I’ve been back in the Northern Hemisphere for almost 24 hours now. Yesterday began with a ride over sleepy clouds circling the Andes and then ended with a heated cab ride under the stars and over the Hudson. Our time in Quito and Las Islas Galapagos was hard to say goodbye to. There’s a snow storm hitting the Northeast later tonight and all I can think about is how the water felt on my skin as I snorkeled past a sea lion and how the colors of the Pacific would change from turquoise during the afternoon sun to the color of the dolphins’ skin later in the day.
Snoozing sea lions never cared about the color of the water. These charming, lazy creatures napped anywhere and everywhere, from the bellies of boats to the steps at the pier.
The Galapagos Islands was never a place I thought I would ever see. I wasn’t even quite sure where they were–just somewhere in the Pacific off the northern coast of South America. I’ll begin with the island of San Cristobal, where we spent the first four nights.
I landed in San Cristobal because about three years ago, Mike’s cousin was trying to find work in Spain and saw an ad for a Spanish/English teacher in the Galapagos. Fresh out of college and willing to let the world take her anywhere, Mike’s cousin took the job, settled into the small town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the capital seat of the Galapagos, fell in love with an island native who was getting a scuba diving business off the ground, and a year later on a beach, the guy is slipping a diamond on her finger and popping the question. We’ll go anywhere for free food, so once Courtney and Geoff picked a date, we began planning our trip, and on January 5, a bunch of gringos stood on a rock overlooking the Pacific and watched a girl from Kingston, New York exchange vows in Spanish with a guy from down the road. Anna was a flower girl and was required to wear pink, which is never a problem.
The beauty of traveling to another country for a wedding–not a destination wedding, but a place the bride or groom calls home–is that you get an intimate portrait of that culture. This wasn’t the tourist path in the Galapagos. This was enjoying Ecuador with Ecuadorians the Ecuadorian way. That meant loud “reggaeton” music pretty much 24/7, lots of “sailor rice,” wine bottles getting passed around shuttle buses in the highlands, and getting to know “Galapagan time,” which means things will happen when they happen and not a moment sooner. That required letting go of our New York minute mentality, and accepting the fact that there are no schedules on the Galapagos except sunrise and sunset. So when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Or as they did at this wedding, put a hot pink hibiscus flower in your hair and get your drink on.
It wasn’t all drinking and dancing (and I’m not a big drinker anyway). Much of the trip was spent on a boat, getting off a boat, swimming to or from a boat, or asking what time the boat was leaving the dock. One day 11 years ago while hiking in upstate New York, I told Mike “I don’t do boats.” The reason was that unless the water was as smooth as glass, I would get terribly seasick. Island hopping means boat hopping, so I bought acupressure wristbands and dramamine for the trip. I am proud to report that not only did I not get seasick, I enjoyed every boat trip I was on (which probably adds up to about a dozen within a week). Mike got to relax because I wasn’t barfing up a storm, and even Anna enjoyed boating and proved that she had fortunately inherited her father’s steely constitution.
I loved the meditative quality of being out in the open Pacific listening to the drone of the motors cut through the quiet of the sea. During one of our excursions off San Cristobal, we boated past what appeared to be a pod of pilot whales. About two dozen flirtacious pilot whales skirted around our boat, playing in the waves. Several of them jumped alongside the boat, keeping up with our speed, at only about five to six feet away. We weren’t on a whale-watching trip. We were simply boating from San Cristobal to Santa Cruz and happen to run into a pod of pilot whales. It was one of the most beautiful, impromptu experiences I have ever had. Sadly, I don’t have any photos.
I do, however, have a photo of Kicker Rock. We boated out to these remains of a lava cone that were eroded by the sea. Known as Leon Dormido, or Sleeping Lion, these two vertical rocks rise 500 feet from the ocean and form this small channel that is very popular among snorkelers. Mike braved the brisk ocean current and snorkeled through Kicker Rock in nothing but a pair of snowmen boxers covered by some Old Navy shorts. That’s because our luggage didn’t get to Quito in time, and because we were island hopping, never made it to the Galapagos in time. So we weathered eight days in the Galapagos surviving on three pairs of underwear each (more about that l
ater). But it didn’t slow us down. Mike saw plenty of sharks and fishes, and I’m sure that for the marine life looking up at the surface, this wasn’t the first gringo to go swimming by without a bathing suit.
The time spent on land was as fascinating as the time spent in the water. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno isn’t what most Americans would picture as a capital city (we learned the night before the wedding that the groom’s mother had briefly served as interim governor). The “capital” is no more than a few thousand people etching out a living in a drowsy seaside village. But it is charming, and while getting around can be physically demanding–you pretty much walk or swim to where you need to go–the island is easy on the brain and lulls your mind. Suddenly, you don’t mind that you’ve been waiting almost an hour and a half for your dinner because you can just stare at the beach and forget about whatever was annoying you.
We arrived shortly after the New Year’s Eve parties had ended and the hangovers had finally abated, so there was plenty of Christmas decor still dangling from every window and rooftop. South America is fiercely Catholic. No matter how poor people are, they will always find the means to create elaborate nativity scenes and advertise their faith to neighbors and passersby. We saw countless dilapidated shanties along dirt roads and in the front yards, large, lovely nativities. Often, the mangers looked nicer than homes they stood in front of. I sometimes wondered if the Galapagans thought it was ironic to have so many depictions of Christ plastered around the birthplace of modern evolution theory. It was also odd seeing smiling Santa Clauses in a place that endures such head-on intensity from the sun.
Visiting San Cristobal means eating lots of “sailor rice,” which is fantastically-seasoned rice mixed with a hodgepodge of whatever got caught in the net that day. It also means drinking cervezas (the local brew called Pilsner) and plenty of walking. Should you ever stay in San Cristobal, I highly, highly, highly recommend crashing at Pimampiro, a bed-and-breakfast made of a group of white cabins about a half mile walk from downtown. This hotel opened in fall 2007, and it was one of the most pristine (and organized) hotels in town. Named after the proprietor’s hometown, the place boasts a swimming pool and the best fresh-squeezed juices, jams, and scrambled eggs around. The proprietor’s wife stands about ten feet from a long table whipping them up while the proprietor, who also spent the previous two years hand-building his hotel from the ground up, serves us coffee. Plantains are plentiful, and were on the breakfast table every morning.
When Fernando wasn’t keeping the joe flowing for his gringo guests, he could be spotted manning his store on the boardwalk facing the sea. Unfortunately, Fernando doesn’t have a web site, so I can’t pass that along, but I have an email address if anyone is interested. We had a lovely view of a blue-footed booby strangled with Christmas lights. There was also a dog always hanging out on the rooftop.
San Cristobal was followed by two days in Isabela, almost two days in Santa Cruz, and another almost two days in Quito. More on those trips later.