20 Years of Travel #14 – Galapagos

321037_10150282405697986_8079591_nThe 20 Years of Travel series continues with a very memorable family trip we took in 2011 to the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. This adventure cruise was established with a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic. This would not be your typical vacation with lots of relaxation. We were there to explore islands filled with unique creatures that are endemic to the Galapagos. Our days were filled with nature walks, snorkeling and lessons on Darwin, geology and photography. It was one of the most exhausting and rewarding trips we have ever experienced.

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We flew to Guayaquil, Ecuador (pictured above) and then flew to San Cristobal (pictured below), where we would pick up our boat that would be our home for a little more than a week.

The National Geographic Endeavour (pictured on the right) was a smaller boat but had326327_10150281751942986_1913629_o everything we needed. Anyway, we wouldn’t spend a lot of time on the boat, except to eat and sleep.  Through an intercom radio in everyone’s room, the program director, Carlos, would make a morning announcement/wake-up call. These announcements would come normally between 5-7am in the morning.

Espanola Island

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We took many nature walking tours on Espanola. Our first stop was a beach full of lounging sea lions. Then we walked through piles of marine iguanas – never want to be that close to iguanas again if I can help it – to find one of the largest flying birds in the world…the albatross. We got to witness the albatross mating ritual, which was really fascinating. Our final stop lead us to some blue-footed boobies. These are marine birds that are known for their blue feet, hence the name. We got to see some babies that just look like little cotton balls – so adorable.

Champion Island

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We took smaller rafts around Champion Island to get a better visual of some of the water animals. The highlight was seeing penguins. After the rafting tour, we went snorkeling with all the amazing fish, penguins, and sea lions that like to play with you in the water.

Floreana Island

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On Floreana, we stopped to visit Old Post Office Bay. This post office box (which looks more like a barrel) has been there for hundreds of years. This postal system does not require stamps, you just leave cards for your family and friends and pick up other individuals’ cards who have addresses near you that you can hand deliver. This post office continues to operate just like this. We delivered cards and my family received their card as well.

Santa Cruz Island

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Santa Cruz is one of the four islands of the Galapagos that are inhabited by people. There is a lot to see and experience on this island. Here are some highlights from our time on Santa Cruz:

  • The Charles Darwin Research Station. At this station they look to provide safety and protection to grow endangered species. This was where Lonesome George lived, who was the last survivor of the dynasty of land tortoises from Pinta Island. While we did get to see him, he did unfortunately die one year later. It is estimated that he lived for almost 100 years.
  • The fish market. This market was bustling with activity and we were thoroughly entertained by pelicans and sea lions begging for fish scraps. Yet, the fisherman had no problem doing their work.
  • Sugar cane production. We visited a family’s farm that produced sugar cane in an old fashion style. They let us try some of their 65% alcoholic drink (130-proof) that they can produced from the sugar cane. They also produce their own coffee beans and chocolate there which were fantastic.
  • Giant tortoises. With our giant rubber boots, we wandered around in a field full of giant tortoises, who were bigger than us and didn’t mind us hanging out with them.
  • Twin Craters. We continued to enjoy the natural lushness and greenery of Santa Cruz by taking a hike to two huge craters, that were caused by the sinking of empty magma chambers.
  • Cerro Dragon. On the opposite side of Santa Cruz is a place called Cerro Dragon, where you can see an abundance of boobies, frigate birds and land iguanas.

Bartolome Island

We had more opportunities for snorkeling off of Bartolome Island. On one of these snorkeling excursions, white-tipped reef sharks were spotted. We also got to enjoy a presentation by two authors, Jonathan Weiner and Deborah Heiligman, who wrote about Charles Darwin and his research (specifically regarding his interest in the finches). As a book lover, this was a huge highlight for me. I own books by both authors (see picture above).

Genovesa Island

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The highlight of this island was the red-footed boobies and the nazca boobies.

This was such an amazing trip for so many reasons, but mostly because we found ourselves doing things we had never done. I, personally, was never an animal person, but on these islands we were walking side by side with iguanas, tortoises and hundreds of other creatures. We had only been snorkeling once before but went multiple times in the Galapagos. There is nothing like snorkeling with sea lions that are blowing bubbles in your face. We learned so much about the evolution of nature on these islands thanks to our fantastic guides and experts. These guides also gave us photography lessons that helped us capture all of these amazing moments. This was such a memorable experience!

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HAPPY TRAVELS!!!

Charming Town of Sintra, Portugal – December 2015

“Lo! Cintra’s glorious Eden intervenes
In variegated maze of mount and glen.
Ah me! what hand can pencil guide, or pen
To follow half on which the eye dilates
Through views more dazzling unto mortal ken
Than those whereof such things the bard relates,
Who to the awe-struck world unlock Elysium’s gates?”
~Lord Byron stated in “Childe Harolds Pilgrimage”

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You really should not be spending time in Lisbon without taking a day trip to Sintra, Portugal. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is worth so much more than the 5 Euro train ticket from Lisbon.

I was pleased that the train station not only had tourist information, but also plenty tour options. Normally I try not to do tours, but as I looked at the map I realized how much of Sintra we could see if we did a sightseeing tour. It would take a long time for us to hike to all the places we wanted to go. Plus, Sintra has a lot of hills to climb. After debating our situation over a coffee, we decided to pay the 20 Euros a person and hitch a ride on the City Sightseeing Tour bus. The bus took a circular route around the city, including the coast and all the highlights. If you just stay on the bus, the ride is approximately 2 hours. (Just a note that if you want to just do certain nearby sights like Pena Palace, you can take local buses for cheaper.)

On the bus, we enjoyed the audio description of all the sights and especially the12640278_10153395155602986_6697546238175227216_o information on the production of unique wines in the area. When we reached Cabo da Roca, the western most point on the European mainland, the bus driver waited for 20 minutes, giving us time to explore the area without having to wait for the next bus. The lighthouse (pictured on the right) and the cliffs dipping down into the Atlantic Ocean (pictured at the bottom of this page) are worth the visit.

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We continued on the bus to the Moorish Castle stop. We got off and bought our tickets to Pena National Palace and the Moorish Castle. (This turned out to be a great plan – even though the hike up to Pena was a bit steep – the line of people trying to get tickets outside of Pena was very lengthy.) We actually enjoyed the hike uphill to the Pena Palace (pictured above and at the top), which is located on top of a hill overlooking Sintra. This palace is colorfully painted and tiled. You can spend hours just wandering around this palace and admiring the design. When we arrived there, we were a bit hungry, so we ate at the restaurant at the Palace and really enjoyed it. One of the workers behind the counter at the restaurant was more than happy to give us extra information regarding wines, which we loved. Also, the cheesecake was amazing! After lunch, we explored the palace a while and enjoyed the wonderful views of Sintra from the highest points of the palace.

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We then walked to the Moorish Castle (pictured above). It is actually a wonderful walk on a trail through a wooded area with bright greenery everywhere. The12622012_10153395158692986_2457399089914444790_o Moorish Castle is a fort built by the Moors. There is a stairway along the fort walls to connect the towers of the castle, where you can enjoy 360 degree scenic views. On your way to exit the castle, make sure the check out the cistern.

If you have more time in Sintra than we did, you can also explore sights like Monserrate Palace, Sintra National Palace, Seteais Palace, Capuchos Convent and more. Sintra’s City Center also has some adorable cafes and ceramic and antique shops.

Basically if you love amazing walks and amazing sights, you will fall in love with Lord Byron’s “Eden.”

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