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beyTHUMBWe recently traveled to Ecuador with our two oldest grandchildren, Bergin Keegan, 11, and Catherine Crosier, 10. We spent the first four days of our trip in the southern highlands of the Andes, and the next four on the Galapagos Islands.

 

By Cynthia J. MacKay and Warren J. Keegan

 

beybeachWe recently traveled to Ecuador with our two oldest grandchildren, Bergin Keegan, 11, and Catherine Crosier, 10. We spent the first four days of our trip in the southern highlands of the Andes, and the next four on the Galapagos Islands.

 

At the recommendation of friends, we picked Thompson Family Adventures, which specializes in travel with children, as our tour guide. They included activities that our grandchildren enjoyed greatly — climbing the cliffs of Cojitambo, visiting an Ecuadorian school, making ceramics, and learning to milk a cow.  

 

Both Bergin and Catherine told us they would highly recommend this trip. They formed an immediate bond with the other children, and had a wonderful time touring and just hanging out with their new friends.   

 

The first half of our trip was near the ancient colonial city of Cuenca, founded by the Spaniards in the 16th century. In past years, Thompson began the trip in Quito, but this year switched to Cuenca, because they felt Quito was becoming too touristy and crowded.  

 

beybirdWe were impressed with Thompson’s dedication. They seemed determined to give us a unique, interesting, and well-organized trip. Our group included eight adults and nine children. Our two guides, one of whom acted as a “mentor” for the nine kids, organizing activities and games, were superb. A trip evaluator stopped by several times to see how things were going. We saw almost no other tourists until we got to the Galapagos.  

 

The native people living in the highlands around Cuenca have kept their traditional customs to a remarkable degree. Many still speak Quichua. The women wear brightly colored shawls and skirts (one if the weather is hot, up to three if it is cold), thick socks, and white or gray Panama hats. They practice simple subsistence farming. Small fields of corn, sheep colored red by the iron-rich soil, and cows surround their small houses.

 

A high point was visiting a family that weaves cloth using traditional methods. We saw how they spin sheep wool by hand, and then dye it with organic materials such as volcanic soil (black), cactus worms (bright orange when first crushed, brilliant purple when lime is added), and walnut shells (brown). They then combine these different threads into subtle and complicated patterns on a wooden loom.

 

beyclassAnother highlight was visiting the Cuenca market. A profusion of sights and smells greeted us, including baskets of pink and white potatoes smaller than Catherine’s big toe; great gray piles of dried cow stomachs; many-colored stacks of candy and sweets (we bought some delicious candy made from sour milk); every size and color of egg, from goose (huge) to quail (minute, greenish); entire cow legs; and fruits we had never even heard of.

 

A large section of this market was devoted to traditional herbal medicines. Ecuadorians of every age were lined up, waiting to be treated by herbal healers. Bergin volunteered. He got the full treatment. First, the healer threw a handful of green herbs all over his body. Next, she rubbed an egg over his skin to pull out evil humors, which she discarded by breaking the egg in a pan. Then, she spat water on his head, back, and stomach.

Finally, she smeared brown paste over his forehead and belly button. He said he felt great afterwards. At $2 a visit, the benefit of this treatment is one of the best values in Ecuador and definitely worth a trip. Warning: Thompson packs a lot into each day. On the day we toured Cuenca, we left our hotel at nine and returned at seven that night. During those ten hours, we not only visited the market, but also the Vega ceramic studio, the new cathedral, the old cathedral built in 1557 (one of the oldest churches in South America), the museum of Ecuadorian culture, and the Homero Ortega Panama hat factory. The grandparents would have happily skipped the hats and spent time in the hotel swimming pool instead.

 

beymilkAll biologists, Cynthia included, dream of visiting the Galapagos Islands. This is where Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution by natural selection, the most important scientific discovery of the 19th century. When Darwin arrived in the Galapagos on the H.M.S. Beagle in 1835, he was fascinated by all the different life forms, each specific to its own island and/or to the Galapagos. He realized that species change, by survival of the fittest, to adapt to different habitats.

 

The Galapagos Islands are actually the tips of giant underwater volcanoes. They have never been attached to the mainland. They were created by fire. They are being steadily destroyed by water.

 

They sit on an ocean plate that is moving southeast at the astonishingly fast rate of seven centimeters a year. This plate is moving over a “hot spot” in the earth’s crust. The two youngest islands, Fernandina and Isabella, are right over this hot spot. They have active volcanoes, and dramatic scenery.

 

beytortAs the islands drift away from the hot spot, their volcanoes become dormant, and they are gradually eroded by wind, rain, and sea. The oldest island (three to five million years old, which is actually extremely young for an island), Espanola, furthest to the southeast, is almost flat. Soon it will disappear.

 

As we walked down the dock to board the zodiac that would take us to our ship, we immediately realized how unusual this place is. It is an Eden, packed with wild animals that have no fear of humans.

 

Hordes of sea lions were posed all over the beaches, boats, and dock. One was even under the bench. The black volcanic rocks surrounding the harbor were festooned with big red Sally Lightfoot crabs and black marine iguanas, the only iguanas in the world that swim into the ocean to feed on seaweed. The iguanas were squirting salt out of their nostrils. Plunging out of the sky, like spears, were blue-footed boobies, catching fish for their dinner. High above them floated jet-black frigate birds, the pirates of the bird kingdom, waiting to snatch fish from those boobies.

 

Our boat, the Explorer II, was built specifically to be a cruise ship, so it had nice features, such as stabilizing wings to reduce rolling. Despite these wings, both grandmother and granddaughter were seasick on one rocky overnight trip. The ship’s cook kindly supplied us with powdered ginger, which we mixed with Ecuadorian chocolate to reasonably good relief.

 

This fast ship enabled us to visit five islands in four days. These included Espanola, where we saw albatross and blue-footed boobies mate; San Cristobal, which had amazing snorkeling; Rabida, which had red sand beaches and dramatic vistas; Santa Cruz, where the Darwin research station is located; and Baltra, where there were green sea turtle and ghost crab nests.

 

We left a little bit of our hearts in the Galapagos. We would go back tomorrow.


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