Wednesday June 25th to Thursday July 24th
Our Peruvian bus took us up through the agro-industrial heartland of Ecuador. Here rice, sugar, coffee, mango, cacao, shrimp and especially bananas are produced in these hot and humid lowlands. Ecuador is the world's biggest exporter of bananas and as we looked out of the window it certainly seemed that way. We had heard of recent banana farmer strikes and blocked roads (reminders of Peru) and sure enough we literally drove over a fire that the heavily armed police had just "cleared". The first sights of Ecuador reminded us of parts of Brazil - hot, humid, green, lush, poor farmers and lots of rubbish everywhere.
Thursday June 27th, 2003
After about 5 hours or so we safely arrived in the city of Guayaquil. This is Ecuador's largest city and main port. It was hot, sticky, bustling and supposedly very dangerous. Our guidebooks almost put us off coming here but we're glad we did. The people have been working hard for several years to attract tourists and we visited the very tasteful Malecon (riverfront promenade) with restaurants, shops, and gardens and, at one end, an iron framed market prefabricated by Eiffel in 1905-07. We also saw some very grand government buildings, the old yacht club and the neighbourhood of Las Penas with its brightly painted houses - very like those of Caminito in Buenos Aires. So overall it was a pretty nice place although we did feel a few little earthquake tremors and one night we heard gun shots outside our hotel! Our main reason for stopping in Guayaquil was to suss out trips to the Galapagos Islands. We were about a month behind schedule and had now hit the high season. Fortunately for us many Americans are still not flying and we were lucky to find a great deal on a posh boat. This was thanks to Doug & Karen, who are the best travel agents we have ever come across. Not only did they arrange a fantastic trip to the Galapagos, get us flights to Miami and arrange car hire, recommended hotels throughout Ecuador (including finding us a better one to stay at in Guayaquil), took us to the airport, looked after our luggage whilst we travelled, but let us use their PC in their office and took us to lunch! So, if anyone is thinking of going to Ecuador let us know and we'll give you their details. Anyway, we booked our trip to the Galapagos but we had about 10 days before we flew out, so we headed north-east up to Riobamba in the central highlands.
Riobamba is the capital of its province but for us it didn't have much to offer other than the famous Devil's Nose train ride. Only in Ecuador would you be allowed to sit on the roof of a train. It's a popular trip with gringos and sells out quickly, so we took the bus to Alausi and joined the train there. Actually, the train wasn't a train anymore. It was more like a bus on the rails. The real train is in for repairs so they've temporarily replaced it with these motorised carriages. Anyway, we braved the rain to sit on top (legs dangling over the sides) whilst the train passed through farmland, deep green valleys, rock cuts, tight bends, past sheer drops, and through several switchbacks. We saw the hill that looks like the Devil's nose and reached the deserted "town" of Sibambe. The train then turned around to return to Alausi. As the rain had stopped, the wimpy tourists who had sat inside the carriage on the way down, moved on to the roof. It was packed but great fun.
Back in Alausi we were lucky to be there for the town's annual fiesta, San Pedro de Alausi. The place had come to a standstill for the big parade. We watched hundreds of people dressed in traditional, brightly coloured costumes playing traditional music and dancing. There was much drinking of chica (corn/wheat beer) and the children ate candyfloss and pleaded with parents to buy blow-up toys of Spiderman or Powderpuff girls (are we really in Ecuador?). Then it was time for the train ride back to Riobamba. Most of the tourists just took the bus back but we climbed up on top again and were joined by only two other gringas. We then had a cold, windy, bumpy but fantastic two-hour trip back. The driver tooted at the many animals near or indeed on the tracks - cows, sheep, pigs, donkeys, and chickens, all scared out of their wits. One poor little chicken wasn't quick enough. Our driver stopped and then slowly reversed up the track. We thought it was to reimburse the owner, but instead he casually lifted it up and put it in the carriage. For his dinner later, we presumed. We passed through farms and many people waved. Little kids were jumping up and down they were so excited to see the train. A pretty cool experience.
From Riobamba we took a bus the long way round to Baños. Landslides caused by volcanic activity now block the old road - gulp! Baños is a pretty town surrounded by huge, sub-tropical, very green mountains. It has several thermal baths (hence the name) and a very active volcano - Tungurahua. Now, not only can you do trekking and mountain biking from here but also volcano watching. The town was evacuated back in 1999. However, people returned in 2000 but officially the place is still on red alert. You can watch mushroom clouds of ash and smoke being expelled from the crater. Thankfully the prevailing winds blow this away from the town. Despite all the great outdoor stuff on offer, we decided to try and improve our poor Spanish and booked 7 days of school. So for the next week we studied fairly hard. We didn't have much free time as Mario, our very patient teacher, set us homework every day. It was good fun but by the end of the week our heads were buzzing. We've promised ourselves to keep practising and study some more when we get to the Bahamas - watch this space. Anyway, at the end of the week we managed to sneak in some shopping and sampled some of the local melcochas (toffees) before heading back to Guayaquil.
Here we spent a day getting organised for the Galapagos. We were soooo excited. We bought underwater cameras, sunscreen, wine and rum - important stuff :-) Doug & Karen had told us that there was another couple at our hotel who were also going to the Galapagos and that Doug would pick us all up to take us to the airport. We were totally gobsmacked when we saw Chip & Kit, the American couple that we met in Bolivia and southern Peru several weeks earlier - how spooky is that? This boded well for our trip.
Visiting the islands of the Galapagos had always been one of the highlights of our plan for South America and we were finally coming to it. We flew from Guayaquil to the Island of Baltra in the centre of the island group and immediately boarded the M/V Ambassador I. We had originally planned to travel around the islands on a small boat (16 passenger) because the big ships are too expensive. We lucked out when we found a great deal being offered by the Ambassador due to the poor tourist season. With 100 passengers, swimming pool, cocktail bar, chambermaids that serviced the room four times a day and great food we weren't exactly roughing it.
The Galapagos are a group of 19 volcanic islands laying on the equator about 1000km off the coast of South America. The Bishop of Panama, Fray Thomas de Berlanga officially discovered them in 1535, although the islands had been visited previously by people of pre-Columbian coastal settlements. The islands are named after the giant tortoises that live there. During the 16th and 17th centuries the "Enchanted Islands" became a frequent hideaway for English pirates seeking refuge from the Spanish. Then, in the 18th and 19th centuries the British and American whalers and sealers used the islands as a re-supply depot. They discovered that the tortoises could live on their backs for up to a year without food or water. For them these islands were simply a source of long lasting meat. This period saw the disappearance of 3 species of giant tortoise and the near extinction of the other species. The sailors also introduced many new species of plants and animals that were able to out compete the native species. Many of the endemic animals, which had lived here for millennia with no predators, could not survive the onslaught of rats and goats. The Ecuadorian Government laid official claim to the "Archipelago de Colon" in 1832, establishing a small colony on the island of Floreana. Shortly after, in 1835, Charles Darwin visited the islands on his 5-year voyage around the world. He would later make the islands famous because it was here that he noticed the specialisation of the species and their adaptation to life on these islands. This was one of the important discoveries that led to his theory on evolution. Today there's a stop to immigration, a limit on tourist numbers, tight control on the importation of foreign plants and animals and several projects to try to return the islands to their natural state.
This is one of the most visited and photographed of the islands in the Galapagos with its distinctive Pinnacle Rock. We were put into groups of about 16 people and used dinghies for the landings. This was so there wouldn't be too many people in any one place. We were in the "Boobies" group. In order to reduce the impact of tourism on the islands, there are carefully marked landing sites and trails. Tourists are only permitted in these small areas (much less than 1% of the island area) and only with an official guide.
As we landed on the dark lava rock we saw our first marine iguana and a couple of sally lightfoot crabs. We got all excited and snapped a bunch of pictures. Later in our trip we saw hundreds of them. Both creatures are endemic to the Galapagos more on them later. From the shore we followed the trail across the lava rock. No one is allowed to wander off because the lava rock is easily worn down and eroded. They are REALLY serious about limiting the effects of tourism.
The landscape is mainly lava rock and sand. There is black and red lava rivers and flows, lava tubes and what looks like "lava vomit", huge chunks of porous rock that have been spewed from the volcano's mouth. We lifted huge chunks of this porous lava rock, which is incredibly light. We climbed a fairly steep trail and up a wooden staircase. The wood had been specially treated so as not to introduce any new parasites or micro-organisms. The staircase was built, again, to reduce the erosion that would be caused by the 65,000 visitors each year. Along the way to the summit we passed splatter cones and parasite volcanoes. There's lots of interesting geology here.
At the summit we were treated to a fantastic panoramic view of Bartolemé and nearby Santiago Islands.
Back in the dinghy we headed to the beach for some snorkelling brrr, the water was cold. However, the cold water is soon forgotten when a playful sea lion comes and does circles around us. He would swim at high speed straight at our masks then turn at the last second spinning and diving. We think they just liked to prove what lousy swimmers we humans really are. We swam around and saw lots of colourful fish, starfish and sea urchins with long black spikes. We were also lucky enough to see a little galapagos penguin sitting on a rock a metre or so from us. It was much smaller than the penguins we saw in Argentina, Chile and Antarctica. This is the furthest north that penguins ever go. There are no penguins in the Arctic just like there are no polar bears in the Antarctic. As we were swimming by him, Peter suddenly noticed he was surrounded by a small group of penguins. A couple of them were even trying to nibble on his fins. That was great what a first snorkel in the Galapagos.
It was then back to the ship for a scrumptious meal and, as we slept, the ship took us across the equator (twice) and around to the west side of Isabela Island.
This is the largest island in the archipelago formed from six volcanoes. Five of the six are still active. Each has (or had) its own unique sub-species of giant tortoise. We anchored at Tagus Cove, a place that has been used by visiting ships since the 1800's. Many of the ships' names have been painted on the cliffs high above. Some of the names include pirate ships. We were met by sally lightfoot crabs and flightless cormorants. The ancestors of these birds flew here thousands of years ago. They found great fishing grounds and no predators. Over time, with no need to fly to escape predators, they eventually lost their ability to fly. But, like cormorants everywhere, after they leave the water, they hold their wings out in the sun to dry them to ready them for flight (unlike ducks and sea birds, cormorants don't have oily, waterproof feathers and so must dry them before they can fly). They've lost the ability to fly but still retain the instinctual need to dry their atrophied wings.
We headed up a trail passing by aromatic sandalwood trees and pioneer plants. These plants are the first to arrive on arid and hard lava soil. It was the dry season so things were grey and barren. We spotted mockingbirds and darwin finches. The trail led to a crater rim where we could see the ship anchored in the cove and a large green salt-water lake below us. On its shores were brown pelicans and goats.
The goats were introduced to the island in the 1800s and now there are over 100,000 wilds goats on Santiago Island alone and they are destroying the foliage that the tortoises need to eat. There have been some campaigns to eliminate introduced species on some of the smaller islands but these goats represent a major problem. The terrain is so rough with razor sharp lava rocks that humans can't get to them, even to shoot them. We heard that the park authority has recently purchased a helicopter for just such a purpose but it's expensive to run and there is no way they could shoot all 100,000 goats.
We wandered around the crater rim and, on the other side, could see huge, black lava fields and parasite volcanoes. The last eruption was in 1998. Fortunately things remained quiet on the day we visited.
Back in the dinghy we took a ride along the coast seeing brown pelicans in their nests with their fluffy chicks, flightless cormorants, hawks, lava lizards, blue-footed boobies and a male frigate bird with his bright red, inflatable neck (very alluring to the female frigates). We also saw penguins, marine iguanas, sea lions, sally lightfoot crabs and green turtles. All of these creatures have lived without predators so they show no fear when you approach. Its really amazing how close you can get to them and how many there were to see. Sometimes we had a hard time deciding where to look.
During lunch we sailed a short distance to Fernandina Island.
This is the youngest of the islands at about 700,000 years old. As we descended to our dinghy we watched a large pod of dolphins playing around and doing fancy acrobatics. We motored out to them and saw them at close quarters as they circled a school of fish. They work as a team going around and under the fish to squeeze them into a tight group on the surface and disorient them. Then, one by one, the dolphins take turns darting though the middle of the shoal and eating to their hearts content.
As we came into land on the island we saw marine iguanas using their large flat tails to swim on the water. Again we saw sally lightfoot crabs all around, a mother and baby sea lion and a blue heron to add to the welcoming party. We laughed as we watched a sea lion having a bit of fun pulling the tail of a marine iguana swimming across the little bay. The sea lion also did nose stands on the shallow sandy bottom with just his hind flippers sticking out of the water playful little characters.
On the island the trail over black lava, white sand and around green mangroves took us through a huge colony of marine iguanas. They reckon that iguanas have been on the earth for 9 million years. They're so prehistoric looking with their crowned heads, flat scaly lips and dragon-like spines. The ancestors to the galapagos iguanas (there are two species, land and marine) arrived here by accident hundreds of thousands of years ago. Only birds and animals that could withstand the 1000km float from South America existed here before man arrived. These galapagos marine iguanas are one of the more amazing adaptations to life on the Galapagos. Nowhere else in the world are there iguanas that feed under water. They warm themselves on the black lava then dive down to eat the algae that grow on the rocks just below the surface. They blend very well with the dark lava except in mating season when the males turn red. They love piling up on top of each other as they try to warm their cold blood in the equatorial sun. Every now and then they snort out a spray of salt water from their nostrils to get rid of the salt in their bodies, another adaptation to living here. They are so unafraid of humans that it is tempting to get really close but you have to be careful not to get iguana snot on you. They're really ugly … but in a cute sort of way.
Also around were flightless cormorant nests, blue-footed boobies and the incredible bat shape of the frigate birds soaring high in the sky. The sleeping sea lions would occasionally open one eye to see who was passing by. "Oh, just more of those silly humans back to sleep".
We landed on the black volcanic beach of Puerto Egas and took a trail through bushes seeing finches, yellow warblers and galapagos hawks on the way. Near the black lava shore we met fur sea lions. We watched and smiled as a little two week old pup stumbled awkwardly across the lava rocks following his mum and then sat on her tummy. At the water's edge we watched marine iguanas, oyster catchers, pelicans, blue-footed boobies and, of course, sally lightfoot crabs. Back at the beach we went for another snorkel. We saw shoals of colourful fish, a ray, a sea lion and a green turtle. The water, as always, was cold. In fact the reason there is so much life here is because of the cold, nutrient rich Humbolt Current that flows all the way from Antarctica along the coast of South America and out into the middle of the Pacific at the equator. If it wasn't for that current the water would be quite warm but there'd be no penguins.
The first thing we noticed about Rabida Island was how red it was. Quite a contrast to the other islands we had visited so far. We landed on the red beach and took the trail that passed a salt-water lagoon. On the beach there was a group of sea lions who ignored us and carried on with their afternoon snooze. Along the beach there were some mangrove trees that are home to some pelican nests. We could walk by, less than a metre away from the nests, and see the parents sitting on unhatched eggs or keeping new-born chicks warm. The older chicks were big, white, fluffy balls of feathers that staggered around the branches trying to stand. On the beach we also to another opportunity to snorkel. That water was still not getting any warmer.
This is the largest of the inhabited islands and is the site of the mysterious Galapagos Affair where several people suddenly died or disappeared in the 1930's. We visited Post Office Bay. Here, a barrel was placed and used in the late 18th century by English and, later, American whaling vessels. It was the custom to place unstamped letters and cards in the barrel and take and deliver any addressed to someone near your destination. The tradition is continued today by the tourists. Mum & Mom, did you get any postcards from Post Office Bay?
We snorkelled then took a dinghy ride along the coast seeing sea lions, turtles, mangroves, frigate birds and a bright red iguana hoping to get lucky.
Back on the board the ship it was our last night and we enjoyed a sumptuous Ecuadorian buffet. The next morning we disembarked onto Baltra Island and, rather than going back to the mainland like most of the passengers, took a ferry and bus to the town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island.
Santa Cruz Island
Puerto Ayora is the largest town in the Galapagos and the transportation hub. This was to be home for the next seven days. The longest we ever stayed in one place on our trip to South America. We found a fantastic hotel on the seafront. We spent many happy hours standing on the balcony outside our room watching the sally lightfoot crabs, marine iguanas and sea lions only a metre away. We also admired the diving skills of the blue-footed boobies and pelicans and the flying skills of the frigate birds. A couple of boobies had their spot just below us on the rocks and spent hours just hanging out. The bright cornflower blue colour of their feet is incredible and we got some great close-ups using the binoculars.
Around the island we visited the highlands. Here the vegetation changes markedly from the dry almost desert like coast to a near tropical rain forest. We saw some of the thousands of lava tubes that permeate the entire island and some huge sinkholes of collapsed volcanoes (Los Gemelos). We passed by farms of banana trees, coffee and passion fruit and saw pigs, cattle, donkeys and dogs, all introduced to the islands by man. Man's effect isn't totally devastating though. Only 4% of the land area is inhabited, the rest being carefully guarded park land. Tourists, through the hefty park entrance fee of $100, are paying for the maintenance of the park and the efforts to repopulate the native species and eliminate the introduced ones.
We also visited the Darwin Research Centre and, at last, met the giant tortoises. The sailors of the 18th and 19th centuries found the tortoises to be easy prey and took them by the thousands so they could have fresh meat on their long voyages. The introduced pigs and rats ate their eggs and the goats ate their food. Three of the 14 species of tortoise are extinct but and others are threatened. Lonesome George is the last of his species. With no females, his species is doomed. However, since the 1930's there has been an effort to preserve the tortoises and, since 1965, a programme to actively breed and re-introduce them to their home islands. (Each species lives in a single colony unique to its island or, in the case of Fernandina Island, live separated from their cousins by volcanoes). In the breeding program we saw babies crawling about in their pens. They're so cute. It's hard to believe they may live to be 150+ years old and grow to become huge monsters weighing over 300kgs. They will remain at the breeding centre for two to five years before being set free on their island. Also at the centre are older females and males, a couple of whom we caught doing their bit for the breeding programme. Our photos give you an idea of the size of the adults but these are not the biggest.
From Puerto Ayora we also went on a couple of SCUBA trips to various sites. At the Loberia on Caamaño Island in the bay off Puerto Ayora we had the incredible experience of diving with hundreds of sea lions. They were feeding, following us, shaming our swimming abilities and, as usual, having lots of fun. We also saw lots of fish and rays. Another day we headed to Enderby Island and had 2 incredible dives with hundreds of fish, huge starfish, galapagos sharks and big green turtles. All the sites have strong currents and surges so Jackie, being new to diving, skipped the potentially more dangerous trip to Gordon's Rocks. The highlight here was the hammerhead sharks with their bizarrely shaped heads. As the dive was about to end, a school of giant spotted rays flew by. They were awesome.
So, along with catching up with some emails on the internet and Jackie catching up on some retail therapy our week in Puerto Ayora came quickly to an end. We were sorry to leave these enchanted isles and dragged our heals as we got onto the plane to return to Guayaquil.
We had planned to go to Quito by bus and fly to Miami from there but Doug and Karen got us on a flight out of Guayaquil a little earlier than we had planned so we skipped Quito. Probably not a lot of people go to Ecuador without going to Quito but, by now, we were pretty much travelled out and weren't too worried about missing one South American city. We spent a couple more days in Guayaquil and then, after 10 months in South America, sadly said "adios" and headed to Miami. So, after a short stay in Tallahassee to visit friends and family and to do a little hashing, it's off to The Bahamas for the summer. But, before we leave Ecuador, a few observations:
Obvervations of Ecuador
Ecuador is not cheap like most of the rest of South America. They have dollarized meaning that they now use the U.S. dollar as their official currency. This has meant massive inflation as prices increased to be the same as prices in the U.S. Many people are suffering from this policy but it's better than having their currency collapse every 10 years.
The buses are for midgets. Even Jackie's knees touched the seat in front. Oh, to be back in Brazil! The bus drivers here have a death wish. They think nothing of passing at breakneck speeds around blind corners on mountain roads. Every time the bus stops, dozens of people jump on selling food or preaching. There's also a fair bit of theft but we were lucky (and vigilant) and didn't lose anything. Some friends weren't so lucky.
Finally, did you know that the Panama Hat comes from Ecuador? It got its name when it became the hat of choice for the men building the Panama Canal. They are made of woven leaves and a really good one will be so tightly woven it can hold water or be rolled and passed through a wedding ring then bounce back to its original shape.
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