Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Guyaquil, Isla Santa Cruz and Isla Isabela

Guayquil, Isla Santa Cruz and Isla Isabela

Our flight connected though Atlanta and arrived in Guayaquil all without a hitch.  We had concerns about catching a taxi at midnight to our pre-reserved hostal as there had been a lot of media reports about tourists being assaulted and robbed in them.  We thought we looked a lot like fresh meat. In any case the taxi driver must not have thought so because everything went ok and we arrived at our destination unmolested.  Those first two nights were the only reservations we had made for our time in Ecuador.  I found the place highly recommended online, and we ended up being very happy with our clean and cute room with a private bath, a great location, an ocean view and a loft with two beds for the kids.  All this set us back about $100 a night.  As food in Ecuador is very cheap, we had no trouble staying way under budget and averaged about $150 per day.

My plan after those first days in Guayaquil was to get air tickets to Baltra, the main airport in the Galapagos, and try to get a bargain on a last minute cruise boat from there.  For those of you that don’t know, cruises in the Galapagos are outrageously expensive.  Most boats carry only 16 people and the cheapest (somewhat scary) boats post rates of over $2500 per person for 7 nights.  Lonely Planet recommended the last minute option but cautioned it might not work in high season (August) and when you have a group larger than 2 people.  In any case we didn’t end up finding out whether or not it would have worked for us as we discovered that without having purchased the air tickets in advance there were none available for almost 2 weeks.  Turns out that the boats and the airlines work together such that the only way we could get airline tickets last minute in high season was to book a cruise.  Working though an agent on the island that was also recommended online (Jenny at Moonlight) we were able to book a 7 night cruise on a first class boat called the Beagle, which was set to depart on Aug 9.  Buying them a week ahead scored us a rate of $1250 each which was barely more than 1/3 of the published price.  This was still outside our budget, but we decided a Galapagos cruise was one of our top priorities for our trip.  We had previously agreed to make this type of decision according to the following priorities:
1-  Education
2-  Family time/bonding
3-  Service.
We couldn’t really think of a better science education than the cruise in question.  Once we decided and booked the cruise, they released air tickets, and in this way we were able to get a flight to the islands and spend 5 days there prior to boarding our cruise.

As mentioned previously our first accommodation was very nice; unfortunately our first night on Santa Cruz was pretty much the opposite.  I hadn’t booked ahead, and our budget combined with high season found us in a pretty seedy place for a grand total of $50 for two rooms. Mark and the kids thought they were “fine” but I wasn’t very happy.

  So I got busy online again.  Turns out we ended up with two good choices for the next few nights.  Jenny at Moonrise graciously offered us her personal vacation home with an ocean view for a nominal charge (basically just to pay the maid).  Who ever heard of a travel agent doing that?  She indicated though that the Tsunami had caused some damage, there were a few mice (my friends are laughing here) and no hot water.  At the same time I found a house on Flip Key with a very responsive homeowner that offered us a three bedroom house for less than ½ of what it normally rents for.  Sold!  We spent the next three nights enjoying her very high end, US standard house while exploring the island at our leisure.  It came with a washer/dryer, free wifi and a very large selection of dvds and set us back a mere $85 per night.  Since it rained a lot those first days the kids made us watch an entire season of Criminal Minds.  This was not of course terribly educational, but I figure it did meet the family bonding criteria.  In the end we had trouble tearing ourselves away from this lovely house.

What we left for was a 2 day (actually 1 day/2 night) tour of Isla Isabela.  Our cruise wasn’t scheduled to go to Isabela and we were hoping to see penguins there.  In hind site it was far too much to try to fit into less than 48 hours.  We learned we are best avoiding tours in the future, even when they are possibly cheaper than doing it independently, as being in charge of our own schedule and where/when we spend money we’ve discovered is very important to us.  On the bright side, it turned out to be a stellar start to my “Around the World Fitness Plan” as the first scheduled activity was a volcano hike that was advertised as 6 miles round trip, but turned out to be in excess of 11, half of it up hill.  I made it, but barely.  Then after 5 ½ hours of hiking, instead of resting we had 10 minutes to change before heading off to a snorkeling session and a 1 hour nature walk.   
                                                                                                            The food was of the tour variety, which was disappointing to us because up until that point we had been finding very inexpensive tasty food with lots of choices.  The biggest bright side however ended up being two families that we met on our tour.  One was from England (hello Carol, Troy and Evan) and one from Seattle (hi to Bruce, Lynette, Tinnly and Trevor).  They were all fun and it was great to get to talk to someone besides each other.  In a really freaky coincidence, it turns out that Lynette is a professor at Seattle Pacific University and is leading students in studies about the effect of world travel on individuals.   She graciously agreed that I might contact her after our trip to pick her brain about my own dissertation.  This was super exciting to me.  The kids were just happy to have other kids to socialize with.  Mark and I enjoyed other grown up company as well.

The worst part about the Isla Isabela trip though was neither the hike nor the tour food.  The worst part was the “speed boat” you had to take to get there and back.  I was picturing something not unlike the Catalina Express.  This was not remotely close.  Our boat held 22 passengers packed very tightly in an indoor/outdoor space with two oversized outboard engines on the back.  The 2 ½ hour trip there and back was enough to make us want to swear off boats for the rest of the trip.  It was cold outside, hot inside and crazy bouncy and wavy everywhere.  Wilder and Peyton were both sick, and on the way home in particular I was so afraid for our safety (big swells that often made us air born and a constant spray of water that left us chilled to the bone) that I resorted to singing hymns to myself for the duration.

Now that we survived the trip and are back in Punta Ayora, none of us is too keen to board another boat.  I have read lots though about what a nice boat the Beagle is and also that the cruise boats travel slower and are therefore less sea sickness inducing.  I have high hopes then that the Beagle will redeem our impression of boats as a safe and comfortable mode of transportation.

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