Almost everything can be booked on line nowadays, including bus, train, and plane tickets. There’s much less consistency, though, over whether you need to print out a copy of your ticket, except that my general rule of thumb that we only had to when we couldn’t find a printer easily turned out to be true depressingly often.
The worst offenders here are the budget airlines that charge you an additional fee for printing out boarding passes: Wingo hit you for $5 if you pay in advance and a massive $15 if you turn up at the airport without a printed boarding pass. Most of the bus companies in South America were rather ambiguous about it, implying that you probably could get away with having a PDF on your phone, but that it would be a much safer idea to print out the tickets just in case. Vietnam Trains get it right, and explicitly say on the tickets that you don’t need to print a copy (although the agents we booked through contradicted this in their covering email).
Boarding passes for the first three flights from Nairobi to Santiago - thankfully they didn't charge us to print these out
I wonder about the implications of this for the digital divide in general. When we lived in Singapore, it was easy to print out a few spare copies of our travel documents at home or in the office, but we often found it really difficult to find a printer we could use when travelling. Most hotel concierges will print out a few pages for you if you ask nicely, but if you’re staying in a hostel or AirBnB it can take hours to find a print shop or Internet cafe, and cost quite a bit per page.
The Mercado Benito Juárez in Oaxaca still has an Escritorio Público - a stall where an old man with a typewriter will write “anything from a love letter to an injunction” according to a New York Times article from 1985. In a not too dissimilar fashion, next to every government office in Cuba there are a few street-side stalls where somebody with a scanner, digital camera, and printer can help you sort out your documentation, or laminate the certificate that you’d just received. Maybe in the future we’ll see stalls in airports undercutting the airlines’ fees for printing out boarding passes.
I’m writing this far too late to give you anything resembling an accurate picture of Quito. What I remember is that it was high up, rainy and cold quite a lot of the time, and didn’t really live up to its UNESCO Heritage status. That’s doubtlessly unfair: we were tired from having spent the previous six weeks on the road, and didn’t want to spend a lot of time exploring a new city. We’d booked four nights there, though, and had to stay until we could fly off to Colombia. It was nice to be on solid land and in a nice large hotel room with a proper bed, nevertheless.
We stayed in Floresta. It’s not a particularly flashy neighbourhood, but we found La Fonda del Parque, a rather nice Mexican taqueria and Ocho y Media, a small arthouse cinema with a cafe attached to it that, importantly, didn’t randomly decide to shut down for a few days while we were there. Shrove Monday was never a big thing when I was growing up, but quite a lot of Ecuador clearly disagrees.
We visited the middle of town on a grey and rainy day, but found some good places to hide from the rain. Casa-Museo María Augusta Urrutia, the 19th-century home of a rich philanthropist, is a lovely building stuffed rather too full of furniture, and has one of the first fully-plumbed bathrooms in Ecuador. The picture doesn't show it properly, but it also had two rather lovely stained glass windows for Maria Augusta to contemplate while she bathed.
The blingiest church I've ever seen, la Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús, is apparently a baroque masterpiece. Here's a picture of the outside, resplendent with more decoration than a stone wedding cake. You can't take pictures inside, so you'll have to take my word about the shininess of the interior. The whole thing left me a little sickened by how much pillaging must have been required to pay for all the gold leaf.
We booked an “eight day cruise” (actually seven nights, arriving late and leaving early; hence also equivalent to a four day trip plus a five day one) on the motor yacht Darwin via https://www.galapagoslastminutes.com/. Starting the booking process about six weeks before the cruise (i.e. in early January for a mid-February departure) got us a discount of around $100 each over what it said was the base price of $2000 a head. The discounts seem highly variable, but are generally better on the more expensive boats, and as it gets closer to sailing. I just checked while writing this, and right now you can get a week on the same boat for $300 less than we paid, sailing in just three days’ time. It might not be sensible to leave things quite that late, though: the flights to the islands do sell out, and it took several days for our bank transfer to go through: two days for it to hit the booking people’s account, and then almost a week more for them to pay the boat company itself. Paying by credit card would presumably be faster, but then 3% gets added on to cover the fees.
Darwin was a Tourist Superior class vessel, the second cheapest. It is technically possible to get Tourist Class, but that may exist only to make the other options look better by comparison. The more expensive options are First Class - 12-16 passenger boats with larger cabins and double beds rather than bunks - and Luxury class, which starts to rival cruise liners for facilities and, of course, pampering (q.v. antes). I think that the biggest factor to consider is probably the quality of the guide, but it seems as though there's no way of determining this in advance, other than that the more expensive vessels normally have better guides. Life on board the Darwin was pretty good, though: the cabins were small but functional; the food was tasty; and there was enough space that everybody didn't constantly get under each other's feet. Some of the group, though, had a hard time sleeping in the cabins: there's an air conditioner but not a lot of fresh air, and it could be noisy when the boat was under way, which it was most nights.
GLM booked us return flights to Baltra from Guayaquil. The airport is modern and sleek, but also a bit of a disaster. In order to get on a flight to the Galápagos, you must queue up to pay $20 each for the Galápagos Tourist Card, then queue again to have your luggage X-rayed and sealed, and then finally queue again to actually check your bags in. Despite the huge lines, and the dozens of unused checkin desks, there are only two windows for tourist cards, so it took us just over an hour to get checked in.
After landing at Baltra, we had to queue again to pay the $100 charge to enter the Galáapagos, and then wait until the sniffer dogs had finished going over all of the luggage. It’s not quite clear what is or isn’t allowed to be taken to the islands - there’s an official website that says dried or processed foods are all right as long as they don’t contain seeds, but the signs at the airport said no food whatsoever was allowed. We saw some hunks of cheese being extracted from luggage at Guayaquil airport, so the X-ray machine must have been working.
Our flight out only arrived at 12:50, and we didn’t get out of the airport until 1:45. I’m not sure whether the booking agent just put us on the earliest plane that there were seats available on, or perhaps the boat people hadn’t told her that they really wanted us to be there before lunchtime, but this was clearly a problem. We met our already-stressed guide, Rafael, and were then rushed onto a bus, down to the port, and on to the boat, where we were given 90 seconds to unpack before being given lunch and then sent straight off to walk around Mosquera Island.
The bus from the airport to and from the landing jetty was $5 each way for perhaps a 10-minute journey - another example of how Galápagos travel costs add up quickly.
We took lots of cash with us, in twenties and smaller. The $120 a head charges for the tourist card and entrance to the islands have to be paid in cash, and all the books say that nobody on the Galápagos will accept anything larger than a $20, so we made sure to hit all the commission-free ATMs in Guayaquil before leaving. It was also helpful to have lots of small bills when calculating the tip at the end of the cruise. We were told that it was appropriate to tip $2 per crew member per day, plus $5 per day to the guide (i.e. $2 x 6 staff = $12/day each, or $168 in total for the week to the crew, and $70 in total to Rafael). Each cabin was given two numbered envelopes for the tips, presumably so that they can tell who stiffs the guide, and how badly. (The answer seemed, on our boat, to be everybody, to varying degrees).
We paid $25 each to rent snorkels and fins (I think the half-week cruises also paid $25). A wet suit would have been $25 extra, but the water was pretty warm and the wet suits were rather old. If you have your own snorkelling gear and it's not too heavy to carry, then that would definitely be useful. The gear we had wasn't terrible, but I've used better. Maybe more expensive boats have better gear - but it would be cheaper to buy a new set in Guayaquil and throw it away immediately afterwards than to upgrade just for that.
Drinks on board were quite expensive: $4 for a bottle of beer, $7 for a thimbleful of wine, or $40 for the bottle. Neither gin nor tonic water was to be had, even for ready money.
We didn’t stay on the islands before or after our cruise - hence the rushed arrival on the first day - but, if we had, it would have been best to join and leave the boat in Santa Cruz, where there are hotels and restaurants. Meeting the boat in Baltra was convenient for the airport, but not for getting into town, and it would be annoying and expensive to have to make multiple trips back and forth.
If we were doing it again, I would book the same hotel in Guayaquil (or Quito) for a night or two both before and after the Galápagos, so that we could leave a bag there with everything we wouldn’t need on the islands. This would have saved valuable cabin space, as well as allowing us to keep our travelling pantry of herbs and spices intact.
Important travel gear. Invasive-species regulations meant we had to ditch the chilli flakes
before going to the Galápagos, but a good towel is appreciated everywhere
Douglas Adams would have been proud: one of the most useful things I packed was a Good Morning towel, the ubiquitous accessory of the working Singaporean. I wiped my brow with it in the heat, wrapped it around my head to protect myself from sunburn when snorkelling, and was prepared for an attack of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal. Also useful were a UV-resistant rashguard for snorkelling in, sunscreen, and sandals that stood up to seawater for wet beach landings. It was also important to have footwear that would stand up to scrambling over rocks and lava. I used walking sandals for both purposes, and I suppose a sturdy pair of water shoes would do for both, as long as they didn't fill up with sand too easily.
We started our final day with a 6am trip to North Seymour before breakfast, and found frigatebirds. These are the only seabirds not to have waterproof feathers, meaning that they can't float. No other bird has a higher wing loading - the ratio of wing area to weight - and can fly continuously for weeks. They feed only at the surface, unlike boobies and other birds that can dive. Frigatebirds will use their agility to harass boobies (or anything else) and steal their catch.
Male frigatebirds puff up a red pouch in their throats to attract a mate.
After breakfast, we were put on shore at 8:30 am to wait for a worryingly long time for a bus to the airport. After checking in, everybody has to hand back their tourist cards before going through security. As with all Galapagean queues, there were hundreds of tourists and only two people doing the paperwork, but we made it on to our 10am flight with a few minutes to spare.
Other inhabitants - blue-footed booby; iguanas
André mutinied on our penultimate day. We had all assembled on Bartolomé and were half way through Rafael’s interminable briefing when André decided he wanted to climb the mountain before it rained, and headed off up the path on his own. This triggered a rather unfortunate display of anger and sorrow from Rafael, shouting first at André then, after he had left, at his (utterly blameless) partner Gigi. After things had been more or less patched together, and we’d reached the top of the mountain, Rafael took a picture of the whole group, asking us to say “I love you”. I mumbled “cheese” instead, through gritted teeth.
After lunch we returned to Santiago for a walk along some pāhoehoe lava flows at Sullivan Bay, and another excellent snorkel from the beach. I almost bumped into a gigantic ray while adjusting my mask. I was convinced that its wingspan was at least four feet - Wikipedia says they can grow to six, so it's not completely implausible. Anyway - I managed to back-pedal quickly, and it just flapped away gracefully. We also took a detour on the way back from snorkelling to see a few Galápagos penguins on a nearby rock. Maybe that's a good argument for buying a waterproof camera, or at least a prescription diving mask.
Susan and André skipped the afternoon snorkelling and sat on the beach instead. They were quietly discussing the morning's excitement when they were approached by a French woman who asked whether they were talking about Rafael. She had been living in the Galápagos, guiding part time, for around fifteen years, and knew him as one of the oldest guides from when she started working. Apparently we weren't the first group of visitors to have had some friction, sadly.
The Darwin then made the run to North Seymour, near Baltra (and the airport) before dropping anchor, meaning that we'd have the luxury of not being underway at night. A pod of dolphins appeared part way, swimming along with the boat just under the bow, and one jumping in the air occasionally, seemingly all just for the fun of it.
Five days of snorkelling in dodgy rental fins had irritated my right toe, and one ear was feeling unpleasantly full all the time, so I spent the day above water wishing that I'd brought a copy of David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again to read to make a change from the books on behavioural economics I'd loaded my Kindle with. The m/y Darwin was very different from DFW's m/v Nadir, of course, sleeping only sixteen rather than hundreds, and with very little "pampering"* available.
I've always felt rather ambivalent about snorkelling: on one hand it's an easy way to see amazing things below water without much specialised equipment or training; on the other, whenever there's a nice bit of reef there always seems to be a dozen people who can barely swim thrashing around in the water above it, disturbing the wildlife and kicking up the sea bed. Diving masks are well known to restrict your field of vision and make it hard to judge distances, and so if you're anywhere near an inexperienced snorkeler you're very likely to get kicked or sideswiped†. Back in the days when I went scuba diving semi-regularly I always tried to stay well clear of the shoals of snorkelers, ideally several metres below them, and to be very careful when ascending. In fairness, the boat's crew were very helpful with people who hadn't been snorkelling before, even providing full-face masks and lifejackets to people who couldn't swim, and pulling them around the reefs with the lifebuoy.
This wasn't the best day to skip the snorkelling: above water, Santiago doesn't have a great deal of wildlife that we hadn't already seen. We did find a few fur seals napping by the shore, though.
It rained very hard after lunch. Some of the cabins leaked quite badly - we got away with a small dribble of rain water coming through the roof onto Susan's bunk. The crew jumped into action once we told them about it, and managed to clean it up and, somehow, to dry out the bedding with towels. The cabin was pretty damp all week, although running the air conditioning in dehumidifying mode every night made it bearable. This definitely wasn't a ship for claustrophobes. The below-decks cabins have narrow bunks with hardly any headroom, and very little ventilation. The premium cabins are a level up, and have windows that open, which is very nice in good weather. Some of them leaked quite a bit in the rain, and the fact that you had to go outside to reach them would have been unpleasant if there had been a storm.
* Footnote (of course) to quote DFW on this particular verb: "the fact that contemporary adult Americans also tend to associate the word 'pamper' with a certain other consumer product is not an accident". This usage has spread widely in the two decades since ASFTINDA was first written: in Singapore it's almost impossible to avoid breathless advertising for hotels, spas, and massages that promises that "blend of relaxation and stimulation, stressless indulgence and frantic tourism, that special mix of servility and condescension that's marketed under configurations of the verb 'to pamper.'" (DFW, again)
† We quickly learned who was safe to swim near, and whose approach required immediate evasive action.
Most of the people on the boat left on the fifth day. The boat had come in to Puerto Ayora harbour the night before, giving everybody the opportunity to get back on line and/or to go into town for a sneaky pint. We all went back into town early in the morning to see the Charles Darwin Research Station (definitely worth seeing, but not life-changing) , after which we had a couple more hours to kill in town before going back on the boat. After lunch with most of the new arrivals, we went back on shore for a bus trip to the highlands to see giant tortoises in the wild, with a detour to pick up two stragglers whose plane had landed late.
Tortoises at the Charles Darwin Research Station; locals at the Puerto Ayora fish market
Puerto Ayora is very small: we walked around most of the town in half an hour. It was good to get off the boat and have some quiet time, as well as to go and buy some micropore tape to wrap up my toes so that the snorkel fins wouldn't chafe. The fish market is tiny - only a few stalls - and has dozens of pelicans patiently waiting for some fish guts to be tossed their way. I kept a distance, waiting for the moment when they all pounced on the massively outnumbered fishmongers, but they seemed to be playing the long game.
Wild tortoises in the Santa Cruz highlands
Galápagos tortoises come in two main varieties. Large tortoises with domed shells and short necks live in humid uplands; whereas in dry lowlands they have longer necks and a raised arch at the front of the shell, so that they can reach higher up to eat leaves and cacti. Fifteen varieties have been identified, with only eleven surviving. Different 'species' have interbred in zoos and produced fertile offspring, so there are probably fewer true species.
Charles Darwin is mentioned everywhere on the islands, almost as often as it's possible to buy T-shirts making jokes about boobies, but it's interesting how little he writes about them. On the Origin of Species mentions the Galápagos on only five pages. The Voyage of the Beagle does have a full chapter on the islands (albeit only slightly longer than the one on Tierra del Fuego), where Darwin sets down a lot of detail, and passes on some interesting facts* and opinions†. He also berates himself for not keeping better records, only recording which island a specimen was taken from after being told that it makes an important difference.
* "The tortoises from James Island are rounder, blacker, and have a better taste when cooked" than those from Charles and Hood Islands. (Santiago, Floreana, and Española, respectively). Despite this, single ships apparently used to take away as many as seven hundred Floreana tortoises (now extinct) at once.
† Tortoise "breast-plate roasted... with the flesh on it is very good, and the young tortoises make excellent soup, but otherwise the meat to my taste is indifferent". The marine iguana "is a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black colour, stupid, and sluggish in its movements". He didn't like the land iguanas much either, calling them "ugly animals" with a "singularly stupid appearance". When cooked, they "yield a white meat, which is liked by those whose stomachs soar above all prejudices". It's not quite clear to me what he means by that, but he has some rather delightful turns of phrase. It's particularly gratifying to see 'batrachian' used when it has nothing to do with HP Lovecraft parodies, for one.
There's not a great deal of wildlife to see on Floreana except for the flamingos. These are the American variety (Phoenicopterus ruber), bringing our total of flamingo species for the year to four. The lack of wildlife may be partly because an American whaler's helmsman set it on fire for a prank in 1820.
One interesting feature is Post Office Bay, where 19th century whalers kept a wooden barrel for letters to be left for ships returning home to deliver. This tradition has been resurrected: we were encouraged to buy postcards from the boat, and we all rummaged through the barrel to see what we could take home. I saw a few cards that were left for friends who would be visiting later in the year, one with an expiry date to say it could be thrown away if it wasn't picked up by October 2019.
Floreana does have spectacular snorkelling. The Devil's Crown, off the north side, is an underwater volcanic cone covered in coral, and has giant turtles, white-tipped reef sharks, spiny lobsters, sea urchins, and puffer fish. Or, at least, I am informed that it does: I could only see the larger types like the turtles and sharks.
We practiced two kinds of snorkelling: from the beach, and from the dinghy, when you're not allowed on the beach or when the shoreline is too rocky for safety. One or two of the crew would snorkel along with us, towing a lifebuoy for us to follow, while Rafael would cruise alongside in the dinghy making sure everybody was safe, and shouting advice, like "follow the buoy". Actually, that was the only thing he said. The other crew were quite helpful explaining the currents and providing useful tips ("don't follow the shark" was the most memorable), as long as you could stick close enough to them to hear what they said. I realised this slightly too late, after hanging back from the group, taking a wide line on one corner, and getting slowly carried backwards out to sea despite swimming as hard as I could against the current. Rafael picked me up after he'd shouted at me for long enough to be confident that I wasn't doing it just to annoy him, and dropped me off again with the rest of the group. If anybody from Darwin is reading this, could I suggest attaching a flag or something to the top of the lifebuoy, so that it's easier to see from a distance when there's a swell of more than a couple of inches?
Española is the most southerly and one of the oldest islands in the Galápagos. Almost the entire world population of waved albatrosses breed here, but February is the only month when you're guaranteed not to see any there, as they're all out at sea eating like crazy before coming back to breed again. Below is a picture of a breeding ground, with an unhatched egg handily just on the right side of the stop sign for tour guides to pick up. We also saw a pair of bat rays mating in the shallow water by the beach as we landed. They ignored us and carried on for a while, before swimming off.
The marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) is endemic to the Galápagos. They dive to eat red and green algae off rocks. The one in the left-hand picture below seemed to have eaten something that it didn't agree with, and vomited up that reddish puddle in front of us. Española also has its own endemic species of lava lizard, Microlophus delanonis.
Nazca boobies nest in open areas, and seem completely oblivious to humans wandering around them. We saw a hawk circling around, though, and the flock were clearly signalling danger to each other. It came close to picking off a young booby on one pass, but didn't manage to make contact.
We got up early on day two so that we could have breakfast at 6 am and be off the boat before hordes of tourists descended from a massive hundred-passenger tour boat that had anchored nearby. The Darwin has one dinghy, seating eight to ten, so all island visits involve two trips, as the boat sleeps sixteen. It was normally less stressful to be on the first boat out, as that gave you a little time to look at the island before the official tour began, and so that Rafael, our guide, didn't come to shout at you for being late.
Here might be an appropriate time to insert a paragraph about Rafael. He was, comprehensively, not a good guide. Not even a good people person, in fact. He managed to take forever to brief us every day without actually covering all of the important points, and also to take offence when we asked questions. I repeatedly went between feeling pity for him - obviously stressed out and having a hard time - and anger and resentment. That's him standing on the pier below, shouting at the people on the second boat about something.
The strategy of getting up early to avoid the hordes worked well. South Plaza isn't terribly big, and it was starting to fill up (and get unpleasantly hot) by the time we left. We were lucky enough to see a young (swallow-tailed?) gull getting fed, and a small sandpiper (?) catching a lava lizard.
The Galapagos land iguana (Conolophus subcristatus) lives on South Plaza, as well as several of the larger islands in the archipelago.
Blue-footed boobies nest here. They're ungainly and rather strange-looking on land, but make amazing dives when fishing. We asked Rafael why their feet are blue: he said that only God knows why. He's wrong about that: Wikipedia has a good explanation. The colour comes from carotenoids in their food, and so also shows how well a booby has been eating recently. Hence, brighter-footed boobies are more desirable as mates.
After South Plaza we went snorkelling. I gave up on the idea of ever using contact lenses after an unpleasant ten minutes' struggle in the bathroom of our cabin trying to position myself so that I could get close to the tiny mirror without falling over or poking my eye out when the boat moved. I do wish I'd managed to sort out a prescription diving mask, but, even without one, there was a lot to see.
After lunch we went on to Santa Fe. This island is one of the oldest in the archipelago, with some rocks around 4 million years old. There's an interesting side-note here: there's a volcanic plume underneath the Nazca plate that forms the islands, and as the plate moves eastwards new islands form, so generally the western ones are more recent. There is a string of underwater seamounts (that used to be islands) to the east, dating back to around 9 million years ago - long enough for a lot of endemic species to evolve, although it's not clear to me how that relates to all the islands having their own unique species.
Conolphus pallidus, the Barrington or Santa Fe land iguana, is endemic; the abundant (and rather cute) sea lions are not. They make a lot of noise, sometimes baaing like sheep, and sometimes retching disturbingly, like lads out on the town who've had one pint too many.