Quito and the Galapagos Islands
"Kicker Rock" puts the heel of its boot to our sister ship. Sailing through the Galapagos Islands, July 4
Fri, July 2:
Our alarm went off this morning at 4:15 AM and we didn't put our heads down onto pillows again until Quito, Ecuador, 2 AM the next morning, a twenty-two hour travel process. Our flight had been "cancelled" about two weeks ago, then rescheduled at the exact original time at twice the price, precipitating a furious battle on Jenn's part to get somebody - Expedia, Air Canada or Avianca - to honour the original ticket price. They did, in the end, but switched us to a three-leg journey: American Airlines to Miami, then Avianca from Miami-Bogota and Bogota-Quito. Not nearly as convenient as our original itinerary, especially in passing through the shoe-removing USA. Avianca (Columbian) was far superior in comfort and frills, even including on-demand TVs for the one-hour flight from Bogota to Quito. Anica still seems to really enjoy the process of travel, especially comparing airlines and airports.
Arriving at Hotel Los Alpes in Quito, we were felt like we were in the private home of a South-American great aunt who'd fallen into genteel poverty. But in a good way. Our "room" was actually a two-room affair (not a bad surprise), with a long hallway leading to the bathroom and wood panelling everywhere there wasn't nausea-inducing wallpaper. Anica's room had sloped ceilings composed of thick wooden beams.
Sat, July 3:
We would have slept in longer but the bleating of a goat woke us up! A goat. In the urban core of the capital city of Ecuador, population 1.4 million. With daylight arriving, we discovered that our room in Quito has a view! Mountains hem in this city to the west and we can see them from our hotel windows. Quito, Ecuador is our first experience of elevation in South America. It's 2835 metres above sea level (9300 feet). We slept fine, no altitude sickness.
Quito has the reputation of being a dangerous city, even for tourists, so we cautiously made our way to the Mariscal area around noon. No worries: it was a sleepy Saturday, and the police presence was everywhere. German soccer fans celebrated in the streets when Germany beat Argentina in today's World Cup game. We had lunch at one of the trendy places on the Mariscal's Plaza Foch.
In the afternoon, we had a driver/guide (HIM: "My name is Andres, but you can call me Andrew." ME: "Can we just call you Andres?" HIM: "Oh, thank you very much, sir.") to take us on a tour to the "Middle of the World." This involved driving up to a fogged-over "mirador" (scenic viewpoint) at over 3000 metres. Yes, we could feel it in our legs, but Andres had us walking so slowly we didn't even get out of breath.
The big attraction is the monument to the equator called "Mitad del Mundo," but a few years ago, using GPS, they discovered the huge monument was about 200 metres offf. Pretty close, considering it was 18th century French scientists who calculated it. Now, however, there's a fascinating and pretty folk history park at the real equator. It's bizarre to be at the equator and have it be chilly in July, but it's the elevation. The sun is incredibly strong but it never gets more than spring-like in Quito.
At this site, we saw traditional Ecuadorian rural homes, exhibits on shrunken heads, and - best of all - little homemade experiments that you can only do at the equator. Like a sink filled with water: unplug it and watch it drain clockwise. Then lift the sink across the equator and watch it drain counterclockwise. Then position the sink right on the equator and watch it drain straight down. Did you know it's harder to walk in a straight line right on the equator? Or that somebody on the north side will seem stronger than somebody on the south side? I don't know if it was real science, or the power of suggestion, but it was all very fun to try.
Let the great world spin: "Mitad del Mundo," Quito, from the northern hemisphere
Then we visited the official (but inaccurate) monument to the equator, which is a huge bronze globe on top of a four-sided rectangular stone tower that you climb for a better view of the surrounding hills. On the way down, each floor has a gallery explaining all about the "Indians" of Ecuador.
Sun, July 4:
And now for the first of the "main events" of our South American trip: the Galapagos! The equator passes through the Galapagos Islands, too, but they're 900 km west of mainland Ecuador. That meant a flight on "Aero Gal." Yet another airline for Anica to rate!
We arrived in San Cristobal, and actually walked across the tarmac towards the tiny airport. After a quick bus ride to the docks, we got our first sample of the Galapagos wildlife: the black rocks of the shore were littered with bright red crabs. Sea lions were lounging on the ramps to the water. Our naturalist guides gave us a moment to take our first close-up pictures. The wildlife-spotting had started even earlier - from high above. As Anica said, "Wow! We haven't even got off the plane and I've already seen whales and dolphins!"
A "panga" (dinghy/zodiac) took us to our ship, the Flamingo I, anchored in the harbor. It would be our home for seven nights - along with the crew, 15 other passengers, and our naturalists, "Pepe" and Andres. We were quickly getting to know the other families, especially at the Captain's welcome aboard toast in the "lounge." (The Flamingo I is not so much a cruise ship as it is a yacht-sized boat). There was a family of eight from Connecticut (four kids, two parents, grandmother and niece), a family of three from Colorado (one boy, age 11) and a family of four from New Jersey (daughter the same age as Anica). Happy 4th of July, American friends!
Soon we were on a beach that we shared with angry, charging male sea lions! And lots of other, tranquil sea lions playing and lounging. But you had to keep an eye out for those defensive males! Wetsuits were also needed, as the water's pretty cold this time of year. We'd been sized earlier, but Jenn and I wore the wrong wetsuits (each other's - totally my fault!), so not a good fit for either of us, during that first swim.
Back on board, we headed up to the sun deck (rooftop of boat) to watch as we circumnavigated the vast, cleft "Kicker Rock" or "Sleeping Lion." On the way, dolphins swam in same schools alongside the ship, and a whale surfaced with a splash in the distance. The sun set and we ate our first onboard dinner at about 8:00. We would be sailing through the night.