On Road and Trail

After a hearty breakfast of french toast and bottomless cups of coffee, DonQui is ready to hit the road again.

He hastens to add that this is not the vehicle he will be driving, although it would probably be a bit of fun to do so.

The bleak, open, desert landscape is striking…

… and the road seems to go on forever.

It looks like some pretty nasty weather up ahead. Sure enough, when it reaches him, it brings driving snow and blizzard-like conditions. Fortunately DonQui is soon through it and out the other end.

He skirts the southern end of Death Valley, which today does not quite live up to its reputation for brutal heat. Then DonQui approaches Clark Mountain pass.

Once through the pass the drive takes him down to the flat lands of Dry Lake and the Nevada state line.

Crossing into Nevada, DonQui heads off on a small road through Spring Mountains. Unfortunately they look anything but Spring-like thanks to the unusually cold, snowy weather.

Five hours after setting off from Joshua Tree, DonQui reaches his destination. This is Sandy Valley Ranch.

Here DonQui trots along the Old Spanish Trail together with a couple of horses and a wrangler called Randy.

The desert views along the trail are starkly beautiful.

DonQui’s trail guide is a most pleasant companion. His horse, however, is not keen to be seen engaging in conversation with a Donkey.

From Jungle to Desert

After two weeks in Ecuador, DonQui sets off on the third leg of his around the world trip. Next stop Southern California. 

It is a long two day journey: canoe back up the Cuyabeno, car to Coca where he stays overnight, and then three flights in quick succession — Coca to Quito, Quito to Miami, and then on to Los Angeles. He only just makes the connection in Miami thanks to long queues at security and US immigration.

Hiring a car in LA, DonQui drives off towards the Mojave desert.

His first destination is Sacred Sands at the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park

DonQui is more than pleased with his accommodation which is quite a contrast to roughing it in Amazonia.

Joshua Tree National Park is breathtakingly beautiful.

The iconic joshua trees look like a cross between a cactus and palm tree. They are in fact yuccas, which DonQui learns are somewhat bizarrely related to asparagus.

The rock formations dotted across the desert landscape are as impressive as the trees…

… none more so than the other-worldly skull rock.

The small town of Joshua Tree is very pleasant with an artsy, alternative vibe. DonQui finds souvenir shops selling crystals and incense underneath posters advertising spiritual retreats, yoga, sound healings and other sorts of new agey stuff.

The entrance to the Joshua Tree Saloon looks as if a bus load of hippies pulled up several decades ago and stayed. Quite probably they did.

Inside the saloon DonQui feels as if he has entered a movie set with a couple of characters from central casting making good use of the pool table.

DonQui settles in for a couple of hours to watch the locals and enjoy some very good food and beer.

DonQui had expected the desert nights to be cold but his arrival is timed with an unseasonal cold snap with high winds. As he leaves the saloon he is more than a little shocked to find it is snowing. This is not exactly what he had been expecting.

Exploring Cuyabeno

Most of DonQui’s time in the Cuyabeno reserve is spent exploring the magnificent primeval rainforest by canoe (sometimes motorised and sometimes paddling) and on foot.

The trails through the jungle often resemble rivers. There is a clue in the name ‘rainforest’ but although it is the rainy season, DonQui is very lucky that the weather is bright and clear during the days he is there. It is very hot and humid. After a couple of hours trotting and wading through the forest he is soaked with sweat.

DonQui’s wonderful guide, Victor Hugo, is very knowledgeable about the flora and fauna. Here is is demonstrating the uses of sap from the copal tree as an instant fire lighter, candle and also (thanks to its strong menthol aroma) insect repellent. 

His ability to find even the smallest animals and insects is uncanny.

This is a ‘walking tree’ so called because it has ‘legs’ rather than fixed roots. It is able to shift its position by growing new legs and discarding old ones in the never ending search for that little bit of sunlight coming down through the canopy. 

Looking a little like a rocket with its ‘tail fin’ roots this tall ceiba tree is probably around 600 years old.

Towards sunset DonQui takes advantage of the opportunity to swim in the river at Lago Grande — a wide lagoon at the confluence of two tributaries. 

DonQui learns that this lagoon, now swollen with rainwater, is little more than a mud-flat at the height of the dry season in September.

The sunset over Lago Grande is amazing. So too are the stars that come out shortly afterwards.

After sunset a night walk through the forest reveals a hidden world of caymans, snakes and spiders. DonQui would have liked to have seen an anaconda but although he encounters several boa constrictors, anacondas elude him. Apparently they are easier to spot in the dry season. He does however, have a close encounter with a tarantula. This DonQui finds a little challenging as he has a few spider issues. 

During the course of his explorations DonQui sees and hears a huge variety of birds including parrots, toucans and macaws. His favourite is the stinking turkey (hoatzin). DonQui thinks they look a little bit like comedy cartoon characters.

In between exploratory excursions there are a couple of free hours after lunch to rest and relax. Invariably DonQui drifts off to sleep exhausted from long walks and canoe trips in the humid heat.

The absolute highlight is several sightings of pink (actually pinkish-grey) Amazonian fresh water dolphins — one of which DonQui sees frolicking just a few feet from the dock of the lodge. They only surface for a fraction of a second before going back under the dark murky water with a quick flip of a tail fin. This is a stock image as they were are far too quick for DonQui to capture a photo. According to Victor Hugo they become more pink in the mating season (May) and at that time they also leap further out of the water.

On to Amazonia

Wishing to explore Ecuadorian Amazonia, DonQui is given two options to get there from Quito — a 12 hour coach journey or a 25 minute flight.

“You get some great views on the coach,” says the kindly lady from the excellent Quinana Tours in Quito.

Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that DonQui pays the extra money for the 25 minute flight to Coca (officially Puerto Francisco de Orellana but no one calls it that) followed by a 2 hour car journey to Lago Agrio (officially Nueva Loja but no one calls it that). 

Lago Agrio is a gritty, ramshackle frontier town carved out of the Amazon rainforest in the 1960s by Texaco as a base for oil exploration. Close to the Columbian border it is an infamously dangerous, polluted, unattractive place, filled with oil workers, Columbian drug traffickers and impoverished looking locals.  It is, however, gateway to the fabulous Cuyabeno Nature Reserve. DonQui needs to spend a night there in a drab hotel in which most of the other occupants are dressed in red Halliburton branded boiler suits. He does not stray very far from the hotel.

Early next morning his driver takes DonQui on the 2 hour journey to the Cuyabeno Bridge — the meeting point for those wishing to head down the Cuyabeno river into the reserve.

Despite the insalubrious layover in Lago Agrio, DonQui is most pleased that he opted for the flight when he sees his bedraggled fellow travellers stagger off the overnight coach. As they gather their belongings for the canoe trip downriver there is universal agreement that the 12 hour coach trip was an absolute nightmare.

it is another two hours down the Cuyabeno by motorised canoe for DonQui, nine other passengers and an ebullient guide named Victor Hugo. 

The two hours stretch to three as the canoe stops whenever Victor Hugo spots monkeys, birds, snakes and the occasional sloth. His ability to spot wildlife whilst on the move is impressive. Even when the canoe is stationary DonQui often has a hard time to locate the animal or bird Victor is pointing out.

See if you can spot the bats clinging to the upright log in the water. It takes DonQui several minutes to do so from the canoe.

These colourful butterflies are quite a bit easier to see.

Finally the canoe pulls up at Dolphin lodge which will be DonQui’s base for the next few days of Amazonian exploration. 

The lodge is rustic but comfortable with only a dozen or so guests. Deep in the rainforest it is completely off grid with no wifi or phone signal and there is only a limited amount of electricity provided by the lodge’s solar panels. The sense of being away from everything suits DonQui perfectly. The food is pretty good considering the limited cooking facilities and the fact that absolutely everything has to be brought in by canoe. 

Up in the cloud forest

Back on the Ecuadorian mainland, DonQui is spending a couple of days in the Mindo cloud forest.

As the name suggests there is… well… lots of lush forest high up in the Andes so as to be more or less permanently in the clouds. When it is not actually raining there is an almost constant light drizzle. It is quite a climatic change from the hot, dry Galapagos.

Feeling quite intrepid DonQui sets off along a narrow path to explore the forest.

He trots down to the Mindo river and then on to the small town of the same name. 

Mindo is a very pleasant place fully geared up for tourists but there are very few of them around. DonQui stops off for a coffee (which is grown in this area) and then heads off in search of wildlife.

This crested guan is not in the least camera shy — indeed he is a bit of a poser.

The cloud forest is famous for its many species of humming birds and they are everywhere. Many places have set out feeders to attract them.

While watching the humming birds DonQui also sees an agouti happily enjoying its midday meal.  

Tomorrow DonQui leaves the cloud forest and heads off into Amazonia.

Grazing in the Galapagos

There are plenty of good watering holes and eateries in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, where DonQui has based himself on the Galapagos. The food is good (especially seafood) but prices are very high. This is unsurprising given that almost everything, including water, has to be imported. Fish, coconut, bananas, plantain, and some chicken is local but vegetables are in very short supply. 

Quite a few places brew their own craft beer and it is rather good, although it costs around $10 a pint (Ecuador uses the US dollar).

One of DonQui’s favourite watering holes is The Rock brew-pub. It has some excellent beers and the food is also very good. In the evening local musicians play outside.

Restaurante Almar is a great place for a sundowner and it has excellent seafood. 

On his last day on Santa Cruz island DonQui takes a water taxi across the harbour.

There he treats himself to a bit of luxury at the Finch Bay Hotel. The bay is home to many species of Darwin finches — the birds famous for inspiring Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

For supper DonQui opts for the tasting menu with paired wines. Although expensive it is not unduly so by Galapagos standards.  Although DonQui associates lemongrass with Thai food, it is grown in Ecuador and often used in many Ecuadorian dishes. The coconut shrimp and lemongrass soup is an absolute delight.

Each dish is superb, especially the fish and seafood.

To finish is a delightful (and most appropriate) chocolate lava cake celebrating Charles’ Darwin’s birthday (12 February).

Now DonQui is at the airport on Baltra island for a flight back to the mainland. There is a pleasant VIP lounge which DonQui can access thanks to the ‘Dragon Pass’ which comes with his bank account. Apparently real dragons have free access to come and go as they please!

Island hopping

The Galapagos is an archipelago of barren volcanic islands. The equatorial sun burns down on them and there is very little shade.

With no fresh water the islands are not well suited to habitation by either donkeys or humans.

Most of them are uninhabited refuges for a remarkable array of wildlife with unique species that helped to form Charles Darwin’s conclusions about evolution.

To explore a few of the islands and to meet some of the remarkable native inhabitants DonQui needs to get on a boat. There are a wide choice of day trips available from Puerto Ayora and all require an early morning start. This takes some effort on DonQui’s part as he is not naturally an early riser.

A dingy or water taxi takes DonQui to his waiting vessel on each of his three day-excursions to Pinzón, Isabella and North Seymour. The boats are quite comfortable — especially the catamaran which takes him to North Seymour. The groups on board are very small, usually about 10-12 passengers — the number of visitors being strictly limited to avoid overcrowding and too much disturbance to the wildlife.

A dingy is towed along behind to assist with beach landings and to get to good snorkelling spots.

On his way to Pinzón DonQui is lucky to encounter some Dolphins who decided to playfully swim around the boat for several minutes.

… and on the way back from North Seymour a huge Tiger Shark escorts DonQui out of the shark’s territorial waters. DonQui thinks it best not to argue.

The various snorkelling stops are the best part of all the trips. The water is crystal clear so DonQui is able to observe a huge array of tropical fish. Off Pinzón a family of sea lions swim alongside. One comes right up to DonQui and nosily presses its snout at DonQui’s mask. Off North Seymour DonQui suddenly finds himself in the middle of a huge school of whitetip sharks — hundreds of them swimming all around him. It was quite breathtaking.

Whilst snorkelling he aslo encounters marine iguanas, sea turtles, barracuda and several species of rays. 

DonQui also meets many fascinating species of birds such as these iconic blue footed boobies. Nearby DonQui sees a Galapagos penguin swimming and diving for fish.

One of these male frigate birds is puffing up his red throat sack in the hope of attracting a mate. The other looks as if he couldn’t be bothered.

DonQui sees land iguanas everywhere.

And he also comes across a pair of giant tortoises doing their best to ensure the continuation of their species.

Six days on the Galapagos with three spent on the inhabited Santa Cruz and three day-excursions to other islands is just about enough. DonQui thinks it might have been an idea to have spent a bit longer so he could have gone to San Cristobal to spent a night there. However, he has seen more wildlife close up than he could possibly have hoped for. So he is just about ready for his next adventure

Galloping to Galapagos

When researching his ‘round the world’ trip DonQui learned that most people wishing to visit the Galapagos Islands take a cruise ship from the Ecuadorian coast. The prices are eye-watering and the thought of being stuck on a boat for several days with a bunch of strangers does not appeal. Then he discovers that there are plentiful inexpensive flights from Quito, taking only a couple of hours instead of three days. This seems like a much better proposition.

So he wings his way over the Pacific to land at Baltra airport — formally a US Naval base.

He passes several checks to fill in forms, pay various fees and to ensure he is not bringing in any organic material which would harm the wildlife. Then he takes the bus to the ferry which will transport him over the straight to Santa Cruz island. 

The ‘ferry’ crossing on a small boat is quite quick and has an atmospheric air of adventure to it. On landing he could then have waited for a bus but, being a creature who likes his comforts, DonQui opts for a taxi for the 40 minute drive through the barren landscape to Puerto Ayora where he will be basing himself.

Puerto Ayora is a pleasant low-rise, laid back, small tourist town. 

The locals seem very friendly.

DonQui comes across a couple of the locals enjoying a late afternoon beach snooze just on the edge of town.

The lovely Morning Glory ‘boutique hostel’ is DonQui’s base for the next five days and he is more than happy with his choice. His hostess Ruth is very helpful in suggesting day excursions for DonQui to explore these unique islands and to come close to its wildlife.

Tomorrow he will begin exploring.

Fruit, Chocolate and Guinea Pig

Wherever he goes DonQui likes to sample the local cuisine. Ideally he is hoping to discover new foods and sample different tastes that he would not get at home. For him, this is one of the greatest joys of travelling.

To this end he has booked a morning food tour with the delightful Yadira. DonQui learns a lot about Ecuadorian food — especially the plentiful tropical fruits, most of which are completely unknown to him. Yadira is an extremely knowledgeable and friendly guide. On the walking tour with several delicious food stops she also explains some of Quito’s history to DonQui which helps give him perspective on the places he visits both on the tour and later.

Being a bit of a chocoholic the tasting at Yumbos Chocolate on San Fransisco Square is an absolute delight. DonQui learns much about their sustainable, fair trade production and the fact that Ecuador’s Arrriba cacao is considered to be the best in the world. Most of it is exported to Switzerland, Belgium and Germany to form the basis of those countries’ exquisite chocolates.

He buys a few bars to take back home with him.

The next day DonQui books a leisurely lunch at Inés restaurant.

The starter of Bola de verde (Plantain filled with pulled pork, carrots and peas with a peanut sauce) is both a visual and taste delight — probably the highlight of the meal as starters so often are.

This is followed by Brujo encocado (Scorpion fish with coconut sauce, yellow rice and caramelised coconut). The Scorpion fish is similar in texture to cod but slightly meatier and with a delightful delicate taste which goes so well with the coconut sauce.

Then DonQui tries smoked guinea pig croquettes. They are presented with no small amount of theatre on a bed of branches and leaves (their native habitat) in a glass bowl filled with smoke.

So what does guinea pig taste like? Well nothing like chicken. The meat is darkish and the taste and texture is perhaps a bit like a cross between duck and rabbit. DonQui would not go out of his way to seek it out again but he did enjoy it and was glad to have had the opportunity to sample something new and different.

Finishing off the meal is a delightful chocolate concoction with sweet corn cream, a touch of banana vinegar and caramelised corn (maize). As with everything else it is absolutely delicious.

It is not just fine dining that DonQui enjoys. He has also become quite partial to Empanadas — fried pasties stuffed with cheese or meat and the dough made from plantain flour.

Another favourite is humita — a pre-Columbian dish of fresh ground chocio (large kernel Andean maize) with cheese steamed in a corn husk.