Tuesday 25 September 2018

Ecuador, Galapagos Islands - Summer 2018

Someone to Lava
Sunday, 8 July

To me, that Pixar song about the volcano needing someone to "lava" is set in the Galapagos and it was here where I chose to propose to my girlfriend.  What's more, we got to witness a volcano eruption!  I found an idilic spot watching wild flamingos to get down on one knee and of course she said yes... I write my own, not massively popular, food blog - how could she resist!?  It turns out that the Galapagos was not the most expensive part of the holiday after all!  But enough of that - we're in the GALAPAGOS!!  It really was not cheap to do the Galapagos justice as research told me that the best way to see it all was on a live-aboard boat and it is recommended that you go with a qualified guide.  Qualified meaning a guide who has studied all that is Galapagos from rocks and volcanoes to Sally Lightfoot Crabs and Blue-Footed Boobies at university.  We booked the Anahi Catamaran and organised it all through GalapagosIslands.com who were incredibly helpful.  First stop, however; Quito!

Personal safety was even more of a worry here than in Mexico!  I only know two people who have been to Ecuador and BOTH got mugged!? So nobody would blame us for being a little aprehensive in walking around too much on our own.  We stayed at Vieja Cuba in the Guopalo area which was a beautiful boutique hotel.  With our room on the 3rd floor and no lift, we very quickly learnt the affects of being at 3000m above sea level. Either that or the pigging out on tacos in Cancun had really taken its toll!  With zip up pockets and on constant alert we took a stroll down the main street and booked in a free evening walking tour from El Hostelito; there was no way we were going to walk around in the evening ourselves and so this seemed ideal.  Before that though, we visited a slightly dull Museum and found one of the three National dishes of Ecuador: Fratada.  Spiced pork meat fried in pork fat was succulent and sticky.  Unlike the western recommended 1/3 carbs, 1/3 veg and 1/3 meat and dairy balanced meal, Ecuadorians go for a more 4/5 carbs and 1/5 meat balance.  My fratada came with mote (a type of boiled corn), pork fat fried plantain and boiled sweet potato.  Maybe it's not the altitude afterall...

I couldn't recommend the walking tour enough and it really allowed us to see the area at its best; guided by a cool, hip, young local.  A visit to the evening food market was obviously my favourite part and allowed me to sample all sorts.  This food market was all about the offal with two stalls selling flame grilled intestines which were seriously good and a couple of stalls specialising in Gautitas, another National Dish, which is a stew of tripe in a peanut sauce.  Putting cow stomach in your National Dish is certainly brave, but, it made for a warm, hearty meal that didn't have that infamous offally taste at all.  In other words it didn't taste like a goats backside one bit!  The tour finished at an awesome little cafe where we had some Ecuadorian coffee and went to bed buzzing - partly from 11PM coffee and partly from the excitement of heading to the Galapagos in the morning!

Excitement was bubbling as we headed to the airport.  We met with a GalapagosIslands.com representative who handed us our tickets and guided us through the somewhat unique checking in process required for the Galapagos.  Within a few hours we were touching down on the beautiful volcanic islands where even just the transfer to our catamaran was full of wildlife.  In the port the waters were teeming with sharks and sting rays just casually swimming whilst giant pelicans torpedo dived in to catch fish.  We stood on the boardwalk with jaws dropped eagerly waiting for our dinghy to take us to our home for the next 8 days.  8 days!!  We were feeling so incredibly lucky.

Our guide is called Galo and he knows absolutely everything there is to know about the Galapagos; every single animal, plant, tree and rock.  All the way down to the fine detail and deep science of it all he was bursting with passion for this amazing place.  We spent the first night at the boat's bar with introductions to the crew and a briefing from Galo about the plans for the following day.  Every night is briefing followed by dinner and things generally run on a tight schedule.  Food on the boat was fantastic but nothing that warrants writing about.  We're in the Galapagos, who wants to read about the food!? We travelled to Isabella Island over night and started our first full day at 7am with a walk around a breading area for the sea iguanas.  Baby Iguanas were absolutely everywhere and often swarmed the walking path making us walk round.  In one morning hike we saw a stupid amount of different animals.  Just standing and looking into a small lagoon we had iguanas, sea lions and turtles all in one scene.  This is where we learnt that Galo's talents have no limit as he can actually speak to the sea lions and call them out of the water!  It was not even 10am and it felt like we had done so much.  Back on board we decided to swim around the boat until we noticed that black tip and white tip sharks had the exact same idea.  We jumped in and even with Galo's reassurance that it was totally safe I couldn't help but curl my toes and tense up when one swam underneath as I tread water.  We didn't even have our snorkels at this point so it really was quite scary just seeing shadows whilst people on the boat told you how big it is!
Our afternoon activity was a hike on Isabella Island climbing up Sierra Negra volcano to see the immense view of its caldera.  I say that like I knew what a caldera was before the trip... It's the enormous mouth of the volcano that is entirely covered in lava from its last eruption.  It is stunning and with dimensions of 8km by 9km it is the largest in the Galapagos.  We visited the giant tortoise breeding sanctuary afterwards followed by a boardwalk to see the fluorescent pink flamingos which is where I decided to pop the question.

For some reason I just assumed that these islands were completely untouched and uninhabited.  I was wrong; full communities can be found on four islands here and Isabella is probably the main one.  The sea lions and giant iguanas fit right in lazing on the deck as if they have no care in the world.  The urge to get down on your knees and cuddle a sea lion is unbearably overwhelming but under the forever watchful eye of Galo and knowing deep, deep down its not good for the wildlife, I resisted.  After the proposal we celebrated at a beach bar where we drank Galapagos's own brewed beer (where!?!) whilst sea iguanas covered the bar wall; sea lions chilled on the beach and the fins of white tip sharks poked out of the shallows.  Not a bad day at all. 

Today we arrived on the west side of Isabella in which Galo regularly reminded us how lucky we were to get such a long time in the west and how no other itinerary he knows does this.  Adding to our luck was the fact that a volcano was erupting and we woke up to the view right outside of our window.  An erupting volcano is one of those sites that doesn't really change much but you can't take your eyes off it.  Fixated like watching a camp fire.  Our morning hike was over lava rock, looking in small volcanic lakes where sharks circled and turtles bobbed all with the erupting orange and yellow glows from the volcano in the distant background.  Galo really showcased his knowledge going into fine detail about volcanic activity, rock formations and the pioneering cactus that seems to just grow out of solid stone.  We knew he was knowledgeable on the wildlife side of things but this felt like another level with him even drawing diagrams in the sand to help explain.  Our morning boat ride put us side by side with cute little penguins hopping from rock to rock and the strange flightless cormorant disappearing into the sea and reappearing with fish dangling from it's beak.  It turns out that I took zero decent photos of the flightless cormorant but a half decent video which I will post at the end!

All of this activity seen from the boat meant we were itching to get into the water ourselves and our first snorkel of the trip was right in those waters with the penguins and cormorants.  We hired our wet-suits (US$40 for the week) and rolled backward into the cool water.  My first view into the underwater world was a seabed covered in these fluorescent green urchins.  Fish were everywhere and it wasn't long until we were up close and personal with turtles.  Penguins darted in and out of view so quickly that I gave up trying to snap their photo and just enjoyed watching them whipping around in every direction seemingly for no other reason than to play.  The flightless Cormorant chased fish in the rock crevices beneath us before coming to the surface to sit eye to eye with us. We got out of the water ecstatic knowing that from here on we will have the opportunity to snorkel twice a day!

We travelled a little closer to the volcano after lunch and enjoyed a "panga ride" as the sun set over the volcano.  By now the volcano was boiling the sea and sending immense clouds of steam into the sky.  We saw all the usual (because in this alternate universe seeing turtles, penguins and sea lions have become the norm) on the panga ride and introduced ourselves to our first blue footed boobies.  A fever of golden rays(yes I looked that up) stole the show though and dunking my camera in the water and clicking aimlessly was surprisingly successful! I feel like we have done so much already and we are not even halfway through our trip.  What else could the Galapagos possibly have to offer?!

Are you bored of turtles yet?
Sunday, 15 July

Yer a little... I hate to say it but what kind of life must I live where swimming with turtles has become just a tad mundane!?  Snorkelling (and scuba diving for that matter) always ends up being about the least likely thing you would see and usually the turtle is on that list!  In the Galapagos, it was anything that we were yet to see: The Hammerhead Shark, the Giant Manta Ray and the Sun Fish.  All of these fish we have seen from the boat but none whilst snorkelling.  Turtles on the other hand, on a single snorkel trip, we easily saw over 50.  We saw a baby Hammerhead Shark from our panga boat as we went to our snorkelling spot and then never saw it again.  We did, however, come nose to nose with an enormous Galapagos shark that darted by me close enough for me to feel its push of water.  It was to beautiful to be scary.

Without a doubt the favourite snorkels were easily all the ones when the sea lions came to play.  Pretty much all other animals in the water here just swim by and ignore you; not the sea lion.  The sea lion's are like excited dogs that will do tricks for treats.  Swimming beneath you on their backs and watching you; zooming towards you and changing direction last second; and blowing bubbles whilst keeping eye contact the whole time (all of this can be seen in the video at the end).  Swimming with sea lions was one of my favourite experiences of the trip (and maybe even in life!) and we got to do it several times!  Even with this mammoth sized one, at no point did I feel threatened or uneasy; they just want to show off and play with you.  We snorkelled out into the deep a couple of times in the hope to find something big but both times were unsuccessful.  We found a few white tip reef sharks that almost made up for the mole mole or giant manta we missed but not quite. 

On land we had equally impressive experiences.  Fernandina Island is the spot where David Attenborough's famous Racer Snakes and Iguana Scene was filmed for Planet Earth 2.  We saw the snakes and we saw the lizards but gladly didn't have to relive the nightmare scene.  At the tip of the "Seahorses nose" (The shape of Isabella Island) we crossed the equator and we gathered around the Captains GPS computer and cheered with cocktails when it hit 000.  The journey to our next destination was sat on the sun deck as Galo pointed out all the wildlife: flying fish, sea lions, turtles, dolphins, giant manta rays, mole mole and even a breaching whale (I missed that one!).  Ultimately I learnt that if you stare at the sea for 5 minutes in any direction something big will jump out of it.  We arrived at Isla Santiago and Isla Rabida late afternoon where the sand was a deep red and we saw fur seals and the Galapagos hawk.  Cute sea lion pups slept on the walking paths caring not at all as you stepped over them and the iguanas chilled on rocks sneezing salt water from their noses.

Our last hike was on Isla Bartolome which Galo promised to be the most beautiful of them all.  Not because of the animals, but because of the stunning landscape.  The feeling of the experience coming to an end began here as we attempted to do a whole group panoramic shot.  Our final dinner was a BBQ set up on the sun deck and we toasted a spectacular trip.  Galo told us that the boat was in the most shark infested waters of the trip and that if we wanted to swim with them we needed to be prepared to punch them on the nose if they got to "inquisitive".  We laughed and he put his stern face on and confirmed with us that he was deadly serious.  So... we're not going for a swim then.  Instead, after dinner, he told us that we could shine torches and find them.  When I first pointed the light into the water an actual shiver went up my spine to see that "infested waters" was no exaggeration!  Galo confirmed that if we were to fall in now we would most certainly be eaten.  These were the same sharks we saw when snorkelling but apparently they only hunt at night.  It didn't stop us tying Go Pros to the end of sticks and shoving them in the water though! 

Given the option to wake up extra early to do one final mini excursion before heading to the airport we all jumped at the opportunity - A small island that has become the nesting and mating site for Boobies and Frigates.  Even on the last day the Galapagos still had something to offer.  Baby boobies are like giant, balls of cotton and the Frigate birds put on an impressive throat scrote inflation show narrated wonderfully by Galo.  He also narrated a foot stomping mating dance from the blue footed boobies.  We said our goodbyes to Galo at the airport and sadly went our separate ways.  The Galapagos lived up to every expectation and more and we left already planning our next visit to SCUBA dive Isla Wolf.  Seriously, Google image "Isla Wolf diving" and instantly feel the need to book your tickets.  One day...

We arrived in Hotel Boutique Portal de Cantuna in the "Historical Centre" this time to see a new part of Quito.  This part of Quito is beautiful!  Seriously pretty.  It is an actual world heritage site and the architecture is incredible.  Buildings here date back to the 16th century and you can witness the entirety of civilisation in an hours walk.  Is there anywhere else in the world like this?  We had a romantic evening stroll, a coffee in one of the many gorgeous courtyards and then a posh Italian meal to have our first actual celebration of getting engaged.  It was a little sad not to eat locally but Ecuadorian fine dining doesn't really seem to be a thing.  Local dishes are all hearty home foods that don't use any special ingredients.  Ecuador has 4 national dishes and all 4 can be found from a vendor on the street.  I ate Fritada and Guatitas before and had Ceviche on the boat in the Galapagos.  Ceviche is more famously the signature dish of Peru but Ecuadorian Ceviche is prepared with cooked fish instead of raw fish and so is still claimed as a uniquely Ecuadorian National Dish.  This left just one dish to seek out called Encebollado - a fish stew made from albacore tuna.

We joined our second "free" walking tour of the holiday for our last day in Ecuador to learn more about this fascinating area and get tips on where to find a good Encebollado.  We used FreeWalkingTourEcuador.com because unsurprisingly it was the first hit when I typed "free walking tours in Ecuador" into Google.  Our guide was the brilliant Berto and he talked us through the vast history of the area, but most importantly, finished the tour at a wonderful food market where he guaranteed a delicious bowl of steaming Encebollado.  The market was perfect and we sat with Berto as he tucked in to the most succulent pulled pork I had ever seen (called Hornado) whilst I slurped away at my spicy bowl of fish soup.  The albacore was soft and fatty, the pink pickled onions were tangy and the popcorn... yep I said popcorn... acted like croutons.  It was a real treat but the pulled pork was what my taste buds were yearning for.  Luckily Becky ordered the pulled pork too and now that we are engaged what is her's is mine right?! The pork melted in the mouth like salted butter and it took all of my might not to order another.  They were both incredibly tasty and it was a sad thought to think they were dishes that I don't think I will ever see again.  Sad until I remembered that this time tomorrow I will be back in Mexico eating a mountain of tacos!  Goodbye Ecuador, it truly has been an adventure.  


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