Day Nine: Quito to LAX

Typically on the student trip we leave at 4 am to go home, and I’m always worried someone will oversleep and not have her passport. Today we left for the airport at 11 am. We had time to eat a leisurely breakfast and buy chocolate at the local supermarket.

Everyone has been so welcoming to my students—people in the stores, the restaurants, the hotels, and everywhere. Without exception the kids were treated positively and kindly. The hotel owner told us “When you want to come back, Ecuador will be here to welcome you.” 

It was sad saying goodbye to our fabulous Tour Director, Luis.

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Last Passport check. Hooray! No one lost theirs!

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Day Eight: Quito

Ecuador is a country with many indigenous tribes who still have their own culture, language, dress, and language. Today we went to Otavalo where many indigenous people live. They are allowed to wear their native dress in school instead of the uniform, and the men don’t have to cut their hair when they enter the army.

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This young girl was so proud of her heritage and eager to explain to us about her people.

There was a beautiful view with a volcano.IMG_2544.jpgIMG_2551.jpg

The students bought crazy pants, bags, jewelry, and other textiles at the local artisan market at Cotacachi.

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Cool sweaters!

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Ecuadorian pants

At lunch in Cotacachi we divided into a Guinea Pig table and a non-Guinea Pig table. Part of the group were very adventurous eaters. The other part thought it looked too much like a Guinea pig they knew in real life. The people who ate it thought it tasted like….wait for it…chicken. (But dark meat chicken.) I couldn’t eat it. The little ears! 

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We found a place that roasted their own coffee and we bought bags of coffee beans and had cappuccinos.

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Natalie’s family runs a coffee shop in Ojai. When she walked in, she said “It smells like home!”

Today I was touched by a girl I saw on the streets selling cigarettes. She looked like she was about seven. It was a school day and she was selling cigarettes. We’ve seen people selling toilet paper and nuts on the highway median, and also people juggling fire at stoplights for money. I am incredibly thankful that I was born in a situation where these ways of earning a living were far from the realm of possibility. In Ecuador, the economy completely collapsed in 1999. Inflation was high and the corrupt government closed the banks for a week. The people in charge, took the money and left the country. It was a mess. It was at that point that the country switched currency to the US dollar. They sold oil, bananas and coffee for dollars and the sucre was no longer accepted. It was a tough time for Ecuadorians. Many people left for Spain where they could travel freely and they spoke the language. Every Ecuadorian has family and friends who have gone to Spain to live. Families split up, and in some cases parents left their children behind with grandparents while they went to work in another country.

The Ecuadorian elections were held the day we left for the islands. As in America, the country is deeply divided. We had trouble getting back to our hotel as many streets were shut down by  demonstrations calling the election fraudulent. We even saw a huge bonfire in one intersection.

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Day Seven: San Cristobal to Quito

San Cristobal is my favorite of the Galápagos islands. It has just the right balance of beautiful scenery, wildlife and a cute town. The atmosphere is relaxed and fun. I was happy to have a relaxed morning to walk along the beach, take pictures, poke around the shops and drink a leisurely latte. In the afternoon we flew back to Quito.

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Day Six: San Cristobal Island

We took yet another two hour boat ride from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal Island. I’m very thankful for the patch that has kept me from being seasick. I’m not a fan of boat rides. 

We we able to snorkel at two different places today, and we saw huge sea turtles, sea lions, tons of beautiful fish, starfish, and sea cucumbers. The water and the sky are so blue here. It’s just amazing. I’m actually having trouble writing this blog because I’ve run out of superlatives. The ability to watch bright yellow finches who don’t fly away from you in fear is magical. Seeing really unusual animals and being able to watch them feed, play and mate is exciting. And all this is in a setting of beautiful white sand beaches and blue skies. As our naturalist guide says “It blows up your mind.”

There’s also something wonderful about being in a place where animals are treated so humanely. The locals know they have something special here. It always feels like we are the only ones on the islands having these adventures because they limit who is where on the islands at all times. The people who live here really want to preserve what they have. It’s a $15,000 fine for killing an endemic species. Even accidentally. If you drive over an iguana that darts out into the road, you still have to pay the fine. 

The kids are great, and really enjoying the trip and being with each other. I love to see how they change so much in one week. One wants to come back and live here, which is very difficult for a non-native to do, but it means she may live abroad somewhere else in the future. You can only live in the Galapagos if you were born there or marry a native. Even if you are doing scientific research, you have a limited time. 

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The seals are everywhere…on the beaches, in the water, on the boats and on almost every staircase. People are supposed to stay six feet away from all animals, but sometimes it’s difficult to do that. 

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Day Five: Santa Cruz Island

Another two-hour boat ride to Santa Cruz Island. On the way we saw lots of flying fish, some seals and some dolphins. We toured the Charles Darwin Center where we saw baby Giant Tortoises being taken care of before they are returned to the wild. Every time we see a cute animal, all the girls at exactly the same pitch say “Aaaaw.” We also saw two Giant Tortoises mating. The male bellows like a cow when he gets excited. Both of our naturalists that are with us are great. They know so much. One of them tries to say “OK, folks” all the time, but it comes out “OK, f*cks.” and the kids die laughing. Today after trying several times he changed to “OK, guys.” I’m finding it so amazing that any of the indigenous species survived here originally. For instance, how did the first tortoises get to the islands? They can’t even swim! They are so far from land! (Floating on sea currents is the best guess.) How were the first seeds able to find just the right conditions to grow and thrive on these volcanic rocks? (I have a hard time keeping plants alive in good soil in California!) 

I feel so lucky to be on this trip. The animals and the scenery are spectacular. Some of these animals (like the Giant Tortoise, the Marine Iguana, and the Adele Penguin) are indigenous (found nowhere else in the world.) The group is great. Kind to each other and excited and happy at everything we do.

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Our naturalists are from the islands so they know lots of local places. There aren’t a lot of tourists here but they always show us places where the only language you hear spoken is Spanish. Today we went to Las Grietas (The Cliffs) where there was a little swimming place in a narrow river gorge. This was one of the students’ favorite activities. IMG_2440.jpgIMG_2437.jpg

In the evening we watched sharks in the water by the lights on the pier. Magical.

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Day Four: Isabella Island, Galápagos

The animals on the islands don’t run away when you approach them. Even the darling little yellow finches seem tame. It’s fun to get really close to birds without scaring them off. One surprise was how many non-indigenous species there are. The islands have horses, cows, brown pelicans and Monarch butterflies. Many non-native plants grow here, too: bougainvillea, hibiscus, and lime trees, to name only a few.

We took a strenuous, uphill hike to the breathtaking Sierra Negra volcano. The view was amazing.IMG_2359.jpgIMG_2364.jpgIMG_2366.jpg

Then we went snorkeling in that beautiful blue-green water. We saw turtles, sea lions, starfish, many different colors and shapes of sea urchins, and lots of different kinds of fish. On the boat there we saw lots of wildlife, too, including five darling Adelie Penguins.

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The white spot in the center is a penguin.

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Two more penguins. Photo by Luis Cruzatty.

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The water is such a beautiful color. Notice the sea lions on this boat.

 

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Blue-footed Boobies. Photo by Luis Cruzatty. 

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Photo by Luis Cruzatty

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Photo by Luis Cruzatty

 

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Day Three: Baltra, Santa Cruz, and Isabella Islands

Today we had a bus to the airport, two flights, another bus to a ferry, to another bus, to a water taxi, to a two-hour boat ride, to another water taxi, and we FINALLY arrived at our final destination on Isabella Island in the Galápagos. We had to get up at 3:30 am and leave at 4 am to accomplish all this. It was absolutely worth it.

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We had lunch at a wonderful restaurant that had many wild tortoises on their property. Two were mating. By the end of the trip we were used to seeing them, but the first few sighting of Giant Tortoises in the wild were thrilling. 

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IMG_2300.jpgWe saw our first Blue-Footed Booby, and hundreds of jet-black Marine Iguanas. They are in mating and nesting season.

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The islands are very highly regulated. They limit how many people can go to the islands, and travelers have to be with a naturalist at all times. Passengers are allowed to take water bottles and other liquids on the planes within Ecuador, but not any fruits or seeds. Every time we leave an island there is a complicated process that involves a line, and inspectors asking questions, and they put a plastic lock on your suitcase. On the plane they sprayed all the overhead bins with pesticide/herbicide to fumigate our luggage. When we deplaned, we walked through a shallow pool of liquid to disinfect our shoes. They have super strict controls, and they are very well organized. 

In the evening we played on this beautiful beach near our hotel. The kids went in the water, but I didn’t.

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Photo taken by Luis Cruzatty

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