Peru – Ecuador – July ’07 – OAT. II: Ecuador 

Travel notes by Dan C. West, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA 

July 21, 2007 – Saturday 

This developed into a wasted and trying day.  We were packed and in the lobby by 9:45 am for a flight that had been scheduled for 12:45 pm.  Roberto got word that the flight was delayed to 3:00 pm.  We sat a long time then took a slow bus ride to the airport during which Roberto recommended several books at the airport. We finally left at some point after 3.  When we arrived in Quito our guide, Jaime Dominguez, did not know why we’d been delayed.  The only thing we knew was the pilot’s comment about trouble at the Cusco Airport (more teacher’s strike incidents?).  The scene in the Quito Airport was chaotic.  After lots of waiting we got through luggage retrieval, customs and inspection and emerged into a large reception hall packed with people waiting for passengers.  A long walk, with all of our luggage, to a bus and a ride into Quito with commentary by Paul, the local guide. 

We learned Quito is at 9,400 feet, the airport is almost in the middle of the city, Ecuador uses U.S. dollars for its currency (which solved their inflation problem), they are the main exporter of bananas from Latin America, the population of Quito is 1.9M, the population of Ecuador is 13 million and the country is the size of Colorado.  We paused only briefly in the hotel, the Mercure on Roca St. close to Amazonas Av. 

The bus then took us to a restaurant, Cantuna, on a hillside overlooking the city.  Lovely sight at night with millions of lights.  We had a good dinner and an excellent Chilean wine, Emileana, 2005, Cabernet S.  Jaime gave us more orientation. 

July 22, 2007 – Sunday 

We took a tour by bus of the old city of Quito.  It was established in 1534.  We drove first to the Basilica.  It’s Neo-Gothic and has wonderful gargoyles.  Because a mass was going on we tiptoed, a few at a time, through a side door into the sanctuary for a quick look. 

The area around the Basilica is undergoing gentrification and many old buildings that were vacant or decrepit or both have been rehabbed.  We saw a monument to Benalcazar, Spanish Conquistador, who lived across the street.  He is regarded as founder of modern Quito.  We then walked to the main square with its monument to the first people to revolt against Spain: “to the heroes of August 1809”.  This is called the Grand Plaza.  We looked in at the front gate of the presidential palace with two ceremonial guards in 18th century uniforms. 

On a corner opposite the palace is the Grande Hotel, closed and abandoned in the 40’s, now completely restored as the Hotel Susse Casa Grand.  We were told we had 25 minutes before reassembling.  I entered the cathedral, across the square from the Grande Hotel, where a mass was being said.  I raced across the square and a helpful young man at the desk in the Grande Hotel showed me around inside.  There is a bar and informal dining area in the basement, a lovely restaurant on the 2nd floor and a ballroom/meeting room on the third.  The latter has a balcony that overlooks the square.  Stunning rehab of an old building! 

Each day the guide gives us bottles of water.  In Ecuador we were given Tesalia (natural spring water w/o gas) that is bottled by the Tesala Springs Co. in Ecuador.  It is so good (just a hint of citrus flavor) that I hope to find it at home. 

We walked along the street called Calle de las Siete Cruces to the Jesuit Church, built between 1605 and 1765.  The interior is completely covered in gold leaf.  I found it overdone and not very inspiring at all. 

We then walked to the LaRonda neighborhood.  This was a place that had gone way down; prostitutes, homeless, vagrants.  The mayor of Quito cleaned it up and now apartments are being rehabbed and it’s a very attractive area.  We stopped in a coffee bar to have coffee or tea.  We walked past the Church of St. Francis (oldest of Quito churches) with its twin spires.  At noon we had lunch in a place called Cochabamba (buffet).  To get there we drove through a market in Pomsqui. 

After lunch we drove to a museum which has restored or reconstructed huts and other structures of the indigenous (native) people in Ecuador.  There are still tribes in the forests and jungles who live primitively, using spears and blowguns, shrinking animal heads (instead of human ones), and whose costumes are nothing at all.  There were photos and also a lifesize statue. 

Next we went to a park which had a large marker and four sidewalks radiating from it.  This is a point on the Equator and we were able to stand with one foot on each side of the Equator.  (“Ecuador” is Spanish for Equator, of course). 

Our final stop was a large flower market where it was possible to buy 25 long stemmed roses for $1.50.  Ecuador is a big (maybe the biggest) exporter of roses. 

Dinner that evening was in our hotel. 

July 23, 2007 – Monday 

We were ready to go at 8:00 am but there was no bus.  Finally, at 8:25 am, Jaime and Paul (Quito local guide) appropriated five taxis and we headed for the airport.   

We flew to the Galápagos island of Baltra, which hosts the only airport in this offshore island chain west of Ecuador.  We arrived at approximately 11:45 am. 

We took a ferry from Baltra to Santa Cruz, another of the Galápagos Islands.  We then boarded a bus which took us to Puerto Ayora (opposite end of the island).  There we got in two dinghies that took us to our boat, the Tip Top III. 

After finding our cabins and an orientation session on the boat we disembarked to visit the Galápagos National Park, specifically its Charles Darwin Research Station.  We walked through a tortoise exhibit, habitat and breeding area.  We saw giant lizards as we walked.  The tortoises grow very large (shells are a couple of feet or more wide) and can live to over 100.  Huge cacti were 12'-15' tall. 

Dinner on the boat. 

July 24, 2007 – Tuesday 

We got into the two dinghies (small inflatable rafts with outboard motors that hold 6-8) and rode a short distance to Plaza Island.  We made a “wet landing,” feet in the water to the beach.  The weather was overcast and thus cool.  We were immediately struck by acres of Sesubia plants on this uninhabited island.  They are also known as “carpet plants” as they are low growing and thick and in bloom and look like a red carpet.  We were also awed by giant cacti (15'-20' tall).  And the sea lions (over 100 of them on one beach) mostly females presided over by a 300 pound bull. 

That afternoon we made another wet landing on Santa Fe Island to see more sea lions (their color is black when they’re in the water and light brown when they’re ashore) as well as many Iguanas (giant lizards).  One can tell the sea Iguanas from the “Lava Lizards” because the former have web feet whereas the latter have fingers or claws not unlike humans.  We also saw Blue-footed and Masked Boobies. 

All three meals now are on board.  We met the Captain, first mate, engineer, chef and 3-4 other crew members on Monday evening.  The food is good and served nicely, nothing fancy but well done. 

July 25, 2007 – Wednesday 

During the night the boat moved to Española Island.  After breakfast we disembarked to a spot called Gardner Bay and made a wet landing.  This island had a lovely sand beach.  We walked to the end of the island dodging the sea lions who lay asleep in groups of 2 to 4 all along.  We also saw Mockingbirds (so unthreatened they walked right up to us) and three kinds of Finches and more Iguanas. 

The Galápagos are an archipelago of 60 islands that straddles the Equator, belong to Ecuador and are about 600 miles west of the coast.  The entire archipelago comprises the Galápagos National Park.  Park biologists observe carefully the conditions and do not hesitate to close an area to tourists, without warning, in their determined fight to minimize negative impact on the ecosystems of the islands.  These islands were created by volcanic eruptions thousands of years ago. 

Three of our group stayed behind and did some scuba diving after we returned to the boat. 

Galápagos means tortoise in Spanish. The islands were given that name in 1535 by a Spanish bishop.  Charles Darwin visited here in 1835 aboard his famous ship “Beagle.”  His visit, in which he saw flora and fauna unlike any he knew before, had a great impact as he developed the theory of evolution.  The largest of the islands are:  Fernandina, Isabella, Baltra, Javes, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal.  Isabella is the largest.  About 20,000 people live on one or another of these islands; most are uninhabited. 

After lunch and a nap the group went, by dinghy, to Punta Suarez on Española Island to see Albatrosses.  I stayed behind to read and rest on the boat, but Sidney went with the group to see many albatrosses including lots of babies.  They also saw adults in their mating ritual and eggs (the size of a baseball).  This is a place where these birds gather to rest and mate and rear their young. 

July 26, 2007 – Thursday 

The boat, named Tip Top III, has a draft of 2 meters and is about 30 meters long.  Since the islands we are visiting are uninhabited all of our meals are on board the boat.   

In the morning the ship had moved from Española Island to Santa Maria Island.  We were at Punta Cormorant.  We went ashore in the boat’s dinghies and landed on a lovely white beach after observing Penguins.  They are small, perhaps no more than 18 inches tall.  After we landed we walked to the “post office”  This is a pile of driftwood, other timber and lots of junk, piled, propped and nailed together and surrounding a post with a cylindrical shaped box containing a plastic bag inside which were stacks of post cards.  We were asked to take one and either keep it or mail it. 

Back to the boat for rest and then lunch. 

That afternoon we went back to Santa Maria Island but on the other side of it to see Flamingos standing in a lake.  They sometimes stand on just one foot.  We also saw Egrets. 

Dinner on board was delayed while the boat made a 6-8 hour run to Santa Cruz.  The rolling and pitching made it too difficult to walk much less eat.  At around 8 the captain reduced speed so we could eat.  Then, as we went to bed, he completed his run to Santa Cruz. 

July 27, 2007 – Friday 

After breakfast we disembarked at Puerto Ayora and then got on a bus to ride north to the other side of Santa Cruz Island.  On the way we stopped and got out when we spotted a giant tortoise in the road.  He weighted about 400 pounds and his shell was perhaps 3 ft. across.  Then we stopped at a giant tortoise ranch called Primicias. 

Continuing toward Puerto Ayora we stopped at a coffee, sugar cane and avocado farm. The owner and his wife and daughter welcomed us.  He told us his farm comprised 33 acres.  We saw avocados hanging from very tall trees and the coffee plants and sugar canes in his fields.  He showed us how he sends the canes through two machines that squeezes the juice out of them:  one was powered by a donkey walking in a circle; the other by an electric motor.  The juice is drunk fresh or boiled down into candy or allowed to ferment for 45 hours and then distilled to produce a drink close to what we know as “white lightning” or “home brew,” very clear and potent.  They also showed us how they pound the coffee beans to rid them of husks, grind them and then brew coffee.  It was strong and good and we sweetened it with some of the sugar cane candy. 

Continuing, we reach Puerto Ayora and stopped to see a school (which was not in session).   Specifically Jaime wanted us to see a large shed, open on the sides, where students (it’s a boys school) could learn to draw and paint.  Several boys were doing that even though it was a holiday and we saw many pictures done by them and other students.  We left gifts for the students with the teacher. 

Or next stop was for a home hosted lunch.  Half the group went to one house and we went to another.  Our hostess is named Emma and two of her three children were also present:  Marie, the oldest and an accounting student, and Estephanos who is in “6th form.”  Their husband and father works on a cruise ship and is gone for 6 months at a time.  We surmised that his salary financed the new house we toured after we ate.  When completed it will have 3 floors and separate bedrooms for the 3 kids.  We learned from the guide that people do not borrow money to build houses because the interest rate is too high.  They start construction, do most of the work themselves and proceed as they have the money to buy materials.  We had a lovely 3 course lunch accompanied by sweetened mint tea.  The entrée was a kind of beef stew. 

The bus collected us and took us to our hotel, the Solymar, which is new and which overlooks the sea.  Very picturesque.  On Charles Darwin St. in Puerto Ayora. 

After a nap we walked about the town and did a bit of shopping.  Dinner was at the hotel and it was good. 

July 28, 2007 – Saturday. 

We rode the bus to Puerto Ayora and then boarded a boat (smaller than before, with a crew of 4 including the chef) for a run to the north of Santa Cruz and a small island called Seymour.  The boat anchored and we transferred using dinghies and wearing life jackets. 

Our objective was to see Frigates, Swallowtail gulls and Blue Footed Boobies and their young.  Walking carefully over very rocky ground (volcanic lava) we saw many birds of each species and their young.  Some of the latter were only days or weeks old with fluff where feathers would be later and still unable to fly.  The mothers fly out in the sea and catch fish then carry this back to the nest and regurgitate it into the uplifted beaks of the babies.  What surprised us all is how close we were able to get to the birds.  They were totally unafraid of us.  The entire Galápagos archipelago is a national park and there is no hunting or fishing allowed whatever.  The most impressive bird we saw was the male Frigate (both Magnificent with purple feathers and the Great with green ones) whose breasts swirl into a huge balloon type sack that is scarlet. 

We transferred back to the boat where the chef had prepared a delicious hot lunch while we were birding.  Shrimp, rice, vegetables and fresh fruit for dessert.  Delicious. 

Back to the hotel for naps, shopping and dinner. 

July 29, 2007 – Sunday 

We spent most of the day returning to Quito.  A bus then a ferry and another bus to the airport at Baltra.  That was chaotic but we managed to get on the plane for the flight to Quito.  We flew on AeroGal (Aerolineas Galápagos). 

Overnight at the same hotel as before in Quito:  the Mercure (in an unattractive neighborhood).  Our dinner that evening was there.  Once again I gently roasted all, including Jaime, with my “prizes and awards” shtick. 

July 30, 2007 – Monday 

Another exasperating day of delayed flights. Of course our AA flight from Quito to Miami was delayed which meant we missed our mid-afternoon connection from there to Philadelphia.  The next AA flight to Philadelphia was after 9 pm that evening!  It did not leave till past 10:30 pm.  We reached home after 1 am in the morning. 

The trip was important, exciting when we were “in place” at Machu Picchu and in the Galápagos, exasperating from delayed flights almost every time we flew, and included disappointing hotels in a couple of places.  The sight of the “lost city” and of those birds and animals on the islands outweighed the aggravations of course.  Also, as it was our first trip south of Mexico, we are happy to have been introduced to a new part of the world. 

The small group “adventure” approach to Grand Circle Company’s travel was also a first for us.  It was challenging so it’s good we did it while we still could.  The little group of 14 of us were fun and worked well together. 

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