Postcard from the End of the Earth? Galapagos

Marine IguanaOn Thursday at 1 a.m., my wife and I arrived home from the Galapagos Islands.

As anyone who has read this series knows, I have a morbid fascination with what lies at the end of the road. Who is there? Why? How did they get there? Why does our societal centrifuge pull some people into the very center and send others flying outward? Are they different from us? If so, is it because those places attract the different, or is it that living there makes you different?

The problem is that while the Galapagos may be the edge of the world geographically (literally, it’s where sailing ships used to take on water before the big jump across the Pacific,) it’s not the edge of the world culturally. You don’t see any of the quirky types that you usually see in such places. Indeed, it’s just the opposite. This is the ultimate bucket list destination. It’s about as fringe as Aspen.

Here’s the blow by blow.

Day 1: Late Saturday night we arrived at our hotel in Guayaquil. Good news, nice hotel. Bad news, we weren’t trying to get to Guayaquil, a swampy industrial city on the coast, but Quito, perched at 10,000 feet up in the Andes. For some reason, most Galapagos tours divide their time 50/50 between the highlands of the Andes and the islands. (The reason is probably self-evident: After your third or fourth giant tortoise, you have pretty much had your fill.) Unfortunately, American Airlines decides to substitute the luggage of a guy named Frank who has my same last name for mine. It will be days before mine catches up with me.

Day 2: We finally get to Quito. Well, except for my second piece of luggage. Luggage stories are all the same, so I won’t go into details, except to say: When you combine the complete indifference of the airline industry with shocking incompetence, you get Lan Ecuador. After three million air miles, I thought I had encountered every permutation on poor airline service, but I was wrong. On a forty five minute direct flight, LE managed to leave half the luggage behind, then botch the follow-up. Now both of my bags are lost, so Liz and I spend the day roaming around Quito, me in increasingly smelly clothes. Luckily, it’s Sunday and Quito is a very Catholic city, so there’s not much to do anyway. Around dinner time, I take a taxi out to the airport and get one piece of my luggage—luckily it’s the piece with the mountain gear in it.

Day 3: We meet the other members of our tour. As a rule, I am not a tour guy (or a cruise guy.) There are three reasons for that. I am not terribly patient, and tours tend to involve a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. Simple things, like getting on the bus, seem to take ridiculous amounts of time. Also, I have a hard enough time spending two weeks with people I like, much less ten people selected at random. To be fair, they quickly get enough of me as well. And finally, tours tend to involve shopping, which is just about as appealing as cutting my toenails with a chainsaw. This tour was advertised as an “adventure tour.” I hoped that meant more interesting people and in a perfect world, no shopping.

As I found out in the Quito airport, every tour that does not go Atlantic City or Paris is considered an adventure tour. Basically, “adventure tour” just means you will be staying in hotels where you can’t brush your teeth with the tap water. The Quito airport was an ocean spotted with islands of adventure tourists. The islands differed in terms of nationality and age, but we all wore the adventure tour uniform—Keens, long sleeve sunscreen shirts and tan pants where the legs unzip to turn into shorts. Our particular adventure tour was built around exercise—hikes, sea kayaking, etc. But the next group of travelers over was composed of seventy year olds who were touring the country cooking with local ingredients (which probably IS more adventurous if you don’t boil the water long enough.)

There were ten of us: five twenty-somethings, three forty-three year olds, and us—the geezers of the group.

We head up to Octavalo in the highlands. First stop was the equator. I admit, I had no idea Ecuador is on the equator, despite the fact the country’s name is Ecuador. Oh well. Live and learn. I didn’t bother to try the water thing because the guidebook says it is nonsense—water doesn’t go clockwise above the equator and counter-clockwise below. Or whatever. Then we spend a few hours in the market (I knew there would be shopping. I knew it.) before a brief hike.

The hike is less about exercise and more about giving the guide Felipe a chance to surreptitiously check us out. I think he is relieved when we all navigate it just fine, including a 300 lb. young man and us old folk. That night, we sleep in a five hundred year old hacienda, which is damp and very cold. It is impossible not to look at the huge fireplaces and general layout and realize that places like this were only possible pre-mechanization with lots of slaves.

Day 4: We hike the rim of an extinct volcano. Well, to the extent any volcano is extinct. I am not sure why, but I expected this part of the Andes to be bone dry and rocky, like Peru, but it’s not. It’s green and lush. The hike is very challenging, both because just standing up is challenging when you live at sea level and go up to 10,000 feet, but also because it’s planned as a downhill hike and due to mix up with the park rangers, we have to hike it uphill.

After the hike, we drive over the continental divide to a famous spa for the night. On the way, we stop for hot chocolate. This part of Ecuador has a thriving dairy industry. Interesting, because when I last spent a lot of time in the tropics in the seventies, there was no such thing as a dairy industry because of bovine tuberculosis. Apparently, technology has found a solution. The hot springs are very, very hot and feel very, very good.

Day 5: Felipe spends breakfast subtly trying to talk us out of the day’s hike, in which we are supposed to be driven up to 14,000 feet and walk down. He manages to convince five to spend the day in the spa instead of the making the hike (mostly the younger members of the group.) The other five of us pile into the van and slip and slide our way up the mountain. It is a horrible day, sleeting sideways, fog as thick as the potato soup we get served at every meal, and three of us change our minds on the way up, leaving the guide, a twenty-nine year old Army captain named Kate and me to do the hike.

It is an absolutely glorious day. Part of it is the sheer ridiculousness of it. We are wet, covered with mud and each of us falls at least once on the steep slopes. Everything is sopping, and the ground is so soaked that it is like walking on a giant sponge. After all, this eastern slope of the Andes is what feeds the Amazon, so it should be wet. We also see some wildlife, including an Andean fox, and amazing flora that looks more like something you’d see in an aquarium than on a mountain side. This is one of those days that could have, perhaps should have, been a nightmare, but because we were all into it was exactly the opposite. A deliriously joyful suffer-fest. It will be days before my boots dry out.

When we get back to the hotel, there is a cloudburst and I run full speed to my hotel room, then collapse gasping. I won’t try any more sprinting at this altitude.

Day 6: Finally, we fly to Galapagos. At the last minute we change plans and fly to a different airport, necessitating a three hour boat ride from Baltra to San Cristobal. The ocean is a relatively flat, but it’s still the Pacific and we have a few queasy stomachs on the long trip. We also end up with some serious sunburn. I had forgotten how intense the sun is here. It doesn’t take very long to cook. On the way, we run into a school (pod?) of over a hundred dolphins. They are all around us, jumping, surfing the boat’s wake, riding the bow wave, and racing us. It is absolutely terrific.

Once we arrive, we do a tough little hike along the beach and up a hill. We stop to snorkel at Darwin Bay, which is where the Beagle landed. Just like the hikes, this is more about the guide checking out our water skills than anything else. The bay is cold, dark, and there is a pretty significant tidal surge.

Our guide doesn’t baby us. He doesn’t check gear before we start out on a hike or offer to carry packs or bring along spare stuff or any of that. And in this case, he hasn’t brought life jackets to snorkel with. As it turns out, two of our party can barely swim and have never snorkeled before. It is an interesting afternoon.

The hotel room sucks. In fact, we have gotten the suckiest room everywhere we have stayed, and this continues throughout the tour. Eventually we figure out why. Since we are sleeping in a single bed, we always get the smallest room, and the smallest room usually has the worst view. We learned our lesson. From now on, we will ask for two beds.

We go to sleep to the sound of the barks, groans and hisses of the sea lions, which lounge everywhere along the waterfront—on benches, on inspection tables, on boats, on the beach and on the sidewalk.

Day 7: First, we sea kayak. Liz and I stink at this, which is good, because so far we have been really good at everything, which is annoying the youngsters on the group. They don’t like seeing sixty year olds race up mountain sides while they are doubled over gasping for air. These are very nice folks and they haven’t said anything, but it’s clear our ineptitude in kayaks cheers everyone else up.

Then we snorkel at Kicker Rock. The rock is a sharp pinnacle of rock a few miles offshore. Getting into the water is a little daunting. It is in blue water with big rolling waves. Technically, there’s no difference in snorkeling in 7 feet of water and 7000, since you could drown in both. But deep water feels more threatening. There are two other factors contributing to our hesitancy to get into the water. This rock is famous for sloughing off huge pieces that fall fifty feet onto kayakers and snorkelers, and we are out here looking for hammerheads.

I am first in the water after the guide, Godo, and we are immediately surrounded by sea turtles, a half dozen or so. A few minutes later Godo points and dives. I take a big breath and follow him down. Down, down, down. He points furiously and I barely see the tail ends of three sharks, one of which is allegedly a hammerhead. But Godo used to be a professional free diver and I have followed him too deep. The trip back to the surface takes forever. I have time to ponder life on the way up and it dawns on me I may have miscalculated this time. My lungs are bursting as I break the surface.

On the way back we stop at a shallow cove for lunch and another snorkel. This time a gang of teen age sea lions decides to swim with me, occasionally buzzing me and staring at me with big brown eyes to see my reaction.

Day 8: We fly to Isabella. There are thirteen (or fourteen or eighteen, depending on which map or guidebook you read) islands in the Galapagos, four of which are inhabited. The flight is on two very small ragtag planes. It’s a smooth flight until we start to land and come in over the lava fields, where the churned-up air has been heated by the sun-heated rocks.

I confess: I did not research this trip very well before I booked it. For some reason, I’d always pictured the Galapagos as being off the coast of Chile in cold water, and being barren, damp, cold and deserted. Isabella is the closest to that vision because large parts of it are covered with relatively barren lava fields, but it too is lush and beautiful, more like a Caribbean island that what I envisaged.

We start with a snorkel at a speckle of islets around the harbor. They are called Tintoreras, which means white tipped reef shark, of which we see a bunch. No matter how many times you see sharks in the water, it’s always cool. It’s a rough snorkel, and as usual, a few of our party get beat up a bit. Then more hikes, first to see marine iguanas and then to see our first giant tortoises. The tortoises are at a breeding center, and it’s like a zoo with only one type of animal. The walk there and back through the mangrove forest is more interesting than the tour. We stay at a nifty little hotel called Iguana Crossing, which as advertised is located at a place where marine iquanas cross from the brackish lagoon to the beach. It’s pretty cool to see traffic stop while a fat black lizard slowly ambles across the road.

Day 9: Big hike around another caldera. To our guide’s delight we all vote to start at 5 a.m. rather than waiting until 8 or 9 like most groups. The park only opens at six (on the equator, days are always 12 hours long and the day is usually six a.m. to six p.m.) so we won’t quite get to see the sun rise over the crater but we will be close. The guide’s excited, since he’s never been there that early and this will also allow us to beat other groups of hikers and not be stuck behind them on the single file sections of the trail.

It’s very cool. This caldera is the second or third largest in the world, after Yellowstone and the Ngorongoro. It was active very recently and there are huge dry lava flows cutting across its bottom. As the morning sun comes up over the crater, these big lava fields heat up and the moisture from the night before comes up in long, wispy spirals across the bottom of the crater. We walk along the rim, then across to another recently active volcano. Here are huge churned up chunks of rock where the lava cut a path to the sea. There are more colors in the rock than you could ever count—from black to orange to purple to pink, and there are still vent holes where hot air blasts out from the uncooled rock deep below the surface.

We double time it back to try to beat the rain and almost make it. On the way down we pass parties coming up. Secretly, we feel a little special because we got to sit on the crater alone.

Day 10: Ecuadorian food is very good, but we are all tired of it. It tends to be very school lunch like—protein, starch, vegetable.

Kate and I sneak in a scuba dive this morning, not officially part of the tour. Diving is not big on this island. The famous Galapagos diving with the big currents and the schools of hammerheads is much further north, so Isabella has a pretty rinky-dink dive shop. They don’t even check our certification and the gear is the oldest stuff I have ever seen, much less used. Literally, we were fixing equipment on the boat ride to the dive site. A little disconcerting and not very safe. Except for a few huge manta rays and a neat octopus, did not see that much. But manta’s make the trip worth it. Manta’s are 6 or 8 feet across and glide through the water in huge silent swoops. Having a manta pass above you is like looking up at the space ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

In the afternoon, we do a slightly gnarly mountain bike ride. Because the main group did the ride in the morning while we dove, she and I do our version too fast. It’s a blast.

Day 11: We take a boat from Isabella to Santa Cruz. Isabella is the least populated of the islands, only a few hundred people. Its center is a very sleepy little village that lives off fishing and tourism. In contrast, Santa Cruz has 14,000 people, and after the last few days we feel a bit of culture shock coming into the crowded harbor buzzing with water taxis. The proprietor of the hotel where we stay has badly-dyed blond hair and spends most of the year at his home in Stockholm, only coming back to his birthplace for a few months. He’s fifty or so, but legend has it that he shipped out on a freighter when he was only sixteen, so apparently he knew early on that island life was not for him.

While waiting for our rooms to be ready we do more sea kayaking, but this time there are bigger waves, a lot of wind, and less forgiving kayaks, and we suck even worse, which makes everyone feel even better. To be precise, Liz is OK. I suck. When I paddle, our kayak only goes to the right.

In the afternoon, we go to the highlands to see giant tortoises in the wild. Apparently, giant tortoises tend to start their lives down the slopes and work their way up as they get older. The reserve we go to is very muddy and there are rows of rubber boots for visitors to wear. For two hours we slog around the preserve. It’s hot and thorny. There’s been more rain than usual, so the mud comes over the top of the boots, and it’s a long tedious afternoon. The tortoises are easy enough to find. Basically, they move through the underbrush like little bulldozers, leaving trails three feet wide. And they weigh up to 500 lbs. That’s roughly equivalent to a three foot cube, so it’s not like watching for hummingbirds (of which Ecuador has more than anywhere on earth.)

Tortoises don’t see very well, so often we get to watch them quite a while before the wind shifts and they finally realize we are there. When that happens, they pull in their heads. To make room inside their shells they must first let a long breath out, which sounds exactly like a flat tire.

Day 12: The Galapagos are 600 miles off the coast and once we get back to the mainland, we still have to get back to the States. The trip takes two boats, four busses and four planes, and forty hours. This time my luggage comes with me, but it’s full of wet and sour clothes, and I am not so glad to see it.

6 replies »

  1. Thanks for painting such a vivid picture of the trip. I’ve never been to Ecuador, but my brief stay in Panama definitely had me feeling your pain when it comes to sunburn.

  2. Your description makes me feel like I’d been there. That’s good because it also convinces me that I’d never want to go.

  3. As Theresa says, “I think he is a very good writer”.

    Very well done.

    Otherwise, ” I am not terribly patient” seems to push the limits of understatement a bit. Is there such a thing as hyperbolic understatement?

    Otherwise, “I have time to ponder life on the way up and it dawns on me I may have miscalculated this time.” I really do not want to receive a call from Liz asking me to speak at your memorial. Ironman or not you are not 25. And it is noteworthy that, in certain instances, your judgement has not improved since Denver.

  4. This all makes me think about so many things. But mainly, it reminds me how few places I have been in the world. At some point we have to sit down so you can help me plan some travel. You clearly know more than I ever will.

    Amazing knack for detail in this, though. You paint a picture, you do…..

  5. Sam, Sounds like a great time! Can’t wait for my ‘wish you were here’ postcard. Is Syria next?

  6. Sam, Re-living the Galapagos through your prism was quite hysterical. I was curious to see how you were going to recall the verbal transcript captured behind “the bush” during the descent from 12000ft and prospective pet adoption, but you disappointed me. And the 3 sharks that you and Godo spotted below the sea turtles… well… I think I may have digitally captured them as I was taking on water during my mad dash toward the group due to a compromised snorkel. Everyone teases me about dying with a camera in my hand and realize they weren’t far from the truth.