Quito and the Galapagos – Dogged by Darwin

After La Paz, our primary mode of transport changed.  We had travelled all the way from Ushuaia by road: a journey we guess to be about 3-4,000 miles.   But the remaining places we were keen to see were more spread out, so it made sense to travel by air.  In particular, we had decided to skip Peru, as that was the one S American country we had already visited, on a tour back in 2003.

So on May 12 we flew from La Paz to Lima, changed planes and flew straight on to Quito, the capital of Ecuador.  We stayed two nights in the centre of the Old Town.  Since Quito is on the equator, we were expecting good weather, but we were disappointed.  The weather was grey and surprisingly cool.  One day it rained consistently, which made it a good day to do ‘indoor visiting’.  We saw several colonial churches, some highly decorated, but most closed or unwelcoming.  It was a different story when we visited the Presidential palace: it was free to go in, and we were taken round by a helpful guide who encouraged us to take photos whenever we wanted.  He thanked us ‘in the name of the President’ for visiting, and presented us with a photo of ourselves taken on the stairs of the palace – also free of charge!

Plaza Grande in Quito

Inside the Presidential Palace

The next day the weather was at least fine, and we visited two spots offering good views of the city.  One was a church, but completely different to the ones we had already seen (more English Gothic in style) and very interesting.  We saw the burial vaults and the church itself before climbing the towers, to get a close-up of the rose window and views over the city.  We had more views from El Panecillo, a hill topped by a 40-metre statue of the Virgin of Quito, with a chained dragon at her feet. She seems to be dancing on the dragon, and has been nicknamed ‘The Dancer’ (La Bailarena).

Seabird gargoyles on the Basilica de Vota Nacional

View from Basilica, looking towards Panecillo Hill

Mary dancing on the dragon

One of the highlights of our visit to Ecuador was to be a week’s cruise in the Galapagos Islands, a place forever associated with the name and work of Charles Darwin.  We felt that we had been following in Darwin’s footsteps throughout our South American travels.  In Rio, one of the carnival parades had had Darwin as its theme, and had included large groups of dancers, each representing different types of fish, birds and animals, before an enormous float featuring the head and shoulders of the man himself. From Ushuaia we had sailed on the Beagle Channel, the route taken by Darwin’s ship. And several of the places we had subsequently visited (e.g. the Niebla fort near Valdivia) had plaques recording a visit by Darwin, and quoting what he had said about the area.  In Santiago, we visited the ‘Darwin Garden’ on the St Lucia Hill.  And now, finally, we were going to the Galapagos…..

Because we are poor sailors, we had picked an upmarket cruise in a relatively stable catamaran with roomy cabins. Ours even had a small balcony. The stability (and our seasickness prevention tablets) were tested the first two nights when the boat sailed from island to island, pitching and rocking in the waves – but we escaped being seasick or tossed out of bed. On board there were 16 passengers and a crew of ten, who looked after us very well and kept us well fed with three full meals a day – rather more than we are used to. After dinner on May 19, they presented Ian with an enormous birthday cake, and everyone sang before it was cut up and distributed.

Our cruise boat, Queen Beatriz

To get from the catamaran to shore we had to travel in two small inflatable dinghies, with two kinds of landing – wet and dry. In a dry landing you can step directly ashore on to dry land, but in a wet landing you need to wade ashore and put your shoes on afterwards. We were always accompanied by our guide/naturalist Walter, who led us and kept us well-informed about the islands. There are strict rules about where you can walk on the islands, and no wandering from the set path. On a typical day we went ashore twice for short walks – one early morning and one late afternoon.  Inbetween a lot of time was allowed for snorkelling, which we do not do, so the time passed rather slowly.

A wet landing

We visited a variety of islands and saw an amazing amount of wildlife. In the air were frigate birds, as well as pelicans diving for fish. We also saw boobies, blue-footed and masked, albatross, hawks and Darwin’s finches, not to mention flamingos, yellow warblers and mocking birds. Mating was in the air, and we saw blue-footed boobies and albatrosses doing their courtship dances, and male frigate birds with their red chest balloons inflated to attract females.

A lava heron catching a fish

Blue-footed boobies doing their courtship dance

Galapagos hawk in flight

An oyster catcher searches for food

A male frigate bird puffs out his red throat sac to attract females

A Wave Albatross

Cactus finch

On land we saw the giant Galapagos tortoises, each about 100 years old. We visited a centre where they are breeding young ones to repopulate the islands, eventually. On the rocks we saw marine iguanas, both large red and small black types, raising their temperatures in the sun before going swimming.  On ‘Dragon Hill’ we met a number of large orange land iguana basking in the sun on the footpath. There were also many crabs on every rock, from large red ones to the little ‘Sally Lightfoot’ variety.

Red crab in close-up

Marine iguana

What do you mean, I look like ET?

Giant Galapagos tortoise

A land iguana reaches up to feed on a cactus

In the sea, and basking on the beaches, we encountered a large number of sea lions. Although we didn’t go snorkelling like most of our fellow-passengers, we did see some big sharks near the boat, as well as several green sea turtles on various dinghy trips. On day we saw a whole school of golden rays swimming along near the surface, like a moving army of carpet tiles. We also saw the small Galapagos penguins, sitting on the rocks or swimming in the sea.

A school of golden rays

Sea lions in the surf

Galapagos penguins

One of the most amazing things about the Galapagos is that the birds and animals are completely unfazed by the presence of humans.  It is therefore possible to get up very close to them (on footpaths you have to be careful not to tread on the iguanas!) and easy to get good photos.

Galapagos hawk in close-up

Close-up of land iguana

The scenery in the Galapagos is largely volcanic, but a lot greener than we expected. We did walk on a vast expanse of black lava on Santiago Island, spewed out by the volcanic eruption in 1897. There are a number of good beaches, including one with unusual red sand. From the top of Bartolome Island we got an extensive view over that island and Santiago, and the channel between. We also saw some splendid sunsets from the boat as we cruised from island to island.

Landscape on Floreana Island

Sea cliffs on Espanola Island

Sunset at sea

View from the top of Bartolome Island

Red beach on Rabida Island

The Galapagos is a unique part of the world, with creatures found nowhere else and a special place in the history of science. To experience it you have to put up with a number of restrictions on where you can land, and be confined to a small boat for several hours a day (unless you are a keen and competent snorkeller). But our cruise has produced lasting memories, as well as thousands of photos.

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