January 23, 2017 – Off to the Galapagos…

Standard

Though our time in Quito was short, it was easy to see that this is a wonderful and vibrant city and one that I would come back to visit in a heartbeat. I am sure that other South American cities sitting high in the Andes are also worthy of exploring, but Quito will now have a special place in my memory as being the first and hopefully not the last. As we descended south out of the city on the windy two-lane road that serves as the main artery for those not willing to pay the toll for the huge multi-lane highway and tunnel leaving the city (clearly our taxi driver) we look back up at the steep slope towards Quito sitting high in its long valley between majestic peaks. The many high-rise apartment buildings sit seemingly perilously on the precipice with their amazing views south towards Cotopaxi, yet clearly vulnerable to earthquakes and mudslides. It is clear that this city, with its centuries of tradition, lives on the edge, both literally and figuratively. I will do my best to return and explore again.

Isla Baltra in the foreground and Isla Santa Cruz with its distant highlands

Isla Baltra in the foreground and Isla Santa Cruz with its distant highlands

The airport at Quito serves as one of two gateways to the Galapagos (Guayaquil, on the coast, being the other) and as you enter it is clear that our destination is on many a bucket list. As we begin the process of embarking, everything must go through a scanner and our bags are secured when they hand them back to you so nothing is left up to chance and nothing can be brought to the islands that shouldn’t be there. The flight out of Quito is spectacular as it ascends over the Andes on its way to the coast in a very short time and then it’s all Pacific Ocean until we begin the descent to our destination. The islands are like incredible jewels laid randomly on a dark blue fabric. Luckily, the flight begins to bank in my direction and continues to slowly spiral dropping altitude directly over the island of Santa Cruz, where we’ll be staying, and Baltra, an adjacent smaller island with its airport. The views are amazing and I’m certain I can see schools of dolphin or at least something large, though perhaps they are only whitecaps playing games with my eyes.

A sleeping sea lion on the municipal dock at night

A sleeping sea lion on the municipal dock at night

After going through the Galapagos Park entrance (a bit complicated since we somehow didn’t pay our “emigration” fee of $20 from Quito – not quite sure how that makes sense given they’re the same country) where we had to pay another $100 as the park fee, we found our bags. We had carried them on all the way to Quito, but the “luggage police” finally caught up with us there and we had to relinquish as the woman seemed quite stern and posed a formidable adversary given that neither of us spoke fluent Spanish. Thankfully, there were no issues and we soon found our taxi driver, Marco, who would bring us to Puerto Ayora, the port town on Santa Cruz and everyone’s destination who can’t afford to stay at the Royal Palm (for movie stars only according to Marco) and are planning to do a land based tour. The two ways to see the Galapagos are on a cruise where you visit a number of islands and sleep and eat aboard boat, or the land based tour, where you typically stay on one island and take day cruises to some of the other islands that are close by. The benefit of the cruise is that you sail between islands at night and don’t waste any daylight having to travel between the islands. The downside is that they are very costly. Kathy and I had planned for the less costly option and planned to do a land based tour in Puerto Ayora while visiting the islands of Bartolome and North Seymour. I had also planned to do one day of scuba diving while here as I didn’t want to miss that experience given where we were.

The harbor at Puerto Ayora

The harbor at Puerto Ayora

We found an amazing place to stay on AirBnB called Encantada Blue. This little two-story house has upstairs and downstairs apartments for rent and sits adjacent to the trail to Tortuga Beach, a very popular and beautifully beach just outside of town. Aura, who owns Encantada and works as a naturalist on one of the cruise boats met us to show us around. It has everything we need and will serve well as our base while here in Puerto Ayora and as we explore the Galapagos and the island of Santa Cruz.

img_0965

The fish market, Puerto Ayora, Isla Santa Cruz

After cleaning up we went on to explore town and to arrange for our day cruises and my diving. It takes literally 20 minutes or less to walk across town which we managed to do several times while making our travel arrangements. The main drag that follows the curve of the port in town is called Avenida Charles Darwin and runs past the municipal pier, where one picks up water taxis to cross the harbor to finch bay, and the fish market, where fisherman bring in their freshly caught fish to sell to people waiting in line. Brown pelicans surround the market along with a lone sea lion sitting at everyone’s feet waiting for a tasty snack. It was a true island sight.

Two three-foot sharks patrolling under the pier at night

Two three-foot sharks patrolling under the pier at night

After we had taken care of all of our business including a stop at the grocery store for supplies, we headed out for dinner. We had recommendations from Aura and our friend, Diego, in Quito, and both had highly recommended Lo y Lo, a local’s seafood restaurant serving Ecuadorian cuisine. I had a special dish of fish in a spicy sauce also using coconut milk and Kathy had an amazing octopus (pulpo in Spanish) dish. We sat outside on the street and totally enjoyed our incredible meal in the warm island sea air while making plans to the following day which was our only full free day on the island. It was a mere two block walk back to home and we slept with thoughts of Tortuga Beach where we’d be heading in the morning.

Dining a Lo y Lo on the street

Dining a Lo y Lo on the street

January 22, 2017 – Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve

Standard

We had decided to head out of town early for our second day in Quito and Diego had suggested either visiting a nearby rainforest or crater lake, both of which offered some good hiking. Since we were heading to the Galapagos, with all its volcanic landscape, we decided to opt for something a bit different and chose the rainforest.

Cotopaxi from our hotel

Cotopaxi from our hotel

A Close-up of Cotopaxi

A Close-up of Cotopaxi

After a small breakfast of granola, yoghurt and coffee, Diego met us at the hotel and we were on our way heading north through Quito. Our hotel was on the south end of town and Quito is a sprawling city that extends some 40 kilometers in a north-south direction. It is nestled between the tall mountains of the Andes being bordered on both sides by mountains at least twelve to fifteen-thousand feet high and some of the taller ones that exceed fifteen-thousand are snow capped. As we woke up this morning and looked out our window, it turned out to be a beautifully clear and sunny day which was a blessing as the original forecast had been for rain both days. Best of all, Cotopaxi, the nearly twenty-thousand foot-high volcano that has been spewing smoke for the last year or so, was clearly visible to the south of town.

A scenic view of Pululahua Biobotanical Reserve

A scenic view of Pululahua Biobotanical Reserve

Another scenic view

Another scenic view

It was a Sunday morning and so the traffic was light as we drove north through Quito and it was a bright sunny day. Though we were under an equatorial sun, the temperature wasn’t very high as we’re at nine-thousand feet. Still, you could feel the warmth of the radiant heat and between the sun and the altitude, you have to make sure you don’t burn. We learned this on our climb up Kilimanjaro over a year ago. What we didn’t realize today was that our drive was going to take us through some of the most amazing scenery as we traversed the Pululahua Geobotanic Reserve on our way to our destination. The road was very windy and hugged the mountain sides as we continually ascended and descended the terrain on way deeper into the mountains. The views were tremendous and the lush vegetation was as dense as one can imagine aside from the haphazard cultivated fields on the slopes of the mountains that were somehow were managed to be maintained. Here and there, one would see a small dwelling associated with the fields, but how the inhabitants managed to get to and from them was a mystery to me.

A family out in Nanegalito

A family out in Nanegalito

A view in Nanegalito

A view in Nanegalito

We eventually came to the small village of Nanegalito and as it was a Sunday morning, lots of local residents were out walking in town and visiting the small shops. We stopped for a bit as Diego needed to call into work for some troubleshooting, but this gave us time to explore a little and take in the local scenery. The town was surrounded by taller peaks and again in the distance we could see a few snow covered ones that announced their awesome heights.

A view from the trail in Bellavista

A view from the trail in Bellavista

Back on the road again, Diego turned off the main route shortly after leaving Nanegalito and we were now ascending a small dirt road traveling higher and higher up into hillsides thickly covered with vegetation, all the time looking across magnificent vistas with deep ravines and very steep slopes. Along the way we saw hikers, each with binoculars who were clearly bird watching, giving us some inkling as to the true nature of the region we were now in. We eventually came upon our destination, Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve Resort. This is totally eco friendly place with buildings erected partially out of local bamboo and a number of unique rooms all with different views of this rain forest in the clouds. As we exited the car and walked up to the office, we immediately noticed there were numerous hummingbird feeders and, more importantly, dozens and dozens of hummingbirds all flying around to the different feeders. And there were perhaps a dozen different species each paying attention only to their own brethren as if the others were totally foreign to them despite looking so similar to us.

Jeff and Kathy along the trail in the forest

Jeff and Kathy along the trail in the forest

A Bird of Paradise

A Bird of Paradise

We decided to take a short hike before lunch on one of the many trails that traversed this rain forest in the clouds and along the way, Jeff, who has a penchant for orchids, began searching for these unique plants that are native to this region. There were streams and small waterfalls along the trail which was often quite wet and slippery, but we continued upward until we reached the road we came in on and where we had seen the bird watching hikers earlier. As I was checking our coordinates on my gps, I found that we were almost smack on the equator, off by only slightly more than one minute of latitude. We descended another trail based on our maps that had been supplied and slowly made our way now descending the slippery trail, all the while making sure we didn’t get lost. At one point, Diego, Kathy and I stood looking at our map to determine we were on the right trail back to the lodge when Jeff walked up to the three of us and asked if we were going to follow the bright yellow sign pointing back to the lodge that was right behind the three of us and which we had completely missed. It was an incredibly comical moment and only goes to show that being observant to your surroundings is as important as how to read a map.

Jeff climbing steps on the trail

Jeff climbing steps on the trail

A large hanging succulent

A large hanging succulent

We made it back safely to the lodge and all sat down for lunch in the circular restaurant that overlooked the rain forest. We had a wonderful homemade soup and local fist with salad that was all delicious as was the tiramisu that was served for dessert. We walked around the lodge a bit more as I took some more hummingbird photos and then we all loaded back in the car for the trip back to Quito. This destination was one of the most breathtaking places that I have been and that includes my African travels. If you are a bird watcher, I can’t imagine a better place.

A view from the trail

A view from the trail

Hummingbirds on a feeder

Hummingbirds on a feeder

One of the many hummingbirds feeding

One of the many hummingbirds feeding

The drive back was equally as beautiful, though I will have to admit that I dozed for a bit after our wonderful hike and lovely lunch. As we excited the thickly covered mountains of the reserve and dropped back into the valley with Quito in the distance, we came upon Mitad del Mundo, or Middle of the World, where a monument exists celebrating the location where a French explorer calculated the equator to be in 1736. He was actually about 240 m off in his calculations, but regardless, there is a yellow stripe representing the equator so you can walk with one foot in each hemisphere. We made a brief stop here and went to the top of the monument for the view.

Mitad del Mundo from atop the monument

Mitad del Mundo from atop the monument

As we drove back into town, there was unfortunately cloud cover in the distance covering up Cotopaxi, but at least we had seen it in the morning. It is approximately the same height as Kilimanjaro, but exists on a continent with many twenty-thousand plus foot high mountains where Kili is the highest on its continent. We said our farewells to Diego, who was an incredible host to us, and decided to relax before heading out to dinner. Tonight was an Ecuadorian sushi restaurant which may sound a bit funny, but given he fresh seafood around here, it was another amazing culinary experience. Tomorrow we awaken early to get to the airport for our trip to the Galapagos and the next part of our wonderful journey.

January 21, 2017 – Quito, Ecuador, High in the Andes….

Standard

Our journey to the Galapagos first took us to Quito, Ecuador, which is nestled high in the Andes and is the highest official capital city in the world at 9,350 ft. (La Paz, Bolivia, is higher, but is not the official capital as Sucre is the constitutional capital). Regardless of whether it is La Paz or Quito, the city is quite high and you can certainly feel the altitude coming from sea level. We arrived around noon into the airport south of town and were immediately picked up by my brother and Diego, his co-worker here who had graciously offered to spend the weekend showing us the city. Diego is native Ecuadorian and grew up in a region several hours south of Quito, but has lived in the city for a number of years. My brother has been traveling to Quito over the last two years as his company is working with the government here in developing their oil fields. It was truly lucky that he was able to arrange a business trip here to meet us.

Old City Square, Quito

Old City Square, Quito

We hadn’t gotten much sleep on the flights down, but it was off to the old city of Quito as soon as we checked in at the hotel and freshened up. Quito is an amazingly old city having been founded by the Spanish in 1534, and is a Unesco World Heritage site as it is the best preserved of all the Latin American Cities despite several large earthquakes in its history. Before the Spanish built up the city in the sixteenth century, it had been the northern capital of the Inca Empire for over a century and was burned to the ground by one of the Incan generals so the Spanish couldn’t have it. The old city is centered around the town square and there are many old churches within a several block radius. We had lunch under one of the churches in a wonderful restaurant that served local dishes such as a hearty potato chowder with cheese and avocado.

Our lunch restaurant

Our lunch restaurant

A street scene in Old City

A street scene in Old City

After walking through old city in a light rain, we decided to head up to TelériQo which is the tram that heads up from town on the side of Pichincha Volcano to an altitude of 4100 m (13,451 ft.) at the top of the tram. We walked around to see all of the sights, but the city was socked in the clouds as you can see from the photo. Unfortunately, Vulcan Cotopaxi, at 19,347 ft. was in the clouds as well and not visible to us. The views were still breathtaking and it will have to wait for our return to see them as we had other plans for the following day.

Diego and Jeff on the tram

Diego and Jeff on the tram

Looking down on Quito through the clouds

Looking down on Quito through the clouds

After a trip to one of the local malls to get a sim card for my phone, Diego dropped us off at our hotel and since we had such a late lunch, we decided to relax for a few hours and head out for a late dinner. We went down the street to a local seafood restaurant where we ordered a ceviche appetizer tray for the three of us and a single mixed seafood entree that had a mix of shrimp, prawns, octopus and fish. The dishes were amazing and just the right amount of food for us. The seafood here is amazingly fresh and the ceviche is to die for! We had a nice bottle of Ecuadorian cabernet along with our dinner and by the time we got home we were all ready to hit the sack after our long travel from the States. Our first day in Quito had been incredibly full of adventure given that it was really only half a day and we still had tomorrow here to look forward to.

Mike, Kathy and Jeff high above the clouds and Quito

Mike, Kathy and Jeff high above the clouds and Quito

January 21, 2017 – And Now For Another Continent…

Standard

It is in those quiet moments that we often realize that common thread we each use to weave our life’s story.

Such was the case when Kathy and I sat down to explore our options for a meaningful trip to take this winter as she had a free week between semesters at her studio and I am never one to turn down the opportunity to travel. We had eventually settled on the idea of traveling to the Galapagos, a magical destination that had probably been on my bucket list, if not Kathy’s, since before I knew what a bucket list was. As I have expounded on in earlier blogs, it is the love of science, and in particular, the natural sciences, that have always directed my life. The opportunity to travel and work in Africa over the last eight years has been the realization of a dream for me and it would be difficult for anything else to even compete with what I have seen and done there. I will always consider my visits to the Great Rift Valley and Oldupai Gorge as my travels to Mecca or my quest for the Holy Grail. It has been these experiences that represent the culmination of all that I have learned, all that I have studied and all that I have known.

Hence, when contemplating a destination and having Kathy offer to travel with me to the Galapagos, I jumped at the chance, though full knowing that she must have sensed some unfulfilled yearning of mine to visit this place so entrenched in the world of science and mystery. But how were we to accomplish this given the high cost of cruises to visit the various islands? Enter AirBNB and the means to find a low cost solution to staying in the islands and exploring on our own. Yes, there was still the airfare to get there and once there we’d want to take a day cruise or two, but this was still much cheaper than living aboard a ship for a week with three meals a day and lots of luxury. This was a much more viable option and would allow us to explore several islands at our own pace.

So, now this brings us to how I came about sitting in the Panama City, Panama, airport at 6am on a Saturday morning pondering these thoughts and putting them to type. We’re on our way to Quito, capital of Ecuador, where we’ll spend two nights before heading to our final destination, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos Archipelago. My only sibling, Jeff, is meeting us this morning in Quito as he has been traveling there for work for the last year or so and our trip just happened to coincide with one of his visits to Ecuador. Jeff and my nephew, Nick, had accompanied me to the top of Kilimanjaro in 2015, and it is so great that I will have his company once again even if it’s not for our visit to the Islands. I’m really looking forward to exploring Quito with him over the next two days.

So, it is with this introduction, that I invite you now to spend the next week exploring Ecuador with me, first in Quito, with it’s high mountains, and then in the amazing Islands of the Galapagos, with all it’s natural splendor and scientific history. This is certainly a diversion from my normal stories of our work at FAME, but I think you will find the same themes, that of exploration, growth, humanity and the natural world. Enjoy.