------------------------------- ------------------------------------ On and Off The Needles

Friday, January 11, 2008

First Three Days

Ok - here goes! I'm going to probably break it up into three posts as there are a lot of pictures! If you want to take a look at ALL the pictures (about 900 total that we uploaded) they are all here sorted by day.

Day One found us in Quito, Ecuador. We had flown in the night before (once the pilot found the airport that is. It was foggy, and we did a few fly by's and circled for a bit and he had the balls to announce to the passengers that "he couldn't find the airport". That instills some confidence. Needless to say we all clapped pretty loud when we landed. What happened to flying by insturments? Do they still have to see everything?) and after a particular hairy cab ride from the airport to the hotel around 11:30 at night, we woke to a beautiful day. This was the view from the hotel room. Everywhere you looked, there were towering mountains. Quito itself sits at about 9300 feet above sea level. Those mountains - about 15000 feet!

After breakfast we ventured out to explore the Old City. The buildings were beautiful. Our first stop was Plaza de la Independencia. It was built in the mid 1500's. It holds the Presidential Palace as well as the Cathedral. We walked around probably looking like tourists taking photos and oohing and ahhing at everything. After about half an hour we were approached by an older spanish gentleman. He asked if we wanted a tour of the Old City. Since we (stupid!!!!) forgot a map, we said sure. Knowing full well that this would entail payoff later, but knowing we wouldn't end up seeing half of the things we may see with him on our own, we tagged along. He took us on a great tour. Places we never would have found or seen on our own.

As we left the Plaza we looked up and could see Panecillo Hill. You can see it from pretty much every point in the city. It is topped with a statue of the Winged Virgin. There are also a bunch of Christmas statues that light up at night - turns out we saw them on the plane when we landed. We couldn't figure out what they were from the air! The streets are all cobblestone and very steep!

This is a shot of a beautiful courtyard in one of the Universities in Quito. On the ground floor they had 5 or 6 old printing presses from the United States. We got to go to the old book room and see books from the 1500's! Our "guide" knew the curator.

Many of the older houses have courtyards. All were unique in their own way. One we visited had a very interesting tile feature. The grout is inlaid with cow bones! The floor was not small, I don't even want to think about how many cows it would have taken to finish the floor!

Basilica del Voto Nacional sits atop a huge hill. We hiked up and after catching our breath (we kept forgetting the elevation) we took many pictures of the ornate architecture and ironwork.

The Plaza De San Francisco had some wonderfully colored buildings. The large flat area you see is actually a map of the city inlaid in the ground. The roads are in marble and the buildings have what I think were brass imprints. It was pretty neat to look at, and still accurate.

The church of Santo Domingo finished in the early 1600's was so ornate is was overpowering. It is the oldest church in South America. The church itself is actually built on old Incan ruins. You can still see some of the stones from the ruins in the foundation. Gold leaf everywhere, and detailed plaster castings on the ceilings. It was amazing.

We walked quite a bit our first day. Up and down hills, into many buildings. We didn't manage to see much other than the Old City. Scheduled to meet up with our tour group early that evening for dinner, we relaxed a little in the room, and rested our feet. Dinner with the group was wonderful. It turns out there were so many people that signed up for this time period that they split it into two groups. Each group would take an opposite route around the islands once we arrived in the Galapagos the next day. Nick, our original tour leader, would lead the other group and we would have Pablo, who we would meet when we arrived on the islands. At first we were a bit concerned - it felt like we were handed off, but it turns out we were the lucky ones. Our group consisted of 11 people: 2 single people - one from California, one from Croatia, a couple from the San Fransisco area, a mother, son and daughter from Chicago, another mother, son and daughter from California (though the son now lives and works in Hawaii) and us. Our ages were all pretty close - a span of probably 30 years from the youngest to the oldest. We got to know a bit about each other over dinner, then headed back to the hotel for a good nights sleep.

Day Two started off foggy again. Our group headed to the airport in the morning to fly to the Galapagos. It is about 600 miles off the coast of Equador, but because of the elevation, the plane needs to stop and refuel in Guayaquil. That little stop added about an hour to our short trip. Once we landed though, it was beautiful and warm. (not the not so huge airport!)

It turns out you actually land on the island of Baltra. This airport was built by the US during World War II. There is pretty much nothing else on the island but the airport. After a very short (1 km) ferry ride across the channel you land in Santa Cruz - our first destination.

The trees you see are not dead, they are called Incense Trees and are covered in a grey lichen. When it rains (very rarely) they do sprout leaves and turn very green. It gives the landscape a very eerie look.

Our first stop on the way across to the south side of Santa Cruz was Los Gemelos or "The Twins". It is a set of two crater sites on opposite sides of the road. They are about 100 feet deep and quite amazing too behold.

After a short hike to see the wildlife and beautiful birds (including the rare Vermillion Flycatcher we drove off to another destination in the highlands. The Giant Tortise Reserve.

It was amazing seeing them up close. The males are huge, and females about half or less the size. This reserve is still a working cattle farm. In the past, farmers would shoot and kill the tortoises because they ruined the land and ate all the grass. With an arrangement from the government, the ranchers now get a subsidy for allowing tourists to view the tortoises on their land, and therefore preserving them. A surprise waited for us at the end of a short hike through the reserve. A Lava Tube!

This one was relatively short, but was very interesting to climb down into. The islands are all made of volcanic material - these tubes are remnants of a previous eruption.
After a quick stop at the hotel in Puerto Ayora to drop our bags and freshen up a bit, we headed to dinner.

Tuna (a good pound of it!) cooked on a lava rock. It was so fresh - caught just that afternoon. Turns out french fries are quite popular and come with just about everything. Juice is also a mealtime staple. Everything from Guava to watermelon to naranjilla - almost like an orange or passionfruit, but with a less acidic flavor. This was pretty much my favorite meal of the entire trip. The tuna came with a pesto like Chimichurri sauce. I plan on making it to go with beef, chicken or fish at home it was so good and flavorful.

After a long day of flying, hiking and our first sights of the Galapagos, we collapsed into bed ready for another day.

The morning of Day Three got us up early and off to the Charles Darwin Research Center

Right inside the gates, we saw our first Marine Iguana! They are the only Iguanas in the world that obtain their food underwater. They swim out and dive to the rocks beneath the surface and eat the algae that collect on them.

He was just hanging out on the walkway, not phased or scared of us at all. They truly do look like dragons! Once inside we marveled at the beautiful foliage.

The center is a home for wayward tortoises also - we saw hatchlings and juveniles as well as older tortoises that were confiscated from homes that had them as pets. These were so tame compared to the ones in the highlands we had seen the day before. They walked right up to us. Unfortunately, these will not be released back into the wild as they can't tell which species of tortoise they are. Each island, even each volcano on each island has their own species of tortoise. Since there is no easy way to identify them, and DNA profiling is expensive and not available on the island, they will keep them for education and research purposes at the center.

We also got to see Land Iguanas. They are pretty cool looking.

We spent one more night in Puerto Ayora, then woke up the next morning to head to the beach. Since our flight to the Galapagos was delayed the day before, we didn't have time to make the trek then. After about a three mile walk, we arrived at Tortuga Bay. The sand was unbelievably fine and soft (and got into everything!). The water was a bit chilly for me, but hubby went in for a dip.

We even spotted some marine Iguanas out swimming!

We then headed to the port to catch a ride over to Isabella, the largest island in the Galapagos. It has five major volcanoes, two of which still are active. The boat - yeah, not that big for 14 people sitting for 2 1/2 hours. The journey was rocky and long, but we made it.
Puerto Villamil - the main settlement on the island of about 1000 people, was so quaint and friendly. All the roads are packed sand, and the beach was a short walk away. We arrived in time to catch a beautiful sunset.

Another full day complete! They were so right when they called this an "active adventure"! The only sitting we have done thus far is on the boat!

Coming up next time: a long hike, more tortoises and snorkeling!