The Quilatoa Loop

Upon arriving back in mainland Ecuador, we headed South from Quito to a mountainous area known as the Quilatoa loop. A set of small villages form a sort of “loop” you can travel and hike around, with the highlight being Laguna Quilatoa – a volcanic crater lake sitting at over 12,000 feet. We ended up basing ourselves in the village of Chugchilán and did several spectacular day hikes, including a hike from lake back to our hotel. The altitude and occasional wrong turns were challenges, but the experience was well worth the effort.

Before leaving the area, we checked out the weekly market at Saquisilí, one of the largest in the region. The market took over the whole town – something like 7 or 8 plazas and even included livestock (goats, pigs, cattle, llamas, alpacas, chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs, etc.) Quite a sight!

Cruising the Galapagos

Our 5 day cruise in the Galapagos took us around the Southeastern islands. Although we had already seen most of the animal attractions on Isabela (sea lions, penguins, flamingos, land tortoises, marine iguanas, etc.) there were a few new creatures we encountered. Chris and I agreed that the most interesting thing we saw was the courtship dance of the waved albatross. These birds fly over the ocean for months at a time and return to nest only in the Galapagos.

Albatross Courtship Dance from Rachael Gilg on Vimeo.

After the cruise, we returned to Isabela for one more week of snorkeling, exploring the island, and hanging out with the animals. This time we made it up to the top of Sierra Negra, an active volcano with the largest caldera of all the Galapagos volcanoes. We had plenty of time to observe the animals in all sorts of settings – check out the photo of the fish market, where sea lions, pelicans, and iguanas beg for scraps like dogs! I apologize for all the sea lion photos – they are just so cute I can’t help myself.

Puerto Villamil, Isla Isabela, Galapagos

I think we have found our perfect island. After 2 hours of a very rough boat ride, we arrived at the westernmost and largest of the Galapagos islands. Despite its size, Isabela has the smallest population of all the islands – only about 2200 people live in the sleepy town of Puerto Villamil.

We stayed nearly a week on this island, becoming regulars at a great snorkeling site called Concha y Perla. On a daily basis we have been swimming with spotted eagle rays, green sea turtles, marine iguanas, and (on especially good days) sea lions and penguins. It turns out it takes a lot of work to keep a sea lion entertained! Dives, twists, and somersaults can prompt a young sea lion to demonstrate their own acrobatic skills, which naturally are much more advanced than ours!

The Galapagos are all volcanic islands (similar to Hawaii), and Isabela boasts some of the largest volcanos (last eruption in 2005). We took a day trip to an otherworldly landscape of half-submerged lava tunnels with crystal clear water. On the way we spotted huge manta rays swimming alongside the boat, and I saw more sea turtles that day than I have seen in my whole life.

Turtles at Tunneles, Isla Isabela from Rachael Gilg on Vimeo.

Puerto Ayora, Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos

Our 3 month tour of South America (Ecuador, Peru & Bolivia) has begun! After a brief stopover in Quito, we arrived on Santa Cruz, the most populated of the Galapagos islands. I was amazed at how much wildlife we saw even on the first day: sea lions basking in the sun on the town docks, sharks cruising the waters beneath the main pier, blue-footed boobies dive-bombing the harbor while the fishing boats were coming in.

Boobies diving in Puerto Ayora harbor from Rachael Gilg on Vimeo.

On our first full day, we snorkeling tour to a few sites where we had our first encounters with marine iguanas on sharp black lava rocks. They actually get their food from the sea, swimming down in the cold water to find algae to eat, and then spend the rest of the time warming up on the rocks.

We are so glad we decided to do about a week of land-based travel here on the islands in addition to the 5-day cruise we booked in advance. Most tourists go right onto a cruise boat, and don’t have the opportunity to spend much time in the communities here on the islands. It has been a nice surprise that it is relatively inexpensive and very pleasant to stay on land – we are now even considering extending our stay in the Galapagos!

Home

I am home in Austin now, recovering from a bit of jet lag and trying to figure out what is next. I feel I should finish with a “What I Have Learned” post or something. I don’t have any profound revelations to share, but I can say that I definitely want to keep traveling – to see Borneo, Indonesia, India, and more…

I am so grateful that I had this opportunity and for the support I received from friends and family. In addition, I want to thank the following people:

  • The tuk-tuk driver in Cambodia who tracked me down to return my wallet 30 minutes after I had left it in his tuk-tuk, and before I had experienced the terror of knowing it was gone.
  • The teenage son of my guesthouse owners in The Philippines who insisted upon going out and getting me some medicine when my cold was at its worst.
  • The Thai ex-turtle poacher who made me some kind of magic potion that healed my stingray stung foot.
  • The Vietnamese cafe owner who bandaged my dad’s arm after he was hit by a motorbike, and then fed us a delicious meal of steamed fish.
  • All of the crazy bus, tuk-tuk, taxi, jeepney, tricycle, cyclo, and motorbike drivers who somehow delivered me safely to my destinations.
  • Everyone who knew the way or had a plan and let me tag along.
  • Everyone who gave me information, advice, encouragement, invitations, food, rice whiskey, conversation, and smiles along the way.

Tioman Island

It’s hard to believe that I have just left my final destination of this trip and am back in Singapore ready to head home tomorrow. Tioman Island was the perfect end – a beautiful island mostly covered by dense jungle with small, relaxed beach communities and great diving.

Making a good thing even better, Suzanne came down from Singapore to meet me on the island. Together we traveled through the heart of the interior jungle to  Juara beach, the sole settlement on the East coast of the island. The ride required a 4-wheel drive vehicle, and we basically went straight up a mountain and down the other side in 25 terrifying minutes. It was well worth the trip and was one of the most beautiful and peaceful beaches I have visited. The peace and quiet was broken only by a colony of fruit bats that lived in the coconut palm outside our chalet and tended to get really rowdy at around 4am.
While we were there, Suzanne did her first scuba dive and I think she is hooked! I did a few dives as well and saw some large Napoleon fish and colorful Nudibranch.

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Tea Time in the Cameron Highlands

I have been really enjoying the cool mountain air and beautiful scenery of the Cameron Highlands, a hill resort town in central Malaysia. The region is famous for its tea plantations, fresh strawberries, and great hiking trails.

Yesterday, I went on a fascinating tour focused on the plant life of the region. Our guide Kumar took us on a slippery trail through a “mossy forest” where insect-devouring pitcher plants and wild orchids thrive. Many “old-world” plants still survive here, and due to climate change many new species are popping up all the time.

Kumar then took us to a tea plantation where we saw the tea being harvested and the production process of oxidizing, separating, and drying the leaves. I was surprised to learn that all varieties of tea (green, oolong, black, etc.) can be made from the same plant just by using a different process. I have never been much of a tea drinker, but I have really come to appreciate it (especially with lots of milk and sugar and a side of fresh scones!)

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Crossing Malaysia

For the past week I have been inefficiently zig-zagging across Malaysia. I started on the West coast in Melaka and spent a couple of days seeing the sights, which include many historical buildings from the Dutch and Portuguese settlements there. On the advice of Dao, my extremely helpful guesthouse host, I headed over to the East coast to check out some of the beaches. After a day’s travel, I arrived at Cherating, a sleepy beach town with a mostly local crowd of families enjoying a school holiday. The heat was unbearable (I think the Singapore aircon made me a bit soft).

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SInce the masses were headed North to more beaches, I decided to veer back West and spend a couple days in Kuala Lumpur. I think KL (as everyone calls it) is one of my favorite big cities on this trip. Like Singapore, it is a very modern, multicultural city with tons of shopping and great food, but it also has a grittiness that gives it a more interesting texture.

The public transport here is also really good, which makes me very happy. I took the light rail to different areas of town, and wandered through skyscrapers in the business district and sari shops in Little India. I also did the tourist thing and took in the view from the top of the KL Tower (I didn’t take the stairs though).

Last night, I met a lovely young Malaysian couple who offered me a seat next to them after observing me wandering around confused through a bunch of local food stalls. They helped me order some delicious Indian food then paid for my meal when I wasn’t paying attention. Such sweethearts.

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