Sunday, November 8, 2020

Gluten-free Lemon-Elderflower Cake

Lemon cake in a pan with blue and yellow towel on the side
My current obsession is elderflower syrup. Because of the quarantine, I decided to buy a bottle and indulge. I just love the flowery scent and its distinct flavor. It’s one of my favorite add-ins to mocktails and yes, some boozy libations. 

I intended to only buy a small bottle, say 16 ounces, but I could not find one. My only choice was a one liter bottle via Amazon – so it will be elderflower for weeks!

As a result, I’ve been researching on what other ways I can use elderflower syrup. In my readings, I was rather surprised that I can make a cake with it. The cake recipe that inspired me was for 16 servings. While this was a good baking project, I decided that something smaller, and maybe healthier, would be more appropriate.

I searched a bit more. With some tweaks, here's what I have. Let me know what you think.


For the cake
  • 1 cup rice flour
  • 1/2 cup oats flour
  • 2/3 cup of granulated sugar
  • 2/3 cup low-fat Greek yogurt (I use 2%, will use 1 cup next time)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 1/2 tsp lemon zest
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp salt

For the syrup
  • 1/4 cup of elderflower syrup
  • 1 TBSP of lemon juice (about 1/2 lemon)

For the yogurt topping
  • 1/2 cup yogurt
  • 1 TBSP elderflower cordial or liqueur
  • 1 TBSP granulated sugar (if using liqueur)


For the Lemon Cake
  1. Preheat oven to 350F. Grease and flour 9" x 9" baking pan and line with parchment.
  2. In a medium bowl, whisk flours, baking powder, and salt until well combined. Set aside.
  3. Cream butter and lemon zest until smooth. Add sugar and beat on med-high until pale and fluffy (approx 3 mins).
  4. Reduce speed and add eggs one at a time fully incorporating after each addition. Add vanilla.
  5. Alternate adding flour mixture with milk & lemon juice, beginning and ending with flour. Fully incorporating after each addition.
  6. Spread batter evenly in the pan and smooth the tops.
  7. Bake for approx. 50 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.
  8. Place cakes on wire rack to cool for 10 minutes then turn out onto wire rack to cool completely

For the syrup
  1. While the cake cools slightly, combine elderflower cordial or liqueur and lemon juice.
  2. After 10 minutes of cooling, prick the still-warm cake all over with a skewer. Drizzle the elderflower and lemon syrup over the cake so that it seeps into the holes.

For the yogurt topping
  1. Combine Greek yogurt and elderflower syrup. Beat until incorporated.
  2. When cake is cool and lemon-elderflower mixture is all soaked in, slice the cake and top with a dollop of the elderflower yogurt.


Slice of lemon cake with elderflower yogurt topping dripping on the side
This is a very delightful light dessert. I think it needs a bit more moisture so I may increase the yogurt next time. I also modified the recipe to make it gluten-free using rice flour and oat flour. I generally do not use the gluten-free flour blends because I don't like the resulting texture. I figured the eggs can provide sufficient binding.

With the Greek yogurt topping and paired with a light tea, this is a perfect breakfast or an afternoon snack. It brings a much needed taste of summer.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Small-batch Peanut Butter Balls

Peanut Butter Snack Balls
It’s getting a bit warm, so it is time to transition from warm treats to cooler ones. Actually, inland in the San Francisco Bay Area, we can get record breaking heats. As a result, my nice hot spicy oatmeal breakfasts become cold ones with cooling spices. If I have them on hand, I’ll sprinkle tropical fruits in it, like mango and pineapple.

Since I do not want to turn on the big oven during the summer months, one of my staple sweet treats are protein balls – specifically peanut butter. These are no-bake snacks that I can keep in the fridge and pop in when I get hungry. These are almost cookie-like and satisfy that sweet craving.

The recipe below was probably inspired from many many recipes. I am just not sure from where since I had it written down in my notebook for so long. I figured its time to type it up.

Small-batch Peanut Butter Balls
Makes about 8

  • 4 Tbsp of Peanut Butter
  • 1/3 cup of Rolled Oats
  • 1 T + 1 tsp of nibs
  • 1 T + 1 tsp of walnuts
  • 2 tsp of honey (optional) 

  1. Mix all ingredients together.
  2. Roll into balls (I scoop them with either tablespoon or teaspoon measuring spoon).
  3. Chill. Enjoy after 30 minutes.

Verdict. I love making these protein balls during the summer. It has a hint of carbs, lots of protein and lots of texture – thanks to the nuts and nibs. Since it has peanut butter, an added bonus is my hubby loves them.

  • You can toast the oats for some toasty flavor. I usually add the walnuts and nibs in the pan to give it dimension.
  • If you have Tahini, you can substitute 1 Tbsp of Tahini to the Peanut Butter. Same reason: more depth of flavor. I have varied the proportion of Tahini to Peanut butter and made Tahini Balls instead – also good for that protein boost.
  • You can also roll them in chocolate sprinkles. For tahini balls, I've used coconut or sesame seeds. They look like truffles and adds a bit of decadence.

Hope you enjoy!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Italian "Water" Cake with Orange Juice

The entire state of California has been on shelter-in-place the last week. Residents are recommended to only get out of the house for essential needs: food, medicine. Most people have been home cooking and rationing, so we have been only going out for groceries once a week.

What that means is that we have to be very creative with our recipes. I’ve been rationing my stash of soy creamer because I don’t want to go to the store. If I don’t have an ingredient, I would substitute or omit.

Hence this water cake…

In all honesty, I made this cake before the shelter-in-place. I have been meaning to make a second version of this cake because folks liked my first version. It just ended up too doughy and heavier than I expected. Now, I have an opportunity to make it a second time and use up the items in my pantry.

For the second version, I decided to use a bit of almond flour for some texture (and protein). I just started using almond flour. I also cut down on sugar a bit.

Here's what I have... hope you enjoy.

Italian "Water" Cake with Orange Juice
Based on Italian Water Cake no eggs, no milk, no butter

  • 12 oz orange juice (about a small container)
  • 2 ½ cups Italian type 00 flour
  • 1/2 cup almond flour
  • 2/3 cup + 1 TBSP white sugar
  • 1/3 cup of canola oil
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp cardamom
  • Pinch of salt

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  2. Sift the flours, sugar, baking powder together into a large bowl. Sift, sift, sift – As my friend Jen said, one can never sift too much.
  3. In a separate bowl, combine the oil and orange juice and mix well. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the water and oil and mix it all.
  4. When the oven is hot, pour the mixture into a greased cake pan and bake for about 45 minutes. Note: Test the cake with a toothpick in the center before removing it from the oven.
  5. If you like, you can dust the cake with powdered sugar or top it with yogurt and jam.


I love this recipe because it does not use a lot of ingredients, which is perfect for a shelter-in-place. However, you do need 00 flour to make this work. I just happened to have some. Don’t use regular flour because the results will not be as good (according to the comments in the original recipe).

It does taste very good. It's not light like an angel food cake, but it's delicious. I am now thinking of a coffee-flavored cake, but I'm thinking that it would technically require milk - so its a work in progress.

Also, check out the original recipe. Mine did not vary from it that much, but I think its unique enough to share. I also converted some of the measurements to friendlier terms.

Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Our Galapagos Adventure: Exploring Isla Isabella

Flamingo at Flamingo Lake

Ah, the tours... After a few minutes settling into our hotel in Puerto Villamil, we were immediately picked up for our first tour.  After about 15 minutes picking up our tour mates, we arrived at Lago de Flamenco or Flamingo Lake. It was a relatively easy walk, just watch out for the occasional iguana or two hanging out in the walkway.

Ricardo, our guide, shared with us that there are about 500 flamingos in Galapagos and they arrived by accident from the Caribbean. They usually hang out at the lake since this brackish lagoon has ample supply of the flamingos favorite food. We only saw two flamingos that evening... maybe because they were still hanging out somewhere else. 

Kayakers at Isla Isabella

On our first full day, we spent an afternoon at Islotes Tintoreras (Tintoreras Islets) – named after the white-tip reef sharks the frequent the place. These were the islands that greeted us as we approached Isabella. 

The tour started with a tour around the islands. I finally saw blue footed boobies – yes, they do exist and their blue feet did stand out!  What an amazing sight! These three islands were full of these blue footed creatures amongst the iguanas. Poor iguanas – they were outnumbered and mostly ignored by the paparazzi. Unfortunately, we purposely left our iPhones because we anticipated that the situation is will be somewhat chaotic (unlike the luxury yacht). That said, I was still thinking I should have bought that Go-Pro.

After the boat tour, we snorkeled. I always welcome the opportunity to be in the water because I can get off my knees and feet.

This snorkeling outing was actually a long one, The first part of the snorkel was pretty much a drift snorkel, which helped me conserve energy. Regardless, we covered a lot of ground. Thank goodness the boat was following us. It was kinda cool to snorkel the mangroves – my first time. Although I did not see any reef sharks, I was very thankful that I did not see a swimming iguana. Those things freak me out (when they are swimming). 

Marine Iguanas at Concha y Perla

The next day we enjoyed another snorkeling outing at Concha y Perla. A boat ride was not needed, since this site is closer to the dock.  However, proximity to shore also made it easy for locals to get “decorations” for their house. Locals harvested shells and corals and thus limiting availability in the site.

Concha y Perla is actually a better site for a snorkel because of its easy access and shallow waters. There were more to see in these waters including (the world’s biggest) pufferfish and turtles. If you are lucky, the juvenile seals will hang out and play with you. That was pretty amazing. Watch out though – there is a current, but it’s onshore.

Me at Mango Viewpoint

In the afternoon, we also took a low-key tour (read: not much walking) of the Highlands of Isabella. We started the tour at Mango Viewpoint to get a feel of the island. From there, we can see the transition from the sandy beaches, to the lava flow and the green highlands. We can even see the silhouette of several volcanoes.

Campo Duro

Our next stop was at Campo Duro, an ecolodge nestled in the highlands. The campgrounds were beautiful: manicured lawns, a gorgeous eating area (although it was closed when we visited), and filled with beautiful trees.  We took a walk around the grounds and saw papaya trees, banana plants, a bamboo like plant and ceibo trees. The ceibos are not native to Galapagos, but they were planted there so the sailors can find their way to fresh water. That means one can find a line of ceibo trees from the shore to the highlands.

Tortoise at Campo Duro

A group of tortoises also reside at the camp so we had the pleasure of visiting these wonderful creatures one more time. The tortoises here were from the breeding center and eventually released to the wild. They do look that they are well taken care of.

Sucre Cave

Our last stop was at the Sucre Cave. It is actually lava tunnel. The pathway was cleared by the park for easier access. However, unlike the one in Santa Cruz, Cueva Sucre is not lighted. Our guide had huge flashlight and advised that we use our iPhones for extra light. Sure enough, it was dark and the ceilings can be low.  Also, we did not have hard hats - so watch your head.

Overall, we enjoyed the tours in Isabella. Ricardo, our tour guide was very engaging and fun. We also had a great group and lots of laughter was shared along the way.


First, we did have tours that we missed in Isabella. This was on our first morning and the tour was going to the Turtle Breeding Center and the Wall of Tears. This was primarily due to a missed pickup and miscommunication from the agency. We received 2 different times from the agent and we were picked up at a 3rd wildly different time. In hearing some conversations from other people, we were not the only ones who had this experience.

Similarly and more importantly, our pickup to the pier was supposed to show up at 5:30, with the boat sailing at 6. Since it was important, we decided to take a taxi instead.

To avoid this, I would recommend for the tour operators contact their customers the evening before with an ETA of the tour. This is very important especially when timing is critical. A missed tour can be a big deal especially to those who have travelled far to a remote place like the Galapagos.

On the bright side, we did make the best of the free morning and took a leisurely walk on the beach and around town to get a feel of the place and take care of some odds and ends. If you remember, the AC in our room was not working, so this gave us the time to talk to the hotel manager to take care of it.

Beach at Isabella

We also hung out at the hotel taking advantage of the shade and free wifi. Puerto Villamil is a almost one horse town with dusty streets, so staying indoors has advantages. Also, I loved observing this yellow finch who is an expert fly catcher. Since he is there everyday, we believe he is employed by the hotel. His shift starts at around 9:00 am. He even has a friend who occasionally visits him, but the friend stays outside.

Yellow Finch who catches flies

Last point to consider: the said 5:30 am ferry pickup to the pier was for a 6 am ferry ride back to Santa Cruz, and eventually a 3:30 flight out of Baltra back to Quito. This made for a very long day with lots of wait time.

If we had known and had an option, I would take the 3:30 ferry to Santa Cruz and spend an extra day, in Santa Cruz (for souvenir shopping and dining). That way we can sleep in, enjoy the beautiful beaches in Isabella, and have more time to pack and go to the pier. Our tour group though was not flexible to even have an extra day upfront.

Beach at Santa Cruz

Other Points To Consider

I should start with we really thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Traveling to the Galapagos was an experience of a lifetime. It’s quite unforgettable.
  • Expect a very active vacation. We actually wanted to have a balance of rest and activity, but this turned out to be more than we bargained for. We’re very glad that we did this before we are (ahem, much) older because a few more years may have made a difference.
Hubby and me at Cerro Tijeretas

  • Ecuador = Equator = HOT SUN. Bring sun protection!!! Sun block. Lycra’s for snorkeling. Hats, if you are into it. Light-colored clothing. I made a mistake of taking the same clothes as I brought in Iceland 4 years ago (Yes, they still fit!). Wrong – I brought dark clothing then because I was thinking of laundry. Bring your beige quick dry clothes and shorts. Good news, T-shirts are cheap! $10 a pop – if you’re lucky.
  • When you have shorts – bring mosquito repellent. If you think the look of your legs are repelling enough, still bring them.
  • My biggest concern was food quality especially the water! In certain islands, if not all, you cannot drink tap water. The water is brackish. There’s plenty of bottled water available, but you got to balance it out with your use of plastic.
As I mentioned, once we arrived in the hotel in Santa Cruz, we were provided water bottles. Because of the heat, the non-insulated water bottles get warm very fast. So… if you have space (or weight) in your luggage, bring your insulated water bottle. A nice cold drink makes a big difference on a hot day!
  • About food quality: I generally cannot eat from buffets, so I brought my share of granola bars as a back-up. This is a trick that I’ve been doing since I missed lunch when we were in China because I was so busy photographing (but I digress). Bringing my own provisions has come in handy in our trips now that food safety is a major consideration in my travels. 
That said, the tour provided excellent meals. The only meal I was not able to enjoy was the breakfast buffet in Santa Cruz. It was a good spread, I just did not have any option available in the buffet. On the bright side, a number of mini stores and coffee shops are open for breakfast… and I found a cool trendy cafĂ©.

Cazuela, Ecuadorian Dish with Seafood

  • On Ferries and Water Taxis. To get to the ferry, you often need to take a water taxi. Water Taxis cost money -- from 50 cents to a dollar. Just be prepared with small change and they are not likely to change a $20 bill.
  • Free time. This tour did not have a lot of free time, especially in Isabella. Expect packed days and rest as much as you can on your “free time”.
  • DO spend some time in Quito – Loved the time that we spent in Quito – specifically in Old Town. Loved the architecture, the vibe and the people. We explored several good quality restaurants (even a pizza place) and had an awesome time walking.
Old town Quito at Night

Muchas gracias, Galapagos. Estuvimos encantados.

Tour provider

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Our Galapagos Adventure - Part 3: Featuring Isla Isabella

Iguanas in Isabella

After a two hour ferry ride from the party island of Santa Cruz, we were welcomed by the beautiful azure waters and the beautiful islets near the harbor of Isabella. The islets were filled with pelicans, frigates, and blue footed boobies.  It was just gorgeous scene and was quite enchanting. 

Kayakers in Isabella

Isabella is the most undeveloped on the islands that we visited. We were met at the harbor by the guide coordinator and was picked up in a bus that was not in the best of shape. It was rather rustic, but campy. On the way to the hotel, we passed by very modest homes, little mini marts, and school yards. The people seemed friendly but have mixed feelings on welcoming more turistas to their home. We were a source of income but still strangers. I can understand their feelings - This island of 3,000 people hosts about 1,000 tourists in the high season (December to March). That’s a lot of people in a short amount of time.

Meanwhile, they are just trying to live their daily lives - hanging out with their friends, running errands, playing basketball. It was Christmas after all, and everybody was off.

Accommodations. We ended staying at the Hotel Cally which seems to be in the other end of town. This was not that far of a drive since Puerto Villamil is a small town. We had a convenience store next door, and the beach was walking distance.

We stayed in room number 1, which is at the ground floor and near the streets. This was not a big deal since the sidewalks roll up at night, so other than soft conversations from the patio, it was very quiet – also NO STAIRS.

Rooms in The Cally

Rooms are neat and clean, but very basic. There were two beds, a fridge and a TV. Hubby did not like the lack of hot water, but it was already quite hot and humid, so I did not see the need for it. Personally, a cold shower – or three - seems to be more appealing!

The big thing was a non-working air-conditioner. It was only on the first day – so don’t panic. Still -- OMG! In the middle of the night, I feel like I was being slow roasted. Thank goodness the hotel hopped on fixing it the next day (Shout out to Cecilia!). It was still hot though.  It feels like the AC was not working, but it was.  

Daily Delivery

Food. I really appreciated that the Hotel Cally served a delicious freshly made breakfast every day. As we get our coffee and juice, we were served granola, fresh fruit, and yogurt, followed by eggs and toast. It was simple, but good and nourishing - I loved it! It was perfect meal to start a day.

Breakfast in The Cally

For our other meals, since Puerto Villamil is a small town, we found that finding healthy food is quite challenging. I've learned to look for the "Classe Touristico" sign for assurance, but I could not easily spot one. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of restaurants serving Ecuadorian food, pizzas and even smoothies. With my health situation and sensitive stomachs, we just need to keep it safe.

The bars though were rather tempting...

Main Street in Isabella

On our first evening, our tour package included dinner at the Isabella Grill. The place is characterized as a steakhouse, and seemed to be popular with locals and tourists. The popular platters seem to be a grilled seafood that seems to be served on a mini-grill on the table.  Although that seemed enjoyable, we were still trying to figure the place out, so we chose "safer" options -- like pasta and pork chops.

Pork Chops with Vegetables and Rice

Since Hubby and I have very sensitive stomachs, we decided to try a different spot the next day. After some exploration, we decided to go to Iguana Crossing. This was a higher end hotel at the other end of town.

escondido with patacones and rice

We liked this place a lot more: high quality service, good wine list, and the food was excellent! Iguana Crossing can easily be a place in Monterey or Half Moon Bay in California.  We went back there a couple more times. Besides, the views were awesome.

Iguana Crossing Patio

Next up: The Tours....

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Sunday, March 3, 2019

Our Galapagos Adventure: Part 2B - Exploring Isla Santa Cruz

Sally Lightfoot Crab

This post concentrates on the tours and activities we enjoyed while we were in Isla Santa Cruz in the Galapagos. For a description of the island, check out my previous post featuring Isla Santa Cruz.

Day One - Highlands and La Playa

We had a full itinerary on our first day at Santa Cruz. Our guide for the day, Christian, promptly picked us up after breakfast. After a much appreciated detour to the pharmacy for cough drops, we were on our way.

Because of the weather, we started the day at Garrapatero Beach. It has easy access from the parking lot, about a 5 to 10 minute walk depending on how much you are chatting and looking and dodging at manzanillo trees and lizards.

The beach is beautiful with a wide powdery sand beach filled with pelicans diving into the water. One can just lay a towel in the shade watch these birds to acrobatics or take a nap.

However, the water was gorgeous and very inviting. If I had known we had a good amount of time, I would have brought my suit and enjoyed the water.  Kayaks were also available if you prefer to get only slightly wet.

Galapagos written on Beach

Another thing to do while here is just go beach walking. In addition to the diving pelicans, there were sea birds that do their sea bird stuff -- look for food, rest, etc. The beach also a lagoon where a random flamingo occasionally shows up. Per our guide, flamingoes used to visit this lake more frequently. However, a storm came, and overflowed the lagoon with sea water and changed the salinity of the water. Now, flamingoes no longer come there – I guess it’s no longer trendy (if you are a flamingo).

Garrapatero Beach

Our next stop was to Cerro Mesa, a view point where one could get a layout of the island. It was an easy climb up the stairs, but a bit muddy. Christian explained the topography of Santa Cruz and also showed us the many islands off the coast of Santa Cruz. Thanks to that, we saw where we are headed to the next day and finally understood what Plaza Sur is (It's an island - not the town square).

Cerro Mesa

From there, we visited El Manzanillo Ranch, home to the tortoises native to Santa Cruz. We first enjoyed a freshly cooked and perfectly sized 3-course lunch while watching the tortoises. It was quite relaxing. They also have this fantastic herbal lemonade that we could not get enough of.

Ahi Ceviche

What's really cool about El Manzanillo is that the tortoises are free to go in and out of the ranch. It's not a zoo. In fact, on the way to the ranch, we saw tortoises all over the place, with horses, in ponds and even on the road. The giant tortoises just love it in the ranch because of the abundance of grass for food and ponds for temperature control.

Finch and Tortoise

After lunch, we took a walk around the area. It's a pretty easy walk except the terrain can be uneven and muddy. Galoshes and walking sticks are available for rent. Also, as in San Cristobal, watch out for "rocks" because they may not be "rocks" and could start moving or yelling at you. One of them did -- since I got too close to his territory.

Tortoise - Staff Meeting

The next part of our tour was to visit a Lava Tunnel.  We were expecting something similar to Thurston Lava Tube in Hawaii - walk in the park and lighted. We were wrong. It is a pretty good sign when your guide hands out hard hats and flashlights at the mouth of the cave. I just thought he was being extra cautious.

Lava Tube Entrance

Navigating through the tunnel can be challenging. It started pretty easy, but as you get further in, things can get trickier. Some of the wooden handrails can give in because of the moisture. No crawling though – but good shoes, preferably closed toe, and hard hats are required since things can get slippery.

That said, as you get deeper in the cave, the colors in the lava tube are pretty incredible: glittering hues of blue and gold from algae. There’s also some coral like patterns on the walls and floor from calcification. It's like "Journey to the Center of the Earth".

Inside the Lava Cave

After the day's adventure, we were back at the hotel at around 3 pm, enough to rest and prepare for dinner. I think we could have spent more time at the beach, making it a full day tour, but ending at 3 pm was just right for us.

Day 2: Snorkeling Punta Carrion and Hiking Plaza Sur

Our next adventure was snorkeling at Punta Carrion and a visit to Plaza Sur. Finally water! My feet were getting sore from all the walking and stair climbing. I feel I am better in the water -- much like a penguin: walks funny, but graceful swimmers.

Our first stop was at Punta Carrion for snorkeling. The way these trips are organized is we snorkel as a group and go from point A to Point B. That was okay – I guess it’s a good way to (more or less) keep the group together. It was not as bad as I thought. From what the guides described, because the route was relatively straight.

Punta Carrion

Punta Carrion had relatively decent snorkeling. It featured nice sloping wall and a good variety of fishes. The first plunge was relatively deep -- about 30 feet. There was a good group of big fish on the deep end, but near the wall, we saw a variety of parrotfish, sea cucumbers, sea stars and a pufferfish.  At the end, I even saw a sleeping ray.

Plaza Sur

For lunch, we sailed over to Plaza Sur and had lunch on the boat. This was no ordinary snorkeling lunch – which usually consists of deli sandwiches. The onboard chef made a delicious lunch of tuna in tomato sauce, rice, red cabbage salad and mixed veggies. We had a great lunch overlooking Plaza Sur and the beautiful blue waters.

Lunch on the Santa Fe Yacht

It was somewhat disappointing that we did not snorkel in Plaza Sur. This was because of the aggressive bull seals, especially during birthing season. We did have a hike on the island after lunch to burn off more calories. It was a pretty easy hike, although rocky in places. The island was beautiful: hues of yellow, red and green and Opuntia everywhere. We saw Sally lightfoot crabs, sea lions, Nazca boobies, and marine iguanas. One of the iguanas even wanted to follow us home.

Male Marine Iguana

The boat ride back to town was not too bad, but can be a bit rocky. The staff made popcorn for a snack. We came back to town at around 4 pm, walked back to the hotel and had enough time to rest and prepare for dinner.

Day 3: Christmas at the Darwin Research Center

Our third day, which was Christmas Day, was spent at the Darwin Research Center. This was the best gift for my Hubby who has been dreaming about visiting the center for years.

The center was close to the hotel so we walked. The center does not allow motor vehicles in (except for employees and some exceptions) so we also walked to the exhibits. We had a very young energetic guide who made the day enjoyable. She guided us through exhibits and the tortoise enclosures. Most of the exhibits are outdoors, so wear sunscreen, bring a hat, take advantage of the shade, and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate (Bring your water bottles).

Entrance to Charles Darwin Research Station

Similar to San Cristobal, the Darwin Research Center had nurseries for the babies and juvenile tortoises. It's really fun to see the tiny ones, because you know they'll grow to be giants! The research center also had tortoises from different islands. I finally saw a saddleback -- and he's from California (Diego from San Diego).

Saddleback Tortoise - Diego

Our guide was really knowledgeable and you can see how much passion she has on the subject.   She even shared with us that Darwin's theory of evolution was inspired by the nightingale, not the finches (However, most of his research was from the finch specimens that he collected). That is why the nightingale is her favorite bird. When we saw a couple of nightingales during the tour, she was thrilled - she said these birds can be very elusive.

Tortoise - Another Staff Meeting

The exhibits also featured Lonesome George, the last surviving species of Isla Pinta. Lonesome George had passed away, so this was a taxidermy. This exhibit was away from the heat to preserve his body. We had to go through a waiting area to transition from the extreme heat to extreme cold. However, this was a welcome break from the heat since this exhibit is in a very cold building. 

We also spent a little bit of time in the exhibition hall. There was a lot to see, but I wanted to give my legs a break so we watched the featured movie - which was very good. We also did our share of shopping here, and proceeds go to the Darwin Foundation.

After the tour, we walked back into town and had a hearty Christmas lunch (but no dessert, because the cake was still being baked -- it was Christmas after all) and hopped on to the ferry to Isabella, our last island destination.

Points of improvement

Our visit in Santa Cruz was pretty good combination of activities and relaxation. I think the only nitpick is to clarify available activities when we visited Garrapatero Beach.  In our previous tours, we usually only have a few minutes at one spot and do not have chill time. I think we had time to swim and kayak, but the documents sent by the tour group were not clear (Although it did say "Bring a Towel").  My hubby and I would have loved to kayak for an hour or at least enjoy a brief swim in the beautiful waters. It was just gorgeous.


If you have space (or weight) in your luggage, bring your insulated water bottle.  Because of the heat, the non-insulated water bottles get warm very fast. While warm water is still thirst quenching, a nice cold drink would be good on a hot Ecuadorian day.

If you have pain issues, remember to bring your pain stuff! I had acetaminophen, KT Tape, Salonpas and Pain Gel and used them all (we ran out of acetaminophen).  This is an active vacation and if you don’t want to miss out, bring it! My only consolation is all the water time, where I do not have to deal with gravity.

On to Isabella. Hasta luego!

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Related Posts:
Featuring Isla Santa Cruz
Featuring Isla San Cristobal

Monday, February 18, 2019

Our Galapagos Adventure: Part 2A - Featuring Isla Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz Signs
Blogger's Note: I think I did it again. The article is too long and I need to divide it into two. Let's blame the pictures... they make it seem longer.

From San Cristobal, we made our way to Isla Santa Cruz.  I was looking forward to settling in one place for a while. Frankly, from San Francisco, California to Mexico City to Quito to the islands, I feel we've been on the road a lot. It's like that movie - Planes, Trains, Automobiles, and Ferries (well, no trains -- we did not take the San Francisco BART). Anyhoo, we had three days in Santa Cruz, so I was looking forward to some chill time -- and do some laundry.

Travel. Traveling from San Cristobal to Santa Cruz was via inter-island ferry. If you like roller coasters, this ride may be for you – unless you don’t like long roller-coaster rides, like 2 hours. Initially, I made the mistake of looking at the water. I love the water, and the waves were mesmerizing. An hour later, I almost used up the ginger candy that I brought for motion sickness (*sigh*). 

Hubby said that it’s a good clue if they started handing out black garbage bags (for sea sickness bags) before you leave the dock. Actually, there were only a couple of incidents in our three ferry rides and it did not include me, so it was not too bad.

The Island. My first impression of Santa Cruz in Galapagos was it was like Santa Cruz, California. The only thing that could have distinguished it was the statue of a Golden Iguana greeting us off the pier.

Santa Cruz is the most populated and busiest island in the archipelago.  It's the Gathering Place -- similar to what O'ahu is to the Hawaiian Islands.  As the ferry approached the dock, we can see huge live-aboards for island hoppers. Clearly, this island grows in population during the peak season.

Welcome to Santa Cruz

Off the pier, Santa Cruz seemed like a funky beach town busy with tourists and locals. The streets were filled with dive shops, shops, and busy restaurants and cafes. It had its share of loud music and vibrance.  The energy level is higher here than in San Cristobal -- it feels like a party. 

The guides also seemed to be a bit more sophisticated, more worldly -- and using their mobile devices more often. Our guide manager, Marie, even had our names on her iPhone instead of the usual plastic sign.

Accommodations: After about a 10 minute ride through a series of one way streets, we finally made it to our hotel, Isla Sol in Avenida de Charles Darwin. The “Avenida” was one way, maybe 1 and a half lanes with a bicycle lane. The lobby and restaurant was overlooking the bay and had a great view. Unfortunately, we were across the street but had quieter rooms.

Avenida de Charles Darwin at night

We were also on the quieter side of town (which we later learned was only 5 blocks from the pier). Our side of town was somewhat more sedate, but it still had its share of souvenir shops and restaurants, most of it upscale. It seemed more like Kona-Kailua in the Big Island of Hawaii– except that it had iguanas, frigate birds, and big pelicans. It was actually very relaxing.

two marine iguanas

That said, most of the hotels we stayed in the Galapagos do not have elevators, so be prepared for stairs after a long workout day. The reason for this is energy conservation - Elevators take up a lot of juice. We were on the 3rd floor (actually, what they called the 2nd floor), so our legs got "stronger." I'm inspired to take the stairs again back home. I stopped a year ago because of injuries, but now its time to restart.

room in Isla Sol

Our room did have a TV, but it did not seem to work -- all we got was static. Honestly, I think there was a missing connection. It did not matter since we received updated news via our phones. Speaking of, WIFI was available but very slow and with the Instagram very data intensive, your posts may be cut off or it takes time. That said, I did manage to post daily mostly while I'm resting and to force myself to practice Spanish. I suggest limit yourself to one or two photo posts to not suffer my fate: my 8-photo Christmas post was cut off.

For water, tap water is NOT drinkable. The island had brackish water, so drinking and even brushing your teeth with tap is out of the question. Our hotel provided us with our own reusable water bottles which we used for the rest of the trip. I guess providing reusable water bottles discourages using more single-use plastic. Our hotel also had water dispensers on each floor for hot and cold water. I know the water is safe because I've seen guys hauling bottles up the stairs and removing the cap. Oy! 

Food. Our hotel had an extensive buffet breakfast – eggs, cereals, breads and fruit. Due to my medical restrictions, the only thing I could enjoy were coffee (or tea), bananas and the fabulous view from the breakfast area. However, because of the hotel’s central location, I was able to get breakfast treats from 1835 Coffee Lab like their gluten-free almond coffee cake. That was delicious and quite filling. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to take a picture of it, because I was eating along the way.

View from Solymar

For lunch and dinner, our agency provided pretty excellent options which is great for a foodie like me. We usually had 2 to 3 courses for lunch and freshly prepared. We even had lunch aboard the Santa Fe Yacht.

Lunch aboard the Santa Fe Yacht

On our first two nights, we had dinner at Almar, a high-end restaurant in The Red Mangrove Lodge. It was about a 15 minute leisurely walk from our hotel. The restaurant was beautiful, a bit avant-garde, and featured a deck overlooking the bay. Unfortunately, we could not see anything at night.

The food at Almar was excellent. On our first night there, Hubby and I had Lechon (pork) and Lomo Encantado (steak), perhaps because we already had several days of seafood. However, after learning that Almar is known for seafood, we "forced" ourselves to have fish and shrimp the next evening.

Swordfish entree from Almar

The wine selection was excellent, but the desserts need a little work. Service was very good, but can be somewhat snobby. I wonder if it's because "we did not dress the part" (we packed very light) or we were "sent by the travel agency" and the servers did not think we're sophisticated food people.

Plantains and Ice Cream - Dessert from Almar

On our third night, we dined at Nuovo Il Giardino, where we were treated to a fabulous three-course meal. Since it was Christmas eve, I had ham for the appetizer. One bite brought back to Christmas eve at my grandmother's home in Manila. We both had fish for dinner and enjoyed guava cheesecake with frutilla and an apple crumble for dessert. Our dinner also included a glass of wine each. We opted for the white wine from Argentina - it was a great match for my ham, Hubby's lobster quiche and our fish risotto. Just perfect.

Ham and Pineapple Appetizer from Il Giardino Guava Cheesecake from Il Giardino

Of the two, I think my favorite is Il Giardino because of the friendly atmosphere and service. It was more casual than Almar, but very comfortable. Since it was on the second floor, it was almost like a tree house and gave a unique ambience. The dining area had good view of the avenida even in the evening, perfect for people watching.

One important note: not once did we get sick on food and water. Perhaps its because we have learned in the past to be careful (remind me to tell you the Alpaca story from Peru). Although we brought water purification tablets, we never used them. Fatigue, on the other hand, was a different story -- hence resting.

Next up: The Tours

Related Posts:
Isla San Cristobal