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Quito and the Galapagos ahead!

Trying to plan without overplanning is a challenge!

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!

Posted by tdeits 15:09 Archived in Ecuador Tagged puerto darwin lodging galapagos quito ecuador isabela ayora Comments (2)

Two excursions to the North and South of Quito

Otavalo and Cotapaxi

semi-overcast 51 °F

I really wanted to get a bit out of town as well and see the surrounding countryside so I opted to take two day trips on my own. The first was to Otavalo, a town famous for its central market and handicrafts. Buses to Otavalo leave from the Carcelen Terminal, but of course you have to get there. Pro tip- a bus that says 'Carcelen' in the window will take you the center of the Carcelen district, about a mile (downhill) from the Terminal proper. If you jump off this bus at the right time you can cut that distance in half. There are other, more efficient methods to get there by bus, but sorry, I can't tell you what they are! Once I arrived, I hopped a bus to Otavalo within about 5 minutes - at a cost of $3 for the 90 minute bus ride (very comfortable bus).

The ride itself is pretty interesting. The highway is broad, smooth and relatively new. Given the amount of erosion to which the area is subject, it must have been a monumental project. In this picture you can see a very large hillside covered with sprayed concrete to prevent futher erosion. It may be that the center section has succumbed already, so this will no doubt be an ongoing challenge. It's a scenic and enjoyable trip nonetheless.


Otavalo is a small town that caters to tourists. It sits at the base of the 15,000 foot Ibambura volcano (resting for about 14,000 years but considered capable of eruption).


Ibambura is revered by the local indigenous peoples, the Otavalenos, who are also responsible for the handicrafts, principally woven and knitted materials often incorporating alpaca and cashmere wool. The streets and sidwalks are nicely decorated and there are plenty of restaurants and hotels. Here's a street scene in the center of town as well as a picture of a utility access cover. Readers of my earlier blog entries, like Japan at your feet will know I am on the lookout for interesting examples wherever I go. This one features an Otavaleno child.


Frankly, however, the big central market was a bit of a disappointment. It's colorful and fun to walk through, but the great majority of items are available in, say, the market in Quito. I did pick up some actual handwoven small textiles with an interesting design. Negotiation is expected, and I got the price down about a third, which is as I understand it, par for the course. Not something I'm experienced at or even all that comfortable with, given the initial economic disparity, but it's customary, I guess.


Was it worth the effort to go to Otavalo? I"m about 50/50 on that.

My next excursion was considerably more entertaining.

Cotapaxi is one of the volcanoes to be seen from Quito - see my earlier post. You can join a tour from Quito or from town near Cotapaxi, but I decided to wing it. Buses to Cotapaxi leave from the Quitumbe bus station, which serves destinations to the south of Quito. I admit I did wimp out and take a taxi across town this time. It cost $10 for about a 45 minute taxi ride, so seemed to be a prudent choice.

Again, lots of buses, again about 3 bucks for the 2 hour ride. Here's another small pro tip for regional buses. Regional buses go all over Ecuador and beyond and they are an astonishingly inexpensive way to get around. One tip is that if you would prefer a bus that doesn't make a lot of intermediate stops (meaning anytime anyone wants to get off anywhere), don't ask for a 'direct' bus- ask for an 'Executivo;' they are slightly more expensive and usually slightly more comfortable (one I took showed a movie) but will get you there a little bit quicker.

Anyway, I was dropped off at 'Cotapaxi.' It turns out what that means is you are dropped off at a freeway overpass in the middle of nowhere.



Fortunately, I am likely not the first tourist to choose this path, as just up the hill was a line of pickups and guides. The first guy in line offered to take me on a tour of Cotapaxi for $40, and I said OK. He was a certified guide who has been doing this for 15 years and he and I got on quite well. Suffice it to say that we spent over 4 hours exploring the area, stopping for pictures whenever and wherever, and ultimately reaching as high as you can go without trying to summit.

The hillsides are covered with alpine flowers of all descriptions, and there is a peculiar gray granular material covering the higher ground that might be some kind of pumice derivative, but I have not been able to identify it. You can see some in one of the pictures below.



The road winds ever higher. It gets so steep that towards the top we picked up 6 more people just to get enough weight in the truck to continue uphill (their car had reached its limit). Here's a look back down at part of the road.


There are some spectacular erosional features, and we also got our first look at the Jose F. Rivas refuge, which in this shot kind of looks like Shangri-La, but is in fact the starting point for summiters.


We ground our way up, parked and hiked a short distance further up the hill where I got a closer look at the refuge and at my altimeter, which showed a personal record - 15,279 feet,, almost 1000 feet higher than Mount Rainier!


Of course, the star of the show is Cotapaxi itself at a staggering 19,347 feet in height, and after teasing us all day by staying in the clouds, the summit peeked out for a few minutes. Awesome!


We wandered down the hill, taking more photos and stopping at an alpine lake.


The lake was pretty, but I was most intrigued by this little bird who spent considerable time working on this hole until, finally, he unearthed a tasty grub (by his feet in the second shot).


And no trip is complete without a picture of a cow, in this case a Cotapaxi native. As I took the shot, it amused my guide to grab his red hankercheif for a few ole's!


My guide finally dropped me off at the same nondescript overpass and within 10 minutes a bus came by to whisk me back to Quito. Let's hear it for extemporaneity!!

So - two very interesting and fulfilling days. If I had to choose one to repeat, it would be Cotapaxi hands down!

Posted by tdeits 15:09 Archived in Ecuador Tagged flowers volcano bus market otavalo ecuador cotapaxi executivo quitumbe alttude Comments (0)

The actual Galapagos post!

interisland travel, land and creatures

semi-overcast 83 °F

Well, I have spent considerable time and effort writing posts on planning to go to the Galapagos, getting as far as Ecuador, roaming around a bit, and finally arriving. So how to approach the Galapagos themselves in this narrative? Part of me wants to post a hundred or so pictures of the landscape, the wildlife, the sea and the rest, and call it good. Part of me just wants to say: "Take it from me, you need to go there yourself - if you want pictures, ask Mr. Google!" And part of me wants to talk about some of the practicalities, maybe to make your future trip there a bit smoother.

After much thought (and procrastination) I think I will offer a few practicalities and a few pictures and tell you that the take home message is - just go there!

OK - practicalities. I stuck 'interisland travel' into the subhead because I was able to find relatively little on this subject online and I think a simple summary would be helpful to many. First, you can, if you choose, fly between islands. This has the advantage of speed, but suffers from high cost and strict luggage weight allowances and, if you are skittish about flying, you may not enjoy smaller twin engine prop planes. I didn't choose this route myself, preferring to travel by interisland ferry.

I traveled from Santa Cruz Island to Isabella and San Cristobal Islands and back, and all of the trips had a pretty standard pattern. First, cost - the going rate for all of these trips, about 2 hours long, was $30. You have to buy tickets in a shop in town, not at the boat or on the wharf and you should buy in advance. There is typically a morning and and afternoon sailing for each island. You will need to have your luggage inspected prior to boarding. Bored, yet?

The ferries themselves are just 35 foot or so cabin cruisers with benches along both sides of the semi-enclosed interiors. They typically take about 20 passengers, and all of the ones I took were full (hence the advice to buy in advance!). You access the ferries from the wharf by means of water taxis (which typically charge their own fee of 50 cents; don't expect change for anything larger than a dollar). OK, OK, some pictures to liven this dreary narrative! Here's the wharf at Puerto Ayora and a lineup of water taxis ready to take you to your ferry.


The trip itself is not for the faint of heart. This is open ocean cruising in a small boat, and it can be rough. There are substantial open ocean swells so the boat is alternately rising and falling slowly, and then suddenly going up a steep wave and dropping back with a dramatic impact. Someone got seasick on every trip. So, first pro tip - if you are the least bit susceptible, take your meds before hand. If you are not sure, take your meds on your first try. If you are immune, you better hope you are right! Now, I'm immune and did not suffer from seasickness at all. However, the rising and falling and slamming down can also take a toll. I made the mistake of sitting towards the front of the boat on my first trip. All I can say, is that if you have a bad back or have the desire never to have a bad back, DON'T sit in the front of the boat! I literally had to suspend myself above the seat with my arms to provide enough cushioning to avoid spine-jarring impacts for two solid hours. So sit in the back of the boat, you say? Nay, I say! There are typically a few seats along the back in the open air which can be very pleasant apart from having 2-200HP outboard engines roaring a foot or two from your ears. However, on two trips, the wind and waves combined to basically marinate the folks on one side of the back of the boat in sea water.

The happy place to sit is near, but not in, the back of the boat. So how to you arrange this? Second pro tip. Use the water taxis to your advantage. Generally speaking, the water taxis are 'first on, last off.' So if you get on as one of the last passengers on the taxi, you will usually be one of the first onto the ferry and you can grab an optimal seat. Also, the taxis take about 10 people so there are two taxis per ferry. Take the first taxi! This may require judicious deployment of elbows, but try to be gentle.

Sounds horrible, right? No. I actually enjoyed all the ferry rides; just looking out at the ocean and feeling the sea move under me is something I never tire of. Just be prepared and you can enjoy it too.

OK, a little about the land. Santa Cruz Island is the most built up island and one that, at least in the parts I saw, completely vegetated. It's a pleasant enough place but I didn't do any excursions out of town on foot, focusing instead on snorkeling trips. Weather? It was typically mid 80's days and mis 70's nights. At one point Mr. Google's weather forecast for the subsequent 5 days did not deviate by more than one degree, day after day. Breezy, a bit humid, but altogether pleasant. Although I did visit San Cristobel Island, it was only to transfer from the interisland ferry to a smaller boat for my snorkeling tour so I didn't see much.

I did wander around Isabella Island a fair amount, and it was quite an interesting place. I stayed at the La Casa de Marita Botique Hotel which is right on the beach. It is a lovely place with attractive rooms and grounds. One bonus is that much of the food served in the restaurant is grown on their own farms on the island, and it was quite tasty. The beach out front is white sand, and basically used only by hotel guests. This is me working hard taken from the hotel patio.


Speaking of procrastinating, this is written about a week after the above. I found myself trying to pick out pictures; a minimal number just to illustrate a few things, and rapidly got overwhelmed. My new plan is to give you a gallery of pictures, let you enjoy them, and then simply say 'adios' to this remarkable place!

OK - here we go:

Yummy food at the Casa de Marita hotel!


Strolling on the beach, found this little guy patiently creating hundreds of b-b sized balls of sand.

More pictures of the beaches of Isabella Island.


A Darwin's finch and my first Galapgaos Tortoise in the wild, from the road to the Wall of Tears


A very calm diving bird (I haven't been able to identify the bird - any ideas?) sitting next to me by a small bay filled with hundreds of diving birds. You can find this spot by walking the road to the Wall of Tears and turning off at a sign that says "Los Tunos."


The Isabella Island Tortoise reserve is a pleasant walk from town. They hope to repopulate the Galapagos with correct species in the right numbers to replicate early days. Since tortoises often live for 150 years, with patience they may be able to achieve their goal.


OK, some underwater stuff. The fish are ludicrously tame - unlike any other place I have snorkeled. Here's a particularly unafraid little guy.


The sea lions and sea turtles are also cool with people in their space.


Visited a boat-only site called Kicker Rock; probably my favorite spot for the dramatic scenery and cool critters. Glimpsed a hammerhead shark (one of 4 varieties I spotted on the trip) but didn't get a picture. Note the bird about a foot from me in the cleft in the rock.


Here are some white tipped reef sharks chilling under a ledge. I got this picture by the guide standing on my back and pushing me down in the water and sticking my hand under the ledge to get the shot. This is a place called 'Los Tuneles.'


Everywhere I found schools of fish that were perfectly content with you diving into their midst and swimming with them. Never experienced that before! Here are just a couple of samples. Go get your own!!


Posted by tdeits 12:04 Archived in Ecuador Tagged beaches sea turtles food fish hotel of ferries rock de los wall ferry tortoises lions iguanas galapagos ecuador casa tears marita isabella tĂșneles kicker finches interisland Comments (0)

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