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Day #8: Real Quito

Today, we met our guide for the “Real Quito” tour, which was billed by Happy Gringos as more of a look inside the lives of locals. We started with a drive to the Old Town for a fairly extensive walking tour where we explored numerous shops and markets, which was intermixed with explanations of how various products were created or used in the local Spanish, indigenous, or mixed cultures.

This is where it helps to have a local guide. He knows where things are made (local vs. import) and who things are used. For example, we saw a shop that made what looked like Halloween masks:

As a casual observer, we would have simply thought “ahhh… cool masks” and moved on. But, he explained to us that people in Quito use the masks to dress up as themselves on New Year’s Eve and then burn their own effigies later that night to ride themselves of the bad things (stresses, problems, concerns, etc.) from the prior year. This process repeated again and again as we learned about the use of plants, foods, clothing, hats, etc. and where to buy (and not buy) goods due to variations in price and quality.

For example, we found that the cost of everything from fruit to HD TVs varied greatly between the large stores in the neighborhood of our Marriott vs. the small shops in the markets of the Old Town. Indeed, our guide picked up some Christmas tree lights ($2 for a set instead of the $5 he would have paid closer to his home for the same product).

He also pointed out to us the small ways in which neighborhoods changed in the span of a few blocks. “Notice here the music is different and what’s sold in the stores has changed.” And, it was true: the music had a more distinctive “folk” vibe and electronics boutiques had given way to shops selling staples (rice, beans, and spices) in bulk. As a visitor from a different culture, you might not pick up on these things so easily as the contrasts aren’t always stark.

We visited the streets of La Ronda, which had been a dilapidated and dangerous area near the central bus depot a little more than decade ago but now the bus station was a park and the neighborhood was a charming, restored spot for night life.

Here are a few more views of the Old Town of Quito:

Our final stop was something completely different, a visit to La Casa Museo Guayasamín and Capilla del Hombre, basically Oswaldo Guayasamín’s house and studio (now a museum of his own work and his collection of pre-Colombian and colonial art) and his masterwork, The Chapel of Man, a purpose-built museum dedicated to Latin Americans to house his paintings and sculptures in an atmosphere which he designed for his artwork.

His house, studio, and its collections were simply stunning and nearly impossible not to like.

It was also interesting to watch videos of him working. Professional artists simply wield their tools with a kind of confidence and virtuosity that’s something to behold. He’s not an especially popular or well known figure in the United States, probably due to his political views (as a socialist and atheist) and close relationships with unpopular Latin American figures (e.g., he was an admirer and close friend of Fidel Castro).

Overall, his art–which reminds me a lot of Picasso, who was his strongest influence–doesn’t blow my hair back, but I greatly appreciated his creative energy, desire to improve the lives of (disadvantaged and native) people, and the world he’d built for himself (down to designing his own floor lamps).

Day #7: Leaving Santa Cruz

It’s amazing what a difference a day can make. I woke up this morning uncertain about how I felt about the Galapagos.

At its best, it’s thrilling and exhilarating. But, it can also be challenging and frustrating. It’s very isolated, relatively expensive, you’re highly restricted in your movements, and you’re at the mercy of nature.

The weather might not cooperate. The animals you’re interested in might not appear along the approved path. The terrain can be difficult to navigate. And, based on some of the “walking wounded” (folks walking with crutches and with arms in casts) I saw at the airport as we departed, I have to imagine that it’s not uncommon for people to injure themselves: twisted ankles, broken bones, etc.

In short, it’s not a typical vacation. Indeed, it’s not really a “vacation” at all. It’s more of an expedition, journey, and adventure. If you’re an outdoorsy-type, especially of the waterborne variety, this might feel very comfortable to you. But, I have to imagine that for many people (us included), the Galapagos presented some unique challenges and an opportunity to grow as a traveler and explorer of the world.

So, yeah, we liked the Galapagos and plan to return one day when Emerson’s a bit older and more experienced/comfortable with aquatic adventures.

In any case, that’s how we felt while sitting at the airport waiting to depart for Quito.

We’d started the day by grabbing breakfast at OMG Coffee before walking to see a sweet, little ceramic garden with colorful murals:

From there, we walked to the Charles Darwin Research Station to view their program for raising tortoises:

Around noon, Ronald (our guide) and Rolando (our driver) picked us up to visit a farm and transfer to the airport.

The El Trapiche Ecologico farm was surprisingly charming. They produce coffee, chocolate, candy, and liquor. We met the owner, who gave us a tour of their production processes and facilities.

Emerson helped him produce sugar cane juice:

We watched him roast, shell, and clean coffee beans:

We also saw his still for producing his version of Galapagos rum:

We sampled all of the products (which were simply excellent) and purchased a variety of his offerings (reasonable prices — couldn’t resist).

The airport transfer was greatly eased by the Guiding Galapagos crew, who handled all of the luggage and got us to the front of lines. Nice!

We checked in, said goodbye to the GG crew, and had a snack at the airport before boarding our flight about an hour before the scheduled departure time. Amazingly, we actually departed 40 minutes early (guess everyone was already there), which meant we arrived in Quito almost an hour early.

We took a taxi back the JW Marriott, checked into our room, headed over to Crepes and Waffles for dinner (love that place!), and went to bed happy.

Day #6: Tortuga Bay

So, Ronald showed up at our door last night around 9pm with the news that our itinerary had been altered. It seems that the seas between Santa Cruz and Sante Fe had been fairly rough the past few days, making our only landing impossible. The new plan was for us to go to Tortuga Bay (a nearby beach) early in the morning (7am) followed by the 2 hour (one way) cruise to Santa Fe around noon for a single snorkeling expedition in one of its bays.

I pretty much knew immediately we wouldn’t take the more limited day trip to Santa Fe. I also knew Libby felt exactly the same way (which she confirmed). Why?

When planning the trip, we’d debated pretty extensively which excursion to do on our second full day with our planner. Santa Fe was ultimately picked despite the bay snorkel, as I knew Emerson would enjoy the beach landing. Now we faced 4 hours of rough sea crossings, having to tank Emerson (and perhaps us) up on Dramamine, eat a so-so lunch aboard the boat, to do an activity only one of us would ultimately participate in — nope, nope, nope!

While I’m sure some (maybe most) folks would have soldiered on and forced there family to do the activity, I’m just not that guy. We’ve traveled too much. I also always believe “we’ll be back” (whether we ultimately will or not). Therefore, I don’t stress about “missing something,” especially if “missing something” forces us to do something we’re not feeling. Ultimately, I’d rather waste money than time — I have more than enough of the former to meet our needs and an unknown and indefinite supply of the latter.

So, when we met our guide at 7am, I informed him that we’d only do the Tortuga Bay part of the trip. I suspect Ronald had told him this might happen, as he didn’t seem too shocked. But, it nonetheless resulted in him doing some logistical gyrations to give us more time at Tortuga Bay and a lunch in town.

In any case, he packed us into a taxi and went to collect another family that we’d be meeting up with at the Tortuga Bay entrance checkpoint.

What to say about Tortuga Bay? There are essentially two beach areas.

One is postcard-worthy long stretch of fine white sand facing the ocean that has some serious surf and therefore is unsafe for swimming:

The other is an equally pretty sheltered lagoon / cove that’s on the back (far) side of the long beach:

So, it’s a really nice beach.

But, being in the Galapagos it entirely lacks facilities of any sort. By land, it is only accessible after a 3.5 kilometer walk from the checkpoint over small hills on a paved path that’s pretty exposed to the sun (plus the walk down the beach to the lagoon). It’s also not a very interesting snorkeling spot.

It is, however, a great place to see many marine iguanas:

The plan was for us to swim (which we did) and take a later (11:30) water taxi back to town where we’d be met on the dock by one of the Guiding Galapagos team members, who’d take us to a lunch spot in town.

The swimming part went fine — basically a day at the beach (not wildly novel to a Floridian, but perfectly pleasant). Our guide introduced us to the captain of the 11:30 “water taxi” before he left with the other family. So, all in all, things went fine until it was time to go.

At that point, we made our way to where the water taxi embarks. For some reason, they use a lava rock cliff as a kind of pier (similar to a dry landing from a panga). From there one is expected to step from the rock ledge to the bow of the boat. The lava rocks, however, are pretty uneven and the step–now at low tide–was gargantuan. By that I mean at least as great as Emerson is tall (about 4′)… from a slippery, precarious rock face… to a moving vessel.

Emerson and Libby were kind of “freaking out” about having to do it. And, I personally thought it had the potential for all sorts of orthopedic, spinal, or head injuries written all over it. Umm no — fuck that!

I turned around, and we started to leave. This sent the captain running after us. We exchanged a few choice words in which I explained in Spanglish that this was exceedingly “stupido” and that we intended to “vamanos” the way we came.

And, that’s exactly what we did… trudging unhappily with our gear the few miles back into town under the noon sun.

Once in town, we headed to the highly-rated Galapagos Deli (I didn’t even worry about finding someone from Guiding Galapagos) for lunch. Emerson and I ate exceptionally good pizza and had ice cream for dessert. Libby had a great chicken sandwich. We all enjoyed ice cold drinks and relaxing in the shady restaurant.

We then made our way back to the hotel, got cleaned up and relaxed for a couple of hours (something we really hadn’t done yet on this trip). Ronald showed up before dinner looking kind of sheepish. I think he expected us to be pissed off, but by that point I was in a better mood. I explained what had happened and was non-committal about his invitation to dinner in lieu of the included lunch that we missed (though it was a nice gesture).

In keeping of the theme of doing what I want vs. what’s cheapest, we opted to blow off the Guiding Galapagos invitation and ate at Il Giardino again, which is a really nice spot with good food:

All in all, the day was fine. Had it been planned this way to start (just doing our own thing), we likely would have been perfectly happy. However, feeling like we wasted time and money left something of a bad taste in my mouth.

But, this happens.

Travel often isn’t perfect. Some days are better than others. We’d just spent Thanksgiving Day in the Galapagos. And, that’s pretty cool in and of itself.

We left the hotel this morning—albeit with our hotel room’s door unlocked–loaded down with hiking and swim gear for our day trip. We drove under cloudy skies to the north of island where we transferred into the tender for our yacht, Santa Fe III. From there, we navigated north along the western coast of Isla Baltra and into a channel near the landing point for North Seymour.

This was a dry landing: we transferred into the ship’s tender (a RIB w/ outboard motor), crossed to a rocky outcropping, and then climbed up some uneven, wet rock “steps.” Not being one of great balance, being poor at handling slippery surfaces, and having seen hundreds of traumatic injuries in my life, I didn’t enjoy what felt like a semi-precarious transfer experience.

But, North Seymour was worth the price of admission. I’ve included a few of the highlights of our hike, which was guided by a naturalist.

Sea lions:

Galapagos land iguanas:

Blue-footed boobies:

Frigatebirds:

After our hike, we returned to our ship for lunch as we transited to Bachas Beach.

While at anchor in the channel, the ship was rolling a bit, and Emerson started to get motion sick. So, we tanked her up on Dramamine and let her sleep until we reached our snorkeling location, where we tendered for the much preferable (to me anyway) “wet landing,” which requires wading through 12-24 inches of water.

By this time, the sky had cleared and the day was beautiful:

The beach contained some interesting fauna, especially our first encounter with a couple of Galapagos marine iguanas and a chance to look more closely at Sally Lightfoot crabs (which I thought were just arresting in their color):

After a brief exploration with our guide, we went snorkeling in our wetsuits, which made the cool waters very comfortable. The snorkeling was just ok — the bottom stirred easily, reducing visibility and the marine life (especially fish) was underwhelming compared to what we’d experienced in Hawaii.

Emerson did do much better at snorkeling with her new full face mask. She’s perfectly happy and able to swim around (in shallow water) with it on. That said, she’s still not a fan of swimming too close to aquatic life and the rocks and grasses in which most reside.

We enjoyed the boat ride back to the dock on Santa Cruz.

From there, we transferred back to the town via bus, where we enjoyed a decent dinner and chance to walk around a little in the evening to look at sea lions and small sharks swimming off the main pier at night.

All in all, we’d had a very good day in the Galapagos, experiencing what we’d come to see. Even our door was fixed and nothing was missing (though we weren’t really worried about that).

Yup, we felt on top of the world.

Then Ronald, the lead guide from Guiding Galapagos, showed up at our door after 9pm telling us our plans for the next day had been disrupted…

Sigh.

Day #4: To Galapagos

We left our hotel in Quito around 7am, as we were a bit unsure of how long it would take to transit to the airport and make it through the various queues associated with travel to the Galapagos. Traffic wasn’t too bad in that direction despite it being “rush hour” (I assume), which meant that we arrived by 8am.

Once at the airport, we paid some sort of $20/pp. transit tax and received our paperwork. Next, we had our luggage inspected for contraband (presumably animals, plants, and other materials that could compromise the ecosystem of the Galapagos) and then sealed shut with little tamper-evident tags. From there, it was a pretty standard check-in and trip through airport security — all of which was accomplished in about 30 minutes.

We had a snack and coffees and waited for our Avianca (AeroGal) flight to Isla Baltra. We flew on a fairly modern Airbus A319. Flight time (non-stop from Quito) was about 1:50 minutes. The take-off and climb out in the Andes were surprisingly smooth, but the flight was lightly turbulent later, which I never enjoy on unfamiliar airlines. That said, the flight was decent overall.

We arrived in the Galapagos a little ahead of schedule. As something entirely new (to me at a commercial airport), the runway lacked connecting taxiways… so, the pilot landed, turned the plane around, and then we taxied back down the runway to the terminal’s plane stands. From there, we disembarked using a stairway and were greeted to the world’s first ecological airport. We passed through a kind of immigration / visitation control and paid $250 in park entrance fees (Emerson being 50% off) for the three of us. We then collected our luggage and exited the terminal to look for our guide from Guiding Galapagos.

He was late… sigh. But, some other dude told us he’d be there soon. We waited more-or-less patiently, and he showed up 15 minutes later. He collected us and another nice family of five with kids (in their early twenties) for some sightseeing en route to our hotels. But, first, we had to transfer from the island of the airport (Isla Baltra) to the larger island nearby (Santa Cruz). This involved crossing a canal via a small boat (in our case) or ferry (for the fully independent travelers).

From there, we boarded a spacious mini bus to see three sights: lava craters (basically sinkholes in volcanic rock), giant tortoises, and lava tunnels.

Everyone was excited to be in the Galapagos. As a result, the lava craters and handful of bird species we saw there had a greater sense of magnificence than they likely deserved.

In contrast, the giant Galapagos tortoises are exceptional to see “in the wild” at close range (technically this seeming herd of tortoises were on a private ranch, having wandered over from the public national park). Indeed, it’s almost too bad that we saw them on day #1… as it’s a bit like going to Disneyland for the first time only to walk in and be greeted straightaway by Mickey Mouse. “Ok kids, we can go home now.” After our visit with the tortoises, we enjoyed a nice lunch of either grilled fish or chicken at the ranch.

After lunch we went to the lava caves, which you access by descending a fairly steep staircase. The first 200 meters was an easy walk on a level surface through the illuminated tunnel. Then we started reaching loose rocks of various sizes which we had to traverse — it felt a bit precarious (and foreshadowed our days to come) as we’re not really “outdoorsy, adventure travel” people. The height of the tunnel began to diminish until it reached a collapsed section not more than 2 feet high, which required most of us to crawl through slug-style. From there, we had to scamper up an incline in a low tunnel of more loose rocks and then up a number of steep stairs to return to the surface of the earth. By this point, I was huffing and puffing, sweating like a pregnant nun heading off to confession, and covered in dust and grime from head to toe. While clearly no great adventure, to me the lava tunnels were both thrilling and annoying… and, on balance, not really worth the effort.

Our sightseeing concluded, we moved on to the Guiding Galapagos office in Puerto Ayora, which is the main town on both this island and in the Galapagos. Lonely Planet says that it looks like a relatively prosperous coastal town in Ecuador. I don’t know anything about that having never been to one. To us, it looked more like a Caribbean port on a somewhat less prosperous through perfectly safe island.

We then spent about an hour collecting our swim / snorkel gear, which made it pretty late (well after 6 pm) when we finally reached our hotel. The Hotel Deja Vu is located on the outskirts of town (fine as the town is rather small). We were given a spacious triple room with sea views and nice balconies (good) on the top floor (bad–no elevator and a few odd steps). The room was clean and comfortable, if a little warm and threadbare. Of course, it didn’t help that we were coming from a JW Marriott in Quito, which made for a pretty stark contrast.

After dropping off our stuff, we went out to dinner at a place called Il Giardino. It was fine though unremarkable, especially as prices were kind of high (relative to the mainland). We found this pattern repeated itself in the local market when we stopped to pick up some bottled water and other supplies.

When we returned to the hotel, I somehow snapped our room’s key completely off in the door’s lock! Back down to the front desk to try to explain in very bad Spanglish what had happened… Ay, Dios mio! The saga eventually ended when the hapless front desk clerk scampered onto the roof to break in to our room via the balcony door.

Thus ended our first day in the Galapagos…

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