Trains of Peru
- Submitted by: Colin J. Churcher
- Submission Date: 15th Feb 2005
A number of factors influenced us to plan a trip to South America this winter: my husband had just finished two jobs in Mexico and was free to take a break, I had a couple of weeks of school vacation, Gabriel was still eligible for an infant (almost-free) airline ticket, and we had enough frequent flyer miles to take all of us as far as Ecuador on American Airlines. In addition, I would be giving birth to our second child in just three more months so it was a bit of a case of do it now, or do it quite a bit farther down the road.
DEC 10th: TRAVELLING TO QUITO
I pack for hours (car seat, high chair, porta-crib, baby carrier, disposable diapers, Christmas and birthday gifts, four cameras, snorkelling gear- did I forget anything?) and make it to the airport just 10 minutes prior to departure time. My friend Maureen, 5 months pregnant, helps me run with the baggage and makes sure that I do not miss the flight. I still have to buy Gabriel's Miami-Quito ticket, but they tell me that there is no time- I will be lucky if I can get to the gate before they close the doors to the plane.
Tomas has been working in Mexico for the past two weeks and will be meeting us in Miami for the flight to Ecuador; the last few days have been frantically difficult and it feels wonderful to sink into a seat and rest for a bit. (My luck holds out and with the help of AAdvantage Gold I get a seat next to me blocked for Gabriel, who sleeps through most of the flight.)
In Miami we have a two-hour layover, enough time to change some money, get a bite to eat, and puchase Gabriel's ticket. The flight to Quito is long but uneventful and we arrive around 11pm. After retrieving our (too) many pieces of baggage the three of us walk across the street to the Hotel Aeropuerto and collapse in an over-priced, noisy room for the night.
DEC 11th: LA SELVA JUNGLE LODGE
We are scheduled to leave at 9:30am for a 5-day excursion in the Amazon jungle. A representative from the 'La Selva Jungle Lodge' meets us in the national departures wing of the airport at 8:30am, relieves us of our baggage, and takes care of all flight arrangements. It is the first time we have travelled with a first-class tour operation and it feels great. (Everything about La Selva will turn out to really be first-class, with the possible exception of cold showers and twin beds in our bungalow.)
After a moderate delay, we board a large, military airplane (somebody calls it a C100-something, but it just looks like a big fat green cargo plane to me) which has been adapted with a few rows of seats to carry passengers. The guides apologize profusely for the high noise level, which really doesn't seem bad to us in the front of the plane. We fly for about 45 minutes to a small airport in the town of Coca, a frontier-type place on the edges of the jungle, where we are met by more guides for a short truck drive to the river.
Once everyone is assembled on the dock, we board a canopied, motorized canoe for the 2-1/2 hour journey downstream. The boat seats three across, and our family has more room than most because our third passenger is a shrimp. En route the guides serve a delicious picnic snack of puff pastry stuffed with curried tuna salad, orange juice and wonderful fresh granadas- a fruit I had never seen before. Tomas shows me how to open it and suck out the insides. Best of all, Gabriel is treated like a real person, with his very own meal, so we all get our appetites satisfied.
About an hour into the trip it starts to rain. Everyone else has thought ahead and carried jackets; ours are at the bottom of our suitcases in the back of the boat. One of the guides offers me his rain poncho, with which we try (rather unsuccessfully) to cover the kid. After what seems like about a hlaf-hour the rain stops and it gets hot again. All along the river we see small settlements and occasional areas of intense activity with trucks and heavy machinery all brought in by boat. It is clearly jungle, but clearly not pristine.
The bird-watchers in the group vigilantly scan the trees, and call out the names of rare or interesting birds as they appear. I am glad to have brought a pair of binoculars, and try to follow their gestures. They are especially on the lookout for harp eagles, but we don't see any. Not being a bird-watcher myself I soon forget the names of the many birds that we do see.
Finally the boat stops and we disembark for a half-mile hike through the jungle. Tomas and I had known about the hike, and had practiced ahead of time (each carrying 3-4 bags) to make sure that we could handle everything along with the baby. To our delight, we find that the tour operators have arranged for a dozen extra workers to carry everyone's luggage, and we enjoy a wonderful stroll along the raised boardwalk, taking pictures and video and delighting in the new and different surroundings.
At the end of the path we are met by a fleet of smaller, dugout canoes that seat 6-8 people single-file. The guides do all of the work and we glide out through a narrow stream and across a large lake to the bungalows of La Selva.
The complex consists of two large buildings: a bar/lounge and a dining room, along with about 16 smaller guest bungalows and other assorted buildings for staff, all connected by raised boardwalk. Everything is built with local materials (except for the showers) and when I ask they say that the boardwalk is repaired/replaced about every 2-3 months. We are given a rather larger bungalow at the farthest end of the complex, both for extra space and, I suspect, to distance the sounds of a possibly crying child at night- proving that they thought about making things the most comfortable possible for everybody.
After being given time to freshen up, we are served a multi-course meal (hot soup, fresh juice, a meat dish with vegetables, and dessert) answering, I assume at the time, my question of whether the Ecuadorians eat their main meal at midday or at night. The 16 or so guests are then divided into groups of about 2-7 people depending on interests and energy level. The bird-watchers form the largest group, and they end up spending the most time away from the lodge. A pair of photographers from Spain make up a second group, led by the senior guide- an Ecuadorian native. We had originally been assigned to this group, but were switched (unfortunately as it turned out) at the last minute when the coordinator in Quito discovered that English was my first and only really fluent language. (Tomas had made our reservations directly with the people in Ecuador; they knew that he was a Mexican and apparently assumed that I was as well.) A German couple is matched with an ecologist and his travelling companion for the third group, and we are paired in a fourth group with a wonderful couple from Canada.
Each of the groups takes off on a different excursion for the afternoon; our group is led on a moderate hike through the surrounding jungle. It is rather slow going, as the mud is ankle-deep in places and Gabriel not only refuses to ride in the backpack but insists on keeping up a noisy monologue commenting on everything we see and reciting his favorite Halloween stories and bedtime poems. To top it off, we want to stop every five mintues to take pictures. The Canadians are very patient and understanding, but our naturalist guide is much less so. We see lots of interesting plants and butterflies, a small rodent and a few birds before heading back.
We have an hour before supper to unpack. Our bungalow is very roomy, with three mosquito-net covered cots, two night tables and a chair, a large closet area, and a large bathroom with a lovely deep tub and shower. We decide to bathe, and find that the water only comes out cold. Gabriel screams out his objections, and we try to make it a fast one.
Dinner, I find, is another multi-course meal complete with hot soup, meat, vegetables and dessert. I guess the Ecuadorians eat two main meals per day. We retire shortly after dusk. Gabriel has fallen asleep during dinner and we deposit him in his porta-crib, covering it with the mosquito netting from the third cot in our cabin. Tomas and I try briefly to share a cot, but I soon decide that the 30' bed is too small and kick him out. Around 2:30am Gabriel wakes up and insists on joining his father. Tomas spends the rest of the night making sure that his son doesn't roll over the edge.
DEC 12th: LA SELVA JUNGLE LODGE
Wake-up call is at 6:00am, but I rise at 5:30 for another cold shower (old habits die hard). After a 6:30 breakfast we find ourselves paired with the ecologist, a very nice man with a special interest in flowering plants, for another long hike. He likes a slow pace (it's easier to search the jungle floor for plants if you're not hurrying off on a forced march) and he doesn't mind Gabriel's chatter. His companion has joined the bird watchers, who left at 5:30am to search for some rare species in a far-off place. The Germans and the Canadians go off with the macho guide for a longer canoe excursion, while the photographers travel to a nearby settlement for pictures and to taste 'chicha'. Tomas would have liked to go with the Spaniards, but he doesn't find out about their trip until supper the next day. We return around 10:30am after a 7:30am departure, and have a long time to relax before lunch.
Meals are incredibly delicious and I clean my plate. Afterwards I notice that Tomas is eating only the insides of one of the tomato-like things and I ask if we are supposed to leave the skins (they were rather tough to get down, but I had seen Tomas cut up one for Gabriel without peeling it and assumed everything was edible.) The guide tells us that the tomato-things are decorations and not part of the meal. Fortunately, Gabriel doesn't finish his lunch and the red thing is left untouched on his plate.
In the afternoon we go for a combined hike/canoe trip, and at last see some monkeys (black-mantle tamarins and squirrel monkeys). They are too far off for pictures, but we are delighted anyway.
At supper that evening, Gabriel is bitten by something on the ear. I see him wince and cry out, but he soon falls asleep and we forget about it. I retire with our sleeping child, foregoing a second shower, while Tomas stays up late socializing at the bar. In the middle of the night, Gabriel wakes up screaming. He is burning with fever and drenched with sweat. It is too dark in our cabin to fiddle with the thermometer (I had neglected to pack a flashlight), but I give him a dose of baby tylenol and a cup of juice we had saved from the last meal.
A few hours later, I am vomiting violently into the toilet. I guess the red things didn't agree with me. It is not too bad at first, but soon I am running to the bathroom about every 45 minutes. Everything is gone from my stomach but the dry heaves continue. My mouth gets parched, but I can't even keep down the carbonated water that comes with our cabin. I look forward to dawn when we can buy plain water at the bar.
Gabriel sleeps for about 2 hours at a time and I give him more Tylenol each time he wakes. He complains of a 'big ow' in his ear, but we can't see anything by the kerosene lantern, and couldn't have done anything about it even if we did.
DEC 13th: LA SELVA JUNGLE LODGE
It has rained all night, and continues to rain in the morning. I am still throwing up everything, but try to eat anyway. There is no doctor, and no medicine beside what we brought ourselves. Because of the preganacy I'm not supposed to take medicine anyway, so this doesn't bother me, and in one of our half-dozen bags I have a whole medicine chest of things for Gabriel. We decide to skip the morning hike and sleep until lunch. I am very thankful that our sicknesses coincided with the rain, so we don't miss much.
After lunch, which I lose as well, we go for a short canoe trip to another trail through more open forest. I enjoy the hike, but am too weak to travel far. Gabriel's fever is kept in check with the tylenol and he has a good time, carried most of the way in his father's arms. On the way back we fish for pirannas but don't catch anything.
That night I go out with the ecologist to look for caiman. Gabriel has fallen asleep at supper again, and Tomas doesn't think we should wake him up for the moonlight trip so they stay behind. We don't get a very close look at the caiman, but only see their red eyes reflecting the flashlight. The real highlight of the evening are the bats, dozens of them, who fly very close. Our guide catches moths and throws them into the water to entice the bats to swoop down right beside us. I am delighted, and wish that Gabriel could have seen this too.
DEC 14th: LA SELVA JUNGLE LODGE
It is our last full day at La Selva. The German woman is in a funk at breakfast because ants invaded her bungalow overnight and covered everythingthe shower, the sink, the clothes, them in their beds. The guides apologize but explain that there is really nothing to be done but wait for the ants to leave. The cabins are painted every day with a petroleum solution to discourage bugs, but sometimes they are attracted (by food or crumbs or some other scent) anyway.
This morning, we travel on the Napo river to see parakeets feeding at a salt lick, then hike for a few hours to a much smaller stream with many overhanging trees. This is the best place to see howler monkeys, they say, and we keep our eyes peeled while trying to keep Gabriel quiet. At last the child falls asleep, and within minutes I hear our native guide whisper: 'Howlers, in the trees over there'. We all strain to see them. I am distracted by capuchin monkeys leaping across the stream in front of us, and by a pack of squirrel monkeys in the trees closer by. 'Which ones are the howlers?' I ask. 'The skinny red ones'. 'Where?'. 'Over there'. Everybody sees the howlers but me. And then they are gone. The squirrel monkeys are leaping right over our heads. The ecologist gets some great pictures, but Tomas is holding Gabriel and I am too entranced with the binoculars to think about using our camera. We are all thrilled with the monkeys and agree that this was the best excursion ever.
That afternoon we go for another canoe trip around the lake, and fish again for pirannas. I have slightly better luck this time: one eats my bait but avoids the hook. We hear howlers, but can't see them.
Supper is delicious as always, and at last I am able to eat and keep the food down. The bird-watchers gather in the lounge to consult their books and trade stories about everything they've seen. I love listening to them; many have travelled all over the world. They all agree that La Selva is one of the best places for birds- there are over 400 species around this one lakeand many of the guys are sad to have to leave so soon. John, the ecologist, has caught two pirannas and we are given one to taste at supper. It is delicately flavored, but with many small bones. Later, someone in the kitchen cleans and removes the skull with jawbone and we pack it carefully in one of Gabriel's lidded sippy cups to take home.
DEC 15th: LA SELVA -> ANDEAN HIGHLANDS
Wake-up is at 5:00am today, and I rise at 4:30am for my daily cold shower, to which I am actually beginning to get accustomed. Tomas bathes a little more quickly, but we spare Gabriel the trauma as he had gotten a bath the afternoon before in a large tub of water set out to heat in the sun. After a quick cup of coffee we are all in canoes for departure by 5:30.
The return trip upriver takes much longer, as we are fighting the current. They serve hot meat pies, juice and several kinds of fruit enroute. It takes 3 1/2 hours to reach Coca, and we wait another 45 mintues or so for our plane to arrive. I enjoy watching the people; there is a young girl with her mother, sister, and a small baby. Her face shines as she proudly nurses the child. She has a small pet bird that nibbles on her earring. One of the Spanish photographers engages her in conversation and takes a few pictures.
We arrive in Quito at 12:05, and Tomas hurries off to the TAME office to purchase our plane tickets to the Galapagos while I retrieve the baggage. The counter is staffed, but the ladies tell him that he must return at 1:15pm because it is their lunch break. Tomas goes to get the rental car that I had reserved from the U.S., but doesn't carry the comfirmation number. Much later he returns, to find Gabriel and I locked up in the empty baggage claim area. We are freed by a guard after a moderate delay, and Tomas tells me that they had no record of our reservation, but were able to give us a mid-size car for $44/day. At first I object, saying that we were supposed to pay only $40, but this was for a 2-door compact, and Tomas likes the bigger car and wants to get going. We retrieve our carseat from the airport hotel after another moderate delay (the guy with the keys to the baggage room was off at lunch), and Tomas returns to the TAME office only to be told that for student tickets we had to use another office, in town.
We don't mind the trip downtown, because we need to get a replacement battery for our video camera which went on the blink during our last day at La Selva. Gabriel and I wait in the car while Tomas runs into the TAME office. He's gone for almost an hour, and returns saying that I can't get the student discount because they want my school ID; the international student card that I had gone through so much trouble to obtain was no longer being accepted because of too many problems with fraud. We go to yet another TAME office to get fullpriced tickets, which takes another 45 minutes because we want to pay with credit card rather than cash.
After a long search, we stumble upon a SONY camera store, and try replacing the battery. Something else is wrong with the camera, because it still doesn't work. The salesman thinks it is a faulty microchip for the videocontroller and says he can try to have it fixed by 7pm the next day. We leave the camera and head out of town, to Otavalo. It is 6:00pm and nearly sundown.
The roads are twisty and steep, the fog is thick, and it is raining. In the dark, we discover that one of our headlights is mis-aimed and shining too high- a bother to other drivers and to us as well in the thick fog. Tomas is tense and irritable about the late departure, and Gabriel picks up on this and starts crying and screaming. He is in the front seat, since there are no seatbelts in back, and I can't see his face but try to calm him with story after story, previously memorized from his book collection for use in just such an occasion. After what seems like the fourteenth recital of 'the Cat in the Hat', Gabriel nods off. The roads flatten out, and I try from the crude map in our guide book to direct us to Otavalo. There are many forks in the road and no signs. At last we get near, and ask a taxidriver for directions to the Hacienda Cusin. We don't have reservations, but hope to find a room free on this non-market weeknight.
As is the case everywhere south of the U.S. border, the hacienda is surrounded by high walls. The large wooden doors are shut and no one answers the bell. We hear dogs barking inside. Tomas tries a smaller door and finds it unlocked. It's pitch black, and the dogs inside are German shepards. Tomas sizes them up and decides that they won't hurt him. He walks in to look for someone to ask about a room. I am happy to wait in the car with Gabriel. After what seems like an eternity, I see two figures through the crack in the door and know that we have been lucky again. The wooden doors open and I drive inside.
We are shown to a small room with a double bed and fireplace, apart from the main complex in case Gabriel is noisy at night. We are just in time for delicious dessert and coffee in the large, elegantly decorated dining hall. The whole place is filled with antiques and there is a huge fire blazing. Gabriel gets a steaming cup of creamy chocolate milk. There are candles at our table, and that night we build a fire in our room. Gabriel is enchanted, and we are too.
DEC 16th: ANDEAN HIGHLANDS
We drive into town, to visit what's left of the market on this nonmarket day and to exchange some more money. I enjoy the views along the road, and the people-watching in town. Our main camera, the Canon, starts acting up and we discover that the battery we had replaced just last summer has rusted inside and can't be scraped clean. We are thankful to have the Minolta point-and-shoot, a Christmas gift from my parents that arrived at the post office on the morning of my departure. We buy a couple of gorgeous cotton poet shirts for Tomas, and a colorful woven pullover for Gabriel. I want to get a wall-hanging, but don't find anything of really high quality.
In the afternoon, we arrange to go horseback riding. Gabriel had seen the horses in the grassy part of the hacienda's courtyard and is delighted to find out that we would ride them. The hacienda manager is reluctant about the excursion at first, but as Tomas is a Mexican and Mexicans are known for bending the rules and for accepting full responsibility if anything goes wrong, he relents at last and lets us go. As the pregnant lady, I am given the best mount, a wonderful black horse that obeys all signals and loves to canter. Tomas and Gabriel ride together on a more gentle brown horse, and the guide rides a white horse with blue eyes. We are accompanied by a single woman, with whom we had shared breakfast that morning. The ride is gorgoeus. The mountain scenery is spectacular. We play for a while in a large pasture, where I lend my black to Karen for some exhilirating fast riding and Gabriel gets to look over the fence at grazing llamas. All too soon it starts to rain and we head back for a warm meal.
The drive back to Quito is much more pleasant than our trip out; it's daylight, the roads are clear, and we are giving a lift to Karen. On the way in to town we stop to pick up our video camera. It has been fixed, and we use most of our remaining sucres to pay the bill. Traffic downtown is miserable, our flight to the Galapagos leaves early the next morning, and after dropping Karen at her hotel we have only 25 minutes to find a replacement battery for the Canon. Gabriel once again picks up on the tension and howls non-stop so loudly that it is hard to think straight. At 6:50 we find a camera store that carries what we need, and we verify that with a new battery the camera works fine. We then drive to Hostal Los Alpes for another delicious meal and the three of us sleep soundly for the night in a king-sized bed.
DEC 17th: GALAPAGOS- PUERTO AYORA
After returning the car, we wait at the airport for our flight to the Galapagos. It takes about 45 minutes to get to Cuenca, and then after a quick change of planes we are off to the Islands, the long-awaited highlight of our trip. We take a half-dozen pictures upon arrival, then pass through customs and pay our $200 national park entrance fee. I am suprised to find out that they accept cash only (no traveler's checks), but fortunately Tomas- who for some reason is used to this sort of thing- has enough extra dollars stowed away to cover it.
We are met at the airport by a representative from Galapagos Cruises, who helps us onto a small bus for the short dusty ride to a ferry off Baltra. It was then onto another, even smaller bus for the longer ride to Puerto Ayora. They had miscounted passengers and were three seats short; with the low roof there was no chance of standing. I am last on, but Tomas yields his seat. After about 15 minutes we decide to put Gabriel in his car seat on our laps and he falls asleep. I am lucky and sit next to the window; just as the guide starts talking about birds I see a vermillion fly-catcher in a tall tree beside the road. I try to tell the others, but no one can hear my voice over the engines, and few people could see that far out the windows anyway.
At last the ride is over and we are transferred by dinghy to our luxury yacht the Isabella II. Because we have the child, (for whom we had to pay an additional 50%), we are given a triple cabin complete with a double bed. I am in ecstasy. We have another delicious, multi-course meal with hot soup, lots of fruit, meat and vegetables, and dessert, and then disembark for an excursion to the Darwin research station and a chance to see the large tortoises up close. Another group of passengers, who had begun the cruise several days earlier, were already onshore, visiting the central highlands of the island.
Within minutes I spot several finches and a yellow warbler, and am captivated by the marine iguanas. We take far too many pictures of the first creatures we see, and the guide has to hurry us along so that we would have enough time to enjoy the turtles. Tomas gets to hear the story of the evolution of the different tortoise species, a history of their exploitation and of the subsequent efforts to save the few remaining animals while I keep an eye on Gabriel who is entranced with throwing pebbles outside. The highlight of the day is a visit to the largest galapagos turtles in a large enclosure, where the guide feeds banana leaves to one very large individual and we all take dozens of pictures of this enormous creature. Then it is time to go back to the boat for a welcome cocktail and supper and a chance to get to know the other people on board.
The Isaballa is a beautiful ship, with a comfortable bar/lounge, elegant dining room, sunroof with exercise equipment and a jacuzzi, small store, and plenty of room to run around.
There are a total of 38 passengers, and we are divided into three groups: the 'Boobies' consist of everybody who was on the 8-day itinerary (about 18 people, including a Puerto Rican couple with two children, a girl of 13 and a boy about 15, an American couple with two boys, about 12 and 14, a British couple with a 13 year old son, an Ecuadorian-American couple with a 6 year old girl, an American couple with no kids, and a New York lawyer and his wife who mostly kept to themselves), the 'Cormorants' are a group of about 10 Japanese, including three high-school aged girls, who had been living in Chile for the past three years and served as translator from Spanish to Japanese for the rest of their group, and the 'Albatrosses' -the rest of us- a Yugoslavian couple and their two children- an 11 year old girl and a 17 year old boy, two childless American couples, one our age and one quite a bit younger who were working in Quito for the year, and us, a 30-something Mexican-American couple with a toddler just about to turn two years old. We are delighted that there are so many children, and are happy to find that the average age of the adults is pretty much our own. (At the end of the trip, the captain commented that this group had been one of the most enjoyable he'd seen, and I'm sure it had a lot to do with the enthusiasm of the kids, which was really infectious.)
DEC 18th: GALAPAGOS- TOWER ISLAND
Overnight we sail from Puerto Ayora north to Tower Island, where we we will be spending this whole day. Tower is a fair distance from the main islands of the archipelago and we feel fortunate to be able to visit it. Wake-up call is at 7:00am, and after a delicious hot breakfast we break up into groups and depart for shore. Many dozens of juvenile red-footed boobies perch at evenly-spaced intervals along the wires of the ship, and we can see a sea lion waiting to greet us on the beach. On shore, we pass a newborn sea lion pup, nestling against its mother, with the umbilical cord still attached. There are many frigate birds here, but their mating season has passed so we do not get to see any inflated red pouches. We do get to see quite a few juvenile frigate birds resting in their nests. I am amazed at the docility of all of the birds; they are truly unafraid and one can approach quite close. We have been lectured on the absolute necessity to avoid touching, feeding, or in any way interacting with the wildlife on any of the islands, and on the importance of not straying from the narrow designated path for any reason; I can see that this policy has paid off.
Everywhere we look we see more birds; there must be hundreds living on this tiny island. Immediately we see a cactus finch, one of the 20 or so finch species on the islands from whose variations Darwin got his ideas on evolution. I keep my eyes open and am lucky enough to spot an adult white-feathered red-footed boobie. (The majority (90%?) of the red-footed boobies have brown feathers, and are attractive enough with their red feet and blue beaks, but the white ones are truly stunning.) We also see a good number of masked boobies and endemic (found only in the Galapagos) swallow-tailed gulls.
On our short walk near the beach we pass several small tidal pools, and the guide points out yellow-crowned night heron and lava heron. I am busy taking pictures and miss seeing a lava gull; I am later told that they are fairly hard to spot and vow to find another one before the end of the day.
Later in the morning, our group subdivides and the majority, including Tomas, go off to some nearby cliffs to snorkel. I remain at the beach with Gabriel, where we learn the consequences of misapplying sun goo. In just under an hour, Gabriel gets a terrible burn on the 5mm of skin under his eyes where we have forgotten to rub the cream, and I discover that in my haste to leave I have applied the goo outwards from my torso only down to my elbows and knees. The snorkellers return to the main ship, and another panga is sent to pick us up from the beach. Tomas comes out with this panga to meet us. He is a little disappointed that while nearly everyone in the snorkelling group got to see hammerhead sharks, he missed them. His luck changes quickly- we pass close by two mating sea turtles on our way to the main ship.
After lunch and a brief siesta, we travel by panga along another part of the coastline, where we see the long-tailed tropic birds and some Galapagos fur seals. I am very excitied to spot a blue-footed booby on the cliffs. This turns out to be one of only two sightings we 5-day cruisers get of this famous bird, which is common on several of the islands visited on the 8-day itinerary. The boat sidles up to the rocky shore and we jump off onto a steep path that overlooks the cliffs. The guide says that we are looking for the short-eared owl, which frequents this part of the island but is only seen on about 10% of these trips. I scan the horizon and see many storm petrels but no owls. The guide says that they like to hide in crevices during the day, and we check many crevices beside the path without any luck. Then, using my binoculars, I spy what I think must be an owl about 100 yards away. I point it out to the guide, who can't see it with the naked eye (no one can) and then pass the binoculars around so that everyone can have a look. On the way back, the Japanese group (who have people with even more powerful binoculars) points out two more owls, much farther away. Before returning to the boat I finally spot a lava gull, and a Galapagos dove.
Dinner is another lavish feast. Gabriel falls asleep after just a few bites and we linger for a long time at the table talking with the other passengers. I retire to the cabin with the child, and Tomas moves on to the bar for another hour or so of conversation.
DEC 19th: (GABRIEL'S BIRTHDAY) GALAPAGOS- FERNANDINA & ISABELLA
Gabriel turns two years old this morning. I have planned ahead and packed a boxed cake ('chocolate decadence' from our local gourmet shop) along with a '2' candle and a half dozen small presents. We decide to have his birthday celebration in the dining room at the end of lunch, as he will most likey fall asleep before we are done with supper. Tomas makes arrangements with the kitchen crew to have someone bring the cake out to the children's table, and we start our day.
The first excursion is a rather hot and dusty 4km hike to an overlook on the island of Fernandina, where we get a nice view of the ocean and a landlocked salt-water lake which is unfortunately devoid of wildlife. I spot several different types of finches, but no one is able to identify them for me. We have a very rough time with the 'dry' landing, and several people get wet up to their thighs; the rocks are slippery and on the way back one of the passengers in the 'Booby' group falls into the ocean while trying to reboard the panga which is being tossed around by large waves. We all discuss what steps should be taken to minimize any lasting damage to his camera and lenses. I am glad that we have brought a special life jacket for Gabriel; it was a real hassle to find and took up far too much space in our suitcases, but it gives us a very necessary measure of extra security.
We then head out for a panga excursion along the rocky coast to look for Galapagos penguins and flightless cormorants. The boat is lurching wildly and the sky is very dark but I manage to get some wonderful pictures of the penguins both on the rocks and in the ocean with the 200 zoom lens by using a shutter speed of 500 with 4.0 aperture. We pass several of the flightless cormorants, along with a number of brown pelicans and various other birds like the ruddy turnstone, and the brown noddy who live in sea caves.
Lunch today is a special Ecuadorian feast with roast pig and other regional specialties. The younger children have staked out a table at the far end of the dining hall, and this is where we bring Gabriel as soon as we've finished with the main meal. Everyone sings 'Happy Birthday' as they bring out our small cake, which they've decorated with marischino cherries. Luckily it is very rich and we are able to cut it into enough pieces for each of the 12 or so kids under 18 and ourselves. I have brought two of his presents (the coloring book and crayons) for him to open at the table; he opens the rest back in our cabin afterwards. This is actually the second birthday celebration of the trip- one of the girls turned 13 on the second day of the 8-day itinerary, a day before those of us on the 5-day cruise joined the boat. After lunch Tomas and Gabriel play in the jacuzzi. It looks like fun, but is forbidden to me because of the fetus.
The afternoon excursion is a highlight for many people. On Isabella, we are greeted by so many marine iguanas that they seem to form a lava flow. You actually have to watch carefully to not step on any. They are wonderful creatures to see; they look like miniature dragons and they spit salt water. Our group is very lucky and spots a galapagos snake in the sand under a tree. At first we think it is burrowing under the sand out of shyness, but we soon discover that it is hunting a small lava lizard who has hidden nearby. The snake strikes quickly, but the lava lizard is quicker still and escapes with his life. The guide says that this is the first time he's been able to see this snake hunting; apparently they spend most of their time hiding and are not often seen. Around the tidal pools we see more birds; the guide points out some wandering tattlers and we get to see an American oystercatcher devour a crab in its unique 'legs-first' manner. I get a very close look at another beautiful Galapagos dove as we return through a wooded area to our panga.
DEC 20th: GALAPAGOS- JAMES & BARTOLOME
This is our last full day in the islands, and we can't belive that the trip will be over so soon. There is so much new to see on every island, and we would have loved to stay for another two weeks.
Our early morning excursion takes us along the shore of James Island, past the tidal pools where baby sea lions are being born. We don't get to see an actual birth but there are many newborn pups. Our guide says that this is a good place to watch for Galapagos hawks, who like to eat the sea lion placentas. I have read that there are only about 100 pair in existence, but on this one day we see five or six including a juvenile. I get a wonderful picture of one hawk who has perched beside the ocean; he seems to be waiting for a specific placenta and lets us get quite close. The scenery is simply stunning with black lava rocks, clear blue ocean, and hundreds of bright orange crabs. Other birds I identify for the first time today include the large-billed flycatcher (a rather plain-looking small brown bird with puffy feathers on its head), sanderlings, and a great blue heron. We see more fur seals, and have the opportunity to photograph yellow warblers against the black rocks.
After lunch Tomas and Gabriel opt to continue their siesta while I join the other passengers for a very steep walk up to an overlook on Bartolome. There is absolutely no wildlife to be seen, and very little plant life besides a few scrubby white things and an isolated cactus or two. Apparently this is one of the places that have been devestated by the feral goats brought over by early settlers. Efforts have gone on for quite a while to eradicate the goats along with wild donkeys and other formerly domestic species that have wreaked so much destruction on the larger islands, but it is a difficult task.
We have one last opportunity to snorkel. Tomas and Gabriel play on the beach while I swim with sea lions, sea turtles and penguins. It's very exciting, and the animals will get quite close and then swirl around and underneath you. I am startled by a penguin that appears out of nowhere just a few inches from my mask and swallow a large mouthful of water. We follow a large turtle for many minutes; its movements are very graceful and I would love to get a picture but have forgotten our underwater camera on the boat. Returning to shore, one of the other snorkellers tries to show me a 4-foot long white-tipped shark, but I am too slow. Five other people have already seen it, but like Tomas I miss my shark-viewing opportunity.
All too soon the day is over and we return to our ship. We join the other passengers for a farewell cocktail and another superb meal. I retire early to pack, as we must be out of our cabins by 8:30 the next morning.
DEC 21st: QUITO
We disembark at Baltra and after puchasing some matching mother-son Galapagos T-shirts at the airport we depart for the mainland. With the time change, traffic and other delays it is nearly 6pm by the time we get checked in to the Quito Hotel. I very much want to shop for some nice artwork to remember the trip by (our house is full of things from all of the places we've travelled to, and I don't want South America to be unrepresented). We have time to visit only one place, and purchase a Salasacan tapestry for the livingroom. This part of Quito is very nice, and we walk to a nearby restaurant for dinner. Gabriel falls asleep as we return to the hotel.
DEC 22nd: MEXICO CITY
Our flight to Miami leaves early the next morning, and we are fortunate to be flying business class. Gabriel gets his own seat, and his own meal of shrimp with pasta followed by a hot fudge sundae. It is my first time in firstclass for a long international flight and I am impressed that they give us a bag of tiny gifts (toothbrush/toothpaste, ear plugs, socks...) and a small box of Godiva chocolates. The Yugoslavian family from our cruise is also on this flight and they are also flying first-class. This is great for us, because Gabriel and their little girl play for about an hour together, giving Tomas and I a very welcome break. We change planes in Miami and use the last of our soon-to-expire upgrade stickers to standby for first-class on the Miami-Mexico flight as well. We arrive around 4pm and take a taxi to my in-law's place in the hills above the city, where we will be staying for the next 8 days before returning home to Chapel Hill, NC.
The Rec.Travel Library
More on South America
More on Ecuador