Experiencing Ecuador: the Galapagors, the Amazon, and Quito

"Experiencing Ecuador: the Galapagos, the Amazon Basin, and Quito," with photographs by Marcia Jacobson, The Syracuse Post-Standard Sunday STARS Magazine, Jan. 13, 2013, 13-15.

tortoise and land iguana Tortoise and land iguana

Have you ever snorkeled with giant turtles and seal lions? Come within a few feet of 500-pound tortoises?  Seen penguins standing in front of cactuses? Visited a snow capped volcano at over 15000 feet and did a little climbing? Viewed exotic birds in the Amazon basin rainforest? All the foregoing await travellers experiencing the wonders of Ecuador.


Essentials: Ecuador is the second smallest country in area in South America. My wife, Marcia Jacobson, and I began our trip in Ecuador’s capital, Quito, that sits 10,000 feet above sea level in the Andes.  The economy is dependent on oil reserves. Even in the Amazon basin, where the oil companies have their own roads, we saw signs of drilling.  The price of gas is little more than $1 a gallon. Thus taxis are inexpensive.

The currency is the US dollar the currency, and while most people don’t speak English very well, the Ecuadorians are helpful and tourist friendly.

On Sundays in Quito, as in much of South America, the full Catholic Churches are a testament to a living and charismatic Catholicism, including enthusiastic worshippers clapping and responding to guitar music. This enthusiasm of the faithful is in stark contrast to Europe where, except for Easter and Christmas, the churches are almost museums.  

Quito: We began our first day with a ride on the Teleferica, a cable car that takes one to nearly 13,300 feet to view the mountains, vegetation and city below. Even without great visibility when we went, this is a stunning site. Using taxis, we then did a city tour on our own; we included the National Basilica, several buildings in and around Independence Square, notably the San Francisco Church and Plaza, the Presidential Place, the Cathedral, and the most beautiful of all, the elegantly baroque La  Compania de Jesus Church with its ornamental gold interior.

cotopaxi Cotopaxi volcano

The following day we hired a driver and visited the snow-covered Cotopaxi volcano, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. I was quite proud to climb about 700 feet or so beyond the 15,300 foot plateau to which we were taken. We enjoyed spectacular views and visited Lake Limiopungo for some birding. On our return to Quito that afternoon, we visited the beautiful synagogue, Communidad de Judia de Ecuador, which is twelve years old and has 500 members.

The Amazon Basin:

Sacha Lodge: The Amazon has one of the world’s most bio-diverse areas. After three nights in Quito, we began our Amazon basin adventure on the Napo River, a tributary of the Amazon. We took a short flight to Coca, then a 100 minute boat ride followed by a 25 minute walk and finally a 10 minute canoe ride to Sacha Lodge, a 5000 acre property—which calls itself a rainforest sanctuary-- on the small black water Lake Pilchicocha.

amazon basinAmazon basin jungle

Sacha’s hiking, canoeing, and bird-watching events take place when scheduled and each group of guests visits a specified area at a different time. If you wish to stay dry—even with the boots and panchos they give you—this is not your place, but if you want a wonderful experience in the rainforest, this is for you. Each group is no larger than six and has its own nature guide.


Sacha has 25 cabins that they periodically rebuild; ours was virtually brand new.  In our comfortable cabin we had a nice king size bed a deck, and a good-sized bathroom with shower. The food is quite good, although all alcoholic beverages and even coffee other than Nescafé and morning coffee are extra. After dinner one goes to bed without the distraction of TV or computer. Sacha has no air conditioning but a ceiling fan; when I asked, I was given a second fan.

On our first day, we went to a wonderful butterfly farm on property, swam in the lake, and after a buffet dinner took a night canoe ride on one of the canals leading out of the lake. Another day, we went on the Napo by boat to observe a small cliff frequented by numerous parrots, but because of rain or bad luck, we had slim parrot pickings and saw only a very few green parrots. We then went back to Sacha for a walk for a 90 minute hike in the rain during which we saw much vegetation, but little else that was live other than a poison dart frog, a millipede, and a poison ant.

Sacha is a paradise for birders and we saw probably 60 different varieties if not more including such species as hoatzin (nicknamed “stinking turkey”), ani (a black bird), yellow rumped cacique, chachalaca, yellow-throated chiriqui, cocoi heron  (one of the most elegant), lineated woodpecker, various toucans, and the blue flycatcher. Bird watching is best in the morning, and we were awakened in the 5 to 5:30 a.m. range to take advantage of this.

mata mata Mata-mata from the Amazon basin

One morning we had a splendid birding expedition above the trees. Sacha has a 182 step birding site, a canopy walkway that is 94 feet high with three towers connected by a catwalk. On the day we went, the guide for our group of four brought his own telescope and he did have sharp eyes. But wished that, like Sacha’s other guides, he had a bird book with him so as to help us identify we were seeing.

We also saw howler monkeys and night monkeys, and we also saw a rare turtle called a mata mata.  Fishing for small piranha from a dock and boat with a bamboo pole was great fun for me.

Galapagos: Created by volcanoes, the Galapagos is a group of islands in the Pacific Ocean that lie hundreds of miles off the coast of Ecuador The islands were crucial to Darwin’s understanding of evolution because every island of the Galapagos has different flora and fauna. Because of the proliferation of tourists, the Galapagos National Park Service assigns boats to one of two routes. Thus to see the entire Galapagos island group, one would need to take a trip longer than a week.  Each boat must observe an approved itinerary so that no landing place is overrun.  Because each boat signs up for sights beforehand, one runs into very few other groups.

penguinsGalapagos penguins
On Board the Evolution:  After returning from Sacha and overnighting in Quito, we flew from Quito to Baltra, one of the Galapagos islands, and boarded the 32 passenger Evolution that was to be our home for a week. We booked the Evolution with Susie Green of International Wildlife Adventures, and she was helpful in making our arrangements and preparing us for this part of our trip.  But Quasar is the Ecuadorian company that actually owns the Evolution and also owns the 16 passenger Grace. With a small group of only twelve paying tourists on the boat (plus crew) for a week, we spent more time with the other guests than we will spend with close friends or adult children over a year.  Our group was for the most part congenial and, while we had a few social bumps, got along reasonably well.

We had seven days of beautiful weather, and that made our daily hikes and snorkeling particularly enjoyable.  The Galapagos are an ornithologist’s dream and while we are not experienced bird watchers, we loved the variety and close sightings of birds.

Our 42-year-old nature guide Rafa is a native of Santa Cruz, the second largest island of the Galapagos.  He is knowledgeable, well-organized, self-confident, enthusiastic, lively, and--like the entire boat crew--safety-conscious.  Most of our fellow passengers were quite taken with him, but, while impressed with the aforementioned qualities, I found him standoffish and somewhat abrasive.  Neither in his evening briefings or our daily excursions did he speak about Darwin or evolution, claiming—when I inquired about this omission--that such discussion might conflict with some travellers’ religious beliefs   Like our Amazon guide, he works as an independent agent rather than for one company.

iguanasMarine iguanas
We left the Evolution two or three times a day in a motored rubber boat called a panga or zodiac. Over the days, depending on where we landed, and snorkeled, we saw sea lions, land and marine iguanas, green turtles, giant tortoises, small sharks, and eagle rays, as well as such birds as penguins, lava herons, flightless cormorants, cattle egrets, greater egrets, mockingbirds, lava gulls, American oystercatchers, the spectacular diving blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, yellow warblers, pelicans (some with noddy terns sitting on their backs after the pelicans’ had dived for fish) and flamingos.  From a distance, we saw whales on a few occasions. At various times, we saw sharks and one day observed huge ocean sunfish.

sealions Sea lions
The sea lions allowed us to take close up pictures, although if approached too closely, they would snarl.  One time I walked ahead of our guide and group and had a sea lion cavorting just for me for a memorable five minutes.  

The male giant tortoises are much larger than the female, the largest weighing over 500 pounds. Galapagos means “saddle” in Spanish after the saddle backed tortoises; they vary from island to island according to the shape of their carapaces and bodies, and the variations are thought to have evolved as adaptations to the different environments on the Galapagos islands. The tortoises are quite approachable, and we watched them eat grasses and weeds.

The stunningly beautiful views from both our boat and from the islands are unforgettable.  Since we often travelled at night, I awoke early each morning to catch a first sight of where we anchored—and sometimes saw sunrise-- before other passengers joined me. In fact, I found myself—perhaps captivated by natural beauty—less extroverted and loquacious than usual.  I also enjoyed the walking and hiking even when we weren’t seeing something alive every minute.

Each island has its own special pleasures, although we didn’t visit them all.  Isabela, the largest island, shaped like a sea horse and the site of our second morning, has beautiful cliffs. One morning we left for Isabela at 6 a.m. and saw more than a dozen land iguanas and a dozen giant tortoises. Santiago has little vegetation and is covered by volcanic lava due an explosion over a hundred years ago. Like Big Island in Hawaii, it reminded me of the moon. One day on Bartolome, we climbed 380 or so easy steps for the view and a bit of geology, focusing on how volcanoes created the Galapagos.  On another day on Santa Cruz we walked through a lava tunnel. On the same day, we observed giant tortoises in generous numbers. We also explored Fernandina to find penguins, and we saw some pelicans.

We visited Puerto Ayoro, the port city of Santa Cruz. There we went to the Charles Darwin Research Center where baby tortoises are being raised for release on the islands since Galapagos tortoises are an endangered species.   In Puerto Ayoro, we also went to the fish market and smiled at the pelicans awaiting the remnants as the fish were cleaned. We wandered around the town, which featured the usual Internet cafes and tourist regalia such as hats and t-shirts.

bluefootedboobies Blue Footed Boobie nesting

On our last full day we visited Espanola, the southernmost island in the Galapagos peninsula. This is an unpopulated island known for endemic wildlife—that is, wildlife that was not introduced and which only exists on this island.   During our two-mile hike over small boulders--one of our most challenging expeditions--our plentiful sightings combined to make a review course of the week's highlights with new sightings. We saw sea lions—females with babies, some nursing, and a day old baby with an umbilical cord—as well as Nazca boobies, blue-footed boobies, sea iguanas, pelicans, and, for the first time on the trip, red-billed tropicbirds.  We also saw a blowhole from which ocean water spouted to hit the rocks. And after lunch we walked on a beautiful beach with aquamarine water on Gardner Island and observed sea lions in volume resting and cavorting on the beach. We concluded our last day snorkeling off Gardner Island, which enabled us to swim with sea lions as well as view an array of tropical fish.

When snorkeling we put on half-length wet suits provided by the ship because the water was cold. Perhaps the boat should have had full ones, although later in the week the water did warm up a little. We snorkeled virtually every day, usually in the late morning, twice with huge green turtles and twice with sea lions. We saw some spectacular tropical fish and, briefly, sharks. One day we snorkeled from a seemingly pristine Santa Cruz beach.

The boat’s food, mostly buffet with some service, was for the most part better than I expected and reasonably varied and on occasion, as when we were served grouper or, on two occasions, ceviche, quite splendid.   Soups and deserts were especially good, and the fresh tropical fruit was a pleasure.  For the most part, the crew could not have been more gracious or helpful. One night all 12 of us were invited to the bridge and to watch the instruments go to 0 degrees latitude and 0 degrees longitude as we crossed the equator.  

The recently painted Evolution is quite beautiful, although we had a few problems with inconsistent air conditioning, water pressure and hot water.  Probably some items, especially our air-conditioner, should have been in better repair when we boarded. Our boat was reasonably comfortable but somewhat basic. Yet we came to love our time on the Evolution.

Tipping: I thought I had seen everything in the way of requests for exorbitant tipping, but Quasar’s suggestion of  $60-80 per person for the guide and $140-160 per person for the rest of the crew, went beyond anything I had seen. If followed we would be tipping between $400 and $440.  It is long past time to resist such tipping and return to when tips were a modest reward for good service and not a significant part of salaries.

Conclusion:  For many people with an interest in nature, even those who are world travellers, a cruise around the Galapagos is one of the great trips of a lifetime.  One can go on boats of 16 or up to 100 on a Celebrity or Lindblad National Geographic cruise.  Some boats offer shorter cruises or longer ones, but for me our week was about right. Disconnected from Internet, television, and any news source, one immerses oneself in the natural world.

Sacha in the Amazon basin with its biodiversity and different climate added another perspective. We were also glad to have a few days in the capitol to see how Ecuadorians live and to visit Cotopaxi.

If You Go: To do all the activities in the Galapagos and the Amazon basin and to walk in high places, such as Cotopaxi, one needs be moderately fit for walking over rough terrain for as much as a few miles at a time.

Quito Hotel: With its elegant lobby and beautiful outdoor pool (but too cool in October for us to swim), the J.W Marriott is perhaps the best hotel in Quito. By international standards, the hotel had few bumps in breakfast presentation and on occasion in service and it falls a tad short of world class.  But on balance the hotel is a good value for a five star hotel. An excellent dinner at its Mexican restaurant Hacienda featured rack of lamb.

Quito Restaurant: Achiote. Excellent Ecuadorian food and fine service. : $32 for two with one beer. Juan Rodriquez 282 y, Reina Victoris.

Useful Book: Galapagos: A Natural History by Michael H. Jackson (rev and expanded edition: University of Calgary Press, 1993).