May 2008 Archives

Back in Guayaquil and back at home

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Our 10-hour daytime layover in Guayaquil was a matter of necessity to get back home to Zizou in a timely manner.  This was especially brutal as there ain't a whole lot to do for 10-hours in this lil' town.

Walking the Malecon is good for a bit of entertainment without any fear of getting mugged or the like.  We called it the "Green Zone" as it's fenced in and just a totally sterile world compared to life on the other side.  Had some lunch at a rather expensive Basque restaurant whose name I can't recall—but it was outside of the Green Zone.  Spent 90 minutes on the internet only to find out that absolutely nothing had changed in the Democratic primaries.  And finally hopped a cab to the restaurant Lo Nuestro…

Lo Nuestro was the only restaurant I could find particularly called out as being one of Guayaquil's finest.  And we got there to find nothing but Americanos.  Buzz kill.

Our flight to IAH ended up with a 2-hour delay, but I was excited to find free wifi at GYE to help kill some of that time.  Our delay prevented us from catching a shower in IAH, but no problems catching out connecting flight back to the northwest.  The highlight was the TSA officer in Houston meeting our Guayaquil flight telling me "gracias" for taking my shoes off.

Smooth sailing on our flights and we even caught our planned two Seattle busses home.  Zizou was excited to get his mouth on his new stuffed blue footed booby.

Moral of the story: go to the Galapagos.  Worth every penny.

Day 8 schedule:

  • 05:50 Dinghy ride inside mangrove
  • 07:00 Back on board → Breakfast
  • 08:15 Bus ride to the Airport

The end is near.  This morning is just an easy going paddle around the mangroves before heading to the airport.  It was mid-tide so the viewing wasn't totally ideal.  But we saw loads of sea turtles and a few posses of golden rays.  It's kinda silly, but at day eight I found myself yelling "no mas!" to sea turtle sightings.

I forgot to put the memory card back in the point and shoot for this outing, so again we leave this segment in the dark.

During breakfast, the crew hustled our luggage to the airport where we would reunite with it.  Wished farewell to the crew and we were back on a TAME bus to the airport (but not before also saying goodbye to those sea lions snoozing on the bench that first greeted us).

The bus arrived at the Galapagos airport more than two hours before departure--not our usual style.  But there are lots of shops outside you can pick up last minute key chains and such from, so that will kill up to ten minutes.

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Galapagos Islands – Day 7 – Bartolome

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Day 7 afternoon schedule:

  • 13:30 Snorkel
  • 15:00 Back on the Samba
  • 15:30 Dry landing
  • 368 steps to the top of the Island
  • 17:00 Back to the boat
  • Sail to Santa Cruz
  • 19:15 Dinner

An American oystercatcher getting its oystercatching on...

Few photos exist of us from this trip....but here we are with an oh so sleepy sea lion...

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Apparently this is the most photographed shot in the Galapagos...it's a really cool vista where you have a 360 degree view of all the islands in the archipelago.  That's pinnacle rock on the right...the US Air Force takes some credit for that rock formation.  USA!  USA!

Day 7 morning schedule:

  • 06:00 Wake up call
  • 06:30 Breakfast
  • 07:15 Wet landing
  • 3 Km walk by the coast line
  • 09:00 Snorkel
  • 10:00 Back on board
  • Sail to Bartolomé → landscape
  • 12:00 Lunch

Little guy in a tuxedo was the first to greet us here...

Marine iguanas galore...

The nocturnal Galapagos fur seal...

Snorkeling post will come separately courtesy of Lillie--but this spot was good times as we saw the penguin underwater chasing/catching fish.

Day 6 - Fernandina - Punta Espinosa

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Day 6 afternoon schedule:

  • 13:00 Dry landing
  • 1 mile walk
  • 15:00 Back on the Samba
  • Sail to Ecuador Volcano
  • 18:30 Equator Cocktails!
  • 19:00 Dinner

The mission on this stop is to see the marine iguanas at their peak of activity--and it's blazing hot at this hour of day.  So plan on spending a bit of time here just sitting on the lava rocks and watching hordes of iguanas swimming back to land to warm up after some diving for food.

Babies on back...

A relatively rare sight of a Hawaiian sea turtle basking in the sun...

And an extremely rare sight of an adult marine iguana cannibalizing a baby...

Back on the boat, this is one of the few afternoons were you find yourself with a few hours to spend on deck as opposed to just eating dinner and going to bed.  There are some great views of all the volcanoes on this stretch, as well as the ceremonial equator crossing.  We all gathered on el Capitan's bridge to watch the GPS turn to 0.00--the comedy came when the GPS skipped from 0.01 South straight to 0.01 North.

Juan and el Capitan were quick to correct this as they turned the boat around to accommodate this cheap thrill.  Within a few minutes span, we crossed the Equator three times--that's some serious bang for the buck we got there.

Not that I'm keeping track or anything, but in the last year we've crossed the Equator, Tropic of Capricorn, and Arctic Circle.  Nice.

Day 6 - Isabela – Urbina Bay

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Day 6 morning schedule:

  • 06:00 Wake up call
  • 06:30 Breakfast
  • 07:15 Wet landing
  • 1 mile walk
  • 09:00 Beach Snorkel
  • 10:00 Back on board
  • Sail to Fernandina

There's a gap in the photographic record here as for some reason we didn't bring our little point and shoot camera out with us this morning.  Had we brought the camera, you would see some photos of enormous land iguanas here.  There are also finches galore--but in all honesty, those finches are so impossible for the uneducated to tell apart it's hard to get too excited about 'em.

Day 5 afternoon schedule:

  • 15:30 Dinghy ride inside mangrove
  • 18:00 Back on board
  • 19:00 Dinner

No shoes necessary this afternoon.  It's a smooth paddle around the mangroves.

And this outing provided first sighting of the little dudes that I'd been especially spastic about wanting to see...the Galapagos Penguin--the world's only tropical penguin.  How can these guys not make you smile?  That guy below on the left performed the most ungraceful "dive" into the water you could possibly imagine.  It was like a face-forward trust fall/belly-flop.  Absolutely hysterical.

This sea turtle is a migrant from Indonesia...

It was at this time, that the battery on my camera started to die.  And due to an extremely unfortunate event involving a wet bathing suit and the charger, the camera was soon to enter retirement for the rest of this trip.

Of course this sputtered right when our dinghy pulled up at one of the most incredible sights of the trip--a small islet that was quite the advertisement for the Galapagos.  Side by side there were: blue footed boobies, nazca boobies, Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants, marine iguanas, sally lightfoot crabs, and the most attention starved sea lions you could imagine.

Our guide Juan was equally delighted as he reminded us this was something that very few tourists to the islands ever get to see. 

Day 5 morning schedule:

  • 05:30 Wake up call
  • 06:00 Breakfast
  • 06:45 Dry landing
  • 2 ½ miles lava walk
  • 09:30 Back on the Samba
  • 10:00 Snorkel
  • 11:30 Back on board
  • 12:00 Lunch

Isabela Island is one that most boats don't make it out to--so we had it entirely to ourselves.  All 14 of us.  Can't beat that.

Despite traversing scorching lava rock, our guide Juan kept it real and continued to roll barefoot.  Wildlife takes a bit of a backseat this morning, while Juan drops his knowledge on vulcanology.

This is quite the change in scenery---lava rock with a volcano (Cera Azul?) in the background...

Here's a pioneer plant, the lava cactus.  Grows 1cm/year--so you can bet on this little guy being multiple hundreds of years old...

Just the two of us...

Day 4 afternoon schedule:

  • 15:00 Wet landing
  • Post card exchange
  • Relax on the beach/Kayak/swim
  • 17:00 Back to the Samba
  • Sail to Isabela (10 hours)
  • 19:00 Dinner

In the 1700's, whalers setup a barrel here as a mail drop for folks passing through.  Leave something for someone to pick up later...or pick up something addressed to somewhere you're heading and personally deliver it.  So the tradition continues with the touristas passing through.

We went through the stacks of postcards and found one addressed to someone in West Seattle.  Perfect--Lillie delivered it last week.  And it's totally cheating to bring home a postcard, put a stamp on it, and mail it---this happened to a card we addressed to South Haven, Michigan. 

There's a little soccer field setup here that the boat crews get together on for a bit while we roam the beach.  Great to see these guys have a bit of fun considering how hard they work for all of us.  Though there was this one dude playing who had like four intentional hand balls--I was absolutely infuriated watching from the sidelines. 

Ten hours of sailing this evening--sailing which you can expect to encounter some rough seas on...

Underwater Fun

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Snorkeling is a big part of a Galapagos trip, so we were definitely surprised when only about half of our group decided to go for it.  After checking out pictures in advance and reading lots of trip reports, we were pretty excited and even stocked up on some gear – including a buoyancy vest for Vinod!  He hadn’t spent much time in the water previously, but the vest gave him the confidence he needed to accomplish his dream of swimming with penguins.

We had six opportunities to snorkel on our trip (three from the dinghy and three beach snorkels), and we went out for the first five.  Let me preface the snorkeling descriptions by saying how tricky it is to take shots under water!  You’re moving, the fish are moving, the display is too dark to see, and the mask eliminates the ability to look through the viewfinder.  We ended up with a lot of shots of beautiful fish tails and some fantastic memories!

Our first snorkel was at Gardner Bay, and we were excited to find a couple of sea lions who wanted to play!  We were just getting used to using the camera underwater, so no real amazing wildlife shots from this snorkel, but we did get my trip favorite of the two of us.

 

Next up was Devil’s Crown – revered as the best snorkeling in the Galapagos, and it didn’t let down.  There was a minute of panic in the beginning when another snorkeler got scared right after entering the water, and the guide went rushing off to help her.  We got through it and were once again well-rewarded.

A beautiful blue Starfish

 

Sea Lions (yep, they were that close to my leg!)

Our guide Juan swimming with a Sea Lion.

Octopus

 

White-tipped Reef Shark (we saw the full shark, but could only seem to catch half of it in our photos)

 

Our next snorkel was at Urbina Bay and was full of Sea Turtles!  This one is swimming with a pair of sergeantmajor fish.

 

This parrotfish deserves a mention as well, since it was my most photogenic underwater subject.

 

At this point we miss another snorkel full of sea turtles because we, once again, forgot to replace the memory card in the camera before heading out at Punta Morena.  It was a bit choppy there and consequently murky under the water, so it was the best day to leave it behind. 

Our last snorkel was at Puerto Egas. 

 

Scorpion Fish

 

That black missile toward the top is a penguin!!

Here he is up close and blurry.

 

Vinod’s one and only underwater photo was of a migrant sea turtle.

Dolphins at Sea

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This was straight out of Planet Earth--and it happened on two separate occasions in open water.  Bottlenose dolphins by the hundreds surrounding our boat and jumping about left, right, and in front.  One of the most spectacular things we've ever witnessed, especially the first time when the dolphins appeared right at sunset. 

However due to said awe, the pictures are a bit sketchy/lacking...so you'll have to take our word for it.

Day 4 AM Schedule:

  • 05:30 Wake up call
  • 06:00 Breakfast
  • 06:45 Wet landing
  • 1 mile walk over volcanic ash
  • 10:00 swim
  • 11:00 Back on board
  • 11:30 Lunch

This morning was about greater flamingos in a brackish lagoon.  You can see the specks of pink scattered out below:

This one is fun as you can see the zig-zagging trail of kicked up sand the flamingos leave behind in their search for tiny crustaceans to munch on...

My best effort capturing the colors of the sally lightfoot...

The great blue heron, or as the birders like to call it--the GBH.  Great lookin' bird.  Saw one eat a baby marine iguana later in the trip, too...

Not just Blue Footed Boobies here...the Waved Albatross gets their nests on here.

While their mating dance doesn't involve the comical dancing of the boobies, the waved albatross definitely puts on a sweet show.  Our photos don't really do this justice, but there's lots of open beaks (above) and beak fencing (below) between the males and females.

Check out the slick pattern on their chest and you'll see where the name comes from...

Seven-foot wing-span...

Keeping an egg warm...

A threesome gone terribly wrong...

Amazing island. 

This was my personal favorite stop of the trip.  For many, the blue footed booby is the first animal you think of when the Galapagos comes to mind.  So to see them by the hundreds and hundreds was most excellent.  They do not disappoint.  And they are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face as you watch them do their dance.

Doing a little dance/high-stepping...

Guy and gal courting one another...

A baby booby that hasn't yet turned blue...

One of the things I was looking forward to seeing was a booby coming in for a landing.  As seen on TV it's a hilarious affair--they throw out their big feet in front of them as a brake.  I was close to capturing this, but I was just too slow with the camera...

Not a dance...just an ear scratch...

Getting ice-grilled...

First stop of the day is Gardner Bay, where it is sea lions galore. 

Day 3 Schedule:

  • 7:15 - Wet landing at Gardner Bay
  • Beach walk - 1 mile
  • 9:30 - Back to the Samba
  • 10:00 - Snorkel/Kayak
  • 11:30 - Back on board
  • 12:00 - Lunch
  • 15:00 - Dry landing at Punta Suarez
  • 5 km walk
  • 18:00 - back to the boat
  • 19:00 - Dinner
  • 20:00 - Sail to Floreana (4.5 hours)

Gardner Bay littered with sea lions...

That's the Samba below in the background...

So cute, indeed.  But while the marine iguanas we saw next aren't quite as cute, they are pretty darn cool.

While sitting in the sand, this little head popped up to say hello...

Looks like a little alien gnawing on algae...

This is the ubiquitous sally lightfoot crab--amazing colors...

We spent the night anchored at Puerto Ayora--the largest town on the Galapagos.  This gives the boat and crew some time to restock on supplies while we check out some giant tortoises.

Day 2 Schedule:

  • 6:30 - Breakfast
  • 7:15 - Dry Landing
  • 2 km walk to the Charles Darwin Research Station
  • 10:30 - Walk back to town
  • 12:00 - Lunch at La Garrapata
  • 13:30 - 30-minute bus ride to the highlands
  • Visit to Los Gemelos
  • Visit to El Chato
  • 17:00 - Back to Puerto Ayora
  • 18:00 - Back on board
  • 18:30 - Dinner
  • 23:00 - Sail to Española

This was a bit of an odd day in that you're in a little tourist town all of a sudden.  But this gave us the chance to purchase a stuffed blue-footed booby and magnificent frigate for a certain Zizou.  A smart thing I noticed a few boatmates do here was to purchase booze for consumption on board.  While drinks on the boat are totally reasonably priced, you could save a few bucks this way.

Our afternoon schedule strayed from the above due to ridiculous rain in the highlands.  We didn't end up spending long on the hunt for tortoises in the wild and instead strolled through some lava tubes and stayed a bit more dry.

Now the big feature at the Charles Darwin Research Center is ol' Lonesome George.  He was pretty far away and not terribly exciting, but here's George:

 

We then moved to some feeding platforms where females and males were snacking on some greenery.  Hilarious to watch as they are total slobs.

 

 

So flexible...

 

 

Big yawn...

 

 

These boys are huge...

 

 

Some new birds--like the warbler finch...

 

 

Galapagos flycatcher...

 

 

We love this Galapagos dove who looks all raggedy trying to dry off from the recent downpour...

 

Day 1 - Galapagos Islands - Santa Cruz

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After our first lunch on board we received our first briefing from Juan on the day's agenda--in PowerPoint!  Typically, these briefings are daily after dinner so you can prep for the next day and ask any questions from the just completed day.

Day 1 Schedule:

  • 14:00 Dry landing on South Plaza
  • 2 mile walk
  • 17:00 Back on board
  • Sail to Puerto Ayora
  • 19:00 Dinner

South Plaza has some nice diversity and is a great first stop.  Sea lions, land iguanas, and all varieties of birds.  I'll say right now that photos of sea lions can get a bit gratuitous--they are adorable and seemingly posing for the camera.  A great life they have.

So first some sea lions...

 

Then we've got the land iguanas...

 

A swallow tailed gull looking back...

 

Red-billed tropicbird--these are just gorgeous in flight...

 

Nazca booby--another classy bird flying...

 

Brown pelican--these are everywhere...

 

Lava heron...

 

Yellow warbler...

 

This is actually the Galapagos shark--taken from quite a distance...

After meeting our guide for the week Juan and the first mate Camilo; we fetched our bags, gave them to Camilo, and then boarded a TAME bus with Juan to head to the port--our bags would meet us on the boat.

At the port, you're immediately greeted by these sea lions:


We hopped in the dinghys and boarded our home for the next week, the Samba.  We were joined by twelve other touristas.  We were the lone members in their 20's, but the 30's, 40's, 50's, 60's, and 70's were all represented.  Also the lone Americanos--Australia, UK, and the Netherlands rounded things off.

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This ain't the QE2, but it was perfect for our tastes.  The big winning criteria in our selecting this boat was the itinerary.  If you're looking to visit the western islands, your options are immediately narrowed down.  Cross off the uber-expensive and the mega cruise ships and you're left with the Samba and Cachalote.  Then it came down to availability and the Samba won out--we booked in January and snagged the last two spots.  If you want a good boat like this, you really have to plan ahead.  Many on the boat had booked a year in advance.

Here's the itinerary we cruised in a clockwise direction departing from Baltra.  From our research, the only big thing you won't see is the red-footed booby--you'd need to visit Genovesa for them.  Next time, I guess.

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Let's say right now that we give the Samba huge thumbs up in every regard.  Great itinerary.  Three tasty meals a day that showed incredible diversity and creativity given the conditions.  And a spectacular crew.

Now we'll single out the guide Juan.  It's safe to say that everyone aboard had crushes/man-crushes on him.  Twenty-six years old, born and raised on the Galapagos, university in Quito, speaks English like he's from California, and seems to know everything there is to know about seemingly everything.  Throw in his ability to explain things like vulcanology in a way everyone could understand, and he was a real gem.  Other groups would stop to eavesdrop, marvel, and compliment us for being so lucky to have such a great guide.

If you're interested in learning as much as possible about this archipelago (instead of just laying around in the sand), you would be well served to go through the effort of finding out Juan's guiding schedule on the Samba.  "Sadly", he has a kiddo on the way so it will be throttled back a bit.  It was awesome to hear him talk on the last day about him and the crew of the Samba doing everything they can to ensure their future generations enjoy the same Galapagos they know.

TAME to the Galapagos

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Our boat's embarkation/debarkation is timed around specific TAME flights to Baltra, Galapagos (GPS).  If you ask your booking agent for the boat nicely, you can save a few bucks buying these airline tickets yourself through tame.com.ec.  The "tricky" part is that you must book through the Espanol portion of the site in order to receive an eticket.  Otherwise you're going to find yourself with an unpaid reservation that will require the silly extra step of paying at the airport or something.

Now there's a bit of hokey pokey you have to do here at the airport.  First head to the INGALA desk near the ticket counters to get your Galapagos Tourist Card for $10.  You can save some time on the paperwork here by completing beforehand online.  You then get an absurd little credit card like card to hang onto and flash upon arrival.  Next, you throw all your luggage through an x-ray machine (much like the checkpoints in Hawaii) and receive special tags on your bags giving you the green light to move over to the TAME counters and check in.

Plane geeks would be excited to board this TAME Boeing 727.  Enjoyed a breakfast coke and ham sandwich before landing in GPS after an hour and a half.

Upon landing, it's time to fork over $100 each for the National Park fee.  You'll need to show your INGALA card and entry stamp to Ecuador in your passport.  From here, you'll find all the guides standing around holding up signs for their respective boats.  Now it was time to Samba.

Night in Guayaquil

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We cashed in 35K WorldPerks each for round trip Seattle to Ecuador.  In my opinion, this northern South America award is one of the great values in redemptions.  We flew to DFW on Alaska and then picked up Continental to Houston and onwords to Guayaquil. 

We landed around 11:30pm and were relieved to find our bags succeeded making the double connection.  The contingency plan had they not made it was pretty sketchy.  Leaving baggage claim we began to scan for signs pointing us to the hotel shuttles--unexpectedly, we instead found a guy from the Sheraton Guayaquil standing there with our name on a sign.  Nice.

Upon check-in, we got our first taste of what became a recurring theme throughout Ecuador: "So do you need two rooms?"  Either Ecuadorians are extremely unpresumptuous or there's not a lot of brown/white couples roaming around.  This happened time and again in various forms and was always amusing.

Standard Sheraton room so nothing exciting there.  Caught the end of Conan on NBC Miami, decent breakfast including in the morning, and back on the shuttle at 7:30am for the 3-minute ride back to the airport.  Next stop Galapagos...

Guayaquil Bound

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We're off to a classy start here--washing cheese spread and crackers down with water at the Continental President's Club in Houston.  Next stop is the Sheraton Guayaquil about 5.5 hours from now.  Away we go.

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But for now I have to pass the ThinkPad to Lillie for her final Facebook check-in for a bit...

Lazy Sunday

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I later vacuumed the couch.