Wild, Wacky Utila

I surprised myself when I lobbied for our first Honduran long weekend in September to be to the Caribbean Bay Island of Utila, one of Honduras’s 3 Bay Island. Roatan is the island of resorts and cruise ships, Guanaja is the “unspoiled” one and Utila fits somewhere in between, a haven of backpackers, cheap accommodations, shot challenges and, as we learned, a strange population of Baby Boomer American and Canadian expats who came and never left. Like most islands, it has a laid back, friendly vibe with just enough weird thrown in. Despite my island PTSD after living on the Galapagos, two friends we met there now own a hotel on Utila and invited us to come for a visit. The school also provides bus travel for a few trips for the expat teachers and the seasoned teachers all voted for Utila for the first trip. When I heard that the bus trip was 3-1/2 hours, followed by an hour boat ride, I booked our flights! Another couple from school decided to skip the bus ride so we enjoyed some cocktails in the airport lounge with Kathy and Kendall before boarding.

The plane had a strong fuel smell throughout the flight, which we learned was normal. The copilot was nice enough to crack open his window to try to get some air into the plane. The discomfort was worth it because 1/2 hour later, we landed in Utila, met up with Enno and Jerome and headed off in a tuk tuk to their hotel, Manurii. After some relaxing and catching up, we set off into town for dinner at Funky Chicken.

Funky Chicken is the perfect example of island weird. Its proprietor, Stuart, is a Canadian Boomer who brought excellent Thai cooking to Utila. The menu is based on what Stuart has available and feels like cooking that day. Enno and Jerome’s friend Kristin joined us so we ordered the entire menu to share – two appetizers, one papaya salad and two entrees. The food was delicious and the best meal we had in Utila. Stuart was a combination of friendly and unfriendly – he didn’t bother to greet us when we entered the tiny, 4-table restaurant until he finished his conversation and beer with another table, but then was welcoming and attentive. During the weekend, Stuart popped up all over town – at a bar after dinner on Saturday night, at another bar where we watched the Packers game on Sunday afternoon and later that night at a beach bar at the tip of the island. When Kathy and Kendall joined us at the beach bar and mentioned they had stopped by Funky Chicken to eat but it was closed despite the posted hours, I pointed to Stuart on the bar stool and said, “that’s because he is the owner!” When we told him he had customers wondering when he was opening, he laughed from his perch, raised his glass and said he wasn’t opening that night because he was getting drunk. A Facebook post from a few days ago indicates that Stuart has closed Funky Chicken and now is selling jewelry. A Canadian owner/chef of a Thai restaurant turned jeweler – no one bats an eye. Island weird.

Funky Chicken

Utila has one main drag, which was crowded with tuk-tuks, golf carts and pedestrians. Rarely could you get a glimpse of the ocean from the main drag as the storefronts, bars and hostels packed the shoreline. We spent the next two days relaxing and touring the island with our friends, one day via golf cart. The beaches were pretty and we enjoyed some nice snorkeling and a few beach bars. But as all of the teacher chatter revolved around the “shot challenges” the bars have, I was determined to do one, probably because I never went on Spring Break in college! I gleaned that Casa Dr. John, yet another expat Boomer with a big personality, was one of THE shot challenges, not to be missed. Enno and Jerome had not experienced Dr. John, so we went with them, two of their friends and Kathy and Kendall to visit the good doctor. This man is a marketing genius. He is (or was, the story, like most on Utila, is vague) a medical doctor from the US who came to Utila years ago and decided to stay and work as the first doctor on the island. At some point he ceased practicing traditional medicine (again, it’s fuzzy whether this was a choice and he may or may not still provide homeopathic remedies), but he fashioned himself into an island icon.

We arrived at the Pink Palace aka Casa Dr. John and found the good doctor chillin’ on the porch. He invited us to take a seat in the sweltering heat and we proceeded to visit for about a 1/2 hour. The conversation meandered and Enno and Jerome were able to talk some business and island talk. It quickly became clear that Dr. John was no fool and while interesting, we were more interested in getting on with things rather than swatting mosquitos and shooting the breeze (of which there was none). Eventually he invited us into the house. What a sight – every inch of the pepto-bismol pink walls had graffiti and more than one Dr. John icon was displayed (most complete with phallus). Kendall is an artist and had created a fantastic caricature of Dr. John that had him tickled pink. Dr. John carefully explained his shot challenge – we would each do 4 shots, in time to AC/DC’s T.N.T. (a short, dry rehearsal was required), and a videographer was needed so we could post the clip on his Facebook page. As I said, this man is no fool. None of us were really interested in 4 shots and he assured us that the concoction was weak (it was) and that he would only put as much (or nothing) in our cups (he did). Shot challenge completed, we then sang the required “We are the Champions,” bought our Dr. John attire and were released because another group was waiting for their audience.

Another must-see in Utila is Treetanic “the bar above the Jade Seahorse Hotel” that was created by an American artist. It was impossible to find a good description of the place or to understand what it was and even Enno and Jerome had a hard time explaining it. Matt and I are always up for anything art-related so we walked over to check it out. The site is a Guadí inspired, through-the-looking-glass, hallucinogenic trip. We arrived at the entry and saw a sign that indicated a small fee, but no way to pay it. So we started looking around the mind-bending wonderland and continued up the stairs.

Suddenly, a man popped up from behind a small wall. “You need to pay me,” he said in English. We readily agreed, despite both thinking he may just be a squatter, and handed over the equivalent of a couple of bucks. His eyes narrowed as he checked us out, “You’re from Colorado, aren’t you?” “Nope, Wisconsin,” we replied. He didn’t let it go. “Huh, you look like you are from Colorado.” “I’ll take that as a compliment because you think we look sporty,” I joked. “Nooooo,” he replied, in a way that made it clear he didn’t think much of Coloradans and wasn’t so sure about us. We turned to explore the crazy wonderland, but he was having none of that and began a meandering monologue. Being Wisconsin nice (despite his skepticism as to our origins), we politely listened and I tried to glean his story. He wasn’t too forthcoming, but we learned that Neil was from L.A. and was a former art teacher with rental property in L.A. that allows him to keep this property and practice his art. The entire time we spoke, he was surrounded by enormous spiders in their webs, which was fascinating and unnerving. At one point he politely noted that we were standing in the blazing sun and we both thought that he was finally going to let us wander, but he merely suggested we move into the shade and kept talking. Our release came when some other tourists (not Coloradans) arrived and Neil scurried to take their fee.

The site used to be a hotel and its meandering paths and bridges led to fairy-tale cabins, each with an art-related name and unique design. Above the cabins was a bar area that is still occasionally used when someone rents out the space. Everything is made with natural or repurposed materials and there are countless mosaics, nooks and crannies to explore along with gorgeous gardens. It was fascinating and we were awed by the creativity behind it.

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The next day, we got up early to fly back to San Pedro Sula. While islands still are not my top destination choice, my guess is we will be back to experience the weird and beautiful Utila again!

Sun, Sea and Palm Trees!

If you want to stay at Enno and Jerome’s amazing, remodeled hotel, contact them via their web page: https://www.manurii.com/

Cruising the Galapagos

Kicker Rock

Kicker Rock

Last week Matt and I were lucky to be on board the Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic Endeavour for a week-long cruise around the eastern Galapagos Islands. We found out late Thursday that we were approved for the trip and set off early Saturday morning to San Cristobal to meet up with the ship. The 2 1/2 boat ride was rough and despite dramamine and my handy pressure point wristbands,  I learned a new meaning for walk of shame – walking off the boat with a puke bag in hand. Thankfully, I had prescription scopolamine patches left behind by some friends and slapped one on as soon as we got on board. We were ready to cruise!

We had only been on one cruise before – Alaska’s inside passage on a ginormous ship – and to say it was not my favorite vacation is an understatement. In addition to getting seasick, I did not enjoy the canned feeling of a sedentary voyage that catered to middle America tastes. What a difference this experience was! The fact that it was not a cruise but an “expedition” set the tone. Our schedule was packed with hikes, snorkeling trips, kayak outings and the like and led by naturalists who had a passion for the wildlife and setting. The passengers were primarily adventurous, active folks who were eager to learn about the Galapagos and see as much as possible. That said, we still had ample meals and time to relax. Sunset at the equator is 6 pm, so we were always back on board relatively early, particularly given that the ship doesn’t dock anywhere but instead uses zodiacs (hard bottomed rubber boats) to transport us between the ship and shore (or kayak or snorkeling spot). Getting between the ship and the zodiac is not always an easy feat in choppy waters. On the pier in San Cristobal some of our fellow passengers quickly set up a pool – $20 per person with the pot going to the first person unintentionally to go overboard during the transfer. Never one to pass up a gambling opportunity, we were in. Surprisingly, while there were some close calls, no one went overboard.

The magic of the Galapagos is its wildlife. While neither Matt nor I are birders, the birds proved to be fascinating on this trip. The first treat was seeing the waved albatross engaged in their mating dance on Española Island. This is not the normal mating season, and we saw some unusual animal activity on the trip, which our guides attributed to El Niño.

Albatross mate for life and each season lay one egg on open ground. Both partners incubate the egg and caring for it includes rolling it around. We didn’t see that spectacle, though I was hoping.

Hmmm

Hmmm

Next up were the Nazca Boobies. These are the largest of the 3 booby species found on the islands. The juveniles spend considerable time practicing to fly before they learn. They also are heavier than the adults (typical teens) and have to slim down before they can get airborn.

It is a bit hard to tell mating behavior versus fighting, but these two were having a turf war, much to the interest of their neighbors.

Not to be outdone, the Red Footed Boobies are pretty spectacular and should be called the Multicolored Beak – Red Footed Boobies.

Of course, the ubiquitous Blue Footed Boobies were also spotted.

We didn’t just bird watch. Matt’s favorite part of any trip is the snorkeling and we went on all 6 of the snorkeling excursions offered.

Unfortunately, on our second outing we got water in the camera. After trying to dry it out for a day we plugged it in to charge the battery and returned to our cabin a couple of hours later to find the cord melted into the camera. We were relieved we didn’t burn down the ship. We especially wished we had the camera for our snorkeling outing to Bartolomé. Often cited as the best of the islands, it did not disappoint. We saw just about every type of fish, coral, and sea creature (with the exception of sea turtles, penguins or sharks) that we have ever seen in the Galapagos and the structure around which we swam was fantastic. In the picture below, we snorkeled from the beach on the right to the end of the point with the peak.

Bartolomé Vista

Bartolomé Vista

We had a human-focused excursion to Post Office Bay on the island of Floreana where we continued a mail swapping tradition that dates back at least to 1793. The guides open the mail barrel and read out the addresses on the postcards inside. If one is close to your home, you take the postcard and deliver it in person. We took a few from the Milwaukee area although the recipients will have to wait until next year for their special delivery.

Back on the zodiac, a naturalist spotted some penguins so we zipped over to take a closer look.

Other adventures included searching for elusive land iguanas on Cerro Dragon on Santa Cruz (our home island – Matt actually went to school to give the tour for the passengers and I went home and did a load of laundry the first day we were there).

We saw the cruel side of nature: the kleptoparasitic frigatebirds that steal food from other birds by attacking them and shaking them by the tail and starving sea lion babies whose mothers likely were eaten by sharks.

 

 

Cruel Side of Nature

Heartbreak

We learned to look past natural camouflage.

And to enjoy the flamboyant.

Flamingo Bay

Flamingo Bay

There was something great to see every time we looked.

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A trip to remember and a new appreciation for cruises!

Weekend Escape to Isabela Island

Two Tuesdays ago Matt called me with exciting news: he was going to be off school the following Monday, providing his first day off since we arrived here. Originally, his school was required to march in a parade on August 10, in commemoration of Quito Independence Day, but on Tuesday the local government cancelled the parade due to road construction. Subsequently, on Thursday, there was some confusion when the parade was reinstated, but on Friday schools were again deemed exempt. A good thing as we had already paid for our non-refundable hotel on Isabela Island.

Apart from our day trips, this was our first opportunity to explore a new island. From Santa Cruz, the two best options for a weekend getaway are San Cristobal or Isabela. We chose Isabela because the túneles (tunnels) snorkeling trip is supposed to be one of the best of the islands and I miss hiking after living in Cajamarca and Isabela has a volcano hiking trip I wanted to do. Both islands are a 2 -2 1/2 hour ferry ride away. “Ferry” is a term used loosely here:

Destiny ferry

Destiny ferry

Yep, that was the boat we and 20 other people were going to crash through waves in during a 2 hour ride just at the time that the weather cooled off a bit and the seas got a little rougher. Lucky us. I prepared with my usual dramamine, acupressure sea bands and soothing music and decided an empty stomach was the way to go. We got to the pier about 6:20 am on Saturday, went through the inspection line to ensure we were not bringing anything organically harmful to another island and caught a water taxi (a blatant, 50¢ shake down, increased to $1 on Isabela) to our ferry and settled in for the ride.

Departure Gate

Departure Gate

And what a ride it was. Tellingly, they hand out barf bags when you embark. Happily, neither Matt nor I used them, and I decided that pounding through waves is actually easier (not easy, mind you) on my stomach than swaying in the waves, but the ride was bone jarring. Not as bone jarring as what was about to come a few days later on our snorkeling trip, but rough on the back. We had a few pukers on board and I realized that an added incentive to not puking was that after you did so, you got to hold your bag of vomit for the rest of the trip.

As we pulled into Isabela we were treated to penguins zooming alongside the boat. That cheered up everyone after the trying ride.

We dropped off our bags at our hotel, the Red Mangrove Isabela Lodge, and walked into town for some breakfast and to shop for tours. The town is loaded with travel agencies all selling the same 3 or 4 tours. We compared prices at 3 of them and then lined up the volcano hike ($35 per person) for Sunday and the Túneles ($85 per person) for Monday morning before our departure back to Isabela. I had read that to dine at the nicer hotels for dinner you need to make a reservation and order your food in advance, so we headed over to the lovely Iguana Crossing hotel to make a dinner reservation. And guess what: we did, indeed, see 4 iguanas crossing the road right at the edge of the hotel property.

We enjoyed the rest of the day hanging out on the hotel patio and snorkeling at the fabulous Concha de Perla. Located near the pier, you head down a wooden walkway through the mangroves to reach the calm bay. On our walk there, 2 young sea lions were napping on the walkway. What a conundrum! In the Galapagos people are required to stay 6 feet away from the animals. We decided the 6 feet rule had exceptions and gingerly walked over the sea lions. Concha de Perla was crowded but well worth the visit. The water was serene and clear and one can easily swim alongside the reef and admire the coral, anemones and striking red-studded starfish.

It was a good thing we relaxed because we were up early for our 7:15 pick up for our Sierra Negra volcano hike. Confusion ensued when a cabbie picked us up, took us to pick up our box lunch only to realize a few blocks later that we weren’t his passengers. We had even showed him our tickets to confirm we were his passengers. He drove us back to the hotel where eventually another cabbie picked us up and took us to get a different box lunch before driving us up to the highlands of the island. Matt and I agreed that the first box lunch looked better than the second.

While we were told that the tour was 16 km, or 10 miles, no one really pointed out that 10 miles up a volcano is a relatively challenging hike. We were fine because we are accustomed to walking, had proper footwear and after hiking at high altitude in Cajamarca, a hike at 3,000 feet isn’t difficult, but others in our group struggled. The first part was through a lush, verdant area. The mist was heavy and the path, muddy.

We got to the rim of the Sierra Negra crater, the second largest in the world, and couldn’t see a thing. The entire crater was covered in fog. We continued hiking along the rim and then left the verdant area and passed through an in-between scrubby area before eventually arriving in a arid area covered by volcanic rock.

Except under this gorgeous tree – it was wet and misty there.

Rainy Respite

Rainy Respite

We hit the volcano field. I had no idea that volcanic rock could be so interesting. Seriously. The colors and patterns were just incredible. Because Sierra Negra is an active volcano, there were many furnaces, which were warm to the touch. We crossed several areas of lava from different eruptions and eventually reached a lookout point where we could see the Isabela coast and Fernandina island.

Well, we could see it momentarily before the fog blew in. We ate lunch at the peak and then began the return to the trailhead via the same path.

Fog Blowing In

Fog Blowing In

Matt, a Portuguese woman, Maria, and I hightailed it in front of the rest of the group. Our guide told us to keep glancing at the crater as we walked alongside it in case the fog lifted, but it never did. Matt and I were feeling pretty proud of our fast pace until we realized that we were in hiking boots and Maria, who was probably a few years older than us, was keeping up with us in Tevas. In any event, the 3 of us beat the rest of the group back to the beginning and were thankful that there was a cab waiting to take us back to town. We were soaked, muddy and ready to relax for the rest of the afternoon and evening.

The next morning was another early start with the same cabbie confusion. Eventually, the right guy came to get us. Our boat was the Capricorn and we went to the boat’s offices to get our wetsuits and snorkeling gear (Matt and I bring our own snorkel and masks but use the fins the tour companies provide. Wetsuits are on the list for our April visit to the US.). There were 8 other passengers: our new Portuguese friend Maria (who also ended up on the same ferry later in the day), an Italian woman with a French guy, an Ecuadorian family with 2 young children and a high-school aged Colombian boy. We got to the Capricorn and set off. Oh. My. God. Crashing through the waves doesn’t even begin to describe the experience. We were slamming through the waves and there were times the boat was airborne. I was happy that our captain was a cheerful fellow because I figured he didn’t have a death wish. At one point, an enormous  wave was coming toward the side of the boat. I think it was big enough to break over us because suddenly our captain turned on a dime and gunned the engine to mount the wave after which we zoomed down the other side. The ocean was our roller coaster.

After 45 minutes of this excitement (and one puker, not us), we approached another boat bobbing in the waves. We stopped and held too. The captains were waiting for the seas to calm enough to continue the journey to the tunnels. They never did and eventually we gave up and went to what was intended to be the second snorkeling stop of the trip, with the assurance that we would try to go the tunnels later.

Once in the water it became apparent that only 3 of us knew how to swim. The other 7 passengers ended up clutching their life vests, which were the huge, old-fashioned kind that would certainly keep you afloat but that you couldn’t swim in, or the round life saver. Our head guide had to tow several of the 7 in a line. The younger guide would swim around scouting for stuff to see and then the head guy would tow the crowd over. Because you are supposed to stick with your group, the non-swimmers made the trip a bit less fun for us. We were missing wildlife! I finally starting swimming along with the scout guide who would point out things along the way. In fact, I was the first passenger initially in the water and he immediately took me to see a huge sea turtle. He had me swim down to it and took a picture but unfortunately didn’t send us that one. All the same, it was an incredible trip because our guides made sure we saw tons of sea creatures.

It was the first time we saw seahorses. They were tricky to see as they are not always in their curled shape so sometimes they just look like a bumpy stick.

After a long time in the water, we boarded the boat. The captain assessed the situation and determined that it wasn’t safe to go to the tunnels, so we headed back to Isabela. It worked out fine because we had 3 hours on shore before we had to board the ferry. The ferry ride was even rougher on the way home than on the way to Isabela, but, once again, we were not the pukers on board. They pulled a bait and switch on us and we ended up crammed in a different boat that I did not think was as nice as the Destiny. But we made it home. Isabela was a great trip and is on our list to visit again despite the ferry ride.

Under the Sea: Snorkeling Trip to Pinzón

A month ago, before our friend Jo returned to England, we went on a snorkeling day trip to Pinzón. While I enjoyed our bird watching trip to North Seymour island, Matt prefers snorkeling to bird watching and this trip was right up his alley because you cannot touch foot on Pinzón without a special permit. Instead this trip entailed 3 snorkeling stops around Pinzón and a visit to a beach on Santa Cruz. First step was taking a water taxi from the Puerto Ayora dock to the boat, the Contagious, which was no-frills compared to the boat from our prior trip. I was glad that I had popped dramamine before we set off as the seas were bumpy.

After about an hour and a half crashing through the waves, we arrived at our first snorkeling destination, a calm bay. Three penguins flopped into the water as we were disembarking but we never saw them afterwards. We jumped off the boat and started swimming. It was like we were in a fish tank. The water was crystal clear and everywhere we looked there were fish and more fish. While many fish were the same types we see at the beach near our house, they were much bigger in the deeper water.

Our guide (whose name escapes me) was a great guy who made sure we saw a lot. He swam with us and pointed out tons of things I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. He also stirred things up at times…

Next stop was in a deeper area with a stronger current. The fun continued.

I hate snakes. Eels are simply snakes of the water.

The show-off sea lion was more entertaining.

Then Jo called me over. I thought it was to see a sea turtle, which I had yet to see. I was wrong.

Eeks!

Eeks! White Tipped Reef Shark

Despite my fear, I followed this guy for awhile. Then I decided not to press my luck and went back to viewing tamer animals.

At this stop, Matt and I also had a baby sea lion playfully swim back and forth between us. Happily, we did not see it get eaten by a shark.

Frolicking Sea Lion

Frolicking Sea Lion

Our third snorkeling stop was equally spectacular. As I still hadn’t seen any sea turtles, our guide came and got me when he spotted some. He linked his arm through mine and we swam off after them. Fantastic.

Sea Turtle

Sea Turtle

Then it was shark time once again. Our guide woke up the sharks for our viewing enjoyment. Who the heck wakes up sharks?!

Strangely, being in a group and with a guide made me feel safer. Maybe someone else would look tastier than I? Still, I could only watch them for so long. As we continued swimming there was suddenly this big shadow below me in the water. I instinctively glanced over my shoulder to see what large thing was above me just as a realized that I was seeing a HUGE manta ray beneath me. Matt said he reacted the same way.  We agreed that its wings were 12-15 feet wide. It appeared to float away. Unbelievable.

On the way back to Santa Cruz, we swung by Daphne to check out the animals on shore. Highlights were the masked booby and fur sea lion.

A fantastic trip and one I recommend to any snorkeler. Thank you Jo Browne for the awesome photos! An underwater camera is on the shopping list for our trip to the US next year…