Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Galapagos (and some of Ecuador)

A marine iguana taking in the view on Las Plazas.
I went to the Galapagos. I also went to other places in Ecuador (including prison), but I’m going to talk mostly about the Galapagos. Sorry. (Don’t worry – the prison stuff is all written up!)

Crossing into Ecuador was the usual bureaucratic affair involving useless entry cards, but this time the Ecuadorian officials were particularly lazy, choosing to take a coffee break in between every rubber stamp. It took some three hours of waiting around in the heat to get underway. In addition to the four or five hours delay to the bus leaving Trujillo, it meant we weren’t to arrive in Guayaquil until 10pm, the night before flying to the Galapagos. This would leave no time in which to scout around for cruise deals. We’d have to wing it.

We left Guayaquil first thing the next morning and flew straight to the island of Baltra. It was just a two hour flight but it might as well have another world. The hour bus/boat/bus trip to and across the main island, Santa Cruz, made me wonder if I wasn’t somewhere in southeast Asia, with tiny villages punctuating the thick forest through which shone an intense sun. But suddenly we emerged into the small town of Puerto Ayora, decidedly un-Asian but not very South American either. Perhaps it’s the usual homogenising effect of mass tourism; every business has to cater to tourists in some way. But that’s unfair: it is both sleepy and bustling at the same time, clean and pleasant to explore, and while every other shop is an agency at least they’re all built out of polished wood. Oh, and pelicans sleep in the trees. That improves any town.

We sat down at a table for lunch before embarking on a cruise hunt. We hadn’t been there for more than five minutes before a fat, smiley, Del Boy character called Freddy came over and introduced himself as the manager of a fantastic boat that was leaving the next day. He described it in wonderful terms and offered us a surprisingly good price. (I’ll put all the niggly details at the end of this post for anyone who’s interested.) I asked him to wait while I went and checked a few agencies to compare prices. One man offered me the same boat for a similar price and then followed me out of his agency and back to the lunch table. I now had two men trying to sell me the same cruise, both telling me that they were the manager. I didn’t believe either of them and tried to get them to argue or even look at each other, but weirdly they wouldn’t even acknowledge one another. Maybe this is typical of Ecuadorians, but I found this behaviour confusing and amusing as they talked to me seemingly oblivious of their competition. No haggling, no outdoing each other, nothing.

I picked Freddy. He just seemed, well, more friendly. And he said we wouldn’t have to pay until we saw the boat and met the passengers. What could go wrong? He even threw in accommodation that night on land, took us out for dinner, bought us breakfast the next day, and sent us on two tours around the island. The first was up to the Darwin Research Centre to see lots of iguanas and some giant turtles. It’s home to Solitary George, whose loneliness is not of choice but due to his being the last remaining member of his species. I wonder what that must feel like. Does he think about it? He certainly seemed withdrawn. The other ‘tour’ was a walk to a pristine white, deserted beach with an old man who seemed ironically scared of the sea. Marine iguanas waddled off when they saw us coming, diving into the sea and bobbing away on the waves.

A giant tortoise on Santa Cruz.
Then it was time to begin the cruise. Of course, Freddy had not been entirely honest about the quality of boat we would be going on: it was not a ‘tourist’ class boat with air conditioning and hot showers. It was a cramped wooden sailing ship dated 1901 with tiny cabins filling the spaces between the sails and the kitchen. But I forgave him because it turned out we’d paid considerably less than the other ten passengers and the food was absolutely incredible. People who know me well will be aware that quantities of quality food will smooth over any ill feelings I might be harbouring. This is why I don’t mind dining with vicars.

The boat was packed with us eleven passengers and seven staff: the captain (always professional), the second captain (sometimes drunk, sometimes dressed as a pirate), the chef (my god), the cook’s assistant (could only say “coffee?” in English), the deck hand (liked to count lifejackets), a mechanic (did almost nothing) and the guide (looking for a new wife).

An old, old wooden ship: the Sulidae, my Galapagos vessel.
We spent that afternoon in the highlands of Santa Cruz looking at wild tortoises. As these giant creatures crawled about at an infinitely slow pace, I found myself wondering again about their sheer age. Some were around 160 years old. Imagine being that old! And now imagine being that old and not being able to tell anyone it. If I had lived through two world wars and the invention of the paperclip but couldn’t express some kind of philosophical insight I’d be very frustrated. But then they do move so slowly I wonder if 160 years just feels like a couple of days to them. I climbed inside the shell of a deceased giant tortoise and did some push ups, but gained no significant understanding of their lives except that moving about is probably quite tiring.

We set sail after dinner on a northerly heading. Suddenly the narrowness of the old ship became sickeningly apparent as we rolled to 45°. I haven’t been seasick since I was a child! A romantic night in a hammock ended in me being sick over the side of the boat. Cool as a cucumber. Fortunately I was lucky enough to have ended up with the best room in the boat: the ‘suite’ at the aft, complete with windows looking out over the ocean. Lying there in the cool of the night things weren’t half as bad.

I awoke the next morning to gentle rocking, a calm breeze, the sight of the sun rising over the deep blue ocean and the smell of a full, cooked breakfast. I’ve never been hungrier. We went out in the launch to explore the volcanic island of Santiago. It’s mostly black with old, dried lava, but the feeling of walking over the sometimes flat, sometimes painfully sharp surface is a another-worldly experience. The first inhabitants used to refer to these differing textures as “oo-oo” and “ah-ah” depending on how much they hurt their feet.

View of Bartholome Island from the old volcanic island of Santiago.
We snorkelled twice that day, both times immersing ourselves with schools of bizarrely coloured fish. Some were spotted, some looked like they had hands, others had spotted hands. We were ignored by passing sharks (not the dangerous sort), barked at by sea lions and viewed with suspicion by penguins perched on rocks.

Nearby on Bartholeme Island is an unnaturally pointy rock known as the pinnacle, leaning out into the sea as if ready to separate itself from land and commit to the ocean. It turns out this formation is indeed unnatural, the result of target practise by the US military during their occupation of the island of Baltra during the second world war. This kind of behaviour is beyond comprehension, especially given that Darwin had published his Galapagos-inspired On the Origin of Species some 80 years previously. We climbed this island for a vista of the area and were rewarded with an inquisitive hawk who hovered above for some twenty minutes. Using the stiff breeze as lift he did nothing but twitch his wing tips to maintain position, turning his head this way and that as if considering which one of us to pick off first.

A hawk on the island of Bartholome.
After dinner we listened to our guide’s complaining about his wife as we sailed due east through the dark under a full moon. I took myself off and worked out that whilst probably quite dangerous, lying in the netting at the bow of the boat was the surest way to stave off sea sickness.

Classic Galapagos: early morning on North Seymour.
We were woken up early the next day by an excited guide who insisted we land on North Seymour before breakfast. We realised very quickly why: in every direction was a classic Galapagos view. The sight out to sea was decorated by glowing red crabs, yawning sea lions and marine iguanas. Under the tress land iguanas chomped on cacti buds. Blue-footed boobies waddled around us, their piercing eyes ignoring us in their search for more manageable food. But it was inside the light forest where my gob was most smacked. Male frigates sat in the branches weighed down by the most inconvenient of adornments: huge, red, puffed-up chins, inflated like balloons for a birthday party. They’re used to attract females, who apparently cannot resist the biggest and brightest of these bags. The males just sat there, tilting their heads to show off their most prized possessions.

A puffed-up male frigate trying to attract females.
Later on that day we walked over the small island of Las Plazas, a fascinating landscape of red grass, green cacti and bright blue sky seen from the top of craggy cliffs populated by angry, territorial sea lions. They couldn’t catch me. They might be good in water but I rule the land.

Blue-footed boobies! Female on the left, male on the right.
A final night of open sailing was ahead of us, this time setting off during dinner, which did nothing for my interest in the wonderfully prepared seafood dinner. Instead I lay on deck and watched as a hawk hovered overhead, following our path as the sun melted into the swell. We awoke in Puerto Moreno on San Cristóbal, my departure point. It’s a much quieter village, though the evening’s stillness was broken by a bizarre show on the esplanade in which children dressed up as old people and sang really badly.

We took the first speed boat back to Santa Cruz the next morning, crossing the sea in a hair-raising two hours. We rushed across the length of the island and over to Baltra just in time to catch our return flight to Guayaquil. Watching the islands fade into the distance gave me time to reflect on what it is that makes them so intriguing. It’s the wildlife, naturally, but wildlife that is so diverse across a relatively small area. The fact that animals can be so obviously related, yet distinct enough not to be able to reproduce with each other, is a fine example of evolution. The ability to view it in action is life-affirming.

I spent one night in the large, hot and humid colonial city of Guayaquil, which is a lot nicer and safer then people make out but still not much to write home about. I went on to Cuenca, a pretty town in the highlands. It’s a town that doesn’t appear to have changed since its Spanish past, except for the fact that most of the shops now sell ice cream. And good ice cream it is too. I’d like to write more about it, but there’s only so much I can say about very old churches, even though I did like the ice cream very much.

Along the river Guayas in Guayaquil.
Then it was on to Quito, the high capital of Ecuador. (The Spanish were very good in putting their major cities high in the mountains away from the heat.) Quito is one of those South American cities with a rough reputation and almost every tourist seems to have a story about getting mugged or something. Fortunately I experienced nothing of the sort, though the locals did keep advising me to get taxis rather than walk. The most interesting part of the city is doubtlessly the historical centre, which combines the usual colonial architecture with a beating Latin American heart. The restaurants cater to the tastes of locals (ceviche, goat stew and guinea pig abound) and the streets teem with people buying, selling, haggling and talking.

Street life in Quito.
I visited the male prison. No I wasn’t arrested, but I was temporarily locked inside. Read about my experiences here.

I couldn’t resist the pull of the world’s highest volcano, Cotopaxi, 5897m. I headed there with a Galapagos shipmate and stayed in a little hostel sitting on the isolated grassy, llama-populated slopes. We spent a few days climbing the hills in the area, jumping off waterfalls into ice-cold rivers and otherwise relaxing in hammocks and gobbling up the delicious home-cooked food created by the staff. And they say travelling is roughing it. However, even if we had been sleeping outside it would’ve done nothing to temper the mesmerising image of picture-perfect Cotopaxi, its snowy crater shining brightly despite the afternoon thunderstorms. The only thing that disturbed the peace was a minor earthquake. Fortunately it didn't signal an imminent eruption.

Cotopaxi, the world's highest active volcano.
We hitchhiked out of there, sharing the back of a pickup with an old lady carrying an unfathomably large bag of potatoes. We spent a night in Latacunga, a random town somewhere in the middle of Ecuador where the locals are friendly, the streets are calm and, erm, the ice cream is good. Then we returned to Quito in time for a ride up the teleférico (cable car) for a view over the city from 1200m above, a total of 4050m. Unsatisfied, we attempted to climb up to the summit of Pichincha, the volcano dominating Quito’s skyline and around whose base the capital wraps. I would say we turned back at just the right time, but that’s not really true because we were definitely walking anxiously in the dark and fog for a good ten minutes before stumbling across the cable car station again. Still, the views from the pass down into the valleys on either side were worth the risk.

Looking over Quito.
Heading east towards Colombia, I stopped en route in Otavalo, home to all South American souvenirs. I’m not sure if these hats, scarves, ponchos, etc are made here or whether this is just a converging point for wholesalers, but there was a lot there. I bought a hat.

Otavalo, the everything-market.
And then I left, finally in the northern hemisphere again for the first time since the beginning of Indonesia. On to the less-travelled, more-infamous-than-famous countries of the continent.

Galapagos details

We booked the flights through, a total of $275 return direct from Guayaquil with LAN. The US version of Kayak had the best fares. Bear in mind that ALL flights to the Galapagos go through Guayaquil, so they’re almost always cheaper from there. Just get on a bus from Quito you lazy carbon-treaders.

We didn’t book a tour in advance. We were approached by an agent by the name of Freddy whilst eating lunch in Puerto Ayora. He was a good guy, even if he did oversell the quality of the boat. Many people in town seem to know him. We paid him $430 each for a three night/four day cruise, leaving from Santa Cruz on the Tuesday, heading north up to Baltra, Santiago, Las Plazas, Bartholome, and then east to end on San Cristóbal. He also threw in a night in a reasonable hotel on Santa Cruz, dinner that night in a good restaurant, a big breakfast the next day, a guided trip to the Darwin Research centre, and a guided walk to a lovely beach.

The boat was the Sulidae. It’s a sailing ship but does have engines! They actually only put the sails out on the last day because it was blowing the right way. It’s quite a narrow ship so it does rock a lot. There’s no AC but that didn’t matter – it’s not so humid there and it’s actually pretty cold at night. There are six passenger rooms, two single beds in each, some better than others. The best by far is the ‘suite’ at the aft of the boat. The next best are the ones on the deck. These all have windows and fans. The others are below deck and rather cramped and a bit too smelly of diesel. All rooms have a private toilet and shower (with cold water).

The food was absolutely amazing – always far too much and excellent quality. The staff were great all round. The guide did try it on a bit with the girls but gave up quickly. His English is perfect. All the rest were very professional.
It’s possible to pick up the boat either in Santa Cruz on Tuesdays or in San Cristóbal on Fridays. From San Cristóbal it goes south to Española, then west to Floreana, further to Isabela and finally back east to Santa Cruz, arriving on Tuesday morning. The owners of the boat are actually on San Cristóbal, and they run a hardware shop there. Ask around and you’ll find it. You’ll get even better deals through them (about $100 per night), but you can’t be guaranteed there’ll be space left! That’s the advantage of booking beforehand, but you’ll pay for it. Hostels in Guayaquil and Quito always have signs advertising last-minute offers, usually for around $700 for a four day cruise.

You’re more likely to pick up a deal in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, but the airport is annoyingly far away – at least an hour by bus, boat and bus. The airport in San Cristóbal is literally three minutes’ taxi from the port town. Other airlines that fly to the Galapagos are TAME and AeroGal. Some say the service and food on the latter is much better than LAN. Some people report that it’s cheaper to buy your plane tickets through the Spanish versions of the companies’ websites. Probably rightly assuming that English speakers can afford more! Rich gringos spoiling it for the rest of us.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jason, good to read more of your interesting stories. Where will you be celebrating X-mas? Lots of love from Holland!