Sunday, December 6, 2009

Ecuador: Day 11 – No more shorts and T-shirts

Early in the morning, we said farewell to our hotel and grabbed a cab to the Quito airport. As usual, we were sad to see our vacation coming to an end but grateful for all the amazing experiences we'd had on our trip to Ecuador. We flew to Miami where we went through customs and connected to a flight to Dallas. A nice gate agent in Miami was able to get us on a flight from DFW to Seattle 2 hours earlier than our scheduled flight. That left us with only 30 minutes or so to zip between planes. It was no problem, however, and we were grateful to get back to Seattle 2 hours early. It felt good to be home!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Ecuador: Day 10 – How can it be time to go home already?

Our morning excursion for the day was to Bachas Beach. We were hoping to see some flamingoes feeding on the shrimp there, but none were to be found. Still, it was a beautiful beach to walk along, and we got to see a few sea turtles swimming around the island. When the US was building its military base on nearby Baltra, they would park their barges with supplies near the beach. Because the locals couldn't say the word "barges", the beach got the name "Bachas" instead.

Then it was time to pack up our stuff and head back to shore. For the last time, the Zodiacs drove us to the dock where we boarded a bus to the Baltra airport. We were sad to say goodbye to the Galapagos Explorer II, but we'd always have our fond memories of the time we spent aboard. Jon and I both decided to go back some day and do the other 4-day route that the GEII covers to see the rest of the Galapagos.

We had plenty of time in the tiny airport to chat with our fellow cruise passengers. Many of them were avid travelers and had lots of interesting stories to share about their adventures in other countries, and they were interested to hear about what we'd seen in our travels. Finally, we boarded our plane back to Quito.

Back on the mainland, we caught a taxi back to the Hotel Sebastian. We checked in on what we'd missed in the US over the past few days and then set out for a nice dinner in Plaza Foch. Quito was poised to celebrate with a festival going on that weekend, so we spent a little time wandering around the streets before finally going back to the hotel to rest.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Ecuador: Day 9 – Finally, some giant tortoises

This morning, the boat let us off in Puerto Ayora to visit the Darwin Center. This is where most of the giant tortoises on the island hang out. As they are endangered, scientists have brought the tortoises here to mate and hatch the next generation.
After a few years in captivity, they are then returned to the same island where their parents had been found. It was unbelievable to get right up next to these creatures as they were eating their lunch. They are quite interesting, and I enjoyed seeing the adaptations of some of the tortoises to various environments. For instance, one species from an island with ground vegetation might have a shorter neck than one from an island with more trees.

Probably the most famous of the tortoises at the Darwin Center is Lonesome George. He's the last one of his species, and scientists have yet to find a female for him to mate with. He was hiding in his habitat when we first went by, but he came out a little later in the day so we were able to snap a photo of him.

Back on the ship in the afternoon, Jon and I took a class in towel folding. We learned how to create various birds and other animals out of towels from the helpful housekeeping staff. I think it's safe to say that I was not cut out for a career in towel-folding, but we had a good time anyway!

The afternoon excursion was to the island of Radina. The entire island here is red because of the type of rock that makes up its mountains. The red sand beach with, of course, more cute sea lions was a relaxing place to spend the afternoon. After seeing all the other amazing sites of the island, however, I must say that Radina paled in comparison.

After dinner in the dining room, we all went up to the bar for a drink. We split up into teams for a trivia competition. My team tied with Jon's team, but alas, his group got the tiebreaker question correct. Their reward was a couple of bottles of wine, which they nicely shared with everybody. On the side of the boat, we saw a few sharks, dolphins, and sea lions swimming around. It was neat to see but very difficult to photograph.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Ecuador: Day 8 – A pirate’s life for me!

Our usual wake-up announcement came from Ruth, the cruise's "Julie McCoy", at 6:30am. This is probably as good a time as any to talk about life on the boat. Everything that will happen for the day is spelled out rather clearly in a schedule provided the day before. Every activity has a specific start- and end-time, and there are announcements 15 minutes before anything major happens. As you might imagine, anything with a set schedule appeals to me, so adjusting to life on the boat wasn't all that difficult. Every day there'd be a buffet breakfast, then an excursion for the morning, followed by a buffet lunch back on board before another excursion out to one of the island. After that, there would be a happy hour followed by dinner. So there's a fair amount of time to socialize with the other guests on board.

We were placed into four different groups for the excursions: the albatrosses, the boobies, the cormorants, and the dolphins. Jon and I were part of the albatross group, and we really enjoyed the group we were in. The British folks were in the booby group, and then the cormorants were a group of tourists from all over the US. The dolphins spoke Spanish, so it was a little harder to get to know them. I'm terrible with names, so Jon and I came up with nicknames for the other travelers to help us identify them. One mother and two-daughter group were from the Boston area, so we called them "Bean Town" and had a great time getting to know them over the course of the cruise. I think we lucked out in that everybody on the cruise with us seemed like such nice folks!

This morning's outing was to Punta Suarez on Espanola Island. Our naturalist for our walk was Hernan, and his English was excellent. We landed on a beach with the standard assortment of sea lions frolicking in the water. Also hanging out on the beach were a group of marine iguanas, so-named because they like to head out into the water to feed on algae. There were so many of them that we had to watch our step so as not to accidentally trample one of them! Hernan explained to us a bit about the island and what we would see on our nature walk. Here, we encountered our first Blue-footed Booby! They really are beautiful birds. The younger ones actually have white feet, but as they mature their feet turn the bright blue color often seen in photographs. Also hanging out on this island were Nazca boobies with what looks like a masked face. We saw a few of them performing their mating ritual by pecking at each other's beaks. The main attraction of this side of the island was an albatross colony. Many of the albatrosses had already migrated away from the island (as they do from December to April), but we did get to see a few of them still hanging around.

In the afternoon on the boat, we got a lecture from Billy, the head naturalist, about reptiles in the Galapagos. Our afternoon excursion took us to Gardner Beach on the other side of Espanola Island. It was a beautiful, white, coral sand beach with a colony of sea lions hanging out. Our naturalist explained to us a little about their living arrangements.

That night, Jon and I were the only English-speakers to join in the karaoke activity after dinner. Always the good sport, Jon sang "New York, New York" in Spanish, much to the delight of the other folks in the room. We sang along to a few of the Spanish songs before calling it a night.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ecuador: Day 7 – Come aboard, we’ve been waiting for you!

Rolling out of bed and eager to start the next phase of our trip, we took a cab to the national departures area of the airport. Our flight that morning would leave Quito, make a stop in Guayaquil on the coast, and then continue on to San Cristobal in the Galapagos Islands. We met up with our cruise representative at the Quito airport who gave us all the documents and instructions we'd need to hop on to our cruise ship, the Galapagos Explorer II.

The flights were very comfortable, and we had room to spread out on both legs. San Christobal was more inhabited than I had expected it to be, with about 8,000 full-time residents. We hopped off the plane, paid our entrance fee into the national park and met up with our GEII reps quickly and efficiently. Once we were all corralled, a bus took us to the waterfront where we walked to the town pier. From there, we were taken by Zodiac out to the ship (the largest one floating in the crowded harbor). I didn't really know what to expect, but the ship was much more beautiful and comfortable that I had imagined. We boarded, checked in, unpacked in our cabin and looked over the schedule for the day.

The first stop on our trip was on the other side of San Christobal Island at a beach called Wizard Hill. Wizard Hill is a large volcanic rock formation, and over time its erosion created a green sand beach. The waves were too high for any good snorkeling, so all of us set off for a walk down the nice beach. Jon and I were amazed at how close we were able to get to the sea lions who were taking a nap on the beach! It was quite incredible to see.

Sea lions live in colonies, so there was an alpha male patrolling the area and barking while the rest of the sea lions stayed in the sand. Looking around, it was hard to believe that we were in such a beautiful place.

Back on board the ship, we dressed for dinner and had a nice meal in the dining room. Earlier in that day, one of our British fellow cruise guests had told us we'd be "plum knackered" by the end of the day, and she was right! We both slept soundly.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Ecuador: Day 6 – On the Road Again

After another leisurely breakfast at the hacienda with the same crowd we'd shared dinner with the night before, Jon and I had to get started back towards Quito. We strolled around the grounds a bit with some of the local dogs, trying to put off our inevitable return to the big city.

With no more time to dawdle, Paty drove us back to the side of the highway pointed north to Quito. I had assumed that we'd take a bus back to the southern bus terminal and then perhaps a cab from there to our hotel. As we were leaving, though, Gabriel told us to grab a green bus to a shopping center and then hit the trolley bus into town. I was apprehensive since we had our bags, but we weren't on any particular schedule until our flight the next morning, so it was worth a shot.

The first bus was very comfortable and eventually arrived to the mall that we were looking for it. "You can't miss it," insisted Paty, and sure enough, we got our bearings as soon as we saw the mall approaching. Another 25 cents later, we had entered the metrobus system from yet another point.

Surprisingly, this station had a trolley bus "map" of sorts that listed some of the stops we'd see. Joining the giant crowd surging towards each trolley bus that arrived swallowing what seemed like zillions of passengers, I was relieved when we scored some of the coveted seats on the bus, our bags securely in our laps. The bus only got more crowded as we zipped into central Quito. I'd figured out the grid address system of the city by this point, so I could keep track of our progress as we passed each stop. Finally, one stop before we were to get off, we started to make our way towards the entry/exit door. As the doors opened, Jon was able to push his way off the bus, but I was trapped on, unwilling to use my backpack (now strapped in front) as the battering ram that would have been necessary to exit as well. I wasn't too concerned: the north side of the new city was familiar to both of us by now, so I figured I'd just get off at the next station and walk back south. Luckily, the very nice folks on the bus saw my plight and stepped aside to hold the doors open as I jumped off shouting "GRACIAS!", grateful for their kindness towards the hapless tourist. I made a mental note to offer similar assistance to the next confused passenger I see on a bus in Seattle.

We walked the few blocks to our hotel, Cafe Cultura, and got rid of our bags. Now on foot and much lighter, we walked back through the central park to the old city again. We did some looking around at the secondhand electronics shops for Jon's iPhone to no avail. The only one we did see was in the hands of a policeman, but he did not seem to think the one he had belonged to Jon. We ducked into an Internet cafe to get the latest from the outside world, and an hour later a large hailstorm had begun in Quito. We tried to wait it out for a little bit, but there seemed to be no change in the intensity. The clouds reduced the visibility which kind of cancelled our plans to take a cable car to the mountaintop. So, we grabbed a cab back to our hotel. It was a slow trip as most of the streets were flooded by all the rain. Somehow, our cab made it back north, and we did some reading until the evening brought some relief from the rain.

Again on foot, we checked out the area around our hotel and then headed back to the old city for some local fried chicken. The place we ended up seemed similar to a KFC, but the fried chicken is supposedly a local street food favorite. Our meals came with a helpful plastic glove for picking up the greasy chicken, in addition to the usual knife and fork. Another cab ride took us back to our hotel where we did some reading in the cozy lobby and turned in early. The next day would bring an early departure to the islands!