Sharing a memorable family vacation.
Our family Christmas celebration in 2008 was our most extraordinary and exciting. We were aboard a yacht in the Galapogos archipelago. There was a cloudless sky with a brilliant sun bearing down on the Pacific Ocean. Our Ecuadorian crew greeted us with Felice Navidad and a fellow passenger, a 17-year-old boy, played O little town of Bethlehem on his trumpet, the only Carol we heard. Pedro, our rotund chef, was clad in a red shirt and Santa cap which lighted up. His special al fresco dinner included a beautiful baked Turkey decorated with fruit and a luscious cake made with fresh fruits and festooned with dollops of whipped cream dotted with cherries. He proudly presented these dishes and we exclaimed muchas gracias accompanied by many oohs and aahs.
It was our daughter, Marianne, who suggested this voyage as a wonderful family vacation. We signed on immediately, not quite realizing what lay ahead. When we began to read the travel company literature and found we needed special clothing, we could see that this might be more strenuous than we had anticipated. Marianne ordered sun hats and protective shirts for the tropical sun and shoes for the wet landings. What a surprise to discover that sometimes we would be wading from our small boat, or dinghy as it is called, onto the islands. At this point there was no backing out although it did cross my mind. It was also a surprise to learn that our boat was the smallest available with 12 passengers and five crew members plus a naturalist guide. Cabins were so small we were advised to bring duffel bags as there was no room to store luggage. Our cabin did have a private bath with shower and bunk beds. There were seven of our family going and it was my silent prayer that we would be compatible with the other family of five.
On Sunday, December 21st, Bill, and I, along with our daughter Margaret, and our grandson David, flew from Indianapolis to Houston and then to Quito Ecuador to meet Marianne and her husband, frank and our grandson, mark, who works in Dallas. Upon arriving at our hotel, we learned that Ecuador grows more roses than any other country and the lobby of our hotel was filled with magnificent bouquets in different colors.
Monday was a free day and since the Quito altitude is 10,000 feet, we thought it would be best to spend the day at a lower altitude. Marianne made arrangements for a driver to take us to a cloud forest, Bella Vista, at 7000 feet, which is a nature preserve in the Andes mountains. We drove over an hour to reach this remote spot where we were surrounded by dense vegetation and hundreds of hummingbirds. There was a charming restaurant built high among the jungle treetops where we were served hot tea and cookies. There was only one other couple there and, small world, they were from Indianapolis, 79th and Ditch Road!
There was a guide ready to escort us on a hike to enjoy the beautiful plants and flowers. The mist combined with rocks and a steep incline, made the trail very slippery and difficult to maintain our footing. It was a welcome relief to get back to the charming house for hot soup and a delicious lunch.
That evening at the Quito hotel there was a representative from the travel company who gave us an orientation. The itinerary included 2 trips ashore each day and snorkeling on most days. We met our traveling companions for the next eight days, the Ladd family from Bethesda, Maryland. We were quite pleased and felt that we would certainly be compatible. There were three children Joanna, 21, Thatcher, 17, and Nikki, 11. All were very polite and charming. The director said he thought that we all seemed to be in good condition and would be up to the trip. Of course, Bill and I were the ones he was addressing. In retrospect, I believe he was a bit optimistic. It was early to bed as we had a 7 AM flight from Quito to Baltra where we would board our yacht.
It was almost noon on Tuesday when we boarded the Beagle, which was named for the ship that carried Charles Darwin on his famous voyage which resulted in his controversial Theory of Evolution. We met our five-man crew and the naturalist who would be our guide. We were immediately welcomed with delicious fruit drinks and cheese snacks. After unpacking and enjoying lunch on the upper deck, we were ready for our first island visit. Because of the intense sun we always stayed on the boat during the middle of the day. Even though we were close to the equator, the temperature is in the lower 80s and the water is in the low 70s as the strong currents come from the Atlantic Ocean. There was always a stiff wind blowing which added to our comfort.
The first of many challenges came when we had to climb a ladder and step into a swaying dinghy. Fortunately, our first landing was a dry one – no wading. I was prepared for an hour hike, but we were quite disconcerted by the difficulty of the trail. Since the islands were formed by volcanoes, the ubiquitous rocks hamper walking. The islands have many different forms of wildlife, but they have in common treacherous rocky terrain.
The naturalist cautioned us to be extremely careful not to disturb the birds, reptiles, and mammals. Since they are so tame, they have no fear of people. It was especially difficult to avoid stepping on the land iguanas as they are yellowish green and tend to blend in with the surroundings. December is in the dry season and there was little vegetation except prickly pear cacti which provide food.
My favorite birds were the boobies which are quite large with either bright blue or red webfeet. Their babies are covered with thick white down which they soon lose. It was fun to watch the parents assist the baby birds who were molting. Many red billed tropic birds were constantly flying and shrieking overhead.
On this first hike, I realized my two grandsons, who are both over 6 feet tall, we’re going to have to help me along. Bill was occupied with maintaining his own footing and we were most thankful for the hiking sticks Margaret brought for us.
There are very few inhabitants on most of the islands except Santa Cruz which has a population of 20,000 and is the center of tourism. The number of tourists per group is regulated by the government and no ships can hold more than 80 passengers. The Charles Darwin Research Station is located on Santa Cruz and sponsors a tortoise reserve. Years ago, so many tortoises were taken for food by pirates and whalers that the species was dying out. Many tortoises are kept in pens and bred to increase the numbers. There was also a large pond in the wild where we saw 500-pound giant tortoises, which can live to be over 125 years old. It was their facial features that were used to create the visage of E. T.
We had several more wonderful days of adventure to tell about but there is not enough space here. I’m sure you can tell that we had a wonderful time. We feel very fortunate that we could share at least part of this exciting time with our family. We returned home with great memories of this most isolated and interesting part of the world. If Bill and I had known in advance how difficult it was going to be, we never would have gone; think of what we would have missed.
Contributed by: Mary Margaret O’Connor
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