Getting to Ecuador and the Galapagos is a little too exciting. I’m on an Avianca flight to Quito via Bogotá, which has already taken off several hour late from Paris. I’ve been watching the little aeroplane on the flight map apparently flying slower and slower until the captain, unsurprisingly, announces over the tannoy that 'We have a problem with one of our engines’.
We divert to Puerto Rico Airport, which is closed. We sit in a dark airport lounge while nothing happens and no-one tells us what is going on. Eventually, there’s an announcement, in Spanish, that says (I’m told) that another plane is on its way from Bogotá to pick us up. Still nothing happens. A man runs through the lounge with a very large spanner. Half an hour later there is an announcement, in Spanish, that says (I’m told) that the engine has been fixed and we should all board. I’m not very happy about this, but everyone else complies, so I do too. Miraculously, the plane flies. Naturally, we have missed our connection to Quito.
Quito is the capital city of Ecuador, a UNESCO heritage site, at an elevation of 2,850 metres. It is the second-highest official capital city in the world, after La Paz. But I have arrived so late that I have missed most of the planned day’s sightseeing. All I recall are speeding past clusters of Spanish colonial buildings and doing a great deal of weaving and diving, to avoid the many jostling bag snatchers and pick pockets.
We have to fly to Guayaquil to catch a further flight to the Galapagos, almost 800 miles out in the Pacific Ocean. The name Galápagos Islands means Island of the Tortoises, but their official name is Archipiélago de Colón (Columbus Archipelago). This string of volcanic islands distributed on either side of the Equator, have both Spanish and English names and were annexed by Ecuador in 1832. They are renowned for their large number of endemic species, studied by Charles Darwin during the second voyage of HMS Beagle. These made a major contribution to Darwin's theory of evolution 'Origin of Species'. The Galápagos Islands now form the Galápagos National Park and Marine Reserve, so popular with tourists (despite the remote location) that they have to limit numbers. They are so important that they were the first listed UNESCO site.
Our first evening in the Galapagos is the epitome of balmy. I’m sharing with Kathy and we are soon ensconced in hammocks on the rooftop, beer at hand, looking out over the palm-lined bay, pelicans swooping. What more could you want?
I’m hugely excited to be following in the footsteps (boat wake?) of Darwin, but everything comes at a price. The boat for our Galapagos 'cruise' is a little on the decrepit side - it is a (relatively) cheap tour. We start at unreasonably unsociable hours, after sleeping ashore. And the crossings between islands are rough. The good bits far outweigh the bad though - this is a journey to remember.
Santa Cruz to tiny South Plaza Island, to San Cristobel, Espanola Island and Punta Suarez. There are stark lava fields (peppered with scuttling scarlet crabs), prickly cactus forests, volcanic craters, mangrove lagoons, silvery sand beaches and foam lined azure waters. I’ve read that the water’s not tropically warm, as the islands are washed by the Humboldt Current. Nevertheless, the snorkelling in the spectacular sunken crater of Devil's Crown at Floreana Island is also wonderful. The rays, sharks and reef fish are abundant. Baby sea lions play chicken with us, diving between our legs, whilst their parents look on indulgently. (I'm keeping my distance from the large aggressive males). At Punta Cormorant Lagoon on Floreana there’s a much decorated mailbox (on a post) used by 18th Century whalers. Today you can post your cards there.
The landscape is spectacular and the wildlife incredible. As advertised, the animals are totally unfazed by humans wandering amongst them. And Easter is a good time to come - it’s breeding season and the waved albatrosses are in residence. They queue up, huge above the cliff edge, like aeroplanes stacking at Heathrow, waiting to glide in and out of their packed nesting area. The frigate birds are in the midst of courting, inflating their astonishing red balloon chests, the fruit bats are wheeling, the sea lions and land (and sea) iguanas are snoozing, the giant tortoises mating (humping describes it exceptionally well) and the blue footed boobies are looking impossibly cute.
We have a Swiss tour manager, Antonio and an Ecuadorian naturalist guide, Gorge. They introduce me to the joys of the margarita over dinners and hand out free tickets to the local club, when we’re finally back in something that qualifies as a town. Free tequila slammers are included with each ticket. Everyone in the group has agreed to come out, on our last night together. But, come the evening, fatigue sets in. I’m the only one in the disco with our two leaders and everyone’s free slammers are lined up all along the bar. Antonio and Gorge insist that they do not go to waste. I’m not entirely convinced this is the reason that I got food poisoning – suffice it to say that my last days’ sightseeing - a beautiful caldera - isn’t fully appreciated.
This has been one of the most amazing trips ever. The sights are extraordinary and the atmosphere delightful. However, there is the journey home to endure. I’m reassured to note that our Avianca plane is waiting at the correct gate when we arrive safely in Bogotá. Except that they’ve allowed a different group of passengers on and diverted us to another craft, which hasn’t arrived yet. When we finally do scramble aboard there’s an announcement (in Spanish), to the effect that this replacement doesn’t have the capacity to fly all the way across the Atlantic (very reassuring) and we have to refuel at Barranquilla, on the coast. This is duly carried out, with what looks like huge watering cans.
‘We’re finally ready,’ the captain announces and as he’s speaking all the lights go out. There is more waving of spanners and I notice the stewardesses bashing one of the hatches back into place with a hammer. I’ve seen Mike, who is sitting next to me buy rum in the duty free shop. I beg a plastic beaker off a stewardess and request that Mike fills it up. It’s the only way to survive a journey like this.
Naturally, we are late back in Paris and naturally I’ve missed my connection to Heathrow. It’s Easter Sunday and there’s not a seat to be had on any airline. Avianca taxi me across the city and put me on a Eurostar train instead. I’m happy to be chugging along eating smoked salmon and drinking champagne, until there’s an announcement to say there’s been an accident on the line ahead and there will be a delay. I message my father to tell him not to collect me from Heathrow and arrange that he will me off the train at Gatwick Station. I will make my own way from Waterloo back south. Finally, I find him waiting on the platform. ‘I don’t know how to tell you this,’ he says, 'But I can’t remember where I’ve parked the car’.
It was still a brilliant trip.
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