Sunday, July 31, 2011

Isla de la Plata

At the top of our list—during our trip to Puerto Lopez—was Isla de la Plata (the poor man’s Galapagos). When you consider that you can basically see the same thing for a fraction of the cost (minus the huge tortoises), then it’s quite the deal. In fact, I think it’s a better deal; you get to see the humpback whales instead!

Our friends recently took a trip to the Galapagos for thousands of dollars and still didn’t get to see the giant tortoises, and we paid a total of $35 per person to see the same type of wildlife for a fraction of the cost. It’s definitely worth the trip, but there are some things you need to know before you get on the speedboat that will take you on your 1-1/2 hour trip into the ocean.

First of all if you get seasick, please take your Dramamine (Mareol) 20 minutes before boarding the boat! You will be asked to take off your shoes (which will be put in a large plastic bag), and you will wade in the water until someone hoists you aboard. There were 16 of us on our double-decker “barca”—complete with a restroom. You will also be asked to put on your life vest (not a bad idea as you will be heading out 22 nautical miles into the Pacific).

The Hosteria Mandala made our reservations for us aboard “Yubarta” and the $35 included a snack , lunch, tour of the island, snorkeling, and our entrance fee into the Machalilla National Park. It’s a long day that starts at 9:00 a.m. with arrival on Isla de la Plata around 11:00 a.m., three to four hours of hiking around the island, lunch at 2:30 p.m. (on the boat), and then snorkeling in “Bahía Drake.” The return trip puts you back at Puerto Lopez at about 6:00 p.m. (mas/menos).

You should wear your swimsuit (if you don’t want to change clothes in the small bathroom on the “ship”), and comfortable clothing with lots of suntan lotion (at least SPF 30), a hat, comfortable hiking shoes or sneakers, a small backpack to carry a bottle of water and camera equipment, and beach towel.

About 15 minutes into our outboard journey, the boat suddenly stopped and we heard the word “ballena” (whale)! There were several other boats in a semi-circle where we enjoyed the “plumes” of the humpback whales, lobbing their tails and putting on a grand performance. In order to get excellent pictures you need a mega-zoom lens and you need to keep pointing and clicking because the whales don’t respond on command like “Water World” in Florida.

If the whale is already out of the water doing “summersaults,” you’re too late. So keep aiming and praying and you will get something! Our boat bobbed in the water watching the show for a good 30 minutes before we headed on to the island.

Once we reached Isla de la Plata, we were give back our shoes and allowed to use the “facilities” before we started hiking. Our group opted for the longest and highest trail which meant we walked for 3-1/2 hours! The first part of the journey was a total of 216 steps—almost vertical. That’s the part they left out in the guidebook! Mark and I are both runners and we considered it moderately difficult. Some folks were simply not able to keep up and eventually the stragglers were left behind (and later caught up).

Our guide, Alegria, spoke both English and Spanish and was delightful. The dry tropical forest (made up of 35,000 acres) was dessert-like, parched and sad looking. It’s definitely not a place you want to be shipwrecked for any length of time, unless you enjoy eating twigs for breakfast. The only permanent residents on the island are the red-throated frigate birds, the blue-footed boobies with their turquoise blue feet and crossed eyes; the Nazca booby with their yellowish-orange beaks and a variety of other birds—including the waved albatross. If you take the lower trail, you might be able to see a colony of sea lions or porpoises, but no giant tortoises. We did see some turtle nests as we started out on the trail and also some sea turtles when we were snorkeling, but no giant “tortugas.” You need to go to the Galapagos for that!

After hiking for 3-1/2 hours you tend to work up an appetite, so when we arrived back at our starting point, we washed off our feet and got back on the boat for lunch which consisted of sliced watermelon, pineapple, two types of sandwiches, and a Snicker’s bar (just kidding!). It was actually a nice-sized chocolate cookie. We washed it all down with Coke and bottled water.

And then we plopped in the water to do some snorkeling (on a full stomach). The boat “parked” in Bahía Drake (named after—you guessed it—Sir Frances Drake). A couple of our shipmates brought their own snorkeling gear and fins, but the rest of us used what was given to us on the boat (snorkeling equipment minus the fins). The underwater world was magnificent— filled with iridescent tropical fish, blue starfish nestled among the coral, and sea turtles. We were warned not to get too close to the coral reef, but of course there’s always someone on ship who doesn’t listen to the rules. I learned my lesson (that stuff can be nasty!).

Once on board the boat, we put on our life vests and headed back to Puerto Lopez. The water gets a little more choppy after 3:30 p.m., so it’s best to take your sea sickness medication again if that’s a problem for you. And be sure to bring a hooded jacket and re-apply sun lotion—especially to your feet!

I fell asleep on the way back to Puerto Lopez and don’t remember too much until I was pushed out of the boat! Once on shore, we were given back our walking shoes and had a wonderful dinner at “Casa Vecchia”—the best pizza in Puerto Lopez. The trip was definitely worth $35!

Until next time...hasta luego!

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Friday, July 29, 2011

Your Pets Abroad

Some expats bring their “children” with them to Cuenca and others—like us—adopted our baby once we arrived. Those of you who have kept up with our blog know about our Mocha story, and a year later we can’t imagine our lives without him. Mocha is a little guy for his age (about 7 pounds) and can fit comfortably in my purse, but certainly not for long trips!

When we started planning for our coastal vacation, one of our major considerations was how to board Mocha. The last time we were in the States, we had a couple stay at our place and it worked out perfectly. But that couple is now on a worldwide tour and won’t be back in Cuenca for the foreseeable future, which meant we had to find suitable houseparents or think about boarding Mocha.

Hostal de los Perros came to our rescue when we read about their information on the Gringo Tree. Auntie Hazel and Uncle Wally have opened up their lovely place to make a home away from home while Mommy and Daddy are away.

As soon as we met Hazel and Wally, we were convinced that they were the only ones that could take care of our little darling while we were away. And not only did they take care of all of Mocha’s needs, they sent us updates with pictures to let us know that all was well. In fact, Mocha was having such a good time with his new housemates—Velky and Seamus (Hazel and Wally’s kids) that I hardly think Mocha gave us a second thought!

It’s a bit like sending your kids away to college: you pack up their things, help them get settled and then cry all the way home. But we didn’t have those tearful feelings because we knew that Mocha was going to love his new “castle” complete with a “casita” and a gorgeous backyard with garden.

When we picked up Mocha after our eight-day vacation we were ready to see our little guy, but I believe he didn’t miss us as much as we missed him. He found a new home with Auntie Hazel, Uncle Wally, Velky and Seamus.

If you’re thinking of taking a vacation and can’t bring along your “children,” rest assured that there is a home away from home for them at Hostal de los Perros!

Until next time…hasta luego,

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

We're Back!

Some folks asked if we actually made it back from the coast because they hadn't heard from us! Well, we're back, but a part of us is still there. I knew I was going to miss "Los Frailes" so much that I made a video of it and uploaded it as soon as I got home. This morning I woke up and said to myself:  "No it wasn't a dream: you had a perfect vacation with amazing weather, great food; you 'swam' with the whales, giggled at the blue-footed boobies, snorkeled in the saphire blue waters of the Pacific and ate coconut ice cream--every night for dinner. And you saw lots of sunsets and clapped when the the 'show' was over!"

It's safe to say that I'm going through major coastal withdrawal for which there is no cure except to get back on the bus and travel 7-1/2 hours up the coast to enjoy the pristine beaches of Los Frailes and the magical splendor of Hosteria Mandala. There were absolutely no disappointments on this trip and as the owner of the Hosteria Mandala said to us: "You brought the sun with you!" Normally, during this time of year, it's cloudy and only a handful of sunsets! We were fortunate enough to have three out of four sunset-filled evenings. The lazy days on the beach in my hammock sipping something with an umbrella in it, made me want to pitch a tent and claim my "plot."

Yes, I got sunburned even after slathering myself with SPF 100 (you have to reapply after you get out of the water). And I did get my share of mosquito bites (even with Off Bug Spray), but it was so worth it. And the boat ride to Isla de la Plata was almost worth the 1-1/2 hour ride of choppy water just to see the dancing whales blow off steam. It was more magnificent than I had imagined to see them rise up out of the water like creatures of the sea and dance on the water before doing a backwards belly flop into the ocean. I had almost forgotten that we weren't actually whale watching, we were on our way to Isla de la Plata to do some hiking and bird watching, but the whales stole the show! The blue-footed boobies and the frigate birds didn't disappoint either and each put on a show of their own. Since both species were mating, they went to extreme measures to strut their stuff. The frigate birds puffed up their red throats to get the attention of the "girls" and they must have been paying attention because we saw lots of little frigates and blue-footed boobies all over the island.

Be forewarned, it's a long day and our group decided they wanted to take the upper trail around the island which was four hours of walking, followed by lunch back on the boat, and snorkeling. If you are prone to sea sickness, be sure to take "Mareol" (dramamine) because you just might lose your breakfast like my shipmate did! Be sure to take it 20 minutes before you get on the boat.

There are so many highlights of our trip, but our favorite day had to be at Los Frailes which is a pristine beach with an abundance of seashells which now grace our home. I played in the waves and swam in the gentle surf until my hubby dragged me to shore (kicking and screaming). We then took a hike up to "Mirador" which is not to be missed; you can see the entire Ecuadorian coastline from the lookout which is well worth the 20-minute climb.

Unlike most expats we took the bus and thoroughly enjoyed the experience: reclining seats, air-conditioning, his and her bathrooms that were immaculate, free snacks, and movies! When did riding a bus get to be so much fun? The Guayaquil bus station is a huge three-story complex with a shopping mall and food courts. My new obsession is "Sweet and Coffee." Watch out Starbucks, you've got some major competition and the price is right! Total cost per person from Cuenca to Guayaquil was $8.00 and our ride up to Puerto Lopez was $3.50.

I'll leave you with some highlights of Los Frailes...(our favorite part of the trip).

Create your own video slideshow at

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Adios Amigos!

My friend, Trish, has only been here for two weeks and already we have to say “adios”!

I have enjoyed her impressions of Cuenca (quite entertaining!), and also what she misses about the States. When I asked her what she missed most about the U.S., she said, “Wawa!” She went on to elaborate, “I miss the large 79-cent coffee and my morning cinnamon roll.”

“That’s it?” I asked. “You mean you miss Wawa -- the convenience store?"

She has yet to find a good cup of coffee in Cuenca (at least to her liking). It’s strange when you think that Latin America is the largest exporter of coffee beans to the US and yet, we are sometimes deficient in the coffee department.

Since Trish is fluent in Spanish, she’s been a great companion to prowl around the streets of Cuenca with. She’s been invited into homes of Cuencanos, has been invited to expat dinner parties, and has volunteered for a local orphanage (until the head lice on one of the kids scared her away!).

Her latest observation caused me to double over in laughter when she said, “I think some of these folks have too much money and too much time on their hands.” I guess she ran into some expat "high rollers" who expounded on the fact that they owned six homes and were buying another one in Cuenca – “just because.”

I explained to her that “yes” there are many wealthy folks in Cuenca who invest here, but many come to volunteer and to do their best to make a positive difference. I don’t think I’ve convinced her in that regard!

Trish has lived on $5.00 a day and has had a fabulous time, especially with the $2.00 lunches. Since she is staying at Hosteria Nuestra Residencia where she receives breakfast; she has the rest of the day to spend her $5.00 which includes a $2.00 lunch and fruit and yogurt for dinner. Trish is still in awe over the fact that you can ride the bus all day for 25 cents—unit until it stops—and they tell you to get off. And she marvels at the fact that you can get a manicure for 5.00 (or pedicure). At the top of her list is how helpful the Cuencanos have been and how they keep her safety in mind (she’s 5’11” and blonde!). Today she wandered off to Baños (not realizing the time) and one of the ladies on the bus told her it was too late for her to be out and quickly escorted her back to Cuenca!

Her greatest obsession has been the meringue cookies and today she bought 20 of them! I have to agree they’re one of my favorites as well. I got addicted to them when we first arrived over a year ago and haven’t been able to shake my obsession—especially the strawberry ones with mango filling!

Tomorrow we leave for the coast and it’s with great sadness that I have to say “goodbye” to my friend, but I know she’ll be back. And I will certainly do my best not to post too many pictures of the sunsets while we're in Puerto Lopez!

Until next time…adios amigos!

Friday, July 15, 2011

What Must They Think?

When you come to Cuenca, you will notice that family takes precedence over everything. They live together—sometimes three generations in one house; they eat together and they play together. It’s how they were raised. In fact—walking through the neighborhood—it’s hard not to notice how Cuencanos purposefully plan for everyone to be under one roof.

Sometimes you will see homes that stretch an entire block or "compounds" with separate homes for each of the family members. So when I’m asked how could I leave my family to come to Ecuador, I’m very careful how I answer that question because I don’t want them to think that I don’t care!

Today I answered that question with eyes brimming full of tears! I’m sure the taxi driver wasn’t expecting me to blubber on and on about how much I missed my family; he was just asking a simple question with a not-so-simple answer. In fact, when I started pulling out pictures of our boys, my son and his wife, and my family in California, I’m sure he was thinking to himself, This poor señora needs to get a grip!

After a year in “paradise” you start to reflect on what brought you here in the first place. For us, it was simple; we came here for the excellent and affordable medical care. In fact, we aren’t the only ones. It’s becoming a common theme among expats looking to retire in Cuenca. Retiring overseas—once considered to be a luxury—is now becoming a necessity.

When I try to explain that concept to our Ecuadorian friends, they just shake their heads! That’s because it’s inconceivable to them that family doesn’t take care of family—especially when it comes to medical care. In fact, one of the things you will see missing in Cuenca is a lot of rest homes—“asilo de ancianos.” That’s because in Ecuador, the family is the single strongest unit—they take care of one another.

In America, we are taught to have an independent spirit: raise the kids, send them away to college and lock the door when they leave! And when the parents get old, just send them away to a nursing home and let someone else take care of them. Very few families in the U.S. take care of their elderly parents—in their own home. In Ecuador, it’s that great respect for the elderly—passed on from generation to generation—that keeps them all living under one roof.

We have many expat friends who are caretaking from a distance and some who have chosen to bring their parents with them. There are no easy answers and no simple solutions. If you’re planning a move to Cuenca, remember that you will have days --  like I had today -- wondering, What must they think?

Until next time…hasta luego!

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Sunday, July 10, 2011

First Impressions – True or False?!?

It’s always fun to get everyone’s first impressions of Cuenca when they come into town. This week there are several blog readers and one special friend from Pennsylvania who will be staying here for a month to write her version of “Eat, Pray, Love.” As all the new folks shared their impressions of Cuenca, I took some mental notes:

“It’s such a clean city. Everywhere I turn, I see someone sweeping, cleaning or mopping up.”

TRUE: This is absolutely true and one of the first things I noticed about Cuenca. Men and women in blue, green and orange jumpsuits are constantly surveying the land for garbage—on the streets and sidewalks. I especially love their brooms, made of branches—very efficient. And if you walk by many of the businesses at night or in the morning, you will see them scrubbing the sidewalks (with soap and water!).

“I didn’t expect it to be so cold here. It reminds me of October in Pennsylvania during Halloween!”

TRUE: This comment made me chuckle! I have to remind folks that if you visit in July, you’re going to be in the dead of winter and it’s cold! My friend from Pennsylvania only brought a sweater, even though I begged her to pack a jacket. This time last year, I remember wearing my cashmere mittens at night. That’s why all the Ecuadorians go to “la playa” during the “summer” months! Maybe Cuenca should be called “perpetual fall.” The only problem with that is the trees never lose their leaves and there’s always something blooming here.

“Why do I have to throw my toilet paper in a receptacle instead of down the toilet?”

TRUE: It’s one of those things that is such a common occurrence; I fail to mention it to folks who are coming for a visit. I think it all depends on where you live in Cuenca. In our building it isn’t necessary, but in some of the older buildings where the plumbing isn’t so great, they request that toilet paper not go in the toilet. My friend, Trisha, is staying at a nearby hostel and there was a sign on the bathroom door and she thought it was very odd until I explained the reasoning.

“The Ecuadorian people seem to be so happy with their lives; they do everything as a family.”

TRUE: It was interesting that in the 2010 Census in Ecuador, there was a question regarding “happiness with family life,” and Ecuadorians listed it as very high—nearly 80 percent. At the hostel where my friend is staying, the family invited her to their daughter’s birthday party which started at 10:00 p.m. and lasted until 3:00 a.m. Trish commented, “I’ve never seen so much love in such a small place!”

“You’re always celebrating something in Cuenca—right?”

TRUE & FALSE: Not every single day, but enough to make you think that every day is a holiday! Cuenca is rich in history and culture, so there’s always an historical anniversary, religious holiday or an important occasion that warrants a few fireworks, street vendors and dancing! Yesterday while my friend and I were at “al centro” we heard music and sure enough in the “Barranco” section of town there was a “Luces y Dulces” (Lights and Sweets) festival going on. There was music, entertainment, dancing and—of course—lots of food! Yes, there were fireworks as well, but we left before they started.

It’s so much fun to hear everyone’s first impressions of Cuenca and get a pulse on what they’re thinking. Oddly enough, I haven’t met one person who didn’t love it here! However, not all comments are positive. My friend, Trisha, wanted to know where the Dollar Store was located. After I peeled her off the sidewalk and explained to her that we didn’t have the Dollar Tree in Cuenca, I took her to SuperMaxi to find some mascara. The sticker shock scared her a “little”: $14.50 for Maybelline (as compared to $3.50 in the States). I tried to explain that everything that’s imported (perfume, makeup, electrical appliances and computers) carries a hefty price tag.

First impressions do count and Cuenca has made quite a “splash” in the minds of many!

Until next time…hasta luego!

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