Day 1: Ecuador & Galapagos – The Journey Begins

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Travel / South America, World Travel / Day 1: Ecuador & Galapagos – The Journey Begins

An overview of the Ecuador and Galapagos itinerary as well as a few interesting facts about the country.

Filed Under: South America, World Travel by admin June 28, 2012, 11:43 pm

Few things take the excitement out of an exotic vacation more than having to wake up at 3:30 in the morning to catch a plane. That realization was the opening act of this two week extravaganza for my first trip to the South American continent. Coupled with the fact that I had just returned from a two week business trip to China about 48 hours before departing on this trip, made the morning wake-up call even more onerous that it would have been otherwise.

Nonetheless, by 5 AM I had been dropped off at SFO with my trusty expedition bag that has been my constant travel companion since my very first trip back in 1998. Even at this hour, the line for American Airlines was out the door. There really is no point in waiting for counter agents in these situations. The automated kiosks are usually the best bet. So, after getting my boarding ticket from one of the available stations, I walked over into the much shorter bag-check lines, checked in my North Face backpack and then proceeded through security and to my gate.

Flag of Ecuador

The first leg of this trip was from San Francisco to Miami, Florida. Oddly enough, it was also the longer of the two sections of the trip. After a brief one hour layover in Miami, where I nearly missed my connecting flight to Quito, I flew almost due south for the three and a half hour flight to Ecuador. Since the vast majority of this day was spent in the air, I got a chance to catch up on my trusty Rough Guide to Ecuador guide book that I had brought along to get some important historical references to the country that I would be spending the next two weeks in.

The Republic of Ecuador is one of only 13 countries that lie on the equator. It is also one of only seven countries, outside of the United States, that uses the US Dollar as its official currency. This conversion occurred in March 2000 when the former currency, the Sucre, was significantly devalued over a period of two decades. Starting in the 1980s the value of the Sucre fell from 42 Sucres per US dollar in 1983 to as low as 25,000 Sucres per dollar by 1999. As bad as this seems, the radical devaluing of the Ecuadorian currency was not an isolated event. Most of Latin America was facing serious economic trouble in the waning years of the 20th century. Though each nation suffered in their own way, none was hit as hard as Argentina, which was knocked back with a myriad of simultaneous problems including a series of weak democratic governments and military dictatorship takeovers, double digit unemployment, and a staggering amount of hyperinflation that saw prices of goods and services increase by as much as 5000% per year. Since then, mandatory reforms by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and painful austerity measures has stabilized most of the Latin American economy. In fact, the country of Brazil has far exceeded the expectations of its turnaround and is currently one of the fastest growing economies in the developing world.

Another interesting detail about Ecuador is that it boasts the highest point on the planet furthest from the center of the Earth. But everyone knows that Mt. Everest is the tallest mountain on the planet, so how can this be? Well, the Earth is not perfectly spherical. There is an equatorial bulge due to the centrifugal force of the Earth’s rotation that causes its radius to be longest at the equator, and shortest at the poles. This protuberance results in the equatorial diameter to be 26.54 miles (47.72 km) greater than the polar diameter. As a direct result of this geographical oddity, the point on Earth furthest away from the center of the planet is at the summit of Mount Chimborazo which tops off at an elevation of 20,702 feet (6,310 meters). In other words, standing at the crest of Mount Chimborazo will get you closer to the sun than any other spot on planet Earth. Mount Everest’s summit still stands as the highest point above sea level at 29,029 feet (8,848 meters).

The trip itself is going to be broken down into two distinct phases. The first part of it will be spent travelling from the capital city of Quito, down through the Pan American Highway to the historic colonial city of Cuenca (pronounced Kwen-ka). This 200 mile journey will take us through the part of the Andes known as the Avenue of Volcanoes, a stretch that is sprinkled with no less than 14 volcanoes, several of them still active. The dramatic peaks tower over the surrounding landscape as the Pan American snakes its way through the backbone of Ecuador’s Andes range.

Finally, the last stop on the mainland will take us from the tierra fria elevations down to sea level as we arrive at the port city of Guayaquil.

The second phase will take us from the mainland out to the Galapagos Archipelago where we will visit 3 islands and immerse ourselves in a myriad of outdoor activities over the course of a week. Finally, we will fly back to Quito for the final two days prior to departing for home. Not too bad of an itinerary. We get to see enough of each part of the country to get a good appreciation for Ecuador — the smallest of the Andean countries.

As my plane landed in Quito this evening around 7:30, the scene was chaotic. Three other international flights also landed in the same time period as we did, and the immigration line took almost 90 minutes to weave through. Usually, four international flights landing at an airport is not a problem. But Quito’s airport is not set up for this. It’s a small airfield and 600 some odd passengers creates quite a burden on the few immigration booths that are manned by security personnel. Waiting to get through this red tape, my lungs definitely felt the altitude. It’s not often that one lands at 3,000 meters above sea level. It would take about a day to acclimate to the elevation.

Finally, with the immigration mess behind me, I headed to baggage claim only to find out that my backpack never left Miami. It would arrive 24 hours later, and I would have to return to the airport to pick it up and hand-carry it through security. That means another round trip taxi ride to and from the airport. As a consolation prize, I got a free pair of engraved LAN airline shorts to sleep in for the night. Hooray! So with my light load, I exited the airport terminal and flagged down a taxi to take me out to the hotel that I had reserved in the old historic district of the city. Once I dropped off my brand new pair of nifty shorts in my room, it was time to find a bite to eat.

Just a few minutes down the street from the Boutique Hotel Plaza Sucre that I was staying at is the quaint and narrow, pedestrian-only street of La Ronda. The whitewashed walls of the old colonial Spanish buildings line the footpath along either side. Art galleries, restaurants, and craft shops spill over onto each other as shopkeepers stand outside their doors attempting to usher passerby’s into their place of business with menus in hand or a friendly gesture and a nod of the head. Despite the quiet streets in the surrounding neighborhood, La Ronda itself was an oasis of activity, lights, music, and people. Soon, I stumbled upon a fanciful little spot that advertised its shrimp empanadas and humitas on its large blackboard sign just outside the main door. The proprietor smiled as she saw me approach and started her Spanish pitch, apparently listing all of the specials and menu options that were available. After deciphering my wide eyes and lack of response as incomprehension, she switched over to broken English and asked if I would like an English menu. Half an hour later I had finished the first Quiteño meal I’ve ever had, which included the empanadas, some rice, soup, a small salad, and a few other items I couldn’t identify. Not very spicy, but overall it was a sharp departure from the Chinese food I had been eating for the previous two weeks.

A bit more roaming around and checking out the nightlife up and down the street on La Ronda pretty much ended it for me. I returned to the hotel just after midnight and hit the sack. My friends would arrive the following night and we could finally start our adventure down the spine of Ecuador.

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Day 3: Ecuador & Galapagos – Quito to Riobamba | Travel says August 16, 2012,10:01 pm

[…] Refer to my Day 1 post here for more information on this geographic […]

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I've always felt that a life full of experiences is far more valuable than a life full of material goods. I have yet to come out of one of these experiences poorer than when I first went into it.

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