Ecuador & The Galápagos Islands


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South America » Ecuador » Galápagos
July 30th 2016
Published: August 21st 2016
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The Galapagos Islands

I was always in a dilemma over visiting the Galápagos, Charles Darwin himself said 'I loathe, I abhor the sea and all ships which sail on it.' And personally I couldn't agree more, in fact it's only my hated of selfie sticks that matches it really, I feel sickness just looking at a wave and wouldn't exactly classify myself as a keen bird watcher either. But then it's THE Galapagos plus my inner geek goes weak at the knees for anything associated with Darwin as he's one of my all time heroes so it was something of a homage to come. He better appreciate it.

A geography lesson

We flew 2 hours west of mainland Ecuador over miles of uninterrupted ocean before finally in the distance some specks appeared dotted amongst the beautiful blue ocean and fair play to the pilot for landing on what appeared to be nothing more than a driveway. The Galápagos are actually comprised of 13 islands, 4 of which are inhabited and in total some 30,000 people live on these remote outposts where the goods they need to survive have to be delivered fortnightly by boat. They were only discovered in the 1500s but have since packed in a whole lot of drama: they were a place for gold laden pirates to hide away, served as a military base to protect the Panama Canal during WW2, then they were a penal colony and have now been a national park since 1959, plus some guy called Charles Darwin visited and wrote some book that turned out to be groundbreaking in the exact way that 50 Shades of Grey wasn't. But it doesn't take bondage to get excited about what makes the Galápagos so unique, they are actually formed atop one huge volcanic plate and the islands we see today are merely the peaks of underwater submarine volcanoes. This means they have never been connected to the mainland in any way so any species of animal or plant must have been brought to them after crossing thousands of kilometres of water. Luckily in one of those beautiful freaks of nature that it often takes to start wonderful things on this planet the islands rose at the perfect crossroads of 3 big ocean currents and winds. It is thought that plant seeds were blown across on the strong winds and vegetation rafts drifting out to sea from the mainland brought any animals: these could take up to 2 weeks to cross the ocean so any mammal would die way before reaching the islands hence only the reptiles survived the journey. And with no predators around to wipe them out and millions of years of uninterrupted frolicking-business boomed.

The result is an archipelago stuffed full of wildlife from giant tortoises to sea turtles, sea lions and fur seals, penguins, flamingoes, iguanas, lizards, frigate birds and blue footed boobies (tee hee). And it was here that Darwin sailed and noticed the adaptation of finches who had all begun from one original ancestor but had now developed into 13 separate species with unique beaks and characteristics based on which island they were on and the shape of the plants that they fed from. His book On The Origins of Species would shake up the world-particularly the religious one-and change the way we think about life on the planet. And nearly 200 years later a short Welshman would go to visit it clutching a sick bag and cursing profusely.

Isla Isabela

Well that was when I eventually got there, first it took a whole load of queuing in the disorganised Quito airport to try and get a permit to visit the islands at a cost of $120, then a flight, 2 buses and 2 ferries just to reach Isla Isabela, it seemed a whole lot of effort just to see some boobies, blue or otherwise. My group (Intrepid travel-Galapagos on a shoestring-great value) and I would spend 3 nights here on the largest island in the Galápagos, which despite its size was very quiet and laid back-even the seals lazed on the boardwalks, beaches and pretty much wherever they fell. It was a town of sandy roads and a feel that it was still being built as though the locals just put it off to complete another day and still hadn't got around to having another crack at it as urgency seemed to be an unheard of notion here.

Over the next week we undertook a number of excursions, the first of which took us to the Giant tortoise breeding centre where 12,000 of the wrinkly speedsters are kept. The Galápagos has 5 of the worlds 11 species of giant tortoise and naturally they can grow to be as large as 250 kg and live to the ripe old age of 150-200 years. I loved the thought that when some of these were born Napoléon was still running amok and light bulbs were still decades away, but sadly on this particular island they don't survive in the wild thanks to domesticated animals such as dogs, cows and even donkeys destroying the eggs. It was nice to finally see some but underwhelming as essentially it was a mini zoo with a load of them piled in enclosures and it was much more satisfying to see them in the wild later on. On the next visit I moved about as quickly as a tortoise when I hiked to the top of a volcano called Volcan Sierra Negra which is one of 6 volcanoes on this island, 5 are still active but the last eruption on this particular one was in 2005 so I fancied my odds. The Sierra Negra is named for the grey/black clouds that almost permanently cover it and in the first hour of trekking we were enveloped by them and left pretty wet, but once you climb above and reach the top altitude of 1500metres it suddenly became very hot, thankfully it wasn't a particularly taxing climb and the views at the top made it worthwhile due to its perfectly formed caldera running 11k long and 7km wide. The clouds flow up and spill over the lip of the volcano before resting on the dark black lava, while a landscape of greenery grows brightly in the fertile soil and the blue sky frames it all making for a wonderful landscape. We trekked down the other side of the volcano where most of the flows and spews have taken place and it more resembled Mars: all rocky, red and lifeless but for the 7 metre tall and 700 year old cacti still managing to survive in such inhospitable conditions. The total trek was 12kms in all, certainly manageable and definitely worth doing.

On another day we took the short boat ride out to an island called Isla Tintonera to do some snorkelling. This journey allowed the Galápagos to show off its density of wildlife and from the boat alone we saw sea turtles, penguins, sea lions, Herrons, rays and an array of boobies but none of them chest height. Walking across the island we had to traverse huge groups of iguanas and crabs and also saw 'shark alley' where white tipped reef sharks rest during the day in old lava channels. Undaunted by these apparently harmless creatures we went snorkelling in the turquoise waters although I was definitely worried about the state of my testicles as the water was initially cold despite the wet suits. After a bit of graceful flapping around you forgot that though and especially when the sheer abundance of animals start swimming around you. The shallow and pretty much transparent water allowed us to spot at least 7 or 8 sea turtles swimming right by us, as well as these there were the iguanas sashaying past( I didn't even realise they could swim), morays, spotted eagle rays, clams, starfish and all manner of colourful fish that were too numerous and too dazzling to properly take in. I've done a fair bit of snorkelling around the world and this spot on the Galápagos is definitely up there with the best for the visibility and array of wildlife. Plus I didn't throw up in the water, result.

Santa Cruz

This next island may have been much smaller but still packed in a whole lot to do. The initial visit was again rather lacking though, the Charles Darwin research centre may be named after the guy but didn't actually tell us anything about him, it was mainly a centre detailing the efforts to preserve the wildlife and a chance to see some more tortoises and iguanas in enclosures so we left pretty quickly. Instead we ventured north for a Highlands visit where we could see giant tortoises in the 'wild', although this was a touch false advertising as they actually spend their days roaming a farm thanks to the wily owner planting thousands of guava trees there. Tortoises apparently love these so they never bother to leave and some 3000 spend their days ambling from one tree to the next, it was only males here though as all the females were off nesting and no doubt moaning about how difficult pregnancy is... The tortoises surprised me in that they actually move around a lot and are more perpetual motion than I previously gave them credit for, it's just that they do it very slowly and in a very uncoordinated stumbling manner bumping into all kind of things-a little like me drunk. Also on the farmland were some lava tunnels caused by pyroclastic flows and a mixture of hot gases and cool air resulting in long tunnels hundreds of metres long that you could walk through and explore, some of which opened up into fairly large caves and made for a decent diversion. On the final day we visited Tortuga Bay which was a quiet little mangrove beach which you reached after a walk of an hour or so but it was nothing much to write home about, so I won't.

San Cristobal

The final island was San Cristobal, a small but charming island replete with the usual abundance of sea lions, frigate birds and lovely sunsets. I avoided the heinously overpriced excursions of $120 to Kicker Rock or the island snorkelling at Isla Lobos for $70 (both of which I had been advised to give a miss but at those prices I was eager to) and instead we made our own way around. First I visited the remote and cosy little Loberia beach which I pretty much had to myself except for some sea lions who lazed languidly over the long abandoned lifeguard stations and I soaked up some rays on the golden sand and in the bluey/green water. Next we walked to Frigate bird hill and from on top admired the small little bay where sea lions swam and frigate birds dived for fish whilst around the spot where Darwin and his ship first landed. The nearby Interpretation Centre did a great job of detailing the extensive history of the Galápagos Islands (and formed most of the geeky information in this blog) as well as giving some insight into Darwin and how he formed his infamous theories based on studies of finches and lizards. Admittedly they missed out some key facets which the Lonely Planet filled in such as the point that Darwin being SO associated with the islands is a slight misnomer because despite spending 5 years aboard the Beagle he only actually spent 19 days on the islands themselves. In fact he didn't develop his theories until 20years later (and that was mainly in the UK looking at snails and pigeons) whilst On the Origin of Species only has about 1%!o(MISSING)f it about the Galapagos specifically.

But I think what happened to Darwin happens to all of us and certainly me, you reflect on the Galápagos Islands more after you've left and it's then that you really start to appreciate just how unique and special they actually are. They deserve their place on the travellers bucket list for how they came into existence, the abundance of wildlife that miraculously formed there, their stunning location and for sowing the seeds of doubt in Darwin's mind, they certainly won me over.



Mainland Ecuador

Next it was time for Ecuador proper because somehow on my previous South American adventures I had managed to bypass this small but perfectly formed country. It packs a lot into a small space though and contains a list of highlights that some entire continents would be jealous of: the Galápagos Islands, Amazon rainforest, Andes mountains, hordes of wildlife and colonial relics so I was looking forward to finding out what I missed last time.

Amazon basin

I joined another tour company in Quito (GAdventues-Ecuador Experience) and pretty much immediately realised I was guilty of a couple of mis conceptions. Firstly, the gene pool was a lot more mixed than I had expected with the remnants of Spanish colonisers, African slaves and Europeans evident. Secondly, it appeared that it was suffering from more widespread poverty and political turmoil than I had realised, I was surprised to find out that based on GDP it ranked only 7th out of 12 in Latin America and below countries such as Colombia and Peru despite in my head it doing seemingly better, clearly there was a lot of find out. Despite meeting in the capital we left the next day for the Amazon and if the change wasn't obvious enough on paper it certainly was visually. From a heaving, bustling, building-heavy city we ascended into the mountains through cloud forests that peaked at 4000 metres then descended down the other side into the lush vertiginous rainforest. We stopped initially at a small town on the edge called Tena where the pace of life was slow and most visit for the white water rafting, but as it was 'only' a grade 3 river I decided to be a rafting snob and save my money for rainier days.

Instead we headed deeper into the jungle to experience life living with an indigenous family from the Quichua tribe. They live under thatched roof lodges that are set amid a backdrop of wall to wall green and mountain scenery, where mist and clouds constantly envelope the landscape, the patter of rain is never far away and birds are busy in trees-it was a serene and idyllic place. The family taught us the traditional ways that have been passed down for generations and we got to try our hand at all manner of things such as using a blow pipe and dart to try and catch wildlife but as per usual with anything remotely manly I failed miserably to even hit the target, it's lucky for everyone it was just for fun because if they relied on me for food we'd all be going vegan.

They also taught us how they use the natural environment of the rainforest to suit their needs because where you and I see a plant or tree they see medicinal herbs to cure all manner of ailments and disease, but sadly he couldn't find me a man-up pill. The chief demonstrated how different plants are better suited for different purposes such as weaving, building animal traps or even dens to survive the night and we also used the cocoa plant to make chocolate from scratch and after picking, peeling and roasting it we then finally devoured into in record setting times. I was definitely less inclined to eat the grotesquely fat and wriggling larvae they presented on a palm leaf but thankfully we didn't have to delve too far into a celebrity reality show as they saw the look on our faces and took them off to be deep fried first. This reduced the oozing chewy nature a little although the overriding taste was salt and a feeling I'd just done something dirty. They also demonstrated the mysterious/made up ways of a Shaman as well as a traditional wedding which of course I was forced to take part in. Thankfully arranged marriages are now a thing of the past here and people are free to choose so it wasn't legally binding or otherwise I have a lot of explaining to do to my Mum. Aside from that we swam and leapt into lagoons and rivers, received mud facials, lazed in hammocks and played cards with the family. It was a great time but I'm still calling a technical foul because despite it's billing we actually visited the Amazon basin and while the tributaries here may eventually feed into the THE Amazon it wasn't the real thing and it therefore remains an unfulfilled ambition, I'll get there one day. However the home stays were the high points of the trip for most people.

Banos

We continued further West and found Banos (pronounced Ban-yos) nestled snuggly into a valley, it was surrounded by steep mountains supplying waterfalls that cascaded down towards the city, a volcano stood guard on one side whilst a river carved its way through the centre and thermal baths bubbled away, not to mention the fact it also serves as the adventure capital of Ecuador. If you were trying to build a perfect tourist location then this wouldn't be far off it. As we were there 2 days we tried to squeeze in the best of both worlds and went on a couple of hikes around the area, first on a much simpler although quite vertical route up one side of the 16,000 foot Tungurahua volcano that took us to the Monumento a la Virgen. The town seemed to like Mary a bit and this seated statue of her looked over a waterfall that was also named after the woman who didn't have sex but still got pregnant somehow ( I've heard that hard luck story used in Wales too but they don't have waterfalls named after Chantel or Harmony).

Anyway I digress, still aching the following day after just doing a slither of the volcano we cheated and took a bus to the viewpoint at the top where you can partake in one of the cheesiest tourist sights I've seen in a long while-the 'swing at the end of the world'. This is essentially...well it's a swing isn't it...that you swing on...while looking at the volcano...which we couldn't see anyway as it was totally enveloped in cloud. I paid $1 for the privilege of entering that park and consider it the most overcharged I've ever been in my life, ever. The hike back down was more interesting and gave good alternative views of Banos over a fairly leisurely couple of hours. Possibly because the adrenaline was surging through my veins after the worlds most deadliest swing or whatever it was called I decided to try canyoning, which is essentially rappelling down waterfalls. After what I'd calculate was 2 minutes of instruction we were allowed to inch over the edge of a tumbling waterfall and start walking down the walls as the water pummelled its way past you. The waterfalls steadily increased in size, starting at 8 metres, then progressing to 12, 18, 25 and ending in a 35 metre high drop. By the end we were mildly cold, wet and confidently bounding and jumping our way down the walls of sheer rock and water, it was great fun and a cheap price so highly recommended. We finished off the sites of Banos by trawling its bars and clubs while playing pool and fusball against locals, drinking horribly strong free shots and trying to dance to their music.

Aluasi

Aluasi is nice enough, it sits at 2350 metres and is a tiny uneventful place with nothing exciting to see. I'm not sure if we stopped off there to break up the journey or because the same gullible person who was promised a world ending swing was also talked into taking a spectacular train journey to see 'The Devil's nose'. The train runs for 12kms and takes an hour to reach the next station where it stops for a while before then returning back the same way, it's claim to fame is that it descends 1000 metres in that time and that it passes by a mountain that is shaped like the Beelzebub's snout. Now I've never seen the devil up close but unless he has a boob where his nose should be then Ecuador has done some massive false advertising because the fact is that the mountain looked nothing like a nose and partially like a breast, I think they're missing a trick really as they'd definitely get more visitors if they renamed it the Devil's tit. It was given it's name by the slaves who were transported from places like Jamaica and beyond to construct it, many of whom died in the process and the tiny museum at the only stop does its best to detail all this. The river running through the mountains did all the hard work and the tracks were built along this using a clever switchback technique, but overall unless your a real train buff or that hard up that you want to see a mountain shaped like a breast then it's not worth taking. I went twice, I really like trains you understand...

We also stopped off for a night in the city of Guayaquil which with a population of 2.2 million is actually bigger than the capital Quito (Ecuador has a total population of 14 million). Located on the mouth of an wide expanse of river it is also stuffed full of history as it gained independence from the Spanish many years before Ecuador itself managed the feat (for the geeks out there Ecuador was colonised by the Spanish in 1532 and gained independence in 1830) so the residents here have always felt themselves somewhat different and separate to the rest. Admittedly I didn't have time to explore it in great detail to find any downsides and perhaps the obvious police presence in certain areas was an indication, but I found it a pleasant and pleasing city full of museums, statues to heroes such as Simon Bolivar, large churches, parks, markets and a lovely promenade that led to a lighthouse which gave great views over the city and river. I'd have rather spent two nights here exploring and seen less of the Devil's appendages but such is the nature of tours.

Puerto Lopez

Finally we reached the coastline of the Pacific Ocean and settled in for 4 days of lazing on sandy beaches, playing in the warm-ish sea or drinking too much in the beach bars(sugar cane alcohol is not big nor clever, I speak from experience). The weather beat us some days and remained stubbornly overcast and the town was clearly undergoing a massive renovation as they resurface the main road but it didn't deter from a good location. Puerto Lopez is surrounded on all sides by Machalilla National Park, 232 square miles of protected area,155 miles of which are taken up by a tropical dry forest and 77 miles of which are actually ocean including the big hitter of the area Isla de la Plata. This island lies an hour off the coast and is often billed as the 'poor mans Galápagos' but in many ways I actually preferred it. Admittedly the boat that took us out there skimmed along the large waves at speeds normally reserved for space shuttles re-entering the atmosphere but the wildlife more than made up for this. We had arrived in the middle of the whale season and saw a vast array of humpbacks including calves who treated us to a great show of breaches, fin waving, water blowing and tail slapping. The sea also threw pods of dolphins at us who came over as inquisitive as ever to check us out and when they were finished we got to see a trio of sea turtles floating right alongside the boat. Once on the island itself we spent a couple of hours with very knowledgeable guides learning about all the frigate birds and blue footed boobies, the bird life was way more extensive and in larger number than I saw on the Galápagos and as with the whales we got much closer than I ever have before as unethical as this may be. To round it off you could snorkel in water with good visibility and plentiful sea life and the whole trip including lunch was just $40. If you can't afford the Galápagos Islands then this is a superb and in some ways better experience for a fraction of the price, as is Machalilla National Park itself where some of the group went and apparently experienced nice beaches etc rendering Puerto Lopez itself a great location to visit.

Quito

Meanwhile, an 11 hour overnight bus is definitely not worth coming to Ecuador for. Unless you're one of those annoyingly frustrating people who can sleep anywhere, I barely managed to suppress my murderous desires to strangle others as they dozed peacefully. Eventually we reached the capital Quito which has two dubious claims to fame- that it is the highest capital city and that it is the most densely populated area for churches in the world. My internet research has yielded mixed results on these claims but I can verify personally that it's pretty high and has lots of churches, who needs Wikipedia. It is also certainly busy with 1.8 million, traffic gnarled to a virtual standstill at most points and a reputation for pick pocketing which thankfully we didn't experience. I only had limited time here so had to be fairly picky and opted for the Old Town with its narrow but busy streets where every doorway was either a shop or vendor and around every corner there lay a plaza, cathedral or museum. It was pleasant to wander these amiable streets with the every day comings and goings set amid stunning architecture from a wide range of ages. The main attraction in this strictly Roman Catholic country is the Church de Compania Jesus that had big billings on trip advisor etc due to it's gold plated interior that is apparently worth seeing, but myself and my group were feeling as tight as cramp so refused the opportunity to pay $5 for the privilege. Instead we took the cut price option of only $2 for the Basilica de Voto Nacional and as is sometimes the case it seems the cheaper you pay the better quality you get, although perhaps not with prostitutes. The basilica's position at the high point of the city meant it looked down the valley into the heart of the old town and gave beautiful views of the whole city, inside was a fairly stereotypical church with nice stained glass windows but the real highlight in every sense was by ascending the truly sheer and panic inducing staircase to the very top of the towers. It is absolutely not for the faint hearted but does give wonderful panoramic views of the city and way of life buzzing away way below, plus interesting insights as you can walk across the old roof and stand inside the clock faces. It was definitely worth a visit plus it saved me $3, it has probably also ensured St. Peter won't be waiting at the pearly gates for me but that was never really in doubt anyway. Or real.

San Clemente

We left after just a day to spend more time in an Indigenous community home stay although this time it was not in a rainforest but on the quiet hills overlooking the town of Ibarra. We stayed with a group of families who operated primarily as farmers (and apparently hosts to perplexed gringos as a sideline), but in Ecuador some 40%!l(MISSING)ive the below poverty line so subsistence farming plays a huge role. Among the lush green grass were fields of corn and other crops, llamas, alpacas and the usual farmyard animals providing all manner of produce whilst fresh fruit was picked from the surroundings. As in the Amazon they also taught us how they use local plants to make medicines, bandages and sun dials. The locals themselves wandered around traditionally dressed in ponchos and skirts, felt hats or cowboy style Stetsons, while the houses finally resembled the colonial architecture I had been expecting-however this was the only place I witnessed it which surprised me as in Colombia you couldn't move for falling over colonial remnants and towns etc. These houses were definitely old in feel having been made with wood and clay, low ceiling affairs full of fireplaces and wood ovens but slightly mixed with the new as fridges kept things cool but thankfully there was not a TV or telephone in sight. They were also extremely cunning as they taught us how to cultivate their fields using some oxen and wooden plough, and how to harvest corn by ripping open pods with metal screws and collecting them in cloth sacks slung around our bodies, plus they made us shell the corn by hand and crush it into flour. I was torn between thinking it was great to be learning this and worried that I had been roped into slave labour. I was just missing the outfit really, which duly arrived one night as we dressed like locals to join a celebration where we drank and danced to a traditional band. In my llama-lined assless chaps, poncho, sombrero and four words of Spanish I blended right in, like a really weird Christina Aguilera video gone wrong.

Otavalo

The final town is famed for its market that on a Saturday is the largest in South America, however I had to leave the tour a day early to fly to Cuba
The swing at the end of the worldThe swing at the end of the worldThe swing at the end of the world

Not even a girl with her legs open could make this interesting
(I sound quite international man of mystery there no?) so I only saw the place on a Friday and without the market. I did get time to experience it's narrow streets, visit a local musician for demonstration of pan pipes and also a textile shop to not buy expensive llama jumpers, as well as saw the rather unimpressive Peguche waterfall. At least I got one last taste of the Ecuadorian food, the low cost of living made it a good place for the traveller to eat and set menus of 3 course meals (soup, main and a dessert) were only $2.50. It did mean saying goodbye to my nice group early which was a bit annoying but I'm sure they got over my absence in time.



I left Ecuador feeling like I had a good feel for the country after a few weeks there in total. All the big hitting highlights definitely delivered and it is well worth the visit, if for no other reason than it will help the locals. Perhaps it was the result of spending a lot of time with the local indigenous families but the Ecuadorians really endeared themselves to me by all being unfailingly happy, positive and eager to help. The country seems to be improving and signs of changes to infrastructure were occurring, no doubt as a result of the recent big changes to their main export of oil because after years of chronic mismanagement Ecuador now receives 87% of revenue from sales as opposed to the old figure of 13%. It is always a worry when a country is so heavily reliant on one volatile product (look at Venezuela) and the official currency here is still US dollars but one hopes Ecuador is over the worst and that the money can start trickling down to these wonderful people and away from the clutches of their corrupt government. But if you like great sights and sites, cheap food, easy transport via local buses and charming people then you won't go far wrong with Ecuador.


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San Cristobal-Loberia beachSan Cristobal-Loberia beach
San Cristobal-Loberia beach

Sea lions as lifeguards


22nd August 2016

Great Information!
I'm finally headed to the Galapagos/Amazon in January and this was just what I needed to get excited (more excited). Its certainly the most expensive trip I've booked. :0
26th August 2016

Amazing Galapagos
This location remains on our short list ... we love your information. An homage to Darwin....so you had to go. Makes me want to go sooner than later.

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