Our adventure to the Galapagos began as true 21st century travelers would, by "surfing the net," what else? We discovered several sites providing a variety of information and some even showing pictures of the various boats and maps around the islands. Via email we solicited more information and narrowed our choice of what we wanted to do. We made our arrangements via email, and used it and an 800 number to stay in touch with the travel agent (who was located in NY) -- truly a state-of-the-art approach to this 19th century wonder.
Given that all trips to the Galapagos archipelago begin and end at an airport in Ecuador, we decided to split our time between visiting the mainland and the island. Our final itinerary was five days on the mainland traveling by car through the Andes, eight days visiting the islands via boat, and two days exploring Quito by foot! As it turned out, we're not sure which was the more exciting part of the trip. Click here to go directly to the Galapagos part of the trip.
Our 250 mile land journey took us south from Quito to the old colonial city of Cuenca. We traveled via the Pam American Highway through pueblos and towns with their local Indian markets, passed vast areas of terraced agriculture, and into the heart of traditional native Indian areas including a visit to an Inca ruin dating from the 15th century. Our drive south started in Quito at 9400 feet and climbed to near 14,000 feet, and ended in Cuenca at 8500 feet. For most of the journey we varied between 10,000 and 12,000 feet, looking up at 15,000 to 20,000 foot peaks everywhere. While in the Quito area some small portions of the highway were high quality four lane, the vast majority was two lanes of reasonable quality with minimal potholes. Perhaps 75 miles of the journey was on unpaved dirt roadway. In every case, we were very glad Galo was doing the driving as we never saw a directional sign. We guessed there was insufficient traffic to invest in road signs.
At an elevation of 9400 feet, Quito is built on the extinct domes of many volcanoes and surrounded by others. We drove up and down sides of cliff faces with the homes of the poor built several stories high into the hill. Children played on very steep streets, and it being Sunday, out in numbers. Home-made kites were flying everywhere, and on an occasional hill we saw llamas.
The first leg of the journey was through the Avenue of the Volcanoes during which time we were almost always in view of at least one, and sometimes as many as three active (although dormant at this moment in time) volcanoes. Our first destination was Volcano Cotopaxi, about 40 miles south of Quito. Cotopaxi is a steeply symmetrical glacier capped cone with a peak at 19,460 feet. We drove to the base of the cone at 13,500 feet and walked around the paramo (high altitude plain). It was very windy and cold, but a yellow daisy like flower seemed to flourish everywhere, while tiny red flowers bloomed in an area protected by the shelter of a rock.
Getting to the volcano was an adventure in and of itself. As we were driving south on the Pam American Highway Galo suddenly turned off onto an unmarked dirt road. Thatched roofed houses and children begging along the road were abundant. At one point, two children stood holding a rope stretched across the roadway. Galo drove straight through, never slowing down. The kids dropped the rope at the last instant, and we learned that this was their way of stopping cars to beg. As we drove back to the Pam American Highway from the volcano, we pass through a tiny village, and there in the center was a volley ball game, with dozens of spectators. We were shocked to find that volley ball is THE major sport of Ecuador, and we saw it being played everywhere.
Our first night in the c ountry-side was spent at Hosteria La Cienega, a five hundred year old plantation house converted to a hotel three hundred years ago (and our bed felt like an original). We took an afternoon walk around the area and had our first experiences with the local people. We saw an Indian driving his cows using his bicycle, an old woman (maybe young, we really could not tell) carrying a huge loan of wood on her back, a lady washing clothes outside at a well and hanging them on the cactus like plants to dry, and kids flying kites. These Indians were dressed just like the pictures in National Geographic -- bright colorful shawls and dresses and panchos, and of course, their Panama hats. However, many, especially the young, were dressed in western style jeans and sweat shirts. During this first walk we saw the first of many "flower hot houses" which employed many of the locals in sweat shop fashion to supply the U.S., Europe, and Asia with inexpensive cut flowers.
During our travels the next day we visited our first Indian market in Ambato. The market was a mixture of local city dwellers in their western clothes and Indians from the surrounding areas in their more traditional clothes. The sense was this was not a tourist market, but rather by and for the people of the area. We found this to be true of all the markets we visited (especially since we did not go to the known tourist markets). The main items for sale were clothes, kitchen utensils, pots and pans, fruits and vegetables, and lots of food stands. The aromas were great and we saw cheese soups being made on the street along with roasted guinea pigs. The Ambato market extended for many blocks, while many of the other markets we visited were in the town square or in a "market" area. A major surprise at all the markets was that most of the clothes for sales were western style made of acrylic, imported from Asia. All the towns and markets were very clean and we sensed that the people of Ecuador were very proud of who they were and what they have.
All our meals were pre-arranged at hotels or the larger restaurants. Everywhere we eat, every meal, was served with a small roll and with some form of potato. Potato and goat cheese soup was the national favorite, and we had it served in a number of different styles and favors, with cilantro being used almost always. Overall, the meals from any one place could have been interchanged with another.
Since Ecuador is growing in popularity as a tourist attraction, a few new hotels are emerging and some of the oldest hotels are being renovated to serve today's travelers. We experienced both situations and our accommodations were certainly satisfactory during the trip. Our nights in Quito were in Hotel Sabastian, a modernized hotel. On the road we stayed in the renovated hacienda and a brand new tourist oriented hotel in Riobamba. Our two nights in Cuenca were in another very old renovated hotel, the Hotel Crespo, right along Rio Tomebamba.
Our third day, Tuesday, was a highlight of our travels south. The Andes were a amazing -- dry, barren, rugged, snow capped, and overwhelming. Each bend in the road held a different surprise: a three thousand foot V-shaped river valley, terraced farming going up hundreds of feet, glacial covered volcanic peaks, the Inca archaeological site of Ingapirca, and a desert with sand dooms at almost two miles elevation. We stopped at the desert so we could dig for sea shells, but could not find any. Tomas said the sand was all the result of volcanic and water actions.
At another point we saw an old Indian women tending her goats. Tomas asked if we wanted to stop to speak with her, which we of course we did. She was spinning wool using a single stick in one hand and feeding the wool from a pile at her feet, twisting it as it passed through her fingers. She refused to let us take her picture as she feared it would capture her soul. In other situations if the Indians saw us trying to take their picture they would turn away.
The absolute "high" (both altitude and experience) of our drive south occurred around mid-day when we stopped for a picnic lunch along the road. We had picked an isolated spot with a spectacular view. When we stopped, not a sole was in sight, but we quickly attracted an audience. At first, only two Indian children appeared not far from us. Very slowly their playing drew near. Between our broken Spanish and the attraction of the food which we gladly shared, we soon had attracted a small crowd, with adults watching from various spots. It was a most delightful hour of smiles and laughter.
We spent the next day and half around the city of Cuenca, visiting churches, markets, and villages in the area. Everywhere we could see people in both western and native clothing. As we walked along the river behind our hotel, we saw many Indian women washing their laundry in the river, spreading it on the rocks to dry. It was very common to see young children carrying even younger children strapped to their backs with their shawls.
About 5 PM on our fifth day we went to the Cuenca airport for the hour flight back to Quito, from which our Galapagos visit would begin the next morning. Overall, the drive south was a wonderfully relaxing adventure.
We were met at the airport by our two guides -- Dora and Whitman. We were taken with our new shipmates via small bus to our home for the week, the Flamingo, a 83 foot "luxury liner." The boat was at capacity with 19 passengers and a crew of ten. Our fellow explorers were from around the world: a couple from Germany, a family from Sri Lanka, two couples from the New York area, a couple and a family from the Washington D.C. area, a couple and a family from the San Francisco area, and us. We were assigned our cabins and the routine for the week was explained. Our "wake up" call would be at 6:30, breakfast at 7, depart for the morning island at 8, return to our boat about 11:30, lunch at noon, leave for afternoon island about 2, return about 5:00, briefing for next day at 6, and dinner about 7. To visit each of the islands, we would ride a little boat -- called a ponga -- to shore for an exploration. While we were having lunch, the big boat would be moved to the afternoon location, and at night we would do a longer travel to another part of the archipelago. There were slight variations, but this was the basic schedule.
The Galapagos are a living laboratory, and every visitor becomes an student of nature, learning about birds and plants, geology and volcanoes, water and air currents, and all their interactions in explaining evolutionary processes. Both Dora and Whitman, as are all the official guides, are certified by the Charles Darwin Research Center, and provides continuous commentary on what we saw, identifying the flora and fauna and how each has adapted to the unique environment in which it lived.
The Galapagos Archipelago, an Ecuadorian National Park, consists of islands, islets, and rocks lying on the equator about 600 miles west of the Ecuador. There are over 60 island, one large (about five miles long and still growing -- its five volcanoes blow their tops periodically) and the rest getting smaller and smaller, with some only big rocks sticking out of the water. On our voyage we visited 12 locations.
The uniqueness of the Galapagos results from its location and source of origin. The islands originate from "volcanic hot spots" in the tectonic plates at the southwestern end of the archipelago. Eruptions at this point create an island. As the tectonic plate moves east, so does the surface island thus creating the archipelago chain. Generally, the youngest, largest islands, with active volcanoes, are in the west end of the archipelago, with the smaller, older islands toward the north and east (following the plates on which they ride). The oldest islands are about five million years old, while the youngsters, which are still growing with their active volcano, are a mere two million. (This is the same way the Hawaiian chain was created.)
Being on the equator, the Galapagos are at the confluence of three major oceanic currents: the very cold Humbolt Current flowing from the Antarctic Ocean, the warmer Nino Flow (different from "the El Nino" effect) from the coast of Central America, and the Cromwell Equatorial undercurrent. The water temperature varies from about 60 to 75 degrees, depending on the location and season. Before we went on this adventure, we had no idea all these currents existed, let alone played a critical role in the variety and abundance of life in the islands. But, that was part of the excitement since so much was new, and the educational aspects were so intricately woven into the entire experience.
Perhaps the biggest shock of the Galapagos was the climate: cool and dry. (This certainly isn't the tropical paradise one might image at the equator!) The Galapagos are essentially a desert! Average rainfall at sea level in non-El Nino years is roughly 10 - 15 inches/year, while it can be at least four times that amount in El Nino years. Average temperature is in the 70's. These numbers vary across the chain, and there is even greater variation with elevation; move just a few feet away from the shore line and everything changes. The smaller islands had two or three different ecological zones, while the larger had as many as six. Even though we were in the islands in the middle of the dry season (which extends from June to December), rain jackets were a must as the eco-systems above sea level experiences a heavy daily misting call "garua."
Our days on the Galapagos islands were filled with hiking, snorkeling, and enjoying the iguanas, birds, sea lions, lava rocks and formations. The variety of each was unbelievable. Each of the dozen locations we visited was distinctly different. We visited an island which looked like a moon-scape with blistering boils formed by bubbles of gas popping through the lava. We hiked across a desert with cactus and sparse vegetation. We enjoy the shade of dense forests of mangroves and shrubs. We climbed sand dunes fifty feet high. We walked along sandy beaches, rocky beaches, and moss covered lava beaches (always being careful to walk around the sea lions which were everywhere). We rode a bus to a mountain area covered by pasture land of grazing cows to view wild tortoises.
The iguanas were the most exotic of the animals we saw. There are seven varieties of marine iguana, We saw solid black iguanas which blended extremely well with the black lava rock on which they spend so much of their time. Others were black with extremely bright red blotches. Others were yellowish brown. In stark contrast, we walked right pass the land iguanas which were the color of the sand in which they lay, and if it weren't for Whitman's sharp trained eye, we would never had seen them. Of the iguana experiences, watching a lizard ride on top competed with watching a baby sea lion try to chase all the iguana from "his" rock!
The birds where comic and joyful. Blue footed boodies (their feet are a extremely bright power blue), red footed boodies (you got it: red feet), and masked boobies (just line the lone ranger's mask), along with the swallow-tailed gulls, Sally Lightfoots, frigate birds, and finches, all entertained us with their dancing, flying, fishing, and nursing behavior. The hawks were noble while the wobbling gooney birds just plain silly. One of the most amazing aspect of the birds, and all the animals, was their total lack of fear of humans. We could literally walk up to any animal and it would just sit there. It made it very easy to get close up pictures!
On the fourth day we had what we called a "Darwinian experience." Almost all the islands are within visual sight of one another -- from almost every island you can see at least one other island. And the island building material is basically the same: lava. But the islands are all so radically different from each other. When we got off the ponga the sense was "this place is radically, not just minimally, but significantly different, than the island right over there." Darwin, facing this situation 160 years ago, was faced with the question "how can you explain the variation, the differences?" Why are the animals and plants so significantly different from one another? Putting it that way, adaptation and natural selection make very good sense as an explanation for evolution.
Sometime our adventure was snorkeling (in 65 degree water) off the ponga looking for sharks; our group saw some although we (fortunately) didn't! We did, however. enjoy the fish and sea lions which swam along with us.
Unfortunately, the only tortoises (galapagos in Spanish) which we saw were at the Charles Darwin Research Center (CDRC), protected in cages in a captive breeding program, and those at the mountain area on the pasture land. The vast majority of the tortoises were taken by the privates and sailors of the past, and on most islands they are now extinct. To complicate matters, an ongoing ecological disaster are the feral goats which were brought by those sailors of the past. The goats have now overrun many of the islands, destroying the vegetation and driving out the tortoises. At the CDRC we saw pictures of a goat standing on the back of a giant tortoise enabling it to eat the last leaves of the cactus plant on which the tortoise would need to survive. A goat eradication program is underway, and as an island is cleared, the tortoises are being re-introduced.
We of course didn't want to return to the real world of work and schedules, but return we did. But, as consolation, one positive outcome of the trip was we purchased wet suits so that we could snorkel in the very cold water that surrounds the islands. So, since we broke them in, we've used the wet suits to extend our swimming season here at home! No matter how we put it, will be trip long remembered. On Friday, August 23rd, we made the return flight to Quito.
A really outstanding reference books on is Galapagos: A Natural History by Michael H. Jackson (University of Calgary Press, 1993).
The monument doubles as an Ethnographic Museum, displaying clothing and life styles of the native Indian from the various regions of Ecuador. After having traveled the Avenue of the Volcanoes, the museum was an excellent summary of what we saw and where we were. The distinctive Panamanian hats or color patterns were now easily seen in contrast.
Sunday, our last day in Ecuador, was spent walking El Ejido Park (the People's Park) and old colonial Quito. The park was extremely crowded, with volley games, musicians playing, snow-cone makes cranking out crushed ice by hand and pouring the colored syrup from tall bottles, and hawkers of every ilk everywhere.
In the old city we walked cobbled stoned streets, some filled with street vendors and an outdoor market, and visited several of the churches. In our all but typical fashion, we met a young couple (turned out she was an American exchange student and he an native) and spent some time touring around with them. Afterward we took a local bus back through the city before returning to our hotel. We departed the next morning, but the trip will be long remembered!
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