Sunday, April 4, 2004

The Arrival

The date of arrival: 04/04/04!

Getting to Galapagos from Quito takes almost as much time as getting from New York to Quito. The number of connections is ridiculous, first a stop in Guayaquil, then unusually long wait to get the luggage (we should have packed light!), another wait to board a bus that drives only 1/2 mile or so to the boat landing, the boat takes passengers 100m across the channel that separates island Baltra from the island Santa Cruz, then another bus that takes us to Puerta Ayora on the other side of the island - pretty much the only sizable human settlement on Galapagos.

The hotel recommended by the tour book was fully booked, and since I wasn't very happy dragging our suitcases under the midday equatorial sun (shouldn't we had packed light?) we stopped at the nearest available hotel Lobo del Mar, just around the corner. With hot water, a pool and roof terrace, it seems to be the best hotel in town and we got our room for the whooping $22 (including the ¨continental¨ breakfast for 2). This is what I like most about traveling in cheap countries - there are no high penalty for being spontaneous and not making any advance reservations. We dropped our bags, changed in tropical clothes and went out to explore the town.

Calling Puerto Ayora a town is a bit of an overstatement, because it primarily consists of one street. The street however is very long, runs along the ocean and every second house there is a small architectural marvel. Lot's of designer's thought was put into building these galleries and souvenir shops. Even more imagination was put into writing the price tags on the items they sell. Those that we saw yesterday in Otavalo for $3 (asking price!), here are marked at $40! If we knew that these trinkets are so valuable on this island, we would have definitely brought some. As a matter of fact the prices on most manufactured goods on this island are even higher than on Hawaii! But on the brighter side, the hotels and restaurants are still relatively cheap, and sun, ocean and good weather come for free. One other establishment on this island that needs to be mentioned is the "Russian Aromatherapy Center" that advertises a ¨double discount¨ for current and former residents of Odessa. It was tempting to take advantage of this offer, but I figured that therapeutic aromas might not be of a pleasant kind. Especially if they are meant to cure homesickness... So I limited myself to leaving a friendly scented note at their door.

After that we proceeded to Darwin Research Center, on the other end of the Street, where we could socialize with 150 year old reptiles - the only residents of the island which were out of their shells during the midday sun. The tortoises look and move as slow as their venerable age suggests, and therefore socializing wasn't too much fun.

I'm considering setting my watch here to Japanese time, so instead of being awake from 8am to midnight, I'll be up b/n 8pm and midday - this is when most of the Puerto Ayora activities happen.

However on the account of the Catholic Palm Sunday, most of the businesses remained closed even after dark, and finding a place to eat turned out to be a challenge. In the beginning we snubbed the lonely Italian cafe with a handful of Russian clients, and finally ended up back in our hotel, walking into the on-premise restaurant. The place was almost empty, but the waiter refused to seat us, because ¨the dinner is by reservation only¨. As we turned back to leave, Zara got a lucky thought: "Ask him if we can make the reservation for Right Now"

I asked and then watched the waiter´s face going through a number of emotional transitions, apparently reflecting the internal mental struggle. Finally he said that he needs to ask at the kitchen, and after a brief council he came back and half-whispered that we can have 3 course dinner for $5 per person. Didn't I say that I like traveling in cheap countries where making reservations is not necessary?

  • Did you happen to talk to the owners of the "Russian Aromatherapy" place? I'm curious to know how on earth they got there. Lost their tour group and got stranded? I also wonder if their natural therapy involves the mud from "liman". :0)
    posted by Serge Shamis on 04/16/04 8:06 PM
  • I just can't believe you don't bargain! not even for fun! ;(
    posted by lenny on 04/16/04 11:48PM
  • We had very tight schedule and when facing the choice whom to visit, the 150 y.o. reptiles or Russian Aromatherapy owners. I preferred the reptiles.
    posted by MM on 04/18/04 8:13 PM

Russian Center of Aromatherapy.
Da-da! Odessitam skidka. No gde vy naydete odessita kotoriy stanet platit' za zapah?

Our hotel Lobo del Mar

Sunday, April 4, 2004

Booking the cruise

Clicking on the picture on the right will take you to online advertisement of our cruise boat

Note that the advertised price is $880 per person for an 8-day cruise. But once you arrive to Puerto Ayora you find out that it is only a 6.5 day cruise - counting the day of arrival and the day departure is a common marketing fraud. So watch out for these so-called 5-day and particularly 3-day tours - by the time they show you your cabin, it's time for you to get out. Another catch is that one of the days when you are supposed to be "cruising", the boat is actually docked in Puerto Ayora and people who pay $70-150+ per person for a cramped boat cabin spend a day on shore, mingling with those who pay $20 for a much more comfortable hotel room. They would saved all this money if they waited until they they get to Puerto Ayora. I.e. when we booked our cruise, it was sold to us only with a condition that we won't tell our price to other passengers. We honestly kept to this part of the bargain while on board, but not sharing info online wasn't part of the contract: our price came out to less than $500 per person.

Now that you read this I hope you won't repeat the mistake of the two Danish girls I've met in Mindo: they book their 5-day tour in Copenhagen and paid tour agency about $1100 per person.

So, if prices in Puerto Ayora are so much cheaper than anywhere else, what's the catch? Ok, the catch is that every year the number of people going to Galapagos grows exponentially and because few of the tourists are smart, most of the boats are fully booked by the mainland agencies. So when you arrive to Puerta Ayora you might have to wait for few days before you find the right boat for the right price that goes in the right direction. So it's up to you to decide whether you prefer to spend few extra days "stuck" on a beautiful island, or pay few extra hundreds dollars commission to a mainland agent.

Unfortunately Zara and I didn't plan any time for possible contingencies, so finding the boat was a bit stressful. At one point we had only few hours to find the information, negotiate prices, withdraw money from an unreliable ATM, call two different airlines to adjust our return flights, rent snorkels, and go through many more required procedures.

Going through all these chores was aided however by the simple one-dimensional topology of Puerto Ayora. All tourist related businesses are located along the same street and by the time we walked it to the end we already had a complete list of all available options. Because tour agencies in Quito are scattered around the town it would take us at least few days there to get a similar kind of picture. And had we booked from New York, the Internet research of the best deal would have easily taken us weeks! It's ok though if you do it from work while being paid by your employer.

After we walked the length of Street the list of available options (boats leaving either the same day or next morning) was not too long and the list of acceptable deals was even shorter. In fact, we found only one acceptable deal and it was our luck that allowed us to book the last 21st and 22nd seat on a 20-passenger boat. But had planned few extra days for contingencies, there would have been many more boats to choose from.

Once we took the cruise our days were packed with activities and I didn't have much time for writing. However I found online stories from other people who sailed the boat. I think that our experiences were very similar:

    Free Enterprise - our boat!

    Monday, April 5, 2004

    The Beach Contest

    Ok, I traveled a bit, I've seen places and I've been to beaches. The beaches of Odessa and Florida, of Brazil and Thailand, of the Red Sea and Mediterranean, of Hawaii and Brighton... Which is the best?

    After a moment of suspense, I'll open the envelope and announce the winner... And the prize goes to... Tortuga Bay, Galapagos!

    Here are the criteria that influenced my decision: the finest and whitest sand, the water of the most attractive shades of turquoise, perfect contrast with bright orange crabs. Then add clumsy giant iguanas, prehistoric looking pelicans, occasional baby sharks and sea lions... what more can I ask for? Yet, the main factor that impressed me was that this gorgeous beach was practically empty.

    In our first hour on this 1 km long stretch of sand we only saw 2 other people walking by in the far distance. And if this seems two crowded for you, there is another secluded bay a bit further, behind a small cacti forest. When I went there to explore, I only met a heron-looking bird who walked toward me and started to grunt like a pig (identity crisis?) I got scared and left, it's better to leave the crazies alone.

    In meanwhile the time was approaching 10am - a time to leave before it gets too hot and too crowded. A sizable crowd of people (about 15) descended on the main beach while I was exploring the remote corners. We left before they got any closer.

    When exiting the beach we had to leave our autographs in a small ranger's office. There we learned the total number of people that visited the beach that day b/n 5 and 10:30am -45. It should be noted that it's not the number of concurrent beach users. I.e. many of the visitors had already left even before we came.

    P.S. As in the following days we visited more of the Galapagos beaches, we found some of them even prettier and richer in wildlife than Tortuga Bay. Yet the other beaches are part of the National Park and are not accessible without an expensive boat, licensed guide and group of fellow tourists, which automatically disqualifies other beaches from being top contenders.

    P.P.S. The scientific explanation of the unusual whiteness and softness of the sand, is that it's made of eroded coral. Thank you, corals, we had great time!

    • Was it the grunting bird that inspired Darwin's thinking behind "The origin of species"? Fits nicely into his evolution theory: a common heron develops new vocal abilities as a defense mechanism against predatory tourists. I bet you'd see flying pigs as well if they hadn't been domesticated first and thus deprived of their natural selection process. Oh well, maybe flying boars at least.
      posted by Serge Shamis on 04/19/04 3:00 PM
      • I think I can provide a finer example of evolution. Look what happened to Cheburashka:
        posted by MM on 05/17/04

           The Beach

          The grunting bird. "Peligro" means "Danger"

      Friday, April 9, 2004

      Meet Galapagos species

      First a quote from Zara's snorkeling tale:

      ... ya uvidela bol'shuyu akulu i poplyla za ney tiho-tiho, chtob ne spugnut'...

      I still stand by my earlier statement that if you want to look at many animals you should go to a Zoo. However in Galapagos the roles are reversed, it's the animals who come to look at you.

      Rather by chance than by plan our adventures progressed in the right order - the order of increased intensity of impressions. So when on our first snorkeling trip Zara saw two sea lions quickly zooming by, it was the talk of the day. Sure she wouldn't be so impressed few days later, after we shared the beach with hundreds of these animals. And whenever we get into the water at least few of them will swim over to play with us, or rather show off their amazing underwater acrobatics. Their favorite game is to speed up to you as if they are going to crash and then at the last moment they change direction, do a couple of underwater flips and move away for the next "attack".

      But even these games haven't prepared me for what I saw few days later in a city on the island of San Cristobal.

      There sea lions moved in to live right in the city park, next to the popular bars, restaurants and the noisiest disco in town. Although according to other sources, it's the people who built their town around the sea lions. Whatever is the case, on San Cristobal people, dogs and sea lions freely mingle together near the disco, apparently sharing the same music preferences. And it not only music that brings them together, the sea lions evolved to resemble people in many other ways as well, i.e. they like to sleep on park benches.

      I bet that wise Darwin couldn't have predicted this twist of evolution. It took 150 years before Kurt Vonnegut has extended Darwin's ideas and suggested that people will eventually evolve into better and happier species, those with smaller brains and larger flippers (read his novel Galapagos - highly recommended!) And as I look at the communities of sea lions, I can't stop thinking that this transformation might have already happened.

      • How warm is the water in Galapagos? For some reason I was always under impression that it's actually quite chilly, more suitable for seals than for humans (although your note indicates that the line may have blurred somewhat). Or were you wearing wet suits?

        Also, please tell us more about Zara's shark adventure.

        posted by Serge Shamis on 04/20/04 3:08 PM

        • The temperature is controlled by ocean currents and depends on the season. In April wetsuits are not necessary, at least not for snorkeling. And as far as I understood from Zara's story - she escaped. That is the shark escaped, it was the shark who was having the adventure :)
        posted by MM on 05/17/04