Wandering the World Part 10

Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands

Darwin, not just the name of an Australian city, but the name of an English naturalist who is famous for his contributions to the theory of evolution and our understanding of nature. Charles Darwin didn’t just sit around in the English countryside and decide this though, his studies eventually took him on a voyage on-board the HMS Beagle — a ship bound for the Americas.

This voyage took him across most of the South American coastline, but more importantly it took him to a series of geologically new islands which led him to realise that environmental conditions had an effect on the species that lived there. Years later his studies resulted in him publishing “On the Origin of the Species”. These islands were of course the Galápagos Islands.

I’d seen David Attenborough talk about these islands in documentaries, and it was somewhere I very much wanted to go one day. As it happened the friend I’d travelled with a few times recently also wanted to go, and had another friend from University who was interested in going. As we’d heard that the number of allowed tourists to the area would be reduced we decided we had to visit soon.

When planning this trip we’d not heard back from the other friend for some time so had assumed he’d lost interest in the idea, and so we booked ourselves onto an organised trip that would start in Ecuador. A few months before the trip was due to take place he got back in touch, and hastily booked himself onto the trip so we could all meet up on the way there.

The journey to Ecuador was long with many stops — one of them was on Bonaire, a small Dutch principality in the Caribbean. We landed there in the middle of the night and the airport didn’t seem big enough for the plane we were on. Although the airport was bigger than the one in Taupo, I hadn’t yet seen any other airports this small. Everywhere was pitch black except for the aircraft; it looked strange, and seemed completely out of place in this environment.

When we eventually arrived in Quito we wondered if we’d be okay with immigration when we saw there was a restriction on how much you could bring into the country. Between the three of us we had enough camera and other electrical equipment on us to open a small shop; of course that isn’t what we were doing and fortunately customs were fine with it being for personal use.

The tour company met us at the airport, and took us to the first of our hotels on Avenida Amazonas — the main road through Quito. Along the way we were told that they’d had a lot of rain over the past few days. My first thought was — we’re British, we’re used to that. However, the guide then continued to tell us that the rainwater that had washed down the side of the volcano was plentiful enough to have flooded the tunnel we were at the time driving through. Drivers who had been in the tunnel a few days previous had to abandon their cars, and swim for safety. Perhaps the rain was a little more than we were used to.

After a short nap we were taken out on a tour of Quito. To start with we visited the Basilica of the National Vow, the largest neo-Gothic church in all of the Americas. We didn’t get the opportunity to look inside, but from the outside I could see that although it looked a lot like British cathedrals, it wasn’t like other cathedrals. Where it differed was in the detail — although it had gargoyles like many others, the ones here were designed to resemble local animals such as the condor.

Basilica of the National Vow

Our next stop was where we were going to see a place which was set-up for locals to learn important skills, but that was closed. Instead we were led back to the coach and driven through some areas of the city our guide described as being unsafe. I don’t think that’s any different to other cities though — there would be parts of London for example that locals would perceive to be unsafe.

Eventually we stopped in the old town, a UNESCO cultural heritage site which is protected from development. At the top of a hill here there is a statue of Mary made from aluminium, but that is all we saw there. Instead, as it started to rain, we were taken to a church of San Francesco. The interior of this one was amazing, and it reminded me of the Catholic churches I’d visited in Peru. This one however allowed photography inside so I could attempt to capture the amazing detail of the gilded altar in photographs.

Inside the Iglesia de San Francesco

We were then going to visit a Jesuit Church, but our guide spotted a number of pick pockets who were being fairly obvious about it. To avoid them we were led into a nearby library, and waited there for a while until the guide was relatively sure they’d gone. We were still told to keep an eye out for other pickpockets in this area though. After preparations for my European trip I’d learnt to keep my wallet in a hidden zip pocket, and nothing else was easily accessible so was confident my belongings would be safe.

Our city tour ended with a quick visit to the Presidential Palace. We didn’t get to go in, but there was a photo opportunity with the Palace Guards. The way they stood motionless on plinths reminded me of the Grenadier guards back home that stand watch over Buckingham Palace; but their style was more Spanish.

That evening we decided to explore a little to see where we could find to eat. We wandered for about an hour and eventually found a Tex Mex place that seemed reasonable. From the looks of it I would have guessed it was a place for the locals rather than tourists as the people there did not speak any English. We ordered quite a bit of food between us, but even with a generous tip it came to very little — seemingly more proof that tourists don’t usually eat there.

It rained throughout the night, though had eased off a little for our drive up into the Andean mountains. Getting through the checkpoints out of the city was slow progress though as a lot of people were leaving for the Easter weekend. At Guayllabamba we stopped by a roadside fruit stall, and tried a Chirimoya — a fruit with a smooth texture which is full of seeds, and quite messy to eat. Although it originated around the Ecuador and Peru region, it now grows in other countries, and is also known as a custard apple.

More miles passed by until we stopped briefly at a viewpoint, and then for longer at the village of Cayambe, situated on the equator. By this time the rain had come to an end and the sun was shining. Where the equator passes through this village they have different coloured stone to mark it, and a stone globe. It was pretty much obligatory to have a photo taken with one foot in each hemisphere, and then they claimed their demonstration of balancing an egg proved they were on the equatorial line. It doesn’t, not even in the slightest — you could balance an egg, with equal effort, at any latitude. It’s just one of the things that people do to make more of a tourist attraction out of it.

Ecuador has many rose farms, and our next stop was at the Rosen Pavilion. We walked around one of the five acres where they grow row after row of roses of various colours. We then got a lesson in how they create a new hybrid species of rose, and also how they deal with plant diseases. To finish the tour we were then shown their packaging process, and the cooling process where they store the prepared flowers in a large fridge.

Upon arrival at our lunch stop they gave us a welcome drink containing cinnamon, and also a biscuit. They then served lunch containing fried mashed potato, meat, corn, and a couple of vegetables. Whilst we were eating the rain returned, and stayed with us for the drive to Otavalo.

In Otavalo we had another brief respite from the rain as we looked around the market there for an hour — a place where we were encouraged to haggle. Being told that made me think of a scene from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”, and was a great source of amusement even though I did get to haggle a little as I bought souvenirs from there.

To finish the day we headed towards Cotacachi, one of Ecuador’s many volcanoes. We walked around this area to the Cuicocha crater which has filled with water over time to produce an acidic lake with two small islands in the middle. Apparently the acidity of the water is great enough that you wouldn’t want to swim there.

The following morning our stay in Ecuador, although brief, was now temporarily at an end as we were taken to the airport for our flight to Isla Baltra — one of the Galápagos Islands. Here we met up with the next guide, Byron, who then took us on a ferry across to Isla Santa Cruz.

Using the Spanish for “Island” before each island name made me think of Jurassic Park, and I hoped there were islands named Isla Nublar and Isla Sorna, even though I was pretty sure there wouldn’t be. The islands in these movies were made up, but I figured there was a chance they could have been named for existing islands.

Arriving on Isla Santa Cruz we were instantly met by Sally lightfoot crabs, and a Galápagos pelican. Whilst we photographed these our bags were transferred onto the back of a truck, and we were then driven across the island to Puerto Ayora.

On the way there we passed our first giant tortoise sitting in the road as we were driving though private property that was not part of the National Park. Apparently some parts of the island are private as they were settled on before they became protected as part of the national park. On this particular bit of private land though we could observe giant tortoises in the wild; so we parked up to get closer.

As Byron started to tell us about the rain on the island an incredibly strong downpour started on cue, which made us run for shelter. Before walking out into the grassland we put on some wellington boots due to the amount of mud along the path. Almost immediately we found a young tortoise, and there were a lot of birds, and butterflies about.

Just after walking through a very muddy patch we got our closest encounter with a giant tortoise. It didn’t move much but we did see it eating. Unfortunately it started to rain heavily again, but none of us had coats — presumably everyone had done the same as me and had one packed in a suitcase where it was currently inaccessible. Despite this we carried on the tour in the rain.

We found another tortoise bathing in a muddy puddle with rain falling all around it. It seemed to me like it was taking a shower and enjoying it. By this time the rain was coming down so hard I couldn’t keep my camera dry so had given up on trying to protect it.

Giant Tortoise

Eventually we made it to Puerto Ayora where the Galapagos Voyager, also known as the El Gran Poseidon, was anchored and waiting for us. In small groups we transferred to the yacht by panga whilst our luggage was loaded onto another. The pangas are very stable fibreglass boats with inflatable sides, and powered by an outboard motor.

On board the ship we were assigned our cabins, and we then moved our luggage into them. At this time we were also able to hire wet-suits for $25 per person — although we had already hired one for diving it was worthwhile for the numerous snorkelling sessions we’d get.

After lunch we got back onto the pangas and headed back to the shore. In the time we’d been on the ship the ground transportation we’d used earlier had left, so our guide flagged down a few taxis that would then take us to within one kilometre of the Darwin Research Centre.

During the short walk to the centre we kept an eye out for wildlife, hoping we’d get to see some more already. We got lucky and came across some marine iguanas sun-bathing near a jetty which we were able to stop for briefly. As the walk progressed we also came across yellow warblers, a Galápagos mocking bird, and stood under a poison apple tree which giant tortoises find good for their digestive systems. Scurrying around over rocks we could also see numerous lava lizards — these were tiny, and only a fraction of the size of the iguanas.

Inside the breeding centre we saw young giant tortoises of various ages, divided into different enclosures, and then finally some more fully grown ones. Sadly we didn’t get to see Lonesome George, the famous giant tortoise from Isla Pinta who was the last of his sub-species. He’d become a symbol for conservation; though unfortunately a few years after I was there he died of natural causes. We had an hour spare on the island before we needed to leave so we waited as long as we could in hopes we’d see him, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be.

Every night on the ship we were briefed about the day ahead, and for our first full day we headed over to Plaza Sur. Life on the ship starts early in the day — we’d be up at 06:00 for breakfast most days so we could beat the midday sun. This landing, like Isla Santa Cruz, was an easy one due to the concrete jetty, though those we’d encounter later in the trip were not so much.

On the island we were greeted by sea lions, marine iguanas, and land iguanas. We had to be careful not to get too close — during our briefing we’d been told that the park rules are that you can’t get within two metres of the animals. At times though this is hard, and you have no choice but to be closer. Sometimes we’d find wildlife in the path, which we have to stick to, and we’d have to get closer in order to pass. Sometimes the wildlife came to us too.

As we wandered around this island we saw an incredible number of species. For anyone who loves to be around nature and wildlife, the Galápagos Islands are the perfect place to be. It was hot though — the sun was beating down on us and was already incredibly warm. It didn’t help that there were a lot of insects about wanting to bite as well.

Our guide for this trip was an employee of the national park and had an incredible wealth of knowledge about the animals, and the habitats. For ages we would stand around in the sun as he’d tell us about the animals we were seeing. This did mean however it gave me more time for photographing what was around us, such as when we came across some iguanas nesting.

Galápagos Land Iguana

For the rest of the morning on the boat the friend I’d travelled with numerous times before was feeling ill so he went back to his cabin whilst they served lunch. That afternoon he rejoined us for some snorkelling around Isla Santa Fe where the sea was calmer as it was an area protected by the island. The water felt cool, but nowhere near a cool as it’d be back in England. Where in England the water at this time of the year would still feel like it’d been refrigerated, the water here felt more like tap water would.

It was a good session as I got to see a lot of fish species I hadn’t seen before, and also some blue-footed boobies standing on the rocks of the shore. For this trip I’d brought my underwater camera with me — the one I’d bought for scuba diving in Australia. This time it was getting more use, and I was starting to get the hang of letting the current of the water move me into position for taking photos to try and stay steady.

The day wasn’t over after that though, we had to then get ready quickly for another excursion by panga to Isla Santa Fe. This landing involved wading through the water onto a sandy beach full of sea lions. Unfortunately I had left my camcorder behind on the boat so couldn’t capture any video of the sea lions that were sun bathing and being playful. I still got to watch them though, so all was not lost — it’s not necessary to capture everything.

A few of the others from this tour group managed to see a snake, but by the time I got there it was gone. As the sun started to set we headed back to the ship for the end of our first full day at sea. This had already been a different experience to when I stayed on board a boat for a few days in Australia, but the struggle for sleep was the same.

The following day started with a rough panga ride through high waves to reach Isla Española for a dry landing. As we landed on the sandy beach we were greeted once more by sea lions drying out in the sun. The sun was even warmer than the day before, though we did our best to ignore it as we walked through small vegetation for three kilometres on a trail around the island.

On this hike we got to see some albatrosses nesting in the tall grass from a distance, but we also got to see a Galápagos hawk flying overhead. By this point it seemed every species name here was preceded by “Galápagos”, and was specific to these islands — unless it was named after the island they could be found on. I’m sure if we’d seen a pigeon, which we didn’t, it would have been called the Galápagos pigeon as well.

Although we’d seen a reasonable amount of vegetation on this island, it was clear that this, one of the oldest of the islands of the archipelago, was becoming barren and slowly dying. It’s one of the interesting things about the Galápagos Islands — there you can see volcanic islands in various geological stages, and we’d already seen two in our first two days.

About halfway around the trail we came across some marine iguanas nesting. As we watched them dig holes we also saw the occasional territorial fight break out as well. It was like watching a David Attenborough documentary; all it was missing was him narrating it in a hushed voice. Instead, what we had was Byron talking loudly about their habits.

At the end of this path we got back to the coast and the edge of a cliff. Here we could see the waves crash against the cliff face, and then blast up metres into the air through a blowhole. There was nowhere for us to go from there though, other than back the way we came and eventually back to the ship.

Whilst we had lunch the ship moved around to another part of the island where we could go for a deep-water snorkel. This time the water was incredibly clear with the visibility being over ten metres. I didn’t see any fish I hadn’t seen before, but it was pleasant to be in water so warm.

That evening I felt more awake than the previous few nights so sat on the deck of the boat under the night sky for a time. Being so far from civilisation meant there was no light pollution, and as my eyes adjusted to the dark I could see an incredible number of stars. The gentle swaying of the boat meant nighttime photography was not a possibility, but it’s nice to be able to see the stars with such clarity.

With an early start we got to watch magnificent frigate birds nesting on the Kicker Rocks before breakfast. These high rocks are the remains of an old lava cone — further examples of the geological activity in this region. After breakfast we then continued on to Isla San Cristóbal.

This is one of the larger islands of the Galápagos and was the first of them for Charles Darwin to step foot on in 1835. Since then the island has become one of the few populated by humans, yet still has a great variety of wildlife. We had the morning to go around the Interpretation Center, though personally I don’t think it was worth the effort as the information they had there could be found online without the grammatical errors.

In the afternoon we returned ashore and this time took a bus to a nearby beach that was covered in shell fragments. Wearing sandals on this beach was not a great idea and was actually very uncomfortable. When we finished we were then given the rest of the afternoon to look around the shops — something I find incredibly boring most of the time.

Overnight the engines of the ship had cut out, and by the time everyone was awake for breakfast the two pangas were being used to tow the boat slowly. Our guide hoped that the National Park would allow an unplanned excursion to North Seymour instead of Santa Cruz as we wouldn’t make it there with the engines in their current state.

The pangas running flat-out were capable of towing the ship at a speed of approximately 1mph, and they hoped that they’d reach the island within an hour. Luck wasn’t with us though as torrential rain then started to fall which caused waves which was slowing them down even more. It wasn’t looking good at all.

The crew had started siphoning fuel from the ship to use in the pangas so they’d stay running longer. Out on the deck there was the overpowering smell of fumes around the open hatch to the engineering deck as they did this.

It would only be a question of what gave out first — the waves pushing the boat back or the fuel available for the pangas. Whilst most of the passengers had to sit on the ship and wait, myself and a friend were lucky — we’d had a morning of scuba diving pre-booked with another company. To make sure we could still go on this excursion they took us on one of the two pangas, leaving the crippled ship behind.

We arrived at the diving boat late due to the ship issues which resulted in a rush to get ready. It’s probably the quickest we’ve ever prepared for a dive, and with them assisting us to get ready we never got to carry out buddy or buoyancy checks. To prove that we were qualified we just had to do a couple of basic skills in the water such as mask clearing.

One of the more worrying things as we prepared for the dive was when my oxygen tank made a loud noise, and started spewing air. This actually momentarily deafened me until the valve was resealed.

This first dive lasted for about thirty minutes, and it was the most incredible dive I’d done up until this point. Of course, I’d not scuba dived abroad since getting my qualification in a British quarry so it was easily done. We saw a large group of eagle rays swim by overhead, partially silhouetted by the water shining through the water. We also got to see a small number of manta rays, white-tipped sharks, and octopuses.

Towards the end of the dive my friend was getting low on air, and had told one of the two diving guides that he was down to just fifty bars using the usual hand signals. In scuba diving terminology, an octopus is a secondary release valve with a spare regulator to allow for buddy breathing if your diving buddy experiences issues with their own tank. This was something that was developed as sharing a single regulator can cause panic, and using a second regulator is far safer in that circumstance.

The dive master gave my friend his octopus and they began their ascent to the safety stop. As I was the diving buddy for my friend I had to start my ascent as well; though whilst they’d been sorting out regulators my own air had reached fifty bars anyway. During the three minute safety stop I watched as my air got closer, and closer to zero — time seems to pass slower whilst you’re watching it. Fortunately I managed to get to the surface, and had just enough air left to get some air into my BCD to stay afloat.

We’d been told that this dive was along a fifteen metre shelf, and so we wouldn’t exceed that depth. However, I managed to reach my deepest depth yet — 17.9 metres. I guess it’s a little deeper than the guide said it was.

Panamic Cushion Sea Star

Whilst waiting for the other divers to surface I started to feel very seasick. It wasn’t the best feeling to have after a dive, so I decided I wouldn’t eat before my next one. I wasn’t even that sure I wanted to do another dive, but I found that after a quick snorkel whilst the others were eating I was feeling much better.

The downside to not eating was that it would mean I’d be tired for this dive, and having three hundred bars of air meant it might be a longer dive. Whilst near the seabed, one of the many white-tipped sharks we saw passed behind me by less than thirty centimetres. This to me is what scuba diving is all about — getting to experience the underwater world and seeing all the nature that inhabits it.

By the time we saw a large snake and another octopus, I was getting tired — in part due to the strong current we were swimming into. Unfortunately I’d not been able to get any photographs during the second dive as my underwater camera had stopped working. My assumption was that I’d forgotten to check the batteries, and they’d gone flat whilst on the surface.

The extra exertion used up my air quicker than normal, and my friend’s was in a worse position. This time instead of ascending after my friend was handed the octopus, the guide decided to carry on touring the sea bed to point out more sea life. In this time my own air had dropped to fifty bars so I started to ascend with them. During the safety stop the guide’s air ran out so had to surface after only a minute had passed.

On the surface due to lack of air in his own tank the guide had to manually inflate his BCD to stay afloat. If he hadn’t messed around underwater, and had instead started to ascend as is normally recommended we could have had a proper safety stop. It was one of those times which seemed like if we’d been on our own we’d have stayed within the safety limits. Although the ending wasn’t ideal, it was still an incredible dive.

With scuba diving the normal practice is for your deepest dive to be first, though in this case our second dive had been deeper. Not only did this mean we’d done what’s called a reverse profile dive, but we’d also gone deeper than our insurance covered us for. We also had concerns that the result of this had put us into the dive table group for requiring decompression. That wasn’t the case though — our calculations hadn’t accounted for it being a multi-level dive so it wasn’t actually that bad. So much for the PADI motto of “plan your dive, dive your plan” however.

When we arrived back at the El Gran Poseidon, it took three attempts to line the boats up sufficiently so that we could jump across from the bow of one boat onto the stern of the other. Back on the boat I checked my camera and found that the underwater housing had leaked — it was ruined. I couldn’t figure out what had caused the leak, but fortunately I had a DSLR camera for use on the surface.

Whilst we’d been away the pangas had gone off to get supplies from the nearest port. The boat’s engine still wasn’t fixed however, and the crew weren’t telling anyone what was going on or when we could expect it to be fixed. People’s patience was starting to wear thin, though a few people were permitted to snorkel around the boat before being taken to a nearby sandy beach to sunbathe and see more sea lions. As I’d had a tiring morning of scuba diving I decided I wouldn’t do either, especially as there would be no shelter from the sun.

That evening our guide told the group the good news that they’d been able to get the part they needed for the boat, and a little after midnight we’d be on our way again. Unfortunately due to the itinerary reshuffling it meant we’d be missing Isla Genovesa, and our chance to see red-footed boobies.

When I awoke the next morning I looked out the window of the cabin, and got a sinking feeling when I could see all too familiar surroundings. The boat hadn’t moved at all. Our guide arrived late to breakfast with the bad news that the boats engine still wasn’t working — that much we’d already figured out for ourselves. They had attempted to start the engine up last night but it had spewed smoke, meaning we’d be looking at another day with unfortunate changes to the itinerary.

We didn’t know what we’d be doing though — our guide didn’t have an answer for that and had to wait for the national park authorities and the tour company to decide what would be allowed. It felt like the ship was about ready to mutiny as tempers of some of the passengers were reaching breaking point. They demanded that the ship’s captain, our only conduit to the national park and the company, speak to us in the dining room.

The Captain didn’t speak English though, so all communication had to be done via Byron, our park guide. Even after speaking to him nobody knew what was going to happen — it didn’t help though that the Captain would speak for minutes at a time, and then when Byron translated it the resulting translation was a lot shorter. It seemed like there was a lot of detail he wasn’t bothering to tell us about, or maybe didn’t know how to translate it.

A little later we were promised that a boat would pick us up to take us on to Bachas beach, though time passed and an hour after it had been due to arrive there was still no sign of it. People were standing around, angry that their once-in-a-lifetime tour was being hindered by the boats malfunction. It can’t have been a good position for the crew to be in either though, but they could have handled communication with the passengers better.

The boat eventually arrived, but only had one outboard motor rather than their planned two. This was why it had taken a lot longer to get to us. It also meant it took longer to ferry us across to the island. Things really weren’t going to plan.

Bachas beach is an amazing sandy beach with some of the softest sand I’ve come across. The heat from the sun was intense, and after only a few minutes I was starting to burn again. After a short walk we got to some rusty metal protruding from the sand with a couple of oyster-catchers wandering around them. Apparently the metal scraps were part of barges that were left there during the second world war, and had since mostly corroded away. Due to the locals pronunciation of barges this is how the beach got named Bachas.

From this beach we were then led to a lagoon where we could see three flamingos drinking from it. I’d never seen a flamingo before so I took a lot of photos of them as I watched them drink.

Flamingos

Back on the beach the water was amazingly clear. You could see little white fishes swimming up to the beach, and escaping before the tide washed them ashore. After the speedboat took us back to the ship, we had a quick lunch before heading back out to Black Turtle Cove — a place not far from where we’d just been.

This cove is densely filled with mangroves so we had to switch to pangas in order to navigate them. This sort of area is often filled with wildlife, and this one was no exception. We encountered baby sharks, a spotted eagle ray, and even a pelican within minutes of arriving.

As we got deeper in we had to switch to using oars as it was no longer possible to use the motor. In these shallower waters we saw several turtles swimming around which would occasionally surface for air. In this area we also saw another spotted eagle ray, and a golden ray.

Mangroves of Black Turtle Cove

When we left the mangroves behind the sun had started to set, and we saw the three flamingos from earlier flying away from the island. For over half the journey back to the ship it was dark, and all we could see was what little the dim light inside the speedboat was able to illuminate. Upon arrival back on the boat though we had the fantastic news that they’d almost finished repairs to the engine, and that we’d be heading towards the volcanic Isla Bartolomé.

In the early hours of the morning the ships engines kicked into life and got us to the island thirty minutes ahead of the original schedule. Although repaired, I did hear that a couple of years after these events that during a journey to Guayaquil for maintenance, there was a collision that damaged the hull beyond repair, and caused it to sink. For now though, our journey aboard the Galapagos Voyager was continuing.

The first stop of the day was at Sullivan Bay on Isla Santiago where we got to walk along the uneroded, black lava flow. Isla Sanitago demonstrates how the islands in this archipelago were formed from volcanic activity. Along with the other islands we could now see the full life cycle of them from their formation to their eventual death. It is no wonder that Charles Darwin, an eminent geologist, found these islands so fascinating.

Isla Santiago

This barren landscape was almost completely devoid of life; but we did see one lone cactus and some scorpion weed whilst exploring this area. From this beach we got to have a snorkelling session so I decided with the amazing clarity of the water I’d do some free-diving also.

Underwater I saw many species of fish, and even saw Galápagos penguins, and a sea lion swimming. Having penguins swim around you incredibly fast is an experience like no other. Considering what a penguin is like on land, it is amazing how good these animals are at swimming — their homes really are in the water.

That afternoon we navigated closer to Isla Bartolomé — an area which had been used in the filming of “Master and Commander”. To start with most of the passengers went ashore to sunbathe, though already being sun burnt myself I decided to stay on the boat and read. A little later I then joined them for our last excursion to the Galápagos Islands. This tour took us across a boardwalk with 370 steps and allowed us to get closer to a Galápagos hawk.

Galápagos Hawk

There were many more of these hawks circling the island, which gave us a few more chances to photograph them — but none as close as the one on the boardwalk. At the top of the steps we got to see the island in full; from the submerged volcanic cone to the jagged edges of Pinnacle Rock on the far side. Pinnacle Rock is one of the most distinctive landmarks in the area, though it’s pockmarked surface comes from the US Air Force using it for target practice during the second world war.

That night I packed my suitcase, though with how much the boat was rocking during it’s nine hour navigation back to Puerto Ayora it was a little more difficult than is normal. I guess it’s part of the fun of being on a boat at sea though.

The following morning was our final panga ride to the shore, and the start of our journey back to Quito. Before getting to the airport we stopped off at some sinkholes named Los Gemelos. Around this area there are many types of vegetation which means you can come across a lot of different species of bird.

The airport itself seemed chaos with so many people trying to fit into a small place. Combine the crowds with humidity and you’ve got an incredibly warm place to wait for a flight. As the x-ray machine and metal detector were not functional we had to wait for fifteen minutes to go through security. Instead of scanning bags they were instead doing a very quick manual check of everyone’s bags. Not quite the level of security you’d see on the mainland.

Back in Quito we met up with our final guide of the trip. We were told that due to the issues we had on the ship we’d be getting a free meal that night as an apology, and that she’d meet us there. It sounded fair enough to me, and unlike most of the passengers I wasn’t too angry at them anyway.

Whilst we’d been on Isla Santiago one of my friends had injured his leg on a rock, and received no help from the ships crew. By the time we’d checked back into the hotel in Quito his leg had become swollen and warm to the touch, so we went off looking for a pharmacy. Having bought some cream from one, once he’d been able to apply some to the wound we ate doughnuts, and went looking around souvenir shops for most of what remained of the afternoon.

Before the evening meal we had a little time left over so we could put things in our backpacks that we’d be needing for our trip to the Bellavista Cloud Forest. This was a place which didn’t allow us to take suitcases, so we had to pack light.

The restaurant that evening was a place that charged $25 per head, though no drinks were included in what the tour company was paying for. Even though I’d only had one soft drink, I still had to pay $10 towards the group’s bill. Some of the group were still bitter, and commented that it had been a cheap apology for the tour company, though to the company’s credit they did eventually refund a tiny amount of the trips cost. Once this trip was over I used mine to pay for an advanced diving qualification which would eventually come in handy.

Throughout the night there had been a lot of noise about which made it difficult to sleep. One of my friends however got even less sleep as he’d had to call the doctor out for his swollen leg. Although it seemed infected he was told it’d be okay for travelling to the cloud forest. This was then a drive that winded through the mountains for just over an hour.

Within minutes of arriving in the cloud forest we saw hummingbirds flying around nectar feeders that had been set-up outside what they called “the dome”. Our first job was to drop off luggage and then go down for breakfast. It wasn’t exactly the big breakfast we’d been promised — 3 small slices of bread, and an egg if you like them.

We were also told walking boots wouldn’t be good enough for some of the hikes, so after breakfast we went to their storeroom to borrow some. For the first hike we also had two of the couples who’d been with us for the Galápagos Islands. Our route through the cloud forest was a scenic one, but we barely saw any bird life. At the start of the trail though we had the opportunity to taste flowers off one of the plants there called the Incas Ear Ring. We were told that they tasted like apple, but to me it tasted more like a leaf.

As we were at altitude the guide stopped regularly for people to catch their breath. She was actually a very good guide, and was able to answer every question the group had; even without wandering off into an anecdote. Although we didn’t see many birds we saw a few butterflies, and a lone millipede. As we got towards the end of the hike we also saw a large tarantula web, but I couldn’t see any sign of the spider.

Lunch was a bit dire — salty mashed potato and gristly beef, but I did get the chance to photograph a blue jay and a Rufus-collared sparrow whilst waiting for the next hike.

Heading off on the second hike of the day we said goodbye to the two couples that had been with us for most of the trip. This walk was a lot shorter than in the morning, but we did get to see some toucans from a distance.

The remainder of the day was spent sitting around in the room watching wildlife. This room was like no other place I’ve stayed in though — it was like having a wooden tree house, but with a full height window. There was a bit of a draft due to gaps in the wooden framework, but it’s not every day you can lay in bed amongst the tree tops. The room had some electricity provided to it from the main building to power lights, but these went out for a while when the electricity died.

Bellavista Cloud Forest

For our final full day in Ecuador we got up early so we could go for a hike before breakfast. It may seem mad, but getting out just after sunrise can give you opportunities to see wildlife you wouldn’t see later in the day. The hike was a short one, and once again was very quiet — even the morning chorus seemed bereft of life. Our guide found this unusual, and couldn’t remember ever having seen the cloud forest so quiet before.

After breakfast we went for our final hike — this one was the most adventurous of the ones we’d been on. The original plan our guide had for us would have meant getting wet up to our waists to go through a waterfall, but as we’d be stuck in wet clothes for the rest of the day we went with a slightly drier option.

The path we took was a difficult path with a good proportion of it being wading through streams across the bottom of the forest. Some of these involved climbing up over small waterfalls with the water pushing against us. It was amazing that none of us slipped whilst jumping from rock to rock or whilst wading, but we did stay mostly dry.

Ascending out of the water our guide got out a machete to cut a path through the rain-forest as this path had not be walked for a couple of weeks. It’s amazing to think how quickly the paths disappear into the vegetation. When I photographed the guide using the machete she tried handing it to me so I could try it. I was happier taking action photos though.

By midday we were back at the dome for lunch, though I was starting to feel ill. The journey back to Quito felt awful, and I was sure I could vomit at any minute so was focusing on trying not to. When I got back to the hotel it seemed that it was likely I’d got food poisoning. It was a long night with very little sleep — I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the flight the next day.

Having several flights ahead of me was dreadful. We stopped off in Bonaire again, this time during a humid day, and found that our departure had been delayed. That was definitely the opposite of what I needed, and back on the plane the entertainment system was broken as well so I couldn’t even distract myself from it.

In the early hours of the following morning we arrived in Schipol, completely exhausted. I took this opportunity though to get a drink and some medication to try and feel better. The flight from Schipol to Birmingham International went a lot better, and by the time we’d parted ways at the airport heading for different trains I was feeling well enough to try eating again.

It had been a rough journey home but the trip to Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands was both worthwhile and unforgettable. The diversity of the wildlife, and the experience of the diving there was definitely second to none. It was going to be difficult for another trip to beat this.

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