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Day 10: Quito to the Galapagos Islands

Wednesday, May 16, 2001. Sunny 86°

Once again we were up for a 6:30 AM bus pick up. Last night we had repacked all our bags, leaving our warmer clothing at the hotel, and taking only a small duffle bag. Ekaterina said we only needed to arrive at the airport one hour early. We thought she had made a big mistake when we saw the long lines. First you had to have your checked bags inspected for plants and animals and then stand in another line to have it checked by the airline. Never did figure our why it wasn't done at the same time. On the other hand, if the bag was a carry-on, it was inspected in the Galapagos. Not to worry, Ekaterina merely cut to the head of each line and she already had our boarding passes. Because there are no seat assignments on TAME Airlines, it was a mad dash to both the front and rear of the plane for the better seats. TAME needs to study the Southwest Airlines approach.

We arrived in the San Cristobal, Galapagos after a quick stop in the coast town of Guayquil. The time zone is one hour earlier than Quito and called Galapagos time. We quickly discovered that there was no such thing, as “Galapagos Time,– for time didn't mean much here. Arrival was a little more complicated than most places:

Your passport has to be in order, although the Galapagos is part of Ecuador and that should have been taken care of in Quito;
Your passport number and the name of your boat are carefully recorded - on paper. Because the Galápagos are designated a World Heritage Park, only 60,000 tourists a year are allowed onto the islands;
You had to pay a US$100 per person park entrance fee in cash; and
Your carry-on luggage is thoroughly checked for plants and animals that might upset the fragile ecological system.
The Galapagos (which means tortoise) Islands are about 600 miles off the western coast of Ecuador. They contain 13 major islands and six lesser ones. They were formed by submarine volcanoes, several of which are still active on the largest island (with the last eruption being two years ago). Because of its unique and multi-cultural history many of the islands have Spanish, British, and American names, e.g., Española or Hood Island. The climate in influenced by the convergence of two major currents: the colder Humboldt from Antarctica that brings the rainy season from January to June and the warmer Panama current that brings the dry season from the north from July to December. The animal life is very unique because it is so remote from other landmasses. In fact, animals differ significantly from island to island which is why Charles Darwin developed his Origin of the Species after a visit in 1845 and subsequent study of its finches. In 1959 (on the centennial anniversary of Origin of the Species) the whole area was declared a national park and extends protection to all animals within 15 miles of the coastline.

Visiting the Islands is the fulfillment of a childhood dream. From the first time you saw Marlin Perkins in Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, you knew you had to come and see the giant tortoises, the iguanas, and seals. Once we had cleared all the official checkpoints, we were met by Jorge Garcia who would be our naturist guide for the next five days. Unlike most residents and guides, Jorge was born and educated in the Galapagos, interned at the Charles Darwin Research Station, and studied marine biology at universities in Venezuela and Columbia.

Small boats at the Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands, EcudorWe got on a small bus that took us to a harbor dock where about 10 California seals were sunning themselves on boat ramps, docks, and boat bows. From there, we transferred to a small Zodiac that took us to the boat. Along the way we passed a very familiar red steel hauled sloop - Northern Light which is owned by a Scandinavian couple who have written books about their sailing trips in both the Arctic and Antarctica where they even wintered one season. We were surprised to see them anchored in a warm water port. The harbor also had an Ecuadorian battleship with rocket launchers and a helicopter, to patrol for illegal fishing (primarily by the Japanese fishing for shark fins and Russians with long-line nets)

Jorge also pointed out the bow of the oil tanker that sunk refueling a cruise ship and causing a significant oil spill. He noted that both the American and Brazilian environmentalists were there immediately with oil containment booms. He said they worked tirelessly to save the birds. As a result, only three birds died. He noted with frustration that the Ecuadorian government had done very little to help.

Freedom catamaran yacht - Galapagos Islands, EcuadorOur boat was a 76-foot catamaran, named Freedom, that had 4 standard cabins and 2 suites (which the Batts and Browns were assigned) all with private bathroom and showers. The interior was beautifully finished in oak and maple, including a spacious lounge/dining room with 4 round tables. It even had a Jacuzzi on the sun deck (which was never filled). Unfortunately for Linda and Don and Chris, the aft cabins suffered from diesel exhaust fumes that were introduced by the air conditioning intake valve which was set next to the diesel exhaust. In addition, they couldn't regulate the A/C unit.

Crew member of the Freedom Yacht in the Galapagos Islands, EcuadorIt had a seven-member crew - not a bad ratio for our group of 11. Our captain was a small Chinese guy who spoke Mandarin, Russian, and Spanish, but very little English. He had one of the most maniacal laughs any of us had heard and reminded us of Chinese villains in bad movies.

Before setting off for our first destination, we were treated to one of many fine meals by the cook, Franco Allela. This one was fresh tuna, that we later learned the crew had caught it off the back of the boat, trolling with just a lure and line. After lunch, Jorge laid out the rules:

Do not touch anything, especially the young seal pups. If you do, the mothers will not recognize their scent and they will die. Unfortunately, no one ever told the young pups not to smell the tourists;
Don't mess around with the male seals. They are mean during the mating season and consider tourists as competitors for the females.
Clean off you shoes from island to island so as not to transmit unwanted bacteria and seeds from one island to another, and
Don't take anything off the island and remove all trash.
Visiting the Seals on the Galapagos Islands, EcuadorOur first stop was Lobos Island, a nesting location for the blue-footed booby. The guidebooks say that the terrain is “rocky.” What an understatement. It is a very recent lava flow and you jumped from rock to rock. But you never really knew if the rock beneath your next step was stable. There never was a “trail,” except every one hundred yards, we'd find two black sticks with white paint. The easiest way to find the trail was to follow the black lava rocks that had sand all over them, dropped by previous hikers' shoes.

But, the trek was worth it. As we landed, we had to step over a young seal that was neither afraid of us nor willing to move. We quickly found our first blue-footed booby with its beautiful blue feet, the color of robin's eggs (Lana insisted it was Tiffany blue). We were surprised that his beak was blue also.

Frigate Bird on the Galapagos Islands, EcuadorWe also saw the magnificent frigatebird with its six-foot wingspan and long forked tail. But the most magnificent thing about the male is the deep red pouches that they inflate to attract females. They put on quite a show, trying to demonstrate whose pouch was the biggest and the reddest. Reminded Chris and Randy of cowboys at a bar, strutting their stuff. We not only saw them soaring overhead, but also sitting on a nest within about four feet of us. We also saw our first of many marine iguanas, sunning himself on a rock to warm up after a cold swim looking for algae.

Later some of us went snorkeling while the others went for a swim. Jorge said the water would be cold, but after jumping in it was wonderful. The snorkeling group played with the seal lions and saw some wonderful fish.

Resting on rhe Freedom Yacht after a day at the Galapagos Islands, EcuadorThe trip back to San Cristobal was wonderful. The group was more relaxed than they had been in days. It didn't hurt that Pedro Carena, the bartender, mixed about the strongest Margaritas any of us had every had and that the stereo was playing Eric Clapton's Layla. Lana and Lanny's attempts at Spanish were the source of endless ridicule. When Lana said she was going to take Spanish lessons, Joe replied it would be a waste of money. Even when she knew the word, she mangled the pronunciation. We also saw Glenn in a pair of sweatpants with Haley's Comet on them, called Zubas -- definitely worth the price of admission. We also gave Chris a lecture on the need for a “submarine showers” on the boat. All the fresh water was from desalination and therefore precious. From now on, only two minute hot showers. Anything longer and not only would we run out of hot water, but also we'd run out of fresh, salt-free water. Showering on the boat would be like standing in a closet with a wet dog.

That night we motored back to San Cristobal so that Jorge and the captain could register our itinerary. Why this wasn't done while we were in port is a mystery. At about midnight, we weighted anchor and headed for the island of Española (or Hood).

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