Arrival in Ecuador, Guayaquil & Galapagos Islands!

Trip Start Jan 20, 2010
Trip End Jun 16, 2010

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Saturday, June 5, 2010

I landed in Guayaquil, Ecuador and, to my great relief, sailed through immigration without any issue, despite my nerves making me look like an anxious drugs-mule! My spirits the highest they'd been in a week, I picked up my Galapagos flight boarding pass for the next morning and met a woman who took me to the guesthouse I stayed in. Guayaquil is Ecuador’s second city after Quito but with more of a tropical feel and it is the country’s most populated city. I exchanged half of my replaced travellers’ cheques and bought an underwater camera for the Galapagos Islands. I then took a taxi into the centre of Guayaquil and the Malecon 2000, a rejuvenated boardwalk pier, running along the waterfront for 2.5km, made up of restaurants, shops and South America’s first IMAX cinema. I walked along a section of it and saw the wide, fast flowing Guayas River rushing past, carrying logs and leaves the same way the Amazon does. I only had the afternoon in Guayaquil but managed to see the main attractions along the waterfront, met a couple of friendly locals and even found time for my first Ecuadorian fruit juice. I still had some Peruvian Soles left but found that no one was willing to exchange them. Since 2000, Ecuador has been using American Dollars as its currency, having abandoned its own, and as a result they are wary of other weak South American currencies. Eventually I found a dodgy street Cambionista (Currency Exchanger) who offered me a poor rate at first but with a bit of persuasion gave me a pretty fair amount of dollars for my Soles and with that I was settled in Ecuador and ready to travel!

At the guesthouse I met a couple who lived on the Galapagos Islands who gave me some incredibly useful tips of what to do, when and on which boat and which island. Sahib had already been in contact with a cruise company in Quito so we had a boat in mind, The Encantada (Enchanted), and it was just a case of speaking to the company on Santa Cruz Island, picking which islands we wanted to see and negotiating a great off-peak/student/last-minute deal!

The following morning, Saturday 5th June, I arrived at Guayaquil airport and after numerous checks for diseases and infections in my bags and on my person and having paid the various environmental and tourist taxes to land on the Islands, I boarded the plane. There, waiting in the seat next to me having already flown from Quito, was the familiar beaming face of Sahib Phull. I thought I may not see him again until England but my fortune had turned around and here we were, off to the Galapagos Islands, the part of the trip we were both most looking forward to!

The plane landed on Baltra Island, a small island, almost entirely covered by the airport, and we took a bus and then a boat onto Isla Santa Cruz, one of the main islands of the Galapagos and our first port of call. We stayed in the Hostal Espana, the first of many recommendations from my friends in Guayaquil, in the capital town of the island; Puerto Ayora. We wasted no time in heading straight down to the waterfront, where we were greeted with sea lions strolling around, Pelicans lounging around and lizards and crabs covering the majority of the volcanic rocks along the shoreline.

We visited the office of the Encantada crew and began to negotiate days and prices for our cruise of the islands. The boat did 7 islands in 7 days but we only wanted to do 4 days of cruise as we wanted to spend some more time on Santa Cruz and also some time on Isla Isabella, the Galapagos’ largest Island.

We also had to bear in mind that England’s first World Cup game was the following Saturday and being on the boat for the second half of the week meant risking not seeing it!

In the end we sacrificed missing Bartholomew island, the highlight of the first half of the week as it has the largest population of Galapagos Penguins, and went for the second half of the week, which included Espanola, recommended to me as the best island, and Floreana which had the Islands’ best snorkelling spot – La Corona del Diablo (The Devil’s Crown). Choosing the second half was definitely was best option but with the downside of perhaps seeing no penguins and no England match.. Fortunately it would later turn out that we missed neither!

We negotiated probably the deal of the year. The original price for a week’s cruise on the Encantada is $3000. For four days, with a night’s accommodation for the following night included on Isla Isabella as well as snorkel equipment on the boat, we ended up paying $600 each, which was, quite frankly, a steal!

That evening we went into a lively Puerto Ayora to eat at El Huerco bar/restaurant, where we watched the NBA playoff finals between the Lakers and the Celtics and ate a quality fish meal.

The TV in our room the next morning had just enough signal to show Nadal comfortably beat Soderling in the French Open final, before we packed a bag for two nights on Isabella island and took the lunchtime boat from Puerto Ayora. It was a 2 and a half hour trip and the roughest boat ride I’ve ever had. Luckily I had travel sickness tablets I had bought in Guayaquil for the cruise which turned out to be enough as I survived the journey!

As we pulled into the harbour at Isla Isabella, I spotted small shapes on the rocks which, after taking a zoomed-in photo, turned out to be Penguins – Galapagos Penguins!! Delighted, we stepped off the boat onto a pier in the middle of a beautiful lagoon and, Sea-lions on one side, Penguins on the other, over our head flew three Flamingos in perfect arrow-formation and I decided then that this could be the world’s greatest place.

We took a truck to our hotel, "The Wooden House", which was a large log cabin-type building but very nice. Desperate to get into the water, we took snorkelling equipment and the underwater camera and headed back down to the beach. We walked along to a lagoon called Cancha de Perla Lagoon and there snorkelled around with some tropical fish, including a foot-long, centremetre-wide, silver fish (called the Galapagos Trumpetfish) which followed me around for a bit, lots of colourful crabs and one lone sea lion that came to investigate what we were up to, scaring us greatly in the process!

We walked into the centre of Puerto Villamil for dinner and returned under the light of the stars to a night in The Wooden House!

We started early and after walking along the beautiful, sandy beach of the South side of Isla Isabella, we hired bikes to make the trip along the dirt road to El Muro de Lagrimas (The Wall of Tears), built by Ecuadorian criminals that were sent to the island for punishment.

After Mendoza and Easter Island, you’d think Sahib and I would not so easily overestimate our fitness and the difficulty of the terrain but somehow a gentle meander across country to see the sights turned into an exhausting ordeal and a race to get the bikes back within the two hours we’d paid for. The Wall was impressive and we saw our first Galapagain tortoise on the way, a few lizards, some of Darwin’s Finches and Marine Iguanas and Pelicans along the beach but I got very sunburnt (Isabella is one of the few islands, exactly situated on the equator so perhaps I should have known). Keen to do more snorkelling we headed back to the shore after lunch with our equipment and this time met a boat owner who offered to take us out to Las Tintoreras, a collection of lava rock a bit out to sea which had channels running through the rocks. At the hotel we were told that, if we were lucky, we may see ONE or TWO white-tipped reef sharks, which are approximately one or two feet long..

We boated out past the Penguins which were fantastic to sea and also saw a Blue-footed Booby nest before getting to Las Tintoreras. Here we got out and I (the “experienced” snorkeler) going first, disappeared into the dark channels, Sahib right behind. What followed was terrifying and incredible at the same time. The channels were only about a metre wide and 2 metres deep but we happily floated along, past small fish and a few crabs on the rocks until we reached a fork in the path. We stopped here and held onto the rocks, sahib adjusted his mask and our kicking feet stirred up sand from the bottom. I looked back down, checking my mask was OK and it was still all misty and dark. Then suddenly out of the obscurity a dark shape glided past. It was still too dark with sand to see but it was as long as I am and the elegance with which it moved left me in no doubt as to what it was. Sahib didn’t see it, still adjusting his mask, and I didn’t mention it to him as I thought it a bad time! With masks rearranged and the sand cleared, there was no sign of sharks and I composed myself and carried on. We took the right fork and, with the sand settled here, could see well. As we came round a bend in the channel there were all of a sudden two sharks lying on the sand at the bottom of the channel. I stifled a scream and slowed. I couldn’t stop as Sahib was right behind me and if I stopped I would need to put my feet down, which would mean standing on top of them! They were at least two metres in length, nothing like the hugely under-exaggerated description we were given by the Hotel owner and boat driver but they were not alarmed by us and we sailed over their heads, awe-struck and petrified. Around the next corner we went and just as I thought we had safely made it there was another one lying still on the sand, maybe bigger than the previous two. Then another! We carried on swimming over them, speeding up ever so slightly to get past them. More and more appeared out of the darkness and now they were moving! One swam right underneath us and another was disturbed and swam away in front of us. With loads behind us I kept swimming after it, getting progressively, trying to find the way out to the open water but aware I was probably riling up all the sharks behind me for Sahib!! We passed another couple and the water gradually began to get shallower and shallower, which meant our bodies were getting steadily closer to the sea bed. The shark was still swimming ahead of us but the water was getting lighter and we realised the open water was ahead. The shark realising a similar thing, spun around and headed straight back towards me. My heart stopped-dead, there was only about a foot between my body and the sand below and it was heading straight for my face. I could do nothing but stop still and watch it approach until, within two feet of my goggles, it dropped below me and, breathing in, I saw it pass within inches of me and Sahib back into the darkness. Now outright Michael Phelps-styling it out of there we emerged from the channel and into the ocean where the boat was waiting.

We both hopped into the boat, still a bit shocked but it now sinking in how awesome that was. I was so exuberated that I jumped straight out and snorkelled my way back to the shore, seeing a couple of sting rays, a surgeon fish, some huge tropical reef fish and a puffer-fish on the way!

At the shore we bumped into a few sea lions and two people we had met on the boat from Santa Cruz to Isabella the previous day and, like two over-excited school children describing a trip to the zoo, harassed them with our account of the shark experience!

We took the boat back to Santa Cruz early the next morning and there made the walk along the coast to the famous 'Tortuga Bay’ (Turtle Bay). We walked along one of the longest, most peaceful sandy beaches I’ve ever seen and past a number of Iguana breeding areas where there were so many you couldn’t walk without nearly stepping on one. Despite the rough sea, the sheltered bay was completely still, part of the reason why it’s such a paradisial place, and we were able to swim and lounge around for the afternoon. A local gave us a ride back around the coast to Puerto Ayora which was an experience. We had seen the sea was choppy but the driver did not make any allowances for this or attempt to control our speed and we literally clung onto the boat for our lives. On our way out of the bay we passed a huge Manta Ray, an incredible 3-metre-diameter casino table, which floated by before we’d had time to get to full speed!
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