Rabida Island

The engines roared into life at six this morning and, wide awake I went on deck to see the sunrise. I was surprised to see the woman who cleans the rooms at the wheel but I guess they all take turns so the captain can get some rest. We were heading past a long low island like a turtle topped with cloud. On the other side was a much bigger island being rained on heavily but it never got to us. Our destination was Rabida Island and we watched a couple of sealions rolling around in the surf just offshore. The pangas took us to a black sand beach with its usual compliment of dozing sealions. Behind the beach was a salt lagoon and there were a couple of flamingos snoozing away with necks, heads, beaks and a leg all tucked away under their wings. From a distance they looked like two candy flosses that someone had stuck in the shallows.

This was another chance to snorkel and P and I took turns to take Tom out with us to a couple of rocky atolls just offshore. There, the sea life was simply amazing. I watched a huge turtle nibbling away on the grassy fronds on the reef and he was completely unconcerned about my being there. His beaky head snatched and nibbled while his flippers held him in position. I floated over him for a bit and then something else caught my eye – it was the sealion that we had watched flipping about through the waves. It moved with such tremendous speed and agility, vanishing out of the water in a stream of bubbles and splashing back into it. I don’t know if it was fishing or playing but I watched it zip about for several minutes, before it shot back towards me and away to a different part of the reef.

I swam back to get T who was resting on the beach and took him back in the hope of seeing the turtle. It had gone, but all of a sudden the sealion appeared right underneath us perhaps two feet away. I could hear Tom shouting through his snorkel “Look! Look!”. The sealion flicked around us and swam away, with Tom in hot pursuit. He didn’t catch it (probably that was a good thing…) but it was thrilling to be so close and feel like we were with it for a while.

Without flippers, the snorkeling is hard work for Tom and I dropped him on the beach and went to find Philippa. She was on the other side of the atoll and as we met up we suddenly saw a sealion hunting about six feet beneath us. It was motionless apart from its head which slowly scanned left and right looking for fish. We floated right over it, carried along at the same speed as the sealion and it didn’t give us a second glance. Everyone else had gathered on the shore waiting to go back, so we left the sealion hunting and swam back to the black beach, feeling we had been let in on a secret that no-one else knew about.

Here be dragons (well, penguins)

Another hot morning and a panga ride to Dragon Hill. We had hoped to see flamingos here but the lagoon was flamingo-free so we had to settle for more big Iguana. How jaded does that sound? Nothing but unique sightings will do for us!

There really is life everywhere here and almost none of it is scared of us. Birds will let you walk right up to them and sealions can barely be bothered to look at you. The terrain around Dragon Hill is fairly flat with occasional volcanic vents creating little puckered mounds, squiggly with cooled lava. We have two guides, Diego and Margot, both of whom are extremely knowledgable. Margot is perhaps more so, but also inclined to serve it up in 20 minute verbal essays while we desperately long for shade, Tom walks in small circles and Diego’s group skips past, heading for a gambol in the surf with pina coladas.

At our second stop, on Bartholomew Island we hoped to see some of the rare Galapagos penguins, of which only 800 pairs exist. We saw one little feller looking lonely on the lava-rock shoreline and he stared at us as we stared at him. We had to shoo some obstinate seaions off the jetty where they were soaking up the sun and not inclined to move. They barked at us for a bit before flopping into the water. We climbed a twisting boardwalk 360 steps up a martian landscape. The soil was red and black and the vegetation had barely taken hold. You could almost feel the rocks cracking in the heat so the breeze at the top felt like a cool stream. The view down a green neck of land with crescent shaped beaches either side had a pleasing symmetry to it.

There was more snorkling later on but P and T opted out and with the sky now clouding over and the sea turning into an unfriendly grey swell I nearly did the same. I’m very glad I didn’t though. The water was clear and cool and within a few minutes I was looking down at the unmistakeable outline of a shark sleeping on the bottom ten feet below. It was a white-tipped shark, four or five feet long. A moment later a big eagle ray flapped past and then another shark which I followed for a while. Green and orange parrot fish looked up with their pursed lips and three little penguins wizzed past my face like fat torpedos after a school of fish. It was glorious.

Under way

Sometime around 4am, through our Dramamine comas we heard the engines come to blissful stop. The waves had flattened too and we dropped back into a more comfortable sleep. We woke a few hours later to a bright, clear morning to find we had traveled south east to the tiny island of Santa Fe. Fortified by a magnificent breakfast of eggs, toast, fruit, cereal, yoghurt and thick black coffee we were ferried in the pangas (as they call the zodiac boats) to the beach. It was not large and it was pretty much claimed by a large group of sealions, lounging around in the sunshine and not the least bit bothered by us.

The sun was fierce now, even at eight thirty in the morning. We began a guided walk through a scorched landscape with prickly pear trees ten feet tall. Often there was a fat iguana underneath, claws like long fingers and a brilliant yellow crest like a cockatoo. They wait for the cactus fruit to fall out and we watched an iguana rolling a prickly pear around under its gnarled hand, scraping off the spines before snapping into it with its angular little mouth.

Back on the boat they equipped us with snorkel gear. Well most of us. “We don’t carry snorkel gear for kids” said Ricky wth an irritating smile. P and I told him in no uncertain terms that that wasn’t good enough. If you sell an expensive cruise to adults and kids alike promising that snorkel equipment is included, then you should include it, or at the very least make clear while we can still make other arrangements, that there isn’t any for kids. Telling us when we are on the way is no use at all. Ricky’s smile vanished and he looked somewhat chastened as he realised we weren’t to be brushed off. Stiff letter to cruise company is on the way… Anyway we found a mask that almost fit Tom (but no fins) and went off snorkling, but the sea was choppy and T’s mask didn’t really work and, frankly, it was all rather trying.

No more 1am starts though. In the evening after supper, we did our “navigation” to South Plaza on Santa Cruz, in calm waters. All was quiet when we went to bed and we slept like the dead.

In the Galapagos

We weren’t due to meet our boat until noon, so after breakfast of fresh-fruit and home-made apple-cake in a sunny courtyard, we walked back into town. On the key, fishermen were cleaning silver tuna under the noisy scrutiny of a couple of dozen scruffy pelicans. There were sealions too waiting patiently under the tables for whatever was thrown away. One was leaning against the leg of a busy fisherman, looking at him like a faithful labrador. Another raised itself up, with its flippers on the work-table sniffing the fish and squeezing its eyes at the fisherman. The man told it off and it reluctantly got down to wait its turn, glossy flanks shining. An Iguana lay at the base of a dry fountain and the trees were full of pelicans.

We got coffee and ice-cream at the place we had eaten at the night before and were served by the same waitress who couldn’t keep her eyes off Tom. It was a nice easy way to spend the morning before we collected our bags from the lovely Josy and took a two minute taxi ride to the ferry port. There was no boats called the Galavan that I could see and no-one to meet us, so I called our agent Lilian who assured us that someone would be there, and eventually a Zodiac boat cruised up to the jetty and Rodolfo, the driver loaded us on. We sped across the  choppy bay to where the Galavan 1 was rolling in the swell. An older couple was already on board, Chris a short man with humour in his eyes – from Perth “the best kept secret in the world” and his elegant friend Cecilia from Brazil (“Brrrazeew”) As the boat heaved at anchor, lunch was served. It was plentiful and good: fish spiced with curry, rice, salad and lots of fruit.  Neither P nor I could stay in our little cabin for long as the world rolled under our feet. T, who seems invincible to motion sickness was happily oblivious and thrilled that he got the single top bunk above our bed.

The fourteen other passengers and our naturalists boarded a little later and had their lunch at which point we assumed we would get under way, envisaging that our next stop would be some remarkable Galapagosian atoll where we could roam among giant tortoises and dragons. But instead we all got back in the zodiacs and went back to Puerto Ayora.  It felt like a bit of an anti-climax, as we climbed onto a waiting bus and began climbing between farmsteads dripping from a passing shower. But the first stop made it all worth while. It was a lava tunnel that could easily fit an underground train. It snaked along for four hundred meters, its arched ceiling sometimes soaring up to church heights. It was formed by a tube of lava which had cooled at its outer edges leaving a tunnel in its wake. Even Tom, who can be blase about these things, was impressed – especially when the lights went out briefly leaving us in total darkness. “I can lead us out by the light from my watch” he piped.

Once out, and ten minutes further along the red dirt track was a farm where some of the wild tortoises like to gather because it has a number of mud holes. We found a few wallowing in the murk, eying us warily. Another ambled past us (perhaps that is unfair, he could have been galloping for all I know) and what followed was a tortoise face-off. Two leathery necks extended and the two biggest tortoises hissed at each other for a bit, before, presumably exhausted, they each settled down into the mud.

There was a small display of tortoise shells which were big enough for Tom to get into, and then we all sank back into the bus for the port and a rather precarious journey through the harbour swell to the boat. We had another huge meal (with much concentration on the horizon by me and P). Laced with Dramamine we followed T to bed and were rolled around in our beds as the boat sat at anchor – until 1 am when the engines started up, apparently they were bolted to the foot of our bed. The noise filled the room and bounced around our heads but at least we were under way.

To the Galapagos

Our departure this morning was a comedy of manners. Our Galapagos cruise included being picked up from Pablo’s home and taken to the airport, but somehow in confirming the arrangements with the company yesterday Patricio, Pablo’s assistant, had decided that was an unreliable arrangement, cancelled the cab and asked Roddy to take us to the airport instead. So at 7am Roddy backed us out of the drive under the rather hurt gaze of the man with the smart minibus who had been sent to pick us up and hadn’t been cancelled at all. So we unloaded our bags, reloaded them in the new cab, apologised to both Roddy and the new cab driver, and got going for the airport.

Quito airport was the model of efficiency. The queues were orderly, the check-in staff courteous and helpful, security was secure, but allowed you to keep your shoes on and didn’t make you feel like you were somehow getting in their way (a la just about every airport in America) . In short it was the antithesis of the stereotype “South American Airport”. But the flight itself, well that was something. After several years experience of the best that 21st century commercial aviation has to offer, Aerogal was a bit of a shock. It really was from a different age. An age where you could still get on a brand new plane for one thing, and a plane where the seats had plenty of legroom and free widescreen entertainment, an age where the cabin crew were immaculately turned out and delivered free hot food and drinks, an age where the the planes took off and landed on time. It was, in short, unbelievably good and a quality of air travel that is but a misty memory in the US and Europe.

We had a brief stop in Guayacil, which from the air was a gleaming patchwork of rice paddies with tiny farmhouses perched on little islands. As we loaded more passengers the crew sprayed some kind of disinfectant into the air. They are very concerned about not introducing contaminants into the Galapagos and all our luggage had to be screened before we checked it in in Quito.

Ninety minutes after taking off again, the islands appeared in the Pacific, low and tawny in the deep blue of the ocean. The little airport at Baltra (once part of a US Air Force base) was muggy and crowded but our driver was there with a placard for us and ushered us onto a bus for the short ride to the ferry which takes you to the main island of Santa Cruz. The drive was broken only by a large Iguana that didn’t want to get off the road and had to be shoo-ed off. It hissed at the driver before sauntering into the scrub. There was little to see along the road to the ferry; deserty scrub and the occasional ruin of an old building. The Galapagos weren’t even pristine when Darwin got to them of course. Pirates had been using them to hole up and take on provisions in the 16th century and then whalers discovered them and killed perhaps a hundred thousand giant tortoises. Farmers came to clear the native plants and grow bananas and other crops. The middle of the main island is still privately owned by farmers and is full of non-native species, even as the park service tries to restore the rest of the chain of islands by removing non-native species as far as they can, and particular the rats and goats which have destroyed so much habitat. On one island alone they have culled something like 200,000 goats. On the drive from the ferry to Puerto Ayora – the main town on Santa Cruz, there was still an other worldliness to the landscape. V-tailed frigate birds soared around above us, and we passed stands of curious angular trees.

Rosy at the Galapagos Suites was every bit as friendly as her emails and her little hotel was everything the rave reviews on TripAdvisor had suggested, complete with a hammock strung up across a corner of our balcony.Puerto Ayora has the feel of a low key Caribbean town, mostly low-rise plain buildings and one-room storefronts packed with t-shirts and flip flops, dusty streets humming in the sunshine. We walked out to the Charles Darwin Research Station which looks into the best way to preserve the Galapagos and its species. Its best known for its tortoise breeding program and they have learned how to dig out the eggs and transfer them to incubators, such that 98% of the eggs they move now hatch. We saw them taking some of the baby giants  out of boxes, painting numbers on them and etching a groove in their shells. The island-specific species are returned to their native islands once they are a bit older. The Station is also the permanent home of Lonesome George, the last of his sub-species and perhaps two hundred years old. No-one has found a way to date these giants accurately yet. He was asleep, with his long neck stretched out in front of his impossible shell. It was like watching a dinosaur and elsewhere at the Station, on a walking trail we were surprised by a few more giants with their elephant feet, grumpy expressions and watery eyes. Some may have been spared by whalers a hundred and fifty years ago as being too small to eat. They are lumbering time travelers, plodding their way through the decades.

Back in the town, we explored a bit and had supper overlooking the harbour. As night fell snatches of salsa music and laughter drifted up from the street below and dogs set up a barking relay. How do people live with dogs like that? When disturbed by, I don’t know, someone sneezing in a different part of the town, they will bark for five minutes straight, and then another one will become aware that there is a rock in the yard and start barking at that. Hello earplugs.

El Teleferiquo

It was the Fitzgerald’s last day in Quito. Sui Fun and Robert had left early for Peru, so the rest of us got into tourist mode. El Teleferiquo, a gondola up a mountainside overlooking Quito, soars up to  4050 meters ( about 13,365 feet in the old money). We flagged taxis to the base and on our way caught a cloud-free glimpse of one of the snow-topped volcanos that ring the city. The taxi, grinding along in first gear, only just made it up the steep access road. P and I looked at each other as the revs dropped and dropped, but we got there in the end.

El Teleferiquo has a slight air of dreams unrealised about it. The “craft village” at its base is a sad cluster of empty shopfronts; doors gaudy with Visa and Mastercard stickers for tourists who were intent on just getting up the mountain. People don’t come here to buy CDs of panpipe music or Panama hats, they come to ride the gondola and get a thrill from the thin air at the top. That’s what we did anyway.

We emerged at the summit into a cool wind with much less oxygen in it. Anything uphill was an effort, but the views were well worth it. As if sensing our presence, Cotapaxi had pulled the cloud hat over its head, but the sprawl of Quito far down in the valley below was fascinating – particularly watching cigar tube jets come into land at the airport. In the other direction , the jagged outline of the mountains were crisp in the clear thin air.We puffed and gasped a little way up the hill to take photos and enjoy the sharp breeze and the piercing sunshine. Lunch was at a gaudy cafe, once part of a now defunct hotel. We sat in mauve vinyl boths looking through grimy windows at the pristine mountains around us.

At the bottom of the gondola was a nearly deserted funfair – The VolQano, which acted as a small-boy magnet. For an hour or so, weary staff trailed after us to start up silent rides for the boys’ benefit.

Back down to a mere 2600m in Quito, jammed into a minibus at rush hour, with diesel fumes wafting through the windows, cars flitting past and cutting in, a smiling woman in a trilby hat selling oranges by the roadside, sunshine boring into our necks. The Fitzgeralds and I went map shopping while P took a hot t home.

Later, as the Fitzgeralds finished up their packing and souvenir buying I hustled out to the pizza place at the end of the street. Its been particular fun for Tom to travel with the two boys and he will really miss Jon and Aiden. We all hugged and wished each other well and they left for the airport. Another part of our Cambridge experience drifiting away. So now we are three again, with three weeks left to go….

In the Cloud Forest

The cloud had lifted from the forest this morning and hummingbirds are apparently late risers. Hard to imagine them taking it easy with a cup of coffee, but but all was quiet at the feeders. After salty scrambled eggs we changed into Wellingtons (what would the noble Duke think of his legacy to the world…) and met our guide for what was billed as a three hour walk through the forest. Our guide was a bony young chap, tall and skinny and carrying a machete with him. A little way into the forest he swung it at what he described as a blood tree, leaving a small slit in which welled a crimson jewel of sap. He smeared it onto our hands whereupon it turned into a smooth white paste, which he said was used to relieve mosquito bites. The boys were impressed and Tom started seeking mosquitoes in order to test it out. They had a great time in fact; there was a lookout tower with terrifying open bamboo ladders to climb, a rope swing into the trees and a couple of ziplines across small valleys. On the first one we came to, I went and then Tom went. Most of the way at least. I watched him come to a dangling halt about fifty feet from the end and at least a hundred feet from the ground. He was absolutely thrilled. We threw a rope to him but it fell short and so he was pulled giggling back to the launch point where P was clipped on to the pulley as well and their combined weight finally got them across. “Can I do that again?” asked T.

The forest was damp and earthy and quiet, we saw – or heard at least – a couple of hummingbirds but for the most part all was still. At some point we realised that our three hour hike had passed the four hour mark and Roddy, the driver, told us that Pablo’s car had to be back in Quito by four o’clock in order to avoid a hefty fine, as different cars are banned from rush-hour driving on different days of the week to ease congestion. That meant we had two and a half hours to get out of the forest, pack up and get to Quito. We raced along the last part of the walk phoning in orders for sandwiches for the road. Yes, the Cloud Forest has a mobile signal. We threw passengers, bags and lunch into the cars and raced away, now with ninety minutes to do the drive that had taken us two hours the day before. It was a white knuckle ride as I struggled to keep pace with the more powerful Disco. I thrashed the little car back up the 6,000 feet we had descended, dodging past trucks labouring up the steep inclines in clouds of exhaust. As we got into Quito, the usual racetrack became even more competitive as we were now part of the race – not just observers. We slid into the most marginal of gaps and cut everyone else up mercilessly  – though to be honest that is just normal driving behaviour in Quito. Two blocks from Pablo’s house at 4.05, Roddy spotted a traffic cop on the corner and quickly pulled into the car park in front of a row of shops. He had a chat with the policeman, but he refused to let Roddy continue so the car had to stay where it was until 7.30pm and everyone in it had to walk the last bit to Pablo’s.

It was strange to be in his house without Pablo but we worked up a pile of pasta  and sat in the formal dining room surrounded by his wonderful pictures of South America.