Final Thoughts

Snorkelling with a Galapagos Penguin – extraordinary experiences, extraordinary memories

How lucky are we?! Having yet another extended travel time to share as a family has been absolutely fabulous!

As a family we have shared so many experiences and created extraordinary memories as we learned more about languages, food, ruins, music, religion, traditions, politics, settlement, government, caves, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, organic farming, wildlife, earthquakes, volcanoes… 

After only a two month trip, we have returned to Nova Scotia different people than when we left. Travel (not 5 star, of course) yields individual growth and an attitude of more acceptance and less judgement. Furthermore, because we were constantly together (attached at the hip) our family bond has certainly deepened. 

As children, we both travelled far and near. We are thankful to our parents (Jackie, Winnie, and Ron) for imparting their sense of adventure on us that we, in turn, have passed on to our children. 

How lucky are we!

Tina and Graham

“We travel not to escape life but for life not to escape us.” Anonymous 

Ecuador Odds and Ends

Once again, here are some notes of interest on Ecuador (excluding the Galápagos Islands), that did not make it to the blog posts:

  • The official language is Spanish but 20% of the people speak one of the nine Kichwa (Inca) dialects as their first language. There are also eight languages in the Oriente (Ecuador’s Amazon).
  • We gave ourselves lots of time to shop… and we used it at the markets and Quicentro. Quicentro is a modern mall with over 300 shops. Most of the shops are high end, international brands. We did, however, find a few where the prices were reasonable, Bershka being our fav. Quicentro was even open on Christmas Day!
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    This gadget was used to alert you when your food at the food court in Quicentro was ready.
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    Our new suitcase only held about half of what was purchased. Graham was right and we ended up stuffing it so full we were expecting the zipper to bust.
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    Fresh garlic – peeled and cheap
  • As with some other countries outside NA, toilet pater is often doled out at the washroom by an attendant. In this mall close to Mariscal Sucre District there was a dispenser, cost $0.10. toilet-dispenser-10-cents
  • We came across this Shawarma kiosk (one of many on the street) while walking the Mariscal Sucre area. It was a wrap with chicken (from spit), lettuce, and a white – vinegary sauce for only $1.50!
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    Shawarma fine dining, $1.50

     

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    Not everyone likes getting their pic taken… even when framed so beautifully with sugarcane

     

  • After talking with someone who had recently visited Quito, Tina realized her fear of the roads was not so irrational. This person told her of a car that had fallen off the side of an Andes road en route to the Oriente (Amazon). Apparently it was witnessed by a bus load of people – the bus did not stop.
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    Driving is freakin’ crazy! We thought the first taxi driver that we had upon arrival was fast.  He had nothing on the last taxi driver that we took to the airport. This guy even made Graham nervous. He was driving 100km/hr in 40km zones and this was going around the mountain bends!

Christmas in Ecuador, December 24 & 25, 2016

We weren’t exactly sure of the details for Christmas Day, but we did know that we wanted to attend church at either the grand Basilica del Voto Nacional or at La Campania, the gold church in Centro Historico. After all, Ecuador is steeped in religion and has some of the most  beautiful churches in the world. What a great place to spend Christmas. We also planned to have dinner at our hotel restaurant which had an incredible view of Quito. Best laid plans… With a bunch of things out of our control which included not feeling well (from December 22 to December 25th we all had one, or a combination of, fevers, diarrhea/cramps, extreme tiredness, and colds), plans changed!

The morning of December 24 included a quick trip to our rooftop terrace, moving out of our apartment and into the Plaza Hotel, and a quick shop at Bershka in Quicentro. Things moved slowly as Anna and Graham were both getting over fevers.

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In the late afternoon, we went to the Basilica to watch the Pase del Nino, a procession where a likeness of the baby Jesus is carried through the streets. Nobody seemed to know anything about it or the service that was scheduled to take place immediately afterward.  So, we spent the time drinking cafés and hot chocolates in the basilica’s courtyard. Not exactly what we had planned; nonetheless,  it was quite lovely.

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Dinner that night was not at the hotel’s restaurant with an incredible view of the city. The hotel no longer has that restaurant even though it is on the Best Western website. That was one of the reasons this hotel was chosen – instead, we received a room upgrade and a deal on the buffet breakfast. We had a very festive four course meal in the new restaurant without a view. The food presented well and tasted mediocre. The band was really good, but the volume made it challenging to chat. When the volume increased for the dance that followed, we beelined it out. That being said, it was Christmas Eve so our spirits couldn’t be dampened.

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Christmas Dinner – salmon roll with dill cream cheese appy
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Yup, it was that green!
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Feliz Navidad – Festive music a tad loud!

 

Feliz Navidad! It was now Christmas Day! Rachel was sick through the night and slept most of the morning. By afternoon we were all feeling a little off with our inflictions but rallied to go to the equator.

We started with La Mitad del Mundo (The Middle of the World). It has the monument, gift shops, snack bars, and dancers. The first monument was built in the 1700’s to supposedly straddle the equator. Modern GPS readings have shown that even the new monument, built in 1979 to be grander, is actually seven seconds of a degree south of the true equator.

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The Mitad del Mundo Monument at the gov’t site is actually 7 seconds of a degree south of the true equator, but many tourists (like us) still flock here.

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Walking the line, supposed to be hard to balance

 

We then went to the “real” equator at  Museo Intinan. It is about 250 meters down the road from the government tourist site and has some equator-related experiments and some exhibits on indigenous cultures. Even though it is rated higher on Trip Advisor, is the real equator and is more interesting, there were less than 100 visitors. Surprising!

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The real equator

 

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One of the tribes in the Amazon used to shrink heads to keep the spirits in – it was an honour. Last time was in the 1980’s! Process – cut off head, remove skull, boil, dry with hot rocks, stuff with wooden ball, sew (eyes, nose, lips) – Voila!

 

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Coriolis Effect demo – water and leaves clockwise in the south

 

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Rach balances egg on the nail

 

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Tina balances egg on the nail

 

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Alex nails it.

 

We capped off the day with gym/spa time at the hotel.

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We did it! We rallied! What a cool experience on Christmas Day! One we will never forget. We leave in the morning for home sweet home!

 

The Quito Gondola – Dec. 19th

It was a beautiful sunny morning and Alex, Anna, Rachel, and Graham decided to take the teleferico (gondola) up the eastern side of the Pichincha Volcano to the lookout, Cruz Loma. The gondola ride takes 20 minutes and starts at about 3100 meters above sea level, ending at 4000 meters. This was high on the girls “to do” list for Quito and the experience did not disappoint.

 

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Pretty exciting

 

We had a cable car to ourselves on the ride up the mountain. It was interesting to see the terrain change from large trees to smaller trees, ending eventually in grassy meadows. The view from the top was incredible and demonstrated just how large and sprawling Quito is – 2.6 million inhabitants and approximately 50 km long.

 

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View from cable car – close to top

 

Graham felt a little lightheaded at the top and Rachel noticed she got short of breath quite easily. The temperature was also several degrees cooler (you could see your breath) and there was a light steady breeze. From here there are walking trails that take you another 500 vertical meters to the peak.

 

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Clouds rolling in; chilly at the top

 

Around Quito – Mercado Artesanal, Basílica del Voto Nacional, Centro Histórico…

We spent the day getting to know Quito a little bit. With its vast expanse and density we experienced but a smattering of highlights.

We decided to take the hop on, hop off double decker Quito Tour Bus. This is one of the most touristy things to do in Quito, yet we loved it! The cost was $60 – $15 for each adult, 1/2 price for Anna and Rachel (They are getting used to being nine and 10 years of age). It was a challenging start with finding the Parada (stop), but with our excellent Spanish (lol) and the girls running ahead, we caught the bus.

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In total there are 11 stops in a 12 km loop. We got off the bus in four locations: Mercado Artesanal, Basilica del Votto Nacional, Centro Histórico, and El Panicello.

Mercado Artesanal sold similar items to those sold in the tourist section in Otavalo, although this market is very small in comparison. It seemed as if the prices were similar as well.  All three girls were looking for light pants. When the vendor realized that they were not interested with the pants displayed, she got a bag of pants from another stall.  All girls bought a pair at $7.00 US each.

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Market decorated for Christmas
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Beautiful Alapaca Blankets
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Girls find their much-wanted pants in a bag

Our next stop was the Basílica del Voto Nacional, a huge neo-gothic church (the biggest in Ecuador) with two 115 meter towers. Mass was in progress when we arrived, but we did get inside to see the stained glass and towering arches. Alex, Rachel, and Graham decided to make the hike (part elevator, part stairs, part wooden plank, and part metal ladder!) up to the top of one of the towers. We were all a little terrified, but the views were incredible! We could see for miles and miles, and we also saw Tina and Anna having an ice cream down in the courtyard.

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Basilica in the distance

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Gargoyles are based on Ecuadorian fauna as opposed to mythical creatures
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View from the top
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Back down one of the ladders

Centro Histórico, also known as Old Town, is Quito’s main attraction. The last Inca leader had burned it to the ground prior to the Spanish capturing it in 1534. Within 30 years, the Spanish had colonized the city and built more than forty churches and three cobbled plazas. It is a UNESCO World heritage Site that has some of the most beautiful Spanish colonial architecture in all of South America. It also has many museums.

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Entering Centro Historico (Old Town)

 

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Entering Centro Historico – one of the nicer streets

 

They say you can see/walk most of Centro Histórico in a day; we focused on Plaza Grande. Plaza Grande is the largest of the three plazas and dates back to 1534. This plaza is and always has been the focal point of the city. It is surrounded by the city’s most important civic and religious buildings – the cathedral, Government Palace, Archbishop’s Palace, and City Hall. It was a great place for us to grab a bite in one of the cafes and people watch. We went on a Sunday which meant the surrounding streets of Plaza Grande were closed to traffic, and boy were they packed with vendors, buskers, and pedestrians. With all the crowds, we were warned a few times that pickpocketing could be a problem. In fact, the waitress at the café kicked out a “customer” who tried to sit at the table next to us. We obviously should not have had our camera, GoPro, and phones on display.

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Palacio Municipal (city hall)
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Seniors enjoying Plaza Grande on Sunday
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A religious gathering in Plaza Grande – some participants were in a trance
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An obvious police presence – many used segways; others on foot
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Street closed to traffic – notice the steep street in background

 

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Another street closed to traffic

 

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No congestion here!

 

 

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Poor quality but only picture of La Compania, a church with 7 tonnes of gold covering the inside.  It was built by the Jesuits just two years before they were expelled from the continent. It is located on the “Street of seven crosses.”

The next stop was El Panecillo, a “hill” with a 30m high statue of a winged Virgin Mary. Although the views are supposed to be spectacular, we didn’t catch much of the views.  It was rainy and cold, but even more of a presence was Tina’s, and to a much lesser extent Anna’s, fear. Tina was truly terrified (the narrow, windy, sheer drop off road  – again) and stayed on the bus. Anna was distracted by Rachel and the fear quickly subsided. The writing is clearly on the wall for Tina – heights, especially scary roads, are no longer on the agenda.

 

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El Panicello

 

 

The great thing about the bus tour is that it allows you to explore a few highlights and gives you an idea of what other areas you would like to explore. Revisiting Centro Histórico and seeing the artwork that lines Parque El Ejido are in the plans before we leave (in 6 days).

Earthquake 4.5, building swayed

Last night, Graham and I both awoke to an odd and eerie feeling of our apartment building swaying and the sound of car alarms below. We are on the top floor of a 12 story  condo/apartment complex and it swayed like a freakin’ palm tree in the wind. It felt like we were on the cruise again,  but with the potential of imminent danger.  With only a 4.5 magnitude I guess it wasn’t a big deal. Ha!

(Graham wants to know if the earth  moved for you, too?? I think he said this with the two earthquakes we experienced in Costa Rica in 2013.)

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Otavalo Market – Dec. 17th

Today we went to the Otavalo market; the largest outdoor market in South America. It was scary getting there, but we were rewarded with a wonderful cultural experience.

Rather than taking a tourist bus to Otavalo (80 km north of Quito), we went local bussing for only $2.50 US each. We decided on this mode for the experience and the budget. The bus terminal in northern Quito is like most bus terminals – crazy busy, dirty, and a little confusing. As unappealing as it looked, Anna and I paid our $.15 to use the washroom and receive the doled out toilet paper. Not a whole lot of toilet paper considering you needed to use some of it to cover the seat too! We had to make a point not to look towards the men’s urinals… same situation at another spot today when Graham was using the washroom, but that’s a whole different story.

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Quito Bus Terminal
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When you’ve got go…

Not expecting assigned seats, we were initially in the wrong ones. It’s always a little more confusing when you don’t speak the language…  Not a surprise, the drive was not so much fun! There were high mountains, sheer drop offs, fast speeds, rattling noises from the bus, air moving under our feet on the floor, and roads that wind through the beautiful yet terrifying Andes. Anna tried to help by closing the curtain so I couldn’t see. It wasn’t necessary as I kept my eyes closed for about 80% of the journey.

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Beautiful but scary

This Saturday market is huge! Vendors, who are quite friendly, come from the surrounding villages, the northern sierra, and as far away as Colombia. One section is for buying and selling animals, one section is for clothing and wares for locals, and a third section, Plaza de Ponchos, is geared more for tourists. In six hours we saw parts of the latter two and maybe 30 white folks. The market was colorful, packed and intense. Items we were drawn to the most, included alpaca blankets, shawls, scarves, and sweaters and llama sweaters. We also saw vibrant art, spreads of aromatic spices, food vendors, chicks…

 

 

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Local section

 

 

 

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Alex, Tina , and Anna in Otavalo Market

 

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Here an alpaca, there an alpaca…
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Taking roosters to the market

 

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It was the aroma that made us first notice this stall.

 

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In Ecuador, it’s popcorn rather than crackers in soup. This lunch of soup, chicken, rice, fries, veggies, salad, and juice was only $2.50 USD each.

 

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One of many food stalls

 

Many Otavaloños still wear traditional clothing. Many  women wore embroidered white blouses, shawls, black wrap skirts, gold coloured bead necklaces, and red bead bracelets with their hair wrapped in strips of woven cloth. Some men wore blue ponchos and white mid calf trousers with their hair braided beneath felt hats. Both men and women wear sandals that are made from the fibre of the Penko cactus called alpargatas.

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Traditional embroidered tops, men and women in traditional garb
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More traditional garb including hair wrap
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Typical “backpack”; shoes made out of Penko cactus

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One of half a dozen people we saw asking for money

Even though one section of the market is geared for tourists (although we saw very few white folks), the vibe, the culture, and the shopping was a fab experience for all of us.

Galapagos to Quito – Dec. 14th

As much as we were totally enthralled with the Galapagos Islands, we were excited to experience something totally different – Quito, the capital of Ecuador.

After a quick stop in Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador, we had a 40 minute flight to Quito. It is so much nicer to fly Avianca than Air Canada – more space, better food, better service, comfortable seats… I only wish we could stand in the aisle instead of standing hunched over our seats while waiting on the tarmac.

The view from the plane was incredible! Quito is nestled in the Andean mountain range and runs north to south for approximately 50 km and has an average width of 5 km. It has a spring-like climate with single digit lows and low 20 highs. The population is a mere 2.5 million which is certainly different than tiny Wolfville, Nova Scotia, and the isolation of the Galapagos Islands. It is a busy hub and the taxi driver showed no exception to this pace. We were on the edge of our seats more than once.

 

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Dramatic!

 

 

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Getting close to Quito

 

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Quito’s altitude is a mere 2800 m. This can leave you feeling breathless after little activity. The trick is to keep well hydrated, do little for the first day or two, and avoid alcohol (not as easy as the first two). This worked well as we had lots of blog posts to catch up on and pics/videos to delete/edit. This we did from our apartment Rachel and Alex found on Airbnb. We will use this as a base for the next 10 days ($400 USD total). At this point, we are all feeling a little weary as we are coming to the end of our tech updates and editing. We have been at it for two full days with all of us going full tilt.

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Our apartment, thanks to Rach and Alex
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Our own room again- spoiled!

 

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View from our apartment- Tina gets vertigo if she stands close to the window – really!

 

Galapagos: Odds & Ends – Dec 4th-14th

Like Belize, we thought we would note some items of interest regarding the Galapagos Islands that didn’t make it into the previous blog posts:
• The Galápagos Islands are a national park. They are comprised of 13 islands, 45,000 km² of ocean, and are 960 km from the Ecuador mainland.

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• 97% of the Galapagos Islands are protected as national park land. Much effort in terms of education and research is dedicated to the preservation of the archipelago.

• Many residents are employed by the Galapagos National Park and youth education is emphasized.

• Flight attendants spray disinfectant in the airplanes’ overhead bins 15 minutes before landing. Passengers disembarking at the airport are required to walk across a disinfectant mat. This is an attempt to prevent foreign organisms from entering the national park.

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Disinfectant spray prior to landing

• Documents and travel maps state that you must have a naturalist guide in order to visit the Galapagos National Park. They also state that a travel agency must arrange this for you. This, however, is just not true.

• There are no international flights to the Galapagos islands.

• The currency is the US dollar and almost everything is paid for in cash. This includes hotels, restaurants, excursions, cruises booked from the islands… Some places do accept visa but you are charged an additional 24%. Many people, both locals and tourists, are carrying around thousands of dollars in cash, but there doesn’t seem to be any crime or concern about crime.

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Trying to get enough cash for our cruise.

• In the highlands of Santa Cruz, giant tortoises are found wandering freely in their natural habitat. Cool!

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• Sea lions really are lazing about on the park benches. We saw this on the islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isabella. These are the only three islands that have park benches as they are the only three inhabited islands other than Floreana which has a population of 150.

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• Bikes are adapted to carry an extra small passenger. Even bicycles adapt!

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• Streets of Puerto Ayora are lined with storefronts selling tours and cruises. There are hundreds!

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• Last minute cruises can be purchased from these storefronts. We decided on a four-day luxury yacht and paid 35% of what other passengers paid.

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• Santa Cruz is home to the Charles Darwin research station, but this is the only island of the 13 that Charles Darwin did not go ashore.

• The Galapagos Islands/Galapagos National Park is so large with most of it isolated. Without a doubt, one leaves feeling there is so much more to explore. We certainly did our best to see as much as possible in the 10 days we were there… and we certainly have the pictures and video footage to prove it… and we only kept the best!

Galaxy 11 Cruise- Day 4, San Cristobal

This was the last day of our cruise on the Galaxy 2. After being pampered with first-class accommodations, food, service, and excursions, I think we were all in a little bit of denial that it was over. It was evident by the last-minute packing before breakfast.

Our last day was spent on the island of San Cristobal. This island is on the eastern side of the archipelago and is the administrative capital of the Galapagos Islands. The provincial capital, Puerto Banquerizo Moreno, is a pretty sleepy beachside town with the main street hosting some souvenir shops and restaurants. It sees a fair amount of tourists, but is nothing compared to the hustle and bustle of Puerto Ayora.

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The morning was spent at the Charles Darwin Centro de Interpretacion. This Galapagos National Park’s exhibition centre has displays on geology, climate and conservation, attempts at colonization, and of course Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution and natural selection.

The Galápagos Islands were (are) harsh, volcanic islands that were difficult for animals (human and otherwise), to thrive. Inspired by the Galapagos islands, Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution by natural selection. Behaviour and characteristics of a species changes when it is necessary to adapt to the environment. Those that are most fit, survive; those that are less fit, are eliminated. This is natural selection. From generation to generation the most favourable characteristics are passed on which allows for better adaptation. For this reason, the organisms that inhabit the Galapagos Islands are quite different from their ancestors on the mainland.

Evidence of this evolution is illustrated in the adaptations of Darwin finches and other animals. There are 13 species of finches, one for each of the Galapagos Islands. Each of these species are very similar except for the beak. The difference in the beaks shows how they adapted to the food available on the different islands. One beak is good for sucking blood, another for sticks, another for crushing nuts.

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Another example of adaptation is the flightless cormorant. This bird now has very small wings and is unable to fly. This change occurred because the food supply on ground was abundant and there was no need to take flight. A third example is the marina iguana. The lack of food on the lava forced them to find food in the sea. Other iguanas in the world can swim, but the Galapagos marine iguanas are the only ones that dive under water for food and can stay there for 30 minutes!

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Charles Darwin spent five years in the Galapagos Islands in the 1830s onboard the British ship the Beagle. He did not publish his theories until 1859 in “On the Origin of Species”. This book and his theories challenged the traditional biblical story of creation and thus rocked the Western world! How fortunate to have spent time in these islands that helped shape our modern day thinking.

We bid our shipmates adios. There were some fine people aboard the Galaxy 2 and it would’ve been nice to spend a bit more time with them. Maybe someday we will see some visit us in Canada!  We, however, were leaving the Galapagos Islands the next day.

The afternoon was spent at a restaurant along the main street attempting to catch up on our blogs. Once again, Wi-Fi was unreliable and the hours spent were a waste of time except that Rachel and Alex were able to find us excellent accommodations in Quito through Airbnb.

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Our last ferry was taken, this one from San Cristobal to Santa Cruz where we spent our last night in the Galapagos islands. What a treat!

 

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Cruise over, en route back to Santa Cruz