Quito Ecuador is a city build in the clouds, the second highest city in South America and it’s a heady experience being there. Many of the streets are impossibly steep and in the thin air the locals must have enormous stamina and strong lungs just to go to work and back. The main commercial area is much like any city with the exception of the street vendors, often small Indigenous women wearing brightly coloured, embroidered garments and little fedoras, who carry bags of fruit or popcorn or trays of chewing gum and candy, or a vast array of items for sale.
Surprisingly, the top three economic generators are petroleum, bananas and roses, in that order! Yes, roses. Our hotel lobby featured an impossibly large and stunning display of white long stemmed roses, three feet tall and beautifully scented. They were changed out as soon as they wilted. Ecuador ships bananas and roses all over the world.
The local food is similar to Mexican or Latin American but with very little spiciness. However we ate some magnificent seafood, both in Quito and in the Galápagos; succulent octopus and prawns and the most tender squid I’ve tasted since Santorini. A favourite meat all over the country is guinea pig, which we did not eat!
Tourists come from around the world and not just for the Galápagos as was our intent. The old town of Quito is more interesting than I expected, as was our visit to the equator to straddle the north and south halves of the planet and a visit to see the works of famous artist Guayasamín, whose work depicts the abuse of workers and injustice under Latin dictatorships. The old architecture is ornate and very Spanish with of course the pervasive influence of the Catholic Church everywhere in the culture. Ecuador like many South American countries is primarily Catholic.
We loved the very local influence on the huge Basilica in old Quito, whose gargoyles were unexpected – turtles and iguanas and pelicans, alpacas and panthers, and all the creatures of Ecuador – not the traditional monsters of European cathedrals.
The Galapagos trip itself was exciting and strenuous and met all our expectations. The people who guided us and fed us and dropped us into the sea to wade to shore, who cleaned up after us and informed us were lovely and smart and passionate and kind. Young Luiz who took us around Puerto Ayora and the Charles Darwin Research Center grew up in the tiny town and worked diligently to become a tour guide, going to school for it and competing among 800 applicants for one of only 80 tour guide certificates. He was sweet and funny and loved his town and the islands and every creature on them especially the tortoises.
We too loved the creatures – the funny blue footed boobies, taking turns caring for their eggs, the males raising their feet very high with each step to show off their beautiful colour; the giant tortoises who all looked very much like ET, lumbering along in their hundred year old bodies; the loud, smelly and sleek sea lions who loved to pose for pictures; the peculiar little Ghost Crabs who ran along the sand and them suddenly disappeared digging themselves little caves; the clumsy pelicans diving from high in the air but landing in the water like a giant burst water balloon; the boobies spiralling out of the sky to pierce the water like an arrow, diving 30 feet into the ocean for fish; the dolphins racing along beside the ship by the hundreds, tiny babies by their sides; the iguanas on land or in the sea or popping up under every cactus bush waiting for dinner to drop from the plants above; the snorkeling among enormous schools of brilliant fish and sting rays and sea turtles and sharks! Oh yes, we loved it all, every thrilling minute, every eye popping sunset, the scents and sounds, everything!
What was most impactful however was the effects of climate change. The Galápagos is spectacular because of the unique geography – it’s volcanic roots so obvious, so new compared to elsewhere in the world – and of course the unique species of birds, reptiles and plants. Evolution is not a process of millions of years as it is in most of the world. No, in the Galápagos it is speeded up, sometimes observable in meer decades instead of millennia.
But so is the effect of climate change. Rainfall is down in the archipelago, by as much as 20%. We were there during the rainy season but saw not a drop of water fall. Many of the islands are dry. Where a salt marsh should have been covered in flamingos we saw only one lone beauty. The archipelago’s strength is also its weakness, the rapid evolution and frail beauty so vulnerable to the ravages of changing weather and climate!
In addition, despite our profound gratitude at the opportunity to visit this fragile and beautiful place, the growth of tourism is drawing more and more people, wanting hotels and animal encounters, more boats, more of everything the islands offer. And who can blame the locals for wanting the employment and wealth opportunities that offers. But they too are torn, knowing the impact those opportunities will have on their paradise! Every local we met was protective and passionate about their islands.
Despite warnings not to disturb the animals or birds or take even a grain of sand from the beaches, even in our small group of self professed environmentally conscientious travellers, some few people could not resist getting too close, pocketing a small shell, or demonstrating they thought the warnings did not quite apply to them! Imagine thousands doing the same. It makes my heart sore!