A valid passport is required to enter Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, and the passport must be valid at least 6 months beyond the dates of travel. As of this writing, no visas are required for citizens of the United States. Visa requirements are subject to change.
Please remember that you are responsible for making sure that you have the proper documentation to visit Ecuador. There is a $41 international departure tax (amount subject to change) that must be paid before taking any international flight out of Ecuador. Please be sure to have enough cash on hand to pay this amount.
For more information, visit the Department of State´s website and choose Ecuador: http://travel.state.gov/travel/
Ecuador is located directly on the Equator. Quito, the capital, is located at an elevation of 9000 feet, and has a spring-like climate for most of the year. From October to May you can expect some precipitation in Quito, usually in the form of an afternoon shower, after which it usually clears up. The plus side of the rain is that this is the time when the Andes are greenest. From June to September it is drier and browner, and in June and July in Quito you can expect it to be fairly windy and a bit cooler. In recent years, these general patterns have become less predictable. The average temperature in Quito throughout the year is about 67 degrees. It gets down to about 50 degrees at night.
From roughly December to May is considered the “hot season.” The average temperature during the day is in the high 70s or low 80s, and the water temperature is from 76-83 degrees (depending on which part of the islands you are in). The skies are generally clear, with sporadic rain and calmer seas.
From May to December the air temperatures can be slightly cooler, with the average temperature in the low to mid 70s. There can also be a mist in the air called the “garua,” and the ocean can be a bit slightly rougher, though it rarely gets very rough in the Galapagos at any time of year. The colder Humboldt Current predominates and water temperatures drop to an average of 65-72 degrees. Please note that these patterns have become much less predictable in recent years.
You may want to consider renting a wetsuit in the Galapagos, particularly if you are traveling during the months of June through October (ask us if you have any questions about renting a wetsuit).
In the Amazon or Eastern cloud forest regions of Ecuador, you can expect rain all year round for at least part of the day (it’s a rainforest after all!). From March to October you can expect a bit more rain than usual in the Amazon, but travel to the region is still very common during this period.
For more detailed information including up to date weather forecasts in all the major cities in Ecuador, please visit the following website: http://www.accuweather.com/en/ec/ecuador-weather
Please note: Dress is generally very casual in the Galapagos. For the Galapagos there is a 44 pound baggage limit (for your main bag, not including the carry on). Amazon flights can have baggage weight limits from 26 pounds to 50 pounds.
Laundry Services: Almost all hotels have laundry service at reasonable rates; you should not count on being able to do any laundry in the Galapagos as laundry service is generally not available on the vessels.
Other essential gear:
Other useful gear:
Medical Kit Suggestions
Photo and Video Equipment
You will receive local contact information, including 24 hour emergency contact numbers, with your Final Itinerary.
U.S. Embassy in Ecuador Contact Information
Address: Ave. Avigiras E12-170 y Ave. Eloy Alfaro; Quito, Ecuador
Addresss for mail delivery: Ave. Guayacanes N52-205 y Ave. Avigiras; Quito, Ecuador
Business Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Monday to Friday except holidays)
Telephone: (011) 593-2-398-5000
Emergency after-hours telephone: (011) 593-2-398-5000
Fax: (011) 593-2-398-5100
Vaya Adventures U.S. Contact Information
Phone: (510) 548-8487
Outside office hours: (510) 809-6261
In Ecuador the electrical system is 110 volts, same as in the US. The sockets are generally of the two pronged flat variety found in the US, so a converter or adaptor is usually not necessary.
Bringing your smartphone
If you plan to bring a smartphone to use for making calls while traveling, you should contact your carrier prior to travel to let them know and find out if they have any traveler plans that provide discounted roaming rates in the countries you will be visiting. Without some type of discounted plan, roaming fees can be very high, and the phone settings (specifically whether you have the phone set up just for Wi-Fi or also for roaming) can make a huge difference in the costs you will incur. Your specific carrier should be able to give you detailed information about how to avoid costly roaming rates and how to adjust the settings on your particular smartphone.
Local calls: you can make local calls from your hotel or from local telephone calling centers, which can be found in the major tourist areas and larger towns. You will get considerably better rates at the calling centers. You can ask at any hotel where they are located and they will be able to tell you.
The cost of making international calls from your hotel can be very high, often $5 a minute or more. You will get much better rates at the local telephone calling centers (“centro de llamadas” or “cabinas para llamadas internacionales”), which you will be able to find in the larger towns and tourist centers. You can make collect calls back to the U.S. from almost any phone by dialing an international operator. Again, these rates will probably be very high. If you are bringing a laptop or even just a Wi-Fi enabled smartphone, probably the easiest way to call back to the U.S. is via Skype. You should set up your account prior to traveling and be sure you have some credit on it; you can then make calls through any Wi-Fi network. If you don’t have a computer or smartphone with Wi-Fi, probably the best option is to ask at your hotel or in a store where the closest calling center is if you plan to make many international calls. If you speak some Spanish, another good option if you plan to make a lot of international calls is to buy an international pre-paid calling card (rates are generally very low). These can be purchased in many convenience stores or magazine kiosks and then used at payphones to call internationally (though instructions will usually only be in Spanish).
Fax machines are generally available at hotels and businesses. Just ask at the hotel for the closest available fax.
Internet access is readily available in Ecuador in all the tourist areas and larger population centers and at some hotels. You will not generally have internet access on any Galapagos cruise. Ask in your hotel about where you can get internet access. If you plan to spend a long time online you should ask what the hotel rates are, because they are often much higher than local internet cafes (which might be right across the street).
The most common ailment to affect travelers to any destination in South or Central America is traveler’s diarrhea. The best way to avoid it is to be careful about what you eat. Some basic rules:
For up to date health information about vaccinations and recommended inoculations, you can visit the website of the Center for Disease Control at www.cdc.gov. Please keep in mind that the CDC errs on the side of caution and that there are varying opinions on the need for specific vaccinations and inoculations, including those for malaria, hepatitis, typhoid, and others. You should consult a travel clinic and travel health specialist prior to traveling if you have any questions about whether you need any vaccinations or medications. To minimize mosquito and other insect bites, you should use a Deet based insect repellant (30% strength is generally sufficient), and be sure to wear full length pants and shirts (generally cotton) and socks whenever in an area with biting insects (especially the jungle). This can make the difference between having an enjoyable walk in the woods and being very uncomfortable due to the insects. You should not wear short sleeves or short pants in the jungle.
Many people take anti-malarial medication or get yellow fever vaccinations if they plan on visiting the Amazon, though there are also many people who choose not to. The risk of contracting malaria or yellow fever is low, but it does exist. You should make the decision whether to take anti-malarial medication several weeks before you travel, as some versions of it are to be taken starting 3 weeks before you arrive to the rainforest. If you plan to visit a travel health clinic, please keep in mind that it can take weeks to get an appointment.
Altitude sickness: the altitude in Quito is approximately 9,000 feet, and this can cause some problems for people, though typically the problems are minor and subside after a few hours. Symptoms can include headache, lethargy, dizziness, and lack of appetite. If the symptoms are mild, the best thing to do is just take it easy, drink a lot of liquids, and not overexert oneself.
Seasickness: depending on the itinerary of your ship and the time of year you are traveling, waters can become choppy at times, leading to motion sickness for some individuals. There are a couple different methods to combat motion sickness. These include pills such as Dramamine, which should be taken about 1 hr. prior to when your vessel starts cruising, or a prescription patch like Scopolamine, which is applied behind your ear and allows for approximately 72 hours of protection. Please consult with your doctor about these options to determine what is best for you.
We strongly recommend that all of our travelers purchase travel insurance. Travel insurance can help cover many things, including baggage loss, missed connections, trip interruption, and medical emergency (including medical evacuation costs), resulting from a wide variety of circumstances, including illness or extreme weather that results in the cancellation of your trip. It can also help protect you in the event of loss of non-refundable trip deposits and payments that result from cancellation or trip interruption. Families traveling together, in particular, can benefit from traveler’s insurance, due to the high investment in the trip and the increased risk of one person’s illness resulting in the entire trip being cancelled. There are many companies that provide trip insurance. We offer insurance through Allianz, and their most popular plan is the Classic Plan. You can view details of this plan by clicking on this link: Allianz Classic Plan, or by visiting the Allianz website at www.allianztravelinsurance.com.
On a Galapagos cruise, the staff might suggest an amount to be given as a tip; you should give what you feel comfortable giving, whether it’s higher or lower than what they suggest. A suggested tip to be split between the guide and the crew for a full 8 day cruise in the Galapagos would be about $150-$175 per person. Generally, the tips will be given to the guide or to one member of the crew, so you don’t have to divide your tip. If you go on a shorter cruise of 4 days, this range would be about $75-$85; for a 5 day cruise it would be about $95-$110.
Typically, if you have a guide for a full day for an excursion on the mainland, a suggested tip would be somewhere in the range of $10-$15 per day, per person. If you go on a shorter trip of a half day, the tip would basically be proportional to what proportion of the day you spent with the guide. If half a day, $5-$8 per person would be a typical range. It can be more, or less, but this is suggested range. Drivers/crew: About 1/3 of what you give the guide himself would be an appropriate benchmark for each of these individuals. For families with children, we suggest giving 50% of the normal per person amount for each child. This is completely at your discretion and you should give what you feel comfortable giving.
For drivers who do airport transfers or other short rides, you shouldn’t feel the need to tip every single time you are getting out of a vehicle. It’s not the case that drivers are expecting a tip every time they take you somewhere. If you have a driver in a city who takes you to and from the airport and you have the chance to give him or her a few dollars (maybe $2 per ride) at the end of the last ride, that’s great and will be appreciated.
If you stay at a place where all meals are included, you may also want to leave some type of tip at the end for the service staff (they often have some type of tipping jar or other way to give a tip to the waiters and other staff). Approximately $5 per person per day is a suggested amount. These types of tips are totally discretionary.
Galapagos, A Natural History, by Michael H. Jackson. A very good introduction to the geology, history, and ecology of the Galapagos. Readable and very informative. Written by a naturalist who worked for many years in the islands as a guide and zoologist.
The Beak of the Finch, by Jonathan Wiener. Highly recommended. A Pulitzer prize winning book that discusses the work of Rosemary and Peter Grant, a couple that has been observing finches on the Galapagos Island of Daphne Major for over 20 years. Discusses the wider implications of the Grants’ work in the context of modern thinking on evolution.
Insight Guide Ecuador and Galapagos. This volume contains numerous essays on a wide variety of topics in Ecuadorian life, natural history, and society, all written by experts in their field. The book is worth buying for the hundreds of outstanding photos alone.
Voyage of the Beagle, by Charles Darwin. Darwin’s account of his 5 year voyage on the HMS Beagle, during which he made his visit to the Galapagos Islands. It was published in 1839, only shortly after his trip ended, and he is still in the process of coming up with the theory of evolution by natural selection.
Galapagos: The Islands That Changed the World is a BBC documentary shot from the air, sea, and land and gives not only incredible film footage but also an interesting overview of all the forces at work in the Galapagos.
Early Human History
Humans first inhabited Ecuador approximately 10-15,000 years ago. It is generally believed that they were descendants of the people who crossed the Bering Land Bridge that connected Asia to the North American continent during the last ice age, approximately 15-20,000 years ago. The history of these early peoples is not well known, though there are pottery remains that demonstrate the existence of different civilizations on the coast and in the central highlands dating back to around 3000 BC. These civilizations engaged in trade with their neighbors in Peru to the south and with Amazonian tribes to the east, and developed metalworking and navigational skills. Some major archeological sites have been found along the coast and in the highlands that suggest the formation of cities starting approximately 2000 years ago. There were a number of different tribes, speaking highly distinct languages. These societies were largely based on hunting, fishing, agriculture and trade, and were often at war with one another. No single dominant society emerged. When the Incas arrived to Ecuador in the latter half of the 15th century, they were met by fierce resistance from several different tribes, including the Canari, the Caras and the Quitu.
The Arrival of the Incas
Around 1460 the Incas arrived to Ecuador, having already conquered vast stretches of territory throughout Peru and Bolivia. The Incas were led by Pachacutec, a sort of Incan Alexander the Great, who had launched the Incas on a campaign of aggressive conquest starting only a few decades earlier. His son Tupac Yupanqui continued the empire’s imperial expansion and led the beginning of the Inca invasion into Ecuador. By the end of the 15th century, at around the same time Columbus was making his first voyages to the New World, the Incas had conquered all of Ecuador, led by Huayna Capac, the son of Tupac Yupanqui.
Background on the Incas
The Incas started out in about the 12th century as one of several different Andean tribes that gradually grew in power and influence. Throughout the first 300 years of their reign, the Incas ruled only over the area near Cusco, Peru. They built impressive palaces and over time improved their skills in administration and governing. Their skills in military organization also improved as they constantly battled with their neighbors. In a sudden explosion of imperial ambition, in less than a hundred years the Incas came to rule over an empire that stretched from southern Colombia all the way down to central Chile. It was one of the largest empires in world history.
The Incas maintained order across their kingdom by building a vast network of stone-paved roads (estimated at about 20,000 miles in total), that ran up and down the length of the empire. The terrain over which these roads were built was extremely difficult, much of it straight up and down the Andes (the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is but one example). Numerous large suspension bridges were built across powerful rivers such as the Apurimac and the Urubamba. They had an efficient system of relay runners called “chaskis” that delivered messages across the territories via the highway system at previously unheard of speeds, allowing for greater communication and administration of the far flung empire. They imposed their language, Quechua, and their religion of worshipping the Sun on all of the peoples they conquered. Difficult tribes were sometimes broken up and relocated to different areas to reduce their threat. Vast storage houses and imperial outposts were built. The Incas were not known for significant advances in the arts and sciences from what the earlier Peruvian societies had achieved, but their advances in political and military organization were extraordinary.
As they had done throughout their empire, the Incas imposed their language, customs and religion on all the conquered peoples of Ecuador. In southern Ecuador, they established a vast capital city named Tomebamba that is said to have rivaled the glories of Cusco. Many Incan cities were established throughout the country. To this day, the language of the Incas, Quechua, is the dominant language of the indigenous people in Ecuador.
The Conquest of the Incas
Despite its impressive scale, the Incan empire did not last for long. Huayna Capac, the Incan ruler who first conquered the lands that make up present day Ecuador, lived out his last years in the newly conquered territory. When he died (possibly from smallpox brought by the Spanish), he split his empire between two of his sons, Atahualpa and Huascar. Atahualpa had authority to rule the northern half of the mighty empire from Quito, while Huascar would rule the southern half from Cusco. This arrangement proved untenable. Incan society was already under strain, as deadly diseases brought by Europeans had made their way throughout the Americas (years ahead of the conquistadors themselves). Civil war eventually broke out between the two brothers in the late 1520s. Several years of intense and bloody conflict ensued, leading right up to the time when Pizarro and his force arrived in the early 1530s. Atahualpa emerged victorious in the civil war, with the decisive battle taking place in Ecuador near Riobamba, south of Quito. Huascar was captured and executed, and Atahualpa became the sole ruler of the empire.
In 1532, Francisco Pizarro landed in Ecuador with 180 armed men and a few dozen horses, at the same time Atahualpa was resting in northern Peru after the successful military campaign. Earlier Spanish naval expeditions down the northwestern coast of South America had given rise to rumors of a great civilization of vast wealth. With the recent successes of Hernan Cortez in conquering the Aztecs of Mexico as a model, Pizarro and his forces had arrived to try and conquer this great civilization of South America.
Pizarro benefited from the disarray that the civil war and the new diseases had wrought throughout the empire. For reasons that aren’t entirely understood, the Incan ruler Atahualpa agreed to a meeting that Pizarro requested with him, without even requiring the Spanish horsemen to give up their swords and other weapons. Perhaps Atahualpa thought that with such a relatively small army the Spanish couldn’t pose a serious threat, and would never think of starting a battle. The Spanish ambushed the Incan ruler, and quickly took him captive. In the ensuing battles against local soldiers, the Spanish, on horseback, fully armored, and with steel swords, were nearly invincible. Each Spanish soldier was able to defeat huge numbers of native troops in battle. The end of the Incan Empire had arrived with shocking abruptness, less than a hundred years after it had started its great expansion from Cusco.
The Spanish in Ecuador
Though the Inca Empire had lost its leader, local efforts against the Spanish conquest continued. Quito was the seat of some of the strongest resistance against the invaders, as local armies under General Rumiñahui (one of the heroes of Ecuadorian history) held off the Spanish conquest of Quito for two years. Rumiñahui eventually burned the entire city to the ground rather than leaving it to the invaders. Almost all of the other Incan cities in Ecuador were razed by the fleeing natives or subsequently by the arriving Spanish, and as a result there are very few Incan sites in Ecuador today. The largest is Ingapirca, to the north of Cuenca. Close to Quito, in the area of Cotopaxi volcano, you can observe several magnificent Incan walls and the foundations of an Incan palace at the Hacienda San Agustin de Callo.
The fall of Quito marked the end of any serious resistance to the Spanish in Ecuador, but it did not take long for the locals to realize that the Spanish were even more oppressive than the Incas. The Spanish introduced the encomienda system, whereby all native people had to work for and pay tribute to the local Spanish representatives. Spanish treatment of the natives was brutal throughout the defeated Incan empire, including in Ecuador, and the Spanish ruled over the region for almost 300 years. The capital of the empire in the Americas was Lima, and a large and beautiful colonial city was also built in Quito, much of which still remains to be seen by the visitor. Quito’s concentration of beautiful colonial buildings, some dating from the 16th century, has earned it the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Independence from Spain
The movement towards independence came not from the indigenous population of Ecuador, but from the “Creole” population, or locally born descendants of original Spanish settlers. The Creoles steadily increased in number but were always considered the inferiors of later-arriving settlers who were actually born in Spain. The Creoles’ second-class status generated enough resentment that independence movements began throughout the Spanish colonies in Latin America, led by the famous liberators Simon Bolivar (from Venezuela) and Jose de San Martin (from Argentina). In May, 1822, the rebels won the decisive Battle of Pichincha (on the slopes of the volcano rising above Quito), and independence was achieved. In 1823, independence in Peru was achieved by Bolivar and San Martin’s armies, driving Spain out of South America.
For eight years after independence, Simon Bolivar saw his dream of one vast country in South America begin to be realized. The country of Gran Colombia was formed from Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela, and Bolivar hoped to unite the entire region into a single nation led by a powerful ruler. However, local interests ultimately undid Bolivar’s plans, and Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela split into three nations. Ecuador gained full independence in 1830. Bolivar’s dream was dashed.
Ecuador has had a tumultuous history since its independence, alternating between democratically elected leaders and military dictatorships. There is an ongoing power dispute between the wealthy classes of Quito and those of the coastal city of Guayaquil (Ecuador’s largest city). Major discoveries of petroleum in the Amazonian region of Ecuador in the second half of the twentieth century led to its joining OPEC. Its oil reserves have been a source of wealth but also a source of corruption and social disorder. Ecuador had a long standing border dispute with Peru that, after several skirmishes, was resolved peacefully in October 1988.
In 1999, the Ecuadorian economy went through its worst crisis in history. The currency began to plummet in value, and Ecuador defaulted on its IMF loans. To prevent people from taking all their money out of the banking system and destroying the nation’s financial institutions, President Jamil Mahuad froze all accounts above a certain level and claimed that they would be paid back over 5 years at a fixed exchange rate. He also implemented a dollarization program to lend stability to the currency. Many people lost as much as 75% of their life savings as a result of the economic crisis, and President Mahuad was driven out of office by massive public protests. The presidency of Ecuador has in the last few years been a job with a very short life-span, with several presidents being driven from office. However, the dollarization program has been continued and to this day the U.S. dollar is the official currency of Ecuador. In the last few years the economy has stabilized, but Ecuador is a nation that still faces considerable economic and political challenges.
Ecuador’s population is approximately 55 percent mestizo (mixed Indigenous and Caucasian blood), 25 percent Indigenous, 10 percent Caucasian, and 9 percent of African descent (descendants of slaves brought to South America).
The Market in Otavalo
The Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador and lying across the equatorial line, have delighted visitors for hundreds of years. Charles Darwin visited the Islands in 1835, over 3 years after the HMS Beagle had set sail from England. His time there was to play a pivotal role in his development of the theory of evolution. In Voyage of the Beagle, his book recounting his trip around the world as the naturalist onboard the H.M.S. Beagle, he wrote the following about the Galapagos (several years before publishing the Origin of Species):
“The archipelago is a little world within itself, or rather a satellite attached to America, whence it has derived a few stray colonists, and has received the general character of its indigenous productions. Considering the small size of these islands, we feel the more astonished at the number of their aboriginal beings, and at their confined range. Seeing every height crowned with its crater, and the boundaries of most of the lava-streams still distinct, we are led to believe that within a period, geologically recent, the unbroken ocean was here spread out. Hence, in both space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat nearer to that great fact–that mystery of mysteries–the first appearance of new beings on this earth.”
Origin of the Islands
The Galapagos Islands are the peaks of massive undersea volcanoes and are composed almost entirely of basalt. The oldest islands are approximately 3 to 3.5 million years old, while the youngest are about 800,000 years old. Geologists believe that the islands were formed in much the same way as the Hawaiian Islands, from a sub-oceanic “hot spot” or lava vent. According to this theory, there are “hot spots” of intense heat in the earth’s mantle that cause the tectonic plate above them to break down and crack. The magma that pours out forms volcanoes. In the case of the Galapagos, the magma pours out from the ocean floor, over time building up undersea mountains that are from 6000 to over 20,000 feet above the ocean floor. The Galapagos Islands are the tops of these volcanically formed mountains. The hot spot’s position does not move, but the tectonic plate on which the volcanoes have formed is gradually shifting eastward. As a result, the oldest volcanoes are in the eastern part of the islands, and the newest islands are all in the west. This process continues to this day, and there are several active volcanoes in the Galapagos Islands, the youngest and most active being Marchena, Pinta, Isabela, and Fernandina.
The climate in the Galapagos is determined in large part by ocean currents. The Humboldt Current is a cold current that originates in Antarctica and runs up the western coast of South America and then westward past the Galapagos (this current explains why penguins are in the Galapagos!). When the Humboldt Current predominates in the islands, typically from July to December, the islands experience the “garua” or cool/dry season. The cold ocean currents cool the air and an inversion layer is created. There is very little precipitation except at the level of the inversion layer, and as a result there is much more vegetation and a lush cloud forest environment on the upper slopes of the islands at the level of the inversion layer.
When the Humboldt Current recedes and the warmer southeast trade winds begin to predominate, the warmer waters of the Panama Basin arrive to the islands. Water temperatures go up by several degrees, and a more typical equatorial climate prevails, with warmer and wetter weather. This season usually last from January through June, though in recent years global climactic changes have made these patterns much less predictable. The El Nino effect can occur when the warmer waters predominate more than usual, causing unusually heavy rainfall.
Human History in the Galapagos
The Galapagos were first discovered by westerners in 1535, when the Bishop of Panama, Fray Tomas de Berlanga, and his ship were carried there by accident. The winds had died and their ship was carried to the islands by the currents. For the next several hundred years the Galapagos were mainly an outpost for pirates and whaling vessels. The giant tortoises on the islands proved to be a great and durable source of food for the seamen, and vast numbers of the giant creatures were put on board ships, greatly reducing their numbers. Fur seals on the islands were also nearly hunted to extinction during this time. Many of the visitors considered the islands a dreadful, barren place, but often were amazed at the unusual and incredibly tame animal life. In the early 19th century people first started to settle in the Galapagos Islands. After Ecuador annexed the islands in 1832, they were used as a penal colony. Various names have been given to the islands through the years by the different groups of Spanish, English and Americans that have passed through them, resulting in the variety of names you see on maps of the islands. Throughout the 20th century a series of scandalous and mysterious events took place on the island of Floreana among some of the first settlers. Today there are human settlements on four islands: Isabela, Floreana, Santa Cruz, and San Cristobal.
How Animals Arrived to the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands have never had contact with the continental land mass, and are over 600 miles from the South American coast. The question naturally arises as to how the variety of animals that inhabit the islands got there in the first place. The most accepted theory on how the animals arrived is by floating on pieces of land that broke off from the mainland or from riverbanks and were carried out to sea. These can be in the form of “rafts” of vegetation, formed of tree trunks and other vegetation. Large floating masses of land have been found near the coasts of South America, some many meters square and large enough to support trees. These types of natural rafts have also been found in many other places in the world. Most of these rafts would sink before making it 600 miles out into the ocean, but some have been recorded as much as several hundred miles offshore. It would take about two weeks for a raft of this type floating from the mainland to reach the Galapagos.
It would only take a handful of successful arrivals to the islands over the course of several million years to account for the diversity of species that exist there. This theory also helps explain why there are more reptiles than mammals in the islands and why there are no amphibians. Reptiles are able to survive on very little water, while mammals would likely perish. Any amphibians would almost certainly dry out and perish in the course of two or more weeks at sea. As for other types of life on the islands, many types of plant spores and very small animals (such as insects and even spiders) could have been transported by air. There are very few flowers in the Galapagos because most flowers rely on pollinators such as bees, and very few pollinating insects have made it to the islands.
Almost all of the reptile species in the Galapagos are endemic (meaning that they are unique to the islands). These include the giant Galapagos tortoise that gave the islands their name (one other similar species exists in the Seychelles Islands, about 400 miles off the coast of Tanzania). They can reach over 500 pounds in weight and are the largest tortoises in the world.
Marine iguanas are another of the defining creatures of the Galapagos. They are the only marine lizards in the world. They are evolved from an ancestral land lizard (perhaps an ancient green iguana) that arrived to the Galapagos and evolved to eat seaweed. They can stay under water for over an hour while they are eating seaweed that can be found in the shallow areas off the coasts of the islands.
Land Iguanas also evolved from an ancestral lizard from the mainland, but have developed a yellow color. They eat plants of any kind, including cactus pads, and they can live to over 60 years of age. The population of land iguanas has been greatly reduced due to introduced species and hunting. Sea Turtles can be seen while snorkeling or diving in the islands or when they come up for air alongside your boat. They average about 200 pounds. Other reptiles include three species of snakes, the oft-seen lava lizard, and several species of geckos.
Very few mammals made it to the Galapagos before the arrival of humans, who brought with them several species that have caused tremendous harm in the islands, including goats, dogs, and cats. The original species included two species of bats and two species of rice rats. Several species of marine mammals have made their home in the Galapagos, including blue whales, humpback whales, sperm whales, killer whales, pilot whales, and dolphins.
There are 19 species of seabirds in the Galapagos, with five endemic species. Two of the more remarkable creatures you will see in the Galapagos are the Galapagos penguin and the flightless cormorant. Penguins were able to arrive to the Galapagos due to the cold Humboldt Current that flows from Antarctica and passes by the islands. Additional penguin colonies exist in the cold water off the Ballestas Islands in Peru, which are also crossed by the Humboldt Current. The flightless cormorant is a bird whose ancestors arrived as a flying bird but that has now evolved to be flightless. The lack of predators presumably rendered the wings useless, and it has evolved into a more streamlined swimmer.
Espanola Island is the nesting place of the entire world population of 12,000 waved albatrosses. They have wing spans of up to two meters, mate for life, and can live over 50 years. Between January and March the entire population leaves the island to hunt for food off the coasts of Ecuador and Peru. Their ritual courtship and mating dance is an incredible spectacle.
There are three species of boobies in the Galapagos, the most prevalent of which is the blue footed booby. The other two species are the masked (or white) booby, and the red footed booby. All are remarkable fliers, and the blue footed boobies be seen diving for fish by plunging at great speeds into the ocean. The red footed boobies exist almost exclusively on Genovesa Island in the far northeastern Galapagos, and hunt far out to see for flying fish and squid. They also differ from the blue footed and masked boobies in that they nest in bushes or trees, rather than on the ground.
The twig-less ground nests of the blue footed boobies are one of the most conspicuous features of the Galapagos, and at times one has to be careful not to step on them. At times they establish their nests directly in the middle of the trail. The mating rituals of the boobies are elaborate. You can tell the difference between the male and the female because the male makes a long high pitched whistling sound, while the female makes a very nasal sounding “honk.” You will observe the birds circling each other and engaging in various courtship behaviors, including the ritual giving of small twigs which have no practical purpose. This is thought to be some kind of “relic” behavior from when the birds actually made nests with twigs, which they no longer do. It appears that the male is giving a gift to the female.
Frigatebirds are exceptionally good flyers, and often steal food from other birds in mid flight. They are unable to land in the water or dive for fish because they do not have waterproof feathers. You can distinguish the males by their large inflated red pouches under their beaks, which they use to try to attract females.
The Galapagos Hawk has no natural enemies and has no fear of any other animals. They eat lizards, young iguanas, carrion, rats, insects, and young birds. There are two species of owls in the Galapagos, the barn owl and the short-eared owl.
There are 13 species of Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos, and many are difficult to tell apart.
The beaks are the most distinguishing feature. It is thought that all 13 current species descend from a common ancestor, and due to the varying circumstances and environments they have faced on the different islands, they have evolved very different beaks for feeding. Some use their beaks to use a twig or cactus spine as a tool to burrow for grubs. Others have sharper beaks for breaking into cactus pads. The variations in the finches, along with the idea that they all very likely came from a common ancestor, were a major inspiration for Charles Darwin in forming the theory of evolution.
Marine Life in the Galapagos
Snorkeling or diving in the Galapagos is some of the best in the world. One of the more remarkable things is having the chance to swim face to face with sea lions, which seem to enjoy playing games with humans in the water. Sea turtles, several species of sharks (including hammerheads), rays and dozens of other kinds of brightly colored fish can also be seen.
In the New Town
Address: Obispo de la Madrid, North of Town. Very high quality meals in a unique location at a mountainside hacienda located up the hill out of Quito, about 15 minutes from the New Town, about 25 minutes from the Old Town. A bit longer taxi ride but outstanding views and very good food.
Closed Mondays. Phone 02/2548-206
Address Eloy Alfaro 2530 and Catalina Aldaz. Upscale, more traditional Ecuadorian cuisine. Phone: 02/246-1664 or 02/244-6654.
Address: corner of Isabel la Catolica and Cordero. Upscale, international cuisine, considered one of Quito’s very best restaurants. Phone: 256 60 33, or 255 63 36. Closed Sundays.
Address: Corner of Foch y Tamayo; excellent seafood restaurant, unique nautical decor; expensive. Phone: 2544-420.
Astrid & Gaston
Address: Avenida Coruna N32-302 and Av Gonzalez Suarez. Highly regarded (founded by a renowned Peruvian celebrity chef, Arcurio Gaston), creative nouvelle/fusion cuisine. Phone: 250-6621
Address: Mariano Aguilera 331 and La Pradera. Trendy, modern décor; often a lively bar scene; very good, creative cuisine. Phone: 02/2543-559
In Old Town Quito
Address: Calle Carchi y Nicaragua (in the Parque de San Juan), up above the Old Town. High quality innovative cuisine, a few minutes drive up from the Old Town, with great views.
Address: Corner of Chile y Venezuela. A beautiful location in a colonial building, known for both its local and international cuisine. Phone: 295-1190 or 295-0392
Address: Manuel Samaniego N8-95 and Antepara. Fantastic views of Quito (probably the best in the city), good food (but views are probably better than food), international /Mediterranean cuisine. They don’t take reservations, and you may have to wait a bit if you go at peak hours. A great place for late afternoon drink or coffee, or early dinner to see the city lights come on.
Olga Fisch Folklore
Renowned crafts store, focusing on refined interpretations of traditional craft styles.
Address: Av. Colon E10-53 y Caamano, one block below the Plaza Artigas (there is also a smaller outlet in the Hotel Patio Andaluz)
Phone: (593-2) 2541 315 / 2563 085
High quality artesan crafts, located in the Old Town underneath San Francisco Church.
Address: Plaza San Francisco; Phone: 02/2230-609
High quality artesan crafts.
Address: Juan León Mera N23-69 (833) (Between Baquedano and Wilson); Phone: 02/2540-380
If you have time on your own, you may want to just stroll around the old town, home to some of the oldest colonial buildings in the Americas. Some noteworthy places include: Plaza de la Independencia; Iglesia de San Francisco; la Compania de Jesus; Iglesia de la Merced; Casa Museo María Augusta Urrutia (museum of a famous old city home in Quito with many interesting artifacts).
The New Town: Quito’s principal museums and commercial center are in the new town. One place that is well worth a visit is the Fundacion Guayasamin, which is the former home of Ecuador’s most famous 20th century artist, and which houses many of his own works along with his large collection of Pre-Columbian and colonial artifacts (closed on weekends). We can also arrange visits to the home/studio of another renowned Ecuadorian artist, Oswaldo Viteri. The Museo Nacional del Banco Central de Ecuador is also certainly worth a visit, containing a vast collection of pre-Columbian artifacts and a huge collection of colonial art (this is the main Archeology and Anthropology museum in Quito).