Galapagos Travel Journal - Betty Wittels

Betty Wittels

Never attempt to arrive late at night by plane to Quito, Ecuador. Notice I say attempt: Fog envelopes the city, the plane circles until nearly out of fuel, and then the machine makes a quick scamper to Guayaquil where one stays overnight in a hotel without meals or suitcase. Because God in the sky instigated the thick mist, the airline is only obligated to give one a pillow and a bed. Then at almost dawn the disheveled passengers are shuffled back to the runway to clamber up the very same plane for the 45 minute return to Quito.

I flew on AA miles to Quito, Ecuador to embark on a week long cruise of the Galapagos Islands. We visited 1-3 islands each day. I only intended to stay in Quito for two days prior as I had been to Ecuador 8 years ago. During that prior trip I made Quito my base for 10 days and took bus daytrips to encircling pueblos in which each town specialized in different crafts. Cotacachi specialized in leather goods, Calderon in bread ornaments, and San Antonio de Ibarra artisans created wood carvings. The gran mother mujer market of all is Otavalo where every Saturday almost 5 blocks circumference is teeming with indigenous people from surrounding towns selling weavings, musical Andes instruments, vivid oil paintings depicting village life, and both llama and alpaca skins. Intrepid shopper that I am, I bought a leather suitcase, o.k. I admit I bought two, and stuffed both with weavings and sacks of souvenirs. The leather is smooth as jojoba oil and a suitcase costs about $50. I fervently hoped the airline ticket counter guy would be unable to count from 1-4 as I checked in my suitcase caravan upon my return flight home. But, of course, the one I approached was a math major who swiped my credit card for an additional $112 before I could even plead with my best begging. However, in this journey shopping was secondary to encountering Los Ánimales!

Ecuador is astounding. Despite being considered a third world country it overflows with natural hot springs and five world class, even one 6 star, spas! The country is renowned for roses due to the fertile volcanic soil. The people are warm and kind. I would not refuse a home in this lovely ‘always spring’ weather country, and many ex-patriots do live in Ecuador.

So there I was in Ecuador a day late when I only had two days free before boarding the yacht. After detaining a driver to carry my wares and cart my tired cuerpo to the pueblo markets the first day, I then made an impulsive decision: Since the airline stole one of my days I would lengthen the night! Since Ecuador is brimming with hot springs I went to Papallacta Hot Springs, which is located between two volcanoes, Cayambe and Artisana. The actual volcanic spring water temperature is up to 158 degrees F. The thermal pools’ highest is 104 degrees F. The driver drove about two hours into the 10, 827 foot high forest hideaway that was Canyon Ranch luxury without the price tag or the arrogant attitude. The hotel and spa, filled with candles, and wood beam ceilings lulled me. We arrived, I breathed in the fresh, chilled air, and then I leaped into 5 various sizes and temperature hot and cold pools. One circular pool spouted waterfalls that pounded my sore shoulders, and there was another rectangular one in which I laid my head upon a smooth, black stone while jets pummeled my back. I suddenly felt very dizzy, and was barely breathing (was it Nirvana?) No…I had a huge headache: altitude sickness! I crawled into the massage room ($30 USD for 1 1/2 hours) and decided if I was to die this would be the place from which to depart. However, an hour later I awoke refreshed and resuscitated with no more height trauma. Also, next to the hotel and spa is an ecological preserve where one can walk and see spectacled bears, tapirs, and birds. I would have liked to linger there for a few days. The Papallacta Hot Springs (termas@termaspapallacta.com) sojourn was arranged, along with my day market tour, by Ecuador Amazing which has a very comprehensive website with information to prepare one for anything in Ecuador as well as offering numerous reasonably priced tours. http://www.ecuadoramazing.com/

In Quito I stayed at a small, modern bed and breakfast hotel, the Hotel Eugenia, which was $60 USD a night. http://www.eugeniahotel.com
I heard from other wayfarers that Patio de Andaluz and Plaza Real were fine hotels, also. You can sleep at any of many very nice hotels for $50 USD including breakfast and taxes in Quito. Of course, the expensive chain hotels are there, though a stay is at the $100-$200 range instead of the $300-$400 price tag that would be posted at the same hotel either in the USA or in major European cities. Most taxis to anywhere in the city cost between $1-2 USD. There are many fine restaurants in Quito with top meals costing no more than $10 USD.
The currency is now in USD in Ecuador.

Adventure Life, whose company specializes in travel to Central and South America, booked my trip. Their philosophy is freedom of independent travel with the security of a group whose average size is 8 people. All personnel are fluent in English and Spanish. Whether a custom trip or a group tour this company does not isolate one: unique, local transportation, bed and breakfast small hotels, delicious food, and culture of the people is their passion. And even where the trip begins help is only a local call away. There have been many journeys through other companies where I felt abandoned in the in-between lane to arrival. I chose this company based on ease of contact, responsiveness to questions, and the key character trait of kindness. In these travel days of a trillion selections, kindness, to me, is the transparent door to the heart of what a company has to offer: sensitive service with a personal touch. I was not disappointed. No form letters were emailed to me. Instead, a real person, who even invited one to call, signed a name in the answer to my inquiry. Neither representative I queried was ever impatient or arrogant. Both Jonathan Brunger and Melisse Burns answered all of my questions, even when I repeated the identical queries 6 months later. (To reserve Galapagos one must do so at least 6 months ahead so I had forgotten some of the answers by departure date…am not senile quite yet.) My impressiveness of the high quality care yet reasonable cost of this company never diminished during my entire trip.

Adventure Life
1655 S 3rd Street W, Suite 1
Missoula, MT 59801
http://www.adventure-life.com
800-344-6118 U.S.
406-541-2677 outside the U.S.
406-541-2676 Fax

My favorite book to read during the journey was Wild Life Watching by Lonely Planet.
The Galapagos Islands are 100 kilometers off the coast of Ecuador. 97% pf the Galapagos was preserved in 1959. In 1998 the marine area went under protection. There are 15,000 tortoises in the Galapagos. In the world there are 32 types of seals, 10 species of sea lions, and 1 walrus. Lonesome George, the famous land tortoise living at the Darwin Station in the Galapagos, is believed to be more than 100 years old still has no mate. There is a $10,000 USD reward for anyone who can provide one. When George’s death looms near cloning is a possibility. So start looking for a land tortoise to make George happy and create a baby Georgia or Jorgé.

I was not aware before that Chile, Peru, and Ecuador never signed the international treaty designating open international waters. As a result, nobody is permitted within 200 miles of shore. The law is upheld, and boat owners are fined upon the first infraction. Boats are seized at the second failure to obey the law. Needless to say, poaching is minimal in these waters. Since tourism is livelihood the ban is strictly enforced. These are only some of the tantalizing facts I learned while on the boat.

The first night I sat out on the back deck to peer at the night sky of the southern hemisphere as the ship gently leaned and rocked. I heard a sniffle, then a snore behind me, I looked to see if someone was there, but there was only sea below. I leaned to look down and saw a sea lion lounging on the dingy, which was roped behind the yacht. He was asleep. The next morning our dingy was gone. Another ship spied it an hour away. Apparently the sea lion wanted his very, own boat.

The Yacht I chose, Diamante, holds 12 passengers, with 5 crew members along with 1 guide. The boat was beautiful and trimmed in teak, with beautiful decks where we ate all meals alfresco at an elliptical shaped table. The cabins were tiny, but modern with every amenity. Meals sustained us with always local and fresh fruit, vegetables, and seafood. Snacks were waiting on board for us to devour as we arrived back from every excursion. The passengers were from England and USA. I was told that Europeans board in the summer. I chose May as the weather was like autumn as the seasons are opposite to ours in the southern hemisphere. Most passengers knew more about birding than I, and one family could have been videotaped for a movie called Galloping through Galapagos as they were so humorous. But the Ecuador crew is who most impressed me. The chef constantly asked if the meals were o.k., and also, if we had any preferences. Of course, daily, I requested chocolate concoctions, to which he acquiesced to my desires. The captain let me steer the ship even after I told him I almost grounded a boat in Norway. But what astonished me most was the crew’s alertness to every need or possible issue that occurred. What I mean is if we were walking a very rocky path the guide immediately offered a hand. If I was trying to stuff my bag with my camera and the zipper was stuck, immediate help was offered. I never had to ask for help! Speaking Spanish of course, won the staff to my beckoning. But I could feel, as the crew sang salsa while at work, that the staff truly enjoyed the trip as much as the passengers. One day an excursion was going to be particularly rough, unbeknownst to me, so the guide took me aside and offered me a one-person dingy ride, instead. Even when the snorkeling was rough help was right by my side. Because fall precedes winter and the water was chilly I had bought a ‘shorty’ wet suit and was glad I did. I was, also, grateful we passengers all helped each other don the skintight suits.

A typical day on board consisted of the following: Breakfast at slightly after dawn, a walking excursion on a selected island for an hour or two, the boat then motors or sails to another spot, lunch on deck, snorkeling at a new landing area, then the boat meanders to a third spot where we walked about again. Last, we ate dinner, and were taught a lesson in geology or wildlife, or given a next day activity preview by the ever, energetic guide, Fáusto Rodriguez. Then we relaxed, whether that be talking or deleting hundreds of photos to make room for the best yet to snap. The guide even offered to put any of our photos on a CD disk from his computer. Though there was no internet on board and access only available on shore in one port, I was able to use my cell phone to call home once to make sure MY animals were o.k.! And the nightly finalé was the sight of the stars in the sky. The moon is upside down below the equator! Sprinkled like faceted crystal beads on a black velvet cloak I sat on deck and stared at the glistening stars and the Southern Cross until I could see with my eyes wide shut. I want to remember the Galapagos night sky forever.

On the first sailing day we stopped at Seymour Island and walked sandy beaches for two hours softly treading between sleeping Sea Lion mommas and suckling babies, black land iguanas, Blue-Footed Boobies, and Magnificent Frigate birds. Yes, the name is called ‘Magnificent’ along with ‘Great’ Frigate birds. Some explorer was enthralled with those gorgeous big birds! I soon saw why. The male frigates puff up a huge bright red balloon-like membrane, which is below the chin and then they fly, strut, and luridly tempt all prospective females. The boys would circle, then zoom, and banner advertise their home by enlarging the red sac larger and larger as they sat on their advertised rock or nest under construction hoping for co-habitation. Once chosen by a female, the male spreads a wing over his mate and would chat with her for 10-15 minutes before the ritual would go into deeper realms, so to speak.

We were told not to touch or take anything. It was difficult not to want to nuzzle a sea lion or sidle up to a handsome yellow iguana. But I controlled my natural impulse. Another command was to maintain at least 5-7 feet distance from all animals. More than once that was difficult as I was taking a mini digital video and both a sea lion and an iguana decided to turn and run my way. Stepping backwards soon led to detouring to the side. Those animals move fast and who was I to be on their path? I was in THEIR territory and more than once I felt there was a few too many of us meandering the island paths.

Up at dawn the second day, we walked down the gangway to dingy to a wet landing on Santa Fe Island. A wet landing only consists of a few inches to a foot of water one must step into before reaching the beach a few feet away. However, sneakers and sandals with grip tread and waterproof guarantee are essential sole food on this trip. After leaping over some boulders we spied a beach covered with brown and black rocks. The rocks moved! This was sea lion city: Huge, rotund, round, sleek, brown, black, sleeping, snoring these animals were a delight in sound and movement. We slunk around the sea lions for more than an hour while Blue Footed Boobies nose-dived fish near to the shore and Lava Lizards lounged on the sunny rocks. None of the animals noticed us. Again we were warned not to walk or be in between an animal and the sea in case he wanted to go take a dip. Because when a sea lion began moving we did not have the right of way. More than once it took a quick leap to move out of the way and not be walked over by the roaming, racing sea lion.

Española is the oldest island. We saw Swallow-Tailed Gulls with red feet and red eyeliner eyes, neon yellow/orange Sally Light Foot Crabs, Marine Iguanas and Nasca Boobies. At Garner Bay we walked and trekked over millions of black lava boulders. Each cove we turned into held a different species of animal as though each was a unique pueblo with a different population and culture.

The only time I had ever kayaked in my life was on a tiny river in Hawaii years ago. A little skittish I tentatively slung and plopped myself into the yellow boat and took my one oar while a crew guy sat behind me. Amazingly, dipping one oar end into the water and then switching to the other side almost like maneuvering a teeter-totter was simple and smooth. We rowed near the rocky shores without grounding or smashing the plastic craft, while a half dozen sea lion pups popped heads up, then leaped and followed us about 50 feet to the next inlet.

Of course, small, unexpected episodes injected even more excitement after the sea lion stole the dinghy. A hawk flew into the lifeboat and was unable to fly out. The guide wrapped a towel around him, dried off his wings, and we took him to shore. It appears he might have hurt a wing but once dry he was first walking, and then flying back to climb up into the sky once more.

The next day, for me, unfolded two unforgettable spectacles. We first watched a half dozen flamingos fish out of a lake and emit honky-tonk sounds as they languidly slithered knee deep through the shallow waters. Then on the return dingy trip back to the yacht we saw some tiny penguins standing on the edge of a cliff. The Galapagos Penguin is the smallest of three penguins in the world, the others being the Fairy Penguin in Australia and the Jackass Penguin in South Africa. On this precarious cliff’s edge there were three penguins. One male was behind a female while another female climbed up the rocks. The couple pushed her down back into the water. It seems she wanted a three-some orgy. But penguins mate for life to only one. The male was standing right behind the female. We then heard a donkey like bray sound and saw both penguins’ necks and chests vibrating ultra fast. We were mesmerized as they mated. (See side bar of animal mating/courting rituals)

The last few days ran together as we had many activities: snorkeling, dingy or kayak ride, and at least two walking excursions a day. One afternoon we snaked quietly through a dense mangrove inlet in the dingy. We saw sea turtles as we silently paddled through numerous narrow waterways linked like a labyrinth and bordered by brush and overhanging branches. It reminded me of a bayou swamp without the alligators. Another afternoon we stumbled across black volcanic lava baked into incredible designs: braid, rolls, wavy, cracked, crevices so deep and swirls so intricate my eyes were dizzy and my soul was stirred by the archaic feel of the excruciatingly hot lava power that created the manifest art.

None of the 11 passengers became seasick. Having said that, on the last night we sailed through the channel to St. James, known to be rough. That night while cocooned in my comfy bunk bed, I heard the water loudly slopping as the waves smashed over the bow. I admit I imagined good-by scenes from the Perfect Storm movie. I was torn between knocking on my neighbor’s cabin door and praying. Praying seemed much safer than tumbling out of my bed. The waves subsided and the next morning the sea shone on the smooth blue sapphire sea. Give me the rock and roll of a small boat any day. The huge ocean liners of thousands of passengers can keep their stabilizers. I want to feel the tide turn and the waves swell.

Like any wildlife destination in which visitor numbers are limited to not disturb the animals, the trip was costly. When informed that more rate hikes would ensue in forthcoming seasons I decided to go now. I knew it was no advertising ploy as I had experienced the same dilemma regarding Antarctica. To go now, the fewer the people, the more natural the animals, and the cost would only be higher in the future. Oddly enough, we all go away from these isolated pieces of paradise with a similar self-centered thought; “Well, now that I have seen this paradise, I think it is best nobody else is allowed to go so that the area stays pristine and the animals will be purely untainted by our presence.” The Galapagos Islands are strictly regulated and the National Park tells each boat the route to take. It is planned so that, several days a week each particular island is seen by nobody and, thus, the animals do not grow accustomed to our peering, though smiling, faces. Since sometimes 2-3 boats were anchored close by, we sometimes woke up even earlier to avoid the ‘crowd.’ There was no crowd, but we loved the illusion that we, alone, were seeing these animals, little ‘wanna be Darwins’ that we all are…

To see an animal that is unafraid of a human, in fact, that ignores or is only slightly curious about my presence, is a humbling and profound experience. One stun that stirred in my mind was seeing so many species mingling and lolling around together. I am so accustomed to zoos in which animals are segregated I was astonished to see a sea lion baby nuzzling momma while a cormorant two feet away preened his feathers. For if one ponders the thought that we are just another animal and not very adept, ourselves, anymore at making home in a cave or foraging for munchies in the wild, then admiration grows significantly for the intricate survival behaviors of these wild animals. We just are not very important in the natural world, other than being seen in the ‘civilized’ world as dangerous. To see an animal look at a human with fear in his eyes or sadness, like those in some zoos, rips apart my emotions. These Galapagos island animals have no broken spirits and that caused something in my heart to beat with a pause of hope that our world, perhaps, will not destroy itself. That is, if we can remember that if the sleek and lumbering sea lion can loll beside a long, lanky iguana while an iridescent crab serenely crawls up a rock’s crevice, then we can surely peacefully co-habit with a neighbor. That is if we recall that we are not the only animals in this world.

Galapagos’ Animal Courting Rituals

I could not resist. For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of this journey was watching the male and female animals lure, entice, and “fall under the spell of seduction” with each other. So listed below are details of intriguing elements in the ritual of lust and love.

Blue-Footed Booby:

The male shows his wares by dancing, stretching his neck up towards the sky, and standing on a rock, while turning and showing off his blue ‘suede’ feet. The female watches, and if interested, will imitate his steps. He whistles, points his head to the sky again, then opens his wings and the female responds ‘yes’ by honking.

Waved Albatross:

Both male and female touch bills and rub beaks together. One puts their head up, the other down, which continues in a dance of opposite movements until both make a drumming sound. Eight steps complete the entire ritual. The courting lasts hours before the actual act. Albatross mate for life to only one other albatross.

Magnificent Frigates:

The males gather together after each have self inflated the bright red sac below each Frigate’s face. All of the females fly above as each male below opens his chest to display the red sac, calls out, and flaps his wings. Females are convinced by brightness of color and size of balloon which one is preferred. Also, determining the choice is the branch or rock the male stands upon which will be the future dwelling place for the couple. The female chooses her mate by swooping down, perching besides the male, and he, in turn, puts his wing around her to claim and display possession to the other males.

Sea Turtles:

The males gather together in the sea. Each male mounts the one female while the others wait in line. 4-5 eventually mount the same female. There is no courtship or choice by the female. Turtles lay up to 120 eggs in a sand dune once a year. The hot sands incubate the eggs for three months. Once hatched the babies must quickly run to the sea to survive.

Galapagos Hawks:

These hawks practice Polyandric behavior in which the female mates with up to three males. (Would that I was a hawk!) However, she only fertilizes the sperm of her favorite male. The preferred male must feed and help raise the baby hawk for up to a year.

Galapagos Penguins:

The male entices the female by making a donkey bray sound and stretching his head and neck to the sky while stretching out his wings. The female imitates the same behavior. They mate outside or in a secluded area. Both of their necks vibrate while copulating and the male stands close right behind the female. Penguins mate for life.

Cormorants:

The male dances around in a circle around the female. He invites her to join him in the sea by making a jack-knife movement into the water. She follows him to the ocean, copying the identical dive behavior. He picks up a shred of seaweed and returns to land to show her where the nest will be built.