November 30th

4.30 am start. A miserable time. Cold and bleak and the city sleeps. Breakfast en-route to Madrid. Change plane and then 11 hours of nothing except food and sleep. Iberia does both well. We are exhausted on arrival, 7:00 PM local Ecuador time. 2:00 AM for us, we dodder straight to bed.

December 1st

Didn’t think about weather… Wake at 4:00 AM to the noise of a downpour. the rain sounds like several hosepipes on the roof. Of course, Quito is over 10,000 feet up and set among peaks. the city is halfway up to the rain clouds. the Café Cultura, our first base, is a sort of upmarket hippie hotel. Roaring fires in great stone fireplaces, impossible lighting, mostly candles, big ones. Great for atmosphere, lousy for reading. Grim bathrooms but clean and huge and comfortable beds. Watery murals galloping over all the walls and a vast breakfast of ‘huevos rancheros’, at least that is what they are called in Mexico, scrambled eggs, ham and peppers all in a delicious mush. We are starving, as it is lunchtime for us.

We set out to see the city but must first search for an ATM machine, as I have not a single dollar. Yes, ATM's are, as our tour guide told us, on every corner, but only for the use of Ecuadorian nationals. But a local bank, heavily guarded by toy soldiers in fancy uniforms and sprinkled with real guns, obliges. Money belt momentarily stuffed.

Walk to the old town. A LONG way. Quito unravels itself to be rather like an old fashioned eastern European city: the jungle of car repair yards, shops packed with electrical goods falling out of boxes onto the pavement. Bootleg DVD's, videos and CDs, all the newest sights and sounds housed in decrepit concrete blocks tied together with cat’s cradles of electric cables. A few attempts at ‘modern’ architecture are grubby and crumbling.

We pant as we traipse up and down the steep hills, we forget that at Quito’s altitude we are likely to be continually out of breath. the old town is somewhat less grim then the so-called ‘new’, though the lowering clouds and drizzle don’t make it a cheerful place. the buildings, mostly 19th century but looking 18th and 17th, are painted lovely pastel colours, Pink and blue and a lot of yellow, though the universal colour of poverty, grey, prevails. Even the whitewash looks grey as the city cowers beneath the green mountain peaks, seemingly swaying in the clouds above. As cities go it is quiet, the cars don’t honk or shopkeepers shout. Only a brass band with vast and impossible instruments, designed presumably after the local anacondas to writhe between the player’s limbs, give the day a sound.

the air is full of damp. Even when we got up this morning our clothes, even in our room, were damp, towels and knickers, socks and T-shirts. Childhood memories of Snowdonia and its soddeness were very close.

However the people of Quito look marvelous; trilby hats, both men and women, brilliant shawls, swirling skirts and faces full of life. Smiles and resignation, not screwed up with jealousy European style. Gorgeous children, slim and slight and shy and everyone strutting their stuff. Probably a lot of the stuff all made in China…

But the pall of dampness remains and the altitude makes us want to sit down. Nowhere to sit. Streets full of people but not a café to be found. We visit huge monasteries with vast gilt glazed churches attached. Churches looking as though hewn from solid gold. Amazing how the Spanish totally asset-stripped South America, I suppose some sort of guilt made them leave a little spread over the walls of their religious institutions. Most of the grand rooms of the monasteries are now museums of a sort. Largely closed for ‘repairs’. Repairs that no one has been able to afford before but organisations such as World Heritage now fund. All great except while the funding is sorted and spent everything is shut. However the rooms that are open all contain vast dark and gloomy Spanish religious paintings by unknown artists. At least unknown to me. Canvases start around 4 metres high and move upward in size, which is eventually checked by, enormous carved gold frames. Pictures you could never get in or out of any door. Pictures to put you in your place and make you feel small. Pictures painted by the m2 or rather squared hectare. It would be interesting to find out who worked these monstrous canvases. Were they painted single-handed or by a team? Did they make the colours locally or import them by the barrel from Spain? Are the agonised Madonna's and angels and thunderous Saints portraits of local Spanish ex-pats? Perhaps, when every other school of paintings has had a PH.D written about it, someone will give these works the attention their sheer size and darkness deserves.

the good stuff, which everyone knows about, are the wondrous carved and painted figures. Christs dripping in blood, Madonnas with diamonds for tears. the cutest kiddies as pouting cherubs. Sometimes their clothes are painted and carved as part of the work and sometimes they wear wonderful dresses. Dresses that are changed according to the season of the church. Such gessoed and gilded figures are still made locally for churches. the Latin American figures are far gaudier and pose far more dramatically than those of the same period in Europe. (Mostly 18th century). the gestures on these wooden sculptures are more flamboyant, their clothes whipped wider by celestial winds, and their hair curlier and thicker. this was the land of Milk and Honey and El Dorado, only over the top decoration could show the excitement and riches of these newfound lands.

the big public squares of Quito are grand and spacious enough to muster a division. there are plenty of soldiers guarding the buildings, though these soldiers look like toy ones in their pretty frogged uniforms and glistening boots. Drum majorettes march and fat policemen hold the crowds back whilst the bands march past trying to control their anaconda-like tubas. All the martial music sounds like tangos, which makes a jolly change from other military bands.

We trawl some markets but this year’s feature of leaping deer knitted into all the pullovers keeps our dollars in our pockets. Greek key patterns are also popular around hems and wrists. I wonder where the original of these designs actually came from? Someone has told them that deer and Greek key pattern are just what the gringos are looking for. All a bit of a pity.

At 12.000 ft we have so far held up well, even managing several miles of tramping, though eventually giving in to the idea of a taxi back to our hotel. Good enough dinner, but wine is expensive, and then instant sleep.

December 2nd

Terrible night, Sally doing her greatest act, basso profundo. She could make another fortune in an opera house being able to project her roars enough to make the rafters quake. the room across the yard from us are telling each other their life stories in loud New Yorkese. And there is the rain beating on the window, like all the toy soldiers shooting off their rifles together. I could stand the noise no longer so got up at 4am and had a very long hot shower. Sally is furious because I wake her. Cursing me she sleeps again and when the alarm rings turns over, turns it off and plunges yet again into dreams. Five minutes before our taxi is due she wakes, dresses and is ready. I am impressed, needing as I do an hour for ablutions. Café Cultura even has coffee ready for us at 5am and Daniel and the car arrive on the dot to take us to the airport.

Quito domestic terminal must really win the grand prize for the worst airport in the world, though to give them their due they do seem to have borrowed some of those signs from museums telling that repairs are in progress. At this predawn hour the place is already swarming and when we are summoned to our plane find ourselves walking right out onto the runway where two planes are filling up with people. Dilemma, do we like the blue plane or the one with green stripes best? Getting closer we see the blue plane has a crooked sign hanging on the steps saying ‘CUENCA’.

Up and out through the damp and grey and we are in a magic land of puffy white clouds through which poke the snouts of snowy topped volcanoes. I think perhaps we have strayed into a Lord of the Rings set. Our noses pressed to the windows we are enchanted. A mere hour later, after a large and nasty bump we have landed. the sun shines, the air doesn’t taste of petrol and we’ve left the rain behind and Felipe is there to greet us.

these charming young Ecuadorian guides are good. Polite, punctual and pretty. We whoosh to a hotel in the middle of town, a very, very much done over old house. Once upon a time it would have been two open courtyards leading one to the other from the main street with rooms round the balconies on all sides. that must have been good, even if sleep could have been difficult with the noise of llama hooves pattering on the cobbles all night. Now the courtyards are roofed and the wood is darkly varnished and new. Sort of German style as found in Slovenia. We are given a room with no windows but a quick shout gets us moved to the top floor with an extensive view over miles of pan tiled roofs. We could almost be in Siena, except it is so quiet. And we have a Big Bath, oh the joy of that later.

Off to explore. Cuenca is more or less a 19th century town built on a grid pattern. First to find another ATM machine as the first dollars seemed to have dripped away. that’s the nature of travel. But no ATM works here either. On the further side of town we are directed to a Cash Advance sign. Yes, as much as we want on our credit cards, but it costs 20%. Ow! Seems like there is a fine business to be opened here. Two pretty girls run the place, one takes my passport details and the other opens the safe. the money belts are once again stuffed.

It is almost, to within a few feet, as high here as in Quito, so walking is hard. Also the sun being vertically overhead is dizzy making. We head for the river, why is water such a draw? the Cuenca river is more a large mountain brook and on its flanks the Bank of Ecuador has built itself an Inca style concrete fortress, (plenty of guards with guns outside,) and next to the actual bank, a museum. A rather smaller Inca fortress. It is open! that makes a change. Inside there are almost no visitors but it is dark and cool and a refuge from the torrid street. the ground floor has a wonderful collection of 19th century portraits of local worthies painted by artists of Ecuador. One can see the itinerant artists unloading their colours off their llamas and painting the local dignitaries packed into their best clothes. Naïve and delightful, and very real. Life here could never have been easy despite all that gold being dug out. Some fearsome carved and painted wooden portrait busts in glass case and a series of rooms of the Madonna of Mercy pictures. the most kitsch pictures I’ve ever seen, right over the top with simpering girls and pink children and butterflies and flowers and tinsel. I fear only I could enjoy such sentiment.

Upstairs a run through of tribal settlements of Ecuador, straw huts with natives, (plaster ones) cooking in pots over fake fires. Always good to see how a country looks at its own ethic people. Here definitely they are kept at the back on the top floor.

Outside in the straight streets we tower above the locals, small persons with wide smiles, mostly Indian looks but often well mixed with Spanish, especially the girls in tight jeans and stilettos. the real locals, the market women are as wide as they are high. I mean that, no exaggeration.

From the cool dark bank we walk out along the river/ditch. It is broiling and somehow I still have woolly tights on. Why? We try a couple more museums after hauling ourselves up a vertical flight of steps panting at each one. We feel the altitude. Horrible. It can’t just be old age. Both museums closed for repairs and looking like they’ll be closed for the next decade.

Our trusty guidebook tells us of a hippie café in the vicinity. Oh bliss. the best refreshment of Ecuador is the fruit juice. Extravagant and exotic juices, or rather thick fruit soups. Everyone has a whizzer and you just choose what fruit you want piled into it. Half a litre of the stuff for a dollar appears to be pretty standard. My favourite is mountain blackberry, a sort of huge raspberry with colour somewhat relating to a blackberry. Totally delicious served as a fresh mush. Sally likes the banana concoctions, or the weird tree tomato. It maybe a relation of the tomato but a rather distant one and impossible to tell if you want it as a sweet drink or part of a salad. But the hippie café is fresh out of everything except watermelon, a boring fruit but again fine if whizzed and seeds removed.

We find it so curious that there is no café life at all here in Cuenca. Yet the climate is perfect for it. the pretty town squares call for tables and chairs under the shady trees. the lawns beside the river are perfect for sitting around on, preferably at a table with an umbrella. But nothing. Even in the capital, Quito, there was no café life. Perhaps there are dark underground bars where citizens congregate and plot? We know nobody to ask. So the hippie café is a find. A few single gringos sitting at separate tables and looking intense with well-worn paperbacks in their hands. the style of such young travelers hasn’t changed in fifty years. We can feel their sneers so down our juice, pay our dollars, and, speaking Greek to each other, to confuse the clientele slip away.

Cafes are essential fare for tourists whose feet ache and need rest and whose eyes bulge from too much looking. Ecuador is missing out on real money-spinners.

Cuenca cathedral is very fine. A vast arched and domed building of brick dating from the late 19th century. there is so little earlier, the continuous earthquakes have seen to that, though what is called the ‘old’ cathedral is on the opposite side of the square and is of course under repair with dosh from some international slush fund. I manage to buy a goodly sized candle in the arcade outside and light it for my Beloved. Sally doesn’t hold for such stuff being a practical and pragmatic classicist. I find that Cuenca cathedral is one of the largest churches in Latin America. It certainly feels it; us humans lighting our candles are like wee ants flooding about the space. Madonnas ride high on their altars coolly condescending and dispersing distant grace to us mortals from their seats in glory. the saint’s robes glitter and dazzle in the dim light while huffing and puffing cherubs lift painted curtains around the Holy ladies.

In the precinct of the cathedral there are shops which only sell outfits for Baby Jesuses and sweet Madonnas. Tiny shops packed with bejewelled dressing gowns for dolls. these shops are doing a roaring trade as Christmas approaches and there are many Nativitys to dress, apart from all the local saints little family creche needing party clothes for the coming festivities.

We find a restaurant, a sort of Cuenca brasserie where the local chaps of substance, with pointed and shiny shoes, curious suits and cheap brief cases, appear to be having a set lunch. As are a couple of nuns, and a group of youngsters. they are all eating the same; soup, a ghastly looking piece of meat with rice and, something unseen since childhood for pud, red jelly. We go for the soup, the usual Ecuadorian soup, potato. It is good, and seems to be made with maize flour thickened stock, coloured and flavoured with turmeric and then are added lots of potatoes cut quite small, lumps of white cheese and slices of avocado floating in it. We wash this down with a jug of fresh lime juice and finish off with a good espresso. At last, good coffee! Ecuador grows the best coffee in the world and brews the worst.

After all this Sally allows me a half-hour siesta. I need it owing to listening to so much deep rhythm at night. then more exploring, hunting for the local North Pole or even the Equator, it probably has red and white stripes and a policeman guarding it. Cuenca is not a rich town, not a shop with classy merchandise. Not a sniff of a designer label, or any extravagant and luxurious beauty salons, though, much to my surprise, I do manage to buy a memory card for my camera. Not to mention a Panama hat as the sun is shining in my eyes when I try to photograph. It’s a swell hat and must have taken tiny hands days to weave. Panama hats are so called because the workers on the Panama Canal ordered so many of them. the hats are actually made in Ecuador and there are large plantations of the special grass the hats are woven from down on the coast. Or so we are told.

Our postcard pile grows. Am addicted to buying postcards. For one, they show you things that the guide book my have forgotten to mention, and secondly, they tell me what the natives of a place think important about their country.

then Sally heaves a deep sigh as I have just found the shop that sells the magnificent woollen skirts the women here wear. Somewhat on the lines of a dirndl but of wool and fuller about the hem, which is scalloped, a great wreath of embroidered flowers tangle. Red, pink, yellow and green are the colours, with the occasional black. Neon bright and bums everywhere display these gorgeous clothes. the skirts tie on the side with stripey ribbons. the skirts are worn as everyday garments though often covered, at least in front, by a check pinny. Irresistible purchases for me. I have half the shop out before deciding on a black one with pin tucks round the hem. A severe matronly affair, apart from the gaudy bows. It is far, far too big, as I’ve said before, the women here are barrel shaped. All of them. Everyone laughs as the skirts fall to my ankles. I buy anyway and will no doubt find a way of lopping some of the width off.

Back at the hotel, our loot bag is already bursting. Sally has made the greatest plumbing discovery. Yes, we do indeed have a bath, but there are no bath taps so the only way to fill the bath is from the dribble of water coming out of the fixed shower-head. Truly a design first.

A nasty dinner, which is better left untouched. And so to bed.

December 3rd   An Expedition

Breakfast is pretty horrid in our hotel. Which is unusual as the breakfasts are mostly sumptuous buffets with everything from muesli through porridge to eggs and croissants. though as always the fruit juice is fine. this hotel is newly done over and recently opened and everything is dinky: the bath towels are tied with ribbon and the end of the loo paper folded just so. Wee pots of dried flowers balanced on all horizontal surfaces and not a light to read by any where in our room. Bottles of shower glop in the bathroom but no plug for the basin. It is as though the owner has read a travel mag but no one has told him that the plumbing has to link up to something. thankfully I travel with a universal plug so we can at least wash our smalls.

Felipe and Carlos collect us in a great big 4 x 4 with rock ‘n roll blaring from its innards. No offence taken when I ask, nicely, if they could turn it off. I expect the noise is only show-off stuff so once we’ve heard it, it can be forgotten. I nab the front seat as I get so sick. Sally is very nice about this and I am grateful.

We set off at full speed down what we are told is the Pan American Highway. What a huge mind boggling idea, a highway from Terra Del Fuego to Alaska! I have a vision of a broad, beautifully engineered road, curving its way down the Americas and full of huge Mac trucks purring across continents laden with trade goods. the reality is a pot-holed two track dusty class B road packed tight with decrepit old lorries spewing out vast clouds of venomous black smoke.

Happily after 20 or 30 km's we turn off and bump our way to Azoques, the capital of the next province to Cuenca. As ramshackle and decrepit as everywhere is. Innocently I expected Ecuador to be full of quaint Spanish style villages and towns with plazas and cafes and iron bandstands and lots of balconies and people walking about arm in arm enjoying the evening breeze as in Mexico. But no, hardly a building of merit anywhere, the continuous earthquakes have knocked them all down. Cuenca of course is a World heritage site, difficult to see quite why except that it does have many 19th century buildings which have survived the ravages of earthquakes, landslides and El Nino. You build it up and God blows it down seems to be the usual opinion.

Azoques has the distinction of having built a huge monastery in 1947 in the Spanish colonial style climbing up the front of what might have once been a small volcano. A gothic façade with a vertical flight of steps, hundreds of them, leading up to the main church, the interior of which is wide and shallow, clinging as it does to the face of a cliff. Sally and I hardly make it up the steps. Altitude again. It is hard to remember that this green and rolling landscape looking extremely like Derbyshire is mostly around 12.000 ft high. Little wonder we pant.

We find a lot of churches built in the decade after WW2. Not a great time for church building in Europe, only the Corbusier chapels come to mind and they are a bit later. I wonder why the sudden enthusiasm for big new churches in Ecuador? And where did all the money come from then? Surely not Nazis hiding themselves! the churches are mostly grand and as ever full of carved and painted saints though no huge black paintings line the walls any longer.

After Azoques the 4 x 4 climbs and climbs. Felipe tells us we are at 3,800 metres, that’s well over 13,000 feet! I am green with nausea from the twisting road and have to get out. the rolling green Paramo, as these grassy highlands are called, undulates into the blue distance as far as our eyes can see, and if not Derbyshire then Snowdonia is the Paramo’s twin. the big difference being that in Snowdonia the houses and farms are built from local stone and nestle in hollows and in Ecuador they are concrete blockhouses, except for a very few remaining adobe hovels. the poor, who are most of the inhabitants of this country, live in these piles of breeze blocks, roofed in tin. they don’t have motorised vehicles and they plough the steep gradients with oxen and wooden ploughs. Every so often we come to what amounts to a village. It usually contains a flamboyant villa or two built with money sent back by members of the family who have crept into the USA as illegal immigrants. these villas are amazing and are built in the colours of the women’s skirts. Bright green glazed tiles on the roof and maybe red tiles on the facade with turquoise bands of tiling to cheer things up. they sound amusing and cheerful but these houses are quite awful. they gleam from miles away in the clear mountain air. Second big disappointment, very, very few llamas. these glorious beasts are natives of Peru not Ecuador. And of course that means no alpacas or vicunas either. these camel family creatures were beasts of burden under the Incas but nowadays it is the wives who carry stuff. And surprisingly the Incas only reigned over Ecuador for less than sixty years so not all their habits stuck. How ignorant I am of Latin American history!


One village, well, strip of shacks, we pass through is entirely devoted to roasting whole porkers with blow-torches. the wretched animals, looking still alive, (don’t worry, they aren’t) are standing on tables along the side of the main road as their butchers seer their hides with blow-torches large enough to weld tanks with. We are told that the black is eventually scraped off and the blow torched crackling is the best ever. We taste. Delicious.

the object of today’s expedition is Ingapica, an Inca temple, or the remains thereof. Not much left except foundations and the oval centre part of the Sun Temple. Curiously the whole place was only built about the time of Shakespeare yet looks as though it dates from a few thousand B.C, very Mycenaean in style. Beautifully cut and dressed stone with almost invisible joints, each block slightly domed. the remaining walls make impressive ruins.

Felipe has done his homework on the foundations and is full of information regarding virgins and beheadings, but alas he delivers his chat in flat guide-book phrases. Sally is a much better listener than I am and manages to look interested. I find it hard to people foundations with excited life, so wander away to look at llamas and wild flowers and watch the huge oxen plough an almost vertical hillside with a wooden plough. I can’t understand why none of this fertile land has been terraced, perhaps potatoes, the pasta of the Andes, help hold the earth on the steep slopes?

Eventually we are allowed to escape the trim and touristy site, all paths and directional arrows, and drive even higher up the mountain to and old hacienda, now run as an inn. Oh joy, oh the relief, a house with a garden and roses round the door and long windows looking out over the valley. Yes, sash windows and old furniture. Once a landowners home, possibly still a landowners home for there don’t seem to be any other visitors but us around. Humble houses compared to the equivalent in Europe, smelling of wax polish and roses. I could stay here for a week watching the clouds smash into the mountains and the llamas graze.

We eat a nice lunch, the usual potato soup followed by fresh trout. the Spanish imported such fish in the 19th century to augment the peasant food of maize and potatoes. Trout took to the streams and rives with gusto and can be found everywhere in their wild state. Custard for pudding and tree tomato juice to drink. At the end a purple herb tea, no one can find a translation for the name, but it is delicious.

Reluctant to leave such a pretty and peaceful retreat Felipe herds us into the car threatening us with darkness and bandits. We start to climb even higher but now every kilometre or so have to stop as Carlos our driver forgot to put the lid on the water tank at the Posada and now it all runs out. Progress is slow, as there are few water sources up here. Carlos also forgot to bring some spare bottles of water. We move upwards from shack to shack. San Pedro, the so-called village, at the summit is amazing. Acres of electric wiring looped back and forth across the road in a complicated cat’s cradle. Everywhere, but everywhere has the electrics. Apparently every single house in Ecuador has electricity, which is impressive considering the small population and vast area. Four of the Ecuadorian ‘Special’ villas, each in a different style and colouring, stand shoulder to shoulder along the highway and constitute the village, apart from a mile of tarmac road in the dusty wilderness. Opposite the villas, a huge bright pink church braces itself against the wind. No shops. No school. No nothing except a bus stop. Felipe explains what a special village this is as it has a church. When I tell him that every village in Europe has at least one church he is dumbfounded. Makes me look with new respect on all our churches that we just take for granted. In a staunchly R.C country I would have expected the place to be littered with monasteries, churches, chapels and shrines.

the landscape is stunning up here at the roof of the world. Pure mountain air and the views are to forever. the Andes aren’t sharp like the Alps, but rounded and quiet. Except that is for the volcanoes which poke up here and there and look as though they have been drawn in much later than the rest. Which of course is exactly what happened. the meadows are sprinkled with cows, mostly Fresians. then there is the wind, always a wind blowing up and down the valleys and making the grass rustle. Hats must be tied on and shawls pinned. Not another vehicle on the road. What do they all live on? Felipe says money sent back from the USA. I am sure he is right. they won’t get many tourists up here until they get around to inventing the café. But I am happy there are no cars, no tourists but ourselves, and am content to do without cafes.

For mile after mile we climb and descend over the Parambo until eventually dropping, in early evening, back down to the crowded Pan American Highway. I feel sick and sick and sick. Food? Diesel? Altitude? Or just travel.

December 4th

Today we aren’t going to go anywhere, just mooch about. Isn’t that what travel is for? Mooching and watching and looking and listening.

As usual on this expedition I awake around 1.30am. I suppose it is something to do with going to bed at 8pm. Sally sings all night and I want to read. I refuse to get cross, as does Sally. We may yet remain on speaking terms, we are both trying. She says I snore as well but how do I know she isn’t just inventing? Am getting good at wrestling with bathrooms. When young it was easy because there weren’t any so usually camped by a river or remained grubby. Now everything everywhere is marble and chrome promising so much and giving a mere scalding dribble if one is lucky. I do these fights with showers around 4am. It helps pass the night. anywhere, just mooch about. Isn’t that what travel is for? Mooching and watching and looking and listening.

Off to market after having looked at rather than partaken of another revolting breakfast. the market is just as we expected and better. Ladies from out of town in their billowing skirts sitting behind piles of luscious produce. All those vegetables that you can't find in any restaurant. Everything you can think of from avocados to zucchini. Alas we find ourselves in the animal part of the market. I want to buy everything, baskets of puppies, boxes of kittens, crates of guinea pigs, chickens, geese, donkeys. Sally rightly won’t let me buy a creature; she can see the problems of getting it/they home. the guinea pigs are the most painful to watch as would-be purchasers pick them up and pinch them to see if they are fat enough for the pot. the tiny creatures, if deemed ready, are carried off by the scruff of their necks. Four shaggy mutts look at me mournfully but Sally drags me away and I try to focus on the rows of plaster Baby Jesuses, Marys and Wise Men. I buy a plaster llama with baby and an alpaca with baby, a plastic moke and a brace of string sheep for the Christmas tree. But those mutts eyes stay with me.

We retreat back to our brassiere for coffee and then wander to the flower market, which perks Sally up a lot. the plastic donkey I bought was really too much for her. She buys an assortment of bulbs, the vendor calls them ‘flowers,’ but when pressed further admits they could possibly be gladioli, though she isn’t sure. It will be interesting to see what eventually sprouts in Sally’s Oxford garden.

Filling the loot bag with Christmas presents is still a pressing need. Hats are good, as are shawls. Woven belts are pretty and Ecuadorian men’s shirts are nice, if ones without Greek key pattern can be found. Handicrafts are not overwhelming here as they are in Mexico, and the jewellery is pretty nasty. But then no one I know wears any. there are strange things one might expect in Ecuador but they don’t happen. People are very quiet. As is traffic. I never saw anyone smoke anywhere, or drink booze, and, as always, no café life. Maybe everyone is high on cocoa leaves? But I didn’t see any of those either. Or maybe the altitude is so thin everyone only has energy for essentials and none left for chat.

Potatoes and potatoes and potatoes for lunch, but I like them. My memory cards for the camera are full and much to my surprise the first shop we ask in has them. Takes credit cards as well! I can keep firing. the light is so flat or grey I am not sure the pix are going to be very good, factual maybe, artistic, unlikely.

Sally finds a posh restaurant in a lovely old house from the guidebook. We get there so early the owner is still sweeping the floor in his tracksuit. He sits us on a sofa and goes and puts on his DJ. We don’t mind waiting as we did margaritas in the hippie bar on the way. Cuenca is just right for size; maximum ten minutes walk takes you to the edge. Lovely consommé, veal and artichokes, bits of this and bits of that and a bottle of tinto.

Later at night Montezuma’s revenge hits me and Sally finds she has lost her credit card…

December 5th

Awful night of no sleep and the trots but morning arrives eventually. Big push to find Sally’s lost credit card. Try and fax the USA to cancel it but fax system wont work. Sally is rightly worried. Telephoning doesn’t work either.

Felipe picks us up again for another expedition. No ancient culture on offer today, which might be a boon. We head east and again climb the hills and ride along the tops of them, never going below 3000 metres. Terrific views and broom growing everywhere. Spanish import and said to be good for abortions.

San Betolomé, a proper village at last! Built along the south face of a mountain it has a large church, two or three streets and the houses look somewhat older than yesterday. the village is famous for guitar makers. We stop outside one and there he is planing away on the front veranda, a mongrel dog under the table and rows of guitars leaning against the wall behind him. Not a sign of any electrical DIY tools, just real craftsmanship. the wonder of it. the instruments are beautiful. Round the hole, I don’t know what that is called, each guitar is inlaid with a different pattern. No two alike. Plucking the strings the sound is ravishing. No point in buying one as I am not a string player. He also makes little stringed instruments where the sound box is a tortoise, except he doesn’t use real tortoises any longer, that’s not allowed, but carves them out of a block of wood and stains them to look like real reptiles.


I am so nosy that I ask if I can go into the house. Perfect. Very simple, spotlessly clean, a great carved bed like a pair of nesting herons, more half finished guitars lining the walls, two metal chairs, a table, an ornate clock and family photographs in gilt frames. I could live here, but alas don’t know how to make guitars. this family has made them for hundreds of years. I just hope nothing will stop them.

the house, or rather collections of shacks, drops down the hill. Below the grand bedroom is the kitchen where a vast black pot is bubbling away on a bottled gas ring. Round the walls of the kitchen are pens full of guinea pigs and out the back are the women of the family skinning them… Not nice, but one must either be a vegetarian or put up with the horror. Some life for the little buggers; though they look cheerful enough in their pens.

Proper houses with tile roofs and wooden balconies and apple trees in their gardens makes for a pretty landscape. the only place in the whole of Ecuador where we see dogs and cats, I suppose people are just too poor to feed them and use grannies to herd the cattle and kill the mice.

On over the rolling countryside to Gualaceo. A nice provincial town with a couple of good squares and a formidable 1940's church. Nobody can give me an answer about the explosion of churches in the 40's and 50's of the last century. Nearly all these churches have large stained glass windows and the windows have all been made in Germany! Maybe my fleeing Germans aren’t just a fantasy. It would be interesting to find out more, but no time on this trip.

Terrific market, which is why Felipe has brought us here. Guinea pigs being roasted on sticks looking like giant toffee lollipops and lots of porkers being singed with blowtorches. Most of the local population seems to be inside the market having lunch so the greasy porkers turn to slices on plates quickly.


More shopping for local stuff. Best, most interesting buy, are pools of pure chocolate straight from the tree. Well the pools have hardened to look like brown lava. the stuff is inedible without the added sugar we are used to. I will try this real chocolate in gravies and meat sauces, that’s what it was originally used for.

On to another market, this time out of doors, where we are promised a view of shamans at work. these turn out to be a band of jolly Indian women in the usual frilly aprons. their clinic, if that is the word, is held under an awning at the edge of the market and next to the football pitch. Four women appear to be lashing their clients with bundles of grass. they are said to be cleansing people of ‘bad humours.’ I ask to be cleansed and hand over two dollars, where upon a portly granny, whose head comes just above my waist, grabs a fresh bundle of herbs and flowers and starts to bash me. Lovely smells. I notice no bundle of greenery is used twice and beyond the shamans are a row of younger women sorting flowers and herbs and making up the bundles. After a through going over an egg is called for. this is then rolled all over me, face, arms, knees, groin etc. then the egg is broken into a paper cup and the auguries read. I am of nervous disposition and not a very peaceful character, or so the egg says. It is good to know. And the shaman women all smile with delight having shriven a gringo. But Sally says I don’t look any different.

On to a posada outside town. Not nice like the last one. this one is trying to be smart and has a swimming pool and the menu is in french. Touristy food. I fear we are going to see a lot of this sort of thing. Over decorated, twenty different dishes all tasting the same, that is to say, no taste. Usually some sort of chicken and bowls of dreadful salads. Not actually poisonous, just bland gunge. If you get away from trout and potatoes in upland Ecuador there isn’t much in the way of local cooking. the bread is awful; rice being more of the culture as a filler, but it is rarely served. the potato cakes found on market stalls, are delicious. Mashed spud with egg added and pieces of white cheese then moulded into patties about the size of our fish cakes and fried on either side. Too peasant to be served in such a grand place. Oh well, we won’t get sick.

Next place is Chordeleg, which has been making jewellery since the Incas and probably before. Again the worst tourist stuff seemingly copied from some cheap American mail order catalogue. Why does nobody teach the wonderful craftsmen to look at the original Inca stuff? Look at the gorgeous work American Indians come up with now. Mexico also turns to its history. this stuff here in Chordeleg is as bad as any Greek junk, especially the intricate filigree, and that’s saying a lot. What makes the cultural levels retreat? Is it that tourists will not pay for proper stuff and only want el cheapo to take home? And surely in Ecuador there are some excellent artists who could make interesting designs and see them produced? Such ugliness does always seem so unnecessary.

then we are exposed to the Ikat weaving down the road. At least it isn’t tie dying, that scourge of the tourist industry, but here almost as horrible. Impossible to buy, impossible to explain why. I would have to stay at least a month, and speak good Spanish, to explain.

Felipe leaves us at the airport. It has been good to see a whole swatch of Ecuador and be the only foreigners. Felipe has been a wonderful guide and shown us things we would never have found for ourselves without being a year in the country. We are grateful and tip him well.

Our plane passes within touching distance of a volcano, great stuff. the summit looks like a sugared doughnut with a hole in its middle

No one meets us at Quito. Black mark though it is no big deal getting a cab to the Hilton. We have to stay at the Hilton now as we are joining the rest of our group and we have to be herded. We meet the rest of our party at dinner. All serious and pleasant folk I am sure. Dinner is horrible, tourist pap again, so I quit after the soup and go and sleep. Tomorrow we have to leave at 6.30am.

December 6th

Tweeters and woofers, a thousand years or thereabouts our ages must add up to. If we happened one after the other we could make a line back to the first millennium.

We are up at 5am and down for breakfast by half-past. the Hilton breakfast room is buzzing and music blasting. We seriously tuck in; our next rations may be days away. I am amazed the way the crumblies can consume eggs and bacon and muesli and croissants and coffee and jam. Not to mention Ecuadorian things bubbling away under silver lids. Is this what holidays are about, breakfast?

We gather to wait for our bus, backpacks and cameras, water bottles and binoculars. Everyone except me in new trainers. Male plumage brighter than female, (yes, everyone is a bird watcher…) Christ, we all look awful, so ancient and worn. How did any of this lot ever mate? Lady Bountiful sweetly welcomes Sally and myself to the party and her dear husband, a twinkle in his eye, smokes a cheroot as we wait in the chill pre-dawn on the Hilton forecourt.

Sneaky again I manage to get a front seat because of bus sickness. It is true but my fellow travelers are so nice about it. Our indigenous (politically correct name for native,] guide joins us. He produces a microphone and then follows two hours of tourist talk. No way of turning him off. We can all read so why not a pamphlet? Why is noise considered necessary to have all the time? We are told about imports and exports and Incas and elections. But I try and concentrate on the dawn landscape unfolding outside the bus windows. Sometimes we stop for a photo opportunity and monster lenses are pointed at a distant volcano. Click click click, look where we have all been. Look how we’ve survived long enough to be able to afford to come here. Something to show the grandchildren.


Again the landscape is like Derbyshire. It is the highest I’ve ever been, excepting planes of course. Scrub and more scrub, we are above the tree line. We turn off the main road and bump across this moon landscape, ever climbing. Ahead sprouts Cotopaxi, a snowed crowned volcano around whose feet a national Park has been declared. there is a low building of stone, which we are told is a museum. Someone unlocks the door. It does have a loo, which is useful as well as an extremely botchy stuffed condor. the native bird of Ecuador, except there are only 70 left and little chance of seeing one. A poster next to the condor showing what to do in case of an eruption holds my attention. Mostly it seems to say RUN. Our guide Christian, breaks into full song again. His voice is unbearable so I sit outside listening to the wind whistling among the rocks. What a barren and gloomy place and the sun vertically overhead is fierce. But lovely silence.

Ten minutes later I notice everyone has left to head further up the mountain to a lake. I walk fast and scramble up a bank to catch them up. WHAM…My head is suddenly attacked by a pain worse than anything I’ve ever had before. Imagine a mediaeval torture machine, a metal crown with spikes on the inside, poking into your skull with someone tightening the metal band up with a spanner... Nausea rises and the world tips. I can hardly breathe, am falling… One of our party is a retired G.P and rescues me. I want to scream. I find a wee patch of shade and throw down some Nurofen… Jane is a dear and refuses to leave me, even though I tell her I am going to die and there is nothing she can do. All I want is to get down the bloody mountain but the bus driver will not take me, it isn’t on his agenda, neither does he have a mobile phone, or any oxygen or even a bottle of water.

Ten minutes later I notice everyone has left to head further up the mountain to a lake. I walk fast and scramble up a bank to catch them up. WHAM…My head is suddenly attacked by a pain worse than anything I’ve ever had before. Imagine a mediaeval torture machine, a metal crown with spikes on the inside, poking into your skull with someone tightening the metal band up with a spanner... Nausea rises and the world tips. I can hardly breathe, am falling… One of our party is a retired G.P and rescues me. I want to scream. I find a wee patch of shade and throw down some Nurofen… Jane is a dear and refuses to leave me, even though I tell her I am going to die and there is nothing she can do. All I want is to get down the bloody mountain but the bus driver will not take me, it isn’t on his agenda, neither does he have a mobile phone, or any oxygen or even a bottle of water.

A nasty experience. Moral: don’t run at high altitudes for altitude sickness is not nice.

three or four hours of misery then the others come back and we drop down a few thousand feet. the headache remains but below the screaming level. We drive to an old hacienda where a grand lady takes in guests. A rather lovely conglomeration of buildings all built from blocks of solid black lava. Family dogs ran out to meet us. Nice. the dining room where we lunch has lava walls, no plaster and lovely Victorian mahogany furniture. Gloomy and magnificent. Dear little Indian maids wait on us and the lunch is nice, simple and homemade. Potato soup of course, trout with rice and pudding is some disgusting local fruit that looks like tripe and chews like tripe but tastes of hair oil.

then the treat of the day, the family llamas are brought into the courtyard for cuddling. A whole flock, as well as two donkeys. A large basket of chopped carrots is provided for us to feed the animals with. Am now besotted with llamas, their big brown eyes, though the pale ones have blue eyes, and they all have the softest of snouts. they have dear natures and are happy to be played with. the only noise these camel creatures can make is a small squeak. Rather pathetic.

the hacienda is only 8 acres, though I think Christian means hectares. Still pretty small considering the vastness of the landscape. there was no information as to who built the place and why so little land now. Am feeling too sick to bother to find out.

Everyone is very, very kind to me. I am amazed. they are a good crowd and I must quickly learn to sort them all out. this is only the first day. Bankers and lawyers, scientists and teachers. A clever lot. Makes me feel British society is pretty all right.

Long bus ride back to the Hilton. the head throbs horribly so go straight to bed. Sea level tomorrow Hurrah!

December 7th

Slept like a log, but the altitude headache is still there A hotel minion was sent up last night to ask if I wanted oxygen or cocoa tea. I said yes to both but neither arrived. So much for Hilton service.

Pre dawn breakfast again. Neither mine or Sally’s faxes sent, Hilton says neither number exists… Oh well, communication is something I am against. At least the continuous communication the populace indulges in this century. Once upon a time one could walk to Jerusalem and back and didn’t have to bother to send post cards, let alone call home.

Finally we are all packed onto a plane and are going downhill. Oh the bliss when they open the plane doors at Guayaquil. Sea level pressure. Ten minutes later my headache has gone. Whoopee! Dear Lord I am alive again. From now on I stop at 10.000 feet.

Misty flight out over the Pacific. It sounds fantastic flying to the Galapagos but the ocean is dark grey, when one can see it through the clouds. I sit next to two enormous Flemish mares. Beautiful mares with long burnished manes, one blond, and the other auburn. they are mountains, wearing shorts of course and bare mid-drifts. Rubens would die for such models. I also would love to paint them, white thighs as big as most women’s torsos. they will be formidable at forty but sumptuous for the moment. the girls nourish themselves throughout the flight on chocolate bars and fizzy drinks.

We land on St Cristobal. It looks a bit like the western end of Kos, mostly thistles. Stormy grey sky and scudding clouds. Roberto, our guide, collects us and shepherds us onto our bus. So much time taken getting on and off transport. But then we are a crowd, 28 of us. Lunch and a briefing at the local culture centre. Lots of large photos, especially of Darwin. Nice little outdoor theatre, which would be lovely for opera but expect they only use it for talks about finches. Missed the talk about finches in Quito as that was the night of the sickness. Even I know that it was the finches that made Darwin think his way through evolution. But I am so bird brained that I don’t think I could tell one finch from another. Or even a finch from a sparrow, come to think of it. Am I on the wrong tour? Or can I learn? Umm…

St Cristobal town is a ramshackle pile of scruffy houses. Nothing to buy thankfully and of course no ATM machines that work. We are going to be very skint if we have anything to drink.

What a place this must have been in 1534 when it was ‘discovered’ by a Spaniard. It is amazing that anything is still left after centuries of pillage, there not being anything to rape. the Twitchers are ecstatic at all the bird life. I can identify pelicans. A procession comes along the waterfront carrying arches of scarlet flowers. What for? Nobody knows. But it is pretty, as are the island people a mixture from all over the Pacific. Pacific Rim Peoples one might say. there is nothing for anyone to do here except service the tourists, for the entire archipelago is a National Park. the islands are almost a thousand Kilometres off the Ecuadorian mainland and not on any particular shipping route. It is amazing anyone ever got here and, having got here, one ever left.

the first sight of sea lions. Not one, not two, but hundreds. Lying on the wooden jetties, sunbathing on the foredecks of boats at anchor, like tarts laid out on speedboats in the Med. the beasts are swimming among the dinghies and posing on the rocks. they are everywhere, and barking their heads off. However their breath is terrible and their poop, which is all over the rocks, stinks even worse. But cheerful beasts. I look forward to knowing them better.

We are taken out to our boats. Happily, Sally and I are lucky and are on the three masted schooner, Alta. the others are on the gin palace Flamingo. 14 people on each boat. Better thus, maybe we can get to know each other now? the Alta is gorgeous as a ship. Built in the 50's of the last century in Norway. Recently done over to suit rich Americans. Of course the décor is awful, all dark stained wood and fitted carpets. Bit like the Edwardian Hotel at Heathrow. However our cabin is fine and the saloon spacious and the deck space huge. Pity that tomorrow we get decanted into a hotel.

Of course on board it is freezing. It takes time to persuade the crew that we don’t need air-con. None of us have brought enough pullovers to survive it. Do Yankees take fur coats on summer holidays? Yes, we are on the Equator, but it isn’t hot. A SouthWesterly wind blows 12 months of the year and air-conditions the islands perfectly.

Roberto tells us of the excitements we will encounter on the morrow, he is a dishy chap and knows a lot and really answers questions. Chris our lecturer is with the grandees on the other boat tonight. Jane buys the drinks. She is generous for they are Hilton prices.

the captain gives a drinks welcoming party, some sort of coconut and pineapple cocktail with too much sugar, and Eva the Argentina tells her life story, German and British and Jewish and dodging U-boats during WW2. And finally a Professor of Anthropology at Oxford. My life is pathetic compared with hers. We introduce ourselves over dinner. I am definitely the odd one out not being an academic. they are all so clever.

the chat gets round to birds of course and when I admit to only knowing Big Birds from Small Birds there is a silence. Oh dear.

December 8th

Alta’s engines stop while it is still dark and we hear the anchor rattle to the bottom. We are landed on an empty beach by 7 am. We are on Hood Island. Pale yellow sand, black lava rocks. Amazing combination.

As soon as we have paddled through the surf, our shoes in our backpacks, we are immediately surrounded by sea lions. We are in the middle of a wild life soap opera; aggressive barking by the huge males and whimpering by lost babies. Family turmoil on all sides. the males each have their own harem and jealously guard it, there are separate family groups all along the beach. the sea lions are very loving to each other and flop in the sand, heads on each other’s tummies or play in groups in the sea. the babies have their own kindergarten separate to the grown-ups.

the rocks are literally covered with iguanas. You look at grey rocks and then see the rocks are all moving and iguanas are draping themselves in sinister necklaces all over them. their rough and splodgy skin looks as though Jackson Pollack had chucked paint over them. On the paths these weird creatures lie in packs taking the sun and playing dead. Very easy to tread on them. I don’t yet know if they have teeth.


Mocking birds try to con water from us, they know about visitors water bottles, but Roberto says it is forbidden to give them water, it will disturb the ecology. I suppose he is right but it seems tough on the mocking birds.

the wondrousness of tame wildlife. the creatures quite simply have no fear. there are no predators. Each species here doesn’t threaten another. A lizard will lie on a sea lion. Or a sea lion will let an iguana walk over it. As for us, we can walk as close as we like but are not allowed to touch. We swim with the sea lions and walk up to nesting birds and photograph them. 14 gawking twitchers flash and the birds do not even blink.

the wild life supposedly traveled from Ecuador to here on logs a few million years ago. How come no predators hitched a lift at the same time?

I get the feeling I am in an Attenborough TV film about the beginning of the world, or in a Disney theme Park experience and the animals are not real but animatronics. I think it is having to keep to marked paths and being stopped by notices that say things like STOP HERE. Or DO NOT GO BEYOND thIS POINT. Wild life there may be but it is completely tamed over for visitors. Also we are not the only groups so there is no sense of isolation and exploring. We are walking a well-trodden trail with a tight time schedule. Yes, a Disney World treat for adults.

Once this thought is in my head I just can’t get rid of it.

We walk overland to some cliffs. then the most lucky break. Two Albatrosses do their courting dance. I watch for an hour. It is riveting, perfect co-ordinated choreography. Skillfull understanding of the rules. What I cannot discover is if the dance is always the same or if the different steps are performed in a different order at other performances. Roberto, nor Chris later, know the answer to this. And I didn’t bring a video camera.

She curtsies, he bows. He raises a wing, she follows. they lower their beaks and rattle them together and both lift their heads and open their jaws wide. He lifts a leg, she lifts a leg. they hop and turn their backs, then suddenly whip round and kiss, rattle and snap and stretch the wings. the birds are about three-foot high, and in perfect condition. I could watch for weeks but group therapy has to continue. We are a school outing on a field trip.

there are definitely too many tourists. Other groups are a couple of hundred yards behind us. Roberto says that not enough people come as licences have been issued for 200,000 a year, but only 70,000 arrive. I know they need the money to preserve the park. the tourists are what preserves these extraordinary islands, and why should I find a wilderness and maybe destroy it! A hundred bucks it costs to land on the Galapagos. there is no answer except what they are doing and it is done well. If, that is, you like Disney Parks.


Back to the boats for coffee and bix and we chunter round to the other side of the island. Magnificent clouds pile up in the sky, thunderous dark grey, white sand, bright blue sea and near the beach black lava rocks. It does look like the brochure. Swimming is fine, but the water is cold. Sally gets caught in the tentacles of a huge octopus; it tries to throttle her. But she is tough and fights it off but has a thin red line round her throat for the rest of the day. And everywhere the smell of old fish, it is the sea lion poo. they don’t tell you about the pong in the brochure.

then Stephen dies. Nice sweet kind and clever Stephen. He goes for a swim and is spotted swimming face down just off the beach. Jane, the retired G.P is called and agrees; he is quite dead. Poor Winifred his wife, but she is fantastic and remains tall and grand and in charge. Of course neither of our boats has a stretcher to carry Stephen on. A tabletop is found from the top deck of Flamingo. Everyone is very quiet as Stephen is carried away on the panga.

Death swims in where so ere he will. Stephen was a nice upmarket gent and a famous judge. He asked me everyday how I was and didn’t behave like a naughty schoolboy, which the others are inclined to. A good way to die having a dip in the Pacific this morning Stephen said it was the best holiday he had ever had and how he was enjoying every minute.

A rather sombre party returns to the Hotel Finch, our headquarters from now on. At least the three accidents have happened, Stephen’s death. Eva’s fall in the airport, she had to be stitched up on arrival at St Cristobal, and my altitude sickness. Perhaps the Gods will spare us further mishaps.

December 9th

Eggs cooked for us to choice. Very nice because the scrambled stuff isn’t made with butter and sits around being kept warm for hours. Off at 7am again. Pelicans on the pier diving. Lots of them. Big brown pelicans, cheerful and social birds but not as gorgeous as our big white Mediterranean ones.

A two hour chunter on Alta to South Plaza. the ship rolls gently and I sit on the wonderful shelf under the prow on the foredeck. Well padded with cushions and well protected from any waves that breaks over the prow. But very hot and glarey. this vertical sun is so intense. there is no escaping it and as my big hat has blown overboard protection is hard. Sunstroke could knock us out. thought I could take any amount of sun but not here, for it seems we are so close to the burning fire as to feel I am in a Blake painting of Purgatory.

We ride ashore in the panga, as they call all small landing craft here. We all wear our red life jackets and resemble two rows of frigate birds sitting on the gunwale of the rubber dinghy. We de-bus onto some concrete steps and intend to walk up the concrete path ahead, except it is full of sun bathing sea lions. Like anything in this National Park we are not allowed to touch them. However guide Roberto claps his hands until he wakes them up and very, very gently hoofs them into the water. So much for never touching the environment… It all gets more and more of a theme Park.


South Plaza is a mere 13 hectares. Bleak or even bleaker than anywhere we’ve been before. these landscapes are so grim, sort of grey lichens or grassy stuff poured over the lava. Chumbas, well that’s what they were called all those years ago in Spain, giant cacti of the flat-plate-with-spikes variety grow as trees here. Not big trees, fruit tree size. A single thick trunk with a bundle of green plates atop it. Prehistoric stuff. Yes, we are in a T.V film about the beginning of the world. It makes me ever more aware of the greatness of man. 5th century B.C Athens, Piero della Francesca, J.S Bach, Isambard Brunel and so on. Of course we are responsible for plenty of horrors man has made are here to stay, or even destroy us, but this untouched-by-man landscape is scary. As are the animals inhabiting it. Iguanas are beautiful and, interesting yes, amazing, yes. But only tolerable because I am so much bigger than they are. Not sweet and cuddly as today's animals are supposed to be. And over the desolation hangs the stink of sea lion poo. there is no avoiding it. these pooping beasts lumber everywhere, they even climb, or rather wriggle, to the top of the island for a bit of peace and quiet to sleep and they defecate over the edge of the rocks. Or is it their widdle that stinks so badly? Which ever it is this stink pervades every nook and cranny. there is no avoiding it.

At last, blue footed bodies in abundance. Yes, their feet are as bright as my Emma Hope boots. No one knows why they need such bright blue feet. Left over from a previous existence on another planet?

Iguanas everywhere scuttling. Lots of finches, about which the Twitchers are ecstatic. I could learn about finches but there is so much else to look at and so little time. Anyhow my eyesight isn’t good enough to even distinguish the little birds from their backgrounds, let alone know which finch is which.


the cliffs overhanging the sea are jet black. We watch an iguana make his way up the vertical slabs of lava from his morning dip in the foaming sea below.

On the end of the cliffs there is a colony of bachelor sea lions. they live alone and unloved, either because they are too old or have been forced away from their harems by younger males, or are young and have not yet managed to win a harem for themselves. All rather sad and very real.

I am a time traveler from millennia ago. Everything concerning these islands is so weird. We are suspended in the middle of nowhere. And together, with other theme park visitors, somehow makes the whole expedition even weirder.

Lunch back on board Alta. Quite good in that bounteous international buffet style. At least we don’t get sick so I am thankful for the bland dining provided. Always too much food, I think I am blowing up to become like a sea lion.

Santa Fé island after lunch. A so called ‘wet landing’ which means we paddle ashore. Except we don’t because the beach is being patrolled by two sharks a few feet off shore in the shallows. A huge male sea lion is barking his head off urging the pups back to the nursery and his women out of the water and back up the beach. the great male is heroic and responsible the way he is defending his family.

We wait for the sharks to give up on sea lion lunch. Eventually they swim off, though not far. Carlos and Roberto run the panga up the beach and we scramble out over the stern, all fearful of loosing a limb to a shark.

the only creature of note here is a marine iguana unique to Santa Fé. He looks much the same as all the others except his paint splodges are yellower. However swimming iguanas do amaze me. I suppose they had to swim to get here from the mainland, even if they were hanging onto a log for a lot of the way.

Musing about giant swimming lizards I walk in a sea lion poo up to the ankles Ug. Am surrounded with the stink and it follows me about. the others keep well away from me. As Roberto lectures I scrape away at the poo stuck in the caterpillar tracks of my sandals, but not until I can scrub with sand, when we get back to the beach, can I remove the stink.

We return to Alta and some brave souls swim off the stern from a clever little shelf that is let down. Having seen sharks in the vicinity nothing would get me in the water, though it is good to see Roberto dive off the deck. A young brown body with perfect thighs makes a pleasure to look at after seeing the rest of us oldies flap around in our blotchy skins.

We are now all so good and well trained that we line up and put our life jackets on unasked. Nor do we take our shoes indoors. We eat when we are told, take our turn buying a round of drinks. We are as regimented in our behaviour patterns as any beast on these bleak islands.

Last night was full moon. Hopefully there will be an even better sighting tonight. Except no one can stay awake long enough to enjoy it.

December 10th

Today we are allowed a sleep in and don’t have to set off until 8am. So used are we to pre-dawn rising that everyone is up and ready and waiting an hour before off. It is raining. Soft tropical rain and continuous. the hotel panga takes us into town, but no time yet to wander and watch local life. We are wetly packed into a pair of ancient buses, circa 1958, and are rattled off to visit the Darwin Centre. the Whipsnade of the Galapagos Islands.

Of course a breeding program is most necessary, as several varieties of the giant tortoises are almost extinct. the Darwin Centre is all very well done. Serious science and people from all over the world working in the project. there are incubators for eggs and pens and houses for every age of tortoise. Trails through the undergrowth and large bushes leading from one pen of tortoises to another. Carefully marked paths and lots of signage. All very municipal but somehow a reality which the wild does not have with its marked trials and concrete paths.

the tortoises really are huge. Sort of Great Dane size, if those dogs had shorter legs. they are exactly like Hippocrates our tortoise in Lindos, except a hundred times his size. It is great to see such reptiles, but being herded and lectured and bossed ain’t for me. I want to look in silence and think. there is surely a guidebook should I want to read the whys and wherefores. Must remember never to do a package tour again, I do feel very trapped. Trapped by wanting the information yet longing to be alone.

We invade the shop and, as tourist shops go, it is pretty good. Well designed graphics on the T-shirts and some excellent books. the kiddie stuff is bad. Children like good drawing as well as grown ups and do not have to be fobbed off with cartoon characters. Long before we’ve reached the limit on our credit cards we are herded back onto the bus.

the rain is still falling. It is warm and moist. We drive up and up to the centre of Santa Cruz, the island both at the centre of the Galapagos and the centre of our expedition. the landscape is very different, it is called the Highlands, but is thankfully only 500 m at its highest. I am safe from altitude sickness! the Highlands are permanently under a rain cloud and if not actually raining it is always damp. After days of torrid sun the dampness is a delight. Ferns and moss and lush undergrowth, most surely full of reptiles. So long as they have legs all will be well.

We are shown three sinkholes, which are just holes. Vast ones a few hundred metres across and perfectly round. Very odd. Something from the beginning of the world? Our guide doesn’t know.

then we amble down the tarmac, (yes there is a tarmac road crossing Santa Cruz.) We are looking for some small red bird, which is very elusive. I thought we had plenty of small birds in Britain but these are something special. I am sure, if only one knows enough, that looking for small red birds in the rain on a main road is thrilling.

We are taken to a farm, a real farm, growing stuff, and there, just wandering about like huge brown boulders, as slow as Bob Wilson’s boulders moved in his recent Aida, are the tortoises. they graze and lumber and stretch their necks and behave like any old pet tortoise on a vicarage lawn but are just so huge. Some of them may have met Darwin himself, as they are reputedly between a hundred and two hundred years old. Moving at half a kilometre per hour they certainly haven’t worn themselves out with over exertion.

there is a pretty horse anchored to a tree looking sad in the rain. Dressy Ecuadorian saddle and stirrups made from car tyres.

the jungle drips and the moss drapes itself in long messy curtains of lace over everything. Sort of green Father Christmas beards. We find a pair of mating tortoises. What a bang they bonk with. Our guide, Edison, says it takes up to six hours to reach bliss. But even tortoises in the wild are seen from a marked trail. Disney World wins.

We wander for an hour. It rains a lot. Finally having watched the tortoises achieve no ecstasy we pile our wellies up in the farm shed and climb back in the bus and home to our resort hotel where we descend as a ravening horde on the poolside buffet.

the Hotel is at Porto Aroya, the main town of the Galapagos; a honky-tonk kind of place mostly devoted to servicing the tourist trade. Of course it is the town for the locals, but the locals are here for the tourists. there is little else for them to do. these islands were ‘discovered’ in the 16th century but as they are so far off main shipping routes and have little water and nothing useful to eat grows, it meant that the wild life somehow managed to survive the various landings of foreigners who took away as much as they could in the form of turtles and tortoises. thankfully there is no gold or anything else of much intrinsic valued. It saved them. But the wildlife now is much threatened by the imports over the years from the mainland. there are said to be 200.000 wild goats, which must be, removed for they upset the ecology and eat the iguana’s lichens. But the removal of so many goats is an enormous undertaking and though some of the smaller islands have been cleared there are still these 200.000 to deal with. Sounds like a project for Speer.

Tonight a lecture by Chris is promised, but no one knows about what. He’s done finches and warblers. Poor Chris, he has a bad time for we tend to fall asleep after dinner and a few drinks when he does his talks. He is such a nice chap and really knowledgeable. Oh if only I could stay awake…

the other travelers are better students than I. they are a really nice group, all clever and highly educated and amusing companions. So far no fights, no drunkenness and no seductions. Or I’ve missed all that by being asleep.


December 11th

Leave 7am. Raining. Panga to our bus. Once again across Santa Cruz. the mist is down and we drive slowly. Alta’s panga collects us; she is anchored at least two miles out beyond the reef. It is all madness this commuting back and forth to islands instead of staying on the boat. Nothing we can do except enjoy what is provided with a good grace. But it takes up to ten hours a day going back and forth to different places. We arrive at the island of Rabina at noon. A mars red beach, gritty shingle really, as it is painful on the feet. the usual sea lions watching us arrive. We are getting blasé about these animals now. Beyond the beach is a lagoon. Two flamingos looking a bit lost but Roberto tells us we are lucky to see any. Climb up a headland and look down into wonderful deep blue sea full of turtles. Mediterranean blue with white sand on its bottom. I feel homesick.

Back to the beach. I feel awful, nauseous and headachy. It can’t be the altitude here? I try and swim but feel even worse so curl up in a shallow cave with the baby sea lions, who are cross because they rightly tell me it is their spot. the others snorkel, sharks, stingrays, multi-coloured fish, but everyone returns with all their limbs. the water is very cold and two or three of our group have wet suits. Lunch back on board and I feel even more awful so go to our cabin and sleep. three hours! I think a minor kind of sunstroke is to blame. Cruise back to the big island and panga to the shore. Pile into the bus, and as we drive we have to watch a video of the Galapagos! Too awful, but there is no way of turning it off. I don’t travel half way around the world to have to watch an old Beeb programme on a grotty television. thankfully after a bit the sound breaks down. An hour later we roll into Porto Aroya, which is blinking with Christmas lights and cheerful shops. Two large cocktails and I crash in my bed. Almost as boring a day as one of Darwin’s. I read his books on the Alta and enjoy his comments. At least our accommodation is comfortable which Darwin’s certainly wasn’t.

December 12th

Everyone is now used to breakfast at 6am. Hopefully we can keep it up when we get home! It adds a lot to the day. the usual start, panga, and bus to Baltra where Alta is still anchored outside the reef. We are getting used to this commute. the mist is higher but the single mule, the only one I’ve seen on this voyage, still looks miserable tied to a tree in the rain forest. this two hours of travel is a nuisance. We don’t complain. the organisation is terrific. We are packaged neatly and delivered on time, as good as Fed Ex or UPS. All is tuned to within five minutes. It couldn’t be better. I suppose with so many people it has to be thus. No time for lolling about doing nothing. Huge quantities of food to shut us up. then just when it all seems stupid and an expensive waste of time something marvelous is revealed.


Today we head for the mangrove swamps. those romantic sounding places, I expect alligators, but of course it is the wrong continent. We are told instead to expect black turtles, rays, pelicans and boobies. Two rubber dinghies full of red-breasted tourists slip away from our ship into the mysterious swamps to slowly poke about. It is quiet and the water muddy. the mangroves hold tight in the mud with extraordinary roots and do not look welcoming. A tangle of grey legs with green hair, they look like just arrived aliens. Kayaks are offered and Sally pushes off enthusiastically. the mangrove swamps are like a series of large intercommunicating rooms with narrow doorways. Very easy to get lost in, but I doubt Roberto will loose us with tips due tomorrow.

Strange spotted flat fish, rays drift around our boat. Herons stand on one leg watching us. the curious thing is the silence. Nothing here seems to have a voice. the oddest of shapes and forms but they have nothing to say. the world is silent as we slowly paddle though the swamp. It does not look inviting to swim in the murk. A curious and very hot experience, but not much to see. Lunch back on the boat. All at a big table on deck. So much nicer than the tables for four inside. Less jostling for position. Everyone is getting tired from the relentless activity. that’s the joke: there really isn’t anything to see. Sure, tame sea lions are terrific. So are iguanas and lizards and the giant tortoises are certainly an eyeful, but all much less impressive than I imagined. I think, as I write yet again, it is the marked out paths and the zoo-like quality that destroys any mystery. Except there are no labels. We have zillion times more things to look at on our own archipelago, but then squirrels and otters and badgers and foxes seem ordinary to us. Lunch again, a moment of peace as the Ecuadorian grub weighs us down.

A so called dry landing in the afternoon on Seymour. We are almost thrown into the flippers of the sea lions. We cruise along under the cliffs looking for real fur seals and see some lurking in dark crevices. then a walk across a wind blown landscape to visit the nesting frigate birds. they are rather wonderful with their party balloons arrayed on their chests. Big red balloons, which they blow up, it takes them more than half an hour to fully inflate them. Such scarlet bags are sexy to lady frigate birds so the chaps just sit there waiting for a girl to come and chose them. then they mate and lay their eggs on the silliest of nests made from a few twigs, often balanced in a bush and often collapsing and breaking the precious single egg. It’s all daft but hugely enjoyable to watch. One might have thought that over the millennia they would have worked out a better way of constructing their nests. the chicks, a single one each, are fluffy and white with huge surprised eyes. that’s the fine part of being here, nothing minds us prying into its most private life. No fear, no embarrassment.

A great swell is breaking on the lava and the sea lions are surfing joyfully on it. I feel it is we photographing the birds, which is the curiosity, not the birds. the birds are so very tolerant. But what a place to live; the wind always blows from the west, the sea is always pounding near the nests, the sun is always directly over head. On and on for millions of years and all that changes is the beaks on the finches.

Late in the afternoon, when Alta is anchored again at Balta, we panga back to the beach, except our panga has sprung a mighty leak. Dear Jane, on all fours, tries, Dutch dyke style, to put her finger in the hole, but the water still rises. Up to our knees by the time we reach land. then the bus driver takes off at 5mph and keeps that up. A new video plays and this time the sound does not break down. A pity. I think the driver thinks he is a tortoise stepping over sleeping policemen in the road. the mist has fallen. the light in the bus is blue. We are exhausted but can’t doze because of the voice-over on the video. then an almighty crash. We have hit a cow! Such a beast is not considered an ecological necessity. We don't stop. It is horrible; I see the cow lying moaning on the road behind us. I hate it, hate it.

Suddenly everything is so ugly. the landscape, the indifference to a cow, the vile video and us old and ugly group. No one young. the only solace is Roberto our guide. Male Ecuadorian, full of charm and intelligence. Dark skin, a few grey hairs, maybe about forty. Muscular body, perhaps a bit too long. Excellent thighs, gorgeous teeth. A mouthful none of us can touch. No, I don’t want to touch him, but he is a spark of young blossoming life in this foetid place. Ageing is a sad and miserable process and I dislike it intensely.

Eventually we get back to the hotel. A very large drink is vital. then oh blessed bed!

December 13th

Up at 5am, leave at 6am, it is just getting light. Our last day, there is half an hour of fantastic light at dawn and the same again at sundown. the landscape takes on shapes and reveals itself delicately minute by minute as the animals awake. Otherwise the light is an almost shadowless situation, a fierce unrelenting overhead light burning us.

the bus to Baltra again and this time we have a plywood ferry to take us to Alta as the pangas have either sunk or fallen apart. Flat calm, almost good enough to be the Mediterranean. Oh the thought of the Med. how I would much rather be there even with water skiers pounding down on me.

We see two pairs of mating tortoises and creep up on them enjoying their bliss on a golden morning. How rotten intruding on their privacy. But then this is a pretty sexless expedition. We are a horde of pensioners devoted to drink and feeble jokes having given up the real thing. We really are an ugly and unsexy group! Nice people, friendly and clever people, but goodness as a group we are plain.

San Bartolemeo is the island that shows in all the pictures in the brochures. the light is glaring and brilliant on the red earth. the sea is blue and the other tripper’s boats bob around like toys in the bath. We pant to the top of a hill. It feels like a mountain and, as we start at sea level, it shouldn’t be that hard. And a path has been build all the way to the top with wooden steps at the difficult bits and handrails to drag ourselves up by. Al least we can see the all the wilderness, even if climbing in a crocodile up a marked trail. At the top a marker telling us how very few miles we are south of the Equator. A group photo is posed for, but our faces wont show, as we don’t take our hats off. We’d fry without them. Five minutes later we leave as the next group needs the spot for their photo opportunity.


We are taken for walk over the lava; it looks like poured chocolate that has gone white from being left in the sun too long. Not a place to break a leg, but then we all have seriously good shoes. the lava might have been poured this morning as nothing mars its surface in the way of sea lion poo or wind blown grass. I don’t feel closer to God in this landscape, it seems more a place he forgot to redesign as he went on making the world. Deserts never appear to be half made, nor the Alps or Himalayas. I am sure it is centuries of human activity that have left traces of their souls in the sand and the snows. Here in the Galapagos it is a forgotten corner recently tidied up for tourist use and no previous human vibrations left in the stones.

the last lunch. Fifteen of us round the table on deck. Soup and the week’s leftovers. Nice leftovers, nothing against them. Ditto the salads and ditto the fruit. A great dangling arm of bananas has been hanging outside the galley all the week. Such delicious small ones, we can pick one as we pass. Beats Sainsbury’s yellow giants.

the tip box is out on the table in the saloon complete with sign saying ‘Crew Only.’ What is this tipping game? Once upon a time people were not paid for being waiters and horse holders and had to earn their living from tips. Now everyone is paid. And if the crew on Alta aren’t paid enough our tour company should boycott the boat for we certainly are paying sufficiently to support the crew handsomely. I don’t like it. Am not mean but find it condescending to tip people who serve. We all serve in one way or another, our clients, our bosses, our students. What’s wrong with that? To serve well is to do our jobs well. But I am too much of a whimp to stand out against the system so shove my dollars in the box.

the last afternoon and I choose to stay on board and sit in the stern listening to the lapping water. the sea is cold to swim in. For me that is, others find it perfect. I don’t think I will be sad to leave these godforsaken islands. Uninhabited may they remain. the works of man, almost any works of man, even concrete tourist installations are better than being left five million years ago with only, albeit it charming, iguanas to chat to.


December 14th

No one can sleep late any longer. We are all in the hotel pool by 6am. I am the first in the pool and there is a heron on the steps who doesn’t move as I slide down into the water past him. On the edge of the pool there is a row of Galapagos gulls and on the water swims a family of ducks. None of the birds take the slightest notice of me as I dog paddle among them. this is what the whole expedition is about, being in the Garden of Eden with no snakes to upset the gentle peace of the just breaking dawn.

the long haul home halfway round the world starts… Panga, ferry, bus plane. At the bus stop in Porto Aroya I see the locals piling into the church on the other side of the road so nip in after them, a nod to Jesus seems right as today is Sunday and we are embarking on one helluva journey. A service is in full swing, little girls in frilly dresses, little boys with greased down hair and everyone singing their hearts out with a hymn in South American rhythm. Over the altar is a Christ wonderfully carved, gessoed and painted, goodness how they can still carve. He is almost totally naked except for a swirl of gossamer about his privates. Above the Christ is a stained glass window but instead of a dove there is a pelican with its wings outstretched protecting the congregation.

Crowds throng the airport and some of us queue to get Galapagos stamps in our passport. On the flight to Guayaquil we are subjected to another video on screens over our heads. No avoiding the grisly commentary. No way to switch the bloody thing off. Just clouds beneath us, and they don’t absorb the noise.

Guayaquil airport takes the biscuit for shambles. But by some magic my loot bag has arrived from Quito so all the Christmas presents are in tact! Someone knows how to untangle the shambles.

We are loaded onto a smart bus again and once more subjected to the tour guide’s chat. I suppose hell is someone with a microphone telling one all about the tortures one is about to encounter. We are taken to the Hilton for a pit stop. Only worth mentioning for a couple of big three-dimensional coloured murals from, I suspect the 1940s. It is so interesting to see anything from this decade when our side of the world was busy knocking everything within sight down. What’s more these works have been incorporated into a building of the late 50s so must have been valued.

Guayaquil is amazing for the mayor decided to clean the entire centre up. And all done in a brief two years. Only a Latin American dictator-style mayor could do that. Guayaquil, or so I have been told, was the most broken down decaying slum and centre of the entire South American drug trade. that trade may well continue for all I know but the mayor has done what he said he would.

the entire centre has been repaved, all the cat’s cradles of electrics buried underground. the traffic removed from most of the streets and spanking smart trams installed. All the houses have been painted, repointed and repaired to within an inch of their lives. Trees have been planted and grass laid. then best of all, the entire river frontage has been turned into a pleasure walk with fountains and playgrounds and yes, even pavement cafes! Bandstands thump out music from newly uniformed bands, the monuments to 19th century worthies are shining. there are massive new sculptures, awful but at least they’ve done them. Condors in plaster and marble adorn the public buildings, the national bird of Ecuador though we haven’t been lucky enough to see one. three kilometres long the great walkway is and the entire area is thronged with local citizens out enjoying the afternoon. Old and young, students and grannies. If this is what drug money can do for a city it is a fine example. Heart warming to see it and enjoy the pulsating life. So good after two weeks with the oldies to see crowds of youngsters, slim, young, pretty girls and lads in blue jeans. the joys of city life come out very strong in me. Makes me feel alive again.

Except we aren’t allowed much time but are packed back into our bus and the long trail to our cold country begins.Ecuador, would I come back? I say no, but then of course I would jump at the chance to roll again with sea lions, sit in the warm breeze watching amorous albatrosses court, just to be allowed to share, for a few minutes, the lifestyle of these creatures was a gift. In the main square of Gayaquil there are iguanas living in the bushes and the kiddies feed them with crisps. the iguanas look remarkably well on crisps. then there are the good looking smiling and helpful people of Ecuador, gentle and quiet, but the architecture hardly exists as earthquakes have knocked it all down.

Everywhere is interesting, new things new sensations, (potato and maize soup?) But so good to get home to wonderful London greyness.

Polly Hope ©  2003