Live-aboard scuba diving trips in the Galapagos are extremely exclusive, and becoming even more so.Â It appears that the Ecuadorian government struggles with the delicate balance between conservation, a thriving tourism industry, increased outside investment in the tourism industry, and financial quality of life for local Galapaguenos (is that a word?).Â I would like to think that all aspects of the Galapagos’ well-being are strategic and defensible, but some areas felt pretty arbitrary (more on this later).Â Even as I was trying to book this gig in September of 2007, several dive boats (and cruise ships) had not yet received their commercial clearance to operate in 2008.Â Others who were confident of their upcoming clearance indicated that they had been booked for 18 months at least.
I finally found an opening where a single female passenger travelling alone needed a roommate, and a single male passenger travelling alone needed a roommate.Â What are the odds?Â We totally lucked out.Â When the dust settled and the government doled out operator’s licenses, the boat I booked (Sky Dancer) was not only approved but was the only boat approved for the remote islands of Wolf and Darwin.Â Total score.
Our plan all along was to sail to the Galapagos, anchor the boat, find a boat-sitter and head out on the live-aboard.Â Because of the battery mishap, this was no longer in the cards, and, honestly, I was a bit relieved.Â First, we weren’t familiar with the anchorages, and I anticipated the nightmares of Spectacle crashing against the rocks as we swam with dolphins.Â Second, I kind of liked the idea of having the same experience as any other traveler.Â And so, I booked our flights from Panama City, Panama knowing that Spectacle was safe and sound in the Flamenco Marina with Ian.
Quito, Ecuador was our jumping off point to get to the Galapagos.Â The flight from mainland Ecuador to the Galapagos is only about 90 minutes, but the flights are structured so an overnight in either Quito or Guayaquil is mandatory on both the front-end and back-end of the trip.Â This may have something to do with the scheduling of the inevitable international flights, but I doubt it.
The approach to the Quito was fairly hair-raising. At 9,350 feet, Quito is surrounded by (active and inactive) volcanoes and mountainous peaks, some of which seemed to be right outside the plane window.Â With a population of 1.5 million, many of these peaks are covered with urban sprawl that soars to heights of 13,000 feet.Â The first thing I did after retrieving the luggage was scrounge through my suitcase to find the only warm clothing item I packed.Â I had figured, hey, it’s Ecuador, as in the Equator, right?Â But, it was quite cold with a fairly constant drizzly rain.
We got to the hotel with minimal problems, but it was a Sunday and, true to our experience in most Latin American countries, the streets were deserted.Â That left the inevitable hustle and bustle of this city to our imaginations.Â It is very urban, but in a squatty boxy kind of way.Â The architecture left quite a bit to be desired â€¦ cement-block, totally symmetrical, short storied, flat roofs, very Soviet in a way, but with some pastel-colored paint every once in a while, and lacking ornamentation of any kind (no patios, no windowsills, no roof overhangs, no awnings, no stoops, no pillars, no nothing).
The hotel was quite nice, with professional English-speaking staff.Â Unfortunately, we went up to the room to find it a) not exactly what brochure purported, and b) full of someone else’s luggage.Â Alas another “Wolf” registered at the hotel!Â Mistake corrected, we were very happy to find our room in the recently refurbished wing of the hotel which was a lot nicer than the other “Wolf” room.Â The view was pretty bleak â€¦ lots of urban sprawl and most of it just teetering on the edge of disrepair.
By this time, it was about 3:00 p.m. and we were hungry so we ventured out.Â We walked around several blocks just meandering, but it was Sunday so we decided to just park it in the first place we found open.Â We sat down at a little restaurant that was serving local food, found a table on their small patio, and ordered up a couple of Ecuadorian beers and (after stumbling through some Spanish) several Ecuadorian culinary specialties.Â The one good thing I can say about Pilsener is that it’s large, and it’s better served very very cold, which it rarely is much to our chagrin.Â The food was pretty interesting — lots of it, extremely fried, cheap, and served with pride and enthusiasm â€¦ what’s better than that?
While walking around, we noticed a lot of anti-Uribe graffiti.Â The Colombia militaryÂ recently crossed the border into Ecuador to assassinate a known ranking FARC officer.Â While Ecuador was pretty vocal in objecting to the infraction, I got the sense that most found Uribe’s actions to be impolite rather than anything more menacing than that.Â But, as usual throughout the world, any associations with George W. Bush are poorly received.Â For those of you not well versed en Espanol, “perro” means “dog” and “de” means “of.”
After lunch, we headed out to see the sights.Â Basilica del Voto Nacional, consecrated in 1892, is renown for its grotesques.Â We peeked in on a lovely wedding in progress, and then sat in the park gazing at seemingly endless hillsides of urban sprawl.Â From the park, we caught a glance of ‘La Virgen de Quito,’ a statue of the Madonna on top of a globe and stepping on a snake.Â The historic center of town is one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Sights (along with Krakow, Poland), so named in 1978.Â We saw some nice streets with nice buildings, interspersed with establishments such as “Texas Chicken.”Â Independence Plaza is a two acre, pedestrian-only park surrounded by cafes, statues, fountains, and government buildings, including the presidential palace.Â We didn’t see too many tourists, but we did chat with several friendly passers-by who seemed happy to see Americans.
After this whirlwind tour of Quito, we headed back to the hotel and watched Anthony Bourdain on The Travel Channel (yes, we miss television, withhold judgment please) who was covering a timely subject â€¦ the Marquesas and the Tuamotus.Â Next we watched the NCAA Final Four and chuckled at UCLA’s defeat.