December 28, 2004

What a trip! We returned from our Ecuador / Galapagos vacay yesterday.

<a href=>Pictures Here</a>

Here's a synopsis:

<ul> <li><b>Sunday, 12/19 :: Depart for Quito, Ecuador</b> - We flew with Pardis and Nick from SFO to Houston, then on to Quito, lugging carry-on bags up a flight of stairs, we all realized that 9,300 feet is REALLY high. Arti and I met up with very friendly person from <a href=>Metropolitan Touring</a> in baggage claim who took us to our <a href=>Hotel</a>. Say good-night to Pardis and Nick who made arrangements in a different hotel.

<li><b>Monday, 12/20 :: Arrival in the Galapagos</b> - We got up early, eat breakfast in the room, and headed out to the Quito airport to fly to the Galapagos with a friendly representative of Metropolitan Touring. After 40 minutes in the air, the plane made a stop <a href=>Simon Bolivar</a> airport in Guyaquil -- the largest city in Ecuador (population 3 million, elevation 50 feet) then continued on for the 90 minute flight to Baltra Island (a decomissioned US Air Force base) in the Galapagos. We deplaned, met up with another friendly reprasentative of Metropolitan Touring, then took a 30 minute bus ride to the other end of Baltra Island. We hopped on a ferry for the 5 minute ride to Santa Cruz Island, then got on another bus to take us on the 1 hour journey to Puerto Ayora, on the other side of the island.

This bus ride was very interesting -- the road goes straight across the island from the north to the south end. The boat dock where we got on the bus was dry and arid -- the only vegetation were cactii and a leafless tree called Palo Santo. As we proceed across the island, the elevation increases (the Galapagos were formed by volcanic activity, so they are in essence a series of volcanos), and things get greener and wetter. Near the halfway point, it was raining, and the vegetation resembeled a jungle. This was after only 20 minutes of driving. After crossing the halfway point, we started descending back to sea level, and things got drier again.

We got off the bus in Puerto Ayora near a dock, where a small boat was waiting to take us and our stuff across a little harbor to the path that led to our hotel. There aren't any roads near the Finch Bay Hotel, so the water taxi is the only means of getting to and from town.

Along the path to the hotel, we were given quite a suprise when we saw a large male Marine Iguana, four or so smaller females, and several juvinile iguanas sunning themselves on a stone wall. This is the only species of iguana in the world that lives in and around the water. The male is quite colorful, and can be 3-4 feet from nose to tail. The females are smaller and colored black. Spotting marine iguanas became commonplace during our trip.

Arriving at the hotel, we were greeted warmly, and offered an excursion to the Charles Darwin Research Station, located on the other side of the town. We were both tired from the travelling, so we decided to pass on the trip, and instead take a short rest and explore our hotel.

The Finch Bay Hotel was a fantastic place! It's in a pretty secluded location, and with no car traffic, it's a very quiet place. There's a semi-private beach/lagoon, a pool adjacent to the beach, and a bar adjacent to the pool. The dining area is next to the bar, and is essentially an open-air experience, albeit with a roof.

After a little rest, we took a water-taxi back to town to meet up with Nick and Pardis, who were on a later flight to the islands from Quito.

We walked around town a bit, then went back to our hotel for dinner. The meals (included) were delicious and featured local seafood, meat, and vegetarian dishes.

<li><b>Tuesday, 12/21 :: North Seymour Island</b> - We woke up early, took the water taxi into town, and hopped on the bus to take us back to the dock on the north side of the island (where we came from the airport). There were about 20 people in this group going to North Seymour Island -- a small (1-2 miles in diameter), arid place that serves as a nesting ground for Blue Footed Boobies (insert obligatory boob joke here), frigatebirds, land and marine iguanas, and several other animals. We all got on a boat, and rode for an hour or so before we dropped anchor off the rocky coast of the island. Groups of 8 or so people filled the Zodiac the boat was towing in order to get to the island. Getting on the Zodiac was pretty straightforward, getting off was tricky! The driver (captain?) would pull the Zodiac right up to the rocks on the cliff. We had to time the step from the zodiac to the rocks just right, as the boat was pitching and rolling in the surf. Everyone made it without incident.

We were immediately greeted by sea lions (males, females, and pups), iguanas, and shore birds. Here is one very important fact about the wildlife on the Galapagos -- since there are no natural predators of the animals here, they do not have a fear of people. You can walk right up to any of these animals and they don't run or fly away. This is AMAZING and makes for a very memorable experience.

Led by our naturalist guide (island expeditions without guides are illegal here), we saw some fantastic stuff. Blue footed boobies doing their mating dance, male frigatebirds with their red gullet sack inflated to attract mates, baby sea lions nursing and playing, male sea lions protecting their territory (interesting tangent -- male sea lions here don't go "bark bark" like those in San Francisco; instead they make the sound of RobBob puking -- "bllllleeeeeeeeaaaa blllllleeeeaaaaa").

After 90 minutes or so, we had made a circuit of the trail on the island, and filed back into the boat for lunch as we motored back to Santa Cruz Island.

The second part of the day was spent at a beach on the north end of Santa Cruz Island. Sometimes, there are flamingoes just beyond the beach, but there were none when we were there. This was a lovely beach for swimming. The water was too cloudy for any kind of snorkeling though.

After a couple of hours of relaxing, we were back on the boat for the short ride back to the dock, and the awiting bus to take us back to Puerto Ayora.

That evening, we all enjoyed dinner at our hotel.

<li><b>Wednesday, 12/22 :: Highlands Tour and Glass-Bottomed Boat Tour</b> - Again, up early, breakfast, and a water-taxi ride into town. We met up with Nick and Pardis and got on a little tour bus to go see some giant tortoises (the word "galapagos" is Spanish for "giant tortoises") and other features of the Santa Cruz inland. There was an American family living in Bolivia with us, along with a Brazilian family.

Our first stop was at a giant sinkhole -- about 200 yards across, and a couple of hundred feet deep. It was rainging lightly, and we hadn't thought to bring our raincoats. Luckily, after 30 minutes or so, the rain subsided. This was a pretty amazing hole in the ground. The echo here was very clear and distinct -- "HELLO ............... hello" was pretty fun. Lots of neat plants and things along the path to the sinkhole.

Back on the bus, we drove for a bit, then dropped up the Americans at a horse ranch where they were going to do some riding. A short drive, and we arrived at a place where the Giant Tortoises can roam free. These animals used to dominate the island, but once pirates and traders began frequenting the Galapagos in the 1800s, their numbers diminished rapidly. The sailors discovered that they could stack the tortoises one on top of another, lying on their backs on their ships, and the animals would live for a year or more. Fresh turtle meat was a delicasy for these guys.

Anyhow, these animals are huge. We could get within 5 feet of them, and they would not get scared. Any closer, and they would pull their heads into their shell with a mighty exhale.

After an hour or so of hanging out with the tortoises, we headed back to the bus. Our next stop was a lava tube.

Down a bunch of steps, we approached the entrance to this tube. Well, it wasn't really the entrance -- it was a place where the tube collapsed and was then exposed to the surface. There are many of these tubes underground in these volcanic islands -- this was was huge -- about 20 feet in diameter where we entered. Our guide told us that this one extended for miles underground, and tapered to a point at the end. These were channels that lava would flow through underground.

Back to the bus, and back to the town. We stayed in town and hung with Pardis and Nick -- got some food and did some exploring. We all then went back to the hotel to hang out by the pool

At 2pm, we went back to the dock by the hotel and met up with Juan Carlos, our guide on a glass-bottomed boat tour. We motored out for about 30 minutes to a tiny island just off the coast of Puerto Ayora that houses a small research station. We got to some shallow water, and Juan Carlos opened the covers on the glass bottom. It was pretty neat, but the waves were pretty strong here, so looking down through the windows on the bottom of the boat made most of us queasy, since the boat was rockin' and rollin'.

There were lots of sea lions hanging out on the rocks here. Juan Carlos offered to let us snorkel here. We weren't really into it, the combination of feeling queasy, the waves, and the jagged rocks under the water didn't make snorkeling seem like a fun thing. Juan Carlos insisted, and told us he'd go with us. Well, it's a good thing we went along with him!

We put on or masks and flippers and got in the water. It was beautiful under there -- not Kauai or Belize beautiful, but lovely nonetheless. We saw parrot fish, sea urchins, and other creatures down there -- including sea lions!

This was one of the highlights of the trip -- after 10 minutes or so in the water, some of the smaller sea lions on the rocks got up the courage to check us out. It was a bit startling at first to have person-sized creatures swimming around us, but it got really fun really quick! I'd dive down under the water and swim around one of them, and it would follow suit. It was amazing to be under the water staring eye-to-eye with a sea lion. Tons of fun.

After half an hour of this, it was time to get back in the boat. We motored back to Santa Cruz Island, but not to our normal dock. We arrived at a different dock, and prepared for a little hike to a place where we could swim. After 15 minutes or so over the lava rocks, past a super salty pond where locals collect sea salt, and down some steps, we arrived at a water-filled crevass.

This is a place where the volcanic activity of long ago split the ground in half. Sea water can flow in and out of this fissure with the tides. Lava rocks extended 40 feet up on either side of this calm pool, and the water was about 20 feet deep in places.

It was fun swimming here -- lots of fish and still water. Juan Carlos climed up to the top of the rocks and dove in -- none of us had the cajones to follow suit.

After a while of frolicking here, we hiked back out to the awaiting boat. It was a short, calm, sunset ride back "around the horn" to get back to our hotel's dock.

We again had dinner at our hotel -- Nick wasn't feeling so hot, so him and Pardis went back to their hotel in town to rest and get some food.

<li><b>Thursday, 12/23 :: Downtime</b> - The original plan was to take a 3 hour boat ride from the hotel's dock to Santa Fe island. This much boat time didn't appeal to any of us after our queasy experienc from the previous day, so we decided to do our own thing on Thursday.

We got up around 9:30 then caught the water-taxi into town to meet up with Nick and Pardis. We had a good breakfast at "Hernan Cafe". We managed to raise Nick on our Talkabout radio (Nick thoughtfully brought a pair of these radios so we could stay in touch). We brought some laundry to drop off in town ($0.75 per pound), then headed off to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station at then end of town. We got there at around 11:30, just as most of the places there were closing for lunch -- almost everyone takes 2 hours starting at noon for lunch. We wandered around here and looked at some tortoises -- from hatchlings all the way up to full grown ones. There were some yellos land-iguanas here too. We then headed to the water, where there were a series of little beaches separated by spits of lava rocks. There were hermit crabs (one trying to pry another out of its shell with its claws) and marine iguanas everywhere here.

After a while, we were getting hungry, so we went back into town for lunch -- again at The Hernan Cafe! Arti and Pardis were hungry for pizza, and this was the only place in town that served it. Nick was feeling crummy, so he went back to rest in hotel after lunch. The three of us then embarked on an excursion to Tortuga Bay -- allegedly a very nice beach to swim at. It was a 45 minute walk from downtown -- through a residential area on the outskirts of town, then 2.5Kms along a very nice path through an undeveloped area covered with cactii, thorny bushes, and Palo Santo trees. Arti and Pardis hadn't finished their pizza, so they took turns carrying it in the box we got from the restaurant.

When we finally arrived at the beach -- it was breathtaking. White sand, as fine as corn starch, extended for a mile. It was a wide beach, and bordered with iceplant and mangrove trees. The waves were fairly strong here -- and heeding the warning of some local folks, we continued to a more secluded lagoon to go swimming. Along the way, we saw many birds, and dozens of blue jellyfish that had washed ashore.

The lagoon was a peaceful place -- much smaller than the first beach, and zero waves. There was a woman swimming about 50 yards out when we arrived. I was looking at the water around her, and thought I saw a dorsal fin surface nearby. I kept looking at the water, and sure enough the fin appeared several more times. I asked the swimming woman's friend who was also on the beach watching if there were dolphins out there. I think she hadn't seen the fin, because she was suprised that I asked this -- and gave me the impression that there weren't any dolphins here.

The fin surfaced several more times, and once very close to the swimming woman. She saw this one -- and quickly made her way back to shallow waters. Later on, we asked some locals around the hotel about this, and they laughed -- they said this was likely a reef shark, and they were very common in this area! The sharks here haven't attacked people before, so there was really no cause for alarm.

Just as we were leaving, Nick's voice came through the radio I had in my pocket. He was feeling better, and had just walked the 45 minutes to the beach we were at.

We walked back to town together, and went to our hotel. We spent some time swimming in the hotel pool, had some drinks, then cleaned up for dinner. We went to the Angermeyer Restaurant -- a very nice place that was a few minutes walk from the hotel.

We had a great dinner, then called it a night.

<li><b>Friday, 12/24 :: Relaxing Part II</b> - We went into town for breakfast at a place called "Chocolate". It was pretty good, but not quite as good as what we would have at the hotel. Our plan was to go back to the Charles Darwin Research Station to pick up some souveniers, since the souveneir shop was closed when we were there on Thursday. We took a cab up there, since none of us really felt like walking -- due to some stomach issues, blisters from all the walking on Thursday, and general laziness. The taxi waited for us, and brought us back to the dock.

We took the water-taxi back to our hotel, and spent the rest of the day relaxing at the beach and pool. In the afternoon, I took my camera gear out for a little walk around the area of the hotel. The light was really nice, and I managed to get some good camera-time in. I walked almost to the crevass we had swam in, but stopped short because I was really thirsty. The hot equatorial sun really takes it out of you.

I returned to the hotel, and spent some time snacking with everyone else. I told them about my walk, and we decided to all go back to the crevass to do some swimming. We hiked out, spent some time in the water, then returned just as it got dark.

We went into town that night for dinner eating again at Hernan -- it was the only place open.

It was Christmas Eve, and there were lots of people outside downtown. There was an elephant-truck pulling a train of animal-cars filled with screaming elated children tearing through town playing loud festive music. The beer-tap outside the supermarket was flowing Pilsener (the local brew) into giant cups, and there were a half dozen kids on mini-ATVs buzzing around the town basketball court. The town was alive with energy.

This was our last evening in the Galapagos -- from here it was back to Quito.

<li><b>Saturday, 12/25 :: Return to Quito</b> - We got up early early and checked out of the hotel. We had a morning flight back to Quito. So after breakfast, we did the now-familiar routine of walking to the dock, catching a water-taxi to the town dock, then getting in a bus for the hour-long trip across the island. We took the ferry back to Baltra Island, then the bus to the airport. We arrived in Quito that afternoon, and met up with Pardis and Nick in their <a href=>hotel</a> in downtown Quito. This was a fantastic place, which used to be Quito's French Cultural Center. We hung out with them, and had a lovely dinner in their hotel.

<li><b>Sunday, 12/26 :: Quito Tour</b> - The following day, we arranged for a tour of Quito. We were in the tour van at 9am, and saw much of this interesting city with a couple from Costa Rica. We stopped at several churches and markets. We sampled some local sweets, and had a traditional corn-based beer. It was really interesting to see all of the French and Italian influenced architecture in this city.

After a stop for some water and a coffee (<i>cafe con leche, por favor</i>), we drove for a half hour to the northeast part of the city to see El Mitad del Mundo. This is a monument that is on the equator, and has a small cultural museum. The dramatic mountains around Quito added a really interesting element to this part of the trip.

After the tour, we hung out for a bit, then retired to our hotel rooms for the evening. We had an early day Monday...

<li><b>Monday, 12/27 :: Return Home</b> - We woke up at 4:15 AM so that we could pack and catch our 5AM ride to the airport for our return flight. Ouch! As usual, someone from Metropolitan Touring was waiting for us in the hotel lobby to ensure we got to where we needed to go. They really delivered great service.

Quito to Houston to San Francisco, a pick-up from Tara, and we were home.


Quite a time!