¡Mucho amor, Ecuador!
Earlier this summer, Deer Lakes High School Spanish teacher Señor Josh Destein organized and led a group of students and their adult chaperones on a nine-day trip (from June 27 to July 5, 2017) to Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands. He was kind enough to keep a travelogue on his experiences and generous enough to share them with the greater Deer Lakes community.
The trip was Señor Destein’s seventh Spanish-themed tour abroad. The student travelers included: Ashley Aliff, Jimmy Campbell, Christina Donatelli, Jack Lovey, Barbara Matthews, Benjamin Ramsey, Tyler Raub, and Giovanni Vigilante. James Ramsey and James Campbell were the adult chaperones.
Ecuador’s capital city, Quito, is surrounded by snow-capped volcanoes and is located approximately 15 miles from the equator. The ancient city sits high atop the Andean foothills at an altitude of approximately 9,200 feet above sea level, which can make it somewhat challenging to breathe due to the lack of oxygen.
Ecuador experiences what most Western Pennsylvanians would consider spring-like weather all year round and Quito served as an important city during Incan and pre-Incan times. The city, whose name comes from the ancient Quitua tribe, has a population of more than two million people and is one hour behind Eastern Standard Time, with which we are all accustomed. As of 2000, the currency of Ecuador changed from the Sucre to the U.S. dollar.
Day 1 (June 27, 2018):
We flew to the capital city of Quito, Ecuador for a late-night arrival into the South American country. Quito’s new Mariscal Sucre International Airport is just two years-old. After passing through customs and gathering our luggage, we were greeted at the airport but our tour guide, Jorge Castillo.
We were also greeted by teachers, parents, and students from a school in Maryland with whom we spent the entire trip. Then we all boarded a tour bus and took an hour-long ride to our first hotel in downtown Quito, Hotel Carolina Montecarlo.
We took an excursion to the equatorial line monument, or La Mitad del Mundo, with a visit at the Intinan Museum. Our group stood on latitude 0, which allowed us to stand simultaneously in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Students also were challenged to place an egg upright. We were shown demonstrations on how water drains in different directions on both sides of the equator as well as observing sun clocks. We also toured some ethnographic exhibits and were shown shrunken heads and how they were made! Some of us even bought shrunken head replicas! After the visit, we traveled back to Quito and toured Independence Plaza, the Government Palace, and La Compañía de Jesús.
Quito’s Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. Our group posed for pictures with palace guards dressed in blue, red, and gold representing 19th century uniforms. The palace is nearly 400 years-old.
From 1901-1948, Ecuador went through 39 governments and four constitutions. At one point, the notoriously unstable country churned through four presidents in just 26 days.
Constructed in the 17th century, the La Compañía de Jesús took 163 years to complete. The ornate structure with gold leaf covered altars has often been called “Latin America’s most beautiful church.”
We also took a bus ride up Cerro Panecillo, a steep and winding hill overlooking the Old Town of Quito and is topped by a statue of the Virgin of the Americas. Deer Lakes students ascended the statue and walked around the observation deck for beautiful views of Ecuador’s historic capital.
Just outside of the Independence Plaza, we enjoyed a traditional Ecuadorian lunch that included fish, chicken, rice and vegetables. We also drank an Andean corn beverage called Chicha.
Happy 18th birthday, Jimmy Campbell!
We departed Quito and took a two-and-a-half-hour flight to the Galápagos Islands, specifically on San Cristobal Island. Our flight made a brief 30-minute stopover at the city of Guayaquil to let some passengers off.
The Galápagos Islands became famous when a then 26 year-old Charles Darwin landed here in 1835. By 1859, Darwin published On the Origin of Species, which theorized the evolution by natural selection. The islands are about 600 miles from mainland Ecuador. The Galápagos Islands are also two hours behind Pittsburgh time.
When we arrived, we were escorted to a beach to watch the sunset. There, we were greeted by dozens of sea lions roaming the beach among the tourists. For everyone’s protection, the local authorities strictly enforce a minimum two-meter distance policy between humans and the wildlife. The animals are permitted to approach people, but their human counterparts may not respond in kind.
The Galápagos Islands are made up of 13 major islands, six small ones, and 42 islets that are simply large rocks. The islands are all of volcanic origin and cover nearly 30,000 square miles.
We learned that the Galápagos Islands are popular because of the cold and warm currents that exist within them. At our first dinner on the islands at the Mockingbird Café, a special birthday cake was brought out by Jorge and then both schools sang to Jimmy Campbell in honor of his 18th birthday. After dinner, we all returned to our lodge, Hotel Algarrobos. We decided to sing karaoke in both English and Spanish with some locals at a restaurant next to our hotel.
Today, we embarked on a morning hike along the coast, known as La Lobería, to observe some of the amazing wildlife in their natural habitats. We were introduced to three local guides, Daniela, Maritza, and Katty, with whom we would spend the remainder of the island tour.
Large and small black iguanas would cross our paths or be camouflaged among the black volcanic rocks. We also saw a variety of finches and sea lions on our walk. Afterwards, we visited the San Cristobal Interpretation Center before hiking up Tijeretas Hill for an amazing view of the island.
Later, we snorkeled at the very site where Charles Darwin first arrived on the islands. The famous blue-footed booby was seen flying and posing for us on the rocks. This bird got its name after the Spanish word “bobo” (dunce/fool). Early sailors were surprised that the birds would not fly away when approached. These birds have a rather comical ritual. They tend to dance toward one another. Later that day, we boarded our first speed-boat ride to transfer us to Santa Cruz Island. The boat ride lasted approximately two-and-a-half hours on very choppy waters, which unfortunately caused a few of us to experience seasickness.
While transferring from island to island, all travelers must go through “quarantine” where luggage is inspected for dirt, sand, foods, plants, and animal life that might pose a threat to another island.
When we arrived on the island, we checked into Hotel Red Booby. We also visited a tortoise reserve. After dinner, we had some time to do some souvenir shopping.
Walking back to our hotel, we encountered a late-night soccer game and then we saw two local kids skateboarding just outside our hotel. Jack and Jimmy asked to try out their skateboards and they agreed. Against my better judgment, I even gave it a try! After one of the boys had to leave, the other boy stayed and got to know our group. His name was Etienne, an 11 year-old resident of the island. After our group spoke with him (in Spanish), he was hoping we could meet up the next day take a ride bike with him. Sadly, we had to depart the island and say goodbye to our young Galápagos “amigo”.
Happy 18th birthday, Barbara Matthews!
Today, we took another two-and-a-half-hour speed boat ride to Isabella Island. We checked in to our next hotel, Hotel Paraiso de Isabela. We visited a pink flamingo habitat and enjoyed another day of snorkeling. Giant sea turtles approached us underwater. Large schools of fish could also be seen during our snorkeling expedition.
We also visited the Charles Darwin Research Station, which is the breeding station for giant tortoises, from which the collection of islands got its name. The name “Galápagos” translates into “saddleback” resembling the shell of the tortoise. The embalmed body of the famous “Lonesome George” tortoise was also on our tour. Believed to have lived for well over 100 years, “Lonesome George” was the last known survivor of the Pinta tortoise species and one of the rarest creatures on earth. He remains a Galápagos Islands icon.
We also enjoyed lunch on a tortoise reserve called Rancho Manzanilla. We hiked along the reserve and posed for pictures with the giant tortoises and learned a lot about the flora of the reserve including the Manzanilla tree, one of the most toxic trees in the world.
Unlike humans, the Galápagos Tortoise is able to digest the apple because it kills the bacteria in its digestive system. We did however, have the chance to sample some delicious passion fruit during the hike. Later that day, we had some free time to shop and we stopped at the Galápagos Deli for some of the best ice cream I have ever tasted! Needless to say, we made a couple visits to that spot!
Before dinner, we were treated to a special musical performance in our hotel lobby. Local boys and girls dressed in traditional costuming performed several dances and songs for our group. We walked to the restaurant, known as El Viejo y el Mar (The Old Man and the Sea), which featured a floor of volcanic rock. At the end of the meal, the group properly celebrated Barbara’s 18th birthday with cake and song.
Today we had to say, “Adiós Galápagos”. We took an hour bus ride to a port where we boarded a ferry that transferred us to Baltra Island before flying back to Quito. The flight into Quito was amazing and featured views of the snow-capped Cotopaxi Volcano in the distance. We took a bus driven by our amazingly versatile harmonica-playing driver, Felix, where we checked in to our final hostel; Hotel Vieja Cuba. Before dinner, we had some free time to shop and explore SuperMaxi, a local supermarket. We walked a few blocks for dinner where afterwards, our group joined a young boy playing soccer in the courtyard.
Day 8 (American Independence Day):
Today we took a two-hour bus ride along Quito’s beautiful countryside to visit, shop, and bargain at the legendary Otavalo Market. The market was the perfect place to see Andean culture on full display. Local indigenous peoples were dressed in colorful, traditional apparel. Vendors set up booths ready to sell and negotiate prices of handicrafts. Paintings, wood carvings, ponchos, Panama hats (which are actually made in Ecuador), leather goods, table coverings, purses, wallets, tapestries, blankets, statues, wool socks, musical instruments, and other fine handmade crafts could be seen throughout the market.
Deer Lakes students used their Spanish speaking skills and clever bargaining savvy to negotiate fair prices. Lunch today also included the chance to order and enjoy cuy, or guinea pig, an Andean cuisine. Some of us drank Inka Cola, a popular Peruvian soft drink, or Fiora Vanti, Ecuador’s favorite soft drink.
After returning to our hotel in Quito, our tour guide, Jorge gave an emotional farewell speech expressing his fondness of our group and his experience with getting to know us. Jimmy Campbell presented him with a thank you card, a small tip, and of course a Terrible Towel on behalf of Deer Lakes. Of course, Jorge did not understand the concept of the Terrible Towel or its cultural significance in Western Pennsylvania. After Jimmy explained to Jorge what the towel symbolized to the group, Jorge swung it around like any true Pittsburgher.
After pulling an all-nighter, we departed Hotel Vieja Cuba in Quito at approximately 2:30 a.m. and headed to the Quito airport to return home to Pittsburgh. Sadly, we had to say goodbye to our gracious tour guide, Jorge and the 22 teachers, parents, and students from the Maryland school. After a grueling day of flying, our group finally arrived home at approximately 5 p.m. where we were eagerly greeted by friends and family members.
Oh, the many stories, pictures, and videos we have to share! Gracias, Ecuador!