the Galapagos Islands
don't know what it is, but December brings on the urge to travel.
Maybe it's the cold weather or maybe it's the holiday atmosphere.
Last year I spent New Years' eve on a cold white mountain in
Colorado. This year I opted for not so frigid an affair and
decided to visit the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador.
But being a mountaineer, one must keep one's priorities straight,
so I ended up spending only three days in the Galapagos and
the rest around snow-capped volcanoes in the mainland of Ecuador.
Galapagos Islands hold a very special place among the followers
of Darwin. It is here that Darwin drew observations leading
to his controversial book "The Origin of the Species".
Darwin's vessel the H.M.S. Beagle docked in these equatorial
islands on September 7th, 1835. Thus were the Galapagos Islands
forever linked with the theory of evolution by natural selection.
It was exciting to visit such a hotbed of controversy. However,
I do not buy Darwin's theory simply based on the existence of
several species of animals.
glass window on Panccillo Hill, Quinto.
was I dumbfounded at the spectacles I saw? Yes! Giant tortoises
that weigh about 500 pounds and measure 6 feet from head to
tail! Friendly dinosaur-like iguanas roaming around the islands
munching on cactii. Blue-footed Boobies (a species of bird with
blue feet and blue beaks) diving for fish. And of course, the
sea lions are extremely playful and cute. Snorkeling in the
waters, I saw several schools of colourful fish. It was truly
an enchanting experience. The main city of Puerto Ayora itself
was fascinating. At night the electricity can stop, as it did
one night while I was out and I walked to my inn in pitch black.
Thank goodness the islands are safe and relatively crime-free.
The experiences here were indeed unique. The people are also
extremely friendly. When I arrived at my hotel, the Red Mangrove
Inn, I had one hour before my tour boat took off, and Mercedes
the office manager lent me her bike to make a dash into town
to have a quick lunch.
three days in the Galapagos I flew back to Quito to begin sixteen
days of exploration and climbing in the mainland of Ecuador.
Ecuador is a relatively small country with a population less
than Dhaka, of 12 million people, but it has dozens of volcanoes,
some of which are active. Needless to say it is a climber's
paradise (but it's generally a good idea to avoid climbing a
volcano that is releasing black fumes or lava for that matter.)
is described by many as the most beautiful city in South America.
The word Ecuador originates from "Equator". You guessed
it, Ecuador is situated on the Equator. This provides a fairly
climate that's pleasant. Because there are many plateaus and mountains,
the temperatures do vary, depending on what elevation a person
tortoises in the Galapagos Islands.
The first day in Quito we visited
several churches. Ecuador is called the "Church of South
America" because of it's numerous churches. We visited
about five churches in the morning, including the famous Church
of San Francisco of Assisi. After that we visited Panecillo
Hill upon which rests a giant statue of the Virgin Mary. The
stain glass windows inside were remarkable and the view of Quito
from this hill was amazing.
But our city-life was short-lived.
The next day we embarked to climb Rucu Pichincha 15, 700 feet,
a dormant volcano. We were promised a super-bus to transport
the fourteen people up a dirt road to the trailhead. We were
given a tour bus, with no special features, but it came with
an awesome driver. But the road was so rutted that even he gave
up and we started our climb about 600 feet lower than planned.
It proved to be a longer day, but we had 3 more mountains to
climb, so the extra work was good training. The next day we
visited the monument at the equator. The equatorial line is
clearly marked and having one foot in the Northern and the other
in the Southern Hemisphere was fun. We visited a museum at the
equator too. I balanced an egg on a nail at the equator, in
about two minutes.
Having had our fill of sight-seeing
we were once again off to climb another mountain. This time
we were headed to Illiniza Norte 16,818 feet. The approach to
this mountain was a windy dirt road. We had the right vehicle
to get to the trailhead, four-wheel drive pick-up trucks. Being
in the back of a truck is an essential South American experience.
We hiked up to a hut on the mountain. There was space for about
20 people inside the one room hut. Somehow there was a large
group of Austrian and German climbers who had shown up without
a reservation. The hut-keeper had the mercy to let them stay,
however, can you imagine 40 people inside a hut with bunks meant
for 20? Going to the bathroom in the middle of the night meant
tiptoeing through a floor full of European bodies. Tricky.
Early morning we headed up the
mountain in extremely windy conditions. There were a few sections
of heinous drop-offs but our main guide Marcos fixed ropes along
some of these and we used the ropes for added protection. Making
the summit of Illiniza Norte 16,818 feet felt great. The view
from the top was amazing.
next day was a shopping day. We headed to the markets of Otavalo,
the largest conglomeration of markets in South America. The
most remarkable thing about this town were the inhabitants.
Most of the men had long hair and the women wore traditional
dresses and they wore elaborate gold jewelry around their necks.
My prized purchase in Otavalo was a drink of coconut water straight
from the coconut with a straw. I had a bout of major nostalgia.
I felt like I had been transported to the streets of Dhaka.
We soon left Quito and drove
south along the Pan American Highway. Another name for it is
the Avenue of the Volcanoes. Several volcanoes are visible from
here Cayambe, Cotopaxi and Chimborazo. We drove to La Hacienda
Cienega, a beautiful resort nestled in the foothills. This idyllic
resort is self-sufficient and even has its own farm. At dinner
we were entertained with a local folkloric band singing Spanish
Our next climb would be Cotopaxi
19,300 feet high. This would be much higher than the other mountains
and it proved to be quite a challenge. The most remarkable thing
about Cotopaxi was how heavily crevassed it was. I remember
one part of the climb where I was on a foot-wide snow bridge
crossing a gaping crevasse with deep drops on either side. With
one giant leap of faith I made it across. But this was one of
many and it made for quite an exciting climb.
After climbing Cotopaxi we headed
to the town of Banos surrounded by waterfalls and hot springs.
Looming over Banos is Tungurahua a very active volcano that
spouts ash every now and then. A few years ago Banos had to
be evacuated due to volcanic activity, but since then, people
have returned and things seem to have settled down. Banos was
my favorite town in Ecuador. A small town at lower elevations
with colorful people and colorful buildings. Everyone seemed
to be in a relaxed holiday mood. We rode on the open top of
a double-decker bus to see several waterfalls. The most prominent
of which was Pailon del Diablo (Devil's Cauldron). It was spectacular
and the force of the water was incredible.
a couple of nights in Banos we were off again to climb Chimborazo
at 20,700 feet. Three of the climbers had had enough and were
off to the Amazon jungle instead. I resisted the temptation
to join them and stuck with the program. It was yet another
breathtaking experience. It was great being on a glacier in
the middle of nowhere and seeing the sunrise, revealing all
the other mountain tops around. There is really no way to describe
this feeling in words.
After our climb, we spent one
last day in Banos and then returned to Quito to catch our respective
flights back. I was quite sad to leave. The nineteen days in
Ecuador had been extremely enjoyable. I think what struck me
most about Ecuador was the richness and variety in this small
nation. Where can you snorkel with beautiful fish one day and
climb a snow-capped volcano another? Ecuador.
The writer is a Senior Product
Engineer and Adjunct Math Faculty in Silicon Valley, USA.