Day 8 – Snorkeling and Sunning on Isabela!

Our last full day on Isabela – we were actually kind of sad to be leaving this island but we wanted to make the best of the last day that we had. So we started the day off by walking to the island’s Tortoise Breeding Centre. Of course, fitting with Isabela, it was a beautiful walk to get there.

You might not be able to read it in the photo below, but the sign says Iguana Crossing – Please Drive Slowly. Sure enough, there were iguanas crossing – they are literally everywhere!

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The path to the Breeding Center took us along a boardwalk through a beautiful marsh full of iguanas and one resident flamingo, before turning into a forest.

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At the Breeding Center, there were tons of tortoises, big and small!

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Even our travel companion Hoot wanted a photo with the monstrous animals! I found the sign below amusing. Clearly the breeding program is working – there were hundreds upon hundreds of baby tortoises at the Center.20140619-Isabela6 20140619-Isabela10 20140619-Isabela8 20140619-Isabela7

As we left the Center, the sky cleared and we were greeted by a beautiful sunny afternoon!

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Just right for a little relaxation by the beach!20140619-Isabela14

Later that afternoon, we rented snorkeling equipment from the hotel and went to a nearby snorkeling spot where we got up close and personal with a sea turtle. No pictures though, I left the camera behind for that excursion. As the sun set on our Isabela experience, we took one last walk on the beach to bid the island farewell.

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Dinner on Isabela was always a fun affair – there were basically six or seven restaurants with patios around the main town square and we pretty much found two we liked and ate at one of them every night. Very quiet though – much quieter than what it would be like when we got back to Santa Cruz for Day 9. But that story is still to come…

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Day 7 – Riding to the Wall of Tears

After waking up to the crashing of the waves and enjoying a leisurely morning, we rented bikes through our hotel and set off to explore the island on our way to the famous Wall of Tears. All the research I had done before the trip had told me that this stretch of road was the one where you were most likely to see giant tortoises in the wild. And sure enough, we did see some – the first one was right next to the sign telling us to be careful with giant tortoises! It’s like he knew to be there!

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After stopping to visit with him, we kept biking. Along the road to the Wall of Tears, there are about a dozen side roads that lead you to other natural areas of significance. We were told it was a good idea to bike all the way to the Wall of Tears first, and then stop at everything else on the way back. So bike we did until we finally came to the infamous wall.

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Why is it called the Wall of Tears? Well apparently there was once a penal colony on this island, and to keep the prisoners occupied, they made them build this stone wall that served no other real purpose. At the top of the wall, there were phenomenal views of the entire island which is really just harsh, untamed wilderness. On a gloomy day like this one was at times, it seemed particularly unforgiving.

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These panoramas are each about a dozen photos stitched together.

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The road in the photo above is the one that we had to bike along to get to the Wall. As we were leaving the Wall, we heard some motion in the bushes. We looked a little harder and sure enough, we spotted a giant tortoise just hanging out and very well camouflaged.

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A little later, we found one that was a little more in the open.

20140618-Isabela16On one of our side trips, we found a beautiful little marsh full of avian wildlife.
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We watched this night heron for several minutes as he stalked the marsh and eventually caught his prey.

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Our next side trip took us through a beautiful corridor of mangrove trees before opening up onto a secluded cove where we had a friend waiting to play with us!

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It was such a wonderful experience to be all alone with a wild and playful sea lion, I got in and swam around a little bit in the cove, being careful not to touch the sea lion.

Our last side trip took us back to the main island beach, but to get there, we had to negotiate with the gatekeepers of the path. They drove a hard bargain but it was worthwhile for the view at the end!

20140618-Isabela1120140618-Isabela12 20140618-Isabela15As you can see in the photo above, its very difficult to shoot a panoramic shot when there are moving waves in the photo. Pretty much impossible to stitch photos together with waves. But you certainly get the idea!

Day 6 – Hiking the Sierra Negra Volcano

After an extensive day of traveling, we arrived just before sunset at the idyllic Isla Isabela. The biggest of the islands in the Galapagos, but the least populated of the accessible, settled islands, Isabela was a stark contrast to our previous few days in the archipelago. With only a smattering of hotels and restaurants running along the main beach, we feel that we really lucked out with our beachfront hotel, Caleta Iguana, which was operated by a French-Canadian! We had a beautiful room with an oceanfront view and immediately decided to extend our stay an extra night.

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The pink building on the left of the picture above is our hotel – one of the windows on the second floor looking straight out to the ocean was ours. For our first day in Isabela, we decided to do the one thing that required a guide – hiking the Sierra Negra Volcano. We booked it directly through the hotel on arrival and were told to wait for a truck in the morning. So on this morning, we woke up, went downstairs and waited for the truck – what showed up did not match the description of what we were told to expect in the slightest. But it had a bunch of tourists on it and there was no one else at the hotel waiting for anything, so when they confirmed they were going to the volcano, we jumped on hoping that this was actually our tour group. The ride up to the volcano was thrilling to say the least. The open sided truck didn’t have the slightest measure of safety built in and was so rickety-rackety, it felt like it would collapse at the next bump. But we lived to tell the tale!

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The hike itself was wonderful! We had a really knowledgeable, friendly guide who spoke terrific English and told us all about the ecology of the area. The hike lasted most of the day and took us first to the crater of the volcano which is the 2nd largest in the world. When we first arrived, it was mostly enshrouded in mist and we couldn’t really see the scale of it. On our way back, we were treated to clear skies and a true appreciation for just how massive the crater is.

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The rest of the hike took us through a large area of volcanic rocks to appreciate some stunning views of the rest of the island. This is the second time I’ve climbed a volcano but the two experiences could not have been more different.

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20140617-Isabela2420140617-Isabela26 20140617-Isabela25After returning to the hotel, we realized why the hotel is called Caleta Iguana (Iguana Cove) – in the afternoon, the iguanas come out and hang out all over the hotel! Can you spot the iguanas in the pictures below?

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That’s nothing! There were dozens of them!

20140617-Isabela420140617-Isabela620140617-Isabela9 20140617-Isabela8 20140617-Isabela7 After hanging out with the iguanas for a while, we went for a sunset walk down the beach to cap off a great first day on Isabela!

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Day 5 – Travel Day and a Tortoise Visit

Well, after 3 days on San Cristobal it was time to move on to the next island and continue our Galapagos adventure. In the Galapagos, for land-based travellers, there are only two ways to move from island to island – by plane or nausea-inducing speedboat. Naturally, the planes cost 10 times more, so as budget travelers, we decided to take on the nausea, rationalizing that it was part of the Galapagos experience. So we packed our bags and walked down to the town’s main dock to wait with all the other tourists for a boat to Santa Cruz, the archipelago’s most populated island.

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Thankfully, everything was pretty organized and in short order, we were on our boat. I don’t think there will ever be words to properly express the experience of getting on one of these boats. Imagine cramming 20-25 people of all ages into a little covered boat and strapping 600 HP onto the back of it, then driving full blast across the ocean’s waves for 2 hours. The one piece of advice we’d heeded – don’t eat before the trip.

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Clearly not everyone knew this though, and within 30 minutes, the small child sitting diagonal from me had already vomited all over the floor and there is nothing worse that the smell of vomit to make someone else vomit. I was seriously concerned that the boat was about to turn into a vomit-fest, but everyone else (yours truly included) managed to keep it down and eventually we got to Santa Cruz, no worse than we’d left.

Santa Cruz, on this day, was just a pitstop as about 4 hours after arriving, we were scheduled to catch another boat to Isla Isabela, the least populated of the three main islands. So with some time to kill, we grabbed breakfast, and then walked (with all our luggage) to the nearby Charles Darwin Research Center. It was here that we got our first glimpse of the mighty giant tortoise, a creature that looks like it belongs in the age of the dinosaurs and that was apparently the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s E.T.

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Although it was fun to see them, these were not wild tortoises but rather captive inmates of the research center. We hoped on Isabela to see some in the wild. Nevertheless, captivity aside, the pens they were kept in were very naturalistic (it basically just looked like they slapped fences around the existing landscape) and they seemed to enjoy their slow-paced lifestyle, which seems to consist primarily of eating cacti, walking around, looking around and stepping on each other.

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Before leaving, we had a chance to see some of the newborns – the populations of giant tortoises has declined dramatically over the years due to hunting and invasive predators, but centers like these are hard at work to restore the population through captive breeding.

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We got the chance to see a few other species hanging around the center – lots of finches and a large land iguana. 20131231-San-Cristobal13 20131231-San-Cristobal8

Before we knew it we were back on another speedboat for the two-hour ride to Isla Isabela – thankfully, no vomiting on this trip!

Day 4 – Snorkeling at Kicker Rock

Our last day on San Cristobal, we opted to do some snorkeling and head out to the very popular Kicker Rock for the day. We had booked everything with a tour agency the day before, Chalo Tours, and they turned out to be great guides. There were six people on our boat for snorkeling (us included) and two others who were doing full dives. We grabbed our gear at the agency, headed down to the dock and were on our way for the day. Because we had divers with us, we had a huge open air catamaran for the day. Thankfully as well, the weather was perfect – blue skies and sun – probably one of the best days we had in the Galapagos weather-wise.20131230-San-Cristobal1 20131230-San-Cristobal2

As we sped away, our guides pointed out all kinds of wildlife to us on the shores and various islands we passed. Above, there were frigatebirds constantly circling (recognizable by the scissors tails). Eventually, we came upon a small bay where we did a ‘trial run’ to put our gear on and swim around a little bit. We were not the only boat out that day, but our guides did a great job making us feel as though we were the only ones there.

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Now I’ve never been snorkeling before, so I was a little wary going into this adventure. I was very happy to have the trial run first as it got some of the jitters out of the way. On that first snorkel, we saw a bunch of fish and one sea turtle – amazing creature but only a taste of what was to come! I have to mention that the water was absolutely freezing! We had full body wetsuits on and it was still incredibly cold. I was worried about swimming and being able to keep up with the group and manage the waves, but it really wasn’t that bad at all because of the salt water. You really just float fairly naturally and just have to move yourself around. So we got back onto the boat and headed for the big show – Kicker Rock – which is basically two large rocks sticking out of the ocean seemingly at random. In between the two is a narrow channel where all kinds of marine wildlife likes to hang out.

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There are no underwater pictures unfortunately as I didn’t bring a waterproof camera, but we went through the channel twice. The first time around there were a fair amount of fish and you could see the occasional shark or turtle fairly far down the channel. The guide told us that we didn’t need to worry about the sharks as they were ‘vegetarians’ and not a threat to snorkelers. They weren’t huge sharks but still sharks nonetheless. After the first go-through, we got back on the boat and the guides took us for a little tour around the rock while we ate lunch. And then the sun came out to warm us up and give us a tan!

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We waited for all the other boats to leave and then jumped back in for a second pass through the channel. We swam into the channel a little, I put my mask on and dipped my head into the water. After about five seconds of frozen panic, I lifted it back out and worked on figuring out how to calm myself down. Below me were dozens of sharks, some mere meters away, so close that I felt like I could touch them if I had the desire to. Seeing that everyone else was proceeding, I gathered my courage, put my head back in the water and started swimming. The adrenaline was pulsing so strongly that I made it through the channel in what felt like seconds. Along the way, interspersed with the seemingly endless supply of sharks, I saw several more sea turtles and a pod of three huge manta rays. Simply amazing!

Eventually we had to get back on the boat and head back to land, but on the way our guides took us to a small beach secluded beach where we could do some shallow water snorkeling and lounge about for a bit.

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After a long, exciting and tiring day, we retreated back to our room for one last night in San Cristobal before heading off to Isla Isabela via Santa Cruz.

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Day 3 – Island Hiking

So we left off last having finished our first day on the island of San Cristobal. After a great night’s sleep, we woke up to have a nice breakfast (milk and cereal – living the good life) on our rooftop patio. We had an unexpected visitor join us for breakfast and try and get in on the food.

San Cristobal Breakfast Galapagos Finch

We decided that today would be a hiking day, to explore the other side of the island from our adventure the day before. The guidebook said that there was an interpretation center just down the road from our hostal and that there were several trails leading out from there. But on the way, we first walked by Playa Mann, a small beach across the street from the town’s university, where we found students doing yoga among sea lions and sally-lightfoot crabs.

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We found the interpretation center eventually, and had a look around – it was definitely the best of the three such centers in the Galapagos that we visited – and then started to make the ascent to the top of Cerro Tijeretas (Frigatebird Hill) which promised some nice views. Along the way we got friendly with lots of little lava lizards and then found the top which overlooked a beautiful little bay for snorkeling that on this day was packed with Ecuadorians.

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The views were indeed impressive and we got a preview of our next day – snorkelling at Kicker Rock, the large rock on the horizon on the left side of the following photo.

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But we’ll save the snorkeling for the next day’s post – for now we kept on hiking down the other side of the hill along the coastline of the photo above. Once we got down there, we came upon a flock of beautiful pelicans sunning themselves on the rocks and doing some fishing.

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And then we kept on walking and came at last to the end of the road – a beautiful, totally secluded beach with a bunch of sea lions including a very playful baby. There was one other couple there, way at the other end of the beach, so we basically had the beach and the sea lions to ourselves. Well worth the walk!

20131227-San-Cristobal12 20131227-San-Cristobal14 We had to get back before dark, but on the way back we found another beach closer to town and little did we know we were in for a treat – the first of our two sightings of the famous blue-footed booby! The boobies are a species of bird that live in very few parts of the world, and are easy to spot because they have very bright blue or red feet. They are apparently not the smartest birds which is how they got their name back in the days of Darwin and their name has since spawned a massive gift shop enterprise with everything from t-shirts to magnets playing on the word ‘booby’. They are rather cute and peculiar birds though and they do like to pose for photos!

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Finally, we headed back to town for a night out – great pizza and a nighttime stroll along the boardwalk. You can never quite escape the sea lions on San Cristobal. They hang out all over the town’s boardwalk often claiming it for their own. Good luck finding a bench to sit on!

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Day 2 – On to the Galapagos!

Guayaquil, we barely knew ya! After a great night’s sleep, we checked out of our hotel and asked them to hail a cab to take us back to the airport for our morning flight to San Cristobal, one of the Galapagos Islands. As we wound through the streets of Guayaquil, it seemed a completely different city from the one we’d driven into the night before. As we arrived at the airport, I noted that it seemed pretty new. The koi pond that forms a moat around the building was a nice touch!

Guayaquil Airport

Guayaquil Airport

After putting our bags through the “produce scanner” (there are very strict controls on baggage going to the Galapagos to ensure that invasive species are kept out), we headed over to the check-in counter to get our tickets. The LAN airlines attendant gave us a questioning eye as she tried and failed to locate our reservation. It seemed as if she wasn’t quite sure of us. She finally asked if we had a reservation number, which we did, and she was able to find us in the system. For a few minutes, it seemed like we may not be going on vacation after all. Waiting for the flight, we attempted to throw something into the garbage but had a hard time – there was in fact, no garbage in sight, only recycling and compost! Pretty impressive, most places in Ontario don’t even have this kind of waste sorting.

Guayaquil Airport

We landed in the Galapagos by 10 AM on San Cristobal, the easternmost island and the oldest island in the archipelago. All the islands are situated on a tectonic plate that is moving towards South America, so the further east the island is, the older it is geologically. We spent the next three days in the port town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, also the political capital of the Galapagos province of Ecuador. As we cleared “Galapagos Customs” and paid our entry fee to the National Park, we were greeted by (shockingly!) absolutely no cabs and a big long empty road. So we did what everyone else seemed to be doing and started walking. A few minutes later, we found ourselves in town and maybe 20 minutes after leaving the airport at most, we’d found our hotel for our stay – Casa de Nelly. As we explored the grounds, we were greeted not by Nelly but by Soledad, who handed us keys and showed us our room on the top floor with great views over the city and harbour. She spoke as little English as I spoke Spanish, but we managed alright!

San Cristobal Casa de Nelly

San Cristobal Casa de Nelly San Cristobal Casa de Nelly

With no time to waste, we immediately set off to begin exploring the town and the island. After grabbing lunch on the waterfront, we promptly got lost trying to find the road to La Loberia, a beach supposedly renowned for its sea lion population, and wound up back at the airport! We got ourselves figured out eventually with the help of a passing local, and half an hour later, we came face to face with our first wildlife of the trip – and was there ever lots of it! Marine iguanas, crabs, sea turtles, humpback whales, birds galore, lava lizards and of course, sea lions – all on one beach and merely hours after landing!

The first bird we saw – a yellow warbler.

Galapagos Yellow Warbler

Our first sighting of a Darwin finch – endemic to the Galapagos, these are the birds that helped inspire Darwin to derive his theory of evolution.

Galapagos Finch

As we made our way to the beach, a sign instructed us on how to find marine iguanas. As they move from the mainland to the ocean, their tails leave tracks in the sand. We followed a set of tracks to some rocks and started climbing around before I almost stepped right on the marine iguana in the picture below! They camouflage almost entirely into the rock. This one in particular was easily 4-5 feet long.

Galapagos Marine Iguana

By contrast, the little lava lizards, as in the photo below, are everywhere in the Galapagos and no bigger than my finger.

Galapagos Lava Lizard

Our first sighting of La Loberia – the beach where sea lions and humans share the sand! All the brown blobs between the people and water are sea lions.

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Aren’t they cute!Galapagos Sea Lion Galapagos Sea Lion Galapagos Sea Lion

After exploring the beach for a while, we continued to hike along the coast, seeing many interesting birds including these black-headed gulls which were nesting along the cliff.Galapagos Gull San Cristobal

As we were hanging out on La Loberia, one of the nature guides that was with another couple suddenly pointed off into the horizon and said she’d seen a humpback whale. Sure enough, there were two of them swimming off the coast – the photo below is the best shot I got. Galapagos Humpback Whale

Needless to say, by the end of our first night, we were exhausted! We stayed at La Loberia as late as we dared, walked back to town as the sun set and grabbed a quick dinner in town before we crashed in anticipation of what we might see and do in the morning.

Day 1 – Flying to Ecuador

Its been a while, I know! We just got back from a nearly 3-week trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos and I have lots of pictures and stories to share! I think if I can find the time and energy, I’m going to do a day-by-day recap of the trip.

Day 1 saw us fly from to Toronto to Guayaquil, Ecuador via Miami on American Airlines. On the way from Toronto to Miami, we were seated right on the wing – great because the seats there have more leg room, not so great because the views from the window are rather limited.

Looking out the window onto the wing of the plane.

On the way from Miami to Guayaquil, I managed to get a window seat near the back of the plane. As we were flying early evening, the sun was setting and illuminated the clouds in an absolutely awe-inspiring way, producing some of the best airplane views I’ve ever had!

Sunset over the Carribean Sea Sunset over the Carribean Sea Sunset over the Carribean Sea Sunset over the Carribean Sea

We landed that night in Guayaquil just as it was getting dark. As we waited in line at customs, we chatted up a trio of Canadian kids also from Toronto who had flown into town for a wedding (one of their fathers was Ecuadorian). After clearing Ecuadorian customs (a breeze compared to the grilling we got from the American customs agent at Pearson), we walked out into the Ecuadorian air and found a cab to take us to our hotel. Driving into Guayaquil, you could sense instantly that we were in a different world, less polished and much rougher than our clean Toronto.

The cab pulled up to our hotel, aptly named the Hotel Palace, and we found refuge for the night. I was very happy to discover that the front desk staff spoke excellent English as I wasn’t quite ready to break out my Spanish just yet (though I did manage ok with the taxi driver). Very hungry and not too keen on exploring Guayaquil after dark to find food, we slipped down to the hotel restaurant to try an Ecuadorian specialty – Locro de Papas, which is a potato, cheese and avocado soup. It was excellent and something I’d love to try and make here at home! Our stomachs stuffed, we crashed in our giant comfy bed and got geared up for our Day 2 flight to the Galapagos!

Hotel Palace Guayaquil

Hawksley Workman

Whoa boy, its been a while! I haven’t been out taking pictures much, nor have I been looking at them on the computer. But here are a few from a concert that I went to in December – Hawksley Workman at St. Paul’s Trinity Church in Toronto. It was a two man show, just him and his pianist, and it was fantastic! So enjoy these for now, and I’ll try and get some more up soon.

Hawksley Workman - Toronto - St. Paul's Trinity Church

Hawksley Workman - Toronto - St. Paul's Trinity Church Hawksley Workman - Toronto - St. Paul's Trinity Church

Matthew Barber

About a year and a half ago, my wife introduced me to a Canadian singer/musician that she had discovered while listening to CBC Radio – Matthew Barber. Since then, I’ve grown very fond of his particular brand of music. Its perfect for a lazy afternoon or a morning run. When we found out that he had an upcoming show here in Toronto, it was a no-brainer to buy tickets. So on Thursday night, we found ourselves heading down to a small, basement country-western bar called the Dakota Tavern. We were worried about being able to get seats for the show, so we arrived an hour early to find that we were among the only people there. That was just fine by us though, as we grabbed a table right in front of the stage and settled in.

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The decor of the place was as country-western as it gets, right down to the bull skull with glowing red eyes.

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After enjoying dinner, we finally got what we’d been waiting for as Matthew took the stage with three other band members for an hour long set that was everything we’d expected and more.

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This was probably the closest I’ve ever been to a performer at a concert. The room did fill up between our arrival and the show, but in all, there couldn’t have been more than 50 people there. And since people weren’t that loud while he was playing, it really felt like a personal and private performance. I would only remember that I was at a concert when the crowd starting clapping at the end of a song.

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Nothing but air between Matthew and my beer glass.

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All in all, it was a great show! Matthew is touring right now to promote his new album, Songs for the Haunted Hillbilly, which is a collection of songs he wrote for a musical. The songs were country-esque, but in a more traditional, Hank Williams way. In addition, he played a lot of his more pop-sounding singles that his fans are used to. After the show, we got to talk to him for a few minutes, and he signed a copy of his new CD for us. The benefits of going to a small, intimate show! I have a video that I took of him performing one of his more popular songs, which I’ll be working on and will get up on the blog in the next week or two.