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About tomtraveler69

A married Christian lawyer with a passion for travel.
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  1. Tom McClow says:

    by Thomas McClow
    Quito, Ecuador/Galapagos Islands 1999

    Ever on the hunt for our next adventure, a fax announced a trip to Quito, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. Not having been to either destination, we decided to go. Sounds simple, but as you will learn, something popped up that made it much more complicated.
    The tour left from Miami on a Monday. We opted to go a day early and spend a little time in Miami Beach. Our flight to Miami was on American Airlines. Upon arriving in Miami, we rented a car to give us some local travel flexibility. The City of Miami and Miami Beach are separated by an expensive taxi trip. Since we stayed at the Omni in Coral Gables, our rental car came in handy. The Omni, by the way, is a very nice property.
    South Beach in Miami Beach is “the” place to be. There are numerous restaurants, designer boutiques, shops of all types and small hotels in the famous Art Deco area. We fought the traffic while looking at the sites, and then parked to walk the streets. The skies were threatening. Each restaurant had menus at the sidewalk and some had platters of representative dishes. As we were checking out menus, the skies became even more threatening. Having selected the Pelican restaurant [with large awnings], the skies opened up and drenched many al fresco diners at other establishments without protection from the elements. What do you do if your not inexpensive dinner and torrents of rain arrive at the same time? Just asking.
    The next morning, we leisurely drove the coast highway A1A almost to Boca Raton. Fort Lauderdale was much nicer than I expected. Bar Harbour just oozed money. The trip via I-95 to the airport was much quicker. We checked in at Avianca Airline [the airline of Columbia] more than two hours before our international departure. It was amazing the amount of luggage some passengers were checking. Clearly major shopping had been accomplished.
    As we were called to board the aircraft and entered the jet way, SURPRISE!!!, numerous plain clothed customs officers and one drug sniffing dog had already detained several passengers.
    The first leg of our trip would be to Bogotá, Columbia, where we would change planes. This flight was uneventful and we were deplaned into a transit area that had gift shops. Unfortunately the Juan Valdez shop wasn’t open, but other shops sold coffee [beans or ground]. When called to the gate for the next leg of our trip to Quito, the security was armed, obvious and active.
    Landing an aircraft at Quito International airport is described as a “technical” landing. In the mountains at 9200 feet above sea level, not all pilots are qualified to fly here. Upon arrival, our group was transferred to the Sebastian Hotel, a new, small, quaint hotel with the two smallest elevators we’d seen.
    Our first morning was foggy, misty, and rainy. After breakfast, we boarded motor coaches for a city tour. First was City Hall and were fortunate to observe a changing of the costumed guards carrying spears. Other guards with real automatic weapons were in the vicinity.
    As it continued to drizzle, we visited the San Francisco Church. Most pictures of Quito include this famous church. The tour continued to a spot overlooking this city of 1.3 million, but it was so misty that most people never left the bus.
    For lunch we were taken to a local restaurant for a full meal of either sea bass or pork. The sea bass was excellent. For dessert, I had the local specialty of figs with fresh cheese.
    Later that afternoon, after returning to the hotel, I called a missionary I had been e-mailing. He and his family are in Quito with HCJB, a missionary organization that broadcasts short-wave radio programs around the world. This is possible due to the location of the transmitters near the equator.
    After our Galapagos cruise, we were to return to Quito, and had been invited to tour the radio station and have dinner with the family. When I called Duane to tell him we had arrived, I asked him if he wanted to pick up the items we brought for him from the States that night, or whether we would deliver them later in the week upon our return. He said that “due to the volcano” he would pick them up that night. I said “what volcano?” The Friday before our arrival, the volcano alert status had been upgraded to orange from yellow. In the six years they had been in Quito, the alert had never been to orange. He came and picked up the goods.
    At dinner that evening, our tour group leader made an announcement about the Pichincha volcano alert. If the alert went to red, the airport closes and we would be faced with a 10-hour bus ride to the coast and nearest airport. Fortunately we were able to fly out the next morning on Saeta Airlines to Guayaquil, Ecuador, on the Pacific Ocean coast.
    On the flight from Guayaquil, I sat next to an American who, with his lovely Ecuadorian wife, was traveling from their home in Quayaquil to the Galapagos, both for the first time. He worked as a shrimp agent for an American company.
    We landed on San Cristobal Island, the capital of the Galapagos Islands. This is a one-runway airport and we deplaned via stairs onto the tarmac. Once we cleared immigration, small vans delivered groups of us to the seaport a short distance away. In groups of 12, small outboard motor boats transported us to the Galapagos Explorer II, our home for the next three nights.
    The ship had just returned [prematurely] from dry-dock and had been placed in service prior to all of the work having been completed. Aesthetically, some painting was necessary, but only a few things were directly bothersome to us. Several passengers had to be moved to a different cabin when their toilets didn’t work or they had no hot water. Not all of the guestrooms had been completed during dry-dock and it took some time for the replacement rooms to be readied.
    After lunch in the dining room, we were called to the lounge for an introductory talk. The highlight of this talk was the emphasis on ecology and conservation. A special biodegradable multi-purpose liquid soap was to be used for all hair and body cleaning.
    After our talk, we returned to shore to visit the Ecuadorian Interpretation Center. Here we learned about the history of the Galapagos and the famous plant and animal life found here. Time was left for shopping on the walk back to the dock.
    After a dinner of sea bass and filet there was another orientation meeting regarding tomorrow’s itinerary. It had been a long day with little sleep the night before [volcano worries]. The wake up call was to be at 6:15 a.m.
    At the appointed time in the morning, the sound of whales was piped over the intercom, gently arousing us. It was clever and effective [although we never saw whales on this trip]. After breakfast, we were assigned to groups. These groups would be called individually for disembarkation. We were the Albatrosses.
    This was to be a “wet” landing. Either you took your shoes off and waded the last few feet to shore, or some of us wore “Teva” type sandals. The walk was up into an extinct volcano. Over time part of the rim of the volcano had eroded and lava became the sand on the shore. This particular sand had a reddish hue due to the minerals. On other beaches we would see green sand and typical beige sand.
    It was cool, windy and overcast. Not the greatest for sightseeing or photography. Several indigenous birds were highlighted including the Blue-Footed Booby.
    After a morning “wet” landing on San Cristobal Island, we were transported back to the ship for lunch. The ship set sail for Espaniola Island. I spent some time up on the observation deck, reading, but also hoping to spot some marine life. Nothing but birds.
    The landing at Espaniola was a dry landing, but spectacular. All around the small bay were innumerable sea lions. Almost all were females with young pups, some a few hours or days old. As we walked along the guide pointed out fresh placentas. He remarked that these would soon be taken by the large Frigate birds circling the area.
    It was a most amazing experience to be so close to these wild animals. One important rule for the Galapagos National Park is that you never touch or feed the wildlife. So, while you can get to within 6 feet or so, the mother sea lions would make it clear that they didn’t want you any closer to the pups. Still, there were so many “babies” it was a truly unique experience.
    In the same vicinity were innumerable crabs of various sizes and colors. The most noticeable was the resplendent red crab.
    Then we were off to see some of the bird species found on this island. Our naturalist described some of the mating and flight characteristics of the Albatross. Sure enough, the birds cooperated by performing, as if on schedule. These birds look very ungainly as they wobble toward the cliffs, waiting for a suitable wind to lift them off into leisurely flight. The Albatross is a very efficient flier.
    We watched a magnificent blowhole gush tall sprays of water high into the air as waves forced the ocean through a hole in the lava cliff.
    A strange whistling sound, like wind blowing over the top of a bottle beckoned us forward. It was the very strange and unique noise of the male Blue-footed Booby. This bird is about the size of a large seagull with bright aqua blue webbed feet. Why blue?
    While retracing our way back to the dock area, we had to step around various birds, sea iguanas and sea lions that were nesting or lying in the path. These creatures were not afraid of us. This stop was the wildlife highlight of the trip.
    During the night we sailed to Floreana Island and in the morning made another wet landing. While flamingoes and sea turtles can be found here during mating season, we saw none. We walked to Point Cormorant and “communed” with nature as we sat in the sun with the ocean breaking on the yellow sand. Where outcroppings of black lava appeared, dozens of crabs were sunning themselves. The red crabs in particular were highlighted against the black of the lava.
    This was the morning for our snorkeling opportunity. I own and brought a wet suit. Due to the Humboldt Current the water at this time of year is cold. I was surprised they even let us go in because the water was rough. Even with a wet suit the water was cold. The current near the rock outcroppings was strong. It was pleasant to float with the current, but when required to swim against the current, it was strenuous and tiring. We did see a white-tipped shark, a large manta ray and a large variety of other fish in a multitude of colors and sizes.
    After returning to the ship, I took a nice hot shower. During lunch we sailed to Santa Cruz Island. Although this was a dry landing, the seas were rough and several people, my wife included, opted not to venture to shore in the small boats. At this stop we visited the Charles Darwin Station. The Galapagos Islands are one of three places in the world where you find giant land tortoises. The Seychelles and Madagascar are the other two. At the Charles Darwin Station they are protecting the tortoises and raising them.
    On the walk back to the town of Puerto Ayora I bought a nice woodcarving of a sea lion. The seas were rough on the ride back to the ship.
    No trip to the Galapagos Islands can be described without mentioning Charles Darwin. It was here that, at age 22, while sailing on the “Beagle” with Captain Robert Fitz Roy, Darwin visited several islands as part of a five-year around-the-world trip. From the data gathered during his time in the Galapagos, he wrote Voyage of the Beagle, published in 1839. His observations on the diversity of species would be the basis for the later elaboration of the theory of evolution.
    In what is a very negative legacy of the impact of human contact with the indigenous wildlife on the islands, man introduced cats, dogs, goats, cattle, pigs and rats. Many of these introduced animals feed on plants, insects, reptiles [and their eggs], grains, fruits, turtle eggs, birds and fledglings. There are ongoing attempts to eradicate these threats.
    We sailed during the night back to San Cristobal Island. Due to the volcanic activity, our tour company decided not to return us to Quito. Instead we flew from the Galapagos to Guayaquil and stayed there overnight. The Hotel Grand Guayaquil was downtown. Guayaquil is the largest city in Ecuador and the commercial and economic center. We were cautioned about our safety, as this is not a typical tourist destination.
    For dinner we were transported to a local restaurant. I think we overwhelmed the staff as it took 3 hours for dinner. Most of us were ready to leave long before that.
    Since we had time in the morning before our flight home, I had scheduled a massage. She asked whether I wanted this in my room or in the fitness center. Foolish me, I opted for the fitness center. When I arrived in the morning, I was taken outside where some blankets were spread over the outdoor carpeting. My French masseuse then gave me a Thai massage in Ecuador while cool, sometimes misting, breezes chilled us both. I prefer Swedish massage.
    It was then time to board the coach for the ride to the airport. Somehow the luggage had multiplied and a taxi was hired to transport luggage that didn’t fit into the cargo area of the motor coach. The airport wait was long because each ticket had to be converted from Saeta Airlines to our new carrier, LanChile. Surprisingly, the shops in the airport had some of the best prices we’d seen. The exchange rate was 13,000 Sucres to the dollar. Many items were inexpensive.
    Prior to boarding everyone was told to sit down with his carry-on luggage on the floor in front of him. Then a customs/security officer with a dog came through and walked up and down each aisle.
    Our flights on LanChile were the best of the trip. The aircraft was a new 767 and the flight crew was very pleasant and helpful. They also spoke excellent English. We flew from Guayaquil to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. This was a scheduled stop and many passengers disembarked here. After refueling, the flight continued to Miami.
    It was late when we arrived in Miami. Too late for anyone to connect to their final destination, so the tour company had arranged to overnight us in a hotel. Fortunately the hotel had sent two vans to transport the people and luggage to the hotel.
    The tour company had re-booked our flight back to Chicago for 8:25 a.m. the next morning. The flight to O’Hare went smoothly. Since we had arrived home a day late, after dropping our luggage off at home, we headed to our offices and spent the afternoon returning to a life that 24 hours before had seemed so distant.
    [The volcano did become active 3 days after we left Ecuador, and the airport in Quito was closed temporarily due to the ash.]

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