Exploring the rich culture and habitat of Ecuador and the Galapagos

Alaska couple's South America journey continues

Part three in a four-part series.

After enjoying the first leg of our 50th wedding anniversary trip in Peru, my husband and I moved on to Quito, which marked the beginning of an adventure that immersed us in the rich history and vibrant culture of Ecuador. We were met by an English-speaking driver and guide, which Smithsonian Journeys and Audley Travel had arranged. They whisked us away to La Casona De La Ronda, a charming boutique hotel housed within a Spanish colonial mansion dating back to 1738.

Our first taste of Ecuadorian cuisine at Los Geranimos, a quaint family-owned restaurant near our hotel, was a culinary delight. From shrimp ceviche to fried guinea pig legs to flaming desserts, each dish was delicious.

The following morning, New Year's Eve, we embarked on a guided tour of Ecuador's capital. We first drove to the hilltop sanctuary of Virgin del Panecillo, which offered panoramic views of Quito's sprawling landscape that stretches 35 miles long and 6 miles wide. The stunning Madonna statue, which is 135 feet tall and can be seen across the city, was made with 7,400 aluminum pieces.

The Basilica, with its impressive French-inspired architecture adorned with indigenous motifs, highlighted Ecuador's diverse heritage. The San Francisco cathedral provided a glimpse into the city's religious fervor, showcased through opulent golden altars and intricate nativity scenes. And a visit to a small shop where we learned traditional chocolate-making techniques, from bean to bar, was a sweet highlight of our day and offered insight into Ecuador's rich cocoa heritage.

Unique New Year's Eve traditions

As we strolled along cobblestone streets, we discovered fascinating Ecuadorian traditions specific to New Year's Eve. Large, elaborately crafted scarecrow-like dolls lined the sidewalks and plazas, each one unique in design and message. From political figures to cartoon characters, they captured the spirit of año viejo (the old year) and are set ablaze at midnight to release bad energy from the prior year and embrace the promise of the new year ahead.

We also saw viudas, or widows of the old year, harassing drivers and passersby. Dressed in drag-complete with balloons to accentuate their figures, high heels, short skirts and wigs-these men take to the streets this day to stop traffic and ask for small change before letting drivers continue. The money collected goes into a pot to fund a party later that night.

After spending a quiet New Year's Day in Quito, we flew more than 800 miles to the Galapagos Islands. Landing on Baltra, we were met by a guide holding our ship's sign: Solaris. Once all 16 passengers for the ship gathered, we were bussed to the beach where we climbed into rubber rafts that took us to our eight-cabin yacht.

Adventures in the Galapagos

Once we checked into our cabin, we joined the rest of our shipmates for a lovely lunch while the captain steered the 118-foot ship to Bachas Beach on Santa Cruz Island. Our guide, who was born in the Galapagos, told us we would be rafting to its shore for a "wet" landing that afternoon.

Don, 80, and I, 72, prayed we wouldn't make fools of ourselves while getting in and out of rafts during our daily excursions. Our old bones weren't as agile as they once were, and we didn't want to give seniors a bad rep. Thankfully, we maneuvered in and out of the rafts just fine.

That afternoon, we hopped off the raft into about two feet of water and then took a walk to see what wildlife lived on this island. We found land iguanas, magnificent frigate birds, Galapagos brown pelicans, Nazca boobies, Darwin finches, blue-footed boobies, brown noddies, great blue herons perched on mangrove trees, Franklin's gulls, Sally Lightfoot crabs, ghost crabs, and a green marine turtle.

The next morning we had a "dry" landing on the rocky lava shore of Tintoreras, which consists of several small islets off the coast of Puerto Villamil. We managed to haul ourselves off the raft and up concrete steps. Our mile-long hike along a crushed black lava trail yielded sightings of Galapagos sea lions and pups, white-tipped sharks in a lagoon, and many marine iguanas. We also saw our first Galapagos penguins, which are only about 13 inches tall. So cute!

Conservation helps Galapagos tortoises

The Arnaldo Tupiz Tortoise Breeding Center on Isabella Island was on the afternoon agenda. We saw hundreds of giant Galapagos tortoises, but they weren't giant at all. The hatchlings were smaller than the size of one's hand. Once eggs hatch, the baby tortoises are kept in screened boxes for two years until their shells harden. Then they're moved into larger areas for another three to five years before being introduced to their natural habitat.

We were heartened to learn conservationists at the center have managed to increase the population of endangered species, restoring balance to fragile ecosystems, and ensuring the survival of these ancient creatures for future generations.

During the next four days, we rafted to and hiked around several more islands, including Fernandina, Santiago, Rabida, and Chinese Hat. We saw abundant birds and wildlife at each stop-including Galapagos fur seals, Galapagos hawks, and a Galapagos snake. The snake, about as big around as a human thumb and three feet long, evolved to lose its poisonous capability and became a mini boa constrictor.

On our way back to the airport to return to Quito, our guide took us to a tortoise reserve on Santa Cruz Island. We were thrilled to see so many giant tortoises, several weighing more than 500 pounds and more than 100 years old, roaming around in their natural habitat.

Our time in the Galápagos reminded us of the power of nature to inspire and awe. We cherished every moment of our adventure, savoring the sights, sounds and sensations of this remote paradise. When we said goodbye to the islands and set our sights toward the Amazon rainforest, we realized two things: our memories will last a lifetime and the spirit of exploration knows no age.

 
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