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AUGUST 12-29, 2005

by Jan and Jamie


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A Personal Account of a Trip
to Mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands

AUGUST 12-29, 2005
by Jan and Jamie
[Last names withheld in compliance with the LARC privacy policy.]
(Received: September 19, 2005)

Friday, August 12th - Departure and Introduction

Jan and I left Washington National Airport around 2 pm on Friday, Aug 12. American Airlines flight to Miami (2 and 1/2 hours), followed by a short lay-over and a very long walk between gates and another American Airlines flight (3 and 1/2 hours) to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, arriving around 8:30 pm. We were met by our tour guide, Miguel, and taken on a relatively short drive to our hotel.

First, a few words about Quito.  It's a large city (pop around 2 million), and the capital of Ecuador. It's around 30 miles long (north-south) and only 4 miles wide. Basically, it sits on a high Andean plateau, at around 9,000 feet, in the midst of several large volcanoes. It is a very beautiful setting. In the morning, we looked out our window onto the two large and still active volcanoes, the Pinchinchas. The most recent eruption of these was in the late 1990's and covered the city in ash.  The whole area is very active, geologically speaking. Apparently, there are daily "earthquakes" in Quito, but none strong enough to even be felt. The last big one was around ten years ago, seriously damaging several cultural heritage sites. The altitude is high enough that you really notice it. Particularly when climbing stairs. There were mornings that I really felt the hike up and down the two flights of stairs in our hotel (no elevator). I don't think anyone on our trip ever got really altitude sickness (headaches, etc). But we all knew we were up pretty high. In comparison, it is about 1,000 feet higher than the village at Snowmass, Colorado where we have skied.

Our hotel was lovely. We used the same hotel (and actually stayed in the same rooms) whenever we came back to Quito. It was called Mansion del Angel. It was very comfortable. Large rooms, comfortable beds, large showers with lots of hot water, etc. Very nicely decorated. Very helpful and friendly staff. And not terribly expensive. Roses were everywhere. It turns out that, after petroleum products, Ecuador's largest export is roses. When you drive around the highlands, you see all these huge greenhouse complexes that grow roses for shipping to the US and around the world. In Ecuador on the streets, you can buy 25 roses for a dollar. As a result, our hotel was filled with huge bouquets of beautiful roses. And the odor of roses was everywhere. Whenever we were in Quito, we had breakfast on this wonderful, glassed in terrace with views of the mountains.

Speaking of dollars, the US dollar has been the official currency of Ecuador since September, 2000. Literally, you use US bills, with pictures of George Washington, Lincoln, etc. Apparently, while the US government doesn't seem to object, it also doesn't help out much. As a result, we were told stories about currency shortages after the conversion. The shortages seem to have gone away as we never really saw any evidence. The Sacagawea dollar coin is very popular and in wide use as one dollar bills can be a bit scarce. Coins are apparently also a problem. So while US coins are gratefully accepted, the Ecuadorian government eventually had to mint its own coins.

Quito is the capital city with a long and interesting history. It also is a UNESCO world heritage site. But oddly enough, Jan and I spent almost no time exploring the city. We kept returning to town between trip segments, but it seemed that we mostly arrived late afternoons, and left after breakfast the following morning.

Saturday Aug 13th through Tuesday August 16 - Birding at Tandayapa Lodge. 

Jan and I were picked up by Miguel after breakfast and driven about 2 hours northwest to a famous area for birding - the Mindo Cloud Forest. Basically, this is located about half way down the west side of the Andes Mountains as you head towards the coast. 

For birders, Ecuador is famous world-wide for the quantity and variety of species. Over 1,600 species of birds have been identified in Ecuador, nearly one-sixth of all species world-wide. It has over 100 species of hummingbirds. And nearly as many tanagers. Of course some of these birds are migrants, so you often encounter species from the northern hemisphere. But mostly, the birds are simply amazing. We stayed at Tandayapa Lodge in the Mindo cloud forest region, located at about 5,000 feet. Tandayapa's bird list includes over 500 species. One of the advantages of this lodge is that it sits on the steep, western slope of the Andes. So you can bird higher or lower elevations, dramatically increasing the number of species you might see. Unfortunately, this also means that you spend a lot of time hiking up and down very, very steep slopes, through very thick forests, on slippery, wet paths. It seemed that no matter which trail we followed, we invariably ended up at the bottom of the lodge's driveway, staring up at a 200 meter climb back to the lodge. This was some of the hardest hiking Jan or I have done in years. 

We arrived at the lodge just before lunch and were introduced to our birding guide -- Heike. Heike is a German Ph.D. ornithologist from some German University. About ten years ago, she was working on some project in Ecuador, met an Ecuadorian conservation freak, married him, and stayed. She has two cute children whom she is raising bi-lingually, Spanish and German. She's a very formidable, but extremely friendly and open, German lady on a mission to save Ecuador's ecology. When not acting as a birding guide (which she only does infrequently), she works through a private foundation she and her husband established dedicated to introducing concepts of nature conservation into Ecuador's primary and secondary schools. So when not guiding, she travels around to different schools and works with students and teachers on various projects. She had wonderful stories about her work and its difficulties. For example, until recently, several schools were only accessible by horseback. She is a very committed lady, and introduced us to some of the very contentious issues surrounding conversation ideas in Ecuador

Basically, Ecuadorians can be divided into several groups as far as conservation is concerned.  Everyone in the tourist business recognizes the value of Ecuador's eco-tourism business.  Then you have lots of very poor people who could care less. And then finally, the moneyed and ruling classes. Clashes between corporate Ecuador and the conversation types are many and frequent. For example, Ecuador recently built an oil pipeline from the rain forest to the coast. Naturally, they simply bulldozed their way through several national parks and nature reserves. Lumber companies routinely get contracts to clear cut areas within national forests and even national parks.  In fact, at one point of our trip, we were in a national park and saw large areas that were fenced off and labeled as "private property"!!! I know that Fritz and Ingrid have their own story about oil pipelines.  But in Tandayapa, we saw the damage, and the private guards that were hired to protect the pipeline from "eco-terrorists".  Meanwhile, the poor people just continue on their way. Sometimes, indigenous farmers simply burn their fields and nearby forests to prepare them for planting.  Small fires on hillsides were a common sight as you drove around the country.  Attitudes toward the Galapagos were quite different.  There, the government has stepped in and is trying to do a decent job of protecting a unique area.  But the rest of the country faces many conflicts over economic development, large corporations in cohorts with a fairly corrupt government, and the desire of many to protect Ecuador's natural treasures - both as a source of economic development through tourism as well as simply a desire to protect the environment.  Given the type of travel we were doing (i.e., eco-tourism), I'm sure we got slanted views from the people with whom we came into contact.  But Ecuador is struggling with many interesting conflicts as it tries to manage its resources and future.

Anyway, when we arrived at Tandayapa, we met Heike on the lodge's deck.  This deck was basically a hummingbird magnet, with six or eight hummingbird feeders spread about.  Within about 10 minutes, we saw about 14 different hummingbird species.  These little birds are so beautiful and come with such colorful names - emerald violet ears, woodstars, wood nymphs, scarlet racket tails, lance-bills, and so on.  There was a sign on the deck that said "if you're using your binoculars, you're not sitting close enough".  There were always about 20-30 hummingbirds in sight. Amazing.  The lodge itself was very comfortable and served good, basic food.  No pool or anything.  It had a capacity of about 12-16 guests.  It was really about pure birding.  There would be no reason to go there if you weren't a birder. It was a very interesting experience.  After 3 days of intensive birding, Jan and I both decided that we would never want to go on one of those two-week, pure birding trips.  It would just be too much.  But three days was great.

The first afternoon, we birded up and down this very steep, dirt road along the forest's edge.  Not bad.  Maybe about 30 or so new species.  The next day (Sunday), we spent hiking up and down these ridiculous, steep, forest trails. Exhausting, but not many birds.  On Monday, we got into Heike's car and drove to several different areas in the Mindo region.  This resulted in the most incredible day of birding we've ever had.  We saw almost 100 species (I think the exact number was 98 or something), most of them new.  At one point, we spent over an hour watching a single, large tree in an open field along the Milpe Road, and saw over 30 different species, many of them tanagers.  For those of you who don't know, tanagers are among the most beautiful and colorful birds in the world.  We only really have one here in the US - the scarlet tanager. In Ecuador, their colors are electric!  Bright blue and yellow, or a rust-colored head on a sky-blue body, or orange and black, or ..... It was amazing.  At lunch later, we saw an albino aricari (a type of horn-bill).  Heike got very excited and insisted on my getting pictures so she could report it to the local birding authorities.  Turns out that they had already spotted it two months earlier.  Toward the end of the day on the Nono-Mindo road, which is dirt and cobblestone and until recently was the main road from the coast to Quito, we found another incredible tree area filled with even more varieties of tanagers.  At this point, Jan announced that she didn't think she could hold her binoculars up any more or continue tilting her head back to look up into the tops of trees! A most wonderful, albeit long day.  We were up at 4:30 am and didn't arrive back at the lodge until 7:30 pm, dead beat. 

The next day, Tuesday, we said goodbye to Heike, and were picked up and driven back to Quito.  On the way, we stopped at the big monument to the equator just north of Quito.  Basically, it was a large stone monument, with lots of shops with tourist junk.  We paid to park, paid to get in, and then declined to pay yet again to go into the actual monument.  Actually, we ended up crossing the equator 8 times on this trip, so it didn't seem like such a big deal, although we got pictures of us standing with our feet on both sides of the magical line.

Then to the [Mansion del Angel], arriving just before lunch.  I took our dirty clothes to a local laundry around the corner ($0.75 per kilo).  These little laundries were scattered all over.  Basically, they were 3 washers, 3 dryers, and a couple of young women to process and fold the clothes with a two hour turn around.  Then we went to a place that became our "eatery" in Quito.  It was about two blocks from our hotel and was called the Magic Bean.  It was a combination juice/coffee bar, vegetarian/soup/salad/sandwich place with a small hostel upstairs (the suite with kitchenette was $29 per night).  The food was great. Wonderful fruit smoothies (I always got the orange one).  Great drinks (Jan became addicted to the margaritas made with fresh blackberries), good soup, salads and sandwiches, etc.  I know it sounds very strange, as Jan and I are usually very experimental and normally go to eat at a bunch of different places, but we ate every single meal in Quito at the Magic Bean. It was so convenient.  We often arrived back in Quito after an exhausting day.  So the Magic Bean became our little neighborhood restaurant away from home.

Back at the hotel, we found that Fritz and Ingrid had returned from the rainforest. T hey regaled us with stories of their adventures over dinner at the Magic Bean.  Let me just say that Fritz and Ingrid were ideal traveling companions for Jan and me (and Caroline and Theodore) and we had a great time together.  Lots of time to talk and catch up.  I don't think that I had spent this much time with Fritz and Ingrid since I was living with them in Baltimore in 1971.  It was really great.  Plus, they really enjoyed many of the same things (nature, culture, new experiences, and physical activity) that we enjoy about traveling. At the same time, they really know how to "not sweat the small stuff" while traveling.  If the water in the Galapagos was very cold (and it was), well, so what?  You'd put on your wet suit and go snorkeling. If the boat was tossing and turning (and it did), so what?  You just dealt with it.  (Personally, I took drugs.) And when hot water never got to the front of the boat and Ingrid and Jan ended up taking cold showers for a week-well, that's just the way things were.  You moved on to the next thing without complaint or fuss.  They were just great traveling companions.

Later that night, Caroline and Theodore were brought to the hotel by our tour company.  I can't believe how old and mature my children have become.  The idea that these two "kids" managed to travel internationally on their own -- with plane changes and border crossings and everything-is a testament to their maturity and sophistication.  I'm really very proud of them.  It turns out (although I already knew this) that Caroline and Theodore are also excellent traveling companions. 

Wednesday, August 17th through Wednesday August 24th -- The Galapagos

Ah!!!! The Galapagos.

We were all picked up at the hotel and taken to the airport for our flight on Ecuadorian airline TAXA to the Galapagos.  Arrived after lunch and were met by our naturalist guide, Alex. Alex is Ecuadorian, and is fluent in English.  We then went to our boat.

Normally, I'd do this report more or less chronologically. But unless you've got a detailed map of the Galapagos handy, stories of names of islands, or transits between islands, would be fairly meaningless. Thus, I've decided to go by subject, rather than by time, with a brief time line at the end.

First, our boat, the Sea Cloud.  It's an 80 foot sailing ketch (two masts).  It's a real sailing yacht, unlike some other "sailing cruise ships" that only have sails for show.  It has a deep keel to keep it upright, and lots of sails.  It has a crew of six including Alex the naturalist: Captain Johnny, Alberto the engineer, Felix the cook, and two mates (Saul and Eduardo).  None of the crew spoke much English, but with their smatterings of English and our minimal Spanish, we communicated just fine.  They were all very attentive to our needs.  For example, on the second night's long sail between islands, I got pretty sea sick.  This was before I started wearing my scopolamine patch.  I was up on deck getting sick.  Saul came and prepared a little "bed" on deck for me to try and sleep in.  I found out the next day that having a passenger asleep on deck made them very nervous as they might never know if I rolled off into the Pacific.  But they took the extra step to try and make me comfortable.  We had a terrible time with the toilet in our "stateroom". But Alberto always wore a smile when he came to flush whatever I'd left in the toilet away.  (OK.  No more graphic stuff).  You get the picture.  Felix the cook spoke no English, but provided superb meals three times a day, loaded with fresh fruit, fruit juices, spectacular salads with avocados, hearts of palm, cukes, and a little lettuce and lemon juice.  He also provided what became the standing joke of the trip.  At our first breakfast, excellent as always, he included some pieces of cheese. Fritz asked what kind of cheese it was and Felix said "Casa de Pollo" or "chicken cheese".  The idea of milking a chicken for something to make cheese from struck us all as very humorous.  The rest of the trip we'd keep asking Felix if something was "chicken cheese" and then we'd all laugh.  (OK, maybe you had to be there.)  Felix produced wonderful meals.  Always lots of fresh fruit.  Wonderful pineapples-white, not yellow like ours.  Great mangos and bananas.  Every lunch and dinner offered both meat and fish.  Good soups.  Good desserts.  Just wholesome, nicely spiced, filling food with lots of variety.  Wine, beer, sodas, coffee or drinks if you wanted them. 

The boat had 4 cabins for guests - two in the stern and two just forward of amidships (the crew slept in the bow).  Each cabin had a private bath about the size of a tiny closet with sink and shower, and an upper single and double lower bunk.  The main cabin had our dining table and a separate table with benches that ended up serving as our "gaming room."  Alberto and Alex taught Ingrid and Jan Rummy 500, which they play endlessly on longer sails.  Another space (up about 4 steps) had benches and the main interior steering station.  Out on deck, there were comfortable benches with cushions in the stern.  The bow of the boat had a great bowsprit.  When sailing, you could stand on the bowsprit to watch the waves go by.  Once Fritz and Jan saw dolphins playing back and forth in our bow wave.  A couple of times, we used the perch to watch whales.

While every day was different, there was a certain rhythm to our activities.  Up at 7 am.  Breakfast.  Then we'd clamber down into the small launch and go do something - usually either a snorkeling trip, or a hike on an island for 2-3 hours-or both. Back to the boat for lunch.  Then more activities in the afternoon (snorkeling, hiking, kayaking, whatever).  Often hiking and snorkeling.  Generally we hiked twice a day and snorkeled (for long periods) once or twice a day.  No siesta time for us.  Often the crew would sail for several hours over lunchtime to get us to our next destination.  Then dinner.  After dinner, the captain and crew would set sail (or motor) to the next island or stop.  These trips between islands generally took between 5 and 13 hours (the longest).  Hopefully, people who might get sea sick would be asleep below when the boat really got rocking.  Except for that one night, I managed to stay below in my bunk, even though sleep was sometimes elusive.  No one else ever seemed to have any serious symptoms.  Traveling between the islands was interesting.  Sometimes we set sail and just moved silently across the Pacific.  Sailing was really cool.  Fritz would run around helping assure that the sails were set just right. Jan or the kids would stand on the bowsprit.  We'd all help raise and set the sails.  It was just a really nice way to travel.  Twice we saw whales.

The Land: The Galapagos is an archipelago of 19 islands and numerous smaller rocks 600 miles from the coast of Ecuador.  Basically, it is on the equator.  While you would think that anything on the equator is hot, the Galapagos is not. In August, the weather is largely determined by the Humboldt Current coming up from the southern Pacific and Antarctica.  The water is quite cold (50s to low 70s).  The air temperature can be hot (85 degrees) on the islands, but generally stayed in the 70s on the water.  We all wore fleeces or sweaters most evenings.  The islands are formed by a chain of volcanoes over a hot spot on the ocean floor, just like Hawaii.  The islands to the east are the oldest as the Nazca Plate moves toward the mainland at about 5 cm per year.  Most of these volcanoes are extinct.  The islands to the west are the youngest with several, very active volcanoes.  Volcanoes come in two types: stratovolcanoes that explode (like Mount St Helens and those in the Andes in Ecuador) and shield volcanoes made mostly of basalt that have fluid lava flows, usually as a result of a "hotspot" (like those in Hawaii and the Galapagos).  The first type explodes and shoots rock and ash into the air.  The second type just ooze magma-lots of it.  Because these volcanoes are of the second type, the islands all have a characteristic low cone shape.  The largest island, Isabela, actually is made up of five major volcanoes that have simply leaked enough lava to run together.  But it still has nice, neat cones that form its basic topography.  Ignoring the animal life, what you see on each island varies somewhat by its age.  Eastern islands have more developed plant life.  Western islands are mostly just frozen rivers of lava with relatively few plants. 

We took walks on several of the islands.  To get to the island, we would put on our life preservers and get into our small motorboat (actually an inflatable Avon).  There was always the issue of what shoes to wear and whether it would be a "wet" or "dry" landing.  Sometimes we would walk across huge lava fields, studying what they call "pioneer" plants, lava tubes, or different forms of lava.  On one island we took a bus ride to see the famous Galapagos tortoises. Sometimes we'd find fresh water pools or lakes.  One had a colony of flamingoes.  Sometimes, the land was just a bleak moonscape, with just a few mangrove swamps on the shores.  Some islands had sand made from ground up lava (black).  Some beaches were made from organic material from the sea (brown or tan).  Because there is virtually no silica, the sand is unlike ours though it looks similar.  It was essential that we carry nothing from one island to the other, so feet, shoes, etc. all had to be cleared off before we got back on the Sea Cloud.  Most islands had few trees other than the mangroves and were covered with scrub brush and wide lava fields, if anything at all.  Overall, a very barren and bleak set of islands.

Fauna: All of the islands had both land and sea iguanas, sometimes stacked up in piles to conserve heat and get sun. Presumably there were different subspecies on different islands.  I don't think any of us ever really learned to recognize the differences. 

The islands also have tons of birds.  There actually are relatively few species, but huge numbers of the species that are there.  Thousands of blue-footed boobies, striking Nazca boobies, huge wave albatrosses, elegant tropic birds, magnificent frigate birds (some with fully inflated red jugular pouches), and various gulls.  And of course the famous Darwin finches.  Alex kept identifying various finches (small ground finch, medium tree finch, warbler finch, etc.). But like the iguanas, I never felt comfortable making an identification by myself.  We saw lots of cool bird "behaviors."  One of the highlights of the trip was watching the courtship dance of two waved albatrosses.  They'd clack their beaks together, bob up and down, look at each other sideways, etc. It went on for some time.  We finally had to move on.  It is apparently rare to have the opportunity to see it.  The albatrosses are on only one island and for only part of the year. We lucked out.

One of the most amazing aspects of the wildlife was their total lack of fear of people, even the birds. Little mangrove warblers would just ignore our presence, sometimes walking right up to us.  You couldn't get an iguana to move unless you practically stepped on them.  The albatross courtship dance was conducted within ten feet of a group of 15 people. Sometimes we had to chase sea lions out of our path so we could get on our boat.  They just didn't seem to have any sense of being the target of any predator.  This is wonderful from the perspective of eco-tourism.  But very dangerous if mainland predators are introduced onto an island.  A mating pair of foxes could denude an island of its wildlife in no time.  So far, the introduced species have been reasonably well controlled (ship rats, etc.).  The biggest problem seems to be goats that some earlier settler brought to Isabela who escaped and became wild.  Apparently the authorities are trying to exterminate them, but with little success.  While the goats don't go after the wildlife, they are having a huge impact on plant life.  Feral cats and dogs are also a problem on the two islands with human settlements.

Another amazing sight was a female sea lion that had just given birth to the cutest little pup you could imagine.  The mother was still on her side trying to expel the placenta.  Five feet away, two Galapagos hawks sat patiently waiting to collect and eat the placenta.  And ten feet beyond that were 15 people silently watching.

Sealife: Snorkeling was a daily activity. At first, Caroline and Theodore had some problems figuring it out.  In addition, they had real problems with their wet suits.  While Jan and I, and Fritz and Ingrid had purchased wet suits for the trip, we decided to rent suits for the kids.  Disaster.  The rental suits were for rafting, and had bare arms and big gaps around the neck so cold water could seep in.  Totally inadequate for the water temperatures we encountered.  We finally managed to rent two additional shortie wetsuits from another boat that the kids wore together with the other one.  That pretty much solved the problem.  By the way, if anyone is planning a trip to the Galapagos in August, take full wet suits with at least 3 mm of thickness.  Anything less and you will be very cold.  By the end of the trip, all six of us were snorkeling like pros.

The snorkeling routine was similar to the land trips.  We'd all get into our wet suits, clamber down into the boat, and then motor off to a dive site.  Often we ran into strong currents.  We'd drift with the current.  But the boat was always right there to pick us up.  Generally, the clarity of the water was nowhere near as good as in some places (like the Caribbean), but it got better through the course of the trip.  The further away we got from older islands with lots of vegetation and organic matter, the clearer the water became.  When we'd tired, we could just climb into the boat. When all were done (sometimes we had to drag Jan out of the water), we'd go back to the Sea Cloud where Felix provided hot cocoa and cookies.  She really wished she were diving instead of snorkeling. 

We saw many things underwater deserving mention.  One of the things that struck all of us was the sheer quantity of fish. Lots of schools of hundreds or even thousands of fish.  Sometimes these were small, shiny fish like sardines. Sometimes bigger fish, like surgeon fish.  You could just swim right through the middle of some schools and be completely surrounded.  We saw lots of sea turtles - mostly the large Green turtles, but off several islands, we encountered endangered Olive Ridley turtles, which are smaller than the Green turtles.  Sometimes they would let us swim with them, and sometimes they would just swim away.  We swam with sharks several times. Most of these were white tipped sharks, about 6-8 feet long, but vegetarian so no threat to us.  We swam with the Galapagos penguins: incredibly cute little creatures that zoomed around all over the place.  Puffer fish, surgeon fish, angels, parrot fish .... The list goes on and on.

But the most fun were the sea lions.  (Note: it took about half the trip before some of us got pretty good about not calling them seals.  Sea lions have ears.  Seals don't.)  At first, we weren't sure how to deal with them.  (Rule: DO NOT TOUCH.  It makes the mothers of pups very angry).  Also, although they were all over the place on shore, they just weren't that common in the water during our first dives.  But by the time we got to our last dive.... Some (probably adults) just wanted to look at us and would zoom off.  But the smaller ones were great.  On one of our island walks, we had a chance to watch a bunch of juveniles playing in one of their "schools."  Basically, it was what you'd expect-kids chasing each other around in circles.  So on our last dive, I decided to play like a juvenile sea lion.  When two adolescents cruised beneath me, I took a big gulp of air, dove down and starting chasing them in circles.  They thought this was great and kept coming back to tease me to chase them some more.  It took only about 3 minutes to completely exhaust myself, but boy was it a cool 3 minutes.  Each of us has our own favorite sea lion story, about some sea lion that cruised within inches of us, sometimes staring into our face masks.  Caroline swears that one sea lion really liked her.  But whether our stories are completely true or slight exaggerations brought on by lack of oxygen, this was an incredible experience for all of us.

I can't leave the story of the Galapagos without praising our naturalist/guide Alex.  He was wonderful.  It turned out that we had a naturalist with the highest possible qualifications (a freelance, level 3 naturalist).  He hiked with us, he snorkeled with us, he ate with us, and he played cards with Jan and Ingrid.  He was very knowledgeable.  If he didn't know the name of something, like some strange fish we saw while snorkeling, he'd help look it up in the ship's library of nature guides.  He was incredibly friendly.  When faced with a crisis (C & T's wet suits), he solved the problem.  It was a treat to spend 7 days with him.  Actually, it was a treat to spend 7 days with the entire crew of the Sea Cloud. They made us feel like family.  At the same time, they were always looking to find ways to serve us better.  They were terrific and really made a huge difference in our enjoyment of this magical experience. 

We really had underestimated what effect being on a small boat would have on our trip.  Jamie had decided he only wanted to go with family; that the usual 16 passenger boats were too big.  Jan was concerned about what effect this might have on Jamie's seasickness, but we all concluded it was vastly superior to the other boats.  It was always just the 6 of us and our guide, in contrast to other boats with 16 people and one guide.  The Sea Cloud was sleep, elegant, and faster than the other ones.  We felt sorry for those who had to share a guide with all these other strangers - and frankly, couldn't imagine going on one of the "luxury" boats of 48-100 passengers.  Disgorging 100 people onto one of these islands is just overwhelming.  There were many places we could go in a small boat that the larger ones just couldn't get to.  When we happened to be on an island with one of the other boats, we'd see people straggling along behind a guide, unable to hear what he was saying.  We all were quite smug about the wisdom of Jamie's choice.  But mostly just delighted to do the trip with only the 6 of us. 

So after 7 days of this stuff, we pulled back into the port we had departed from.  In all honesty, seven days was enough.  It was a very strenuous week; physically, it was very demanding.  The constant rocking of the boat, climbing in and out of the motorboat, getting in and out of wet suits, hiking, swimming in cold water, trying to shower in a rocking boat, etc.  Even if you were sleeping or sitting and resting, you had to brace yourself against the movements of the boat.  It really was very tiring.  I think we all were ready to get off the boat and go for some rest and relaxation. I'll never forget this trip.  We had a thousand wonderful sights and experiences.  But it was tiring (for some more than others). 

Before hopping our airplane, we went into an "interpretive center".  It probably would have been better if we had done this before we set sail. Among other things, it had information on the history of human occupation of the Galapagos - all pretty grim.  In addition to the various uses of the islands by pirates and whalers (who nearly exterminated the famous tortoises), there were several attempts to use it as a prison camp.  Several times these were run by despotic sadists.  Sometimes the prisoners rose up in bloody revolts.  If I can find one, I'd like to read a book about the human settlements to get a clearer picture of what actually happened.  It also had a topographical map of the Galapagos archipelago that made it clear why we had had rough sails.  Between some islands it is fairly shallow; in other places, the shelf drops off steeply into very deep water.  It was over the deep water that we had rough sails - and for the time of year, it wasn't really that rough. 

Around noon, we got on a plane back to Quito.

Wednesday August 24th through Saturday, August 27 - Otavalo and Shopping

We arrived back in Quito and the [Mansion del Angel] mid afternoon. Took our dirty clothes to the local laundry, and had dinner at the Magic Bean.

After breakfast, we were picked up by Miguel and taken about 3 hours north to the province of Imbabura, whose capital is Otavalo. Like all of Ecuador's provinces, it is named after the local volcano that dominates the landscape. Incredible mountain scenery on the way, with yet another crossing of the equator. There were these beautiful green valleys in between tall, spiky mountains/volcanoes, some of which had snow on their tops. This was a rich agricultural area, with acres of greenhouses for the cultivation of roses, and lots of farming fields terraced way up the mountain slopes. While the valley "floor" was below Quito, we were still at about 8,000 feet in Otavalo. 

We were all ready for a little luxury, which we got at this incredible "garden" spa in Cotacachi called La Mirage.  The hotel is a Relais and Chateau property and one of only 13 such in South America and the only one in Ecuador.  Relais and Chateau is an international trade group that gives membership to hotels that meet ridiculous standards for luxury, gourmet food, and personal attention to its guests' every need.  Oddly enough, being in Ecuador, it wasn't actually that expensive. But it was very luxurious.  The hotel had about 20 rooms in a bunch of one-story buildings scattered around an incredibly beautifully maintained garden.  The grounds were really quite spectacular.  Each room was a mini-suite (Fritz and Ingrid ended up in the one that's on the La Mirage postcard).  Comfortable beds, huge bathrooms, fruit in the room, etc.  Breakfast was provided in a lovely, glass enclosed, garden restaurant.  Lunches and dinners were huge affairs. Very fancy menu with four courses.  At the beginning of each meal, a group of six, Otavalan Indian women (one for each of us) would parade in carrying these inlaid wood music boxes (really, no kidding).  They would set one in front of each guest.  When you opened them, there would be this incredible little morsel of food to start the meal.  The fact that the music boxes actually played a piece from the Phantom of the Opera was a little odd, but the theater of it all was cool.  Generally, the food was excellent.

The hotel also included an indoor pool and spa.  So we all had full body spa treatments.  Caroline and I choose something called "Equatorial Stones Therapy".  In addition to the usual soak in hot tub, aroma therapy and body massage, this included being rubbed with hot stones.  It sounds a little weird, but it really worked.  Jan had the Cleopatra Treatment.  Fritz had a "Purification Therapy" which, in addition to the usual massage stuff, had an actual Indian shaman who did chants and stuff to chase the evil spirits from his body.  I can't remember what everyone else had, but we all enjoyed it immensely.  Even Theodore, who I think was a little doubtful about the whole thing, had a great time. 

One afternoon, we went shopping in the town of Cotacachi, known for its leather products.  Fritz and I bough leather jackets, Caroline bought a purse.  I won't mention the other things in case someone gets them for Christmas. 

One morning, Jan, Caroline, Theodore and I went horseback riding up the mountain.  This was an incredible experience.  By and large, when you go horseback riding on a trip, you're lucky if the guide lets you do anything more than a calm walk.  Maybe a trot if he's feeling adventuresome.  Not on this ride.  We had four of the friskiest little horses you've ever seen.  All they really wanted to do was run, and the guide (Carlos) who was with us, just let it roll. So there we were - trotting, cantering and even galloping up these incredibly steep stone roads, past peasant houses and schools, agricultural fields, gorgeous vistas, etc.  These horses literally ran up around 2,000 feet!  Theodore had significant troubles being bounced around; he's not an accomplished rider.  But the rest of us had a great time.  At one point we were galloping as a group down this dirt road for a couple of hundred yards!  It was just so cool to be galloping in a group like that.  At the end of the ride, we cantered into town along this cobblestone street.  Given the adobe houses, the Indians in traditional dress on the street, the sound of the hooves on the stones, it was just incredible. The closest thing I can relate it to is a movie.  Remember the scene in the "Magnificent Seven" when the group of Mexican banditos is riding into town?  It felt just like that.  For Jan and me, this was not only the best horseback ride we have ever had, but it was one of the true, unforgettable highlights of this trip! 

When we arrived back at the hotel and got off our horses, we were met with hot towels and fresh cold juice.  This hotel really knew how to treat its guests. 

While we were riding, Fritz and Ingrid took an incredible hike up the mountain.  But that is their story and I'll leave it to them to fill in the details.  At this point in the trip, I have to talk a little about the local Indians.  This was really the only part of the trip where we got a sense of the indigenous peoples.  The population of Ecuador splits into three large groups: those of primarily Spanish decent, indigenous Indian population, and those of mixed blood.  The purely Spanish types are relatively small in number but seem to have most of the economic power.  The mestisos are a large group and make up most of the middle and upper middle classes (to the extent these classes exist).  The indigenous peoples, from over 70 different tribes, are about a tenth of the total population and are generally poor and live in rural areas.   Theodore, in particular, was struck, and saddened, by the poverty he saw around him. 

In Imbabura province, the main group is the Otavalenos.  This is a fascinating group.  First, I have to describe them. They are very short.  I mean, really short: most seem to be between 4 and 5 feet tall, with a few old women and men who are much less that that.  There were many old crones who did not even come up to my waist.  The younger women and girls are gorgeous!!  They have beautiful, Indian faces, with large black eyes, and long black hair.  They tie their hair in these long "ponytails", for lack of a better term.  The ponytails are wrapped with these colorful, woven "belts" so that they hang down like ropes over their backs, sometimes down to their waists.  Many of the Otavalenos continue to wear traditional dress: black, heavy, woolen, long wrap skirts that hang down to their ankles; white linen, lacy embroidered blouses, and a dark woolen shawl over their shoulders for warmth.  Many of the older women wear these dark, felt, fedora type hats which look a little odd until you get used to them.  Finally, they wear these beautiful necklaces, made up of six or more strands of gold colored beads.  Most of the servers at the hotel wore high quality versions of this native dress.  So you can just imagine the scene as six of these gorgeous little women paraded in a line across the dining room carrying inlaid music boxes to our table each night.  Even women in the town, and peasants up the mountain, wear variations on this basic theme, although with much lower quality (more wool, less lacy linen and fewer beads). 

Economically, the Otavalenos are relatively well-to-do.  The indigenous market in Otavalo is world renowned for its woven products.  It's actually a UNESCO world heritage site.  If you buy Ecuadorian textiles (belts, sweaters, etc) in New York or anywhere else in the world, they were probably made in Otavalo.  They start training their girls to weave at a very young age (2 or 3), and they produce reams of stuff. 

On Saturday morning, Miguel picked us up for a day of shopping.  We started at an authentic Indian house.  It was very smoky, had a dirt floor, and was overrun with little guinea pigs (an Ecuadorian delicacy).  Then we went to the house of Jose Cotacachi, a well-known textile weaver for high quality woven hangings, sweaters, belts, etc.  For those of you in the know: think Peruvian Connection catalog.  That's what we were seeing for the sweaters, only at $135 instead of $350-500.  Finally, we went to the indigenous market in Otavalo.  The market is in the huge square with hundreds of stalls.  It is very colorful, and is so large that it spills over down the streets leading to the square.  Some portions of the market are still very traditional, selling beans, bananas, ground flours, etc.  But most of it is given over to the sale of Otavalo textiles - linen pants and shirts, blankets, belts, sweaters, shawls, etc.  Some leather crafts.  Some beads, primitive art, masks, etc.  There was a lot of bargaining, but most things were very cheap to begin with.  We all bought lots of stuff. In fact, Jan and I ran out of money-no credit cards; it was all cash and carry. 

We had lunch at Hosteleria Puertolago on a lake looking up at the Imbabura volcano, followed by a quick trip to the famous woodworking center of San Antonio.  Then, we drove up to this Lake Cuicocha, which is in the crater of an extinct volcano. 

Finally, Jan and I and the kids were driven back to Quito, the [Mansion del Angel], and dinner at the Magic Bean. Fritz and Ingrid stayed on at La Mirage for an extra day. 

Sunday, August 28th -- Kids fly home, Jan and Jamie visit Cotapaxi.

Early Sunday morning, Jan and I said goodbye to Caroline and Theodore. They traveled (on their own again) back to Washington DC.  The goodbye was particularly sad because Caroline would be headed back to Haverford that night directly from the airport and we would not see her again until Fall Break at the earliest.  Again, I have to comment on how great my kids are.  They traveled back to the US, drove my car (loaded with Caroline's college stuff) to Philadelphia, and unloaded Caroline.  Then Theodore, by himself, drove back to Arlington the next day.  Truly a testament to their maturity and abilities.

After breakfast, Jan and I were picked up by a new guide (Richard) to take a trip to Cotapaxi, a national park about 2 hours south of Quito.  The purpose was to go high up onto Cotapaxi, the volcano for which the park is named. According to Alexander Humboldt (the guy who located the equator in South America), "Cotapaxi's shape is the most beautiful and regular of all of the colossal peaks in the Andes. It is a perfect cone, covered by a blanket of snow...."  It is very similar to Mt Fuji in Japan, only it is 6,000 feet taller - about 18,300 feet.  Our goal was to get as high on this mountain as possible - at least to the parking lot at 14,000 feet, and maybe even go higher to the "refuge" (where people spend the night before climbing to the summit) at nearly 15,000 feet. 

Our guide asked if we had brought mittens and gloves as he had been there the previous day and it was very cold.  We hadn't, so we stopped at this little Indian stand just outside the park to buy some.  It turns out that we ran into an Otavaleno woman from whom we had bought a mask from on Saturday in the Otavalo market.  Small world.  She was selling gloves on Sunday, so we bought some. In the park, we drove forever (maybe 35-40 km) on this bumpy dirt road climbing the mountain.  The whole trip, we could see this perfect cone just sitting there. Richard said we were very lucky.  Most days, the top is covered in clouds and many people never even see the top.  We had perfect viewing.  We stopped for several minutes at this small lake at 12,000 feet to do some birding.  Then we headed up the final stretch of road.  To drive this, you really need a four-wheel drive vehicle.  We didn't have one. Nevertheless, Richard proceeded to drive up to the parking lot (mostly in first gear) but not without adventure.  At one point, he was forced to stop because of a car coming down.  Then the dirt road was so steep and bumpy that he couldn't get started again.  So Jan and I got out and he backed down a little.  Once he got started moving forward again, Jan and I hopped in.  About 100 meters below the parking lot, we got jammed up again behind some young women who never should have been driving there. Jan and I ended up walking up the last 100 meters.  It turns out that one of the "adventure sports" in this area is bicycling down the volcano from the parking lot.  On the way up, we encountered several bicyclists headed down.  I couldn't imagine doing this.  I think my hands would cramp up after hanging on to the brakes for the whole trip down.

Anyway, the final walk to the parking lot ended any pretensions Jan and I may have had about continuing up to the refuge.  While we could see the refuge above us, it just didn't seem worth while.  While it wasn't terribly cold, the wind was blowing at least 40 mph.  It was hard just to stand up.  With all the dust in the air (it's moonscape up there) it wouldn't have been a fun climb.  Also, 14,000 feet is really high, and the air is pretty thin.  The air was so clear that we had wonderful views of the Andes, the neighboring peaks, and the valleys 6,000 feet below.  I tried to get some pictures, but I know that they will never do this view justice. 

After the long drive down, we went to lunch at a "traditional" hacienda, Hosteleria La Cienega.  Basically a huge farm house in the style of the Alamo-big interior courtyard with beautiful garden, etc. 

Then, because we had spent so little time in Quito, we canceled the rest of the days scheduled activities and returned to visit Quito's "Old Town".  Quito's Old Town is about what you would expect.  Lots of narrow streets.  Lots of building in the old, colonial Spanish style of architecture.  There are over 50 churches in the historic part of Quito - all clustered in just a few blocks. We went into two very old churches covered in gold leaf, built in the 1500s, before the first settlement at Jamestown in the US.  Three major plazas.  One of them was the main plaza by the government buildings and was filled with people.  Some were conducting a hunger strike over workers' benefits.  Some were just enjoying the late Sunday afternoon.  It was all very interesting, and I'm glad we made the time to see it.

Back to [Mansion del Angel].  Fritz and Ingrid had returned from Cotacochi so we went to a very pleasant, final dinner at the Magic Bean.  

Monday, August 29th - End of Trip and Home. 

Early Monday morning we were picked up and taken to the airport.  By this time, hurricane Katrina had hit and we spent most of the day trying to see updates on CNN on airport television screens.  Other than this, the day was totally uneventful.  Our travel was not affected at all by the chaos in Louisiana. We were picked at the Washington Airport by Theodore, and got home about 9:15 pm. 

This was an incredible trip. It was both Jan's and my first trip to South America.  It was very busy, very tiring, and almost hectic at times.  When the time came, I, at least, was ready to come home.  But we came away with so many memories of beautiful sites, beautiful people, and a clear sense of the unbelievable natural wonders in this area of the world. It will be unforgetful.  Also, we're so grateful to the many people that made this trip special: our wonderful traveling companions (Fritz, Ingrid, Caroline and Theodore), our guides (Alex, Miguel Guerrero at Turisvision, Richard, Heike), the crew of the Sea Cloud, Judy Martin at LARC who made all the arrangements for us, and just all of the people of Ecuador.  They were uniformly interesting, helpful, and friendly. I don't think there was a single incident that marred anyone's experience. 

There are lots of ways to go to the Galapagos, but we, being a bit biased, think our way was best - on the Sea Cloud.  Jan takes overall credit for the general outlines of the trip, but our thanks have to go the Judy Martin for her sage advice, attention to detail, and meticulous arrangements. In Ecuador, Miguel Guerrero was a gem.  Everything went like clockwork, in comfort, with great guiding and attention to our needs.  One small but telling example.  When we went to Jose Cotacachi's home (the textile artist), nobody's credit cards worked due to lack of relationships between his bank and the banks that issued our cards (and we tried 3 different ones).  Fritz and Ingrid managed to scrape together the cash, but we couldn't and Miguel just worked out an arrangement whereby Miguel would transfer his own funds to Jose's account in Quito and we'd send a check to Judy when we got back to the US for her to put in Turisvision's account to repay Miguel.  Now that's service!  How often has that happened to you overseas? 

We didn't see many Americans, or many tourists at all for that matter.  And that's a shame (kind of like Turkey last summer).  Ecuador is exquisitely beautiful. And the Galapagos are totally unique. Everyone should go.

The End  


Jan and Jamie.   [Last names withheld in compliance with the LARC privacy policy.]


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