From the end of my week long Living Local Tour (which was complete following breakfast on our last morning in Quito) I had another 12 hours until I had to head to the airport for my trip home, and so of course I booked another day tour. This one I had been looking forward to all week: a hike up to the base camp of Cotopaxi Mountain, which actually happens to be a volcano.
Our group consisted of our guide Geraldo, myself and Jenna (my fellow Albertan from our Amazon tour group) one man from Italy, one man from France, and then 5 folks from the UK: two young guys in between high school and university on a gap year of travel, and a husband and wife and her cousin just stating their adventures between Ecuador and the Galapagos.
We left early in the morning with a stop about halfway to Cotopaxi National Park to grab breakfast and some Coca Tea. Coca tea is made from coca leaves and is used by the locals to help with altitude sickness. Since I’d spend the last four days only 400m above seal level and was about to head to about 4800m, I thought it would be a very good idea.
There were also a couple of cute alpacas munching on the grass outside of the cafe we stopped at.
We drove past pine tree forests that reminded me of home that then opened up into wide expanses of flat fields with wildflowers, low shrub, and a neverending sky full of clouds. Cotopaxi National Park is over 82 000 acres and home to incredible wildlife including deer, foxes, condors, bears, jaguars, and wild horses. The park is known for the beautiful Andes mountain range, and we could see the massive Cotopaxi Volcano off in the distance with swirling clouds dramatically sweeping across to first cover the summit and then reveal it again over and over as we approached. On our way in we drove by deer running through the grasses, saw wild horses grazing in the wildflower fields off of the main road, and caught sight of a beautiful fox (the size of a coyote!) near our starting point of our hike wandering into the mist.
In October of last year the volcano started spewing ash and sulphuric gas into the atmosphere again, so hikes to the summit at this time are forbidden. Even though it is considered relatively safe to hike to base camp, Cotopaxi is the most active volcano in Ecuador and so there are multiple seismographs and instruments constantly monitoring the activity of the volcano (we were told it is the most monitored volcano on the planet).
Cotopaxi in the local Quechua language means ‘neck of the moon’, and the terrain going up this mountain is definitely moon-like. The ground is a mix of dirt and sand and shale-like stone, and as we climbed the switchback path, the clumps of little white leafed grasses became fewer and fewer as we rose, until nothing grew, and eventually we even came across some snow.
The hike to base camp takes only about one hour from the parking lot but with the altitude it’s the amount of oxygen you can access to breathe that is the real challenge. Even beginner hikers can do the hike and you don’t need any fancy gear either- although a good rain jacket/windbreaker jacket is important when the wind picks up!
We were reminded regularly to stay hydrated (they recommend 2L over the day) and that “slow and steady” is the best pace, especially if you are not acclimatized to the altitude.
There was a faint smell of sulphur and occasionally you could see small curls of grey smoke winding their way into the white cloud cover above the peak of the mountain.
Me and our guide Geraldo
One of the Brits in our group got about halfway before needing to head back to the bus with a bad headache that worsened as they climbed higher. Jenna wasn’t feeling well either and at one point had decided to turn around as well, but as our group got nearer the top we looked down to see Jenna slowly making her way up the path with our guide Geraldo as her patient and supportive company until she made it all the way to base camp to join us!
Jose Rivas Refuge is the official name of the Base Camp building is at 4810m above sea level), and a couple of the guys went a little higher to the edge of the glacier to get to the 5000m mark, but were not allowed any further up the volcano than that for safety reasons.
If you wanted to hike to the summit of Cotopaxi (when it’s not actively erupting, of course), it’s not only highly recommended to stay in Quito for several days to acclimatize to the altitude, but you must hire a guide for the hike. You arrive at base camp in the afternoon to rest in the hostel-like accommodations before a late night / early morning (aka 1:00AM) departure for the summit and the strenuous 6-8 hour hike to the summit, followed by a 3-4 hour descent. Gear is often included along with some training (ie. how to wear/use crampons and ice-axe techniques). They say that only 72% of hikers successfully summit Cotopaxi. I’ve also come across the advice from several people that a good training hike is summiting a little mountain you might have heard of: Mt. Kilimanjaro…. !!
Base camp feels like a Scandinavian Lodge made of wood and brick with a beautiful orange roof you can see from quite a distance on a clear day. The ceiling is draped in international flags, and the windows along the back are covered in stickers from around the world. Groups of hikers grab tables and order refreshments, taking selfies and drinking hot chocolate and coca tea.
Here you can buy hot drinks, bottled water, both salty and sweet snacks, and even purchase stickers and badges as souvenirs! They also have an official stamp with the Cotopaxi Mountain icon and altitude that you can stamp in your passport or on a piece of paper as a memento.
We ordered hot chocolate and stamped scrap pieces of paper and our notebooks to document our achievement.
The hot chocolate was the best I’ve had in a very very long time. Served in a comforting clay mug, it was piping hot, perfectly sweet and lightly spiced with cinnamon and chiles. It felt as celebratory as champagne and we toasted each other, clinking mugs and taking photos.
I would love to say that the view was amazing but by the time we reached base camp the clouds had moved across again and we could barely see anything.
The descent is a pretty straight line back down, and with more of the soft sandy earth below your feet, I discovered that if I walked down the right side of the trail it was like stepping onto a escalator or elliptical machine with the sand letting me sink with each step- the easiest, most pleasant ‘down’ of a hike I can remember. (And with my whitewater-broken toe, this was a major coup!)
In no time at all we were back at the van, and given the option to mountain bike down the 40-50 minutes to the lake we had passed on the way to the volcano.
I am definitely not a mountain biker and wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy it, but seeing the majority of the group jump at the chance I figured that I may never have this opportunity again so I strapped on a helmet, hopped on a bike, and started down the VERY bumpy, rocky, and winding road to the lake.
About half of the group were incredibly comfortable on the bikes and flew by me down the hill and out of sight. The other half ended up behind me, going slowly with the van following close behind them.
Within about ten minutes I was completely on my own and carefully maneuvering over gravel and mud, ruts and turns through these stunning alpine meadows with wildflowers galore, and views of mountains all around.
It was incredibly quiet and truly peaceful. Occasionally I stopped to simply stand in wonder of the landscape around me that was both stunning and somehow familiar, reminding me of the Rocky Mountains back home.
During one of these glorious pauses in my ride, two huge foxes appeared out of the grasses across the road and started wandering in my direction. I switched my camera to video mode and watched as they came closer, with one crossing the road to my side and curiously walking almost right up to me!
Please excuse the poor quality screenshot of the video here. But know they were majestic.
I felt an indescribable combination of awe and disbelief and delight at coming across them in this wilderness. As the one fox crossed to my side of the road and towards me there was an additional, albeit minor feeling of fear in their casual, confident approach, and at one moment I wondered if there were more on the ledge behind me and I was about to be ambushed from behind (Perhaps I had velociraptors on my mind?). This of course was not the case and as soon as I straightened up and looked behind me the fox quickly crossed back to the other side and up into the wild flowers.
I will never forget the magic in that moment.
Once the two foxes had fully walked out of sight I continued on the road to meet the first half of my group at the lake, with the last few cyclists and the van arriving about 15 minutes after me.
We stopped at a beautiful little restaurant outside the park and were served a delicious lunch with soup (of course), chicken, beans, rice, and vegetables.
The yard outside had alpacas, ducks, and dogs, and we were invited to feed strips of carrot to the alpacas. It wasn’t too long before a couple of friendly ducks wandered over and waddled around our ankles, quacking excitedly. Upon receiving carrot pieces themselves, I swear they wiggled their tails like dogs wagging in delight.
It rained a bit while we were at the restaurant and was a bit misty as we climbed back into the bus for the ride back to Quito. It was a quiet drive with most of us napping against the fogged up windows.
Another unforgettable day in Ecuador and another awesome adventure had.
And just like that, the trip was nearing its end, I had just enough time to enjoy a hot shower at the hotel, repack my bags for the flights home, and an early arrival at the airport to peruse the possible last-minute souvenirs to bring home.
And this concludes a trip full of adventures that I will never forget.
We left the cool and rainy spring weather of Quito early Saturday morning to head into the the Napo Province with an elevation drop of almost 1000 meters and a temperature increase of about 20 degrees for our stay in the Amazon rainforest at a hostel-type housing with a local family.
We were a group of 15- made up of four Canadians (myself and an Edmontonian named Jenna representing Alberta, two Ontarians: Faraneh and Siobhan), seven Americans (buddy travellers Angie and Adrianne, solo travellers Ryann, Mattie, and Laura, and mother/daughter duo Donna and Kat), Fiona from Switzerland, Enis from Turkey via Chicago, and Dacia and Adam -a couple on an incredible extended honeymoon- moving to Australia from the UK. Matti -from New Jersey- was my awesome roommate for two of the nights of the trip, and she brought a camera with a zoom lens practically the entire length of her suitcase with the goal of catching some good shots of wildlife in the jungle. We were one person short of a full group because Nydia, a friend of Angie and Adrienne, got sick upon arrival in Quito, so sadly she had to stay behind.
A long bus ride (6+ hours) and many stops & local salty snacks later (plantain chips, anyone?!), we pulled up to the end of a jungle walkway over a stream and surrounded by hanging vines and elephant ear-sized monstera leaves with a misty drizzle of rain.
We walked up the pathway to find ourselves at the wonderful Cabañas Pimpilala, the home of Delfin and Estella, their family, and staff of local workers who host multiple groups like us year round.
I was delightfully surprised to receive my own room with an incredible view above flowering bushes with jungle hills and misty mountains in the distance.
The week was absolutely FULL of activities and adventures, all slightly dependant on the weather as we are in the shoulder season between the rainy season and dry season. (It rained every single day at some point, whether for a brief sun shower, an hour long torrential downpour, or a thunderstorm as we were heading to bed). The night rainstorms were the most common, and miraculously, the rain never negatively affected our daily plans!
The setting was exactly as I pictured for rustic jungle living with no electricity in our rooms, mosquito nets around the beds, the sounds of geckos calling at night and bugs chirping and buzzing, butterflies and humming birds everywhere, and colourful flowers on the nearby bushes and trees. I also loved how you never went too far without a small river or stream so the sound of water was the Amazon Rainforest underscore.
The first place I ever saw these beautiful ‘natural shampoo and bug repellent’ flowers was in Costa Rica.
there were a few small pineapple plants growing behind our building- have you ever seen how pineapples grow- in low plants on the ground?
cacao trees are plentiful around the property- they almost don’t look real!
The family was incredibly kind and welcoming to our group, and we felt very well taken care of. The food was generous and varied, and every lunch and dinner had two courses, always beginning with soup. The soup flavours ranges from broccoli to chicken to potato to vegetable and corn, and they were always filling and delicious, with the occasional milder soups that we would punch up with a little hot sauce or the fresh and spicy salsa they served at every meal. Often, a fresh bowl of toasty popcorn was served as the topping for the soup (but most of us just ate it by the handful). There was always rice or plantain or yucca or corn included in the main course (and sometimes: all of them!). We had fire-cooked tilapia, grilled chicken, stewed beef, and a variety of different seasonings and vegetables alongside. It was simple, local, good food.
A chicken and rice dinner with fresh avocado and tomatoes and roasted white cacao beans
A plantain pancake with papaya and banana, coffee and pinapple juice for our last breakfast
The family pets were friendly and with one cuddly cat and two sweet labradors, we felt even more at home.
The family also had a large coop of chickens with a couple of roosters that ensured none of us truly slept much past 3:45 in the morning, seemingly having a competition of who can be more impressive in their crowing.
Our generous host Delfin.
We went for small hikes and wandered through winding paths near the property, learning about many of the plants, some with healing properties like the “Dragon’s Blood” tree used for both skin irritations and injuries as well as ingested to help with certain illnesses. You can buy small bottles of this dark red sap all over the place in Ecuador, as well as other medicinal plant salves and waxes and balms.
On one of these walks we followed a small stream into a little alcove where our guide Miguel gave us all mud masks complete with decorative leaves, and we let them dry as we walked back home.
A local fruit’s seeds – “Olecho petito” – are used for a natural paint and it was used to paint symbols on our cheeks as we were taught about important symbols to the local indigenous communities. We were shown symbols like the circle of life, Pacha Mama (or Mother Earth), medicine bags, and the protectors and leaders of each community.
Delfin is the son of a traditional Shaman, and we were lucky to learn about the revered position of the shaman in the local communities and how someone trains from as young as age 5 and are not truly considered a shaman until the age of 45. We were told about the rituals of healing practices and medicine, preserving traditions, weddings and death practices. Delfin would enthusiastically share these stories and information in Spanish and our G Adventures CEO Alejandro would translate.
The first major highlight of the stay was the “Waterfall Climb” at the Cascadas Pimpilala. We were each given a helmet and a pair of rubber boots, and I was definitely skeptical as I have never thought of rubber boots as grippy, active footwear…
Led by the spry and always smiling Miguel and the Delphin’s son and constant comedian Rolando, we hiked up the nearby stream and I was surprised to discover how rough all the rocks were; even when they appeared to have lichen or moss on them, they were grippy and rough like large grit sandpaper. And Rolando’s sister Maria ended up joining us as our photographer!
Slowly but surely we climbed up the rocks on the side of some waterfalls, directly up the centre of others with water cascading over our shins and around our ankles, along logs with notches carved into them and ropes tied around large rocks or to nearby hooks and tree stumps. Occasionally we had to jump into the pools of water below before climbing up, and it was fun to cheer on and celebrate each person’s success as we worked our way up to the destination at the base of the huge, final waterfall.
It was an absolute blast and we were all happily drenched with our socks completely saturated and our rubber boots heavy with water, and many of us took the opportunity to take one final swim (sans boots and socks) in the pool built into the base of the river. The warmth of the late morning sunshine was the perfect end before we headed back home for lunch.
We took great advantage of the multiple hammocks around the property- I particularly loved the upper level of our accommodations which had an outdoor ‘living room’ of long fabric hammocks, hammock chairs, benches, and lounge chairs. We would also (very optimisitcally) hang our wet garments and towels all along the railings with the hope that we would get enough afternoon sun to dry them a bit, but as we were told only half-jokingly and we all learned it to be true: “nothing truly dries in the rainforest”.
One evening we helped make some chocolate from the fruit off the trees nearby, learning about the cacao plants that dotted the property, and getting to taste fresh cacao seeds (my favourite), watch them roast some sun-dried seeds over a fire (along with the banana leaf wrapped tilapia we would have for dinner that night) and then help shell the piping hot husks off before taking turns grinding them into a paste. For dessert that night we got to dip fresh strawberry and banana slices in the warm melted ‘fondue chocolate’ that was a combination of our melted cacao paste, sugar cane syrup, and milk. (Photos below by Ryann!)
The included activities of the next day were to visit a nearby lagoon and go swimming followed by a bike ride to the nearby school that Delfin and Estella started for the local kids.
The optional (aka additional cost) activity, was white water rafting down the Napo River with Rios Ecuador. 🤩
I had always wanted to go white water rafting but I had yet to actually ever try it, and I knew this would be an incredible day, hoping others would feel the same about the oppportunity. Luckily, five other people in our group wanted to go as well: Adam, Ryann, Fiona, Enis, and Kat. Of the six of us, Kat was the only experienced white water rafter -who had rafted levels four and five- while the rest of us were total newbies.
The river/rapids we went down were considered a level three and was comprised almost evenly of busy rapids and calmer ‘pool’ areas -so we would have the chance to both have some excitement and work and paddle hard for a bit and then we would get a break to enjoy the scenery, take pictures, and relax. This quickly became the second major ‘joy’ moment of the week, and definitely one of the most memorable days of my life.
We walked down the road from our home base to catch our pickup truck to the put in site, and the girls of the group got to sit in the bed of the truck- ‘like true Ecuadorians’ we were told- as we rode about fifteen minutes down the road.
Fiona -looking pretty cool as we sped down the road.
Our guide Gregory (who also went by the nickname “Tuti”) went through all the info about what the river was going to be like and all the safety protocols and instructions we needed to follow, and we were getting familiar with our gear and proper terms and instructions he would give us, rescue/safety, etc) while another member of the staff was putting our raft down the chute into the water. Suddenly we heard a huge bang. We knew it probably wasn’t a good sign that Gregory and all the other staff members at the site immediately stopped what they were doing and all went to see what the noise was down the hill.
It was our raft splitting open along one major seam and deflating. 😳
We were assured there was nothing to worry about and it was an 11 year old raft that had lived a good rafting life, and that we would be getting a new one- a “younger” one for our trip today.
These bamboo poles were the “chute” for the put in location to get the rafts easily to the water.
As another larger group in their fully functioning raft took off ahead of us down the river, the crew that had been working on our boat left in the pickup truck to go get the other raft. We waited down on the shore and wandered along the mix of sand and rocks until our replacement, aka ‘stunt double’ raft arrived with our guides and we got on our way down the river.
There were seven of us in the raft, and then we had Emerson: our second guide travelling separately in his kayak.
Often, Emerson was down the river ahead of us, reading the water and communicating with Gregory with paddle signs for the safety of our route, and also I often caught him doing trick moves and spins as he waited for us or as he kayaked back upriver towards us.
Gregory and Emerson and several of their co-workers at Rios Ecuador are among the top teams in world kayaking and rafting competitions and had travelled around the world to do so, so we knew we were in great hands.
We were able to jump out of the boat a couple of times and swim, and it just so happened to be another magically sunshiny day for this. All in all we travelled 27 km down the Napo river with one stop in the middle to have lunch and buy some local art and souvenirs, and we were on the water for over 5 hours!
One of my favourite things along the journey was the fact that after we made it through each set of rapids, we all high-fived our paddles above our heads in celebration. It must have happened a couple dozen times that day and I loved it.
I caught this moment entirely by luck as my camera flipped around while filming!
We were all given the option of taking turns “riding the bull”: you sit on the bow of the raft with your legs over the front and your ankles tucked under the front curve of the raft, holding onto the rope between your thighs at the centre, while the rest of us paddled through rapids. The goal was to hold on and tighten your legs against the raft in order to stay up and not fall back into the boat. Fiona, Ryann, Enis, and Adam all tried it, with some success, but it was always funny when a big wave bounced a person back into the boat, often still holding onto the rope but with feet sticking straight up into the air, and no ability to right themselves until we stopped paddling or were in calm water.
The photos above (and any ‘first person/in boat action shots’ are actually all screenshots from the haphazard video my cell phone caught (set to record whatever it could as we bounced and flew through the water as I am not fancy enough to have a go pro and didn’t have time or hands to ever hold it up. This are all from the folks taking turns “Riding the Bull”, all with more success than these photos suggest.
Photo 1: Ryann, Photo 2: Fiona’s first attempt/fall, Photo 3: Ryann after a good fall, Photo 4: Adam really enjoying the reclined position after his fall back into the boat.
Each set of rapids was given names, and at one section called “the Widow Maker”, Adam, the only married man in our group, jokingly refused to sit on the front, so Enis volunteered. At the moment we hit one particular wave, Enis fell back into the boat with feet straight up in the air and as I looked down at him to make sure he was okay I noticed both Fiona and Ryann floating in the river and heading past our raft! In that one moment, there were only three paddlers and our guide still in original positions in the boat and we had to continue paddling until we could help Enis up and get the girls back into the boat. (No photo evidence as my camera shut off here.)
We safely got everyone into the boat and back into their positions all the while laughing at the sudden chaos that had just happened. Amongst the laughter, our guide told us he had never seen that combination of events happen at all once, and said that Emerson, our guide in the kayak caught it all on film (though we have yet to see this and cannot wait!).
Ryann explained that she felt herself falling out of the boat and started grabbing for anything she could to save her. Meanwhile: Fiona, who was sitting just in front of Ryann, had been grinning with pride that she hadn’t yet fell out of the raft on these bigger bumps when she suddenly felt a tug on the back of her life jacket and felt herself being yanked into the water.
We stopped about halfway for a delicious lunch of tortillas and multiple filling options like tomatoes and avocado, onions, beans, ground beef, cheese, chips, and hot sauce. There was the most mouth-watering thick pineapple chunks for dessert, cookies, and fresh juice and water. We played with some friendly and gentle local dogs, and bought a few bracelet mementos from the locals who set up tables of local chocolate, coffee, and handmade souvenirs- beaded and woven jewelry and keychains, and wood and coconut shell containers and bowls.
Ryann took this gorgeous shot of the lunch spot and souvenir stand.
It was a nice break and an amazing, filling lunch, and by the time we left, we had even dried off a little in the midday sunshine. Adam’s clothes seemed to be the most dried out of all of us… but it would not be for long.
Shortly after we got into the boat for the second half of our trip, we came across some rapids and Gregory asked us if we liked surfing, and a few of us answered with an enthusiastic “yes”. He helped us guide the raft back up the river a bit and to the base of a large boulder and a long shelf of curling water. I now know this spot would have been considered a “hydraulic” which is a small and less powerful “hole” where the water reverses back on itself and is not safe for smaller rafts -but for us it meant we would sort of spin in place and ‘surf’ there on the curl of the water, but I think all of us in the boat would describe it more like a wall of water dumping into the side of the raft closest to the downward current, filling the raft with water and slamming the full power of the rapids into the faces of whoever was on that side of the boat, particularly in the front. As the two people in the front, Adam and I can assure you there’s not much like the feeling of being practically waterboarded by a river. We all laughed and squealed with shock and amusement as we kept turning in that spot for what seemed like forever. And someone joked “Adam, did you say you were completely dry just a few minutes ago?”
A lovely action shot of us “surfing” aka filling the front half of the boat with all the water of the river. I drank so much river water I think I’m now part Ecuadorian fish.
We finished the day by hauling our raft up onto the shore to the crew’s truck, and celebrated the end of the adventure with cold beer and sodas, realizing that we all got a lot of sun and unique tan lines…
The many exciting stories from the day were dramatically retold by yours truly (unanimously designated by our rafting team) over dinner that night with the rest of our group.
Another ‘bonus’ memento from the day was the completely unnecessary broken toe I got while getting back into the boat simply after a swim midway down the river and as I was getting in, kicking a rock. The rock won, needless to say, and I was a bit of a hobbler the rest of the trip as it tried to heal without any proper rest. 😬 I think that I finally have the motivation to invest in some good water shoes for the first time since I bought my very first pair of teevas for summer camp in 1997.
An evening in a hammock overlooking the jungle was the perfect way to end that day of course, and prepare for another highly anticipated part of the week- an animal sanctuary the following afternoon! (That, and a sheepish visit to Estella in the kitchen for some aloe vera application.)
First and foremost let it be said, squirrel monkeys are one of the cutest things on the planet. I hope you get to see one close up in real life someday. At the start of our activities the next morning we got to wander through a beautiful park with a plethora of squirrel monkeys and we were able to feed them slices of banana to entice them to come down from the treetops (where the teensy tiny baby monkeys stayed, but watched with curiosity). They patiently took turns climbing down the vines and branches to politely take the banana pieces from us with their hands – or on a couple occasions, very gently with their mouths – and then scamper up the trees to eat them.
We also wandered through an old site, overgrown and left unfinished with an ethereal tropical vibe.
the bamboo here was some of the tallest I have ever seen.
A motorized canoe took us further down the Napo river that we had rafted the day before and we arrived at the Amazoonico Animal Wildlife refuge for the afternoon. This not-for-profit organization is run primarily by volunteers and relies on donations even though it is the biggest organization of its kind in Ecuador.
We got to watch a couple incredible rainbow-feathered macaw parrots wander around the ground -protected by the dogs on site who are apparently a little scared of the birds-, we were all delighted by a baby spider monkey just casually chilling with his mom (and when he got a little too exploratory his mom would grab his tail and pull him back to her side).
At one enclosure we were greeted enthusiastically by a beautiful female toucan -named Kevin- and many curious parakeets and parrots, a couple hanging upside down eating bananas, we got to peek at an anaconda called Esmeralda, catch sight of ‘pecari’ (similar to wild boar), and even come across wild tortoises lumbering along the forest floor.
Occasionally huge (wild) spider monkeys would swing across the branches above us, which encouraged us to move along quite quickly.
Most of the animals here have either been rescued from illegal trafficking, from being pets or even from labs or animal testing facilities, and there were some very sad stories about the cruelty of humans to these amazing creatures. The major goal of the refuge is rehabilitation of the animals so that can be released back into the wild, so they maintain a strong habit of minimizing direct interaction between humans and animals (particularly with birds and monkeys), but many animals are unable to go back into the wild either due to major injuries or having been kept by humans as pets for so long they have been become tame/habituated to humans and no longer able to survive on their own. It was an eye-opening experience and I was grateful to learn about this place.
This was the muggiest, hottest day of the trip, reminding us all how truly in the Amazon Rainforest we were, and we all practically wanted to swim back to our starting point, definitely looking forward to the cold water showers back at our home base.
That night before dinner we got to try out firing blow darts at a watermelon bullseye, and with two attempts each, I think we all wanted to spend more time to hone our skills because it was fun and exciting to try! The hardest part that a few of us tried out was holding the blow gun ourselves without help. At 10 feet long, the long wood ‘pipe’ was quite heavy and tricky to hold while both aiming and preparing to quickly and forcefully blow the tiny bamboo-skewer type ‘dart’ towards our target. I think if I had a third try I could have hit the target (as the dart lands lower than you think it will) and both of mine shot deep into the stump just below the watermelon disc.
Of the entire group, Danica was the superstar/insta-pro, hitting the watermelon bulls-eye twice! She was honoured with a prize/gift from Delfin, a mysterious package of banana leaves tied with vine.
Danica’s worst fears were realized as she reluctantly undid the tie and opened the leaves to reveal a bit pile of squirming, crawling, yellow grubs.
Delfin prepared and fried up the grubs for everyone, and a small handful of the group tried them out, myself included. I think the hardest thing was the fact that once cooked, they pretty much looked the exact same as when they were alive, just not squirming… The cooked inner texture was like that of soft scrambled eggs and sort of had that flavour, along with almost a bacon and shrimp or scallops flavour mixed in. Another unique experience not to be forgotten.
That night after dinner we shared drinks with the family and staff at our home stay, and learned a local toast in both Spanish and Quechua- the local indigenous language. In Spanish: “Arriba, abajo, al centro, pa’ dentro!” (Which means ‘Up, down, to the centre, inside!’) The video below has the Quechua version.
We had all felt so welcome here and we all hugged the family members before we left the next morning with huge gratitude for their welcoming and generous hospitality.
It’s encouraged to tip the local guides/hosts by G Adventures and we were all more than happy to give the family an envelope with great thanks for taking so much care of us all week, and I also was able to sketch and paint a postcard with my personal thanks to give Delfin and Estella.
Our travel back to Quito began early the next morning with a bittersweet departure from the jungle at 8am, a private van trip to Tena, a transfer to a huge public bus that included two Spanish-dubbed movies and several washroom stops, and a second transfer to another private van in Quito to get back to our hotel for 2pm. Many of the group then hired the same driver to go to the Centre of the Earth museum, and a handful of us stayed at the hotel and enjoyed our first hot shower in a week (and I was able to blow-dry my hair as well and had dry hair for the first time in 6 days!), and I think several people definitely went for naps.
Fiona and I walked over to the local artisan market to search out some fun souvenirs and see the local art offerings.
Honestly I have never been more tempted to buy sweaters on a hot day than after seeing what was available in terms of beautiful alpaca wool ponchos, sweaters, scarves, socks and hats for very reasonable prices.
But also I felt compelled to purchase a full herd of alpaca stuffed animals that were so soft I wanted to cuddle in a pile of them.
There were beautiful hand-painted bowls and artwork and collectibles/souvenirs of every size and style, plus lots of beautiful silver and stone jewelry.
One final dinner altogether with the group that night was both a celebration of the week we had spent together and a farewell, too, as we all would be going our separate ways the following day- some continuing on exciting journeys and some heading home. Did some people try the local delicacy of Guinea pig at dinner? Perhaps…
We all shared numbers to stay connected through WhatsApp and Fiona suggested Photo Circle to share all our photos and videos. If you haven’t heard of Photo Circle, it’s pretty brilliant: it keeps all the media in one place for you to access (in much higher quality than WhatsApp) and you can keep/download what you like! (And no I am not sponsored -lol)
Well, I think this post is freaking long enough so my last day-tour adventures to come next! 😎
Last fall I became inspired to try out my first tour with G Adventures, and after hearing about the experience of a “Local Living” tour in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador, I booked it almost without a second thought. I had never been to South America, and although the Galápagos Islands and Peru and Machu Picchu are already on my bucket lists, the price and timing seemed like they would be just right- I had a break in my season of work, and wanted a little trip to explore another part of the world that was new to me.
Fast forward to the very busy and somewhat whirlwind months of March and April where I opened and closed a show, ended a long-term relationship, and moved out of my apartment of four years. By the time the trip was getting close I couldn’t even remember what was on the itinerary. I got the necessary travel vaccines, packed warm weather & water gear for the rainforest part and cold weather gear and hiking boots for the mountain part, and prepared to head south!
After a full day of travel, I arrived at the International airport of Quito at midnight in a rainstorm. I navigated through the extremely busy arrivals gate and customs areas, and was grateful to see my name on a G Adventures sign and driven the 45 minutes to the beautiful Ikali hotel and a room all to myself for the night.
I got to bed at about 2am, and fell almost immediately asleep which was lucky as I had ambitiously booked a full-day tour with G Adventures **and it began 6 hours later at 8:00am that morning**.
Breakfast was included at the hotel and a full and generous buffet spread included granola, cereal, toast and jam, fresh fruit, eggs and various corn and veggie dishes as well as cured meats and cheese. There was even a selection of local desserts. And fresh juice, coffee, and tea, of course.
I was able to walk to the nearby hotel where our “Old Town and Equator Line” tour was to begin, and jumped into a van with our guide and 15 other travellers, some on their last day of travels in this part of the world, and many, like me, on their first. There were folks from the UK and from the US, and a few Canadians as well.
We started at the Basilica del Voto Nacional, this incredible Neo-gothic and baroque combination of church design, with spectacular spires and gargoyles of animals- everything from turtles to gorillas to ant eaters (which were my favourite). It looks ancient but is actually one of the ‘youngest’ churches I have seen, only built in the end of the 1890s and the early 1900s. (Technically the basilica remains unfinished)
Walking inside the church had a familiar feel to many European Catholic Churches, although I immediately noticed huge arrangements of fresh roses everywhere: on the pillars, at the altar, on either side of the doors… it made the space smell like a flower shop, and then the morning sunlight streaming through the stain glass windows made it look like candied jewels were splashed all over the tall columns lining the sanctuary.
Every stain glass window told a different story or had a different theme, though my favourite was the star at the main doors where every sliver showcased a different flower, from roses to lilies, to tulips to lupins. There was a beautiful chapel at the end, and if we had more time I definitely would have taken the time and paid the $2 to climb up into the towers to see the upper levels of this grand space.
Our next stop was the Plaza de la Indepencia, a large square with fountains and trees and many benches, flanked by the Carondelet Palace (where the president resides), the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Municipal Palace, the Archbishop’s Palace, and the Grand Plaza hotel. This is clearly a great tourist spot and gathering place for many.
As we arrived, there were two older gentlemen standing by the main fountain reading to each other from weathered bibles with curling edges, young girls in school uniforms giggling as they played tag weaving around tourists taking photos and street dogs napping in the shade of the trees, carts of fruit juice were being sold by the bottle, some with carved young coconuts as an optional container, and I clocked one woman holding a large clear pan filled with three colours of ice cream and with pointed towers of sugar cones atop it wandering around the periphery, prepared to scoop columns of iced treats.
We were invited to try “mistelas” – thin shells of sugar candy filled with a local liquor that tasted similar to tequila. Once the entire group was given one we had planned to try them all at once, like doing a toast and/or a shot. One of the men standing next to me forgot and upon receiving it immediately popped the candy into his mouth, his wife gasping in protest and several of us nearby burst out laughing as he gently and sheepishly dropped the candy back out of his mouth and into his hand like a dog being caught with something forbidden in their mouth.
We wandered between colourful buildings, often with the view of the majestic Basillica in the far distance, and in addition to having tours of two different cacao factories (including tastings that included hot chocolate and brownies!), we wandered into several churches, some market areas, and the Old Square at the centre.
Throughout the streets there were people selling textiles like beautiful alpaca wool scarves, cooked corn with hot peppers, candy, salty snacks, and pages and pages of lottery tickets. There were also often a small bowl with Paulo Santo wood burning outside the churches like incense, and it reminded me of the smell of burning sage often used in smudging in Indigenous practices back home in Canada.
Part of our tour included going into the tunnels under the Church of San Fransisco and seeing some beautiful recreations of artefacts as well as many handicrafts of the area. It was a little tight to turn around and we were all careful not to knock the many sculptures perched on nails in these long narrow hallways.
We were given the option of seeing the inside of the Church of La Compañia, the façade made of gloriously carved volcanic rock, and the interior containing seven tonnes of gilded gold, and let me tell you, it was like being wrapped in a Ferraro Rocher foil. We were not allowed to take photos inside but this lovely photo from Wipikedia (below)gives you an idea!
What I found incredibly fascinating about the churches in Quito is the fact that the majority of the interiors are wood, and often gilded with gold, and real candles are actually forbidden inside every one except for the Basilica.
We then took the van up the switchback streets to the top of Panecillo hill where the Virgin of Quito statue (also known as the Virgen de El Panecillo) looks over the city. This beautiful figure is made of 7400 pieces of aluminum and is the highest statue in Ecuador, (and is even taller than Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, which surprised me). With a beautiful halo of stars and long elegant wings, she stands on a dragon that is wrapped around the top of the earth.
There is a museum inside and you are able to climb up to a balcony at the base of the earth part of the sculpture, but our tour guide assured us that due to the trees along the top of the hill, the view of the city is mostly obstructed. She took us along a pathway along the hill below the statue and we could see the wide expanse of the city stretching from North to South.
Our next stop was the museum at the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo where we learned that the ancient people of Quito knew where the centre of the earth was 2000 years ago, and a monument was erected where they believed the centre of the earth was, and using sun dials of various types to determine both the time of day as well as the seasons / time of year.
We learned about many of the local animals, traditional housing of ancient tribes, previous hunting techniques like blow darts and spears, and even of the traditional techniques that the Jivaro tribes of creating shrunken heads of their enemies that they used as trophies after winning battles.
We then visited the Equator line in the centre of the property, with a long red strip of tile deliniating the actual line. There we were given the opportunity to try balancing a fresh egg on a nail head (which one can only do on the equator), we poured water down a drain on either side of the line to see the water spin in opposite directions or drop directly down on the line, and even try to walk the ‘tightrope’ of the centre line with our eyes closed and not fall over on each side -as the centrifugal force of the earth spinning is strongest here- and you fully feel like you are failing a sobriety test.
It was also cool to discover that the most unique part about this section of the Equator line with the altitude of Quito, this is the furthest away from the centre of the earth you can possibly be at the Equator Line. (We were also informed that the actual furthest point on the planet from the centre of the earth is also in Ecuador, at the peak of Chimborazo, an inactive volcano about 4 hours south of Quito.) I also learned that there are 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 6 seconds in a day, which is why every four years we ‘correct’ it with the extra day in February!
We ate a delicious lunch at a restaurant facing the original monument (240 m away from the scientific Equator Line), and it looked to me like a post-apocalyptic statue belonging in a movie like the Hunger Games. I had fried pork and yucca pancake with platain, corn, avocado, and vegetables, and many of our table tried the mixed juice recommended by our tour guide: blackberry and soursop, which was perfectly sweet and tart and refreshing.
We then headed back to the starting hotel and I walked back to my hotel just in time for our first meeting with our week-long “Local Living Ecuador: Amazon Jungle” tour group!
I don’t know if you’ve asked anyone who’s been to Greece where you must go, but if you ask more than two people you probably end up with 8 to 10 islands suggested to you. And there are truly hundreds, but even then there were definitely a dozen that I wanted to visit. I settled on two (this time).
I have been looking for a slightly quieter island that still had some entertainment and restaurants and good beaches that weren’t overly touristy or commercial. The island of Ios (pronounced EE-os) doesn’t get cruise ship travel to it so I knew it was a good option. The famous Santorini (encouraged heavily by my friend Brianna) just seemed to be one of those spots that I couldn’t pass up on this trip. Like Mykonos and Crete it is exceptionally popular (aka busy) and has thousands of tourists visit every day, however I figured it would be worth it to see the sights, the views, the beaches, and the cities.
When I arrived at my room at the Far Out Hotel and Spa and opened the shutters onto my balcony, I knew I had hit the jackpot on dreamy escapes. The view from my room was exactly as pictured on the hotel website and it truly felt like a magical retreat, framed by white buildings and lush greenery with the ocean in the background and the hills of the island scooping up on either side. It felt perfect.
The hotel stay included a delicious continental breakfast each morning with a huge spread including fresh fruit, Greek yoghurt and honey, meats and cheeses, pastries, eggs, sausage, coffee, and fresh juice.
With a stunning view of the shore and the occasional company of a stray island cat winding themselves around your ankles, I enjoyed lingering on the patio at breakfast time.
After that it was generally a move over to the picture perfect pool to spend a few hours every day.
You could order food and drinks at the pool so I decided to indulge even more and get a virgin mojito. The bartender had a physical reaction of shock to my order, as if it was sacrilege to have a mojito without rum in it. I had to assure him I was serious, take a little light teasing about how “not proper” a virgin mojito was, and finally he relented with a mischievous smile and a solid 8 minutes of meticulous preparation of fresh lime juice and wedges muddled with individually-chosen mint leaves, and garnished with a perfect final sprig of tiny mint leaves.
I can say with all certainty that the result was the most delicious Mojito that I have ever had.
As I had the picturesque pool to myself quite often, I had a choice of changing between shade or sun on the many extremely comfortable deck loungers.
The beach was a ten minute walk down the hill and was relatively busy during the day with about a dozen different areas with full loungers, bean bag chairs, umbrellas and gazebos to enjoy the shade. Prices to rent a chair for the day ranged from 7€ to €15.
As someone who gets attacked by sand fleas or ‘no see’ums’ bites that are WAY worse than any mosquito bite, I now always make sure to get a lounger to stay even a few inches off the sand.
Even though signs showed that all of the beach chairs and umbrellas incurred some charge or another, either I swooped under the radar or the beach chairs and umbrellas in the FarOut Hotel section are free…
I liked it.
You could rent stand up paddle boards and kayaks or pay to go out tubing behind a speed boat. They were also volleyball courts and many of the restaurants and beachfront hotels and pools just off the beach with the beautiful views.
The water here was refreshing and not too cold, and it was nice to find that real ‘sweet spot’ balance of sunshine, shade, and swimming. At some of the beach lounge chair areas you can order food or drinks – as many are owned by the restaurants across the road from the beach.
The roads on these islands and even from the hotel down to the beach are winding and switchback style and remind me of Sardegna. There are bamboo stalks, hibiscus blooms, large pomegranate bushes, and fig and citrus trees lining the road, as well as big cascades of magenta and salmon coloured bouganvillia branches tumbling over walls and roof tops.
I had dinner one night at Salt, one of the chic but mellow beachfront restaurants that felt a lot like the great vegan restaurant on Gili Air that I visited every day during my trip to Indonesia. It was a mellow, inviting and comfortably busy place.
I hadn’t yet had gyros in Greece and finally ordered one, expecting a wrap with some fries on the side (or the fries stuffed right into the wrap, as I have been told is very common in Greece). What arrived at the table was a modern deconstructed version of a gyros wrap with 3 warm pitas, tidy stacks of tomatoes and sumac-seasoned red onion, a dollop of tzatziki, a pool of a spicy pepper sauce, and a pile of freshly sliced gyro pork. It was absolutely perfect and I practically wiped the board clean.
I decided to linger there and ordered a frappe (in Greece this means unsweetened iced coffee with stiff whipped coffee foam) and then dessert; a delicate chocolate bowl of tiramisu. Both were excellent! I loved the feel of this restaurant, and I would totally recommend it.
There were many options along the road for different types of spots to eat, and convenient regular buses to take you from one end of our beach to the other, or to take you back into the main town in Ios and the port.
The days on Ios were slow and relaxing. I would order my daily “not-proper” mojito, sit and sip, swim, read, and sunbathe with the regularly scheduled flip over to try and get a little vacation sun-kissed look!
I got in a visit to the hotel spa and relished another couple of beach and pool days that were *just* the relaxing island escape I was looking for. I ordered many a Greek salad by the pool and many a “not-proper Mojito”, I people watched and waded along the beach shoreline, perused the souvenirs of various various beach toys and scarves and bathing suit cover ups, as well as trying to get as much sun as possible before heading back to Canada and the inevitable cool fall and winter bundle-up months.
I can proudly l say that I was a regular sunscreen user and did not get a sunburn on this trip. Which is huge for me.
I had no idea that the final big party of the season was happening while I was on Ios and my New Yorker friend Mitchell invited me to join him and some friends at the Beach Club way down near the end of the shoreline. With a full DJ set up with moving lights and lasers and a hazer/fogger system, the place was wild, and the party was wilder. There were drink specials and lots of food options, and a tattoo parlour on-site that was booked up with people getting permanent island mementos like palm trees and ocean waves and variations on the classic Greek evil eye.
It was great fun but I definitely felt like this was something I would’ve done when I was university age more than these days when I am… a little bit older than that… so after a couple of hours I was happy to take the island bus back up to my peacefully quiet and sans-laser-light-show hotel.
The next afternoon I hopped onto another ferry to sail over to the famous island of Santorini and to meet up with my friend Brianna!
I arrived in the afternoon and did some exploring with Mitchell and then solo, lugging my carry-on backpack with me simply for the fact that I didn’t want to have to take transit or a pricey taxi across the island three times that day as I had promised to meet Brianna when she arrived that night at the airport!
I had the most incredible dinner at this restaurant that was homemade farfale pasta with in-house made burrata and shaved truffle and parmesan that was to die for. (I’m not ashamed to admit that the next day I suggested we go there for lunch and I ordered the same dish a second time. No regrets.) The restaurants in Fira take reservations weeks and sometimes months in advance for the sunset dinner spot. I got there early (6pm) so I was able to get a great view in the pre-sunset hour.
I then did a bit more walking, then grabbed a strawberry lemon granita from a great little coffee shop who’s lovely staff told me to sit at a window at the front saying it was the best view in all of Fira to see the sunset and I do not disagree.
I wrote a couple of postcards, I watched the sun go down, and then it was time to head to the airport to pick up Brianna. I made a makeshift sign with her last name as if I was a driver (because I am a total dork) even though we already had a driver booked to take us to our hotel that night.
Niko-the-very-handsome shuttle driver drove us safely to our hotel in Perivolos right along the black beaches on the south east side of the island, carrying our bags up to our room overlooking the pool just after midnight, and let us know he would see us on the returns route to the airport in a few days.
We could easily take the island public bus to get up to the main bus teminal in central Fira, and from there you could catch buses that would take you to the different parts on the island. You just need cash to purchase a ticket, and there were always staff with change so you didn’t need the exact amount, which was nice. The buses were air-conditioned and came by pretty regularly, which made it very convenient to get around.
The Perivolos black sand beach was less than a three minute walk away, and we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon there complete with refreshing drinks and warm “Donald’s” – also know as cinnamon sugar doughnuts- still warm from being baked locally and sold by a guy wandering down the beach who spoke very little English and kept calling out “frrrresh Donald’s! French hot Donald’s!” to the amusement of both tourists and restaurant staff alike.
(It reminded me of the woman selling snacks by the ferries that take you to the Gili islands in Indonesia, calling out “Dor-EE-tas!” And the full phrase of “Something something chips!”)
And oh, the restaurants in this area! So many many options! And so many handsome staff members urging you to come and sit at their restaurant because “it’s the best”. What won us over the first night we were there was live music. We became the superfans of the night, made most of the requests and heard all our favourite songs performed by an incredibly talented musician who played guitar and sang with a a wonderful smoky and passionate voice.
Speaking of restaurants, have I talked about the Greek salads here enough? Impossible! They were delicious and incredible EVERYWHERE I ordered them here.
We booked a day tour with a company that took us on a sailboat across to the volcanic island of Tholos and to Thirasia.
We took the winding steps down to the water and decided we would definitely take the cable car back up to the top of the hill passing by the donkeys waiting along the walls of the stone stairs to take tourists up and down. We definitely felt sorry for them and their sweet demeanours as they stood in the sun flicking off the flies with their ears and tails. The boat trip across was fast and entertaining with our trilingual tour guide giving the history of the area in English French and Italian.
We hiked around the top of this volcano that is one of the youngest in the world. We then got to swim in the mineral waters at the base of one side of it, Which is said to be very good for your health. Some people really got into it, making body masks and covering their arms and legs and faces with the rust-coloured mud along the shore. The water was warm and we would’ve happily stayed there longer but they called us back up on the boat to head to another island.
At the next spot Thirasia, where less than 300 people live, there’s a lovely little shoreline of restaurants where you can get great seafood and traditional Greek fare. We we ordered a combo platter for lunch that in the end we agreed could’ve fed a family of five.
The water around this island was incredibly clear and we just *had* to dive in and see what we could glimpse underwater. My handy pair of goggles that I had bought six years ago in Sardegna made it easy to see the schools of tiny silver fish darting by, the sunlight streaming through the water in diagonal shafts, and the rocks curving over and disappearing into the deep blue depths of the Aegean Sea. I could’ve stayed there all afternoon.
Back in Fira after a quick trip up on the cable car, we enjoyed exploring the maze of narrow walkways and side streets with lots of jewelry stores and souvenir shops and restaurants and galleries and locally made items and many food options. The main church in the town square was beautiful and ornate inside, and elegant and sleek outside with a beautiful and quiet courtyard.
We headed up to Oia; the most famous part of Santorini – this is the spot where people swear the sunsets are the best on all of Santorini. (I can honestly say that I saw a better sunset midway down the island on the edge of Fira for sure, but a sunset is a sunset and they are always beautiful, especially when you are on vacation.)
The highlight of Oia was definitely the famous blue domes. I didn’t think I would be so impressed by them but they really are stunning. There’s quite a line to get close to them to take a photo, but in the end I’m glad Brianna convinced me to wait in line for it. It didn’t take that long to get to the photo op end of the line and you can still enjoy the view or people-watch while you are waiting.
We also stopped into a beautiful art gallery filled with a collection of 15 different artists, curated by a very kind owner who had lived in Oia all his live and loved sharing the work of local artists with tourists and Greek islanders alike. I fell in love with one particular piece -a fishing boat made of reclaimed wood and recycled bits of nails and string and bottle caps. I ended up paying for it to be shipped home to arrive safely outside of my carry-on luggage.
We were supposed to take a kayaking trip to some sea caves off the side of the island but there just so happened to be a lot of high winds during the time we were there. In fact, they were a couple of days while I was on Ios that all of the ferries and flights in the area were hugely delayed (or cancelled for a entire day) due to the high waves and wind. No storms, no rain, no lightning or thunder- just wind.
It definitely goes to show that weather can stop travel plans on a dime. The only real inconvenience about the severe winds and swells of the water was that I never got to kayaking Greece. I’ll just have to do that next time I’m here, it seems.
We definitely made the most of our time on Santorini, and then it was off to the island airport- Brianna on to England, and me home to Canada!
Until next time Greece! Thanks for the sun and the sand and the Greek salads!
Flying from France to Greece was very easy, and I enjoyed a pleasant first-ever flight with Aegean Air. As we flew along the coastline it was easy to catch sight of freighters and cruise ships criss-crossing like toy boats with white tails along the coastline and between islands, and reignited my anticipation for island-hopping later in my trip. As we got closer to Athens our view out the window included orchards and farms as well as bright white villages and hilltops. The trip wasn’t very long but included a meal: a sandwich, cookies, and beverage (alcoholic drinks included). I gave the landing a 10/10 as well. 🙂
I took the train into central Athens, which was quite straightforward with a 10€ ticket and a 45 min ride, albeit very warm and surprisingly humid. A hand fan that I purchased in Paris turned out to be indispensable in Athens, where we hit 32-34 degrees every day with 60% humidity. Summer is HOT in Greece, my friends… (And long, for that matter, seeing how we were into September at this point…) I had booked a hostel that was central to a lot of the famous sites, and I figured being a solo tourist surrounded by other tourists would be fun and helpful. When the train was a few stops past the airport, the sound of an accordion began, and I expected to see another busking musician travelling through the cars similar to Paris, but was surprised to see a 8-9 year old girl playing it as she wandered by, stopping occasionally to collect a tip from a stranger.
I arrived at my hostel and checked in. I was on floor 3 (which is four floors up in Europe as they consider the main floor ‘0’), so I was excited to see a tiny elevator to take me there. It was a cozy fit with my stuffed 40L pack on my back, and I was even more grateful to get out of it swiftly.
After a cool shower and change of clothes, I headed up for happy hour on the rooftop patio of the building. A party was already starting when I got up there, and within moments I was chatting with people from Brazil, Argentina, Australia, New York, Poland, and a 20-person university group from the Netherlands. Good old hostels.
I had a great conversation with an actor and stand up comic from New York named Mitchell who ended up having a similar travel plan to me so we decided to meet up later that week on the island of Ios! The university group was wild and had brought their own Bluetooth speaker, so although there was music playing in the little bar speaker from the hotel, it was drowned out by a great mix of dance and pop music that occasionally the group would belt along to. I was also amazed at the perfect view of the lit-up Acropolis contrasting the dark night sky, and decided to get up early the next day and make that my first order of business.
Armed with earplugs and an eye mask, I slept soundly that night, barely noticed a thing when my one roommate got back from partying between 2am and 4am, nor the other two who got up at 6am to head to the airport).
The hostel was in an exceptional location. It was in the area just south of the area of Plaka: one of Athen’s top neighbourhoods full of picturesque streets, shops, restaurants with rooftop patios, and is central to walk to many of the major sights like the Acropolis, Zeus’ Temple, Kolonaki Square, and the National Gardens.
I purchased a hop on/off bus tour ticket to get around easily to some of the sights, as well as some self-guided walking tours where you download recordings you can listen to as you walk through the various areas, with admission included.
It was recommended to me by a local to go to the Acropolis museum prior to walking up the hill, and I am so glad I did. It has an absolutely incredible collection of ancient sculptures and history, and it was easy to spend a couple of hours there.
One unexpected but definitely memorable moment was while looking at an incredible collection of artefacts on the first floor in the centre of the building I saw a young boy giggling and pointing to the ceiling two floors up and trying to get him mum to look up too. When she and I followed the point of his finger, we realized that the floor is glass and you could see up the skirts and dresses of everyone admiring the art on the third floor in the central area. How did no designer/architect/museum staff catch this?
I decided to walk across the road for my free entrance to the Acropolis and Pantheon. It took much less time than I thought it would to get to the top of the hill, although if you ever need a break there are loads of tour groups with guides explaining some cool piece of information or another while everyone tries to share the shade of the trees that line the pathway, and you can find a shady spot and listen in for a bit before carrying on.
A highlight for me was definitely seeing the Theatre Dionysus and The Odeon of Herodes Atticus Theatre at the base of the Acropolis. The Odeon was closed as they were setting up for a concert the following evening. I was sad I couldn’t venture inside, but it looked spectacular, nonetheless.
Arriving at the top almost felt too easy, and was a strange juxtaposition of the gravitasse of how ancient the stones we stood on were, and how incredibly deep the history was.
There is scaffolding on some part of almost every ruin in Athens as they reconstruct and restore these incredible structures, and I had already learned that the famous Caryatides; the ‘maiden-shaped’ columns from the Ancient Agora had been replaced with replicas on the Acropolis and the originals now lived in the safety of the Acropolis Museum down the hill to protect them from further wear and tear. You could get close enough to touch them, although a security guard stood close by to keep you from doing so, along with making sure you did not take photos.
The paved stones on the hill of the acropolis are polished to a full shine from the millions of tourists that walk across them every year, and it was easy to slip if you didn’t have good footwear or didn’t watch your step.
Seeing the Parthenon in real life was breathtaking. It somehow feels both like an incredibly realistic and meticulously designed movie set and at yet also like you have travelled back in time and are connected with ancestors and the millions of people that have stepped foot on this earth before you.
Sunbathing cats live their best lives in Athens
I reached the top early in the evening, and we were still at the highest heat of the day at 32 degrees. You could see people congregate in any places of shadow that they could find. The saturated blue skies and puffy white clouds were a perfect contrast to the almost golden hue to the columns and stones of the Parthenon. The hills below are covered in olive trees (also plentiful around much of Athens) before you get back to city streets, which are also beautiful.
An absolute highlight was among the hop on/off tour was a visit to the Byzantine Museum. Ever since my History of Costume class in university I had always loved the ornate art and fascinating history of the Byzantine time period. Time flew as I found myself delighted by the museum going on in a seemingly endless and wonderful spiral into the ground with more and more artifacts, collections, and pieces of artwork as you walked further in.
There were coins and oil lamps and ancient scrolls and ornate jewelry and bound books of the Catholic gospel with hand painted images, and large stone sculptures from temples and churches and articles of clothing incredibly preserved.
There was also modern art on the main floor that was exceptional as well. One particular artist who was inspired by traditional images and the kaleidoscope style that is very Byzantine, and repeating this images and patterns in both paint and digital mediums.
There was also an incredible collection of photography of Vassilis Artikos, who went to a small town in Northern Ethiopia that has eleven monolithic churches, and he photographed the people and the area and the rituals and culture behind the area and the people there. Incredibly stunning black and white photos full of contrast and stories.
Arriving at the Olympic Stadium was another jaw-dropping moment. Included in the admission is a free audio guide which I took full advantage of and listened as I walked along the dozens of rows of seats and beside the centre track and photo-op podiums. There were even a few people running a lap or two around the track, or racing each other past an improvised finish line.
You also are able to walk the tunnel that athletes entered through centuries ago which has an exciting energy of its own.
Through the tunnel is a collection of past Olympic posters and torches, including from the Calgary Olympics in 1988!
I took the Hop on/off bus along the Beach and Riviera line and enjoyed the company of a vivacious group of folks from Puerto Rico, deciding to explore a beach where they got off the bus. Although they did invite me to have lunch with them, I politely declined and went down to the shore to get a little ocean time.
The water was refreshing but still warm, and you could wade out quite far before the water got deep, with a mix of soft sand and smooth stones. Though only a 30 minute drive outside the bustling centre of Athens, it truly feels like a different part of the country altogether and inspired me to think about a future road trip along the coast of Greece.
I met another friendly group of people on the bus who were up from South Africa, and I was encouraged to visit their country as they assured me the strength of the Canadian/American dollar right now would make it worth my while, and gave me tips for many of the must-see spots; one direction I was given was to go watch horse racing in Durban!
They are generous with feta cheese in their salads here.
There were souvenirs being sold outside many attractions, like keychains of blown glass evil eyes, handmade your-name-in-Greek necklaces, and gold olive leaf headbands (which seemed to be the most popular). I also enjoyed the little markets with fresh fish, the carts of candied nuts, and I even saw one woman selling tall stacks of grape leaves and bowls of prickly pear cactus fruit.
Getting ‘lost’ as I wandered the lovely little streets just north of the Acropolis, a Greek stranger mentioned to me to continue down the road to my right and turn left onto the little pathway that would open up to a beautiful street of restaurants, and since that was just what I was looking for, I found myself only moments later at the top of the famous Plaka Street, where tables were just beginning to fill for dinner.
They don’t joke about baklava here… it’s like a second meal in portion size…
Athens sure knows how to create ambience with outdoor eating! Grapevines dangle over the tables, there are numerous rooftop patios with incredible sunset views, live music is offered nightly at many locations, and string lights and candles are used to create a warm glow as the sun sets and traditional dancers move from restaurant to restaurant performing for the tourists. And the food, oh my goodness the food!
A generous amount of complimentary ouzo also appeared after I paid my bill at a restaurant one night.
On my last evening in Athens I hiked up Mount Lycabettus to see the sunset, which apparently was what everyone else visiting Athens that day had in mind. Couples found spots along the path to take photos and cuddle, some brought picnics and a bottle of wine, while others and myself went all the way to the top and creatively found a place to claim our spot and view and capture the sun setting over the city with a panoramic view of the light-coloured buildings and dark green shrubbery-covered hills.
I had a small list of to-do’s in Athens, and I’m happy to say I checked all my ‘must-see’ boxes as well as having some bonus adventures. I met many friendly people, from tourists to locals alike. I got to have gyros, souvlaki, absolutely stupid-delicious greek salads, and my first greek yoghurt *in* Greece, at a restaurant with a wonderful view of the Acropolis as I waited for the bus to take me to the port to catch my ferry to the island of Ios!
A major highlight of my trip this summer was knowing I was able to visit friends in a heavenly place that feels like a second home, and looking back I could have spent the majority of my trip with these wonderful people in this wonderful place in the world.
I picked up my first ever European car rental at the CDG airport, and then whipped around the outskirts of the city to head to the countryside southwest of Paris, where I had last been a whopping 6 (how is it 6??) years ago!
I was ecstatic to be able to visit many friends in the heaven that is the small town, countryside villages in France.
I rented the car at the CDG airport, and was grateful to not have to drive anywhere within the city limits of Paris.
In Europe, the standard rental vehicle is manual, and it was fun to zip along (130 km/hour on the highway!!) to my first stop: L’Isle Jourdain & Bourpeuil along the glorious river that is the Vienne, an area about equidistant from Poitiers and Limoges (or about an hour drive from either).
It’s shortly less than a five hour drive from Paris, and the roads get smaller and more winding, and you drive past rolling hills, farmers fields, forests, small ponds, and winding rivers. Signs get more specific, and you pass through many small villages with red clay roofs and climbing vine-covered stone walls, hanging flower baskets at town squares, and occasionally a small cafe with two or three tables, usually occupied by a couple locals sipping espresso and smoking cigarettes.
I also loved the blackberry bush fencing used all over this region in France. I made sure to stop for a few (or a handful!) of sweet, juicy blackberries every single day.
(On one particular morning while enthusiastically going for a particularly large bunch of berries in a slightly overgrown side road, I did encounter some stinging nettle, which I do not recommend discovering in shorts and sandals. 😳)
The most remarkable and chance sighting of my friends Barbie and Andy at the local restaurant in L’Isle Jourdain moments after arriving in the town started things off with a bang.
I don’t know if it’s the magic of France or the fact that everyone’s lives felt paused for two years of pandemic, but I swear my friends all look EXACTLY the same as the last time I saw them.
Barbie and Andy used to live in town but have moved to Availles-Limouzine where Barbie runs a beautiful Bed & Breakfast called Le Source. They had just happened to stop at Le Dix for a glass of rosé on their way home, so we had a bonus early visit before I stayed with them, fortunate to stay in one of their B&B guest rooms and felt like I was at a five-star hotel. But more on that later.
After a lovely chat over the local wine, I headed across the bridge to my friends Jo and Jamshid, who have a Gîte and Bed & Breakfast themselves called Maison La Roche Gîte. The last time I was here they had only just purchased the property and were starting to renovate. Well, to say they have created a beautiful space is an understatement.
Jo and Jamshid had guests staying in their beautiful units when I arrived, so I got to “glamp” it up in their cute camper in their neighbouring garden, complete with an outdoor jacuzzi tub! When I arrived a barbecue was in full swing with several of their friends enjoying snacks and drinks in the private camper garden. I got reacquainted with their sweet dog Amber and was introduced to the newest member of their family, Twiglet the cat. It was a relaxing and entertaining evening after a day of driving, and they even had turned the jacuzzi tub on for me to have a soak before heading to bed!
The rooms and amenities for their guests are so lovely- a perfect combination of French and country chic, combining classic style and cozy, unique accents. Jo gave me a tour and I think I was gushing at ever room we stepped into. (I also loved the playful wallpaper choices on a couple accent walls, and the kitchen designs particularly.)
The real coup in my opinion was their glorious courtyard that had everything you could want; comfortable seating for visiting or eating, a hanging basket chair, a hammock, a flower garden and both Ivy and grape vines framing the space. A quiet, shady place to enjoy the outdoors but out of the direct sun on the +30-34 degree days we were having while I was there!
Just when I thought they had everything I could possibly need, they showed me the finished guest garden (the last time I’d been here, this space was simply a grass yard and a few lawn chairs!), now complete with multiple fruit trees, a sunning deck, a sweet dining area draped in wisteria vines, and a fabulous, fabulous above-ground pool! The pool was almost a necessity with the heat we were having and I floated around for well over an hour every time I got in.
In my opinion, all this place needs is a hammock between the walnut trees for another shady lounging spot, and I would never want to leave…
The town and surrounding area has gotten quieter overall (which I did not believe was possible), with several more shops and restaurants now closed, but the beauty of the area remains and I enjoyed a couple of long walks around the beautiful church, across the viaduct, and past silent houses and gardens that already look closed up for winter.
We also went to a house warming party of friends of theirs who had recently bought a house and had just moved in earlier that summer. There was a good number of friendly people, both Francophone and Anglophone, delicious food and wine, and a sweet dog who would casually try to sneak into the living room where the food was set out while we were all out on the balcony every time someone went inside to top up their glass or their plate. Our hosts also gave us a tour of the historical building, including the long and dark unfinished attic that one of the guests was certain was haunted. The community of friends in these smaller towns feels like it has extra value, particularly when there aren’t the usual amenities/entertainment of bigger cities.
After a wonderful weekend, I bid au revoir to Jo and Jamshid to drive about fifteen minutes further south to the town of Availles-Limouzine to see Barbie and Andy!
Like Jo and Jamshid, they had dogs that I had spent a good deal of time with 6 long years ago, so it was exciting to see shaggy little Pedro and the feisty Lottie when I arrived to meet Barbie at their front gate.
Barbie and Andy have a spacious property with a tall and elegant house that includes two beautiful ensuite rooms they use for a Bed & Breakfast that Barbie runs. The rooms feel like they were frozen in time as luxurious, classic French style, without being lugubrious. My room not only had a gorgeous big bed, classic wallpaper and furniture, a lovely bathroom (with the best water pressure I’ve possibly ever experienced), but also a balcony with a great view of their front garden and the nearby rooftops.
Side note/cool little tidbit of history: this house was the first one in the town to have a toilet installed inside! It’s on this side of the house but is more of a talking point than a functional toilet these days.
Their back garden is hundreds of vibrant shades of green, and includes a greenhouse packed with green grapes, a sweet little patio, fruit trees, and lots of space. There’s also a comfortable outdoor seating area facing the front of the property that to me feels a bit like the edge of the fictional Secret Garden with cascading flowers, intertwined vines, and a lovely canopy of tree branches creating a cool shaded centre.
Pedro especially enjoyed this part of the yard and likes to stay cool under the bushes.
Barbie and Andy took me for dinner at a wonderful riverside restaurant in Saint-Germain de Confolons that roasts chicken and cooks pizza in a wood oven. It feels like a big community or family picnic with various types of seating under the trees along the water, kids running around, and the restaurant dog making the rounds, casually guarding the live chickens that strut around the riverside.
Before long I was off to visit my friend Corinne in her new home in Montmorillon. Corinne was the reason I discovered this part of the country when I found her posting looking for volunteers with Workaway way back in 2016, when she was renovating a 100-year-old house to make it an artist retreat. I had taken a train out to Poitiers where Corinne picked me up and we truly only began to get to know each other as we drove the 60 minutes to L’Isle Jourdain. We were originally going to play it by ear that first week and see how things went before my stay was extended, but we hit it off so well I ended up spending 2 months working on the house with her and it was a dream of a summer (a couple posts about that here and here)! She has since then got married, had a beautiful little boy, and moved the artist retreat to Montmorillon.
Compared to the last two towns, Montmorillon feels like a bustling metropolis with its one small movie theatre, multiple shops and grocery stores and restaurants, and it’s almost 6000 residents.
Well, when I arrived in my room at Casa Jufa I felt like I was being embraced in a warm hug. The rich wallpaper and bedding made me want to move in. I also had a charming balcony if I stepped out the window with more wisteria curling around the railing and a view of the Saint Martial church tower a stone’s throw away.
Handmade dishes in the kitchen topped the homey-ness of this place, and it felt so personal to Corinne, a blend of warmth and artistry.
Our reunion was simply wonderful and it felt like no time had passed since we’d seen each other, despite our crazy adventures over the last half decade.
Meeting her husband Diego and son Ari were a clear explanation of how incredibly full of joy and contentment Corinne’s life is these days. Diego made me feel right at home, and Ari was quick to share his love of trucks and stickers and monopoly game pieces with me. A multilingual family reminded me of my double-down decision to get back into practicing and improving my French.
We went for a walk up to Chappelle-Saint-Laurent to get a great view of the city, and had crepes at Le Brouard that were just as memorable as they were my last visit here! These are not just any crepes; they are luxurious, hearty meals wrapped in a buckwheat galette. Many have superstar names like The Elvis or The David Guetta.
I’m sure the dessert offerings are fantabulous as well but honestly, I don’t know how I’d ever have the appetite to eat a loaded sweet version of what we ate for dinner after that!
An early morning stroll along the walking trail beside the river here made for a few snack blackberries, some further garden envy, and photos capturing the morning sunshine.
We met up to check out the local market that happens every Wednesday, with fresh produce, cheeses, coffee, textiles, leather goods, soap, jewelry, …and mattresses. (I am so curious as to who goes to a market to buy aubergines, eggs, strawberries, cheese, …and a mattress before heading home for lunch… but hey, I’m still learning how to live like a local. 😉)
There simply wasn’t enough time to spend the time with these incredible humans, so I of course have plans to come back and visit again soon. I absolutely love it here.
Even more than *gasp* …Paris ?!
And who knows, maybe next time the trip could include some house hunting… 😉
It was important to me on this trip to not overbook/over schedule anything and truly enjoy playing it by ear day to day. I had been lucky on previous trips seeing all the “must see” sights and activities, and with how busy Paris was feeling I was glad to not have to stand in many lines or crowds, aside from the occasional metro ride.
One of the few plans I had made this trip was purchasing an advanced ticket to the Orangerie first thing on Monday morning. I wanted to revisit the zen-like infinity sign rooms containing Monet’s famous water lilies. I was there first thing as they opened the doors and my fellow early visitors and I seemed to have the same idea; to enjoy a quiet and peaceful early visit before the day and people get louder and busier.
As always, it is just as wonderful as I remember.
After that I wandered through the Tuileries Gardens, religiously following the pathways of shade on another very warm day. Truly, the trees and dry leaves on the ground felt like we were much closer to the autumn season than I was expecting. Maybe the next time I visit it should be in the fall….
On my way home I grabbed breakfast (croissant, coffee, and iced earl grey tea) and explored a bit of the 9th arrondissement (just south of the Blvd de Clichy. There are so many beautiful small garden areas lining streets or on strange wedges of intersections, with trees and flowers of various shapes and sizes.
Along the way I came across La Musee da la Vie Romantique, and spent the rest of the morning looking at their free collections, afterwards having some tea in their beautiful garden.
I made my way back through Montmartre and zigzagged my way down other new streets of restaurants, cafes, art galleries and souvenir shops.
One evening I made my way over to the Champs Des Mars to see the Eiffel Tower at night, and though I thought I had seen my fill of tourists around Montmartre, there were even more surrounding the base of the Eiffel Tower; people were lining the side streets, filling the bridges, and crouching between lanes of cars to get the perfect photo of their travelling buddies with the Eiffel Tower as a proof-I-was-here memento.
The highlight of the week was meeting up with my good friends Hugo and Arnaud at a cafe in Montparnasse as they were passing through from a wedding out of town and then a couple hours later were headed back to the train station for the last bit of their summer vacation.
We met at Cafe Odessa for some iced beverages and to catch up on the 6 years that blasted by us since we last saw each other. Life and love and work and travels were a full list, and we chatted until their had to grab their luggage and book it back to the train station. No matter what, making time to meet friends, if only for a coffee or an iced lemonade, is completely worth it when you are travelling. It’s a boost to your mood for sure!
While I was in the Montparnasse area I took a walk through the cemetery there. A bright sunshiney and very hot day, the mood was much different than the misty, moody visit to the Montmartre Cemetery on my first day here. I also stopped to watch a mason work under the shade of a big beach umbrella, meticulously hand carving lettering into a new granite tombstone.
I then walked back to Jardin Du Luxembourg for another visit, armed with an iced coffee and my sketchbook, and I found a great seat close to end of my favourite fountain and relished in the shade of the tree canopy overhead, the ivy garlands framing the space, and the sound of the water. I had always wanted to do a line drawing of the shield/coat of arms at the top of the fountain and finally took the time. I can’t remember the last time I had sketched something. It was awesome.
I meandered through the familiar area of the 5th, past the Odeon Theatre, past the Pantheon and Saint-Etienne-du-Mont church, to outside the Odeon metro station for the best beurre & sucre crepe so far in Paris- and for the best price as well.
On my last full day, which just so happened to be clear skies and a sunny +33 degrees, I followed the suggestions of two other travellers from an amazing travel facebook group. First thing, I took the metro out to the 16th Arrondissement, and visited the Marmotten Monet Museum. The main level had an assortment of beautiful pieces, including a very cool collection of art from the Middle Ages, and a room swords in designed for specific academics and artists and scholars (including Marcel Marceau), but down in the basement was truly my favourite part.
There was an incredible collection of more paintings inspired by Monet’s garden and famous water lilies. This gallery was much quieter than the Orangerie, with so few people it almost felt like a private viewing.
The collection even included Monet’s “Impression, sunrise”: the painting they say inspired the name for the “Impressionism” movement.
What a coup! I couldn’t be happier than to have followed this suggestion.
This was my first time in this part of Paris and as I was researching the 16th I decided that next time I am in Paris I want to rent a bike and check out the Bois de Boulogne just west of here, which looks like another incredible park full of nature trails and botanical gardens, lates, and art installations!
It was in this area that I also found a (free) water station that gave you the options of still water or sparkling mineral water! Fancy, Paris. Fancy.
On the second #GLT recommendation of the day, I booked a ticket for that evening to see a concert at Sainte-Chapelle. As we walked in my jaw dropped and I was in awe at the beauty of the wall-to-wall stained glass windows, elegant arches and ornate gilded trim and artwork.
A string quintet consisting of three violins, one viola, a cello, and accompanied by a harpsichord, played an incredible evening including the most passionate, vibrant, and playful version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons that I have ever heard in my life and I was in heaven. Between the sound in that space, and the glorious atmosphere I felt transported back to another time. I cannot recommend this enough!
I very happilly headed home through the Marais and Les Halles areas, with every kind of restaurant and bar you could imagine opening and bustling.
Just like before, I felt safe in Paris the entire time. I’mdefinitely a steretypically ‘nice’ Canadian who will smile at strangers and say hello or good morning, which is not helpful in places like Paris and can lead to glares, confusion, or unwanted attention and so it took some active practice!
I travelled with my earbuds in (either playing music on low or not at all), and worked very hard on my “Resting Unimpressed Parisenne” face. The more you look un-wowed by Paris,the more you fit in, I feel.
Other than that I continued to practice my French all week and found that for the most part the locals were quite patient with me, or alternatively assumed I knew way more than I did and started speaking quickly until perhaps my eyes widened a bit in confusion or polite panic… lol
And then just like that, it was my last sunset in Paris, an early rise the next morning, and I was off to the airport to pick up my first ever European car rental to whip out of the city and head to the countryside south west of Paris, where I had last been a whopping 6 (how is it 6??) years ago!
After much-anticipated trips to Ontario for joyous family wedding celebrations the past two summers, I was inspired to go further and head across the Atlantic Ocean again.
Originally anticipating a road trip with a friend, I knew I wanted to include visits with my small town France pals, get some Paris time in, and then explore a country I hadn’t been to before.
I flew out of Toronto’s Pearson airport (‘only’ 3.5 hours delayed, aka a story for another post), slept a little bit on a very full flight with the definite help from earplugs and an eye mask, and arrived only a little ragged at the Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris the next morning!
With sheer force of will (and a very durable brand new Osprey backpack), I travelled with only carry-on for this month-long trip, determined to have a trip without any lost luggage strife that seems so common these days. It felt extremely efficient to leave the plane, head through customs (including a lovely albeit brief chat with an Italian customs agent who was quite satisfied when I told him my favourite part of Italy was Sardegna), and then straight to the metro line.
I took the RER train from the airport into the city, which is usually an easy way in and time-wise pretty efficient with minimal stops. As it was, there were train issues so the only option was the regular train that has multiple stops on the way in. I wasn’t bothered at all, and figured that it just meant I had extra time to let it sink in I was really back in France after 6 years!
It still hadn’t really felt real until I got to the top of the stairs at the Blanche metro stop. My first sight was the Moulin Rouge across the street, and in my periphery I saw the glisten of souvenir keychains, the rainbow selection of felt berets, and racks and racks of postcards on the nearby street corners. There was the familiar smells of perfume and crepes and cigarettes, as well as the sounds of passing bicycle bells and chatter in multiple languages as tourists tried to get unique selfies in front of the famous red windmill.
With an hour to spare before checking into my hotel, I walked along the cobblestones throughout the Cimitière Montmatre. The day was overcast but bright, with a drizzle of rain saturating the moss on the oldest gravestones and dropping some drier leaves on the ground making it feel more like autumn than summer.
I stayed at the Citadines Montmartre Hotel, and it was the perfect fit for this week.
The rooms are simply designed, clean, and modern and I loved the view from my room.
One very cool thing the Citadines do in their kitchenettes is seal the cupboard so you know they cleaned the dishes after the previous guest. Love this.
The lobby and breakfast area has cute style with a great accent wall and a couple of luxurious aubergine-coloured velvet couches. Breakfast was available for an added fee but I either made my own in my kitchenette, or I walked to a nearby bakery or cafe; one of my favourite things to do in France.
But truly, I was drawn to this hotel for a particular reason, and that was the rooftop patio. It sits above the neighbouring tile roofs with numerous clay chimneys and garden terraces, with a stunning view of the Sacre Coeur and the cityscape around it. You can even see the Eiffel Tower if you peek around the building in the opposite direction.
I stopped by some fruit stands and small shops and dove head first into practicing my French speaking with locals, and the rusty wheels of language in my brain started to squeakily turn after the last several years without much practice.
Feeling a little more Parisian: armed with melon, camembert, bread, grapes, cherry tomatoes and cured meat, I had the perfect simple dinner to enjoy on the patio and my evening with the roof all to myself was a perfect way to end my first day in Paris.
Day 2 started late as I was catching up on lack of sleep and jet lag from my 12 hour overnight travels, and I only got up at midday, heading to a nearby boulangerie and café for a croissant and espresso. (It still feels strange to go into a Starbucks in Paris, even though they are as commonplace here as back home.)
The sun was shining and the streets were bustling with tour groups and locals making their way along the road and sidewalks.
I walked up Rue du Coulaincourt, and explored streets of Montmartre I hadn’t walked along before, falling in love with the city all over again. I felt like a character in the movie French Kiss, with trailing flowers and vines on windowsills and over walls making every street feel more romantic.
“Beautiful! Wish you were here!”
I thought it would be fun to visit the Sacre Coeur again, as it’s a wonderful spot to people watch. As I got closer to it, the streets got busier and busier and by the time I got to the base of the church, it felt like the absolute peak of the high season in July, when Paris gets a huge influx of international tourists on summer vacation.
Many people know about the Pont Des Arts “love locks” bridge in Paris, but that memorable place is no longer (bridge sides replaced with glass panels) and now it seems like a new location for this is along the fences across the road from the Sacre Coeur. They are now thickly engulfed a brass textured blanket of locks; some locks are engraved, others have names scrawled across them with permanent marker.
Multiple sellers are set up around the church with trinkets like miniature twinkling Eiffel towers and wooden toy trains, and a musician with a guitar plays music that echoes on the nearby buildings.
It was definitely too busy for me so I continued my walk away from the hilltop.
I made my way to Place Du Tertes and I am sure that there were some of the same artists there were 6-8 years ago when I was here last, including several portrait artists with various styles and techniques, surrounded by admirers and keeping very busy.
The sun was its own artist, painting buildings with a golden hue at sunset, and more street musicians’ instruments and voices underscored my walk home past many restaurants and bars lining the streets with tables and wine and food.
I headed home to bed for an easy night and proper unpack, but I had forgotten it was Saturday night and the noise from bars and restaurant patios went late into the evening. The city of Paris partied well after I called it a night, but there’s a familiarity to that too, and I don’t really mind it at all.
On Sunday I headed over to the Jardin Du Luxembourg, one of my all-time favourite spots, and took in some wandering, lying on the shaded grass, and lounging in the green metal chairs strewn around the fountains and garden beds.
I revisited the Medici Fountain and sipped an iced coffee as I listened to the water trickling over the steps and admired the sculpture and surrounding landscape and gardening.
I spent some more time in Montmartre, making mental notes of restaurant options, looking at art galleries and shops; finding some old favourite places like the playful Pylones and picking up a couple *tiny* souvenirs (though I really would love a charmingly frivolous toaster and cooking set if I was not travelling with carry-on only…).
At the recommendation of a friend, I searched out Cafe de Luce in Montmartre for a terrace dinner, French language practice (or blatant eavesdropping, I suppose), and being humbly reminded it’s a “carafe” d’eau, not “bouteille”.
The evening also included one dancing waiter, who sheepishly grinned and shrugged when he saw me watching his impromptu performance. The terrace seating was across the street from the restaurant in a square under the natural canopy of very tall trees, and the sun beams squeaked through the streets nearby as the sun started setting.
I was completely full after a loaded burger with pickled onions and thick bacon, fries with heavenly in-house French mayo (if you know, you know), a rosé, and vanilla crème brûlée for dessert.
A trio including a melodica (or what I first called a ‘flute piano’) serenaded us for part of our dinner and then a solo accordionist arrived just after I finished my crème brûlée. Perhaps he is the same one that I walked by earlier tonight at another cafe…
Dinner felt delightfully indulgent and special, and I definitely added some longer streets to my walk home to help digest the generous servings of a delicious dinner.
The sky that night had tufts of magenta clouds and a periwinkle blue backdrop, and the clouds slowly dissolved, the sky fading to more of a powder cobalt.
I strolled over to see the Sacre Coeur and by the time I got there it was lit bone white in bright contrast to a now navy sky.
By the end of the weekend, I had heard “La Vie En Rose” played live by wandering accordion players, buskers in train stations, and musicians in the Place Du Tertre, which meant I had heard it each and every day I have been in Paris so far. And I don’t mind in the slightest!
My heart is so incredibly happy to be back here. ❤️
In my second (and solo) holiday week in Costa Rica, pandemic tensions around the world grew exponentially and all this Canadian traveller wanted to do was get home.
I had moved to a sweet Airbnb slightly further down the west coast in the town of Coco, close to the beach and with a pool. The all-inclusive resort we had been staying in the week before had to shut down the day after we left which meant we were lucky enough to enjoy it and go on our way!
Even though I missed my family, I was definitely happy to be in a warm country with very few covid cases (and drinkable tap water!) and with many French-Canadian snowbirds as my neighbours, I felt like I had honorary uncles and aunts that I saw daily in the pool. Many of them had to make plans to cut their winter escape short to get safely back to Canada before the world shut down, which felt quite inevitable.
I spent a few hours every morning in the pool, and went to the beach in the afternoons, but as you can imagine I was a little tied to the internet and connecting with people back home.
Throughout week I kept in touch with my amazing travel agent and friend Heidi, and felt that keeping myself informed & up to speed on any news was helpful to me as a planner/worrier.
By Wednesday night there were no more incoming flights into Costa Rica, and my direct flight home to Calgary was confirmed as the last scheduled flight WestJet would fly before any necessary but limited repatriation flights. One of my neighbours -a pilot with WestJet named Bruce- assured me not to worry and that we indeed would head home on Sunday (and no later), which was comforting.
I still loved the nightly pastel gradient of the sunsets melting down behind the horizon, and got some more sun time and ocean swims in before the inevitable long winter that awaited me back home. I also practiced a bit of French with my fellow Canadians as we took turns on the floaties around the pool, and thumbed through books left behind by other guests on the bookshelves in my airbnb.
The talk around the pool centred on the news that all the public beaches and pools in Costa Rica would be closed to the public by the end of the weekend, and all national parks would close as well on the Monday morning. It’s hard to imagine natural spaces like the coastline and forests being ‘closed’, and truly, those places were the reason to go to Costa Rica in the first place so it felt quite apropos to be heading out!
On the last morning I was in Coco I spent the morning in the pool and then went to the to the beach one last time. By the time I got back to the property, the pool had been cordoned off with “caution” tape wrapped around the surrounding trees.
Uber is popular in parts of Costa Rica and I was lucky to get a ride from Jonathan (if you are ever in the Liberia or Playa Hermosa or Coco areas let me know and I can connect you with him)! He drove me into Liberia the afternoon before my flight home and brought me to the airport when it opened the next morning so I could be early to check in (and I was third in line).
I created a care package of snacks for the WestJet flight crew as I was sure they had all sorts of stress at the time and would likely have grumpy travellers ending vacations early and not thrilled to be on a plane that day. I was just so grateful for them to be getting us home safely I could have hugged and kissed each one of them. But you know, covid. 🙄
I handed the team the gift bag full of cheese cracker sandwiches, trail mix, chocolates, cheesestrings, and mints. They were all delighted, and each flight attendant came to thank me personally during the flight, with one of them asking “are you one of us?” and another “are your parents pilots?”. It was fun to make them so happy with such a little thing, and I will be sure to keep doing that in the future.
(At some point during the flight a Kit Kat bar was surreptitiously slid onto my tray table and the flight attendant practically winked as she walked away like we were part of an exclusive club, so that turned out to be an added bonus.)
It was nice to brighten their day, and there were definitely some frustrated folks on that flight. With all the extra baggage of bonus snowbirds on a very full plane, they actually had to de-fuel the plane in order to be able to take off, and therefore we had an additional stop in Denver on the way home to refuel.
I’m not going to lie, even this adventurer breathed a sigh of relief when they announced we were descending into Calgary, and I was one of those people who enthusiastically and sincerely (or obnoxiously, depending on how you see it) who applauded when we landed.
A comfortable (masked) Uber ride home, and then I spent the next two weeks in isolation at my apartment. To keep busy, you name it: I did it- from finessing my sourdough bread skills to trying out online workouts to zoom calls with friends to having socially distanced balcony visits with my family; it was a strange time. I couldn’t have been happier to be home in Canada, but let me tell you, quarantining is a different adventure altogether!
The world is definitely a surreal place right now, and being on vacation in a foreign country a seven-hour flight away from home during a world health crisis is definitely the most conflicting experience I have ever had.
A frangipani tree blooming (and a sweet reminder of Bali)
Now, to be fair, the trip didn’t begin with such a sense of tension.
Our March family trip to Costa Rica had been booked in November 2019, an amazing gift from my generous mum and her partner, Orville.
I knew that I would have the month of March completely free so I decided to extend the trip by one week and do some solo exploring once my family went home, so my return flight was booked separately.
Near the end of the first week of March of 2020, the number of cases of covid-19 in Canada was less than 40, and the only travel advisories were regarding avoiding non-essential travel to China, Italy, and Iran.
We felt confident we would do all that we could to remain safe as informed & proactive travellers. We armed ourselves with plenty of soap, hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes, and an added air of caution about not touching anything or anyone unnecessary, and we headed to the airport for a red-eye flight.
We arrived in Liberia, Costa Rica on March 6, 2020 at about 7am, and drove to our resort, still sleepy and adjusting to the time and temperature, and folded ourselves into the shaded hammocks by the pool. When we left Calgary, it had been about -4 degrees Celsius. In Costa Rica it was +34.
Hammocks are one of the greatest inventions of all time, by the way.
Pina coladas aren’t too shabby, either… 😉
We stayed in the area of Guanacaste, at Playa Hermosa on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, where it is nearing the end of the dry season. Aside from the hibiscus bushes, palm trees and manicured gardens trimming the edges of the resort property, the view of the hills and landscape around us was primarily brown; almost entirely scratchy bare-branched trees and dry grass. We were informed that they even have forest fires occur at this time of year and there were some hazing smoky days while we were there, strangely reminding me of summertime back home.
The local fruit stands were always full of delicious choices, and we loved the local mango and pineapple, and even tried new-to-us fruit like purple starfruit!
Our first adventure was on Saturday, when we had a tour booked to Monteverde and the Selvatura Adventure Park for ziplining. On the way, our amazing driver and tour guide Harold pointed out some beautiful photo op spots and promised to stop on the way home, in addition to finding a little spot in a town on the way to get a snack of delicious chicken skewers and grilled corn on the cob.
As a bonus to the day we got to watch dozens of shimmering emerald and sapphire feather humming birds flutter around feeders at the edge of the bridges trail. If you were patient enough and stood at a feeder with your fingers balanced between a couple spouts, there was a chance a tiny jewel-tone humming bird would use your hand as a landing place! I couldn’t believe the magnificent rush of joy when one bird’s micro feet perched on my knuckles as it drank out of the feeder! It felt like such a gift. 🙂
We spent almost 90 minutes walking back and forth across the cloud forest through numerous suspended bridges, marvelling at the view and the height we got up to, occasionally hearing the whiz of zipline travellers passing through the canopy on either side of us. It was misty and surprisingly cool up in the mountains, and even rained while we ate lunch before heading out to zip line. (We agreed we would all highly recommend bringing something with long sleeves, and windbreakers/rain jackets just to be safe!)
After some hot Costa Rican coffee to warm us up we then geared up for ziplining. I still marvel at my fearless mum and Orville suiting up for this thrill seeker activity!
There were 13 lines and a lot of hiking in between platforms, so this trip is not for the mobility-challenged adventurer! A few of the lines were short and quick in little zigzags through the canopy, but a couple were much longer and even required pairing up with a zip line buddy to get across with your combined weight.
I was the odd man out in our group so I spent two of the long trips across clipped to one of our guides. This is the first zip line I have done where we were given gloves and were taught how to keep from spinning by holding an ‘okay’ sign with our dominant hand up above and behind us and brake ourselves by pressing the thick reinforced leather palm of the gloves onto the wire.
I have always thought the best lines are the longer lines where you actually have time to look out at the view and down at the tree tops below. The whir of the trolley rolling over the cable and the wind in your face became this wonderful humming underscore to a view that was hundreds of shades of green and gilded with trailing mist and clouds. Disappearing through the low mist on one particular line made it feel like we were entering some mystical place for a few seconds.
By the end we really wanted to go back to the beginning and go through it again! We left absolutely delighted and still felt like we were flying as we stopped for photos to admire the mountain and valley view, complete with a rainbow to frame the scene.
It was an incredible day, and we thought Harold was such a great tour guide we made sure to book him for an adventure later in the week.
I relished the quiet early mornings at the main pool, as the daily blaring party music had not yet been turned on and all you could hear was the bird calls and bubbling water jets of the pool. This was a great time to see flocks of lime green parakeets flitter around the treeline, and see pretty little kiskadees swooping around the pool.
Seriously, the birds here are all beautiful. Even the scavenger black birds (aka ‘great-tailed grackles’) had tails that looked like swooping black ink brushstrokes, and the white-throated magpie jays (looking like a sophisticated version of the blue jays we see in Canada), had beautiful crests of feathers on their heads that somehow made them look like royalty.
The beach at Hermosa has dark sand (it looks lighter in photos) and boy oh boy is it HOT! Thankfully, the granules are fine and smooth and once you are in the water it’s heaven. If you are lucky, you’ll catch pelicans corkscrew-diving to catch fish, and a couple times we were stunned to see the shining white diamond bellies of stingrays doing full twists and flips out of the water!
The beach has these great bending tree branches that offer sandy shade and are perfect to hang your stuff on, towels to dry, and even better to secure hammocks to dangle above the lapping waves as the tide swept in each afternoon.
There were kayaks available through our resort so of course at my first opportunity I took one out and spent about an hour following the shoreline all the way to the other end of the shore and back. The rip tides of the Pacific Coast are strong so you boat and swim with caution. My habit is always to stay along the shoreline to be safe in case a storm or wind picks up and I need to paddle in to shore.
I actually ended up joining in to play beach volleyball after kayaking, which if anyone had offered it up before as an activity I would have thought “no way- it’s way too hot” (35 degrees and all, in full sun)! Somehow the time flew and I played for over an hour with a combo of locals, tourists and the activity staff and we had an amazing time, cheered on by my mum and Orville and other folks enjoying the shade and lounge chairs along the tree line!
I love travelling with my family. On our stay-in days at the resort we had a great rhythm of meals, pool time, beach time, sunset watching, and card games. Naps were often added bonuses, and then we felt extra rested and relaxed when we went out on our exciting exploration days.
Sunsets here are beautiful, with a perfect gradation of pastels in peach to yellow to rose to periwinkle. And the vast sky sure showed off a great deal of stars after dark!!
We could hear the howler monkeys call out from the treetops in the evenings and occasionally could see them jump and swing from branch to branch high up in the hills. Once we even saw them down at the beach make their way over our heads!
photo compliments of Orville
I was always on the lookout for wildlife and I regularly amused my family when I took to calling out “monkey monkey monkey!” before I was certain of what it actually was, and in two cases it turned out I was pointing out racoons and coati (a similar type of animal with a longer nose) that were regularly seen in the area. We also came across loads of iguanas here ranging in sizes from small to very large, and tiny lizards that clung to walls like magnetic decorations.
Also, many stray cats seemed to live on the resort property and were always around at meals. We named them as we saw them, and somehow the theme for naming them all became: nuts. We saw ‘Cashew’ and ‘Pistachio’ regularly, and ‘Peanut’ often joined us at the pool, hanging out in the shade under our chairs.
Another regular sighting during meals were the magpie jays. These birds were so bold they would swoop down through the windows or down from the rafters in the restaurant and confidently perch on the back of an empty nearby chair, landing on a table the moment people stepped away. We saw them steal sugar packets, bread slices, potatoes, scrambled eggs, and even a huge pineapple wedge right out of someone’s drink.
Our next adventure away from the resort was a beach and snorkel adventure, and we were told that Playa Conchal was the place to go. A whiter, shell beach was about an hour drive south of us, and then we actually had to walk in from the beach town Brasilito that is the closest place accessible by road.
We were told that we could rent flippers and any necessary snorkel gear on the beach once we got there, which was great because though we all brought our own masks, we did not pack flippers. If you have ever done that you’d know it dictates a much larger piece of luggage!
It turned out there was no place to rent snorkels but it was just as well. This month had apparently been particularly windy for Costa Rica, which was a blessing for us with the heat, but it made for choppy, murky, and cloudy water.
Staying somewhat close to shore we bobbed and kicked our way through the silt and sand curling around the black rocks and saw a couple of small schools of fish swim by, and then one zebra-striped angel fish gliding along the swirls of the sand on the bottom. And that was sort of it. I imagine you need to either be on the Caribbean coast or take a boat further out to islands off the coast to really get to prime snorkelling areas. Next time, we decided. 🙂
We dried off in the partial shade of the beach trees and drank from coconuts we bought from a wandering seller.
On the way home, our driver Luiz stopped on the side of the road to show us a cashew tree, one of the coolest things I have ever seen. Each flower produces one cashew nut that needs to be dried and roasted in order to be eaten. The fruit that grows above the nut is also edible and often made into jams and chutneys. Raw, this ‘cashew apple’ tastes like a chalky, sweet and tart and soft red pepper.
The activities team at the resort had many events planned during the day and I was asked to join into the foosball competition one afternoon while everyone else was having a nap. I love foosball so I was happy to join in. I ended up winning the tournament and I was awarded a beautiful bottle of sparkling peach wine, which we ended up enjoying on our last night all together on our balcony at sunset.
Our third booked adventure was aimed to check three boxes: waterfalls, sloths, and toucans. (Yes, those very specific things! We even told Harold that we weren’t going home until we saw all three, and we were only very slightly joking.)
We left early in the morning to get to the Llanos de Cortes waterfall, which was only a 45-minute drive from us, and gets busier as the day goes on. The water was beautiful and we soaked and swam and floated, snapping a few photos in the morning sunshine (it was already 32 degrees at 9am), and then ventured back to the van headed towards the jungle again in hopes of catching sight of some more wildlife.
Costa Rica has a strong “no animal selfies” policy as they want to protect their wildlife and don’t want any unnecessary impact on animals and wildlife, so we jokingly took photos of toy/stuffed/souvenir gift sloths when we came across them (and we came across them a lot).
We arrived at Bijagua Ranas, a Frog observation site in the Alajuela area and were showed around by our volunteer tour guide Stéphanie. She pointed out all sorts of local flowers and plant life as we walked through the lush grenery. My favourite was the ‘maraca’ plant that holds water and a liquid between its petals that is a natural bug repellant and actually smelled wonderful in a sort of citrusy way. (Somehow I did not get my own photo so this reference photo will have to do.)
maraca (yellow heliconia)
Stéphanie showed us a bright green bump on the underside of a leaf, and then she washed her hands and picked up the hiding frog, setting him gently back on the leaves so we could see him stretch out and move and it was amazing!
As we wandered the winding pathway we kept our eyes up to the treetops and caught sight of howler and capuchin monkeys swinging in the trees, and then one sloth, then another, and by the end of the afternoon we had seen a total of six sloths up in the trees!
another shot captured by Orville on his amazing zoom lens camera
Cute capuchin monkey! (Orville’s photo, again!)
This area is actually along a travel route the sloths take to get from one jungle area further north to another jungle further south and east of us, so there are both two-toed and three-toed sloths that regularly pass through the area.
The first sloth was a ball of grey-brown fur high up in a tree, likely sound asleep, hard to see in a photo even with a good zoom because he was tucked into the shade and was similar in colour to the branches he was wrapped around. We learned that sloths go higher up to sleep safely, and also will climb further up in trees when it rains.
The most exciting sight was a mama sloth and her baby hanging upside down and eating leaves only about 10-15 feet above us.
Photo courtesy of Orville
And before we left we even were able to see a toucan way up in a treetop before making our way back to the van to head home! All boxes checked! 🙂
Lunch was delicious local food at a local restaurant (which they call ‘Soda’s in Costa Rica). We were given the option of chicken or fish, plantain, queso fresco, pasta and beans and rice and veggies!
There was a butterfly enclosure attached to the restaurant so we were delighted to watch several kinds of butterflies flutter between tropical flowers and bushes and occasionally land on the slices of pineapple set out for them.
We had another beach day where my mum and sister and I went out kayaking, which was a blast! I was really surprised more people don’t take this opportunity to use the freely available kayaks at the resorts here, because it was easy and relaxing!
Shade was a vital part of beach time because the sand is so hot, so we would chase the shadows created by the trees along the shoreline as the sun moved across the sky (even if that meant changing hammocks! 😉
well, I don’t hate it. 😉
On this day, we enjoyed an iced snow cone made by a local walking up and down the beach pushing a cart that had a huge ice chunk inside. He would shave the ice into a cup, and then mix it with powdered milk, cherry syrup, coconut cream, and sweetened condensed milk! (Garnished with a wafer cookie and a marshmallow).
Unlike anything I have ever had before!
On Saturday night we went for dinner at the beachside restaurant of Aquasport, and it was one of the best meals of the trip. We shared easily the most delicious onion rings we have ever eaten and then all had different dinners, from Mahi Mahi Chaufa rice to Tuna Poke, all the while listening to live music and watching a group of kids enjoying the huge tree swing in the middle of the restaurant’s courtyard. Carly and mum had a bit of a swing before we walked back to our hotel along the shore, enjoying the smell of a couple bonfires locals had going on the beach, and the vast clear sky of stars.
Last sunset together in Costa Rica (photo courtesy of my sister)
As I bid my family farewell on Monday morning, they jokingly threatened to kidnap me and bring me back on their (likely) full flight home. I was definitely a little bit nervous to stay another week solo with everything escalating and I promised to keep in touch and stay informed about airlines and airports and border closures and look into the possibility of getting an earlier flight back just to be safe. Until then, I would get as much sun and beach time as possible before heading back to winter and self-isolation!