Quick – spell Equinox at Quito, Ecuador!

Following our trip to the Galapagos Islands we flew to Quito, Ecuador. At an altitude of almost 10,000′ this city is surrounded by green peaks of volcanoes. After the heat of the Galapagos it was nice to be in a much cooler, almost cold, place. img_4513
From our hotel we did a city tour of old Quito, a Unesco World Heritage site because of its old Spanish buildings, cathedrals and other buildings. The area is prone to both volcanic eruptions and earthquakes so much of the old city is low buildings.img_4523 Perhaps daily life has lulled people into some complacency because the outskirts of this city of 2.5 million people has highrises built right on the edges of cliffs – in my eyes a disaster waiting to happen. img_4551The old city squares felt very Spanish and we enjoyed strolling along, watching women in black felt hats and long skirts sell strawberries and other fruits and candies.

We’re a bit churched-out after our time in Spain, but visited a large cathedral as well as an amazing smaller church completely decorated in gold.

But the highlight was our visit to the Equator. Here the invisible line dividing the northern and southern hemispheres creates for some fun science experiments. Now, upon coming home and writing this blog, I decided to do some research so that I could explain what we saw on the equator: water flushed through a sink – either going straight down (on the equator), swirling down the drain clockwise or counter clockwise depending on which side of the line we were on… We were most impressed with what we saw. However… in checking Google, I read nothing but articles posted on science websites, in the Huffington Post and so on, that explain that all this is a hoax! I was baffled. I replayed the video I took. Then I went to the sink and poured water in the same manner. Indeed – I can make it go down clockwise or counterclockwise. It seems that the thing we enjoyed most in Quito was a simple hoax. I guess the young man who showed us around care nothing about the truth and fooling people. All that mattered was the income derived of unsuspecting tourists…


img_4541We tried our hands at balancing an egg on the Equator. Because it is pulled one way and the other, it took a lot of patience but Kees earned a certificate for a skill he never knew he had! Another equatorial hoax…

The museum here displayed some local native history: an enormous boa constrictor (stuffed!) and several shrunken heads. To our amazement we learned not only how to make a shrunken head but also that this practiced happened as late as the 1990’s. Tourism likely improved once they stopped this practice.

We ate at a restaurant that specialized in Ecuador cuisine: empanadas with shrimp, cheese and avocado.  And a fabulous soup eating together with a thick paste of peanuts and bananas.

We asked many questions about the education system (mostly free), about politics (elections this weekend and lots of unhappiness about corruption and broken promises), about religion (many young people turning away from the church and traditions) and also about why Ecuador is not called Equador is it is named after the important line running through the country. The answer: it is the Spanish spelling. Ta-da!


Galapagos: Boobies and Frigates


Sally Lightfoot Crab

We hiked across Mosquera Islet seeing many birds up close, including – to my delight – the Blue Footed Boobie. We had watched documentaries about the Galapagos and were thrilled to see these birds in real life, as well as the bright red Sally Lightfoot Crabs scurrying across the black lava rocks, pelicans, swallowtail gulls and many others.


Blue Footed Boobie!

One of the funnest animals was the sea lion, which looks exactly like our North American seals but the ears show that they are sea lions. It is amazing that all animals here have no fear of people. The seals come right at you, follow you like puppies and want to play. It is the hardest thing not to reach out and pet them… But this is a National Park and everything is highly protected – you cannot take a rock or a shell or touch anything. And rightly so.


Male Frigate bird

Next we hiked North Seymour island where the huge Frigate birds soared overhead and young ones with white heads in perched in trees looked like bald eagles.

Iguanas live on most islands but they are different species, having adapted to life on each island. Some islands had black iguanas, elsewhere they were yellow or even pink. We also saw the swimming ocean iguanas.

img_4402We hiked across Santa Fe and South plaza Island. Being on a boat allowed us to visit more places but it also had the disadvantage of rocking and bobbing.

However, the biggest thrill for me was being able to swim off the back of the boat. Even after a few excited calls of “shark!” I couldn’t figure out why it was OK to swim when there were sharks but I trusted that our guides knew what they were doing… We snorkeled several times and it was beyond description to be in the ocean and have a large sea lion coming straight at me, like a bullet, only to veer off at the last second. At one point two sea lions swam alongside me on either side. I watched turtles swimming below me, hundreds and hundreds of colourful fishes like parrot fish……img_4431

And sharks. White tip sharks. Pretty cool.

On San Cristobal Island we strolled through the town and it was a bizarre experience to run into two friends from Kelowna! img_4332

We bought tshirts and other souvenirs, of course, and visited the Galapagos Interpretation Center. Sweat dripped of our bodies as we just stood still, reading about the violent human history on the islands. The animals really ought to be afraid of humans after they killed over 100,000 turtles and thousands of whales during the mid 1800 to mid 1900’s. Nowadays 97% of the islands is strictly protected as a National Park. All we can do is hope it will always stay this way and that Galapagos’ amazing variety of wildlife, which so well demonstrates its way to change and adapt to its natural environment, will be around for generations to come.

Reflecting back on it all, I am very glad to have been able to make this amazing trip and to see these special places on earth. But it is a very long way to travel, expensive and a bit overrated. Like ‘Serengeti’ the name ‘Galapagos’ has mysterious allure, but we have visited many places where plants and wildlife have adapted to their environment, and places like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef where we also saw giant tortoises and birds that stayed a foot away from us. If you can go, do it. But otherwise savour nature around you anywhere – nature is always incredible and forever adapting.


Remember that all photos are Copyright ©Margriet Ruurs

Galapagos – From Bluefooted Boobies to Swimming with Sharks

img_3948Galapagos Islands: the very name conjures up images of a mysterious paradise, of unique species of animals that have adapted to their environment is special ways.  img_4109

I am so glad and grateful that I had a chance to visit these far away islands, even thought they have now lost some of their magic for me. But the intrigue has been replaced by memories of walking among iguanas and swimming with sharks and sea lions. img_4095

When we made the decision to travel to South America there were two thing high on our wish list: Easter Island and the Galapagos. I had read a wonderful, insightful book called Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman. This book heightened my wish to see these islands for myself.

We flew from Guayaquil, Ecuador west across the Pacific and landed on one of the circa 40 Galapagos Islands (did you know there are so many islands here?!): Baltra. The humid heat hit us like a wall. Tourists can travel to the Galapagos on their own or via a planned trip. But even if you go on your own, you cannot visit the National Park areas without a guide or small tour group. We booked our trip via a travel agent in Florida that specializes in South America. They adapted the itinerary to our budget by selecting types of accommodations but mostly by adapting the length of stay. The Galapagos are not only expensive to reach, they are expensive in every way since all food and drink needs to come from far away.

A guide met us at the airport, expertly whisked our luggage away and loaded us and about 18 others onto a bus. It was only a 10 minute drive to the boat launch where we climbed aboard a bobbing dinghy.  We would repeat this exercise in agility many times in the coming days. img_3985

The dinghy brought us to a medium yacht, or tiny cruise boat. The MV Coral I had about 14 cabins and a total of 20 guests on board plus a crew of 15, including two naturalists.

We were shown our cabin: a small room below deck, with a tiny bathroom. It did have everything we needed but the closet door wouldn’t open far enough to reach the hangers inside, so we never did unpacked our stuff.

An orientation meeting told us onboard routine. Each day we would get a friendly wake-up call, followed half an hour later by breakfast. Shortly after that we had the first of two activities in the morning, then a hot lunch, a siesta and then another activity like a hike or swim. Dinner was at 7 or 8 o’clock.

img_3939That first day we visited the Charles Darwin Station on Santa Cruz Island. This is where the breeding program for the Galapagos Giant Tortoises takes place. Eggs from all over the islands are hatched here and the little Giant Tortoises (how do you call a little giant tortoise?), are raised until the age of 5 when they are released in hopes that they will survive on their own. We saw several huge, ancient tortoises as well as amazing prickly pear cactus trees that grow into huge trees over 400 years old. Unfortunately, the buildings were not open to the public and we did not see eggs or baby tortoises.

We walked through town and discovered that, like Easter Island, the Galapagos we had imagined was very different from reality. For instance, did you realize that the archipelago consists of nearly 40 islands, four of which are permanently inhabited?

img_3943And did you know that over 30,000 people live in Galapagos? I had no idea… The cities of Santa Cruz and San Cristobal have schools, stores, government buildings and much more. Two airports serve the islands. Since Galapagos was used as a penal colony by Ecuador, most houses had bars and gates as opposed by the much more friendly atmosphere on Easter Island.

The heat was incredible. There is almost no rain on these lava islands. Some are lush and green but others are a volcanic wasteland. In fact, one early explorer wrote home to describe that he had arrived in what he truly thought was hell…. img_4052

That first night we slept well in our slightly rocking bunks. However, the next two nights were though as we crossed open ocean and coped with high swells which rocked the small boat left to right and front to back. Things flew through the cabin and we ended up sleeping on the outside deck. Most of us didn’t get sea sick but we rocked for 3 days afterwards…


Sorry – Bluefooted Boobies coming up in the next episode!