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When Alan and I saw the Galapagos Islands adventure offered by Adventures by Disney, we knew immediately we were going to sign up. To visit the Galapagos Islands and experience the unique Nature there has been on our "bucket list" for many years. What we didn't know was that we'd fall in love the culture of Ecuador in the highlands of the Andes Mountains. As usual, Disney made the adventure even more spectacular for us. But I get ahead of myself. Let's start at the beginning; >)
Day 1- Bienvenidos
TIP: Flights into Quito, Ecuador typically arrive in the evening. We learned from our past five Adventures by Disney tours that it's a good idea to arrive a day early so that we feel rested for the tour's activities. As well, Quito is at 9300 ft elevation, and that extra day gave us the time we needed to adjust
The Adventures by Disney team sets up a wonderful greeting system. We were met at the airport after clearing Customs and led to our transportation to the hotel. The next day (because we came in a day early), we found the Adventures by Disney table by the front desk. Fresh drinks and hot towels awaited tired travelers, and everything we needed to know to get started was available. We relaxed and spent the day enjoying the beautiful JW Marriott resort.
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Day 2 - Middle of the Earth
It was rise and shine for our first group event - Breakfast! We got to play a "get to know each other better game" and learn a little about each others' reasons for coming to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands... as well as eat a delicious meal that had both Ecuadorian treats and American favorites!
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Once on the very comfortable Mercedes bus that would be like our "home away from home" for the next few days, we began the journey to the Ecuadorian Highlands. Quito is nestled into the Andes at 9300 feet above sea level...
TIP: There is water on the bus. Always have a bottle in your hand while riding, and keep drinking. This will help you adjust to the elevation immensely.
We learned all kinds of interesting tidbits while we traveled through the city of Quito and into the mountains. Eduardo, our local Adventure Guide, was a font of information. His delivery was well thought out and humorous. What more could an adventurer want? From socio-economic influences to the history of Peru and Spain in Ecuador to Geography, Eduardo was prepared to answer questions. For example, did you know that Ecuador is approximately the size of Nevada and has 7 live volcanoes? Imagine that!
Our first stop was Latitude 0 - the equatorial point deemed "The Middle of the Earth" Once again, my somewhat limited understanding of what the equator is and means was expanded by this fascinating stop. Here's a short video clip of some of what we learned at the Quitosato Equatorial Sundial:
Latitude 0 Video
My mind was stretched!
Click here for pictures at Latitude 0
We clambered back into bus, collected our bottles of water and headed down the winding mountain highway to our next stop: Molino San Juan. Molino San Juan was an operating grain mill for many years but now is a museum. We were greeted with a fresh beverage and welcomed into the hacienda. We met the family who ran the mill, learned its history, and served lunch. But first, a lesson in baking Bizcochos:
Baking Bizcochos Video
Click here for pictures of Molino San Juan
It was only mid-afternoon of the first day, and I am already exclaiming to anyone who will listen that I LOVE this tour! We left the Molino San Juan light of heart and tummy-satisfied for a modest ride on the bus to our Hacienda in the Highlands. We rode through winding mountain scenery and stopped at a scenic lookout to get some pictures.
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Long story short - The Disney Magic happens even when you don't notice it; >)
Journey's end - Hacienda Cuisin. The Hacienda is a restored Highlands ranch, and much of the original charm is still intact in the beautiful grounds and furnishings. Every room is unique. That said, much of cultural infra-structure is also still intact. While we in the US of A are used to even the most basic dwellings having automatic temperature control inside, this is not the norm in the culture we are visiting. Rooms are heated either by fireplaces or mobile electric heating units. In other words, the interior temperatures are the same as the exterior temperatures most of the day. Fireplaces are lit after dark. Our room had a fireplace so we were fortunate to be able to get enough warmth in the room to make showering in the unheated bathrooms tolerable. Just saying... if you absolutely have to have a warm bathroom, ask for a mobile heater to keep in there all the time;
Click here for Hacienda Cuisin Pix
TIP: While Disney filled every moment (almost) with something fun and interesting to do, they also understood that not everyone wants to do everything. The Adventure Guides were wonderful in accommodating members of the tour who wanted to opt out here and there to do their own thing for awhile.
Our first evening's group activity was a Folkloric dance show followed by dinner. We were served a local tea and the BEST empanada EVER while we enjoyed the dancing. Here's a small sample of the show:
Folkloric Dance Video
It was a quiet dinner, and everyone was ready for a good night's sleep in preparation for another fun-filled day.
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Day 3 - El Mercado
Another bright and early day.. get used to these; >) Breakfast was from a menu every morning with a simple selection: Eggs and bacon, pancakes, cereal, etc with the usual sides of bread and beverage. I had fresh fruit with yogurt and no sugar added granola every day and LOVED it. We had an other very full day planned so we were on the bus and down the road (with water in hand) by 9AM.
First stop: Nanda Manachi. This musical family invited us into their home to learn more about the traditional music of the Highlands AND how to make and play a flute. It was fun, fun, fun! Here's a short video clip of the highlights:
Flute Demo and Lesson (video)
Flute Demo and Lesson Pix
Our next stop was another home in the Otavalo Valley. The members of the family were weaving artisans, and they set their home up as a museum, of sorts, to share the Ecuadorian Highlands heritage and culture with us. The sincerity and passion of the young man who led our tour was heart-touching for me. They led us through their home, showing us various elements of the culture and demonstrating their own art of weaving and sewing. As well, we saw their medicinal garden and got to sample uvilla - my new favorite fruit in the entire world! Here is a video clip of some of the highlights:
Ecuadorian Highlands Culture: Highlights (video)
Ecuadorian Highlands Culture: Highlights (pix)
According to the schedule, we planned to eat lunch here, but there was a kitchen malfunction so our two wonderful Adventure Guides and community liason did some fancy footwork and - voila! - Disney made a little magic as well as a delicious lunch. If they hadn't told us there was to be a change in plans, I wouldn't have even known. That's how smoothly it was handled.
After lunch we headed to El Mercado, the Otavala Valley market. Bargain negotiating was the term of the day, and - for those of us who like to play the game - it was FUN! In fact, I had so much fun it never even crossed my mind to take a picture I did bring home some delightful handmade treasures, though.
The bus back to Hacienda Cuisin was filled with happy, tired folks... but we weren't done yet. Back at the Hacienda, tables were set up with kites that needed decorating and snacks that needed eating. The kites were for the next day's activities, and - ready for a nap though we were - decorating that kite happened.
Dinner was a quiet affair for adults while the kids headed off for pizza and a Disney movie. Adults were invited, and - if we'd had even a modicum of energy left - we would have... We KNOW where the kids are is where the fun is had
DAY 4 - Where Condors Soar
We started the day with a choice: We could hike through a rural community of the Otavala Vally and then hike into a park to a waterfall... or, we could shop at the entrance of the park until the hikers through the rural community caught up with us and hike into the park to the waterfall. We'd been traveling mainly on the bus for a few days, and we were ready for some exercise so we opted for the longer hike. In addition to breathing the fresh, clear air and enjoying the blood pumping through our muscles, we also enjoyed beautiful views and an interesting peek into local culture.
River hike (pix)
Very refreshed now, it was time to drive to another large hacienda/ranch rich in cultural history. We were welcomed graciously and toured the hacienda and grounds, ending up in a quiet courtyard with tables set for painting. On every Adventure by Disney tour we've experienced, there's been a painting project that draws on the culture. It is ALWAYS one of my favorite activities - an opportunity to playfully express all that I've taken in so far. This was no exception. In fact, this time there was a special addition. While we ate lunch inside, young artists added their 'touches' to our paintings, turning them into masterpieces.
This lunch was one of the best meals of the trip, in my humble opinion. Alan and I took a moment to record his review:
Alan's Lunch Review (video)
Hacienda Pinsaqui Lunch (pix)
It was time for Condors! We traveled a short distance to the Raptor Rescue Center and then got the opportunity to walk lunch off as we visited the 'homes' of each bird and learned the story of their rescue before watching an open-air show. The vistas were gorgeous and the birds amazing. This video clip gives a sense of the experience:
Afterward, it was time for us to see if we could soar, too. We had a couple of really skilled kite flyers (and they know who they are), and we had Alan giving it his best effort:
Kite Flying (video)
Yes, it was another long day... and not over. When we returned to Hacienda Cuisin, they were all set up to do cooking demonstrations on the lawn while they cooked dinner on the grills. Did I mention Hacienda makes the BEST empanadas EVER?
Tomorrow was set to be a VERY early morning; after dinner adults packed while kids watched another Disney movie, and everyone prepared for a 5AM wake up call
Raptors, Condors and Dinner (pix)
Day 5 - Highlands to Islands
We were up with the sun and on the road back towards Quito and the airport. Disney arranged for us to be able to send some of our belongings that we wouldn't need on the islands back to the JW Marriot to await our return, and our Adventure Guides were very careful and methodical in making sure that luggage went where it was intended
We were VERY happy to have our Adventure Guides to lead us through the airport. We were taken to a VIP lounge to await our flight.
TIP: There are snacks here, and they are much better than the snack/meal offered on the plane. So, eat up
It was mid afternoon when we landed in the Galapagos Islands so be prepared for a full on "travel day" from sun up to high sun. However, there will be an island tour planned for that first afternoon. We opted out, feeling that one good long travel day deserves a quiet afternoon of recalibration.
There is wifi available on the ship for $15 per hour. It will work for the first day and a half or so. As we move out further, there is no signal. But it does return on the final day.
Galapagos Explorer (pix)
Day 6 - 8 Darwin Discovers, March of the Blue-Footed Boobies, and Tortoise Race
Once on the ship, the days develop a rhythm.. Wake up call at 6:30AM, out to an island at 7:15AM. There are other people on the ship with us, but the Disney group gets first departure (by 15 minutes). It's a very pleasant perk to be on the islands by ourselves for a bit. Here is one of our beach landings:
Galapagos Beach Landing (video)
Back to the ship for lunch and then out again in the afternoon for another island hike and/or snorkeling. Sometimes there was morning AND afternoon snorkeling. Snacks were always available on the deck after excursions.
TIP: The Empanadas are VERY tasty
The ship works out the itinerary with the Park Service (The Galapagos Islands are a National Park) so the islands we visited may happen in a different order, depending upon weather and other touring factors. So, instead of listing the itinerary day-by-day, these three days are grouped together to give an over-all sense of the experience.
The Galapagos Islands are a geographical "hot spot" and by this I mean.. There are volcanoes EVERYWHERE! Not only are the islands we explore in various stages of volcanic evolution, but the horizon is also decorated with them. Here's a short video clip of the "landscapes" of Galapagos
Landscapes of the Galapagos (video)
A Naturalist from the ship accompanied our group each day and filled our minds with interesting tidbits of information while explored the islands, enjoying this world of Grace and Beauty:
Galapagos Wildlife Sightings (video)
Sea Lions are on all of the islands. Watching them move and interact with each other was fascinating!:
Galapagos Sea Lions (video)
One of the highlight experiences for me was snorkeling with sea turtles. The Adventure Guides told us that this was the location where we would most likely see them and even suggested we might see as many as half a dozen.. I lost count at 30! There were so many of them, I was actually having to maneuver to stay out of their way. They were so close I could see the teensy wrinkles on their skins! And when we got back into the Zodiac, there were so many of them chilling on the surface of the water, that I could make a video clip:
Sea Turtles of Galapagos (videos)
And then there are the Blue-Footed Boobies. My gosh, these birds are silly looking, and I LOVE them for it! They have a delightful community, and it put smiles on all our faces to watch them interact:
Blue-Footed Boobies (video)
Of course, the Galapagos Islands are known for their giant tortoises. They grow forever unless injured or killed by predators. And the only predator they had was humans. Now, they are 'protected' and the population is returning. These gentle giants are kin to the same tortoises that live in the US, just much older...
Giant Land Tortoises (video)
The Galapagos Islands (pix)
Day 9 - The Key to Quito
We disembarked onto the island of San Cristobel, where we found a small town with shops and restaurants. Many happy faces anticipated a shopping opportunity First, though, we toured the Galagapogs Islands Cultural Center then had an hour or so to shop before heading to the airport.
TIP: The cruise ship sends a very simple box lunch to eat at the airport, and the food on the plane is... well... interesting. We recommend having a bite to eat in the small town if you can break away from shopping.
We arrived back at our hotel in Quito, the JW Marriott, at about 4PM; and the luggage we left behind at the Hacienda Cuisin was waiting for us. We had a couple of hours before the finale dinner. I don't know what everyone else did - I took a bath in that wonderful tub
The finale dinner. In every Adventure By Disney tour review I've written, I mention the feeling of camaraderie; how a group of strangers become extended family in the course of a vacation. This trip was no exception. How does this happen? Must be Disney magic Here is a video clip that capture some of that special feeling:
Finale Dinner (video)
Once again, while we've reached the end of another wonderful Adventures by Disney tour, we can close in the certainty there will be another one.. and I hope I get to see some my new close friends again on one of them
San Cristobel: End of the Adventure (pix)