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Archive for December, 2009

Española Island, the realm of the Galapagos Albatross

Galapagos Albatross at Española Island

The motorized Zodiac approaches the western tip of Española Island, the southernmost of the Galapagos Archipelago.. It is a relatively small and flat, mostly uplifted volcanic island… Leandro maneuvers the boat impeccably through the dark blue waters as we avoid a rocky shoal which rises some big waves, crowned with white foam…  Several young sea lions idly body surf the breaker and generate cheers of admiration from the tourists who are sharing with me another day of discovery in the magic land of the Enchanted isles…

A tiny cove and a minuscule white sandy beach greet us, along with the noisy concert of dozens of sea lions of all sizes and ages… We have to make our way carefully around the sea lion colony to reach a pile of basaltic rocks where to sit, dry our feet, get onto our expedition shoes and start the walk…  Ramiro, the naturalist guide explains to us the main facts and figures of Española and cautions us to look all around… the island simply teems with wildlife, more than 80% endemic or unique, not only to Galapagos but to this island itself.  Its relative isolation on the extreme south of the group created the conditions for the evolution of species genetically different than their next of kin on the other islands…

First to appear are the Española marine iguanas, large in size and with their unique dark red coloration over their black-gray bodies.  As this is the mating season, the males “wear”, in addition to the red, a cover of pastel green over their backs and limbs, a shocking sight… These peaceful, yet prehistoric and threatening looking creatures, roam along the coastline with total disregard of the human presence as long as we do not invade their territory.  Led by Ramiro, we follow the narrow and very rocky marked trail and, at times, have to make our way around an iguana to avoid disturbing the reptile while our intelligent and well informed guide gives us fascinating information about these unique creatures…

As we move forward, passing by another small sandy beach and stop for an explanation, we are  surrounded by dozens of noisy Española mockingbirds, of course, unique to this island alone… They are larger than those on the rest of the archipelago and have a larger, longer and more curved beak than their cousins.  One or two of them do not hesitate to land over the hat of one of the group members and trigger not only laughter and jokes but many great photos… Among the scattered salt bushes, some of the famous Darwin’s finches, including the very small and pretty warbler finch also show up for us….

As we progress along the trail, we enter the neighborhood of the blue-footed boobies, spectacular sea birds with their bright blue feet and long sharp beaks, busy guarding nests or engaging on their elaborate and fascinating courtship dance…whistling (males), honking (females); wing displaying and “sky pointing”.  The whole scene is more one of a science fiction movie than real… but it is not science fiction… its science real…it is Galapagos….. Along the dark rocky cliffs we come now into the Nazca boobies “condos”… Beautiful birds, their sparkling white bodies, contrasting with their dark plumage on the wings, black “face mask” around the eyes and long and pointed yellow beak…   Their show has a stage of impressive lava cliffs, the dark blue ocean pounding against the rocky shoreline and exploding high on fountains of sea water and foam…

Soon we arrive to the scene of today’s tour highlight.. the nesting area of the famous Galapagos albatrosses…There they are, the largest sea birds of the eastern Pacific.. a magnificent bird indeed… Large bodies with white under plumage, covered, over the neck and chest by beautifully “waved” designed undulating brownish lines, and brown feathers covering the back and wings.  A huge and long pointed yellow bill completes the birds profile… Some just relax over the rocks while others guard their nests… this is the only island in the Galapagos and only location on earth where this fantastic bird nests… One or two clumsy and “untidy” looking dark brown chicks briefly show up, before being rapidly covered by their parents from our sight and the scorching sun… We find a shady corner and quietly sit to watch the courtship ritual of a pair of albatrosses… An intricate ballet of perfectly synchronized movements, which can take hours, precedes the climax of bill clapping and sword playing, either crossing their beaks or hiding them beneath the wings to spark them again with a touching loud sound while the beak points high into the sky…  a simply awesome view…. The show goes on and, with regret, we must also move on… Nonetheless, we have lived one of the most amazing experiences that only the magic Galapagos islands can provide to the explorers of the world…

A heavenly flight over the avenue of volcanoes

Tuesday afternoon.  The brand-new Embraer 170 Jetliner defeats the earth’s gravity and lifts off from Mariscal Sucre International Airport’s runway 35.  Just a minute later, a sharp turn to the east shows us the magnificent dome of the Cayambe Volcano shinning with its topping of perpetual snows… one more minute and the giant caldera of Antisana Volcano, equally covered with white glaciers and snows, appears before our eyes.  Both colossus tower over 19.000 feet above sea level.  As the aircraft makes one more sharp turn, this time due south, it completes a full 180 degree turn and keeps on climbing while our attention is now to the right side of the plane…

We now fly parallel to the immense volcanic edifice of Mt. Pichincha and, at its foothills, crawling, creeping and climbing like a uniquely long serpent, stretches Quito, the stunning and historic capital of Ecuador, a breath taking view…. The airplane pierces a few scattered clouds to reach its cruising altitude and we cannot stop pressing our nose and eyes over the window to admire the incredible natural scenario which serves as the superb stage for Quito, the first city on earth to have been declared by UNESCO a World Cultural Heritage Site in 1978…..

The Captain greets us from the flight deck in Spanish and very fluent English. He tells us about the speed, altitude and announces that we will have good weather and clear skies throughout our 35 minute flight to the southern Andean city of Cuenca.  He recommends not to miss the views of the volcanoes lined up along our route.  Germaine and Jimmy, the flight attendants, come around with the service trolley and smilingly serve me a small puff pastry and peach juice (my choice).  Just on time to get another awesome view.. to the east is the perfect cone of Cotopaxi Volcano, dressed on a long white gown of millenary glaciers and snow… the Captain, back on the loudspeaker, proudly comments that we are looking at the world’s highest active volcano, over 20.000 feet above sea level, as we fly right over its bizarre and fantastic double crater…

Now we have to look west, to admire the twin Iliniza volcanoes, rising above the clouds with their sharp and rocky pointed summits as if trying to reach the sky… And again the word is look east.. there it is, the active Tungurahua Volcano, spewing a perfect plume of white vapor high into the blue skies….  This magical air tour (a regular scheduled domestic flight) is like a spinning wheel and once again we “must” look to the west… this time to watch the highest elevation on Ecuadorian territory, the 21.000 feet high Chimborazo Volcano, a dormant giant with its three symmetrical summits looking just like gigantic scoops of vanilla ice-cream with light strawberry topping, as the sunset sends reddish-orange rays over the mountain’s snows…. And one more volcano to see is, of course now, to the east: the mythical Sangay, with its perpetual plume of vapor rising high into the stratosphere… No wonder, the famous 19th century German scientist, Alexadner von Humboldt, graphically and most adequately baptized this portion of the Andes, in Ecuador, as the “Avenue of the Volcanoes”. 

The flight was just a mere 35 minutes long and the modern airliner cruised through clear and perfectly calm skies, but the sightings of the Volcanoes, lined up on a fabulous natural Avenue, sent our hearts and minds into a whirlpool of non-stop emotions, since we departed from Quito until  we landed on Cuenca’s Mariscal Lamar airport….   A memorable travel experience we shall never forget….

Bartolome Island, from the moon to the sea

After the stunning views from the summit of Batolome, we start our descent, following the marked trail and still wondering how could a piece of the moon be transported to an island in the middle of the Pacific… but the answer is rather easy: in the Galapagos, it is all possible… Semi-hidden near a spatter cone we find a small “Brachycerius” cactus, of course “endemic” (meaning “unique to”..) Galapagos.  Once more the miracle of life unveiling right before our eyes… the little plant growing out of this ocean of harsh lava materials…

Vanessa points out a long and rather large lava tube descending from the summit to almost the shoreline.. it looks like a lava pipeline… the exterior solidified faster in contact with the cooler air, while molten lava continued flowing inside until the eruption stopped and left the tube empty.  The external crust, with the pass of time, starts breaking as it is made of fragile volcanic material and leaves the view we have in front of us… the tube descending like a serpent-like pipeline with covered and broken bits, leaving the empty interior exposed…

Now we are back at the landing place, the pangas ready to pick us up for a scenic ride along the western coast of Bartolome.  We go past a sunken crater, its full circular crater perfectly depicted just inches below the turquoise waters, one more magic sight… Along the tuff stone (compacted volcanic ash) shoreline, dozens of blue footed boobies wait for schools of small fishes, ready to take flight and, on a fantastic maneuver of superior aerodynamics, plunge as long darts, on a perfectly calculated 45° angle, into the ocean, to capture their food.  For a moment it looks as if scores of these agile seabirds start raining from the skies into the sea on one more spectacular show….

The beach is at a sheltered cove of calm blue waters, with an almost perfect crescent shape.  The sand is yellowish and thick, evidently it is of volcanic origin rather than coralline pulverization… behind the beach, a green fence of native and mostly low-lying “salt bushes” frame the scene and provide just small bits of shade… We make a “wet landing”, shoes off, and a short ankle-deep water walk from the Zodiac dinghy puts us in contact with the hot sand.  Time to strip off the expedition clothes (we had been previously advised that there are no places to change on the pristine, uninhabited island) so we all had our swimwear underneath our clothes. 

And now, time to enjoy one more encounter with the extraordinary marine world of the Galapagos…. This one, as every day, different and always exciting… we start with a refreshing swim from the beach to the center of the bay… Under the surveillance of the naturalist guides and the boatmen, we now turn south, towards the cliffs that surround the imposing “Pinnacle Rock”.  Ready now with fins, masks and snorkels, we follow the coastline and start seeing schools of parrot fishes, the magnificent king angel fishes with their white stripes, schools of reddish creole fishes and large groups of sergeant major fishes, all wearing their best colors and stripes… Privileged human creatures, us, we are snorkeling at the second largest Marine Reserve on earth, and a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site… If the colorful fishes weren’t enough, now we swim past three green sea turtles who idly drift towards the open sea.  The water outing highlight is still to come… suddenly we are engaged on a hide and seek game with the only penguins  living on equatorial waters… the unafraid and curious Galapagos penguins seem to have fun in dashing like super fast torpedoes straight towards us, just to turn away on split seconds, inches away from touching our bodies… They give us moments of joy and awe… On our way back to the beach, always swimming, two young sea lions join us as if telling us “hey folks, the animals of Galapagos welcome you, enjoy your stay here with us…..!!”

Bartolome Island, a moonwalk in the Galapagos

Tuesday morning.  The Reception area aboard Metropolitan Touring’s Galapagos flagship, the M/V Santa Cruz is crowded with tourists from the United States, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Brazil and Ecuador.  We are all eager to disembark for one more day of discovery in the fascinating Galapagos Islands, and this morning’s outing promises new and exciting emotions…..

The group of the Dolphins is first to disembark and there we go, Anita, Daniel and myself with a dozen other travelers from three continents.  Vanessa is our naturalist guide. She is a native islander and loves her work and her splendid birthplace..  Marco, the first officer, oversees from the top of the gangway the disembarkation process. Each one of us is provided with orange colored life vests. The friendly crew exudes happiness and exchanges amiable phrases with each one of the explorers, as they help us getting safely into the black Zodiacs, waiting alongside the ship.  We must embark and disembark totally “free-handed”. The crew brings down our day packs and other objects aboard the landing craft, locally called “pangas” and we set off towards the small yet beautifully strange island of Bartolome (or Batholomew, as originally baptized by 17th century British corsairs)…

The sun, still climbing from the eastern horizon, somehow blurs with its brightness the volcanic landscape in front of us.  We reach the rocky shoreline and Carlos skillfully docks the “panga” along a small and simple lava and cement jetty.  With the aid of the crew and Vanessa we land and rapidly move away from the little dock, to allow the rest to make their way on shore…

As we start walking on a progressively steeper gradient, there is no question as to why the scenery of this island is called the “moonscape”…  To our right, vast fields of grayish volcanic ash, only dotted with a bizarre matt plant, the endemic “tikilia”, provide us with a living testimony of how volcanic materials begin to be colonized by plants, adapted to the harshest conditions…

We climb slowly while Vanessa teaches us a magisterial lesson of geology… Actually the island of Bartolome is a true open textbook of geology and volcanism. The views in front of our eyes get more and more dramatic… Ash fields, spatter (explosion ) cones, tuff (compacted ash) cones and all lengths and widths of “lava tubes” capture our attention. As we get higher, we seem to have been transported to the surface of the moon…Yes, this splendid sunny morning we are not on earth, we are walking on the moon, on a piece of moon, magically brought to the remotest corner of our planet, on the Enchanted Galapagos Islands of Ecuador…..

As we reach the summit, we find, in front of our eyes, the most popular of Galapagos postcards… but this one is not on paper, this is the real thing… the yellowish crescent-shaped beach in the center of the island and, to the southwestern end, the superbly majestic Pinnacle Rock… To the east, the entire island is littered with all kinds of volcanic cones, a true moonscape… It is all like a dream come true, we cheer and shout, the cameras click frantically, capturing the spectacular sight, one never to be forgotten, one that symbolizes the uniqueness of these fantastic islands….. And we are just half way through the morning… there is more to come….

Quito, closer to the sky (Part 2)

The sun shines more intensely now, as we start descending from San Juan Hill, after a breathtaking view of Quito.  We soon enter the narrow and steep streets, lined up with Spanish style colonial houses.  The traditional balconies are a trademark of this architectonic style and many of them are adorned with flower pots, featuring geraniums and other colorful flowers.  The artistic street lamps complete postcard picture views everywhere…

Luis, the guide, points out several stone doors, skillfully carved into real pieces or art. We are reaching the heart of the Historic Centre of Quito, the largest in surface and best preserved of its kind in Latin America.  No wonder this magic city was the first in the world to receive from UNESCO, the honorary title of World Cultural Heritage Site. Amidst the maze of narrow streets, scores of white towers and domes start dominating the scene… these are the numerous and centenary churches, convents and cloisters which cover much of the Colonial quarter of Quito….

We disembark at Independence Square, the heart of Ecuador’s history.  The magnificent square is flanked by the 17th century Presidential Palace; the city’s Metropolitan Cathedral with its green domes; the Archbishop’s Palace and the City Hall.  In the center is the column and statue to the heroes of Ecuador’s Independence, the first revolt staged against the Spanish dominion, sparked precisely in Quito, in 1809 and triggered the process which freed the South American countries from the Spanish domain.  Luis explains in detail the statue’s multi-symbols and makes the actual stone and marble monument become alive with the symbolism and peculiar characteristics it bears.  He also takes us to the main doors of the Cathedral, to observe close-by the superbly carved wooden sculptures of Saint Peter and Saint Paul.  Some pictures with the Presidential guard, wearing their picturesque 18th century uniforms, make us more happy… Diana keeps on observing and finding a million curiosities while I hold my breath, take a good naked-eye look at every angle, every scene and then start clicking the camera away…..

Next is the extraordinary Jesuit church of La Compañia, with its superbly stone carved façade and its interior, glittering with tons of gold panned altars, columns and ceilings. This is the masterpiece of the renowned Quito School of Art, developed during the early colonial years when Spanish and Flemish friars and architects mixed efforts, visions and skills with the native Indians, to produce some of the most spectacular works of religious art on earth… The view is just startling, awesome…. We learn more about the 1605 building, its construction and artistic features.  No photos allowed here….

Then we walk for a block, admiring the little local shops, selling any and everything, from mouth watering ice cream cones to textiles or working tools.  The ambiance is festive, friendly, most lively… And we emerge into the immense San Francisco Square, presided by the namesake church, an imposing temple built in 1535, over the ashes of what is claimed to had been the Palace of the last of the Inca Rulers, Atahualpa. The square teems with people, street actors, music shows, preachers, busy by passers and hundreds of pigeons…. Luis tells us a fascinating story about how the devil participated in the actual building of this enormous and historic stone square…  From everywhere we look, the towers, domes and monuments, rising high, seem to actually pierce the blue sky…. Again that sensation of being on a city that is closer to the sky, it often seems as if we could actually touch it with our own hands….  And the story is still to be continued……

Categories: Ecuador Tags: , ,
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