Archive for October, 2017

Isabela Island

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

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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.

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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.
Orinoco Flow
– 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. 😊

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Middle of the World

Because we were still on British time, we awoke several times in the night, and at 6.00am (which felt like midday) we decided to get up.  Outside, day was breaking and the weather felt cool and refreshing.  The wet ground indicated we’d had some rain overnight.

I took an invigorating shower while Trevor got to grips with the coffee-maker, and at seven o’clock we made our way down to breakfast in the large, airy dining room.

There was a huge selection of breakfast foods available, some of them quite unusual compared to what we’re accustomed to at home.  For example, there was hot potato soup as well as chicken and rice.  In addition, there was a huge array of colourful fresh fruits, pastries, meats, cheeses, egg dishes and cereals.  I opted for a selection of cheeses, meats and fresh fruits, whereas Trevor partook of a plate of Eggs Benedict.  It was all washed down with strong, freshly brewed coffee to set us up for the exciting day ahead.  😊

We were finished with breakfast at 7.30am and, as we didn’t have to assemble in the hotel lobby until 9.15am, we decided to take a walk outside and explore our immediate vicinity.  We went outside to the hotel pool, but it had started to rain again so we decided to go back to room 712 and get our raincoats.

Outside, we walked along the streets, passing the ubiquitous Burger King and McDonalds on the way. Most of the buildings around us seemed to be more hotels, office blocks, motorcycle and auto shops and residential buildings.  There didn’t seem to be many shops, bars or restaurants.  Nevertheless it was nice to stretch our legs and have a walk in the crisp morning air after all the time we spent sitting about yesterday.

Walking up steps or up an incline, my heavier breathing and slight light-headedness reminded me that we were at 9,350 feet above sea level; we would have to remember to drink plenty of water to make up for the moisture lost through heavier respiration and therefore hopefully avoid any symptoms of altitude sickness.  So far, so good though.

Back in the hotel I decided to have another cup of coffee before meeting up with the rest of our group for our city tour.  We then met the Celebrity Cruises rep as well as Dianna, our guide for the day.  There are 91 of us altogether, so we were split into five groups so there wouldn’t be too big a crowd of us seeing the sights.  We were group X4, allocated bus number one.

We set off at half-nine through the busy streets and we were pleased to see that not far from the hotel there was a street with lots of shops for us to explore when we returned to Quito after our expedition.  All around us we could see the mountainous landscape as the bus made its way along the winding roads, climbing steadily and affording us fantastic views of Quito.  Our first stop was at the Virgin Mary with Wings, a massive statue overlooking the city.  We alighted from the bus and took a slow stroll around; I needed the loo as one of the things I’d noticed about the higher altitude was the need to pee more often!

We took some photos of the views and the statue, then looked along some little stalls that had been set up by the roadside, obviously with the tourists in mind as they all seemed to be selling the same stuff; bags, snow-globes, dolls, fridge magnets and the usual holiday ‘tat’. I bought a couple of magnets; one for my aunt (we always bring one back for her) and one for someone who we know who collects them.

I was then pleased to see some servicios, so we went to the loo, got washed and freshened up, then got back on the bus once again to continue our trip.

After about 15 minutes our bus driver, Miguel, parked up once again and we followed Dianna through the Saturday morning crowds to a fabulous, very ornate looking Catholic church, called Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus .  Dianna explained that 85% of the population of Ecuador were Catholic (in keeping with most of South America) and she told us we were not allowed to take photographs inside the church as the flashes would damage the artwork and ornate gold-leaf painted pillars, walls and ceilings.

The décor inside the church was breathtaking.  We were told that it took 160 years to build the church and it was easy to believe because of the detail in the workmanship.  The was a lovely vaulted ceiling with a gallery running around it and, below, a large rounded mirror that allowed us to view the artwork on the ceiling and the gilded reflections of the gold-leaf carvings, cornices and pillars.

We spent about half an hour in the cool church, before making our way outside and back to the bus.  The sky was still cloudy, but here and there the sun was making an attempt to come through.

The bus travelled once again for a short distance before we alighted into a large square and Dianna explained we would be having a short walking tour of the city.  It was quite crowded and there were a lot of hawkers selling souvenirs and scarves; we were pleased that they were not too persistent if you said “no, thank you”.

Our next stop was at San Francisco church in the square; we noticed there were a great many pigeons about and we hoped we wouldn’t receive a little present, ha ha.  😉

Inside the church there was a service in progress, so we listened for a short while to the Spanish sermon as well as to the choir singing, all in harmony.  Then we walked outside in the cloisters and looked some colourful birds and plants.  The sun was out by now and it felt very hot, shining down on my bare head, and I wished I’d brought a sunhat.

By this time it was after 12 o’clock, so our next stop was to a restaurant for our lunch.  It must have been reserved in advance because we were told it was a buffet lunch, and we wondered how the restaurant would cope with five busloads of people turning up.  We needn’t have worried on this score, because ours was one of the first buses to arrive, so we were straight in and at the front of the queue.  😊

Lunch consisted of a selection of typical Ecuadorian dishes.  We enjoyed a tasty potato soup to start with, which was garnished with mozzarella cheese and avocado.  Our main course included chicken, lamb, pork, sea bass and fresh vegetables, served with rice and a fairly spicy chilli sauce.  We washed it down with a glass of local beer and finished off with blackcurrant sorbet, a fruit salad basket and some sort of pastry cake.  A delicious and substantial meal to sustain us for the afternoon ahead.

Fed and watered, we waited outside for everyone else to finish.  Several ladies milled around on the pavement selling scarves and wraps in myriad colours; they only cost two for $5.00 so I bought a light green scarf/wrap with a fine gold thread running through it, and a darker green and brown wrap.  At that price you couldn’t complain!  I put the light green one on straight away; I noticed quite a few other ladies in our group had bought them as well.

Presently we all boarded the bus once again for the 45-minute journey to what would be the highlight of today’s tour – a visit to latitude 0˚ 0’ 0”, better known as the Equator, what the Ecuadorians call la mitad del mundo (the middle of the world).  We would, however, be visiting the real equator and not the location where, for decades until the advent of GPS, the equator was believed to be, and where there is a monument to mark the imaginary line around the earth’s middle.  The actual equator is 240 metres away from the line shown at this monument.

On arrival, we excitedly got off the bus and made our way to the museum where we were given a tour guide to show us around.   She explained to us some of the history of the location, starting with the indigenous Amazonian peoples, from the fearsome head-shrinkers to the hunter-gatherers and the various traditions and cultures of the South American natives.  It was all very interesting indeed.

We were then shown into the chocolate centre. Ecuador grows the cacao plants from which cocoa, or chocolate, is eventually extracted; our guide opened a fresh cacao pod and showed us the seeds inside; we were allowed to taste the pulp that surrounded the seed (it was sweet) but not to bite into the seed itself as unprocessed cocoa is very bitter.  We were then shown the various stages involved in the production of chocolate and, at the end, given a small piece of pure bitter chocolate to try; to me, it was far superior to the milk chocolate (e.g. Galaxy or Cadbury) that you can buy back home.  The guide said we could come back after the tour and buy some if we wanted.

We then made our way to the famous Equator, which is indicated by a red line dividing the northern and southern hemispheres.  The line was measured using military precise GPS.  Of course, I could not resist standing astride the red line, with one foot in each hemisphere.  Our group also queued up so we could do the touristy thing and stand behind the Latitude 0˚ 0’ 0” sign.  😊

Afterwards we had some free time so we spent it wandering around, looking at the souvenir shops selling the inevitable Panama hats.  You would think, from the name, that these distinctive hats come from Panama, but in actual fact they are made in Ecuador and must be among the most famous of its exports.  We didn’t buy one, but I might just be tempted later on in the holiday.  😊

It was then time to board bus number one again for the return journey to our hotel.  It took just under an hour and we arrived back at around 4.45pm.  We had an hour and a half before we had to be ready to go out for dinner so, because of our early start, we decided to have a power-nap until half-five to refresh ourselves for the evening ahead.

Afterwards, we got washed and changed; I wore a long cotton tropical print dress that I bought last year in Antigua, as well as my new light green wrap.  My colourful ensemble elicited quite a few comments from our fellow travellers in the lift going down to the hotel lobby.

Off we went to the Restaurant Gloria, where tables had been reserved once again for our trip.  We had done a lot of eating and drinking once again, and I would have to watch my waistline for the remainder of this trip if I didn’t want to gain any more weight than was necessary!

We shared a table with a very pleasant American couple, Mike and Mary, who were from Virginia.  They told us they had retired in their mid-50s (20 years ago) and had taken up farming since then, owning 20 acres of land.  We enjoyed interesting and lively conversation with them as well as a delicious three-course meal which we washed down with a beer in Trevor’s case and a margarita in mine.

The time passed all too quickly before we had to leave the restaurant and return the Marriott Hotel.  On the way out, we were surprised and amused to see all the chefs and waiters lining the pathway and applauding us all as we made our way back to the bus.

We arrived back at the hotel around 8.15pm and we had to go up and pack all our stuff into our cases (apart from what we would need in the morning) as tomorrow we were due to fly out to the Galapagos Islands, and they would be coming at 5.00am to collect our luggage to transfer it to the ship for us – the next time we’d see our cases would be in our cabin.

After dropping the bags off in the lobby, we saw the couple from our flight from Amsterdam whose luggage hadn’t made it; they were very happy to tell us that their cases had turned up at five o’clock, so they could now relax and begin to enjoy their holiday in earnest.

We finished the evening off by going to the hotel bar once again, where we enjoyed a couple of drinks each and I wrote out some postcards I’d bought earlier on.  It was around 10.45pm when we left the bar, so we thought we’d done quite well considering our 6.00am start and the remainder of the jetlag.  We returned to our room and settled down for the night, where we slept very well.  What a great day it had been!

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KLM to Quito

Time again for another adventure in far-away lands, a once-in-a-lifetime voyage of discovery and enrichment, sailing in the wake of the Beagle and naturalist and biologist Charles Darwin.  We had been booked for this trip for over a year and now the day had come at last.  We are going to spend a couple of days in Quito, Ecuador, before joining the M/S Xpedition which, as its name suggests, is an expedition vessel on which we would take a week-long cruise around the Galapágos Islands.

It was therefore with great excitement that we left the house at 3.30am for the drive to Newcastle Airport to commence the first leg of our journey, flying to Amsterdam Schiphol before joining our long-haul flight to Quito.

At that time of the morning there was hardly any traffic about, and we arrived at the airport within half an hour, leaving our car in the long-stay car park.  It was then straight into the main terminal building where there were no queues at the KLM desk, so we checked our cases right through to Quito, then happily made our way through security and into the Aspire executive lounge, where we enjoyed some coffee, bacon and eggs and livened up our orange juice with a shot of vodka.  😊

I had that disoriented, ‘unreal’ type feeling that comes with being up very early in the morning while it is still dark, but at the same time a delicious feeling of anticipation and exhilaration at the impending holiday.

We had about an hour in the lounge before making our way to the departure gate to board our flight to Amsterdam, which would only take an hour or so.  Once airborne, we had a small snack and a cold Heineken each and watched the sky slowly lighten outside our window to a brilliant blue on this crisp autumn morning.

Schiphol is a massive airport, so it took us a good 20 minutes to find F8, our departure gate, for flight KL755 to Quito.  The aircraft, a Boeing 777, awaited us on the tarmac outside the window and we hoped it wouldn’t be long before we were called to board.  However, I have been watching this flight all week on FlightRadar24, a very informative aircraft tracking app, and it hasn’t taken off on time all week.  Today was no exception; in fact we were over an hour late before we took to the skies for what would be a very long and seemingly-endless flight.

I had the window seat and Trevor was next to me; we were accompanied in the aisle seat by a pleasant bloke who was half-American, half-Ecuadorian, and he was going to Quito to visit family.

Once we got to cruising height and the seatbelt sign was switched off, the cabin crew came round with yet more drinks and a small packet of smoked roasted almonds.  On long-haul flights we always find that we eat and drink far too much which isn’t so good when we’re just sitting in our seats doing nothing to work off the calories, but we see the drinks, food and duty-free shopping rounds on board an aircraft a way of breaking up the monotony.

I didn’t see any films or TV programmes I wanted to watch on the in-flight entertainment; so I just played a few computer games in a half-hearted fashion, watched the SkyMap and read my magazines or Kindle, or listened to music on my iPod.  Occasionally we got up and walked down the aircraft to the toilets or just stood to stretch our legs, and despite not being able to sleep well on aeroplanes I found that I did manage to snatch the odd half-hour’s nap, probably out of sheer tiredness.

So what else can I say?  The time dragged on in its inexorable way and, after a flight of approximately 11½ hours, and eventually the captain put on the ‘Fasten Seatbelt’ signs for the approach into Quito.

Quito is Ecuador’s capital city and is (disputably) the world’s highest capital city at 9350 feet above sea level.  We were worried about altitude sickness (which we suffered from during our visit to Peru in 2014) but I had been advised that an aircraft flying at 36,000 feet had the cabin pressurised to an atmospheric pressure equal to what you’d experience at 8000 feet, so Quito was only 1350 feet above that, and we had nearly 12 hours on the plane to acclimatise to it.

The wheels of our aeroplane eventually touched down on Ecuadorian soil and trundled at speed along the runway, before taxiing to the arrivals gate.  Then it was the usual tedium of disembarking the plane, making our way through security, collecting our suitcases from the carousel, going through customs, and eventually meeting up with the Celebrity Cruises representative outside.  She advised that we were still waiting for another couple.

Well, it must have been a good half hour later before the other couple appeared.  The reason they were held up was because their suitcases had gone missing!  They had flown from Heathrow via Amsterdam so they didn’t know which airport had lost the cases.  So they only had the clothes they were standing up in!  A similar thing happened to me in 2001 when we flew out to Rome to join the Marco Polo for a Mediterranean cruise (preceded by a couple of nights in the hotel in Rome) and my case went missing.  Luckily it turned up the next day, so we hoped the same would apply for this couple.

There were only six of us in the minibus from the airport to the Marriott Hotel Quito, where we would spend the next couple of nights.  We still had another hour of travelling, battling our way through the early Friday evening traffic, before we’d arrive at the hotel, and it was very difficult to keep our eyes open, even though the mountainous scenery outside, with here and there little ramshackle villages perched on the hillsides, was very interesting.

Night fell at 6.00pm; in fact one of the things we’ve noticed in equatorial regions is that night and day are more or less equal length, so we’d expect the sun up at 6.00am tomorrow morning.  Because of the time difference (Ecuador is six hours behind BST) we imagined we’d be awake well before 6.00am.  😊

Eventually, thankfully, we arrived at the 5-star Marriott, an impressive-looking building with lots of glass and frondy plants outside, situated right in the city centre.  As it felt to us like 12.30am we decided we wouldn’t venture out of the hotel tonight, but instead would enjoy a couple of beers in the hotel bar before settling down for the night.  Despite our tiredness, we didn’t want to go to bed too early otherwise we’d wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to get back to sleep again.

We were allocated room 712 at the front of the hotel, overlooking the city.  I must say, we were both well impressed with the room.  It was very large with a king-size bed, reclining armchair with pouffe, desk, 42” TV screen, mini-bar and tea and coffee making facilities. The bathroom had a large shower stall, a deep bath, sink, cosmetic mirror with hairdryer, and a separate toilet cubicle.  We also had a couple of thoughtfully-provided bathrobes and slippers, as well as a selection of toiletries.  We were sure we’d enjoy a great couple of nights’ sleep here.

So, sitting here in the hotel bar at 02:02am UK time I had already tried the local beer, and decided to finish this blog for today along with a nice glass of chilled white wine.  It’s been a long and tedious day, which just has to form part of travelling to far-flung lands, but we’re here at last and our Great Galapagos Adventure can now begin in earnest.  Buenos noches amigos!  😉

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