Isabela was the second major island that we visited on our Galapagos tour. It is the largest of all Galapagos islands (1792 sq mi), but much of its land is uninhabited by humans. It’s main settlement, called Puerto Villamil is the third most populated city next to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal. Isabela island is also the youngest, and was formed one million years ago by the merging of six different volcanoes, all of them active today except one. On our fourth day in Galapagos we boarded a small ferry (more like a covered speedboat) to take us from Santa Cruz to Puerto Villamil in two and a half hours. Hearing horror stories about the bumpy and boring crossing, we made sure to take full strength Dramamine for the dreaded journey ($25 per person).
For those who don’t know, or have yet to surmise, our family is no longer on the great foreign road, and instead are back in the comfort of our Portland, Oregon home, entrenched in the routine of school and work. As I write these words, I am sitting in a local playground, watching my children practice riding their bikes in an empty parking lot. I spent the morning trying to edit the hundreds of photos, snapped while in Galapagos, now 3747 miles away, feeling so very far from that bucket-list destination, which represents true dream fulfillment.
Throughout our whole trip leading up to our final arrival on Baltra, Galapagos, we had constantly reminded ourselves to be frugal, and to not spend money on trifles, so that we could afford to include these islands in our itinerary. Despite all our threats and admonishments to forgo a drink or dessert, in order to save a dollar, we still fell short of our economic goals, by the time we had arrived in South America. We had underestimated the cost of our travels by a couple thousand, leaving fewer funds for the final quarter of our trip. Still, we had made it this far to Ecuador, and scrapping our plans to visit the Galapagos did not seem to be the right choice. We argued that a smaller cushion for our US return, seemed a small sacrifice that we would be able to survive. Months later, and I can confirm that there are NO regrets. Of course, with a diminished budget, we did not tour the islands on luxurious boats, and instead planned a DIY trip of our own, hopping from island to island via ferry, and being selective about which costly boat tours were worth splashing out on.
Quito, the capital of Ecuador, initially reminded me of the large Colombian cities of Bogota and Medellin. This was due more to the common look of these big South American cities (i.e. dense and sprawling concrete buildings, packed through a long valley, with neighborhoods pushed to the city’s geographical boundaries, and terraced up the mountain sides), than the spirit of each specific destination. And I will let you know, Quito is very special. In my opinion, this city has one of the most beautifully maintained, historical centers of any I have had the pleasure of exploring, in ALL my Latin American travels. It is unique for its contemporary mixture of indigenous culture and Spanish colonial artistry, both honored for their contribution to the Quiteno lifestyle.
We came to Ecuador, our last country on nearly a year of travel, with zero plans. I had not even begun to read our guidebook on this destination until we were on a bus within its perimeter. Our border crossing and subsequent onward transportation plans fell on a holiday (unbeknownst to ourselves) which meant that our first impressions of general organization when buying a bus ticket were dismally low. Standing in long lines for over an hour, with equally frustrated and anxious travelers, mired in confusion about IF the queue was the “right” one to begin with, didn’t get us off to a great start. We were starting to panic that we might not even get out of Ecuador’s questionable border town and on our way to Otavalo that same evening. Thankfully, we eventually garnered tickets at at least three times the price we had been used to paying in Colombia, and made it to our destination in the dark of night. Dropped off on the side of the highway, we cautiously crossed into what appeared to be the direction of the city, starving for some sustenance and assurance of safety.
San Agustin, what a pleasure this destination proved! This town which is located in the department of Huila, Colombia, is well-known for its pre-Columbian archeological sites (or so the inter web claims). In truth, I am shocked by how little we knew about this destination in advance of our visit. My education of South and Central American ancient cultures has focused on the Incans, Mayans and Aztecs, completely passing over the contributions of lesser studied people like the Augustine master carvers of the 8th to 1st century BC. Not much is known about this civilization, other than what can be interpreted by their monolithic stone sculptures, ceremonial and burial grounds, ceramics, goldsmithing and agricultural sites. Myths abound about the variety of images carved into volcanic rock, which consist of animals or humans, with smiling or serious and scary, fanged faces, holding warrior implements or babies (little people?), and often featuring anthropomorphic animal features, like jaguar eyes. The lush, green mountains and valleys are a literal treasure trove of buried ruins, with about 600 known large sculptures and 40 burial mounds in the Alto Magdalena Region. Almost half of these impressive works can be visited in one go, at the San Agustin Archeological Park.
Popayan was a pleasant surprise, due to its Spanish colonial beauty. In the Southern Colombian department of Cauca, Popayan is this region’s white-washed capital, and a distinguished university town. Arriving by bus into the outskirts of the older center, we had no idea what a visual treat we were in for. A short taxi ride later and we entered the “white city” with its many elaborate churches, cathedrals, shady plazas, pedestrian lanes, and historical museums. On our first evening, we discovered a perfect little Italian restaurant, with fresh pesto sauce and unctuously crisp and chewy pizza crust that twice fulfilled our pasta & pie longings. We also sampled more Colombian coffee and street food, including papas rellenas, which are balls of mashed potatoes filled with a variety of savory ingredients, like meat, eggs, and cheese, then deep-fried and served for breakfast with a spicy aji sauce.