This is amazing. Watch it.
Tuesday, March 12th. After a 7am breakfast, we boarded the zodiac for Los Lobos Island. Along the way we stopped to watch the frigates at the end of their mating season. The males puff out their large red throats and the ones with the biggest balloons win. The Dutch couple that we were with kept calling them rednecks. Very funny to us Southerners!
Los Lobos Island
We had a dry landing amongst the sea lions and marine iguanas on Los Lobos island. As we moved onto the island, there were many blue footed boobies and tons more black marine iguanas. The island is mostly large, black, volcanic boulders with white sand on the perimeter and low lying vegetation in the middle. At one point, we had to leave the sandy path and climb onto the lava rock to avoid a mother booby who had chosen to nest in the middle of the path. She stood stedfast guarding her two babies.
Around another turn, a very young booby came running up to us with his wings outstretched. Not yet able to fly, he was running at us like we were his parents. I sat down next to him and he was so curious and unafraid of me. He followed us as we continued down the trail. It was one of my favorite moments.
We boarded the zodiac on a small white sand beach with a single picturesque marine iguana lounging and young sea lions playing. We headed back to the boat to prepare fo the day’s snorkel adventure at Kicker Rock.
Kicker Rock towers above the ocean like a volcanic castle. There is a small channel that runs through it and the whole outcropping is surrounded by deep, blue water. Following the captain of the Encantada, we all plunged into the deep and somewhat chilly water. We were immediately face to face with white tip and Galapagos shark. Admittedly, there were moments of panic upon seeing numerous large sharks circling below. It was exhilarating, scary, and beautiful all at the same time. The captain took us through the channel between the rocks. This channel was full of life. At one point there were two large sea lions swimming right next to me and tons of sharks and fish below. During our swim, we encountered about eight huge sea turtles as well. It’s amazing to be swimming and look down to see that you are right above one of these gorgeous, calm turtles. It’s so peaceful and the silence of the ocean makes the rest of the world disappear for that moment.
At two points, I looked down to find myself about a giant sting ray - blackish in color with white spots and a “wingspan” of about five feet. Another heart stopping moment like the first time seeing the sharks. In time, these dangerous animals seems to become normal and we were all just swimming together.
We boarded the Encantada all feeling enchanted by what we had just done. The small, red, wooden boat is aptly named for sure.
After lunch and a brief nap, we anchored at San Cristobol Island and took the zodiac into Puerto Baquerizo Moreno City, the governing capital of Galapagos. City sea lions were everywhere - on the boats, on the docks, the sidewalks, under trucks, on the park benches!
We walked about a mile through town to the Galapagos Interpretation Center where we saw our first land tortoise, the Missionary species. He was sick with hypertension so we didn’t get to spend much time with him. Poor stressed out guy. He was so beautiful and immediately came over to us at the fence.
The center provided the human history of the Galapagos and it was quite fascinating. Definitely worth learning. There are several tales of murder and intrigue. We then took a trail to Darwin Hill, the exact location where Charles landed in the 1830’s. Looking down upon that cove and hearing the finches around me in the actual place where evolution was discovered was a bit surreal. Pretty heavy. We weren’t even supposed to go up to the overlook but ignored the caution tape and climbed many steps to the top anyway. The trail was beautiful and you could see the whole city and the boat filled bay from one side and Darwin’s cove from the other.
We headed back into town, got some popsicles, hit the ATM, and bought some postcards. We sat outside at a corner bar drinking real Coke and it became obvious that the town is full of surfers and other laid back tourists. It seemed like a fun spot as evidenced by the shirtless bartender, friendly street cats, and lazy sea lions.
We wandered the streets and watched a beach full of sea lions until it was time to go back to the boat at 6pm. Dinner was at 7 and we had great conversation with Juan about the economy and religion. He said the people of Galapagos don’t really care about Darwin and believe in god. A little shocking since there is proof of evolution around them everyday. Faith is an interesting thing.
I ended this day exhausted and loving every minute of it.
Monday, March 11th, 2013. It’s so easy to lose track of time here. Breakfast was at 6:45 and consisted of toast with strawberry jam and fresh fruit. At 7:30 we boarded the zodiac and headed for South Plazas Island. A large group of baby sea lions greeted us at the volcanic steps jutting out into the clear water as we carefully left the zodiac. The large bull sea lion was very unhappy with us and was bellowing for us to leave. He quickly got over it though and we stood for quite some time observing the 1-6 month olds playing and exploring. They reminded me so much of puppies. One particularly curious pup scrambled over the rocks to get closer to us. He was right underneath me, maybe two feet away and kept looking up like he wanted me to play with him. I melted.
We ventured further inland and came upon many swallow tailed seagulls and land iguanas. These iguanas can live into their late 70s! Plazas Island is home to about 200 of them and even more marine iguanas with whom they mate from time to time. The hybrids behave more like the land iguanas in that they eat cactus instead of seaweed. They are all such beautiful and unique creatures.
The island is home to many large cacti with wooden trunks like large tees. They dot the hilly landscape and look a bit like furry monsters as the iguanas sun themselves beneath them waiting for the fruit to drop. The iguanas, as most of the animals here, have no fear at all and walk down the trail with you. It’s so crazy to be in a place where all of the animals and plants seem to exist in this magical harmony.
We watched a Darwin finch feed from the yellow cactus flower. I kept reminding myself of the scientific significance of these little birds and stand in awe of them. The abundance of birds here in general is astounding. It’s the peak of mating season so there were many seagulls sitting on their eggs which are speckled and about the size of a chicken egg. We even saw a family with a grey, spotted, furry baby. The male and female segulls take equal responsibility for raising the young and nesting. After about six months, they part ways. Sweet and tragic at the same time. Pengin and albatross are the only Galapagos species to mate for life. Species that stick it out until death fascinate me. It’s beautiful and mysterious.
We left South Plazas and started the two hour navigation to Santa Fe. I took a nap and woke up to lunch of potatoes, salad, cucumbers, and fruit.
Next up was snorkeling from the zodiac. Juan took us out to some rocks forming a cove with islands on each side. We jumped off the zodiac and swam along the sea shelf. There were many beautiful tropical fish and we even saw a sting ray. We continued closer to the smaller island and were greeted by a large group of curious sea lions. We spent about 45 minutes swimming with them. I had an amazing moment with a young female as she came within two feet of me and we just stared at each other. She then turned playfully as if she wanted me to follow. These sea lions have no fear and are so interested in us. We were swimming in their world and they seemed to welcome us.
We boarded the boat and at 4pm went to visit another part of Santa Fe Island. We had a wet landing in the middle of a sea lion colony…just pulled the zodiac right onto the beach where hundreds of sea lions were resting. We sat there for quite some time and a baby even came up and smelled my legs. His whiskers felt so coarse against my toes. It was such a special moment to have this wild baby creature approach me.
We walked away from the sea lion beach and up into the hills of Santa Fe. Here we crossed paths with more land iguanas - different in color from the land iguanas of South Plazas. Some were huge and about 40 years old. Their spiny backs make them resemble dinosaurs.
We observed many more birds and lava lizards. We walked to the edge of a high cliff looking down on large rocks covered with sleeping sea lions. It was close to sunset and close to bedtime. We passed a mother sea lion and her baby on the way out. The baby was climbing after her crying for food. They make the sweetest, most pitiful cries. Heart melting again!
We went back to the boat after hanging on sea lion beach a bit longer at sunset. After dinner we went to bed, early as usual, after these long, exhausting, magical days.
I realized I neglected some details from Day 4.
The beach from our first day in Galapagos is called Las Bachas. It is named after a boat that sank there in the 1940s. Las Bachas brought clean water to the islands. Her skeleton can be seen at low tide which happened to be when we were there. Juan told us we were very lucky to see this.
It was time to go back to the Encantada. I took a shower in our tiny cabin and it almost felt like rinsing off in the water hose as a child in summertime. Dinner was at seven and they took very good care of me. I had an avocado, fresh tomato, rice, lima beans, and steamed veggies with carrots, green beans, and cauliflower. Dessert was a tree tomato with a cinnamon and sugar sauce. Everything was fresh and simple. Sorry if the level of detail in what I ate is boring. I’ve been asked several times “how the food?” so I’m assuming some people are interested. I always want to know about food and being vegan for 15 days on a boat was definitely a huge factor in booking this trip. I was impressed.
I was asleep by 9:30pm and looking forward to meeting sea lions the next day!
At 4am we crawled into a cab headed to the airport. The cab proceeded to get a flat tire on a winding, two lane, brick road in a very sketchy part of town. With Kurt’s help, the tire was changed in record time and we were back to speeding down the mountain road. We boarded the plane at 7:40 after waiting in many lines and completing countless forms. Galapagos is on lockdown. There was some confusion with flights and we ended up having to fly to Guayaquil to connect. Unfortunately, the airports aren’t quite on top of their game and our connecting flight was about two hours late. Of couse I was on the verge of panic that our boat would leave without us and we’d miss our trip. Since I am now writing from the back of a sailboat at sunset* with San Jose island to my left, it looks like we made it. Juan, our guide, waited.
*Note: I am transcribing this blog from a handwritten journal that I kept daily. Please excuse the stream of consciousness style that comes out from time to time.
Our second flight of the day landed on Baltra island and we exited to a humid 85 degree day with desert-like terrain. It felt amazing to be there but I still was biting my nails until I saw Juan with the Encantada sign. Encantada is the name of our faithful motor sailor for the next 15 days. Enchanted.
While waiting in the customs line, we met two exciting people. He is German and she’s Spanish and they both work in sustainable energy and were headed to Galapagos for work. Galapagos for work! What!? He is an electrical engineer and her background is in physics. It made the arduous customs line much less painful and helped take my mind off the potential of missing the boat. It’s always nice to connect with the people you are randomly next to in lines.
After our luggage went through yet another check, I saw Juan with our sign. A Galapagos native, Juan sports the deep, dark tan of a lifetime in the sun. He wears silver jewelry, calls all of us friends and speaks of mother Earth and protecting her. We’ll later learn that he thanks all of the animals every time we see them and often speaks in sound effects. Juan rules.
Juan puts us on a five minute bus ride to the port where we board the Encantada. It’s a small, red, wooden motor sailor with glossy natural wood and tiny cabins. There are five other passengers and a crew of six for this leg of our journey. We were immediately served lunch. I had cabbage, potatoes, and lightly pickled cucumbers and fresh fruit for dessert. Just what I needed, clean and simple. Juan then briefed us on the rules of the boat and the activities for the day.
We were shown to our cabin, changed into bathing suits, and slathered on the sunscreen. We all boarded a small zodiac and went to Santa Cruz Island. The warm water washing over my feet during our wet landing was so refreshing and it was really sinking in that I had actually made it.
Juan walked us down the beach where we saw pelicans with wing spans of two meters. We saw frigates with their red throats and countless red and blue crabs perched on the black lava rocks. The black marine iguanas basking in the sun, unmoving no matter how close we came, may have been my favorite. They look stoic and lazy at the same time. We rounded a corner to see two pink flamingos and an iguana swimming in a shallow lagoon. Everyone was silent as we stood there for quite some time in awe of the animals. Juan thanked them all.
We returned to the beach where we landed and took to the water for a bit. The waves were kicking up too much sand and making the water cloudy so snorkeling was a bit of a challenge. I did see several baby black finned sharks though! Swimming over a shark will make your heart race no matter how big they are. We abandoned our snorkel gear to swim and simply be in the ocean surrounded by the animals. As I neared the lava rock to visit the crabs, a huge pelican landed feet from me. The water was so blue and clean. I felt my body healing (in a sense) as I floated looking up at the sky. It was so surreal as this entire adventure would prove to be. This was just the beginning.
We left the hotel at 8am in a van with six other gringos en route to Otavalo. It was a two hour drive through the beautiful countryside of lush green mountains and river filled valleys. The infrastructure in Ecuador keeps impressing me. The roads are very well made and new construction is happening everywhere. The new president seems to be helping the economy and giving back to the country. Hope it continues.
There was quite the character in our van. He was probably in his late fifties, from Minnesota, and has more money than he knows what to do with but is still cheap. He’s the annoying type of person that pretends to know everything and dominates conversation to the point of talking over our guide, Wilson. I must admit though, I was jealous of his extensive travels to Cuba, India, Thailand, etc. Must be nice.
Our first stop was an overlook at a volcanic lake. There was a mist laying in the valley and the cool air was clean and refreshing. We were greeted by a band of ever wise street dogs. There were three of them including an adorable puppy. I knelt down and they surrounded me, nuzzling into my jacket. They seemed so happy and free, they made me feel the same.
The view was stunning. The day was vibrant despite being slightly chilly and overcast. There was a young indigenous boy with his two llamas standing by to take pictures with tourists for a small donation. I couldn’t help myself, paid my money, and stood with this beautiful child and his animals. I also couldn’t resist taking a selfie with one of the llamas. He was so soft and sassy!
Our guide provided snacks at this stop, none of which I could eat. One appeared to be a string cheese like substance wrapped in a large, green plant leaf. The other was a biscuit with a caramel spread. The group seemed to enjoy the local treat. After some more rogue dog snuggling, we continued to Otavalo.
We arrived at the Otavalo market with two hours to spend. Otavalo is home to the largest indigenous market in all of South America and Saturday is the most busy day of all. Well timed for us! There is a central square and all of the surrounding streets are shut down and lined with vendors. We entered the central square and were engulfed in a canopy of handmade goods. Blankets, weavings, carvings, jewelry, bags, and food are the main handicrafts. Everything was so vibrant and beautiful.
A few minutes into our time there, a group of preteen girls nervously requested pictures with us. They were enamored with our tattoos. They were so sweet and timid. We were good sports but it was still an awkward, yet flattering, experience.
The goods matched the people. I’m not sure that I have every seen a group of people with such rugged and pure beauty. The natives of Ecuador are all fairly small. I doubt many are over my height of 5’3”. They have gorgeous tan skin and thick, black hair that both men and women wear long. They dress in colorful clothing and felt hats and seem truly happy. They are so kind and, despite the severe language barrier, communication is very pleasant. We purchased some beautiful woven pieces with Galapagos animals, a hand painted and signed wooden spoon rest, and I bought a ring with textile inlay.
Lunch was at this great outdoor cafe decorated with abundant plants, flowers, and succulents. There were serene hammocks and white table cloths. The lunch feast consisted of chips and guac, quinoa soup, and a salad with beans, white corn, avocado, and beets. Healthy and delicious!
Before leaving the market, I took a moment to stand back and admire the gorgeous people. The children seem very well loved and, as a result, well behaved. It’s amazing how easily they can entertain themselves and find contentment without the technology and distractions that most US children depend upon. More than depend, they demand. It was so inspiring to see joyous people unburdened by the modern “comforts.”
MORE OF OTAVALO
After leaving the market, we drove deeper into Otavalo to visit a family of musicians called Nanda Manachi. The elder man demonstrated how to make a traditional flute from reeds and string. He proceeded to play several other traditional instruments including a small guitar made from the shell of an armadillo. He was then joined by his son and daughter and they performed a song together as we all enjoyed it from benches at their home. It was an entertaining look into their lives.
Here’s a link to a video of their performance in case you’re interested:
We left the musicians and went to Artesania El Gran Condor for a textile demonstration. A beautiful native woman showed us how to comb, dye, and weave yarn. One process takes about ten days to complete a blanket. The intricacy of it all gave me an even larger appreciation for these handmade goods. The skill in their hands was truly impressive.
We made the two hour trek back to Quito passing numerous greenhouses full of flowers. Roses and other cut flowers are the third largest export from Ecuador. A pretty pleasant business, I imagine. After taking a break at the hotel, we ventured out for food. We settled on a pizza place and had mediocre dinner. Most restaurants in the historic district tend to close early so we had few options. We then visited a supermarket and had a glimpse into local culture. There are lockers when you enter since you can’t carry bags into the store. They sell everything from underwear to food and it was bustling. We bought Oreos.
We returned to the hotel and were in bed by 9pm in order to leave at 4am for our taxi ride to the airport. Next stop, Galapagos. It’s insane how loud the street is at night. Around 2am, a party bus parked outside of our room with blaring music and screaming people. My earplugs couldn’t even drown it out nor could they drown out the excitement of the adventure ahead.
After a much needed night’s sleep, I woke up in Quito, the highest capital city in the world, feeling much better. It was beautiful to stand on our hotel room’s balcony and see the old city in the light of day. We took a cab to Mariscal, the new and more tourist friendly, part of town. We had to go to our travel agency, Happy Gringo, to collect our documents for Galapagos. It was rad to finally meet Bernardo who had been such a great help in planning all of this. I would highly recommend this company.
We then walked a couple of blocks to El Maple, an Ecuadorian vegetarian restaurant. We were the only customers at this adorable place and sat outside in the morning sun while a hummingbird flew around to all of the blooming flowers. I ordered a traditional Ecuadorian meal - veganized. It consisted of two potato cakes, beets, hominy, avocado and seitan that was eerily close to fried chicken. It was delicious! We meandered around Mariscal for a bit before catching a cab to La Basilica.
La Basilica. Seriously one of my favorite experiences in life thus far. We entered the cathedral and the inside was breathtaking. This 1892 structure is a perfect specimen of Gothic architecture with epic vaulted ceilings, rich wooden confessionals, and intricate stained glass. There was a sermon being given so we slowly walked around with a haunting backdrop of Spanish language religious rhetoric. The stone guardians of this historic structure are native Ecuadorian animals including armadillos, iguana, pelicans, and Galapagos tortoises. It’s pretty amazing to look up and see a giant tortoise hanging over the side of a building.
We were about to leave then when we overheard another American talking about climbing the tower. We paid our $2 and started hiking the countless steps in the thin air. As we hiked upwards, every level got better. There was a level where you were face to face with two story high stained glass. The most notable was a cat walk across the length of what would be the attic of the church. On the other side and up two sketchy ladders, we found ourselves in a type of gazebo on top of a tower that showed off all of Quito. The tower was centered between the two clock towers at the other end of the church. Through the clock towers, the giant statue, the Virgin of El Panecillo, lined up perfectly, providing an exquisite view that had to be intentional. The virgin, standing atop a 200 meter high volcanic hill, is made of 7,000 pieces of aluminum and is said to represent the woman of the apocalypse. Back inside, we were able to climb several spiral staircases in the belly of on of the clock towers. Amazing. The weather was perfect with clear sunshine, wispy white clouds, and a warm breeze. The fear of heights quickly melted away. I can’t get over the unrestricted access to the roof. There must not be many lawsuits in Ecuador!
We finally pulled ourselves away and continued to explore the historic district. We circled the main plaza (16 miles south of the equator) where some military demonstration was happening. We then found another veg place run by a sweet family with adorable children. The children here are so beautiful. I enjoyed a dish of rice with mushrooms and homemade seitan.
There’s such a vibrancy in the people here and the streets are so alive with activity. I can see why it was declared one of the first World Cultural Heritage Sites. So unaltered and so alive.
We then visited another church called The Church of the Society of Jesus of Quito. Built by Jesuit priests between 1605 and 1765, every centimeter of the church was covered in 23 carat gold leaf. It was the most opulent and detailed things I have yet to see. There is a very large painting titled “Hell” that I could have stared at for hours. So evil and beautiful. The Catholics sure now how to evoke fear and shroud everything in beauty at the same time. I’m still trying to wrap my head around this church. We weren’t supposed to take pictures but I managed to steal one.
I called it an early night to continue to nurse my cold. We would leave for a day trip to Otavalo the next morning at 8am. Quito was amazing so far; a bit gritty but fairly safe and no one seemed upset by tattoos. Always an annoying concern. So far, so good.
On Thursday, March 7th, we departed Richmond at 7:25am. Our older and adorable stewardess lit up when she saw that I was reading Vonnegut’s Galapagos. She said “he’s so fun!” It was so genuine and joyful. There was something about her enthusiastic reaction that made me so happy and sure of the adventure I was about to experience. We took full advantage of the layover and spent about six hours in the sun and warmth of Miami.
In Miami, we took the bus to South Beach. Lunch was at a great Cuban spot that had vegan beans and rice with avocado, plantains, and tofu. It was so refreshing to sit outside in the bright sun. For dessert, we found a small, mostly raw, cafe tucked away in a garden. The name of the spot is deceiving: T.H.R.I.V.E. I hoped it had something to do with Brendan Brazier but was just a coincidence. Regardless, the raw chocolate and vanilla swirl cheesecake was delicious and made the awful cold that I had feel a little better. I tried to be a trooper with little complaining but I felt so terrible and hoped it wouldn’t last the entire trip.
After eating way too much, we headed to the beach to people watch and get some sun. There’s not many places that rival people watching than the beach at Miami. After the long winter, the sand and sun made me forget about how awful I was feeling if even for a little bit.
Back on the plane, it was a four hour flight to Quito, Ecuador. We arrived at Hotel Catedral Internacional a little after midnight after a 40 minute cab ride. The cab took us through the mountains and valleys full of earthquake resistant cinderblock dwellings. Most appeared to have no power. There were countless graffiti covered walls and street dogs guarding the night. I had to pick my jaw up from the floor as we drove through old town. It’s steep streets and crumbling colonial architecture were stunning.
We checked into our hotel wich appears to have been an old home complete with a courtyard in the middle. The floors were gorgeous wood with inlays and the double doors in our room opened to a balcony overlooking the steep street. A glace to the left or right revealed mountains covered in box like homes. I passed out exhausted with my raging cold. Luckily, the extreme altitude was having little effect. I was so relieved not to add another factor to my discomfort.
Do yourself a huge favor and read this.
I spent the past 19 days days in Ecuador including the Galapagos Islands. It truly was the trip of a lifetime. I kept a jornal during this adventure and will try to transcribe it here in a timely fashion.
For now, here is the boat, Encantada, that we lived on for 15 days and it was spectacular.
A million years ago, I met Heather McEntire at UNCW. We were both part of a failing college radio station called WLOZ and we were in love with it. Heather is one of the most intriguing people I have the honor of knowing. Just being around her makes me happy and nervous at the same time. It’s one of those friendships that you can neglect for years and then pick back up immediately without skipping a beat. Our relationship is rife with adoration and I am confident that it always will be. From playing guitar for me in her tiny on campus apartment to putting out this most recent amazing record, Heather will always impress me.