Episode 8: Quito x 2/Galapagos Islands/Latacunga/Baños, Ecuador
Skin colour (both): Consumptive waif
Location: Baños, Ecuador
We loved Quito initially, we were there for about 3 nights before we flew to the Galapagos, 2 nights in “Gringolandia” i.e where all the hostels are, from where we acclimitised to the altitude.
We explored the old town, which is lovely – lots of cobbled streets and impressive old buildings and churches (one of which is ostensibly made entirely of gold – obviously helping the catholic church to ease the sufferings in the world!). We went up to El Panecillo for pretty uninspiring statue, but fantastic views of the sprawling city and had a look at the Basilica, with “gargoyles” in the form of Galapagos animals.
Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, our favourite moment was finishing a commendable third in a quiz at an Irish pub: securing our prize of a jug of lager by Jane having to sing for points at the end (a capella “Girls Just Want To have Fun” before you ask).
Yes, it was an odd quiz. Perhaps the strangest thing was the quizmaster (unintentionally but ridiculously) giving away quite a few answers: “True or false: a group of peacocks is called a Parliament? You can have an extra point if you can tell me what it’s actually called!!!”.
We met a group of sickeningly young American students who were very nice and I played a mixed standard of pool (usually with Ecuadorian doubles partners who would miss deliberately to try to get their Western partners off the table!).
My pool playing friends from the UK will be proud to hear that in a parting flourish I finished off my final frame with consecutive Barney Rubbles, before staggering off into the night.
The less said about our last day in Quito the better however, so I’ll skim over it. Jane got her bag snatched and we’d foolishly taken out more money than we needed, plus a couple of credit cards and worst of all (bear in mind we’re flying to the Galapagos at 9am the following day), our passports.
Thankfully our hostel owners were amazing and took us to the tourist police (locked up and no answer), then to the normal police, to try to get a report allowing us to fly. They were the laziest, least helpful group of individuals you can imagine, seemingly dozens of them lolling in their chairs, doing absolutely nothing besides eating fried chicken.
One guy eventually deigned to talk to our chaperones, quite aggressively, and advised that if we wanted to get anything sorted before the “fiscal” (I can only assume that this means “the only bugger who does any work around here”) clocked on in the morning, we would have to vastly exaggerate the amount we’d lost to $650 plus! Apparently they only consider theft to be a crime if you lose this amount of money or more!
Obviously we felt pretty uncomfortable LYING TO THE POLICE but when push came to shove, we would have done, particularly as it was a policeman suggesting it. Thankfully they managed to rouse the tourist police guy from his fried chicken dinner in the end and we managed to get our report without lying.
The final amusement of this annoying episode was having to fill out two police report forms identically so that we could retain the “copy” (they obviously haven’t heard of carbon paper, let alone photocopiers yet in the Quito police force).
The good news is that our passports were handed in to our hostel (thankfully we’d ignored house rules and taken the hostel key with us, so they knew where to go!), so we collected them when we got back from the Galapagos, and our passport photocopies and police report were enough to get us on the plane after a very stressful 24 hours.
So, to the Galapagos. I won’t bore you with all the, but suffice to say I would happily have sold Jane into slavery to get the Galapagos one day, so I was very excited to be going. In as few words as possible this is what it was like:
Small is the best word to describe it. Our first cabin stank of fuel and drains, but our second was better. Everything was difficult due to the swaying and you resigned yourself to banging your head at least 20 times a day (this even continued on the flight back when the guy behind me opened the luggage compartment only for his camera (which appeared to be made of lead) to land directly on my swede with a satisfying clunk)!
It was apparently an old pirate ship and lived up to billing. The staff were great, the food was repetitive, but more than edible (although not particularly generous), we slept very well most nights in spite of the rocking and rolling and the prices of drinks on board were not as ridiculous as you sometimes hear ($2 for a beer).
The guide was excellent and it was quite a little adventure onboard such a comparatively small vessel (we did experience some boat envy when we moored up, but we wouldn’t have changed a thing).
The staff even very kindly provided a cake for my birthday including ship-mate peer-pressure – the chanting of “BITE THE CAKE, BITE THE CAKE” had to be obeyed, especially after a couple of large mojitos!
Soon we became like Pavlov’s dogs, with the ringing of a bell signifying either food or the start of an activity. The routine was thus: up at 7 for breakfast, activity at 8, lunch at 12.30, activity at 2, dinner between 6.30 and 7.30, bed around 9! There was plenty of time for reading/relaxing during the day as well.
Amazing. Everything you may have heard is true and the animals are inquisitive and plentiful. If you’ll humour me, my highlights were:
1) swimming with adolescent sea lions, who mirrored my every move underwater. This was on my birthday (which Jane forgot for the 1st hour BTW – it took the tour agency manager, who had met me once, about 90 seconds to remember).
2) a feeding frenzy over a fish head – initially with a shoal of small fish, ousted by 3 spotted eagle rays who in turn were seen off by a sea-lion, with us transfixed a few feet above! The icing on the cake was then emerging from the water to find a huge pelican perched majestically on our dinghy!
3) giant tortoise sex/rape (apparently the females don’t enjoy it at all), but we were lucky to see it, I guess most people don’t.
Speaking of giant tortoise rape, you’ll be disappointed to hear that Lonesome George was far too well protected and, when push came to shove, (poor choice of words) not really my type, so I gave him a miss. You’ll see from the photo below though, that one lucky tortoise did tickle my fancy!
Other animals we saw (I’m sure I’ll miss some and I won’t include most of the smaller fish): a huge (1.5m across) sting ray, marine turtles (following these for a minute or more about 4′ above them, before being left in their wake by a small flick of their fin is amazing), parrotfish, surgeonfish, marine iguanas, land iguanas, frigate birds, blue footed boobies, Nazca boobies, Galapagos penguins, King Angelfish, pelicans, dolphins, petrels, lava lizards, Sally Lightfoot crabs, finches, reef sharks and (Jane outrageously claims) a hammerhead shark.
Our ship mates
We were a very international boat. People either did a 5-day or (like us) an 8-day cruise, so at various times we were joined by an American, an Ecuadorian, a Paraguayan, an Italian, an Israeli, a German, a Swiss, an Australian, a Norwegian, an Argentinean couple and on our penultimate day a large group of Iranians. We were quite the United Nations of pirates!
A couple of things to tell about these characters.
Firstly, the Italian lady was either an attention seeker or a bloody idiot (we actually had her down as a former heavy drug user). On one of our walks, the guide spotted a large cow-pat so warned the whole group, only for her to put her left foot right into the centre of it. 10 minutes later the warning came again – “Cuidado… Careful” – this time her right foot got a coating. Nobody much wanted to sit next to her on the bus back to the dock.
She was also quite badly sea-sick one evening, but this didn’t stop her glugging down a bottle of lager at 8.30 the following morning.
The Swiss, Aussie and Norwegian girls were all quite young, excitable and very lazy. One day we walked up to Sierra Negra (10km diameter caldera) and Volcan Chico (parasitic volcano in barren moonscape) on Isabela island (18km total, with some incline, but not too taxing even for us old farts) and the whinging never ended: “I thought it was flat”; “Did he say we’ve still got another hour to go?”; “Why do we have to go so fast?”.
This was compounded by them not listening when the guide was explaining things, then asking questions when he’d finished which he’d already answered (and sometimes they would ask these questions multiple times!). He had the patience of a saint.
We only had one night with the Iranian family (and we were glad). The one activity we did with them (an Interpretation Centre so not exactly taxing) they were 20 minutes late for, dawdled behind the guide on the way, tried to kick a lava lizard en route, then didn’t even go into the centre!
We actually felt sorry for the Swiss and Aussie girls having to spend another couple of days with them!
We visited 4 islands during our trip – San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Floreana and Isabela. Each was different and interesting. In a nutshell San Cristobal is full of sea lions, Santa Cruz is home to giant tortoises, Floreana has a bizarre and interesting human history and Isabela is the most obviously volcanic.
Trips were split pretty equally between land and sea – lots of snorkeling and a bit of walking. We visited a couple of information centres, saw some fantastic landscapes and many, many animals (some in semi-captivity to protect them and more in the wild).
We also visited lagoons, beaches and a narrow salt and freshwater mixed channel where local youths launched themselves from rocks high above into the seemingly shallow water a la Acapulco. Rather them than us.
Our only complaint about the activities was that they could have lasted longer. I also managed to get sunburned whilst snorkeling in the rain somehow, and now my back looks like that of the Singing Detective. The weather was generally good, but it rained overnight most nights.
So, with heavy hearts we left the Galapagos. It was a very expensive trip, even though ours was the absolute budget option, but I would recommend it to anyone. It really was the experience of a lifetime, so if you have a wife you can sell into slavery, I urge you to do so!
Back on the mainland we returned to Quito and immediately we felt uneasy, as a result of the bag snatching. It was a very odd feeling to be genuinely, but we knew irrationally, scared – so we bravely holed up in our hostel for the night with a takeaway pizza, beers and a movie.
The following day we went to the middle of the world – i.e. to the equator line. The original monument and measurements are now the site of a pretty uninspiring tourist attraction, and along the road is a museum where the actual (GPS calculated) equator is located. We decided not to stay long when we were greeted by what looked like a Mexican wrestler, complete with mask.
They do all sorts of experiments there, which we had a quick look at, and filmed water going straight down the plughole etc., but frankly, it took so long to get there and back, and we were so keen to get out of Quito (which was a shame because we’d really enjoyed it until our bad luck), that we didn’t think the middle of the world was worth the effort.
So, we got to the bus south to Latacunga, in the Avenue of the Volcanoes, clutching our bags to us and looking shiftily around. You would not believe the number of people who come onto the buses here to sell things, do skits or simply beg, which hardly made us more comfortable.
Neither did Latacunga. It’s billed as the base to climb Cotopaxi (*nerd alert* a volcano that is actually the furthest point from the centre of the Earth due to the equatorial bulge), but there’s nothing there: no bars or restaurants; and after 6pm the streets are deserted.
Our suspicious minds weren’t put at rest by the unselfconscious and disconcerting staring we were subjected to by literally every person in public, due to being (what felt like) the only Gringos in town: now we know how Joseph Merrick must have felt.
It was just what we didn’t need whilst still feeling highly strung and we didn’t go out much after dark (I know, it’s a real shame, but we figured it’s better to be safe than sorry). We were glad we went though, because we spent a day on Cotapaxi with a guide and it was stunning.
We drove up to about 4500m and set off from there. It was bloody hard going, the altitude really takes it out of you and it was very steep with a surface of scree, plus inclement weather and cold, so there were many stops and quite a sense of achievement when we reached the refuge at 4800m.
After 15 minutes’ rest, we set off again for the glacier, another 40 minutes uphill. It felt like more than 40 hours, but at the top we were above the clouds and the views were superb.
If ever we’ve deserved a beer, it was after going up that mountain. But Jane even had the energy to converse fluently(ish) in Spanish with the guide on the way back down (she claims that he told her she looked like Princess Diana – it must be the hair!), while it was all I could do to stay awake!
[Jane would like to say “thank you” to Mrs Saunders at this point, given that after teaching her Spanish 15 years ago, she still retains enough for a thorough discussion of why we don’t have children and why our guide didn’t marry his English girlfriend. Other topics may prove more difficult]
We cut our stay in Latacunga short, foregoing a pretty lake (lake shmake, Latacunga’s a dive and we wanted out) and heading south again via Ambato to Baños, where we are now. It’s a breath of fresh air – busier streets, many places to eat, street lighting and a fantastic location, surrounded by hills and best of all, full of other gringos!
We are in a lovely hostel, cheap, clean and with great views from the roof terrace, and we’re much happier here (we’re such scaredy cats but we’ve realised that we don’t like authenticity, we like lots of other tourists!). We plan on staying a few days, going to the thermal baths, wandering in the welcoming streets and eating well and cheaply (maybe even some guinea pig, which we’ve seen roasting here).
P.S. I was going to take a straw poll on whether to continue to grow my hair (and possibly braid it?), but then I thought of what a t**t I would look, so I went and got it shaved off. I now look like “Richard” from the board game Guess Who.