Travelogue: Ecuador and The Galapagos
Wild, largely uninhabited and diverse, the islands of the Galapagos are a world apart.
My son Frank, an avid environmentalist, had wanted to go there since studying them as a teen-ager, and his wife Jerry shares his passion for the natural world. Predictably, I found them enthusiastic traveling companions when I broached the subject of a possible trip. We met in the Houston airport (they coming from Seattle and I, from San Diego) and flew into Quito, Ecuador’s capital high in the Andes near the equator. There we spent two days before flying to Guayaquil near the coast of the Pacific and picked up a flight to San Cristobal, the easternmost island of the archipelago. We had no idea what kind of aircraft to expect for the island flight and, in fact, assumed it would be small and . . . well . . . perhaps a bit ancient. To our surprise, the plane was a jet like any other—but newer, with more legroom, and offering that disappearing amenity: lunch!
Landing on the island, we took a van to the Galaxy, the yacht that became our home for the week-long cruise. The first order of business was an orientation by our guide (and photographer extraordinaire) Whitman Cox. In order to protect the sensitive environment, he pointed out, the government of Ecuador strictly regulates both land and water access throughout the Galapagos and our schedule was set, not by Whitman or the Galaxy captain, but by the government. He pointed out the board where he would post each upcoming day's schedule and urged punctuality.
The yacht carried 15 travelers of all ages from around the globe. While we were busy and active during much of each day, mealtimes gave us an opportunity to relax and visit with folks from the UK, India, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, and Finland. All of us were impressed by the fearlessness of the animals who were quite willing to share their space. Our instructions were not to touch them--but no-one had told them not to touch us! Baby seals were especially friendly, coming up to our group and greeting many with a friendly nudge.
Among the more fascinating dinner-time stories was that of a young married couple, both born in Russia, but brought to the U.S. as children. He taught high-school math; she was one of his students. The two of them started dating—though that was forbidden—and they described in gleeful detail their surreptitious relationship. By the time we met them, they were both graduate students earning Ph. D’s. in math at Yale. Apparently those wild young things turned out all right!
A typical day included at least one hike and a snorkeling excursion—sometimes combined in just one landing, but usually broken up by a return to the yacht for lunch. In addition to San Cristobal and Santa Cruz, we stopped at North Seymour, Santiago, Floreana, Bartolome, Santa Fe and Espanola,usually going ashore in zodiacs.
We went on this trip in May 2011, and while the weather was hot, the water was perfect for snorkeling. No wet suits needed. At that time of year, currents begin to shift and occasionally we’d encounter a brief cold current—refreshing under the circumstances, but colder than would be comfortable for long periods of time without a wet suit.
Not having an underwater camera (poor planning!), I was unable to take photos of the plentiful water dwellers, among which were Galapagos sharks which Whitman assured us weren't interested in nibbling on any of us. Nevertheless, we were relieved that they hovered just above the ocean floor and seemed blissfully unaware of the tasty tourists above. My favorite creatures, however, were the large schools of tiny fish who performed a mesmerizing ballet as they followed the lead of . . . who? (it was impossible to tell) . . . darting through the water.
After active island days, we were lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the yacht as we traveled from one island to another . . . on most nights anyway. I’ve always enjoyed the motion of the sea, but some were less than happy when the water turned rough—especially those who later reported they’d been thrown out of bed!
Our voyage over, we returned to the mainland at the end of the week and again flew to Quito. On our earlier stay, we had taken the bus to La Mitad del Mundo (The Middle of the World), believed when it was built to mark the exact location of the equator north of Quito, but since discovered to be somewhat off the mark. The complex consists of a monument and museum, surrounded by shops and restaurants. Almost more memorable than the monument, however, was the conversation we had with a young Middle Eastern couple on the bus as we returned to Quito. "Your president killed Osama bin Laden last night," they told us, somewhat inaccurately. (Really? I had, briefly, an unlikely image of a stealthy Barack Obama and an AK-47.) While the conversation was cordial, clearly disapproval was implied. Only later did we learn the details.
Returning to Quito at the end of our voyage, we checked into a hotel, then took an overnight excursion to the Bella Vista cloud forest. There, we went for a very steep, muddy hike. After a night of rain, I opted to hang out at the lodge the following day while Frank and Jerry braved the elements to hike again. That evening, we returned to Quito, had an early dinner, and turned in, facing a 3:15 a.m. wakeup call for our ride to the airport.
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Arrangements for the Galapagos cruise and the visit to the Bella Vista cloud forest were made through the following:
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