The next morning 6 of our original group headed to Quito en route to the Galapagos.
Quito was established in the 1500’s but has had indigenous people living in the area for over 2000 years. It was part of the northern Inca region before the Spaniards came in the 1532. Quito is a modern city of 1.8M people located on the Equator at an elevation of 2800m. The climate is cool year round, and unlike Lima, it is very green, having a wet season from October to May and a dry season June to September.
As our time was limited in Quito, we headed to the official site of the Equator as soon as we had checked in to the hotel. We almost didn’t make it in time to the actual site, as a massive accident had forced traffic to a crawl. However, we were allowed in late, and given a tour of the site, which was an indigenous people’s museum as well as having the “official” line with the GPS readout showing 0 latitude. The tour guide explained that due to the lack of rotational forces right at the equator, there were certain features of physics that could only be observed along the line. One of them was the flow of water straight down a drain without any swirling, and the ability to balance an egg on its shorter surface. In addition, she claimed that it was impossible for someone to walk toe to heel with their eyes closed along the line, and that they would swerve to one side or the other. All of these were demonstrated, but I was not convinced, since they apparently used to demonstrate this before, when the ‘equator’ was a few hundred feet north of its present location (as now determined by the GPS readings). The official Equator pictures were taken, and then we returned to the hotel to prepare for the journey to the Galapagos the next day.
We flew from Quito via Guayaquil to Baltra Island in the Galapagos. We were met by the local guide and then joined another group on board our boat the GAP Adventurer V. We could tell that the animals ruled the roost here, as there were sea lions sleeping on the benches near where the boats pulled in. In addition, they didn’t seem to care that we were within a few feet of them, and that there was a lot of activity with people getting on and off boats. This would be the theme of the three days we spent touring the islands.
Our first stop was North Seymour Island, a small island North of Baltra island, and which has a large population of blue-footed boobies, frigates and seagulls. The outer islands are kept as natural as possible, and have no docks, and therefore, zodiacs are sued to transport people from the motherships to the landing areas, which may be rocky bays or sandy beaches. This made for some tricky landings, especially when the wind was up and the waves were rolling in. However, the water was quite warm, and therefore, an unintended swim would not be the worst outcome if one landed in the water.
The Galapagos Parks personnel control which boats go to which islands, to ensure that there are not too many people visiting an area at one time. The entire itinerary for each boat is set by the Park office. Once on the islands, the areas that you can walk within are clearly delineated by posts and spot checks of groups are done to make sure that the guides are complying with all of the rules. It is not possible to visit the out islands without a guided tour.
The most incredible part of the experience on these islands was the complete lack of regard for your presence by the animals. It felt as if you were only an observer, and that you being there or not really had no effect on the animals. This allowed us to get within a few feet of the animals and to get a lot of great photos of them – some of the animals even seemed to pose for the pictures! Over the next three days we visited Espanola island, Floreana island and Santa Cruz island. We saw a lot of different land animals and birds, including sea lions, albatrosses, frigates, boobies, sea gulls, flamingoes, land iguanas, marine iguanas, crabs, lizards and sea turtles. There were three opportunities to go snorkeling off the coast of the islands. The water had equally amazing marine life as we saw sting rays, sea lions, silver tipped sharks, angel fish, king angel fish, bumped headed parrot fish, hawkfish, and dolphins.
Floreana Island is home to Post Office bay where people used to leave letters to get posted. The tradition still lives on today, and you are supposed to take post cards that are for your home country and post them when you get home. You then leave postcards there for the next set of travelers to pick up and take home with them.
Santa Cruz island had 30,000 people living on it, and has had most of its natural habitat altered by people. The Charles Darwin research centre is located on this island, and is the best place to see the famous land tortoises, which gave the island chain its name (galapago is tortoise in Spanish). The Galapagos was definitely a highlight of the trip and far exceeded our expectations, for the ability to get so close to the animals.
Our trip ended with a return flight to Quito and a last meal with all the Canadians (9 of us!) at a restaurant in the main nightclubbing area of Quito, with a side visit to a chocolate shop to find the Ecuadorian chocolate that had been scarce throughout the trip. Our time in Ecuador was definitely too short, as there was a lot more to see in the highlands, as well as in the Amazonas region east of the Andes.
I would definitely recommend this trip to anyone interested in the history, geography and natural treasures of this part of South America. For those on a time budget, a tour is definitely the way to go. While GAP Adventures had some challenges in organizing our trip the local guides and organization were first class, and highly recommended.