Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands - November/December 2006


This is the diary of a 19 day (16 nights) trip to Ecuador which included a 7 day nautical safari in the Galapagos Islands. We went with our friends from Hampton, Bill and Mary.  It was Mary who asked us to join them and we are very glad we did.  The trip was organised by Mary through Llama TravelEcuador is about one sixth  larger in area than the UK and has a population of 12 million. Spanish is the official language whilst Quechua is the native language. The US dollar is the unit of currency. The average monthly pay packet for an Ecuadorean is $400.  Petrol is sold in US gallons and costs $1.40 a gallon.  That's about 20p a litre.

So now read on ...

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Click here for maps of our travels.

15 Nov (Wed) - Flight to Quito

We drove up to Bill and Mary's and got a minibus to Heathrow where we caught a KLM flight to Amsterdam. After a couple of hours we flew out of Amsterdam to Quito. We had not realised that it was not a direct flight. After 8 hours we landed at Bonaire (never heard of it before today), an island in the Dutch Antilles, just north of Venezuela. We had to get off and wait in the terminal building whilst a new flight crew joined the plane. Our next stop was at Guayaquil, another place we had not heard of before today. It's the largest city in Ecuador with a population of 3 million. It's the country's main port and used to be the most dangerous place in the country. We waited with our seat belts off whilst the plane was refuelled. Eventually we landed at Quito, 2800m above sea level and 420km north of Guayaqil.

16 Nov (Thu) - Quito

It was 10am when we arrived at Quito where the time is five hours behind UK time. We were met by Juan Carlos and waited with another two couples for five more people to turn up but they never did. We piled into the mini bus and were driven to the Dann Carlton Hotel. On the way we were advised not to walk in the park after dark. We were allocated a large room on the 7th floor where we could hear the planes approaching the airport which is closer to the centre of the city than we were. We unpacked and got into the mini bus for a trip round Colonial Quito, to explore the historic heart of the city. We were also taken up Panecillo ('Little Loaf') hill for a view of the city. It's impossible to see it all as it's 75km from North to South and 10km wide and houses 2 million people. The top of the hill is surmounted by a very large statue of the Virgin built from 7,000 pieces of aluminium. While we were at the top of the hill it started to rain. They were starting to construct very large Christmas decorations. We saw the church of La Compañia de Jesus which has 4 tons of gold decoration and visited two large squares, one was filled with ornamental gardens and the other with paving stones and several Indian ladies selling scarves. Quito also has its own version of  Gaudi's Cathedral which has a lot of Galapagos animal statues hanging out like gargoyles.

On the first evening we were entitled to a free meal because the hotel's swimming pool had not been completed. We were pleased about this as we were quite tired and didn't fancy walking out to find a restaurant.

17 Nov (Fri) - Otavalo

We ate breakfast and clambered into the mini bus. Juan Carlos handed out bottles of water to all 8 of us. He was explaining the reasons for the streets having dates as names and Graham asked him what was significant about November 17th. The guide flicked through his calendar and could find nothing. Graham explained that it was Bill's birthday.

We drove north east of Quito to Otavalo. Juan Carlos explained that the double yellow lines in the middle of the road were for advice and did not need to be observed. On the way we stopped at a rose farm. Apparently roses and other flowers are Ecuador's third most lucrative export - oil's the first and bananas are second. We walked inside the rose growing areas whilst the owner explained how the roses were started from shoots and then nurtured with the help of computers. After this we walked around the packaging building where the roses were stripped of their thorns and discarded if they failed the quality control. Some had been dyed blue and decorated with silver and gold tinsel for Christmas.  The roses were bundled by the two-dozen and packaged in a cool room later to be air-freighted to the USA. The owner gave us each a rose. Unfortunately one of the owner's dogs, a golden retriever, bit off Mary's rose so she was given another three.

We travelled on to Otavalo where we stopped to wander through a market selling ethnic goods. Bill and Graham found a bar with a good view over the market and left the ladies to shop. When the ladies joined the men they displayed their purchases. Bill and Graham drank theirs. On the way back to the coach Jane used her negotiating skills to purchase 5 panama hats in balsa wood boxes for 20% of the original asking price (we won't say what they actually cost as they are Christmas presents).

We drove up into the mountains and stopped by the side of Cuicocha, a turquoise green lake in an extinct volcanic crater. We were disappointed because we only walked for five minutes and we were hoping to walk for much longer.  On the way down Jane slipped and grazed her back.

On the return journey we stopped at a hacienda, which had been an old mill, to have a very late lunch. We ate at 3:30pm but an extra chunk of pudding was brought out topped with a candle for Bill.  At the end of the meal we were all given little bottles of the local sweet firewater.

We stopped at the equator and had group photos taken.

We returned to Quito and went out to an Argentinian restaurant called 'Los Troncos' in the evening. For our main course we had a whole rare tenderloin of beef and a couple of bottles of wine. After all, it was Bill's birthday. After the main course the waiter brought out a cake with a candle on it and the whole restaurant sang 'Happy Birthday'.

18 Nov (Sat) - Bellavista Cloud Forest

The four of us and two Mexicans, who had joined the group, were driven north west to the Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve (more...). We drove through spectacular scenery as the road dropped from the Andes towards the cloud forest. At km54 we turned off the main road and drove 12km along a dirt track to the Bellavista Lodge, high in the cloud forest at 2200m. We were allocated rooms on the ground floor of the Alemana house. It was built by German students. It had a small bedroom and a bathroom with a shower. Toilet paper had to be put in a bin by the pan. We went for a short walk before lunch. We had lunch in the geodesic dome and then took a walking tour with a guide, Gabby, through the forest to the Bellavista Research Station where we saw our first stick insect. The views weren't very good as there were lots of clouds - what else would you expect in a cloud forest? It rained but fortunately we were protected by plastic ponchos and wellington boots provided by the lodge. The sugar-water feeders around the lodge attract 16 varieties of hummingbirds.

Before the evening meal we introduced ourselves to the other residents which included two American army girls who had cycled up to the lodge, an English botanist from Chester Zoo (apparently it's really in Upton) and her husband who was not feeling too well. There was also a person from Birmingham who had been everywhere and knew everything which might expain why he was still single. After our evening Gabby showed us a common potoo, a sort of nightjar, which was sitting on top of a pole, a position it takes every night.

19 Nov (Sun) - Bellavista Cloud Forest

We got up early to go with another guide, Gabriel, for a pre-breakfast walk at 6:15am. The sun was shining and the views were better. We saw a toucan and a parakeet but not many other birds. It was a bit disappointing because we did not see as much fauna as we were expecting to see.

We returned to the lodge for breakfast and then went on another walk with Gabriel who was very knowledgable about the flora and fauna. We had a late lunch, saw another stick insect, and were driven back to the Dann Carlton in Quito.

20 Nov (Mon) - San Cristobal

We got up and had breakfast at 7am and checked out of the hotel. We met the five people who were meant to have arrived with us. They'd missed their connecting flights and two had lost their luggage. The five all knew each other.  Two, David and Musmoo (a Mauritian lady) lived near Preston, and the other three, Ken, Jeanette and Pauline (Jeanette's cousin) lived in Greater Manchester.   We were driven to the airport and took a flight to San Cristobal in the Galapagos via Guayaquil. We had a small snack on the flight to Guayaquil and another from Guayaquil to the island of San Cristobal. We landed and joined the queue to show our passports and pay our $100 to enter the National Park of the Galapagos for which we got a pretty ticket. The baggage handling facilities were not the most advanced. A tractor pulled a trailer into the arrivals hall. The bags were offloaded and placed on the floor. A tag was yanked off them. After all the bags had been placed on the floor the arrivals were allowed to get theirs. It was a bit chaotic. Once we got our bags we had to have them checked that they belonged to us, a process that should be practised at all airports. Once passed baggage control we awaited our guide who happened to have been on the plane with us from Guayaquil. His name was 'Ruly', a diminutive of 'Raoul'. Our luggage was piled onto a truck and the travellers got into a mini bus and were taken to the port at the other side of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the provincial capital. We got into a narrow blue and white dinghy, donned life jackets, and were taken to the cruise ship - the Estrella Del Mar II (more...) which was moored out in the middle of the harbour.

Graham and Jane were allocated an outside cabin on the port side of the upper deck whilst Bill and Mary had the opposite one on the starboard side. The cabins had two 2ft x 6.5ft beds separated by 2ft and a bedside cupboard. The bedding consisted of a mattress, pillow, sheet and cover.  Above each bed was a rack where we could put our bags and the life jackets. At the bottom of one bed was a wardrobe. The bathroom facilites consisted of toilet, bin for paper, plugless basin and a complicated non-fully-functioning shower. There was no hot water in our cabin and the cold water was not potable.

We had lunch and all gathered in the main lounge with just enough seating for 16 people although there were only 15 in our party. As Ruly was checking the names off the passenger list it soon became obvious that the first names he had for many of us were not the ones we were known by for example, Stephen and Jennifer Lawrence.  The four other  fellow passengers were Stuart and Rachel from London, and Fausta and Christian from Zurich, who both spoke very good English and their version of German.  Ruly gave us an introductory talk about the boat, the cabin showers, and the Galapagos Islands. We were shown how to put on the life jackets we had found in our cabins and warned that a trial emergency drill would take place in due course.

We got into the 'pangas' (aka dinghies) and taken to the jetty where we got on a bus and were driven to the north side of the island to visit a tortoise reserve. The first part of the journey was on tarmac but the rest was on a dirt track. We arrived at La Galapaguera where giant tortoises roam in a 40 acre park surrounded by a three foot high stone wall. Ruly gave us a talk about the shape of the different tortoise shells. 'Galapago' is Spanish for a giant tortoise. We wandered round the path and came across a couple of giant totoises feeding on leaves. Shortly afterwards another much larger tortoise came into view. We reboarded the bus and went back to the port where we had a shopping opportunity which for Bill and Graham meant a chance to sample the island's pilsner.

We got back to the boat via the pangas, had a cocktail and were introduced to the crew. We had a three course meal, soup, local fish, and some fruit for pudding. The fish is not caught by the crew or passengers.  It is forbidden as it deprives the islanders of a livelihood. After the meal we retired to our cabins. The boat set sail during the night for Española.

21 Nov (Tue) - Española

We arrived at Española, the most southerly island, in the early morning, before breakfast. The journey of about 40 nautical miles took place in relatively calm waters. We had moored off Gardner Bay. After breakfast we had a life jacket drill and all gathered at the stern of the boat. Ruly had written up on the whiteboard in the main cabin what would be happening during the day.  We were introduced to Daisy who had joined us as a trainee captain.   

We were taken to the beach for a 'wet landing' where we did some swimming and snorkelling. We saw some Sally lightfoot crabs, brown pelicans and many sea-lions.  The males are very territorial and noisily guard their hareem.

After lunch we motored to Punta Suarez where we had a 'dry landing', and took a long circular walk where we saw marine iguanas, Nazca boobies (used to be called Masked boobies), blue-footed boobies, courting and juvenile waved albatrosses and many other animals. We also saw a blowhole.

At 6:45pm Ruly held his daily surgery to summarise what we had seen during the day and to explain, with his large map of the Galapagos Islands, what we would be doing in the morning. We ate at 7pm and retired early.

22 Nov (Wed) - Floreana

During the night we sailed west to Floreana and moored in Post Office Bay. It was a slightly choppy journey and many were awoken by the sound of the anchor chain being unwound. We had a panga ride around the volcanic rocky coast where we saw various birds, sea-lions, rays and the head of a dead goat. We then had a wet landing on the sandy beach of Post Office Bay. We took a short walk inland to come across a collection of driftwood with a barrel on a pole. Ruly explained the history. A whaler at the end of the 19th century thought, that, with so many passing ships, it would be possible to leave a letter for someone and it would be picked up and delivered. Many people were surprised when his proposal worked. With great scepticism we left some unstamped postcards and took some to deliver when we got home. 

After lunch we moved to Punta Cormorant where we had a wet landing with sandals and went for a swim and a snorkel. We had a short walk to a laguna with flamingos including a juvenile flamingo. We then walked to another bay where we found a couple of turtles with one on top of the other. Bill spotted a whimbrel further along the beach. On the return journey to the pangas we visited a look-out over the flamingo lagoon and saw some nesting flamingos.

23 Nov (Thu) - Isabela

During the night we motored to the island of Isabela and moored off Puerto Villamil. After breakfast we went in the pangas to a dry landing on a volcanic peninsula called Las Tintoreras. We walked amongst the lava and a large congregation of scuttling marine iguanas. It was interesting to see that the south side of the lava was covered in lichen whereas the north side was not. We came to a sandy area where we saw a lot of large marine iguanas, some swimming and a couple fighting. We were taken for another dry landing at the harbour of Puerto Villamil and clambered into the back of a pick-up truck with seats. We were whisked off down a dusty track to the Giant Tortoise Reserve where they are breeding lots of tortoises before returning them to their original habitats. Tortoises are associated with their nearest volcano and do not interbreed.

We returned to the boat for lunch and then were taken back to Puerto Villamil to do a spot of unchaperoned walking. We stopped at the harbour to see thousands of blue-footed boobies and pelicans having a fishing frenzy. We wandered around the delightful little town visiting its lagoon and ended up sampling more beer.

24 Nov (Fri) - Santa Cruz

During the night we moved to the island of Santa Cruz where we moored in the harbour of Puerto Ayora. In the morning we visited the Charles Darwin Research Station, where we saw Lonesome George, a giant tortoise which is the last example of a Pinta tortoise. We walked back to the port, posted a couple of postcards with stamps on in a proper mail box and then had a beer.

We returned to the boat and after lunch we disembarked at the port and were driven into the highlands to visit a farm where tortoises roam wild. We had some lemon-grass tea and one of the home-grown grapefruits. We were driven back to the port, wandered round and had another beer.

25 Nov (Sat) - North Seymour and Bartolome

During the night we moved to the island of North Seymour which lies just to the north of Baltra where the larger airport is located. It was built by the Americans after they lost Pearl Harbour. After breakfast we had a dry landing and walked amongst lots of frigate birds (both magnificent and great) some showing their red enlarged throats.

After lunch we motored to the island of Bartolome where we had an opportunity to snorkel. Whilst swimming by the Pinnacle Rock, Bill saw two white-tipped reef sharks in his first 'dive' and two (probably) Galapagos sharks on his second. No one believed him, of course. After the swim we were taken to the base of the extinct volcano and climbed up the 370+ wooden steps to the summit where we saw the sun set amidst the wonderful views.  Moored in the bay was a large boat called 'Octopus', owned by Paul Allen of Microsoft (more...).  Ruly said it would cost many dollars to cruise around the Galapagos Islands on a private yacht and it would have to carry an authorised guide.

26 Nov (Sun) - Plaza Sur and Santa Fe

Overnight we moved to the island of Plaza Sur where went for a walk before breakfast. We saw lots of land iguanas, Audebon's sheerwaters and nesting swallow-tailed gulls which are nocturnal. They were wide awake when we saw them and two of them were engaged in some hanky panky.

We returned to the boat and after breakfast moved to Sante Fe where we snorkelled. After lunch we went for a walk to see large prickly pear cactuses and some more land iguanas.

Today there was presidential election.  Everyone has to vote or pay a fine.  The tour company decided to pay the $200 fine and not interrupt our cruise.  The crew avidly watch the television as the results are produced shortly after 5pm when the polls closed.  The right-wing banana baron, Alvaro Noboa, was beaten by the socialist Rafael Correa, who held a press conference in the Dann Carlton Hotel, where we had been staying.

27 Nov (Mon) - San Cristobal and Quito

Over night we had our roughest journey as we moved back to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal. We packed our bags and cleared our cabins. Stuart and Rachel were due to leave us at 6:30am to catch the ferry back to Santa Cruz where they would stay in a hotel for a couple of days. Unfortunately the ferry was no longer running so the captain found a boat that would take them. We said goodbye and were taken ashore to visit an interpretation centre. Meanwhile the boat was being cleaned and restocked ready for the next cruise. We were taken to the airport where we had all our luggage checked to ensure that we were not taking anything natural away from the islands. We boarded a plane and flew back to Quito.  

28 Nov (Tue) - South to Riobamba

Jane and Graham took a second Diamox tablet (they had had one last night) in preparation for the high-altitude journey in the day. We checked out of the hotel at 8am and boarded a bus. David was the new guide. We drove south of Quito, passing Cotopaxi, to Latacunga. After visiting the market, we were taken to Chimborazo National Park, driving to the refuge at 4,800m on the highest mountain in Ecuador. On the way up we sucked coca sweets provided by Bill and Mary who had saved them from an earlier visit to Peru.  As we sucked we admired the llama, alpaca and vicuna which roam wild on the mountain slopes. At the refuge we had a drink of tea and decided to walk down rather than up the mountain. We walked for about 30 minutes before being picked up by the bus. We drove on to Chimborazo Base Camp where we had lunch served by Marco Cruz, a famous Ecuadorian mountaineer, who would be taking up a party of Germans during the night to reach the summit at sunrise. We drove on to a hotel, the Abraspungo Inn (more...), nearer Guano than Riobamba. David explained that the Indian ladies indicated their origins by the style of hat, poncho, dress and jewellery they wore.   Ladies with golden necklaces came from Otavalo.  Those from Riobamba wore white bowler hats.  If they were not married two woollen balls hung from their hats. We dined in the hotel restaurant.

29 Nov (Wed) - Devil's Nose Train

We arose at 5:15am for breakfast, checked out and were taken to the station at Riobamba where we climbed on to the top of the train from Riobamba to the Devil's Nose and Alausi which left at 7am. After a couple of derailments we arrived at Alausi. We then descended rather rapidly, by train standards, making a number of zig zags, to the Devil's Nose where we turned around and climbed back up to Aluasi, suffering another derailment and arriving at 3:30pm.  The railway line, when it was constructed, was part of the Trans-Andean railway line (more...)  joining Guayaquil with Quito with a branch to Cuenca.  It was a major engineering feat to build it and now all that remains of the engineering feats is getting it back on the rails in a very short time. 

We climbed on the bus which had followed the train and made our way through cloud and along the untarmacked Pan-American Highway to Cuenca. Following a democratic decision we did not visit the Inca site of Ingapirca on the way as it was too late. We arrrived at Cuenca about 7pm and checked into the Santa Lucia hotel (more...) which was located in the centre of the old town. It was delightful although our room was too hot ("The walls are made out of mud and there are no windows, madam") and we got moved to a larger cooler room on the first floor. We ate in the hotel's restaurant.

30 Nov (Thu) - Cuenca

In the morning, we were driven to a view point at the edge of the city and then taken to a Panama hat factory where many items were purchased. We also visited the new Cathedral.

In the afternoon we wandered around the city, lunched at the Cafe Austria ($3.40 for the meal of the day) (more...) and booked a table at the Villa Rosa restaurant (more...). It was an excellent evening meal.

01 Dec (Fri) - Cuenca

We spent the guide free day by walking to the Central Bank Museum and around the archaealogical site and the botanical gardens. We had another cheap lunch at the Wunderbar Cafe ($3.25 for the meal of the day) (more...) and visited the Museum of Contemporary Art. We arrived back at the hotel, had a coffee (the best in Ecuador) and loaded our luggage onto the minibus and were driven back to the airport where we caught a flight to Quito. We had a free meal in the Dann Carlton hotel to which we added Bloody Mary Oysters which were excellent.

02 Dec (Sat) - Homeward bound

We left the hotel at 8am and were taken to the airport for an overnight flight to the UK. We said goodbye to David and the driver Juan. We bought some Amazonian flowers. We stopped at Bonaire and arrived at Amsterdam at 4am local time.

03 Dec (Sun) - Return Home

We should have got the 7:30am flight out of Amsterdam but, because of strong winds in London the flight was cancelled and we were rebooked on the 9:30am flight. We got on the plane and the captain told us that a light in the instrument panel needed to be fixed. After fixing it the captain told us we had missed our slot and the flight would be delayed till 12:20. Fortunately an earlier slot was found and we took off to land at Heathrow at 10am where we were met by Bill and Mary's son, Tom.

When we got home at 3pm we found a postcard waiting for us. It was the one we posted at Post Office Bay and had been hand-delivered on 1 December by people who live in Botley, 3 miles from our house. They had been on H.M.S. Beagle and had visited the Post Office on 24 November. One of the two we posted at Santa Cruz arrived on 8 January - 45 days after posting it. The other has yet to arrive.


Click here for Stuart Halybone's photos.