Ecuador – Beyond the Galapagos

Ecuador is more than just the Galapagos Islands…

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“Imagine a man without lungs. Imagine Earth without Amazon Rainforest.” ~Vinita Kinra

After a blissful week in the Galapagos Islands, a change of scenery (and temperature) was in order. My friend and I decided to extend our stay in Ecuador with a 3-day excursion through the Andes Mountains, into the Cloud Forest, and ultimately arriving at the rainforest in the Napo River Valley.

The Cloud Forest

We hired a tour guide in Quito to drive us, but you could, of course, rent a car and drive yourself.  After leaving Quito, already at 9,000 feet in elevation, you begin a steady climb into the Andes and the highway quickly becomes a two-lane road – in need of major repairs in some areas. The road is insanely busy and filled with trucks, motorcycles, cars, pedestrians and sometimes, men on horseback.  A few minutes into the drive, I began seriously contemplating covering my eyes for the rest of the journey.  Driving in the Andes is not for the faint of heart. (Or for nervous people. Or for control freaks.) Driving between a truck and a bike in the same lane while trying to avoid a stretch of road that has crumbled completely down a cliffside?  Yep.  Watching for and swerving around stray dogs, cows, and birds? Yep. Passing multiple cars on double blind turns? Yep. That’s a regular thing. After it happens 10 times or so, you decide you can look out from behind your fingers (you know, the ones covering your eyes) and  glance out the window hoping to catch a glimpse of the incredibly shy spectacle bear. (We didn’t).

You do really want to look out the window.  The Andes are beautiful and the climate changes dramatically in a short amount of time.  Rising up over the city of Quito, the landscape becomes greener and greener.  Mountains rise sky high out of the Earth.  (The average elevation in the Andes is 13,000 feet with some peaks rising over 22,000 feet.)

There are several quaint villages along the route and we stopped in the adorable village of Papallacta which boasts a world class hot springs. (As anyone who knows me knows, hot springs are on Heather’s top ten list of things to enjoy in life). There is a lodge at Papallacta and I could have easily spent a week in this charming spot relaxing and contemplating life while I munched on a bag of chifles (plantain chips). There are pools of varying heat for soaking and relaxing. And, one odd pool that is a short rectangle with stairs entering the pool from one side and another set of stairs immediately exiting the pool on the other side. (What?!) That pool is filled with Napo River water and it’s, ummm, brisk. (Read: freezing). You enter the pool via the first set of stairs, and exit via the second set. In the time it takes you to enter and exit the pool, you’ve lost all feeling in your extremities. From there, in order to improve circulation, you sit your butt back down in some hot water. Aaaahhhh, now that’s more like it.

Papallacta River

Papallacta is in what Ecuadorians call the Cloud Forest. It’s a beautiful, lush landscape so called because the altitude and humidity cause a perpetual layer of clouds to hang just above the forest. The climate is much cooler here and after cooking in my own skin while in the Galapagos (worth it!), the Cloud Forest was a nice change of pace.

As you continue your descent into the valley, there are a number of resort towns each with their own claim to fame: adventure sports (think white water rafting), rock climbing, bird watching, etc. We made a detour into the Guango Lodge, well known for its bird watching and famous for its hummingbirds. It’s a quaint little place and well worth the $5 admission fee to catch a glimpse of these sweet little birds in varying sizes and colors.

Hummingbird, Guango Lodge

By the end of the day, we had made our way into the valley and were ready to head to our hotel for the evening, La Casa del Suizo. The hotel is stunning and sits overlooking the Napo River. You must canoe to the hotel. I know, some of you just panicked. These are motorized canoes, captained by someone hired by the hotel. After a short ride down the Napo River, you’ll arrive at the hotel and climb the one million stairs required to get to the registration desk. (Ok, it’s really only about 100 stairs, but it feels like a million after you’ve climbed them for the fourth time).

View from my room at La Casa del Suizo

The hotel was truly amazing. It makes you feel as if you’re living in a tree house. It boasts comfortable, clean rooms with amazing river views.  There was no air conditioning here but large screened in windows that allowed for a nice airflow. Our first night here, we heard something that sounded a lot like a duck except that the noise kept up into the night.  Not a bird, then;  birds typically nest in the evenings.  I asked our guide about it the next day. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: “Can I ask you a question about this noise we heard last night?”

Guide: “Of course. What did it sound like?”

Me: “It sounded like a duck, but the noise continued all night long.”

Guide: “Oh, those are toads.”

Me: “Oh, toads!  Are they big ones?”

Guide: (spreads her hands apart to basketball width) “No, they’re small.”

Gah! If small toads in the rainforest are basketball sized, I have no earthly desire to run into a “large” rainforest toad.

Lodges in the area are able to book several different activities for you. We took advantage of a canoe ride to an animal rescue center where we got to see many of the native species. The rescue center seeks to rehabilitate and re-release the animals, but some will live their lives in this volunteer run center mostly because of their exposure to humans in the illegal pet trade. The center was opened by a German family and in addition to caring for the animals, they have opened a school for local children. We also took a hike in the rainforest with a guide from the Quechua tribe. The Quechua were among the first native peoples to be conquered by the Inca and they’ve been in the Amazonian basin hundreds of years. A hike from the river up into the rainforest, which lies at the edge of the Andes, is quite steep…the equivalent of 70 flights of city stairs, according to my Fitbit. (As if I needed more stairs after hauling myself up and down at the hotel.)

Squirrel Monkey

You quickly forget about your burning quadriceps though.   Plants and flowers so green and beautiful, giant trees, and howler, squirrel and wooly monkeys in the wild. After getting hot and sweaty – again – we tubed down the Napo River enjoying the cool water. In the afternoon, we visited a Quechua village. I learned to use a traditional blow dart gun. The gun is 9-feet long and I was not sure I’d land a dart anywhere close to the monkey decoy hanging from the tree, but I got him squarely, on my first try…right in the monkey balls.

Monkey Decoy in Quechua Village

Our days in the rainforest were not terribly hot; however, they were humid.  Luckily for us a dip in the beautiful lodge pool was an option. While enjoying the cool water one afternoon, we encountered another tribe of people known simply as ‘Mericans.   Settle in, because I’m going to share with you a cautionary tale.

One of the best things you can to do be an understanding, global citizen, in my opinion, is to travel and to be open to new experiences and to people that differ from you in the hopes of expanding your world view. Some Americans traveling abroad give the rest of us a bad rap and I’m going to outline why just below:

  1. ‘Mericans changed their departing flight to Ft. Lauderdale to avoid Miami because there were “too many Spanish speaking people in Miami.” (I’m really not sure who they thought they’d encounter in Ecuador).
  2. ‘Mericans thought it “weird” that we’d hired a guide in Quito and allowed her to drive us into the rainforest. Nope. Ecuador has professional people and our guide was amazing.
  3. In the midst of an amazing buffet full of local and international foods, ‘Mericans complained that this was the only resort where you’d “lose weight because the food was so bad.” (I guess, if you think garlic shrimp, beef tenderloin, curry chicken, plantains, and fresh fruit is bad).
  4. And, ‘Mericans miss their junk food. “I mean, you can’t even get Cool Ranch Doritos or Diet Dr. Pepper here.”

Be American. Be proud to be an American, but don’t assume that different is bad. Don’t assume that people living in other countries don’t deserve your consideration or your respect. Open your mind (and your mouth) to try new experiences (and eat new food).

Archipiélago de Colón (or the Galapagos Islands)

Christopher Columbus sure gets a lot of credit for places he’s never been.

And while Columbus didn’t actually make it to the Galapagos Islands, you can.

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Columbus sure gets a lot of credit for places he’s never been.

And while Columbus didn’t actually make it to the islands named for him, you can.  Traveling to Ecuador is more affordable than you might think – especially if you can haul yourself to the East Coast to grab a great deal.  The best fares to Ecuador depart from New York’s JFK airport or from Miami. You’ll fly into Ecuador’s capital, Quito.  Flights from Miami to Quito are approximately 4 hours long and (bonus!) Miami and Quito are on the same time…negating all of those nasty jet lag symptoms I get when flying to Europe.

As a nature and animal lover, the Galapagos has long been on my travel bucket list, so when a friend of mine called last year to inquire if I’d like to join her on a 9-day trip to Ecuador and the Islands in February, I said (screamed) yes immediately!

On approach to the Galapagos (Photo courtesy J. Lally)

After spending an interesting day in Key West, FL, we packed our bags, grabbed our snorkel gear and hopped on our flight to Quito.  (If you don’t know, interesting is a Midwesterner’s way of saying weird.)

All traffic to the Galapagos Islands must arrive by air to Baltra Island – site of the airport and not much else. Upon landing in Baltra, I decided it looks very much like Tucson, Arizona to me – except that it’s much more humid. (More about the stifling humidity later).

Before navigating your way through Customs, where you’ll present your passport and declaration form, you need to purchase a Tourist Control Card ($10) and a Galapagos Islands National Park Pass ($100).  (PS: Ecuador’s currency is the American dollar.  An economic crisis in the early 2000s prompted Ecuador to abandon its own currency and make a deal with the good ol’ US of A to begin using ours). The tourist card and parks pass are required for entry into the islands.  If you are part of a tour group, as we were, your tour company has most likely made arrangements for these two items. Customs agents will search your bags looking for organic items that can damage the ecosystem in the Galapagos.

The Galapagos Islands consist of 13 major islands, 6 minor islands, and a whole lotta rocks. You’ll need to arrange for transportation on land and on water and this is easily done.  We visited 4 islands: Baltra, Santa Cruz, Isabela, and Tintorera. From the airport at Baltra,  we hopped on a short (and, I mean short) ferry ride over to Santa Cruz Island.  I think we were in the water all of 5 minutes.

I was excited about Santa Cruz because it’s the home of the Giant Tortoise. Seeing these gentle giants was on the top of my list. Having had a couple of rough years in which I questioned pretty much every decision I’d made both personally and professionally, I was seeking a wise tortoise (they can live more than 150 years!) to deliver to me some kind of intrinsic truth or message from the universe.  As directed by a close friend, I set out to find the wisest tortoise: “The one wearing the monocle,” she said. If you’re like me, seeking messages from wise tortoises, you may be disappointed. Giant Tortoises are, it seems, more interested in eating grass and farting in mud puddles than talking to humans looking for divine guidance. But, in all honesty, they’re still amazing. It’s a wonderful experience to watch these old creatures.

Giant Tortoise on Santa Cruz

At this point I should point out a few things: The Galapagos Islands are beautiful. Green. Vibrant. Lush.  And HOT. There is a price to pay for all of this gorgeous vegetation and it’s called humidity. Temperatures in the Galapagos in February range from 75-86 degrees F. (If you need Celsius temperatures, you’re gonna have to Google.) You think, well those temperatures sound delightful! I can’t wait to escape the cold in (insert your cold city here). I’ll remind you that you are going to add two things to your 80 degree day: 100% humidity and intense equatorial sun.

You are going to sweat. A lot. You are going to sweat a lot. Do not bother bringing hair products or make-up. Really. Don’t do it. You’re going to sweat it all off in a matter of moments. I gave up trying to look presentable about 5 minutes into this vacation. What you are going to need is deodorant (lots of it!) and sunscreen (even more than you think you need).

You’re also going to be tempted to touch the tortoises….you’ll in fact be tempted to touch all the critters you see in the islands, but you cannot. You must maintain a respectful distance of 2 meters (about 6 feet for my fellow Americans) from the animals. Don’t worry, you’re still close enough to view these animals in all their glory and to get incredible photos.

Santa Cruz will be your first opportunity to meet two unique kinds of locals: the sea lion and the marine iguana. Sea lions are not seals, nor are they walruses (an excited woman at the airport told us she had seen walruses. Nope.). The sea lions and marine iguanas are plentiful on Santa Cruz, Isabela, and Tintorera islands.  Animals in the Galapagos are largely unafraid of people because there are no land predators.  The sea lions are usually very vocal in letting you know when they plan to make their way up stairs or onto a pier. Females and pups are pretty easy going, but the males can be aggressive, so be aware. Marine iguanas are maybe the coolest animal I’ve seen. They look like miniature, black Godzillas with strange turned in feet, but they can swim like nobody’s business and dive underwater to eat algae.

Marine iguana on Isabela Island
Sleeping sea lions in Puerto Ayora

There are plenty of opportunities to hike, swim, and kayak on Santa Cruz Island, including activities along the gorgeous white sands of Tortuga Bay.  Tortuga Bay boasts a lovely, calm and shallow swim beach about 50 meters off the end of the trail.  Just know, that the trail, from park entrance to the ocean, is about a 45 minute walk and it can be very hot.  (It was so hot on the day we attempted this walk that our entire tour group almost revolted).

The beach at Tortuga Bay

When you’re ready to do a bit more exploring, you can easily arrange boat transportation from Santa Cruz to Isabela. It works a little bit like this: you take a water taxi out of the crowded port, a speed boat pulls up next to your taxi, you crawl off one boat and onto the other.  A 2-hour ride brings you to Isabela where you’ll do the speed boat/water taxi shuffle one more time. Isabela felt more “Galapagos” to me and was much less populated by human standards.  There are some great opportunities to swim and snorkel off of Isabela and you may well find yourself in the water with sea lions, iguanas, penguins, rays, sharks, sea turtles, pelicans, and the comical blue footed booby.

The Blue Footed Booby

We snorkeled and swam every day.  Beware the sun!  Now that you’re on the water, you’re getting the heat, the sun and the reflection of the sun off the water. You are going to get sunburned. If you’re of the fairer skinned persuasion, like me, you are going to get downright crispy without major intervention. So please, do yourself a favor: take sunscreen and lots of it, take a giant beach hat (who cares if you look ridiculous?!), and take some long sleeved t-shirts to swim and snorkel in. Despite my best efforts, I still ended up with a sunburn, negating all the work my esthetician had been doing to even out my existing freckles and sunspots (sorry, Sandra). If I had it to do over, I’d invest in some gauzy pants and long-sleeved shirts to remain both covered and cool. And aloe. Damn it, I’d bring lots of aloe.

Sea Turtle (Photo courtesy of J. Lally)

Let’s talk about bugs, baby. Ok, so tourism in Ecuador is down because of the concern around the Zika Virus. In reality, Ecuador has only had a couple of confirmed cases of Zika and they have been on the coast of the mainland. There are mosquitoes, of course, but the largest bug problem I encountered in the Islands was horse flies. Horse flies bite and it hurts. So, take some insect repellent with you. (Shameless plug for my favorite: Sawyer Insect Repellent).

And what about the accommodations?!  Hotels, you’ll find, are basic, but nice and clean.  I was elated to find air conditioning units in both my room in Santa Cruz and in Isabela.  You may find refrigerators in some rooms and an occasional tv (but you won’t need that.) Surprisingly, you’ll also find Wifi at most hotels.  Given your location on the globe, connections may be spotty, at best, but we could get a signal long enough to post to our various social media sites. Hot water was also intermittent – but not to worry, with the heat, you’ll find yourself craving cold showers like a crazy person.

View from my hotel suite in Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island

Here are two things you need to know. 1. You cannot drink the tap water in Ecuador. You shouldn’t even use it to brush your teeth. You’ll find bottled water or a pitcher of purified water in your hotel room. You would also do well to take a reusable bottle with you, as most hotels, bars, and restaurants in the Galapagos will happily refill it for you with purified water. 2. You cannot flush toilet tissue. I know, I know, it sounds so gross to those of us living in first world countries, but it’s really not the end of the world. Bathrooms are all stocked with toilet tissue and a small trashcan next to the toilet where you’ll toss the tissue after doing your business. Note that in some public restrooms, the toilet tissue is on the wall before you go into your stall.

This trip was a once in a lifetime experience. If you get the opportunity to go to the Galapagos Islands – – – DO IT! Before you go falling in love with the Islands, there are only two ways to be a resident of the Galapagos: (a) be born there or (b) marry a Galapagueño. (I attempted to marry my friend off to our tour guide to no avail.  Sigh. Guess I’ll be paying for my room again next time.)

The Galapagos Islands are an incredible place to be. I am eager to return. I got hot, I got sweaty, I got in ocean water (which has its own funky smell) and I enjoyed every single second of it. To the good people of Ecuador: Thank You! And if I smelled remotely like my dirty laundry, I apologize.

Isabela Lodge on Isabela Island