Our adventure to South America didn’t stop with Peru. While we were in that corner of the world we took a week to explore the Galapagos Islands. Our flight into Quito was where we started the Ecuador part of our tour. Ecuador, like Peru, has plenty of beautiful woven handicrafts to offer at every turn, but they claim their chocolate is the best… and I can testify for the warm, creamy version that was served with every breakfast. The Andes Mountains continue up the western sea coast. Ecuador is number three for number of volcanoes, there are 211. Combine that with 15 languages and 17 ½ million people, wearing the “original” panama hat (they claim), this is quite a place to live. Our tour guide told us that florals were the number one export, with the country raising most of the world’s long-stemmed roses. He gave credit to the great number of sunny days and the location near the equator to make the beauties grow straight and strong. We were surprised to learn that Russia imports huge numbers of roses averaging a price of $180 a dozen. The same dozen would bring $80 in the US, and there were locals selling them on every corner there, $5 for 25 roses. The same guide said it’s cheaper to fall in love in Ecuador.

My National Geography idea of what was in Ecuador and especially the Galapagos Islands consists of two things, the giant tortoise and the Blue Footed Booby bird. After that, I planned on being surprised. We joined a lovely cruise ship that was home to around 100 guests. Lucky for us, there were only about 75 cruisers onboard so we had plenty of room to take advantage of the hot tubs, exercise room and lounge area. More and more people are heading to the isles; they have about 300,000 visitors a year. With the increased traffic comes the need to monitor and control the impact on these small islands. Permits are limited. The islands existing in the Pacific Ocean have been declared a National Preserve since 1959. Only a few have any residents on them. The rest are totally natural; no electricity, no buildings, no sidewalks, no docks. They are remains of volcanic activity and the soil and rocks have that pumice look and feel. I expected jungle growth, but I was wrong. Some of the islands barely have trees. I couldn’t help but think if I was shipwrecked and landed on a deserted island… this would be it.

Because it’s a National Preserve, the birds and wildlife have no fear of humans. Sea lions lounge around like teenagers even making similar grunting and grumbling sounds. Some curious ones would venture right up to us for a closer look. We got some fun underwater pictures while snorkeling of one particular nosy guy. He seemed quite happy to swim with us. We tiptoed around ground nests of Blue Footed Boobies and viewed the Red Footed Boobies in their tree nests. Only found here and quite different in how they survive on these rock piles with giant iguanas as neighbors.

The Frigates were a favorite. The large black feathered bird has a long split tail which reminded us of the Oklahoma Scissortail Flycatcher. But these bad boys are the birds you’ve seen on nature programs that have the HUGE, bright red balloon under their beak that they puff out to impress the girls. We must have been there on a Saturday night because the males were really strutting their color!

The big tortoises have been secluded to a sanctuary to help them repopulate. They can live to be 100 or better but they have been over-harvested like other creatures on the planet. Seamen discovered they could keep them alive without food or water while being hauled to Europe to be used for lamp oil. Of course, this no longer happens, but the sanctuary gives the little guys a head start by keeping them safe from birds to pick up and chomp down.

We will probably not be able to enjoy a zoo again after having the opportunity to explore some of these interesting creatures in their natural environment. We loved the passion the guides and naturalists had as they shared our experiences. We should all be so committed to our corners of the world.

Patti Beth Anderson has more than 20 years of experience in the group travel industry taking people all over the world. Her motto is "I return with the same number of people I left with… not necessarily the same people, but the same number nevertheless. So no 'crankpots' allowed" She may be reached at 918-786-3318 or pb@goodtogowithpb.com.