A Travellerspoint blog

Puerto Rico: Vieques:Black Sand and White Tony--FOODIE ALERT

March 27, 2012

sunny 85 °F

With limited public transportation on the island we decided to rent a car, it was $65/day which I think is the least expensive you can find on the island. We ate lunch at a local spot and shared some meats and rice and beans (habichuela) (which are staples in Puerto Rican cuisine). Ruby’s favorite was the home made hot sauce made of the restaurant owner’s special concoction of spices and oils-- YUM!


We drove around the island of Vieques following the local recommendations from Maria and Joe regarding the best beaches. Our favorite was the deserted black sand beach we had all to ourselves for the afternoon. . except for the wild horses that run wild on the island and may just come walking onto the beach! This beach required a bit of a trek along a creek bed but was well worth it. It’s also hidden and not on most maps or signs. . . so you’ll have to ask a local how to get there. Blue Beach further to the east was also pretty amazing with clear, warm water and soft white sand. Be sure to bring your sunscreen because the sun is REALLY powerful down in the Caribbean.


Ruby absolutely had to go the W in Vieques after her obsession with the TV show the Bachelor. So that night we sat around a fire pit and watched the sunset at the W Hotel while sipping complimentary sangria sun-downers. Who says nothing in life is free? We had a lovely romantic dinner at Next Course which our friend Claudia had recommended. We splurged and had not only the lamb but also the lobster! Another day in paradise on Vieques. . .


Posted by Tony.Ruby 08:11 Archived in Puerto Rico Comments (0)

Puerto Rico: Vieques: Bioluminescent Magic

March 26, 2012

sunny 82 °F

That morning we woke and chilled at our beach resort watching the iguanas run around scaring tourists. We left just in time to head to catch a ferry from Fajardo. The ferry to Vieques takes about 45 min-1.5 hrs and only costs $2 and you want to get there about 2 hours early to ensure that you can buy your same day ticket. You also have to go through a little bit of an “interview” process in order to buy your ticket which we thought was odd—but we passed through and got our tickets so I guess it was okay. We learned that tourists are not allowed to take their rental cars to the other islands so you may want to take that into consideration when booking a rental car in Puerto Rico. We left our rental car parked on the street a few blocks from the dock instead of paying the $5 a day to park in a lot. . . and crossed our fingers. BTW, there’s a separate ferry that takes you to Culebra. . which is what we’ll want to check out next time! Short flights are also available but, you know us . . . if it’s $2 vs. $50 there’s no contest =)


The ferry drops off in a part of the island called Isabel II (Yes the 2nd) and we took a long walk (15min) with our roller bags to the Tropical Guest House. Maria, one of the owners said it was a short walk and it looked pretty close on the map, but Puerto Rico must be on the Argentina not to scale map system! We checked in, and at $70/night, it’s one of the more affordable places to stay on Vieques. The room was clean and nice but the highlight for us were the two owners, Maria and Joe, who are originally from New York. They were too sweet and welcomed us to their guesthouse with their specialty cocktail and offered all kind of useful information for our time on the island.


Claudia, one of the other guests at the hotel also happened to be from Brooklyn was super sweet and gave us all kinds of tips on where to go in Vieques. We all shared an evening rooftop cocktail with Maria and Joe, complete with Claudia and Tara tending bar! We were on a time crunch and Maria and Joe shared their delicious homemade seafood paella with us. Before we knew it, we had hitched a ride to the town of Esperanza on the south side with Claudia and the gang. They had suggested we go to the Bioluminescent Bay ASAP while the moon was still small. Be sure to check out a moon chart. A bright full moon takes away from the bioluminescence. At 8pm for $25/pp Tony and I hopped into a van with a couple of hippies and went off-roading into the woods to a clearing leading to the Bioluminescent Bay.


It’s really hard to describe other than to say that it was magical. We kayaked in the dark around Mosquito bay which is protected from the Caribbean Sea where dinoflagellate organisms have a chance to multiply. These organisms glow when you touch them so every move we made allowed the water to glow either a bright green and even blue at times! You could see schools of fish flash by in the dark water as they swam by underwater and when we pulled our hands and feet out of the water you could see water dripping off with tiny glow in the dark dots. Insane!! Tony couldn’t resist and “accidently” fell off the kayak and swam around for a few making Bio-Angels in the water. It’s sort of like floating through a glow in the dark picture. Definitely one of the highlights of this trip and a do-not miss destination. Apparently, the bioluminescent bay in Vieques is one of the best in the world. . there are 2 others in Puerto Rico but this one is supposed to have the densest concentration of glowing algae. By the way, the organisms are too tiny to see with the naked eye and unfortunately, we didn’t have the proper camera to catch the bioluminescence on film for you guys but I found a few pictures from other people who have done it. There was no way we were going to top that so we headed back to the hotel and fell right to sleep.


Posted by Tony.Ruby 10:44 Archived in Puerto Rico Comments (0)

Puerto Rico: El Yunque: Lookout Tower of Water

March 25, 2012

rain 70 °F

As most of you know we are not much for wasting all our vacation money staying at fancy hotels, but we couldn’t resist staying at the Gran Melia just one more night. The bed was really comfortable and the location was great for our day trip up into the El Yunque National Forest. We had only booked the hotel for one night and the front desk said the going rate was $275/night . . . so we walked over to the other side of the lobby, took out our laptop and booked the same room for 60% off using Priceline’s Name Your Own Price! You know how we operate ;-) That afternoon we drove down to the Luquillo Kiosks again for some lunch. We sat on the beach as we tried some of the local fried treats but actually didn’t find them to be that yummy so we had some chicken wings, fries and of course an authentic Pina Colada (which actually was invented in Puerto Rico) before heading to El Yunque.

It was a short drive to the visitor’s center and after paying our $4 pp admission fee we were ready to admire some gorgeous orchids hanging off the walls. The rest of the day was spent sloshing through flashflood conditions throughout the forest. We saw La Coca Falls and walked along paths full of so many types of vegetation that we lost count. We got a short respite from the rain at the top of the Yokahu Tower where you can see the tops of the trees and see the beach and city of Luquillo in the distance. We were a little disappointed in the wildlife---they were all hiding because of the rain. . so the only wildlife shots we have are of a damselfly and a snail!


While we still had a little sunshine we decided to brave a trail at the very end of the road leading to the Mt. Britton Tower. This was our favorite trail because there was hardly anyone up there and the birds had started to sing in the trees. We could hear them but they were too difficult to spot. The Mt. Britton Tower looked like an old fashioned castle out of the Middle Ages and we had a lot of fun hanging out in the clouds waiting for them to move so that we could see the view from the tower.


We left El Yunque around six just as the gates were being closed and headed back to the Luquillo Kiosks for dinner. We tried “La Parilla” for some local food but weren’t impressed with the appetizer we ordered. Of course, we ended up back at Tapas 13 watching the rain pour down outside as we enjoyed our sangria with “gambas al ajillo” and bacon wrapped dates topped with blue cheese and a balsamic sauce :) YUM. It was a perfect day.


Posted by Tony.Ruby 11:35 Archived in Puerto Rico Comments (0)

Puerto Rico: Isn't life Gran?

March 24, 2012

all seasons in one day 82 °F

Leaving JFK at midnight of Friday might not have been the smartest idea. . especially when we arrived into San Juan at the ungodly hour of 4am! We arranged a rental car with National and had a reservation for a nice resort on the northeast side of the island but check in would not be for 10 hours or so. We decided to start our way across the north side of the island and maybe find a good spot to nap in the car for a few hours? After a few trips around a roundabout we realize driving in Puerto Rico may be just a little more challenging then we planned but quickly realized it was just the sleep deprivation at work, (Puerto Rico is actually really easy to navigate).

We ended up driving straight to our resort, the Gran Melia. We were counting our lucky stars that they were amazing and let us check in at 5am instead of the usual 3 pm check in time. We went right to bed and woke up to a sunny beautiful day of hanging out at the resort drinking and relaxing at the beach. On our walk back to our room we saw one of the many blackbirds flying around stop and do a mating dance to attract a female blackbird. . very cool, he was flapping his wings and hopping around. Glad we were there to see it!


That night we opted to head to the Luquillo Kiosks for dinner when it started to rain, rain and rain some more. Which as most of you know by now is not uncommon for u s. . . “we bring the rain”! It was only a 10 minute drive away and we sampled some local food and had a tower of chicken stuffed with shrimp and bacon and then went to another kiosk called Tapas 13. There we had some sangria and the spiciest shrimp ever called “camarones del Diablo”. We have never seen so much red chilli in our lives . . . needless to say Tony ate a whole lot of bread to cool his tongue down! Afterwards we were pretty exhausted so we headed to bed.


Posted by Tony.Ruby 11:07 Archived in Puerto Rico Comments (0)

Costa Rica: Arenal/San Jose:Goodbye to a View of the Volcano

February 4-5, 2012

all seasons in one day 78 °F

This was the first morning that we could actually see the Arenal volcano clearly since we had arrived. We took this opportunity to take some shots quickly before it got covered in clouds again. We had a delicious lunch and got into our shuttle 3 hour ride to San Jose. It was raining a lot but the drive was still beautiful with winding roads all the way. The driver stopped so we could get some other shots of the volcano from a distance. We enjoyed chatting it up with the fellow passengers. David Mekles, was really interesting, he’s a guy from LA who now lives in the Dominican Republic and runs a banana farm called Banamek with his brother. I’m looking forward to visiting that farm someday with Tony. Another couple in the van gave us some local recommendations for our next trip to Costa Rica: The Parador Hotel in Manuel Antonio, and Tikisia restaurant just outside of San Jose which is supposed to have a gorgeous view and local dancers on weekends.


Christel was super excited to see some gorgeous green and red parakeets (I think) when we stopped to drop off some of the passengers. They were so cute and we even caught a picture of two of the birds laughing together and then “kissing” :) When we finally arrived in San Jose, we were happy to be staying at the Hotel Presidente—it was perfectly central to everything, super safe and nice. I indulged in an hour long massage in preparation for our “return to reality” tomorrow. That night we had a nice meal at a place nearby and checked out a casino nearby. We were pretty beat so we called it an early night. . .


Sunday morning we got up early and headed to the airport after breakfast. . . so sad to go. Really loved Costa Rica. This place is amazing, the people, the food, the wildlife and nature. Next time I plan on bringing Tony and going more off the beaten path. . perhaps Corcovado National Park and some of the East side of the island. . . and hope to take my Tico friends up an offer to learn to surf next time!


Posted by Tony.Ruby 13:19 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (0)

Costa Rica: Cano Negro: Howler Monkeys & Camouflaged Caiman

February 3, 2012

sunny 83 °F

In the morning we booked a daytrip to the Cano Negro Reserve in the north; this area is under 20km from the Nicaraguan border. Along the 2 hour drive north we passed tons of pineapple farms and greenery. We love the little fences they make using local twigs. We made a quick stop on the way for drinks and an “iguana tree”. Cano Negro was terrific; it’s sort of the Amazon meets the Everglades. We got loaded on a river boat and went up and down the river for 3 or 4 hours. We saw tons of wildlife, including lots of camouflaging Caimans (my fave was the one that had a butterfly land on its nose), shore birds including Egrets, the Amazon Kingfisher, spoon-billed Heron, iguanas, turtles, long nose bats (sleeping on a log in the daytime), fresh water turtles , Jesus Christ Lizards (called that because they can walk on water) and tons more.


Christel was most excited about the two separate troupes of Howler Monkeys that we saw. It was insane to hear them long before we could see them in the trees (they are VERY loud). They are quite agile hanging up in the trees using just their tails at times to eat leaves. The second troupe was a sleepy bunch just lounging around on the branches. Some of the plants growing out there are pretty neat too; one looked just like a banana but inside were tons of anthers for pollination. Afterwards we stopped for a delicious lunch plate known as a “Casado” complete with protein (in my case pork chops), plantains, rice, beans, cabbage and corn. . YUM!


We were pretty tired on the drive back so we napped a little and admired the greenery. Back at our hotel we admired all the pretty flowers and inadvertently noticed some hummingbirds in the shots we took :) While sitting on our patio Christel was saying that she really wished we had seen a toucan on this trip since we would be heading out the next day. . and just then out of the blue she thought she spotted a bird with a long yellow bill in a tree just on the periphery of the property about a few hundred yards away. We followed it as it flew to the other side of the property and then joined with a second toucan . . . awesome; all our wishes had come true in Costa Rica! :)


That night we got all dolled up and were ready to hit the town. During dinner at our hotel we asked our waiter Andres what was going on for the evening and he said if we could wait about 30 min we could head out with him in the employee transport van into downtown to some local spots. We had a blast that night and definitely hit up some local spots like El Establo. We practiced our salsa and merengue moves with Andres and also met a boy band that was happy to take hang out and take some pictures with us (Christel especially enjoyed that).


Posted by Tony.Ruby 13:26 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (0)

Costa Rica: Arenal:Sloth Sighting Among Volcanic Hot Springs

February 2, 2012

sunny 78 °F

We left Monteverde early that morning and after eating a hearty Costa Rican breakfast we started our way to the city of Arenal. The drive was really scenic with views of fields, animals grazing, and streams. After about 2 hours in the car we came to Lake Arenal and boarded a ferry to take us across to the other side. The ferry was pretty short and the highlight was seeing the Arenal volcano looming ahead of us in the distance. We were sad to hear that it is no longer active so we wouldn’t be seeing any smoke billowing or lava flowing on this trip. As we chatted with some of the fellow passengers we realized everyone would be going to Tabacon hot springs tonight—which is precisely the sort of thing we try to avoid.


We were starved when we arrived at the Arenal Volcano Inn and quickly got to eating a huge plate of pesto pasta and having some afternoon cocktails. The hotel grounds were gorgeous and we had a clear view of the volcano from our patio but we quickly realized that this is a place for “old folks” with tons of senior citizen groups vacationing and realized we would definitely be leaving the resort for other activities.


That afternoon we went to the EcoCentro Danaus which is a small privately owned eco-reserved located just on the outskirts of Arenal. . .and that is when I finally got to see my sloths! Ariel a representative from the local Maleku tribe helped point out the sloths for us; I don’t think I could spot them on my own just yet. Not only did I see the two-toed but also got to see the three-toed species out in the wild! :) They sort of look like balls of brown of gray fur curled up in the trees until they start moving around. Christel and I spent quite a while just standing there checking them out. I think the two-toed species is cuter (they have a more well defined face). They also had gorgeous orchids, other flowers, and d birds galore. On our way back we asked our taxi driver about hot springs and he said that there’s a place that is naturally formed called “Chojin” that is free but not safe to go at night because of the rocks and potential for theft of our belongings.


Instead, we were ready to relax and headed to The Springs Resort and Spa---wow for $40 we had full access to all of the volcanic hot springs (they had at least 12 different pools with varying temperature. The most amazing part of it was that there was NO ONE else there in the section called “Los Perdidos” so Christel and I were able to enjoy the different water temperatures and waterfalls without anyone to disturb us!?!


The bar at The Springs was great and they had a musician named Darin Talbot from Lake Tahoe originally. He was a great and took requests to do great covers of our favorite songs. We had an absolute blast listening before and after our dip in the pools. This resort is a few miles off the main road (not the easiest to get to) so Christel being the brave one asked him for a ride back into town and he happily obliged. He said “she’s gutsy, no problem”. That night we contentedly passed out that night after the hot springs and excellent music.


Posted by Tony.Ruby 10:43 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (0)

Costa Rica: Monteverde: Quest for a Quetzal

February 1, 2012

semi-overcast 68 °F

Christel is such a good sport---I wanted to get up at 6am be one of the first at Monteverde Cloud forest for bird watching. She got up without complaint, we had a delicious breakfast downstairs and with binoculars and cameras in hand we were off. It was a 20 minute ride to the park and it was terrific. Bright and early is the best time because there are fewer people and the birds are most active. The Quetzal (rhymes with pretzel) is one of the most famous tropical birds and definitely on my to-see list for this trip. We had a great 4 hour hike with our private guide George—he happened to have a Swarovski telescope with him so we could see amazing things like a 2 hummingbirds in a nest super far away, a blue eyed anole lizard, grasshoppers with pink spots on them, a thorn bug which camouflages underneath leaves, the holes in trees where Quetzals live and the tiniest species of micro-orchids I’ve ever seen (much smaller than my fingertip)! George pointed out some black seeds in pods that are used by locals to make dopamine for the treatment of Parkinson's disease. I would need to see some studies on that :) It was amazing to be in nature surrounded by gorgeous plants and flowers; it wasn't nearly as scary as it looks to walk on the suspension bridge. We were getting a sneak peek into things we might normally miss while walking through the forest.


George’s vest had an embroidered Quetzal on the back. There are never any guarantees when you’re out in nature and near the end of our 4 hr hike I was starting to get worried that we wouldn’t see any Quetzals. During our hike we could hear them but couldn’t find them! Then we turned a corner and we could catch glimpses of Quetzals moving around in the trees but they didn’t sit still long enough to get a good picture of one :( Perhaps next time. . .


Afterward we went to the hummingbird gardens and I watched them for at least an hour. Be careful to stay out of the way of their nectar because those beaks are pretty sharp and scary! There were at least 8 species of hummingbirds and an imposter called a Bananaquit bird. This yellow, white and black bird has a long enough beak so he comes to the feeders to sip on the hummingbird nectar. There are just too many to name but my favorites were the violet-breasted one and the one with a brown face. Afterwards, we split a cab with some fellow travelers on our way back into town and grabbed lunch at Amigos again. . yummy tortilla soup before doing a little shopping. We picked up some earrings for ourselves and lots of yummy chocolate and coffee to take home.


At this point I was feeling a little disappointed because I hadn’t seen any sloths yet. As we walked back to our hotel I tried to decide what to do for the evening. We thought about zip lining but it was really cold and crazy windy--we both felt a little nervous about hanging from a wire. . save it for next time. At this point it was close to 5pm and on the walk back we passed right by the Frog Pond. We went right back in to see some of our favorite species again--especially the blue jeans frog (little red ones with blue legs) and the colorful poison dart frogs. A piece of advice: be sure to go at night because the frogs weren’t nearly as active during the day, they were all sleeping and you could hardly find them!


Christel was exhausted. . and rightfully so after all that hiking today. She decided to sit it out while I went for a night walk at the Hidden Valley Trail in Santa Elena. . I was secretly hoping to finally see a sloth since they’re nocturnal and I hadn’t seen one yet. Well, no such luck but I did get to watch a gorgeous sunset with views of the Pacific Ocean while learning about some other cool creatures. It was a small group, just four of us and we walked for about 2 hours through the forest in the dark with flashlights. We saw coatis (relative of the raccoon) hanging out in gnarly old fig trees and agoutis which look like really big hedgehogs. Have you ever seen a sleeping bird? I hadn’t . . . they look headless because they tuck their heads into their wings. It’s so cold up there that it’s hard to wake these birds up; their metabolism slows to a crawl at night.


Of course, no night walk would be complete without using a stick to coax a tarantula out of her hidey-hole—this one was red and black. Ironically, my favorite creature of the night was the smallest: an army ant. Our guide rubbed the end of twig to transfer some of her scent on the twig before angering an army ant. She showed us its mandibles (jaws) up close-- it was so angry that it bit the end of the stick that she had touched and was able to hang on to it without letting go—holding onto that stick was the equivalent of lifting 3000 times it's body weight. . crazy huh? Nature is amazing in so many ways. Back at the hotel I was ready to warm up and was greeted by a beautiful cheese plate and wine that Christel had prepared for me. WOW! I am so spoiled :) That night we took advantage of the jacuzzi to rest our weary muscles and called it an early night.


Posted by Tony.Ruby 09:45 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (1)

Costa Rica: Tamarindo: Partying until the Moonset

January 28-Jan 31

sunny 82 °F

My good friend Christel from California and I had a great trip ahead of us. Next to Tony, she is my favorite travel buddy and I have known her for years. We headed off to Costa Rica but not without a quick stop at Miami International airport for conch fritters! On the flight down we watched the sun set over the ocean and looked forward to the bliss of being away and just enjoying the moment.

We landed closer to the Pacific side of Costa Rica. At the Liberia airport we quickly met our driver who about an hour later dropped us off at our hotel Hotel Zullymar in downtown Tamarindo. As he drove, he mentioned that the "fiestas" were going this weekend on in a town nearby and that we may want to come back and celebrate with the locals. After checking in and dropping off our bags we were ready to hit the beach. It was already night so we had a very romantic lobster dinner (where's Tony when you need him?) on the beach. As we leisurely ate and drank out cocktails we noticed that over the course of a couple of hours we had inadvertently watched our first moonset!?! The moon was half-full and high up in the sky when we first started eating and we watched it set on the horizon around 11pm---it looked like an orange boat out there on the water and we watched in disbelief as it slowly disappeared beneath the horizon. Pretty amazing. . we didn't even know Moonsets existed! Did you? Afterwards we went to a bar and relaxed for a little bit before heading to bed.


We were awoken by the sound of tropical bird calls just outside our window that first morning in Costa Rica---aaaahh so nice to be away. We ate brunch while watching a pair of parakeets playing in the trees on the beach. Afterwards we went for a walk along the water’s edge, carefully stepping over tide pools until we arrived at Playa Langosta. This is the place to go if you want to have a romantic getaway without the craziness of Tamarindo which is a party and surf town. On our walk back we spotted so many pretty birds, it was difficult to count them all. That night we caught the local bus to a town called Jaucas for the Fiestas de Santa Cruz. We enjoyed some of the local cuisine. It was everything we hoped for and then some—bullfights, rodeo, folk dancing and marimba music. The night ended with one of the nicest fireworks shows ever—they seemed to go on forever! That night we went out to a locals spot (Pacifico) and made some new friends including Christian, and many Ticos (local Costa Ricans) who wanted to teach us to surf. . it was a late night of dancing and chatting it up. . I think we got home at about 4am!? That night we learned a saying in Costa Rica: Pura Vida which translates to "Pure Life" but really means something along the lines of "full of life, or this is living"!


When we woke up the next morning it was almost noon! We knew we wanted to go check out some of the snorkeling and other beaches today. We opted to take a tour on a catamaran out to the other beaches. We went with a company called The Lazy Lizard—boy are we glad that we did. It wasn’t cheap, about $75 but it would be about 5-6 hours and included unlimited alcohol, lunch and snorkeling and kayaking gear. Totally worth it! The crew was amazing—super nice, and helpful; we loved everyone, especially Ryan with his silly mustache. We both went snorkeling first; it was Christel’s first time in about 20 years so she was nervous but got the hang of it pretty quick. I got to go sea kayaking and our guide had found a baby octopus. He brought it back to the boat and Christel and I both were feeling adventurous. . probably from all the delicious rum punch and decided to try and hold this live octopus. Just look at our faces. . yes it is just as creepy as it sounds. In terms of what it felt like. . . the inspiration for suction cups must have been octopus tentacles! On the ride back we got the gorgeous view at sunset with the sky changing too many colors to count. That night we had to celebrate because it would be our last night in Tamarindo. We met up with Christian and went to Aqua for another late night of dancing.


The next morning we were very sad to be leaving Tamarindo because it had been an absolute blast. We wish we had a couple more days of beach time but we were moving on to a different kind of fun. The lunch we had that day was amazing—the nachos were seriously the best I’ve ever had, everything was made from scratch. We relaxed and enjoyed our last day at the beach while watching paddle surfers on the water. Our ride picked us up at 1pm and we were off to Monteverde.

We didn’t know what we were in store for . . . the ride was long, bumpy and dusty. . almost 5 hours even with air conditioning it wasn’t exactly comfortable. It was worth it for the views as we went over mountain passes and appreciated panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. At around 6pm that night we arrived at Poco a Poco hotel in the Monteverde region. What a great hotel! Had all the amenities one could want including free WiFi and super close to everything.

We were pretty exhausted but I really wanted to check out the tree frogs so Christel and I walked out in the WINDY, cold weather, just a block or so to the frog exhibit and saw some of the most beautiful frogs ever. Night time is the best time to go because most of the frogs are nocturnal and sleeping during the day. I finally saw a glass frog which was elusive in the Ecuadorian Amazon, their bellies are translucent so you can see their internal organs!

We ate dinner at Amigos (a local recommendation), delicious garlic tilapia and tortilla soup was perfect. We were exhausted and headed back to the hotel. We were on the top floor and that night was a little difficult to sleep because the wind was blowing so hard it felt like the roof was about to fly off. Apparently, it is always cold with really strong winds in the Monteverde area—be sure to bring a warm, waterproof coat =)


Posted by Tony.Ruby 08:53 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (0)

USA: Miami: Layover for Conch and Indian Food—FOODIE ALERT

November 3, 2011

semi-overcast 65 °F

We got up painfully early at 3:30AM, the time we should be GOING to bed when on vacation! This is the part that most people think of when they say they hate traveling. We grabbed a cab while contemplating over this magical trip and said our goodbyes to Quito.
We arrived at the airport with all the usual craziness we’ve come to expect from a South American airport (people cutting in line, no personal space, and an overall lack of communication between airline employees and customers). We can’t really complain because the plane was nice and we arrived at our layover safely. In Miami we had just enough time to run to our gate . . . well that, along with a quick stop a few gates over to grab some conch fritters (Ruby’s fave at the Miami airport). Mmmmm! I don’t know what it is about good food that will make us almost miss a flight but man was it worth it!

Back in New York we decided to keep with our budgeting ways and take the Air Train to the Subway to a bus with a little walking (for good measure)instead of opting for a taxi. It was a little confusing and after getting lost a few times we arrived safely at our car (that luckily still had all its windows and tires). We quickly met up with Christine, our friend Terri’s daughter, to grab our keys and drop off a few gifts. We hope she didn’t think that we didn’t want to hangout but it had been a long day and all we could think about was good food and our soft bed.

There is a great Indian restaurant in Queens called Delhi Palace on 75th and Broadway. We decided to eat there on our way home because we didn’t have any food at the house. It was sooo good that Ruby almost made herself sick from eating too much (update: the restaurant is now under new management so who knows how good it is now. . .). We arrived home around 9pm and quickly put our stuff away and crawled into bed. That was a lot of fun and tomorrow . . . reality! :)


Posted by Tony.Ruby 09:16 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Ecuador: Quito: The Equatorial Egg Master

November 2, 2011

all seasons in one day 78 °F

We can’t tell you how good it feels to wake up in a big soft bed and have a nice hot shower after a trip to the Amazon! After breakfast we decided to head over to the Mitad del Mundo monument of the official equatorial line. As most of you know we are “thrifty” travelers and if there’s a local bus going in the direction “we aint takin no taxi!”. It is fairly easy to get to, just look for the bus marked “Mitad del Mundo and if you’re white then people pretty much know where you’re going. The total cost is around $1 for two people so try not to complain if you have to stand or sit on the floor!


We arrived at the monument, got our passes and started shooting photos like all the other tourists. Take one of me standing over the line, kissing over the line, and pointing at the 0’0’0’ sign, you know the usual stuff. It didn’t take long before Ruby was drawn into a restaurant by the smell of amazing food. We sat at a table and noticed a young girl and her grandmother looking for a seat. Being the kind people we are (and good looking I might add) we decided to offer the two extra seats at our table of 4 to them. We had a very yummy lunch complete with a pitcher of sangria. We made some new friends Juliana and her grandmother Olga who live in Cordoba, Argentina. Ruby loved their Argentinean Spanish accents and had fun trying to practice her own. After lunch they invited us to visit and stay with them in Argentina . . . we warned them not to offer because you never know we might take them up on the offer!


A lot of people don’t know this but the official GPS certified equatorial line is actually a short walk (about 200 meters) up the road at a small museum called the Museo Inti-Nan. It cost around $6 p.p. and included a tour explaining a bit about the location, the different tribes in Ecuador/Peru, how to make a shrunken head, and of course the physical effects of being at the equator. They did lots of experiments but our favorite had to be “the egg on a nail” that we originally saw on Andrew Zimmern’s TV show Bizarre Food. The theory is that there is more of a downward force of gravity at this location that allows you to balance something round on a very small surface, like say an egg on a nail. This is definitely NOT easy . . . we thought that it would be from the TV show. We both gave it a try without any luck and we had to leave before anyone in our group could do it.


Of course, Tony is extremely competitive and he couldn’t even focus for the rest of the tour—all he could talk about was going back and trying one more time! He was determined to be the egg master of the equator. After the tour ended he went back with the determined look of a boxer going back into the ring! He even had an old man cheering him on saying “you can do it” and “be the egg”! After a few tries Tony did balance an egg on a nail, and we have the photos and the Egg Master paperwork to prove it!! Just look at the looks of awe on the faces of the people in the background :)


We had a beautiful ride home along a ridgeline, admiring the volcano Cotopaxi looming over the entire city of Quito. It was so beautiful . . . next time we come to Ecuador, we’re definitely going there. We were so distracted by the view that we missed our stop and ended up in Old Town. No big deal, it was during sunset so we enjoy the beautiful walk though the colonial buildings while doing some people watching. Once it got dark we headed back to our hotel, and after a quick shower we headed out to a Cuban restaurant recommended by our Brazilian friends last week. It was ok, originally we had wanted to check out another place—a tapas restaurant from our gastronomy magazine but it was closed. It has been an amazing trip but unfortunately we have to get up painfully early tomorrow to catch a flight back home. . .


Posted by Tony.Ruby 09:58 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Ecuador: Amazon: Trek to Civilization

November 1, 2011

sunny 89 °F

We were awakened by the sound of monkeys grunting and moving around in the trees outside our room. We gathered our things and rushed out to see but they had already moved on. We stopped for a moment to watch a parade of leaf cutter ants go by and listened to the sounds of the Amazon. After breakfast we started our long trek back to civilization. Our boat driver Milo is amazing . . . but a little crazy. He took us on a little tour of the large lagoon looking for birds and pink dolphins. It was great because we got to see another Hoatzin up close (stinky turkey) and some heron-type bird take off nearby from a tree! The water level was a little low and we had to “jump” a few logs and sand bars. At one point we even got stuck and had to jump out of the canoe and push.


The Amazon wouldn’t let us leave without a great goodbye and this came in the form of a huge spectacled owl that sat down on a branch right at the water’s edge! Owls aren’t even supposed to be out at this time of the day, so that was pretty terrific. After that we tried to capture some shots of the elusive river turtles. . these little guys are hilarious. One second they’ll be relaxing and sunning on some branches but at the first sound of trouble they stand up, look left, then right and then jump in the water! It’s very hard to get a picture from close because they’ll jump in before you even have a chance to push the button. We made a very quiet approach and were finally able to get a picture!


As we made our way upriver we stopped helped a local guy get his canoe untangled from a mess of downed branches—he was quite appreciative. Overhead we heard some familiar sounds and found a pair of blue and yellow macaws perched on some branches high up in the trees. A little further upriver Diego spotted some chicks with a mama duck—hadn’t seen one of those before!


Finally a few hours later we knew we had arrived when we saw children playing in the river and the bridge covered in murals of the different tribe shamans. This was the first road we’d seen in days. We were picked up by a truck and driven 2 hours into town to catch our flight. After checking in and sitting around for a few hours the airline, VIP, told us that they were sorry but there would be no flight today. There was a plane “malfunction” :( They told us that we could stay in town on them and fly out first thing the next day or take a 5-10 hour minivan ride to Quito now. We decided that our hotel was paid for so we should just take the van, on one condition: A comfortable, non-crowded van!


We started our drive with 5 people in a 10 passenger van: Tony, myself, our old friend from the Galapagos (Sylvan), a girl from Melbourne and an Ecuadorian lady. The lady who was sitting in front told the driver that she would like to pickup her husband and two kids. We drove into town and pulled up at a house and this is where things started getting crazy.


Out came the husband carrying a baby and lots of bags, then a teenage girl, and then a young boy! We were not happy about this but we all squeezed into the van and started on our way (total 9/10 passengers). After two blocks we stopped to pick up one last person. . . and that was the final straw for Tony. He started telling the driver to take us back to the airport and fly us out tomorrow. The lady knew that if we went back to the airport they would get in trouble for trying to sneak her whole family to Quito on the airline’s dime . . . so after a short argument they told the driver to drop them at the bus station. It was a crazy situation and it did get a little ugly but now only 5 of us remained in the van and maybe we would be able to get some sleep on the long ride.

We alternated between sleep and holding on tight while speeding around mountain passes in the dark and foggy night. We finally arrived in Quito about 6 hours later and lucky for us; our driver dropped us just around the corner from our hotel. We said good luck to our two friends and quickly went in and dropped our things in the room. It was about midnight at this time so we walked around the corner to one of the hippest spots to hang out on a Saturday night. . . Burger King! Yes, that’s correct, the locals were all dolled up and apparently it’s a real expensive and novel place to go. We hadn’t eaten there in years but quickly scarfed some food down (yes the quality is the same as in the US) and headed back to our room. . it had been quite a day!


Posted by Tony.Ruby 13:52 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Ecuador: Amazon: Scariest Halloween Ever!!

October 31, 2011

sunny 90 °F

Ruby was up bright and early today recording the sounds of the Amazon and taking a few pics around the lodge. One of the large trees around the lodge had several long Oropendola bird nests hanging off of it. You can easily identify them because they’re blackbirds with yellow tail feathers. They make the coolest sounds and I hope you can hear them on one of Ruby’s recordings. After breakfast Ruby went back to the room to pick up some things before we left for the day. . .from across the lodge Tony hears “Babe!. . . I think there’s a tarantula in our room!!”. Ruby thought she had seen something big and black crawl just next to the bathroom door when she walked in. Not wanting to take a closer look she had stepped outside to call the boys over. Of course, Tony grabbed Diego and they came running back to our room with a flashlight. Diego turned our room inside out and upside down looking for the spider, but since Ruby had stepped out. . it disappeared! Diego said that she probably imagined it because they would have found it by now, besides that, there was a dark spot on the floor where the fibers on the mat were fraying. . . which could have been mistaken for a hairy spider in the dark. So we all chalked it up to Ruby’s overactive imagination :)


We boarded the boat and said goodbye to our new German friends and took off up river to do a little canoeing, fishing and bird watching. After about an hour on the motorized canoe we were dropped off at a small river and started paddling in our 3 person canoe. The water levels were much lower because it’s the dry season so the only way to get to the little lagoon was to paddle, push, and pull our canoe down this beautiful narrow stream. We could hardly see into forest beyond one to two rows of trees because the canopy is so thick. It was amazing to see (but hard to photograph) all the birds flying over head. Some of our favorites were a beautiful woodpecker and an Amazon kingfisher that was flying tantalizingly just out of reach of our camera. At one point Diego told us to stop paddling and said “shh, listen, the macaws are coming”. We sat quietly staring up at the sky. . . sure enough about 30 seconds later we saw three gorgeous blue and yellow macaws flying overhead making their characteristic calls.


As we got further down the little river we decided to stop in a narrow channel to try give piranha fishing a try. Found a nice spot in the shade to park our little canoe and Diego left us alone with a cup full of raw meat and two sticks with lines and hooks on them and told us to catch something! Both of us were pretty scared to actually catch a piranha for fear of their sharp teeth taking a chunk out of one of our fingers! Once we put some raw meat on the line it was only seconds before Tony had his first catch. A BIG piranha. We took this opportunity to take a closer look at its teeth before letting him go back in the water. Meanwhile, Ruby was basically feeding the piranhas for at least the first 5 tries. You have to be quick and pull up the line as soon as you feel them chomping because they’ll take the meat off in a matter of seconds. Once she got the hang of it, she caught one and nearly took Tony’s eye out trying to pull it out of the water! Of course, everything is sustainable here so we did catch and release. We hadn’t seen another soul since we left our lodge this morning it was a little eerie being out alone.


After this little adventure we finally paddled our way into the little lagoon and there was still not another person in sight. We could see lots of different birds resting on the branches of the trees in this sunken forest. The trees themselves were gorgeous, covered with gnarly branches, orchids, and bromeliads. Diego said that this is the perfect time of the year to find a giant anaconda curled up in the tree branches but Ruby is really glad that we didn’t! Which means that the anacondas were all swimming in the water below us! Diego loves to fish and actually caught 2 peacock bass at the same time, hooked on the same lure! Pretty cool!


The sun was really high overhead so we found a deserted little islet where Diego set up a hammock. We took a nap for a couple of hours and ate some lunch before getting back on the water. We were just lazily paddling along the center of the lagoon when we felt something large underneath our canoe; it rattled the bottom of the boat and made some big splashes in the water. We looked back and saw three or four large muddy brown bubbles in the water behind us. We’d like to think it was one of the Amazonian manatees which are very rare to see because they’re black in color but we’ll never know for sure. . .


As we paddled closer to the shore we could hear Hoatzin aka stinky turkey birds making their distinctive calls and we were finally able to take a picture of this silly bird with its Mohawk and blue face. BTW, you wouldn’t want to eat these for Thanksgiving, apparently they taste as disgusting as they smell! Diego stopped the boat near the shore to see if we could find some Caimans in the shallow water . . . we didn’t see any of those but did find some large animal droppings on the water’s edge. Diego wasn’t sure what animal it was from but he said we could go look for the animal. It was eerie as we followed him into the uncut rainforest, it got darker right away without the sunlight and there was no trail to follow. We went in deeper about 10 minutes with Diego marking our path using his machete to carve a small mark into the tree bark. We did not have any luck finding the animal but we did find fresh tracks in the mud. It was a tapir! This is a really large animal that kind of looks like a pig and has 3 toes. Ruby had really wanted to see a tapir but it seems we missed it by just minutes and this would be as close as we would get on this trip.


It was getting later in the day when we finally started to paddle back to where Milo our boat driver would pick us up. It was quite a long ways since we spent most of the day getting all the way out here and still. . no other people! We paddled quickly because we didn’t want to be alone out here when the sun went down. Along the way a troop of at least 30 squirrel monkeys (third species we saw here) crossing us overhead in the trees so we took a few quick pictures before paddling along. We finally made it to the meeting point where we hopped into the motorized canoe.... thank goodness! Our arms were sore from all that paddling! When we approached the big lagoon Diego and Milo asked us if we wanted to paddle in the big lagoon alone. We don’t know what we were thinking . . . we were tired, didn’t have life vests on and had hardly any experience with paddling outside of today but we said—SURE! Let’s just say it was creepy being all alone out there as the sun was setting. We just tried to enjoy the gorgeous view and put all the thoughts of the 15 foot caimans and other creatures in the water below us out of our mind :)


Just as the sun finally went down, they came to pick us up and we transferred back into the other motorized canoe to head back to the lodge. Once we got to the dock, Ruby immediately noticed a big purple tarantula with orange foot pads crawling on the post to her right. She said “see, I can tell you what a spider looks like” . . . this did not bode well what was to come. We went back to our room and as Tony walked in he said “yeah, I see how you could have thought that spot on the floor was a spider this morning” . . . and then he turned on the light and sure enough, there was a very large spider in the exact spot that Ruby said it was this morning. Ruby ran outside and called out for Diego to come and this time Tony didn’t take his eyes off of that thing! Diego came in and said it was a Wolf Spider which can give a poisonous and really painful bite. Diego surprised us by taking off his shoe and killing the spider. We thought he was just going to carry it outside but he said he’s been bitten a few times and didn’t want to risk it.


After dinner we decided to go on another night walk . . . as if we hadn’t had enough! It felt like we were in a scary movie as we walked with our flashlights to the forest behind the lodge. It was very dark and foggy outside and it must have been our day to see spiders because we saw another tarantula on a banana tree in the back of the lodge. Diego told us that female tarantulas find a place to live and just stay there their whole lives. So it’s easy for the guides to point them out because they are always in the same place. We walked for about 15 minutes checking out different insects and listening for the sounds of animals rustling in the trees before we deciding to call it a night. On our way back to the room Ruby spotted the coolest bug on the walkway. It's a bush cricket (cyclopetra speculata) that looks EXACTLY like a leaf---veins with brown spots and all! We went back to our spider-free room and tucked the mosquito net tight before feeling safe enough to fall asleep that night.


Posted by Tony.Ruby 14:22 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Ecuador: Amazon: A Witch Doctor with Limon Ants on Yucca

October 30, 2011

sunny 90 °F

Buzzing, humming, screeching, and whistling were just some of the sounds that we awoke to in the morning. Ruby liked it so much she recorded the sounds to take home with her on her iPhone! We had a yummy breakfast and relaxed on a hammock before our group of four headed out further down the river. About an hour down the river we stopped when Diego spotted the tiniest monkeys in the Amazon—pygmy marmosets. We have no idea how he found them because they are smaller than the palm of our hand and the trees are so thick. We could see them climbing up and down liana vines, they were just adorable to watch.


Afterwards we stopped at a clearing and Diego looked back and asked if we’d like to hike or take the canoe to the nearest village . . . of course we decided to hike. Little did we know that we were signing up for a 3+ hour hike through the primary rainforest guided by just a tiny cereal box compass! Upon entering the jungle Diego picked some garlic plant leaves and told us to stuff them in our pockets—we all smelled like a bad Italian restaurant but at least it warded off bugs! It was extremely hot and humid . . . Ruby was ever so grateful when Diego made her and Heidi fans out of palm leaves. The hike was great, and along the way Diego pointed out multiple plants and insects. We saw the most pretty mushrooms and flowers as we walked along.


Every time Diego cut a stick we knew he was about to coax a large insect out of its hidey hole. The largest and one of our favorites was a large hairy maroon and black tarantula. We also got to try lemon ants—which, yes, really do taste like lemon and yes, we really did eat them (don’t get any ideas today is definitely not getting a FOODIE ALERT and this is one dish we’re not making back home). They live inside pods of a plant that kills off other plants/trees in the surrounding area. You can find these trees with the ant pods by looking for a clearing in the trees. Some other highlights included a species of plant with leaves that have very fine hairs on the underside that stick to you like glue, Diego decided to make a creative bathing suit out of his. We also saw lots of caterpillars crawling around on trees and leaves.


As a gift for the village, Diego worked hard to make two “graters” out of the Grater palm tree roots; these were fierce looking weapons with spikes all over them. Tony decided to test his out right away on another tree trunk—only to remove many of the spikes to Diego’s dismay. As we continued our walk we passed multiple Kapok trees which are the giant trees of the Amazon. They are so big that the roots can be as long as 3km in order to reach a river?! In one of the much smaller trees we saw a bird's nest with two tiny eggs but the mommy bird flew away. We started to worry about getting lost when Diego showed us how to make a “map” using a leaf. He showed us how to fold the leaf and bite in a certain pattern to create the map. As you can tell by the pictures---NONE of us were any good at following his directions since our maps all looked completely different! I don’t think the maps would be very useful!


Towards the end of the hike we could hear dogs and knew that we were getting closer to the village of Puerto Bolivar. Upon arriving we were greeted with a yummy lunch before they put Tony to work in the fields. We followed one of the villagers to the garden to collect yucca for making bread. Thankfully Tony’s been working out because he helped pull a huge yucca root out of the ground with his bare hands. We went to an outdoor stove where we watched our host painstakingly clean, grind, and pack this into a bamboo strainer with Ruby’s help to squeeze all the water out. Well, it looks like if this doctor thing doesn’t work out. . . she’s got a backup plan squeezing water out of yucca mush in the Amazon! Our host then sifted and baked the yucca flour into bread. It was really tasty and with a little guava marmalade it was the perfect afternoon snack.


We then walked across town to meet the local Siona tribe shaman. He was adorned in everything from an elaborate crown made of colorful toucan feathers and necklaces made from the teeth of a wild boar. The local medicine man told us about how he learned the art and taught us about the medicinal and psychoactive drink called “ayahuasca/yahe” they make out of liana vines to induce a trance like state---no we didn’t try it! :) The shaman asked for a volunteer to do a cleansing and diagnosis ritual and of course Ruby volunteered Tony for the job! She’s always trying to look after his health :) After a few minutes of chanting and hitting Tony on the back with a bush the shaman told Tony that he was healthy and clean. Luckily the shaman didn’t use the Ortega plant like they often do, otherwise Tony might be covered in urticaria aka hives. Tony told Ruby that she better not tell her friend Christel about this because she is so into alternative medicines that she may start a practice of hitting her friends with a plant and chanting in San Francisco! We thanked the shaman for allowing us to learn more about his culture and went to check out more of the village. Tony took this opportunity to take a little dip in the Amazonian waters—it was the perfect temperature and yes there are piranhas and other creatures in the water but we didn’t want to go back home without trying it out!


Soon, we were on a relaxing boat ride home watching the sunset while heading back upriver. By the time we got back it was dark, we shared a beer while Ruby caught up on some reading. The darkness turned out to be the perfect time to go exploring for nocturnal creatures. We found some beautiful tree frogs and moths around the lodge. We were careful to avoid shining bright lights directly at them because it would irritate their sensitive eyes. Afterwards, we had a delicious dinner of baked tilapia, vegetables and you guessed it . . . yucca fries! In our room we both literally fell into bed face-forward from exhaustion and the long day.


Posted by Tony.Ruby 01:29 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Ecuador: Amazon: Bright Red Eyes Under a Bright Red Sky

October 29, 2011

sunny 88 °F

We were startled awake by an earthquake in Quito—as Californians, of course we tried to turn on the news to see what the rating was on the Richter scale. . . .until we realized that out of 100 channels on TV NONE had news on them, odd? Luckily it was a small quake that didn’t seem to cause any significant damage. We were a little worried since this tiny country of Ecuador is littered with volcanoes. Soon enough we were on our trek out to the Amazon, we stopped quickly to restock some essentials—(sunscreen and bug repellant) before being picked up, dropped off and even checked in at the airport in Quito. It was all so convenient—this must be what it’s like for rich people who travel :)


Our flight was a bit delayed but once we got going it was only 30 minutes before we were dropped off into Lago Agrio. The town‘s real name is Nueva Loja but was renamed by Texaco when they setup camp and started destroying the rainforest in the 1960s. It's a little sad that you can see an oil pipeline running along the side of the road. Our driver greeted us at the small airport and we were off on a 2 hour drive to the entrance of the Cuyabeno Reserve. The road was well-paved and got more and more beautiful the further from the city we got. On the way we saw this amazing tree with vines hanging off it. . .it completely reminded Ruby of the tree in the movie of Avatar—we wonder if this is where they got their inspiration. At long last we arrived at a bridge and paid our fee to enter the reserve—a mere $2.00 each . . . a small price to pay for what we were just about to experience.


Our guide Diego and boat driver Milo met us at the entrance and loaded our 25 foot motorized canoe with supplies for our stay. The minute we started moving we knew that we not anywhere near home. The river is the only way in and out of the reserve and these were the last roads we we be seeing for a while. We were immediately greeted by lush greenery of all types, trees with hanging vines and bromeliads galore. On the way to our lodge we zigzagged around downed trees and gnarly shallow roots as we made our way along the river. The lodge is located 35km or about another 2 hour boat ride down the river (under ideal conditions). We didn’t see any people but along the way Diego pointed out some yellow-handed Titi monkeys and a black and red colored river snake swimming in the water in front of us. Both of which were unfortunately too fast to capture on film (our trigger finger was a little slow after all the fearless animals in the Galapagos)!



When we got to the lodge we opted for the trip to “La Laguna Grande” aka the big lagoon instead of resting before dinner-- this was just surreal. The black water of the river and lagoon was like a gigantic mirror reflecting the gorgeous blue sky. It was here that we experienced one of the most breathtakingly beautiful sunsets ever, surrounded by a sunken forest of trees. We waited until the sky changed from blue to orange to red and finally black before we turned on our flashlights in search of caimans. Before that, the only light was the glow from some lightning bugs and the thinnest sliver of a new moon. We could hear the fish bats whizzing around us on the water while we quietly paddled along the water’s edge looking for the glowing red eyes of caiman. Luckily the largest caiman we approached was a baby- we were thankful that we didn’t find her mother who could be over 15 feet long. On the way back Diego tried to get cell phone reception by climbing up a tree but had no luck. We weren’t surprised given how remote this location was and the fact ours sometimes doesn’t even work in New York! After a simple dinner of spaghetti we fell asleep to the cacophony of insects and birds that were just outside our screened windows.


Posted by Tony.Ruby 00:51 Archived in Ecuador Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises Comments (0)

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