We arrived in Quito ahead of our scheduled arrival on Thursday late evening. The brand new airport was quite impressive, as modern as any US airport, only with all the signage in Spanish. During this high tourist season, the line for immigration formalities can be lengthy. We waited in the line for over an hour to be admitted into the country. We had planned to pick up a rental car, but it turned out one was not available til next day, so we ended up taking a taxi into town. The airport is high in the mountains that surround Quito. Even in the dark, we felt the taxi coming down steep hills fast. The hotel was quite full and we got a nice corner room.
Friday morning we met all our group members for breakfast at Cafe Amazona, across the street from our hotel. The place was cheerful and clean, but the food somewhat mediocre. A reminder that you need not always trust your tour books for recommendations. After breakfast, we took taxis to Quito's old town, which is full of plazas, churches, graceful colonial buildings and museums. The Presidential Palace (palace) on the Plaza Grande had been the site of some student demonstrations the day before. The guards seem to be tense. We went through the Cathedral and La Compania De Jesus. The latter is called the most beautiful church in the country, a gilded Jesuit church with Moorish patterns of design and local plants and indigenous figures incorporated. We continue to pass by the Plaza and Monastery of San Francisco and strolled along La Ronda (shopping street). Stopped at Casa Del Alabado (displays), a museum of pre-Columbian artifacts with most of its displays dated at 3500-6000 years old. We took a short taxi ride down to the National Museum and explored more of the country's history, development, culture and religion. The setting was first rate and the atmosphere was great, all for free. Barbara and Richard continued to our local host's tour office to pick up cruise related documents and have a chat with the sales manager of the establishment. Others of our group members contacted their local friends and secured a van and driver for our next day's outing. We went a block from the hotel to the Cactus Restaurant and had a dinner including stewed llama meat and empanadas.
Saturday morning we gathered in the lobby at 7:30am and rode northeast to Otavalo, a city about 2 hours away from Quito that hosts the biggest Andes craft market, and apparently has done so every Saturday for hundreds of years. Through a local connection of our group members, we got a great deal for a small tour bus that affords us all with one window seat and a friendly driver for the day. We drove Northeast on some newly built highways, passing deep valleys, rivers and Lago San Pablo (on the road). The market at Otavalo was indeed huge and colorful, with over half the shoppers from nearby towns and villages. We spent about three hours in the market looking over the wool hats, scarves, sweaters, hammocks and handicrafts (goods) with a short break for ice cream. Everyone got something before we boarded our bus to head for a country restaurant that doubles as a mini amusement park, where locals take their kids for zip-lining and horseback-riding. The food was tasty and plentiful. After the giant lunch, we returned to Quito via a monument to the zero latitude mark on the equator (latitude zero). Back at the hotel, we arranged for the bus to provide an early morning airport transfer and everyone turned in early.
Sunday morning (or rather, Saturday late night at 3am) we all got up and got on the bus for the airport to take the early morning flight to Isla Baltra in the Galapagos. The charter flight stopped once in Guayaquil before reaching our destination. Our guide and naturalist, Diego, met us and the rest of our boat mates. The bus ride from airport to the boat docks is barely five minutes long, but we had some waiting to do as there are many planes, many passengers, and many tourist boats being handled in the two small facilities. While waiting at the dock we saw our first marine iguanas (lizard). Our boat, Nemo II (boat) is a handsome double catamaran holding 12 passengers and 7 crew members. Our cabin has a small single bed plus a loft with double bed, and a compact en suite bathroom equipped with a pump toilet. We enjoyed a light lunch before boarding a panga (motorized rubber boat) to North Seymour Island, where we took a walk with Diego and saw some colorful dancing blue-footed boobies (boobies) and frigate birds (frigate bird) in their peak mating season. We saw them feeding their young, and hatching their eggs. There were also impressive numbers of marine iguanas and land iguanas (fighting stance), some of them were feeding, and others fighting. Sea lions and seals were seen napping and relaxing in the refuge they made for themselves inside the beach bushes. Back at the boat, our two young group members' desire to swim off the boat were crushed when they noticed a big shark. We had a nice welcome ceremony to meet all seven of our crew and toasted for a successful sailing and to a dinner featuring some fish that we suspect to have been that shark's brother. The meat was rather chewy but tasty. Everybody turned in as we started navigating south.
Monday morning was misty. We had a good breakfast before boarding the panga to Santa Cruz Island and Puerto Ayora, the most important commercial center in the islands with largest population in the entire Galapagos. We took a bus to a private reserve called Manzanillo. On the way we saw giant tortoises, even one right in the middle of the road blocking the bus for a while. We changed into rubber boots and walked among the giant tortoises. This island is full of male tortoises weighing 100-300 pounds (tortoise and tourists). Some of them were feeding (tortoise lunch time) others are just relaxing. Diego explained their history and living conditions.
We stopped in the town center, filled with restaurants, bars, dive shops and a famous ice cream shop. There was also a vibrant fish market featuring the fresh catch of local fishermen. Pelicans and an eager sea lion were the cleaning helpers (fish market) next to the counters, happily vacuuming out the scraps thrown by the fishmongers. Another sea lion was swimming up the stairs and gave us a showoff of his climbing skills. We were back to the boat for a yummy lunch of fresh shrimps and salad, grapes and oranges. After a short break, we continued to the Charles Darwin Station to see the breeding ground for the giant tortoises, especially the endangered kinds, such as the saddle-backed giant tortoises (tortoise). The last two males they found got too comfortable and had little motivation to mate. So another male was flown in from San Diego Zoo, named Super Diego, who actively mated and produced about 1500 offspring. He also got the other two males jealous and they started to mate as well. All together they produced more than 6000 descendants. When we were there, the hard working Diego started mating with one of his five wives, making a dramatic scene, which is said to last 2 hours. We walked through the town and down to the ice cream shop to enjoy some ice cream and use their wi-fi. Then back to the boat for dinner. It was the last night for the crew to have some fun in town and most of them abandoned us after dinner, leaving us to entertain ourselves. Some young members of our group played guitar and charango and Richard played on the guitar and sang some old songs for us. The boat will navigate all night long.
Tuesday we woke up to a sunny morning. Some members of the group sighted albatrosses flying low. We got off the boat around 9am for a lava trail walk. While on the ponga, we saw some blue-footed boobies diving into the water in big flocks, which looked like B52s dropping bombs into the water, or a machine gun hitting the water (feeding boobies). Walking inland, we saw some sharks swimming in a tide pool, Galapagos penguins and hawks, and three flamingos feeding in another tide pool (flamingos). We then did our first deep water snorkeling in full wet suits. The water was cold and clear. The sun shone down deep to give perfect visibility. We saw more than a dozen sea turtles feeding, sea lions catching their lunch; some of us even saw sea horses. Captain Henry was snorkeling with us, and he helped to find Barbara's lost fin by diving down 30 feet to find and retrieve it. We were back to boat for a hearty soup and shrimp lunch. Then a short nap, followed by another "wet landing," this time on Isabella Island, the largest of the Galapagos Islands. We stowed our snorkeling gears on the beach and followed Diego for a walk to see some giant turtles (tortoise), marine iguanas who are bigger here due to the cold water, which brings more nutria, more birds and interesting flowers and trees (shrub). We snorkeled from the beach in slightly warmer water, saw a couple of dozen sea turtles feeding, manta rays and lots of colorful fish. Back on board, we immediately started navigating before dinner and got all the way to Punta Tortuga while we stayed on the top deck and watched the beautiful sunset and a magnificent full moon rising. We had a beef dinner upon anchoring at the horse shoe shaped Tunga Cove, and a very peaceful sleep.
Wednesday started cloudy which was nice for our walk up the hill around the Cove till we reached Darwin Lake, still not a fresh water lake. We saw exotic trees and plants that unique to this part of the world. Diego (portrait) gave the full life story of Darwin and how he came to realize the theory of evolution. We took a 45 minute panga ride along the coast and saw sea turtles, sea lions, lots of crabs in various colors and sizes. Coming back to the boat, some of us immediately went back out for deep water snorkeling led by Captain Henry. We saw beautiful sea stars, green and colorful sea turtles, penguins and a lot of fish. After lunch, the boat navigated for about half an hour moving north to Punta Espinosa on Fernandina Island. We made a "dry landing" and saw an enormous amount of sea iguanas, including one swimming up the shore (swimming), a big group of them sunbathing together on the black lava formations, all facing the afternoon sun, like a chorus ready to sing, all it needed was a conductor. There were also sea lions and flightless cormorants, as well as Galapagos hawks flying by. The well maintained trail was littered by pioneer plants and ended at a massive whale skeleton on the beach. Other than our boat, there was only one other boat as our eyes could reach. What a treat. (sea scape). The boat started navigation by late afternoon and we had our dinner on the move, Richard skipped dinner for more rest. The rest watched a couple of episodes of a BBC Galapagos documentary and turned in early.
Thursday we arrived early at Puerto Egas on the west side of Santiago Island. In the morning, we made a "wet landing" with our snorkel gear. There were tide pools full of Sally Lightfoot crabs, which are a favorite food for a lot of birds here. We saw a many sea lions, most of them moms with pups, and two babies playing in the water (pups). The walk was along the sandy beach with some lava formations, some of them formed natural bridges (arch) and tide pools where fur seals (seal) hung out. We came back to the beach where our gear was and did a brief shallow water snorkel. We saw sharks, swam with green turtles, sea lions and a lot of fish. After a prawn and beef lunch, we went for a deep water snorkel with our guide and the captain. We saw a sea of sardines, there must be hundreds of thousands of them. The water around the island was so deep, our catamaran did a circle around the island so close to the land, that you did not need any binoculars to see the creatures on the shore and our guide narrated the entire ride for us. Then we start navigation up north to Rabida, a small island south of Santiago. The ride was rather rough and a couple of us felt seasick. We finally reached our destination right before 7pm and started dinner. Less people have appetite and Richard skipped his dinner again for the second day, though the spinach soup and ham were quite delicious.
After a peaceful night's rest, we entered a grey Friday morning. People seemed to be rather overwhelmed by the fried eggs, sausages and cheeses. Bread was pretty popular, especially among the young. We took the panga out for a dry landing on the red lava rock, a steep and difficult climb for some of our senior members. We saw more sea lions, some of them took over our path and we had to go around them (on the path). We saw one mother with two pups sucking on her simultaneously, contrary to the claim that the mom only takes care of one pup (nursing). We walked along the red sand beach next to the massive cliff of red rocks. With the lonely boat as the background, we took a few group photos (group). There were different kinds of birds on the trail, including a vermillion flycatcher (flycatcher), some mockingbirds, and many blue-footed boobies diving. Diego brought out a book, "Curse of the Galapagos", and showed us pictures of early German settlers with colorful stories of romance, murder mystery and island living. On the way back, we encountered a couple of bottlenose dolphins, courting one another. They got real close to the boat and we could see their white stomachs when they did their graceful dives. Back to the boat, the weather was still grey. We had some juice and cookies. A few hardcore snorkelers went back for deep water snorkeling with the captain, while the rest of us stayed on the boat, editing pictures, writing journals, painting the watercolor, reading or napping on the deck. We made a "wet landing" in the afternoon and walked another sandy trail and saw more sea iguanas and sea lions. A couple of playful sea lions went in the shallow water with our snorkelers and had great fun together. Dinner was again very good. Most of us turned in early while the boat navigated to the north all night to Genovesa Island.
Saturday was cloudy and cold in El Barranco, where we made a "dry landing" (panga) to get to this bird paradise. Along the trail, we saw nesting boobies, red footed boobies (big booby), several kinds of Darwin's thirteen different finches and a lot of booby chicks (booby chick). The mockingbirds here apparently know only one song, as they have never heard of car horns, alarms or other man made noises. They are also pretty mean here as they are bloodsuckers, taking advantage of the nesting boobies who could not leave their nest and have nowhere to hide. The mockingbirds peck on these future parents' face til they bleed and suck the blood from the wounds. We started to like mockingbirds a little less, perhaps. The crew threatened us with cuy (guinea pig) for lunch; but it turned out to be delicious pork. The last outing in the afternoon in Darwin Bay was walking through some mangrove growing in the inlets and searching for rays (ray). We found them swimming in the shallow water, with a red footed booby looking on (Booby and Ray) from among the mangrove branches. The farewell dinner featured turkey. Again, no cuy. But a wonderful chocolate cake was a very nice touch to a perfect ending of the adventure.