Ecuador is Awesome – Part 9

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Despite its small area, Ecuador constantly proves itself to be one of the most bewitching countries on the planet. The magnificent cross section of nature, cultures, geography, foods, activities, holiday destinations, people and languages all combine to assert this impressive little country’s status as a must-see destination in South America. Straddled either side of latitude zero, Ecuador never fails to amaze; from the Galapagos Island to the Coast, from the Sierra to the Amazon, nowhere else can one experience such incredible diversity. Maybe I’m biased because I live on the Pacific Coast but, over the last 30+ years, I have traveled through, lived in or visited 45 other countries on this planet, and Ecuador is the one place on Earth that has inspired me to grow roots and stick around for a while.

When I began to think about some of the wonderful things I love about Ecuador that I’d be proud to share with people who are thinking about visiting, or even staying for a while, I learned that many of my friends and acquaintances often felt the same way about the same things. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, before I sat down to write this ten-part series, I asked everyone I know who lives now or has lived or traveled in Ecuador this one simple question: “What is/was the best thing about your experience of Ecuador?” This series of ten posts are all about what they said.

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Wherever you travel in Ecuador, whether you are in the Capital, or in a small Amazonian village, it’s very difficult to ignore the local chocolate. If you don’t see vast orchards of cacao trees growing for miles and miles on either side of the road you are traveling along, there are often long strips of harvested cacao beans spread out to dry on the warm bitumen, and even on rooftops along the roadside. Apart from existing right alongside all the raw cacao products Ecuador has to offer a truly dedicated chocolate connoisseur, from the newly harvested beans to the highly processed bars, every supermarket, every souvenir shop, every tourist district, and even at the homes of countless families, there is a massive range of locally grown chocolate produced from organic cacao beans, nibs and powder, to exquisitely flavored truffles filled with caramels, nuts and liquors, and simple chocolate bars; the darkest of dark to the milkiest of milk, and from the simple ground beans that are used to make Bliss Bombs, Brownies, Mud Cakes, and everything else in between. There is no doubt that Ecuador is a chocoholics wonderland.

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In Aztec times, the cacao bean was so valued, it was used as a form of currency, however there is evidence of chocolate beverages being consumed as far back as 1900BC. Fermented, roasted, and ground Theobroma cacao beans can be traced to the Mokaya and other pre-Olmec people in the lowlands of south-central Mexico. Christopher Columbus encountered cacao beans on his fourth trip to the Americas in 1502 when he and his crew stole a large native canoe that contained cacao beans for trade. During the 16th century, chocolate was transported to Europe for the first time. I’m sure the actual history is well documented. Here’s my version of how it all went down: I imagine a Spanish aristocrat aboard his galleon, trying the brew for the first time. A handful of crushed cacao beans boiled with water. Poured into a pewter mug. His first taste of hot chocolate; very bitter. He screws up his face. The servants don’t like it, each sneaking a taste in the galley, sipping delicately at the wooden spoon. Everyone below decks rejects it as awful. Undeterred, the aristocrat adds sugar. Stirs it into the hot liquid. Brings it once again to his lips. His eyes widen as he realizes his discovery. Closing his eyes, he purses his full round lips and sips again. His taste buds are overwhelmed by a sense of lush pleasure. Almost sinful. The servants nudge each other. Sugar. Of course. He wonders if he should share this culinary gem, then becomes concerned the authorities might not like it. He decides not to tell them about the sugar. Thus, initiating Europe’s historical, revolutionary and, at times controversial, “discovery” of chocolate.

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Where I live on the northwest coast of Ecuador, Doña Sara, one of the local characters and a very good friend, roasts her locally grown cacao beans the traditional way, in large clay pot over a slow coal fire. Countless times we have sat together chatting as she stirs the beans through a handful of ashes with a large wooden spoon, toasting them just enough so the skins crack and they’re ready to peel and grind. We spend the afternoon getting blisters on our fingers from peeling the hot beans, occasionally popping one into our mouths and chewing slowly to extract the bitter dark chocolate flavor. The beans are poured into the mouth of a hand-grinder and everyone takes a turn at the wooden handle, as Sara forms the rich paste into balls and sets them onto a tray. She sells them when they’ve dried. Even using this simple process, Ecuadorian chocolate can be transformed into the most delicious cakes, brownies, drinks and treats. There are at least two chocolate experiences that are definitely “bucket list” every chocoholic should try at least once. Be careful. These two activities are one way tickets to Foodgasm Central!

1. Suck the fresh white fruit from the seeds inside a freshly harvested cacao pod
2. Chew on a hot roasted cacao bean until it’s almost liquid, then bite on a fresh strawberry.

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The health benefits of organic locally grown and roasted cacao beans are numerous. Cacao is a rich source of antioxidants such as procyanidins and flavanoids, which many say have anti-aging properties. Cacao in particular contains high levels of flavonoids, specifically epicatechin, which is said to have benefits for cardiovascular health. There have even been scientific studies with Panamanian Indians which discovered significantly lower rates of heart disease and cancer among the natives, compared to those who do not consume cacao.  It is said that increased blood flow after the consumption of flavanol-rich cacao helps to improve heart and organ health, and also brain function. Of course, once sugar and additives are mixed with the raw product, and it becomes a highly processed food, those health benefits rapidly decrease. However, when you are in Ecuador at least, sticking to the delicious raw organic product in all its varieties is not that hard to do, and the next time someone tells you that chocolate is bad for your health, you can simply bite into a fresh strawberry and show them it really isn’t.

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For more ideas about what to do while you are traveling in Ecuador, get in touch with Footprints.

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Ecuador is Awesome – Part 7

Despite its mere 283,561 square kilometers (109483.5 square miles) Ecuador is one of the most diverse and interesting countries on Earth. The amazing variety of nature, cultures, geography, foods, activities, holiday destinations, people and languages makes this tiny country straddled either side of latitude zero a definite stand out destination in South America. You may think I’m biased because I live here, but I have traveled in, lived in or visited 46 countries over the last 33 years, and Ecuador is the only country that has ever inspired me to build a house and stick around for a while. (True story!)

When I began thinking about some of the fabulous things that I love about Ecuador and want to share with others who are interested in visiting, I learned that my friends and acquaintances often feel the same way. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, before I sat down to write this ten-part series, I asked everyone I know who lives now or has lived or traveled in Ecuador this one simple question: “What is/was the best thing about your experience of Ecuador?” This series is all about their responses.

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The baker on his daily route to sell his freshly baked wares, riding a tricycle cart.

You might wonder what transport has to do with sightseeing in Ecuador. Most of us can just jump in a bus, on a train, on a plane and go wherever we like. In enormous cities like Los Angeles, for example, many people find it impossible to get around if they don’t have a car. Some places in LA can take so long to get to on public transport that it’s hardly worth the trip. (It once took me 5 hours one way to get to Santa Monica Pier from North Hollywood!) In Ecuador, however, the majority of the population do not own cars.  We travel from one end of the country to the other, and beyond on such a vast collection of transport that the mind boggles.

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These little moto-tricis run around all over rural towns and the fare is usually just a few coins.

 From major centers such as Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca, it is possible to travel to the furthest, remotest corners of Ecuador on a varied fleet of transport unlikely to be found in many developed countries. The ingenious resourcefulness of Ecuadorians to move people around is unparalleled. True adventurers can find themselves traveling on anything from a simple horse to a luxury tour coach, and everything you could possibly imagine in between. Getting into the deepest Amazon requires light planes and donkeys, along with dugout canoes and a fair bit of Shank’s pony. Visiting the Galapagos Islands is done by air or sea, and traveling between islands on turbo-motor-boats is not for the faint-hearted. The Coast and Sierra are more easily traversed on wheeled vehicles ranging from motorbikes to limousines, and pick-ups to air-conditioned coaches.

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An entire family can be easily transported on a small motorbike.

When venturing further afield than the main centers, transport can become very interesting. People are piled into the back of pick-ups and whizzed all over the mountains and coastal areas, or shoved into local buses until there is not even standing room. I have hitch-hiked countless times in Ecuador without fear of the usual risks because everyone is hitching and the driver normally receives a small tip for his generosity. Higher-end tourists usually miss out on all this fun riding around on their luxury coaches and limousine taxis but, after seeing the length and breadth of Ecuador on jam-packed local buses with ear-splitting salsa music and blaring kung-fu videos, there is something to be said for a quiet ride in the cool air-con and comfortable western-butt-sized seats with plenty of leg-room. Even so, I wouldn’t miss being tossed around in the back of a pick-up for all the bananas in Ecuador. There’s something wild and free about zooming down the highway, hair flying everywhere.

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Locals pile into the back of a pick-up to head for home.

If you’re going to take the time and spend the money to come to Ecuador for the experience, then I recommend you experience all of it, bongos, moto-tricis, pickups and rancheras included. It’s one thing to look from the window of a bus, but it’s an entirely different thing to feel the wind of the Sierra whipping your face and hear the chatter of the locals – even if you don’t understand it. It’s a whole new realm of potential travel memories and future stories just waiting to be explored. The sights, sounds and smells of Ecuador will take on a whole new meaning when your hair blows around in the back of a ranchera (not to be confused with Huevos Rancheros which can be found on menus in Mexico). Even if you do it only one time during your vacation, it will be worth it. Trust me!

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An open-backed Ranchera can reach the furthest corners of the country.

If you’re into adventures and traveling the local way interests you, get in touch with Footprints Ecuador now! We’ll hook you up.

Ecuador is Awesome – Part 6

Ecuador is one of the most fascinating countries on Earth. The amazing diversity of nature, cultures, geography, foods, activities, holiday destinations, people and languages makes this tiny country straddled either side of latitude zero a stand out destination in South America. You may think I’m biased because I live here, but I have traveled in, lived in or visited 46 countries over the last 33 years, and Ecuador is the only country that has ever inspired me to build a house and stick around for a while.

When I began thinking about some of the wonderful things about Ecuador that I want to share with others who are interested in visiting, I found many of my friends and acquaintances feel the same way about the same things. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, before I sat down to write this ten-part series, I asked everyone I know who lives now or has lived or traveled in Ecuador this one simple question: “What is/was the best thing about your experience of Ecuador?” This series is all about their responses.

One thing we unanimously agree on is “the Scuba Diving totally rocks!” For this article, I have chosen five dive sites, because there are so many incredible places to go scuba diving in the Galapagos Islands and even a few cool places on the mainland (but you have to admit there’s nothing quite like logging a few Galapagos dives, right?) These are some of the favorite, and also most popular dive spots, each renowned for their individual attractions.

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Mosquera

The islet of Mosquera is located in the channel between North Seymour and Baltra. Appearing more like a large sandbar than an island, Mosquera is 620 meters long and 130 meters wide, and consists of a long narrow stretch of powdery white sand, black lava rocks, and glistening azure tide pools. The island was created by geological uplift, so its geography is flat rather than conically shaped like other volcanically formed islands. Starting from Mosquera’s dramatic lava rock base, peppered with corals, divers drift with the currents to a depth of 21m along a mixed rock, coral and sandy bottom and along the top ledge of a magnificent cliff wall where a wealth of marine life thrives; from colorful nudibranchs to impressive hammerheads, and large black manta rays to white spotted eagle rays. Meeting playful sea lions is one of the main features of the dives at this popular site, along with the spectacular white sand plateau filled with thousands of Galápagos garden eels, bobbing in the current as far as the eye can see. White-tipped sharks glide amongst the coral reefs and lava rocks along with Galápagos sharks, Pacific green turtles, barracudas, amberjacks and pelagics, schools of and many other tropical fish which are common to this area. Visibility averages 12-15 meters (40-50 feet). Surge and current is usually moderate to strong.

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Daphne Minor

Located 40 minutes by boat from Itabaca Channel, on the northwest coast of Santa Cruz, Daphne Minor is an isolated offshore tuff cone featuring a range of different topographies: vertical rock and coral walls, steep slopes, pinnacles, a marine platform, and also a cave. At the base of Dafne Minor, it is even possible to see the results of lava flows from previous volcanic eruptions. Depending on the strength of the current, which can range from mild to strong, while drift diving along the wall amongst the crags and black coral, divers can encounter the cleaning stations of hammerhead and Galápagos sharks, as well as spot white tipped reef sharks, silky sharks, manta rays, golden cowrays, eagle rays, sea lions, Pacific green turtles, and impressive moray eels. Other marine life that thrives in abundance off Dafne Minor includes sea cucumbers, octopus, slipper lobster, nudibranchs, and an impressive variety of reef fish including bacalao, barracuda, palometas, Galápagos grunts, yellowtail grunts, creolefish, king angelfish, Galápagos ringtail damselfish, chamelion wrasse, rainbow wrasse, streamer hogfish, tuna, parrotfish, razor surgeonfish, Panamic graysby cabrilla, cardinalfish, and yellowtail snapper, and a wonderfully colorful collection of starfish. The best dives hover around a depth of 15-20 meters with visibility generally around 9-18 meters (30-60 feet) depending on the presence of plankton. Diving on Dafne Minor is suitable for all levels starting from beginners through to intermediate and advanced divers.

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North Seymour

Located approximately half an hour by motorboat from the Itabaca channel near Baltra, the island of North Seymour offers two very special dive sites: the Point, and the Channel. On the Point, follow the gradual steps away from the shoreline to a shallow rocky reef, before reaching the sandy bottom at 16-18 meters. The rocky slope follows the platform reef where devil rays, manta rays, eagle rays, marbled rays, stingrays, tiger snake eels, moray eels, camouflaged octopi and sea turtles are a common sight, and even marlins have occasionally been seen. Galápagos sharks, white- and black-tipped reef sharks and scalloped hammerheads regularly take advantage of medium to strong currents here. The sandy bottom at around 15m is home to hundreds of bobbing endemic Galápagos garden eels, and there are plenty of Pacific green turtles, and large schools of barracuda and other reef fish like yellowtail grunts and blue-striped snapper, jacks, flag cabrilla, creolefish, king angelfish and scorpionfish are also easy to find. Razor surgeonfish are especially abundant. An interesting phenomena on North Seymour dives is the ability to observe blue-footed boobies diving to hunt fish. The Channel is perfect for a drift dive, with medium to strong currents, starting from the eastern corner and following the lava rock plateau. Galápagos sharks cruise around and there are reef fish everywhere. The Channel is also a great spot to find hundreds of colorful sea stars, as well as sea horses clinging to the corals, bright blue nudibranchs, and even whale sharks at times.

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Gordon Rocks

One of the most popular sites for experienced divers in the Galápagos Islands is the extinct volcanic crater, Gordon Rocks with its sandy bottom at 32 meters. The top of a submerged cone at the northeastern end of Santa Cruz Island, the exposed northern and southern lava walls surround the remains of the caldera, measuring about 100 metres in diameter, and three smaller pinnacles are visible under the surface. There is a spectacular 65-meter wall drop off along the northern edge of the crater and one large pinnacle in the center approximately 21 meters below the surface. Gordon Rocks is a favorite place to view large schools of scalloped hammerhead sharks up close and personal as they ride the medium to strong currents and circle the massive lava rocks. White and black tip reef sharks can also be seen in the crater, as well as Pacific green sea turtles, sea lions, sting rays, eagle rays, large schools of barracuda and snapper, endemic fur seals, the occasional majestic manta ray and also the fascinating mola mola sunfish. The inside of the crater can resemble a gigantic fish bowl at times and, if you’re really lucky, whale sharks can sometimes be seen here too, and pods of pilot whales frequently pass in the channel between Gordon Rocks and Santa Cruz. Gordon Rocks is also great for a deep dive on the outer rim of the crater, with lots of pelagics and invertebrates to be found along the wall. If close encounters with hammerheads gets your bubbles going, Gordon Rocks is the place to dive.

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Floreana

There are three very different dive sites at Floreana, mostly with mild currents making these excellent sites for beginners, and wonderful sites for experienced divers to relax and observe the fascinating marine life that Galápagos has to offer amongst some of the most interesting topography in the islands from rocky outcrops, extinct volcanoes, walls, tunnels, caves and sandy bottoms to black coral reefs. Enderby is the place to spot whale sharks in the spring months, as well as eagle rays, stingrays, white-tipped reef sharks, Galápagos sharks, cleaning stations, and sometimes hammerheads and pilot whales, and countless tropical fish including giant clouds of black-striped salemas that can envelop divers in their thousands. Champion offers one of the nicest drift dives in Galápagos, gliding along the wall escorted by friendly juvenile sea lions that frequently take a liking to diver’s fins, while keeping eyes open for green morays, blue lobster, octopus, long nose hawk fish and coral hawk fish, and spotting Pacific sea horses clinging to branches of black coral. There are also large Pacific green turtles covered in barnacles, eagle rays and stingrays, and also schools of hammerheads. At Punto Cormorant it is easy to find the famous red-lipped batfish with its leg-like fins and cherry red lips in relatively shallow water, presenting yet more evidence that diving in the Galápagos Islands is a unique experience and the three exceptional sites on Floreana are some of the most interesting dive spots within the archipelago.

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Wanna come diving with me? Get in touch.

Ecuador is Awesome – Part Three

When I began thinking about some of the great things about Ecuador that I’d like to share with travelers who are thinking about visiting, I found that many of my friends and acquaintances feel the same way about the same things. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, before I began to write this series of ten articles, I asked my friends who live now or have lived or traveled in Ecuador this one simple question: “What is/was the best thing about your experience of Ecuador?” Here’s what they said:

Ecuadorian cuisine totally rocks. Ecuador’s geographical and cultural diversity allows for easy availability of a wonderfully vast range of fruit and vegetables, seafood and varieties of meat: domestic and wild. Restaurant menus from the Galapagos Islands and the Pacific Coast, the Andean Sierra and the Amazonian Orient offer a treasure trove of culinary delights to sample, and some also cater to many special diets including gluten- and dairy-free, diabetic and low carb, simply because of the nature of the range of foods available, and the dishes from which they are prepared. It may also interest you to know that Ecuador is GMO-free, although some of the larger produce growers do use toxic pesticides.

Fresh seafoods abound on the Ecuadorian coastline

Rock lobsters and other fresh seafood abounds on the Ecuadorian coastline

Several hundred species of potatoes are grown in The Andes, which is the original birthplace of the humble spud. The Incas treated potatoes so that they could be stored for many years, and the potato was valued not only as a good source of nourishment, but also as a measure of time, the unit being the length of time it took to cook one. So, you could say, “I’ll be there in four potatoes!”

The range of delicious tropical fruits in Ecuador is mind-boggling, from common bananas and pineapples to the lesser-known naranjilla and taxo, delightfully refreshing fruits you may never have even imagined. Not only is the list of tropical fruits longer than an iguana’s tail, there are also several different species of passionfruits, granadillas, melons, dragonfruits, mangoes, jackfruit, papayas, borojos, pomegranates, custard apples, bananas, guavas, tamarinds, and a massive selection of tree-ripened citrus fruits. A favorite of the locals is the fist-sized tomate del arbol (tree tomato) which makes delicious fresh juice and is sometimes used in tasty chili sauces. Another unusual fruit endemic to Ecuador is the babaco, which looks a bit like a papaya but tastes a bit like apple with a tropical twist when it’s stewed for a delicious dessert. Naranjilla, a small greenish orange fruit also known as lulu, also makes wonderful fresh juice, as does soursop, sweetsop and jackfruit. Thanks to the diversity of climates across the country, you can buy a range of tropical and temperate fruits such as pineapples and strawberries, both in season, from the same market on the same day.

Babaco is endemic to Ecuador and tastes like tropical apples when cooked.

Babaco is endemic to Ecuador and tastes like tropical apples when cooked.

Until the Spanish introduced cattle and sheep as sources of domestically farmed animals, guinea pig was the favored meat in Ecuador. Known as Cuy, it’s still an Ecuadorian delicacy. Whole charcoal-grilled guinea pigs with their teeth bared, eyes closed and paws intact are tasty and sweet, the smoky flavor reminiscent of barbecued pork, although there is not a lot of meat on one animal. Ecuadorians all over the country argue about the best places to eat cuy, some preferring Latacunga while others favor cuy from Ambato or Baños. There are times you might want to be a little careful about choosing wild meat dishes, because Giant Armadillo (now on threatened/endangered species lists) is offered in some eateries along the coastal region, along with Tatabra (Tayussu Peccari), Guanta (Cuniculus Paca), Perico Ligero (Pale-throated Sloth), Manta Ray, and also Pacific Green Sea Turtle.

Yucca is a staple food of Ecuador and can be found in soups, stews, patties and as a side dish.

Yucca is a staple and can be found in soups, stews, patties and as a side dish.

The wonderful soups of the highlands are probably more acceptable to European and American palates: Locro de papas, more commonly known as simply locro, a thick potato and farm cheese soup, is delicious and requires zero culinary courage to enjoy. Also tasty is yahuarlocro, a potato soup made with blood sausage, avocados and onions. Fanesca is a thick soup/stew made from fish, eggs, beans and a variety of grains, and is traditionally eaten over the period of Easter.

A favorite snack among Ecuadorians is llapingachos, potato or yucca patties made with cheese and onions, split and served with a salad of grated carrot and shredded cabbage. Also try empanadas: wheat flour or green banana pasties stuffed with cheese, shrimp, chicken or meat, and also corviche: green banana dough wrapped around a fish filling and fried. They’re very filling and can be found just about everywhere. Empanadas de morocho (corn meal) are usually filled with meat. The most typical Sierran cuisine includes fried or roast pork (fritada or hornado) served with white corn (mote), bananas, fried potato or yucca patties, popcorn and crispy pork crackling.

Roast pork, served with a smile, as well as corn, bananas, potato patties, salad and hot sauce.

Roast pork, served with a smile, corn, bananas, potato or yucca, salad & hot sauce.

Abundant with fresh seafood, tropical fruits and organic vegetables, the best cuisine in Ecuador is undoubtedly found on the coast. Competing for King of Coastal Cuisine would have to be Ceviche (Manabi Province) and Encocado (Esmeraldas Province).

Ceviche is fresh fish, shrimp, lobster, octopus, clams, mussels, or oysters marinated in lime and tossed with finely sliced onions, peppers and tomatoes, and spiced with fresh cilantro or wild chillangua. While rumor has it that best ceviches come from Province of Manabi, it is a popular dish throughout the country and indeed along the length of the Pacific coastline of South America. Sometimes it’s served with patacones (green banana chips), and sometimes with fresh popcorn.

Seafood in coconut sauce is a favorite dish along the coast.

Seafood in coconut sauce is a favorite dish along the coast.

Esmeraldas is famous for its fabulous encocados; meat or seafood simmered in a rich coconut cream sauce, made with the flesh of freshly grated coconuts and squeezed by hand. This dish is generally cooked with fresh ocean or river fish, rock lobster, slipper lobster, giant shrimp, crawfish, crab, or the superb blue mangrove crab, which is only found in the province of Esmeraldas. Other meats are sometimes cooked in coconut sauce, but the seafood varieties of encocado are more common. Some chefs make it soupy and saucy, and others make it thicker and creamier, but most agree that encocado is definitely a dish not to miss while visiting Ecuador.

Viche is a delicious soup of fish, crab, crawfish, conch and calamari with peanuts and bananas. Similarly, cazuela is a mixed seafood stew made with peanut sauce and green plantain bananas served in clay pot. Chupe is a delicious north-coast seafood dish with a wonderful combination of peanuts and coconut blended into the thick sauce. Another coastal specialty is encebollado, a hearty fresh tuna and yucca soup which is said to alleviate hangovers, is traditionally served for breakfast piled high with finely sliced red onions. And on just about every Ecuadorian table you’ll find a small dish of salsa picante (hot sauce) made with fresh chili peppers which can be anything from super-mild to tear-inducing-hot.

Encebollado: a staple for breakfast on the coast of Ecuador

Encebollado: a staple for breakfast on the coast of Ecuador

Unfortunately, for a country which produces the best coffee in the world, coffee is typically not well prepared in Ecuador. A national disgrace, coffee is often served in a concentrated liquid, to which you add hot water or milk, and most local hotels and restaurants prefer to serve instant coffee. Good organic locally grown and processed coffee is available from some of the higher quality hotels and renowned coffee shops in the larger cities. Good quality Ecuadorian chocolate, however, both in hot beverages and candy bars is relatively easy to find.

Cacao pods and Sweetsop picked from the trees in the jungle.

Cacao pods and Sweetsop picked from the trees in the jungle.

Ecuador is Awesome – Part Two

Blue-Footed Booby

Colonies of the adorable Blue-Footed Booby are found all over Galapagos

When I asked all my friends about the best things Ecuador has to offer, we unanimously agree that one of the most spectacular not-to-be-missed destinations in Ecuador is, without doubt, the incredibly beautiful and mystical Galapagos Islands. Straddling latitude zero, 1000km west from the mainland, this archipelago is home to an amazing array of wildlife; numerous species you will never see anywhere else in the world abound on these enchanted islands, unusual and fascinating creatures to someone who has never visited, and yet often quite common to those who know the islands well. Landscapes – or  moonscapes – of shimmering black lava and hardy flora forcing its way through the rock to thrive in such an arid environment where rainfall is extremely scarce in many places is a miracle so fantastic to behold that it’s worth every penny to come and discover the secrets of Galapagos for yourself.

There are 10 species of Giant Tortoises in Galapagos

Giant Tortoises (Chelonoidis nigra) are the longest-living vertebrates on earth. The average life-span is over 100 years, and some live to over 170 years.

There are four inhabited islands: San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Isabela and Floreana, with an international airport on Baltra, near the abandoned WWII American military base. While the Galapageño capitol of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is on San Cristobal, which also has an airport, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz is the most populated settlement, with its infrastructure firmly in place to serve the requirements of around 175,000 visitors per year to the World Heritage National Park and Marine Reserve. Whether tourists participate in land-based or water-based activities, Galapagos; its phenomenal wildlife, unique vegetation and breath-taking landscapes, are bound to make a life-long impression on anyone fortunate enough to experience the magic.

Las Grietas, a fissure in the lava rock, is a wonderful local swimming hole.

Las Grietas, a fissure and a swimming hole where dare-devils leap in from the cliffs.

Regardless of age, there are activities to suit every level of fitness and include a vast range of interests, from a gentle 2.5km walk to Tortuga Bay near Puerto Ayora, to a strenuous hike up the challenging slopes of Sierra Negra on Isabela to see the massive crater, which is 11km in diameter, from stretching out in a bikini under the hot equatorial sun while your launch cruises leisurely from island to island on the azure Pacific Ocean, to rolling back off the launch in your scuba gear to experience the fascinating world of Galapagos marine life 20 meters below the surface off North Seymour, from observing the Magnificent Frigate Birds bathing in Lagoon El Junco on San Cristobal, the only fresh water lake in the archipelago, to leaving your postcards in Post Office Bay on Floreana and hoping they’ll arrive at their destination at some point in the future, and once you’ve done all that, there is still so much more to do… like visit the Giant Tortoise breeding center at the Charles Darwin Research station, or just lay on a towel on a pristine beach and relax.

Divers are always thrilled to find large schools of Hammerhead sharks

Scuba Divers are thrilled to find large schools of Hammerhead sharks at Gordon Rocks.

A trip to Galapagos is, for many, a once in a lifetime experience. Admittedly, it’s a little costly to get there. Between airfares, national park fees,  and the high cost of cruises and many other vacation activities, you almost need a second mortgage just to put your feet on the enchanted islands. And because most of the food is shipped 1000km, it also costs more than on the mainland. Even so, if you spend every penny you’ve saved for this trip, just to make it one single time, you will spend the rest of your life enjoying the wonderful memories of a natural phenomena not to be found anywhere else on the planet. Galapagos is worth every penny. There are also a number of land-based and water activities that don’t cost a thing. Depending on which island you are on and, if you have the time and resources, it’s highly recommended to go island-hopping on at least two islands in the Galapagos, and you can easily find out which activities are free. Whether you’ve lived in Ecuador for many years, or have just passed through as a visitor, the magic spell of Galapagos remains with you forever.

Ask us how to get to Galapagos:

The Octopus Garden

Just after dawn, as the motorboat pulls out of Pelican Bay, we start to prepare ourselves for the dive, pulling on pre-dampened wetsuits over our bikinis and leaving them hanging half-open at our waists for the rest of the journey. Frigate birds fly overhead, their distinctive red necks deflated as they wait to see if we’re offering them breakfast. Disappointed, they soar towards a flock of blue-footed boobies hunting nearby to bully the boobies and pirate another meal.

The glorious Galapagos Islands shimmer in the bright sunlight as we speed past Santa Cruz and Baltra, Dafne and finally arrive at North Seymour. A large manta ray skims along just under the surface. At first, just a shadow in the distance, we get close enough to see the 4m wingspan of this magnificent creature, with its wingtips breaking the surface as it cruises alongside. We anchor in the channel between North Seymour and Mosquera to listen to the dive brief and finish putting on the rest of our gear: weight belts and fins, masks and finally our BCDs with tanks and regulators attached. The language of the dive has been discussed. We all know how to communicate underwater.

It's another world where nothing above the surface matters.

Twenty meters under the Pacific Ocean there is a completely different world where nothing above the surface matters.

Unless you have been scuba diving, it’s difficult to describe the feeling that envelopes you when you roll backwards into the water and then descend to the first meeting point. The only sound you can hear underwater is your own bubbles as you exhale. A small group with a very experienced dive guide, we buddy-up and head into the channel, adrift on the current which carries us along. Almost no effort is required. I barely wiggle a fin. My buddy drifts along beside me. White-tipped sharks rest of the ocean floor, letting the cool water rush over them. Minutes later, we find ourselves in the middle of a large school of yellow and black striped angelfish. We drift over impressive lava formations and colorful corals until we notice that some of the pretty pink rocks aren’t rocks at all. They’re fish. Scorpion fish.

The Scorpion fish is one of the world's most venomous species

The Galapagos Scorpion Fish is one of the most venomous species in the Pacific Ocean.

Responsible divers in the Galapagos know not to touch anything, so we are never in any danger of being stung by this cleverly camouflaged fish. Starfish abound in all shapes and colors, clinging to rocks and corals as the current sweeps over them. An octopus hides in a narrow crevice, its tentacles stretch over the rock as it moves ever-so-slowly across the rock face to find a more spacious hiding place. Enormous Moray eels peek out from their rock caves, mouths open to allow the Pacific cleaner shrimp to wash their faces for them. Outstanding service, if you ask me! During the dive we glide alongside elegant Eagle rays, and see a large school of Devil rays overhead. Concealed Stingrays shoot out from their hiding places in the sand and a large Manta ray circles overhead. A massive Pacific green turtle snoozes on the sandy bottom, ignoring us as an underwater photo-frenzy takes place above its head.

After a fifty-minute dive, we slowly ascend, making a safety stop a few meters below the surface. As we hold hands in a circle and dance, wiggling and shaking our hips, trying not to laugh out loud and lose our regulators, our friendly Manta ray sweeps by one last time to wish us farewell. On the surface, we board the boat once more, all talking at once, such is the excitement of yet another great dive in the spectacular Galapagos archipelago.

Would you like to come diving with me? Ask Footprints how.

Footprints Ecuador

  • Footprints Ecuador: Galapagos Scuba Diving Tours
    Footprints Ecuador helps you custom design and plan your trip to Ecuador, inc. Galapagos Cruises, Island Hopping, Scuba Diving, and also travel on the mainland inc. Otavalo, Cotopaxi, Mindo, Quito, Cuenca & more. Go Scuba Diving in the Galapagos!
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Behold the Boobies

Blue-Footed Booby

Blue-Footed Booby

One of the most amazing and wonderful things about Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands is the wildlife. The rich diversity of creatures to be found in the air, on land and in the sea is mind blowing. One of my favorite air critters is the Blue-Footed Booby (Piquero de Patas Azules).

Some interesting facts about Blue-Footed Boobies:

  • Blue-footed boobies are normally found on arid, tropical, and subtropical islands off the Pacific coast of South America (especially in the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador).
  • The Sulidae family includes ten species of long-winged seabirds including the genus Sula, which comprises six species of boobies. Scientific name: Sula nebouxii
  • Subsisting on a diet of fish, these large seabirds can live for around 17 years.
  • They have a wingspan of nearly five feet in length. They weigh 1.5kg.
  • The blue of the webbed feet comes from carotenoid pigments obtained from the diet.
  • Blue-footed boobies use their vibrant blue feet in a showy mating dance ritual.
  • Habitat loss and egg collecting currently threaten the species.
  • Blue-footed boobies have a large, but little known, colony on Mompiche Point.

The mating ritual of the Blue-Footed Booby is a spectacle to behold indeed. The synchronized movements of both birds and the male’s high-stepping strut to show off his blue feet to attract the female is comical and highly entertaining. The bluer the feet, the better. The smaller male birds kiss and peck and clack beaks and whistle, kicking up their feet to show the prospective partner how beautiful and fabulously blue they are. Flaunting his blue feet and spreading his wings, presenting his mate with building materials for the family home, ensures he won’t be left out in the cold.

Blue-Footed Boobies also use their large webbed feet to protect their young and keep them warm. Eggs are laid in nests on the ground. After the brood of one to three chicks hatches, both parents feed and care for their babies. Breeding pairs usually only stay together for about one year then, unable to resist the urge to go dancing once again with their bright blue-suede shoes, they go off and find a different mate. Galapagos is home to about half of the world’s breeding pairs.

Exceptional divers, Blue-Footed Boobies wrap their long wings around their streamlined bodies and plunge into the water like spears from as high as 80 feet (24 meters) to catch small fish. They also dive from sitting positions on the surface of the water. A large flock of diving boobies is an impressive sight as they circle and dive over large schools of anchovies and other small fish, popping up like corks to swallow the catch.

People travel from all over the world to come and see Blue-Footed Boobies in Ecuador – especially visiting Galapagos to find flocks of Sula nebouxii, and observe their weird and wonderful mating ritual. They can also be found on Isla de la Plata, and here in Mompiche.

Would you like to see a colony of Blue-Footed Boobies? Ask Footprints how.

Footprints Ecuador

  • Footprints Ecuador: Galapagos Tours / Coastal Tours
    Footprints Ecuador helps you custom design and plan your trip to Ecuador, inc. Galapagos Cruises, Island Hopping, Scuba Diving, and also travel on the mainland inc. Otavalo, Cotopaxi, Mindo, Quito, Cuenca & more. See the Boobies in Ecuador!
  • “LIKE” Footprints on Facebook
    Footprints offers personal one-on-one consultation to help you plan the trip of a lifetime to Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands with no-fuss itineraries making the most of your time and budget, catering to your specific interests and requirements.