Editor’s note: Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, and his wife, Becky Courtney-Knight, a retired superintendent, recently traveled to Ecuador on an adventure tour. This is the second column by Norman sharing their experience in a two-part feature for the Daily Journal.
Now it was time to head to the Galapagos Islands portion of the multisport tour, and each person was limited to 25 pounds of luggage.
We left from the Quito airport for the 600-mile flight to the islands. We deplaned on San Cristobal Island and immediately noticed the heat.
Although the Ecuadoran Andes are on the equator, the high mountain temperatures are always cool. The Galapagos are also on the equator, but at sea level. Because 97 percent of the Galapagos is considered part of Ecuador’s National Park system, we were required to pay a $100 national park entrance fee.
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We settled into our hotel on Charles Darwin Avenue. As you might guess, his presence is all over the Galapagos. We headed on foot out of the small town stepping around the ubiquitous sea lions lounging on the sidewalks, benches and anywhere they decide to plop themselves. All indigenous animals are protected by strict laws, and most show no fear of humans.
Very soon we were climbing in a dry forest of cacti, acacia and other endemic vegetation with fantastic views of the rugged coastline. Standing on an overlook above Darwin Bay, we saw frigate birds whose necks sometimes puff out in a bulbous red. We spotted Darwin finches, of course. We also were excited to sight our first blue-footed boobies.
The next day we took a boat to snorkel around the jagged remains of an old volcano and then headed to a deserted beach. The parks department assigns beaches to the tour guides to allow groups splendid isolation. Becky and I discovered sea kayaking is quite different from what we do on our pond at home. Let’s just say we probably could use some more practice.
Bright and early the next morning, after placing our luggage on a scale, we boarded our nine-seat airplane and headed to Isabela Island. Formed by six volcanoes, five of which remain active, Isabela is one of the youngest in the archipelago. It is the largest area of in the chain, but has only about 2,500 permanent residents, most who live in the port town of Puerto Villamil.
We checked into our hotel on one of the island’s beautiful white sand beaches, but didn’t linger because we were off for walk to the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center. All five of Isabela’s tortoise species are nurtured at the center. On our walk we saw flocks of flamingos and a variety of curious plants and animals.
Our longest hike came when we trekked up 3,000 feet to the rim of the Sierra Negra volcano. We gazed in wonder across the 6 by 5 mile-wide basin-like caldera, the second largest in the world. We soon left the vegetation around the rim and stepped into an otherworldly landscape of bare, rugged lava rock and vents emitting hot volcanic air. Eventually we reached the high point of the Chico volcano.
We returned to our home base for some snorkeling. Becky couldn’t stop talking about the penguin who zipped past her as she was enjoying the underwater view. The Galapagos are the only place on Earth north of the equator where penguins live.
On our last Isabela Island day, we biked the packed sand roads along the beach, stopping to watch the sea iguanas crawling in and out of the surf before pedaling to the Wall of Tears. From 1945 until 1959 it was planned as the prison for a penal colony.
The first 300 convicts were shipped from the mainland and ordered to build the walls of their own prison using black lava blocks. The plan was eventually abandoned, but not before the captain of the guards was murdered and several prisoners escaped.
The next morning we headed to Santa Cruz Island, the last island on our tour. We visited a remote area home to the island’s own giant tortoises, we hiked and kayaked until late afternoon, and finally enjoyed a wonderful evening meal on the porch of our seaside hotel. The next day we flew back to Quito.
The Galapagos are a rarity among places on earth because it never had an indigenous human population. Its population has increased over time to its current 30,000 people. This is a concern because of the environmental impact on the delicate ecosystem. Ecuador has passed strict laws limiting who can establish permanent residence.
It is a double-edged sword: tourism is the main economic activity and many Ecuadorians would move there for jobs if they could, but more people means more ecological stress on the islands. After our visit, I can’t help but wonder what my role was in the future of the Galapagos.
Becky and I brought back from our trip a new understanding and appreciation of Ecuador and the Ecuadorian culture. Our prayers are with the people of this beautiful country. We had marvelous experiences, learned a lot, met new friends and stayed very active. We couldn’t ask for more from a vacation.