Peru – Ecuador – July ’07 – OAT. II: Ecuador
Travel notes by Dan C. West,
Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA
July 21, 2007 –
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
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
July 22, 2007 –
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
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
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
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
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
July 23, 2007 –
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'
Dinner on the
July 24, 2007 –
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
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
July 25, 2007 –
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
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 –
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
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
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
July 27, 2007 –
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
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
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
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
July 28, 2007 –
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
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
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.
Back to the hotel for naps, shopping
July 29, 2007 –
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”
July 30, 2007 –
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
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.