Monday, January 17, 2011

To Quit or Galap the Equator? (9-16 January 2011)

Quito and Galapagos have two things in common: they belong to Equador and are on the equator. The incredible difference is that the capital and 2nd largest city, Quito (Pop 2.2m) is 2,850m above sea level. That's 3 Katoomba's high! Combine that with the equator and its temperature is typically dry, comfortable and between 11-24C. Galapagos on the other hand is at sea level but not like the steamie-room of Singapore! It is humid in the main town but very bareable out on the islands because of open sea breezes and lack of evaporation due to no forests or trees. Total journey time from Parakaupa Lodge in Angel Falls Venezuela to the cruiser "Guantanamera" on the Galapagos Islands in Equador was 1 day and 4 hours (including 6hrs of flying over 4 flights and an overnight in Quito). My first impressions of Equador in Quito was that it was poorer and much more run down than all the countries I had seen to date but despite this was more savy with tourists, eg: bilingual signs, out of airport in 15min and English speaking taxi drivers!
The Galapagos Archipaelago comprises 19 official "islands" (6 inhabited by some 30,000 people, with no new immigration allowed since 1989) some 1,000km due west off the coast of South America in the Pacific (1hr 40min flight). It was born from a volcanic hot spot that is still active today and discovered by the Spanish who saw a myriad of Land Tortoises on the islands, whose shapely shells reminded them of horse saddles or "Galapagos" in Spanish.

Galapagos is the marine equivalent of a game park of wilderbeast in South Africa. There are birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians coming out of every nook and cranny, free, uninhibited and happy to interact with you! You not only see them but walk with them and swim with them. It has "Attenborough" written all over it! The best way to see the wildlife and landscape is to take a cruise that allows you to hop-off, swim and snorkel along the way.

I did this on a cruiser called the "Guantanamera" with 15 other people (mostly from Denmark with Germany and Holland) and 7 crew. The wessel is 25m long, cruises at 15km/h and has most of the comforts of home. I shared a cabin with Monika, a Vet, originally from near Frankfurt but living in England.

Here are the daily highlights of what we did and saw.

Day 1 - Sunday 9 January 2011: Baltra Island (Airport, Arrived 11am) to Santa Cruz Island (Bachas Beach, Landing 1, Snorkel 1, 2-4pm):
From Baltra airport, we were bused a short ride and zodiaked to our 3-level diesel cruiser. After a signature tuna lunch we set sail for one hour to Bachas Beach on the second largest island of Santa Cruz. It is here that we went on our first nature walk and while others snorkelled, I decide to add the Galapagos to my "Long White Line" by going for a 40min run on the beach sand.
We saw 2 types of birds (Frigates and Brown Pelicans), the Sally Lightfoot Crab, Marine Iguanas, Sea Lions and Lava Lizards. Then it was back to the boat to travel to travel to Punta Carrion where we set anchor for a briefing, an intro and toast to all the crew, a lovely beef casserole dinner, not much conversation or humour since I landed a dinner table full of geriatric kroats, so I resorted to lots of beer and finally sleep! A total of 6 new species seen today.

Our walk culminated atop the highest point giving great views of both South and North Plaza islands and Santa Cruz across the strait.
Day 2 - Monday 10 January 2011: South Plaza Island (Landing 2, 7:45-9:45am) and Santa Fe Island (Snorkel 2, 2;15-3:45pm, Landing 3, 4-5:30pm):
Today we woke to the sound of barking sea lions! After a great breaky of muesli, yogurt, eggs, ham, cheese and toast we were on shore on South Plaza Island which was absolutely chokers full of wildlife, green cactus (Iguana food) and red/orange sea bush.

After lunch, we arrived at the fabulous shallow turquiose bay of Santa Fe Island. I went for a 30min swim, 13 times around our boat (since I was not allowed to swim to the islands) and then we went snorkelling, coming within inches of Sea Turtles, Spotted Eagle Rays, White-Tipped Reef Sharks (1.5m long) and finally playful Sea Lions which swam right up to us! After returning to the ship for a quick break we were on land again on Santa Fe where the highlight was a 150yr old cactus tree, Land Iguana's and various birdlife.

It is here that we learned that Galapagos Iguanas have two willies! Yes you read right! The only problem however is that they can only use one at time! Talk about redudancy! After dinner we watched parts 1 of 2 of a well-filmed BBC documentary on the Galapagos! In summary, today we saw all 6 wildlife species from yesterday plus 15 additional ones: Darwin Finch, Blue Footed Booby, Swallow Tailed Gull, Shearwater, Tropic Bird, Nazca Booby, Yellow Warbler, White Tipped Reef Shark, Ray, Sea Turtle, Galapagos Dove, Common Stilt, Lava Herron and Wandering Tatler. We also learned today that there is no such thing as an animal or dish called the "Galapagos Duck"! Pity, since I had my heart set on eating one!

Day 3 - Tuesday 11 January 2011: Espanola Island (Gardner Bay, Landing 4, 8-10am, Snorkel 3) and (Suarez Point, Landing 5, 2-5pm):
The morning horizon was repleat with the large expansive beach of Gardiner Bay. Our morning landing was free time to us. As the beach was covered in seals, I was not allowed to run so I executed a very fast walk-semi-jog in soft sand for 90min - a killer equivalent! We had already seen all the animals here and there was not much to snorkel. Before lunch we went for a quick snorkel and saw various schools of coloured fish - clouds of them!

After lunch we sailed for Suarez Point which was the highlight of our trip. There was more wildlife and scenery per metre of land here than anywhere else. Every animal here was not afraid of humans and we were able to stand right next to them for brilliant photo results! The highlights for me were: watching two male Marine Iguana's fighting (over a girl, of course!), almost kissing two Boobys (birds that is!) and witnessing the "test flight" of a young Albatross!

Suarez Point alone presented 13 species we had already seen plus 5 new ones, being: Mockingbird (follows you around for fresh water, a bad habit brought on by early tourism giving them water), Galapagos Hawk (Female has up to 4 husbands), Galapagos Albatross (wingspan of up to 2.5m), American Oystercatcher (can't catch the champagne though!), Storm Petrel. Dinner featured lentils! Yeah! My chance to get regular again - these South Americans just love their meat! The night concluded with part 2 of the BBC film on Galapagos.

Day 4 - Wednesday 12 January 2011: Floreana Island (Cormorant Point, Landing 6, 7:30-9am, Snorkel 4, 9:30-11am), Post Office Bay, Landing 7, 12-2:30pm) and Santa Cruz Island (Puerto Ayora, Landing 8, 8-9:30pm):
A new day, a new island. This was our sixth and the most southern in the archipaelago: Floreana. Our morning landing took us past Flamingo lake (sadly, no Flamingos but I will see these in Bolivia so stand-by) and to a spectacular torquoise beach on the other side called Cormorant Point where our eyes feasted on scenery and sting rays!

After returning to the ship, the usual 6 snorkellers headed out on the dinghy past the "Devil's Crown" rocks in search of Hammerhead Sharks! Unfortunately we did not see any but were visited by over 8 White Tipped Reef Sharks, two large Sea Turtles, six Manta Rays, one very playful Sea Lion and masses of clouds of coloured fish. We also saw white coral, sea urchins and blue/yellow star fish. It was our best snorkel! All snorkels were off the dinghy in isolated coastline locations. All other snorkels were off the beaches featured in our landings. We must have seen at least a dozen different type of tropical fish. It is a whole other duplicate world down there! After lunch we made a quick 20min sail to Post Office Bay where there is a make-shift postal box started in 1792 by whalers to pass on messages, etched on pieces of wood, to loved ones - each hunting party would leave their messages for the next party to pick-up and hand deliver to addressees. This tradition has continued to this day with tourist parties leaving postcards supplied them by their guides for the next party to pick up but bugger the hand-delivery bit - I got 8 for Australia covering Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane! After this we were free to do our own thing so I went for a beach run and then a quick snorkel. We even saw a swimming Penguin! Yes, they are here in parts where the water is cold (15C). After this we started our 4 hour cruise back to Puerto Ayora, the largest settlement (pop 20,000) on Santa Cruz. After dinner we were ferried to the main town for our own leisure. We had some farewell drinks at the local disco and were dinghied back.

Day 5 - Thursday 13 January 2011: Santa Cruz Island (Charles Darwin Station, Final Landing 9, 6:45-830am) and Baltra Island (Airport, Departed 11:20am):
The 5:30am wake-up call was not necessary this morning - I did not get much sleep with the constant racket of passing vessels and our ship changing anchor 3 times during the night! Finally we said farewell to the "Guantanamera" and were dinghied 10min to the Darwin Research Station which is in Puerto Ayora.

The station was founded 50 years ago in honour of Charles Darwin who made the Galapagos Islands famous by developing his theory of natural selection based on what he observed there in 1835 for 5 weeks. Basically he noticed that the same "type" or "genous" of animal could manifest itself via different "species" depending on its physical environment (driven by availability of food, weather, terrain and of course - predators). The prime example is the "Darwin Finch" which has 13 species over the various Galapagos Islands. Unfortunately as the area was settled, nearly all the original Giant Land Tortoises were slaughtered for food and oil. That's were the centre stepped in and is now breeding them back - so far they have released 1,000 back into various islands (with 75% mating success on their own) - once this reaches 30,000 they will stop and let nature take over. We saw many baby Giant Land Tortoises and fully grown ones. It is amazing. The hatchling starts at 30mm and 50g and ends up with an adult up to 800mm and 200kg with ages topping 200 years old! Most reach 100yrs. We saw the famous 80-90 year old "Lonesome George" who was one of the last remaining Tortoises from which the centre cloned all the rest. He even appeared in the movie "Scareface" as Al Pacino's exotic present to his new wife! From here a bus picked us up and we were off to the aiport for the flight back to Quito. What a wildlife wonderland. I had seen 28 species of animal not including the fish!

Quito and surrounds and the start of my 83-day Intrepid Tour...
Thu 13 to Sun 16 January were spent discovering Quito City and the surrounding areas. Quito is stunning geographically! It is a long thin city running some 20km long North to South sandwiched between a valley of volcanoes, approx 7km East to West. The highest peaks about 50km away are close to 6,000m high which is two-thirds the hight of Everest! Amazing!!!

I started my assault on the city on Fri 14JAN at 7:30am by heading to El Panecillo (Little Bread Loaf) which is a smaller volcano reaching 3,050m and overlooking the Unesco protected "Old Town" and entire city of Quito. On the top of the hill is huge statue of the Virgin Mary. From there I descended down hundreds of steps into the old town highlighted by three main plazas. Plaza Santa Domingo was the first with the Church of St Domingo (built 1581-1650), Plaza San Francisco was the second with the convent (built 1534-1604) and the third the Plaza Grande containing the presidents palace and office, the archbishops residence and office and the cities main Cathedral.

The most ornate church was the "La Compania de Jesus" with gold leaf and bright red paint covering every inch of the interior. The old town contains many apartments that feature 17th century facades combining Spanish, Moorish and indigenous influences. It is a buzz with people and very appealing to the eye. There are small shops and street sellers everywhere.
From here I walked to the New Town via three central parks where business people, tourists and baskers gather.

The New Town or business district is dominated by the main thoroughfare "Avenue Amazonas" repleate with tourist cafes, hotels and shops. This leads to "Mariscal Sucre" which is literally the "tourist ghetto" full of hostels, hotels, bars and hamburgers. This is were I stayed but stayed well away from its trappings. I ended my first day in Quito with a 9km, 50min jog down the main road at 2,850m elevation, dodging peak hour traffic - at least the Equadorians use indicators but they double parked everywhere!

Today (14JAN) was actually day 1 of my 83-day "Intrepid Tour" which is actually four tours back-to-back. This first tour is 36days from Quito Equador to La Paz Bolivia. It takes in all of Equador, Peru and Bolivia including the Amazon and Machu Picchu. I met our guide Johanna Cordova and all all three fellow travellers - YES - you read right - only 3 - how intimate! Poonum and Jessica are from London and Maureen from the Gold Cost (who is also doing the entire 83 days!).

We celebrated the start of our grand adventure with an Equadorian dinner of Ceviche (Fresh cold marinated seafood soup with lime), Empanadas (Savoury banana pastry pocket with cheese inside) and the national favourite of 2 fried eggs on beef with fries! All washed down with the hot alcoholic sugar-cane spirit called "Canezalo"! We also had wine (for the first time in 3 weeks) and in the true Golfin curse, the first wine I order is not available - how is this possible - 12,000km form Melbourne and they still do not have what I want!!! I am cursed!!!

The next day (15JAN) saw our new-found Intrepid family of five (incl guide) travel 3hrs by public buses some 100km North to Otavalo (Pop 60K, Elev 2,530m) famous for its Saturday markets brimming with rainbow coloured locally-woven textiles, arts, crafts and a plethora of fresh and cooked foods. The town is occupied by the indigenous "Otavalenos", short, jet-black hair, colourful traditional costumes and hats and men with braided pony-tails! The indigenous in the Andes are very short since the heart has to work much harder in high altitudes to pump blood "up" the body. Overlooking the town is the snow-capped 5,790m volcano "Cayambe". Between Quito and Otavalo is a massive valley full of rose farms - I discovered that roses are the number one export of Equador (mainly Europe)!

Our final day in Quito (16JAN) opened the curtain on a spectacular morning ride on the "TeleferiQo" (Cable Car) some 2.5km length up the slopes of volcano Pichincha to a height of 4,100m for a astronaut's view of all of Quito. This is over 12,000ft and only 2,000ft under the oxygen line! As I walked a further 300m uphill I could feel my heart pounding with some shorteness of breath and light headedness. A bit like starting a third bottle of Heathcote Shiraz!

We then caught two public buses some 22km north of Quito to San Antonio to the exact spot where the equator crosses Equador! Aptly named "Mitad Del Mundo" (Middle of the Earth) it comprises a big tourist area dominated by a tower with YELLOW line on the ground marking the equatorial line. As it was Sunday, we also enjoyed some traditional Equadorian dancing also watched by locals on their "day out". After another Equadorian meal we bunkered down for the night ready to journey to the Amazon Jungle in the morning...

EQUADOR FACTS: 1) Covers 283,560 sq km (Size of New Zealand), 2) Pop 15m, highest density in South America (52/km), 95% Catholic, 65% Mestizos (50-50 Indingenous-Spanish), 25% Indigenous, 40% live in poverty! 2) History: oldest tools date back to 9,000BC, first peoples were the Valdiva around 4,000BC, first indigenous "Shyris" battled Inca's 1300-1532, Spanish landed 1532, Spanish Governor Gonzalo first to travel full length of Amazon in 1540 in search of Gold, Independence 1830, mostly military rule to 1941 when war broke out with Peru until final settlement in 1998, democracy kicked in 1979. 3) Equador adopted the US Dollar from 2000, 4) No 1 sport is Soccer, No 2 is Volleyball with Bull Fighting and Cock Fighting an unoffical 3rd!, 5) No 1 music called "Cambia", 6) Most dense wildlife and ecological system in the world, ie, no of species per area of land: 20,000 plant (1 new one every year, 17,000 in all of North America), 1,600 bird (twice all of North America), 300 mammals, 7) Latest President has suggested that the world should pay Equador NOT to mine huge oil reserves below their national parks - how's that for thinking outside the "terrorist" box! 8) Prices: $1.50 for coffee, $1 for 375ml local beer, $4-8 for main at restaurant, $2 for hamburger.

NEXT BLOG: On The Amazon Jungle due 19JAN11.

ACNOWLEDGEMENTS: 1) Sincere thanks with great relief to Annette from Denmark who supplied me with the correct adapter to charge my camera and laptop batteries after I had brought the wrong one! 2) Thanks to Elena from Holland who took the "Seal Photo" and the "Booby Photo" in this blog. 3) Thanks to Johan our guide for his interview with Golfco Pictures.

NOTES TO SELF: 1) Contrary to my brother's belief that Venezuela's Santa Barbara Airlines (SBA) would result in my nieces inheriting my worldy posessions, he was wrong: an empty 767-300 (same as Qantas planes between Sydney and Melbourne) with 2 meals and 6 185ml cups of Spanish Trempanllio served to me over a 2.5hr flight between Caracas Venezuela and Quito Equador! Qantas - stop counting drinks in economy and you JUST may get more revenue! Even if we did go down, at least it would be on a full and happy stomach!

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