Category Archives: Beyond North America

Dominical surf life – Pura Vida (Costa Rica 2016)

The second week of our time in Costa Rica was spent in the small surf town of Dominical, on the southern pacific coast. Check out our first post here to learn about our super fun week kayaking. According to locals it has changed a lot in the last 5 years as the main coastal road has been developed – more tourism which is good for the economy and the services but it’s also meant more people and a faster pace of life for the former hippy town.

We drove from Turrialba to Cartago and then up to San Jose with the Costa Rica Rios gang and then got a ride from “Johnny” through San Jose to Ortonna and then down the coast to Domnical (yellow highlighted roads show all the places we explored in our 2 weeks).

Cartago is considered by some as the most religious place in Costa Rica. It felt like a moderately large city with traffic and all the other main structures that you find in cities. The main plaza and downtown area is dominated by the Santiago Apostol Parish Ruins, which are beautiful and function very much as a metropolitan green space. The church / parish was under perpetual construction between 1575 and 1910. A series of earthquakes brought down the churches and in 1910 it was decided not to continue with construction. No single church was ever actually completed.

The Festival de la Luz was about to start as we were driving through San Jose so we got to see all the floats as they were preparing for the parade that evening – they are quite elaborate!

Half way through our drive we stopped at a local crocodile sanctuary – it was mind-blowing (and a little scary) to see that many crocodiles sunning themselves on the river bank. Especially when you stopped to think about the amount of time we had just spent in rivers and were about to spend in the ocean. Luckily crocodiles (and piranhas) don’t like fast moving water and we just needed to stay away from estuary areas when on the ocean.

In Dominical we rented a 3 bedroom house for the group and it worked out really well. We were about a block from the beach along a dirt road, easy walking distance to the central part of town and it came with a pool which really helped as it was HOT…

Just beyond our back fence was a large green field that came with various types of lizards and iguanas – big, small and everything in between. We would go in search of them throughout the day to see what they were up to. Hunter is pointing them out to Tim in the photo.

Jeanine from Dominical Waverider was a huge help in getting all of our Dominical fun organized. Tim, Hunter and I took surfing lessons for 3 days and the instruction was great – they even took photos of us! It was a low surf window while we were there which was good as it meant we got to surf right in Dominical (normally only for experts) but it also meant that some days it was tough to find waves. We were pretty worn out from our river adventures so not our best surfing, but we all came away with some improvement and good suggestions. It was also great to have Hunter back out on the water surfing with us (he took a self-imposed hiatus last year).

The main Dominical and Playa Hermosa beaches all have lifeguards, which is great to see and comforting as the rip tides can be quite strong at times.

Jeanine also took us to a local waterfall – some people are adventurous enough to slide down the waterfall or jump off the top. We decided to just enjoy the cool and refreshing pool at the bottom. The ocean temperature was like bathwater – I found it amazing, the boys found it too warm.

We had fun exploring Dominical and stopped in at the CongoMongo restaurant for lunch (much to our surprise it was vegetarian so I was happy, the boys not so much… but they did like the swings) and Tortilla Flats (where you MUST have the passionfruit basil margarita while watching the sunset). There are 5-6 good small restaurants within walking distance of the main area and all are worth checking out.

It was fun to have some “beach time” after all the time on the river. It’s always hard to leave those amazing sunsets and head home but we did… It leaves us excited for our next beach visit. If you are looking for some surf time in Costa Rica, be sure to chat with Jeanine at Dominical Waverider – we strongly recommend them!

Kayak Costa Rica 2016

We spent 2 weeks in sunny Costa Rica in mid December with an amazing group of friends; 8 days under the excellent care of Costa Rica Rios and another 4 days hanging at the beach enjoying the sand and surf in Dominical. This post covers the first 8 days with a second post covering beach life!

Getting anywhere warm from the Yukon is an adventure in itself… and usually takes over 24 hours of travelling. This trip was 30 hours from airport to airport, including 4 airplanes & 5 different airports, 1 lost luggage adventure mid trip, 1 case of cancelled tickets mid trip, and another 6 hours driving in Costa Rica to get to Turrialba thanks to traffic issues. We spent from 1:00 am to 4:00 am attempting to get some sleep in the underground of the Houston Airport in between flights – Hunter’s first exposure to life as a dirt bag kayaker…

Our winter paddling adventures are about more than just finding warm water, they are a great opportunity to experience new cultures, see new animals and amazing scenery, try out new foods and to continue to practice our spanish.

Our main base camp while kayaking was Villa Florencia just outside of Turrialba, which is located in the Central Valley mid way between San Jose and the Caribbean Sea. The hotel was beautiful with lush grounds to walk around, a swimming pool and hot tub and large spacious rooms. The highlight of the amenities was the Foosball table, where even the chef showed up to take on the strongest one of our group. The biggest challenge was trying to dry 3 people’s wet gear in a humid climate in our room.

Our first day of paddling was on the Pejibaye River, a tributary of the Reventazon River in the Turrialba Valley. The morning session was class II and our “check out” paddle where the guides get to determine skills/abilities etc. It also allowed us to get used to the rental boats that we were using. After lunch at an old school house on a dirt road a group of us put in on the upper class III section and others did the lower section again. The upper section was fun with a good assortment of boulders and felt like a nice creek run in the middle of the jungle.

Days two and three were spent on the Sarapiqui River, which was 3 hours NE near Puerto Villejo. It runs from the Central Mountain Range just north of San Jose to the San Marcos River which runs along the shared border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua.  It was further into the rain forest and we definitely found the rain that goes with the forest! Our first run down was on the lower section of the river (class II/III) and it ended in pouring rain, with everyone standing delicately in the bus to get to the hotel to avoid getting the bus soggy for our long ride home. Our second day was on the La Virgen upper section (class III+) and came with a fabulous surf wave and some fun revolving whirl pools. Hunter also shifted into an RPM as he had watched our lead guide Arnaldo having so much fun stern squirting with it on the first day.

Days four, five and six were spent on various sections of the Pacuare River, which is one of Costa Rica’s classic rivers running 108 km from the highlands to the Caribbean Sea through primary rain forest and lowland tropical forests. It is a mix of class III, IV and V depending on the section you run. On day four we ran the Upper Upper section (class II/III) and a smaller group of us ran the 5 class IV rapids before you get into the class V Upper section.

Day five and six were an overnight trip on the Lower section, with a stay at the beautiful Pacuare Outdoor Centre in the middle of the jungle. Lunch break on day five was at a fun tributary that turned out to have a small cave hiding behind the rocks, which Hunter loved. If you look hard you can see his face and hands sticking out of the wall of water. Riverside lunches were always yummy, plentiful and held in creative places!

It was quite the hike up and down from the river side to the POC lodge but so worth it for both the view and the amazing amenities. The wide open kitchen/living room common space was so clean and inviting that Hunter ended up sleeping in one of the hammocks overnight while Tim and I enjoyed our small cabin with nothing but screen between the room and the jungle – lots of noises and with a full moon out it never really got dark.

Our last day of paddling was a mix of III+ and IV and so a smaller group paddled and the others had a great day in the raft. Hunter chose to paddle and styled the class IV rapids thanks to some great guiding by Arnaldo Perez, Costa Rica’s top slalom racer.

Overall we were really impressed with the staff at Costa Rica Rios and would definitely recommend them for anyone looking for a kayaking or warm weather winter adventure trip. They are very family friendly and also open to customizing adventures just for you.

More  photos can be found on our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ChasingthesunYT.

Ecuador – take two…

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photo credit: Seth Ashworth

One of our goals this year is to kayak as much as possible, both for progression (for me) and fun (for everyone)! Being in southern Florida for December and January we realized that we were closer than we ever would be to Ecuador (a 4 hour flight vs 30 hours of travel) and jumped on the idea of a new year paddling adventure with the crew from Endless Adventure International, whom we played with last January on our first trip to Ecuador.

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Hunter decided to stay in Florida to get to spend some independent time with his Grandparents so this was also our first kidless trip. Always good to double check that we still like to hang out with each other!

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photo credit: Seth Ashworth

Ecuador kayaking is a mix of creeking and mid-sized big volume rivers, both of which are development areas for me and old hand for Tim. It’s all about the BOOF to make the most of the features…

We were in Ecuador for 11 days and paddled 9 days in a row throughout the Quijos corridor and Tena area. We covered off most of the sections of the Quijos River (Bridge one to the Dam), the Cosanga River, the Upper Misahualli, the lower Jondachi River, the Hollin River and the Jatunyacu River. YES we were tired kids by the end!

One of the coolest experiences was getting to the put in on the lower section of the Jondachi River. You drive through the small community of Mondayaku and there is a flurry of people that leap onto the truck looking for work as porters. For $5.00 someone will carry your boat the 20 minutes down a muddy animal track to the river – best $5.00 ever spent! The Jondachi is located outside Tena, which is on the edge of the Amazon Jungle. It’s class III/IV and amazingly scenic.

The other really fun experience was hanging out with the local kids that were out playing in the rivers. Some days they happened to be on a beach during a section and many times they were at the take outs. The happily fling themselves into the water and swim out to grab onto your boat and then ride around.

Last year when we paddled in Ecuador Tim ended up hitting up hitting his head on a misplaced rock when upside down and perforated his ear drum. With that in mind, we both got new full face helmets last summer and this was our first experience wearing them. Based on the scratches they both received, it turns out they were good purchases!

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photo credit: Seth Ashworth

Many thanks go out to the Endless Adventures team (Chris, Andrea, Seth, Ursual & Wilo) for another great visit. We definitely recommend Ecuador as a place to visit – beautiful scenery, amazing people and what feels like endless rivers to explore and paddle!

Travel Note: Ecuador has amazing diversity. Our first trip touched a bit more on non-paddling things and we strongly recommend Ecuador as a family friendly destination – great infrastructure, very clean, friendly people and enough to keep you busy for at least a month between the Amazon, the Andes, the Beach and the Galapagos.

 

Banos – adventure capital of Ecuador

IMG_1988Banos (de Auga Santo) is a small city in the Andean highlands, just west of the Amazon Jungle, located at the base of the still active volcano Tungurahua. We all wondered why you would name a city “bathrooms” and learned that it’s name actually means “baths of sacred water”, in reference to the thermal hot springs located here. Banos has become a mecca for those seeking fun and adventure – whitewater kayking/rafting, waterfalls, rock climbing, zip lining etc. It has a very youthful culture with people from all around the world making a stop here as part of their wandering travels.

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Banos is a 5 hour drive from the Ponderosa Lodge in San Francisco de Borja. The plan was to drive to Tena (2 hours), paddle the Jatunyacu and then head on to Banos in time for dinner. The normal itinerary has the group paddling the Upper Misahualli, which is right along the main highway, but due to low water levels we made the change, which excited Hunter as he wanted to show off “his” river to the rest of the group…

IMG_1988The put in for the Upper Jatunyacu is at a local eco-tourism resort with swimming holes created in the side tributaries, and they come complete with Tarzan ropes. We had a picnic lunch here before the boys launched into the river and the rest of us headed a little downstream to another put in that would avoid a few tricky class IV features. The Jatunyacu river is also known as the Upper Napo river and the Napo River is one of the two headwaters of the Amazon river, which means that we paddled on a headwater of the Amazon – pretty cool.

DSCF8493Abby joined us again and it was interesting to see how much Hunter’s confidence had grown from when we paddled this river less than a week earlier. Hunter had yet another great paddle and showed Tim all the cool stuff that he liked about big water. We made it a bit of a shorter day than our first run on this river due to the remaining drive to Banos. Needless to say, we were still quite late getting into Banos due to all the fun that was being had!

DSCF8555We were up bright and early the next morning to meet up with Andres Reyes (black boat), a Banos based member of the Endless Adventures International team, who was guiding us down the Pastaza River. Andres is a fabulous guide and if you get a chance to paddle with him, grab it! Hunter and I were paddling the upper section (class III+) and then the boys were carrying on to paddle the lower section (class IV). It had been raining a fair bit and water levels were somewhat higher than anticipated and this gave me such huge butterflies the entire run.

The whole experience of paddling the Pastaza that day was yet another great learning moment for me as a parent. I had butterflies because I was worried that we were putting Hunter in over his head and that if he swam he would be scared and upset, which would undo all of the progression (both in skill and confidence) that he had made over the past 10 days. I had no doubts that Andres, Chris and Tim would keep him safe – it was all the emotional side of things that I fretted about. Needless to say, I had a crappy paddle, spending too much time watching Hunter and paying attention to the butterflies. At the end of the upper run, which went really well, Hunter says to me “Mom, when we’re paddling can you please stay back a bit. I had Andres, Chris and Dad there to pick me up if I swam, so I was fine”, with absolutely no fear or negative emotion attached to the idea of swimming. ACK – it’s a constant juggle to figure out where that right line is these days!

IMG_0573Hunter and I got out of the river, undressed and then hopped in the shuttle van to follow everyone else down the river. At one of our stops we saw this really cool fish farm, which was on a plateau that was midway between the road and the river. It supplies the local restaurant (just above it on the road) with fresh fish and then sells the rest to other restaurants in the area.

IMG_0612A very special side benefit of paddling with Andres was that we were served a private dinner by his mom at her restaurant (Mercedes Restaurant). While it did not feel like fine dining, it sure tasted that way – the food was OUTSTANDING…. Five stars from all three of us. If you are in Banos it is well worth checking to see if she is open – very reasonably priced, especially for the quality of the food & service.

Every night after we finished dinner we went for a walk around town to explore. The city was very clean and not once did we feel unsafe. Many stores were still open late into the evening and one night we joined an impromptu kids soccer game in the main square. The christmas lights were still up in the streets which made everything look so festive.

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The rest of our time in Banos was spent exploring and playing.The group rented a mix of motorcycles, ATV’s and off road jeeps for an afternoon and it sure was fun! We headed out through town and then up the big mountain that sits right behind the city of Banos.

At the top of the mountain is The Casa del Arbol (tree house), which was written up as the wildest swing in your life by the Places You Must See In Your Lifetime website. It is actually a seismic monitoring station for the volcano but the views are spectacular and the swing puts you out over the edge of the valley looking into nothing but sky – it comes with a good dose of adrenaline if you actually pump to go high!

IMG_5283We fit all three of us on the ATV (standard vs automatic) and Tim did a great job of coaxing the engine to get us all the way to the top of the mountain. He also did a great job supporting Hunter, who drove us all the way down the mountain until we got to town. Driving in town requires a mix of big city and rural farm driving skills, which luckily Tim has!

IMG_0596One of the other things that Banos seems to be known for is “Los Dulces” – their locally made taffy. There were a number of stores on the main street that all had taffy makers busy making taffy. It was interesting watching them pull and stretch and knead the candy, almost like a pizza maker. What I wasn’t so sure about was the food sanitation as it went straight from the pole and then bare hands of the maker into the bare hands of another worker that rolled it into shapes and packaged it. Not quite North American standards I guess…

Just up the block from our hostel (Hostal Santa Cruz, a classic backpackers hostel) was a fun little park with lots of things to play on. It is also a great meeting ground for people with kids. Andrea was there with Radd the day we paddled the Pastaza and came back with news that she had just met a mom and boy that Hunter and I just had to meet! This is one of the many wonderful things about travelling – people from all over the place coming together in various circumstances and finding commonalities. Jeremie and his mom are from Germany and are travelling and homeschooling for a year. He and Hunter had a fun 2 days together and it was nice for both of them to have some “boy time” where they could play, wrestle and joke around. Travel has made Hunter more open to making these quick connections and enjoying them while they last.

The park mural is painted on the back of the facilities building and is worth noting not just for it’s beauty but also for the detail of it’s message. If you “read it” from left to right you can see that it tells the story of rebirth and revitalization, moving from drained & polluted rivers to the bounty of mother nature.

For our last twenty-four hours in Banos we treated ourselves to a night at the Luna RunTun resort, located up on the hill above town, just below the tree house and volcano. When ever we splurge on expensive hotels we do our best to arrive prior to check-in and seek a late check-out to maximize our spend…We had hoped to spend a good portion of our visit in the hot pools and were fairly disappointed with their temperatures. There are five pools, with three of them being “hot”, a large fourth being a cold pool and then a hot-tub. The four “hot” pools (including the hot-tub) were more like a warm bath and there was no variation in temperature amongst them. Definitely a bummer. While the rooms are beautiful, the food was “OK”, and we had fun playing billiards, I wouldn’t recommend a stay here – the price does not match the value.

The views from both Luna RunTun and the Tree House were amazing – the valley is so lush and we were all constantly amazed at the angles of the plots of land that were being farmed.

IMG_0659It was a five hour drive from Banos to the Quito airport. We spent the money on a private car ($100 US) and arrived at the airport around 6pm. The drive was quite scenic and we enjoyed seeing the regional diversity as you travelled north up the Andes. The highways here are well taken care of and it was very smooth driving.

International flights all leave late in the evening and the down side of that is that check-in does not open until 3 hours prior to the flight. This meant that we had 4 hours to amuse ourselves…with all our bags. The good news is that there is a decent sized restaurant/food court area in a complex just across from the airport. We found some comfy chairs and settled in with some food and some movies.

The Jungle Life in Tena

IMG_1548Tena is a popular launching point for Amazon Jungle adventures, as it sits just on the western edge of the Amazon region. It has grown into a major regional economic centre and was historically known as the Cinnamon capital of Ecuador.

IMG_1564For us, Tena meant meeting Abby Dent, aka “Jungle Jane”, whom Hunter and I spent the week paddling with. She was a perfect match & a great coach- she made everything fun, gently pushed Hunter and the end result was some fabulous paddling progression for Hunter during this trip. She was also a great resource to help our learning about Ecuador.

DSCF8231For our first paddle in Tena the boys paddled the Upper Misahualli (class IV) while Hunter, Abby and I did an intro to creeking for Hunter and paddled the low volume Middle Misahualli (class II+) to get used to the technical skills needed for creeking. The water was definitely warmer that in the Quijos Valley and we got away with swim shirts and life jackets. Fun times had by all.

IMG_1606Day two in Tena had the boys paddling the Upper Anzu (class IV) while Hunter, Abby and I shifted gears to introduce Hunter to “big water” paddling – we paddled 18km on the Jatunyacu (class III) on big rolly wave sections with holes you needed to dance around. It was fun to see the grin on his face and to watch his confidence grow moment by moment, to the point where he and Abby co-lead the way down one of the rapids. We had fun playing with all the rafters near the end of the run.

We took a pit stop mid way through the run to visit a small village that sits on the side of the river. Abby gave us a “plants of the jungle 101” course and we got to see and experience:

  • how termites and termite wood are used as natural bug repellant: put your hand in the termite nest, have them crawl all over you and then shake them off and wipe the remaining residue all over yourself. Burn the termite nest and it will ward off mosquitos from your camp just like a citronella candle will.
  • pineapple plants – in nature you get one pineapple per plant and they take over 6 months to grow & ripen
  • hot pepper plants – Yep, they were hot!
  • lemon grass – according to Hunter it smelled just like Fruit Loops – it was definitely lemony!
  • cacao pods – super cool… the pod is about the size of a football and grows WAY up on the tree. Depending on the type of plant, the pod is ripe when it is either red or yellow and will fall to the ground. You break it open and it is full of what look like white alien balls. The slime on the alien balls is actually a treat and you suck it off, leaving the cacao seed, which is then cracked open and dried in the sun before being ground into chocolate powder

Day three and everyone was back on the Misahualli again – the boys busy boofing on the Upper section and Hunter stepping things up by guiding Abby and I down the middle section. It was yet another confidence booster for him, and great to continue to build his river reading and decision making skills.

Before we hit the middle Misahualli, Hunter and I got a guided tour from Abby through a local animal refuge facility. It was another example of the Endless Adventure team creating the best possible experience for their guests. Hunter was thrilled and we learned a lot about both indigenous and non-indigienous animals at the facility.

The boys had their own wildlife adventure and found these cute guys at the resort where they took out of the river.

We stayed at a nice family run hotel called the Hostal Villa Belen. Tucked behind a large wall a short walk from downtown it had a wonderful garden area in the centre with cinnamon, avocado and lime trees. The rooms were fairly simple but clean and the staff were wonderful. We ate dinner and breakfast there for two days and the food was worth the stop – flavourful and plentiful.

Wandering the streets of Tena, both during the day and at night, we had absolutely no concerns about safety. It was clean and the people were very friendly. Taxi’s are easy to grab, except when it’s pouring rain, and are very affordable ($1-2 US) for a ride within town. If you are looking for a local company to do rafting or jungle adventures, we recommend River People, which is run by Abby’s family.

Andean Eco-hub; Quijos Valley – Ecuador

IMG_1791The Quijos valley sits on the eastern edge of the Andes mountains and runs all the way to the western edge of the Amazon region. It is moderate in temperature (spring like all year round) and can see rain on a fairly regular basis (any time, any day). These two features combine to create this amazingly lush landscape as far as you can see.

San Francisco de Borja, located right on the Quijos river, is the home base for Endless Adventures International as well as a few other kayak companies. There are more than a handful of rivers that can be reached within a 30 minute drive so this is quite a central spot.

The drive from Quito to the Quijos Valley goes through a number of mountain passes and is definitely a windy journey, which Hunter isn’t a real fan of. We chose to give him some Gravol to help his stomach, with the side benefit that it also helped him have a well needed 90 minute nap. After our full day of adventuring in Quito we arrived at the Ponderosa (Endless Adventures International lodge) in time for a late dinner.

Note: one of the clearly differentiating aspects of an All-Inclusive trip with Endless Adventures is the focus that they put on food. Everything is fresh and local, plentiful, flavourful and there is a relentless focus on food-safety to keep everyone healthy for paddling.

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The lodge is a low key environment with rooms of various sizes, 2 shared bathrooms, and lots of indoor and outdoor shared spaces to chill out. One of Hunter’s favourite places was the main hammock, where he and his new BFF Radd would hang out with their snuggly friends.

Ponderosa Lodge is located on a working farm, with milking cows that are fed sugar cane to make their milk yummy or sweet. They grow sugar cane, various vegetables and raise Guinea Pigs (to eat, not as pets). Hunter was happy to get to use a machete (basic farm tool here) to chop down some sugar cane, which we decided is sweeter than the sugar cane in Mexico.

Our first morning was a slow start due to us all being tired from travelling. We headed off to the neighbouring town of El Chaco to check out their Sunday market and pick up some fresh fruits, vegetables and meat. Ecuador allows people to ride in the back of a vehicle IF the cab is full – Hunter was thrilled to take advantage of this rule when ever possible and was always the first to volunteer to ride in the back.

With all the overnight rain we headed to the local swimming pools for a warm up and then off to run the Borja and a section of the Quijos river. There was so much water that what is normally a trickle between the pools was a runable drop, which we had fun with. Hunter also worked on his play boating skills with Chris. With levels running quite high, we decided that Tim,Chris and I would run the Borja river, which can only be run at medium and high water. It was a fun warm up and orientation to creeking. The Borja runs into the Quijos, which was running at high +++ level. Big, brown pushy water with waves so big you couldn’t see the person you were following. Thanks to managing to find the big grabby hole that was strong enough to window shade me and pull me out of my boat, I exited at the take out at the lodge while Tim and Chris continued on to just above the canyon.

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We headed off to Tena the next day for three days of jungle paddling (details to come in my next post) and then were back in the Quijos valley in time for New Years Eve and 2 more days of kayaking.

New Years Eve is quite the cultural experience in Ecuador. It actually stretches over about a 48 hour window (mid-day on the 31st to mid-day on January 2nd). Historically widows dressed in black and holding their babies would venture into the streets on New Year’s Eve to seek money to support themselves.This has evolved over time to men (young and old) dressing up as women and putting up road blocks to collect drinking money. Tim got stopped in Tena walking down the street in the middle of the afternoon 🙂

We all bought masks of sorts from the street vendors in Tena to take part in the evening festivities in Baeza, which is just down the road from Borja and a kayakers haven. It was definitely quite the street party… The other Ecuadorian custom is the burning of effigies at midnight, to send off the past year and welcome in the new one. This ranges from elaborate stuffed effigies to individual pieces of paper with thoughts.

Baeza medical centre

Baeza medical centre

New Years day brought a slow start to things… the boys paddled the Quijos from Bridge II to the Canyon while Hunter and I took a day off and enjoyed the sunshine while catching up on some school work.

Unfortunately Tim ended up hitting his head so hard on a rock on the lower Quijos that he burst his eardrum and had to make a stop at the Baeza medical centre for some urgent care. This definitely put a different perspective on his paddling for the rest of the trip – he tried to walk the line between the Doctor’s guidance of “no paddling, no water in the ear” and being in Ecuador surrounded by fabulous class IV+ creeking! Ear plugs, padding, duct tape and using Lee’s helmet with the ear protection were the compromise. He also opted out of any runs that would clearly see him likely to be totally submersed.

NOTE: At this time (late January), Tim is on the mend. Hearing is at about 50% and not consistent. We are looking forward to it improving over the coming months.

January 2nd had more highs and lows… The high was Hunter confidently paddled the Middle section of the Cosanga, a class 3+ creek that flows into the Quijos river with the entire group. He had a fabulous time and really enjoyed it.

The low was that I got hit hard by a food bug that had been brewing since our night out in Tena and was knocked out for the next 24 hours.

The last day of Quijos valley paddling saw everyone on the Quijos River again, with medium water levels, which made it a completely different river. The girls paddled from Bridge 4 to just above the canyon while the boys paddled from Bridge 1 – Bridge 2, with some carrying on all the way to Bridge 4. It was great to paddle this river at this level as I left it on a good note – nice and challenging but not too challenging. Hunter had a bit of the flu so he stayed home and recuperated.

IMG_1940We took a day off on Sunday and the entire group headed to the Papallacta Hot Springs (Termas de Pallacta), which is located high in the mountains heading west towards Quito. It is at 3800 meters/12000 + feet and the altitude was definitely noticeable. It was the last day of the christmas/new years holiday window and quite busy with south american tourists ending their holidays.

The Quijos Valley is ripe with adventure and we only touched the surface, leaving plenty of room for new kayaking and exploring experiences when we return!

Quito – an eclectic metropolitan hub

IMG_1425Our journey from Whitehorse to Quito was long and jumbled, due the combination of physical distance and us using airline points for a portion of the trip:

  • Whitehorse to Vancouver
  • Vancouver to Calgary (overnight at the Delta airport hotel for a whopping 5 hours)
  • Calgary to Houston (departing at the obscene hour of 6:30 am)
  • Houston to Quito (a fun filled 5 hour lay-over in Houston)

Needless to say we were quite exhausted and out of sorts when we rolled into the Quito airport at midnight. Chris from Endless Adventures International was there to meet us and we headed off to a small hotel in the town of Tababela, which is a bedroom community of Quito.

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It was a small hostel with a beautiful garden behind a large metal gate. Our first impressions of Ecuador at this point were very positive:

  • clean, modern, well organized airport with efficient customs staff
  • highways that are on par with small cities in North America
  • clean basic hostel for incredibly affordable rates (sub $20 US for a room for the 3 of us)

It took a while for everyone to wind down from the travels so there wasn’t alot of sleep on the first night. Day Two started with a simple bread & egg breakfast at the local bakery down the street, supplemented by the bananas and pineapple that Chris bought from the corner store across the street – WOW were they fresh!

IMG_1411Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, is home to 2.7 million people and at 9,350 feet elevation is considered the highest capital city in the world. We certainly noticed the elevation while we were walking around… We started our exploration in Old Town, which is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site as one of the least altered, best preserved historic centres in the world.

We spent a fair amount of time exploring the Basilica del Voto Nacional, a Roman Catholic Church that is considered the largest neo-gothic Basilica in the Americas. It stands on a rise in the middle of Old Town and has breathtaking 360 views of the city from the rooftop. The outside of the building is adorned with grotesques in the shapes of Ecuadorian animals (armadillos, iguanas & tortoises) verses the standard neo-gothic bats & dragons.

You are able to go up into the upper structure of the Basilica and actually climb all the way into the spires. From the 2nd level you walk across a bridge that is build on top of the main transept and then climb an almost vertical set of metal stairs to take you to the first roof top. From that point you can then climb a second ladder that is on the outside of the structure to reach a further view point. The boys made it to the top view point (top photo on the post) where you are almost even with the clock.

IMG_1429Ecuador is based on the Inca culture, which was then conquered (along with many others) by Spain in the 1500’s. Starting in the 1800’s there were numerous efforts made to move towards Independence, which was finally achieved in 1822. The historical remnants of the various cultures and stages of growth can be seen throughout the city, as can the Roman Catholic foundations introduced by the Spanish.

Walking through Old Town it was interesting to see the past and present intermingled together – my favourite example was a group of hip hop dancers with speaker blaring dancing in an old historic square with cobblestone streets. Things just seemed to ebb and flow naturally.

440px-Bici_QQuito seems to be a highly accessible city with lots of taxis and buses, along with well maintained roads. In 2012 the city government launched a bicycle sharing system called Bici Q, whereby people can borrow bikes to run errands and then return them at various stations throughout the city. A large section of the city is closed to cars on Sundays to promote bicycle usage.

G0083910We got to experience the Saturday market, held in one of the main parks between Old Town and New Town. It was full of vendors from the country side and a wonderful opportunity to see the local arts and crafts styles and colours. Alpaca products were a big seller and very affordable ($15-20 US per blanket)

G0113995Hunter thought it was really cool that he got to see the local police with their dogs. They were very friendly and allowed him to pet the dogs and ask lots of questions.

We grabbed a late lunch just outside the main tourist area in new town and then headed off to the Andes country side and the main Endless Adventures lodge in San Francisco de Borja. Hint: walk a few blocks from the main tourist strip in new town and the prices are significantly less for food, but the kitchens are just as clean.

Ama la vida – 2 weeks adventuring in Ecuador

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As we were planning our adventures for this winter, one of the things that we knew we wanted to do was winter whitewater kayaking, in warm water and warm weather. There wasn’t much more criteria than that… Based on our February Mexico experience, we ended up choosing to go back to Mexico in late November and then selected a trip to Ecuador with Chris and Andrea from Endless Adventures (based out of Nelson, BC), who we have been buying kayaks from for the last few years. Chris is a great coach/instructor/guide and we all have things on our learning wish list!

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At the time I didn’t really stop to think about where Ecuador was…. a bit silly I know. We made the decision in May and put our deposit down in June. Around that time I finally got around to looking on the world map and clued in to the Galapagos Islands being in Ecuador – bad geography memory on that one! Next came the library trip to pick up the lonely planet guide to Ecuador and the research began.

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The funniest thing was that once we started mentioning that we were headed to Ecuador to paddle, we were amazed at the number of our friends and acquaintances that had travelled, kayaked and adventured in Ecuador. This turned out to be quite reassuring and another great research vehicle.

IMG_1791We went back and forth on budget and timeline and settled on a 16 day trip, with 14 of those days being actually in Ecuador and the others being consumed with travel time… It takes a good 24+ hours of travel time to get from the Yukon to Ecuador, just a mere 8,283 km away. We also had to make the tough decision to forego exploring the Galapagos islands, both due to cost and time. It just means that we have to head back another time!

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Our final itinerary covered off both the Andes and Amazon region, mostly kayaking but with some exploring built in as well. We enjoyed time in Quito, San Francisco de Borja, Baeza, Tena and Banos. This was our first trip to South America and it was a great entry point into that continent. Completely family friendly, clean, and we all felt very safe, thanks to the people we were surrounded with.

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There is so much to cover that I will write multiple posts, highlighting both the whitewater kayaking and the road schooling experiences that we had. We will definitely go back to Ecuador and recommend it to anyone considering heading to South America! For kayakers – you have to hang with Chris and Andrea at Endless Adventures International– they do it right (rivers, lodge, food, and fun)!

More details on our trip can be found at:

Adventures in life & road schooling in Mexico

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Our paddling season ended fairly abruptly in mid September when we went from warm harvest weather to cold and snow. Back in the spring when we were making our winter plans, we decided that a venture back down to Mexico to paddle in November would be a great way to bridge between fall paddling and our Ecuador Christmas Adventure.

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Our first Mexico paddling experience was earlier this year in February with Ben Kvanli of the Olympic Outdoor Centre in San Marcos, Texas. He had such a solid knowledge of the area that we decided to work with him to arrange a “reunion” trip to go to Mexico for US Thanksgiving with the new friends we met on the February trip. It was a bit of an epic journey… Whitehorse to Vancouver, Vancouver to Los Angeles and then Los Angeles to San Antonio.

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Ben’s trips are based out of San Marcos, Texas and everyone piles into a white van and drives 16 hours to the San Luis Potosi region of Mexico. The van leaves San Marcos at midnight to hit the Mexican border at first light and then make it down to Aldea Huasteca, the main lodge, by early afternoon. 16 hours in a passenger van are not the most comfortable way to start a trip and definitely caused some humming and hawing on our part – did we really want to do that again? Ben’s coaching and guiding ability tipped it over the edge for us – he did such a great job with Hunter in February and it was a safe road schooling opportunity in rural Mexico.

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As with any paddling trip, there were some unexpected adventures along the way…

  • The friends that we had originally planned to go with on the trip were unable to go at the last minute, which was a real disappointment. The upside was we made 3 new friends that I’m certain we will also cross paths with in the future as we continue to adventure. Hunter’s first response was “we’re going to paddle with strangers?” and then I reminded him that our friends that we were planning on going with were strangers when we met them in February…

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  • broken valve stem on one of the tires when we tried to fill up the air just prior to crossing the border in Pharr, Texas, resulting in breakfast at a Mexican bakery and roadside shop. When you shop in a Mexican bakery, you are given a tray that is about the size of a 12 inch pizza and then you go around and select the goods from the various cases. We bought a few items we knew (croissants, danishes) and a few items we didn’t – probably 8 items in total, for a whole $3.00
  • broken belt on tire #2, discovered while driving, which resulted in us driving at half speed for the last 3 hours of the trip. The upside of this was we went into Ciudad Valles and had dinner at Tacos Richard – a favourite of Hunter’s from February. This was the beginning of him boldly ordering his own food and venturing into use of Spanish, something he was fairly unwilling to do in February.
  • big bulge in tire #3 that was discovered on day 3 during shuttling, which resulted in a long leisurely lunch in Valles at a restaurant with internet access while it was replaced. More menu decoding and ordering for Hunter

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  • Tim ended up getting moderately sick due to some Tacos at the Hotsprings and this kept him from paddling the class 4/5 Santa Maria run, which is a 7 hour paddle and has a take out where you climb up the side of the 300 foot Tamul waterfall. The flip side was we had a well needed sleep-in as a family and spent a down day laying about in the sun on the grass and playing soccer, which made Hunter really happy.

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  • We all enjoyed the patio life at the end of the Santos River at the Huasteca Secreta and ended up not getting on the road early enough to make it to Ciudad Victoria on the way back to the border. We ended up pulling off the road after driving the highway in the dark too long and wandering into the town of Llera de Canales. After driving around in circles and accidentally driving down a one way street the wrong way, which happened to be in front of the Police station, we ended up having a friendly chat with a Police Man and he found us a hotel to stay at. You get the keys by walking into a small storefront that sells clothes and tourist items and then walk around the corner and down the block to get to the hotel, which is up some stairs and on the 2nd floor of the building. There were 6 rooms in total, with 4 of them being finished. The upside is that they were relatively clean, had showers and basic wifi. The highlight of this stop was the family run taco shop that we found, and ended up sitting out in the street on plastic chairs while eating dinner. They were so excited to meet us that they asked for a group photo before we left.

Overall the paddling was good – the water was warm, we weren’t in dry suits and Hunter successfully paddled a number of drops and runs that he wasn’t comfortable paddling in February.

Upon reflection, the biggest highlights of the trip were all about Hunter:

  • The growth that was evident in his paddling skills and confidence level.
  • His continued willingness to engage with people of all ages and backgrounds – I can confidently say that he made more new friends than we did on this trip…His new buddies Jo and Cole helped to make this a special week.
  • His desire to be independent and learn how to engage in Spanish. He learned to order his own food and at one point asked for money so he could go and get himself an ice-cream, which meant heading off to another area of the large mexican grocery store we were in and managing the transaction on his own.

 

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While we didn’t get much “book learning” done during our 7 days away, this was another validation of the positive impact that Road Schooling has on kids and it continues to excite me about the possibilities as we go forward.

We’re all busy working on our Spanish and looking forward to Ecuador in three weeks!

Mexico Whitewater Adventures

flowers 1For many great reasons, we decided to go to the Huasteca region of NE Mexico with Ben Kvanli of the Olympic Outdoor Centre in San Marcos, Texas. It was a bit of a leap in the sense that this was a no frills trip that kicked off with a 15+ hour drive, along with 5 other people, in a passenger van to get there. It turned out to be a fabulous week and we now have 4 new friends – Kelly, Phil, Nejla & Greg!

van loaded with boatsQuick & dirty Beta: We were in the state of San Luis Potosi, the Huasteca Region (mountains & rivers) and paddled on 3 distinct rivers with 3+ conditions- Rio El Salto (travertine slides & drops), Rio Micos (travertine slides & drops), and Rio Tampaon (flat water, standing waves in canyons, flat water). We also toured around and saw the Cascadas de Tamul on the Rio Santa Maria, the Sola de Goldrinas Tamapa and the city of Valles.

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lee tim hunter water fallWe left Saturday February 1st at 12:45 am. This was intentional as it enables us to pass through Mexican customs at first light (i.e. 7:00 am) and then drive the remaining time in the light on the Mexican highways (where 2 lanes are actually 3 lanes). We stopped in Victoria for lunch at 11:30 and then carried on to Huasteca Secreta on the Salto River – our home for 2 nights.  We stayed in small yurts with outside bathrooms and showers, surrounded by lush vegetation. The hotel is right on the Salto River – an azul blue warm water river – right at the base of a 160 foot waterfall.

We had a fairly slow and lazy first paddle on the lower Saltos by the time we got going on Sunday. It was a run full of slides and drops that worked their way from smaller to larger… warm water and sunshine helped with all of the comfort zone stretching that was going on! The put in is just up the road from the hotel but a bit of a bush wack and steep climb down the rocky slope to get to the river. The slides and drops are all made of travertine, a type of corral, that builds up in the river and also has lots of green, lush growth that makes the slides slippery.

Hunter did a fabulous job of running his first drops and he loved the bump & grind of the slides. He did his first combat roll at the bottom of a 10 foot drop and there were loud cheers by everyone. My big win of the day was going over the 20 ft salsa drop. It had a 5 foot slide and then the drop. The 5 feet went much faster than I was expecting and over I went, screaming I’m sure! Hunter chose not to do this one and he and Tim portaged around part of the drop and then found a place to throw their boats off and jump 10 feet into the water, which was better than the scratchy bushes.

lee salsa drop on saltosTim joined Ben, Phil, Greg & Nejla for an afternoon run on the Upper Saltos and had a good time. It was a bit rushed as it was getting dark but they powered through everything!

tim upper saltos drop 2Phil made some great videos of our runs on the Saltos:

Hunter
http://youtu.be/6nxttFkuJXE

Tim
http://youtu.be/rPIycTjmCO8

Lee
http://youtu.be/ypxtabrU2cY

Monday saw us driving from El Naranjo down to just north of Ciudad Valles and to the camp on the Rio El Micos. We got in around lunch time, got settled in our palappas and then did an easy run down the lower Micos.

The camp was similar in style to what you see on the Ottawa River with a number of cabins spread out across the property, a couple of washroom/shower buildings and then a main eating hut. The rate was very affordable and the staff were wonderful. This is a tourist location for Mexicans that are looking to raft, zipline and play in the waterfalls.

The lower micas run starts just up the road from the camp in the midst of a local farmers market. There are a number of small drops that converge on the river here so it made a good place to play and warm up. The rest of the run was made up of small surf waves and easy slides and drops.

Tuesday was exploring day and we started off with Hunter and Ben doing a short run down the Santa Maria to the top of the Cascadas de Tamul while the rest of us hiked in. It was quite beautiful and very very high!

A few other stops that day were the Sotano de las Golondrinas, a great big sinkhole, a stop in a small village where we bought Diet Coke from the “American Store” and Hunter’s new favourite – Chile Corn (roasted corn on the cob with butter, chile & lime) on a stick and then dinner at Ricardo’s Taqueria in Valles. On our way home Ben bought some fabulous bar stools dirt cheap (I wonder why…) from a truck in the alley!

Wednesday was a long day of shuttling and paddling as we paddled the Tampoan River, which was an hours drive away from camp. Ben’s local rafting friends decided to join us, which made for a very full van and a fun group on the river. The Tampoan is different from the Salto & Micos as it has a bunch of flat water, a long canyon section with boulders and standing waves and then more flat water down to the take out. It was another great day for Hunter’s paddling – he trailed Ben down the “easy” lines (still lots of pushy water and waves) and managed 2 combat rolls in the midst of the hardest section before ending up swimming after he got pushed into a rock. We were both so impressed with his bravery and choosing to roll vs panicking and swimming right off the bat.

Thursday was our last day of paddling and we were headed to the Upper Micos before starting the drive home. Unfortunately I was visited by Montezuma Wednesday night and spent the night and morning expelling all food that I had taken in, so chose to stay in bed vs paddle. The Upper Micos run starts with a long travertine slide and then moves into a series of drops before coming out at the farmers market where the lower Micos puts in. One neat feature is that you can go behind the Upper Micos falls and get a sense of the power of the falls!

tim & hunter upper micosBy travelling to a non-touristy area of Mexico (by American/Canadian standards) we had the added benefit of really getting to experience the local culture. At no point did we feel unsafe but it did really help to go with someone that spoke Spanish and knew this area inside and out.

This region is powered by the Sugar Cane industry and there were fields and trucks coming and going all day long. We cut some sugar cane directly from the field one day and it was neat to see how it is not nearly as sweet as refined sugar.

Hunter also had a great time hanging out with the local puppies…