Student Spotlight: Scott, Ireland and Northern Ireland, Part 3

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Today went to visit the Navy base in Cobh. When we arrived we were greeted by commander Roberts. He took us upstairs to their conference room for some tea and coffee. We talked about numerous things such as gun control and politics. This trip has really opened my eyes about how much people actually keep up with what is going on in America. He then sets us up with one of his officers for a tour of “Fox Island”, which is the Naval Base for Ireland. We got to see one of their battle ships which was awesome! We got to see where all their ammunition is stored, as well as, simulators of their equipment. We then went to the dining room where they served us a complimentary delicious steak and salad lunch. We then wandered around Cobh for a while until it was time to go back to Cork for dinner.

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Student Spotlight: Scott, Ireland and Northern Ireland, Part 2

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Today went to Galway. On the way we stopped in a town called Sligo. I have started noticing more Gaelic writing as we have driving, since we are no longer in Northern Ireland. In Sligo we got to visit and tour the Sligo Abbey. The church has a sad story. It has been through many fires and a horrible plague, which caused Ireland to lose an extreme number of people in not just deaths, but people who fled Ireland. The church was also used during the Viking era. We then reached Galway, which is a town full of rich history. It is a young, traditional, and busy city. Today we got to meet some other travelers and talk with them, but then we mostly rested after having had such a busy day.

Student Spotlight: Scott, Ireland and Northern Ireland, Part 1

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May 12th, 2016

This morning we had breakfast in the hotel around 8:30AM. We then got ready for a tour at the Queens University. It is an extremely old university (1848). There was an extreme number of inventors that thrived from the Queens University. We then walked to the city hall at noon to further out knowledge of Belfast’s past political conflicts. We then went to a bar known as the “Perch”. It was a rooftop open area with a bar. It had a lot of colorful flowers. After a few hours of conversing we got ready to meet with our air coach at the hotel. As well as our tour guide of the “peace wall”. We drove beyond the downtown Belfast area. To the “suburbs”, and unfortunately there were no good stories. Ireland has terrible relations with the Republics and Unionists. There were terrible shootings and tragedies at almost every corner. We got to see the differences of both sides because only one street separate’s them. They literally put a “Peace Wall” dividing the two reducing the amount of crime. Whenever there are problems the police close the gates. People were commonly wrongfully detained in prison (Belfast Prison). This was an extremely interesting day.

Student Spotlight: Hannah, Ireland and Northern Ireland Part 3

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May 14th, 2016: Coorymeela

We woke up and went to breakfast at 8:30 am on the dot because they really prefer everyone to be on time since it runs like a community. After breakfast we started our many activities for the day. We went outside in the front and saw a puzzle drawn by chalk on the ground. We had to work together by one-at-a-time trying to navigate the correct path through the puzzle. It was fun and a good communication builder. After reflecting on the use and importance of teamwork, we went to the backyard. For this activity we had to figure out how to guide a ball through a zig-zagged puzzle which we each held a part of. There was then a tea break, but we decided to play with the rugby ball for a little instead. Our next activity was a great learning lesson. In the chapel we each played a trading game with one another that ultimately ended up segregating us into social classes by our own choices. It showed us how power can consume us, because the “first-class people” made selfish decisions. My favorite part after this was visiting the Irish Sea. It was breathtaking and we got to explore all around the beach and rocks. After dinner we reflected on our time here by creating a web of yarn based on each of our experiences here. We then had a bonfire which was a lot of fun. We ended the night playing pool and foosball in the playroom, and having my favorite…toast and cocoa. I loved Coorymeela and ended up appreciating it more than I expected to.

Student Spotlight: Hannah, Ireland and Northern Ireland Part 2

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May 13th, 2016: Belfast & Coorymeela

After breakfast and many laughs the following morning, we headed to the Titanic museum. It was cool getting to learn about the ship being built in the exact area we were exploring. The museum was even in an abstract shape of the ship, which felt like an awesome memorial for it. Our next stop was Storemont, which is one of the government buildings in Northern Ireland. After an educational tour learning about the politics and relations to the Queen we explored on our own for a little then headed to our next destination. As we were approaching Ballycastle (the town Coorymeela is in), we started to see more mountains and the Irish Sea. The scenery was beautiful and more country than city. When we all arrived none of us were sure what to expect because it seemed more like a retreat. We were greeted by Ellis and Annalena who was to be our guide during our stay. We arrived right at dinner time, and had a community dinner and helped clean up afterwards. We had a peaceful night and all hung out without Wi-Fi, which was different but I did not mind it. I was a little uncomfortable the first night but I was ready to give it a chance in the morning.

Student Spotlight: Hannah, Ireland and Northern Ireland Part 1

Hannah, attendee of the faculty-led Ireland and Northern Ireland Co-Cultural Experience program during the Summer of 2016, submitted the following blog posts as a documentation of her time abroad.  These will be uploaded in a three-part series.

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May 12th, 2016: Belfast

We all woke up and ate a buffet breakfast at our hotel. After breakfast we went on a tour of Queen’s University. It was a beautiful campus with a lot of rich history. We learned how their cost of education is much more affordable and a priority to their people versus ours. There are only two universities in Northern Ireland, Queen’s University and Ulster University. After that we went on a guided tour of Belfast given by Richard Meeley, who was a past convict during the Troubles. He was such a nice guy and had a passion for what he believed in, and was also very informative. We saw the murals drawn by different people expressing the sides they stood for, Unionist or Revolutionist. The Catholics and Protestants have been at war for so long and the bombings and violence has been almost never-ending. We visited each side of town and saw the effects of years of violence. One crazy thing was seeing the huge wall that divided the two sides to help reduce violence. Many of the people are praying for peace, but most never actually see it happening. It was an eye-opening experience, and almost every local discusses the conflict. After the tour we took Richard to the Botanic Inn pub for a pint and to hear more of his stories. Later, we had another nice dinner at Robinson pub and then went out on the town for our first night. We got to meet many locals and it was a great day!

Alicia, Student Blogger: Week 6, Mindo

Day 43

I got myself up this morning and caught a taxi to Magic Bean for breakfast again.  They serve some of the best apple cinnamon pancakes that I’ve ever had, and a darn good smoothie, too.

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Afterwards, I took a taxi to the bus terminal and a bus to Mindo.  I was a bit nervous to travel alone, but I once again had no problems getting to Mindo.  I booked the same hostel as before, Casa de Cecilia, but booked an individual room this time for a whopping $11.  I had an okay lunch at Taco Mindo, and checked into the hostel.

I met a (check this out) first-year special education teacher from the US and we made plans to do a different chocolate tour later in the day.  It started to rain, so I grabbed my Spanish copy of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and read in a hammock.  I met a man from New Zealand, Steve, and we went off to watch the soccer game.

The three of us ended up going to the chocolate tour at **ChocoArte, which was absolutely fantastic.  The owner did the tour herself.  It was different from the first tour because we got to DO most parts of the process ourselves: drying the cocoa beans, separating the shells from the beans, grinding them, and then MAKING FONDUE!  Chocolate fondue, made from freshly ground cocoa beans with raw sugar is my new favorite snack.  She was very knowledgeable about every aspect of the chocolate-making process and the tour lasted two and a half hours, for only $7.

We then went to the Concierto de las Ranas, a night walk at a property designed to attract frogs.  This night walk was really nice; they give everyone a shot of wine at the start (for the adults), and we bought hot chocolate afterwards that was good, as well.  The tour was long enough, and within walking distance of the hostel, but I feel like it was designed for children more than adults.  I’d recommend Mindo Night Walks for a more exciting night walk.  We stopped at the restaurant close to the hostel for pizza, and they did not disappoint.

Day 44

This hostel has great breakfast, so Vannessa and I had breakfast at the hostel, and then took a taxi to our horseback riding tour.  The tour lasted an hour and the views were beautiful.  I did feel badly for my horse, however, as I was a bit too big to be riding that particular horse.

We went to eat lunch afterwards, and originally went to the big cafe on the main street.  Vannessa has a gluten allergy and ordered her burger without a bun, and the waiter brought it with a bun.  He then brought the same burger back without the bun, and then the same burger back with different lettuce on it, not understanding (or trying to understand) that she could not eat the burger after it had touched the bun.  We ended up paying and leaving, and ended up eating at Taco Mindo again, where they were accommodating enough to be safe for Vannessa.

After getting lunch figured out, we checked out the **Nathaly Butterfly garden, which was incredible.  For $4, we got access to their entire garden, and the enclosed butterfly garden, which was full of beautiful butterflies and flowers.  We also got access to their hummingbird garden, and you can stay as long as you’d like.

We then took a bus back to Quito together, and then returned to our respective houses.  I was concerned to travel alone, but had a great experience overall and am very glad that I went.

Kristen, Student Blogger: Cinque Terre

Italian Riviviera Tour

Another weekend filled with hundreds of pictures. I love being able to take so many decent pictures from my phone (and we can keep praying it doesn’t run out of storage). The school scheduled an Italian Riviera tour at the beginning of the term and we finally got to go in it. It definitely was of the most beautiful views I’ve ever. The tour started from the school where we got on a bus that took us on a 2 hour bus ride to Genoa. On the way to Genoa we drove through mountains and then eventually got to the coastal views as well. It was unreal how many people were living in the middle of the big rolling hills, so secluded and on such steep slopes. Once at Genoa we went on a walking, guided tour of the city with a tour guide. Genoa is home to many historical battles and bombings. Luckily, much has been fixed to still be an important port for boats today. One of the interesting facts about Genoa is that they have one of the lowest birth rates in the world. Their population has dropped significantly over the past few years because of this reason. Many families are choosing not to have kids or having few.

The first thing we saw was a museum sitting at one of the port entrances. It serves as a piece of artwork for the city. It is very deceiving to people who pass by, as everything is painted on the building, including parts of some of the windows. The church that we entered in after was built in the medieval times, as you can tell with the black and white painted stripes. When we headed back to the port, we went up in a glass ball elevator that brought us to the top to look over the whole port.

After this short tour of Genoa, we headed for Saint Margherita Ligure. Saint Margherita was beautiful with all of its flowers and ocean views. We immediately got off the bus and headed for lunch. We ate focaccia, an Italian version of “white” pizza. You can basically get any normal pizza topping on it, except other options as well, like pesto focaccia. After pizza we headed up a hill in the city to a church that looks over the city. (A common theme in Italy apparently.) We then all headed back to the bus to grab our stuff and check into our hotel.

I think it was an agreed decision between all USAC members without speaking about it, that we would all be meeting at the beach as soon as we dropped off our stuff. Even though their beach was much like a rock driveway that would require a chair or 10 towels to find comfortable, we somehow still enjoyed ourselves for a couple hours all together on the beach. Following the beach, my group of friends decided that we wanted to splurge a little to a nice seafood dinner by the sea. Of course, the TripAdvisor app was my go-to to finding something that qualified and had good reviews. It was less than a mile away. The typical Americans we are, showed up as soon as it opened at 6:30PM and got to pick our table out of the whole restaurant. I ordered pasta with crab, which meant real crab parts in my pasta. Maybe this happens in America too and I just haven’t been to a fancy enough place but I don’t know how you’re expected to get the crab out gracefully at the table. We were all really impressed with our meals, though.

The next day, Friday, we had a day trip to Portofina. We were told Portofina is where a lot of famous people come to vacation. I don’t know if it is cheaper to access by boat or if a charter bus can’t really access the town, but we took a large boat to the island. All the program students headed to the roof for the views. Well, given that that is where everyone headed and we were unable to get a seat up top. We got booted to the bottom of the boat. The bottom of the boat was closed off by greyish plastic windows that we were not excited about sitting behind. Therefore, we headed to towards the front of the boat. We didn’t think about the idea that the ocean would be able to move our giant boat… or the waves the would fly overtop of the side of the boat. In summary, we were soaked in saltwater by the time we got to Portofino. It was fun though, there was an Australian couple next to us that laughed about the whole thing for a 10 minute boat ride that we had of getting soaked.

We went on a hike when we got there and then met up for gelato after. The hike went up around to the other side of the port where we first stopped at a church. On one side of the church was more of the trail and the port. On the other side was the open Mediterranean where huge waves crashed against the side of the rock wall. It was such a cool spot with an amazing view. I definitely can see why the celebrities would choose to vacation there. Our last stop of the hike brought us further up over both the port and ocean where a small castle at the top sat. We were told many famous people choose to have private weddings at this spot. We got the next hour to shop and eat lunch if we wished and then meet up for gelato. We saw a couple of really cute shops on our way up that we wanted to check out. There is a reason that these shops are located in Portofino, though. One of the first articles of clothing that I picked up was a pair of shorts that had a price tag of over $200. We didn’t buy anything in Portofio, except for a post card and lunch.  🙂

Once our boat arrived back at Saint Margarita, we hurried to pack up our stuff out of the hotel and catch our train to our villa for the weekend. Our program set it up perfectly that we spent Thursday and Friday’s days off touring the towns and then we got Saturday and Sunday to ourselves. We booked a villa for Friday night through Sunday morning to stay at near Santa Margarita and Cinque Terre, in La Spezia. Never have I stayed somewhere so nice. It was a bit of a hike for the cab driver to take us to, but he got all 8 of us to the top of a tall hill where our villa sat.  We had a gorgeous view of La Spezia’s port and the mountains behind it.

The closest thing to a store was right down the driveway and offered just as much as a gas station might offer for food in the US. It provided enough that we could make some dinners and not have to eat every meal out although. We stayed at the villa for most of weekend, except to hike Cinque Terre. We walked the 45 minutes to La Spezia’s train station and it took us directly to the trails of Cinque Terre. If I thought our villa had a great view… I was sure to be proven wrong by the abilities of Cinque Terre’s views. There are 5 cities that mark Cinque Terre. They create sections of a trail that connects them all together. We hiked the longest and “toughest” section of the trail, which took us just under 2 hours. The first 45 minutes was all up hill so it required a couple stops to get everyone up. The whole walk up was walking through fields of grapes and other plants.

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Once we got to the main trail is when the real views came in. I don’t even know if my pictures do the views justice. The ocean was beautiful and to be on the side of mountain was even cooler. The trail ended at another little town where we ate lunch and then headed back to our villa. The different colored buildings must be a thing of most those Italy’s coastal towns in the area because most of every town we went to for this 4 day weekend had them. Back at our villa we got to relax and hang out in the pool and beautiful weather for the rest of the weekend.

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Alicia, Student Blogger: Week 5

Day 31

 Today was less than exciting, but I did buy an AMAZING cafe con leche on my way to school.  They boil the coffee down to practically sludge, as is common here, and then add it to milk.  Add to spoonfuls of sugar, and I am one happy camper.  **Stop at Cafe Alhambra if you get the chance.  It sounds like they have delicious food, as well.  After class, Paul and I went to the cafeteria that I like for lunch.  Unfortunately, my stomach became quite upset shortly afterwards, plus it started to rain, so I just came back to the house and blogged.  Nothing very exciting to report, other than delicious coffee.

Day 32

This was one crazy week… I’ve started buying a yogurt from the store on the corner, to supplement my breakfast and help keep my stomach stable.  When I went into the store this morning, there was a man inside.  No big deal, I got my yogurt and paid.  When I turned around, he wasn’t there.  Again, I didn’t think that it was a big deal, except that he was outside of the store when I left, and he proceeded to follow me 3/4 of a mile (my entire walk is 1 full mile), almost the entire way to school.  Once I got close to the historical center of the city and started seeing police officers, he disappeared quite quickly.  However, my goodness, did he scare me.   I know that he was following me, because he watched me the entire way, even when I crossed the street.

Once I couldn’t see the man following me anymore, a (homeless?) man who I see often stumbled in front of me and almost ran me down on the sidewalk.  I also thought that was bizarre, and it got even more bizarre when I saw several more intoxicated people during the remaining 1/4 of a mile walk to school.  I realized that it was not only the summer solstice, but the night before had been a full moon, and it instantly made more sense to me…  Additionally, another drunk, who had been passed out on the stairs to school, peed on the stairs…

After class, Paul and I are at one of the popular fast food restaurants close by: Texas Chicken.  Again: a strange occurrence.  A man asking for money is not unusual, especially in the historical center.  They usually just walk by.  However, today, this man asked me the equivalent of, “what do you have to say, white girl?”  I don’t know why, as I didn’t say or do anything to him, but he was very angry with me for some reason.  Luckily, he just walked away and I got to continue with my day.

After lunch, I decided that I had had enough, and it was time to return to the house, which I did quickly.

Day 33

This day was better.  It was grains day at school, and we had lots of people there, which made it more fun.  It was me, Paul, and a family with 3 young boys, who were absolutely precious.  Additionally, there were 4 professors there, making it the biggest group since I arrived.

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After school, I took a taxi ($3) to the Museo de Guayasamin, the most well-known and respected Ecuadorian artist.  I planned to eat at a cafe with great reviews that I found online.  It was close to the museum, but when I arrived, the gate was shut.  Following the instructions on the sign, I rang the doorbell, then rang again, and knocked, and yelled, but nobody came… I chalked the experience up to the weirdness of the week, and proceeded to the museum.

The museum was the most expensive that I’d been to yet, costing $8 for the two buildings.  Disclaimer: I enjoyed the experience overall.  However, I was annoyed that they practically forced me to take my tour in English, despite requesting Spanish to practice my listening skills. I believe that it was because there wasn’t anyone else visiting at the time who spoke Spanish and they didn’t want to bring out another tour guide, but I was given the option of Spanish or English, then put into a tour in English regardless.

The guide was very nice, and we began in the museum, which is in Guayasamin’s former house.  He had collected art since he was 4 years old, and his house was absolutely incredible to see.  Again, I genuinely enjoyed the house.  The tour did move quite quickly, though, and there are parts of the house that are not shown on the tour, which was disappointing.  The gift shop is nice, but expensive.

After that, I walked across the yard to La Capilla del Hombre, the Chapel of Man, where his art is on exhibit.  (I’m not really sure why there’s a chapel on his land, seeing as how he was agnostic, but it was beautiful).  Again, I got stuck with a tour in English, despite the fact that a tour in Spanish left 3 minutes after my tour…  The tour guide was very knowledgeable and explained each and every piece of art to us (in broken and poorly pronounced English).  The artwork is beautiful, and I truly learned a lot about the cultures of the different peoples in Ecuador, and other parts of the world.  Leave lots of time if you choose to take a guided tour of La Capilla, as the tour is quite lengthy.  You can also walk through it alone, but there are not descriptions of the artwork to guide you.

**Disclaimer: I don’t think I was supposed to take photos, based on what I hear from other students.  However, nobody told me to stop or asked me not to in the first place, and there weren’t signs…

Overall, I enjoyed the two museums, but was frustrated with the tours.  Afterwards, because it is a quiet and wealthier neighborhood, I had to take a private taxi.  He charged me $6 from the museum to Plaza Foch, where I planned to eat (it was 4:30 by this point, and I was hungry).  The taxi driver was a joy to interact with, and we practiced my Spanish and his English on the way.  When I got to Plaza Foch, I walked half a block away and found a reasonably-priced Pizzeria, **No Se Pizzeria and Bar.  I was the only customer at the time, as 4:30 is too late for lunch and much too early for dinner by Ecuadorian standards, and the manager/owner took great care of me.  My mushroom pizza came out of the kitchen very quickly, and it was quite good.

For dinner at the house, we had soup with avocado (my favorite), rice, chicken cooked in sauce with CocaCola, and cucumbers.

Day 34

At breakfast, we had uvillas.  They are a fruit that tastes like sour tomatoes to me, and I have a hard time pretending to like them.  I ate them all first, so that the other food was the taste that remained…

I feel like I hardly ever write about class, but I don’t have much to say about it because it’s such a normal part of my day at this point.  Besides, I’m not sure anyone cares what tense we worked on in class, anyway.

After class, I went to the vegetarian restaurant and actually quite liked a kebab with tofu, potatoes, bananas, and green peppers.  The tofu could have passed for chicken.  Afterwards, I decided to get a manicure, since they’re incredibly cheap here and my nails needed help.  For $1.5o, I got a pretty decent manicure.  For US standards, it isn’t great, but I’d have paid upwards of $30 for it at home, so I’m not complaining.  Then, I had a mission.  This weekend, I am going to Otavalo, where the artisanal market is famous.  I planned to buy not only my souvenirs, but Christmas and birthday presents for my family, as well.  For this, I needed a big backpack to bring my purchases back to Quito, and back home on the plane afterwards.  I asked Gisela where she bought the backpack that she brought on our trip during week 3, and she gave me directions.  Unfortunately, the store seemed to be under construction, as it was not open.  I walked around the historical center for what seemed like forever until I saw a store selling leather goods.  A backpack caught my eye, and I figured stopping in one more store wouldn’t hurt, and they had the perfect backpack!!  I bought it from the nicest indigenous woman, and walked out of the store into the rain.  Luckily, I’d planned to take a taxi with my new purchase anyway.

Breaking my family pact to not start the new season of Orange is the New Black until I returned, I watched an episode and worked on my honors journal until dinner.  My mom later confessed to starting the series, so we both broke the pact at about the same time…

Day 35

After class, I talked Paul into going to La Mariscal to eat.  I am getting tired of the typical food, not because it isn’t good, but because it’s almost all the same in the restaurants.  I can only eat so much chicken, soup, and rice.  We took the bus to Paul’s normal bus stop and planned to walk the 15 minutes to the restaurant I had in mind.  However, it started raining.  And it rained hard.  After waiting 15 minutes under the awning of the Swissotel, we decided to go inside and look at the restaurants.  Usually the rain only lasts for 20-45 minutes, but it did not seem like it would stop, and I hate walking in the rain.

We settled on a sports bar in the hotel that was reasonably priced, and enjoyed pizza and burgers.  I then took another taxi back to the house and got overcharged because of the weather.  The rain kept me in the house, so I watched more Netflix and packed my new backpack to go to Otavalo tomorrow. (Sadly, my picture of the delicious pizza I bought has disappeared.  But it was beautiful.)

Dinner at the house reminded me of home… We had spinach and potato soup (very typical), but then we had rice, BEEF, and REGULAR CORN!  They have so many varieties of corn here, but we ate (almost) normal yellow corn with butter, and beef instead of chicken.  It was a lovely reminder of home.

Alicia, Student Blogger: Week 4 Mindo

Day 29

It’s Mindo day!!! We got up nice and early, and Bea and I took a taxi to the north bus terminal, La Ofelia.  It took about half an hour, and we paid around $7.50.  One can reach the bus terminals by the public buses, but I would rather pay for a taxi, especially when I have my belongings with me.

We met up with Mattias and Paul, two other students from school, and got on a bus to Mindo!  It takes about 2.5 hours and only costs $3 to go by bus.  We first checked into our hotel.  They were cleaning our room when we arrived (we’d booked dorm beds for $10 each), so we got upgraded to a 3 person room (Bella wasn’t going to stay the night).   The hostel was divided into two or three different buildings, plus a patio/kitchen area.  The buildings are all made of beautiful, finished wood, the beds had mosquito netting, and the room was surrounded by windows to look out of.  The patio is right next to the stream, which has a resident iguana, and there are also hummingbird feeders. **This hostel ROCKS.  It was recommended to us by other students at school, and I can’t wait to return to Mindo to stay here again.  It’s called La Casa de Cecilia, and you should just really go there.  More on this later.

At the hostel, the staff can give you tickets to do any activity in Mindo that you desire, or tickets can be bought there, as well.  We went ahead and bought our tickets for everything we wanted to do that day: zip lining, a tour of an artisanal chocolate factory, and a night walk.  After checking in, we ate lunch at a restaurant called Mindo Cazcai.  It was right on the main street, close to the square, which I believe is why we paid more than usual.  The food was good; I split a chicken and rice plate with Bea for like $8.  That was not necessarily a highlight, but it wasn’t a letdown, either.

Then we took a taxi (a pickup truck) to the zip lines.  Mindo has 2 sets: an older and a newer.  They’re both 10 lines, both double-cable safety systems, both have beautiful views.  We picked **Mindo Canopy Adventures because there was overall more ziplining distance.  They quickly got us set up with harnesses and helmets, and away we went!  They gave us a super short safety intro, but there is a guide at the other end of each zip line, and one who sets you up each time, so it’s challenging to get hurt if you listen to the guides.  The views were beautiful, and it wasn’t a horribly far walk between lines.  In between several, you do have to walk a little further, but it’s manageable.  You also will have the opportunity to do the “superman” or the “butterfly,” which are special ways of going down the zip line.  One involves wrapping your legs around the guide and letting go with your hands, like Superman.  You can go down the zip line upside down or upside down with a guide.  They definitely make sure that you have a good time, even offering to take your picture/video.  **Take your camera if you have a zippered pocket to put it in.

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After zip lining, we got Bea on her bus and went on the tour of **El Quetzal, a restaurant/hotel/chocolate factory.  This is supposed to be the best of 2 or 3 chocolate tours, and did you read that it’s also a hotel?  You can stay there, and from what I’ve read, the food is incredible, and a tour is included.  They also have artisanal beers, if that’s of interest to you.  It was just the three of us with one guide.  We agreed to take the tour in Spanish, and Mattias and I would help Paul if necessary.  Our guide spoke English very well, so he was able to answer any questions that we had.  He showed us the fruit that the seeds come from, the same fruit that I ate in Bua, if you read that post.  We got to try the sweet seeds.  Then he showed us what they look like after they’ve been dried; they taste bitter since it’s pure chocolate.  Finally, he showed us the same product after it’s been ground up, ready to be used.

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Then we actually got to walk around with the guide and see the factory.  They have stevia plants that they’re hoping to be able to use in their chocolates someday (they currently use sugar from elsewhere in the country).  Cocoa doesn’t grow in Mindo’s climate (it grows in the coast), so they work with local farmers to bring it in.  They also grow lemongrass and other herbs/spices, including ginger.  Then we saw where the seeds are laid out to dry.  First, they are fermented/processed naturally for several days, and then they’re spread out on wire mesh to dry for up to two months.  Then they’re cooked/roasted, and then separated from the casing.

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This is where I stopped understanding 100%… I believe that the dried seeds used for chocolate bars get melted down, then cooled slightly, poured into molds, shaken to remove air bubbles, and cooled again. The other seeds get pressurized, I believe, and the different components of that liquid are used for other products: cocoa butter, sauces that they make, etc…  At the end of the tour, we got to try plain chocolate syrup.  Delicious, but bitter.  Then we got to add their different sauces to it: ginger sauce (delicious), a BBQ sauce, and another that I cannot remember.  And the best part: we got a brownie.  Y’all, I love chocolate.  Cheap chocolate, expensive chocolate, Hersey’s, pure dark chocolate, with fruit, with nuts, I love it all. And this brownie was practically life-changing.  It was so good that I was willing to pay $3 for one brownie so that I could bring one back with me.  Also, we learned that white chocolate is not chocolate.  Now you know.

After our chocolate tour, we went in search of dinner.  This is not me talking bad about my friends, this is just what happened.  They wanted street food from the guy around the corner.  I’d already been stomach sick on this trip and it took me a full week afterwards to recover, so I did not want street food. I ate one empanada thing with platano verde and chicken.  Paul ate like 3 with yucca and chicken, and Mattias had three with corn and chicken, I believe.   I was starving, but we didn’t eat more…  I wasn’t upset, just really hoping that nobody ended up sick.  We didn’t know how long that food, with chicken in it, had been sitting out, or how many people had touched them after touching the raw chicken…  (Update: Paul was sick when we got back.  I can’t say why, but there’s enough correlation for me to avoid street food).

Then we went out for our night tour (**Mindo Night Tours).  A pickup truck picked us up from the hostel and took us to this amazing property.  The tour guides were actually new: they’d only been in Mindo for 3 months and actually specialized in reptiles.  Despite that, they were fairly knowledgeable about the insects and frogs that we saw, and they tried to get kinkajous to come.  Sadly, they weren’t around that night, but it was a lovely tour.  They have a bird tower that they rent out, and if one could afford it, I think it’d be a wonderful experience.

After that, we returned to the hostel.  I took a shower, and the bathroom seemed clean enough.  I was still upset that I’d forgotten my flip-flops… My singular complaint about this hostel is that the mosquito netting didn’t stretch around the bed fully.  It sat on top fine, which was okay, but I would have preferred if it stretched more so that I didn’t sleep with mosquito netting in my face, or my foot out of the netting.  With that being said, I had THE BEST night’s sleep.  The men left their window and curtain open, so we got to listen to the stream and the animals while we slept.  I didn’t sleep very long, since the window also allowed in a lot of light and noise in the morning, but we all woke up feeling quite refreshed.

Day 30

I ate breakfast at the hostel for $3.50, I believe, and got juice, cafe con leche, eggs, and a roll and a half with butter and jam.  It was definitely worth the price.  I then headed off for a yoga class, since I’d really been missing practicing yoga, but there wasn’t actually a class.  I ended up at **Hostel El Descanso, which has a beautiful backyard set up to be a hummingbird haven.  It’s slightly pricey at $4, but you can stay as long as you like and watch the birds.  Not only did I see hundreds of hummingbirds, I also saw several other types of local birds and TWO TOUCANS.  I saw toucans, which was the coolest thing ever.  I also met a professor from Europe who was very interesting to speak with.

 The men had decided to rent ATVs, so I then took a taxi to the butterfly farm.  It’s very informational, beginning with a short intro from a guide, offered in both Spanish and English.  He told me about the life cycle of the butterflies and their diets, and then I got to spend as much time as I wanted in the butterfly garden.  They have a hatching system set up on one wall, so that you can see each individual stage of the life cycle prior to hatching, and if you wait for a few minutes, you’re almost guaranteed to see a butterfly hatch.  **Tip: Put some banana on the tip of your finger (they have them lying out).  You’ll be able to hold almost any butterfly you’d like.  Another tip: have someone else check your back for butterflies before you leave.  I checked myself in the mirror before leaving, but I still walked out with one on my backpack.  Luckily, the tour guide saw it and brought it back inside.  They also have a koi pond outside, so, obviously, I paid $0.50 to feed the fish.

I met up with the men afterwards, and they had street food again for lunch.  I bought a banana from the market and called it good, since we ran out of time for a restaurant.  Our bus to Quito was just as uneventful as the first, and then I took a taxi back to the house.  Many of the taxi drivers here are incredibly kind and friendly.  This driver was no exception.  He charged me quite a bit, but it was both a Sunday and a holiday (father’s day), so I expected that.  At the house, we had dinner: cabbage soup, and omelet, rice, tomatoes, and ice cream for dessert.  With a full belly and a great experience, I went straight to bed.