aqua-air threshold and then diving down again. Following one turtle, it was then joined by another. Time passed and the gentle journey together was interrupted by a jet-stream of bubbles and a wall of silver fish. Two seals were twirling, winding and weaving through the water. The fish desperate to stay one step ahead kept together and sped away making sharp, quick movements. Chasing the efficient, hydro-dynamic seals meant some quick feet, deep breaths and even quicker reflexes as they flipped in towards Dave’s face.
After meeting a couple from Amsterdam who were circumnavigating the globe Dave returned from his swim covered in a rash and spots…oh my! With Hil on the mend, Dave took an afternoon to sooth the odd burning sensation that ran from his back down his legs. Fortunately it passed as quickly as it arrived.
Bikes, floppy hats and a surfboard under the arm, we biked out to the El Faro beach break for an afternoon of surfing and sunsets. A couple of good rides and a lot of paddling to get “out the back”. Twenty other bobbing wave riders took turns cruising in towards the beach and small surf shack. A brief stop at the central market for dinner’s groceries and a fresh coconut, and we started the commute back home.
We explored the island, tortoise breeding centre, nearby out-islands where we snorkelled with nurse sharks, turtles and a pesky blowfish (that kept following us threatening to puff its cheeks). With our days on Isabela island winding down we took to clearing out our fridge and cupboards, so dinner was a gourmet fluffernutter creation of fire-roasted marshmallows, with crunchy peanut butter and white bread. Our enjoyment of this camp / childhood snack was taken to a whole new level by being able to share roasted marshmallows with a unlikely guest. We had agreed to return the bikes today, but totally forgot to do so. Around evening time a young boy, also named David, showed up at our apartment just in time to go through a full range of emotions witnessing his first marshmallow, and as if that wasn’t enough, his first roasting as well. We cleared up the bike rental situation and then set out to share the marshmallows with him. We had to skewer, roast and eat one each before he would even consider trying but the response was at first confusion (about what this white cylinder was made of), then intrigue about the texture and crispy exterior with soft sticky middle, and then pure delight at the sweet finish. He reached for another.
Our last day was spent on a secluded and mostly private (although we did have some other visitors at times) playita. Low tide, smooth sand and the hot sun drew out the day.
A late morning flight had us bumping along the sand road windows down. There was no one at the airport, literally no one. So we waited for the two attendants and then sat in the open air departure lounge until the 6-seater prop plane arrived. Up a step ladder, across the wing and back two rows we tucked into the small plane for the flight to Baltra, then on to Guayaquil, then on to Quito.
Cris met us at the new international Quito airport and we loaded up to head into the mountains to a historic and prominent Hacienda. Arriving at Zuleta in the dark we could only appreciate the courtyard, estate-style building layout, the clip-clop of a group of horses trotting by. Now at altitude with a chill in the air, we found our cozy room, warmed up by the wood burning fireplace - a welcome comfort and change from the humidity of the islands. We joined a couple, Martha and Brian from Atlanta, at a family-style table for dinner and learned of their camping trips to the mountains and volcanos of Ecuador years before. With so much to explore in the community we fully enjoyed the garden-grown and home-cooked meal and cup of tea before tucking in. As we unpacked our damp clothes and basked in the dry air, we recharged for an exciting stay at Zuleta to discover why this home, of one of Ecuador’s Presidents, had been such an important place in the history of the country’s political and agriculturally development.
It was a smooth late-night landing in Quito, after leaving Calama and bouncing through Santiago. After using some B-grade online booking engines we finally found a hotel room in the city which was otherwise full with attendees for a political symposium.
A planned sleep-in was disrupted early in the morning by the noise of a crowd. Peering through the window sheers across the street, we could see the athletic track and school yard full with rows of blue and grey camouflaged military soldiers exercising and responding when called to attention. Now that we were up it was ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘Feliz Cumpleanos’ for Dave and our second birthday celebration on the road.
Waffles at a small Swiss-operated cafe culturally mixed us up, but by the evening we were celebrating with the flavours of traditional Ecuadorian soups, Peruvian inspired ceviches and sipping Pisco sours.
We took taxis around the city, passing alongside urban greenspaces with skateboard / BMX parks, craft fairs and playgrounds - the city’s people shared the public space, laying picnic blankets out one next to the other. Kids formed transient bike and scooter gangs before an ad-hoc football (soccer) game would spring up from the turf-like blades of grass. It made us happy to walk through the parks and see them being loved, explored and appreciated.
The Galapagosian iguana gargoyles perched high above the checkerboard marble and stone monochrome of the colonial churches watched as visitors celebrated Palm Sunday. Andean costumed worshippers wore semi-translucent masks, decorative feather headdresses and long robes. A ‘Superman’ dressed character had a group gathered around a tree and was whirling and twirling a thick caramel like substance around like a pottery wheel. As the rain started to fall we hustled to a nearby restaurant past street vendors selling watermelon and a frothy coloured meringue dessert.
We drove by the plain-looking facade of Jeff’s ‘factory’. Inside a small office / reception area he introduced himself and taught us the basics of chocolate more properly referred to as cacao when talking about the local Ecuadorian, high quality bars and bonbons that he produces for top restaurants, hotels, some client families and the export market. Jeff’s small operation focuses on the downstream production of end consumer product but he is very conscious and aware of his upstream suppliers. We learned how the large cacao beans are harvested, dried, and processed and how higher cacao content does not necessarily mean higher quality. Ecuador exports some of the highest quality cacao in the world. A close friend of Jeff’s owns a farm and produces a specialty crop of cacao which is pre-sold years in advance to discerning customers around the world. We purchased a small box of chocolate treats and did our best not to let them melt as we ran a few preparatory errands in advance of our departure to Isabela Island (Galapagos) the following day.
Swim goggles, peanut butter, trailrunning shoes, coffee and cheese - and we were set with some basics for our trip to the archipelago. An early morning drive from Quito to the airport, special Galapagos National Park screening, a three-hour commercial flight to Baltra (via Guayaquil) and then a 30-minute eight-seater Emetebe flight (complete with our Rasta co-pilot) to Isabela and we deplaned into the humidity and sea air. A pick-up truck transfer to our palm tree ensconced rental apartment and then we were back out on foot walking the beach, meeting the local iguanas and shopping the central market for nuts, rice, eggs, canned beans, corn, and a few fresh coconuts. Hil made fresh almond milk while Dave wrestled, sweat and hacked at the coconuts to open them for the water and pulp.
The humid night was abuzz with critters, birds and the ocean waves rolling in just a few meters away. After caramelized bananas and french toast for breakfast we walked along the wooden path to Concha Perla. Snorkelling around the protected bay we got familiar with the tides and the various volcanic features and creatures in the bay. Seals lounged on the raft platform while others looped and spun around us in the water. The colourful schools of fish darted around, shimmering in the sun to avoid the hungry seals while the rhythmic and calm sweeps of the sea turtle fins offered a peaceful guide to follow around the rocky basin as they ate sea weed and occasionally surfaced to breathe.
With fins and gills, whiskers and shells we were excited to get to know our new neighbours over the coming week.
Since travel days are always better when starting out with a full tummy, we filled our plates from the elegant and diverse offering at the hotel buffet, ate, and went back to fill-up again. With a selection of exotic fruit, locally made honey, 3 kinds of yogurt, waffles, muffins, and eggs a la carte, how could we resist?
Leaving Santiago, we discussed what an easy, friendly and Toronto-like city it had been to experience as travellers. Reflecting the current economic stability and growth of Chile and vibrancy of its people and culture. Landing in Calama, it was immediately clear to us that Santiago was benefitting from the mining projects in the north, though Calama itself, with casino hotels and rows of identical quickly-built housing was, perhaps, not.
We whisked through the small airport and into a truck, where we headed down the road, away from the city and began to take our first glimpses of the Atacama landscape.
First down a valley and then up over the Domeyko Mountain range, where our ears popped, alerting us to a significant change in elevation. Down through the next valley, and up a second pass, the Salt Mountain range. Finally as we descended into the third valley the oasis of San Pedro de Atacama appeared and the looming volcanos of the Andean range, bordering Bolivia, came into view.
There is no comparison on the planet (at least not that we’ve experienced) to the dry air, red earth, rugged and rocky landscape and vastness of the Atacama desert that surrounds San Pedro. The craggy contours of sand, eroded from rain and wind, jut out violently from the ground like hot coals and ash of a recently burned fire. Our timing also followed closely behind a flashflood to the area, bringing over 40mm of rain in one day, to an region that sees less than 1 mm annually. The result, dust and surface dirt were washed away leaving rings of white salt, resembling (at least to two Canadians) and overnight dusting of snow.
Paved highway turned to dirt roads, and the adobe wall-lined streets of San Pedro sheltered us from the winds sweeping across the open lands. A traditional-style hut with local wood fencing and roof coverage kept us cool during the hot days and warm during the cold nights. The following morning we checked out the nearby Cejar ponds where we floated effortlessly in the saline waters, while taking in views of the surrounding volcanos. The micro-organisms in the water were the only other living things around as the high salt content makes the waters otherwise inhospitable. Nearby the ponds, we met a French family who are spending a year traveling around South America in an RV. The father was admittedly not a ‘car guy’ but has learned on the road everything there is to maintaining a motorhome across the challenging terrain of the desert, the Andes and long stretches of rippio in southern Argentina and Chile.
From the salt ponds we drove southeast past Toconao for a quick lunch in Socaire before climbing in elevation up to 4,300 meters (14,100 feet) to the altiplano lakes of Miscanti and Miniques. The two bright blue sky mirrors set at the base of the volcanos are the meeting point for flamingos, nesting horned coots, and swift-footed vicuna. Winding back down the mountainside the vegetation changed as the vicunas stayed up above 3,500 meters just as the distant lithium mining ponds on the valley floor came into view. We rested in the afternoon after the heat and short un-acclimatized altitude exposure took its toll. Plus we had a stargazing appointment and astronomy lesson scheduled for a fews hours after nightfall.
We traveled with Jorge 15 minutes outside of San Pedro into the desert darkness. Sitting in fold-up lawn chairs with blankets we listened to his animated presentation about the stars, the Andean culture’s relationship with the sky and our place in it all. For us, the southern hemisphere’s sky was a all new. We learned that there are 88 recognized constellations in the sky and how to find the (real) southern cross. Jorge setup his telescope and quizzed us on where to find various bright stars and constellations in the sky. Supernovas, planets, nebulas, and moons - through a car-adapter powered telescope we gazed out into the dark until it became light again hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of light years away. He would focus on a feature in the sky and we would all quickly take a turn looking through the lens to see it before our rotation and its orbit would put it, again out of view. Staring into Orion’s nebula we got lost in the cloud of dust, gas, new stars and cosmic energy. Saturn and its rings were clear and brightly coloured through the telescope - and with that somewhere for a moment it all was put in perspective, we were so small, made of the same stuff, all inhabiting the same place - no exceptions.
After some fresh rica-rica lemonade Dave left with Santiago for a walk among the giant cardon cacti. One of the freshwater springs that feeds the oasis of San Pedro continues to carve a valley from the high mountains down to the town. Hiking through the valley we sought out the cool water breeze and shade from the high rock walls from the mid-day sun. Back in time for a fresh lunch with Hil before packing up for an overnight in the desert. We rendezvoued with Javier and crossed the Salt Mountain range en route toward Mantacilla where we unpacked the truck and set camp in the depth of a U-shaped rock feature, protected from the wind. Wandering the wind-blown canyons as the sun began to set the colours changed from dusty beige to brown to yellow to orange to red as the ferocity of the sun’s blaze focused it fading rays on the tallest outcropping in the landscape. While we waited for the stars to shine, Javier spoiled us with some top-notch gas stove cooking, and a good Chilean red wine. Dave made use of his new tripod and recent astronomy learnings to capture some night photography scenes as the 180 degree sky lit up covering us in pinhole pierced darkness.
Returning to San Pedro we took the long route through some historical petroglyphs carved into amphitheatre desert walls over one thousand years ago. Images of shamans, llamas, and large cats show the history of a people that passed by caravan through this area along ancient trade routes.
From our overnight tent under the stars we moved to the Corrales, the site of an old cattle corral and our rusted modern glass cube. Dave met Yasu and and biked the up the valley, across rivers, through eroded arches, and under rainbow rock overhangs. Carrying the bikes over tough terrain and up hill Dave learned about Yasu’s young family and their passion for the mountains. With no electricity in his home he loves to make the most of daylight hours, climbing, mountain biking and guiding across the Atacama. Hil joined for a windswept hike across the top of Valle de la Muerte and then the joyful descent into the giant dunes. The sands, warm from the day’s sun puffed and clouded as we ran down the ridge, our feet landing on either side of the shadow line puckering the smoothed perfection of the shifting sands. Bounding down hill we ran and jumped into soft landings filling our shoes, socks, mouths and ears with grains of the desert dunes. As the sun set we shared a meal of fresh garden greens and a glass of Carmenere.
At 8:30 in the morning Dave and a guide were rolling towards the Andean range and the tri-border of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. After nearly a week of taunting in the Atacama it was time to not just gaze out at the volcanos and mountains on the hazy horizon but also to look back at town from the summit of one of them. Our hourlong drive to the base of Toco doubled our elevation from 2,500 meters to almost 5,000 meters leaving just a short 600 meter ascent for us to slowly climb past the snow line to the summit. Loose rock, frosted snow shapes, cold temperatures and brilliant sun challenged our steps. Walking in a slow single file we chewed coca leaves which is chewed by Andean alpinists and high-altitude truckers alike. The views from the summit introduced us to other mountains, in other countries deeper in the Andean range. We looked down on multiple satellite and astronomical projects watching and listening for the ancient creators of all these peaks. We descended without incident, rehydrated and returned to San Pedro listening to dance music as the diver’s enthusiastic head-bopping only added to the exhilaration of the climb. Wind, sun and altitude soaked Dave rested in the afternoon which suited Hil, who was already enjoying a slower pace poolside.
With the new day’s light crawling down the side of Licancabur’s perfect conical shape we walked out together along a wooden foot path to meet Marti for another morning of yoga. Hil and Marti had bonded immediately, as Marti is also pregnant. We embraced her practice, introducing new movements and sequences to us in beautifully calm spanish-accented english. The crisp temperature had not yet been overpowered by the sun’s heat and our bodies warmed as we breathed, folded and stretched. With open vastness all around us, Marti shifted our focus inward, and to our baby. As we floated into a deep shavasana she guided us with a final thought: “The mind is like a pendulum, swaying from the past to the future, to still the pendulum is to be in the present.” Words to keep and repeat.