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Beyond Europe (Ecuador)

Quito - City of Persnickety Cabbies
So I'm trying to get a taxi to take me to an evening concert at the Basilica de Voto Nacional. It was within walking distance, but it was a long walk, and my guide book advised taking taxis after dark for all but the shortest distances if one was traveling alone. The street my hotel was on doesn't get much traffic, so I went to the next street, flagged a cab, and got in. "Basilica de Voto Nacional" didn't seem to register with the cabbie (very odd, as it is one of the biggest cathedrals in town) so I showed him how to get there on my map. As we were heading away from the cathedral, this involved making two right turns and going straight for several blocks. This, it seems, was too much trouble, so the cabbie pulled over and pointed to the next street over. Somewhat perplexed, I exited his cab and walked to the next street (where traffic was heading directly to the Basilica) and flagged another cab. Again, my destination seemed unknown, and when I tried to show the cabbie my map and point out that all he had to do was drive in a straight line for several blocks, he indicated that he wasn't interested in any non-Spanish speaking passengers and ordered me out of the cab. By now, I'm rather angry, but after going a block out of my way on the first ride, I've regained the lost distance and then some as the second driver went a couple short blocks while we "discussed" the map. I figured if I make a block or two with each aborted ride, I'd only need about four or five more rides. As it turned out, the next cabbie had no problem taking me where I wanted to go.

Aside from the above, I found the people in Quito very friendly and helpful, and despite various safety warnings online and in my guidebook, I felt very comfortable there.

Quito is rather striking, filled with old colonial era buildings and surrounded by mountains. I stayed in the old town and aside from a day trip to a few equators, I didn’t venture out of the old town. I stayed at Hostal Rincon Familiar, for a mere $72 (total!) for four nights in a private room, which included a modest breakfast (scrambled egg, bread, cheese, coffee/tea and fresh-squeezed (and delicious) juice. The shower was interesting - I wasn't very comfortable with the "insulation" on the electric shower head, but proceeded to use it anyway. It delivered plenty of hot water, but when I adjusted the shower head position, I could feel a mild but distinct electrical current. English was pretty spotty with the hotel staff, but one of the managers spoke very good English, and when I encountered him a few days later and described the issue, he said if I wore flip-flops I would not feel the shock. Other than that, I was very happy and would return to this same hostal.

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65 posts

The Hunt for the Equator
So I felt this silly compulsion to stand on the equator, which happens to be fairly close to Quito. In fact, there are two tourist sites which claim to be on the equator: La Mited del Mundo and Museo Inti Nan. According to several sources, neither are on the exact spot, but both are close, and since there is a considerable amount of infrastructure associated with both of them, and they seem to generate a fair amount of tourist revenue, they maintain that they are accurate.
The true equator, it would seem, runs through a pre-Columbian stone circle atop a nearby mountain called Catequilla. (This has been confirmed by the most up-to-date GPS devices.) Although numerous tour operators in Quito run tour buses to Mitad del Mundo and/or Inti Nan, to get to Catequilla I had to make arrangements to hire a driver for a few hours (I visited all three sites).
Both of the "wrong" equators are worth visiting for the various exhibits on indigenous people, and the guides at Inti Nan give several entertaining (but bogus) demonstrations that supposedly prove that it lies on the equator.
The biggest thrill of the day involved the road up a Catequilla, a winding dirt road with a steep drop off and a couple of sandy hairpin turns in the uppermost (and steepest) sections. I'd have taken a few more pictures of the road, but I was otherwise occupied, what with being paralyzed with fear. At one point, the driver pointed to the VW logo on his steering wheel, thankful he was driving a German-engineered vehicle. I was afraid he would refuse to complete the drive up to the top (I wasn't sure his VW, a big 10 or 12 seat passenger van, would even make it up the last stretch) but he stuck it out, and we were rewarded with nice panoramic views and the knowledge that we had (probably) made it to the equator. (Of course, one could simply drive back and forth over a couple of roads down below and be certain that the equator had in fact been crossed, but that wouldn't be near as much fun.)

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Galapagos Islands
After a few days on the mainland, I spent the rest of my vacation on the Galapagos Islands. It’s quite expensive, but I visited in the off-season, and I took day trips rather than a cruise ship. I’ve heard various pros and cons about the cruise ships vs day trips, but the bottom line is that I was very happy with my choice. I stayed at the Sir Francis Drake hotel on Isla Santa Cruz for $40 a night, and spent one night on Isla San Cristobal for a mere $15 (private rooms in both cases.) A typical day trip involves hopping onto a small boat (8-20 passengers) for a two-hour jaunt to another island. A trained naturalist/guide accompanies these trips, which involve hiking and/or snorkeling. (Dive trips are also available. I’d book a few trips ahead of time, and booked a few more after I arrived. (It’s generally cheaper to book after arrival, but then you run the risk of trips filling up.) However, there are many agencies and options, so you could probably find some sort of trip at last minute. You can also travel to a few of the islands on your own, and there are a various sites that don’t require an “escort”. Because these islands were formed at different times over a looonnnnggg period, the terrain, flora and fauna vary dramatically from one to another.
The wildlife was amazing. Since everything is protected and tourism is rather tightly controlled, the animals don’t seem to mind people, and the sea lions often seem ready to play. (Beware – the iguanas will spit at you if you get too close – trust me!) The snorkeling was fantastic. The water was on the cool side (some wore wet suits, I didn’t) but I got used to it pretty quickly, and I saw all sorts of sea life.

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Food
The food on the islands as well as the mainland was tasty and often cheap. You could get a nice set lunch (soup, fish or chicken with a small side salad and rice, plus fresh juice) for $4. Even when I splurged on lobster with appetizers and drinks, I spent only $30. Ceviche was a specialty (I’ve had it before, and tried it a couple time here, but I just don’t care for it) and plantains in various forms pop up with many meals. Tasty empanadas and tamales were a quick, cheap fill up at odd times.

Here are some snapshots:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/chuck_llama/albums/72157678406368156

Posted by
8295 posts

Hi Chuck, I REALLY enjoyed reading your report... you are a very good writer... love your humor. Enjoyed your photos... especially Snoopy and the scary shower head... wear flip flops! lol

Posted by
111 posts

Great pictures, Chuck! The Galapagos Islands are on my list of places to visit, so I really enjoyed reading this and looking at your pictures!

Posted by
333 posts

What a fun trip report, Chuck! I really enjoyed reading about it and loved the pictures!

Thanks for sharing!

Lisa

Posted by
67 posts

Loved your travel journal and pictures.

May I ask what camera you used?

Thanks for sharing!

Posted by
65 posts

Thanks folks; glad you enjoyed my post.

ang84335, the Galapagos were fantastic! Originally, I was not going to go there, but I recently received "lemons" and decided to make "lemonade" by extending the overall trip length while cutting back on the mainland portion. My advice would be to do a lot of research before the trip, as there are so many different options. Like I said, there are pros and cons to the cruise trips, and timing, size of party, personal preferences, willingness to "gamble", etc, can affect one's choice for the "best" option.

I'd say Bartolome (eerie lava landscape), North Seymour (great walk among iguanas, blue-footed boobies, sea lions, and frigate birds), and Pincon (awesome snorkeling with playful sea lions, etc) were my favorites. I wish I'd snorkeled at Tuneles and Kicker Rock as well.

There's one teensy "downside" to the Galapagos - I mailed post cards in mid October and they did not arrive until after Christmas!

gtjackets8083, both of my cameras are Nikon "point-and-shoot" models. The underwater photos and some of the land photos were taken with a Coolpix AW120. I was quite happy with it. It's rated to 18 meters, so it may not be suitable for scuba diving, but it worked great while I was snorkeling. The rest of the photos were taken with a Coolpix L300? (can't remember the exact model number, 3-something anyway)

Posted by
234 posts

That was a fun and informative read, Thanks so much for sharing. My favorite photo is that of the "lizard" amongst the crab. As far as that electric current on the shower, I know exactly what you went through, as I experienced that in El Salvador. The first time I felt that current, while soaked with water, was a second of "Why am I still alive." I asked a friend about it, and he said it's normal. Still, pretty odd system.

Posted by
6871 posts

Chuck,
I loved your photos and report. I have a few questions, as I just learned that the Galapagos islands can be seen as day trips (that is news to me - I thought all the trips there were through a pre-packaged tours via pricy boats).
1) First question - I assume that there are visitor maximums that govern how many folks can land on any island...if so, how do the small independent day tours allocate these spots? Are they only allowed a max number of runs with "x" number of passengers, for example? How does it work? I'm thinking it's like Macchu Picchu - only a limited number are allowed so as not to completely destroy/overwhelm the place.
2) You mentioned a typical day trip is a 2-hour jaunt with a guide. Are there options for an entire day, or at least half day? Two hours may be too short for me - I like to wander and take lots of photos. Where does the guide take you, and do you have any "free" time to explore?
3) Roughly how much is a plane trip from Quito to a city hub on the Galapagos? Which city serves as this hub?
4) In retrospect, do you think the perception of safety in Quito is overblown? Everything I've read says that the government has really cleaned up the place (a few years ago, I believe) to make it more palatable for tourists...does it still have some kind of stigma as far as safety is concerned? I don't think I'd have any issue going there as a single woman or with a female friend even now. I do speak passable Spanish so that's helpful.
5) Is there anything you learned that you wish you knew prior to the trip, or something that you were really surprised by?

Posted by
681 posts

Thanks for the report. I am going there in late May so it was pretty exciting to read all about it.

Posted by
2018 posts

What a terrific trip report, Chuck! I so enjoyed reading about your adventures and looking at your photo album. I particularly loved to ones of the "critters" and in particular, the ones from under the water. The shower looks scary! I can see it was quite an amazing trip and thank you for sharing it on the forum!

Posted by
65 posts

Hi Agnes, glad to answer your questions...

1) "visitor maximums" - There are many agencies on the main streets in Puerto Ayora (the main city on Isla Santa Cruz) and many, many boats zipping in and out and around. If you don't have trips set up, you can walk in and find out what is available. For the most part, they spoke little English, but with the little Spanish I know, it making arrangements was easy enough. Prices are sometimes negotiable, and don't include tips. I'm not sure of the details, but they seem to coordinate visits by different groups so that there are not too many people at a given site at the same time. I never felt crowded during the day trips. Note that some of the islands cannot be visited except on an overnight cruise ship, due to the distances involved.

2) "typical day trip" - The two-hour jaunt was the opening leg of each day trip, from the docks at Puerto Ayora to a landing site on a given island (a couple trips begin with a drive across the island to a different launch point). We'd hike for an hour or two, then take a boat on a short hop to another site for more hiking and/or snorkeling. Each trip had 2-4 stops. The only lengthy boat rides were at the beginning and end. All in all, I felt it was a reasonably full day. (I'm told that on the cruise trips, the hiking/snorkeling sessions are longer.) There was always one full meal in the middle of the trip, and snacks at other times. I always brought my own water, but never needed it as they had plenty to offer. There wasn't much "free" time during the hikes. However, Isla Santa Cruz and Isla San Cristobal have some very nice options for hiking, swimming, and snorkeling on your own.

3) "plane trip" - I paid a bit under $400 round trip from Quito to Isla Baltra in mid October, and I booked within a couple weeks of departure (I wouldn't recommend waiting that long.) There is also a $100 fee that you pay at the airport in Quito for admission to the islands, and another $20 for an immigration card. Flights arrive at either Isla Baltra or Isla San Cristobal. Baltra is a tiny island with an airstrip, terminal and basically nothing else. There will be buses waiting to take you to the narrow channel that separates it from Isla Santa Cruz. After a launch ride, you take another bus to Puerto Ayora.

4) "safety in Quito" - it seems to me that Quito is safer than it used to be. I used a library copy of the Lonely Planet Guide at first, then bought a later edition as my trip dates approached. Several of the safety concerns in the older guide book were either toned down or entirely omitted from the new guide. I would recommend taking cabs after dark, and having a restaurant or hotel call one for you. I'd also recommend making arrangements with your hotel for transportation from the airport (mine did so for $30.)

5) "anything you learned...or something that you were really surprised by" - In retrospect, I might have taken advantage of some of the day-trip hiking opportunities around Quito. I was fairly lazy during that part of the trip. I'd recommend checking out CarpeDiem (Jose Antepara E4-60 in Quito). They arranged a driver for my ecuator trip and seemed like the sort of company that would work with clients to create a specialized trip if none of their "packaged" trips would do.

Posted by
6871 posts

Chuck,
Thanks so much for your patience in answering my questions. I have a few more (simple ones)...
- How long was your trip in total?
- How many days would you allot for Quito itself (in retrospect)? What about side trips from Quito, and which ones?
- Have you ever been to Salta, Argentina? Your photos of Quito remind me of Salta.
- How many days would you recommend for the Galapagos?

Posted by
65 posts

Hi Agnes,
Glad to help! That's what this forum is all about.

My trip was 14 nights in total (4 in Quito, 10 in the Galapagos).

I probably could have lopped a night off of Quito, but I also could have squeezed in more activities. However, I never got bored there. I arrived rather late at night and left in the morning, so it was really just three full days. One thing to keep in mind is that Quito is about a mile and a half high, and some of the day trips involve moderate to strenuous hiking at even higher altitudes. I got a bit winded walking around town, but I never got any headaches or anything like that. Besides the equator outing, I didn't take any day trips, so I can't give any first hand info, but the following all seemed worthwhile:
- Take a ride up the Teleferico (a gondola a short walk from the bus line, or take a taxi) and hike up Pichincha (make sure you read up on this trip). Morning is better, as the clouds move in later.
- Day trip to Cotopaxi - there are a variety of options for this volcano, which has been rather active lately
- Pululahua - an inhabited crater near Mitad del Mundo. You can look in from the rim, or hike down in and back up and out. There are organized day trips (usually combined with Mitad del Mundo), but you can also cobble together your own outing with buses and taxis. Morning is better, as the clouds move in later.
- Mindo - day trips are possible, but this town on the edge of the cloud forest is well worth a multi-day visit if you want to bird watch (it was on my original itinerary until I lengthened the overall trip and dropped it in favor of the Galapagos)

I've never been to Salta, Argentina. If Quito reminds you of it, it must be nice!

I'd recommend at least a week for the Galapagos. I thoroughly enjoyed all 10 days/nights there, and wanted to see more. However, a five night trip would enable one to see a nice variety of terrain and wildlife (1-arrival; 2-land tour of sinkholes, lava tunnels and tortoise reserve; 3,4,5 - day trips to Bartolome/Santiago, North Seymour, and Pincon, in no particular order; then get up early for a walk to Tortuga Bay before grabbing a taxi back to the airport.

One more thing that could be important: ask about wetsuits when booking your day trip. If you don't (I didn't) they may not have them on the boat (they didn't). My guide book suggested that wetsuits might be desirable when I went (mid October), and while I was comfortable without one, quite a few of the people I snorkeled with wore wetsuits that they had apparently arranged for beforehand or brought with them.