Sunday 6th November 2011

Quito – return from Galápagos

I am now back in Quito after a short but eventful trip to the Galápagos Islands – a trip that started extreme inauspiciously, and ended up being even shorter than expected. On Wednesday morning I was at Quito airport punctually at 07.15 AM, to check in for my 09.15 flight, with LAN, the Ecuadorian branch of Chile’s national airline. As Wednesday was the first of a series of national holidays, the check-in area was ABSOLUTELY heaving with people.

Having with some difficulty established which was the LAN check-in desk, I then had to go to another desk to pay my Galápagos tax, before returning to join the VAST queue of people waiting to check in. To cut a VERY long story relatively short, the queue advanced at a snail’s pace, and I did not reach the desk until 08.55….only to be informed that I should have gone to another Galápagos desk to have my hand baggage inspected. By this time in a considerable panic, I rushed to that office, got the bag inspected, returned to the check-in desk, barged my way to the front, dropped off my rucksack, raced to security….only to find that the check-in lady had failed to give me my boarding pass!!!

After retrieving this, I finally reached the departure lounge at around 09.05….only to be informed that the flight had closed. I was not alone – finally there were eleven people who were not allowed to enter the plane, although all of our luggage had indeed made it to the aircraft!!

A near riot ensued, but the LAN lady refused to budge, even though the plane was still standing just beyond the gate. A period of utter chaos then followed, with nobody having any idea of what to do, least of all the LAN staff, most of whom disappeared. Finally, after much confusion, and me actually raising my voice (a rare event), one of ladies deigned to provide me with a voucher…but it was not a voucher for a hotel, it was a voucher for LUNCH! I could not have cared less about lunch, and an overnight stay was also not really necessary as I was staying with friends. In the end, two Germans, three French and myself managed to obtain vouchers for a hotel, and we were told to return to the airport the following day at the same time.

This we did, and after a somewhat less chaotic check-in, we were finally in the air by 09.30 the following morning, having lost a full day thanks to the extraordinary incompetence and disorganisation of the LAN staff, as well as the considerable cost of the lost night in a hotel in Galápagos, which I had pre-paid. I shall be making a claim for full compensation from the airline.

Quito from the plane, when we finally took off, 24 hours behind schedule

The flight, first to Guayaquil, and then 1000 km out into the Pacific Ocean, to the small island of Baltra, went smoothly, and the first views of these “Islas Encantadas” were spectacular. However, our enchantment was short-lived, as we had to do battle with the LAN ground staff in Baltra in order to reclaim our lost bags. We approached the LAN desk, where a local guide was waiting to meet the three French tourists, and she informed us that she had SEEN eleven bags being placed behind the LAN desk the previous evening. Encouraged by this news, we approached the desk, but were informed that we would have to wait until the outgoing flight had left. This took around one hour, and finally the LAN lady informed, with a deadpan expression on her face: “Aqui solo hay tres maletas”…. “There are only three bags here”. The French tourists’ guide insisted that she had seen eleven the previous evening, and finally, begrudgingly, the LAN agent went into the back room and reappeared with the missing bags. All I can say after this performance is, DO NOT FLY WITH LAN, at least during a national holiday week. The only positive aspect of this time in the airport of Baltra was the fact that my first ever Darwin’s Finches, the very birds that caused Darwin to reach his evolutionary conclusions, were hopping around our feet INSIDE the terminal building, showing that these birds are still adapting to modern life, proving the theory that adaptability leads to survival.

Baltra is a small, flattish, deserty island off the North coast of the much larger Santa Cruz island, from which it is separated by a narrow channel, across which tourists have to be transported in small ferries. From here, taxis, pickups and buses take tourists and locals on the 45 km journey across the island, to the main port, Puerto Ayora. Here, I checked into my hotel, the Casa Natura, and immediately set off to explore this attractive harbour town. My first stop was a restaurant right opposite the fish stall, where Yellow-fin Tuna were being dismembered, much to the delight of some totally unafraid Sea-lions, Brown Pelicans, Lava Gulls (a Galápagos endemic species) and Frigatebirds. Here my table was visited by more Darwin’s Finches and a Yellow Warbler – many birds have evolved to have no fear of man in Galápagos, and this is still the case today.

The fish market in Puerto Ayora

After I had satisfied my hunger (LAN had generously provided one sweet on the flight from Quito to Guayaquil and a packet of Chocolate Chip Cookies and a sachet of fried bananas between Guayaquil and Baltra), I headed out of town on a walk to Tortuga Bay, a beautiful white beach. The route passed through some native Galápagos dry forest vegetation, with cacti and other extraordinary plants, with Galápagos Mockingbirds singing from the tops of the Opuntia trees and pecking around on the ground along the trail.

A Galapagos Mockingbird

That evening I had been very kindly invited to join Paul and Ulli, my two German fellow travellers-in-distress (i.e. without bags), who were staying with Matthias and Cristina, a German-Brazilian couple who have been working in Galápagos for some time. They had organised a barbecue in their garden, and we were royally entertained and fed by Cristina…many thanks to her! Here I also met an Ecuadorian student who is about to go to do his Master’s degree at Wageningen University, in the Netherlands, where I also teach!!! I may even meet him in a course!

The following morning I was not up as early as I should have been, the two previous mornings’ early starts having well and truly caught up with me. However, after breakfast I headed straight to the Charles Darwin Research Centre, which among other tasks, operates a semi-free-range nursery for giant tortoises that have, for various reasons, ended up there. Here I latched onto a group of Ecuadorians who were having a guided tour, and I discreetly listened to their guide explaining the various features of this excellent facility. I wondered at the story of Lonesome George, the last known survivor of the Pinta island subspecies of Giant Tortoise, who is now over 100 years old, but has failed to produce any offspring with the females of other similar island subspecies with whom he is penned.

Lonesome George, perhaps on the lookout for a female

Self in front of a bust of Darwin

Following this highly interesting visit, I headed back to the hotel to grab my bags, and then continued down to the port to catch the fast boat for the two-hour crossing to the island of Isabela. Observing seabirds from this boat was near impossible as it raced across the ocean, crashing onto each wave in a jaw-breaking way, as well as having dark blue plastic windows through which it was almost impossible to see. I did manage to see several Audubon’s Shearwaters, lots of unidentified Storm Petrels, two flocks of Red-necked Phalaropes, as well as several Masked Boobies.

Finally, we arrived at Puerto Villamil, a small settlement on the south cost of this, the largest island, and I checked into my beachfront hotel, the Albemarle (the old English name for the island of Isabela). I was amused to find that one of my neighbouring rooms was called James, and the other Champion, both old English names of other islands.

James....

.......Champion

After a quick wash and brush up, I walked out along the beautiful white sandy beach to the west, seeing various birds including Brown Noddy, Royal Tern, Whimbrel, Sanderling, etc. I shortly reached a wonderful area of mangroves and lagoons just behind the beach…this is the habitat of the highly endangered Mangrove Finch, of which only around 110 still exist, but I was sadly unlucky with this species. Black-necked Stilts and Moorhens were pecking about on the edge of the pools, and a posse of about seven White-cheeked Pintails were dabbling in the shallows.

Looking back after entering the mangroves

Evening view west of Villamil

The following morning was a real highlight. I had booked a boat tour out to the reefs in front of the harbour of Villamil, and before even leaving the jetty, a Galápagos Penguin had appeared, “flying” through the clear blue waters directly below. The short journey across the lagoon produced two more penguins, and a Blue-footed Booby posing on the rocks – I had seen several of these before, but only in flight.

Galapagos Penguins

We soon disembarked and began a short hike across the lava flows, where numerous Marine Iguanas were basking in the morning sunshine. It was not long before we came to a deep cleft in the lava, forming a narrow channel, and here we were treated to amazing views of large numbers of White-tipped Sharks, which we were assured only feed by night and do not attack humans (important information as we were about to go snorkelling!). Here there was also a small group of rays, which glided gracefully by below us, almost looking like birds soaring through the water. A Lava Heron was pecking along the shore, aiming at the numerous crabs with its sharp beak, but without success.

Three rays passing gracefully by

A few of the White-tipped Sharks in the channel

After this land-based experience, it was time to re-board the boat for the very short journey out into the middle of the lagoon, where I had my first ever taste of snorkelling. As usual, my non-sporty character showed through, and to be honest I spent more time trying to prevent water flowing into the goggles and clogging up the snorkel than I did admiring the marine life, but I have no doubt that after some practice, this could be a wonderful new window on the underwater world!

Finally we returned to Villamil, and after a quick lunch, it was time for me to try another almost new experience: mountain biking! I set off along the same route I had taken out to the west of the village, just behind the beach, and passed the lagoons again (still no Mangrove Finches), eventually leaving the mangroves behind and climbing (slightly) into a desert landscape of cacti and other vegetation that has adapted to these conditions. Two Giant Tortoises were to be seen by the side of the road, one eating the very dead remains of an iguana, and Galapagos Mockingbirds, several types of Darwin’s Finches and a Striated Heron in a pool all put in an appearance. I enjoyed the mountain biking (although the chain fell off at one point), and I felt that the position was too low – perhaps that is normal for this type of bike.

Future mountain biking Champion?!

The following morning Ecuadorian travel chaos reigned again! Several passengers for the boat back to Puerto Ayora, including myself, all of whom had tickets which they had paid for in advance, were informed that they were not on the list of passengers to be embarked. This was something of a disaster as we were under heavy time pressure, with first the two-hour crossing to Puerto Ayora, then a taxi journey across Santa Cruz, then the short ferry hop to Baltra, followed finally by the bus journey to the airport, all of which had to be achieved in time for the LAN flight, which was due to leave at 12.15 PM!

To cut another very long and complicated story short, we were finally allowed to board the boat, and after that everything ran relatively smoothly, although LAN’s organisation in the airport again left something to be desired. The flights first back to Guayaquil and then to Quito ran on time, and I was even delighted to find my bag coming through on the baggage belt, a considerable relief!

All in all, this trip to Galápagos was a wonderful experience, but far too short, and I see it purely as a taster for a longer, more comprehensive visit in the future. These really are “enchanted islands”, and I trust that the Ecuadorian authorities will continue to do their very best to preserve them as best they possibly can….something that I feel they are indeed doing at the moment.

Marine Iguanas

nextpost

Tuesday 1st November 2011

Quito, Ecuador

Just a quick post for now, as I am busy preparing for a short trip to Galápagos, starting early tomorrow morning. I arrived here in this wonderful city two days ago, and since then I have been engaged in a nostalgic revisiting of so many places that are charged with memories from the very happy, adventure-filled year I spent here in 1983/84.

Yesterday I wandered around the commercial area known as Mariscal (nowadays known as “Gringolandia”, due to its popularity with travelling gringos), in which I worked as an English teacher all those years ago, and today I headed for the incredibly beautiful, and now very clean and apparently safe old colonial section of the city. I visited many of the ornate churches, and I even attended a mass in the church of San Francisco.

Palacio del Gobierno as seen from the Cathedral, Quito

San Francisco, now undergoing restoration

Typical street scene in colonial Quito

I then took a taxi to the top of El Panecillo, a hill that offers the most wonderful panoramic views of almost the entire city, which must be twice the size it was when I first visited, and as the weather was clear and bright, I was treated to splendid views of the snow-capped volcanoes that surround the city: Cayambe, Antisana, and the near perfect cone of Cotopaxi.

A view of Quito from El Panecillo with Volcan Cayambe in the distance

A view of Quito with Cayambe beyond

Detail of the colonial part of Quito, as seen from El Panecillo

La Virgen de Quito, El Panecillo

Following this, I headed for the station of Chimbacalle, where I was encouraged to find that the Ecuadorian rail system seems to be finally enjoying something of a renaissance – I was even able to book a train journey for next Friday, something I was never able to do when I lived here, as the entire network had come to a complete standstill.

The Ecuadorian railways are on the move again!

I must go to pack now, but there will be many more adventures to relate when I return from the Galápagos Islands on Sunday.

Cayambe from the north of the city

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