Monday and Tuesday of last week were, respectively, the Anniversary of the founding of Cuenca, and Teacher's Day, both days off school for the kids, so we took advantage of these two days and pulled them out for the whole week and flew to the Galapagos. The plane left from Guayaquil about 10:30, and arrived at Baltra Island about noon. The plane was not quite full, but interestingly enough, most of our fellow passengers appeared to be Ecuadorians. The Galapagos is an expensive destination for anyone, but foreigners pay more for the flight, and the entrance fee to the park is way more - $100/person for foreigners, $6/person for nationals.
Isla Santa Cruz
We took the bus from the airport to Puerto Ayora, and got settled in the hotel we had arranged prior to our trip. Most visitors go directly from the airport to their cruise ship, but we decided to do this all on our own, both to save money, and so that we wouldn't be tied to the rigid schedule these tours adhere to. It was a good decision on both accounts. Once we got settled, we walked to the nearby Charles Darwin Center, to see the Island's most famous inhabitant - Lonesome George. He is a hundred-something year old tortoise from a nearby island who is the last of his species, his compatriots and island habitat having been devastated by introduced feral goats. Attempts to get him to breed with closely related tortoises have been unsuccessful. The heat was pretty fierce, and the kids really wanted to swim at a nearby beach, so we pretty much took some pictures of George and some less camera shy giants, and headed to the water.
The area around the "muelle" (dock) in Puerto Ayora has been nicely developed, with a play area for kids, a small concert shell, some volleyball courts, and a dock which is mainly for pedestrian strolling. It is really designed for the locals, and on Sat. night it was packed. The water around the dock is illuminated, and we could see sea lions and sharks getting dinner. When we got our dinner, we met a nice woman named Judy who was renting out small "suites" with kitchenettes, and so we arranged to move in the next night, at half the price we were paying, with the added saving of being able to cook our own breakfast, and save about $20 a morning on meals. We ended up using the kitchen for dinners as well, and saved even more!
After we moved in to "La Casa de Judy" on Sunday, we took a water taxi past sea lions sunning on the decks of vacant boats to the trailhead to Finch Bay. From there we took a short but hot hike to "Las Grietas" a small inland lake, surrounded by steep rock walls, and filled with both fresh rainwater and water from the sea. The water was deep and clear, and many local kids climbed up the rocks to jump or dive in from 20' up. On the way back, we stopped at the Finch Bay Hotel, where Debby negotiated a half price deal so the kids could swim in their pool, which is where we spent most of the afternoon. Feeling like the day lacked a little in the physical activity department, Debby and I took advantage of the cooler afternoon to hike a 2.5 trail out to Tortuga Bay, while the kids went back to our suite and vegged in front of the TV. The bay is surrounded by a wide, white, soft sand beach, but as it closed at 6:00, we only glimpsed it, and promised ourselves we'd return. Sunday evening we enjoyed a birthday dinner for Debby at one of the nicer tourist restaurants on the island, Debby and I lingering over Mojitos while the girls entertained themselves at a trinket store across the street.
Monday started with a morning bike ride around town, notable for a refreshing rain which soaked us, but felt great. After lunch, we took the kids out to Tortuga Bay, where the kids swam, and Debby checked out the incredible wildlife - mostly iguanas and birds, We heard there are marine tortoises there, but we didn't see any. However, on Tuesday, when I went back to Tortuga Bay on my morning jog, I saw the tracks of a marine tortoise heading back to the sea from a nesting site in the grasses behind the beach. After breakfast at the suites, we took a boat tour of the bay, where we saw sea lions and the remains of a "cucero" (cruise ship) which had run aground three weeks earlier on the small islet of "la Loberia." We also snorkeled, which the girls loved.
Wed. morning we said goodbye to Judy at the Lava Tubes that are owned by her 95 year old father. He had come to the island in 1948, when the government wooed teachers to the Galapagos with the incentive of triple the salary he was earning in his home of Ambato. He discovered the Lava tube a few year after he arrived, looking for a water source. They are pretty amazing - about 20' in diameter and winding underground for about a kilometer.
We arrived at Isabella about 4:00, and walked the mile from the muelle into town. We would have taken a cab/pick up, but unlike everywhere else in the country, including the island we just left, the driver wanted to charge us per person instead of per trip. (We later learned that this anomaly is only for gringos - Ecuadorians pay $1 per trip.) Our sense of justice offended ,we shouldered our packs and headed into town.
Thru our Santa Cruz friend Judy, we had arrange our first night stay at La Casita de la Playa, in a triple for $70-night - a discount down from the $30 per person they usually charge. However, since the town was empty of tourists (most of the foreigners we did see were sleeping on their yachts - Isabella is the last stop before a three week ocean crossing to French Polynesia), and since the last entry in the hotel registry was from over a week ago, we figured we could negotiate the price down a bit for subsequent nights. Debby was the point person on this, and we ended up paying only $50/night for all of us, plus we got to use the kitchen to prepare our own breakfasts!
Puerto Villamil, the port town on Isabella, is quite different from Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz. It is much smaller, the streets are all sand, and there are few, if any shops selling the kind of trinkets (both the high end and the low end varieties) that tourists buy. The beach starts right in town and extends west for about 2.5 km, although the town itself peters out after just a couple of blocks. There are some hotels, including a few that were recently built (one on a wetland that used to be know as a good spot to see flamingos), but at least in this, the low season between Semana Santa and US summer vacation, they were mostly empty. The beach is home to a variety of long-beaked, skinny-legged birds that pick their food out of the receding waves, and on the black lava outcroppings, iguanas. There is a land tortoise breeding center near town, reached via a boardwalk over some mangrove swamps, all sleepy with fish, birds and other wildlife.
Thursday afternoon was cloudy, so we took advantage of the break in the heat to rent some bikes, and ride out to the "Muro de Lagrimas" (Wall of Tears), a wall built in the 1940s out of lava rocks by prisoners, either as part of a prison that was never completed, or just to give them something to do. The ride out was great, because along the black cinder road we saw numerous land tortoises, mostly about one foot wide, which means they were probably about 15 - 20 years old. These were the first tortoise we saw outside a breeding center.
On Friday morning we went on a boat tour to some nearby islets and saw sea lions, iguanas, rays and penguins - the Galapagos is the world's northern-most penguin habitat. We also snorkeled and saw white-tipped sharks and marine tortoises. The beauty of the wildlife, the turquoise blue waters and the moonscape lava landscapes was only slightly marred by the rip-off they pulled on us. Freddy, our hotel's neighbor, had arranged to take us on the tour - $10 including use of snorkeling equipment, he emphasized - unlike other operators (incidentally, not true). When we got to the dock, we were greeted by Freddy's "cuñado" (brother-in-law): Freddy had gone ahead with another group. Did he have snorkeling equipment on his boat, we asked? No, but Freddy had it, and we'd be meeting up with him further on, where we'd be snorkeling. Well, when we met up with him, we were told it was $5 to rent the snorkeling equipment. "Wait a second," I said, temper rising, "That's not what we arranged!" "Well..." the cuñado hemmed and hawed, "that was with Freddy, and he never told me, yada, yada, yada." Whatever. The beauty was there, and the incident was just another example of the difference between the two islands. The folks on Santa Cruz have a sort of Nordstrom's attitude towards customer service: be friendly, sincerely friendly, because it's good for business. On Isabella it is more of an "aprovechar" approach (literally, "to take advantage of," and not necessarily in a pejorative way): get what they can, when they can, because tomorrow may be too late.
Our last evening on Isabella we had dinner, then sent the kids back to the hotel, with instructions that they get to bed early, since we had to get up early (5:00) to catch the 6:00 boat back to Santa Cruz. Debby and I had the mission of delivering the remains of a bottle of rum to a local beachfront bar, where we had some happy hour drinks (rum and "maracuyá" - passion fruit juice) a few hours earlier. We learned en route, however, that the bar closed after happy hour, so we parked ourselves on a curb outside a juice stand and mixed our rum with jugo de piña (pineapple juice) instead. A short time later, John (or perhaps Jhon, as it is often spelled here) and Carolina, two young, (unmarried!) Quiteños who were staying at our hotel, and who shared the morning's boat tour with us, passed by, and we spent the rest of the evening chatting with them. I always really enjoy these conversations, all in Spanish, of course, with informed and educated locals (she is an electrical engineer, he's an architect.) Our conversation ranged from our mutual travels, to the culture of Cuenca - "muy conservadora" (very conservative.) (It's how everyone, even Cuencanos, describe it. Interestingly, people never use words like "cerrado" - closed, or "clascista" - classist, i.e., socially stratified by family name, although the subsequent conversation always demonstrates that this is what they really mean.) We talked about the presidents (theirs and ours), history, poverty and the aforementioned cultural differences within the islands. We left them at 12:30 am, and hope to be able to visit with them when we are in Quito in June or July.
Our trip off the island was unremarkable except for a couple incidents and conversations which illuminated and reinforced the inter-island cultural differences discussed above. First of all, the taxi driver who took us to the boat asked us for $5 for the ride. At our first exclamation of surprise, he said, "Ok, $4." When Debby responded that the trip the day before only cost $2 (remember, it's only $1 for Ecuadorians), he just responded "Ok, $2." Get what you can, when you can. Contrast this with our next interaction with a transportation provider, this time on Santa Cruz.
When we got off the boat, many taxi drivers were offering to take us to the airport. Since we were going to have breakfast first, we declined, but one driver divined where we were going to eat, found us there, and renewed his offer. We finally agreed, and along with another boat passenger, negotiated a fee of $15 for the trip. He would wait for us outside the restaurant. While dining, however, our fellow passenger discovered that a bus would be going to the airport, and got a more favorable price for all of us, including a stop at a visitor site we hadn't seen yet. We agreed, and when Debby informed the taxi driver of our change of plans, he just responded with a cheerful "ok."
I feel a little odd devoting so much blogspace to the issue of the treatment of tourists, because I think it makes me sound like one of those demanding gringo tourists who travel the world and are offended, or even angered, when it doesn't function like the one they left at home. But I'm not that kind of traveler, and I'm mostly just curious about these differences. My guess is that over 90% of Ecuador's foreign tourist dollars are generated in the Galapagos. Certainly, the two towns, Puerto Ayora and Puerto Villamil would be nothing more than a few houses, a tienda and a bar or two without foreign and domestic tourists, so why are they so different in their attitudes?
A gringa who has been living and volunteering on Isabella for the past 10 months and who we met on the boat provided some insight. One thing I didn't know is that the sea off of Isabella is pretty much fished out. Lobster and sea cucumber used to be plentiful, but now are rarely found. The loss of fish corresponds to something that Lourdes, who ran our hotel, confirmed earlier when she said that more tour boats used to stop at Isabella, but they didn't like the food so they stopped coming. Puerto Villamil is, in many respects, including education, health care and resident population (Pto Ayora has almost doubled it's population in the last 10 years, inmigration from other parts of Ecuador), more like a typical rural village than an international tourist center.
More photos from our trip:
Guayaquil, and the trip home.
We arrived back in Guayaquil around 3:00 pm, found our hotel, and headed out to enjoy the Malecón and Las Peñas, a neat old and refurbished neighborhood built on a hill at the north end of the old downtown.
On Sunday morning, we left Guayaquil for what will probably be the last time during our year in Ecuador. We have passed thru here many times this year - in November en route to Salinas; in December with our friends, when we got lost both coming and going; on two trips to Montañita and this one to the Galapagos. It's not a place we like, and wouldn't probably spend any time here at all if we didn't have to. Although I've never been to Lagos, Nigeria, it reminds me of what I imagine that city to be: huge, sprawling, unorganized, ungovernable, hot and sticky. Traffic is loud and chaotic and crawls in fits and starts. Ambulatory vendors in torn t-shirts and plastic sandals sell everything: water, ice cream, nuts, juice, tamales, fruit, watches, sunglasses - you name it.
There is a particularly interesting type of bus vendor we've seen a couple of times while leaving the "terminal terreste" (bus terminal) in Guayaquil. They get on right as the bus is pulling away. Smiling and talking a mile-a-minute: "Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I don't want to bother you and I'll only take a few minutes of your time, but I just want to share with you...." They are good at what they do. They go on to engage the captive audience with a short quiz with prizes and jokes (Nikki once won a plastic crucifix the size of her thumbnail), and only after 10 or 15 minutes do they get to the point, passing out their products for us to examine while they spend another 15 minutes extolling the virtues of this particular candy bar, or bottle of sugar pills or book of prayers. When they finish, no obligation mind you, they pass thru once again, collecting the asking price, "of not $10, not $5, not even $2, just one little dollar," or the product itself.
Usually by Puerto Inca, an hour of straight flat driving out of the city, the vendors are gone, which is good, because the ride now starts to get interesting Leaving the swamped fields of sugar cane, rice and bananas behind, we wind and climb for the next few hours from just a few meters above sea level to over 12,000 feet. If it's too cloudy to enjoy the view out the window, (or even if it's not) we can always watch the on-bus video, which might be Christian dramatic, violent horror, or if we're lucky, martial arts. Barring too many lane closures for construction or landslides, we descend to Cuenca about four hours after we start.