Goodbye from the Galapagos!

Tuesday, December 02, 2014
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
We left the jungle on Monday morning (Nov. 24) with mixed emotions. As we left Tom, his lovely wife, and the wonderful Ramiro, our hearts were heavy, but at the same time they fluttered with anticipation as we were all ready to leave the rainforest and once again rejoin civilization.

The jungle was apparently sad to see us go because we were caught in a heavy rainforest downpour while waiting for the bus back to Tena and were all drenched by the time we made it onto the overly-crowded vehicle . No more than an hour and a half later we were on the first bus to Otavalo. We caught our second bus 4 hours later without a hitch and before we knew it, we had arrived.

We found our hostel and immediately logged onto wifi, eager to touch base with our loved ones at home after 2 weeks of no contact. After a yummy breakfast of pancakes and seasonal fruit the next morning, we were treated to quite the surprise of someone coming to the hostel to pick up our heavy loads of laundry. Let's just say this was quite the blessing as our clothes WREAKED from two weeks of hard, sweaty, physical labor.

With the vision of clean clothes arriving back to us later that day, we happily headed out to the huge craft market that Otavalo is so well known for. Personally, this was one of the highlights of the entire trip for me. We spent about 4 hours surrounded by vibrant, patterned fabrics, beautifully unique jewelry which boasted intriguing ocean stones, and hand-made souvenirs .

The whole gang practiced our "haggling" skills by respectfully trying to lower the prices a bit, a well known tradition used by most shoppers at craft markets. Arvind and Ryan mastered the "walkaway" which involves first telling the vendor the price you'll pay. After a few firm "no's" from the seller, you simply walk away looking as uninterested as possible. Luckily, if the plan works, and for a few of us it did, you'll hear the vendor call out for you to come back after just a few seconds with the acceptance of your price offer.

After accumulating bag upon bag, we called it quits and decided to save whatever money we had left. That night, the group enjoyed pizza and the 6th Harry Potter movie at a local pizzeria that agreed to play the DVD we had purchased along the way as long as we put on Spanish subtitles for them. The Harry Potter fanatics of the group were in heaven, while the rest of us tried our best to follow the complicated plot line, asking a few too many questions along the way .

The following day, we headed out to Laguna de Cuiquocha for a brief, yet beautiful, hike around the former crater; now a lake so deep that divers have never found a single living organism within it.

Afterwards, we went to a nearby town called Cotacachi, which specializes in leather goods. Ryan, Geoff, Jeremy, and I spent our time weaving in and out of stores trying desperately  to find a leather jacket for Sean (an item he's been waiting to fall in love with since La Paz) but despite our best attempts, there was not a match made.

We then headed to the bus station and took a quick ride back to Otavalo in order to pick up our bags. We said our goodbyes to the hostel owners and went straight back to the bus station, where we promptly caught a bus to Quito. Two and half hours later we were in "gringo land"- a rather white, touristy part of town, where our quaint hostel seemed to sit right in the middle of it all, beckoning for us to come in and make ourselves at home . That night, dinner was at a small burger joint and the food was simply delicious.

We headed out to explore the beautifully-preserved colonial old town of Quito the next morning. As we successfully used the city's electronic trolley system to get there, we clutched our belongings close to our chests or kept them in safe, out of reach zippered pockets having been forewarned that the trolley stop where we were getting off was one of the most notorious pick pocketing sites in Ecuador. (Everyone made it out unscathed.)

We walked around the old town in gloriously sunny weather and checked out Rafael Correa's presidential palace, the breathtaking and painstakingly detailed San Francisco Cathedral, and La Ronda street; dubbed the most romantic part of Quito.

For thanksgiving dinner that night, we decided to be a bit unconventional and ordered Dominos (a very exciting moment when we spotted it on the way to our hostel) and watched The Wolf of Wall Street (another flick Craig had picked up on the way) in the very comfy TV lounge at Hostal el Arupo .

Despite the holiday falling while we were still away from home, we didn't forget to say what we were thankful for this thanksgiving. We all agreed that this wonderful trip, the opportunity to travel, and being with such a great group of people were at the top of our lists.

The next morning we headed out in two different groups for separate flights to Guayaquil (an airport layover on our journey to the Galápagos).  After a short and easy flight, Arvind, Sean, Jeremy, and Alicia joined the rest of the group on our plane and soon after, we were taking off together for our final destination. About an hour later we were in the Galápagos, a part of the trip that I have personally been waiting for since before Colorado!

The first island we would be staying on was San Cristobal, where our tour guide, Gustavo lives. We dropped off our bags at our hostel, had a quick lunch, picked up our snorkeling gear and headed to the boat that would take us out to sea . Before we got there though, we spotted our first group of sea lions lying lazily on benches and concrete along the harbor. I instantly fell in love with these big, whiskery, dog like creatures. Gustavo promised us we would see hundreds more and somehow pulled us all away from the fascinating mammals and into the boat.

Before we snorkeled we went on a brief hike on Lobo Island, a rather desolate looking place with stark white trees and volcanic rock. Right away we spotted a majestic blue footed boobie (they really do have blue feet!) and his baby chick. We also saw punky looking marine iguanas, colorful crabs, and a huge amount of sea lions. These animals are incredibly interesting and fun to watch. They make a number of different sounds ranging from vomiting to zombies in the Walking Dead to some of Arvind's stranger noises made throughout the trip. They waddle as they walk, roll over in the sand, and if you're lucky, you'll stumble upon one who's posing with its neck thrown back in a very dramatic way . It's quite Vogue of them.  

After our hike, we re-boarded the boat, put our snorkeling gear on and jumped into the frigid water. We mostly swam along the line of rocks where we were likely to find more marine life. We saw lots of colorful fish and for a few minutes a pair of swimming sea lions put on a fantastic show, flipping and jumping 2 feet away from us! It's safe to say that our first snorkeling experience left us wanting more underwater adventures!

Our second day on San Cristobal started with a 40 minute boat ride out to Kicker Rock, a well known snorkeling site. I was the first one to jump in and almost immediately got stung by a jelly fish. Unfortunately it ended up being a recurring theme and by the time we were back in the boat, everyone was recounting where they had been stung. Weirdest sting sites goes to Arvind's armpit, Jeremy's 'stache line, and my butt. Right after the first sting occurred, a few of us spotted a good size shark swimming fairly close to us . It was quite surreal! We saw many interesting starfish clinging to the rocks, thousands of fish, sea turtles, sea lions, and a few more sharks lurking in the depths of the ocean.

Back on land, the group headed to the Galápagos interpretation center to learn about the discovery, history, and current state of the islands.

On our third day, we boarded another boat in order to travel to our next destination: Floreana Island. This was hands down the most interesting boat ride I've ever experienced and I'm sure the rest of the group would agree with me. For 2 hours we were traveling at about 35 mph through 10 inch swells. It was quite the dilemma between sitting in the back of the boat where you didn't lose your stomach quite as much but you got soaked from the spray and dripping water from the ceiling, or sitting in the front of the boat where you stayed dry but you felt as though you were on a roller coaster for the entirety of the trip . Needless to say, we were all more than happy when we arrived on Floreana and stood on land once again.

Our first activity was a hike around an area that many giant tortoises live in. Now when I say giant, I meant GIANT!  These things are massive, reaching sizes of 250 kg or higher!  But don't let the size fool you, these are gentle giants who are incredibly curious about us humans. One even chewed on Moira's pant leg for about 3 minutes and found it quite tasty. We learned a lot about these fascinating animals from Gustavo and had great fun getting close and snapping some awesome pictures with them.

After lunch, we walked a short distance to Black Sand Beach where some of us relaxed on shore and others snorkeled for the third time, spotting two sea turtles who came very close to us!  We were sad to leave the beautiful beach, but alas, we had to get back on the boat for an hour and a half ride to where we would be staying for the next two nights, Isabella island . The second boat ride of the day was much more calm and some of us even managed to catch a few zzzz's. Myself and a few others were elated to find upon arriving to our hostel an adorable puppy named Blackie whom I hung out with for quite some time on one of the hammocks. Later that night, the girls went to a fantastic cafe for brownies and ice cream where we coincidentally ran into our English and Scottish friends from Machu Picchu, Parkie and Jack! It was so great to see them, catch up, and hear about what they had been up to since the trek!

Our fourth day of the trip began with a hike around the Sierra Negra Volcano. It was a 4 hour hike through heavy mist but we managed to spot some interesting birds along the way including the Vermillion Flycatcher, which is very rare. Despite the rain, we were still able to see some amazing views of the volcano. Along the way, we found a little black puppy that Alicia and I named Lemon Drop because she was so sweet, but it was very sour to eventually have to say goodbye to her . After the hike, we visited the tortoise breeding center where we saw a huge variety of different sized tortoises.

Later on, we went on an afternoon tour where we saw penguins, many more marine iguanas, and we went on our fourth snorkeling excursion spotting huge sting rays, a sea lion, and some turtles. 

The Galapagos Islands are truly some of the most spectacular and magical places in the world.

Spending these last few days with our fantastic group in a setting as beautiful as the Galapagos, while getting the chance to interact with its' fascinating creatures, has been an absolutely incredible experience and I couldn't have imagined ending the trip any other way. 

Now comes the hard part of the final blog: somehow reflecting on these past 3 months in just a few sentences. Here goes:
When I graduated college this last May, I never in a million years would have thought that come September I would be embarking on a three month journey across South America . In fact, in June, I had reluctantly accepted a job at an overly air conditioned Nordstrom selling ridiculously expensive Women's shoes and trying to suppress my hatred for retail.  Two weeks in, I had a serious conversation with myself about what I was doing with my life, and what I wanted to be doing with my life, and they did not match up. Long story short, I ended up in Colorado on September 12th with eight 18 year olds and it was one of the best decisions I've ever made.

We've been on 10 flights, ridden on 17 buses, and stayed in 19 different hostels. We've spent the past 82 days side by side and we all know each other inside out, and upside down. We really have become a family. From Spanish lessons in Cochabamba our first week away from home, conquering the blazing Amazonian Pampas, valiantly completing the 50 mile trek and 1,070 stairs up to Machu Picchu, rafting down class 4 rapids in Banos, making it out of the rainforest alive despite the tarantulas, poisonous frogs, and millions of mosquitoes, to snorkeling in the Galápagos with some of the most amazing creatures on earth, and so much more, we really have done it all .

This has been the experience of a lifetime and I truly couldn't have asked for a better group of people to do it with. Thank you guys for everything!


PS - Because I wanted everyone's thoughts to be a part of the last blog, I asked the group what is the most important thing that you are taking away from this trip.  Here are their responses.......................

"No matter what my expectations I had before this trip, they've been surpassed. The things I've learned, people I've met, and places I've been, are things I'll never forget."
‒ Arvind Dixon                                                                                                                              

 "I feel like I have grown more in the past 3 months than I have in the past 3 years . I have tried so many new things, had new experiences, eaten new foods, learned a new language, discovered new cultures, and most importantly, made new friends. The people in this group have really become family to me, and I love them so much. Overall, this trip has definitely been a life changing experience and I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world."
‒Moira Shepard

 "Family matters" -Geoff Merz

"If I hadn't taken this chance of a gap year, I would have never had this amazing opportunity with an amazing group of people. These past 3 months were incredible and I wouldn't trade it for any other program. I love you guys like family!"
-Emma Hyatt

"I can find the positivity/humor in every situation."
-Ryan Silverman 

"The opportunity to share knowledge and great experiences with some fantastic individuals. Thanks everyone!"
-Alicia McDermott 

The self confidence that I am bringing home from Ecuador will help me succeed not only in my treks and travels, but in all of my future endeavors.
-Jeremy Levenson

"Wisdom and competence in self-sufficiency."
-S.W. Morgenthaler, 2014

"The trip has been unforgettable and the group has too, I have found 9 amazing friends."
-Craig Mathias