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PROLOGUE: The RHATT group (Reeves-Holab-Abelman_Traveling-Tours) set off on another discovery tour in January of 2017. Hug and Becky wanted to tour the Galapagos Island while Steve and Robin wanted to tour Mendoza, Argentina. We met in Iguazu Falls following our individual excursion. The following narrative relates our 5 day experience in Quito Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.
Wednesday January 10, 2017: Fredericksburg – Quito:
Today was Becky’s birthday so to celebrate we set off on an adventure to the Galapagos Islands. Our originating flight left San Antonio in the middle of the afternoon with a plane change in Houston. The flight to Quito was about 5 hours on a 737-800 arriving at midnight at the airport. Immigration and custom was routine and soon we found our driver to take us to the Hotel Boutique Portal de Cantuña in the Historic District of the city. The trip from the airport took about 45 minutes arriving after 1:00am, but the night manager was waiting for us and he quickly ushered us to our accommodation
Thursday January 11, 2017 Quito:
We tried sleeping later to make up for the late arrival, but with little success. We were down to the breakfast area close to 9:00 where we found coffee, breads, cereal and fruits waiting for us. They also made eggs to order so the breakfast was very satisfying. Following breakfast, the hotel owner gave us a tour of our 200 year hotel with a brief history; among many lives it was once a convent and later a private residence. We think there are 13 rooms in the hotel, none are remarkable but the location in the historic district made up for any lack of amenities in the room. We asked the proprietor about city tour opportunities and she recommended that we join a free walking tour that was scheduled to begin at 10:30. One of the hotel employees led us on a fast paced 15 minute walk to join the tour. For the next 2 ½ hours an English speaking guide led us through the markets, plazas, government and historic buildings as well as museums and churches. We got a very good over view of the city and found it a very worthwhile experience. When the tour ended at 2:00 we made our way back to the bishops palace where we had earlier seen some recommended restaurants. We found a nice place on the 3rd floor and enjoyed a typical soup along with some corn pancakes with guacamole and empanadas. All were good but not memorable. We also tried the local beer, I can’t recommend Quito for it’s local beer…way to much corn as a cereal filler instead of all malt. But we managed to down 2 each before the end of the meal. From lunch we had a 10 minute walk back to the hotel where we tried to snooze a little bit to recover from the late night on Wednesday. We thought we would visit a museum before dinner, but to our surprise the one we wanted to visit closed at 4:30 so we were left to our own creativity in the hotel until we ventured out for dinner. January is the rainy season in Quito…it rains every afternoon and this afternoon was particularly wet with the rain lasting well into the evening. Because it was still raining at dinner time we chose to take a taxi to a restaurant; we didn’t have any particular recommendations, but were told that we would find a large selection at the Plaza Grande. We searched around the area without any luck and ended up at a different restaurant in the Bishops Palace. For dinner we each had a bowl of local soup specialties and split at plate of empanadas; the empanadas were not remarkable and we left half of them untouched. We did split a bottle of expensive cheap Chilean cabernet sauvignon, the kind you pay $6 for in the grocery store, but almost $30 in a restaurant in Quito. From the restaurant we returned to the hotel by taxi and off to bed.
Thursday January 12, 2017 Quito – Baltra Galapagos:
Our flight to the Galapagos had been booked by “Adventures Within Reach” (AWR). It was scheduled to depart at 6:50am and with an hour’s drive to get to the airport we needed to be up by 3:30 to catch our transport at 4:00 and arrive at the airport 2 hours before the flight. We kept to that schedule, but unnecessarily so. The taxi had us there in only 35 minutes then we had to wait for the baggage inspection before we could check in for the flight, but then we had to wait for the AWR agent who had all of our documents. It all worked, but there was plenty of waiting time in the schedule. The flight took off on time and made a brief stop in Guayaquil before we continued to Baltra airport on the Galapagos. We cleared the arrival formalities and then met our guide for the week who directed us to a waiting bus where we joined another 30 people who would be with us on the cruise. We had booked onto a 5 day cruise on the Galapagos Legend which is one of the larger cruise boats in the archipelago. The ship can accommodate up to 100 passengers although there are only about 40 on the boat now. The boat was built in 1963 and originally served as a German hospital ship in Viet Nam. I do not know when it was converted into a Galapagos cruise ship. We booked the cheapest cabin on the ship which is an inside cabin in the middle of the ship…best location for less rocking and rolling. Because of the 54 year old architecture, the boat does roll with the swells so we were in a constant roll. After taking Zodiac dinghies from the dock to the ship we were escorted to our cabins and then met in the lounge for a glass of champagne and then to the dining room for lunch. Following the lunch buffet, we had an orientation of the islands by one of the naturalists and were fitted for our snorkel, mask, fins and wetsuits for the wet expeditions. At 4:30 we boarded the dinghies for a 2 hour boat expedition through a mangrove cove where we observed green sea turtles, sharks, crabs and some birds. All very fascinating and completely new to us. We were back on the Legend by 6:30 in time for dinner at 7:30. We had pre ordered our entrees at lunch and were served at the table. The starter was a shrimp ceviche followed with salad and a grilled sea bass…a very nice meal and service. After dinner we went to the lounge to meet the captain and crew and enjoy a complimentary strawberry cocktail. Then we were off to bed to catch up on some sleep, we wondered how the rolling of the ship would affect sleeping???
Friday January 13, 2017 Galapagos Islands::
The Legend rolled all night long making for difficult sleeping. Becky succumbed to a travelers bug and awoke in no condition to enjoy the activities of the day. I went down to breakfast and discovered that one of our table mates had also contracted a traveler’s bug. The breakfast is a buffet with an omelet chef ready to prepare your custom ideas. After breakfast I returned to our cabin and Becky thought she could try to join the morning excursion to a lava flow field. We boarded the dinghies and set off to one of the newer lava flows which only 200 years old. Becky soon realized that she could not continue and returned to the Legend in one of the Zodiacs. Meanwhile our glide, Emil, proceeded to explain about the lava flow and the various formations we were observing. In some areas it appeared as spaghetti, in others like strands of steel wire cable and some like flowing mud or concrete. We saw only a few lizards and one cactus, otherwise it was void of life. There were some uplifts and depressions due to gas pockets present at the time of the flow. After an hour of touring the lava field, we returned to the Legend to make a quick change for our first snorkeling trip. We had two options: we could either do a “deep” entry from the dinghy or a beach entry. I chose to join the group for the boat entry. We were only 10 yards from the rock shore and in 10 to 30 feet of water. The water is too cold for corals, maybe a few soft corals were present, but certainly no reef. The water was fairly clear and there was an abundance of fish and starfish to observe. We also saw alarge ray, a shark and a couple of Galapagos penguins, but the greatest discovery was a sea turtle which swam under us and continue to lead us in a slow line along the shore. There was enough current to keep us moving together for the duration of the 45 minute dive. The water temperature was in the low 70’s which would have been very cool had I not chosen to wear the short wetsuit. A couple of divers went without wetsuits and did not complain about the temperature. We returned to the ship for lunch and the afternoon of reposition Rebaldi Island. The afternoon excursion began at 4:00 with an extended Zodiac cruise along the shore where we observed blue footed boobies, fur seals, sea lions, marine iguanas and pelicans. It was a real up close experience; the birds and animals were not bothered by our presence. We stopped on a red sand beach (red because of the iron oxide in the island) and walked around a lagoon. There were several sea lions resting in the sand, even a baby nursing with its mother. Next we had a half hour for a beach entry snorkel dive. The water here was a bit more cloudy although still acceptable. The hope was to see sea lions swimming in the water but they were mostly resting in the sand and not chasing fish. The morning dive offered more to see but still an interesting and different experience. We returned to the ship with only a few minutes to shower and change for the briefing of the next day’s adventure. Dinner soon followed which was an al fresco barbecue on the upper deck. By now Becky had visited the on board doctor and loaded with a variety of pills, she felt well enough to join us for dinner. The meal was a lovely buffet loaded with a variety of grilled meats and sausages, as well as a pot filled with the largest shrimp I had ever seen. Vegetable, rice, potatoes and salads rounded out the buffet with a selection of fresh fruits and compotes for desserts. After dinner there was a star gazing party scheduled, but we elected to return to our cabin and prepare for the next day’s adventure.
Saturday January 14, 2017 Galapagos Islands:
Good news this morning…Becky has fully recovered and is ready to experience the adventure ahead of us. The morning began with breakfast at 7:00am…a nice buffet with the choice of custom built omelet. The first planned activity was a short dinghy ride to a black sand beach which is a favorite site to nest for the sea turtles. We saw many turtles in the water as we approached. On the beach, the nests were marked with a rock ring to warn curious tourists to keep away. The area that we were exploring had been under water until 1954 when a volcanic uplift raised 6 square kilometers of earth creating 6 new miles of shoreline. Emil led us on a discovery tour of the island; we had barely walked 100 yards when we found a huge land tortoise which was totally oblivious to the gawking tourists who were posing for souvenir photos with him. We continued along the trail and soon encountered our first land iguana; it was mostly yellow in color as it was shedding it’s darker winter skin revealing the brighter, more vivid coat. Emil explained about the life cycle of the tortoises and iguanas as we slowly moved along the trail seeing many more examples of these two large reptiles which are unique to the Galapagos. We eventually wound our way back to the beach where we had begun noting that all of the animals we had seen earlier had moved on making us wonder if our guides had not planted them earlier for us to see. Back on the beach we changed into snorkeling gear and made a beach entry to see the submarine life. Unfortunately the turbidity of the water offered limited visibility so this was an unremarkable snorkeling experience. We did see one turtle and a ray but the poor visibility camouflaged many of the fish. We returned to the beach and stowed our diving gear, then boarded the dinghies for the return to the Legend. We had a brief noon pause for lunch and some reclining on the pool deck, but soon we were boarding Zodiacs for the afternoon dive. This dive was along a shoreline formed by a cliff and ended in a protected cove. The water was very calm and therefore much better visibility than earlier in the day. We first saw a sea lion which was performing aquatic acrobatics much to the delight of his human audience. He would roll, spin, summersault and cartwheel just a few feet in front us before surfacing face to face to give one incredible thrill. After watching the sea lion for several minutes we continued along the wall as penguins seemed to fly through the water all around us. We saw too many sea turtle to count as they were feeding on the aquatic plants and algae. Occasional a bird would plunge into the water trying to catch a small fish for dinner. The water temperature was the coldest we had experience of the trip so after about 30 minutes in the water we returned to the Zodiac to towel off and warm up. Most of the divers remaining in the water centered around a couple of sea lions who were performing their water circus; we watched from the boat while those in the water screamed and laughed their approval of the show. We returned to the Legend to shower and dress for the final excursion of the day which included a hike up to Lake Darwin. This is an elevated lagoon in the caldron of an extent volcano. It is a dead lake filled with water as salty as the Dead Sea. We had to climb up to the rim around the lake and then hike halfway around to get to a viewing point for taking pictures. The hike was only to view the lake as there were no animals along the trail. We were soon back on the ship with only a few minutes before the briefing for the next day’s activities followed by dinner. We had preordered our meal while we were at lunch. I selected the steamed fish which was presented in a foil pocket and covered with julienne vegetables and seasoned with ginger; not only a unique and pretty presentation, but a delicious piece of snapper fillet as well. Becky selected the beef stroganoff which she said was good. After dinner, we all moved to the main lounge for the King Neptune Party; this was a costume party with some of the guest donning costumes to represent the various animals of the islands who were all subjects to King Neptune and his Queen. It was all very light humor with almost everyone on board participating in one form or another. The show ended in a disco with everyone dancing to the beat of the 70’s. I don’t know how long it lasted because we cratered after about 20 minutes of nonstop dancing. Knowing that we had one more full day of excursions and snorkeling, we elected to exit the dance and return to our cabin.
Sunday January 15, 2017 Galapagos Islands:
We have another full day of adventure scheduled. Of course we started the morning as usual with breakfast at 7:00, but we had to be ready to board the Zodiacs at 8:00 for a 2 hour walk on Isabella. We had a dry landing in a mangrove cove at the edge of a lava flow. We immediately began to see an abundance of marine iguanas who were lying in the full sun to soak up as much heat as possible to have enough warmth to sustain their next dive into the ocean in search of a meal of algaes. The male iguanas have significantly more color than the female and they are also larger. They are extremely well camouflaged and could easily be mistaken for a lava rock. At time we could see two males in a slow motion combat to which was the fittest to service the waiting females. As we continued our guided walk about the lava field we encountered in addition to the iguanas many sea lions and flightless cormorants. The mating of the cormorants is unique because with these birds, the female fight to see who wins the favor the male. We were fortunate to witness two female in a smackdown to determine who could seduce the mate. Following this ritual, we saw several sea lions; some just relaxing the sun while others were playing in a lagoon. There appeared to be a family with the adult parents and two juveniles playing together. At one point the male seem to be annoyed with his audience and came charging out of the water and barked, but just as suddenly returned to his family in the water. There seemed to be specific areas on the lava where the iguanas came to die because there was a concentration of skeletons in one particular location. The only other remarkable animal on the walk was a small constrictor snake which did not move the entire time we were on the walk. We soon had to leave the island to return to the Legend, but while we were on the walk, the tide receded several feet causing us to board the Zodiacs is a different location where there was still deep enough water to float the boats. This meant walking over some very wet and slippery rocks, but everyone negotiated the path without incident. Back on the Legend we had only 20 minutes to change into diving gear and be ready to board the dinghies for the morning dive. They took us to an area along the shore line which had a lot of underwater structure creating an inviting environment for the marine life. During this dive we saw penguins, numerous turtles, iguanas, starfish and green sea urchins. It was a fascinating dive but the water was cold and we soon had seen enough and needed to get out of the water. We returned to the Zodiac and within 10 minutes so did the remaining divers. We had only a few minute after arriving back on board the Legend to shower and change for lunch. The afternoon program included another dive and a dinghy ride along the shoreline. We chose to skip the final dive in favor of relaxing on the pool deck; according to those who went on the dive they did see some sea lions but all commented that the water was the coldest of the trip. The final excursion of the day was a ride in the Zodiac to see the animals along the shore. We first found a colony of seals that were swimming as well as relaxing in the sunshine. There were several juvenile seals (Emil estimated to be 3 – 6 weeks old) that showed us amazing rock climbing ability as they climbed from the water’s edge to rock caves 30 feet higher. We continued along seeing birds and iguanas and a large number of sea turtles lazily swimming close to the surface. We did see two varieties of birds not yet encountered: a frigate bird and a rare species of boobie. There were some fascinating geological formations including a cave formed by erosion. After we were back on board the Legend we prepared for the next event which was a deck party to celebrate crossing the equator. Everyone had a glass of champagne and we toasted to good fortune as we crossed the center of the earth. To conclude the festivities of the afternoon, we met in the main lounge to view all the pictures entered into the photo contest. Everyone we asked to submit his two best photos to be judged by the ship’s captain. There were many amazing photos (making me wish I had a DSLR); the top three were awarded prizes from the ship’s boutique. Our last evening meal was served at 7:30; we had pre order our entrees at lunch, Becky and I both selected the baked red snapper accompanied with a mélange of vegetables and a plantain knudel. We have not developed a keen liking to the plantain, but understand that it is a staple starch of the region. We still had to close our ship’s account and pack up our luggage and prepare for an exceptionally early wakeup call at 5:45.
SMonday January 16, 2017, Baltra Galapagos – Quito:
We had anticipated the early call and were up and ready for breakfast and disembarkation. Everyone had to be off the ship by 7:00am. The crew picked up our luggage and transported it to the airport. We loaded into the zodiacs one last time for the run back to the ferry landing at Santa Cruz island. At the landing we switched from the rubber dinghy to a bus which transported us to a giant turtle farm in the highlands. As the bus gained altitude, the flora changed from desert cactus to verdant lush vegetation with significantly cooler temperatures. The farm is only a sanctuary where the giant tortoises can live unmolested. Raphael, our guide, explained the life cycle and mating ritual of these giants. We found many resting in a mud pit where the parasites would clean their skin and shells. As interesting as the animals were the two lava tubes we walked through; these were natural caves formed by gas in the magma while it cooled from an eruption. We visited the farm for close to an hour and then boarded the bus for the 30 minute ride to the ferry dock to cross over to the airport on Baltra. Check in was routing and our flight was on time. We were upgraded to 1st class because we asked to have our Star Alliance number entered into the record. Our gold status triggered the upgrade for the flight to Quito. We have a 5 hour layover in Quito before boarding the flight to Lima-Buenas Aires- Iguassu Falls.