After eight perfect days in Peru, our Adventure in South America continued as we hopped aboard LAN airlines to Quito, the capital of Ecuador.
Quito – Arts in the Andes UNESCO declared Quito a “World Cultural Heritage Site” in 1978. The designation acknowledges the treasures of colonial art combining the European Renaissance and Baroque styles along with the indigenous and mestizo influences. With the arrival of the Spaniards, the Roman Catholic Church became the largest patron of the arts and the Spanish established painting and sculpture schools and trained the indigenous population in the arts. As a result the “Escuela Quitena” became famous in Latin America for its talented artists. Scholars consider their contributions to colonial art as some of the most valuable in the Americas.
The old section of the city is formed around the “La Plaza de la Independencia.” Here are the four buildings that represent the four ruling powers of the colonial period – the Government Palace, the Municipal Palace, the Archbishop’s Palace and the Cathedral. One of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen is here – “La Compania de Jesus.” The façade can be described as “lacework on stone.” The columns are a copy of those by Bernini in the Vatican. But the splendor inside is unforgettable as everything is covered with gold leaf. The glow – along with the many styles that were used in the construction – Late Gothic, Moorish, Baroque and even Neoclassical – made this an awesome sight. Another highlight was the “San Francisco de Quito.” It is the largest religious complex in the Americas with over 8670 acres including the convent with six internal patios. In addition to the Baroque and Moorish styles, there are ornate details of the Inca’s divine symbol, the sun god. The main alter holds the original masterpiece by Legarda – a statue of “La Virgin de Quito” the only winged image of Virgin Mary in colonial art. An impressive statue of her reigns over the city from one of its highest peaks.
Ecuador = Equator The original name of the city was “Quitsato” which means “Middle of the Earth” in the ancient “tsafiqui” language. It is the only site on the planet where the Equator crosses over the highlands. On the rest of the Earth’s surface it is through the jungles or ocean. Therefore a must-stop is the Monument on the Equator, which is about 20 minutes from the city. The favorite photo-op here is placing one foot on the northern Hemisphere and the other on the southern Hemisphere.
Capital and Capitol in the Clouds Quito is also the second highest capital in the world. At 9184 feet above sea level, it is nestled in the “heart of the Andes” and is surrounded by volcanoes, three of which are still active. They say they basically have two seasons – winter, which is rainy, and summer, which is clear, some clouds and no rain. But here in the highlands the weather changes so often you can experience four seasons in one day. Quito is a thriving, bustling city. Due to their climate, the volcanic soil, the amount of sun and the direct sun overhead for so much of the day, one of their major industries and exports is roses, especially long-stemmed. Our hotel lobby, our room and every place we entered had gorgeous bouquets of roses. Their other main exports are bananas, coffee, cocoa for chocolate and shrimp. They also have lots of oil reserves and gas here was about $1.50 per gallon.
The Galapagos There is a lot more to see in Quito and the countryside of Ecuador but that will have to be another trip because the last “main event” of our journey beckoned – the Galapagos.
Santa Cruz To reach the islands, you fly to the port city of Guayaquil and then fly to the island of Santa Cruz and the town of Puerto Ayora, which is the main point of entrance to the Archipelago. This is the location of the Charles Darwin Foundation Headquarters. Here we catch our first glimpse of the indigenous species – the iguanas, the lizards and birds. But we are heading for the big WOW – the giant tortoises that most symbolize the Galapagos. The Foundation is responsible for the conservation of these creatures, from the nursery where they are bred and hatched and then allowed to live in the protective custody of this National Park. From the talks with our naturalist guides and then by reading the accounting of Charles Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle, you understand why the turtles are endangered. These magnificent creatures once thrived on most all of the islands, but once their biggest enemy arrived – humans – they were decimated. A few quotes from Darwin’s diary on September 17, 1835 tell the horrible story. “These islands appear paradises for the whole family of reptiles. The tortoise is so abundant that a single ship’s company here caught 500-800 in a short time. Our party brought eighteen on board. This animal appears to be well defended by nature but in truth it is rather helpless and easily injured.” Because the tortoise can drink and retain so much water, the buccaneers and whalers carted off over 200,000, knowing the animals would stay alive in the ship’s hold without food or water, thereby providing fresh meat and water to the crew for several months. On board their boats were rats, and when they entered the islands, they destroyed the turtles’ eggs. The rats are slowly being decimated themselves, thank goodness, but that is why the turtles are all penned in their natural habitat. From the eggs, to the baby turtles, to some over 200 pounds they are an incredible sight.
Isabela II Little rubber rafts, which they refer to as “pangas” were waiting for us at the pier and transported us out to our wonderful small ship, the Isabela II. With only 35 passengers and a crew of 29, this was our floating home for the next five days. No Wi-Fi, no email, no television, no news of the rest of the world and not another ship in sight. It felt like we had the whole Pacific to ourselves. What a joy! To say it was fabulous would be an understatement. We met travelers from all over the world and the excitement in sharing this experience was palpable. Every detail on board was taken care of and so well organized. Every evening, before dinner we gathered in the ship’s living room/bar to learn about the island we would visit the next day and the activities we would experience. On board were three naturalist guides who accompanied us on all of our shore excursions. Their knowledge of the islands was invaluable as they know exactly were to look and point out so much that one would otherwise miss. Not only that, they were fun and humorous and looked out for us at every moment.
Native cuisine is always a part of travel and the food on board was amazing. Obviously seafood was plentiful and the special preparations of snapper, sea bass and king prawns were delicious. An Ecuadorian specialty is Locro, a cream of potato soup garnished with avocado. Yummy!
“Buenos Dias” The mornings began with a wake-up call at 7:00 am with the soothing voice of Kathy, one of the naturalists. She cajoled us out of our berths by telling us what adventures lay in store for the day. Following a wonderful buffet breakfast at 7:30, it was time to don a life vest and board the pangas for the excursions to shore.
Floreana – The Isle of Mystery This Island is very isolated from its neighbors but many settlers arrived because it had the right combination of fresh water and nutrient-rich soil making it a place of abundant plant life. Those early settlers left an intriguing tale, worthy of an Agatha Christie novel. Space does not permit me to go into the details but “Floreana” by Margaret Wittmer would be a great read about the legend.
One of the most famous sites here is the Post Office Bay. It consists of a barrel that was placed here in the late 18th century by whalers. They would deposit their outgoing mail to be picked-up by the next ship that would in turn take any mail that was destined for their part of the world. It is still in use and we deposited our own post cards and went through the barrel for cards addressed to people in the Pittsburgh area.
Our guides had told us that a flock of flamingos here was perhaps two. But to everyone’s surprise we saw fourteen on our first excursion. This even impressed the crew!
At Champion Islet, we snorkeled with the giant sea turtles. It was amazing!
They were so close I could have reached out to touch them but touching any of the species is not permitted in the Galapagos and everyone respects that. There were also schools of King Angelfish, Razor Surgeonfish and Blue-Chin Parrotfish among many others. I have not snorkeled in many years so this was another “out-of-my-comfort-zone” unforgettable, awesome experience.
Espanola – This Island has the largest population of marine iguanas. There are so many that they just lie all over the place and each other. Like all the animals we saw, they have no fear of humans and you have to walk around them. They are very colorful – red and black – but were beginning to turn green for the mating season. Punta Suarez offers an abundance of sea birds and here we saw many of the famous blue-footed boobies, even experiencing a female boobie who “called” for her mate and they began courting right in our pathway. The boobies were definitely one of the highlights of the Galapagos. Also this is home to the entire world population of waved albatrosses. They mate here, raise their young and then learn to fly off the high cliffs in what is referred to as their own “aeropurto.” Kayaking around the rock formations here was lots of fun too.
San Cristobal – The excursion today included a long, rocky hike to the top of Punta Pitt, which offered fabulous views from the top of this volcanic formation. Here we saw the nesting site of other seabirds like the Nazca and red-footed boobies, the frigate birds and gulls. Other parts of the island had incredible rock formations, including a tunnel that goes through one that has eroded, called “the cathedral.” On the Cerro Brujo beach we found the largest population of sea lions. While they have been part of almost every place we have seen, here there were hundreds, just lolling around. Talk about cute! You can get so close that you can hear the babies nursing and all of them “talking” to one another. Just don’t get between a male and his harem of females with their babies. Then he will go into fast action, squawking and waddling towards you!
Alas, it was our final night in these amazing islands. We watched a glorious sunset with Kicker Rock silhouetted in the blazing colors.
My visit to the Galapagos was an exhilarating “experience of a lifetime” and I felt truly blessed to see this unique place on earth. Formed by volcanoes three to five million years ago, explored by whalers and the buccaneers from Europe, studied by scientists like Darwin and now savored by tourists, being here is like stepping back in time because you are experiencing the same things they did.
The seascape, the landscape and even “moonscape” vistas along with the multitude of endemic species to be found only here is like being part of a living museum. One can understand why the early Spanish explorers gave the island their first name “Las Islas Encantadas” – The Enchanted Islands. Fortunately the government of Ecuador has designated them a National Park and protects the islands to make sure they stay pristine. UNESCO declared the Galapagos a World Natural Heritage Site in 1978 and subsequently a World Biosphere Reserve in 1985.
It has been hard to stop thinking or talking about this adventure which I sum up with the words “beyond fabulous.” I hope that I have only said “Hasta luego” (I will see you later) to the beautiful countries of South America.