Friday, 9/11, morning
We were instructed to have our luggage outside our doors by a certain hour and to meet down in the lobby shortly after that. Each person checked the pile in the lobby to make sure that his/her luggage was ready for loading. We headed for the airport and Gonzalo handled all of the transportation issues—boarding passes, Tip Top II name tags (Tip Top II was the name of our boat), luggage check tags, getting us to the security screening. At that point, he bid us all “Chao!” and we sat in the “holding area” for quite a while, since the plane was delayed by about an hour. A person from a tour that had been canceled officially joined ours—so we were now a full contingent of 16.
To the left is Cotopaxi, the snow-covered volcano south of Quito, taken from the airplane window at the airport. In the Sierra region high in the Andes, Quito is on a high plateau; you can get a sense of this from the photo on the right (again from the plane, through a slightly smudged window). Looking east from the air, the photo shows the eastern edge of the plateau that Quito is on, as well as the beginning of the Oriente region to the east, stretching all the way to the Amazon River. And one final view of the snow-capped Cotopaxi from the air, as we bid Quito “Chao” and turn our minds toward the impending adventure.
We stopped first in Guayaquil, only a 30-minute flight from Quito. After a pause of about 40 minutes—during which continuing passengers didn’t even de-plane—we took off on the 1.5-hour flight to the Galápagos. We were surprised to see the cabin crew fumigate the overhead bins before we took off. A now non-functional link to IGTOA dated 5/2007, stated that they used permethrin (used in some insect repellents) and phenothrin (used in dog flea/tick collars). Both are generally considered harmless to most birds and mammals, except for cats—so be sure to leave your felines at home!
We landed on the island of Baltra. Baltra has one of two airports in the archipelago. The United States Air Force occupied the island during World War II, building an airstrip there to help defend the Panama Canal. (A fun aside—one of the best palindromes I know is “A man, a plan, a canal–Panama!”) The U.S. gave the airstrip back (although our naturalist later corrected me with a smile, saying that Ecuador took it back). The currently used runway is not the same airstrip; but the original can be seen from the runway. One of the major fauna disasters of that occupation was the extirpation of Baltra’s entire population of land iguanas by the 1950s, although a group of 70 had been translocated to a nearby island in the 1930s—so they weren’t completely extinct. A breeding program began at the Charles Darwin Research Station, using a pair of these iguanas. In the late 1990s, they began to be successfully repatriated to Baltra; by 2007, more than 400 land iguanas again called Baltra their home. Declaring success, no further intervention is deemed necessary.
Landing without event in Baltra that afternoon (albeit 1 hour late, unfortunately for those waiting for us), the passengers were directed into 1 of 2 lines—one for nationals (i.e., Ecuadorean citizens) and one for foreigners. (Even Ecuadorean citizens are “immigrants” in the Galápagos.) It could have been my imagination, but it seemed like we on the Tip Top II had a special line; reading our name tags, officials directed Z and me to an empty area where an agent immediately appeared. (Perhaps this is true for all groups heading to boat tours.) She quickly went through our carry-on items; we were carrying small bags of nuts and we had heard horror stories about even roasted peanuts sprouting in the islands and becoming crazed invasive plants. (Not-so-urban myth? Hard to know…) So we were a bit concerned that our bags of walnuts, cashews, and almonds might get confiscated. But no problems, even though we let the agent know that we had them. (Note for the return trip—keep every receipt or card you are handed. Odds are, you’ll need them to exit the islands.)
As we exited that final screening, wearing our “Tip Top II” name badges, we heard a shout from beyond the barricade. A fellow was waving us over, calling “Hey! Tip Top II!” It was the naturalist of the Tip Top II, Carlos, who would be officially “in charge” of us—guide, den mother, coach, interpreter, timekeeper, teacher, rules enforcer—for the next 8 days and 7 nights. While Z and I were waiting for the others to gather, we noticed a yellow Lab hanging out around the luggage. We asked Carlos if the dog were sniffing for drugs. He said no; instead it was trained to sniff exiting bags for shark fins (always illegal) and sea cucumbers (out of season at this time), both of which are very popular in some Asian countries. Well, welcome to the next culture. So much to learn in the next week.
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