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Ode on a Summer Road Trip

What is it about jumping in the car, rolling down the windows and turning up the radio that’s so appealing? If it’s faster and more convenient to fly, why is the summer road trip still so good?

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Tired of being in airports for the last 10 weeks or so, I decided to change things up and drive to my next two destinations for work meetings.  Now, the drive from Albuquerque to West Texas isn’t terribly exciting, but as I began packing I found myself longing for the days of the good old summer road trip.

What is it about jumping in the car, rolling down the windows and turning up the radio  that’s so appealing?  If it’s faster and more convenient to fly, why is the summer road trip still so good?

Is it the memories of childhood road trips?  Hours in the car, antagonizing (or being antagonized by) my kid brother?  Was it the novelty of stopping to eat along the way? Or, because my mother was a teacher, stopping to see the historic sites?  The latter I’ve become increasingly thankful for.  As an adult, I appreciate the fact that I have seen far more of the country than many other people my age because of my mom’s insistence that we learn something along the way.  (Truthfully, the stops probably also gave her some reprieve).  Or is it remembering the impromptu trips I took with friends when we were old enough to head out and explore on our own?  Jumping in the car for a weekend, heading wherever the wind takes you was a fantastic luxury of my 20s that I perhaps didn’t appreciate as much as I should have.

Maybe it’s a combination of all these things, but as I made my 4+ hour drive today, I began to think that it’s the opportunity, alone in a car, to quietly address and resolve the many thoughts rattling around my brain on any given day.  Time to be alone and clear your mind while just focusing on the road going by, letting thoughts come and go.  Thoughts like: “Why in the world does the town of Wagon Wheel, New Mexico have a U-Haul rental?”  (At last count, there were about 350 people in the area surrounding this little town).

photostudio_1494197940047There is a lot of open road between Albuquerque and Lubbock, Texas, but every now and again, driving an old stretch of Route 66, you come upon remnants of homes, gas stations, businesses that were once part of thriving communities before the latest Interstates were developed.  I found myself wondering about the people that lived in these little communities and the handful of people that still eke out their living in towns were little remains.  What happened to the owners of these now dilapidated buildings and abandoned homes?  Where did they go?  Why didn’t the houses pass on to other owners?  I really wonder about the homes that are still full of stuff…

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There are mysteries along Route 66.  One of the most mystifying is the disappearance and probable murder of two couples traveling through the town of Vaughn, New Mexico back in 1935.  The baffling story is still a mystery 82 years later.  (You can read about it here.) I drove through several sites today and found my brain wondering what secrets those old buildings might still hold…. I may never know, but pulled over at the side of the road to get a closer look.

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Lest you think there are only old ruins along the roads, you will find a few curiosities that aren’t so…serious.  Like this giant cowboy on the side of Highway 60 before crossing the Texas border.

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The popular Cadillac Ranch outside of Amarillo, where, the story goes, an eccentric millionaire buried Cadillacs in the ground. Why? I don’t know. (Mind the million empty spray paint cans on the ground).

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Who knows what I’ll find on my return trip, but I plan relish the sound of my voice singing along with a much too loud radio and to enjoy the feel of wind through my hair (even though that means my hair will get tangled).  Let’s go on a road trip – it’ll be an adventure.

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My happy place (AKA Ojo Caliente Hot Springs & Spa)

(Private pool + kiva fireplace + wine + star gazing – a boyfriend + 2 cousins = my romantic weekend gone slightly awry)

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I hesitate at my keyboard while writing this particular blog post, for fear that far too many of you might flock to my happy place while I’m there trying to get my relax on!

In any case, this little gem of a spot, the Ojo Caliente Hot Springs & Spa, deserves some attention.  Located about a 2-hour drive from my home base in Albuquerque and nestled between the towns of Taos and Española, Ojo Caliente is an out of the way hot springs worth a stop. (I warned you in a previous blog about my love for hot springs!) I appreciate the fact that Ojo is a little off the beaten path because that makes it quieter and more relaxing.  Locals have known about the hot springs here for…well, for hundreds of years.  (You can read more about the history here: Ojo Caliente History.)

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The Pools at Ojo Caliente

I come to Ojo several times a year, but I didn’t hesitate to book an additional trip when two of my cousins came to see me here in New Mexico last weekend.  AND, while I’ve soaked here, had massages and reflexology here, eaten here, and had my fair share of wine here, this was my first opportunity to stay the night in the Ojo Caliente lodgings.

We ended up at my happy place in celebration of a cousin’s 40th Birthday.  We arrived later in the day on Sunday to a throng of people…more than the usual throng, too.  Turns out, we had just missed the Blessing of the Waters by the Monks of Drepung Loseling Monastery.  The Monks make it their mission to contribute to world peace and healing and they performed their blessing at Ojo Caliente to purify the elements of the already healing hot springs to keep visitors in good health and well being.  It’s a very nice sentiment.

We changed into our bathing suits and settled into the freshly blessed waters.  Bathing suits are required at Ojo Caliente at all times in the main pools.  (You’ll see that folks interpret the words bathing suit in many different ways.  I’ve seen people soak in all kinds of get ups, but the thing to know is you’ve got to cover up in the public pools.)  If you are a fan of soaking au naturale (ME!) or you can be convinced that you should try soaking in the buff (my two unsuspecting cousins), you can rent one of Ojo’s private pools by the hour…more on that later.

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Mud Pool

There are several pools at Ojo each with slightly different mineral content designed to ease your aches and pains, bad mood, or digestion issues. The pools can range in temperature from 80 degrees all the way up to 109 degrees…you can pick the temperature you like best or spend your time moving from pool to pool as you like.  There’s also a mud area where you wet yourself down, slather yourself in mud, let said mud bake while relaxing in the sun and then soak yourself like a happy little piggy in the mud pool.  The mud removes toxins and is great for your skin.

I love the hot, hot pool and the enclosed soda spring pools the best, but you can’t really go wrong soaking and relaxing while admiring the gorgeous cliffside framed by the bluest blue New Mexico sky.  Ojo is designed to be a tranquil space (you can hike and do yoga here, too), so you are encouraged to whisper in most spots or maintain silence in others (like the soda pool). You’ll be reminded of the whisper rule if you get unruly, so do your best.  If my cousins and I can maintain quiet for a few hours, so can you.

Outside the tranquil atmosphere and magical waters, my next favorite thing is that you can dine in your bathing suit and bathrobe at the delicious Artesian Restaurant and Wine Bar.  Seriously, the fish tacos.  You’ll thank me.

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North Cottages

Fortified by some snacks and adult beverages from the wine bar, we made our way back to the historic bath house to check in for our Legends of Ojo treatments – a 50 minute massage and a 25 minute ohm inducing reflexology treatment. (The reflexology gets me sooooo relaxed that I usually fall asleep on the massage table only to be awoken by the sound of my own giant snort of a snore).  There are many massage therapists working at Ojo Caliente.  They’re all amazing and they all come to the table with their own methodology and style.  Now, I like a little woo-woo cosmic mumbo-jumbo in my day, so I was thrilled that my therapist incorporated polarity work and chakra balancing into my treatment. You (and my cousins) may not enjoy that as much, so my advice is just to talk openly with your massage therapist about the kind of massage you’re hoping to receive.

Before retiring to our adorable cottage (clean, comfy, with its own bathroom!), we decided to treat ourselves to a soak in one of Ojo’s private pools.  I am a fan of naked swimming (maybe that’s TMI, but it’s true); and I found that my cousins could be convinced that they wanted to try a skinny dip, so we rented the Heron Pool from 9:00-10:00 pm.  The private pools are very secluded and you’ll be let into the locked space by a spa attendant.  No one can walk in unannounced and if the spa needs to reach you, they do so by intercom.  We had a gorgeous pool all to ourselves with a kiva fireplace and a view of the stars.  (Private pool + kiva fireplace + wine + star gazing – a boyfriend + 2 cousins = my romantic weekend gone slightly awry).  20170402_141521

The evening was perfect for relaxing and went slightly wonky when I suggested that my cousin snap a selfie of “our heads above the water” in our private pool.  We didn’t pay much attention to the fact that (a) my cousin has long arms and (b) her selfie camera has a flash. You’re not going to find that selfie on this blog as there’s A LOT more to see than just our three noggins. Fueled by wine and fits of laughter, our hour in the Heron Pool flew by and we retired to our room for a restful night’s sleep.

While I relish the quiet tranquility of an empty Ojo Caliente, you really should experience it for yourselves.  So come on over and say hello when you come check it out. I’ll be the one soaking in the hot, hot pool.

El Malpais and El Morro National Monuments

I think most of us are this way: we look at the unusual and beautiful things in our home states as places just to take family visiting from out of town.

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I think most of us are like this:  We forget about the really amazing sights in our own state…simply because they are in the place where we live our day to day lives.  The interesting and beautiful become places you take visiting family from out of town.  I’m trying to be better about visiting the places I overlook simply because they’ve always been there.

Recently, with best friend in tow, I set out to visit two (that’s right TWO) national monuments here in New Mexico.  About 90 miles from Albuquerque lies the National Monument of El Malpais.  I’ve hiked here before and was happy to return.  It’s a bit dry this spring, but despite the lack of green there are some gorgeous vistas to view in El Malpais.  This is another one of those places where all levels of hikers can find a trail to their liking.  There are lava caves (get your caving permit at the Visitor Center), lava trenches, and trails that scale the sides of a volcanic caldera. If you geek out on lava, this is an unusual place where you can see two separate kinds of lava flows in one area.

 

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El Malpais

We took the 3.8 mile trek to the top of the caldera and that trail comes complete with some butt-busting incline toward the top of the trail.  The parks service has inserted some wooden “stairs” that lead you to the top of the caldera.  (You will definitely feel the need to stretch when you’re done!)

From El Malpais, make the easy 20 mile drive over to El Morro.  Now, I’m not gonna lie, I always thought El Morro was just a big rock.  That maybe explains why I hadn’t been there until now.  There are really big rocks, yes, but the really big rocks contain some really interesting New Mexico history.

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El Morrow

See, El Morro for years was the only place for miles around to get clean drinking water, so people stopped along this sandstone bluff to get water, to camp….and to carve their names into the rock.  It seems that humans have never been able to resist carving their initials into inanimate objects.

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The water at El Morro

We took the Inscription Trail that runs right along the bluff.  Here you get a good look at the  more than 2,000 signatures and Petroglyphs.  The carvings encompass a rich history of ancestral Puebloans, Spanish, and American travelers.  The Army, wagon trains, the railroad, and even the first Colonial Governor of New Mexico chiseled their names here.  Some of these fellas were incredibly handy with a chisel.  Check out the photo of Mr. Long’s signature.  How in the hell did he do THAT with a chisel?!

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National Parks and National Monuments are in every state. Look around you to see what you’ve been overlooking.  And, while you’re at it, get you a National Parks Pass.  At $85/year, mine has paid for itself several times over.  If you’re a Senior, you can get your pass for $10 for a lifetime.  That’s a bargain!

Now, if hiking gets you hungry, do yourself a favor and stop at the 66 Pit Stop just outside of Albuquerque for a Laguna Burger.  This gas station (yep, it’s a gas station) serves up green chile cheeseburgers and other yummies.  The burgers are award winning and they are delicious.  For all of you out of towners not used to our New Mexican chile (and it’s chile not chili), you might order yours on the side…it’s got a kick!

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Laguna Burger

 

The stars at night…..

It’s my busy season for work and that means I’m in Texas.

Well, it’s my busy season for work which means lots and lots of travel and most of it (this year) to Texas.  I’m in Dallas for some meetings and I am staying at one of my favorite hotels in the city…one of my favorites anywhere as a matter of fact.

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Highland Hotel

When you travel a lot for work, your best bet is to pick your airline and your hotel chain and then stay consistent.  That’s how you best max out miles and points (and those pay off when it’s vacation time).  I’m a Hilton girl (you’re welcome, Hilton!) and I adore a hotel in their Curio line here in Dallas.  The Highland is a swanky, sexy hotel close to the campus for Southern Methodist University (which is also beautiful, btw).  There’s an attached spa – who doesn’t love that? – I’m getting my massage on later.  Also on property, a great restaurant called Knife.  Knife is the baby of chef John Tesar. (He’s kind of a big deal…James Beard-nominated and contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef.)

I got upgraded to a suite which is far too sexy for a solo traveler.  I mean, there’s a jacuzzi tub and a photo over the bed that’s got a little bit of a bondage flair.  (Plus a bathroom phone!  Is anyone talking on these things?!  If you have recently had a conversation on a hotel bathroom phone, please comment below.  I need to know about this). Anyway, the steak is delicious and I’m thinking about eating it while in my jacuzzi tub.

Day 2 on my Texas run takes me from the Big D to San Antonio.  Being in San Antonio always reminds me of the movie Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.  Wait, you haven’t seen Pee Wee’s Big Adventure?!  It’s a classic!  Pee Wee has a series of, well, travels and misadventures (see what I did there?!) trying to locate his stolen bicycle.  He eventually finds himself in Texas and there’s a great scene in which he calls a friend to announce his location.  When asked to prove he’s really in Texas, he does so by singing out: “The stars at night are big and bright….”  and hundreds of Texan movie extras sing back: “Deep in the heart of Texas.”  On his quest, Pee Wee makes it to The Alamo and so do I…

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Mission San Jose

In fact, I made it to ALL of the missions!  (Ok, ok, but I am (a) an overachiever and (b) a history nerd).  The Mission Trail in San Antonio is easily navigated in a day and spending time relaxing, meditating, praying, and/or walking the grounds of these missions isn’t a bad way to spend a few hours.

The San Antonio Missions have a World Heritage Designation from UNESCO ( that’s the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.) Pretty amazing when you think about it…this is the same designation given to the Taj Mahal, among others.

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Mission Concepcion

The Missions were intended to settle the area around what is now San Antonio for Spain and to enforce Christianity.  Four of the missions that were established by the Spanish in the 1700s are just south of today’s downtown and are set about three miles apart along a 12-mile drive.  The fifth, and most famous mission, The Alamo, is right in downtown San Antonio and is an easy walk from any of the downtown hotels.

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Mission Espada

 

 

 

Each of these missions were beautiful and interesting in their own ways. Mission San José was perhaps the most architecturally interesting. I got the most creepy-crawly feelings at Mission Concepción (anyone else believe in wee ghosties?!) and found Mission Espada to be the lovliest.

On day 3, I made it to The Alamo.  It’s by far the most well known, but it’s well known for a 13-day battle (Santa Anna, Bowie, Crockett, Travis, et al being the main characters) and not for its history as a Spanish Colonial Mission. Let me preface this by saying that it is Spring Break in San Antonio. There was no peace to be found at the Alamo.  The history of the place is fascinating, no doubt, but it was my least favorite of the missions.  Still, if you like American history, I’d recommend a quick jaunt up to The Alamo.  (PS: Take all the pics you want on the outside, but none are allowed indoors.  You will however, be asked to pose for your very own commemorative photo on your way in. I declined).

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The Alamo

From The Alamo, I decided to take a quick walk around the historic downtown before heading to the airport to catch a flight home.  San Antonio’s historic quarter is surprisingly walkable and you can pack a lot of sightseeing in in a short time (which was perfect for me).

If you enjoy a good Catholic church like I do, don’t miss the San Fernando Cathedral.  It’s beautiful and if you want to find where the heroes from the battle at The Alamo are interred, it’s here.  Of course, there are many fun shops and you can keep yourself occupied eating your way up and down the River Walk – it’s worth it!

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San Fernando Cathedral

San Antonio is climbing my list of favorite American cities and I’m kinda sad to leave it behind today.

Hiking in the land of O’Keeffe

Northern New Mexico’s stark landscapes are so stunning. It’s easy to see how a Midwestern girl named O’Keeffe fell in love with this place.

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Ever need a quiet day to yourself?  Yeah, me too.  Today was one of those days, so I called into work on a “mental health day,” and headed out to find a place to hike.

“God told me if I painted that mountain enough, I could have it.” ~ Georgia O’Keeffe

I found myself driving through the landscapes of northern New Mexico, eventually stopping at Ghost Ranch, just outside of Abiquiu. The stark landscapes here are so stunning that a Midwestern girl could fall in love with the magic of the high deserts of New Mexico. That’s happened more than once. With me, of course, but also with a gal we’ve all come to know as one of the most prolific American artists of her time, Georgia O’Keeffe.

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View from Box Canyon Trail

O’Keeffe, a Wisconsin girl, started visiting northern New Mexico in 1929 and found peace and inspiration here. (I get it, Georgia).  O’Keeffe’s history with this part of New Mexico is interwoven with the history of Ghost Ranch. The Ranch is now owned by the Presbyterian Church, but all are welcome to wander the grounds, to hike, to reflect, and even to buy a little something at the trading post.

Ghost Ranch is open daily from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM and is mostly quiet, depending on the event calendar (there are tours, guided trail hikes, art workshops, etc.).

 

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Chimney Rock

I took on the Chimney Rock Trail today.  It’s a 3 mile round trip hike, but the trail does get steep in spots as you move from 6,500 feet to 7,100 feet. Great views all around, I set off up the trail, my quiet reflection interrupted only once by a pair of grumbling wives whose husbands had scampered quickly up the trail leaving them behind – struggling.  I suppose, I’d grumble too.  I find it’s best when hiking (if you’re not solo), to hike with a group that has similar hiking abilities.  I usually hike as part of a foursome.  We have similar abilities and goals when it comes to hiking and we have one very important rule: You can call for a rest (or a fat kid break as my somewhat out-of-shape self lovingly calls it) whenever you need it and no one else in the group will give you a hard time.  You know…sometimes you need a break to stop and breathe, to get a drink of water, or to put your head down and reflect upon why you thought you could hike this trail/distance/elevation/whatever.  When you’re ready, the group moves forward until the next hiker calls for a break. The wives on that trail needed my foursome today, but I digress.

Walkers and hikers of all abilities can find a trail at Ghost Ranch.  There’s quite a range: short and flat, long and flat, short and steep, and long and steep.  You get the idea.  The Ranch itself also has some interesting historic buildings, a yurt (a yurt!), and several other quiet spots where you can sit and enjoy the scenery if you’re not a hiker.

If you’ve got time, head down the road and check out the quirky little town of Abiquiu itself.  Georgia O’Keeffe’s home and studio are adjacent to the Abiquiu Inn (a fabulous place to stay!) and can be toured. You can check it out here: O’Keeffe Museum

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Ecuador – Beyond the Galapagos

Ecuador is more than just the Galapagos Islands…

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“Imagine a man without lungs. Imagine Earth without Amazon Rainforest.” ~Vinita Kinra

After a blissful week in the Galapagos Islands, a change of scenery (and temperature) was in order. My friend and I decided to extend our stay in Ecuador with a 3-day excursion through the Andes Mountains, into the Cloud Forest, and ultimately arriving at the rainforest in the Napo River Valley.

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The Cloud Forest

We hired a tour guide in Quito to drive us, but you could, of course, rent a car and drive yourself.  After leaving Quito, already at 9,000 feet in elevation, you begin a steady climb into the Andes and the highway quickly becomes a two-lane road – in need of major repairs in some areas. The road is insanely busy and filled with trucks, motorcycles, cars, pedestrians and sometimes, men on horseback.  A few minutes into the drive, I began seriously contemplating covering my eyes for the rest of the journey.  Driving in the Andes is not for the faint of heart. (Or for nervous people. Or for control freaks.) Driving between a truck and a bike in the same lane while trying to avoid a stretch of road that has crumbled completely down a cliffside?  Yep.  Watching for and swerving around stray dogs, cows, and birds? Yep. Passing multiple cars on double blind turns? Yep. That’s a regular thing. After it happens 10 times or so, you decide you can look out from behind your fingers (you know, the ones covering your eyes) and  glance out the window hoping to catch a glimpse of the incredibly shy spectacle bear. (We didn’t).

You do really want to look out the window.  The Andes are beautiful and the climate changes dramatically in a short amount of time.  Rising up over the city of Quito, the landscape becomes greener and greener.  Mountains rise sky high out of the Earth.  (The average elevation in the Andes is 13,000 feet with some peaks rising over 22,000 feet.)

There are several quaint villages along the route and we stopped in the adorable village of Papallacta which boasts a world class hot springs. (As anyone who knows me knows, hot springs are on Heather’s top ten list of things to enjoy in life). There is a lodge at Papallacta and I could have easily spent a week in this charming spot relaxing and contemplating life while I munched on a bag of chifles (plantain chips). There are pools of varying heat for soaking and relaxing. And, one odd pool that is a short rectangle with stairs entering the pool from one side and another set of stairs immediately exiting the pool on the other side. (What?!) That pool is filled with Napo River water and it’s, ummm, brisk. (Read: freezing). You enter the pool via the first set of stairs, and exit via the second set. In the time it takes you to enter and exit the pool, you’ve lost all feeling in your extremities. From there, in order to improve circulation, you sit your butt back down in some hot water. Aaaahhhh, now that’s more like it.

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Papallacta River

Papallacta is in what Ecuadorians call the Cloud Forest. It’s a beautiful, lush landscape so called because the altitude and humidity cause a perpetual layer of clouds to hang just above the forest. The climate is much cooler here and after cooking in my own skin while in the Galapagos (worth it!), the Cloud Forest was a nice change of pace.

As you continue your descent into the valley, there are a number of resort towns each with their own claim to fame: adventure sports (think white water rafting), rock climbing, bird watching, etc. We made a detour into the Guango Lodge, well known for its bird watching and famous for its hummingbirds. It’s a quaint little place and well worth the $5 admission fee to catch a glimpse of these sweet little birds in varying sizes and colors.

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Hummingbird, Guango Lodge

By the end of the day, we had made our way into the valley and were ready to head to our hotel for the evening, La Casa del Suizo. The hotel is stunning and sits overlooking the Napo River. You must canoe to the hotel. I know, some of you just panicked. These are motorized canoes, captained by someone hired by the hotel. After a short ride down the Napo River, you’ll arrive at the hotel and climb the one million stairs required to get to the registration desk. (Ok, it’s really only about 100 stairs, but it feels like a million after you’ve climbed them for the fourth time).

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View from my room at La Casa del Suizo

The hotel was truly amazing. It makes you feel as if you’re living in a tree house. It boasts comfortable, clean rooms with amazing river views.  There was no air conditioning here but large screened in windows that allowed for a nice airflow. Our first night here, we heard something that sounded a lot like a duck except that the noise kept up into the night.  Not a bird, then;  birds typically nest in the evenings.  I asked our guide about it the next day. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: “Can I ask you a question about this noise we heard last night?”

Guide: “Of course. What did it sound like?”

Me: “It sounded like a duck, but the noise continued all night long.”

Guide: “Oh, those are toads.”

Me: “Oh, toads!  Are they big ones?”

Guide: (spreads her hands apart to basketball width) “No, they’re small.”

Gah! If small toads in the rainforest are basketball sized, I have no earthly desire to run into a “large” rainforest toad.

Lodges in the area are able to book several different activities for you. We took advantage of a canoe ride to an animal rescue center where we got to see many of the native species. The rescue center seeks to rehabilitate and re-release the animals, but some will live their lives in this volunteer run center mostly because of their exposure to humans in the illegal pet trade. The center was opened by a German family and in addition to caring for the animals, they have opened a school for local children. We also took a hike in the rainforest with a guide from the Quechua tribe. The Quechua were among the first native peoples to be conquered by the Inca and they’ve been in the Amazonian basin hundreds of years. A hike from the river up into the rainforest, which lies at the edge of the Andes, is quite steep…the equivalent of 70 flights of city stairs, according to my Fitbit. (As if I needed more stairs after hauling myself up and down at the hotel.)

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Squirrel Monkey

You quickly forget about your burning quadriceps though.   Plants and flowers so green and beautiful, giant trees, and howler, squirrel and wooly monkeys in the wild. After getting hot and sweaty – again – we tubed down the Napo River enjoying the cool water. In the afternoon, we visited a Quechua village. I learned to use a traditional blow dart gun. The gun is 9-feet long and I was not sure I’d land a dart anywhere close to the monkey decoy hanging from the tree, but I got him squarely, on my first try…right in the monkey balls.

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Monkey Decoy in Quechua Village

Our days in the rainforest were not terribly hot; however, they were humid.  Luckily for us a dip in the beautiful lodge pool was an option. While enjoying the cool water one afternoon, we encountered another tribe of people known simply as ‘Mericans.   Settle in, because I’m going to share with you a cautionary tale.

One of the best things you can to do be an understanding, global citizen, in my opinion, is to travel and to be open to new experiences and to people that differ from you in the hopes of expanding your world view. Some Americans traveling abroad give the rest of us a bad rap and I’m going to outline why just below:

  1. ‘Mericans changed their departing flight to Ft. Lauderdale to avoid Miami because there were “too many Spanish speaking people in Miami.” (I’m really not sure who they thought they’d encounter in Ecuador).
  2. ‘Mericans thought it “weird” that we’d hired a guide in Quito and allowed her to drive us into the rainforest. Nope. Ecuador has professional people and our guide was amazing.
  3. In the midst of an amazing buffet full of local and international foods, ‘Mericans complained that this was the only resort where you’d “lose weight because the food was so bad.” (I guess, if you think garlic shrimp, beef tenderloin, curry chicken, plantains, and fresh fruit is bad).
  4. And, ‘Mericans miss their junk food. “I mean, you can’t even get Cool Ranch Doritos or Diet Dr. Pepper here.”

Be American. Be proud to be an American, but don’t assume that different is bad. Don’t assume that people living in other countries don’t deserve your consideration or your respect. Open your mind (and your mouth) to try new experiences (and eat new food).

Archipiélago de Colón (or the Galapagos Islands)

Christopher Columbus sure gets a lot of credit for places he’s never been.

And while Columbus didn’t actually make it to the Galapagos Islands, you can.

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Columbus sure gets a lot of credit for places he’s never been.

And while Columbus didn’t actually make it to the islands named for him, you can.  Traveling to Ecuador is more affordable than you might think – especially if you can haul yourself to the East Coast to grab a great deal.  The best fares to Ecuador depart from New York’s JFK airport or from Miami. You’ll fly into Ecuador’s capital, Quito.  Flights from Miami to Quito are approximately 4 hours long and (bonus!) Miami and Quito are on the same time…negating all of those nasty jet lag symptoms I get when flying to Europe.

As a nature and animal lover, the Galapagos has long been on my travel bucket list, so when a friend of mine called last year to inquire if I’d like to join her on a 9-day trip to Ecuador and the Islands in February, I said (screamed) yes immediately!

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On approach to the Galapagos (Photo courtesy J. Lally)

After spending an interesting day in Key West, FL, we packed our bags, grabbed our snorkel gear and hopped on our flight to Quito.  (If you don’t know, interesting is a Midwesterner’s way of saying weird.)

All traffic to the Galapagos Islands must arrive by air to Baltra Island – site of the airport and not much else. Upon landing in Baltra, I decided it looks very much like Tucson, Arizona to me – except that it’s much more humid. (More about the stifling humidity later).

Before navigating your way through Customs, where you’ll present your passport and declaration form, you need to purchase a Tourist Control Card ($10) and a Galapagos Islands National Park Pass ($100).  (PS: Ecuador’s currency is the American dollar.  An economic crisis in the early 2000s prompted Ecuador to abandon its own currency and make a deal with the good ol’ US of A to begin using ours). The tourist card and parks pass are required for entry into the islands.  If you are part of a tour group, as we were, your tour company has most likely made arrangements for these two items. Customs agents will search your bags looking for organic items that can damage the ecosystem in the Galapagos.

The Galapagos Islands consist of 13 major islands, 6 minor islands, and a whole lotta rocks. You’ll need to arrange for transportation on land and on water and this is easily done.  We visited 4 islands: Baltra, Santa Cruz, Isabela, and Tintorera. From the airport at Baltra,  we hopped on a short (and, I mean short) ferry ride over to Santa Cruz Island.  I think we were in the water all of 5 minutes.

I was excited about Santa Cruz because it’s the home of the Giant Tortoise. Seeing these gentle giants was on the top of my list. Having had a couple of rough years in which I questioned pretty much every decision I’d made both personally and professionally, I was seeking a wise tortoise (they can live more than 150 years!) to deliver to me some kind of intrinsic truth or message from the universe.  As directed by a close friend, I set out to find the wisest tortoise: “The one wearing the monocle,” she said. If you’re like me, seeking messages from wise tortoises, you may be disappointed. Giant Tortoises are, it seems, more interested in eating grass and farting in mud puddles than talking to humans looking for divine guidance. But, in all honesty, they’re still amazing. It’s a wonderful experience to watch these old creatures.

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Giant Tortoise on Santa Cruz

At this point I should point out a few things: The Galapagos Islands are beautiful. Green. Vibrant. Lush.  And HOT. There is a price to pay for all of this gorgeous vegetation and it’s called humidity. Temperatures in the Galapagos in February range from 75-86 degrees F. (If you need Celsius temperatures, you’re gonna have to Google.) You think, well those temperatures sound delightful! I can’t wait to escape the cold in (insert your cold city here). I’ll remind you that you are going to add two things to your 80 degree day: 100% humidity and intense equatorial sun.

You are going to sweat. A lot. You are going to sweat a lot. Do not bother bringing hair products or make-up. Really. Don’t do it. You’re going to sweat it all off in a matter of moments. I gave up trying to look presentable about 5 minutes into this vacation. What you are going to need is deodorant (lots of it!) and sunscreen (even more than you think you need).

You’re also going to be tempted to touch the tortoises….you’ll in fact be tempted to touch all the critters you see in the islands, but you cannot. You must maintain a respectful distance of 2 meters (about 6 feet for my fellow Americans) from the animals. Don’t worry, you’re still close enough to view these animals in all their glory and to get incredible photos.

Santa Cruz will be your first opportunity to meet two unique kinds of locals: the sea lion and the marine iguana. Sea lions are not seals, nor are they walruses (an excited woman at the airport told us she had seen walruses. Nope.). The sea lions and marine iguanas are plentiful on Santa Cruz, Isabela, and Tintorera islands.  Animals in the Galapagos are largely unafraid of people because there are no land predators.  The sea lions are usually very vocal in letting you know when they plan to make their way up stairs or onto a pier. Females and pups are pretty easy going, but the males can be aggressive, so be aware. Marine iguanas are maybe the coolest animal I’ve seen. They look like miniature, black Godzillas with strange turned in feet, but they can swim like nobody’s business and dive underwater to eat algae.

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Marine iguana on Isabela Island
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Sleeping sea lions in Puerto Ayora

There are plenty of opportunities to hike, swim, and kayak on Santa Cruz Island, including activities along the gorgeous white sands of Tortuga Bay.  Tortuga Bay boasts a lovely, calm and shallow swim beach about 50 meters off the end of the trail.  Just know, that the trail, from park entrance to the ocean, is about a 45 minute walk and it can be very hot.  (It was so hot on the day we attempted this walk that our entire tour group almost revolted).

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The beach at Tortuga Bay

When you’re ready to do a bit more exploring, you can easily arrange boat transportation from Santa Cruz to Isabela. It works a little bit like this: you take a water taxi out of the crowded port, a speed boat pulls up next to your taxi, you crawl off one boat and onto the other.  A 2-hour ride brings you to Isabela where you’ll do the speed boat/water taxi shuffle one more time. Isabela felt more “Galapagos” to me and was much less populated by human standards.  There are some great opportunities to swim and snorkel off of Isabela and you may well find yourself in the water with sea lions, iguanas, penguins, rays, sharks, sea turtles, pelicans, and the comical blue footed booby.

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The Blue Footed Booby

We snorkeled and swam every day.  Beware the sun!  Now that you’re on the water, you’re getting the heat, the sun and the reflection of the sun off the water. You are going to get sunburned. If you’re of the fairer skinned persuasion, like me, you are going to get downright crispy without major intervention. So please, do yourself a favor: take sunscreen and lots of it, take a giant beach hat (who cares if you look ridiculous?!), and take some long sleeved t-shirts to swim and snorkel in. Despite my best efforts, I still ended up with a sunburn, negating all the work my esthetician had been doing to even out my existing freckles and sunspots (sorry, Sandra). If I had it to do over, I’d invest in some gauzy pants and long-sleeved shirts to remain both covered and cool. And aloe. Damn it, I’d bring lots of aloe.

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Sea Turtle (Photo courtesy of J. Lally)

Let’s talk about bugs, baby. Ok, so tourism in Ecuador is down because of the concern around the Zika Virus. In reality, Ecuador has only had a couple of confirmed cases of Zika and they have been on the coast of the mainland. There are mosquitoes, of course, but the largest bug problem I encountered in the Islands was horse flies. Horse flies bite and it hurts. So, take some insect repellent with you. (Shameless plug for my favorite: Sawyer Insect Repellent).

And what about the accommodations?!  Hotels, you’ll find, are basic, but nice and clean.  I was elated to find air conditioning units in both my room in Santa Cruz and in Isabela.  You may find refrigerators in some rooms and an occasional tv (but you won’t need that.) Surprisingly, you’ll also find Wifi at most hotels.  Given your location on the globe, connections may be spotty, at best, but we could get a signal long enough to post to our various social media sites. Hot water was also intermittent – but not to worry, with the heat, you’ll find yourself craving cold showers like a crazy person.

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View from my hotel suite in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island

Here are two things you need to know. 1. You cannot drink the tap water in Ecuador. You shouldn’t even use it to brush your teeth. You’ll find bottled water or a pitcher of purified water in your hotel room. You would also do well to take a reusable bottle with you, as most hotels, bars, and restaurants in the Galapagos will happily refill it for you with purified water. 2. You cannot flush toilet tissue. I know, I know, it sounds so gross to those of us living in first world countries, but it’s really not the end of the world. Bathrooms are all stocked with toilet tissue and a small trashcan next to the toilet where you’ll toss the tissue after doing your business. Note that in some public restrooms, the toilet tissue is on the wall before you go into your stall.

This trip was a once in a lifetime experience. If you get the opportunity to go to the Galapagos Islands – – – DO IT! Before you go falling in love with the Islands, there are only two ways to be a resident of the Galapagos: (a) be born there or (b) marry a Galapagueño. (I attempted to marry my friend off to our tour guide to no avail.  Sigh. Guess I’ll be paying for my room again next time.)

The Galapagos Islands are an incredible place to be. I am eager to return. I got hot, I got sweaty, I got in ocean water (which has its own funky smell) and I enjoyed every single second of it. To the good people of Ecuador: Thank You! And if I smelled remotely like my dirty laundry, I apologize.

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Isabela Lodge on Isabela Island