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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.
Darwins_orchid.jpg

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)

On to the Galapagos!

Santa Cruz Island

semi-overcast 77 °F

After a great time in Quito, I hopped a plane to the Galapagos. Pro tip number one. You have to pay a $20 cash fee before you board a flight to the Galapagos at a booth in one corner of the Quito airport. Also, my ticket agent insisted that I have a lock for my bag before she would check me in. I was able to find one at the gift shop in the airport for about $!0. I have no idea whether this is an airline requirement or what; of course, in the US you can lock your bag but only with a TSA approved lock; that is, one they can unlock. In Ecuador, apparently any lock is OK.

My flight had a stopover in Guayaquil. Pro tip number two!. I thought the flight attendants announced that you could get off the plane while waiting in Guayaquil. I was wrong! I wandered off and because the only passage that would allow me back on was blocked, I had to leave the secured area of the airport. One nice thing was that I got to view this beautiful wall of orchids and plants in the airport:

guayaquil_airport.jpg

It took some charm and patience, but I was able to talk my way back through security and reboard. Whew!

We landed at the Galapagos airport on Baltra Island, the main airport in the islands. I was excited to be in the Galapagos, as I am a great admirer of Charles Darwin and of course it is a legendary 'bucket list' place for many, myself included. What I was not prepared for was my emotional reaction. As we left the plane via a set of stairs, we proceeded down a breezeway. Looking up and to my left I saw two birds; Darwin finches. One was relatively light-colored with a slender bill, the other was darker with a heavier bill.

I was very moved by the mere sight of these two birds. Of course, they were the first wildlife I saw, but more than that, their differences in coloration and beak size perfectly illustrated the traits that led Darwin to intensively examine the birds of the Galapagos. Years of study later, he realized that while he thought he was studying a wide variety of birds; robins, meadowlarks, etc. he determined that they were all evolved finches! These observations formed a significant part of the foundation of his thinking on evolution and natural selection. This is one of those rare scientific insights that is immediately apparent to the non-specialist, and at the same time one that profoundly influenced science. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised at my reaction.

Back to pro tips. You need to be ready to pay $100 cash per person to enter the Galapagos at the airport, so be prepared; there is an ATM available, but I wouldn't count on that myself. The airport itself has been recently rebuilt using many energy and resource conservation principles. The airport improvements are part of a multi-decade program to restore the environment and the wildlife of the Galapagos, funded at least in part by this fee. I understand that about half the fee goes to island parks and restoration, about 25% to the towns of Galapagos, and the remainder to a variety of Ecuadorian organizations like the Navy.

Speaking of money, I will repeat from an earlier post. You will have a lot of trouble making purchases in Ecuador and the Galapagos unless you have LOTS of small bills with you. Finding someone who will take a cash machine $20 or even a $10 is a real challenge and credit cards are rarely accepted. I would recommend a couple hundred dollars in singles for a reasonable length stay. ATM's are abundant on Santa Cruz, by the way.

More practicalities. You get your luggage after a pretty entertaining time where you watch a sniffer dog climbing all over everyone's bags. The dog found something from our plane; that bag got hustled off. You then board a quite crowded bus for a 10 minute ride to a channel separating Baltra Island from the main island of Santa Cruz. The airport is probably on this island at least in part because during WWII the US and Ecuadorians build an air base on the island. Unfortunately, the development of the base led to the extinction on the island of a unique iguana species. Luckily, a reserve colony existed and is being used to repopulate the island, which is being restored to its natural state to the extent possible. As you travel on the bus, you will see the foundations of many buildings that were part of the air base.

Baltra_Isl.._foundation.jpg

The airport bus takes you to a dock where you board a passenger ferry for a 10 minute ride across the channel from Baltra Island to Santa Cruz (you will need one of your dollars right here). There is usually a bus and several taxis waiting to take you onward. If your destination is the main town of Puerto Ayora, the bus will get you there for about $3. The taxi costs about $25 - as usual, ask first. Both get you there at about the same time, so take your choice.

Puerto Ayora is the main town on the south end of the island, about a 45 minute bus ride from the airport/channel. It's a small town but does have plenty of amenities, including a supermarket and many hotels, apartments and hostels. This is the main 'tourist street' along the water and one of its attractions, a small fish market with multispecies attendance.

Puerto_Ayora_main_street.jpgPuerto_Ayora_fish_market.jpg

I had an AirBNB booking for a small apartment ($65/day). Good hotels run about $100, and hostels are in the $15-$20 range. My place was several blocks from the waterfront which was no problem, and was clean and comfortable. All agree that drinking tap water anywhere in the Galapagos is inadvisable. I continued my modestly reckless policy of avoiding using tap water to drink/brush my teeth, but still eating salads and accepting ice cubes in my occasional adult beverage. I survived with no ill effects, but YMMV!

There are dozens of shops selling day tours and longer excursions. I frequently saw signs out front offering 'last minute' trips of up to 8 days, often leaving the next day. I did not shop these tours, but it does suggest that if you want to take a chance you could find a room for the night in Puerto Ayora and spend the next day shopping for a bargain tour if that is your preference. I'm guessing it would be a good plan to research whether tours tend to leave on particular days (I saw several leaving on a Friday) and get there one day ahead?

My interest was in day snorkeling trips, so I carefully selected one of the tour agencies by the process of wandering past a bunch of them until I got bored. Actually, I picked mine because their walls were covered with pictures signed by happy and satisfied clients and it had 'Evolution' in the name. It was called Galapagos Evolution Dreams . (Their web page is completely content-free, but I have linked to it in case additional info is forthcoming). I went in and said 'sign me up for 3 tours over the next 5 days' and they made recommendations and did so. As it happens, all of the tours were very good and took me to a variety of sites around the Islands. The full day tours typically start between 7:30 and 9:00 in the morning and return by 3:00 or 4:00. Each tour has two or three snorkeling opportunities and one other stroll or something. The guides are all certified (I saw about 100 guides in training one day) and I thought they all worked hard to make the trips enjoyable. Water and a lunch are provided (ask if unsure) and they usually provide snorkel, mask, fins and a wetsuit at no extra charge. I brought my own gear as I have a prescription mask. You could snorkel without a spring-weight wetsuit, but the water is perhaps just a bit too cool for full comfort without it.

So, with my plans in place, I hit the supermarket for some breakfast goodies and got ready to get a look at the wild side of the Galapagos. Wet and wild critters here I come!

Posted by tdeits 13:17 Archived in Ecuador Tagged hotels tours santa cruz puerto snorkeling lodging guides galapagos airbnb baltra ayora Comments (0)

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