November 10, 2014: Santiago and Rabida Islands
November 8, 2014: Celebrity Bus Tour of Quito
Return to the Index for 2014


November 9, 2014
The J.W. Marriott in Quito
Flying to the Galapagos Islands


 

Today, we begin the cruise portion of the vacation by flying to Baltra, in the Galapagos Islands, and then transferring by Zodiac out to the Celebrity Xpedition. Before we leave Quito, though, we'll take a look at our accommodations at the J.W. Marriott.

 

The J.W. Marriott in Quito

Our first night in Quito was at the Holiday Inn; for our second two nights, we moved to the J.W. Marriott, a block away catty-corner across Orellana Avenue. Our stay there was part of the cruise package.


The J.W. Marriott

The main feature of the hotel is its multi-story atrium; this atrium, roofed by glass panels, was bright and airy, and provided comfortable seating areas, particularly when we were waiting for some tour bus or airport transfer.

Off to one side, there was a pub/restaurant and an entry to the other wings of the hotel and the shopping arcade. At the back of the lobby, was the stairway that led down to the indoor water features. This was an area that had a multi-level waterfall and artificial stream. There were little balconies that overlooked the water, and at the bottom were the entry doors out to the two swimming pools, as well as the informal restaurant where we were provided breakfast. From one of these balconies, I took a picture of Fred at the waterfall.

As far as our room was concerned, it was typical for an upscale hotel chain. We had two beds, a large marble bathroom with a jacuzzi tub and separate shower, plus a desk, easy chair and the other accoutrements common to such rooms. You can have a look at our room here.

I made two movies here in the J.W. Marriott, and you can use the players below to watch them:

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The Atrium at the J.W. Marriott
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Water Features in the Marriott Lobby

Fairly early on the morning of November 9th, the buses rolled up to take all of us out to the new Quito airport for our flight out to the Galapagos.

 

Flying to the Galapagos Islands

We left the hotel early on November 9th for our ride to the airport.

 

The Trip to Mariscal International Airport

The trip out to the airport from downtown Quito can follow one of two routes, and at one time or another, we traveled each of them.


On the map at left, you can see the route that we followed when Fred and I first arrived two days ago, and the route that today's airport transfer took.

It involves climbing out of the valley in which Quito is separated, heading north. Outside the city, it picks up a totally new highway that was built when the airport was constructed.

The other route heads more east out of the city, and then turns around to the north to come up to the airport from the south. This route is a bit longer, and it is much more congested, which is probably why the new route was constructed. And it is not nearly as scenic.

On the route we took on the way out of Quito, there were numerous opportunities for photographs out the windows of the bus, and both Fred and I took a number of pictures.


Click on the thumbnail images below to see some of Fred's pictures taken as we headed out of the city:

I waited until we were above and almost outside the city to get some views from high up and from the beginning of the new highway to the airport. Click on the thumbnail images below to see a few of my pictures:


Leaving the city we reached the entrance to the new portion of the highway. As it turns out, it is a toll road, so our bus had to pass through a set of toll booths.


As you can see from the aerial view at left, the new highway passes through a totally uninhabited landscape. The reason the area is not built up is that the ravines and mountainsides are so steep and so unstable that building there is impractical. In fact, we saw an incredible amount of hillside stabilization, which had to be done to keep the highway clear as the bare hillsides are prone to landslides.

Basically, once you cross the crest of the mountains that form the border of the valley in which Quito is located, then the new highway snakes down one side of a range of hills (there are three such ranges between the city and the airport; the airport is atop the third one) and crosses a really neat bridge. It then climbs the west side of the second ridge and then crosses the end of the ravine between the second and third ridges to finish its climb up the third ridge to the new airport.

I went to the very back of the bus (which wasn't full) and sat on the back seat looking out the rear window to take my pictures and movies. Fred just took his out the window of the bus where he was sitting.

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I made a movie out the back window as we were climbing the last ridges to the airport, and while it might not be a cinematic masterpiece, you can use the player at right to watch it.

The scenery along this new road was interesting; it retrospect, it's because there was absolutely no sign of civilization- except for the road itself, of course. So we took quite a few pictures without knowing quite why. I've narrowed them down to just a few, even though they are still a bit repetitive. Click on the thumbnail images below to have a look:


The bus climbed the last ridge and came around onto the top of the flatland where the new Mariscal International airport has been built. As we came around the circle and into the airport proper, we passed an interesting sculpture. The bus let us off at the departures building, and for once it was nice to have someone else shepherding us through the terminal and to the correct gate; we didn't have to do anything but go where we were directed. I did note one interesting thing when we went through security (notably more lax than in the United States). Most places, when something is found in luggage that can't be carried onboard, security personnel discard it out of sight; here, however, these items are dropped into a transparent bin, and the result is almost a work of art.

We got to the gate, waited about an hour and then boarded our flight.

 

The Flight to the Galapagos Islands

Our flight was considerably late- about two hours; it is actually a charter that the various cruises use to get people out to the islands. Some problem on an earlier trip had pushed the schedule out of whack.


The Galapagos Islands are a bit more than 600 miles from the South American mainland, and so our flight took a little over two hours.

There wasn't much to do on the flight, although they did serve lunch.

Fred took a number of pictures during the flight. Until we descended for our landing, though, the islands just appeared as pretty featureless blobs on most of the photos. You can click on the thumbnail images below to see the best of the many pictures that Fred took before we actually landed on Baltra:

 

On Baltra Island

Everyone who comes to the Galapagos Islands by air lands on either Baltra or at the new airport on San Cristóbal, but it is still the only airport with overnight facilities for planes.


Baltra Island is also known as South Seymour Island (named after Lord Hugh Seymour) and is a small flat island located near the center of the Galápagos. It was created by geological uplift. The island is very arid and vegetation consists of salt bushes, prickly pear cactus and palo santo trees.

During World War II Baltra was established as a United States Army Air Force base. Crews stationed at Baltra patrolled the eastern Pacific for enemy submarines and provided protection for the Panama Canal. After the war the facilities were given to the government of Ecuador.

Today the island continues as an official Ecuadorian military base. The foundations of buildings and other remains of the US base including the old airfield can still be seen on the island.


Constructions for this larger, modernized airport began in 2011, and as of early 2013 it has started operation and the old buildings are being dismantled. The new airport is being run under a 15-year concession by ECOGAL, a subsidiary of an Argentinian corporate group. This explains the name on the side of our plane. The airport is promoted as "the first ecological airport worldwide" due to its reduced energy consumption for lighting and ventilation, rainwater recovery, waste recycling etc.

Baltra is currently not within the boundaries of the Galapagos National Park. The Galapagos Land Iguana is the subject of an active re-introduction campaign on the island; it became extinct on Baltra in 1954. However, in the early 1930s, Captain G. Allan Hancock had translocated a population of Galapagos Land Iguanas from Baltra to North Seymour Island, a smaller island just a few hundred metres north of Baltra. The iguanas survived and became the breeding stock for the successful Charles Darwin Research Station captive breeding program. During the 1980s iguanas from North Seymour were brought to the Darwin Research Station as part of this project and in the 1990s land iguanas were reintroduced to Baltra.

As of 1997 scientists counted 97 iguanas living on Baltra, 13 of which were born on the islands. Currently it is not uncommon to see iguanas either crossing the main road or on the runway at the airport.

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When we got off the plane, we found that a large group was ahead of us to go through the entry procedure, so we hung back a bit and took some photographs to let the bulk of the folks go on ahead. I began by making a short movie. On playing it, I found that the wind noise was excessive, so since it is pretty obvious what the movie covers, I have eliminated the audio. You can use the player at right to watch this movie.

You can click on the thumbnail images below to see some of the pictures we took out here on the apron and also inside the building as we were going through our entry procedure (not customs, since we are still in Ecuador, but just a check to make sure we had our Galapagos entry tickets and so we could get our passports stamped).


On arriving into Baltra, all visitors are transported by bus to one of two docks. The first dock is located in a small bay where the boats cruising the Galápagos await passengers. The second is a ferry dock which connects Baltra to the island of Santa Cruz via the Itabaca Channel.


On the map at left you can see the location of both of these docks. We passed through the checkpoints and then went out front to the waiting buses, and left the airport heading north.


We knew what to expect, since we'd had an orientation to our arrival procedures the day before at the hotel in Quito, so we just enjoyed the bus ride the mile or two to the cruise boat dock.


The ride took only about five minutes and we were let off at the cruise ship dock. I must say that what with all the cruises we have been on, I was a little surprised by what we found at the dock, although if I'd thought about it, I would have realized that the little inflatable Zodiacs wouldn't need anything elaborate.


What we found was a small concrete pier extending out maybe ten feet into the bay. It was about 20 feet by forty feet, and bare save for a ladder at the end. When we got off the bus, ship's crew were handing out life jackets (a requirement, we learned, whenever one is traveling in one of the Zodiacs).

 

Getting Aboard the Celebrity Xpedition

Once we all had a life jacket on, we milled about for a bit waiting for the folks ahead of us to take the Zodiacs out to the ship. Each inflatable carries 16 people, so for all of us it required six or seven boatloads.


Looking at the Zodiacs, I was glad that the cruise line had taken care of getting our luggate from the Marriott all the way onto the ship and into our staterooms; trying to lug anything really big into a Zodiac would have been difficult for us, and nearly impossible for many of the folks taking the cruise. All we had was our hand luggage, and we had to be careful enough with that.

While we were waiting our turn, we each snapped a few pictures, like this one Fred took of me waiting on the dock. We had already begun to see wildlife, and were taking a few pictures (although we didn't know just yet what, exactly, we were looking at). We learned later that the birds flying overhead were frigate birds- quite common in the islands. Fred also took a picture of one of the Zodiacs leaving the dock on its way out to the Xpedition, which was anchored about two or three miles away. In the background of that shot, you can see the much larger island of Santa Cruz, immediately south of Baltra across the Itabaca Channel.

For my part, I was trying to watch what was going on so that when it came our turn to board a Zodiac, I wouldn't sppear to be a total idiot. When we got near to the head of the line, I took a picture of the group just ahead of us boarding a Zodiac.


Then we boarded our own Zodiac and we were off to the ship. We quickly learned the procedure for using one of the Zodiacs. Any time we used one to go ashore or back to the ship, one of the naturalists would accompany us; there were ten of them aboard the Xpedition. They are experienced and knowledgeable guides who are certified to take groups onto the various islands. It wasn't always the same guide, of course; who you got depended on which boat you got on. I supposed that during the week we had a turn with most of them, and of course by the luck of the draw got the same one over again.

The Zodiac itself had a pilot who knew the routes and coordinated with the ship for the excursions. I think there were six Zodiac boats on the Xpedition, although I could be off by a boat or so. The pilots rarely talked much, unless they saw something that the naturalist didn't. But they were all quite experienced and we never had any problem in the 25 or so trips we took in the Zodiacs.

On this particular trip, the naturalist talked about the frigate birds and about some of the animals we would see, but mostly talked about the procedure for getting on and off the inflatables. On this cruise, we were much closer to actual boating than when we were on the huge ships with thousands of people. No gangways here; no large docks either. To get onto the Xpedition, the Zodiac you were in would just nose right up to the stern of the ship and the pilot would run the outboard to keep the nose of the Zodiac agains the ship. You'd then walk up to the front, go up the little ladder and, while locking arms with one of the crew standing on the ship, step once on the nose of the Zodiac and then onto the ship. We saw this procedure being done by the boat ahead of us, so we knew just what to do and had no problem- ever.

On this, our first Zodiac ride, I took most of the pictures- of our group, of Fred, of a couple of the very small Galapagos Islands, of our ship as we approached, and a series of the docking procedure. You can click on the thumbnail images below to see some of these pictures:

I took a number of little movies on the way to the ship, only two of which are worth watching. The first is just a bit of our naturalist talking with us during the ride, and the second is a movie of the Zodiac ahead of us unloading its passengers onto the ship. You can watch these movies using the players below:

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Aboard the Zodiac
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Docking at the Celebrity Xpedition

monica I mentioned earlier that our flight was late, and so we were all late getting aboard the Xpedition. We were actually supposed to have a late lunch aboard ship, but since it was already 4PM, we just had some of the snacks set out for us in the lounge- the main gathering area on the ship. We will take a tour of the ship later, but for now, we all just made sure our stuff was in our staterooms and then came back to the lounge to starting taking advantage of the "all-inclusiveness" of this cruise- the first one we've been on where all the drinks (and everything else) was included. Fred had wine and I started on the first of the ship's bottles of Bailey's Irish Cream.

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We took a few pictures while relaxing in the lounge; click on the thumbnail images below to see a few of them:

Before dinner, the cruise director, Monica, gave us a presentation in the lounge, going over some of the procedures, talking about what we would do tomorrow, and giving us some admonitions against taking souvenirs off the islands. I made a short movie of part of her talk, and you can use the player at left to watch it.

We went back to our stateroom to unpack and get ready for dinner, which if I recall was about eight in the evening.


Dinner was delicious (more about the dining onboard later), and afterwards Fred and I did some walking about the ship. We took just a few pictures, and you can click on the thumbnail images at right to see them.

By this time it was well after ten, and we'd had a long day. I still had the wi-fi to figure out and we had a daily email to our friends to prepare, so we headed back to our stateroom. Tomorrow, we'll make our first excursions from the ship. We are looking forward to them!

You can use the links below to continue to another photo album page.



November 10, 2014: Santiago and Rabida Islands
November 8, 2014: Celebrity Bus Tour of Quito
Return to the Index for 2014