Country number: 44
Territory number: 49
When? April 1996
How? Boat, plane
Who? Group tour to the Galapagos Islands
‘To Ecuador, the United States has absolutely nothing to teach about democracy, human rights or freedom of expression. We do have a few things to teach them.’
Getting to Ecuador 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, and 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, and at an elevation of 2,850 metres above sea level, 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, which are almost 800 miles out in the Pacific Ocean. Our first evening 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 is a little on the decrepit side (it was a 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. 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.
Santa Cruz to Tiny 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 and baby sea lions play chicken with us, diving between our legs, whilst their parents look on indulgently (in keeping my distance from the large aggressive males) .We visit the lagoon At Punta Cormorant lagoon there’s a much decorated mailbox (on a post) used by 18th Century whalers. Today you can post your cards there.
We have a Swiss tour manager, Antonio and an Ecuadorian naturalist guide, Gorge. They introduce eye 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 holiday.
When? January 2015, unplanned side trip from Colombia
Who? Group tour (!)
The name Ecuador came from the word Equator – the Equator passes directly through the country
Ecuador is the smallest country in South America.
Quito is the capital city, but Guayaquil is the largest city and port in Ecuador. It is also the wealthiest area in the country.
Ecuador gained its independence from Spain in 1822 after 300 years of Spanish rule.
Garbage collecting trucks play music as they drive through the cities, similar to ice cream vans in the UK
The United States dollar has been used as the country’s currency since a banking crisis in 1999.
Spanish is the official language
The Galapagos Islands were the very first UNESCO World Heritage Site to be so designated.
To see more of my photos of Ecuador, visit this page.