Galapagos and Ecoventura: A Perfect Match!

I can’t believe my week in the Galapagos Islands is over. It was quite an experience, and one I would recommend to everyone. While we covered one or more islands in a day, the itinerary was full, but I never felt rushed or pushed too far. I sailed with Ecoventura, and they really made the experience a pleasurable one. Our day started with being woken up around 7am with soothing music and a calm voice from one of our guides and had a delicious breakfast waiting for us at 7:30. Then it was either a morning hike or snorkel, back to the boat for lunch and an afternoon siesta followed by an afternoon activity. They kept us fueled with delicious healthy meals, and we had plenty of sleep at night, so I felt great throughout the trip. The staff on board did an outstanding job in making us feel at home for our week away from home.  The boat was a perfect size for an intimate Galapagos experience with one guide for every ten people. The top deck was my favorite place to take a nap or gaze at the stars at night as the wind blew through my hair.
Ecoventura sets itself apart from the other operators in the Galapagos Islands in that the Eric, the motor yacht we took, became the first hybrid energy tour boat following a $100,000 installation of 40 solar panels and two wind turbines on the upper deck. The goal of the solar panels and wind powered generators is to provide enough power to support about 17 percent of the energy formerly produced by two carbon fuel based generators. Since the main objective of the Galapagos is to preserve the wildlife and environment for years to come, they hope to have this finished in all of their yachts by 2011 so they can do their part in making sure our children and grandchildren can have the same experiences as we did. While there are so many species endemic to the Galapagos Islands, UNESCO put the Galapagos on its World Hertiage sites risk list, so Ecoventura is doing everything it can to preserve the fragile and beautiful ecosystem.
They provided us with an outstanding itinerary, and there were usually alternatives if you didn’t want to do a certain activity. For scuba divers like myself, they give you the option of going diving with one of the local dive shops two out of the seven days. I took advantage of this the day we arrived, but chose not to the second time because it would have meant I would’ve missed out on the giant tortoises in the wild on Santa Cruz which is a must see when coming to the Galapagos.
On Sunday, I flew from Quito and met the group in Guayaquil aboard Aerogal Airlines and then it was off to San Cristobol Island where we met our guide for the week and owner of Wreck Bay Diving, Ivan Lopez Ruiz, and my dive master, Shay Katzir. After a briefing on our 20-person motor yacht, Eric, one of Ecoventura’s four boats, Shay picked me up to go scuba diving. I was surprised to hear I was the only one diving. Usually a company will not go out unless they have a few passengers, so it made for a very intimate diving experience. We went diving at Kicker Rock and unfortunately, there was an unusually large swell, so it was a bit of a tough dive but Shay held my hand for a good part of the dive so I would not drift away from him and we saw some great underwater life like an octopus curled up in a rock, a Galapagos and white tip reef shark, a big yellow pufferfish, and lots of beautiful yellow and black starfish. The staff of Wreck Bay were great. Angel Quimis was really helpful in double checking all of my equipment and helping me on and off the boat.
On our eight day, seven night journey, we explored gorgeous islands of various terrain and took thousands of pictures of the various species of birds including the red and blue footed booby, the nasca booby, lava lizards, marine and land iguanas, sea lions, sally light crabs, and huge tortoises. It was amazing at how close we were able to come to the wildlife. Occasionally a sea lion would give out a warning roar to let you know you were a little too close for comfort., but without fail, every time I saw them playing with each other, a baby calling for his or her mom and waddling down the rocks or across the beach, it made me laugh. Underwater, we saw beautiful starfish of many colors, king angel fish, Galapagos penguins, white tip reef sharks, pacific green sea turtles, grunt fish, parrotfish, and leatherback sea bass.
Our tour guides Ivan and Cecibel were very well versed naturalists and made the trip even more enjoyable. Ivan had his key phrases every time he saw something and made sure we always had our cameras out at the right moments, which wasn’t difficult since every moment seemed to be a good one. Each night on board we had a briefing to prepare us for the next day so we knew whether or not to prepare for a dry or wet landing. In order to get to the islands each day, we would put on a life jacket and board the Zodiac raft which would take us to our destination, and upon returning, our wonderful restaurant manager Luis would have juice and a snack ready for us as we got on board…a great touch after burning all those calories hiking or snorkeling. The food was always great on board and Luis was so attentive to my lactose intolerance. Whenever there was something with milk or cheese in it, he always let me know and provided an alternative. There was always fresh fruit at every meal including succulent pineapple, papaya, cantaloupe, and watermelon. In addition, breakfast included delicious fruit juices, eggs, whole wheat breads, yogurt, and cereal. Lunch and dinner ranged from traditional Ecuadorian dishes like shrimp ceviche, and bean soup, to chicken, pork and fresh fish. We all had the honor of having dinner with the captain and hearing his navy stories. As we crossed the equator, which was four times during our 484 nautical mile trip, we watched the latitude turn to all zeros on the GPS on the bridge. The staff put on a great interactive show halfway through the trip which was a lot of fun. We all were like family for that one week and the staff aboard the M/Y Eric was a big part in making that happen.
If you are looking for an experience of a lifetime with memories that will touch your heart and last forever, you definitely want to put the Galapagos Islands on your short list. However, if you are going to make the trip to Ecuador, don’t just go there for four days to say you’ve been there. Spend the entire week so you can fully explore so much of what Darwin saw to formulate his theory of evolution. You’ll go at a relaxed yet active pace while also enjoying the journey aboard one of Ecoventura’s intimate and comfortable boats as it cuts through the water, the wind gently blows in your face as the world surrounds you.

I’m in the Middle of the World!

I’m in the middle of the world surrounded by so many multicultural and multi-ethnic groups. I flew into Quito on Thursday morning aboard LAN Airlines. I had never flown with LAN before, but they had a non-stop flight from JFK to Guayaquil and then an easy transfer from Guayaquil to Quito. I was really impressed with the service both in the airport and aboard the 6.5 hour flight. The plane was comfortable and since it wasn’t overbooked, I got to lay out across a whole row, which is always a welcome bonus. Every seat had a personalized entertainment television with great movies, music, and games. Upon arriving in Quito, I checked into the Best Western Plaza and Casino. My suite style room was very spacious and comfortable and they gave me some casino money to start with, so that was fun of course. While it was a nice hotel, it’s more for business travelers, as the main nightlife is about 15 minutes away. However, cabs are so inexpensive, that you’ll be able to go back and forth easily for around three or four dollars. Remember to ask for a room on a high floor though because if they have private parties going on like they did when I was there, you won’t get to sleep before 2am.  

That night I had dinner at a phenomenal restaurant, Zazu. We had the tasting menu and chef Alexander came out after each course to explain the delectable seafood and duck dishes were eating. Every Peruvian and Ecuadorian style course had intense flavor and was made from the freshest ingredients. The next day I met my guide, Mauricio Baus, and we headed to the Old City of Quito. It was quite amazing seeing the transformation from the new part to the old, more colonial buildings dating back hundreds of years. Since I was only going to be in the area for two days, we had to make the most of our morning and he did a great job fitting as much in as possible in the short amount of time. We saw a few churches, two made of gold, the grandest of them all being the Campania de Jesus Church. This church took over 100 years to build from 1605 to 1765. Independence square is the heart of the city and you can see the multi cultural and multi ethnic groups of Ecuador gathering in one place. There are over 20 indigenous groups and 87 churches in the old part of Quito. UNESCO named it a cultural heritage site in 1978. San Fransicsco square is also a great place to hang out with the great Panama hat store. Another place you’ll want to check out is the Escuela Taller. I was so impressed with the woodworking skills of the students there and it made me see just how much work goes into each carving. The fair trade store sells some great Ecuadorian chocolate and you can go downstairs to see some of the artistic crafts made locally that are also for sale. The City Museum is a great place to see the evolution and history of Ecuador and its people.

One thing I have to say about my stay in Quito was that I never had one bad meal. Each one was so delicious and what I loved most was that everywhere we went I was able to get freshly squeezed juices such Naranjilla and tree tomato which were my favorites. For lunch at the hotel Patio Anduluz, we sat in a beautiful atrium and I had a delicious avocoado stuffed with shrimp. I love avocado so I was in heaven because it comes naturally in so many dishes! For an entrée, I had the sea and earth, a mixture of langostina and beef piled high with grilled veggies.

After lunch, we drove to the Mitad del Mundo- the middle of the world, and I stood on the equator with one foot in each hemisphere with mountains as the backdrop. You can see exactly what time it is based on the shadow that hits the sundial. It was interesting to hear the scientific way in which they figure it all out and for just a $1 donation, they will explain it to you.

As we made our way to Otavalo, we stopped in Cyambe at Rosadex, an amazing rose farm. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The Ecuadorian rose can grow to great lengths because of the sun on the equator. There is a whole production team who then take them from the greenhouse and cuts them to the starndard length depending on where they are bring shipped. The vibrancy and bright variety of colors was breathtaking. Gloria is the owner and showed us her beautiful home filled with generations of antiques and gorgeous roses of many colors and scents and a beautiful rose pond out front. She and her husband will gladly welcome visitors who would like to tour the farm and her home.

That night we stayed at the Hacienda Cusin, a great place to stay if you’d like to check out the popular indigenous market in Otavalo. While they are open everyday, Saturday is their big day and if you get there around 9am, you can see the animal market, which is quite the experience! The locals come out to sell their animals and others from various parts of Ecuador bargain for a good deal. It was amazing how many goats, bulls, cows, roosters, and pigs were there, many being pulled on a leash and others just being held by their owner.
For those sensitive to animals, you may want to skip the market, but it definitely is something to see if you’d like to get a sense for the life in the Otavalo community. After the animal market, I walked around the other market which had many locals selling items made in Ecuador such as handbags, panama hats, sweaters, shawls, etc. Be sure to walk all the way back towards the church so you can experience a part of the market that most tourists don’t go to. Inside the fruit and vegetable market back there, you can get a bite to eat, but after seeing all of the meats hanging and the full pigs with their heads roasted and out on display, you may think twice.I saved my appetite for lunch at the Hacienda Pinsaqui, where I had a delicious shrimp cerviche with corn kernels to sprinkle in, traditional way of eating ceviche in Ecuador, and trout with veggies and rice. The gardens at the hacienda are beautiful and definitely a great spot for pictures and relaxing.  

The drive back was beautiful, with the mountains, valleys and deep canyons around us. Since it was Saturday night when we got back to Quito, I went out to have a bite to eat at the in the heart of  the Mariscal region of Quito. This is where most people go Thursday through Saturday nights to hang out. The square is filled with restaurants and bars with live music as well as a casino.The next morning I was off to the airport for my trip to the Galapagos. Read all about that in my next few entries!