After barely 48 hours in New Zealand, we have learned one thing beyond doubt: this place is a meteorological wilderness. We who have lived all our lives in San Diego are like toddlers, lost in and bewildered by it.
We have weather in San Diego, of course. Some folks say it’s the second best in the world (after the Canary Islands). But it’s mostly the same weather. It varies from one part of San Diego County to another, and (in subtle ways) from one time of year to the next. But even in the winter, when the rain comes (if it comes), storms roll in slowly then often last for days. Weather unfolds in slow motion (when it’s not stuck in the loop of early-morning-clouds giving way to balmy late mornings.)
It is spring now in New Zealand, a season that travel guides recommend. But I’ve been dismayed in recent weeks by what I was seeing on my iPhone weather app for Auckland (our first stop). It’s looked a lot like this. Or worse (no sun of any sort). When we arrived, Monday, the icon was Rain.
However, when we emerged from the airport, the sight that greeted us lifted our tired spirits. Blue sky was interlaced with puffy white clouds. The weather app was wrong! I rejoiced. This would be a lovely day.
Now, two days later, we realize that the weather app is just hopelessly simplistic for weather the like of which they have in New Zealand. There is no icon for Many, Many Kinds of Weather, changing rapidly from one type to another. Monday morning after we got our rental car, drove to our home-exchange house, settled in, and made our way to the closest grocery store to stock up on basic supplies, it had started pouring. When we emerged from the grocery store, the rain had stopped, but the skies were dark and threatening
Back at the house, we ate lunch then napped for about an hour, before driving the 15 minutes to catch the ferry to downtown Auckland. Once aboard, the sun was out again, and the city looked glorious.
The boat ride took ten minutes, then we set off to follow a Lonely Planet walking tour of the Central Business District. This ramble took about two hours, and showed us a city radiant with spring: sunny and flowering and so warm I had to keep shedding layers and stuffing them into our daypack.
We caught the 5:45 ferry back to the north shore, at which point it was pouring rain again. When it rains with such intensity in San Diego, you know that it will last for at least 24 hours. Here, however, the deluge had stopped when we got back to Devonport, cozy under a full rainbow.
Things have continued in this vein since then. A half hour ago, a mixture of hard rain and hail was pelting our front yard. Now the wind is blowing in an excessively noisy manner, and all the trees are whipping about violently.
We are slowly adjusting to the idea that we simply must take all our layers and rain gear and be prepared for the world around us to transform itself within minutes. As Steve points out, he and I do not travel to experience places that are just like home. By that standard, this trip is already a raging success.
Tomorrow we depart for Middle Earth (aka New Zealand), a part of the world (Oceania?) to which we’ve never gotten close before. It’s not that we lack interest in the land of the kiwis or in Australia (where we’ve also never visited). Rather, we’re trying to be strategic in our travels, visiting more difficult places first and saving the safer and more developed destinations for when we’re more infirm.
What prompted us to target New Zealand now is not increased infirmity, but the realization that hiking and trekking in New Zealand is a great attraction (at least for us.) We figured we should do that before our joints rebel.
So it is that we will trek for three days on the Routeburn Track, considered to be one of the greatest of New Zealand’s “Great Walks.” That’s in the South Island, but we’ll start our touring in the north, renting vehicles to cover as much ground as possible. We’ll stay in a home in Auckland, where spring has sprung (at least according to the calendar). As usual, I’ll try to report on our adventures. It may feel different not to be taking anti-malarial medication. But we should be able to handle that.
The US/Mexico border has spawned a lot of anguished stories over the past few years, so I’m happy to report that something jolly took place at the very southwestern-most point of the continental United States the other day. Several hundred Americans and Mexicans gathered on the beach where the border meets the Pacific, and we practiced singing a song (the Beatles’s “A Little Help From My Friends”) together. The end result wasn’t the most polished choral effort in history. But surely it must rank among the most offbeat.
Back in early September, Steve and I had learned that ArtPower, the UCSD performing arts series, was sponsoring this special event featuring Choir! Choir! Choir! — a Toronto-based singing group run by two musicians who take the non-traditional approach of including anyone who wants to participate (usually for an admission fee, though the UCSD event was free). They often tour, teaching each audience an arrangement of a well-loved song. This time, however, they would be adding a twist: doing it with folks situated on both sides of the angsty international line.
We signed up immediately and heard the US crowd would be limited to 500; got word some registrants were put on a waiting list. A few weeks later, we learned of a change in plans: state park officials were suddenly demanding that ArtPower submit the names of all registrants in advance. They would not be able to drive into the park on their own but rather would need to be shuttled in from an outside location.
More directives trickled in: we would have to meet at Southwest High School, be checked in, and allow ourselves to be wristbanded. We could bring in no weapons; plastic replicas of weapons; knives of any size; explosives; fireworks; umbrellas; poles or sticks; laser lights or pointers; coolers; containers of any type (except for water bottles); aerosols; mace or pepper spray; camera tripods; sharp objects such as scissors or knitting needles; Leatherman or similar tools; bullhorns or similar “voice-enhancement devices;” noisemakers such as air horns, whistles, or drums; banners, signs, or placards; animals; or backpacks larger then 12x12x20.
Undeterred, Steve, our visiting friend Megan, and I headed for the high school around 1 pm Sunday (October 13). We checked in, sizing up our fellow singers, a range of ages but mostly white folks who all looked like NPR listeners. Before long, our bus set off southward, and it didn’t take long to reach the park. We disembarked, trying to scope out what the heck we would be doing. In January of 2018, Steve and I attended another cross-border performance. That one was a percussion concert that we watched from the Tijuana side. For it, some of the US musicians were allowed inside “Friendship Park,” that no-man’s-land created inside the double American fencing built in the late 90s and early 2000s. Nowadays it’s only opened for special occasions.
But the inner park was locked. Instead we were directed onto the beach, where we could see a small stage and a sound truck. Stern signs, police tape, and an intimidating roll of coiled razor wire prohibited us from approaching the barrier there. Beyond it, a sea of beach umbrellas and people were barely visible. I’m pretty sure there was beer on that side. And tacos. Probably music too.
We, on the other hand, were herded into a metal enclosure, where we waited for the program to begin. Up above us, armed guards, some with dogs, looked down, stony-faced. “This is kind of interesting,” commented the guy standing next to me. “I’ve been to the beach before. But never in a cage.”
If the setting on our side of the border had some grim elements, the activity, once it got started, included lots of laughs. Daveed Goldman, the Choir! Choir! Choir! director leading the American contingent, is quite a comedian (as well as a competent guitar-player). His cohort who was working the Mexican side, Nobu Adilman, seemed a bit stricter a task master. Both guys wore microphones, so we could hear everything said by each. The Mexican wannabe choraleers yelled and applauded when they were introduced, and of course we responded in turn. (There seemed to be a lot more of them.) We waved our sheets of lyrics at each other in the distance, and that made the fence and the distance between us feel a bit less dreary.
The actual song practice was more serious than I expected. We gringos sang the first lines —What would you think if I sang out of tune? — and the Mexicans sang back in Spanish: Levantarte y marcharte, quizás? (Would you stand up and walk out on me?). We practiced certain sections again and again. At first, the Mexicans’ voices sounded faint and distant, but over the course of the next hour we all grew louder and more confident. By the final run-throughs, I think everyone was singing more or less together. There were nice harmonic flourishes. The final cheers were robust.
From time to time throughout the experience Daveed chastised American participants for holding up their cell phones and recording what was going on. “We are recording all of this for Youtube — and we will do a better job!” he bellowed. “You should be living in the moment.” I’m not sure when the official Choir! Choir! Choir! video will be posted to the group’s Youtube site. When it is, I’ll add a link here. In the meantime, here’s a link to some video shot on the Mexican side of the border. I expect the final Choir! Choir! Choir! product will look more polished than it felt when we were singing it. But I bet it won’t feel as depressing and uplifting and fun as it did in person there.
I can’t say it has always been my dream to sleep in an Airstream, one of those iconic shiny aluminum travel trailers. Still, every time time I notice one out and about, the stylish design tickles me. So when the opportunity arose to experience one on a recent night in greater Los Angeles, I couldn’t resist.
We were going to LA to attend an 8 pm concert at the Hollywood Bowl, meeting our son and his family there. At the moment I am flush, if not with cash, with Guest Points acquired through one of the oldest and largest home-exchanging organizations (homeexchange.com). Looking for options on their site, I spotted the Airstream permanently parked in the Burbank backyard of a couple, Eva and Lars, and their four children. It “cost” only 150 Guest Points and looked charming, in the photos. And it appeared to be only a skip and a jump from the family’s quiet neighborhood to Hollywood. Steve was skeptical, but he acquiesced. I set up the exchange (of the points for the one-night stay), and last Saturday morning, we packed small bags and headed north.
First we stopped at the newly renovated Beverly Center mall in Beverly Hills, where I wanted to visit the large outpost of Uniqlo (the Japanese clothing maker whose casual wear several friends have raved about, but which I had never seen first-hand since the chain has no stores south of Orange County). The mall felt a bit like a spaceship, and the Uniqlo was very interesting. I bought a few $15 t-shirts made of a high-tech material that supposedly heats up any moisture you emit to keep you warmer. We’ll see how that works.
But then we had to hustle on to Burbank, which felt like it was about three times farther from Hollywood in reality than it had been in my head. Eva and Lars greeted us and showed us the trailer. If anything, it felt more attractive than it looked online, being surrounded by a nicely landscaped backyard and sitting area. Restored to pristine condition, the interior seemed roomy enough, and when we slept on it later that night, the queen-size bed was surprisingly comfortable. Still, I can now report that spending the night in a nice, clean Airstream felt pretty indistinguishable (to me) from spending the night in any nice, clean garden-variety trailer. I’ll probably continue to admire the zoomy exterior design whenever I see one, but I won’t be shopping for an Airstream of my own any time soon.
If that aspect of the weekend proved underwhelming, the other main elements exceeded expectation. To avoid the hellish traffic and parking nightmares around the Hollywood Bowl, we drove our van to the North Hollywood Metro station and parked on the street nearby. Then we rode the metro two stops to Hollywood and Highland, walked the mile or so to the Bowl, and dined on the picnic dinner we had packed and carried with us. The transit part all took more than an hour, but doing it by car would have taken at least as long and been much more stressful.
Furthermore the people-watching on the metro and the walk through Hollywood was unsurpassed, as it was inside the Bowl (which neither Steve nor I had ever seen, in all our years of living in Southern California.) Genial and head-spinningly multicultural, the huge crowd seemed to be in a great mood.
The program featured the music of “Game of Thrones,” performed by the show’s original orchestra and directed by composer Ramin Djawadi. Once the concert got underway, we were blown away both by the sound and beautiful setting. I’m not sure if we’ll ever get back for another concert, but (unlike the Airstream Experience), I would like to.
By the time we tumbled into bed (around midnight), it felt like we’d surveyed a broad swathe of LA Life. But the next morning we got more when we left Eva and Lars’ place and drove to MacArthur Park, hoping to participate in the “Heart of LA” CicLAvia event taking place from 9 to 4 pm Sunday. Inspired by a venerable bicycling event that began decades ago in Bogotá, Colombia, LA versions of it began 9 years ago and have since attracted more than a million and a half people. The idea is to close key streets in a given area and turn them over to pedestrians, bikers, and other folks on wheels (skates, boards, pedicabs, and more) for use as a public park throughout the better part of a day. I participated in one several years ago in San Clemente, but I’d never done one of the LA versions.
One problem was: we couldn’t bring our bikes (because we knew we would be transporting our son and his family and their luggage back to San Diego). But a savvy friend had alerted us to the Smart Metro Bike program that’s part of the LA metro system. I’ll confess Steve and I were skeptical we could find two of those bikes and get access to it. But after very few minor hassles, we succeeded!
We biked from the park down 7th Street to the heart of downtown, then turned onto Broadway, passing iconic gems like the Bradbury Building and Clifton’s Cafeteria and the LA Times Building as well as monstrous new public edifices such as the police department headquarters. We took the arm of the route that headed southeast, skirting Little Tokyo and crossing the marvelous 4th Street Bridge over the railway lines. Sadly, we ran out of time and had to turn back before making it to Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights. We missed altogether the arm that went to Chinatown.
If we’d had the whole day, we could have easily spent it stopping to view the art and architecture along the route, listening to music, eating at many dozens of options. We didn’t. But it makes me happy to know it’s not that far away. We can go back.
Considering what a small (and little-visited) country Ecuador is, I wouldn’t have been surprisedto find it pleasant but unmemorable (apart from the Galapagos Islands, which are unique.)
Parts of our short stay were like that. But four experiences electrified me.
Watching the changing of the government-palace guard in Quito
I’ve seen the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, but the ceremony at Quito’s government palace (the Ecuadorian equivalent of the White House) makes the British version seem dull. Commentators trace its origins back more than 200 years, to shortly after Ecuador won its independence from Spain. In recent years, it has taken place every Monday, though the start time has shifted around a bit. We’d heard it was worth seeing. That’s an understatement.
We got to Plaza Grande, the city’s most iconic square, shortly before 8:30 am a week ago Monday. The presence of cops and a few brightly dressed palace guards milling around on the second-story balcony made us think something was afoot, but the action coalesced gradually. Guards astride flashy horses appeared, bearing flags. More guards with lances positioned themselves near the rooftop.Precisely at 9:00 the strains of stately, grandiose music became discernible, first faintly, then louder and louder, as almost two dozen trumpet- and clarinet- and trombone- and tuba- and bass-drum- and other instrument-playing guards emerged from the inner recesses of the palace. It was music with the power to raise the hairs on the back of necks; music that made me wish I could leave my viewing spot and march along.What followed went on for close to a half an hour, and it was too complicated to describe in detail: parading horses and solemn proclamations over a loudspeaker and marching lance-bearers and more and more of the thrilling music. (One missing element was the Ecuadorian president’s appearance on the uppermost balcony, another long-time part of the show. Whether he was just on vacation or worried about his plummeting popularity, I can’t tell you.)
Still it was most entertaining, and I couldn’t help chuckling at this small, not-very-prosperous country putting on such a flamboyant display of stately pomp. (I also thought: better them than us.)
Getting caught in the demonstrationWe happened upon our first Ecuadorian political demonstration, a small group protesting in front of the presidential palace, during our free walking tour of the city. “We Ecuadorians love demonstrations,” our guide declared. “You’re going to see a lot of them.” She got that right. During our four days in Quito, we witnessed at least three or four public protests, and I got a text from the US State Department warning that several big ones were expected on one of the days we were there. We should avoid them, the message ordered, but this wasn’t possible during our hop-off, hop-on bus tour of the city’s major sights.
The bus was a double-decker, and Steve and I were sitting on the open second level. From blocks away, we could see a large crowd down the street. We assumed the bus would detour around it, but instead, we headed straight for the protesters and the police and their snarling canines.
Within short order, the mob surrounded the bus. People chanted. Vuvuzelas blared. Despite the signs, it was unclear what was angering the protesters (though cutbacks to healthcare subsidies seemed to be involved.)I suspected the State Department wonk who sent out the text message wouldn’t have approved of our being in the thick of it. But the crowd seemed more high-spirited than menacing, and the cops looked chill.
After a few minutes, the mob parted and the bus rolled along its way. None of our other stops were anywhere near as thrilling.
Meeting the man behind the hacienda
We spent one night in the Ecuadorian countryside, in what Lonely Planet described as a “fairy-tale 17th-century hacienda.” Our friends had stayed there for a night, and we could see why they loved it. The gardens were exquisite.
And the interiors felt like a museum.
The spine-tingling moment for us came when a distinguished looking gentlemen approached us while we were dining in the grand salon (above). He introduced himself as the owner, Nicholas Millhouse, and over the course of the next hour or so, he shared a small part of the saga that began when he bought the hacienda in 1990 and undertook the gigantic art project of restoring it from near ruin to its current glory.
An Englishman who spent his career teaching at a tony private school in Manhattan, he had early developed a passion for South America. For decades, he roamed the continent, collecting exquisite textiles and other works of art.
The next morning, we spent more time in his company, enjoying his sense of humor…
…and learning a little about indigenous art and beliefs.
Millhouse also commissioned this cross, which incorporates important indigenous elements, such as substituting a mirror for the figure of the crucified Christ.
Millhouse still spends most of the year in Manhattan, so it was pure chance that we happened to be at the hacienda when he was in residence there. That blew our minds.
Walking into La Compañia
I’ve seen a lot of churches in my time, but few, if any, have struck me as being as beautiful as the Jesuit one in the heart of Ecuador’s capital. Somehow all the gold makes the place feel cheery and inviting, rather than garish.
Supposedly, the Jesuits wanted the worshipping natives to feel like they had died and gone to heaven. Surely they must have succeeded.
Taking in the heartbreaking natural beauty
There’s no single moment I was poleaxed by Ecuador’s physical beauty. Instead it bowled me over and over: upon landing in Quito. Or horseback riding at the hacienda. Or drinking in the viewpoint, reached via cable car, near one of the city’s volcanos.
It’s one of the most beautiful natural landscapes I’ve encountered, and one of the reasons Ecuador should rank among the richest countries in the world, a South American Switzerland. The land also is fertile, blessed with so many microclimates almost everything can be grown here. Ecuador has more oil than anywhere on the continent except for Venezuela and Brazil. It contains vast gold reserves, not to mention the natural wonder of the Galapagos.
Instead, Ecuadorians struggle with strangling regulation, corrupt politicians, and almost-constant turmoil. (They’ve had 20 Constitutions since independence; 17 presidents between 1930 and 1940). That’s the heartbreaking part.
Will all those demonstrations lead to a better future for folks like her? Will some other force? If the creativity and energy latent in the Ecuadoreans could be unloosed, that would be truly electrifying.
I’ve dreaded writing this post. I’m afraid anyone who reads it will think I’m the sort of airhead who travels in order to buy stuff, when almost the opposite is true. I don’t buy much on the road, and Steve loathes shopping. Anything you buy has to be transported home, which is tough if you limit yourself to carry-ones (as we do). If the purchase requires bargaining, that adds to the stress. Then when you get home, you have to decide what to do with those quirky knick-knacks.
I found a partial answer to the last question a few years go, when I was puzzling over what to do with a beautiful piece of cloth I couldn’t resist buying for a few dollars in Senegal, a country renowned for its striking fabrics. Coincidentally, our youngest son had recently moved out, and I wanted to transform the battered bedroom of his boyhood into a guest room. A friend suggested I use the cloth as a wall hanging, and add additional African details. The room-renovation thus turned into a Project. It gave me a place to print and hang some of our many photos from Africa. Online I found a mosquito net and installed that over the bed. And I had an instant home for the other African souvenirs I had picked up in spite of myself.
Our own bedroom already was Asian. Decades ago Steve and I fell in love with Japan and built a Japanese-style master bed, along with sliding Japanese-style window coverings. So I suppose it was inevitable a Latin-American decorational fever eventually might seize me.
A room on a lower level from the main floor of our house is the closest thing we have to a living room. But it was pretty dumpy (having previously been incarnated as a home office and then a kids’ playroom). It had a few Latin touches (a papier-mâché parrot I picked up in Tijuana ages ago; a couple of tango posters from Buenos Aires.) When planning our trip for the eclipse in Chile and Argentina, I started toying with the idea of jazzing up this room by further South Americanizing it.
The toughest thing, I confided in email to my friend Doris, traveling in Ecuador at the time, would be to find a rug to replace the aging one in the room, handed down to us by some friends. Doris had a suggestion. In the Andean highlands, she and her partner Louis had just been dazzled by the beautiful textiles still being produced by master weavers. A few were still working with “backstrap” looms, an ancient art once practiced in various places around the world, using sticks, rope, and a strap worn around the weaver’s waist. Others created striking objects using more traditional hand looms. Why not spend a little time in Ecuador on our way home from the eclipse, and buy a rug from one of those guys?
Her suggestion wound up profoundly influencing our plans. Besides visiting the Galápagos Islands on the cheap and having four nights in Quito (the first cultural UN World Heritage site, so designated for its striking and well-preserved colonial architecture), we would spend all the rest of our available time in Ecuador (three nights) in the town of Otavalo, renowned for having one of the largest and most famous craft markets in South America. At the town’s weekly Saturday fair, I should find some small decorations for my downstairs room, I figured. But my central mission would be to get a great rug and buy a colorful box to replace the ugly Tupperware container housing our puppy-grooming gear (which we use in that downstairs room).
I emailed the small hotel where we would be staying in Otavalo to ask if they could recommend anyone who might drive us to visit the local master weavers. Wendy, the owner of the Doña Esther, wrote me back that Luis, their regular taxi driver, would be happy to take us around for $10 an hour.
Luis made up for his lack of English with his deep local knowledge and eagerness to be helpful. First he drove us to a hillside village inhabited entirely by indigenous Andeans, where we parked… …and walked to the workshop of Don José Cotacachi.
Within the compound where Don José lives, a young woman demonstrated how the natural dyes are made. Some start with the scale insect that grows on prickly pear cactus pads. When squished, these creatures (known as cochineal) turn into a brilliant scarlet goo; mixing in other substances such as lemon juice produces other hues.
Browns and tans are are derived from walnuts. The artists use such substances to color the alpaca and woolen yarns they weave into patterns both subtle and bold.
I fell in love with Don José’s work.But Steve and I were struck by a problem with using any of it to cover our floor. The largest pieces were less than four by five feet, smaller than what we were seeking. Furthermore, they weren’t very thick but rather more suitable for hanging on a wall or covering a bed. They’d be a bitch to vacuum, and we could all too readily imagine our dogs turning them into a rumpled pile of cloth.
We felt similar misgivings in the workshop of Don Miguel Andrango, an octogenarian famous for his preservation of Ecuadorian backstrap-weaving techniques.
Although Don Miguel himself was ailing on the morning of our visit, three younger generations of the family are still producing beautiful work.
Once again, I loved their creations. I lusted to own one. But nothing seemed suitable for life on the ground. This time I broke down and bought a 6-foot-long by 1.5-foot wide weaving for $150 to use as a table runner. But my rug quest remained unfulfilled.
By the end of that day, Steve and I had formulated a new plan. We would visit the market in town the next day (Friday) and check out the carpets there. They might not be as beautiful as those produced by the master weavers, but they should cost less, and if they looked South American… well, we could live with that.
We must have spent close to two hours combing the Friday marketplace. Once again, we were dismayed by the absence of anything one might call a carpet. We found cloth that would make beautiful blankets; that might transform a couch. But nothing that resembled the South American carpet of my dreams.
Sometime that afternoon we had an epiphany: we’d gotten it wrong. In our ignorance, we’d imagined a role for carpets in this culture similar to what we’d seen in Morocco or India. But now it dawned on us there wasn’t a single carpet anywhere in our hotel. Or in other public buildings we visited. The Spanish conquistadors had made lovely stone floor tiles that had become ubiquitous in this part of the world. But the local folk didn’t adorn them.
I’d been so intent, so sure, I would find what I wanted. In the end, though, we yielded to what seemed to be the evidence. On Saturday we returned to Don José’s and bought a weaving that will occupy a place of honor on our downstairs wall. But we’ll live with our hand-me-down rug (which, if produced in a factory, does look vaguely indigenous.)
The story of my hunt for a box almost turned out the same way. I was certain such boxes, eye-catchingly Latin, must exist. Vendors in the market would badger me to buy them, I fantasized. And when we looked for them at the gigantic Saturday market, we did find lively painted wood trays. We found a few plain wood boxes, and a handful of painted boxes — but only in sizes way too small to hold the doggy toothbrush and toothpaste and toenail file and cotton balls I wanted to conceal.
I felt sad as we hurried back to the hotel to catch our ride out of town. A few blocks away from the end of all our shopping, I stopped at one last stand specializing in painted wooden objects. If I couldn’t find my box, I decided, at least I could buy a tray. We negotiated a price ($35). And then I spotted a handful of similarly painted boxes in one corner of the stall — exactly the size I had been seeking.
So I got my box, along with a lesson: when you hit the road, you never know what you’re going to find. Forgetting that can lead to disappointment. On the other hand, I’m delighted with most of our purchases. We got to dive into the life of the market, a wonderful place. I also had five electrifying Ecuadorian experiences. I hope to share them in one more final, brief post.
I was long baffled that Steve was never eager to visit the Galápagos. Both natural history and evolutionary biology have always fascinated him. There’s a lot of both in the island chain 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. The place intrigued me, but the price of visiting always discouraged both of us. No tourism of any sort existed before the mid-1960s, and then for many years, the only way to see the place was to take the almost two-hour flight out, then board a ship that would likely cost at least $2500 per person for a basic five-day cruise and many thousands more for a longer or posher experience. For that kind of money, we typically cover a lot of ground.
What finally got us there was a combination of factors. The path from Santiago (our gateway to and from the eclipse) to San Diego lies almost directly over Ecuador, a country we had never visited. In early spring, our good friends Doris and Louis spent six weeks there (publishing vivid dispatches in their blog, Louis and Doris Partout.) Privately Doris urged me to consider stopping over in Ecuador on our return north. About the same time, I read a New York Times article about the surge in land-based travel in the Galapagos. This could be accomplished at a fraction of the price of cruising, according to the Times writer. I did a lot of quick, compressed research and we wound up deciding to spend two weeks in Ecuador, sandwiching in a 6-day, 5-night visit to two of the islands.
Now that we’re back on the Ecuadorian mainland, we feel completely satisfied with the way this worked out. We didn’t see as much as we surely would have had we cruised for two weeks and visited 5 or 10 of the islands. We didn’t see every animal visitors try to check off their lists; missed sighting any whales or hammerhead sharks, and never came within sight of a red-footed boobie.
But we did observe a wondrous assortment of creatures: the eponymous giant tortoises and amazing swimming (marine) iguanas.
It was hatching season for the marine iguanas, so we saw hundreds of the babies, like these.
We saw plenty of blue-footed boobies.
Those feet are pretty dashing.
We swam with huge sea turtles and brilliant reef fish and schools of rays and 6-inch-tall seahorses, spotted amidst a seascape studded with starfish and coral and urchins. We hiked to and boated by striking lava formations and came away feeling we’d gotten a good taste of the place.
Doing it on the cheap required that we make all our own arrangements and get ourselves around, but that wasn’t hard. The little hotels where we stayed were clean and comfy enough, if not luxe, and they cost less than $50 a night on average. The food ranged from good to excellent. Our favorite meals included the two we ate on the jolly Santa Cruz street that closes to cars at night. The restaurants set up long wooden tables and chairs at which you can tuck into tasty lobster and fish meals (with beer) for about $50 per couple.In the end, our stay (including the $180 required per person in permits) cost us about $800 each, rather than the $2,500-$5000 per person the cruising probably would have. And we learned a lot.
Here’s my take on the best and worst things about experiencing the islands this way:
We only spent time on two islands, Santa Cruz and Isabela. To get back and forth between them, we took inter-island ferries, which cost $60 per person round-trip. I hated both rides. The ferries are basically speedboats seating around 30 passengers, most of whom can see almost nothing along the way. The vessels blast through the water, rolling and bucking — too rough a ride to do much of anything besides count the minutes (around 120) till the torture ends. Chugging around on a big old yacht would doubtless be far more pleasant. (Some inter-island plane service also exists, but it’s five or six times more expensive than the speedboats.)
Our first morning on Santa Cruz, we hired a local taxi driver to take us around for three and a half hours. We visited the interesting Darwin research center, checked out some of the geological wonders (craters and lava tunnels), and spent at least an hour strolling around a private nature reserve where the giant tortoises are thriving. The San Diego Zoo has a large, old Galapagos tortoise colony, but they live in a sterile enclosure, a universe away from the lush vegetation in the reserve.
It felt magical to come upon the giant reptiles blocking the paths, munching on (non-native) guavas (which eco-volunteers are trying to eradicate), and otherwise looking cranky and enigmatic.
Steve and I also marveled at how chilly the Galapagan waters are, despite the fact that the island chain lies on the equator. The cold nutrient-rich Humboldt Current, which flows north from Antarctica, makes the weather temperate and fosters the abundance of land and sea life. On the days we snorkeled, the water was somewhere around 70, cool enough that, even protected in short wetsuits, we couldn’t stand being in the water for more than about an hour. Still, the beautiful things we saw made the mild discomfort tolerable.
Staying onshore rather than cruising gave us more opportunity to interact with the native humans. Several commented on how relaxed and pleasant life on the islands can be. (Strict laws limit the inflow of mainlanders.) It seems a simpler life. Everywhere the Internet was glacial. Many folks get around on bikes. At our hotel, we asked how we might launder a small pile of dirty clothes. The proprietress pointed us to the bright turquoise house a short distance from her place. If we dropped off our load in the morning, it should be ready to retrieve by evening, she said,
We strolled down the dirt road and peered into the open door of the turquoise house. The front room was filled with a half-dozen washing machines, several dryers heated by bottle gas, and little else. A family member finally noticed our arrival, weighed our bundle, and said it would cost $3 to wash and dry everything.
When I returned hours later to collect it, no one was in the laundry area, so I called out, “Hola!” In the back of the house, I could glimpse a middle-aged man with a large gut, sprawled in a rumpled bed. He collected himself, came to the front, and took my money in exchange for the clean and neatly folded items. He was less exotic than a giant tortoise, but interesting enough that I was glad I hadn’t missed meeting him too.