From Sea to Sky: Galápagos to Machu Picchu, Part 1

Pat Cook, BA ’73, Life Member, roamed the Galápagos Islands and Machu Picchu last month with the Flying Longhorns. In this first of a two-part travelogue, Cook explores the Galápagos’ colorful wildlife—from snoozing sea lions to blue-footed boobies.

Galapagos sunrise

This was our sixth or seventh—I’ve lost count—trip with the Flying Longhorns, which we’ve found to be an excellent way to see the world without worry. For fun, sometimes they match Longhorn travelers with groups from other universities. We’ve been to Turkey with the University of South Carolina, Scotland with Virginia Tech, and on this trip we were with Penn State and the University of Minnesota. We were, of course, the biggest group…

First, to get to the Galápagos Islands, about an hour flight west into the Pacific from Guayaquil, Ecuador, means a six-hour flight from Houston to Quito. Ecuador “owns” the Galápagos Islands, all 18 of them. I have only traveled to South America once before, and I am beginning to notice a pattern. You leave Houston late in the day and arrive around midnight. Coming back, we left at midnight and arrived in Houston at dawn; no time changes to deal with, but you arrive either place dead tired.

Quito is a nice city with an altitude like Denver’s—a mile high. It is only a short way from the equator, and the weather is mild, if somewhat rainy. Interestingly the national currency is the U.S. dollar, and I found the conversion rate to be extremely easy to master. They had a very bad economic crisis back in the late ‘90s and ditched their currency in favor of ours. Everything is priced in dollars and the ATMs spit them out just like they do in the Galleria back in Houston. They are a major oil producer and exporter (gasoline costs $1.50 a gallon) and have a great agricultural sector, growing fruits and spices as well as fish and shrimp aquaculture along the coast. And of course, they have a great tourist destination linked to the Galápagos Islands.

1. Farming the Volcano Crater

Ecuador also seems to farm volcanoes. There are about six or seven within a short distance of Quito, which provides a regular light show to the locals, who seem to be at peace about the situation. We drove about 30 miles north of Quito to a monument marking the exact location of the equator, so tourists can get their picture taken with a foot in each hemisphere. It’s not very dangerous, but thank you for your concern anyway. After this trying experience, we drove a couple of miles to the rim of a volcano crater where we ate a fabulous lunch looking into the crater where farmers were growing crops on the crater floor. We were too far away to see if they looked nervous.

The flight to the Galápagos involves about an hour from Quito to Guayaquil and then another hour or so on to one of the two airports on the islands. The first island was just about as flat and barren as West Texas. As it happened, it was the island where my dad spent a good part of World War II called Baltra. It had an airport and a dock, and little else, where we boarded a small cruise ship that held about 120 souls, half passengers, the rest our shepherds. The shepherds tended to the ship, moved it around, prepared ridiculously wonderful meals, kept everything clean and painted, and ferried us out to the islands a couple of times a day to snorkel and hike among animals whose fear of humans must have been surgically removed in some mad scientific experiment. Among the shepherds were a team of naturalists who kept us on the trails, identified the various animals and explained their behavior.

Ecuador seems to have a corner on zealot naturalists. I didn’t ask, but the pay must be pretty good. You have to have a college degree, take several years of special training, pass a very tough testing process, and be very tolerant of tourists. Bonus points are awarded for that last one.

2. First Galapagos sunset

The ship moved just before dawn each day to a new island. The activity of tourists is very controlled, and the ship can only visit the same island once every 15 days. In our five days we visited five islands, and the passengers who replaced us when we left visited five different islands than those we visited. Each island is quite different as well. The islands formed from a string of volcanoes that moved over hot spots in the earth’s crust, so they range from relatively young on one end to quite old at the other, the same phenomena that produced the Hawaiian Islands. One island might be very rocky and flat, another quite hilly and have good soil for plants. The taller hills receive more moisture from rainfall, but there is very little natural fresh water on any of the islands. Rainfall is very important unless you know how to drink seawater.

Over the years, human presence has altered the environment of the islands significantly and major efforts have been made to restore the habitat. Wild pigs, rats, cats, dogs, donkeys, all introduced by Europeans, have devastated a lot of the native animals and with a great deal of effort, they have been removed from a number of the islands.

13. Sea Lion pool

You’ll never see anything like these animals. Iguanas laze around on rocks, in pools of water, using each other for pillows. Sea lions snooze on the trails, beaches, and rock cliffs; they seem to be able to launch themselves 6 to 10 feet up a cliff face from the water and land on a ledge, falling asleep instantly. Birds have an easier time of it since they can fly, and industriously paint the cliff faces white with bird “graffiti” otherwise known as guano. Come to think of it, the overall smell of the islands was a mite ripe and we appreciated the brisk ocean breezes all the more.

4. Galapagos crabs

12. Nesting in the trees

The biggest problem with the animals was the need to be careful not to step on them. Frigatebirds, boobies, owls, iguanas, lizards, crabs, and sea lions were everywhere and were fearless, and the sea lions would take a nip at you if you stumbled over one. The easiest thing was to remember their first name as everything was known as the “Galápagos this,” or the “Galápagos that.” Virtually all of them were unique to the islands and were thus distinguished by the Galápagos name.

The boobies come in three major classifications, Nazca, Blue Footed, and Red Footed. They come in that order too, from the largest to the smallest. I like the Red Footed Boobies because they were small and tended to roost in the trees about eye level, making them very presentable to a lazy photographer such as myself.

8. Frigate Bird batchelor

The frigatebirds are the ones where the males blow big bright red sacks up on their throats to attract females, a very peculiar device I can not imagine being either comfortable or sexy. They even have to huff and puff for nearly a half hour to get them inflated. Talk about stupid foreplay. The females weren’t that cute either, unlike Susan.

Turtle

Then there’s the famous giant land turtles, or tortoises. They were nearly exterminated by humans as they provided good fresh meat on old sailing ships as they can survive for a year or so without food or water in a ship’s hold, waiting to be dinner some night. These days, they have breeding farms on most of the islands (they are distinctly different on each island, thus discovered Darwin) where they are protected inside a large fenced farm, their eggs are collected after laying, and raised in cages until they are large enough to be released safely, about five years or so, which is not bad for an animal that can live well over 100 years.

Leaving the Islands, we spent a day in Guayaquil, the big city on the coast of Ecuador. While we were in Quito, the people talked about Quito as being the administrative capital of Ecuador while lamenting Guayaquil as the economic capital. Quito is supposedly trying to diversify the coastal economy to dilute Guayaquil’s economic monopoly power. Economic jealousy isn’t among man’s best virtues.

16. Freemasons Bolivar and San MartinThe city has a lovely oceanfront park, which features a prominent statute of the two men who lead the fight for independence from Spain, Simon Bolivar and San Martin.

Both were Freemasons, and the Masonic fraternity is held in high regard by the liberated Peruvians and Ecuadorians, though I’m a Freemason and I didn’t notice anyone offering to buy me pisco sours.

We spent a week at sea level in the tropics, next we spend a week a couple of miles up in the Andes.

Next: Pat and Susan in Machu Picchu.

 

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