Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The great Galapagos getaway begins.

Thanks to Charles Darwin, the Galapagos Islands are one of those places you mention you might visit and people immediately get all excited for you. Everyone imagines bizarre animals and plants on some remote islands way out in the middle of the ocean. Well, we used to be like and now it was our turn to visit them. Unfortunately, when we forked over the money (or rather our credit card) to pay for our great Galapagos getaway the high price was enough to wipe out the excitement of visiting these truly unique places. And it was kinda hard to get any enthusiasm together when the alarm went off just after stupid o’clock. Instead of excitement we were worried. What if we’d seen better things elsewhere? What if our tour sucks? What if we don’t see anything? We did our best to muster up some enthusiasm as we grabbed our bags (with a last minute check to make sure we had nothing in our carryon like a swiss army knife) and headed to the airport. As the taxi approached the airport, I started to feel a bit happier. I actually love airports – they always signal the beginning of a new adventure and a new place (even if it’s traveling for work). Most people think of them as a pain in the butt however, flying is still kinda decadent to me or maybe I’ve just seen too many old movies or been on too many buses lately. The Guayaquil airport only added to this feeling. It was shiny and new and decadent. There was a smoking lounge where we could hang out – it had oversized leather chairs, newspapers, wifi and lattes. Like flying Porter Airlines in Toronto but with cancer. Any way, it was a nice place to wait particularly since our gate was actually behind some locked doors meaning the waiting area at the gate next door was overflowing with people.

When we were finally let onto the plane (only 30 minutes late) the decadent feeling continued. The flight was just over an hour but we served an early lunch with wine. For free. Huzzah and take that other airlines. The decadence ended once we landed at the tiny airport on San Cristobal Island. The airport was an open-air structure not meant to accommodate a plane full of tourists and all the tour company reps, nor the second plane load that landed five minutes after us. Needless to say it was chaos. Every tourist had to go through not just a passport check but also had to pay the $100US tourist entry fee for landing on the islands which are considered a national park. Then we had to wait for the luggage while police dogs sniffed each piece. No, there wasn’t a huge drug problem in the Galapagos. These dogs were sniffing for any plant or animal life being brought into the park. Since most of the tourists appeared to be on some grand tour and carrying their entire wardrobes with them, the process took a long time. In the meantime I found our rep to let her know we were here. About 30 minutes later, we had our bags and met her and another guy and two other girls who were also on our tour. Our rep shuttled us into two pick up truck cabs and dropped us about three blocks away at our hotel. She gave us our room key and told us all we had 15 minutes to unpack and freshen up before we were to meet back for lunch and the beginning of our adventure. Wow already we were on a tight timeline.

Once we were all in the lobby, our rep lead us through the streets of Puerto Moreno, the main city of (and perhaps the only town on) San Cristobal to a small open air restaurant. Now that we were sitting down it was time for a little meet and greet. The two girls were Joy and Stacey from Edmonton (yay, Canadians) and the guy was Pete from Switzerland. Then it was time for the meat and great, aka lunch. It was a typical Ecuadorian almuerzo of soup followed by rice and fish accompanied by a pitcher of juice and a bowl of popcorn. We dug in and tried our best to break that awkward first meeting silence with more than the slurps and burps of lunch. Joy and Stacey were on a four week backpacking vacation through Peru and Ecuador. Pete was on a big round the world trip too. As we were finishing up, our guide let us know that we would be joined by three other lads sitting at another table. Once we were done, she took all of us down to the sea front in town to meet the town sea lions. They were just lounging on the beach. They were close enough that we could touch them but we weren’t allowed to and in fact when we got too close to them they bark their stinky fish breath at us in warning. Of course, Adrian was the one to discover this when he tried to pet one of the baby sea lions.

With hundreds of photos taken by all of us, it was time to move on to the Interpretation Centre just out of town. Here the rep tried to give us all an introduction to the islands and the animals. Unfortunately her English was as good as my Spanish, which means not good enough, especially for the hour long talk. A quick look around and I realized I wasn’t the only one struggling. Oh boy this did not bode well for another 5 days. Thankfully we eventually moved out into the actual park area. With the exception of the town, the entire island was park. Although that word brings to mind images of verdant forests, San Cristobal was anything but. It reminded me of the Yucatan peninsula – all dry and scraggly and rocky. It wasn’t quite what I was imagining the Galapagos to be like – but I’m not sure what I was expecting anyways, perhaps a bunch of small sandy islands in the ocean instead of these big volcanic islands. But I digress once again.

The guide took us up a rocky hill where we got our next taste of the unique Galapagos flora and fauna – a lava lizard which kinda looked like any other small lizard we’ve seen on out trip, and cacti which looked like cacti. I was not feeling particularly impressed but I was feeling a little breathless. The hill we were climbing was high and this girl is not a climber. But I made it up to Darwin’s Point and only slightly behind the others. And good thing because there was something spectacular waiting up top. The view. We could see 360 degrees – across the island, out to the sea. It was spectacular. Down below we even spotted some of the famous blue footed boobies on the guano covered rocks. And in the water more sea lions. Cool. Now that’s more like it. We walked down the hill to the water’s edge.

“Now we go swimming” the guide said. I’m sure this sounds like a good idea to you. But the sun was going down and it wasn’t exactly super warm. And the water? Well we were in the middle of the Pacific and it didn’t look like it was going to warm us up either. But how could any of us say no to a dip off the Galapagos Islands. We put on our suits and gingerly made our way to the water. I say gingerly, because the under our bare feet were lots of sharp volcanic rocks. And to get into the water we had to jump a two foot gap to a bigger rock sitting in the water where we could make our way into the water which was just as cold as I thought it would be – freezing in fact. Despite Joy’s attempts to convince us it got warmer the longer you were in, it didn’t. good thing the sea lions swimming near by were enough to distract us from the temperature for a little while. However, without any snorkel gear to take it all in, it was just a cold swim in the ocean so I wimped out and decided to head back to land and hopefully into the sun.

Getting out proved to be a bit more difficult. I made it to the first rock but trying to bridge that gap back to shore was a little more difficult with my stubby legs. I had to try all sorts of configurations on how to climb over and up before finding the right way back. Phew. I thought I was going to be stuck there for a very long time. When everyone else was through being an ice cube, we headed to a beach full of sea lions to watch the sun set before heading back to the hotel. There was a guy waiting there for all of us. His name was Marlon and he was our guide for the rest of the week, and fluent English speaker. Yay! He took us through tomorrow’s itinerary (all I remember was the fact that we had to meet at 7:30am) and then we went back to the same restaurant for dinner.

Dinner was a chance to hang out and relax and get to know each other. Since Marlon had just met us all we had to reintroduce ourselves and that’s when I realized that Pete was actually Beat. The three lads were now sitting with us but we never found out their names as they were obviously all friends and kept to themselves. The meal was a bit more relaxed than lunch although the food was exactly the same. Soup and popcorn. Followed by rice, fish and salad. Adrian and I introduced the others to the concept of adding the popcorn to the soup which none of them were too keen on trying except Joy. Like us her first reaction was confusion followed by a “not bad”. She’ll soon be hooked I sure. Dinner was tasty except for Stacey’s. She had to wait an extra 20 minutes for her vegetarian dish which should have been easy (same thing no meat) but was instead some measly portion of fried rice just like at lunch time. Poor girl. Marlon promised to help her get something better the next day. What he couldn’t help us get was more juice and when I asked for some more (in my nicest, most polite Spanish), the waiter/chef/owner took all the glasses away like he was some sort of “juice nazi”. Good thing we had the cheesy video montages playing on the tv to keep us amused. They were the most amazing thing – 30 seconds of every hit of the 80s and no more. Watching it was like watching “Name that Tune” but for retro music lovers with ADD. It would have been fun to hang out longer with the crowd – it seemed like we had a good group of 5, plus the 3 anti-social lads - but we were all too aware of the early morning and big day tomorrow.

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