Seventieth Birthday Trip To South America PART 3 by Ron Kapon

At least I got to sleep until 6AM (rather than the 3 & 5AM wakeup calls for my other flights,) before my two hour TACA flight from Lima to Quito Ecuador. I would finally get to meet Paulo Irigoyen, the 23 year old Gray Line South America head, and my guardian angel in Buenos Aires, Lima & Ecuador. He arranged a city tour, dinner with him and his French wife, and I overnighted at the Grand Hotel Mercure which was part of my Galapagos tour package. Justin Laycob and his right hand man Jonathan Borgida are friends of Brian Pearson who took me around Chile. I booked my Galapagos tour through them after finding them on the internet and liking their style. I both called and e-mailed and always received a prompt response. They even agreed to pick up an extra bag with my dirty laundry & cold weather clothe, plus brochures I had collected in the other countries, and get it back to me after my cruise. They found a boat that fit my schedule and worked hard and professionally for their commission. They also deal in tours to Peru, Bolivia and Costa Rica and I highly recommend them.
Quito is the capitol but not the largest city in Ecuador. Their two million is topped by Guayaquil with three million. It is a World Cultural Heritage Site with colonial buildings combined with European Renaissance and indigenous influences. The many churches are mainly in the Old Town area and within walking distance. Quito is only a ½ hour from the equator and there is the obligatory photo opportunity standing on the line between the two hemispheres. At 9,184 feet above sea level it is the second highest capitol in the world (La Paz Bolivia is over 11,900 feet). The center of Old Town is Independence Plaza with the Governors Palace, Municipal Palace, Archbishop’s Palace and the Cathedral (the same in every major city I visited on this trip) anchoring the four sides. We drove up to El Panecillo with a commanding view of the city and climbed even further inside the statue of the Virgin Mary made from over 7,000 pieces of aluminum. I had some problems with the altitude so skipped the brand new cable car ride up 13,000 feet to an active volcano.
The Baltra airport was still closed for repairs so all flights to the Galapagos now were routed through St. Cristobal, a nearby airport which really overburdened the people working there. This also changed the schedule of the Angelique, their ship of choice, for me. My flight from Quito to Guayaquil was a swift 30 minutes and then another hour and we landed in St. Cristobal. Customs and immigration took a long time and then we had to wait for four passengers whose flight was late. The good news is Ecuador uses the good old US dollar as its currency so no more slide rule conversions. Even though the Galapagos is part of Ecuador it is 600 mile off the coast and foreign visitors pay a $100 preservation fee; cash only, no traveler’s checks.
The Angelique is a 96 foot sailing yacht, refurbished in 2001, with 8 double cabins (I had the top bunk). There is a shower and toilet for every cabin which is the size of a very small closet. I would call the cabins Spartan, but then again I only slept there. An hour after leaving port we arrived at the sheer-rock outcrop of Leon Dormida or “sleeping rock.” This tiny island has no landing area so we floated around the sides and saw our first example of the boobies; red, blue and masked (don’t write to me I didn’t name the birds). Lunch and dinner were excellent and featured Ecuadorian specialties (potato soup, fish, lamb, pork etc). There is nothing to do on the boat after dinner and our nightly preview of the next day’s islands, so it was a 9PM bedtime and 9 hours sleep. (Perhaps it was my evenings that were Spartan.) The Angelique sailed throughout the night to arrive at our first stop, Genovese Island, the most northernmost of all the islands. It was a ½ hour climb to the top of the cliff passing by hundreds of sea bird nests.
Half a dozen sea lions slept on the sandy beach while we went snorkeling and swimming. That afternoon we moved across the island to Darwin Bay with even more marine life.
An eight hour nighttime sail proved that the patch and wristbands did work as I never felt seasick the whole trip. Our first stop was North Seymour Island and frigate birds, sea lions, marine iguanas, crabs and lots of boobies, many mating or hatching their young. At no time did any of them seem to pay any attention to the human species. Another refreshing swim among the curious and very friendly sea lions and then it was off to South Plaza Island with its rocky trail along the edge of the cliffs abounding with seal lions and land iguanas.
San Cristobal was where we started and ended our Galapagos adventure. Four days and three nights were perfect as we saw all the marine life we could ever hope to see. Larger ships offer entertainment and nighttime activities and are, of course, much more expensive. Our boat continued on a different route so you could have 7 days and not duplicate any island. Please remember the Galapagos is not for people who have trouble walking. Lots of rocks, steep climbs and many places to fall make it a beautiful oasis of nature but not for the faint of heart or feet. We packed and were ready to go ashore and spend an hour at the San Cristobal Interpretation Center learning all about the history, geology and animal life of the islands. To the airport and my flight to Guayaquil where I overnighted at the 5 Star Oro Verde Hotel (again part of my Galapagos package) and finally, after three glorious weeks, return to the Baked Apple.
Guayaquil is the largest city in Ecuador and sits at sea level, unlike Quito which is inland. Once again the Southern Exploration folks met me at the airport and walked me to the cargo area where I retrieved my spare bag they so graciously had shipped from Quito. I broke one of my cardinal rules which are- don’t buy anything from a street vendor (last time I did that in France I ended up with food poisoning). It was the most delicious large juicy grilled hamburger I have ever tasted with lettuce and tomato and only $1.50. That was my lunch as I awaited my Gray Line city tour.
I am in love with Guayaquil; what a change a mayor can make. Once considered one of South America’s most dangerous, dirty and crime ridden cities Mayor Ab. Jaime Nebot has turned the city around (maybe he studied under Mayor Giuliani). The Malecon (promenade) stretches two miles along the Guayas River and includes art exhibitions, monuments, botanical gardens, cafes, restaurants, docks and a replica of a pirate ship. The city is named after the indigenous chief Guaya and his wife Quil; is located on the Pacific Ocean and is the main port of Ecuador. The central part of the Malecon has a monument to Simon Bolivar & San Martin. Nearby there are four sculptures that represent the earth’s four elements (water, fire, air and earth). The best viewing point in the city is up 444 steps on Santa Ana Hill (yes, I climbed them, slowly) through Los Penas to the lighthouse, chapel and naval museum. The great fire of 1896 destroyed almost the whole city as the wooden houses were stacked next to each other. These homes have been repainted by the residents and many have opened shops, restaurants and cafes on their first floors. There is no automobile traffic and everything must be carried up the stairs.
Other things worth seeing are: Seminario Park filled with iguanas, fish and birds; the only Imax theatre in South America; The Municipal Palace, the cities architectural jewel; the Cathedral (Ecuador is over 95 % Catholic); the Modern Art Museum; the Genedal Cemetery, the second largest in South America, after the one in Buenos Aires and the nearby flower market. Congratulations Mr. Mayor; if I had known what a fabulous city you had I would have stayed another day.
American Airlines upgraded me and in four hours we landed in Miami and I transferred to my LaGuardia flight home. Twenty one days, perfect weather, only one flight delay. Every hotel a gem; every scheduled city tour on time; every meet and greet was there for me; every airport or hotel transportation was on time. It does not get much better. On a scale of 1-100, this trip was a 98.