We had been on MV Discovery to Antarctica in 2004/5 and we really liked the experience. So when I found out that the ship was going to be the first cruise ship allowed in the waters around The Galapagos I thought that is for us! Of course it was going to be a lot warmer than I like these days but Doreen would be in her element. So I arranged it as a surprise, buying her a digital camera and taking a picture of the brochure for her to 'Discover' and telling her she would spend her next birthday in the Caribbean.
First of all you have to get to Ecuador and that meant flying to Quito. That is an adventure in itself, one of the highest commercial airports in the world. Since we travelled there a new airport has opened 18km to the East to make a less spectacular approach. The air is thin up there which means fast approaches and long landings and take offs. Its operation posed risks; six serious accidents and several incidents have occurred in recent years (wiki). I am getting ahead of myself because first we had to fly to Iberia's hub at Madrid. I forget exactly why we started talking to some fellow passengers but it turned out we had mutual friends, in fact one of them was a doctor from the practice that Doreen had attended on the Isle of Wight. We have other small world stories to recount on this trip.
We were to have two whole days based in a Quito Hotel. We took two of the organised trips and organised one of our own. At breakfast on the first day I joined a table at random and got talking to two who were about to leave. I quickly discovered that they weren't from the USA and correctly guessed that they were Canadians. Sometimes people just hit it off and so it was with Ed and Marilyn. We made arrangements to meet up at lunchtime after the morning tour and figure out a way to visit the equator.
Important Quito buildings
The Statue that dominates Quito, El Panecillo
The view of Quito from the Statue Base
Quito is surrounded by volcanos, whilst some are long dormant, some are just waiting to erupt again and the whole place seems braced for disaster.
In the afternoon we hired a taxi to take us to the equator, it was closed! Well the interpretation centre was, so after visiting the bits that were open and getting the obligitary photos astride the equator we headed next door to the unofficial 'real' equator.
Real equator? Well it seems by using modern GPS people discovered that the French surveyors, who made the original determination of the equator's position in 1736, were about 700 feet out in their calculations. So a rival has sprung up. There is a museum there too, as well as some psudo scientific 'proofs' that this the real equator. It has as you can see a distinctly less impressive marker. We did see a long tailed humming bird but only captured it in silhouette so you cant see its iridescent blues and greens. So after a couple of hours we found another taxi to frighten us back to Quito.
The next day we went 50km to Cotopaxi which is stated to be the highest active volcano in the world. This is what we hoped to see:
I think we were discouraged from attempting the trip by the tour staff, perhaps because we were the only ones who had registered an interest and it would tie up a minibus driver and guide for the best part of a day just for us. We were told that we might suffer altitude sickness, that we might not see very much etc. We weren't put off, if we didn't go we might regret it, and its certainly the nearest to an active volcano that I have ever planned to be. After a couple of hours driving with quite a bit of 'up' we arrived at the entrance to the Cotopaxi national park, with, you will probably have guessed, a retail opportunity.
The mountain was shrouded in cloud and we never did get a clear view of it. With lots of climbing, in our minibus, we came to a plateau and saw a vague outline of the volcano. By now our guide had a headache and he left us to wander around on our own. Its difficult to be sure but he said we were at 3700 metres about 12,000 feet. We felt no ill effects but at that altitude air pressure is less than half that at sea level.
After about an hour of not really seeing Cotopaxi we left the plateau and headed back down the crushed lava roads to our afternoon destination outside the national park, back down at around 2800 metres. We did see a buzzard circling with an unidentified bird, a vulture perhaps.
Roses are one of Ecuadors main exports and their long stemmed roses are exported around the world, we visited a rose growing hacienda and had lunch there.
On our return to UK we looked it up and found that the area North of Quito is the main rose growing area and that pesticides banned in Europe are used, allegedly causing problems for the poor workers. Of course we were shown none of that, just huge straight stemmed rose displays.
The next day we flew to The Galapagos. Because Quito's airport is so high there are restrictions on the weight of the aircraft and even with the baggage weighed, and only enough fuel to fly down to the coast and a refuelling stop, we still took all the runway to take off. We did get to see Cotopaxi though.
After the aircraft was refuelled, we had about ninety minute flight to San Cristobal (Chatham Island), by tea time we were on board MV Discovery.
These are all volcanic islands, the oldest in the east which are slowly going below sea level the newest in the west. They are caused by the sea floor slowly moving over a hot spot in the earths mantle. They famously were visited by Charles Darwin and the finches on the various islands helped him formulate his theories of natural selection. Although on the equator they are cooled by the Humbolt current which comes up from the southern Pacific Ocean.
Well it took us a while to get here but the journey was more difficult and expensive for the ship. First of all her bunkers had to be emptied of heavy fuel oil and replaced with the much cleaner diesel. Her bottom had to be cleaned of all marine life and all the many plants on board had to be gathered up and placed in cabins sealed with gaffer tape. Each night she had to steam away from the islands to discharge her dirty water, all this to avoid contaminating a unique biological reserve. When we were in Quito the Spanish language newspapers were full of news about the ship and speculation that she wouldn't in fact be allowed to visit.
Representatives of the Galapagos National Park service were on board along with Ecudorian Navy personnel plus a director of the owners company. As they used all the inside cabins for plants we didn't get to stay in the cabin we had booked (the one we went to Antarctica in) but had been upgraded to an outside cabin. We had our first onboard lectures about the National Park.
At dinner that night an initial disappointment. We were on a table for 6 as requested but on our own! We noticed that the people we had seen in Madrid and a couple that we recognised from our Antarctica trip were on a table for eight with two spare seats. I spoke with them and the Maitre d' and we joined them for all future dinners.
In the morning we went ashore and saw many of the animals that we were expecting, just there in the harbour, without going on a special trip. Seals, exotic crabs, a pelican, marine iguanas and even blue footed boobies (I'll explain later).
We mustered for an escorted trip around the park, starting with a visit to the small interpretation centre in which was repeated much of what we were told the previous afternoon in the lecture. This was one of our first disappointments. The escorted bit ended there, they seemed quite put out that we wanted to see more and for a while stalemate. We couldn't walk around it on our own and they weren't coming with us. In the end they allowed us to explore on our own and we walked around Frigate Bird Hill. Well we didn't see any Frigate birds, we saw a statue of Darwin, Discovery anchored offshore, a pelican and a few lizards. Part of the problem with seeing animals whilst based on a ship is that you can only come ashore in the daytime when the animals and birds are at their most hidden or are just plain sleepy. That isn't a quiet fag Darwin is having, its his pencil for making notes
Our trip on the second day was to Lion rock then on to an uninhabited island, Islas Lobos to see some wildlife. We had to attend a lecture first about only taking photographs and leaving nothing but footprints, same old, same old. This was to be the best bit and I'll let the photos largely speak for themselves.
'Lion' or 'Kicker' Rock
Lava Gull (Rare Vulnerable) - Frigate Bird (loads of them)
Now you see why they call it Lion Rock
Blue footed Bobby, My photo on Lion Rock and Nick Hale's
A few notes on what we saw. Frigate birds: these are large black birds with a long forked tail and until the males puff up their red chests pretty ordinary looking. Lava Gull, our guide was most excited to see it very few pairs on San Christobal, and its unique to Galapagos. Blue footed Booby what can you say! Marine Iguanas, well they are in the following photos from Isla Lobos but you will have to look carefully, their skin is lava coloured.
Did you spot all 3? Or were there 4?
Apart from that there were loads of seals, pelicans and small lizards.
Day three on Galapagos took us on a trip to the tortoise santuary and a coffee plantation, a long drive and very little to see, baby tortoises came out but it was midday and the big ones stayed hidden.
By the way the most famous Tortoise 'Lonesome George' who died in 2012, was on the island of Pinta north of the equator. Coffee wasn't bad and we bought some, but nothing much happens on a coffee plantation. That evening as the ship prepared to sail away we were first of all treated to Frigate Birds swirling around the ship superstructure:
Then after dinner the phosphorescent tracks of dolphins or similar swimming back and forth under the ship. Having mentioned dinner perhaps I should mention our fellow diners first there was the couple from the Isle of Wight, she was a doctor who needed to have a cigarette outside between courses the next couple were with us on our Antarctic trip and the third couple were from near Harwich and he was ex Trinity House like us.
In retrospect we were a bit disappointed in our trip to Galapagos, we needed to be there longer in a smaller vessel and visit more islands, still I'm so glad we went
Its a couple of days sailing from the Galapagos to Panama and we soon crossed the equator where a number of the crew and gullible passenger volunteers were presented to Neptune in the time honoured ceremony of crossing the line. Me I just had the cocktail of the day - several times if I recall.
Talking of cocktails, a typical cruise pastime is a member of the crew demonstrating how to make cocktails and a number of passengers checking them out. Moi? of course. The lovely Belinda who we last saw at Ushuaia had been promoted to the Captains table and was giving the demonstration.
So we whiled away the time as we approached Panama. When we reached Panama Bay we anchored up as we had a day to wait before our allotted time in the canal. We both selected different tours today Doreen going for a morning cable car tree top jungle trip and I an afternoon coach and train trip crossing the isthmus to Colon. Here are the pictures.
Gatun locks and Colon train terminal
The Canal transit
The panama canal is around 48 miles long but over a third of that is a navigable lake. There are three locks going up from the Pacific then three going down to the Atlantic. The typical transit time is 8 to 10 hours but we took a pause in the middle and there were various tours organised. I guess we took about 17 hrs all told. The vessels don't go through the locks under their own power but are pulled by 'mules'. MV Discovery was well within the maximum size for the locks, the maximum size of ship that can be accomodated is called a 'panamax' and we saw one or two that must have been close to that, you can see one above, the locks are 110 feet wide. They are in pairs so it would be possible for traffic to go in opposite directions at the same time but large ships would have difficulty passing in one part of the canal so normally they are both used in the same direction. Enough facts, some pictures.
The Bridge of the Americas and the first Pacific Locks and a Mule.
On Lake Gatun plenty of retail therapy.
After reboarding Discovery we went through the Gatun locks (see Frank's day above) and out into the Atlantic around midnight.
San Blas Islands
It was a hot day so I sat this trip out in our cabin. The San Blas islands are very flat and just a little bit above sea level. Apart from that what they are mainly known for is their brightly coloured applique fabrics. They are a cruise ship destination and the local children are well versed in obtaining money for being photographed. The green land iguana didn't charge.
The next day saw us in Costa Rica and in the jungle. It was of course tame jungle and there was an interpretation centre and a shop. This was however the least commercial tour on offer. We saw things that we hadn't seen before like walking trees. Well I have my doubts but the roots are in the air and it is said that if there is moisture other than directly underneath they will put out roots in the direction of the water and slowly the tree will move towards it. We also saw a monkey or two several spiders and the tiniest frog most of whom avoided our cameras. Leaf cutter ant processions and the occasional lizard plus bananas galore..
Did you spot the two lizards? Here's a help:
We got a sail away party at Puerto Limon and a word to the wise never ask for 'nothing' from the dessert menu on a cruise.
After a rest day at sea we arrived at Belize. There were very expensive trips on offer to the Mayan settlements at Tikal, in nearby Guatamala, which involved a flight and a long coach ride. It was on our list to do, but a little research showed that there were some nearby Mayan temples in Belize so we went ashore and chose a tour from the amongst the tour touts. The particular guy we chose wasn't pushy and when you see him you will see why. He was very amiable and stopped and showed us stuff that was quite unusual, for example did you know that a cashew nut was outside the fruit. See photos.
Looking at the photographs I realise that I haven't mentioned Ed and Marilyn again. Well we touched base every few days, they weren't ordinary passengers, Ed taught water colour painting and Marilyn was a bridge tutor. A large part of their life was spent on cruise ships. Bridge was beyond us perhaps, but we went to Ed's classes and Doreen produced some nice work. We have stayed in touch and collected them from Southampton when their cruise ships have given them a spare day and taken them to the local tourist places. One other thing that I neglected to say was that it was going to be Doreen's birthday, on the next day, at sea.
Well all to soon our trip was to end as we were to disembark in Nassau, capital of The Bahamas for an evening flight back to UK (this time by British Airways). Actually they were offering a very good deal to stay on the ship all the way to Harwich but we had to get back because of the dogs. We thought waiting all day in Nassau would be a waste of our time but as we randomly walked around we came across the gardens of Government House and clearly there was to be some sort of event. We enquired and found that there was to be a parade. We were welcomed into the gardens, which were lovely, and soon there was the Police band with counter-marching and drumming and a changing of the guard.
Then after experiencing some of the more touristy parts of Nassau we returned to the ship, which by now had been joined by two massive US cruise ships totally dwarfing her, then we were bussed to the airport. Initially we weren't seated together but later we were called forward and upgraded, nice.
So did Doreen enjoy her Birthday Cruise?
..and were the dogs packed and ready to come home?