The trip of a lifetime: San Cristóbal Island won my heart

A quick note: I wrote this post day by day, so I had no idea that my week would change so drastically. I’m also writing on mobile, so excuse the formatting and I’ll edit it all when I get home.

When you think of South America, what do you see? Is it the infamous danger of the cities, the drugged and violent history, the corruption and the poverty? Or is it white sand beaches with bright blue water? Traveller-friendly bars and hostels dotting the streets? Brilliant hikes through lush vegetation?

When I decided on South America as my gap year travel destination, I did, understandably, receive a few worried responses. But, I assured everyone, this trip is fully planned in advance (more or less) and I’ll be with people all the time. Truthfully, I didn’t even know what to expect myself. From the big things – what will the people be like; will I enjoy what I’m doing – to the small – what does a town in Ecuador actually look like? I had no idea what to expect.

A street in Quito

And after less than a week in Ecuador I will say that I am fully prepared to defend this country and it’s people to the hills. I’ve never been to the states, but it struck me how (understandably) similar some things are her, road signs and Chevy trucks especially.

I arrived on Friday evening in Quito, nervous and tired. The hostel was the loveliest place ever, although to my shame I didn’t try out their restaurant. Granted, I didn’t feel as safe there, but, like any big city, one must be cautious. I went for a little explore on Saturday morning and sat for a while in the public park there, before returning to my hostel to get my things in order for a trip to the middle of the world.

The view at Ciudad Mitad del Mundo

Interestingly, Ciudad Mitad del Mundo does not actually lie on the equator. New readings front the World Geodetic System suggest that the marked line is about 240m south of the actual equator. Nonetheless, a bus trip with a guide explaining the city to us followed by a couple of hours at this attraction was great fun. I learned early on not to assume that I’d find other English people, as despite the different nationalities on this tour, they were all native Spanish speakers and I had to work really hard to keep up. The attraction itself is a purpose-built to show the traditional life in Ecuador. There are museums, a planetarium, the central monument with panoramic views and numerous souvenir shops and cafes.

Panoramic views of Ciudad Mitad del Mundo

The next day I was in a taxi bright and early to Quito airport, which is a strange little place. The flight from Quito to San Cristóbal usually goes to Guayaquil first, where we sat in the plane for 40 minutes. I was sat next to a lovely couple from San Francisco and we ended up chatting about everything from the weather in Quito to mental health services. Travelling, eh?

I arrived at the volunteer house around lunchtime and was introduced to the programme by Iván. I planned to chill out for a bit then head into the town to explore, but it started raining pretty heavily so I stayed in for a while. Then one of the other volunteers arrived, a guy called Abe from Holland, and we went together. Walking round the island I was amazed by how quiet it was – where were all the tourists from the plane? Where he they disappeared to? Given that Abe and I arrived on different flights that makes two Boeing-loads of people who had somehow vanished in a town with a population of 6000 people.

Sea lions everywhere

The other thing we noticed – very early on – was the crazy number of sea lions……everywhere. On the beach, on the pavement, on the pier, on benches…eventually you get used to stepping around them. We got lunch in a lovely place overlooking the sea, which led us to our third observation: everything is more expensive here. This is due to the price of importing products from the mainland, but wow, I wasn’t expecting that. I wrongly assumed that everything in South America would be cheap, although saying that, the taxis in San Cristobal are. A $2 taxi ride almost – almost – makes up for a $6 beer.

The next day was day one of volunteer work. We hadn’t met the other two volunteers yet, as they were visiting Santa Cruz, one of the other islands, for the weekend. They returned on Monday morning just as the volunteer coordinator, Christian, was introducing himself to us. So once we piled into Alex the driver’s truck, we were Fizz, Abe, Anja from Norway and Sander from Belgium. People could never figure out why we were all from different places when we introduced ourselves.

Our job was to help Christian turn a piece of wild land into a community centre, with a garden and a research station. He’s calling it the Lab of Life. The owners of the land originally wanted to make a centre to hold classes for music and yoga and the likes, but he pointed out that it was hard enough to get children on the island to attend classes a few blocks away. No one would pay $40 for a taxi into the wilderness for yoga.

So, a garden it is. We spent two days clearing out invasive species and digging up rocks to make pathways through the garden while Cristian planted endemic bushes and papaya trees. He has tons of plans for the place. We used the dug up plants to even out dips in the ground in some places, compacting the mess into ramps with a few spadefuls of soil on top.

Working through the morning leaves the afternoon free for a well-needed shower and rehydration, some lunch and then our own time. On Monday, Abe and I went for a hike called Las Tijeretas which leads to a viewpoint over one of the beaches. Between stopping every few minutes to take photos and, we suspect, going a bit further than the intended path, we ended up walking for a nice 3 hours. It was getting dark by the time we got back so we headed straight to a restaurant in all of our sweaty hiker glory.

After working on Tuesday, and having asked for Wednesday off, we went straight to one of the many diving companies in the town and booked ourselves onto a boat trip around the island – the 360° tour. So, with pockets $150 lighter, we went to try one of Sander’s favourite places for a cheap burger (which was really good) then headed to the beach for the afternoon. Despite the heat, it isn’t actually “summer” in Ecuador – in fact, they barely have seasons apart from the rainy season and the dry season. So, the sun sets a lot earlier than you might expect if you’re used to heat = long summer days. We watched the spectacular sunset at around 6:30 and hung around just long enough for the mosquitoes to appear, then went on a “supermarket crawl” for dinner.

Side note, I have to try really hard not to call dinner “tea” which already confuses some English people, and utterly baffles people speaking English as a second language. I had to assure them that I do not drink leaf water for my evening meal. Although on occasion I wished I’d brought a few bags of Yorkshire tea. Had a similar issue with catching myself every time I wanted to call our boots “wellies”.

The supermarkets are somewhat limited here, but after about 4 shops we eventually had the ingredients for tacos – although no avocados, much to Abe’s dismay. We put together a killer meal with limited resources and boy was it good food.

Wednesday was an early start as we had to be at the dive shop for 7am. Anja got chatting to a Brazilian guy at the beach the previous day and we’d told him about the boat tour but, not knowing his number (or even his name) we weren’t sure if he’d make it. Lo and behold, there he was…being ushered into a different boat. Sorry, Brazilian guy. We hope you had a great day regardless.

The 360° was great – especially our guide who was hilarious even in broken English. The people were really interesting too – a couple from Argentina, a couple from England, the four of us, and an American lady. We headed straight to “Kicker Rock” – so-called because it looks like a foot kicking, but I don’t see it – and snorkelled there for about an hour. Seeing a sea lion suspended under the surface of the water – definitely posing for us – was incredible and, from a distance, a hammerhead shark and a Galapagos shark. Apart from that, the view above the water was actually more spectacular than the one underneath. Floating in the current between two massive rocks and looking up at the crack of sky between them…wow.

Back on the boat, we were well fed, with empanadas and pineapple slices as we sped on to our next locations. We visited and chilled out at beaches while the guide showed us the wildlife of the island. I could easily spend a day just sat on a boat, without doing anything else. Next stop was Bahia Rosa Blanca for a bit of beach cleaning and then more snorkelling. By this time the sun was directly overhead and it was a huge relief to get into the water. Visibility was better here and we saw a ray and some turtles. The best moment was seeing a turtle surface literally right in front of us and getting to watch up close as it floated just under the surface was incredible.

Wednesday night would be Anja’s last with all of us, as she had booked onto a cruise for a few days. Although she’s coming back to the house afterwards to continue volunteering, Sander and I would be gone before then. We went out to a rather upmarket restaurant on the sea front together and had a lovely meal, then walked back slowly to watch the sea lions. It’s easy to lose hours of time there just watching them play in the waves.

On Thursday our work was slightly different. We were dropped off at a farm which also doubles as a kind of kindergarten for local kids. The 3 of us were ferrying gravel around to build a walkway next to the farmhouse, which was under a newly-constructed roof to double as a storage space for equipment during the rainy season. The farm harvests coffee and bananas amongst other plants, and they gave us plenty of bananas to go home with.

Thursday afternoon was a lazy visit to the interpretation centre followed by a slow amble back through town. The interpretation centre is a free museum about the history of the island; the tectonic theory behind the formation of the archipelago and the various attempts to colonise it. Well worth a visit because I was surprised to learn just how recent life on the islands is! There have been many failed attempt to colonise them and even as recently at 1950 life here was very dangerous and unstable.

The atmosphere amongst the 3 of us was quite contemplative with news of the coronavirus filtering through to us. I’ve been half keeping up with the news but not really. We compared stories that we’ve heard about the situation back home and mused on how weird it is that we were sat on a tranquil beach in literal paradise when, at gome, thousands of miles away, pandemonium seems to have hit. At the time it was easy to plan what we’d do if we were stuck out here, only half joking. Sander would go to Yanacocha. I’d go to Costa Rica. Abe wants to do Colombia. We thought about the practicalities of living out a pandemic on an island and figured that our chances were pretty good. That night we ate huge burgers in an American style place. I was so tired I fell asleep in my clothes and didn’t wake up until I heard the boys start getting ready the next morning.

La Loberia beach

Friday was snorkelling. Christian picked us up and took us to La Lobería beach, but not before briefing us on the kinds of sea life we might see. The beach was incredible. I was really sad it was the first time I’d been there. We saw all sorts of fish, such as yellow-tailed surgeonfish, sergeant major fish and parrot fish, which were incredible to look at. I often got so distracted by one that I’d follow it for ten minutes. There were also two sea lions play fighting which was awesome to watch, but also scary because they move so quickly. We saw plenty of turtles here, including probably the biggest one I’ve ever seen. Turns out if they look directly at you they can be very intimidating!!

Once home, Abe packed his things and left for his ferry to Santa Cruz where he’s spending the weekend. So it fell to the remaining two of us to plan the afternoon. What better way to spend Sander’s last day? We went right back to the same beach. Taxis are cheap here so we bundled our stuff back together, hailed a cab and set up camp in the same place, a few hours after we had just been there. The waves were much stronger and Sander tried snorkelling but couldn’t see much. So, like children, we played in the waves as they tossed us around and watched the sun set over the water. It was by far my favourite day. We found a pizza restaurant for tea then wandered along the sea front, and had a beer on the pier.

On a normal day it’s easy to lose an hour just watching the sea lions playing, but that night we managed to lose about 3. I know Sander was stalling because it was his last night and he didn’t want to leave. And I was stalling too, because after he left it would just be me. So we dragged the night out as long as possible, even stopping at the dark beach on the way home.

On Saturday morning I walked Sander to the taxi, and just like that, I was on my own again. Determined not to waste my last day, I returned to the house for some money and water and then hailed a taxi to do the highland tour. “Tour” isn’t the best word here: this isn’t a guided tour, but rather a route that all taxi drivers know. For $60 you can visit Laguna Junco, a freshwater lake formed in a volcano crater, La Galapagera turtle breeding centre, and Puerto Chino beach with its fine white sands. I was really proud of myself for doing this alone, although it would have been better (and cheaper) with company. Still, I wouldn’t have been happy leaving the island without seeing those places.

I didn’t want to spend my last night alone, and luckily another volunteer arrived just as I was on the phone to my mum. Sander had rang upon arriving in Quito to update me about the travel situation and I had to be open to the possibility of changing my plans. This girl, Kris, is from Denmark and I showed her round the house and the town then we ate dinner. I vividly remember the first sea lion she saw, lying on a bench as we walked into town. I hadn’t even noticed it, and it was a really amusing moment. Perhaps earlier in the week I’d have warned her, but it didn’t even cross my mind after only a week there!

Once again I stayed up late, this time sat on the balcony upstairs listening to the neighbours’ incredibly loud TV.

I expected to finish this post with “I’m posting this from my hostel in Lima” or something similar…but that was not to be. After a flurry of phone calls this morning I’ve made the decision to fly home and managed to get onto a flight to Manchester on Monday evening. So, I’m sat in a hotel room next to Guayaquil airport instead. It’s certainly comfortable, and the WiFi is faster, but it’s absolutely heart wrenching to cut my trip short. I should be grateful that I made it abroad for even a week, as some people haven’t managed that, but I feel like I’ve been given a glimpse of life in South America and fully embraced it, only to have it snatched away from me. I cried pathetically the whole flight to the mainland and considered just hiding out in my room for 24 hours, venturing out perhaps to use the gym. But no, the gym is closed to stop the spread of coronavirus, and that would be a waste of a last day.

It’s a shame that the week ended like this, but I’ve had the most perfect week in San Cristóbal. I miss the people already. I know I’ll be returning as soon as I possibly can.

I’ve been trying to keep up with everyone’s status via instagram and Twitter. It’s a scary time for us travellers! If you’ve been affected by the outbreak then I hope you’re safe and wish you the best of luck in getting home – do let me know!

Until next time, Ecuador ♥️

Published by On The Fly Blog

Student and lifestyle blog based in North Yorkshire, UK

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