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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…

Day #3: Colonial Quito

After our breakfast this morning, we headed out on our tour of Colonial Quito with our guide, Andres. Unlike yesterday, the day was cloudier with some sporadic light rain showers — not a problem at all. We drove in some very heavy traffic the few kilometers from our hotel in La Colon to the Old Town.

Our first stop was at La Basilica, the largest Neo-Gothic basilica in Latin America. It’s an imposing structure that would fit into any city in Europe… until you look closely and notice the touches that make it unique to Ecuador: gargoyles on the facade replaced with the animals of Ecuador, a painting of Jesus holding a globe with light from His heart shining upon Ecuador. Nice.

From La Basilica, we drove up to the modern statue of the Virgin Mary that overlooks the city (to the north, much to the chagrin of the majority of the populous that lives to the south). Unfortunately, we had the most rain while up here, which compromised the view a bit. But, it still provided a nice view of the city.

We then returned to the Old Town and commenced our guided walking tour at Plaza Grande, which is dominated by the president of Ecuador’s residence and Quito’s cathedral. A small group of protesters were gathered outside to (presumably) chant at the president — something about a jury not being properly seated for a trial (according to our guide).

We focused on La Catedral, which contained some of my favorite religious art… ever… anywhere. Of course, we saw the aforementioned Last Supper at which Christ is dining with the apostles on cuy asado (roast guinea pig) and tamales. Awesome! I also enjoyed a classic nativity scene painting that featured a llama in lieu of a camel. Love it! (At the time, the South American artist didn’t know what a camel looked like… so, he went with a more familiar animal.)

The cathedral tour also featured a large meeting room filled with portraits of the current and former bishops of Quito (many of whom were also princes of the church), as well as a small but beautiful wooden library featuring a variety of old, leather-bound books (including one locked cabinet that was labeled “profane”).

From the cathedral, we proceeded to a more humble church next door, El Sagrario. Andres told us this church was used by the “native people” vs. the upper class (Spanish) that attended service at the cathedral. It was more humble but nonetheless nice. From there, we walked along the street until we reached the swoon-worthy Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus.

Built by the Jesuits, Quitenos consider this baroque splendor the most beautiful church in the country. It was certainly the highlight of the churches we visited in terms of its beauty. The church is closely associated with Saint María Ana de Jesús de Paredes y Flores, the patron saint of Ecuador, as this is where she is venerated.

It’s also associated with another miracle related to a picture, entitled Our Lady of Quito. As I understand it, for a brief period back in 1906 the Virgin’s eyes opened and closed, as well as shed a tear. This was witnessed by schoolboys and priests at the Jesuit school. Ordinarily, the original picture hangs over the high alter; however, we found it with our guide in a back hallway (while looking for the banos) prepared for a forthcoming procession. This enabled us to inspect it from just a few inches away — I can’t say we were especially moved, but our guide was very excited to witness it in such close proximity.

Following that church, we headed to two more: San Francisco (probably the best facade in the Old Town) and La Merced (seemingly famous for some other saint associated with local miracles). I must confess at some point after a number of churches in a row, they start to run together. We’d reached that point with these churches — no mas — Jesus, Mary, miracles/saints — si, si, si — got it — vamanos.

Rather tired (the altitude wears on one) and not wanting to be out in the streets of Quito after dark (per the advice of our guide), we ate an unremarkable meal at the Marriott, repacked a bit for tomorrow’s journey, and went to sleep.

Day #2: Quito & the Equator

Despite the late hour of our arrival, we were all awake before 8am. The morning brought with it out first good view of the city from our hotel room:

We had breakfast in the executive lounge, which I **think** is complimentary for me given my Marriott status (if not, I’ll be paying $30 or maybe $90 for the breakfast — it’s all rather unclear). 😂

After breakfast, we walked to a nearby local supermarket (one of the few businesses open on a Sunday) to buy some lunch supplies for Emerson. It was well stocked and prices there seemed generally comparable to what we pay at home, unless you’re buying “imported” items (like $6 for a small jar of Peter Pan peanut butter; $9 for a box of Nature Valley granola bars).

At 11am, we met our guide, Marcelo–who I’d arranged through Happy Gringos tours–to visit the equator and the surrounding area, which is about 20km outside of Quito.

First, we visited the Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve, which provided a spectacular view into the volcanic caldera from the El Mirador overlook:

Next, we toured the Intinan Museum. This outdoor museum seemed to have to points of focus: native peoples of Ecuador and (obviously) the Equator. I found the “shrunken heads” exhibition (including an actual, 180-or-so year old head) to be gruesome yet interesting. Here’s the head that served as a prize of war (it’s really just the shrunken skin from a head, as all of the innards are removed in the process):

The museum’s equatorial exhibitions focused on the Equator line and a series of related experiments. Like balancing a raw egg on a nail, which is easier to do at the Equator:

Here’s Emerson standing on the Equator (or at least near–measurement, as we learned, is surprisingly tricky):

Our final visit was to the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo. Its claim to fame is an Equator Monument (which I’m told is actually incorrectly located by a couple of football fields), as well as some museums and a reproduction Spanish colonial city (which now features shops and restaurants for visitors).

Having already “seen and done” the Equator, I thought the Ciudad was a little underwhelming. But, admission was cheap, and I enjoyed the small art museum dedicated to the work of Oswaldo Guayasamín.

After returning to the hotel, we walked across the street for dinner at Crepes and Waffles. We’d actually thought about venturing more away from the hotel, but the streets were a little too quite on a Sunday evening for my liking. In any case, the food was surprisingly good at Crepes and Waffles, especially Emerson’s Mexican chicken crepe and our Marshmallow Hot Chocolate. I’m pretty certain we’ll eat there again when we return to Quito.

My delectable jamon y queso crepe:

Day #1: To Ecuador

Like last year’s Thanksgiving cruise (which I didn’t write about), I was returning from a trip to Washington D.C. on the day before we departed for vacation. I hardly ever enjoy the immediate run-up to a vacation, and I found last minute preparations for this trip to be worse given that we’d be independently traveling in Ecuador and the Galapagos. But, in the end, it all came together, and we left the house around 9am on Saturday to drive to Ft. Lauderdale to catch our flight to Quito.

The drive was surprisingly pleasant, as we were unhurried. We stopped at Sawgrass Mills for a little shopping (including to get Libby a better lightweight rain jacket), and I drove Emerson over to see the campus of NSU, where I earned my doctorate in information systems. This meant that we arrived at the Ft. Lauderdale airport with plenty of time to check-in, grab some dinner, and hop on our free JetBlue flight to South America (I’d cashed in some points that I’d accrued over the years), which departed a little after 7:30.

The flight was a fairly short 3 hours and 45 minutes. Libby and Emerson slept most of the flight. I took a nap for maybe an hour before we started our approach and landing into Quito, which was remarkably smooth despite the high mountains and thunderstorms clearly visible in the area.

Quito’s airport is nice and new (looked much better than Terminal 3 @ Ft. Lauderdale). Immigration and customs was a breeze. And, we managed to get an airport taxi to take us to the JW Marriott for $25, which pleased me as I hadn’t managed to arrange a car service in advance.

We arrived at our hotel by 1am and were asleep again a little after 1:30.

P.S. Emerson is writing her own blog entries for this trip. You can follow her comments on Emerson’s Ecuador and the Galapagos page.

Day #16: Home

Goodbye, London!

We flew home from Heathrow on a pleasant and uneventful nine hour flight. The short Alanta-Tampa leg was a bit of a goat rodeo as we somehow managed to get screwed out of our Economy Comfort seats and then lost one of our suitcases at baggage claim in Tampa. 

Thankfully, it was mistakenly picked up by a nice lady, who brought it home thinking it was her bag. She called me–profoundly apologetic–while I waited in Delta’s lost luggage line. So, we sat at the airport about an hour (having claimed her correct luggage for her) and swapped bags and pleasantries. No big deal — honest mistake, quickly corrected. We were relieved to have our stuff back (nothing wildly valuable but some books and other souvenirs). 

That’s probably a pretty apt ending to the trip: good, not great, with a few unanticipated and untimely annoyances. 

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