The extra two days we spent trying to get out of Colombia meant we had to adjust our itinerary for northern Ecuador. At the border we crossed into the town of Tulcan. We headed straight for the bus station and caught a bus down to Ibarra. The bus was actually a bit faster than we expected and we almost missed the entire city. We assumed they would stop in the bus station in Ibarra, but as often happens, our assumptions are far from reality. So we rapidly tried to grab our stuff and get off the bus on the side of the road. From there we grabbed a taxi, the driver assured us he knew where we wanted to go. He then proceeded to drive very confidently to the wrong hostel. It was late and we didn’t actually have a reservation at the other hostel, so we decided to spend the night where he dropped us off.
One of our main reasons for stopping in Ibarra was to visit a non-profit animal refuge located on the hill just above town. Unfortunately, the next morning as we attempted to make our way to the refuge, we learned that the place actually shut down and all the animals had been dispersed to other parts of Ecuador. So we spent the rest of our time in Ibarra taking care of exciting tasks like getting Kevin’s hair cut, finding a SIM card, getting it activated (a process that took 4 different stores, in 4 different parts of the city), and doing a little sightseeing.
From Ibarra we hopped on a bus for a 2.5 hour ride to Quito. We were both surprised when we arrived that the time had already passed, after some long bus rides 2.5 hours passes in a flash. When we arrived at the bus station we were assaulted by a cacophony of taxi drivers offering to take us anywhere we wanted to go in the city. After getting a quote of $8 to get across town (we realize this sounds incredibly cheap by US standards, but when you are traveling on a backpackers budget, every dollar counts) we decided to compare prices taking the local bus, although we had no idea which bus we needed. The bus station attendants were extremely kind and helpful and told us which bus, how to get to the correct platform, and which connection to get… all for $0.25 per person. The bus terminal was on the north side of town and the hostal was on the south time so we were able to see a good portion of town during our cheap bus ride.
We had just one night in Quito before flying to the Galapagos Islands so we had to use most of it to run errands. We did manage to go for a walk in the evening to see a little bit of the old town, stop in a microbrewery, and a pass by several churches that were beautifully lit up at night. We are excited to see much more of the city when we return from the islands.
Originally we had not planned to go to the Galapagos because of the cost. After we did some research and were able to find cheap plane tickets, which combined with some strong persuasion from our friends (Anthony and Sarah), was enough to motivate us to make a last minute change to our plans.
When we arrived at the airport we walked to drop off our bags at the check-in counter. The airline representative asked us where we were going, and advised us that all passengers going to the Galapagos had to go to another counter first to pay for an Ecuadorian government issued transit card. A recurring theme in our travels lately is that whenever we get near the front of a line, the person(s) in front of us take an inordinate amount of time to complete their transaction. In this case, one of the counters was serving a tour guide with more than a dozen passports and the other line had a young woman with difficulties of one sort or another. In the end we waited at the front of the line for more than 20 minutes before another counter opened and were able to process our payment in less than 5 minutes. After that we had an uneventful flight and arrived safely in the Galapagos Islands.
Our first order of business after arriving on the island was to book a cruise around the various islands. The Galapagos archipelagos are a collection of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador. A couple of the islands can be visited by day trips on motor boats, but the majority of destinations are only accessible by cruise ships. The friends we were traveling with had done research and found that you could get substantial savings on your cruise booking if you bought it at the last minute on the island.
We ended up spending the better part of a week comparing prices and researching the various cruise options. Of course being on the Galapagos we couldn’t spend all day cooped up in our hotel researching. Two of our days we were able to go scuba diving in various locations accessible from Puerto Ayora, on the island of Santa Cruz where we were staying. By far our favorite dive site was Gordon Rocks where we dove with sea turtles, sea lions, hammerheads, and reef sharks. We were told that if we were not aggressive towards the sharks they would not react to our presence, unfortunately the same did not hold true for the jellyfish, as Lisa found out the hard way. Thankfully, the intense pain and swollen hands only lasted a day.
The town of Puerto Ayora had a few informational centers to visit. Unfortunately, we did not find one called the Centro de Interpretacion and the Darwin Center was under construction with many of the exhibits closed. One site that never closes however, was the fish market where we watched local woman fillet freshly caught fish and toss the scraps to eager sea lions and pelicans that waited behind the cutting stations.
We also went to the beach at Tortuga Bay which was on of the most immaculate beaches either of us has visited. There wasn’t a scrap of trash or even seaweed washed up on the beach. The beach was home to marine iguanas, sea turtles, and a variety of birds.
One other highlight of our time on Santa Cruz was hiking to Las Grietas (which translates to ¨the cracks¨) is a canyon that connects water from the highlands to ocean water that filters in through the volcanic rock of the island. Because the water passes through the ground to enter the canyon the salt is partially filtered out leaving a brackish water swimming hole.
Our time on Santa Cruz left us anxiously anticipating the 8 days cruise with a certified tour guide to share with us the beauty and biodiversity of the Galapagos Islands. A special thanks to our friend Anthony, who took several of the photos of our Galapagos excursions.