Ecuador is relatively small – about the size of New Zealand or Nevada, and has the highest population density in SA with 15 million people. Oil accounts for 40% of its GDP and the cost of an US gallon of gas is $1.28 with diesel at $1.03 (it only costs 12 cents per gallon in Venezuela). Other important exports are minerals, bananas and shrimp. It fell under the control of the Incas just before Pizarro conquered the Inca in 1432. It has the highest deforestation rate and worst environmental record in SA, but also has some of the world`s most varied geography – in 200 km one goes from the coast to over 6000 m in the Andes and on to the upper Amazon basin. It is a megadiversity hotspot as it is one of the most species rich countries in the world (20,000 plants, 1600 birds and 300 mammals). Ecuador converted its currency to the US dollar in 2000.
The most obvious difference on entering Ecuador are the large number of stray dogs, cheap transportation, and indigenous people. The road traversed green mountains with virtigenously steep river canyons. The landscape is mountainous with patchwork fields covering every possible piece of ground. I spent 2 nights in Otavalo (pop 43,000) in the northern highlands. It is famous for its Saturday crafts market that dates back to pre-Inca times and is the largest in SA. Indigenous people wear classic clothing and are everywhere. The food market offers every kind of fruit and vegetable known, the meat is scary (intestines, organ meat, and ghoulish heads are common), and there are lots of cheap food stalls. I went up to Lake Culcocha that lies in an extinct volcanic crater with Volcan Cotacachi (4939m) looming over it. This is the first mountain seen with a rocky summit and snow.
After a 2 hour bus ride ($2) where much of the terrain was steep mountains covered in cactus, yucca and scrub, I arrived in Quito (pop. 1.5 million) set high in the Andes amid dramatic mist covered peaks (elev. 2850m). I stayed in `Old Town` packed with historical monuments and architectural treasures and declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. Most travelers surprisingly stay in ‘New Town’ with many more restaurants and more nightlife. I have been fretting about getting my Brazil visa that is very onerous. After spending 3 hours not finding the embassy (it moved in June but did not change their website and was closed by the time I got there), I walked down Amazonas, the big street in New Town. This is the large festival week in Quito and they were setting up chairs along the street in preparation for the parade celebrating Quito´s founding. At 4 PM, almost all the front seats were gone even though the parade did not start till 7. Expecting something like Carnival or Mardi Gras, I took a seat to wait it out even though I was not dressed for the cold with only 2 long-sleeved shirts on. By the time the parade started, the crowd was 7 rows deep. To say it was anticlimactic is an understatement. After one hour, amid multiple cries of ¨Viva Quito¨, there were 9 large majorette groups (kids still do that here), 12 marching bands, 10 folk dancing groups, and 3 floats with beauty queens. I admired all the skimpily clad people but little was very good. With more to come, I fought my way out through the crowd to the disbelieving stares of everyone.
That evening I went up El Panecillo, the small ever visible hill to the south. It is topped with a huge stature of La Virgen de Quito – 30 meters tall on an 11 meter base, giving good night views of the city. I went for a walk around after with a Venezuelan woman from the hotel. We went into the trendy renovated street called La Ronda where she had been before. I was carrying and using her camera as she thought I could take better pictures. We walked about 50m out of the north end of La Ronda onto a small overpass and all of a sudden, 2 young men came up behind us, one grabbed the expensive SLR and another the strap around my neck and escaped in seconds. Even though my arm was through the strap, there was nothing I could do to prevent the theft. Quite the harrowing experience, but we definitely should not have been where we were at that time with a camera showing. I slept poorly that night.
Quito´s Old Town is truly one of the world´s treasures, full of colonial buildings with balconies, wrought iron and beautiful paint jobs. On my third day, I took the Teleferico, a multimillion dollar sky tram that over 2.5 km ascends to 4100m to give views of the entire city and valley. I went early to avoid the inevitable cloud and rain that happens most afternoons. The views were great and I walked around but did not climb the mountain behind. Having wasted so much time finding the Brazilian embassy, I now had limited time so crammed in all the churches in one day. The Basilica del Voto Nacional´s highlight is the towers that make a great climb. After several flights of steps, one crosses a rickety wooden plank above the main roof and then 3 sets of steep ladders for sweeping views of the old city. The beautiful Plaza de San Francisco with its monastery is the city´s largest colonial structures and its oldest church (1534-1604). The museum has great religious art and the church fine baroque carving. La Compania de Jesus is Ecuador´s most ornate church with 52 kg of gold leaf used to gild the inside which has many Moorish elements. The cathedral is known for its painting of the last supper.
The next day I caught my flight to the Galapagos, 1000 km off the Ecuador coast. Made famous by Darwin and still one of the best places in the world to do evolutionary field research, it is on most people´s bucket list. I had booked on the cruise ship, the Galavan 1 for a total cost, including flight and NP fees of $2,000. Many ships cost $5-6,000 for the same trip. The boat is the second lowest of 5 levels of cost but turned out to be a great deal with good food, rooms, guides and itinerary. For the first 4 days we had 13 on the boat and for the second 4 days, there were 18. The flight lands on Baltra, a tiny island just off the big island of Santa Cruz and one takes 2 buses and one boat to arrive at Puerto Ayora, the main city in the Galapagos. Santa Cruz has little remaining natural habitat, is very green and most of the trees are in leaf. We took a bus to the giant tortoise reserve. Each island has its own species (of the 14 original species, 3 are now extinct – they were a favorite of the buccaneers as they could be kept alive with no food or water on board ship for up to a year and then were a valuable source of protein). The ones on Santa Cruz weigh up to 600 lbs, live 200 years and all are herbivores.
There are 7 large islands, 7 small islands and many tiny islands straddling the equator. They are all volcanic in origin and relatively recent in origin (1-5 million years old with the oldest islands in the east and the newest on the west) and there is still volcanic activity with the most recent eruption in 2010. This was still the dry season (wet season January to May) and the islands all are very rugged and desolate looking. The main tree is the palo santos tree, and with no leaves, presents as a grey twiggy tree covering the barren lava fields and multiple volcanic cones. Wildlife is everywhere but mostly consists of iguanas (land and marine), sea lions (common and fur) and many birds (pelicans, blue footed and nasca boobies, albatross, magnificent frigate birds, mocking birds, G. falcons and of course the famous 13 varieties of finch). With no natural enemies for millions of years, all the wildlife is amazingly tame (or habituated or genetically primed to not respond to nonthreatening humans). Absolutely nothing reacts to your presence. With 50 sites that allow visits, we went to 2 to 4 sites every day, seeing slightly different critters at each. We also snorkeled 1 – 2 times per day and I was able to identify 23 different kinds of fish by the end. It was amazing to watch sea lions fishing a few feet away and cruising by you constantly. Several sites also had green sea turtles and it was incredible to float above 2 or 3 at once. (if anyone wants the complete itinerary, please ask and I can forward it). With significant distances between sites, a lot of time was spent motoring for often several hours every day, mainly at night. That is why several islands are simply not accessible on a normal cruise. Unfortunately I developed a severe case of ¨tourista¨ that responded well to antibiotics that were available on the ship. I spent 2 extra nights in Puerto Ayora and then flew back to Quito. On the flight back, the owner of ROAM (the travel agency part of the business) from Nelson sat next to me. ¨The Beak of the Finch¨ is fascinating reading as it won the Pulitzer Prize several years ago.
After 1 night in Quito, I bussed 3 ½ hours to Baños, the adventure capital of Ecuador. With many stores on every block offering repelling down waterfalls, mountain bike rentals, whitewater rafting and buggy rides, along with many restaurants and massage parlors, there is no shortage of things to do. I cycled 22 km down past several waterfalls in the rain, climbed up to the cross overlooking town and spent a lot of time investigating doing the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Continuing south, I took the world famous, hair- raising train down the switchbacks known as the Nariz del Diablo (Nose of the Devil) between Alausi and Sibambe. In Sibambe, local indigenous people dance, give tours of the small museum, and prepare meals for the train tours providing them with welcome income. 4000 prisoners from Jamaica were imported to build the railway but only 1500 survived to win their freedom. On the train there were many gringos including a woman from Nelson (Marjorie Davidson) who was traveling in Ecuador for 3 months.
I then bussed 4 hours south to Cuenca (pop 470,000), a gorgeous colonial city, where I planned to spend xmas. We made dinner at a Californian’s who has moved to Cuenca. December 24 is a huge festival day in Cuenca and we watched the spectacular 8 hour parade featuring the traveling baby Jesus. All the children were dressed up as angels, wise men, conquistadors, or matadors. There were many little children dressed in immaculate costumes on horses (the huge flowing dresses draped over the entire horse) decorated with food and candy. That night Marjorie and I joined 4 expats from Penticton at one of their houses for great food and conversation and then went to midnight mass at the local cathedral. The next day we climbed up to the Mirador de Tiru, a great viewpoint above the city and then walked along one of the 4 rivers through town. We then went to a local restaurant for a multicourse xmas meal. It was very nice to not spend Christmas alone for once. We went up to the Inca ruin of Ingapirca. It was heavily restored and had some nice Inca stonework but I am not sure if it was worth the 5 hours of bus rides. Marjorie and I parted ways (she is remaining in Ecuador and probably going home much earlier than originally planned) and I caught the 7 AM bus (9 hours) to Piura, Peru. In Ecuador, the road traveled through Machala, the self-proclaimed banana capital of the world. The border crossing at Huaquillas in Ecuador is separated from the Peru entry point at Tumbes by 5kms making immigration cumbersome.
I am not a beach person and did not go to any of the playas on the ocean. The rainy season from June to November is also the sunniest and this time of year the coastal lowland area is cool and cloudy. Most of the towns are dodgy and appeal to the 20 something crowd. Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador and on the coast, has little to offer and a reputation of being dangerous. I have also avoided the Amazon basin in both Colombia and Ecuador, as I am waiting to go to an area in Peru that has little environmental degradation and the most animals (Manu).
Cost of Ecuador: $2940 for 23 days = $128/day (greatly inflated by the Galapagos trip)
GALAPAGOS ISLANDS – Dec 9-18, 2011 (detailed account)
Day 1. Flew from Quito via Guayaquil to Isla Baltra, where there is a large airport left by the US during WW2. Short bus and boat ride to Santa Cruz and then 1 hour bus ride to Puerto Ayora, the biggest city in the Galapagos. Went out to the Galaven 1, got our rooms and then bussed to Rancho Pemiso, a private ranch in the highlands where there are large numbers of giant tortoises. They were everywhere and extremely tolerant of close approaches. Their shell is bone and connects to the vertebra of the animal. They can weigh up to 250kgs and live up to 200 years old. Herbivores and get all their water from the plants they eat. Can go one year without eating or drinking, making them ideal for keeping on board boats as a food source for the buccaneers and pirates that killed most of them. There were 14 different species on 14 islands but 3 of those are now extinct. The ones on Santa Cruz have very domed shells and most of the others (where the cactus is taller and they have to stand on their hind legs to reach the pads) are called saddlebacks. Nearby are lava tubes – these are huge with 20 foot high ceilings and spiral shapes with the longest 1 km long. Back at the boat we were 4 Mexicans (Yucatan, Mexico City, the 86-year-old from south of Mexico City), 4 Americans (Donna – LA, Susan – Portland, Josh and Cloe – 18 years olds from Texas), 1 Swiss, 1 Brit (Ben – Manchester), 2 from Paris.
Day 2. We motored from 3-6 AM to Santa Fe. We had a wet landing to see many Galapagos common sea lions with many young as they birth from Oct – Dec. Have only 1 pup and breastfeed exclusively for 1 ½ years. There is one male to about 20 females. The M/F sex ratio is 40/60 but most of the males are killed in dominance battles. Very habituated and allow easy close up looks. There were many large tree-like prickly pear that serve as food for iguanas especially. Snorkeled for one hour and water quite cold. In the PM motored to South Plaza Island on the east side of Santa Cruz. Small island with many sea lions and marine and land iguanas.
Day 3. Visited Cerro Dragon (Dragon Hill) on the north side of Santa Cruz. Many black marine iguanas. Eat seaweed. Visited brackish lagoon to see flamingos but none there as water low and thus little food. White tipped reef sharks in the shallows. Snorkeled from the beach. PM motored to Bartolome, a small island just north of Santiago. All very volcanic with 120 year old lava flow very visible on Santiago. Walked up long board walk to top of cone with great views. Snorkeled around the prominent rock. Spent night at Chinese Hat, a small island just off shore of Santiago.
Day 4. Motored form 5:30 to 7 to Rabida, a small island on S shore of Santiago. Red sand beaches with red lava and many palo santos trees not yet in leaf – gives a grey look to lava in distance. The punta cactus had very short trunks. Panga along shore to see many birds – great blue heron, yellow warbler, flycatchers. lava heron and marine iguanas. Galapagos fur sea lions ++. Great snorkeling east of beach. There were many flamingos on Bainbridge – an amazing volcanic cone with central caldera and large lake that we could look into from the boat. PM motored to James Bay on NW side of Santiago. Black sand beach and long walk on shore to lava along ocean with many arches and surge channels forming Darwin´s toilet. Many large groups of black marine iguanas and G fur sea lions. When snorkeling saw many green sea turtles including 3 at once very close.
Day 5. Took panga to Black Turtle Cove on N coast of Santa Cruz. Mangrove lagoon with many eagle and sting rays, white and black tipped reef sharks, copulating green sea turtles and many more turtles in lagoon. Returned to Baltra and dropped off 6 and picked up 11 (4 Danes, 2 NY, 2 Spain, 2 Korea, and 1 German). Motored to North Seymour and say many frigate birds – males with big red pouch and young.
Day 6. Long over night boat ride to Espanola. Snorkeled on Bahia Gardner, a beautiful big white sand beach with many sea lions. Snorkeled off beach and then did deep water snorkel along wall and watched 2 sea lions fish not very successfully at very close range. Then motored to Punta Suarez with many marine iguanas – males green and red, Nasca boobies with eggs and chicks, albatross with young. Coast volcanic cliffs with many blowholes.
Day 7. Motored to Floreana. Stopped at Post Office Bay with barrel full of non- stamped post cards meant to be picked up by those who live near and delivered by hand back home. Went down a lava tube with sea water up to mid chest (I didn´t wade in). Snorkeled off yellow sand beach. Motored to Punta Cormorant with brackish lagoon and no flamingos, and then walked over head land to bay with many stingrays and green sea turtles visible form beach. Hermit crabs.
Day 8. Motored back to Puerto Ayora on Thurs night and visited Charles Darwin Research Centre with tortoise breeding program. Lonesome George, the last of his species is there. He has been unable to breed (since then in the spring of 2012, he died). Stayed on Santa Cruz 2 more nights just hanging out, sleeping and reading. Stayed at Espana hotel with Won and J from Korea.
Fish seen while snorkeling: king angelfish, razor surgeonfish, gray bar grunt, black striped salema, giant damselfish, G ringtail damselfish, yellowtail damselfish, panamic sergeant major, scissor tail chromis, panoramic graysby cabrilla, leather bass, pacific creolefish, mottled soapfish, blue chinned parrotfish, bicolor parrotfish, azure parrotfish, chameleon wrasse, spinster wrasse, wounded wrasse, cortez rainbow wrasse, mexican hogfish (all 3 variants), glasseye snapper, pink cardinalfish, panamic fanged blenney, pacific leopard flounder, giant hawkfish, coral hawkfish, orange side triggerfish, sting ray, eagle ray, blue and gold snapper, yellowhead sheephead, bulls eye puffer, pacific box fish, green sea turtles, G. common fur sea turtle.