Ecuador - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 397 (207)

Puerto Ayora

Saturday 9th April (2005)

The wake-up call sounded at shortly after ridiculous o’clock this morning but with a long day of logistics and, hopefully, travelling ahead of us, we forced ourselves out of bed and into action. It was still dark outside by the time we had packed and made our way down to the hotel lobby. The front desk receptionist was lying on the couch but woke up and got himself into gear when he heard us coming. I had to pay the US$40 (€30,77) we still owed for this past night’s accommodation but the checkout formalities were otherwise swiftly dealt with. I had ordered a taxi to take us to the airport but it was a very comfortable private car that showed up and the helpful driver took care of our bags for us. I’d already been told that the taxi arranged by the hotel was going to cost ‘nearly’ US$5 (€3,85) so I just handed the man a US$5 note when we arrived at the airport and he seemed happy with that.

The domestic terminal at Quito was extremely busy this morning with barely enough space to walk around. Luckily, there were few people at the ticket counter and so I flashed the note I had with the name of the check-in supervisor with which I spoke yesterday afternoon. For whatever reason, I was sent over to the check-in desks and so reluctantly made my way through the throng of people to find it. When I arrived, the supervisor was there but working through a long row of people trying to check in but I managed to grab the attention of the lady that was there yesterday too. After spotting me, she picked up the phone and told me to go back to the ticket desk whilst she called ahead to let them know I was coming. It all seemed a bit inefficient but if it was going to get us onto the flight, I was quite happy to jump through their hoops.

At the ticket counter, again, I handed over our passports and the young lady went to work typing frantically on her terminal keyboard. I started to feel at ease for the first time this morning once I saw her feed a fresh flight coupon into the printer. She told me that the total cost of these last-minute tickets would be US$390 (€300) per person for the return journey after including all the taxes. I’d read on the Internet that the TAME airline discounts their tickets for students so I took out my cards and asked if we would be eligible for such a discount. She studied the cards for a good couple of minutes and I was starting to worry that she might think they were fakes. She eventually handed them back to me and shook her head as if to say that they weren’t acceptable. I asked her what the problem was and she called over a supervisor. This really got me worried but this supervisor, the first person we met today that spoke English, explained that there is a thirty-year-old age limit on the student discounts. Oh well; nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I wasn’t particularly bothered about not getting the 15% student discount. As it was, I was extremely relieved that we were able to get on the flight at all. It wasn’t long after checking in before we were all allowed to walk to our waiting Boeing seven-two-seven and find a seat for ourselves. With no assigned seating, I was glad that we were amongst the first out of the door as this allowed us to locate a seat relatively close to the front row. There was no business class seating on this flight. I almost lost Sandy when she got up and nearly left the plane at the brief stopover at Guyaquil. I think I might have forgotten to tell her about that stopover before we left.

As we came in to land at the small airport at Baltra, I could barely contain my excitement at having finally arrived at the Galapagos Islands. In touching down, yet another life’s long dream and ambition has come true. It was a surreal moment for me. We’ve seen some truly amazing things throughout this trip but in the back of my mind has always been the anticipation of what to expect when we finally make it to the Galapagos Islands. I’ve long held the belief that this will be the highlight of our entire travels. All those things that I find so fascinating such as photography, wildlife, natural history and species evolution can all be experienced and enjoyed collectively here in this single location. This small archipelago is another example of a single location whose size is vastly disproportionate to its significance in the grand scheme of things.

The small airport at which we landed this morning sits on the very small island of Baltra and this butts up to the larger island of Santa Cruz, one of the larger islands in the group and home to the main settlement of Puerto Ayora. Most travellers to the Galapagos Islands end up here first. As expected, the very first thing that we each had to do after clearing immigration was to pay our US$100 (€76,92) national park entrance fee. We then had to wait a while for the luggage to be brought into the small open-air building. Baltra is one of the few airports that we’ve been to that does not have a baggage belt. Instead, the bags were laid out in rows in a cordoned off baggage claim area for the passengers to search through.

I was immediately on the lookout for touts from departing cruises looking for arriving passengers. Our plan has been to simply show up here and try to organise a last-minute cruise on a boat looking to fill any remaining empty berths. This is supposed to be a much cheaper way of doing things but this approach does bring with it the significant risk of simply not finding anything available so we weren’t out of the woods yet by a long shot. There was just the one boat representative calling for arriving passengers and he didn’t seem too be interested so we’ll have to see what we can arrange when we get into Puerto Ayora. One of several small booths near the baggage claim area was the ticket counter for the coach trip into town. I bought our US$1,80 (€1,38) tickets and we loaded ourselves onto the waiting claptrap of a coach. What the kid that sold me the bus tickets did not tell me was that the trip into Puerto Ayora is a three-step journey. The bus takes you to a ferry that takes you to another bus. We unloaded our bags from the first bus and onto the roof of the ferry, after which the ten or fifteen of us boarded the lower deck of the small, open ferry for the five minute crossing to the main island of Santa Cruz. Already we were starting to see some really interesting birds and fish in the crystal clear waters right around us. We were each relieved of another US$0,80 for the brief ferry crossing but our bus tickets were still valid for the second and longer bus journey on the other side. Taxi touts were busy trying to sell their US$25 (€19,23) rides into town but I think pretty much everyone got onto the next waiting coach. It seemed that there were more locals than tourists on this particular journey into town so I was hopeful that this was a good indication that there might be some berth availability on at least some boats with it not being terribly busy here at the moment.

On the one-hour bus ride up and over the island of Santa Cruz, we met and started chatting with an Australian girl travelling here for the first time as well. She too was winging it and hoping to find a last-minute deal and had set herself a budget of US$500 (€384,61). Since we were all in the same boat together (sorry), we decided to pool our resources when we arrived. I kept my eyes peeled as our bus struggled to make its way up and over the centre of the island’s land mass towards Puerto Ayora on the South side of the island but other than a few birds here and there, I didn’t actually see much wildlife other than the tree and shrub vegetation that covers the island.

When the bus finally pulled in and dropped us all off, the three of us decided that Sandy would sit with all the backpacks in a nearby café whilst the Australian girl and I went off to explore the very small town and to see about organising a cruise. We’d barely made it across the street when a short and tubby tout stood up and asked us if we were looking for a last-minute cruise deal. Since we were, we went with him to his nearby office but my instincts were telling me to not trust this character for some reason. I’ve come to trust my gut instincts in these matters but the second flight of the day was a long time from arriving and it didn’t seem like a few minutes to hear what he had to say was going to cost us anything so we accompanied him to his office where he tried to sell us a berth on a boat that was departing tomorrow. There are four categories of cruise boats that sail around the islands. These are Economy, Tourist-Economy, Tourist-Superior and Luxury. According to Freddy (even the name seemed to sound a bit shoddy), we could purchase a seven-day cruise on this Tourist-Economy boat for US$600 (€461,52). This all sounded nearly too good to be true but alarm bells were constantly ringing in the back of my head. The boat was not here at the moment and this concerned me. He told me that I could pay him US$50 (€38,46) to secure the berth but he also said that we could go and see the boat and talk to the departing passengers when it arrived tonight. If we weren’t satisfied after seeing the boat, he would refund the deposit. One of my concerns about the whole thing was the fact that there was only going to be a level-II guide on board as opposed to a level-III. I was specifically looking for a cruise with a level-III guide since these are people that are not only multi-lingual but also formerly educated in the natural sciences. Freddy tried to tell me that there were almost no level-III guides on any of the boats here and this just didn’t seem to tally with all the advice I’ve previously received about making sure we get a cruise that comes with a level-III guide specifically. Things just didn’t seem to add up very well with Freddy and neither of us was particularly bowled over by this guy. I think what finally put the final nail in his coffin for me was the fact that he kept trying to tell us that he was trustworthy. This is never a good sign. We told him we would need to think things over and left.

Our guidebook suggests one of a couple of places in town where you can go to see about arranging last-minute deals. The first of these that we tried was near the harbour but the Spanish-speaking girl there didn’t seem to have anything for us so we went further into town to a second, where a couple of young women, that also spoke only Spanish, sat at a couple of desks inside a very unlikely looking shack. Even though neither the Australian girl nor myself spoke any more than the odd word of Spanish, these two girls clearly must arrange these last-minute cruises for people all the time, as we were strangely quite successful at communicating our needs to them. They had a couple of options that would suit out timelines but the one that seemed the most interesting was on a catamaran called the NEMO I. Quite surprisingly for such a large vessel, it only accommodates twelve passengers but does so with a half dozen private berths each with ensuite bathroom and air-conditioning. It too is a Tourist-Superior class vessel and from what I could tell from the pictures and description, it seemed like a very nice boat indeed. At US$1,300 (€1,000) per person for the eight-day itinerary, however, it seemed like a big price difference compared to what our Freddy was offering for what was apparently the same class of boat. We spent well over an hour trying to ask questions about the boat and the itinerary but there were some finer details that we just weren’t able to clarify due to the lack of adequate communication with the two nice girls. Eventually, all four of us resorted to stopping passers-by on the street to ask them if they spoke both English and Spanish and were able to help with a bit of translation. It took several passers-by before we stopped a very helpful older man that spoke both languages. He turned out to be a former member of the board of tourism for the Galapagos Islands and I asked him to ask the girls to explain to me why there might be such a big difference in price between the NEMO I and the other boat that our Freddy was offering. When he learnt which Freddy it was that I was referring to, he immediately reacted. Apparently, our Freddy is indeed a very shoddy character indeed. Whilst this guy was on the board of tourism, he’d personally received more complaints relating to Freddy and his activities than anyone else. I’m so glad I’ve learned to respect my instincts. This friendly man spent a few minutes helping us with our translation needs and he confirmed that the NEMO I was a particularly nice boat and assured us that we would very much enjoy our cruise aboard it. His parting advice was to not do business with Freddy but to enjoy our trip aboard the NEMO I. This clinched it for me. If the NEMO I was good enough for a respected member of the board of tourism for the Galapagos Islands, it will certainly be good enough for us. Since the list price for the eight-day cruise aboard the NEMO I is no less than US$1,700 (€1307,70), it seemed like we were also getting that last-minute bargain that we came here for too. At this point, one of the local dive masters came in and he too confirmed that we were very lucky to get a berth aboard this catamaran and for the ten-minutes that he was in the shack, he too helped with some translation. I don’t fully understand how or why but whilst he was there, it transpired that the price had somehow dropped from US$1,300 (€1,000) to just US$1,200 (€923). Bonus!

I spent some time trying to negotiate something for the Australian woman too. She seemed to be more than happy to allow me to drive the negotiating process on her behalf and confessed that she was much less well informed than she thought I was. Although above her initially set budget, all the positive press that we had just gotten about the NEMO I together with the now US$1,200 (€923) cost of the private air-conditioned berth seemed to do the trick for her and she too booked one of the last places on the vessel. She had to go across the street to the town’s only bank to withdraw some money so I went back to collect the ready cash that Sandy had buried in her backpack and to explain to her were we’d been for the past hour. On the way, I stopped in at one of the hotels here in town to see about a room. There are any number of hostels and backpacker joints here in town but I decided to fork out the extra for a nicer room with air-conditioning. It’s very hot and humid here and it is, after all, the end of our trip and so there’s less of a pressing need to be so tight-fisted with the budget. I settled on two nights in one of the nicer places in town, the Hotel Lobo Del Mar, for a total of US$141 (€108,46) for the two nights we will need before our cruise commences. Sandy must have wondered just where I was all this time but by the time I made my way back to where we’d left her, she had already met another couple of Canadian travellers and was happily sitting there chatting away with them. I collected together all the ready cash that we had now accumulated and went back to make payment for our cruise. To save time and energy, I took some of our bags with me to drop off at the hotel on the way. With this heat and humidity, I didn’t want Sandy to be carrying anything heavy.

With both the cruise and now our accommodation settled, I was a very happy camper and went back to join Sandy at the café for a spot of lunch. As we sat there waiting for our food to come out, the Australian girl came to collect her bags that Sandy was babysitting. Whilst at the bank, she had spoken to someone that had not only re-confirmed to her that the NEMO I was definitely a great boat but also that the boat that Freddy was trying to sell us a place on was an over-packed cockroach ridden safety hazard waiting to sink. Apparently it is one of three boats owned by the same people that have allowed maintenance and standards to go downhill. We all felt really good about the morning’s progress we’d made.

After finishing our lunch, we said a temporary goodbye to our new Australian friend and took the rest of our bags over to the hotel. I was giddy with excitement for our upcoming cruise and popped in to the booking office several times throughout the afternoon to ask the girls more questions. I also wanted to ask them what we could get up to today and tomorrow to kill time. There are several things we could do that involve lots of walking around in the heat and humidity of the day but given that Sandy is pregnant, they suggested we check out the nearby Charles Darwin Research Institute, where there are apparently several Galapagos tortoise and iguana enclosures. We hailed one of the dozens of white pickup trucks that peruse the streets and for the fixed rate of US$1 (€0,77) per ride within town, we were whisked the Kilometre or so over there. The institute is an extremely worthy research centre where endangered Galapagos turtles and other threatened species are bred in captivity to be replaced back into the wild. All of this is an ongoing effort to undo the damage done to this precious eco-system by man over the past couple of hundred years. We weren’t allowed into any of the several larger buildings where the research work is carried out but there are several walkthrough enclosures where these absolutely huge tortoises are kept in small groups. This was our first real up close encounter with a Galapagos species and quite a special experience for the both of us. They also had Galapagos iguanas in separate enclosures and these yellow and red reptiles were also impressive. What was even more impressive were the several bird species that we noticed perched on trees and handrails throughout the park. The animals here have evolved in the absence of the presence of man or any other predators. As such, they have evolved without the instinctive fear that is present in animals from everywhere else in the world. The net result of this is that we were able to get extraordinarily close to the birds without them flying away. As we walked around, we bumped into another couple of travellers that were being led around by a private guide. We asked the older guide a few questions and he seemed extraordinarily pleasant and informative. In retrospect, I wished we had such a guide to help explain things to us as we were walking around too. He also confirmed that the NEMO I is a great boat but quite coincidentally, it turns out that our level-III guide that will be accompanying us on the cruise is actually his cousin.

After a good few hours at the research station admiring the tortoises, iguanas and birds, we slowly strolled back into town and stopped in at a couple of shops along the way. I picked up a nice map of the islands that has some useful bird and animal photos that we can use for identification purposes.

Although we’d now paid in full for our cruise, I was planning on doing a fair bit of diving whilst touring around the islands on the boat and I will still need to pay for these so we collected our traveller’s checks from the hotel and decided to cash them all in at the one bank here on the island. We had first tried to use our bankcards at the only ATM on the island but none of them were working so we had to fall back onto the traveller’s checks anyway. The bank was extremely packed with one very long and bendy line of customers, probably because today was Friday and payday, but there was a smaller queue of people in the pregnant women line so we tagged onto that. I knew Sandy’s condition would come in handy eventually. The bank charged me US$5 (3,85) as a flat rate for cashing the traveller’s checks but I was able to cash all of the remaining US$400 (€307,69) that we had in checks.

Whilst out and about, we bumped into the Canadian couple that Sandy had earlier met in the café whilst I was working my magic sorting out a cruise. We agreed to go out for dinner together this evening. I had already asked the very nice young girl at our hotel’s reception desk about where to go for a particularly good meal and this was a small place a short way up the coast that is only reachable via a water taxi. It was by now dark and we had all boarded the small taxi before I realised that I didn’t know the name of the restaurant where we had made our booking. None of us spoke Spanish and the water-taxi driver certainly didn’t speak any English so I just motioned my hand towards my mouth to suggest eating. There must only be one restaurant that is reachable via the water-tax since our driver pulled away from the dock and took us the several hundred metres over to where a restaurant hung over the edge of the bank. They were expecting us so we were at least at the right place. Judging by the price and neatly presented small portions we were served, it was a very upscale restaurant and the food was delicious. We ended up paying US$48 (€36,92) for what surely would have cost over four times that much anywhere else. Even though the meal was a fantastic deal it was still much more than we are accustomed to paying for a single meal whilst on the road but I was still very much of a mind to completely disregard the budget.

We enjoyed the meal and the company immensely but it made for a later evening than we are typically used to and I was so tired by the time we made it back to the hotel, that I was only able to write up my notes before nodding off to sleep. Before doing so, we had a quick tally of the cash that we still had with us and for a while there, we thought we were missing a big chunk of money. It turned out that we had simply lost track of when and where we had been spending cash. Whichever way we cut it, we are still going to come in well under budget for Ecuador and the Galapagos islands.