Our Excellent Adventure in

Mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos

8-20 January 2001

Monday 8 January – Tuesday 9 January

To the El Rancho Best Western, beloved of Sea Ranch travelers, near SFO on the eve of our trip. It's sort of an endearing place, family-run for three generations, an Old-California El Camino motel grown large and sprawling over the years. Jerry and I have breakfast pre-dawn in the Departure Snacks room (that's what it says on the door), under the watchful and solicitous gaze of Effie and another old lady, whose nametag I didn't catch. The two of them have probably worked at El Rancho since the place opened.

An extraordinary red moonrise on one side of the plane as we take off from Miami, and a gorgeous sunset on the other.

On arrival in Quito, we're met by Rodney, our Metropolitan Touring guide, and Santiago, our driver. We spend our first night in Ecuador at the Hilton Colon, which looks like Hiltons everywhere. The only distinguishing mark is the huge arrangements of fresh roses in the lobby. We find out later that roses are one of Ecuador's major exports.

It's hard to fall asleep, though I'm exhausted.

Wednesday 10 January

Rodney picks us up for a city tour of Quito. It turns out that Francine and Bob's Continental flight, due in just behind ours last night, was diverted to Guayaquil; they'll be here later this morning. Night landings in Quito are dicey, we learn, and a relatively new thing. Apparently American's pilot training is ahead of Continental's.

We visit a municipal frieze depicting the history and prehistory of Ecuador: Inca warriors, Amazon women, Spanish conquistadores, Franciscan priests... After that, it's one church after another. At San Francisco, Rodney tells us that Ecuadorian altar art is known for its movement. The Madonna is often depicted with wings -- the result of a conflation, apparently, with another Christian legend involving the apocalypse and a different pregnant woman -- or dancing. The Dancing Madonna. A large statue of the Virgin Mary, with eagle's wings, dominates a hilltop overlooking the city. Outside the church of San Francisco, we're persuaded to buy, for $3, a good luck charm: a pair of Andean wolf tails and a small gold-colored crucifix, bound together with paper and red yarn.

Saint Augustine monastery features paintings by Miguel de Santiago (17th c?), who supposedly tied his model to a cross, and then, in search of greater verisimilitude, stabbed him in the chest. The painter took refuge in the monastery for the rest of his life.

A flight of stairs leads down to a crypt, where the remains of Ecuadorian patriots and rich Catholics are filed. We see dates ranging from the 1800s to the late 1960s. One niche is open, with a rust-brown skull, hair still attached, exposed.

We meet Francine and Bob's flight from Guayaquil and head out of town. En route, we pass several shiny pickup trucks, the bed of each one packed with what are clearly rural folk in suits and dresses. We're not sure what's going on – a farmers' or laborers' formal ball? – until we spot the hearse at the front of the procession.

Lunch en route at a restaurant that advertises "platos typicos." A hearty, deep yellow potato soup, accompanied by half an avocado and a sprinking of dry, roasted and salted corn -- a cross, sort of, between popcorn and those packaged corn nuts, and, we subsequently discover, a ubiquitous Ecuadorian table accompaniment. Then, huge servings of practically unadulterated MEAT: our choice of beef, pork or goat. I end up with fried corvina (sea bass). Lunch is the main meal of the day, Rodney tells us. We're convinced.

We stop at a small monument marking the equator, and practice straddling two hemispheres. The line of the day (so to speak): "You've got to draw the line somewhere." Rodney points out Cotopaxi, a volcano and the highest mountain in Ecuador. He tells us that it's also the highest mountain in the world – if measured from the center of the earth. Discussion ensues re: whether people do weigh somewhat less at the equator, and how gravity works here. As we drift toward inanity, I wonder whether I am feeling the effects of the altitude after all; surely oxygen deprivation makes us stupid.


We take the Pan American Highway, a fairly good two-lane road, through Guayilbamba and Cayambo. The terrain is spectacular – v-shaped ravines and valleys; steep hillsides planted with crops; mesas topped with shacks, corn patches, and gardens. Plant life is on the arid side – some cactus, lots of agave, and bromeliads, including epiphytes (air plants) on the utility wires above our heads. Acacias and eucalypts, both introduced species, as well. We stop to look down at a beautiful lake and to photograph a llama.

The villagers tend to be very small; they seem like another species of human being. Costumes vary from region to region. In some places, we see felt hats on both men and women. In others, the women just wear headscarves. The men wear wide, comfortable-looking white pants. Both men and women sport various combinations of serapes and shawls. They carry their bundles in large fabric squares. In Otavalo, both men and women wear their hair in a single long braid down the back. The women, from toddlerhood on, adorn themselves with multiple strands of small, gold-colored glass beads. They look splendid.

We reach La Mirage, our home for the next two nights. A Relais & Chateaux resort, it strikes Jerry and me as silly, frou-frou and pretentious. The paintings and decorations are eclectic, to say the least. The décor is heavy on Venetian-style masks; the ones in our room are creepy, almost menacing.

But by dinnertime, the place is starting to grow on us. We're served by half a dozen young Indian women, all dressed in identical, semi-traditional style, who surround us and simultaneously lift the silver domes covering each of our courses. Synchronized serving. Dinner is delicious, and about eight courses, including lagniappes.

Back at our casita, we're met at the door by a young man -- the firestarting angel, who expertly lays out the logs and kindling, ignites a roaring blaze, and departs. And we're met, at the foot of our respective beds (single beds are the default, it seems, in Latin America), by the delicious warmth of a hot water bottle. Despite, or perhaps aided by, the sound of the rain and what must be giant frogs croaking under our windows, we sleep very well.

Thursday, 11 January

It's sunny and semi-clear when we walk to breakfast, and we catch a glimpse of snow-covered mountain peaks before the clouds roll back in. We eat surrounded by birds; at least two aviaries adjoin the breakfast room, and the lawn and garden outside boast the largest hummingbirds I've ever seen. The restaurant, in fact, is named for them: Colibri.

After breakfast we head for Lake Cuicocha, Guinea Pig Lake. Rodney leads us on a respectably strenuous hike along the narrow (and largely uphill) trail that circles the lake. Jerry and I fantasize about making the entire circuit. Not this trip, I'm afraid. From high above, we watch a lone coot plow a v-shaped track across the surface of the lake. A little later, the wake of a small sightseeing boat sets up a moire-like pattern of ripples. We stand transfixed. And then Rodney points out the eagle – no, wait; two eagles -- riding thermals above our heads.

On the walk back to the car, the talk turns to hauntings and poltergeists. Inspired by our account of the painting that fell off the wall of our room last night – neither of us was near it, and the room was still – Rodney tells us several stories of haunted hotel rooms he's heard about in his touring.

Next, Otavalo, the famous textile market that sprawls across a city plaza. Saturday is the busiest day. Today, though all the stalls are attended, the marketplace seems almost deserted. We shop righteously for two hours. Jerry buys a pullover and a vest, I buy a teal and gray-black crocheted hat, some scarves and table runners, and a pair of long black and tan alpaca socks which I anticipate wearing tonight in our charming but cold casita at La Mirage. Together, Jer and I purchase a tablecloth and two fino-grade "Panama" hats. The weave is so fine and supple that the hats roll up for storage. In fact, each comes with its own narrow wooden box. With a decorative woven band of choice, the hats are $25 apiece, by far the most expensive of our purchases.

Lunch is in an old hacienda, Pinsaqui. Simon Bolivar slept here. The grounds are beautiful, and home to several llamas. We watch two of them face off, like cats establishing dominance. The food – here, and so far on our trip – is good, but not exciting. We have shrimp in garlic cream sauce, chicken in fines herbes cream sauce, sea bass or trout in walnut cream sauce. You get the idea. Entrees come with rice and potatoes. The chocolate desserts taste more like cinnamon than chocolate.

After lunch we visit Cotacachi, the "leather town," walking distance from La Mirage. Rodney and Santiago drop us off for further retail therapy. Jer and I are shopped out, though; we head back, separately, to the hotel. We cool out for about three hours, until it's time to (aargh) eat again. Same menu as last night; I have the remarkable carrot soup that Jer had ordered before, and a shrimp entrée very much like the one I had for lunch.

It strikes me, sitting in the European grand-style bar before dinner, that what really irritates me about this place is its stunning non-Ecuadorian-ness. Aside from the charming Indian serving women and the painted birds and flowers on the room-number plaques, there's nothing native here, no sign of the wonderful local tapestries and other crafts we've seen today. It's generic luxury, a place out of space.

Friday 12 January

We check out of La Mirage. First stop is another lake, Yaguarcocha, Blood Lake. Compared with Cuicocha, it's not worth the detour. Rodney tells Jerry about a six-part Spanish book series called something like The Trojan Horse. It's about ancient Christianity, among other things, and flying saucers.

In the woodcarving town of San Antonio, we visit a workshop and watch craftsmen and apprentices carve everything from hideous "cute" cows with bulging, cud-chewing cheeks, and overly-adorable giraffes in several sizes, to full-out Last Suppers, six-foot diameter Aztec calendars, and intricate, boldly-crafted headboards. The sawdust smell reminds me of my dad's workshop. Two puppies watch us from a niche in the brickwork of a building across the way.

Over some deeply rutted roads lined with tethered and feeding pigs, wandering cows and dogs, men guiding oxen, traditionally dressed schoolkids toting Barbie and Pokemon backpacks, old women carrying their burdens in the traditional fabric bundles, people farming with hand tools, or squatting in the street talking, and entire female family groups washing clothes, and themselves, in the river.

We stop at Iluman, known for its felt hats and shamans. In this town, homes are identified with family names, like Cardenas-Sosa, on commercially-printed signs above the front door.

Rodney takes us into a tiny one-room shop where a woman and young man are shaping hats. They heat old-fashioned irons on a propane-fired two-burner stove. The woman tells us that her father and grandfather owned this shop before her and, proudly, that she ships her hats to wholesalers in Germany, France and Japan. Several partially-shaped felt hats are lined up (drying? curing?) on the sidewalk outside another shop across the street.

On the main street of Iluman, we see several signs advertising shamans. Rodney points out the one with the best reputation. He tells us about his own experience with a shaman, several years ago. Apparently the treatment worked for his adolescent angst. Sounds like psychotherapy.

Our next stop, Peguchi, is the highlight of the day. First, a demonstration of Andean musical instruments – flutes, pan pipes of various dimensions including one so large that it rests on the floor, and guitars made from armadillo shells. A handsome young Indian guy plays several of them for us, then he calls out his younger sister (we assume) for an impromptu concert. They play three or four numbers. The man plays pan pipe and guitar, and occasionally sings, while the girl, solemn- faced, beats on a large drum. Apparently their father and uncles are members of a well-known Andean music group, Nanda Manachi. The light slanting into the open-sided structure is glorious. A magic moment.

Still in the Peguchi area, we visit a weaver, Jose Cotacachi, who signs all his weavings Jose C. He uses a style of loom introduced by the Spaniards. He's prolific, and works in many different styles. We pay $12 for a small piece showing a group of native women in hats and shawls. It's a popular motif; we've seen it in Otavalo and elsewhere. But Jose adds three-dimensional braids and metal earrings to his, stopping just this side of kitsch.

Rodney leads us out through the back door of the workshop, through a courtyard filled with clotheslines, and we poke our heads into a one-room house that appears to be inhabited by guinea pigs. They're everywhere, roaming around, eating the grain and leaves scattered on the floor. A big black cooking pot sits on a low table just above their heads. Foreshadowing.

Across the courtyard, we're invited into another, slightly larger home where an old woman is spinning yarn on a device that, measured from spindle to wheel, is probably 7 feet long. I've never seen a spinning wheel like this, not that I've seen many spinning wheels. She walks back and forth, turning the wheel and twisting the wool into yarn. She, too, lives with guinea pigs running loose around her. Rodney tries repeatedly to get her to reveal her age. Repeatedly, she turns the conversation back to wool. This seems to be a running game between the two of them.

Our last artisanal stop is Miguel Andrango's backstrap weaving shop in Agato. "Backstrap" refers to the way the weaver braces himself against the loom while weaving. He sits on the floor with a wide strap of cowhide (from the head; you can see the eye slits) cradling his back. The two ends of the hide are fastened to the sides of the loom closest to him. He leans back for leverage as he pulls each cross thread tight against the previous one. It takes about a week to complete, say, a table runner, which he sells for $25. We buy a placemat-sized piece for $12. Another old woman (Sra. Andrango?) spins yarn at the opposite end of the room from Miguel's loom. She uses an elongated spinning wheel like the one we saw at Peguchi. Corn hangs drying behind her.

Finally, around 2:30, lunch at a beautifully situated spot, Puerto Lago. The window by our table is practically at lake level. The restaurant décor is vaguely Swiss-Alpy, though, mixed with generic nautical, and the food is much like yesterday's, with a preponderance of cream sauces. We do have empanaditas filled with veggies and cheese to start with, and my sea bass with capers is excellent. Bob mentions having once had lunch with B.F. Skinner. I ask whether it was a box lunch.

Then we head back to Quito, arriving around 5 PM. We tip Rodney and Santiago, and wish them well. An excellent guide and driver. We spend the evening packing and repacking, filling suitcases with stuff we won't need in the Galapagos; we check several bags at the hotel for the duration.

Saturday 13 January

An early flight, via Guayaquil, for the Galapagos. Rodney had advised us to sit on the left side of the plane (it's open seating) where we could see the Andes and at least one active volcano, as well as the approach to the islands. Our naturalist guide, Jaime Dominguez Rodas, meets us at Baltra airport. A short bus ride to the dock, where we board the Encantada, a red-hulled motor-sailboat. We draw lots for cabins one, two and three. The accomodations are entirely adequate – sailboat-like, as we'd anticipated. We meet Christiane, the chef (there's also a cook), who's 21, and Swiss-hotel-school-trained. This is her first time cooking on a boat. We're also introduced to the captain and crew.

After settling in, we have lunch, and then Darwin (!), our Zodiac pilot, motors us to a snorkling spot. We all plop overboard like elephant seals. The waves are heavier than anything I've ever snorkled in. Bob and Jerry climb back in the Zodiac for a while, and Mollie never does come in. I persevere, and thereby earn jock-of-the-day status, a once-in-a-lifetime event. We see two white-tipped sharks and three sea lions, one of which passes within a foot of me. We're in the water for about an hour. That would have been impossible without wetsuits or skins. These are not the tropics; our dive shop investment is already paying off.

Back to the boat to change clothes and then to North Seymour island, our first Galapagos stop. The landscape is sere but beautiful – yellow-flowering Opuntia cactus, leafless trees and scrub, lava rock. Coarse sand made of shell fragments, broken sea urchin spines, and other marine detritus. But it's mainly about the animals. Blue-footed boobies nest right on the path, shifting their weight from one blue foot to the other. A land iguana that must be four or five feet long. Lots of tiny lava lizards as well. Frigate birds (Are they Great or Majestic? I never quite get clear on that), the males in full red-throated display. They look ominous and forboding when they fly, all dark and angled wings. The chicks, though, are predominantly white and fluffy.

We have to step over the sea lions, mostly mothers and nursing babies, because they won't move out of our way. The babies crane their necks and bodies backward; they practically bend double to have a look at us. A tiny one humps over and gently investigates my calf with its bristly whiskers.

As the sun lowers, we complete our circuit of North Seymour. The lava rock beach is alive with dark-colored marine iguanas. Sea lions surf the breakers just offshore. The night flight of frigate birds wheeling above us as we head back to the Encantada.

Before dinner, Christiane makes a blender-full of a special cocktail, sort of a dairy grasshopper based on condensed milk. Better than it sounds. We're officially introduced to, and we toast and drink with, the crew.

Sunday 14 January

A sea turtle off the aft deck before breakfast. Landing on South Plaza island is problematic; a huge, inertial sea lion lolls across the platform. What should have been a dry landing turns into a wet one as we improvise a rocky path around her. These animals -- the adults, certainly – define the word "louche." And they are vocal. The pups are adorable; eight or ten of them splash around in a natural depression in the rocks – the kiddie pool – wheere they're safe from sharks.

There's so much to see that we barely move ten yards from our landing point in the first hour we're there. What particularly holds our attention is a cactus tree (opuntia), a dozen or so iguanas, both land and marine, and a couple of cactus finches. As the finches feed on the yellow cactus flowers, blossoms and buds occasionally drop to the ground. This immediately attracts a group of land iguanas, who scurry over to eat the fallen fruit. We watch one iguana climb the trunk of the opuntia, something Jaime says he's never seen before. It makes its way up, through the paddles, to the flowering parts, and prceeds to chow down on both blossoms and tender (we assume), barely open buds. If this behavior is as rare as Jaime says it is, we're witnessing evolution in action. Maybe in a thousand years Plaza Island will host a colony of winged arboreal lizards. (I later find references in print to iguanas climbing trees and shrubs for food, so then again, maybe not.)

Jaime also points out some hybrid (land-marine) iguanas; it seems strange that the two species would breed at all. We soon see one of the hybrids climb the same opuntia and face off, heads bobbing, with the land iguana that had gotten there first. We also watch land iguanas mating (multiple times) and further along, when we finally abandon our spot by the iguana-opuntia, several of their burrows on the ground.

On the other side of the island is a high, steep cliff. Marine iguanas and, amazingly, some huge sea lions, have hauled themselves to, or near, the top. Many swallowtail gull nests, both in the cliff face itself and in the grass at the top. These are beautiful, exquisitely detailed birds. We see a couple of eggs and five or six downy chicks. Jaime points out a red-billed tropicbird, with its streamerlike long tail feathers. I drop behind the group so I can pee behind a stand of opuntia; I have an audience, a semicircle of iguanas.

Returning to the Encantada, we hoist sail and head for Santa Fe island. Christiane, our chef, is seasick. It's not just her first time cooking on a boat, we discover; it's her first time on a boat under sail. We pelt her with conflicting advice ("Lie down!" "Look at the horizon!") and meds from our various stashes. Eddie, the cook, covers lunch.

We anchor off Santa Fe and snorkle off the boat. I follow a sea turtle for quite a distance. At one point I'm torn between continuing to swim with the turtle and following a huge ray (one of several) in the opposite direction. Not as many colorful fish as in the tropics, although we do see a large school of yellow-tailed surgeon fish. But the rays and the turtle qualify this as an outstanding snorkle.

The weather darkens; an inverted triangle of storm cloud on the horizon. By the time we disembark at Santa Fe, it's raining in earnest. It's an up-to-our-knees wet landing amid a profusion of sea turtles, rays, and white-tipped sharks. The sharks, we see, are hoping to get lucky: There's a sea lion colony just onshore, with a dozen or more tender pups.

Botanically, Santa Fe is unlike any island we've seen yet – acres of dry-looking, bare gray trees, towering tree cacti (much larger than opuntia), some low, feathery pines. The island is covered in vegetation, and the trail is very rocky. Most of the animals are sheltering from the rain; we might have seen snakes on this island, Jaime tells us, but we don't. Mollie is relieved. We do see a couple of land iguanas, some lava lizards, and two Galapagos doves, a pretty rust- and black-plumaged bird with blue around the eyes.

No sign of the Zodiac when we get back to the landing beach, and Jaime's radio calls fail to pick up a response. (It turns out to have been a frequency mismatch; the one they'd been using no longer works, so they have to switch to another). We stand on the sand, getting wetter by the minute, and wave like desert island castaways at the Encantada and another, larger boat anchored well offshore. Finally, a dinghy full of tourists detaches from the other boat and heads our way; the pilot is kind enough to carry us back to the Encantada. He comes by later to collect the beer we promised him.

While onshore at Santa Fe, we find an extraordinary amount of manmade debris. Jaime points out that it must have come from the Resting Cloud, the vessel we'd originally chartered, which ran aground on New Year's eve. This turns out to be the spot. Mollie finds a piece of wood, presumably from the hull. We discuss divvying it up as a souvenir, and sending a piece to our travel agent, too.

Monday 15 January

Española Island. A wet landing on a white coral beach with a resident population of sea lions. Mockingbirds on Española have learned to recognize water bottles; one is working on Jerry's within moments after he sets down his pack. We walk the length of the beach in search of possible turtle nests; find none. But at the end of the beach we see a marine iguana, not the usual black but heavily marked in blue-green and red. Iguanas on Española, and lava lizards, too, take on unique colorations. The female lava lizards have vivid red heads, throats and forelegs.

We snorkle off the beach. Not many fish, but I swim out to a large rock offshore and see a colony of ten or more rays, in shallow water, right below me. Later, on the dinghy ride back to the boat, a school of golden eagle rays swims by just under the surface.

We stay in our suits and go out again almost immediately to snorkle at a different spot, Turtle Rock. It's spectacular. Lots of fish; huge black starfish geometrically patterned with tiny red, orange, yellow or green dots. An elegant-looking spotted eagle ray. After we snorkle around the island, Darwin picks us up and takes us back to the boat for lunch.

In the afternoon, we motor to Punta Suarez, on the other side of Española. What should have been a dry landing turned into a wet-ish one, thanks once more to the sea lions lolling across the platform. A single night heron. An aggressive mockingbird escort. Colorful marine iguanas, like the one we saw at the end of the beach this morning, but by the hundreds now. Their behavior is fascinating – rapid head-bobbing and clicking vocalization, spitting salt water, the sexual chase. Bob defines a new collective noun: A lethargy of iguanas.

Jaime points out the albatross nesting ground, though it's empty now; too late in the season. We resign ourselves to not seeing an albatross on this trip but, as he speaks, one skims across the treetops. As we approach the cliff side of the island, we spot three of them, soaring back and forth with the frigates, gulls and hawks.

Further along the cliff, a large colony of masked boobies with many eggs and young. Masked boobies typically lay two eggs, for insurance, four or five days apart. If the first chick dies or is sickly, the second is backup. If the first survives, the second is killed or kicked out of the nest to die.

Insurance seems like a very good idea. As we watch, first one hawk, and then a second, swoop down and land just a few feet from a booby and her fuzzy babe. Mamma tries to cover the chick – it's a week or two old, gangly and fairly large – with her feet and chest. The hawks don't miss a move. They eventually take off, but they'll be back.

Completing our circuit, we walk through a huge marine iguana colony. Sunset on Española, on the lava rocks, lolling among the iguanas.

At dinner we taste babaco, a delicious yellow fruit completely unlike anything we've ever eaten. We're exhausted. I can hardly stay awake through the fascinating Galapagos nature video, one of three or four we watch on the trip. I fall asleep on my bunk without bothering to brush my teeth.

Tuesday 16 January

Floreana. We step through a colony of hermit crabs (oxymoron du jour) as we land for a look at the barrel post office of Floreana. You leave your cards there, addressed but unstamped; someone who's returning to the addressee's country eventually picks them up and mails them when they get back. In turn, you sort through the waiting mail stack and pick up cards to mail for others. I consign three cards, and we take three to mail in exchange. What a good excuse for not sending postcards: "I left it on Floreana. Perhaps you'll get it someday." And what an fine example of trusting the universe, and the goodness of humankind.

On another part of Floreana, flamingos (8) in a shallow lagoon. Very peaceful scene; we sit for a while on rocks overlooking the water and the birds.

Later we motor in the dinghy past a marine preserve; a sizeable colony of rays lives on the bottom, so no landings are permitted. Lots of sea lions, though, who swim up, nuzzle the side of the Zodiac, and tug at a line we trail in the water. We land on a beautiful white sand beach where one large sea turtle rests on the beach and dozens more swim in the shallow surf a few feet offshore.

Time for a snorkle before lunch. We take the Zodiac to Devil's Crown, a lava rock outcropping. There's quite a surge, and a strong current, but it's much calmer on the inside of the "crown," where we see schools of surgeon fish and other large and colorful varieties. Also a spotted ray, and a penguin sitting on a rock just above the water line. I have my fill of close-up penguin-gazing.

After lunch we motor to Santa Cruz island and anchor for the night in the bay off Puerto Ayora. Strange to see lights onshore, as well as houses, shops and other signs of human habitation. Water taxies ply the short distance between boats at anchor and the dock. Cocktails with Jaime on the aft deck. We watch the sunset fade and birds take flight.

At dinner the conversation with Jaime turns to UFOs, alien abductions, reincarnation. We sleep very well – no motors, no motion to speak of.

Wednesday 17 January

Santa Cruz Island. Darwin drives us to the dock and we board a small van to the highlands. It's cool and cloudy, but the rain holds off. Jaime leads us along a narrow trail through the rainforest – a symphony of birdsong surrounds us – to the rim of a caldera several hundred feet deep and lushly overgrown with greenery. Nearby is another, smaller caldera.

Birds: Vermillion flycatcher, woodpecker finch, mockingbird (very territorial, no surprise), yellow warbler.

Another van ride; we spot several land tortoises along the road and stop to examine one or two. A lengthy trail walk – more tortoises along the path -- takes us to the muddy shore of a lagoon that's home to two or three dozen more tortoises. We see two couples mating, others just hanging out in the mud or the water. What amazing faces these creatures have, especially their eyes. How does it feel to live at such a slow pace, and for so long?

Small tortoises = tortellini (Francine)

Turtle dung = turdles (Reva)

Heading back, we notice bushes full of tiny tomatos growing in profusion. Jaime calls them tomatillos, but they look (and taste) just like our Sweet 100s. Each of us picks and eats a handful.

Next stop: A giant underground lava tube. We enter through a steep set of stairs that descends through a ferny grotto. Inside, it's a long journey through barely lit passages and caverns, among stalagtites and –mites. We ascend from the underworld into another ferny, humid den and up to the waiting van.

Finally, it's back to Puerto Ayora and a successful mass attempt to drain the town's single ATM so we can pay our bar bill on the Encantada. Christiane, who's lived in P.A. for two months, is back from her night at home. "I was landsick," she says, miming the unsteady gait of a sailor on shore leave. Jaime, who also lives in town, skips lunch to see his two sons. The rest of us have excellent ceviche, with popcorn on the side; goulash, with eggplant subbing for the beef in mine; and fresh pineapple with sweetened condensed milk for dessert. Still at anchor, we have a couple of hours of rare and welcome down-time before Jaime returns from town.

Later, Darwin motors us over to the Darwin Research Station, where we spend about 90 minutes looking at the baby (less than a year old) tortoises, the not-yet-repatriated 2- to 5-year-olds, and the old ones they keep around to study and/or for the tourists. Jaime shows us incubating tortoise eggs and explains that one degree difference in incubation – 29 degrees C as opposed to 28 degrees – results in female tortoises rather than males. With that knowledge, and our combined but still skimpy knowledge of cloning and artificial insemination, we contemplate the fate and potential progeny of Lonesome George, the last of his breed from Pinzon island.

 For the first time since setting sail from Baltra, we have the opportunity for retail therapy. First priority: More film. I'd expected it to be super-expensive here, but at the small kiosk within the Research Station, it was just $7 for a 36-exposure roll. The catch: No Visa; Mastercard or cash only. I buy a generic t-shirt; the selection in our sizes is slim. Leaving the station, though, we find a much larger shop run by Galapagos National Park, and we satisfy our t-shirt lusts.

Our Jaime turns out to be quite a figure locally. Not only does he produce the nature photo postcards he gave us a few days ago, and the map of the islands we've been consulting onboard (and which is for sale within the park and elsewhere), but also an illustrated checklist of species, and undoubtedly other items as well. He tells us that he's trying to cut down on his naturalist-guide work, and find more ways to leverage his photography, so he can spend more time with his sons. We lucked out; he wasn't planning to travel this week at all, but was the only certified guide available on short notice when the Resting Cloud went down. We drew Christiane as chef for the same reason. She'd been cooking at the Red Mangrove, a hotel in Puerto Ayora, and was asked if she wanted to cook at sea.

The boat crew world is a small and fluid one, we're learning. Our captain, Almir, told us he'd once captained the Resting Cloud; we're still not sure whether that was a joke. Edwin (Eddie) the cook used to work on her, and Cesar, one of the sailors, has the t-shirt to prove it. (The rest of the crew, while I'm at it: Darwin, who swears that's the name he was born with, and Roven, who seems to do everything, including divemaster for David.)

From Darwin Station, we stroll back through town, committing more retail damage along the way. We stop at the Encantada office and Mollie, the only one of us who's fluent in Spanish, facilitates a bit of business that will allow us to pay our ever-mounting bar bill by Visa, as we'd been told before departure we could. Meanwhile, Jer and I and Francine and Bob drink $2 margaritas and admire the view of the harbor from an open-air second floor bar across the plaza. Maria-Dolores, the Encantada's office manager, joins us for dinner that night on the boat. Christiane sits with us, too, this once, and they treat our party to a bottle of wine.

Thursday 18 January

Sunrise on the equator. Jerry and I are up before six and greet the dawn, coffee cups in hand, from the aft deck. Santiago Island – incredible lava and black sedimentary rock formations along the shoreline. Marine iguanas, Sally Lightfoot crabs, fur seals as well as sea lions, a single lava gull, an egret, a pair of nesting oystercatchers. We watch the pinnipeds cavort in surging pools among the rocks.

It's a hot day; by the time we make our way back along the interior trial, we're ready to snorkle. We go in right from the coarse black sand beach. The surf is heavy. We follow a rocky outcropping and see schools of surgeon fish, green sea urchins, a huge ray, and a bull sea lion. We bodysurf back to shore and end up covered, I mean breaded, with sand. Cesar hoses us down the moment we set foot back on the Encantada. He probably wished he had a fire hose.

Lunch is hearts of palm (palmito) salad, spaghetti Bolognese, and fresh mango cut and trimmed so it stands vertically on the plate; a very handsome preparation.

After lunch, we motor to Rabida Island, where the soil and sand are brick-red. We snorkle off the dinghy, along a cliff where we see pelicans nesting, iguanas, and a two-dimensional Great Blue heron. Underwater is spectacular: huge schools of surgeon fish stopping to swarm and feed in the crevices of a big rock on the bottom; schools of anchovy-sized fishes and larger striped ones, swimming around us and changing direction as one mind. But the best: First a bull sea lion, then a young one, then two young adults doing a graceful water ballet in front of, and very close to, us. They're feeding off the myriad fish that, though still all around us, had receded in our minds to background texture. What a moment. Five of us (David was off diving) hang in the water, transfixed.

We eventually make it to shore and change into the walking clothes that Darwin had dinghied over. We check a lagoon just inland where flamingos often hang out; not a single one today, however. Intense sea lion action – with each other, and with us – as we walk along the red sand beach. Mollie bonds with one little guy (?) in particular. We're not allowed to touch the animals, but they can touch us, and do.

As the sun sinks low behind us, every pebble on the beach casts a long, sharp shadow.

Dinner is delicious – a coconut-based, island-spiced fish dish, plus rice and plantain fritters. Peaches (canned, understandable under the circumstances) with chantilly cream for dessert.

In Spanish, buceo = diving. Buceo de superficie = snorkling.

In German, snorkling = schnorkling. Of course.

Friday, 19 January

Off Bartholome Island. Jer and I are on deck before the sunrise again. We sail past a huge vertical slab, smooth and sheer as we approach it, sloped and deeply textured on the other side. Pinnacle Rock, Jaime names it for us later. A line of tourists from the Polaris, anchored next door, starts its antlike climb up the hill to the lookout station we'll visit later in the day.

After breakfast we take the dinghy along the coast, headed for Sullivan Bay and a different portion of Santiago Island than the area we visited yesterday. We watch, close up, a pair of penguins mating.

A dry landing on lava, a 101-year-old frozen flow that extends for acres. Otherworldly, and intricately beautiful in all its variations – iridescent, obsidian-glassy, foamy, folded, draped, miniature grand canyons, bubbles frozen in time, piles and whorls and anthropomorphic shapes. When I start seeing iguanas, penguins and sea lion pups outlined in the lava, a la Pompeii, I shift focus to the broader vista. Amazingly, a few small cacti have managed to grab hold, somehow, and grow.

We loop back to shore, where Darwin's waiting with the dinghy and our snorkling gear. The high point, by far, of this underwater trip is a group of penguins (I counted ten) feeding on the schools of fish that surround us. They dive, twist and come close to inspect us before thrusting off again. One looks me right in my face mask, travels down my left shoulder and arm, and nips me, investigatively, on my index finger. Note to self: fingers = fish, if you're a penguin.

Closeup views of blue-footed boobies and pelicans onshore as we swim by, and plunging into the water as well. But nothing beats swimming with penguins.

After lunch, we reverse the routine: First snorkling, then a hike to the top of Bartholome to admire the panoramic view and watch the sun set. We snorkle around Pinnacle Rock, the huge, dramatic, leaning slab of lava tuff that marks Bartholome Island. (Now we understand Eddie the cook's reference to Bartholome, a few days ago, when he served us slabs of watermelon standing vertically on the plates.) Green sea urchins. Several schools of thousands of fish each, crossing paths with each other, changing direction in an instant. Pelicans diving and feeding around us.

This is the only point on the trip where we have to navigate around other groups of tourists. Several other boats (ours is always the smallest) are anchored in the bay, and the beach where we land after snorkling off the dinghy is crowded with clots of turistas. The Tilley hat count is alarmingly high. Jaime meets us and escorts us along a narrow sand path -- we see later, from the summit of Bartholome, that we've traversed an isthmus -- to an even more beautiful beach on the other side. There we see a sea turtle resting in the sand, two more mating in the surf just offshore, and others swimming nearby. It reminds me very much of the lovely beach at Floreana where we also saw sea turtles.

We retrace our path to the first beach, where Darwin picks us up and motors us to the base of a 360-step stairway to the top of the highest point on Bartholome. En route, Jaime explains tectonic shift and the formation of volcanic islands by placing pumice pebbles – roughly the relative sizes of various Galapagos islands – on my outstretched arm. "Now move it a thousand meters," he directs me.

The view at the top is spectacular, of course. We stand at the peak, ignoring the other visitors, until the sun sets.

This is, incredibly, our last night on the Encantada. Christine has prepared another special drink, a version of caipirinha, the Brazilian cocktail made with fresh limes, sugar and (in this case) vodka – to mark the occasion. As we did early in the cruise, we toast the entire assembled crew, and we all drink. This time, they toast us, too, and Jaime thanks us, and we thank him, and he thanks the crew – it's his first trip with them – for being so fine to work with. Tasty snapper for dinner, and a special dessert – an orange cake elaborately iced with chocolate, decorated with cherries and inscribed "Feliz viage amigos scuba-y yate Encantada."

 After dinner, Jaime presents a short slide show of some of his own excellent photos, and we go off to our cabins to pack.

Saturday 20 January

George W. Bush is presumably preparing to take the oath of office, and how irrelevant that seems from the top of Daphne Major at sunrise. We board the Zodiac at 5:30 AM, with Roven along for an extra pair of hands. We need them. In near-dark, guided by flashlight, we attempt the most challenging landing of all: It's a dry one, but just barely; the waves beat the Zodiac as it maintains a tenuous nose-hold in a rocky crevice. Meanwhile, one by one, we find hand- and foot-holds on guano-spattered lava rock, and start our ascent, bodies, legs and faces pressing against the sharp, pitted cliff, half-blindly seeking the next even marginally feasible niche. Swallowtail gulls nesting in the cliff face squawk when one or another of our appendages comes too close. Eventually, we all manage to climb to a point where the trail levels out to a mere 45 degree or so angle. We clamber, half crouching, up the slope of the island, skirting masked booby nests in the middle of the trail. (The booby nest is simple – a layer of individually-chosen pebbles and sticks in a cleared circle on the ground – but unmistakeable once you've seen one.)

Jerry steps a bit close for one bird's comfort and get a nip on the toe as a souvenir of Daphne. Booby-kind in every stage surrounds us, from egg to naked infant to almost full-size but still fuzzy adolescent, to adult. Despite Jer's bite, we're amazed at how close they allow us to approach. Still, I find myself apologizing at every step for disturbing them.

A few blue-footed boobies nest among the masked; we also see frigates, and Darwin's famous finches, both cactus- and ground-.

Jaime has timed it perfectly: the sun rises just as we reach the double caldera at the summit of Daphne Major. The ocean is like glass from this altitude. The Encantada drifts offshore, far below us. The only sounds, now, are the varied vocalizations of the boobies – squawks, gutteral mumblings, and shrill whistles. The bottom of the caldera is dotted with birds – more boobies, nesting and keeping a close eye on the frigate population.

Jaime's last visit to Daphne, he tells us, was seven years ago. Claro que he's enjoying it every bit as much as we are. We spend almost an hour at the summit, drinking in the peacefulness and becoming, for just a little while in our imaginations, part of Daphne Major.

At one point the Polaris, a relatively "small ship" according to friends who've taken it, cruises by the island. We hear their naturalist's voice on the loudspeaker, and think how lucky we are to be here, on this island instead of just skirting it, with our own chosen travel companions and a guide who understands the virtue of silence.

Eventually we have to pick our way back down the side of Daphne. It's an obstacle course; the phrase "booby-trapped" resonates like never before. Darwin has found an alternative and ostensibly easier mooring. At least it's daylight now. Still, most of us make the last part of the descent at least partially on our butts.

Daphne, at least from this side, looks like one of those French revolutionary stocking caps, the name of which escapes me. We wash the guano off our hands and feet, attend to minor bites and lacerations, and eat breakfast while motoring to Baltra. Darwin, Christiane, and Jaime accompany us to the airport; we say goodbye to the rest of the crew.

At the airport, Jaime delivers the long-promised copies of his Galapagos map he designed and had printed. He offers us his calendar, too -- $10 for both items. The shop just adjacent sells the calendar alone for $12, the map for $6. A special deal for los amigos. Darwin shows up with our luggage to check, and hangs around, too, for a hug and a final farewell.

What a treasure these islands are – fertile, teaming, and – assuming you're not a direct link in the food chain – incredibly benign.

Back to Quito, via Guayaquil, and the Hilton's huge rooms and hot showers. We have drinks at the hotel and dinner with our fellow travelers at a nouveau Ecuadorian restaurant called Nispero. The place is beautiful, in a funked-up folk art way, and the food is good and attractively presented, but not very interestingly seasoned. At the end of the meal, the waiter treats us to glasses of an Ecuadorian liquor, which I find in the duty-free shop at the airport on our departure.

Sunday 21 January

We have a 4 AM wakeup call and a 5 AM pickup for a 7:45 departure. We run into Laurie Patterson from Sea Ranch at the gate for the Miami-SFO leg of our flight. She's returning from London and Antigua. Gradually, the horde of Galapagos returnees has thinned, diluted by travelers-from-elsewhere. Our exotic origin is no longer a given.

It's a smooth return; our flight to SFO even gets in a little early. We hug Mollie and David goodbye at the baggage carousel. A couple of hours later, we rendezvous with Francine and Bob back at the El Rancho for drinks and dinner – Thai food.

Monday 22 January

Up at 5 and home by 9:30 AM. All's well with the house and the cats. But on the news this evening, word of an oil spill on San Cristobal island, just east of the area we cruised. Apparently the tanker ran aground on Tuesday, and began leaking on Friday. Now I wonder about the crew meeting, and the heavy radio traffic (all in Spanish, of course), while we were on board. They undoubtedly knew, and didn't tell us because they didn't want to mar our vacation. The right decision, I suppose. But still, what a shock. How fragile these islands are. We continue to monitor the news at galapagos.org



Narrative by Reva Basch

Photos by Reva, with assists from Jerry, Jaime, David, Mollie, Francine and Bob

Page last edited 6 April 2001