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Arizona: Tallest Christmas Tree in the Nation

Tonight my parents and I walked around the outlets in Anthem. We normally don’t frequent the shopping center but they had something special to offer: the tallest Christmas tree in the nation. I find it odd that a city in Arizona would be able to get the tallest tree, but hey, at least we have the ability to admire and appreciate the tree since we are not stuck in feet of snow or have to bear freezing temperatures and wind chill to enjoy it. Let me tell you, this tree was massive.  I was unable to fit the tree in its entirety into any picture (I can’t wait to get my panoramic camera under the tree – yes, I know that I’m getting one, I had to pick it out). It towers over the tops of the shops and can be seen from miles down the highway that the outlets are located beside. Underneath its limbs are giant presents and toys for kids and families to stand in front of for picture-taking opportunities.

It is good to see it in the daylight, not only for the picture-taking, but because you get the chance to see the huge ornaments that decorate the tree. At night when it is lit up, all you can see are the twinkling Christmas lights, which are still a beautiful sight to behold and definitely get you in the holiday spirit.

According to the details:

  • The 110-foot tall tree came from Northern California.
  • A huge crane was used to hoist the tree into place.
  • In total, 120 strings of lights and 3,000 ornaments decorate the massive tree.

nation's tallest christmas tree

standing under the tree with the presents








reflection in the giant ornament

nation's tallest christmas tree lit up








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What I Will Miss About Living in Ecuador

– Not driving a car, being able to walk everywhere (Save $$$$ on Gas)

– A $2 three-course meal with dessert

– The variety of fruit and fruit juices (Quiero una jugo de mora AND the best pineapple I’ve ever eaten)

– High-priced fast-food and American candy (good incentive to not eat it)

– Empanadas (compare that to hot pockets, which are not as good)

– The breakfast at El Colibri

– Coup attempts that got us out of work

– Living in a country with vastly different geographical landscapes (the coast, highlands, amazon and galapagos)

– The passion in the culture and people

– Being able to survive without a cellphone

– Television isn’t the center of the living room (the only time it was turned on was during the coup attempt)

– Everything being so close (grocery stores, gym, cafes)

– Free Salsa lessons on Wednesday night in The Mariscal District

– Not living to work, but working to live

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What I Won’t Miss About Living in Ecuador

– The diversity of people (predominantly one ethnicity unlike the melting pot in the States)

– Being stared at for being “tall” and “blonde”

– Having to watch my step, worry about breaking my ankle walking on the sidewalk

– Whistles, Car Horns/Alarms, Random Firework Shows every single night

– The no sense of time philosophy shared by every Ecuadorian

– Stores opening and closing whenever they feel like it

– Having to pay for “agua sin gas” (water) at every meal

– Holding my backpack like it was a baby on the bus in fear of it being slashed (aka having to be overprotective of belongings)

– Public breast-feeding

– Public urination

– Being asked for change when I presented a $5 bill or larger

– Nescafe or any of their coffee

– Fake ketchup

– The supermarket being crowded at any time of day

– Lack of personal space

– Coup Attempts

– Squeezing onto the buses and being packed lack a sardine

– The fact that insulation did not exist in the houses, meaning it felt like the Arctic in my bedroom

– The machismo personality (gawking and throwing pick-up lines at every ‘pretty’ girl)

– No seat-belts, No speed limits, No rules of the road

– Having to dart out of the ways of cars, not having the right of way as a pedestrian

– Having to throw away the toilet paper in a trash can rather than in the toilet

– Not having hot water in the faucets or showers (electric showers)

– Indoor smoking is still allowed in business/bars

– Having to haggle for anything (food, taxi fare, any item you wanted to purchase)

– Being begged for money at every corner, street light or on the bus

– Being sold/or asked to buy candy or food at every corner, street light or on the bus

– The lack of seasons

– Having to see stray dogs and homeless everywhere

– Lack of any spicy food

– Rice

– Not being able to eat salad for fear of contracting a parasite

– Slow walkers – they definitely take their time getting to and from places

– The scary stories of rape, robberies, slashed purses, drugs, etc

– Wondering whether or not the laundry people actually washed my clothes or not

– Being told not to walk around at night after 7 pm by myself

– No sense of common courtesy (knowing what the point of a line means, waiting your turn)

– The mission it is to pickup a package

– Overpriced imports (candy from the United States)

– Lack of laundry machines in the house, having to take it to the cleaners who may or may not even wash them


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Underwater Pictures – Galapagos Islands

Since I’ve returned to the States I have been able to develop the film from my underwater camera that I took to the Galapagos Islands. Here is what I discovered captured on my roll:























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Video: Galapagos Islands – Darwin’s Land

To finish up the Galapagos Islands Series, I have made a video of the voyage.

I hope you have enjoyed the adventure just as much as I did.

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Santa Cruz & North Seymour – Galapagos Series – Chapter VI

After my friend dropped off two pieces of bread for my breakfast, I decided I could not miss out on the day’s activities and forced myself to eat it and get dressed. This was the day I was looking forward to the most – and again, I was in the G-A-L-A-P-A-G-O-S! No upset stomach was going to keep the Traveling Bard from an adventure.

charles darwin research station on santa cruz island

The zodiac pulled up to a pier on Santa Cruz island and we unloaded. After Isabella, Santa Cruz is the second-largest island in the Galapagos and has the largest population located in its capital, Puerto Ayora. Before landing here, we had been hopping around uninhabited islands where the animals reigned. On Santa Cruz, however, it was an urban development with a bustling city center.

Once we regrouped, Tour Guide George started leading us along the road to the Charles Darwin Research Station, which has been in operation since 1964. Scientists and researchers work on projects to help conserve the Galapagos Islands and it’s animals, while learning more about the archipelago. Along the way, we stopped to watch a man sort through a fresh batch of caught lobsters where we happened to spot a Lava Gull, which is apparently very rare because there are only 400 left. We continued on and passed a small, green road sign that had an arrow pointing in the direction we were heading that read, “Estacion Ch. Darwin”.

At the park entrance building we were able to get our passports stamped. Another amazing souvenir that will compliment the equator stamp nicely. Eventually we passed the sign that let us know we had made it and entered a room that was dedicated to educating people on The Restoration of the Tortoise Dynasty. Tour Guide George explained the different species that are found on each island and their current predicament. I learned that the Galapagos Tortoise is the largest tortoise species in the world, and that the National Park and Research Station are trying to eradicate the dogs, pigs, donkeys and rats that hinder their populations.

lonesome george - the last of his species of galapagos tortoise

We walked to an area where we could watch the baby tortoises wandering around and climbing all over each other. The baby tortoises weren’t always placed behind bars, according to Tour Guide George. Apparently, travelers would be caught at the airport on their way back to Ecuador trying to sneak out tortoises they picked up. I couldn’t believe anyone would even think of doing something like that – or think they had any chance of successfully getting away with it. Moving on, we went to visit the two celebrities of the Charles Darwin Research Station: Lonesome George and Diego.

Lonesome George is named because he is the last known Pinta Island tortoise in the entire Galapagos archipelago. Goats had destroyed the species and he was moved to the research station for protection. Restless searches have not turned up any others of his kind. He is kept in an environment with two females in the hopes that he would mate with them to produce offspring. George has produced batches of eggs with the females, but all have unfortunately become inviable. When he dies in a hundred, or so years, his conservation status will become: extinct.

the galapagos tortoise - stretching the long neck

On a brighter note, one tortoise has been able to help repopulate the entire Española island with his offspring. His name is Diego and he was returned to the Galapagos after spending a large part of his life in the San Diego Zoo, which is where he got his name. His species was in decline due to the goats that were harming the vegetation that the tortoises relied upon. There were only 12 females and 2 males left when he returned and produced more than 1,400 babies that are now back in their natural environment, helping maintain their population on Española. Even at more than 100 years of age, Diego continues to mate with the females at the Charles Darwin Research Station.

After visiting the tortoises and iguanas, we met up with our bus that would be taking us to the highlands. We had decided to spend the entire day on Santa Cruz instead of just the morning, and then sailing on over to an island to snorkel and see more of the animals we already had on the other islands. The highlands offered us a chance to get up-close-and-personal with the giant Galapagos tortoises in their natural environment at the Highlands National Park Tortoise Reserve. It was a quick ride and our chefs from the catamaran brought all the food for lunch in a nice buffet-style setting for us to enjoy in the park. As we gradually finished eating, one by one, people from the group began to disappear and explore the tortoise landscape.

in the highlands with the large tortoises

The giant tortoises, which can weight more than 650 pounds and live up to 200 years, were scattered all throughout the green landscape. Most could be found in the shade of trees in order to stay out of the afternoon heat. We were able to get inches away from the endemic animals and pose for multiple pictures. In the park, the tortoises have the luxury to roam wherever they like, whether that be across the roads or into the deep forest of trees on the reserve. A few were lounging in the muddy waters of one of the ponds. At one point, we were lucky enough to see the beginnings of a possible mating – the male was trying to crawl onto the back of a female, but the female began to take off with the male following closely behind. Eventually, the female was able to seek refuge in a large bush, which made it difficult for the male to crawl on top again due to all the branches in the way.

Some of the group went back to the lunch area while the rest of us followed Tour Guide George on a trail through the trees. Ever so often I could spot the shell of a tortoise in the distance. The lush vegetation of Santa Cruz provides a suitable environment for the tortoises and the reserve protects them from invasive species – although I did spot two kittens hiding beneath branches and leaves at one point during our hike. We also spotted fruit growing in bushes and trees with the help of Tour Guide George. He wrangled a papaya down and fed it to one of the tortoises who devoured it and made quite a mess. I guess the others got worried about us being gone for so long because one of them somehow found us even though I had no idea where we even were in the forest.

inside looking out of the lava tunnel on santa cruz island

We hopped back on the bus for a five minute drive to our next stop. A dirt path led us to a small set of stairs where we walked down into the opening of a lava tunnel. It reminded me very much of Mammoth Caves, which I just visited in Kentucky in the summer before leaving for Ecuador. Lava from a volcanic eruption flowed and eventually hollowed out, creating the tunnel we were walking through. We could only go so far because  of boulders that blocked our path, so that was our turning point. The string of lights didn’t help much. It was still dark enough that my clumsy self would trip over some of the rocks in the path but I eventually made it safely back up the stairs and to the bus with no broken bones. The group went back to the city center where we were given a bit of time to look around. My Norwegian friend, the friend I came with and I went for some coffee and ice cream before venturing back to the meeting point. We boarded the zodiacs, but had to wait for the other zodiac to arrive with the life-jackets before we eventually got back on the catamaran.

It was our last night aboard the Nina. Throughout the duration of the entire voyage, the group had become very much like a family. At dinner that night, the two tables were pushed together and we ate like a family, complete with random side conversations. In the morning, we woke bright and early with the sight of giant waves crashing ashore on North Seymour – the final island we would explore. The waves made getting out of the zodiac incredibly hard but everyone made it safely on land where we were greeted my numerous bird sightings. We walked the rocky trail and saw blue-footed boobies – a mom and her babies. In the trees we noticed two male Magnificent Frigate birds with their red pouches puffed up to attract a female.

male magnificent frigate bird with red pouch

With only an hour of time to enjoy the island, the group quickly made it’s way to the coast where the waves crashed upon the rocky shore. Here we saw more sea lions and iguanas basking in the sun that was growing stronger in the waking morning. After slipping and sliding our way back into the zodiacs, we all looked back for one last glimpse of the Galapagos before we hopped back on the catamaran to say our final farewells to the crew as it took us to the drop-off point where buses were waiting.

At the airport, the group remained intact. On the flight, the group remained intact until we lost an Australian couple at the first stop in Guayaquil. The rest remained together until we said our goodbyes at the baggage claim in the Quito airport and went our separate ways,. However, we all still had the memories of Darwin’s Land intact.

soaring over the sea lion on north seymour island

zodiac heading to shore on north seymour island








tortoise chowing down at the charles darwin research station on santa cruz island

a sea lion and her pup on north seymour island


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Post Office Bay – Galapagos Series – Chapter V

Each of us had to wade in the water to climb back into the zodiac to depart Floreana Island. I could not hide the grimace on my face when my my feet were drowned in the icey water. The sensation implanted itself into my mind and stayed there during breakfast and afterward when Tour Guide George came around telling us to suit up for our snorkeling adventure. I noticed most of the group sucking themselves into their tight wetsuits and grabbing the bags of fins and masks with their room numbers. As I continued to contemplate, I looked everywhere for my friend, whom I found clothed and ready to hit the sun-deck on the third level of the catamaran. She had decided to skip out of snorkeling this time, not because of the cold water but simply because it was not her cup of tea. She asked me whether or not I was going and I explained my fear of the freezing temperatures. Her reply, “I think you’re going.”

before diving into freezing waters to swim with sea lions

Sure enough, my friend was right. I had decided that since I was in THE Galapagos, I could not miss out on any opportunity. Within minutes, my wetsuit was squeezed on and I was sitting on the side of the catamaran bouncing off the water toward our destination. We reached a cove in Champion Islet and immediately noticed the two spunky sea lions darting around each other, popping in and out of the water. Tour Guide George said they were eager to play with us. One by one, people fell overboard and into the water. I was one of the last ones who reluctantly slipped into the arctic water, only to feel like I had just been stabbed in every inch of my body.

However, my body either adjusted or became numb because I put my head on the water’s surface and began flipping around watching the two sea lions frolicking underwater. I could never keep track of them because they were incredibly fast. We would pop up out of water to look around and realize one was right behind us. We would turn around and they would have disappeared underwater again. On a couple of occasions, the sea lion would come head-first straight at you, only to turn away or dive deep down. The group members were inches away from the sea lions, swimming and playing with them in their natural environment. Both the sea lions were twirling and spinning beneath us and it was amazing to watch. One of my friends I had made on the voyage could not stop giggling every time one of the sea lions would swim near her. Eventually, I was cold enough that I wanted to get out and warm up. I sat in the zodiac waiting for the others to slowly join me, hoping that my under-water camera was able to get some good shots of the magnificent animals.

zodiac cruising behind the catamaran heading to next stop

Sadly, Tour Guide George had the idea of heading to a different place known to have more sea lions. The group shivered as the zodiac made its way to the spot. Another tour group was in the area swimming in the freezing water without wetsuits and we couldn’t believe it. Looking at the water we could tell it was a bit rough and by then, most of us had dried a bit and didn’t want to jump back in. the water We decided to head back to the catamaran. We jumped aboard, took off our wetsuits and warmed up with tea that the crew had set out for us. After every snorkeling trip the crew would have some sort of snack and beverage waiting for us on deck and it was always thankfully devoured.

Once we regained feeling in our bodies, Tour Guide George told us that we would be heading to Post Office Bay and said it also offered an opportunity to snorkel with sea turtles. That brightened me up, but sadly, I had already made up my mind that I was done with snorkeling for the day. A few of us sat up on the sun-deck relaxing until departure time. With a view of the bay I was able to see a sea turtle floating around in the water. It was bittersweet to say the least and to make it worse, Post Office Bay was unfortunately another wet-landing.

I braced myself for the cold and raced out of the water as fast as I could. The weather had turned cloudy and the temperatures had dropped to the point that I was layered in clothes. Being from Arizona, we always like to say, anything below 70 is freezing to us. Tour Guide George took us on a little path through the brush to an area that resembled a bonfire setup. This was the Post Office, and the itinerary provided a brief explanation as to its history:

the post office is still in use after 18th century whalers first began the tradition

At Post Office Bay, eighteenth century whalers used a barrel as an unofficial mail drop. In those times ships were often away from home for two or more years at a time. Ships on their outward journeys would leave letters and ships returning home would pick them up and bring them to their homeland.

Some of the original wood was still present, whereas others had been added, their surfaces scribbled with the names and messages of previous visitors. The main attraction of the post office is the 200-year-old barrel that looks like a giant birdhouse with stickers plastered all over it. Inside are piles and piles of postcards left by travelers. The traditions has each visitor leave a postcard, which requires no postage stamp. When a new group arrives, such as ours, we open the little door to the barrel, pull out the postcards, divide them amongst ourselves and find ones that are addressed in areas as close to our homes. as possible If we find one, or two, or three – in the case of my friend from New York – we take them back with us and either personally deliver them if they are close enough, or mail them to their final destinations. It is truly an amazing experience to see who stepped on the island before you and read what the have to say.

the group carrying on the tradition, looking for postcards they could send once back home

The group members would shout out countries and states to each other, passing a postcards here and there. It could take weeks, months and even years for them to be delivered, depending on where the travelers are from and where the postcards are addressed. I came across a few that said “Do not take”, which meant that the post-sender wanted it to be picked up by someone else – such as the Navy. Once or twice a year – I forgot what Tour Guide George said – the Navy comes a long and picks up all the cards that have not been taken to mail once they reach port. Overall, it was a lovely tradition that I was happy to continue, even though I didn’t find any postcards to send once I returned home. Hopefully someone from Arizona visits and picks mine up!

We returned back to the beach where we were allowed to rest. Most of us went to go watch the soccer game that was taking place for a few minutes. There was an entire field of men dressed in jerseys and some were recognizable as part of our ship’s crew. Even this far out on a tiny island, the game of soccer – or football – still carried on just like the Post Office tradition. Quite a few of us were getting really cold so Tour Guide George used his walkie-talkie to request that the zodiacs come and take us to the warmth of the catamaran. I could already feel the effects of the the weather and freezing water from snorkeling with sea lions taking its toll on me.

soccer match being played at post office bay

That night was gruesome for me. As soon as I got back on the ship I took a hot shower and crawled into bed. I missed the briefing for that evening, as well as dinner. To spare the gritty details, the toilet became my friend throughout the dark hours about three times. When I finally let my head hit the pillow, the question of whether or not I would be taking part in the next day’s adventure was still up in the air.

hundreds die a year after attempting to eat a blowfish

the post office sign








the barrel where all the postcards can be found


one of the many messages left at post office bay


Filed under Activities, Ecuador, Facts, Galapagos Islands, Global, History, International, Latin America // South America, Nature, Outdoors, Sites, Tips, Tour, Travel, Worldwide