This was to be a truly epic adventure, flying first to Havana Cuba for three days then on to Quito Ecuador for another short stay before finally travelling by boat to the incredible Galapagos Islands.
I had seen this rather unusual holiday offer quite by chance and decided to book without giving myself time to think about it. Flying from Gatwick in early summer, the value for money was excellent but unfortunately the travel company responsible is no longer trading. You can however occasionally find Galapagos Islands packages in the Sunday papers or through a good travel agent.
Touching down in Havana, it was as though we had been transported, not in an aeroplane but in a time machine, travelling backwards to 1950s. The entire island is like a time capsule, mostly due to politics – the communist revolution of 1959 which brought Fidel Castro to power placed the country at odds with the western world and led to decades of isolation and trade embargos.
The first thing I noticed were the cars, models that had long disappeared from British roads are still in daily use in the streets of Havana. The buildings are old, many beautifully Art Decco but a little shabby now. Music rises up from the street corners amid the hustle and bustle of daily life. It was a fascinating environment and we couldn’t wait to explore.
First though to our accommodation. The hotel was set on Marina Hemmingway. The journalist and Nobel Prize winning writer Ernest Hemingway lived in the country for 20 years and is very much a part of the tourist trail. The Marina Hemingway has four long waterways where vessels of all kinds from cargo to fishing boats to yachts mingle.
It was a pleasant place to stay, being so airy especially when the weather was so warm. We were travelling in a very small and diverse group, so we soon bonded, spending time exploring and eating together in interesting local restaurants in the evening.
There was plenty to see and explore. Centuries of history is reflected in the statues, fortresses and castles. The place where Hemingway lived and bars he frequented were also on our list. If you are ever in Havana try a Mojito in the famous La Bodeguita del Medio but take care though they can be strong! And be sure to see the famous Cuban ‘habano’ cigars being hand rolled. You’ll see many colourful older ladies sitting in the street smoking enormous ones.
A must-see for me was Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which has been declared a national monument. Famous, in the pre-revolution era for its glamorous clientele of Hollywood film stars such as Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, and politicians including Winston Churchill, the hotel was also popular with the Mafia fraternity. The hotel is situated on a hill and the terrace offers a magnificent view out to sea. Pop in for a coffee or a cocktail at the bar and absorb the atmosphere of by-gone days – close your eyes and become a part of the scene.
Throughout July and August Havana’s Carnival is celebrated and the terrace of the hotel makes an excellent viewing platform. Although you are looking down on the action it is preferable to being jostled by the crowd and well worth it for the colour and the experience.
All too soon our unique few days in Cuba were over, certainly not long enough, and it was time to fly to Ecuador.
The city of Quito is the capital of Ecuador and was the first city in the world to be named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. At an elevation of 2,850 metres above sea level, it is the second-highest official capital city in the world and the closest to the equator. Nestled among the Andes volcanos the city enjoys a pleasant climate all year round.
The name Quito comes from one of the region’s earliest inhabitants, the Quitua Indians. Like so much of South America the area was brought under Spanish rule in the 16th century by the Spanish conquistadors. Sadly, Quito has no Inca structures left, in their place the Spanish built churches, convents and palaces in the baroque style.
Ecuador certainly has a diverse ecosystem and rich heritage. Apart from being in easy reach of the Galapagos Islands, there is the Amazon, and the Andes. There are also pre-Inca sites and colonial architecture to explore.
On this stop our hotel was part of a large worldwide chain and while it was very nice, personally I would have preferred something a little more authentic and in keeping with the setting. It was well placed however for exploring the city and for all the amenities.
There is so much to see in Quito that you’ll need time to explore. Wandering along the narrow streets in the old town a visit to the ornate and intricate church of La Compania is a must. It is a masterpiece of baroque and Quito colonial art. Nearby there’s a museum with a fascinating collection of historical documents, clothing, furniture and weaponry. The city has a selection of modern shops and restaurants but a trip to an out-of-town indigenous market offers a more authentic experience. Here you feel immersed in the local culture. The smells of the traditional cuisine and colour of the national clothing are wonderful. This is also the place to bargain and buy local gifts. The indigenous people have wonderful smiles and dispositions. We felt safe at all times but of course, as with all holidays, you have to take sensible precautions.
One memorable evening we had dinner at a “rancho”. This was an ideal place to experience the region’s customs and culture. We enjoyed the local band and a wonderful meal with everyone in local dress it felt as though we were a part of Ecuadorian life.
Another much shorter flight took us to the place where we would board a small but comfortable boat for our journey to the Galapagos. This vessel was to be our home while we explored the islands. The cabins were pleasant, and the meals excellent and the sea on which we sailed was so calm that no one experienced any problems with sickness.
“Seeing every height crowned with its crater, and the boundaries of most of the lava streams still distinct, we are led to believe that within a period geologically recent, the unbroken ocean was here spread out. Hence, both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to the great fact, that mystery of mysteries -the first appearance of new beings on this earth.” CHARLES DARWIN.
The Galapagos Islands are set in the Pacific Ocean. There are thirteen major islands and six small ones; all are volcanic in origin. The climate is either “hot season” or “wet season” and so clothes-wise be prepared for both hot or wet conditions (a bit like British summertime!) and sensible shoes are a must for the rugged terrain. On landing we were given a cloth bag for our things. Litter of any kind must be kept off the islands – as well as dirt from the soles of shoes. Introduction of any disease could be disastrous for the islands ecology. Only experienced local guides are allowed to take tours onto the islands.
Most people go to the Galapagos to observe the animals, and it was probably among the most exciting things I have done. I felt like a child on her first visit to the zoo, albeit an open one. The wildlife is totally indifferent to visitors as there are no natural predators on the islands. Large marine iguanas will stare defiantly at you as they laze in the sun, making no attempt to move. I marvelled at a tortoise so large that it bore no relevance to the one I had as a child. Frigate birds, albatrosses, blue-footed boobies and equatorial penguins wander in your path, taking no notice. Baby sea lions perform as though no one else matters and their only interest is to entertain themselves. A beach that appeared red-orange turned out to be full of red-orange crabs.
The Charles Darwin Foundation which was established in 1959, under the auspices of UNESCO and the World Conservation Union works to preserve the beauty and integrity of the Galapagos in conjunction with its chief partner, the Galapagos National Park Service , which functions as the principal government authority in charge of conservation issues in the Galapagos.
Now with the high number of tourists visiting every year the wildlife and vegetation are at risk. Those in charge want to do something about it but to date no new restrictions have been introduced. Limiting the level of visitors is essentially to preserve the islands, however a level of controlled tourism would still allow visitors like myself and future generations to enjoy this incredible and magical place.
Written by Greysnet member Margaret Patten.