KLM from Quito

We got up at 7.30 this morning, feeling quite sad that we would be flying home later today.  A lot of our fellow travellers had already departed for home last night (and even on Sunday night), so there were only four of us left now.

We enjoyed a delicious breakfast in the Bistro Latino one more time, then decided to take a walk outside.  The sun was already very hot, even at 8.30 in the morning, and the roads were very busy with the rush-hour traffic; we could hear the constant whistling of the policemen on traffic duty as we walked along.  We had considered taking a taxi to the Quito teleferico, or cable car, but I was worried that it might be further than we thought, or we wouldn’t have time, or various other niggles which would prevent us returning to the hotel for our taxi to the airport at 1.00pm.

We walked through the busy streets, looking in the shop windows and taking in our surroundings. After about a mile or so, we reached a park which had a few stalls open selling souvenirs and the usual holiday tat.  We sat on a park bench in the shade of a large tree, and watched several groups of people, each carrying a furled banner or flag, approaching a large marquee that had been set up.  It looked as if it were a protest or some other public gathering, and we could hear someone testing out a microphone and loudhailer.

After 15 minutes or so, we decided to take a slow stroll back and maybe have a cold beer in a little local bar somewhere, as it would be cheaper than the hotel.  We therefore ambled along amid the sounds of the city, and eventually we found a nice little cool and dimly lit café/bar; in we went, Trevor asking for “dos cervezas, por favor”.  (Everyone’s essential Spanish phrase) 😊

It was pleasant in the bar; we were the only customers in there as it was, after all, not yet lunchtime on a working day.  So we enjoyed our beers among the peace and quiet, and shared a third bottle between us before making our way back to the hotel to finish our packing. ☹

Back in room 640 of the Marriott, it didn’t take long to put the rest of the things in the cases and lock them up.  We then had time for a half-hour power nap before we had to go down to the lobby for 12.45pm.  At the front desk, we settled our bill, handed in our key cards and met the other British couple who were on our flight.  Then the porter whisked our two suitcases away, ready to put them into the private-hire car when it arrived.

At one o’clock exactly the car appeared, our cases were loaded into the back, and we climbed in, taking a last look back at the Marriott hotel as we pulled away and into the busy traffic.  It took about 45 minutes to get to Mariscal Sucre International Airport, and our taxi driver deposited us and our luggage on the pavement outside the terminal building, wishing us a good flight and a safe journey home.

Inside, we joined the quick-moving queue at the KLM desk and checked in our bags, before making our way through security.  Once air-side, we had about an hour and a half to kill before our flight, so we decided to go to the executive lounge where we’d be able to get some lunch as well as a couple of drinks.  This we did, passing the time in quiet and pleasant surroundings, much nicer than the standard airport departure lounge.  😊

Eventually our flight was called, and we proceeded to the gate, where we were able to board straight away.  The flight home would take longer than the flight out, because we were stopping off at Guayaquil (Ecuador’s most populous city on the Pacific coast) before continuing to Amsterdam.  We hoped we would be able to leave the aircraft during that time, otherwise it was going to make a long and boring flight even longer and more boring.

Soon we were airborne and advised that the flight time to Guayaquil was 30 minutes and that we would have a 90 minute stopover before taking on more passengers.  Thankfully we would be allowed off the plane, but obviously had to remain air side.

We hardly seemed to be up in the air before the captain started his descent again, and on arrival at the airport we were all given yellow “IN TRANSIT” cards and advised we’d be allowed to leave our bags and other things on the aircraft because we’d have the same seats for the remainder of the flight.  We took our carry on bags with us anyway, as I didn’t want to leave my laptop, phone, Kindle, iPod etc behind.

When we left the aircraft and walked into the terminal building, it seemed ludicrous that we had to go through security again, half an hour after previously doing so – what could we have picked up on the plane?  So our bags were x-rayed again and we had to go through the metal-detectors and all the usual rigmarole; I even had to discard the 250ml bottle of water I’d been given on the plane as it was over the 100ml limit!  What a farce.

We then had over an hour of playing the waiting game and hanging around before we were called to board the aircraft once again.  We were in the same seats in the middle set of four; Trevor on the left hand aisle and me on his right, then an empty seat beside me and a lady in the aisle in the right.  Behind us only two of the four seats were occupied; I was pleased to see there was no-one behind me as this meant I’d be able to recline my seat if I wanted.

The Boeing 777 took to the skies once again, and we tried to settle down.  It was difficult because the air conditioning was on full blast and the aircraft felt very cold.  We therefore opened our blankets and wrapped them around ourselves from neck to toes; we hoped the temperature would soon warm up.  All around us we could hear babies crying and kids yelling and we also hoped they’d quieten down; long-haul flights are tedious enough without noisy children making it worse.

Some of the boredom was relieved by the appearance of the drinks trolley, followed soon by our meal, then the duty-free items.  As the babies and children fell asleep and the plane eventually grew quieter, we got ourselves ready to settle down and try to sleep.

Suddenly, out of the blue, a commotion occurred in the seat behind me, just to my right.  A man stood up and started shouting in a foreign language at the top of his voice and gesticulating at his neighbour.  My heart leapt into my mouth; I thought we were being hijacked!!  Four stewardesses all converged on the guy’s seat as other passengers craned their necks and looked around in alarm.

I don’t know what the confrontation was about, but it would seem that one of the guys had annoyed his neighbour in some way, hence the argument.  One of the stewardesses took the guy away to the back of the aircraft (the one who was shouted at, rather than the shouter) to find out what was going on; he was then moved to another vacant seat.  When he returned to his original seat to get his stuff out of the overhead locker, his neighbour started having another go at him!  Eventually all was quiet again, but we noticed that the cabin crew kept a very close eye on this fellow.  We were still flying over South America and would soon be over the Caribbean islands, so there would be plenty of places where the aircraft could divert and land if necessary, and so eject any disruptive passenger.

After calm had reigned again for some time, the aircraft lights were dimmed and we tried to get some sleep.  Usually I don’t get good quality sleep on an aeroplane, but this time I reclined my seat back, adjusted the headrest at a suitable angle and used my neck-pillow, and I was able to snatch some good shut-eye, particularly as the air-conditioning had been moderated to a much more comfortable temperature.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Flight KL755 sped on through the night, and we watched its progress, heading north-east over the Atlantic on our SkyMap, as the hours slowly counted down.  Now and again the cabin crew would come around with glasses of water to keep us hydrated, and once we were within two hours of Amsterdam the lights came back on again, and the passengers slowly came back to life.

Before breakfast we were each given the usual hot towel to try to get rid of the grubby feeling you always have after sitting for hours on a plane with 300 other people.  We then enjoyed orange juice, omelette, fresh fruit, coffee and water as we watched the time counting down and saw that we were flying over the good old English Channel and then the North Sea.

Finally, the “fasten seatbelts” sign was illuminated and we all buckled up as the aircraft made its final approach into Schiphol, Amsterdam, and we landed at 14:00 hours local time.  The longest part of our journey was over.  😊

We thankfully disembarked the aircraft and stretched our legs as we made our way through security yet again, for the connecting flight to Newcastle.  Then it was just a matter of whiling away a couple of hours before the last leg of our journey, the hour-long flight back over the North Sea.

On arrival we retrieved our cases more or less immediately, and trundled them out of the airport to the long-term car park, where we loaded them (and ourselves) into our car for the journey home.  It took a little longer than usual because we’d hit the rush-hour traffic, but we arrived at our house just before 6.00pm.  Our amazing, one-of-a-kind, incomparable holiday was over.  It is one we will never forget, for all the right reasons.

Go to the Galapagos Islands.  Just do it.

Hummingbirds and Butterflies

Got up at seven o’clock and made our way to the Bistro Latino restaurant downstairs for a delicious breakfast washed down with good hot Ecuadorian coffee. Outside, the weather was cloudy but fairly warm.

There were 12 of us who had booked for this day-long tour, and we boarded the bus around 8.00am and set off through the Monday morning rush-hour traffic.  Today we were going to visit the “cloud forest” in the highlands, and our first stop was to a village and farmland which had grown in the crater of an extinct volcano, the Pululahua crater.

Our coach parked up and we all got out for a photo opportunity and to use the restrooms if we needed to.  There were several viewing points and it was extremely picturesque to look into the valley from our high vantage point – what a fantastic place to live!

The Pululahua crater is completely inactive (its last known eruption was in 500 BC) and in its small dwellings it is inhabited mostly by farmers, with is a town called Nublin. The first settlers in the crater were the Incas.  Later in the year 1825 the Dominicos monks settled in the crater to search for treasures, extract limestone and to sow the land.  In 1905 with the Liberal Revolution the lands were confiscated by the government and later in 1979 given back to the farmers.

We stayed here a short while before continuing on our way; our next stop was to the Alambi Cloud Forest Reserve where there were 32 species of hummingbirds.

After about 20 minutes or so, our coach pulled over and we entered the Alambi reserve.  We walked along some pathways cut amongst the trees and bushes, and arrived at a single-storey building which served as a guest house as well as the owner’s home.  We were shown into the back ‘garden’ where some plastic chairs had been set out if you wanted to take a seat to watch the birds.  Several feeders were attached to the many trees and bushes; these contained nectar and some of them were shaped like the trumpet-shaped flowers into which hummingbirds insert their long beaks in search of the nectar.  While there are 32 species at the reserve, the guy told us that we would typically see 12-15 species.

Wow!  There were loads of beautifully-coloured hummingbirds flitting around in the trees and bushes and settling on the feeders, which were numbered, so our guide could explain what we could see.  Some of the hummingbirds were tiny, and as they flew their wings were just a blur; in some of the smaller breeds their wings can beat at 80 times per second.  Hummingbirds can subsequently hover, and they are the only species of bird able to fly backwards.

We spent a good half-hour or so watching the hummingbirds and taking photos. The sun had come out now and it was fairly hot.  We needed to use the loo and this gave us the chance to have a look inside the guest-house; it contained three twin-bedded rooms, a living room with a large fireplace and a kitchen and dining room, as well as the bathroom.  It looked lovely and cosy and of course it was set in an idyllic location, in the middle of nowhere up in the highlands of Ecuador.  What a gorgeous place to come and stay if you wanted to get away from it all and get closer to nature.

We took a guided walk through the gardens, which contained lots of fruit trees including bananas, oranges, mandarins, guavas and coffee.  The owner went and picked some mandarins and gave us one each; it was the first time I’d ever had one straight from the tree – it was delicious and juicy.

We continued our stroll through the beautiful gardens in a large loop until we arrived back at our bus, then it was time for us to go to the next stop, the El Quetzel chocolate factory.  Here we would learn how chocolate is made, from “bean to bar”.

The 12 of us entered the chocolate factory and were introduced to Jorge, our guide.  He took us into a room where we were seated, six each side, at a long table, Jorge at the head.  He then showed us a large cacao pod, which he opened up and let us try the fruit that surrounded the seed (similar to what we’d done at the Equator).  Then he explained how the large seeds are dried, fermented and roasted in small batches; the roasting process is what imparts the distinctive caramelised “chocolatey” flavour we all know and love.

We were taken to a large “greenhouse” which was really just a large wooden frame with heavy duty plastic over it; simple but very effective as it was very warm inside.  Here there were large wooden boxes containing the cacao beans and covered with layers of sacks; this builds up a tremendous heat and allows the beans to ferment.  Afterwards the beans are spread out in wooden trays and allowed to dry naturally; after so long they are ready to be roasted.  Roasting is done in large metal drums that rotate over a heat-source.

Pure 100% chocolate is bitter, so the purest chocolate that they sold was the 85% cocoa mass.  We had the chance to taste three types, 85%, 77% and 67%.  I liked the 85% chocolate the best, because I don’t have a particularly sweet tooth.

We also tried some of the dark chocolate with other added ingredients, such as ginger, coffee, salt and chilli peppers.  They were all scrumptious, especially the ginger.  We were also shown (and given the chance to try) other products and by-products of the cocoa process.  These were tea brewed from the dried and ground up outer pod (which still contained a hint of chocolate as well as drinking chocolate powder and cocoa-butter skin softener.  Jorge also explained to us how the empty outer pods were dried, painted bright colours, and used for decoration; in short, all of the pod is used.

After our very informative tour, we went to the shop and bought some 85% chocolate, some ginger chocolate and I also got a small pot of the cocoa butter to use as lip salve.  All in all, an excellent visit.

We all got back on the bus for the next part of our tour, to a butterfly garden, ‘Mariposas de Mindo’.  On arrival, the guide explained life-cycle of the butterfly, from eggs to caterpillar to chrysalis and metamorphosis to the beautiful butterfly.  She explained how the various species of butterfly were bred here, not just for study purposes, but also to release into the wild.

We were then allowed into the butterfly garden, which was a very large, high-ceilinged room containing trees, bushes, a couple of ponds and some benches on which to sit.  There were also some quieter, sheltered areas containing the chrysalises.

Inside, butterflies were flying around everywhere.  There was the massive, distinctive “owl-eye” butterfly with its large spot which looked uncannily like an owl’s eye, hence its name.  This was a large insect with an average wing span of 130mm, and there were a lot of these around; we even saw some brand new ones which had just emerged from their chrysalises and were waiting for their wings to dry.  Amazing!

In all, there were over 25 species of colourful butterflies, some bright blue ones, orange and brown, pink ones and many others; unfortunately I didn’t make a note of all the species.  Plates containing mashed banana (which the butterflies love) were placed around the garden, and on some of them we could see the butterflies feeding.  If you put a small amount of banana mash on your hand and waited patiently, with any luck a butterfly would land on your and start eating out of your hand!  This is what happened to Trevor, and indeed we saw other people with butterflies perching on their heads, shoulders, backs and even on the frames of one lady’s glasses!  It was a lovely, colourful, tranquil place and we learned a lot.

When we came out of the butterfly garden we were all good and hungry and ready for a late lunch after 2.00pm.  Our final stop, therefore, was at a pleasant restaurant where we were booked in for a four-course meal.  The restaurant was set in lush grounds which contained more hummingbirds, flitting from tree to tree.

The meal was delicious; I started with a sort of fried pancake containing mixed vegetables and meat, accompanied by a spicy sauce.  This was followed by a traditional potato soup, then the main course of chicken in a mushroom sauce with vegetables, and finished either with dessert of coffee.  I chose the latter.  We shared our table with Brian and Karen and spent a very pleasant hour in there.

Afterwards it was back on the coach for the 2-hour return journey to Quito and the Marriott Hotel.  What a worthwhile trip it had been; everyone agreed.

Arriving back in the Marriott around 5.30pm, we decided we wouldn’t go to dinner, especially after our large lunch which we’d eaten pretty late anyway.  We therefore went to the bar and enjoyed a cold beer before going back to our room and getting showered and changed and watching TV and resting for a while.

Then we returned to the bar where we saw Tom and Lee-Anne sitting in front of their laptop; Tom said they were looking at different cruises trying to decide which one to do next.  We don’t have that ‘problem’ as we already have another three cruises booked, as well as a trip to Nepal!  😊

We had another couple of drinks each in the bar, and I was reluctant to return to our room because this was our last night in Quito, and indeed the last night of our holiday, as we were flying home tomorrow afternoon.  Tempus fugit – it seemed no time at all since we’d arrived here.

We went back to our room around 11.00pm, and set the alarm for 7.30am.  We had the morning at leisure tomorrow and we wanted to make the most of it.  We slept very well after an excellent day.

Xpedition to Quito

OUR WEDDING ANNIVERSARY

Woke up early this morning with mixed feelings.  Happy, because it was our 29th Wedding Anniversary and what a fantastic place to be spending it in, and sad because we would have to disembark the Xpedition at 11.00am for the return flight to Quito, and we didn’t want our incredible Galápagos voyage to be at an end.

We got ourselves sorted out and went along to the Darwin Restaurant, armed with the bottle of fizz we had been given earlier on in the cruise.  We’d booked a table for six so that Jan and Jeff, and Neil and Gail could join us for some breakfast Buck’s Fizz.  Everyone arrived on time and we all took our seats, the others wishing us “happy anniversary” as Trevor removed the wire muzzle from the champers.  The cork shot out with a loud bang and hit the ceiling, to much laughter.  Then he poured our six glasses, and we mixed it with our breakfast orange juice.  We asked the waiter to take a photo of the six of us, and then we tucked into a hearty, delicious breakfast while enjoying the conversation and the laughter.  😊

Afterwards we returned to cabin 416 and collected our carry-on flight bags and had a last look round before leaving for the last time.  A small part of me would remain behind in cabin 416 in more ways than one; my cruise card with my name and stateroom number had inadvertently got lost down the back of the dressing table and I’d had to be issued with a new one, so it will be stuck there until the next time the ship has a refit.  Other people would be coming and going in that cabin, and all the time a card with “Debbie King” on it will be out of sight behind the dresser.  😊

We made our way to the rear decks outside the Beagle Grill and sat with Jeff and Jan while we waited to be called to embark the Zodiacs.  Eventually they were ready for us and asked for the first 16 people.  We were given the now-familiar orange life-vests and climbed into the Zodiac which roared off over the surf as usual.  From my vantage point at the rear of the inflatable, I could see the Xpedition receding into the distance and really felt quite sad.  I had to keep reminding myself it wasn’t the end of our holiday; we still had another two nights to spend in the excellent Marriott hotel in Quito.

We disembarked the craft at the other side with a sense of déjà vu; it didn’t seem five minutes since we were excitedly boarding the Zodiac to commence our cruise.  Then it was off on the bus for the short ride to the airport.

As we already had our boarding passes all we had to do was make our way to the departure lounge at gate D4.  When we got there, we found that Celebrity Cruises had reserved the VIP lounge for us, so we were able to spend the next couple of hours in comfort.  We sat with Jeff and Jan, and Neil and Gail, and enjoyed free teas, coffees and soft drinks (beer was $4.00 if you wanted it) as well as some snacks of sandwiches, cake and fruits.  Lots of little sparrow-like birds were flying around inside the departure lounge; I think they’d managed to get in through the open lattice work high up on the walls, and it was much more difficult for them to escape again.  Instead, they were flying and hopping around in search of titbits; one of them landed on Trevor’s shoulder and a couple perched on Gail’s knee, clearly after the watermelon seeds left on her plate.

Eventually our flight was called, and we all boarded the aircraft for the two-hour plane ride back to Quito.  All was uneventful until we were coming in to land; we almost seemed to be down on my side of the aircraft and I waited for the slight bump to indicate our landing, but all of the sudden the aircraft engine noise increased and we soared off into the air again. Our landing had been aborted!

We nervously wondered what was going on as the aeroplane continued climbing over the mountainous landscape.  It transpired, however, that there had been a very strong cross-wind and the pilot had deemed it dangerous to attempt to land at that time, so he was going to have another go.  Round he went until he lined himself up with the runway once again, and this time we came in without any problem.  Everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief.  🙂

Inside Mariscal Sucre International Airport once again, we passed through security then out into the sunshine for the ride to the hotel.  At this point we lost Jeff and Jane and Neil and Gail, as they were extending their holiday with a visit to Peru and Machu Picchu, whereas we were just going back to Quito for a couple of nights before the flight home on Tuesday (and back to work on Thursday).  ☹

As it was Sunday afternoon and a lot quieter than when we’d arrived, it only took 45 minutes to get back to the Marriott hotel.  This time we were allocated room 640, which was very similar to room 712 apart from it having two king-size beds instead of one.

We unpacked some of our stuff, then went downstairs to the lobby and bar for a cold beer.  We’d been advised by the Celebrity rep that there were still some included tours and meals tonight, then if we wanted to do an organised tour tomorrow we could do so at our own expense.  There was an all-day tour available, included 4-course lunch, for $99.00 each, so we decided to book that one.

We all gathered back in the hotel foyer for about 5.00pm, to go on a shopping trip in the city.  We boarded the coach and it took us a short distance to an indoor market, which consisted of rows and rows of stalls selling anything from hand-made artisan chocolate to coffee to alpaca scarves to hand-knitted garments.  It was a veritable Aladdin’s cave of bargains.  I bought a soft alpaca scarf/wrap in shades of pink, as well as some of those little hand-woven friendship bracelets; I also bought a chunky hand-knitted hat with earflaps and pompoms; it will be great for the impending British winter.

Trevor bought a grey alpaca scarf for Ben, our grandson, and a cotton bandanna for himself; we’d seen a lot of the locals (most notable the Zodiac drivers) wearing these pulled up over the lower half of their faces to keep out the wind and the sun.  I could have bought a lot more, but Trevor dragged me out of there before I could spend any more money.  😊

The market started closing up about 6.00pm, so we all boarded the bus once more for the next visit – to Galeria Latina which was a much more up-market (and consequently expensive) place.  The jewellery and other items were gorgeous, but they were expensive; one necklace I liked made of silver and semi-precious stones cost $475.00.  Needless to say we didn’t buy anything in there.

On arrival back at the Marriott, we were advised that dinner was at 7.30pm in La Hacienda  restaurant.  We therefore returned to our room to get washed and changed; I wore a pink dress teamed with my new pink alpaca wrap.

Dinner was delicious, but we could feel the slight effects of the higher altitude; a few hours ago we were at sea level and now we were over 9,000 feet.  One of the effects is fatigue and lack of appetite, so I didn’t do the meal justice.  I started with beef consommé and home-baked bread, followed by steak, corn on the cob, potatoes and fresh vegetables; tasty though it was, I wasn’t really hungry.  I accompanied the meal with a glass of Diet Coke and some water.

After dinner we just returned to our room as the bar wasn’t open; on Sundays in Ecuador the licencing laws state that alcohol can only be served up to 10.00pm, and only if accompanied by a meal.  As we were quite tired anyway and knew we’d have to be up at 7.00am to be ready for our excursion at eight o’clock, we just settled down for the night, in a room that was quiet and still.  It had certainly been a different way to spend a wedding anniversary.

Tree Planting and Tortoises

Today would turn out to be a very full, different and interesting day spent on Santa Cruz island.  We were up and ready and breakfasted in time for our usual departure at 8.00am; in fact, ours was the first inflatable to depart for the island.  Today we were going to see that most famous and symbolic Galápagos animal, the Giant Tortoise.

On arrival, we had a short bus ride until we were led by our guide Myra to the Charles Darwin Research Station where baby Galápagos tortoises are hatched and raised before being released back into the wild.  The tortoises have a very long lifespan, some living between 150-180 years, and the young ones are not released until their shells measure at least 21cm in length.

The Research Centre aims to preserve the delicate ecology of the islands and prevent the spread of the non-native, or ‘invasive’ species of plants and animals.  All its staff are voluntary and visitors can make a donation by purchasing various items in the on-site shop.

We looked at the tortoises in various stages of development, from tiny ones only a few inches across to larger ones that were over 100 years old.  We were quite awed to look at a creature that had been alive and kicking long before any of us had even been born.  We were quite amused by some t-shirts you could buy in the shop that had a picture of a tortoise on them with a speech-bubble coming out of its mouth saying “I knew Charles Darwin”, alluding to the great age some of them reach.  😊

We also learned all about “Lonesome George”, a famous Pinta tortoise who was discovered in 1971 and was the only one of his species, making him the rarest animal in the world.  You can read an interesting Wikipedia article about Lonesome George here.  We finished by going to see the stuffed remains of this remarkable tortoise after he was brought back to the Galápagos islands in February 2017.

After spending quite some time looking at the baby tortoises and learning all about them, Myra told us we now had some free time to spend; we would meet later on at the fish market in the town.  She said we couldn’t get lost; all we had to do was make sure the ocean was always on our left hand side.

We walked along the road at a leisurely pace, with the tang of salt in our nostrils and the soporific, unceasing sounds of the sea washing onto the shore.  Eventually we came to the town and walked along, looking in the shop windows at the unusual little souvenirs and the enjoying the shabby-chic charm of the place.

We casually strolled among the shops and I bought a necklace and earring set I liked the look of; we then continued ambling along until our noses told us we were near the fish market.  We saw some guys stacking crates of fresh lobsters and langoustines, and nearby we saw several pelicans and a large sea-lion who had obviously been attracted by the smell of the fish.  Small boats bobbed on the shoreline and once again we were captivated by the scene.

We wandered further along to the end of the road, and a large square, before making our way back to the fish market to meet up with our guide and the rest of our party.

Afterwards we retured to the bus for the next exciting part of our adventure, something we’d never participated in before – tree planting.  We were each going to the Galápagos highlands to plant a tree of the Scalesia genus, a tree endemic to the Galápagos.

After a journey of about 20 minutes, in which we climbed higher and the landscape gave way to more trees, bushes and flowers, we arrived at the planting site, and we first of all had to exchange our trainers for a pair of Wellington boots that we’d reserved in advance with our sizes.  We found a mesh bag marked “416” (our cabin number), which contained a pair of wellies each for Trevor and me.  One we’d donned our wellies we were each given a trowel, then an immature plant and a cork label, marked “Xpedition” plus a unique number, and we ventured into the forest where several holes had already been dug in which we were to plant our trees.

We each selected a hole, then knelt to our task, the scent of freshly-dug earth in our noses.  We planted our little trees, tied the labels on loosely (to allow for growth), the took a photo for posterity.  I was enchanted by the thought that these plants would flourish and grow, and form full trees long after Trevor and I had departed this earth.  Amazing!

After everyone had planted their trees, we all handed our wellies back in and reclaimed our trainers before boarding the bus once more for a visit to The Ranch, a large open-sided restaurant set in acres of rough grass and some trees and small pools.  On our way, we could already see several of the famed Galápagos giant tortoises at every stage of growth.  These were the wild ones, out in their natural habitat.  Several times the bus had to slow right down because a large tortoise had wandered into the side of the road.  😊

We arrived at the Ranch (in fact our bus was the first one to arrive) and we made a bee-line to wash the remains of the soil from our hands before lunch.  We were then shown to our long table and offered, juice, water, wine or beer before being invited to help ourselves to some fresh sliced fruits from the buffet.

This was then followed by a delicious meal consisting of Ecuadorian ceviche, various meats, vegetables, rice or quinoa and followed by crème caramel, a sort of milk pudding, or sticky cake, all washed down with another chilled glass of vino blanco.  😊

Afterwards we were all entertained by a group of children and young people, who were dressed in traditional Ecuadorian costumes and who performed a series of lively songs and dances for us.  At the end, they asked members of the audience to get up with them; I was dragged up to dance by a teenaged Ecuadorian boy, with whom I found it impossible to keep up.  It was all good fun though; a fantastic meal and fabulous entertainment.

After we all assembled outside once again, we had to put on another pair of Wellingtons because this time we were taking a walk around, looking at the giant tortoises in the wild.  There were quite a few of them, and you had to be careful not to get too close to startle them, otherwise they’d retract their heads into their shells.  We got lots of great photographs of what is probably the Galápagos most famous icon.

Then we were all back on the bus for around 3.30pm for a ride back to the pier.  The Zodiacs were going to be leaving every 30 minutes (until 6.30pm) to take us back to the Xpedition if we wanted to stay later.  Trevor and I had seen and done so much today already though, and in the back of our minds was the niggling reminder that we’d have to make a start with our packing, as tonight was our last night on board this beautiful vessel.  ☹

We arrived back to the Xpedition around 3.45pm, and went back to cabin 416 to get showered and changed, and chuck a few things in the cases that we wouldn’t need again this cruise.  Then we had a couple of drinks in the fairly quiet Discovery Lounge, where a local artist had been invited to display his original paintings and other crafts.  The paintings all featured Galápagos wildlife and colours in all their glory, and were not bad value at $180.00 each, however we simply have no available wall-space left at home on which to hang them, so we had to give it a miss.

We returned our cabin for a half-hour power nap, then met up later on with Jeff and Jan for the “Best Pictures of the Cruise” slide-show which was to be shown in the Discovery Lounge.  This was a PowerPoint slideshow featuring the best of the photos that our naturalists had taken over the duration of the voyage, and each colourful photo elicited “oohs” and “aahs” from the audience, accompanied by panpipe and Latin music.  The slideshow featured all of Mother Nature’s Galápagos wonders and creatures in all their splendour, and it brought a gigantic lump to my throat, particularly when the show ended with the sight of the Ecuadorian flag flying from the rear mast of the Xpedition as the sun went down over the Pacific.  Oh wow – how completely privileged had we all been to be a part of this?

After the show, we were surprised and delighted when Monica, the cruise director, announced that each of us would receive a USB stick containing a copy of the slideshow, as well as all the other photos that had been taken, a recipe for Ecuador ceviche, and recipes for some of the many cocktails we’d enjoyed on this incredible voyage of discovery. What a lovely gesture on the part of Celebrity Cruises.  😊

After the show there was a brief Farewell Cocktail party at which we were joined by Captain Fausto Pacheco and some of his officers, and they thanked us all for coming and hoped we’d be back on a Celebrity ship soon.   Then it was time to go to dinner, and everyone made the most of our “last supper” before going back to our cabins to finish the packing and seal our cases; which would be taken ashore at 5.00am tomorrow morning for the flight back to Quito.

We ended the evening by going along to the Discovery Lounge with Jeff and Jan, and were surprised to find the place nearly empty; we thought everyone would have been making the most of the last evening.

Then around 11.30pm we settled down in cabin 416 for our final night aboard the fabulous Celebrity Xpedition.

San Cristobal Island

Another early start; we were up at 7.00am as usual, and dressed, breakfasted and were ready to go by 7.50 for our Zodiac ride across to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal Island.  San Cristobal is one of the few inhabited islands in the Galápagos, so we looked forward to visiting this small town, as well as our walk.  I had with me a stout walking staff, as we’d been advised that the walk would be quite steep over varied terrain.

Our Zodiac pulled up at the small landing stage and we all disembarked, one by one, handing our lifejackets to one of the Celebrity staff, who placed them in a large waterproof bag to take back to the ship for the next 16 passengers who would be going ashore.  😊

The port looked very picturesque and exuded a rustic, laid-back charm.  We could see many small boats bobbing gently up and down, and well as lots of sea-lions; some of them on the beach, some underneath the boardwalk, or on the steps, over even on some of the boats!  As well as the sounds of the sea lapping against the boats and the shore, we could hear a chorus of “ohuh, ohuh, ohuh” coming from the sea-lions, a sound which some of the guides imitated.  😊

We strolled along the wooden walkways until they gave way to rocky, uneven ground and once again we had to watch our step as we climbed higher.  Every now and again the guide would stop, to allow us to take in the wonderful views with our eyes as well as our cameras.  At one point the sun came out and I was glad I was wearing a sun hat as well as Factor 20 sun protection.

Eventually we came to a series of zigzagging wooden steps which had a rickety handrail, and I puffed my way up each set, pausing to look at the view, and the Xpedition at anchor far below us, as well as one or two other pleasure cruisers and small fishing boats.  Breathing in the fresh salty air and feeling the sun warm on my back, Durham and home and work seemed part of another world.

After reaching the highest part of the walk, we took some time out before commencing the climb back down.  We took a different route down, which thankfully meant we didn’t have to pick our way over the rocks.

We then made our way to the Interpretation Centre, which is a joint effort between the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) and their partner, the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) in Ecuador.  The two universities constructed this facility to advance their shared goal of promoting science and education that will help protect these fragile island ecosystems and enhance the lives of their inhabitants.

Inside, we read all about the islands, including quotes from the people who lived in the Galápagos and were obviously very proud to do so.  There was a heartfelt sign on the wall which contained the quote “Until recently, the future of humans depending on the islands.  Today, the future of the islands depends on humans”.

After our visit to the Interpretation Centre we were advised we had about an hour and a half free time, to do our own thing.  We therefore took a slow walk through the charming little streets, all the time hearing the “ohuh, ohuh, ohuh, ohuh” of the sea-lions which were all along the beach as well as some which had even made their way into town, and were lying in the shades of trees or buildings.  We had some postcards of the Galápagos which had been in the goody bag we received for winning the quiz the other night, so we first of all had to find a shop selling stamps.  After asking around, we eventually found a little souvenir shop that sold stamps among lots of other things; t-shirts, hats, keyrings, ornaments and all the usual holiday stuff.  We bought the stamps which were large and colourful and featured aspects of Galápagos life and wildlife; we needed four for each card so there wouldn’t be much room to write anything!

As we sat on a nearby bench writing them out, several people from the ship passed by and asked us where we’d bought the stamps, so we directed them to the little shop which conveniently had a postbox on the wall outside.  We should have been on commission, because we must have told about 10 people where the shop was!

Once the cards were written and posted, we continued on our way and came across a shop selling shoes.  My wedge flipflops, which I’ve had years and which have seen me through many a holiday, are much the worse for wear now, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to get some new ones.  The lady in the shop was very helpful, and I came out with a very comfortable pair of red faux-leather thong sandals with a padded insole.

After wandering around a bit more, we started make our way back to the Zodiac landing stage, passing a large area of fenced-off beach on the way.  The non-stop barking of the sea-lions mixed with the sounds of the waves and the cries of the seabirds.  There were a great many sea-lions on the beach and frolicking in the water; we saw a large female with her tiny little pup; he must have only been a few days old and made little high-pitched wails in between latching onto his mother for a feed.  It was such a gorgeous sight, seeing all these creatures living together in perfect harmony; man could learn a lot from them.

We spent quite a while there, as we couldn’t take our eyes of the sea-lions and their antics.  Time was getting on, however, so we reluctantly made our way back to queue for the Zodiac.  As each inflatable only carries 16 passengers the queues were never very long. Collecting our life-jackets once again, we descended the steps and were delighted at the sight of a large sea-lion stretched out on a bench, completely oblivious to the groups of nearby chattering people.  😊

The Zodiac bounced and sped its way over the waves, every now and again sending up a refreshing spray of sea.  In five minutes we were back on board the Xpedition for about 11.00am, just in time for a nice cold beer. What a fabulous morning it had been!  😊

At around midday the Xpedition set sail once again.  We enjoyed a light lunch then spent the early afternoon pottering around the ship and taking a revitalising long nap, as we were quite tired out after all our activity this morning.  As we were lying there, we could distinctly feel the ship’s motion, and it felt as though there were some fairly large waves out there.

We went up on deck around 2.00pm; the Xpedition was dancing a merry jig on the waves, pitching and tossing and sending up lots of sea-spray.  It was therefore not surprising when Monica, the cruise director, announced that due to safety issues any excursions this afternoon, which would obviously entail going ashore in the Zodiacs, would unfortunately have to be cancelled.  This was disappointing as we planned once again to go on a long steep hike over varied terrain, looking at the wildlife and just enjoying the rugged landscape.  Safety always has to come first, however, so we’d just have to spend the remainder of today on board the ship.

Instead, the staff put on a showing of a film called “The Rock about the Galápagos during the second World War.  It passed an interesting interlude, during which time we made the most of the gratis cocktails.  😉

Afterwards it was back to cabin 416 where I got showered and washed my hair, as tonight we had received an invitation to the Captain’s Cocktail Party at 7.00pm.  So I took my leisurely time getting ready, then we sat in the Discovery Lounge for a short while before meeting at the Guest Relations Desk to be escorted to the venue.  Looking at the number of people who attended (and bearing in mind there was no announcement of the cocktail party in the daily programme) it appeared that not everyone had received an invitation, so it looked as if Trevor and I were one of the chosen few.  😊

We were shown to Deck 5, which had been sheltered somewhat from the still windy and rough weather by a large awning.  At the doorway Captain Fausto Pacheco greeted us and we were handed a glass of ‘champagne’ and some tasty king prawn canapés.

We enjoyed the chatter and banter with our fellow passengers, including Jeff, to whom we bowed as tonight was the night he was due to join the officers’ table.  There was no sign of Jan, and Jeff said she was lying down with a migraine; we said we hoped she would be better in time to join her ‘special’ dinner.

Back down in the Discovery Lounge we listened to the briefing for tomorrow’s activities before making our way to the Darwin Restaurant for dinner.  We were joined by Tom and Lee-Anne as well as Brian and Karen.  Once again, the meal was spent in interesting and convivial company.  We noticed that Jan had been unable to put in an appearance at the officers’ table.

It was after 9.00pm when we repaired to the Discovery Lounge, and we were surprised not to find many people there.  Perhaps they were sea-sick after today’s bouncing around, or maybe they didn’t like karaoke, which was planned as tonight’s entertainment.  There were about 10 people in there, however, and at least as many staff, so still enough to make a party out of it.  😊

I got up and did a few numbers, so did Tom and a lot of the staff.  It was quite different to see some karaoke songs in Spanish.  When the English language songs were on, the staff joined in lustily, and even the passengers who didn’t get up and sing on their own.  So the evening wasn’t a dead loss; we kept it going until midnight, with maybe five passengers getting up and at least that many staff.  It was all good fun, and we remained at the bar afterwards to enjoy a nightcap.

Once again we’d had an excellent day; it was only a pity we couldn’t make our afternoon’s excursion, but that’s the way it goes sometimes.  We were good and tired and went to sleep almost immediately, despite the still very noticeable ship’s motion.

Santa Cruz & North Seymour Islands

We were up this morning at 7.00am once again, feeling refreshed after a good night’s sleep.  We looked forward, with eager anticipation, to what today would bring.  😊

At 7.45 we gathered at the after decks, replete with water shoes, sturdy trainers and socks, sunhats, snorkelling gear and lightweight clothing worn over our swimsuits.  Then we disembarked, 16 at a time, into the waiting inflatables.

Off we roared onto the glittering blue Pacific, with here and there small cresting wavelets, our Zodiac churning up white sea foam with its propeller as we skimmed and bounced over the sea’s surface.  After a few minutes our driver beached the vessel and we clambered ashore, splashing through the last couple of yards of sea before reaching the gorgeous white sandy beach.  A few length of wood were laid on the sand and we were advised that we were not to cross the wooden markers as sea turtles were nesting on the beach beyond.

We changed from our water shoes into our trainers and left our snorkel bags on the beach for later on; it was quite safe to leave them because, after all, who was going to come along and steal them in this uninhabited, unspoilt place?  😊

We followed our guide Cristina along the shoreline, looking at the perfect scenery; the gently-rolling Pacific, the sun peeping out from the fluffy white clouds, the sea-washed black rocks with their crabs and sea-birds, and the scrubby bushes and cactus plants further inland.  We could smell the salt air and hear the crashing of the surf against the shore and the rock projections, as well as the cries of the seabirds.  I could go on about it all day, and still come nowhere near to describing it.  😊

After about three-quarters of a mile, we turned back and make our leisurely way back to where the Zodiacs had dropped us off.  Returning to the rock upon which we’d left our snorkelling gear, we changed into our wetsuits and masks, leaving it until the last minute to don our fins.  Then we paddled our way out until it was deep enough to swim, and made our way to the nearby rocky outcrops, where we knew there would be lots of fish and other sea creatures.

Once again the diversity of the marine life and the colours, shapes and sizes of the tropical fish amazed us.  The water was colder than you’d expect for the latitude, so we understood why we needed wetsuits.  It was pleasant when you put your face, in its mask, into the water and looked around at this beautiful underwater lifescape; you could feel as if you were the only person in the world.

After about 20 minutes or so, I felt a little cold (and quite tired after walking and swimming), so we swam back into our depth again, and offered instructions and help to some people who hadn’t snorkelled before.  Then we just passed the next hour or so on the beach, looking around and talking with other swimmers and snorkelers until it was time to go back to the Zodiac for the return ride to the Xpedition, gleaming whitely in the near distance.

Back on board we hosed the sand off ourselves, rinsed out our wetsuits and returned to cabin 416 for a long hot shower and change into clean, dry clothes.  Then we went and sat out on deck for a cold beer each after a full, interesting morning. 😊

At lunchtime the Xpedition weighed anchor and we set off for North Seymour Island.  We enjoyed a burger each and passed the time with our fellow passengers before returning to our cabin for an hour’s power nap, as we were quite tired out with the all the sunshine, walking and swimming, and we wanted to rest before the afternoon’s activity.

At 4.30pm we disembarked the ship into the dinghy once again, and set off across the sea to the short distance to the rocky shore.  This time it was a dry landing onto some flat rocks, before we handed in our life-jackets and set off over the very rocky, boulder and stone-strewn terrain, which was quite steep in some parts.  Much as I wanted to look around me and look ahead, it really was essential to watch your step as it would be all too easy to twist your ankle or trip over.  I’d borrowed a stout walking staff to assist me over the uneven surface, as well as to help going uphill.

Eventually the terrain evened out into more of a sandy pathway, and we were able to appreciate our surroundings.  We saw lots of frigate birds flying overhead, their distinctive red balloon chests on show.  Some of them landed nearby and went into a sort of little mating ritual, calling loudly and flapping their wings to attract any nearby females.  😊

We also saw lots of basking sea-lions, some lying in the shade of the low, scrubby bushes and one suckling her pup, who looked almost as big as his mother.  We had to be careful where were were stepping in case we trod on any lava lizards or land iguanas, of which we saw many; one of them was perched on the top of a tall cactus; they are obviously good climbers.

We were lucky enough to see nesting frigate birds, and some families with their fluffy white-plumaged youngsters.  We also saw some blue-footed boobies sitting on their nests; they dig out a shallow pit in the sandy-soil and lay their eggs there.  We had to be very careful not to make too much noise or to get too close, remembering the “eight feet” rule which was the closest we were allowed to get (unless the animal or bird approached us).

The walk lasted for about one hour 45 minutes, then it was time to return to the Xpedition.  Ours was the last Zodiac back and some drama ensued when its engine cut out half-way back to the ship.  It appeared that we’d run of petrol!  After a couple of futile attempts the driver had at restarting the engine, he switched to a reserve fuel tank and we thankfully made it the last few hundred yards back to the ship, but not without further excitement when a passenger’s hat blew off and the driver had to retrieve it.  Finally, even our arrival back at the landing-stage was not without note; we arrived a little quickly and bounced quite firmly off the rear of the Xpedition.  Soon we were all safely back on board, however, and we were met with the tantalising smell of a barbecue coming from the Beagle Grill on deck 4.

Quickly getting washed and changed in our cabin, we returned to the rear decks and collected our meal of fresh fish, steak, chicken, langoustine, lobster and crisp salad before going up to Deck 5 and sitting looking out over the ocean at the westering sun above the horizon.

Here we were, dining on freshly grilled lobster washed down with chilled wine as the sun went down in a blaze of reds, pinks and golds over the Pacific Ocean.  Could life get any more perfect than this?  😊

We enjoyed the company of Mike and Susan, another couple from the USA, as we feasted on our delicious meal.  Once the sun was gone, however, a brisk sea breeze blew up so I had to return to our cabin to put on a sweatshirt.

After dinner we adjourned to the Discovery Lounge once again, where our naturalist guides treated us to some local singing and dancing, and everyone ended this fantastic day on a high once again.  Afterwards we sat with Jeff and Jan at the bar, where they informed us they too had been invited to dine at an officer’s table; the ship’s Doctor had requested the pleasure of their company at dinner tomorrow night, so we got our own back by mock-bowing to them.  😊

Then it was back along to our cabin at around 11.30pm, where we fell asleep more or less instantly, lulled by the gentle movement of the Xpedition on the ocean waves.

Santiago & Bartolome Islands

Woke up at 7.00 this morning, but a huge wave of tiredness came over me and I just couldn’t keep my eyes open.  I don’t know whether it’s the early morning, late nights, exercise, fresh air, free cocktails or a combination of all of them, but I was just completely drained.  Therefore I missed the interesting 1.5 mile hike over the lava field; Trevor went without me.

On his return at around 11 o’clock we went and had a cup of coffee and croissant and sat out on the rear decks.  I still felt a bit like one o’clock half-struck and hoped I would feel better for the deep-water snorkelling this afternoon.

We just spent the morning and early afternoon pottering around the ship, sitting out on deck and passing the time with our fellow passengers.

At 2.30pm I still had absolutely no energy, so I reluctantly decided to miss the snorkelling; Trevor buddied up with Jeff and off they went.  I saw Jan out on deck and she said she too was very tired, so maybe all the activity and excitement was catching up with us.  ☹

Once the snorkelers returned, we had about 45 minutes before setting off on a scenic Zodiac ride along the coast.  As ever, we revelled in the feel of the wind and sea-spray on our faces as we journeyed alongside the beautiful rugged coastline, listening to the cries of the birds.  We saw lots of pelicans, boobies, frigatebirds and sea turtles and it was a pleasant and invigorating ride.

Back on board the Xpedtion at about six o’clock, we enjoyed a cold beer each and some pre-dinner canapés, accompanied by the Latin beat of some lively background music.  Then we returned to cabin 416 to get washed and changed and ready for the evening’s briefing on tomorrow’s activities.  By now any lethargy had left me and I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed once more.  😊

The briefing included a small wine and cheese party; I partook of a selection of local cheeses, some grapes and walnuts, and a glass of crisp rosé wine.  This then took us nicely to dinner time, where Jeff had reserved a table for six of us, so Neil and Gail could join us as well.

Dinner was a lively affair with much good food, good wine, interesting conversation and laughter.  We were amused at some of the differences in the American and British languages; the way the same word has completely different meanings in each nation.  The great playwright George Bernard Shaw probably described it best when he said that America and Britain are “two nations divided by a common language.” 😊

After dinner the six of us adjourned to the Discovery Lounge to take part in tonight’s Trivia Quiz, wherein all the questions were about the Galápagos.  We scored 18/24 but one team called “Felix”, whose paper we had marked, scored 23/24 so we thought they were the winners, until it transpired that “Felix” was one of the bar staff!  He was immediately disqualified therefore, and they declared our team, who was called “Norfolk ‘n’ Chance” (!) the winners.  Yay!  😊  We received a goody bag which contained baseball caps, Ecuadorian chocolate and postcards, which we divided up between us.

We remained in the Discovery Lounge until, one by one, it emptied out and we were the only ones left.  We made it to bed by 11.00pm (which is early for us) but I was determined I wasn’t going to miss any of the activities tomorrow.  😊

Isabela Island

Everybody was dancin’ with the Captain
And we all had fun all night long
And the ship sailed on.
Paul Nicholas

We had a lie-in this morning until 8.00am, as we were not due to participate in any activities until 10 o’clock, when we were going on a scenic tour of the inlet by Zodiac.  The day was pleasantly warm but not too hot, and there was a gentle breeze.  The Xpedition was anchored at Elizabeth Bay, one of the most westerly points in the Galápagos.

We enjoyed a light breakfast in the Darwin Restaurant, where we shared a table with Neil and Gail once again; we found out that they were doing the same Zodiac trip as us.  Then, at 9.45am, we assembled at the rear decks ready to embark the Zodiac.  We didn’t need our water shoes this time as we weren’t disembarking the dinghy.

The Zodiac sped across the bay, and we slowed down when we got close to an outcrop of rocks, where we saw many more of the red Sally Lightfoot crabs, pelicans, blue-footed boobies and a couple of Galápagos penguins.  People tend to associate penguins with Antarctica, but the Galápagos penguins are found on the Equator and are the most northerly penguins you’ll find (in the wild).

We also delighted in watching the antics of a couple of sea-lions, frisking nearby.  Really, this is the most amazing and unique place and I still couldn’t quite believe we were here, at the most precious archipelago in the world.

Our Zodiac slowly drifted along into thicker vegetation as we started to explore the rich mangrove ecosystem.  The driver switched off the engine and we all enjoyed the silence, listening to the sounds of the sea and the cries of the birds.  Our guide was able to imitate bird and seal sounds, and several times they would answer him and he’d tell us which type of bird we could hear.

As well as looking up in the trees and rocks, we had also to be sure to look down at the water below us, as there were several green sea-turtles around, as well as more penguins.  We also saw some eagle rays, slowly flapping their large fins as their long, slender tails stretched out behind them.

As we got deeper into the mangrove, everyone fell silent and just enjoyed the sounds of nature.  All of a sudden there was a loud “raaaahhhh” bark and everyone jumped out of their skin!  It was a large male sea-lion who was somehow perched on a branch in one of the mangrove trees.  Neil made everyone laugh by saying he’d discovered a new species, a “tree-lion”.  He was so well hidden it was quite a shock for this noise to shatter the silence, but exciting as well; the variety of wildlife just had to be seen to be believed.

What a lovely ride we had; it lasted about an hour and a half and we returned to the Xpedition for around 11.45am and sat outside enjoyed some freezing cold beer and some light canapés, talking with Jeff and Jan.  Just then, we noticed a slight commotion on the port side of the ship and were delighted to see the tell-tale spouts of whales, as well as the tantalising black fins.  One of them came right out of the water and we identified orcas, or killer whales.  Wow!

At noon the Beagle Grill opened up and we enjoyed a plate of paella, which contained squid, chicken, ham, shrimp and large langoustine.  It was totally delicious.  Once we were all back on board the Xpedition winched all the Zodiac craft aboard, weighed anchor ad we set off for Tagus Cove, another part of Isabela Island.

At 1.45pm there was a showing of the BBC documentary called Galapagos in the Darwin Lounge, and Trevor watched it while I did some of this blog.  Then we took another walk around the ship, going to the topmost deck (deck 6) to see if the whales were still around.  Indeed they were; we kept seeing the spouts and fins but we waited in vain for one of them to body-breach; that is when they jump right out of the water, and they do it to dislodge any barnacles or parasites that attach to them.

We just pottered around the ship until around four o’clock, then returned to our cabin to change into light clothing, socks and stout trainers for our next activity which would be a walk to the top of the volcanic cone.  Historically Tagus Cove provided shelter for wayfarers and was one of the areas visited by Charles Darwin in 1835.

In our cabin an invitation to dine with Marcelo Tufiño, the Chief Engineer, awaited us; we were to present our invitation in the restaurant at 7.30pm to be escorted to his table.  Wow!  😊

We disembarked the Xpedition into the Zodiac once again for the short ride to shore; this time it was a dry landing, which meant you climbed out of the dinghy straight onto some rocks and so kept your feet dry. We handed our life-jacket to one of the waiting guides and set off, complete with sun-hats, water bottles and, of course, cameras.  There was a brisk breeze blowing which afforded a welcome respite from the equatorial sun.  I made sure to liberally coat myself with factor 20 sun lotion.

We climbed higher and higher up the mountain, up a series of approximately 150 wooden steps; it was quite strenuous and I was breathing hard.  Looking back at the views, however, it was totally worth the effort; looking at the Xpedition at anchor far below us, her white paintwork gleaming mellowly in the sun, and the blue Pacific ocean lazily going about its business; it was breathtaking.

After a while, we stopped and stared in wonder at a mountain lake which was (predictably) named Darwin’s Lake.  It was calm and green, and just so picture-perfect.  I wish I had more words to describe the Galápagos; I feel whatever I write or describe just doesn’t do it justice.  It really is the most beautiful, amazing and unique location, and I am glad that most of the islands are uninhabited, because it is far too good for us mere humans.

We continued on our way to the top, watching our footing on the sandy and rocky trail.  Once we got up there, our guide got us altogether for a group photo.  The wind was really strong at the top and you had to be careful not to let dust blow in your eyes.  After a brief rest, we all started to make our way down again, back the way we came, and we arrived back at the Zodiacs around 6.00pm, for the short ride back to the Xpedition.

Once again, on boarding the vessel we were met with the customary cold damp towel, and personally greeted on board by the captain.  Cold beers and bottles of prosecco on ice were available, and we enjoyed a couple of the gratis drinks as well as the company of our fellow passengers, including Jeff and Jan.  We told them about our invitation to dinner and they kept mock-bowing to us.  😉

Much as we were enjoying the conversation, the laughter and the banter, I had to make my excuses at half-six and return to the cabin to get showered, do my hair and get smartened up for dinner.  Then we gathered in the Discovery Lounge to be briefed on tomorrow’s activities and enjoyed a Blue-Footed Booby cocktail before dinner.  There seems to be an awful lot of drinking going on on this voyage.  😊

At 7.30pm we made our way down to the restaurant and were taken to the Chief Engineer’s table.  We were joined by another two couples, both from the USA, as well as Jacqueline Calle, from the Guest Relations Office.  It was a delicious meal in excellent company; Marcelo Tufiño did not speak much English as he explained that had only been promoted to Chief Engineer a couple of months ago and previously worked in the engine room where he didn’t mix with the passengers; it gave me a chance to practise my limited Spanish, and there was also another lady on our table who had previously lived in Mexico, and her Spanish was fluent.  So the Chief Engineer didn’t feel too left out on his own table. 😊

The fine food, wine and Amaretto flowed as the time winged by.  At 9.30pm we adjourned to the already-packed Discovery Lounge as they were holding a “Line Crossing” ceremony, as we had crossed the Equator today (one of several times, in fact).  Trevor and I are already some of King Neptune’s “Trusty Shellbacks” as we’ve previously crossed the Equator on board ship; the first time on the Braemar in 2011 and the second on the Arcadia in 2013.  Sailors who have never crossed the Equator are known as “pollywogs” and are treated with a certain amount of disdain by us Shellbacks.  😊

Everyone was in a party mood as we all got up and danced; even the Captain let his hair down and joined in.  The infectious Latin samba beat dominated the scene and we were all just so much on a high.  On a ship this small (96 passengers) everyone got to know everyone else and new friends were made daily.  We knew this holiday was going to be a one-off, but it has just surpassed my expectations in so many ways.  Absolutely wonderful.

We carried on partying into the wee hours of the morning, while the Xpedition sailed on placidly into the night.  It was well after midnight when we got to bed, where I was out like a light after a very full, very interesting day.

Santiago & Rabida Islands

What a truly wonderful day it turned out to be today!  We got up at 7.00am and enjoyed a good breakfast in the Darwin Restaurant, before making our way to the stern of the ship to collect our lifejackets for the Zodiac ride ashore.  We also wore water-shoes as it was a “wet landing”, and carried our snorkelling gear, wetsuits and some trainers and socks.  We were just so excited and mildly euphoric with the anticipation of what we would see and experience.

Our Zodiac ride took us to Puerto Egas, Santiago Island.  This island is also known as James, or San Salvador.  We would spend the next couple of hours exploring this unique territory on foot, looking for birds and other wildlife.

When the Zodiac reached the shoreline, we all took turns in sitting on the side and swinging our legs over, splashing the last few yards through the water onto the black volcanic sand.  Immediately in front of us were a couple of Galapágos sea-lions, relaxing on the sand.  One of the rules of visitors to the islands is that you are not allowed to get closer than 8’ to any wildlife; the sea-lions did not seem disturbed by us at all though.

We then dried our feet off and changed into dry socks and trainers ready for our walk.  The terrain alternated between sand or fairly flat rocks, some of which formed natural steps.  We set off at a gentle pace, accompanied by Marvie, our guide and naturalist for the morning.  He pointed out the different birds and plants to us; we saw yellow warblers, mockingbirds, lava herons and pelicans.  Several times small lizards darted across the rocks in front of us; you can to keep your eyes peeled as they were so well camouflaged, blending perfectly into their surroundings.

As we walked along, my eyes were wide at Mother Nature’s rugged beauty, and the sounds of the waves and the cries of the birds.  Several rock formations jutted out of the sea and the waves crashed against them; we could see blue-footed boobies, more pelicans and lots of red crabs atop them.

Because of the constant movement of the restless ocean, several blue-water grottoes and been formed, and we could hear the sea washing around hollowly below us.  We saw several black marine iguanas, some of them basking on the rocks and some swimming in the various rock pools.

We also saw some more Galapágos sea-lions; some of them came right up to us curiously.  One of them shuffled along and launched itself into a grotto with a tremendous splash.  We stood at the edge and looked down at him swimming away, before he dived down in search of fish.  😊

We saw quite a lot of sea-lions; some half-grown pups were playing and frisking in a rock pool, making little grunting and barking sounds.  We also saw a female lying on her side, suckling her little pup; it was just so cute.  This is the only way to see wildlife; forget about zoos, seeing animals in their natural habitat and marvelling at the miracle of life is unbeatable, and I felt so privileged to be here, breathing in the fresh sea air, and feeling the breeze in my hair.

Further along the shore we saw a large group of fur seals basking on the rocks, grunting, snuffling and barking.  I couldn’t get enough of these animals; I took absolutely loads of photos and video footage.

On the way back, we saw a massive alpha-male sea-lion, a real “beach master”.  He was driving another, smaller seal away, barking loudly and shuffling along.  We later learned that these beach masters can weigh up to 500 pounds, and this one was a real whopper.  The smaller seal prudently retreated, and plopped into the ocean out of sight.

After about a couple of hours, we returned to the beach where the Zodiac had landed and we changed into our wetsuits ready for snorkelling.  I waited until I was at the shoreline before putting on the fins, as it is impossible to walk in them.  Then we donned our masks and tubes and took to the water.

Wow! It was totally amazing.  We swam out to some nearby rocks, and passed many shoals of colourful fish, some of which I later identified as king angelfish, Mexican hogfish, Panamic sergeant major and bicolour parrotfish.  We also saw many crabs and starfish, and Trevor spotted a shark.

Swimming along gently with my face in the water, looking at this wonderful array of marine life was tremendous.  Every now and again we had to look up to make sure we didn’t inadvertently swim out too far, and we had to stay with our group.  A couple of the Zodiacs were anchored nearby in case anyone got into difficulty, but there were no problems.

We spent at least half an hour in the water before swimming for shore once again, and getting out of our fins and masks; we had to keep our wet suits on until we were back on board the Xpedition.

Collecting our clothes and shoes, and changing into our water-shoes once again, we waited on the beach for the return of the Zodiac.  It was only a five-minute ride back to the ship, and we had to return our lifejackets and change out of our wetsuits; these were rinsed in a tub of clean water before being hung on coat hangers with our stateroom number on them.  We then had to hose ourselves down to get rid of all the black sand (it seemed to have gotten in every nook and cranny imaginable!)  Then it was back to our cabin for a long, hot shower and clean clothes.  What an absolutely fantastic morning it had been!  😊

We enjoyed a light lunch in the Darwin Restaurant before sitting out on the rears decks, enjoying a cold drink and socialising with our fellow passengers.  Everyone was excitedly regaling everyone else with tales what they’d seen and done and it was a happy, party atmosphere.  Then I went along to the tiny ship’s boutique and bought a t-shirt featuring a blue-footed boobie and the words Celebrity Xpedition on the front.  After all, a holiday wouldn’t be a holiday without buying the t-shirt.  😉

At around 3.30pm we assembled on the rear deck once again, and descended the steps into the Zodiac for a scenic boat ride along the shore.  The dinghy sped and bounced over the waves as we tasted the salt seaspray on our lips – it was exhilarating.  When the reached some of the rocky outcrops our driver slowed the boat right down, and was able to get right up close to allow us to see whatever there was to see.

We identified more pelicans, lava herons, blue-footed boobies, lots of red crabs and several more sea-lions, some of them basking on the rocks and some swimming in the ocean.  We also saw some sea turtles and kept our eyes peeled for whales or dolphins, as we had spotted the tell-tale spouts earlier on.

The ride lasted about an hour and a half and we returned to the Xpedition about five-thirty.  We were welcomed back on board by Captain Fausto Pacheco personally, and each given a glass of well-chilled prosecco and some canapés.  Honestly, this trip has completely surpassed all my expectations already, and it’s only our second day!  😊

We spent a very pleasant hour sitting and relaxing outside and talking with Alvaro, the Hotel Director, about different places we’d been to and different cruises we’d done, while enjoying some more glasses of the free fizz.  Then we reluctantly had to return to our cabin to get washed and changed for dinner.  When we got back there, we found a dish of strawberries dipped in chocolate, as well as a bottle of prosecco on ice.  What a nice touch; we’d enjoy it later on.  😊

We then returned to the Discovery Lounge where they were having a pisco sour cocktail party and we sat with Jeff and Jan and listened to the briefing for tomorrow’s activities, and signed up for the ones we wanted to participate in.

Dinner was spent in the interesting company of two American couples; Tom and Lee-Anne, and Neil and Gail.  I enjoyed a delicious filet mignon and fresh vegetables, washed down with a crisp sauvignon blanc (I know, I know – you’re ‘supposed’ to have red wine with steak but I enjoy my whites!). We then finished off with a glass of amaretto and made our way back to the Discovery Lounge to participate in the “Latin Night” music and dancing.

The music featured the infectious samba and salsa beat, while members of the Ecuadorian staff got up to show us how it was done.  One lady taught me some salsa steps, and I enjoyed the music and the dancing; I just love that sort of music as well as Caribbean soca; the type of music where you just can’t keep your feet (or your hips) still for a second.  It was a great evening.  😊

The lounge seemed to empty out fairly early (before 11.00pm), so Trevor and I finished the evening off with a nightcap at the bar, where we spent some time talking with the barman.  Then it was off to bed, on a high, after a truly great day.

Glorious Galápagos

Carry me on the waves
To the lands I’ve never been
Carry me on the waves
To the lands I’ve never seen.
 – Enya

 

We got up at 06.45 this morning, filled with a suppressed excitement in anticipation of the day to come.  After a good breakfast once again, we assembled in the hotel foyer at 8.00am and collected our aircraft boarding passes for Avianca flight AV1686 from Quito to Seymour Airport, Baltra in the famed Galápagos Islands.  We were also given a robust, refillable plastic water bottle each; this is to save on all the eco-unfriendly water bottles in our effort to help the environment.  😊

Once the coaches arrived, we all piled on and made our way through the light Sunday morning traffic to the airport; it took about 45 minutes.  As were already checked in as a group, it was just a matter of getting to Gate D4 for our flight at 10.00am.  We could see our aircraft, an Airbus A319, waiting on the tarmac for us, and it wasn’t long before we were walking up the steps and boarding our charter flight.  Shortly afterwards the doors were closed and we taxied to the runway and took to the blue skies.  We were on our way!  😊

The flight only lasted one hour and 50 minutes, during which time the cabin crew came round with more breakfast; this time I declined, as I’d already eaten a good breakfast in the hotel.  I just made do with a Diet Coke and spent the flight doing some of this blog and looking out of the plane window, waiting for our first glimpse of the Galápagos.  As we approached the airport, we spotted the Xpedition at anchor and felt a fresh surge of excitement.

Soon we touched down at Seymour Airport, along the single runway which bisected land that looked arid, rocky and volcanic and was filled with scrubby-looking bushes but no actual trees.  Beyond, the blue Pacific Ocean glittered in the sunlight.  We slowed to a halt and happily went down the steps of the aircraft into the sunshine and cloudless sky; a brisk but refreshing breeze was blowing as we entered the airport terminal.  Inside, we were given a complimentary cold drink; I think mine was passion fruit juice.  There was also tea or coffee if you wanted it, as well as (more!) snacks.

We sat and made small talk with our fellow travellers, including Mike and Mary, with whom we shared our meal last night.  Then it was time for us to board the shuttle bus for the short journey to the landing stage.

On arrival, we were all given life jackets to put on before awaiting the 16-seater Zodiac landing craft.  We were shown the correct and safe way to board the inflatables, then we had to sit on the edge and hold on to the ropes as the small craft sped and bounced over the waves towards the Xpedition.  As we disembarked the Zodiac, we had to hand our carry-on bags to one of the crew so we had both hands free to hold the hands of the crew members helping us onto the ship.  We were then directed to the Discovery Lounge for our welcome briefing, and each given a cold, refreshing glass of Buck’s Fizz.  Sitting down at a table, I held up my glass and said to anyone who was listening “Well, here we are!  Cheers everybody!”.  Everyone said “cheers” and we all clinked glasses.  😊

Once everyone was finished their drinks, we were taken to our cabin, which was only along the corridor from the Discovery Lounge.  Trevor and I have been allocated cabin 416 on deck 4; in fact, there are only six decks on this ship altogether.  It’s the smallest ship we’ve been on at only 2,800 tons and 96 passengers.  No ships with more than 100 passengers are allowed in the Galápagos, so this is actually one of the biggest ships that comes here.

Our ocean-view cabin looked homely and comfortable.  There was a double bed, bedside table, small settee and table, a large dressing table with stool and flat-screen TV, and a couple of wardrobes with shelves and hanging space.  The bathroom wasn’t a bad size, as well as the sink and WC there was a fair-sized shower stall with a glass door.  Bottles of shower gel, shampoo and conditioner were attached to the wall.  We felt sure we would have a very comfortable stay on board the Xpedition.

After getting settled in our cabin, our suitcases had not yet arrived, so we decided to go and sit up on deck and enjoy a cold beer each.  The cruise is all-inclusive, so there is no additional cost for the drinks.  😉

We sat on the rear decks at a parasol-covered table and happily looked around us.  We could see several other smaller islands; some of them just looked like big rocks jutting out of the sea; they were uninhabited so were a veritable haven for wildlife.

We enjoyed a couple of beers along with the company of Jeff and Jan, a couple from Manchester who had arrived on the same KLM flight as us.  Most of the passengers were predictably from the USA and Canada; very few of us are British.  There are also some from New Zealand and some from Australia; they would have had an even longer journey and bigger time difference than us.  We always enjoy meeting and socialising with people from other countries, hearing their stories and learning about their home towns.  Variety is what it is all about!

At three o’clock we returned to the Discovery Lounge to meet our naturalists and guides who would be looking after us for this trip, and get an introduction to the Galápagos, the “dos and don’ts” of how to behave and how to preserve the delicate ecology and balance of nature here.  We were also told about the various activities and excursions available for us to enjoy, to make our memorable trip even more unforgettable.

This took us nicely up to lifeboat drill, where we all had to go to the boat deck in response to the emergency signal (seven short blasts of the ship’s whistle, followed by one long blast).  Afterwards our time was our own, and we used it to enjoy another couple of free drinks; this time my favourite cocktail of caipirinha.  The barman just sloshed the cachaça into the glass without using a measure; boy, was it a strong one!  😉

At 4.30pm we had to go to the topmost deck to get fitted for our wetsuits and fins, as we planned to do some snorkelling while we were here.  I had never worn a wetsuit before, and getting in and out of it was quite a feat!  The wetsuit was the kind with only short arms and legs, rather than the full-length one.  We then had to try on a pair of fins as well as collect masks and tubes, and a big mesh backpack to carry them all in.

At 5.00pm the Xpedition weighed anchor and we set off through the calm Pacific towards one of the islands we could see.  Several large frigate birds swooped and wheeled in the sky above us, following the ship.  We circumnavigated an island called Daphne Major, getting up quite close so we could see the birds and, in some cases, sea lions.  From the air, the large conical top of the island is visible, remind us that all of these islands are volcanic.

It was exhilarating sailing along, and quite a party atmosphere on the rear decks of the Xpedition as the camera-happy passengers made the most of the lovely scenery and waiters wandered among us with their trays of cocktails and other cold drinks.  Dinner was not until 7.30pm so we took some time out for a half-hour power nap, as we were still not over our jetlag and we’d had an exciting day today so far with an early start.

Even though there is no dress code on board Celebrity cruise ships, I made the effort to dress a little more smartly for dinner, with a colourful cotton dress and some silver sandals, and some fresh makeup.  Then off we went to the Darwin Restaurant on Deck 3, where we enjoyed a delicious meal, washed down with (more!) free wine and spent in excellent company, with Brian and Karen, a couple from America.

We finished the evening off by going along to the Discovery Lounge to watch a documentary about Charles Darwin, and how he came to form his famous Theory of Evolution and natural selection, the “survival of the fittest”.  It was an interesting documentary, but I didn’t really do Mr. Darwin justice as I kept dozing off; tiredness (as well as the beer, wine and caipirinha) was catching up with me.

We therefore decided to return to cabin 416 and settle down to sleep, on our first eventful day on board the Xpedition.  We looked forward to what tomorrow would bring. 😊