Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Transit to Galapagos Archipelago

Transit to the Galapagos Archipelago: Guayaquil to Baltra to Santa Cruz to Floreana.

In retrospect, I seem to have known as little about the Galapagos as is possible to know. For instance, I sure didn't expect that the airplane we would use to fly out there would be a big passenger Jet (let's call it a 737, it may have been a different 6 seat across passenger Jet). I have these pictures in my head of these very dry desert islands with cactus and tortoise and not much else going on. Surely no one would live there all year round? I guess I could have read the travel brochure more closely, but that sounds a lot like reading the instructions before you try to put the entertainment center together, and all guys know that that is cheating.  (Editor's note: now he has more credits for agreeing to join me on this adventure, given what he thought he was getting into)

So, we meet up with the other 14 people on our tour and do a quick trip out to the airport. We are just traveling from one airport to another in Ecuador, so no special paperwork. Our baggage allowance does go down from 50 pounds to 44 pounds. You know why? Because we are now metric and 44 pounds is 20 kilos! The airplane ride is pretty standard, except the part where they fumigate the cabin to stop pesky insects from invading the island paradise (Ok, this was really just the flight attendants going through the cabin with an aerosol can and spraying a couple of spurts into each overhead bin. Sounded a lot more sinister when they announced it over the intercom.  (I was not at all crazy about having Ecuadorian insecticide sprayed over my head, where was my gas mask?) When we touched down at the airport on the Galapagos, the scene out my window was exactly what I was expecting. Nothing except cactus and dead trees and volcanic looking soil. A flat land of nothing. Perhaps that is a volcano in the distance. The airport is a big open air like structure. Three large wind turbines spin in the background generating electricity. Inside the terminal, it is unexpectedly cool, with large, slow moving ceiling fans and a lot of open space up high for the heat to leak out. Someone put some design effort into this place. It has a very modern yet stark feel about it. Once again, there is a focus here on keeping exotic invasive species (especially plants) out of the islands. Don't bring in any fruit or seeds. We go through another inspection. Our guide tells us to make sure and tell the inspector to leave the yellow plastic zip ties that secure out luggage closed in place (no tocar?). Because, otherwise, we would need to redo inspection between each island (and we are going to be going crossing a couple of islands today).

at the airport

Power for the Airport, and our bus arriving
We meet our two island naturalist guides right outside of island immigration. Pablo and William are both Galapagos boys and they have been to school to study up on the Biology and Geography of the islands. I never found a plant or animal that they couldn't identify the entire week.

A big bus takes us from the Airport for a ten minute ride to the little ferry site that is on the brochure. We pass a number of cement foundation sites in the desert and I realize that this must have been some military installation at some time. It turns out the US military had an air base here during WWII. Makes perfect sense to adopt that as the big airfield for tourists. I mean, the dang thing has already scarred the landscape. There is the ferry and the straight. I have been wondering about this. Are all of the Galapagos islands separated by little quarter mile straights? (Answer: No). We get off the bus and onto a 20 person little “ferry”. It is really more of a little water taxi. Certainly can't carry a car or our bus, for instance. Just us and perhaps our lugage. Two rows of wooden benches facing each other. A very simple and manual process. Our two guides and one tour leader (all three will be taking good care of us for the rest of the trip) make sure that our carry-on bags get slung up onto the wood roof of the boat. And our taxi driver fires up the 20hp outboard and coaxes the entire contraption across the little straight to the landing doc on the other side. We are already seeing interesting birds. A number of Pelicans. What is that? A frigate? A booby? A seagull? We will find out later. The land on the other side of the straight is identical to the land on the island we just left. Is all of the Galapagos this desert like place? I will find out later that the airport island (Baltra) and the island across the straight (Santa Cruz) were actually part of the same volcano. A laval flow created the entire volcanic desert thing and then a Tectonic plate shift opened up the straight.  That straight was then further carved by the ocean current.

The Straight from the Bus

This is the airport side after we departed.

Happy Travelers.
There is a road from the little ferry landing that goes straight, straight, straight, across the island and up into the “highlands”. We are going to stop for lunch at a farm in the “highlands” and perhaps see some Giant Tortoise. I am putting quotes on all of the “highland” places because, well, they really are not all that high. We are talking 400 to 800 meters. Why the accent on “high”? Because the rising of the island, even that distance, gets the rain water to fall out of the clouds and leads to a lush jungle like conditions up there (at least on the South side of the islands from which the wind is usually blowing) and so, there is a completely different ecosystem way up there. Cactus down by the shore (especially on the north sides) and grass, trees and exotic fruits (and farming) up on the hills and on the South sides of the islands.

El Rancho Manzanillo

The ranch were we stopped, El Rancho Manzanillo, had a large outdoor restaurant with a thirty foot high ceiling to shade us from the sun. We were offered beverages and our lunch orders were taken and then we immediately walked out into the farm yard to see the giant tortoise evident from the porch. And there they are. Just like I remember from riding on one when I was five back at the San Diego Zoo. Big lumbering things the size of a coffee table. Most of the people were photographing the ones close by so we wandered out into a neighboring field to look at another one off by itself. You have to watch were you walk, the things that I thought might be ant nests were really lava bolders with just the tops peaking up above the soil and grass. I didn't get too close to my new tortoise friend so as not to bother him. I took some pictures. Next I became aware of other animals in the area. I could see and hear a goat over to my right, and also over there, behind the trees, was a cow. I couldn't see the cow, but I could hear it's strange Moo. It would Moo one short Moo, and then wait like 20 seconds. Then another Moo. My partner came over and we were chatting.

“What is that noise?” she asked.
“You mean the Cow?”
“Doesn't sound like a Cow to me”
“What else could it be?”
“I don't know but I don't see a Cow. Where is this Cow?”
“Over there. Perhaps behind that big Rock”
“That Rock is moving”.

This is when I figured it out and started laughing. “Oh,” I said. “It must be a couple of Tortoises...... ah.... making love, that's the noise they make.”

“And how would you know that?”

Well, it turns out I read about it in a Tom Clancy Novel, but that really didn't sound very scientific and besides, before I could get around to figuring out how to make it sound scientific, she had just gone around the trees and seen for herself. I probably should have gone with her because she got some good pictures and, for at least a few seconds, the goat had climbed up on top of the amorous couple.

Our Naturalist guides informed us that tortoises mate pretty often. The male has a concave stomach to assist in his mounting the female. Their sex organs are in their tails and the process can last 3 to 8 hours. They also said that if the female isn't interested, she will try to discourage the male by walking under low hanging branches and knocking him off.

At this point, there was some screaming and yelling. I thought it was one of our other tour mates objecting to the rampant Tortoise Sex, but in reality it was someone finding out that some of those Lava Rocks really were ant nests. Biting Ant Nests- our guide called them Fire Ants. On sandal clad ankles. Yikes. This must be fairly common as the nice lady running the restaurant had a big spray bottle of home remedy that she pulled out from behind the Bar and applied to our unhappy fellow travelers.

After a very nice lunch of hot soup, plantains, and fish (I believe it was Wahoo) we jumped back into the bus and continued across the island, heading down to the port town of Puerto Ayora. I am now starting to get the impression that there are a large number of people living on the islands. Lots of inexpensive houses up and in progress. Some of them looking like they have been in progress for a while. Everything looks rather haphazard until you get right down to the port, where there is a cluster of nice shops and Hotels.

We are taking a “Speed Boat” to our final destination for the day (Floreana Island). To do that, we first must pass through biological inspection again (good thing we still have orange zip ties on our luggage) and then another of those little 20 person water taxis to take us out to our speed boat. Here is an interesting contrivance. Perhaps forty feet long. Enclosed Bow. Roof running from the raised Captains seat back to the stern. Dual big outboards. Two wooden benches with seat cushions facing each other and a small bench across the stern. Seven people on each side, four across the stern, a couple of miscellaneous crew and guides strewn in the bow with luggage or on the floor at ease. Certainly no extra room for stowaways. Everyone was handed a nice new and big life jacket, to use as a back cushion. This was apparently the boat's main safety feature. Before getting on we were all encouraged to be using some anti-seasick medication. My partner and I had already applied our Scopalamine patches and the tour guide had some dramamine that people could access. Using the medication was highly recommended.

The water Taxi
And off we went. The engines fired up (very noisy) and we were off. We had approximately two hours of transit time scheduled. At 20 to 25 knots, that is ….. like 40 to 50 miles. So, the islands are not so close to each other. Check. The seas were very calm today, but even so, you bounce a lot at 25 knots. Good thing we all took the medicine. I was sitting on the stern bench with my partner. This is the best place to be if you get motion sickness and even with the patch, I felt a bit queezy. The Captain sat up high and could extend his head up out a little hole in the roof to get a better view when he needed. This is important because if you hit the occasional rogue wave going 20, you are going to launch your speed boat right out of the water. A few times he had to make pretty sudden decelerations or little course changes to avoid who knows what.

Our Captain. He is so Cool

Then, as we approached Floreana, my partner spotted some activity out to Starboard, which she and everyone else on the boat referred to as “the right”. (She was watching the horizon the whole way, as that helps if you're feeling queasy). She had found our first major biological find, a huge pod of dolphins (common?) out swimming and playing. These guys were having a ball launching themselves into the air. They were going 5 or so meters out of the water. A couple of body lengths into the air! Wow. The captain slowed down and drove over (carefully) into the pod and we all laughed and gasped and took pictures.  Our guides said this was a lucky and not common find and meant we were going to have very good luck on our week long island adventure.  I think we got a couple of pictures that may show more than just fuzzy things in the air in the distance. Let me see.

Then we turned around, and there was Floreana Island. A 15 minute unload process, yet another water taxi (I think these things are all the same design and are converted Island constructed fishing boats). First trip over for the people, then another for our luggage. A truck meets us at the pier to carry our luggage. There is a boat ramp there and a number of local kids in the water laughing and cooling off. I could use some cooling off. And a bathroom. There is a bathroom there, but the water and power are turned off.

Marine Iguana
There are our cabins, around the bay, over there. Somewhere
While waiting for our luggage our guide tells us to take a little walk down this path over the lava rocks on the shore. Be careful of the Iguana. And there they are. The famous Galapagos Marine Iguanas. Just laying around all over the place. The small ones so well camouflaged on the lava rock that you have to be very careful not to step on them. The big ones are sitting up on the beach. They don't much care or notice that you are there, (unless you get too close, then they spit at you).  Cool

Ok, so our luggage has gone off down the dirt road into town. Our guides say it is time to walk to our hotel. Actually, they point at it, it is off across the bay, that quaint set of cabins right over there on that black stone lava “beach”.

Arriving at the Floreana Lava Lodge
We head off through the town. It is only a 15 minute walk and we need to stretch our legs. The town is sort of strange. Only 150 people live on this island. We are going to learn more about the water and power supply in the upcoming days, but for now I am struck by the fact that there are these very nice and modern looking solar powered street lights lining the dirt/lava rock road. We make a turn and walk some more. I am pretty hot and tired now. The idea was to make it to our cabins by sunset. We almost made it. The cabins are these 10 or so single room wood sided square cabins. Each has a couple of single beds, a bathroom, and an AC unit. Air Conditioning!!  But our tour leader says don't expect the AC to work, there isn't enough power on the island. Our cabin has a built in bunk bed and another single bed. My partner is having none of that and gets the tour leader to find us another cabin where we can at least push two single beds together, she tells him we are newlyweds. This one also has a standing fan next to the AC, which is going to come in handy later. I am so hot. I am looking forward to a shower before dinner. I go in and turn on just the cold water. That will be the ticket. But the cold water is almost too hot to stand under. AHHHHH.

We do, later, figure out how to be cool, lying on our bed with the 2 small windows open and the fan blowing right on us. Won't be good if the power goes off.

Ok. Our day of transit is done. Tomorrow we start exploring Floreana.

Friday, April 22, 2016


Guayaquil, Ecuador

You know, getting to the Galapagos is not all that easy. First, you have to get to Ecuador. To do that, you pretty much have to get to Miami. To get to Miami (at least from Portland on American) you need to stop and ride the Sky Train in Dallas. What this means is you get the joy of spending 20 hours in transit just to get to Guayaquil, the industrial capital of Ecuador.

Guayaquil is not a little place. Certainly bigger than Portland, though generally built lower to the ground. The airport is very close to the city (only 15 minutes from downtown) and it is a large and modern airport. When you travel to any foreign country (as a foreigner) you always have to go through the same stop gaps. 

First, walk a really long way across the airport to get to the place where all of the international flights funnel their passengers. 

Second, stand in line for Immigration. If you just had to use the bathroom before you got to immigration, and you end up at the end of line behind everyone else on your flight (and perhaps a couple of other late arriving flights) then stand in line for 40 minutes for Immigration. Show your passport and present your transit papers (this is the sheet that has your name and flight and hotel and other blanks that you can't figure out because they are in mainly Spanish). Get a visa stamp and the bottom half of your transit papers to carry around for 2 weeks and not loose.  

Third, collect your baggage from baggage claim. Since you took so long to go through Immigration, your bags are just sitting there and this is easy. (unless your bags were lost, but ours were not)

Fourth, go through customs. I like the way they do customs in Ecuador. There is this big red button on the post and they push it and it randomly triggers green or red. If Green, you are done. If Red, you need to get your bags screened. When I was watching, 4 people got RED and only 1 got GREEN. My partner and I both got RED.  Screening was pretty easy, however, just put your bag through an Xray machine. If you don't have anything suspicious, then no problem. What might be suspicious? Well, the nice customs man was working with one gentleman on his bag. The contents were lined up on the table. It seemed to be around 50 pairs of shoes. All styles and sizes. Now that is what I call suspicious.

Fifth, exit into the terminal where there will be all sorts of people trying to give you taxi rides. Look for someone with your name on a card or at least a big Road Scholar sign. Ah..... there they are.

Sixth, meet our guide for the week, Fernando, and several other travels in our group.

Seventh, get on the big nice comfortable bus for the 15 minute ride to our very nice hotel, The Oro Verde Hotel.

A view out our Hotel Window.
This is not the USA, so even when in a nice hotel, don't drink the water. Hell, don't brush your teeth with the water (same as everywhere we've traveled in Asia). There is plenty of bottled water for that. Do take a luxurious shower in the wonderful bathroom and do crank the AC down to 18 (yes, you need to start using metric).

The aforementioned Fernando does a stretching class every morning before breakfast. The first one for this trip is at 6:30. Since we got in late and there was no mention of Coffee with stretching, my partner and I decided to skip the stretching and sleep in (Editor's note: I think we slept in until 6:30, in order to get breakfast at 7:00). We did go to the breakfast later in the hotel. We started getting a taste of the local fair. The main thing that is different is much more exotic fruit, espcially different varieties of bananas and plantains, guava, mango, and passion fruit.

This first full day of our Galapagos trip is a sort of test day. A day on the mainland for our tour leader to see how we do as a group and individuals. Sort of sneaky. He is going to try us out on the water and out walking. Usually, he does the walking in the AM and the water in the PM. This is a good idea because it lets everyone fall in the water at the end of the day and cool off. However, flexibility is important on these trips and today he couldn't reserve the water place for the afternoon, so we are going to head out there for the morning.

Agua and Fruit Vendors at the Toll Gate

We get back on our nice tour bus (with AC) and start through town. Guayaquil is a coastal port with lots of tidal rivers running through it. Many of these have recently been beautified. Fernando explained that as you add trees and green areas to your rivers, you get the return of birds and other wildlife. This makes it prettier and attracts tourists, which brings in more money, which helps the city and the populous. Not sure if this is capitalism at work or nature conservatism at work. So, pretty parks. Lots of trees. Kids playing soccer on the fields in the parks (the basketball hoops are there, but unused). A lot of low income housing. Made of rebar and cinderblock construction. Not so beautiful, but not squalor either. We get on the main road to the beach areas and also see lots of more well to do housing. Fernando tells us that the average annual salary for “people with good jobs” is $8K.  The houses we are now passing, Fernando tells us, are selling at $400K. So I don't think the average worker is buying in there. 

Whenever we get to an large intersection, there are young people in the median selling things. Yelling out the name of their wares and selling. Not too different from having your windshield cleaned at an intersection in New York. But, guess what the main product they are selling might be? Aqua. Bottles of Water. Selling drinking water on the street corners. I wonder if this could be the future of America, or if we can stay on top of our entire “drinking water is free” thing.

Have you ever read the book “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”? A classic by Robert Heinlein. In that book, people are living on the moon (decedents of the original penal colony there) and though water is pretty abundant, you have to pay for air. In fact, if you can't pay your air tax, they throw you out the front door. Not a good thing on the moon. This water thing is like that. You need to buy one of the essentials of life. Well, I guess everyone needs to buy food. We expect that. And in most places, everyone needs to buy drinking water. In downtown Portland, there are bubbler facets that run all the time. They were built in the early 1900s to supply free drinking water to workers (so they wouldn't need to drink beer). They are still flowing and still free and still perfectly safe to drink. But at what cost?

After a short drive we arrived at a national park called Laguna Park. I think there is a public part and a private part. We went to a private section which was a sort of aquatic rental area on a small lake lined with a sort of cattail looking plant. The stated goal here was to go Kayaking and Paddle Boarding. But I suspect that the actual goal was to get people out on the water and ascertain their skill level. In particular, get people a chance to figure out whether or not they could use the paddle boards. I happen to know my skill level on the paddle board. It is Zero. It hurts to kneel, and if I can stand, it feels constantly wobbly. So much so that I am having no fun, and why do it if you are having no fun. So I just went out in the little sit on top kayaks. Many people tried their hand at the SUPs though. A few did fine. A few took long unplanned swims. My partner did OK, though she also switched over to kayak after a while. 

Paddling around the lagoon was nice. There were a few flooded dead trees (makes we wonder how long this water has been here) and in one was this big green Iguana. I coasted in and got some pictures. I was pretty impressed by this. This was before I found out that Iguanas are sort of the pigeon of the area. They are everywhere. Still, cool looking. Back at the beach we spent some more time meeting our fellow travelers. We had 4 women in our tour that came in very late last night (hours later than us) and they had the joy of arriving a day before their luggage. So they didn't have their sun hats or their extra clothes or many things that a person might want to start their vacation. We sure hope their luggage arrives on the flight from Miami tonight because it will be hard as hell for it to catch up with us once we start traveling around the Galapagos Islands.


See the Bird in the tree to the Right?

For the afternoon, we took the bus down to the main river front and did a cultural walk and tour. Lots of statues of old dead white guys around Guayaquil. Most of these are the independence leaders for the city. It turns out that in South America, things were not really organized by countries or states. The cities were the big organized entities. So when it was time to push for independence from Spain, the major activities were happening in the cities. Guayaquil had its own leaders and its own independence day. It was well planned. I think it was the case of the local peoples and the local army guys taking over the barracks from the Spaniards (or the soldiers who still considered themselves Spaniards and wanted to someday return to Spain). The battle for independence was more of a nearly bloodless coop. I think he said that 5 people got killed. Probably the general and his top staff.  The next morning, a new general and new staff and an independent City. If George Washington had pulled that off in Boston, would we have so many bridges and schools named after him?

Other Guy

Bolivar Meets Other Guy
(Ok, that is Jose De Martin, from Argentina)
We stopped at this one park that was full of pigeons, turtles, and Iguana. Oh, and a Statue of Simon Bolivar. The Iguana's were everywhere. Our guide warned us not to tarry under the trees.

Why would we eat the animals?
The recent mayors of the city have been putting a lot of money into making an attractive and safe river front area. We did a walk down this river front and, it was nice and attractive and safe. The river is also big and full of a local vegetation that drifts with the tide to replant itself this time of year. In fact, Fernando had told us that parts of the lagoon park are not accessible this time of year because the plant is everywhere.  Now what was the name of that plant? (readers have reported in. The plant is the water hyacinth and it was floating in the Guavas river)

These Balls were on tethers that would automatically pull the children back to the entrance point when their time was up.
Perhaps there was a machine in which to feed dollars?

What is that plant?
At the end of the river walk, we came to a barrio up on a hill, called Las Penas. There were a set of steps there and each one was numbered. There were 444 steps. This is part 2 of the physical test. If you can't make it up these steps, you aren't going to be able to make it up a couple of the climbs that we have later in the week. These tour guys are so sneaky.


Up we went. I will say that we were all already very hot and it has already been a long day. And there were lots of bars and dance halls on the way up that we could have stopped for a cold beer (editor: expect his partner doesn't drink). But we didn't. We went up the hill. Beautiful view from the top. See the pretty pictures.

The ritzy part of town, no doubt
This area is another renovated area where people are encouranged to visit and shop. A very large police and security presence as well. Lots of people in bullet proof vests. Those things must be hot.  I saw at least 2 abandoned vests sitting on a chair with the officer that owned one of them down the street talking to people. Funny.

The bottom of the hill is also part of the old town. With some original buildings dating back a couple of hundred years. The Road there is original road, paved with what I assume were ballast stones from sailing ship days.

Back to the hotel for a nice dinner and a nicer shower. We are up early in the morning to catch a plane to the Galapagos. I can hardly wait.