Galapagos and Beyond

Galapagos has been on my travel wish list for too long.

An island destination always seems exotic. When it combines an agreeable climate, welcoming expert educators and unique habitat and species, it is the adventure of a lifetime.

Wildlife is the main reason tens of thousands travel 600 miles west of the Ecuadorian coast to an archipelago of 13 major islands, 6 small islands and 42 islets that are barely more than large rocks. Throughout my trip, I often mused on how very much son Ben would appreciate the experience. I watched amused as his father expressed childlike glee at the sea lions cavorting nightly under our stern lights.

The islands are the ultimate national zoo where bizarre fauna exist totally free and fearless of man. On the sun deck of our yacht, I lay fascinated as giant frigate birds dove to within a few feet of my ruby toes. Snatching fish from the mouths of masked boobies, the frigate birds circled and glided on thermal currents. From heights of 65 or 70 feet masked boobies dove again and again - expert fishermen with keen eyesight. As I lulled near somnolence, our energetic naturalist explained that frigate birds have the smallest ratio of body weight to wingspan and thereby can glide along so effortlessly.

Later strolling the well-marked island trails we got up close and personal with the male frigate bird just about to enter the season where he puffs his red heart-shaped neck pouch and dances the jig to attract a mate. Red-footed boobies of every age sit in the rocks at our feet cuddling downy chicks of almost equal size. Some sit atop nests just at eye level incubating a soon-to-hatch lone egg.

We observe no end of newborns - seals, sea lions, marine iguanas, boobies. Courting and mating occupied land iguanas, sea turtles, and red-billed tropic birds. Patiently our resident naturalists described each nuance, movement, and adaptation. At first one can't resist snapping roll after roll of film capturing cute baby seals and sea lions, where large liquid eyes captivate. Eventually, we resisted the temptation to snap away and paused longer to listen and observe, absorbing and finally applying the knowledge offered.

Our home and transport for the cruise, the 10 cabin yacht Eric, was small and maneuverable enough to take us to remote areas. In pangas, we approached islands for both wet and dry landings. Our conscientious crew of 10 never stopped trying to please us. Waiter/bartender Felix dressed our tables in bright linens with special napkin folds. Everyone spoke at least halting English. Yvonne and Graciella, our fluent naturalist guides, provided briefings for each day’s landings and accompanied us, patiently sharing their knowledge with humor and good spirits. As often happens, our fellow travelers brought a wealth of experiences making our shared time enriching as well.

I delighted in the hours we spent snorkeling in the bath-warm waters. Cavorting with playful sea lions, chasing schools of brightly colored fish or just hanging rapt above an outcropping watching the interplay of the fascinating undersea world below, we passed many joyful hours.

I saved a treat to ease our return to mainland Ecuador. A short trip north from Quito takes one into the verdant Andean Highlands. On our final day, we traveled to the market town of Otavalo, stopping also in several other mountain villages famed for their leather craftsmen, wood carvers, or artisans making bread dough ornaments. Tomas, our engaging guide, and Secundo, an outstanding driver, gave us a day of revelation, fond memories and unparalleled shopping. I may have gone to Ecuador to observe the unique ecosystem that is Galapagos but I will return to delve further into the countryside, spending more time observing Ecuador’s most unique asset - her people.

Every nook and valley of the Andean Highlands is populated by distinct indigenous groups - their affiliation defined in their unique, brightly colored garments and felt hats or headwear. The typical serrano works hard to obtain a meager production on ingeniously terraced mountainsides where topsoil is easily washed away and hail comes to destroy crops. Ponchos protect workers from the heat of the noonday sun or the cool mountain air that comes with the shadow of late afternoon. Women seem always to be carrying enormous loads swathed across their backs.

Market day, however, brings a chance to congregate, socialize, shop and sell their wares to shoppers who have come from virtually all parts of the world. Otavalenos are master weavers, spinners and textile merchants. Men do the actual spinning and weaving, while the women market their products. The market day offers everything from guinea pigs and llamas, beets and corn to crafts of every description. I opted for rugs - an 81x6l beautifully woven wool rug of traditional design in vivid colors set me back $31.26. I bought shawls of fine weave in intricate design for $3.50, belts combining leather and brightly woven cotton for $8, silver jewelry for $4. It took me several hours to spend $100 and I had more than both of us could carry. Bargaining is expected, but I always pay more than I know I could, calling the extra dollars I leave them "foreign aide". In hindsight, I wish I’d bought 10 times as much but I was eager to enjoy as much of the countryside and see as many of the varied peoples as possible.

Tomas was delighted to oblige and thoughtfully answered our questions while the breathtaking landscape passed on either side. Waterfalls cascaded from lush green cliffs, high mountains lakes reflected grassy peaks. On each side of the road people in gaily colored garments walked along returning from the fields, from tiny villages, or market. Too soon long shadows signaled time to return to our urban hotel. I need to view our Andean Adventure as beginning research for a return trip. The hassle of airports, the endless flight, don’t dampen the urge to return. There is so much of the world I still want to see, yet a return to Ecuador is high on my list. I must shop again in Otavalo, see Inca ruins, visit Cuenca and the Southern Sierra, stopover in a hacienda, listen to the night sounds of the Amazon basin at La Selva Lodge, see Cotopaxi without cloud cover.

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