A typical holiday in equatorial South America - charming Spanish colonial cities creeping up Andean foothills, lively Indian markets, friendly people, remote desert islands glowing in sunlight and floating like olives in gin-clear water, unique animal and bird species, ancient Incan ruins and artifacts, snow storms. You read that right, snow on the equator. After hightailing it from the East Coast several hours earlier than originally planned with a snow storm nipping at our heels, my husband, Stu, and I thought that was the end of frozen frolics until we returned from vacation at the end of February. We whiled away the long flight to Quito with fantasies of hot sun, tropical breezes and lots of capering critters. Ecuador delivered that, and far more diversity than we had envisioned.
The Alameda hotel, while not the most luxurious property in Quito, is lovely. We had a spacious, nicely decorated mini-suite with a limited view of the surrounding volcanoes from the balcony and a TV with all the major U.S. networks, thanks to a satellite dish the size of an alien flying saucer. Our guide met us at the hotel the next morning for a half-day tour of the city which, at 9,200 feet, is nestled about two thirds the way up the Andes. Because of earthquake and volcanic damage, Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is a mixture of modern and colonial architecture. The modern section is somewhat graceless, but the old section of town makes up for it in charm, with its extravagant, gilded baroque churches, winding streets and old houses. Unfortunately we were unable to visit the crown jewel of South American churches, La Compania de Jesus, because a fire damaged it shortly before we arrived. Fortunately, the damage is not too extensive, and almost everything will be restored, though at a great cost. One of the highlights of the city was the archaeological museum, which has a small, but well-presented collection of pre-Columbian Indian artifacts. Many of the pieces were exquisite. Our guide was only mildly knowledgeable about the art, but there were labels and we could figure out most of the uses. We were on our own for lunch and to wander for the rest of the afternoon. We took a cab up a hill, El Panecillo, where a giant metal statue of the Madonna de Quito watches over the old city’s inhabitants. We felt safe wandering around town, and walked to the restaurant for dinner.
We feasted that evening at a wonderful traditional restaurant called La Choza. Ecuadorian cuisine is delicious. Corn and potatoes are the main staples and there are many interesting varieties and preparations of each in the regional recipes. Popcorn is often eaten as a side dish and is sometimes added to soup, like croutons.
On the second day, Ramon, a winning combination of intelligence, warmth, humor and Latino sex appeal, picked us up in his four wheel drive vehicle for a tour of Cotopaxi National Park, which includes the land surrounding Cotopaxi, and Cotopaxi itself, the highest active volcano in the world (there are higher inactive volcanoes, including Chimborazo in Ecuador). Soon after entering the park we spied a herd of llama and alpaca, among them a fluffy, pure white, day-old alpaca that wobbled unsteadily on its disproportionately long legs. We stopped to enjoy the peace and watch waterfowl at a lovely lagoon called Limpiopungo at the foot of the volcano. As if on cue, the clouds clustering at the peak of the volcano parted briefly to reveal its perfect cone. As we motored higher up the volcano, we stopped often to enjoy the wildflowers and a variety of birds, including raptors and an iridescent Colored Incan hummingbird. We parked the Land Cruiser and began trekking in the microthin air up a very steep incline from 14,300 to 15,300 feet. As we climbed, we could clearly see our goal - a red wooden shelter about a day’s hike below the summit, then it began to hail. While we caught our breath in the shelter, Ramon produced Nestle’s Crunch bars and tea, and we restored our energy before the descent. Upon exiting the shelter about a half-hour later, we were engulfed in a blizzard. The rocky path we had ascended was imperceptible beneath a thick layer of snow. When we reached the Land Cruiser, the valley below was still sunny. We had a picnic lunch at Limpiopungo in the company of birds before heading back to the city. Fortunately this was the last snow that fell on us until a week or more after we got home.
The next day we joined our group of 14 other Galapagos passengers and our Galapagos Travel tour leader at the Alameda, and traveled to the boat, a 30 minute flight to the coastal city of Guayaquil (the largest city in Ecuador), and then another flight 600 miles west over the Pacific to Isla San Cristobal in the Galapagos. There, one transfers to one’s boat, the only way tourists are allowed to travel among the islands.
Galapagos means saddle and also tortoise, referring to the saddle-shaped shells of the giant land tortoises which, though rare and endangered now, used to populate many of the islands. The Galapagos are an archipelago of about 16 main volcanic islands huddling around the equator. Darwin, fascinated by the variety of endemic animals and observing how species differed subtly on each island based upon environmental conditions, developed his famous theory of evolution here after a single visit to the islands in 1835.
We became acquainted with our naturalist guide, Ernesto Vaca, during the bus ride to the boat. A certified guide must always accompany visitors to the islands. We were incredibly lucky because Ernesto was extremely knowledgeable, as well as being passionately interested in the islands and the animals. We boarded the motor yacht San Jacinto to begin our 2-week cruise just in time to enjoy a delicious, traditional Ecuadorian lunch, which usually starts with thick, rich soup. As the weeks progressed, we found the worse food on the boat to be good, and the best food to be just short of excellent. We chose this particular tour because most companies offer three-day to one-week cruises, though you can occasionally find a 10-day tour. Since many species are found uniquely on a specific island, visiting more islands affords the opportunity to view more wildlife and scenery, and due to the distances between the islands, 1 week is not long enough to cruise to all of the major spots. We weren’t sure how we’d handle 15 days on an 80-foot boat, but at the end of the cruise, we were very happy to have had the extra time in the islands. We visited 14 islands with multiple stops at some of them.
After lunch, we got underway, and sailed to Kicker Rock, so named because it looks much like Bozo’s shoe, only even bigger. Except for the sea bird population (boobies, frigates, etc.), and a suitable amount of guano, there’s little to see at Kicker rock. It was a fine place for a first sunset, after which we began motoring to our early morning landing site, Isla Espanola (a.k.a. Hood). That evening, and all evenings aboard the boat after that, after dinner we had a naturalist lecture, as well as briefings on the next day’s activities, and what to expect photographically.
Under way to Espanola, we discovered the only flaw in an otherwise exceptional trip. We were fortunate to be assigned to the cabin that we unaffectionately refer to (and we suspect that the crew does also) as the Hellhole. Though spacious enough with acceptable amenities, like a hot water shower and lumpy mattresses, we found it very hard to sleep. Even though the nighttime temperatures were in the mid sixties, our cabin was some multiple of that temperature, but we didn’t notice it at first because of all the noise and vibration, which we didn’t notice at first because of the cockroaches. Anytime the boat was underway, we had to close our portholes so that spray, waves, tsunamis, hammerhead sharks and bigger wet stuff didn’t find its way into our cabin. With our cabin just aft of the engine room, we benefited by the lack of ventilation, the heat of the engine, and its noise and vibration. On days following nighttime motoring we resembled those zombies from The Night of the Living Dead. Fortunately, we spent most of the day engaging in strenuous activities, so we really didn’t need any sleep. We were glad that we brought earplugs, so we did not suffer hearing loss, and we did have fans. But it was still hot, noisy and shaky. Two above-deck cabins were considerably nicer, but it was not clear to us how cabin assignments were made. We were among the first who booked so that couldn’t have been a factor, and the trip cost was the same for all participants. Note: In all fairness to Galapagos Travel, since we visited the Galapagos with them they have replaced the boat we were on with a fleet of boats that look modern and handsome on their web site.
We arose at dawn and ate a quick breakfast before clambering into the creaky, wooden pangas which ferried us to the islands in the capable hands of Kevin and Milton, our young pangueros (panga cowboys). Our first landing on Espanola was on a beautiful beach at Gardiner Bay with white sand as fine as talcum powder. As we disembarked, we were greeted by a colony of playing, sleeping and nursing sea lions. Although we saw sea lions on every island, we never tired of watching their antics, cooing over the adorable infants, and cavorting with them in the sea during our snorkeling excursions. Observing the sea lions who body surf in the waves, and the bottle-nosed dolphins who get their kicks riding the bow wave in front of the boat, it’s clear that we’re not the only mammals who do things purely for fun. It solidifies our sense of unity with the natural world.
The second wave to greet us were the Galapagos mocking birds, boldly hopping right up to inspect us, or even landing on people. Among the other island inhabitants demanding that we blow two or three rolls of 36 exposures immortalizing them, were the crimson-hued and ethereally-named Sally Lightfoot crabs; green and red Christmas colored marine iguanas (found only on Espanola; on other islands the marine iguanas are black); lava lizards (but none seemed to be breathing through their eyelids); and the endearingly goofy looking blue-footed boobies. Punta Suarez on Espanola has one of the largest blue-footed booberies on the islands so during our second landing, we saw lots of nests with chicks in various states of growth. The large colonies of masked boobies, with white feathers, orange bills, black Zorro masks and olive green feet are very pretty, but not as amusing as their blue-footed cousins.
There were many impressive birds besides the boobies: the male yellow warbler, a bright yellow bird with a russet cap, a few of the 13 varieties of the famous Darwin finches, an oyster catcher with glowing orange legs and beak, a red-billed tropic bird chick in its burrow, yellow crowned night herons, and George C. Scott-profiled Galapagos hawks, all close enough to reach out and touch if one were allowed to do so. A blowhole at this site releases a dramatic geyser of water, spawning rainbows in the droplet-laden air. We climbed down and played in the spray like kids under a garden hose. It felt great after a long, hot hike.
The next day at Isla Floreana, we landed on a green sand beach, largely composed of translucent grains and pebbles of semi-precious olivine. A salt-water pond, a short way in from the beach, was so still that its surface perfectly mirrored the flamboyantly pink flamingos grazing there, framed by hills, trees and smaller shore birds. When we saw flamingos in Bonaire and Africa, we found them to be very wary of humans. They would seldom let us approach closer than 400 meters. Here we tiptoed to a spot just 5 meters from the flamingos. During our walk at this site, we visited another beach where green sea turtles were mating in the surf and ghost crabs (so named because they instantly disappear into their holes as soon as anything moves near them) skittered across the sand. During mating, male sea turtles tend to gang up on the females, exhausting them, sometimes to the point of drowning. We saw some females escape to the beach for a much-needed rest from the orgies. We also admired the Gauguin palette of the large painted locusts that look as if they’re constructed of multicolor plasticine. We were supposed to snorkel, but due to rough waters at the snorkel site, a couple of us just returned to the beach for a swim and a stroll. Ernesto found a small, recently deceased, white tip reef shark washed up on the sand, and used it to provide us with a shark anatomy lesson.
During lunch we motored to another area of the island, and visited "Post Office Barrel," which has been used by sailors to send mail since the mid-19th century. Sailors would write their letters and place them in the barrel to await the arrival of another ship. Crewmen of the other ship would go through the barrel and take out those letters addressed to the ship’s upcoming ports of call so that they could deliver the letters. They’d also leave their own letters in the barrel for the crews of other ships to deliver. The barrel is still used today, though only by tourists. We suspect that cards left in that barrel get to their final destination quicker than those subjected to the Ecuadorian postal system.
After that, we went to explore a huge lava tube that requires visitors to descend into it using a rope. An intrepid woman in our group, misjudging the distance to the bottom, let go of the rope prematurely and fell about two feet, fracturing her ankle in multiple places. With little help from the rest of us, Ernesto carried her 1000 meters over a rough lava trail back to the panga, to be transferred to a larger cruise ship in the area that had a dispensary and physician. Eventually, they took her to the army base on Isla Baltra, flew her to Quito, and transferred her to a hospital for orthopedic surgery. She’s home now, recuperating well, though sad that she missed the rest of the trip. The tour company offered her a replacement trip later, which she plans to take, skipping the lava tube.
We went ashore at Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz, and spent a few hours at the Darwin Research Station. The station runs programs to increase the populations of the two major species of giant Galapagos tortoises, trains and licenses Galapagos naturalists, and researches other species. The baby giant tortoises (from one month to several years) were incredibly cute miniatures of their gigantic elders. The adults, who can live for over 100 years, were awesome in their size and stature, looking like a cross between ET and a Panzer tank. We observed some fascinating behavior when 2 males began arguing over food. They would hiss at each other, then stretch their necks way up high like periscopes, bob heads, and snap at each other with their powerful beaks. After that we had some free time to tour the town, rejoined our group at the lovely, and quaint Galapagos Hotel, and then returned to the boat to cruise to Isla Isabela for a full day of nature touring that started early the next morning.
Another reason that we selected this tour was that we had very early starts, before other tour groups would show up, while many animals are active, and when the warmly tinted low sun adds a golden halo to the sights and pictures. There were site visits when we didn’t see any other groups, though on most of them, we would pass a group arriving as we were preparing to leave. Although the hikes could be challenging at times, we had plenty of time to just sit in beautiful settings, watching the wildlife and listening to Ernesto’s discourses on the vegetation, geology, and animals.
After a dry landing on Isabela we took a chartered bus into the highlands where we saddled up for a 2-1/2 hour horseback ride to the top of Vulcan Sierra Negra. After arriving at the summit, we dismounted, left that which we didn’t need immediately under a large tree, and hiked to an active volcanic area called Vulcan Chico to see lava tubes, cooled lava flows, fumeroles, and the view from on high, all of which were starkly beautiful. After hiking back to the big tree, we had a picnic lunch and then rode back down to reboard the bus.
Before returning to the boat, we had time to visit another tortoise breeding station. These tortoises were the domed shell variety, as opposed to the more common saddleback variety we’d seen earlier. We also stopped at another salt pond where we saw even more brilliantly-plumaged flamingos even closer than before -- just two or three meters away.
The next day we continued our exploration of Isla Isabela, the largest island in the Galapagos. First, we turned off the motor and Ernesto quietly paddled our panga around some huge rocks in Elizabeth Bay that are home to colonies of penguins and other sea birds. The Galapagos penguin, the only penguin living on the equator, is a small, dapper looking species with white markings outlining their faces, like a snorkel mask, contrasting with their glistening, jet black feathers. We continued silently paddling around a lagoon with huge mangrove trees, in which we saw green sea turtles mating, as well as stingrays, cownose rays, nesting herons and more penguins.
We returned to the San Jacinto and changed for our first snorkel, during which Stu christened the new underwater camera that I gave him for his birthday several months earlier. We had been looking forward to seeing the penguins, and it was a thrill to swim by them on rocks, and swim with them in the water. However, as awkward as they are on land, they move like rockets through the water and you have to be looking in the right direction to even catch a glimpse of them streaking by.
In the afternoon, we returned to dry land at Urvina Bay for more geology, botany and zoology. There we saw our first few dozen land iguanas, some as big as Bustopher Jones and as yellow as an orange tabby. While walking on this former sea floor we saw huge dead coral heads. Much of this part of the island was formed when the ocean floor was instantly uplifted in seismic activity a couple of decades earlier. We glimpsed our crewmembers carrying a goat they had killed tethered upside down on a stick. The goat is an introduced species that is damaging the native environment, and the government offers people incentives to kill them on the islands. Although the cook originally resisted the idea, perhaps out of fear for our privileged gringo palates, he finally consented to serve us some authentic Ecuadorian goat stew, which was absolutely scrumptious! Maybe the crew just didn’t want to share it. Our visit included a brown pelican nesting area, beautifully situated in a picturesque cove, along with their cormorant, whimbrel and striated heron neighbors.
The next day, our seventh on the boat, we landed on Isla Fernandina at Punta Espinoza in the midst of tens of thousands of marine iguana of all sizes (many) and sexes (approximately two), piled up like an auto junkyard. Being cold-blooded they do this to maintain body heat, which is also why they are black (to absorb the sun’s rays). Lava lizards, far smaller than the iguanas, intermingled with them, producing an interesting photo op in which a lava lizard is perched atop an iguana’s head, looking like the reptilian equivalent of a Daniel Boone coon skin cap (our guides referred to this behavior as Iggy Boone). Since marine iguanas swim and feed in the sea (their long claws allow them to cling to rocks underwater as they feed on algae), they need to expel salt. Salt glands in their nostrils collect the excess, which they sneeze out periodically in voluminous sprays.
Wandering tattlers and ruby turnstones foraged on the beach, and we walked over lava fields dotted with clear tidal pools and fuzzy clusters of chubby lava cactus, golden-rimmed in the soft morning light. We had hoped to snorkel next, especially since so many sea lions were present, but the currents and waves were too strong, so we motored north five hours, across the equator towards Isla Santiago. On the way we whale waited (it’s a lot like whale watching, except that you never actually see any whales). We did see many turtles and dolphins, and some hammerhead sharks and rays. The dolphins amused us with their bow-riding trick.
On Santiago, just when we thought we’d seen just about everything, we encountered a lazy pack of sunbathing fur seals. They have thicker coats and more pointed snouts than the sea lions, and though they are just as common as sea lions in the Galapagos, they are shyer than the sea lions and are not seen as often. We also caught our first sight of the beautiful Galapagos doves, with their bright turquoise eye ring and ruby legs, plus black bellied plovers, common terns, sanderlings, yellow crowned night herons, sandy colored land iguanas, a scorpion, and the colorful Galapagos fly catcher. The flowers and geology were also striking. All flowers endemic to the Galapagos are white or yellow, though there are introduced species of all colors.
During the trip we learned that Galapagos endemic species (native to the islands and found no where else on earth) are named either Galapagos something (like Galapagos dove, penguin or tortoise), or lava something (lava cactus, lava lizard), or Darwin something (Darwin finches). Other species are indigenous (naturally occurring, but found in other parts of the world as well), such as the sea lions, and some are introduced, like the dreaded goats.
Our first snorkeling experience with sea lions was magic! These expert swimmers love to speed directly at you, veering off just inches from your mask, tug at your swim fins, or corkscrew their way around your body in a stunning display of power and grace. You can’t imagine how it feels to be swimming and to look down or to the side to see a sea lion whizzing by, giving you the eye.
Although it was incredible, and we got fine photos, we kept wishing we had SCUBA gear -- free diving with snorkels doesn’t allow us to stay under as long, so we might have increased our already extensive interaction with the sea lions if the bubbles didn’t intimidate them.
Isla Rabida, with its iron rich red beaches and cliffs, is a riot of color. As we approached an inland pond populated with sea lions, we were amazed at its bright pink Pepto Bismal color. We had to remove our sunglasses to be sure they weren’t adding that improbable hue to the water. The bright color is the product of bacterial bloom, stimulated by nitrogen from the sea lion waste. We decided not to snorkel in the pond, but we did snorkel in Rabida’s scenic cove. The colorful fish were beautiful, the visibility was very good, and many sea lions, including some very young ones, played with us. More magic.
Overnight, we cruised back to Isla Santa Cruz. Our first stop in the morning was to the lovely home of Jacqueline De Roi, one of the early settlers of the island, who is the mother of nature photographer Tui De Roi. We bought Tui’s exquisite photo book of the Galapagos. The home, hand built by the family, is perfectly integrated into the surroundings. Next, we had free time to explore the town, and we returned to the Darwin Research Station to observe those intriguing giant tortoises before meeting Jacqueline and the group for lunch at the hotel.
We boarded a chartered bus into the highlands to see a pair of huge sink holes, Los Gemelos (the Twins), and to wander about Rancho Mariposa, where the wild male giant tortoises go during the dry season. The highlands trap clouds, and are often wet, producing lush vegetation, therefore lots of food, for the big males when food is more scarce in the lowlands. Although we were there in the wet season, fortunately not all of the turtles had descended to the lowlands. The females, who are much smaller, seldom make the arduous trek to the highlands. But apparently at least one did (or perhaps a big male clubbed her, and then dragged her up to the highlands by her hair), because we got to observe a pair mating. It’s a truly awe-inspiring sight, as the male overwhelms the female beneath his gargantuan weight. Sound effects accompany the multi-hour process, the male’s deep, guttural grunts, and the sound of his toe-nails scratching her shell. We saw many other bachelor tortoises while wandering the highlands and photographed the vermilion flycatcher, preening in his gorgeous red and black plumage, cattle egrets and wild orchids. Valentine’s Day dinner, the only dinner we had off the boat during the cruise, was in a romantic little restaurant called Narwhal, tucked into the forest canopy in the middle of nowhere, with a knockout view and rustic decor. Advance reservations are required since the place is just large enough to handle one small to medium sized group at a time. The owners made us feel like guests in their home.
Although we planned our trip during the wet season, we got very little rain, it was warm to hot, and sunny most of the time in the islands. Sunrises and sunsets were spectacular, and we saw the fabled "green flash". Just as the sun dunks below the horizon, or as it first pops its head up at sunrise, an emerald green light briefly flashes at the horizon.
Our next stop, Santa Fe, is the quintessentially beautiful desert island, with white sand, blue sea and sky, and towering cactus. While sitting under a tree discussing iguana behavior, a huge land iguana meandered over and sat right next to us, to provide an illustration and share the shade. After our island hike, we snorkeled around the boat in the company of huge stingrays and sea turtles.
We motored all night through rough seas, crossing the equator, to distant Isla Genovesa (a.k.a. Tower). Swallow tailed gulls, striking in their refined gray and white plumage and bright scarlet eye rings, nestled with their mottled gray, black and white chicks on the beach at Darwin Bay in harmony with the pelicans, herons and other sea birds. Genovesa is the only island inhabited by the red-footed booby. These boobies ranged from the most delicate pink or white to gray with candy-apple red webbed feet and pastel colored beaks. Their goggle-eyed chicks resemble bleached out versions of Sesame Street’s Big Bird. We saw plenty of masked boobies here as well.
This was the first place that we got to see large clans of great frigate birds up close, although we first spotted them from a distance on Kicker Rock. To attract mates, the males inflate a bright red sac directly below their beaks, which expands their chest to Schwarzeneggerian size, throw back their heads, extend their wings, shake and whistle. It is an impressive spectacle, kind of the human courting equivalent of a ride in a Ferrari, a bottle of champagne and theater tickets. The female has a patch of white feathers at her throat. Both have jet-black feathers except that the back and wing feathers of the male great frigatebird shine with green iridescence. The magnificent frigatebird, which resides on North Seymour (visited later), has iridescent fuschia feathers on its back. After exploring the island some more, we snorkeled before lunch. Our second landing on Genovesa at Prince Phillip’s steps revealed swarms of storm petrels, nesting red footed boobies and an elusive short eared owl in its burrow. This is the only owl that lives in the Galapagos and it is found only on this island, preying on the storm petrels.
Three other tour groups passed by his lair, missing the owl, but eagle-eyed Ernesto picked him out. Being largely a nocturnal hunter, the owl just blinked his big sleepy eyes at us and looked adorable.
We returned to the boat, and cruised to Isla Bartolome. The next morning, we landed at 6:00 am, the earliest that park regulations allow. This assured us exquisite light, and no other groups until we were ready to depart. We climbed to the top of an inactive red cinder cone festooned with ice plants for a wonderful view of an isthmus with a natural stone obelisk called Pinnacle Rock, James Bay harboring a few small boats, and Isla Santiago across a narrow channel. We then changed for one of the best snorkeling expeditions of the trip. We encountered more penguins feeding on small fish, green sea turtles, diamond and marbled stingrays, spotted eagle rays, lots of frisky sea lions, white-tip reef sharks, colorful Christmas-tree worms, spotted green puffers, a golden phase guineafowl puffer, large-banded blennies, blue-banded gobies, bicolor and blue chin parrotfish, king angelfish, yellowtailed surgeonfish, streamer hogfish and hieroglyphic hawkfish. In the afternoon at Sullivan Bay, we explored the fascinating black lava fields on Isla Santiago, the pahoehoe lava, a ropy sinuous flow, and ah-ah, the rocky variety. We slowly drifted back to the boat past penguins and other sea birds on the rocks of Bartolome.
While breakfasting the next morning, a flotilla of penguins swam up to the boat to greet us. We landed on Isla Sombrero Chino, which is shaped like the hats worn by Chinese field workers. Its white beach is composed of eroded coral. There we saw many more very young sea lions, fabulous red-colored ice plants, plus more penguins, spotted eagle rays and turtles in the water.
While heading to Isla Sta. Cruz, we slowed by Vulcan Ecuador, the semi-submerged caldera of a volcano, which has become an enclosed salt-water pond, to admire a flock of feeding flamingos. At Sta. Cruz, we paddled the pangas into Black Turtle Cove, a huge mangrove and bay complex, primarily to see more green sea turtles mating in the water. While there we also saw more sharks and rays, but the turtles stole the show. The larger males mount the females, forcing them underwater during their exceptionally long coupling. The females periodically paddle up and thrust their heads skyward to noisily gulp air, the only sound breaking the stillness of the lagoon. The first time that we witnessed this behavior, the mating pair was too close to the boat to photograph, and they actually grazed Ernesto’s foot as it dangled in the water at the front of the panga. Eventually, all the photographers synchronized with the rhythm of the turtles’ choreography, and all clicked off pictures at precisely the moments when the females struggled up for air.
On our last full day in the islands we visited North Seymour Island in the morning. There we witnessed the entire courting and mating ritual of the blue footed boobies, an alternately impressive and comical sight. The male (whose pupils are much smaller than the females’) begins the courtship with a wacky, waddling dance in which he lifts his sky-blue webbed feet perpendicular to the ground (one at a time). Next, he arches his back into a perfect U as he points his beak and tail to the sky, while spreading his wings and whistling, a behavior called "sky pointing". If the female is interested, she moves next to him and watches, and when she is really interested, they sky point in unison, the female honking raucously in contrast to the male’s gentle, breathy whistle. Then, if you’re really lucky, and don’t blink, you may get to see the entire mating act, which lasts less time than it takes to read this sentence. As we walked further, we saw the fruits of the behavior - large cream-colored eggs in dirt nests on the ground, and chicks in various stages of development. Magnificent frigatebirds also nested on this island with their great frigate cousins, distinguishable only by their iridescence.
Continuing on, we saw marine iguanas eating ice plants, the only island where this occurs and a prime example of the adaptability of species. Ernesto speculated that volcanic activity flooded the land some years earlier, submerging the ice plants. Since marine iguana normally feed on algae underwater, they might have tried the ice plants, found them palatable, and continued eating them once the waters receded. After a long hike, we parked ourselves on a cliff and enjoyed the view and the spectacle of sea lions body surfing in the waves.
Our last snorkeling expedition was excellent, with lots of sea lion interaction and a family of large diamond rays. We were frightened a couple of times by dominant sea lion bulls warning us out of their territory when they perceived that we were having too much fun with members of their harems. 1000 pounds of angry blubber is not something to ignore.
We spent our final afternoon on nearby South Plaza Island. This was the best of our land-based sea lion encounters. Much to our delight, I caught the attention of a trio of very young sea lion pups and stooped down to their level as they approached me curiously, sniffing and nuzzling my feet, legs and hands. Soon afterwards, Stu accidentally bumped into a giant cactus, knocking loose a spiny fruit the size of a ping-pong ball. One of the lounging land iguanas moved like lightning to pop it in its mouth and chew.
From the beach, we mounted some interesting cliffs, and admired the graceful aerobatics of red-billed tropicbirds, elegant birds with long white feathers, travelling to and from their nests on the sheer walls. Then we invaded a sea lion bachelor pad. Young adult males that do not have a harem, and/or can’t yet successfully challenge a dominant male, live together in colonies. On one of the islands, two or three of the bachelors were belligerent towards us, sending one of our fellow tourists almost through and over Stu to escape. Macho Ernesto fended off the sea lion with a stick and sheer bravado. He told us that once he fended off a dominant male, and therefore accidentally became the dominant male of the harem. To save himself from the chores of sustaining the species, he adopted submissive behavior and allowed the prior dominant bull to chase him away and regain his territory.
We came full circle, saluting the sunrise at Kicker Rock our last morning before heading ashore on San Cristobal. We toured the little town on our own. One of the highlights was an unusual church with mixed media collages representing the islands of the Galapagos adorning the walls, and an altarpiece depicting Galapagos wildlife. Then we flew back to Quito. The group farewell dinner was in a very fine restaurant called "La Ronda" that specializes in traditional Ecuadorian cuisine.
The next morning we were escorted to the airport and flew south to Cuenca, the third largest city in Ecuador, after Guayaquil and Quito. The locals joke that, with a million Ecuadorian residents, New York is actually the third largest Ecuadorian city. Cuenca, set at nearly 10,000 feet in the Andes, is the only major city in Ecuador not to have experienced earthquakes or volcanic damage in the last few centuries. Consequently, it has retained all of its Spanish colonial charm, having been spared the necessity to rebuild. It is a lovely city, and one of our favorite places on the mainland.
Our driver and our guide, Gustavo, met us at the airport and took us to our hotel, The Crespo, to check in and drop off our things. Then they whisked us off to Las Cajas, a scenic high Andean lake district. Our first stop was in a high valley on the private farm of a distant relative of Gustavo’s where he thought we might spot Andean condors. We were out of luck on condors, but that didn’t matter much because the beauty of the lush green fields, sparkling streams, long cascading waterfalls, all set off by the ultra clear blue skies and puffy white clouds, were reason enough to be there. Fortunately, they brought along high rubber boots for us to wear so that we didn’t convert into mud monsters in the mucky fields. After working up an appetite on our hike, we sat down to a fabulous lunch of fresh rainbow trout, which are abundant in the region. The restaurant was an atmospheric inn with a beautiful view of twin waterfalls. The kitchen staff would grab a net and snag fish from its own indoor trout pond straight to the pan. Two hours later, happily sated, we were on our way again, visiting several crystal clear high mountain lakes. We returned to our hotel on the banks of the Tombebamba River and strolled along its banks to get the lay of the city.
The next day we arose early and explored our environs before Gustavo came to take us to Ingapirca, the largest surviving Incan ruins in Ecuador. On the way, we stopped at Azogues, where we visited its cathedral, Virgen de las Nubes (Virgin of the Clouds), and a local food market. Gustavo explained all the different types of produce and how it is prepared. We were surprised at how many varieties of potatoes there were, and fruits we’d never seen before. We passed the working farms of the local Canari Indians. Indians of pure blood wear a single long braid, and those of mixed Indian/Spanish blood wear double braids. Men and women wear intricately woven Panama hats and woolen ponchos or shawls. The women wear colorful skirts trimmed with embroidery and beads, even when they are working in the fields. It was not unusual to see men plowing a field behind a pair of oxen. Gustavo explained that, even though the majority of Ecuadorians have at least some Indian blood, there is some discrimination against the Indians. The braids and hats are a manifestation of a former caste system (at one time Indians had to wear them).
Ingapirca combines both Canari and Incan structures, a small moon temple for the Canaris, who worshipped the moon, and a sun temple for the Incas, who worshipped the sun. The complex was a monastery of sorts, with living quarters for priests and virgins (nuns), temples, baths, etc. The Incas only ruled Ecuador for about 50 years before the Spanish came and established control. Most Incan structures were destroyed at that time. At Ingapirca it is amazing to see how advanced the Incas were, with their elliptical temple situated to detect the equinoxes and solstices via the flow of sunlight, so that they could properly time their agriculture and holy days. It was also impressive how finely they fitted their building stones. Walls look smoothly finished and were assembled without benefit of mortar. There is a small museum on the site with some artifacts, including costumes of the Canaris, but most of the archaeological treasures unearthed at the site are in the museum in Quito. We enjoyed another super lunch at a beautiful, country restaurant with a view of the temple and the surrounding mountains.. We had the whole place to ourselves and Gustavo is an excellent conversationalist. We talked about all aspects of Ecuadorian life and culture during our lunches. We took a scenic route back to Cuenca, stopping for photos. Dinner at our hotel was excellent.
The next morning, we lit out to another section of the city to explore and take photos on our own, then met Gustavo back at the hotel for a city tour of Cuenca. We started with the new cathedral - a magnificent marble church, reminiscent of St. Peter’s and a convent museum. Next we toured a Panama hat company. The Canaris still weave the hats by hand and they are brought to the factory to be bleached and pressed. We finished off with a panoramic overview of the city and open-air markets where we saw live guinea pigs for sale along with rabbits and chickens. In another part of town we saw guinea pigs spit-roasting over open fires, presumably not to enhance their skin tones.
Gustavo left us at yet another wonderful restaurant with an inner courtyard garden. After lunch we wandered the city some more on our own, and then sadly took our leave of Gustavo at the airport for our flight back to Quito. At the Quito airport our guide, Rodrigo, and our driver, Juan, drove us through the quickly darkening evening north to Imbabura province. We spent the night at a lovely hotel on the banks of Lago San Pablo. Picture wood cabins nestled in flower gardens, fireplaces, balconies overlooking the lake and the towering volcano on its far bank. The restaurant was romantic, but the food was not up to the decor. As pretty as the rooms were, they were a bit impractical - no matches or kindling for the fireplaces, and no other source of heat. Though we were there in the middle of the South American summer, it gets chilly at night in the Andes.
The biggest, and arguably the best, open-air market in Ecuador is in Otavalo, and the Saturday market is best of all because on that day it includes a large livestock market. It starts early, so we skipped what would probably have been a mediocre breakfast at the hotel to drive to the market very early. Our first stop was at the livestock market, where we saw all manner of farm animals being offered and inspected by the remarkably beautiful Otavalo Indians.
The Otavalos are master craftspeople and musicians and are often seen up north selling their wares. Consequently, they are richer and a bit more cosmopolitan than the Canari. Like the Canari they wear their thick, shining black hair in long single braids. The men typically wear white baggy pants which stop just short of the ankle, with felt hats, huaraches and woolen ponchos. The ponchos are not sold at the market and are usually not sold to outsiders. The type of poncho is a mark of status; rich men wear gray ones that have a gray and navy windowpane design on the reverse. They turn the bottom up to reveal the patterned side. The women often weave gold or other colored ribbon into their braid and usually wear a type of wool turban, although some wear the felt hats that the men do. They wear long straight wraparound black wool skirts, with white embroidered blouses and wool shawls. Beads are a mark of status among the women and they wear many rows of them around their necks. Rich women wear gold beads made of Austrian glass, poorer women wear ceramic beads. Vendors hawking all sorts of lovely handicrafts approached us fairly often. We immediately bought two small oil paintings and a painted box from a young mother with her rosy-cheeked, smiling daughter strapped to her back. Indians from the Cotopaxi area paint the boxes. Later, when we were getting back into the car, she approached Rodrigo to offer him a finder’s fee, which he refused, but she agreed to pose for a photo.
We then drove to the center of Otavalo to wander the several square blocks of open-air market, which primarily featured handicrafts such as woven and knit clothing, hats, musical instruments, jewelry, pottery, paintings, and foodstuffs. Getting there early assured us a look at the small animal market which usually does not last through the morning and which included smaller animals, such as fowl, guinea pigs and rabbits, as well as puppies and kittens (for house pets not cat-kabobs). There were lots of good buys - you can get an oversized, thick, soft, hand-knit wool sweater for about $15, with slightly higher prices for alpaca.
The next stop was at the small town of Cotocachi, which features the loveliest leatherwork, handbags, luggage, jackets, even fabulously tooled saddles. From there we went to admire the view at a crater lake, and then on to Hacienda Cusin for a wonderful lunch. We enjoyed walking about this Spanish colonial hacienda, with its endless acres of flowers, out buildings and stables. If we had more time, we would have chosen to spend a couple of days here exploring the little crafts towns in the area.
We began the long drive back to Quito, passing many other spectacular volcano and valley views. We arrived in Quito in time to watch a glorious sunset from our hotel balcony then dash out for dinner at La Ronda. This evening as we ate our last llapingachos, we were entertained by a wandering Andean band of musicians playing pan pipes, mandolins, guitars, drums and singing traditional songs. It was a perfect end to a fabulous trip.