My South American adventure started on a high note; very high in fact: 2,800 meters/9,200 feet above sea level high. Following advice from guide books and medical professionals, I decided to take it handy my first day to allow myself to acclimate to the lack of oxygen in the air. An easy day travelling around the museums and perhaps visiting La Basílica, which is one of the dominating features of the impressive Quito skyline, sounded like a safe bet. However, most of the museums were closed for no reason that I could find, and the one I did manage to get into was a confusing mix of Precolumbian huts and dolls dressed as monks (I later realised that there was some kind of order to it, but my route led to an anachronistic and slightly perplexing impression of Ecuadorian history). Mildly defeated, I puffed my way up Calle Venezuela to La Basílica. Its imposing Gothic architecture belies its fairly recent construction (by Basilica standards anyway), as it was only built in the late 19th century. That said, what La Basílica lacks in age, it makes up for in accessibility. For $2, I was able to ramble throughout the majority of the sanctified innards of the building, which included gang-planking my way across the spine of the roof to a lookout point, and climbing all 115 meters to the top of the belfry hand over hand up increasingly smaller ladders. So much for taking it handy. The view, however, was well worth it.
The next day I took a tour arranged by the hostel where I was staying to Otavalo, which has been deemed one of the biggest artisan markets in South America. "But...", you may say, "Why would you go to an artisan market on the second day of your four-month trip during which time you have to carry all of your possessions around on your back, á la Monsieur Snail?" Why indeed, my estute friend, why indeed... Anyway, to the market I went, and artisanial objects I bought. The market itself was interesting enough, tourist stands rubbing elbows with sizzling vats of fried pig and gold chains, but I was surprised to hear it´s in Lonely Planet´s Top 10 for South America. If you´re planning to bypass a trip to Machu Picchu or Iguazu to get your shop on in Otavalo, don´t. Unless fuzzy llama toys and gringo pants are your thing.
Left with a week before beginning my 9-week volunteering placement, I decided to team up with a German girl I met in the hostel to do some exploring. We were thinking of heading up to Colombia for the week, but given that we would have spent about half of our time on a bus and would have voided our Ecuadorian visitors visa (a point I only discovered later - future travellers take note of this point: you can´t leave Ecuador during the 90 days of your visa if you expect to get back in) we decided against it. Something that had been niggling me since I´d arrived was the fact that everyone I met seemed to have gone to the Galapagos, and would practically plead with you when you stated that you´d already decided it was out of your budget and that you were going to bypass it. The Galapagos aren´t cheap, and until fairly recently its shores were reserved for scientists and very rich tourists. However, in the last few years it has grown as a travel destination for a younger crowd as well, and it´s not unlikely to see a scruffy backpacker wandering about the beaches these days. So I weighed up the points that I will probably never be this close again, this is one of the best times of year to go because High Season isn´t in full swing yet so prices are cheaper while Low Season is pretty much over so the weather conditions are more favourable, and living off beans and tuna for a while wouldn´t be so bad really, and decided to go for it. Booked flights, high fived, no turning back.
The enchantment started as soon as the airplane touched down in the tiny lean-to airport on the isle of Baltra. As the airplane taxied down the runway, it was escorted by dozens of giant dragonflies, officious and determined in their duties. Due to a lucky seat placement, my new German friend had made the acquaintance of a man who was visiting his family in Puerto Ayura, the main port of the Galapagos, and his nephew was happy to help us find a place to stay and offer adice. The place in question ended up being the hotel where he worked and was a bit more than we´d hoped to pay, but it was called El Castillo and it actually was a castle. Our room had a balcony, there was a guitar and a couple of hammocks ready for use, and the fresh juice for the morning breakfast came from the fruit trees in the garden. Never one to turn down a jammy turn of events, we settled in for the night.
But when one talks of Galapagos, one doesn´t talk about lodgings, so enough of the Castle and on to the the real attraction of the islands: the animals. Immortalised by Darwin´s 1835 scientific visit, the islands are most famous for the amazing fauna which exhibits little to no natural fear of man. On our first day we strolled to the fish boat dock where a sea lion was basking in the sun and pelicans rested in the trees a mere meter or so from where we were standing. When the fish came in they skulked around the corner, waiting for a chance to snatch an unattended fish.
We managed to get a last-minute package deal which had us on a tour ship for two nights, then over to Isabella, the biggest island, for volcano climbing and reef snorkelling. The Naturalist guide on the tour was an interesting fellow: during the day he would lead tours around the islands spinning off descriptions of the animals and facts about the islands as he clutched a rubber hammerhead shark, obsessively rubbed antibacterial lotion on his hands, and then rubbed his hands on his face. By night-time when he gave the itinerary for the next day he would be glossy-eyed and slurring slightly. The last night that we were on the boat (it was an 8-day tour for the rest of the passengers but we were only there for the first 3) after he detailled the activities for the next day he unexpectedly launched into a speech about how tourism was what was keeping the islands going, but it was also killing them. The money from tourists coming to gawk at the wildlife is vital for the protection programmes to continue running, but the money inevitably lines the wrong pockets and the ever-increasing traffic of visitors is damaging the delicate eco-system they´ve come to see. At the end of a few minutes there was an uncomfortable silence and then one of the other passengers raised his hand. "So, what time are you meeting us for lunch tomorrow again?" His approach was strange, and his audience was perhaps ill-chosen, but his argument is valid and compelling, and isn´t unique to the Galapagos. Any community which initiates tourism treads this fine line, of benefitting from the income tourism brings, but also suffering from the effects of turning their lifestyle into an attraction for outsiders to pay to observe. There is a new wave of "sustainable" or "eco" tourism, which aims to mitigate the harmful effects of tourism as much as possible. But it seems like it will always be a double-edged sword, and if a community relies entirely on tourism for its economy there will inevitably be comprimises.
However, moral dilemmas aside, I did decide to be a tourist, and it is truly an enchanted place. I spent about 20 minutes just swimming around with a giant sea turtle, and a good 10 minutes persuing a white-tipped shark. It did dawn on me during this time that chasing a shark was an odd thing to do, but he didn´t seem to mind all that much. We had a healthy dose of land and sea iguanas and plenty of seals, frigates, and even some penguins on the last day. By the end of the trip, I returned to Quito sunburnt, still swaying from the high-speed ferry boats, and mesmerised by the natural magic of the Galapagos.
Next post: my three weeks living with a shaman and his family in the jungle. There´s a perfectly normal sentence...