Sunny Ecuador — a wonderful winter getaway


by Florence Drake, Readfield, ME

I wanted to do something special for my 60th birthday. So was born the idea of a birthday trip. This wasn’t to be merely a trip to celebrate my birthday, taken when it was most convenient. This trip had to have me someplace wonderful on my birthday.

I researched our many travel catalogs. However, most itineraries would have had us either flying to or from someplace or otherwise trapped — in airports or on a long bus ride between cities — on November 5th. No, it had to be better than that.

We finally settled on Overseas Adventure Travel’s “Amazon Wilds, Galápagos Isles” trip.

Touring Quito

This was to be my third trip to Ecuador. My husband, Bill, had never been there, so there was a lot I wanted to show him.

Flying into Quito, situated in a long east-west valley between two high mountain ranges, is beautiful on a clear day. If you sit on the right side of the plane, you can see the airport way down at one end of the city as the plane continues west along the southern strip of mountains.

We were met by our guide, Enrique Portillo, who would accompany us throughout the entire trip. Our hotel, the Rio Amazonas, was comfortable and well located. (We also used this hotel between the Amazon and Galápagos legs of our journey, where its location near a laundry became an important asset to many of us.)

Our city tour the next day was fun, and I noted many changes from my first visit to Quito. There is now a tramway which runs down the center of Avenida Amazonas, the main drag of the city. It was put in about seven years earlier and helps cut down on the commuter traffic. And what traffic! According to a cabbie I questioned, it never stops.

Another change I noticed was the absence of street vendors selling crafts. Eighteen years ago I enjoyed seeing woven wool rugs and wall hangings from Otavalo displayed along the sidewalk, or paintings on leather from Tigua set up against the wall of a building. Where were they all?

The answer came from Enrique, who pointed out the covered marketplace near the rear of Hilton Colon. Exploring it later, we wove in and out of the narrow alleyways, the stalls, one after the other, crammed to bursting with wonderful things to buy.

The cloudy, humid day turned rainy, windy and cold. With temperatures in the low 50s and sheets of rain being thrown at us, we trudged with our guide up one cobblestone street and down another in the old section of the city, our only respite coming when we entered churches to observe the 400- to 500-year-old architecture and decorations. I was never so glad to go into a house of worship!

A stop for lunch at a convent wasn’t much better, since the nuns couldn’t heat the big old place much, and something I ate caused me to miss our welcome dinner that evening. I never knew I could be so miserable in beautiful Ecuador.

Into the jungle

By the next day I was fully recovered and we took a 30-minute flight to Coca, on the Napo River, in the Amazon jungle. The climate was sunny and humid, with temperatures in the mid-80s, and I embraced it with joy.

We stopped at a riverside hotel to wait for the canoe which would ferry us the 3½ hours upriver to our lodge, our luggage having departed on another. Ours was a motorized craft, long enough to fit all 14 in our group plus three independent travelers, Enrique, our jungle guide, Juan, and the driver, Manuel. It even had a thatched roof, handy for shielding us from the sun.

The trip up the Napo was beautiful. The greenery on both sides of the river; the humid, warm air; the bright sprinkles of color in the form of tiny white orchids or red heliconia; families paddling small canoes; women washing clothes and babies in the shallows, and crops cut into the tangled vegetation: all these sights made me so happy to be back in the Amazon!

Contrasting experiences

When we arrived at Yachana Lodge, I discovered that this was definitely going to be a different jungle experience from the one I had 18 years ago with Wilderness Travel. To begin with, we would stay in “real” rooms.

On my previous trip I had camped on a stilted platform with a thatched roof high overhead and bats swooping and eating up all the mosquitoes. We hiked every day and bathed in the Aguarico River. The “bathroom” was a pit with a toilet-seated throne in a banana leaf enclosure. I had loved it!

We hiked on this stay, too, but we didn’t see the birds, butterflies or animals of my last trip because we were always too close to human habitation.

Aside from the 3-hour hike we took one day, we focused on the cultural aspects of the area. We visited a medicine man, who cleansed our auras. We visited a compound where many generations of the same family lived amidst their plots of crops. We tried bits of different fruits offered to us and sips of the local firewater.

We went to a Saturday morning market at Agua Santa, where we watched as 100-pound sacks of coffee beans were unloaded from arriving canoes, each sack costing $5 for unpeeled beans or $25 for peeled.

We saw the bar stall, where one could buy the local sugarcane liquor by the glass or bottle, and we saw pharmaceutical items offered for sale with a lot of remedies for parasites and stomach problems.

For the traveler who doesn’t camp well, who prefers hot showers and toilets and screens on the windows, Yachana Lodge is a great place to get a feel for the jungle. It offered a good taste of what life is like along the Napo River, as well.

Not seeing the caimans’ red eyes at night, not seeing the saucer-sized blue morpho butterflies and not hearing the birds and bugs turn up their volume at sunrise each morning: these were disappointments. But this was a different kind of trip. I was 18 years older, and my husband and I appreciated the relative luxury of the lodge.

The Galápagos

The trip down the Napo, helped by the current, was faster than our first journey — only two hours to Coca. Thirty minutes over the Andes brought us down into Quito again, where we stayed overnight, rising early the next morning for our flight to the Galápagos.

The 2½-hour flight over the Western Cordillera took us past a number of snowcapped volcanic mountains. On this flight, the best views were from the left side of the plane.

We landed on the flat island of Baltra, just off the north coast of Santa Cruz, the most-visited island in the group. There, in the protected cove that serves as Baltra’s harbor, our catamaran, the Archipel, was waiting.

The weather was sunny and in the 80s, with a wind that never stopped during all the days we were there. We could see forever from the covered sundeck topside, and our view took in five or six islands at a time. We would not be able to visit all of them, having only four days there, but Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) worked out an itinerary which would give us an excellent overview of the islands’ offerings.

When I visited the islands with Wilderness Travel, we stayed a whole week and were able to go to many more of them, including those farther afield. However, OAT offered a dandy sampling of most of the animals and birds to be seen there; more days and visits to the farther islands would only have given us a glimpse of variant species and a few more birds.

More changes

Even things in the Galápagos had changed in 18 years, and I’m not talking about evolution. One big change was the addition of a boardwalk with stairs leading to the top of Bartolomé Island. I remember the previous steep climb over sharp, unstable lava stones — two steps up, slide down one — and this was definitely an improvement.

There were certainly a lot more boats than there were on my first visit, but regulations limit vessels to only five per harbor. Each vessel must submit an itinerary plan to the park service to avoid the risk of disappointing passengers by not being able to anchor at a scheduled stop.

The number of visitors allowed on the islands annually has been increased in the past few years, which means that you rarely have an island just to your own group. But even with other groups landing on a particular island at the same time, groups are taken along different paths so visitors aren’t following each other around in one great gaggle.

Island sights

We saw bizillions of shiny black marine iguanas, noisy and sometimes aggressive sea lions, gaily painted Sally Lightfoot crabs, big fat land iguanas, frigate birds puffing out their red throat sacs to attract females, swift little lava lizards and — my personal favorite — blue-footed boobies.

As our group was trooping along a path on North Seymour Island, I looked back in time to see two boobies getting ready to do their beautiful mating dance. I called the others to come back, and we were treated to my very favorite part of the entire Galápagos segment of our trip. What a gift to be able to see the ritual in person after so many years!

The town of Puerto Ayora had grown some, from 2,000 in 1986 to about 20,000 in 2004. On this visit I found paved streets, air-conditioned shops along its main street, traffic lights, Internet cafés, restaurants, a local bus service, a lovely waterfront park and a covered pier for visitors.

After a couple of hours at the Charles Darwin Research Station at one end of the city, we were let loose in the town for a couple of hours. It was a nice break to be able to check our e-mail and do a little shopping, but I suggested to Enrique that time might have been better spent in putting us all in a bus and taking us to the highlands of the island to see the giant tortoises in the wild. (We had seen them in captivity at the breeding center at the research station.)

Happy birthday to me

November 5th — my birthday — had arrived and we awoke in the Galápagos according to plan. At breakfast, the group, led by Enrique and backed by the bartender and waiters, sang “Happy Birthday” to me. Then we made our way to the open-air airport, where we did a bit more shopping while waiting for our plane.

A stop in Guayaquil turned into a couple of hours while the airline, Aerogal, juggled planes and passengers and came up one plane short, so we had to wait before continuing on to Quito. Due to this delay, we were in danger of not being able to land in Quito at all that afternoon, since the garua (fog) was coming in and Quito is a vision-only airport, meaning the pilot has to be able to see the airport with his own two eyes in order to be able to land. Many flights are delayed from Guayaquil and elsewhere because of this.

Quito is building a new airport which hopefully will have instrument capabilities, thus avoiding this frustrating and common occurrence.

My husband and I opted to stay that night at the Hilton Colon rather than the Rio Amazonas, since we would be beginning our own independent trip the next morning. The group picked us up there for the farewell dinner, held high up Panecillo Hill in a restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the beautiful lights of the Old City and beyond. Besides the yummy food and good company that we had, the waiter brought out a little cake with a candle and the group sang again.

After a night ride through the Old City to see all the beautiful churches lit up (22 of them), we said good-bye to Enrique and the others at the doors of the Colon. Upon entering our room, we saw on the desk a plate with two pieces of chocolate cake with “Feliz Cumpleaños” written in white frosting.

There was also a nice note from the Executive Office secretary (we had upgraded to the Executive Floor to take advantage of the free Internet, drinks, hors d’oeuvres and other perks) wishing me a happy birthday and congratulating Bill on his newest grandchild, a little girl born that same day.

It had been a beautiful and memorable 60th birthday indeed.

Trip details

Would I recommend this Overseas Adventure Travel trip? Absolutely! Would I suggest that one could go to Ecuador on one’s own? Yes, especially if you speak Spanish, which becomes awfully useful outside the big cities. I’m sure you could get along without speaking the language, but it wouldn’t be easy.

However, you can’t show up in the Galápagos and expect to visit islands by yourself. You don’t have to be in a group, but you must be with a licensed park guide. You can obtain one by contacting Metropolitan Touring Corp. in Quito. They have a good website (www.galapagosvoyage.com) which has a “Contact Us” feature so you can ask questions. They also do tours to the Amazon, up north to the craft villages around Otavalo and south to the towns along the railroad. They run an efficient, varied and reasonably priced business.

Our OAT tour cost us $2,660 each, with airfare from Miami included. Overseas Adventure Travel can be contacted by phone at 800/493-6824 or by visiting www.oattravel.com.

Our nights at the Hilton Colon (www.hilton.com) cost about $179 per night on the Executive Floor.