Trying to plan without overplanning is a challenge!
27.05.2017 - 17.06.2017
I am taking advantage of my frequent flyer miles to head to Quito, Ecuador and on to the Galapagos. I decided to spend about 6 days in Quito and then about 12 days in the Galapagos, which should give me plenty of time to wander about Quito and pet tortoises in the Galapagos, with the occasional afternoon lounging with una cerveza.
My planning for Quito was pretty straightforward. I booked a hotel near the airport because I am arriving late, then will use an Airbnb place in Quito as a base for wandering around. I am not sure what I will do there as yet, but that suits my style of travel. I'll report on the hotel and the apartment later in this series of posts.
Now, I have done a lot of traveling overseas with virtually no knowledge of the local language, and have gotten along reasonably well. Sometimes, as in Germany, even if I did have some German, most folks would rather use their English with me rather than endure my German. On other occasions, my excuse has been either that I was going to a country where I felt that the language was way too challenging for casual study (Korea, Japan) or I was visiting so many countries that learning the languages was impossible (my RTW trip). However, as I would be spending considerable time in a country with a language I have heard since childhood in California, I thought it was high time to try and pick up a little Spanish.
So for the last month or so I have been diligently working through the Spanish lessons at Duolingo. It's a free site and I found that I enjoyed their gamified approach to language learning. They have a lot of languages available, including, recently, Japanese (now I don't have an excuse!). I have absolutely no idea if I will be able to use my spanish but I feel moderately confident that I can decipher basic signage, menus, etc. and probably ask for a doctor if I fall off a cliff. For what it is worth, I am what Duolingo calls Level 14 in Spanish.
So that's the Quito side of the equation. For me, though, the big question is how to approach the Galapagos. Of course, the wildlife is said to be awesome and it's really interesting terrain but, like many scientists, I view a visit to the Galapagos as a pilgramage of sorts, acknowledging the immense contribution to scientific knowledge provided by Charles Darwin. I consider 'On the Origin of the Species' to be one of the great scientific works (if not the greatest!) of all time. I believe this not just because he crystallized the concepts of evolution and natural selection for the first time in a coherent whole and then wrote lucid accessible prose to describe his thoughts and evidence, but because of the structure of the book itself.
Darwin does not present himself as an advocate for a particular position. Instead, he acknowledges that he has an idea of how things might work and then spends the bulk of the book trying his concepts out on the most challenging examples he could come up with and assesses whether his ideas can provide an explanatory framework across a dazzling array of biological systems, from orchids to barnacles. His goal is always to ask the hardest questions and go where the evidence leads. This truly scientific approach differs radically from the more frequent strategy of putting forward an idea and lobbing softballs (or outright lying about the evidence) and claiming confirmation - sadly, an approach we see far too often in American politics, for example.
Well, enough of that. Let me give a cool example of Darwin at work. He spent many years studying orchids; not for their beauty alone, but because he wanted to know if the amazing diversity of these weird and wonderful flowers served a function in nature or if they were merely represented the whimsy of a Creator.
In 1862, a botanist sent him this remarkable orchid, which I was fortunate enough to see at the McBryde Garden and Allerton Garden on Kauai.
The only nectar in this flower is at the end of the almost foot long tube descending from the flower. The botanist asked Darwin how he would explain this remarkable structure. Darwin's answer was that there must be an insect that pollinates this flower that is actually capable of reaching this hidden treasure. Indeed, such an insect was discovered and Darwin's prediction was finally fully confirmed; it's a moth with a foot-long tongue! Final confirmation came more than 100 years after Darwin's prediction!
I highly encourage everyone to read On The Origin of Species. It's highly readable and Darwin's erudition and clarity shine out on every page. It's available online here and of course hard copies are easy to find.
That's the Darwin side of my motivation. I was also motivated by an incident in my family history that involves the Galapagos! No spoilers yet - I'll cover this in later posts.
OK, enough musings. What about actually planning? Well, my research showed that there are two general approaches to visiting the Galapagos. The first, and the one most people have heard of, is travelling island to island while staying on a ship. The ships can be luxurious or spartan, and the tour can be lesiurely or active. It was quite tempting as I love the idea of being able to jump off the ship into the sea as well as seeing a variety of locations and getting pampered a bit along the way. Of course, this approach is kind of spendy. I'm going to say something north of $300/day not including airfare.
In recent years (say the last decade), though, there has been some pushback to this approach. Primarily, the residents of the Galapagos (and yes,there are several small towns there!) reap minimal economic benefit from these ships that don't employ locals and don't fill local hotels or restaurants.
There is an increasingly popular alternative. Stay onshore in the Galapagos and then explore via day tours and the like. There are plenty of places to stay - Airbnb and related services have many offerings. So I opted for this choice. I am spending about half my time in the largest town, Puerto Ayora, and the remainder on the largest island, Isabela (why Isabela? Stay tuned!). You can fly between the islands (expensive) or take a 2 hour ferry ride (cheap and fun; that's for me!). I have not looked deeply into day tour options but I hope to do my share of snorkeling, photography and beaching.
So I'm off in a few days. Let's see if I have done my planning right!