Friday, October 19, 2012

Ecuador: Quito City

This was the last day of our vacation so we spent it doing a tour of Old Town Quito as well as the equatorial line - that is - Latitude 0. That was interesting but more about that later.

We started our last day with breakfast but instead of the courtyard, we had it in the restaurant on the premises that I think was once a jail of sorts. Anyway, it's quite lovely with beautiful brick archways.

Breakfast can be quite nice when you are in a beautiful space - even if it's the same breakfast 19 days in a row (except for the one breakfast in Aguas Calientes when we had cheese).

We booked a tour with a company just one block over from the hotel; there were 4 of us - 2 Floridians and the 2 of us. Nelson who is one of the owners of the company was our guide. We started out by visiting some of the churches in Old Town which is the old part of Quito. Many people do not live in this area but commute to work so in the evenings, the streets are pretty deserted. The architecture of the churches is astonishing. Even if you are not into historical buildings, you gain an appreciation for the beauty and talent of engineers, architects, sculptors, painters and planners.

The whole city of Quito was declared a UNESCO heritage city because of the history and incredibly beautiful buildings and from the pictures, you can see why. Many building have the "Juliet" balconies which are large windows framed at the bottom with an enclosed railing - in these cases - made of ornate wrought iron. Some of the designs are quite detailed and intricate while others are simple. The details on some of the carvings on churches and other historical buildings makes you appreciate how some of the buildings took over 100 years to complete. The insides of the buildings are even more stunning but we couldn't take pictures in some of them because church services were being conducted while we were walking through.
Then we headed out of town to the Equator line. Apparently someone had calculated the line using some kind of mathematical calculations and the spot was marked as the point at the centre of the earth but several years ago with more recent and precise technology, it was proven that the initial point was about 250 metres off from the centre. So a new centre was determined. That's the one we went to. There were two clocks - sort of sun dials and as you can see clearly from the second picture, it was almost 2pm when we were looking at it (I checked my watch and it was 1:55pm).

Then we had our picture taken side by side but with me in one hemisphere and Robin in the other. Then it was Robin's turn the straddle the line with a foot in each hemisphere. Pretty funny actually.

We had a chance to watch some little science experiments and then the guide asked us to do one - stand with your eyes closed and hands extended and try to walk on the red line without falling over. The centrifugal force from each hemisphere pulls you in that direction so it is almost impossible to walk the line.
That was a fun part of the day. We stopped in a little cafe on the site and had empanada verde - mini ones made with plantains and stuffed with cheese. Those were really yummy!!
Then it was off to the airport for our flight to Lima at 6:35pm, then leaving Lima for Toronto at 1:40am then from Toronto to Winnipeg at 2:50pm on Saturday.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador: North Seymour Island

Saving the best for last!!!

On the map, North Seymour is situated just above Santa Cruz (red circle). South Seymour is where the Baltra airport is situated (the one we arrived at).  
This morning we had an early start. I was up at 5:30am again but there was no sunrise to see because it was cloudy. We left the yacht at 6:30 for North Seymour Island but before we left, I went to the back of the yacht where the panga is stored and I was just enjoying the cool morning air when I saw a grey shadow in the water. Not being sure what it was, I stared at the water for some time and there in front of my eyes was a shark! Yes a real shark! They are called white-tipped reef sharks and they are around in these waters but I have not been fortunate to see one until today. Omar said that you can go snorkeling in the water and they won’t bother you. The thought of swimming close to a shark and not have it bother me is a bit science fiction-like.
I was so excited to see it. One mind said to run back to the cabin for my camera and the other said to stay and watch because as soon as I leave, so will the shark. After watching for a good 10 minutes and it was still following the yacht, I decided to get my camera and as soon as I tried to step away, I saw another grey shadow move in the water. It was another shark!! This was my lucky day. For a full week, I had seen none and now there were two of them. I really did run to my cabin and got my camera and tried to take a picture of both of them at the same time but I could only manage to get one in the shot. They look so graceful gliding just below the surface of the water. And they just kept up with the yacht for almost half an hour. It was quite a spectacle to see.
We landed on North Seymour shortly after 6:30am. We had not yet had breakfast so the early morning excursion was a bit different than our routine for the last week. Omar said there would be lots of birds to see but the place looked like it was deserted of even sea lions and that was a rare feat.  The vegetation was quite stark – looking like every tree had died and there were only trunks and branches left.
We walked for a bit and could not really see anything. I thought to myself that this was going to be one shore excursion that was going to be a dud. But we rounded a corner and there was a blue-footed boobie with one of her young. The youngster looks quite different than a fully-grown one. They are the purest white downy colour with black beaks. No other colour. Then we saw other boobie chicks in various stages of growth, from just hatched to a couple of weeks old. 

By now we had seen a number of the blue-footed boobies but had not seen any young ones so this was different. Nevertheless, they are still stunning.

What we were really hoping to see were frigate birds but they are hard to find and sometimes only on specific islands. I wasn’t sure this was one of the islands but Omar said that if we were lucky, we’d spot some.

And then I spotted one in a tree! Male frigate birds have a red sack – sort of like an airbag - just under their bill and when they want to court a female, they will inflate the sack. This can take as long as 30 minutes to do. Once it’s inflated, they then call to the females and the females come and check them out. If she likes what she sees – a big sack that is very red – she’ll let the mail know that he’s the one. If not, she flies off to check out other males and he sits there calling other females in the hope that one of them will find him attractive. The one I spotted had only a partially inflated sack but I reckoned that if that was the only one I’d see, I’d be satisfied with the picture.

Then we walked a bit further into the island and we saw some female ones.

There are two types – great and magnificent. Those are really the names and they really do look great and magnificent. One of the females had a very young chick, most likely just hatched a day or two before.

Then the most marvelous sight – a male perched in a practically leafless tree in all his glory - with wings spread wide apart and his sack completely inflated – calling to any female to tell him that he was the one. You should have seen it. The pose was utterly impressive

Then we saw two males with their inflated sacks and a female sitting right next to them trying to decide which one she found more handsome and he would be her partner. She picked one and the other sat there looking so crestfallen. Imagine you are a suitor competing with another male for the affection of one girl. Think of how you would feel if you pictured yourself to be so handsome and irresistible – only to have the girl look at you then pick the other guy. Talk about rejection. And talk about pretending to continue to look cool even in the face of rejection! Hard but it’s survival of the fittest as Darwin said.

A couple of last pictures of the bell flower, a Darwin finch and a female frigate bird with the most enchanting blue bill and blue rings on its eyes.

This was a great morning. What a way to start the day – to see some rare birds and so many of them on one place. Back to the yacht for breakfast and then off to the Baltra airport for our flight back to Quito.
I had so much to think about in the plane that my mind could hardly settle on one image that I liked better than the next. I have so many great pictures in my head that I wish that I could have captured all of them on my camera but some things are best left in my head for me to enjoy in moments of solitude.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador: Bartolome Island & Sullivan Bay, Santiago Island

As you can see from the map above, Bartolome Island is a small island off the coast of Santiago Island (North West of Santa Cruz island which is in the middle of the map).  That was our first stop today.

This morning I got up at about 5:30 and watched the sunrise. This time, the colours in the sky looked quite breathtaking. My camera doesn't quite capture the shades of pink and grey but suffice to say, it was lovely. If you look at the top of the hill, as the sun was rising, you might be able to make out what looks like a stick at the top (on the right side of the point of the top hill). I thought that must make for a good lookout point but it sure was high. Little did I know that it was the same place we were headed later that morning. Had I known, I may have said that I already had a picture, thank you - and I would sit this one out. But after Cusco and Machu PIcchu, this might seem like a cake walk.

There was also an amazing rock formation, seemingly emerging in the middle of the water. It is not accessible to people, making it a good nesting place for many birds.

On the way over to Bartolome Island, Alfredo the panga operator saw a penguin (not seen much at this time of year as the water is a bit too warm for them). He was the lone one standing on a rock so Alfredo took us over in the panga just so we could take a picture.
We then headed off to another part of the island for a dry landing today but it's not really that dry. We were not jumping out of the panga on to a beach but the pier which is supposed to be a dry landing is usually wet and extremely slippery from the algae and the rising tides, so it can be very dangerous to step out the wrong way. Omar always tells us to be careful and we are not allowed to leave the panga unless he or a crew member is already out and we have to grab and hold their forearm to get in or out.

Today I witnessed why they said it could be extremely dangerous to step in or out without care. Another group of people were just leaving the island when we arrived and their guide was telling them to be careful but one woman disregarded what the guide was saying and she moved quite quickly from the dry area to the wet, slippery area to attempt to board their panga without assistance. I was watching this from about 20 feet above her and I suddenly heard a crash and saw her disappear from my sight. She had slipped and fallen into the water but fortunately, it was not where the tide was crashing into the pier but on the other side which was somewhat sheltered. I almost felt bad for her but only almost. It was so totally preventable. If she had listened when the guide was telling the group to be extremely careful, it may not have happened. We were quite lucky that not one single person on our tour had an accident.
Now for Bartolome island: yes we had to climb 365 stairs to the top of the hill where I had taken the sunrise picture. Someone had taken the time to mark the stairs by the days of each month (for a total of 365). We got up to the end of February and stopped at a platformed lookout point; I think whomever built it was taking pity on people like us who are not really capable of doing the entire 365 at one time so they call it a lookout point but it's really a resting station! Omar took just enough time to explain the scenery and vegetation - or in this case, a lack of vegetation - and then we climbed another two months (60 stairs) to the next lookout point (aka resting place so we could catch our breath without looking too embarrassed). We did see some candlestick cactus but there must have been about three sets of these in the entire landscape that we saw (although my pictures are the same cactus photographed 3 times).

We finally made it to the top and I have to say that even the young(er) people were huffing and puffing when they got to the top so I didn't feel bad that we all rested along the way. The view from the top was impressive so we decided that a group picture was in order. Omar took the picture. You can see in the second (smaller of the two yachts) and third picture that the Darwin yacht is anchored off shore. That's usually as close to the islands that it will get and then we have to go the rest of the way by panga.  

We were relieved to be going downhill after the 265 stair climb but if you think down hill is easy, then you have not done too many stairs. Yes you don't exert as much energy as climbing uphill but it takes more skill not to do it too quickly or else you can go head first down many stairs.
Sullivan Bay, Santiago Island

Sullivan Bay was where we were supposed to see the lava formations and I was prepared not to be impressed but was I in for a surprise!. Some of these lava formations were referred to as "ropes" because they looked like someone had braided ropes and formed them into rugs with interesting patterns. See for yourself.

During a volcano, the lava flows hot and red with temperatures exceeding 2000 degrees F. As the lava cools, it forms these patterns. They look like they should be crumbly but they are hard as rocks because that's what they are! The same stuff you have at the bottom of your gas barbeque that lasts for years and years. except that this is not porous but smooth and hard and almost entirely non-porous.

Then there was the intestinal lava or brain lava - whichever image suits your imagination. It must have been my years of plucking chickens when I was a kid that made me think that it looked more like intestines than brains but a couple people thought it looked like brains. You decide. I'll stick to intestines.

Then we saw some lava bubbles where the lava dried and left a hole in the middle - like this one.

 Then there was the lava sinkhole that Robin decided to climb into.

Then there was the vegetation. Hard to find but this is what grows here - a very small plant that anyone would be hard pressed to explain its survival in intolerable conditions.

Then there were patterns that any artist would appreciate. I swear some of it looks like modern or abstract art. Again, see for yourself.

I have to say that I my expectations for this afternoon were not high but at the end of the afternoon, I had completely eaten my words. You have to appreciate Pache Mama (Earth Mother) in all her glory.

I went back to the boat feeling very satisfied that if the trip ended, I would have seen everything I wanted to see - and so much more. That evening, the crew served us cocktails since it was our last night. They said we were to have a par-tay but most of us went to bed quite early. It turned out to be a rough night on the high seas so no one was in the mood for partying. I now see why some  intoxicated people are referred to as drunken sailors. Without alcohol you can move on the yacht as if you were drunk, staggering from one side to the other just to walk 10 feet and you'd be lucky if you didn't crash into something or someone.

Tomorrow is our last day so we have an early morning activity before breakfast and then breakfast and then we leave for our flight back to Quito.