Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands - 1999
South America has always held a fascination for me but Elsa was less keen, reluctant to face its reputation for poverty and lawlessness. However, since we were both keen to see the Galapagos Islands and their amazing wildlife, Ecuador seemed a good compromise. Both exceeded our expectations.
We began in Quito, Ecuador's capital city, a delightful mixture of the old and the new set at an altitude of over 9,000 feet and surrounded by majestic snow-capped volcanoes. Although originally built by mountain Indians and then by the Incas, the old town is a wonderful display of elegant Spanish architecture. Unlike many city dwellers, the locals usually seemed to be having a good time. We spent our first afternoon in one of Quito's central parks, which was teeming with family activity but hardly any tourists. There was a massive display of local arts and crafts, a man making kites for the children, many performing musicians and, of course, lots of tempting smells from numerous food stalls. Their dress was much as we had expected: many woollen layers on top of thick trousers and skirts, often with a traditional pork-pie hat, despite the high temperature. We browsed the stalls without any of the usual commercial pressure to buy, just a helpful response to any serious enquiry.
No visitor must miss the breathtaking display of Inca gold in the Central Bank Museum. When I first saw the exhibits I felt they must be replicas, since surely this opulence could not be safely left for such close inspection by the public. Then I realised that we were surrounded by heavily armed soldiers, one of whom politely reminded me not to touch!
During our brief stay in Quito we visited the monument on the Equator, dividing our marriage with the world's prime great circle, travelled along the Avenue of the Volcanoes, and took advantage of the Indian talent for knitwear at ridiculously low prices in the old town of Otavalo. The Ecuadorian currency is the Sucre, but with 17,000 to the pound Sterling you need a lot of them when going shopping; I had the unnerving experience of paying one and a half million Sucres for our group's dinner one evening!
As we left Quito the Pichincha volcano decided to break its 150 year silence, and gave us what proved to be a small foretaste of things to come by shooting a plume of steam three kilometres into the sky. (After we returned to the UK it became more serious, and the southern sector of Quito had to be evacuated.) We beat a hasty retreat to Cuenca, another 'extinct' volcano - out of the frying pan into the fire, so to speak. Our principal memories of Cuenca are a seven course lunch of traditional Ecuadorian dishes and the flight out, a seemingly unending spiral upwards out of the volcanic dish in which the city is built. It is amazing to learn that there was no road access until the mid sixties.
I loved the Panama hats, but could find no convincing excuse to buy one.
The Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands merit much more than a few pictures on our website. However, if you enjoy observing wildlife here is a taster, based on our five day cruise of the islands, to encourage further exploration.
The map to the right illustrates our itinerary, conducted under the manadatory and watchful eyes of three experienced naturalist guides. In the interests of conservation, visitors are limited to a few prescribed areas of the islands. However, the small size of our group and the vastness of the terrain helped to ensure that it was not simply a tourist experience.
Our first impressions were the sheer scale of the islands. They lie over 600 miles from the mainland coast of Ecuador, cover some 20,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean, the biggest island is over 80 miles long, and one of the many volcanoes is over 5,000 feet high. But the real stars are the animals. Living so remotely with such little contact with humans and having few predators, they seem to fear nothing. Visitors must travel with an accredited naturalist, and the golden rule is 'as close as you wish, but no touching'.
Our tour began on the island of Santa Cruz, one of the few to be populated, with a visit to the Charles Darwin research station and their tortoise breeding colony. The one pictured left is over a hundred years old.
Here you begin to understand why this unique environment gave Darwin his first ideas on evolution. Isolated from a wider gene pool, the indigenous species had thousands of years to adapt to their environment by emphasising their own beneficial characteristics and letting the less useful ones fade away. This saddleback tortoise, for example, has an arched shell above the neck to permit the browsing of trees and shrubs.
My favourite Galapagos animal is the sea-lion. Perhaps it's because they seem to embody many of my vices: idleness, love of good food and the profound enjoyment of watching others. They will swim with you (an unforgettable experience), applaud your efforts, pose with their pups, and bark their annoyance if you appear too interested in their wife or child. I have some classic camcorder footage of a 300 pound seal trying to taste my lens!
Our second island visit was to Genovesa, bird island, one of the most northerly. Here we saw among many others, at extremely close quarters, various boobies, penguins, frigatebirds, flightless cormorants, most of the thirteen species of Darwin finches, and two magnificent short-eared owls so close I filmed their eyelashes!
Probably the most unusual animal on the Islands is the marine iguana. On Fernandina Island they lie about in masses (the collective term, apparently) of several hundred, periodically sneezing the salt water from their noses after a serious bout of sea fishing. They are very ugly unattractive creatures, singularly unfazed by a couple of dozen visitors picking their way through a communal sunbathing. I accidentally trod on one's foot, but a raised eyebrow was the best it could muster. Just as well, bearing in mind their admirable dental work and widely articulated jaw!
Many may ask why they should spend thousands of pounds to sit on a lump of volcanic rock in the middle of nowhere watching wildlife they could probably see in a zoo. If you are one of them, then don't waste your money. But if you enjoy seeing animals behaving as nature intended, like we do, then a visit to the Galapagos Islands will be unrivalled by any other wildlife experience in the world.
Our trip was organised by the US travel agent Tauck. You will find none finer.