Thursday, November 3, 2016

Galapagos: Quito Extension

May 15
Joan and I were up early because our luggage needed to be outside the cabin door by 7:00, and then we headed for the lounge with our carry-ons and the life jackets we'd been issued. After breakfast we boarded zodiacs for a long, by zodiac standards, ride to a dock on Baltra Island, where the main Galapagos airport, renovated in the late 2000s, is located. We could now claim both Galapagos airports, because we'd arrived at San Cristóbal.

Buses took us to the airport, a short drive away. Our luggage was scanned to verify that we weren't smuggling iguanas home (it's happened). There was extra time to visit shops, and then we passed more shops on the way to the boarding lounge, where snacks were available. Finally it was time to board, and we had an uneventful flight back to Guayaquil, Ecuador.

At Guayaquil most of the passengers disembarked immediately for their international connection home. Joan, Rick, and I and a few others had expected to continue on to Quito on the same plane, the three of us for an official Quito trip extension, but we were handed transit cards and instructed to go through the terminal where our flight would continue on a different aircraft. Perhaps this was to minimize the number of mainland locations the Galapagos shuttle planes would visit, reducing the risk of importing unwanted guests to the islands.

At Quito our baggage was supposed to unload at carousel 2, but it actually arrived at carousel 1. Our little group of seven was taken to the Hilton Colon for dinner and a bit of unpacking. The extension Joan, Rick, and I had signed up for required only two nights at the hotel.

May 16
Joan and I spent breakfast watching the Quito traffic, which is intense. In addition to cars, municipal buses, and fleets of taxis, buses provided by employers and schools were also common.

The three of us began a half-day city tour with Monica, our guide, and a driver. There was some confusion about whether the pickup was at 9:00, as the printed information said, or 9:30, as we'd been told during last night's transfer. It ended up being 9:20. Given the traffic, precision would be impossible!

Quito sprawls along a valley and up mountain slopes. Its altitude depends on your point of measure, but it starts at 9,000 feet (2750 meters).
Monica pointed out that Quito real estate values are reversed from the usual; the well-to-do live in the lowlands and the poor live on the slopes. This is due to the long commutes and the poor municipal water pressure higher up.

We first visited the Basilica of the National Vow, located in the center of the city. (All the churches and museums we visited did not allow interior photography.)
Noteworthy on the exterior are gargoyles in a Galapagos and Ecuadorian theme, including iguanas,
 various mammals,
and tortoises.
Then it was up to a viewpoint to look across the city to the 200-meter (650 foot) hill of El Panecillo, at whose top, at 3016 meters (about 9900 feet), is the statue of the Virgin of Quito.
Here is a zoom-in on the hill.
Rick took a great shot of the top of El Panecillo. Note that the Virgin is portrayed with wings, which is not the norm.
The air is thin here, and those of us who live not so far from sea level were short of breath with every flight of steps.

We visited this hotel and had an opportunity to wander through their gift shop. We bought some chocolate, of course!
We also went inside the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús (Church of the Society of Jesus), a Jesuit church one block west of Independence Plaza. The central nave is renowned for its use of gold leaf, gilded plaster, and wood carvings. The above link includes a small interior photo. Here, a horseman headed for the plaza passes in front of it.
We joined the crowd in the plaza for the changing of the guard, which, once a week, is conducted with high ceremony. The President was presiding, and high-achieving students were being honored as well.
A closeup of the students.
A band assembled before marching over to the center of the plaza.
Above it all flew the Ecuadorian flag.
The flags of Ecuador, Venezuela, and Columbia all honor the yellow, blue, and red horizontal stripes of the flag of Gran Columbia, the country established after the wars for independence from Spain. It soon split into separate nations and, for good measure, portions of Panama and Peru.

Here is the center of Independence Plaza.
Because the President was up on the balcony speaking, there was plenty of security on the ground of the plaza, and the upper stories of the ringing structures.
Afterwards we drove over to the Church and Monastery of St. Francis. We admired the interior (again, no photography permitted), browsed in the gift shop, and snacked in one of the establishments lining the front. I had some coca tea, which helps with the altitude.
Across the public square fronting the church was construction for a future Metro (subway) station.
The view from the public square included church spires, church domes, and church towers.
At the conclusion of the guided tour Joan and I had a light lunch, splitting a banana and some chocolate, and then set off on foot for some casual exploration. We started with the artisan markets a couple of blocks from the hotel, but they weren't that interesting. We visited the Galeria Ecuador, which had gorgeous handicrafts and artworks, but not being in an acquisitional phase, we bought only some more chocolate. At the turnaround point of our walk we visited the Mindalae Ethnographic Museum of Handicrafts, where Joan's basic Spanish came in handy. The receptionist gave us a carefully enunciated description of the layout of the museum, which involved taking the elevator to the top floor, where the oldest items were, and working our way down. Of course, no photography was permitted. All the exhibit labels were in Spanish, but Joan managed most of them. The handicrafts spanned the range of practical, artistic, and religious. Recommended!

We then returned to our hotel, stopping in the Galeria Latina, and had dinner.

May 17
Our final day in Ecuador was a full day's tour to the Otavalo region with a different guide, Cecilia, and then an overnight flight back to the United States. Joan, Rick, and I climbed into the minivan at 8am.

After leaving downtown the first part of the route was three lanes wide in each direction. The road had been dug well into the hillsides, but the slopes were composed of volcanic ash and unconsolidated tuff, which then eroded much more quickly than expected. Extensive reinforcing was needed after the fact. Concrete was smeared on the hillside like a layer of glue, and at times gave the landscape the appearance of a misshapen gray bathtub. Some of this can be seen in Google Maps (click on the image to enlarge.)
As we left the populated areas the road narrowed and became more subject to the rule of the terrain. When we crossed one major ridge line
we stopped for a breather at a rest stop, still under construction.
Shortly afterward we crossed the equator. Having crossed it twice in the Galapagos by sea, today we crossed it by land.
This older monument is a few hundred feet off, as determined later by GPS, but that's OK!

We stopped for a snack just before reaching Otavalo. Cecilia provided a buttery shortbread typical of the region (bizcochos de cayambe), and dulce de leche to smear on top of it. Just give me the jar of dulce de leche and a spoon! We also had a chance to browse the gift shop, of course, but all Joan and I bought was another chocolate bar or two (research). An off-and-on light drizzle had begun. In the distance was Lake San Pablo and then the town.
In Otavalo Cecilia set us loose to explore a food market and an outdoor handicraft market.
The food market had booths in the center wrapped by a hallway, in turn surrounded by canopied stands.
The meat counter.
Some folks conducted their business simply, from their space on the floor.
The handicraft market was a checkerboard of individual tents and tarps. There was a wide variety of items, but Joan limited herself to four pairs of earrings.

Our next stop was a weaving cooperative, where we watched a weaving demonstration and spent time in the gift shop. The alpaca textiles were particularly lovely and soft.

Then we visited a musical instrument factory, the home base of a traditional Andean musical ensemble that has toured widely, including Japan. Our time here began with a talk about the various instruments, and a demonstration of how quickly one pipe can be made for a set of panpipes.
Rick tried his hand (and lips) on a flute, but decided not to buy it.
Our late lunch was at the Hacienda Pinsaqui, an estate in existence for three centuries.
We had a few minutes to stroll around before the meal. This image is two photos of the grounds in back, slapped together by yours truly.
 A well-appointed waiting or reading room.
As were drove back towards Quito, we were passed by a sporty black car being driven as if the devil were on its tail. We didn't think much about it after our initial disparaging remarks, but when we reached the "bathtub zone," not far before the road to the airport split off, traffic came to a complete halt. People were wandering up and down the side of the road. I had visions of missing our plane, although it wasn't to leave until almost midnight. Then, in fits and starts, the traffic began to move again. We passed the site of the blockage: Mr. Pants-on-Fire had swung too wide going around a curve and smacked head-on into a truck. They were hauling the pieces away.

And so we continued back to the hotel. A bonus was a political discussion about the current President of Ecuador. The chief engineer aboard our Galapagos vessel, the Islander, could not say enough in praise of him. Today we heard the opinion that the President was corrupt, intimidated journalists, shut down newspapers, etc.

After a while relaxing at the hotel it was time to fly home. We checked in for our flight (Delta) with only the usual minimum of waits and hassles, and went directly to the gate. As we waited, the crowd grew. Very few announcements were made from the podium, in contrast to most US airports. Occasionally a person or couple was allowed down the entryway even though we weren't boarding yet -- VIPs?

I've never seen so many wheelchairs as accumulated at this gate. Some people arrived by wheelchair, but many of them arrived on foot and then deployed their wheelchair, donning a needing-assistance stance. Some of the other gringos in the scrum murmured about this; I couldn't understand any of the Spanish chatter. The wheelchair brigade boarded ahead of the rest of us, again with no announcements having being made.

When boarding was finally announced everybody surged forward. It was a free-for-all. No zones, no calls for platinum fliers to go first, no orderly lines. The lane we were standing in wasn't even opened until others started complaining.

But we did get on. I was able to doze a bit, and saw thunderclouds glowing from lightning beneath as we flew north along the west coast of Florida. The Atlanta airport was a pleasant surprise. There were kiosks to scan your passport, speeding the process, and our walk to the domestic terminal passed through a wide tunnel with large signs/posters that covered the history of Atlanta from settlement to the present day as we walked along. Not bad!

We boarded our flight for Columbus, and that ended the Galapagos trip that had begun with our departure eleven days before. I hope my blog entries have given you a sense of how amazing and jam-packed these days were.