My lingering memory of Peru, as I rode the train back to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, will be the weird music. “El Cóndor Pasa” is on more or less constant rotation. You hear a lot of breathy flutes in an unknown time signature, and then there’s a Muzak version of Abba.
T. was eager to get out of Peru. Nothing against Peru; it's just that she’d been sick with one thing or another ever since we left Cuba (though she did, at least, get to see the notorious Machu Picchu). I was not in the mood right after my trek, but first thing the next morning, we flew to the coastal Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil, via Lima. There was some questioning at the Cuzco airport about our lack of an onward ticket out of Ecuador, but as usual, immigration officials did not ask about this at all when we actually got there.
If you ever have occasion to fly Avianca, which flies throughout the Americas, I highly recommend it. This was our second trip with this airline and we were impressed. Note that what impresses nowadays used to be standard inclusions for an airline: drinks; a meal; checked luggage; and roomy, comfy seats (for a plane).
Guayaquil is the largest port on the west coast of South America, and does not like playing second city of Ecuador to the more famous capital, Quito. What Guayaquil may lack in visitor attractions, it made up for with a very comfortable (and huge!) apartment, which we shared with some five other guests; our amenable English-speaking host; and, most importantly, a washing machine.
Our first morning, our host told us he’d come about 8:30 and cook us oatmeal for breakfast. He showed up about two hours later, but this is Latin America! He also brought lots of fresh fruit: bananas, papaya, strawberries, peaches. All Airbnbs are definitely not equal. It was the most poor T. had eaten in more than two weeks.
Chatting with him and our flatmates, we learned that though we’re south of the equator here, the seasons are completely different from non-tropical regions. This time of year, which is hotter and wetter, is called invierno (“winter”). The other time of the year, drier and relatively cooler, is “summer.” We also had some interesting conversation about the respective presidents of Ecuador and the United States, both of whom had disappointed the citizens present. Our host said that although he’d voted for his president twice, things were not working out for Ecuador. In fact, he told us, he’d been to an appointment at a government office, only to find a sign reading “Closed because of corruption”!
Since the year 2000, Ecuador has used the U.S. dollar as its currency. This made costs easily comprehensible to us, although sometimes surprising; a returnable glass bottle of Coke, for example, cost 25¢. Ecuador mints its own coins, but they’re the same size and shape as U.S. coins, and interchangeable with them.
|I remember what a big deal it was when the Susan B. Anthony dollar came out. They never minted them again.|
Since T. was still not herself and there didn’t seem to be a convenient bus in Urdesa, we thought, why not spend four or five dollars for a taxi? I asked the driver for Parque Seminario, also known as Parque Bolívar, but he just said “Parque de las Iguanas?” Because that is what the park is known for.
A naturalist told us that the land iguanas of Galápagos are descended from some like these from the mainland, which somehow drifted over to the islands on a raft, Kon-Tiki like. And if you believe that, I've got a bridge to Galápagos that I can sell you.
Malecón 2000. Only 60 km long, the Río Guayas is the widest river on the Pacific side of the Americas. And like any good millennial project, the Malecón has a Ferris wheel.
The main street is named 9 de octubre, after the date of Guayaquil’s (not Ecuador’s) independence from Spain in 1820.
The Malecón intersects 9 de octubre at La Rotonda. The statue commemorates the one and only meeting, in 1822, between two heroes of South American independence: Simon Bolívar, heading south through “Gran Colombia,” and Juan San Martín heading north from Peru.
A couple of blocks over is the church of San Francisco, which was restored in this unusual style after the great fire. It reminded me of icing on a cake.
We made a number of trips to the nearby Mini Mart during T’s recovery—for Coca-Cola, mostly. We also got help from a pharmacist who didn’t speak any English, but could look things up when I wrote them down. We knew we were becoming friends with these people because they went from no facial expression at all to saying “Thank you” in English, day by day. The Mini Mart woman even reminded T. not to carry her camera around but put it in a bag, to avoid peligro (danger).
I read that Urdesa, our suburb, is the place to go for dining and nightlife. We would not know. We did, however, eventually go out for a meal; I wanted encocado (fish in coconut stew) but the restaurant was out of it. Instead, I was urged to partake of the house specialty. The place was called Cangrejal Manny’s, in other words, a crab shack.
Please remind me in future that crab is worth far less than the effort put into it, particularly by the crab.
I was eager to see crabs and many other forms of wildlife in their natural, living state, and that is really why we’d come to Guayaquil: it’s the gateway to the Galápagos Islands. We had several days here because we weren’t sure what arrangements we’d be making for travel to Galápagos, and it’s just as well, because T. was still recovering. I confess I was climbing the walls a bit, though. There were lots of books in the apartment, but the only ones in English were a 1989 geography textbook from the U.S., which closely resembled textbooks I remember from school, and a novel about lonely hearts in 1970s County Derry. I tried the textbook and was struck by how it read like propaganda—as slanted as anything I’d seen in Cuba. So, it’s been misery in Ireland for me!
Our host told us that he’d been to Galápagos in 1970 (the first year it opened to tourism). At that time, getting to this far-flung bit of Ecuador involved a three-and-a-half-day journey by converted warship, and it sounded horrific. He described eight hours of plowing into plummeting waves, and everybody getting seasick. This was the result of the cooler Humboldt Current which comes up from the Peruvian direction. Like the Gulf Stream in the north Atlantic, the Humboldt Current makes possible the particular climate of the islands it affects. The Galápagos have the world’s only tropical penguins, who came up via the cold current. There’s also the world’s only flightless cormorant and, most commonly observed, the world’s only seagoing iguana—a completely different species from the land iguanas of Guayaquil.
It’s an hour-and-a-half flight nowadays, which is far less trouble than coming by ship (or raft if you're a land iguana). There’s a lot involved with traveling to Galápagos even though it’s the same country. The region has its own administration, which is very careful about letting anything in that may damage the unique environment (kind of like Tasmania). This is, after all, the islands’ selling point. We were told that no plastic bottles or bags were allowed, and indeed, I’ve seen no plastic bags, or straws, another plague of the sea and animals. The airport itself is unusually “green,” LEED-certified and with just some fans and an X-ray machine.
While waiting in line to pay for our tourist cards and national park fees, we started talking to a young U.S. Army officer, traveling here on much-needed leave from Iraq. He said that before the army had given him the opportunity to travel other parts of the world, he hadn’t realized what a “bubble” Americans live in (his words). His message to the folks back home was, “Can’t you guys be nice to each other?” I also heard him chatting to a couple of Canadians across the aisle, and opining that the embargo against Cuba, in this post-Fidel Castro time, is “the dumbest thing ever.”
The Army did very well to get this guy, but other legacies of the U.S. armed forces are harder to appreciate. For one thing, the location of the airport on Isla Baltra. The military built this, as it built so many bases in the World War II era, but it makes no sense in regard to where anyone presently wants to go in the islands. To get from the airport to Puerto Ayora, the most populated town, you first have to take a bus to the ferry dock, then a ferry across to Isla Santa Cruz (less than half a kilometre), then another bus totally across the island straight through the interior. And then the bus dumped us somewhere and we had to flag down one of the taxis, which on Santa Cruz are all 4x4 pickup trucks, for reasons which would become clear. Needless to say, each leg of this journey charges in dollars. It took far longer than the flight itself!
|Our backpacks are there somewhere. Photo courtesy of T.|
In his Journey of the Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin wrote: “Epithet after epithet was found too weak to convey to those who have not visited the intertropical regions, the sensation of delight which the mind experiences.” I have to agree with Darwin. Without even leaving the modest terrace of our modest hotel, we’d already seen brown pelicans, marine iguanas, and everyone’s favourite, sea lions.