The In-Transit Report

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Ecuador Part Two: The Galapagos

Note: Underwater pictures are not mine and do not show me. They’re borrowed from open sources on the internet.

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Flying to the Galapagos was basically going from Ecuador to tourist land, with lots of stereotypical gringos wearing bum bags, safari hats and vests. My morning flight got cancelled, so I got moved to one, going to a different island, and then shuttled through the island of Santa Cruz to the harbor, and finally taking a two and half hour ferry ride to San Cristobal, where I would be meeting my dive boat the next day. Glad I flew out the day before, because I arrived at San Cristobal at around 4pm. On this island, the harbor is crowded with lazy sea lions, smelly beasts that take up the park benches and poop all over the boardwalk. Galapagos style!

The next day was spent meeting the boat, getting all my rental gear together, and going for a dip in the harbor to practice getting on and off the panga (dinghy, inflatable boat we entered the water from) and making sure all our gear was good. The water here is supposed to be much colder than anywhere else I’ve done diving, so I had rented a thicker wetsuit and felt okay. It felt good to be back on a ship, and it was easy to get used to moving all the time, hearing the mealtime bells, and getting into a groove of constant dive prep.

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On day two we did one morning dive in a pretty boring spot (admitted by the dive masters), then did a land visit to North Seymour, an odd-looking desolate island where everything is small. There are big populations of Frigates, a kind of bird, and lots of Iguanas. There are also Blue Footed Boobies, a well-known bird with blue feet, prompting lots of tourist shirts that say “I Love Boobies” and have a picture of this bird. There were also sea lions, of course, and it made for a nice land walk on the way out to our main destination, Wolf and Darwin Islands.

Next we set off for Wolf and Darwin, the islands far away that are known for incredible amounts of sea life, which is what we were all there for. The trip took something like 15-17 hours to get to Wolf, and the next day we did three dives there including a relaxing night dive. The next day we amazingly managed to do six dives at Darwin’s Arch, the main attraction, and three dives the day after.

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At both Wolf and Darwin we dove with innumerable amounts of Hammerhead sharks, Galapagos and Silky sharks, huge schools of fish, sea lions and Moray eels. At Darwin’s Arch we also had six whale shark sightings, which are big, beautiful filter-feeding sharks measuring between 8-11 meters (26-36 feet!). We first saw a juvenile who was on the small side, and then a larger one around 10 meters/33 feet. A few times I swam like crazy and wound up less than a meter / 3 feet away from its side, totally enraptured by the sheer size and power of it, though I was trying to not get hit by the tail. Incredible experience. (note, picture is NOT MINE, and the diver in the picture is NOT ME. Just wanted to add it for context.)

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At Darwin’s Arch, we swam almost the same way every time, but each dive was different. First we’d get on the panga/dinghy from the boat, and motor over to the drop point. From there, we’d drop straight down as fast as we could equalize, to avoid being swept too far away by the strong currents. We’d head to the “theatre”, a ledge around 17-24 meters deep, and hold onto the rocks to stay in one place, basically sitting or laying on the ledge. From that comfortable spot, we’d sway with the currents and watch all the fish go by, then spot the hammerheads and other sharks. Sometimes there was something special, like gigantic yellowfin tuna, sea turtles, and particularly huge schools of fish. Sometimes we’d move to a different point on the ledge, but usually we followed the dive master out into the blue, where we’d be cruising along in the midst of the schools of fish, with hammerheads passing just a few meters below or above us.

I was already on the ship when I heard that it’s recommended you have 100+ dives before doing Darwin and Wolf. I started the trip with 23, but no one seemed to think I was a bad enough diver to pull me out, hah. I think my week in Chuuk Lagoon in July, diving inside shipwrecks between 25-40 meters, made me a much better diver than if I’d been in shallow, open water for all those dives. I certainly feel a lot more experienced now, after the currents and rough seas of the Galapagos. Getting back to the surface and into the Panga was always an adventure, with the waves slamming into you while you’re next to the Panga trying to hand your weight belt to the driver with both hands.

I remember looking over to see the other half of our dive group completely encircled by a wall of fish, then passing through it until I was in the middle too, and spinning around to get the full 360 view. Really cool feeling. Sometimes the dive master’s rattle would go crazy, and we’d all make a frantic dash for the rapidly passing whale shark. Here’s where caution most likely dies, where you drop much farther down following that fish, breathing hard through your air to get as close as possible, and risking going into decompression. Luckily, no one ran out of air far down enough to be life threatening, though a few came very close to deco. I came back on the boat with air on every dive and no deco, thanks to constant attention and Nitrox fills.

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On the way back from Darwin we did three dives at Isabela (Punta Vicente Roca), which was a change of pace. There weren’t nearly as many big animals, but there were small things to see, and a really nice bunch of coral. The site had an interesting color scheme of orange and purple, very distinctive. There we saw some rare and strange fish: the red-lipped batfish (pictured left), a weird looking fish that has fins like hands, and doesn’t really swim so much as push itself along the sea floor. It reminded me of some ancient form of human that hadn’t evolved yet. Seriously, nature comes up with some really weird stuff.

Another strange fish was the sea robin, a speckled fish that had what looked like blue wings. Lastly, in the line of weird, was the tiny bullhead shark, maybe half a meter long. There were tons of other small fish and creatures, and the rocks were also crawling with cleaner shrimp, which clean (eat bits off of) anything that lands on the rocks. I took my gloves off and hovered, letting them pick at my fingers, and they had a field day with my fingernails.

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The eight days went so fast. I got used to having great food all the time, my awesome dive buddies, beers after the last dive, watching the birds that perched on the ship for a free ride, sitting out on the deck and watching the sea. Every time I get on a ship I realize that I just want to stay forever, and debate finding some kind of job on the ocean, whether working in diving or just on a ship. It’s a hard life, where you just work to be able to dive and not much more, but I’m thinking about it more and more. Eventually I won’t be able to afford to take dive cruises… I’ve already chopped months off my whole trip by spending the money. However, it’s been completely worth it, every time.

I’ve spent a full month in Ecuador, a lot more time than I expected to spend here. I’ve really enjoyed it, a lot more than I thought I would. It’s always the case that wherever I am, I just want more time… so it goes.

I have three more weeks in South America, and picked up a flight from Quito to Cusco, to finally do Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, before popping into Bolivia for two weeks. Afterwards, I’m headed to Central America, where I’m thinking of diving in Belize (Blue Hole and other spots) and Mexico (Cozumel). The adventure continues…


Ecuador Part One: Vilcabamba, Cuenca, Nariz del Diablo, Banos, Quito

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After two long days of crossing the border, the six of us stopped in Vilcabamba, a scenic hippy town in a valley, known for the long lives of its locals, and home to a ton of American and other expats. We rented two cabins at an eco-lodge, a 15-20 minute walk from town through a hiking trail, and spent about a week and a half relaxing, cooking epic meals together, horseback riding, and spending time with a friend of one of the Germans, who owns a local business in town. We’d all grown to feel like a little family on the road, so we didn’t grow sick of each other too quickly.

After Vilcabamba, we all headed to Cuenca, one of Ecuador’s cities with a beautiful historical center and more great food options. Colonial architecture is one of my favorite things to photograph, and South America has been an amazing place for that. Cuenca was my favorite at this point, with big, beautiful buildings in bright colors. Now I’m actually curious to go to Spain for the architecture!

I could have spent a while longer in Cuenca, it was so nice. We mostly just walked around, and checked out a few of the local markets, one being touristy and the other not so much. I’ve grown used to the kinds of souvenirs you get in Asia, and now I’m getting used to the ones in South America… patterned ponchos, wicker baskets, embroidered purses, Spanish-style shirts and traditional skirts, textiles of all materials and patterns. I haven’t bought anything, though, since I can’t stand the idea of carrying anything more in my 35-litre, 15 kilo backpack!

At this point, the Turkish girl and South African guy had only a few days or so to get all the way to Bogota, Colombia to fly out, and the Germans were headed towards Guayaquil, on the coast. So after a nice day and change in Cuenca, we all split ways after two weeks together. I love and hate that about travel – getting to know people, and then saying goodbye… or maybe ‘see you later, somewhere’.

From Cuenca, I headed to a small town called Alausi to see about a train ride called Nariz del Diablo, or the Devil’s Nose, an old track up a steep mountain. Lots of people do it as a day trip from Riobamba, further north, but Alausi was closer to Cuenca, so I took a quick bus ride up and stayed the night. Not much in town, but I got a nice room and relaxed by myself for the first time in a while.

Nariz del Diablo Train Ride 9The next morning I dragged myself up at 7am and got an 8am ticket for the train ride, a whopping $25 for the short trip and snack. It was a nice train ride, but not as steep as I was hoping. Nice scenery, and I met an awesome Swiss girl who was going on the same train.

After the first part of the train ride, we got off at a little tourist stop where there were Ecuadorian traditional dances, a Llama you could pay to sit on, and a small snack and coffee. It made for a nice start to the day, though I don’t know if I would’ve wanted to go out of my way for it.

From Alausi, the Swiss girl and I teamed up and took an interesting route she wanted to take to see a volcano (I forget the name, but it was nice), and we stopped at a completely random town (Guaranda) for the night. The next day we detoured to Salinas, a tiny town known for cheese and chocolate (different from the bigger one on the coast) for the morning, got a tour, and then headed over to Banos, one of the popular stops on the tourist/backpacker trail.

Banos Volcano Horse Ride 35In Vilcabamba, I’d really enjoyed the horse ride we did, and was keen to do another one. Unfortunately, I was the only one in town who was trying to do it, so it wasn’t looking promising. The Swiss girl decided at the last moment to join me, meaning we could do it, because it was going to the volcano she wanted to see anyway.

So the next morning we set off with our guide Pablo, and my crazy horse I nicknamed “Poco Loca”, since she was a little insane. We walked, trotted and galloped up near the base of the volcano, having a picnic right next to where the lava from the 2006 eruption had carved out a trail, and talked about how fast we could get out if it erupted again. Meanwhile, the volcano rumbled and spewed ash just in time for the clouds to clear so we could get some good pictures. The horses weren’t impressed.

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After Banos, we caught the bus to Quito, Ecuador’s capital, which has a reputation for being dangerous. I’d met two other travelers who’d both been robbed in Quito, so I didn’t have good expectations for it. However, since I wanted to try to get a last minute deal on diving the Galapagos, Quito was on the itinerary. 

I was pleasantly surprised. Quito’s new city, Mariscal, was full of good restaurants, and right near the travel agency where I secured a spot on a dive boat. A bit too loud at night, though… I’m not really the partying type at this point.

After arranging the dive trip, we stopped at the Mitad del Mundo (middle of the world), the point on the Equator where the coordinates are all zeros. Actually, they originally built the monument on the wrong spot, so the huge park is wrong, and the real point is on the other side of the park wall in a private museum. We arrived at that spot right as they were closing, but hopped on the last tour. There were some neat demonstrations, the most interesting being that water pours straight out of a sink instead of swirling clockwise or counterclockwise. The guide also said you lose strength and weight when you’re standing on the equator, which he demonstrated with us. Really interesting.

Our second night in Quito we moved to the old town, which is full of beautiful buildings and amazing churches (see left, the Basillica). I went completely batshit crazy taking photos, much to the amusement of my Swiss friend. There are times I wonder if I really love photography, or if it’s worth it to do, but then I get photos like this, and everything becomes clear again.

There are two arguments I can see about churches, and any other religious building really. The first is that the money should be spent on the people instead of buildings. The second is that churches, etc, are an artistic expression of faith. I can understand both perspectives, but when I walk into a beautiful religious building, I can’t help but admire it as a passionate art form. And take lots of pictures of it, of course.

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From Quito, my Swiss companion was headed up to Bogota to meet a friend and then travel Colombia, and I had a few days before leaving for the Galapagos, so we went to Otavalo, a small city further north known for its huge Saturday market. We arrived on a Thursday, found an awesome little hotel, and spent two nights, going to a nearby laguna, Cuicocha, and small town, Cotocachi, the next day. That trip was a pleasant combination of busses, the back of a pickup truck, and having lunch with a traveling Argentinian. The laguna was a lovely little walk, and the town had a lovely plaza but few food options.

The market on Saturday was indeed a huge market; nice to walk around, but we didn’t buy anything. The nice thing was that there were a lot of Ecuadorians, not just gringo tourists. We also got stopped by a group of English students and helped them practice English for a little while. It was a nice last morning there, and at the bus terminal my Swiss friend and I parted ways after a week together… another sad parting, but we all must travel on! Ironically, I’m picturing riding off into the sunset on Poco Loca, only she would probably just ignore me and turn the wrong way…