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The amazing story of our trip to Ecuador in 2013.

Text and pictures by Herbert Eisengruber
please read the
Copyright notices, that I gathered here.

Index for quick navigation:
The Amazon
The Shipwreck


After my father died in June 2013, my wife and I wanted to do something special to get our minds of things. After many trips that had a focused on PaleoSeti research we thought it would be fun to do something different. My wife worked in biological research all her life so her dream was always to see the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador were Charles Darwin developed his theory of evolution. The Galapagos Islands are a rather expensive place to go and therefore was always not on top of our list of places. 

But we both work hard and have decent paying jobs and we thought we can treat our self to something different. The trip should not be completely “PaleoSeti free” of course, as I always wanted to visit Cuenca and the (in)famous collection of ancient items from the collection of pater Crespi.

Little did we know that this trip would be one of the most traumatic experiences of our lives.

Main focus should be the amazing nature of the Galapagos Islands. We booked a tour online with a well respected Australian tour operator. Five days on a Cruise ship among the Galapagos Islands during our three week trip to Ecuador. Another potential goal was the Amazon and the jungle in the Ecuadorian lowlands. 


We arrived in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, on 25. September in the middle of the night. It seems that most of the flights from North to South America arrive around midnight, which makes it never easy if you don’t know your way around. Quito just got a brand new airport. The problem with this new airport is that the Ecuadorian government just built but forgot to put the necessary infrastructure around to support it. There is no highway leading to it nor are there hotels nearby. The closest hotel we could find online was “just around the corner” as the website stated, but in reality a 20 minute drive. Without headlights on, of course, this seems to be an unwritten rule in South America. 

Next morning the elderly gentleman drives us back to the airport, he doesn’t understand that we want to go to Quito. Either he doesn’t want to understand or he is not the brightest fellow we have ever met. But no problem we can take a taxi from the airport which we do. The 20 km taxi ride from the Quito international (!) airport to downtown Quito is probably the most convoluted taxi ride to/from and airport in the world. The drivers have to take back roads and a tiny bridge which is congested with traffic most of the time.
We booked a Hotel online right in the historic city center of the city. Quito is proud of the fact that its historic old town was one of the first dedicated Unesco World Heritage Sites. It’s Sunday and we learn from the Taxi driver that the old city is closed for car and only open for bicycles. I bet that’s a first and only in South America.
The first impression of Ecuador is that it is better developed as Peru. The city looks more “Western”, when we see many big malls and shopping centers. Ecuador abandoned their currency some years ago in favor of the US$. To be honest that scares me a little as those countries have a tendency to be more expensive. The Taxi ride from the airport to Quito proves this, it’s $20, way more as we would have paid in Peru.  

We are getting out in a little side street and have to walk a couple of city blocks to our hotel “San Francisco”. The hotel couldn’t be nicer and more central. It’s absolutely beautiful in an old colonial building. 

Our hotel is a wonderful colonial building in the heart of Quito. On its roof top terrace we have a great view.

The historic old town is just a walk away. The next two days we explore Quito. It turns out that Quito is a bit of a mixed bag. We love the historic old town, it’s full of life and has a positive feel to it, the architecture and culture is absolutely beautiful and definitely worth seeing.  

Quito's plaza San Franzisco.

The new bits of town like the “Madrigal” where many of the tourist are and travel guides say “it’s happening”, we find tacky, dirty and sleazy. It reminds me of tourist Mekka’s a la Cancun and Mallorca. The only place in the world where this kind of stuff is actually charming, is Las Vegas. The rest of the city is also nothing to write home about. We make a short trip north of the city to the ‘Mitat del Mundo’ – the middle of the earth, the site where the equator devides the northern and southern hemispheres in equal parts. The site is basically just a monument, with a few tacky tourist attractions around it, but it’s fun to get a photo while standing on the Equator.

Beth standing right on the Equator.

We decide to stay in the historic part of town which seems like a completely different world. But this makes up for everything. Beautiful buildings, monasteries, great little shops, tugged away in walkways and catacombs, fantastic restaurants and lot’s of history to explore. There are two Museums here that I have never heard about before, but house fantastic collections. One is the National Museum of Ecuador, the other is the privately owned “Casa del Albada”, one of the most tastefully presented collections we have seen in a long time.

At the end of day two we decide to book an Amazon jungle tour. It’s shoulder season and it shouldn’t be a problem to book something like that in Quito. We have a place in mind, a jungle lodge run by a Swiss company (you know that the Swiss are known for their ‘jungle fever’) and highly recommended online.

During our last visits in Peru and Bolivia we found that public transportation and local booking of tours etc. is a breeze. Somehow we think that would be the same in Ecuador. How wrong we are! The travel guide describes the Madrigal as the area where tours are offered in abundance. When we get there, everything is either closed for the season or the travel agencies moved out completely. But we find one that is actually open. The girl that works in there speaks great English, but unfortunately that is her only helpful trait.
She can book a jungle tour she says but not right now, she needs at least two weeks notice. Not at all what we experienced in Peru and Bolivia were everything works and problems get solved in the moment. After I show her the lodge we want to go to on her computer, I can convince her to give them a call and see if there is a chance to get us there. “No, the lodge is fully booked”, she says after she get’s off the phone. She doesn’t have an alternative despite the fact that our travel guide lists several lodges in the area and we can feel that she doesn’t really want to deal with us.

We find another travel agency and the guy that helps us there is a bit more knowledgeable. He also says the lodge we want to go to is fully booked. He recommends an alternative. Deep in the jungle near the Colombian border is a lodge, where the jungle is still as it should be and kidnappings by local guerilla groups rarely happen. Wait a minute! Rarely happen? That does not sound promising. We are certainly adventurous, but six month in the jungle kidnapped by a Colombian guerilla group and fingernails pulled off does not sound like time well spent. Although it rarely happens…

We are disappointed about the lack of enthusiasm from the local tour agencies to get us to the Amazon. It can’t be that difficult. Or were we just spoiled in Peru? We are going back to the hotel and see if we can arrange something over the Internet. We find an interesting lodge, run by a local tribe. The website says, the lodge is completely run by locals and proceeds support the local community. The project is also a school to provide local youth to get experience in the tourism and hotel business. They have a office in Quito. We decide to go there and see if we can go to book something directly without going through a travel agent.

This time we have more success. The lady that deals with us is very friendly and helpful. The lodge has openings and we get a good deal as they just renovated and rebuilt the place. Not everything is a 100% done she says, but they are open for business. To get to the lodge is a bit of an adventure, first we have to take the bus to Tena - that’s Ecuadors gateway town to the Amazon - then take a bus to little river village and from there we have to take a canoe upriver to the lodge. She says it’s important to arrive on time, as the canoe can’t drive in darkness, that’s too dangerous.

The Amazon

Next morning we are on the bus to Tena. We are excited. The trip sounds like it’s going to be a real adventure. We find another seemingly small difference to Peru: The buses in Ecuador don’t have washrooms, which can be a big deal on a 5 hour bus ride! The result of this is that after 2 three hours, the bus stops pretty much every 20 minutes for somebody else. We are worried that we won’t get to Tena in time to catch the next bus that brings us to our canoe.

When we arrive in Tena we find out what chaos really means. The main bus station is filthy and the most chaotic, unorganized place I’ve ever come a crossed. Wait! One place in South Africa was just as bad.

Despite our best efforts we can’t find the bus that our “tour lady” told us in Quito. We find out later that the reason for this is not just the chaos, it’s the wrong information that the lady gave us. There is no bus at this time at all to where we want to go.
We have no choice but to enter what we believe is a Taxi who’s driver offers us to drive the 120km we have to go. I know he will rip us off money wise, it’s just a matter how much. We will see when we get there.
The bus had a delay and the 120 km have to be made in about 1.5 hours. The driver puts the pedal to the medal. We are going way to fast, 100km/h on jungle dirt tracks are not really a save option. I just close my eyes and hope for the best.
As expected the driver charges way too much for the trip for South American standards. We don’t care, at least we are here. I’m sure he will stop working for the next three month because he found stupid tourists that actually paid what he asked. Whatever, I’m sure “Karma” will set him straight further down the road. Literally.

We are now standing in a tiny village right on the Napo river that is a part of the mighty Amazon. Wow! We are here. The canoe is still here as well. They were waiting for our arrival, the Taxi driver called ahead on his cell phone. In situations like these I don’t know what to think about cell phones (handys for our German readership). It seems that cell phone coverage is pretty much everywhere in the world now. Even here in a very remote corner of the Amazon. It’s certainly a blessing for the locals that can communicate with friends and family like never before.

For our situation communication was certainly helpful, as we would have been stranded in the tiny jungle village until the next day if the canoe already left. The flipside of this is certainly that for the traveler that looks for it, nothing is a real adventure anymore. The other problem is that now all over the world, poor people strive to have a cell phone first, before they buy clothes for their children or send them to school. A bit of a scary though. The Taxi driver tells me that a cell phone bill is about $50 per month, a huge amount of money considering what the people of 3rd world countries make. But it seems everybody has a cell phone here. Even in the remotest straw hut we spotted Android and Apple logos. No matter if you like this development or not, it’s a fact and this rolling train nobody will stop.

The Canoe that will bring is to the lodge is quite long to provide stability on the river. The motor is quite powerful and carries the two of us and two locals up river. The canoe is also acting like a Taxi along the river. I’m sure today we are paying for everybody, nobody seems to pay when they get in or out.

From a tiny jungle village we take off to our lodge. Canoes serve as Taxis on the Amazon river.

The lady we booked the tour with told us it’s a 2 hour long trip to the lodge, but after the misinformation about the bus, I start to doubt what she said. Sure enough, after 50 minutes we arrive. The roofs of the lodge’s cabins are barely visible among the thick jungle canvas that covers a hill next to the river.

Our lodge is right in those trees.

There are two girls in the water, judging by their skin color fellow tourists. One girl is from Austria the other from the Netherlands. A guide welcomes us. We are loaded on a pickup truck and brought up some dirt roads to the lodge.

The lodge is a surprise, everything is very open concept. There are seven cabins built on the hillside. The inside of the cabins is simple, but very nice nevertheless. Our cabin is as clean as the jungle environment allows. There is a nice washroom with hot and cold water. The guide tells us the water is filtered but we brought our own purifier just in case. Plastic bottles are not allowed here, the lodge is considered ecological sustainable. Our cabin has a fantastic view. We are overlooking the river bend. We have a nice balcony with two hammocks. Exotic jungle noises are all around us. What else do you need?

One thing we are a bit worried about is the food. In third world countries, eating the wrong food can ruin your hard earned vacation pretty quick. On our 2005 trip to Mexico, Beth was sick for three days at the end of our vacation because of bad food. She couldn’t even leave the room. Ever since then we are extremely careful what we eat. We usually avoid salads and everything that isn’t served hot.

Here avoiding food will be difficult as there is no food around except what comes out of the kitchen. There is no menu to choose from, they cook what they cook. Besides us there are five other guests. Two women from Austria, a volunteer from the USA, and a Dutch girl that wants to learn Spanish as well as her Ecuadorian teacher. Our guide for the next four days and three more staff that take care of the premises and the kitchen.

Here avoiding food will be difficult as there is no food around except what comes out of the kitchen. There is no menu to choose from, they cook what they cook. Besides us there are five other guests. Two women from Austria, a volunteer from the USA, and a Dutch girl that wants to learn Spanish as well as her Ecuadorian teacher. Our guide for the next four days and three more staff that take care of the premises and the kitchen.

Dinner is served and what can I say? The food we get served is as good as any food we have ever eaten even in the best restaurants. Just fantastic! One day they caught a huge catfish right from the river and freshly prepared it for dinner in the evening.

Dinner! No supermarkets needed. Everything is fresh from the river. In the morning we set out on a mini expedition into the Jungle.

Every day the guide prepares a program for us. We have to cross streams to get a hidden waterfall paradise, get introduced to the local community, visit a farm and learn a lot about the jungle, what ants you can eat, what spiders to avoid and what plants are used to make powerful toxins.

The jungle path is quite tricky to negotiate, but... ...leads us to a hidden waterfall like in paradise. 

We do a nightly jungle excursion with poisonous banana spiders reflecting our flashlight’s beams with their eyes and scorpions on the way.

Sunsets over the jungle are especially beautiful.  We catch the last canoe back to the lodge.

We made chocolate from the tree right next to the kitchen.

During the evening hours the setting sun turns the jungle into a sureal landscape The clouds and the vegetation turn everything around us into scenes from Arthur Conan Doyle's "Lost world"

We had four excellent, relaxing and fun filled days. We make our way back to Quito, to embark on our next adventure to the Galapagos Islands which we look very much forward to.

Back in our hotel in Quito we are briefed by a representative of our tour operator. We meet other tourist that will be with us on the cruise, a couple from Canada. There is supposed to be another lady from Australia here as well, but she doesn’t show up. Tomorrow our trip starts at 4:00am and our plane to the Galapagos leaves at 6:30am.


In the morning we get up at an ungodly 3:00am. We are meeting the fellow group members down in the lobby including the lady from Australia that arrived at midnight after a 48 hour plane, bus and taxi ride. Needless to say she looks very tired. She tells us her story of mishaps that happened to her in the last two days. Well, it shouldn’t stop here, but we will get to that.

At 4:00am sharp our minivan leaves direction airport. We embark the plane and two hours later land at the tiny airport on the Island of Bartolome. The airport was built by the US forces in World War II and the runway is still unchanged. The Ecuadorian government invested in a new building for the passengers to embark, but that’s about it. The Island is so small it really only holds three planes. The weather is beautiful, warm and a slight breeze is blowing. Beth is so happy, her Galapagos dream finally came true.

The airport on the tiny island of Baltra. Welcome to the island of Santa Cruz.

Outside the naturalist guide is waiting. One can only visit the Galapagos Islands with a Naturalist guide. We are brought to the town of Puerto Ayora on the Island of Santa Cruz. There our cruise ship is waiting for us. Right in the town of Puerto Ayora you can see how special the Galapagos Islands are. Right where the fishermen unload their catch, pelicans and sea lions are sitting without fear right next to people.

This is the ‘specialty’ of the Galapagos Islands. Somehow evolution took away the fear of each other from all the creatures big and small. No animal runs away from another, not even from humans. In the middle of the harbor seabirds, sea lions and iguanas are next to each other and roast in the sun. It’s sometimes quite the surreal sight.

The fishermen wash their catch and are closely watched by all kinds of feathered friends. Nowhere els in the world do humans and wild animals life so close together without any fear.

The weather here changes quickly and we are on the edge of the rainy season. Clouds are rolling in when we wait for the little dingy that will bring us to our cruise ship. Cruise ships in the Galapagos are more like yachts, about 30 meters in length and designed for about 30 passengers. Dozens of them are anchored in the harbor of Puerto Ayora and wait for their paying customers. The Ecuadorian government strictly controls the number of boats and tour operators in the Galapagos. This results in pretty high prices if you want to go on such a cruise. The Islands are protected by a national park system and you have to pay a $100 national park fee right when you arrive at the airport. To get to the cruise ships rubber dingys with outboard motors are used and if the sea is rough it can be quite a challenge for everybody to get in and out of the boat.

Our Tour guide – they like to call themselves Naturalist guides – is named Diego and my first impression of him is that he is a bit grouchy, like quite a few Ecuadorians we have met on our trip. There is definitely a difference in mentality and attitude between Peruvians and Ecuadorians, quite surprising as the two countries are so close together. Diego is not the friendliest person we have ever met, but he is not unfriendly either. It looks like he wants to come across ‘professional and all business’ to us ‘westerners’. This doesn’t really work very well, especially when he tries to sneak away to flirt with the two young Ecuadorian travel agents in training that want to experience the tours they will sell in the future for the first time themselves.

But overall he is very knowledgeable when people ask questions.

We get on our dingy and reach our destination, the cruise ship ‘Pelikano’ after about 5 minutes. The sea is a bit rough and the dingy is pounding on the waves. Everybody struggles to get out of the dingy onto the ship. The dingy operator is very skilled to maneuver the waves to make it as easy as possible to for all the passengers to get out. The Australian lady from our hotel – she is in her late 60s – almost falls into the sea. She is up for a good 56 hours by now, boy she must be tired. Once on the ship we meet our fellow tour mates: A couple from Denmark, two young girls from Sweden, the Canadian couple from our hotel, a fellow from England and the Australian lady. Altogether we are a group of 10 tourists that will spend the next 5 days together on that relatively small ship. There are also 5 crew members on board. The captain, a cook, the naturalist guide, a mechanic and a helper.

Our group is getting transferred to the ship in rubber dingys. Our cruise ship, the 'Pelicano'.

We are instructed that we can’t wear shoes on board, they have to be deposited in a cubby hole in the back of the ship. The cubby hole can’t be missed, the smell will give it away. The ship has 16 cabins, each cabin features a bunk bed and a private bathroom with running hot and cold water, a shower, a sink and a toilet. We all move in our cabins and store our things. I’m a bit surprised that we don’t get a safety briefing of some sort but the life vests in our cabin at the end of the bed are pretty self-explanatory.

No words can describe how excited we are. Everybody on the ship feels the same way, the atmosphere is filled with excitement and fun. We get shown the ship’s common/lunch room that features a spot for a buffett, two large tables and a big screen TV. Why somebody would like to watch TV here with all the nature around is beyond me. Maybe this is more for the crew when we are on land excursions. One of which starts right away.

We are brought to shore again to visit the famous ‘Charles Darwin Research Station’. Here a breeding program for endangered Galapagos species is run by several Universities. Volunteers from all over the world pay good money to help out at the station for months. The part of the station that is accessible for tourists is similar to a small zoo, you can see Giant tortoises, Iguanas in various ages in their enclosures. The tour lasts about an hour and is ok. To be honest we both expected a bit more, I think it would be a good idea if somebody would have shown us a bit more about the applied science that’s going on here. But it was certainly a nice experience to just see the famous station one can read so much about.

We stroll back to the harbor through the town of Puerto Ayoras. The town is a weird but charming mix of art community, tourist trap and ‘sleepy province nest’.

We are going back to the ship on the dingy. It’s slowly getting dark. Laurel – the lady from Australia now up for sixty consecutive hours – says she better lay down for an hour. We agree.

It’s already dark when the crew invites us – fully dressed in their best uniforms – for an evening cocktail. We are getting a briefing on what’s in store for us tomorrow. After that dinner is served. It’s amazing what the cook is able to produce in his tiny kitchen. A three course meal for 15 people. Not bad. And tasty, too.

Contemplating in the bar. The crew including the captain.

During the briefing we are getting told that the ship will navigate to it’s daily destination during the night. That way we will be where we want to be when we wake up. We are warned that during this time of the year the sea can be a bit rough, so we might have a bit of a bumpy night.

They were not kidding. We lay down, but it’s hard to fall asleep. The ship rolls and bounces quite heavily. The ship’s Diesel engine roars and vibrates the ship even more. But I find the sound of diesel engines soothing after while. It takes us both several hours to fall asleep. I’m surprised that none of us is seasick with such heavy seas.

Next morning we wake up and the sun is shining. We anchored right in front of an island with nice white beaches and turquoise seas. When I get out of our cabin I feel a bit like James Cook but without the uniform. But only for a few seconds. Laurel walks on the side of the ship, slips and falls straight on the back of her head. She bangs it pretty good and has a big bump on her head. I get the feeling that she is a bit of a ‘Schlamassel’ an old Jewish-German word for somebody who has constantly bad luck. She is ok, though, a bit dizzy. She should probably take it easy and lay down, I’m sure she has a concussion. But she won’t and there is nothing we can do.

Our first stop Once the sun comes out, the islands display incredible colors.

The turquoise sea around us is filled with live. No matter where you look into the water, you can spot colorful fish. Sharks are circling, we can see them if we look straight down. The water is so clear, it’s hard to judge how deep it is. I would say about 10 meters.

If we look over to the island we see sea lions lying on the beach. Frigatebirds are circling overhead. I had no idea how big they actually are. They must have wing span of 2 meters. Some Pelicans are swimming next to the ship and watch us very closely, I guess they are waiting for the kitchen scraps. The crew is getting the dingy ready to bring us to the island. We enter the dingy in groups e of four and land on a small walkway. Right away we are surrounded by hundreds of animals of different shapes and sizes. Birds like the famous Darwin finches, Iguanas and Sea Lions are all around us, completely without fear. The guide is excited because right in front of us is a very rare Iguana that is a hybrid between a land and a sea Iguana. I have to admit I know very little about animals, I’m more an archaeology enthusiast, but even as an ignoramus I thoroughly enjoy myself. It is really unique here and for a camera nut like myself there are endless opportunities.

Impressions of Galapagos

We hike around the island for about an hour before we go back to the ship. We are navigating to an island nearby where we can snorkel with sea turtles. Beth and I never snorkeled before so we are really looking forward to that. We have lunch during the ship sailing to the other island.

Only on the Galapagos you can get so close.

When we arrive we anchor in a nice sheltered bay. There are sandy beaches around us. On the beach across the ship I see a big colony of sea lions warming up in the sun. We are handed wet suits, flippers, diving masks and get rudimentary instructions on snorkeling. I snorkeled before, but it’s Beth’s first time. I can tell she is a bit nervous. We hop in the water, it’s nice and warm and the wetsuits make it quite comfortable. We bought two underwater cameras for this trip, Beth has a modern digital camera, I have an old fashioned Nikonos underwater model from the late 1980s. Our guide swims ahead, today we have the strong feeling he is really bored with everything and his mind is again more with flirting with the two Ecuadorian girls – now in sexy bikinis – than helping us around. Laurel gives up after 10 minutes and swims back to the boat. Beth and I swim together and explore the underwater world. The water is a bit murkier now as the wind picked up a bit and sediments from the ocean floor get picked up. Visibility is a bit reduced. But nevertheless we have a great time, see sea turtles and many colorful fish I only knew from aquariums and pet shops.

My first underwater portrait. It's like in an aquarium.

After a while we get exhausted and we are quite far away from the ship as the guide screams to get back to the ship. He says, if anybody wants a ride back to the ship in the dingy, please wave. Many wave, but he is already revving up the outboard motor and goes back to the ship. Maybe the two girls needed his help more than we did. We swim back slightly annoyed, but decide not to complain. What good would it do?

We all make it back to the ship 20 minutes later. The currents are stronger as expected. We get dried up and get ready for another land excursion over to the sandy beach with the sea lions. Once there we are among docents of them. We are so close it’s almost unreal. What an incredible experience. Many of them have calves or are close to giving birth. Hawks are sitting on the bushes around the beach, they are waiting for the afterbirth of the newborns. Apparently this provides them with a nutritional meal. Not even the hawks fly away when we approach them. They just look at you as if they would say “What?”

Above: Beth among the Sea Lions on the beach.
Only on the Galapagos you can get so close.
Sea Lions everywhere!
They are cute, but look nicer then they smell...

It’s about 5:00pm now and we see dark clouds in the distance. Signs of a bit of a storm coming. We are all hungry and we get transported back to the ship.

We are getting news that one of the crew members is sick with ‘an allergy’ and he is in bed. We saw him today sneezing and coughing. We are getting an uneasy feeling, diseases spread quickly on ships. Beth and I both work in a communicable disease laboratory, we know how fast things like those can get out of hand in confined spaces. The crew member was responsible for serving and the food, so that doesn’t help either.

But nobody else seems to be worried, so we keep our concerns to ourselves. Everybody is going to bed at 8:00pm. Hiking and snorkeling tired everybody out.

The sea is getting really rough now. It’s raining outside, the ships rolls and pitches heavily. We are navigating in open seas and in the briefing we were told that we should arrive at our next destination by about midnight. I fall asleep, but wake up around 10:00pm, because the engine stopped. I get up to look outside. Are we already at our new destination? I see a set of lights a bit off the ship, they must belong to another ship. I see the dingy leaving from our ship with three people on it. The operator of the outboard motor and two others, one of them has a blanked rapped around him. I’m convinced, the crew member is seriously ill and needs to get off the ship. We are very uneasy. But since there is absolutely nothing we can do about it, we are going back to bed. I dose off.

A female Sea Lion is guarding my camera bag thinking it's her pup.

A storm is brewing on the horizon. The last photo of the 'Pelikano' above the waves.

The Shipwreck

A big bang and a nasty crunching noise wakes us both up. A quick check of the watch reveals it’s 1:00am in the morning. I jump out of bed and yell “What the hell was that?” I’m wide awake. Beth is up as well. I open the cabin door. It’s a bit foggy out and all I can see is a beam of lighthouse turning above the ship. The engine of the ship is roaring. Now I can see that the ship is sitting on a cliff. The sea is rough and the rocks the ship up and down. I can hear the rock scratching on the ship’s hull. I can’t believe it, we struck a rock! I turn around in the cabin and tell Beth. Dennis, the other guy from Canada stands in his cabin door as well. A crew member runs up and down, screaming hysterically. From the back of the boat I hear Spanish “Rapido! Rapido!” and other things I can’t make out. I get a glimpse of somebody in the back of the boat working on one of the dingys of which we have two. Another crew member runs around in his underwear. I look at Dennis, he looks at me. Almost in unison we say “I think we should get our live vests on…” I turn around and tell Beth, “get your live vest on, this is serious.” As I say this and grab my vest, I hear a gurgling noise. 

It’s a very distinct sound I heard before from Offroad vehicles with diesel engines when they are getting submerged in water and the air intake sucks in water. Two seconds later the engine sound seizes and the lights turn off. Now I know we are in serious trouble. “We should grab everything we can”, Beth says. I pack my camera bag, we both get our emergency headlamps out that we always carry with us. I will never go anywhere without one since my Peru trip in 2004. My backpack is only partly packed and it’s not zipped up. I can feel the ship tilting. “Beth, we have to go!”, I shout. “Yes”, she says, “I’m coming!”. I get out the door, turn to the right, the back of the ship. It’s pitch black, the only thing I see is what is illuminated by my headlight and the beam of the lighthouse over our heads. The crew is screaming “Rapido! Rapido”. I see the waves crashing over the side of the ship. Debris is floating on the water. The crew member in the dingy shouts at me “Rapido! Rapido!” I turn around to check on Beth. She is not there! Oh my god, she is not there! I shout her name. “BETH, BETH”. At this moment a big wave crashes of the side of the ship. I slip and fall and get banged onto the railing of the boat. The railing is almost entirely under water. I try to get up, but my backpack pulls me back. I fall again. “BETH, BETH!”, I shout again. “I’m here, I’m here”, I hear her, but I can’t see her. 

The weight of the backpack doesn’t allow me to get up. I manage to take it off, look back I can see it being swept over the side of the ship. I’m almost completely under water, but now I can get up. I see Beth, she is standing on the other side of the ship, holding on. The dingy is now only a meter away from me. “Rapido! Rapido!” the crew member shouts. I see Beth, that’s the only thing I can think of is Beth. I manage to get up, Beth is coming towards me. I grab a hold of her, she grabs me and we both land in the Dingy head first. Seconds later, Dennis and Rachel, the couple from Canada slide into the Dingy as well. The couple from Denmark is already here including a crew member operating the outboard motor. My first instinct is that we should go towards the rocks we just hit, but we might get smashed against them and get injured really bad. And god knows where we are. This could be just a tiny rock in the middle of nowhere. The second dingy is brought up with another crew member on board. It’s the guide. He says, we have to transfer to the second dingy. I see that it has no engine and a big hole in the floor where the engine would sit. We climb over. Beth and I are the only ones with flashlights. I look back to the ship, it’s tilted in a 30 degree angle. Only tiny position lights are on. No emergency horn, nothing. “Where are all the others?”, I shout. “We are going back to get them with the engine-boat”, the guide says. “Good plan!”, I say. “Can I have your flashlight”, he says. I give him my light. And they head off. A few minutes later I see an inflatable emergency island drifting towards us pulled by the dingy. 

We all transfer into the island. It’s one of those octagonal thingies you see in movies with the knowledge that you will never see one for yourself, let alone be in one. The contraption is partially filled with water which moves back and forth as people shift around among the thin rubber floor, but for now it is the safest place on earth. We look around, and we are all there. Everybody managed to get of the ship! We look back to the ship and I can see it sink by it’s side! I notice that the emergency light on my life vest blinks. Those are only activated if they get submerged in water. Now I realize, that we are still alive, I give Beth a kiss and a hug. I also realize, that I somehow managed to hold on to my camera bag. Beth managed to grab most of her stuff, that’s why she was just a few seconds behind me and I couldn’t see her at first. Now we are a drift in the emergency raft. One of the crew members is crying, all the passengers are surprisingly calm. There is shock and disbelieve on everybody’s face. “Did you manage to call for help?” I ask the guide. “I don’t know…”, he says. He is the only crew member that stayed relatively calm so far. Now there is nothing that we can see. The lighthouse beam get’s further away. It is the only source of light next to our two flashlights. Now the crew asks for Beth’s light as well. She gives it to them. They are using the lights to wave around. They hope to attract other ships.

I realize now that we are reeking of Diesel fuel, the tank of ship must have leaked out. My leg hurts, I scraped the skin when I was falling down.

I can’t believe it. How can this happen nowadays? With all the modern communication equipment, GPS sonar, radar, satellite phones and wireless radio. And yet, we are waving simple flashlights into the night. I already see myself talking to a Volleyball when Beth asks “What was that? Did you feel that?” Yes, I feel it as well, something is brushing against our bottoms, we can feel it through the thin rubber skin of the raft. My first thought is sea grass or kelp of some sort, but I think Beth has it right when she thinks those are sharks. On the day before we were told they feed at night and are attracted to sounds of distress. We whisper a sarcastic “Awesome!”, but we don’t want alert anybody else. Let’s not think about it.

We are a drift for about 15 minutes that feel like hours as somebody says, “There is a ship!”. A few minutes later there is a good size cruise ship along side of us named “The queen of the Galapagos”. It’s brightly lit with all search lights on. It’s the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. A big thigh of relive overcomes me, I shout “It’s the Carpathia!”. Everyone laughs, they all feel the same way. The crew of the Queen of the Galapagos helps us on board. They couldn’t be nicer. We get handed blankets and warm drinks. It’s pretty chilly, and we are soaking wet. But I don’t feel cold. We are all under shock and sit down in the lobby. Now you can see how everybody’s stress and shock releases differently. Beth starts crying, the Danish couple just sit there and have a void stare on their face. The guy from Britain is holding his side, he looks like he is in a lot of pain. I ask if he is ok, he lifts his shirt up and reveals a big bruise on his rib cage. I think he has a cracked rib. He was in his cabin until the last minute he tells me. He took a sleeping pill last night as he couldn’t sleep the night before because of the rough seas. When he finally woke up, his cabin was half filled with water, with things floating beside him.

Laurel, the Australian lady, lost everything she had. She only saved herself. She only wears her night gown. Like the British guy she was one of the last ones of the ship.

Beth calms down a bit and we do a little inventory. I lost my backpack with all most of my clothes, our water purifier, a Rolleiflex camera, my underwater camera, an Ipod, watch, etc. Beth has most of her stuff including her camera. We both lost all our shoes, we are barefoot like all the other tourists on board. The clothes I have on are a t-shirt, convertible pants (thank god the lower half of my pants are in the pockets). Before the trip I bought a travel vest with lot’s of pockets. Thank god I wore it on me as it contains our passports. Those we check first. Both are wet, but the German passport is well made, with the important part laminated and waterproof. Beth’s Canadian passport is damaged on the photo. The ink from one half of the photo bled out.

These photos are taken 10 minutes after our rescue. Here the emergency raft and the dingy. One of the tour members is trying to clean her belongings from the intense Diesel smell.

My camera equipment must be done, the camera case was completely submerged multiple times under water for several seconds, I hope the photos are recoverable. Hardware can be replaced, photos not. Still, it’s equipment for a good $3000. It sucks!

I don’t even want to look into the case. Beth sits down and rests a bit, I go over in a quiet corner and open the case. What a surprise! Except for a few minor drips, the equipment is completely dry. The case is wet, but it protected the equipment perfectly. Now I know why I spent $180 for the bag. I’m not one that does advertising easily, but ThinkTank bags are worth every penny and then some.

We gather around in the lobby of the 'Queen of the Galapagos'. We are all under shock. Taking photos calms me down. The lifevests we wore during the shipwreck. The one in front right was mine. The emergency light that turns on by coming in contact with salt water is still lit.

With a hair dryer we are drying all other wet clothes and things. We got word that the crew went back to the wreck and the coast guard arrived at the wreck site as well. A search for our stuff is on the way. About 45 minutes later we get a notice that some of our stuff has been recovered from the wreckage. Rachel and Dennis are getting their backpacks that have been recovered from inside the boat. I get a jacket and a sleeping bag, both just reek of Diesel. Diesel is one of the most resistant smells to get out of anything, especially clothes. I don’t even bother and throw them in the trash. We are on the lookout for our shoes, but they are nowhere to be seen. Laurel hopes that her passport and/or Visa cards and money will be recovered. In the corner I see my old Nikon underwater camera. Unbelievable, they recovered it from our room in the wreckage. Being an underwater camera, it is not damaged. It smells of Diesel, but cleans up nicely. The other passengers get a few things back, but most them smell so bad, they have to discard the ones without value. Rachael and Dennis decide to keep all their things. From now on we can smell them hundreds of meters away.

The captain of the Queen of the Galapagos informs us that they have to go on to their next destination. Their guests will wake up in a few hours and they shouldn’t have an impact to their trip because of us. In the morning a ship will be arranged that brings us ship wreckers back to Puerto Ayora. But we are welcome to stay for breakfast. The Show must go on!

We are all sitting around and talk about our ordeal. I take photos of everything, taking images gets my mind of things. I also want to record as much as I can, for future possible insurance purposes. I have no idea what time it is, my watch is now on the bottom of the Pacific. But it’s getting light outside and the Queen of the Galapagos slows down as she reaches her destination. The weather is beautiful outside, a fantastic sunrise. We are anchored before an island with bright red beaches. Blue footed Boobies dive bomb down to catch fish. I would be an amazing day, but we are all not in the mood to enjoy nature.

Meanwhile the guest of the Queen of the Galapagos wake up and come out of their cabins to get breakfast. They are on a very expensive cruise, the Queen of the Galapagos is a luxury cruise ship. The guest are very surprised to us. Naturally we all look a bit scruffy and tired. Not long and everybody on the ship talks about us and our ordeal. We have to tell our stories over and over again. Of course we are just an anecdote in their travel tales. Who can blame them. “The cruise where we picked out real ship wreckers”. Oh how would like to be in their footsteps. But I am one of those shipwreckers…

We are no waiting for a word of when our rescue ship will come. I have to admit I’m getting tired of ships at the moment. Beth feels the same way. All we want now is to go back to the main island to collect our thoughts, get some rest and plan the rest of our trip. There are so many open questions.

The guests of the Queen of the Galapagos are very nice, they make a little collection of clothes for the ones who lost all of their clothes in the wreck. But unfortunately the scene gets a bit out of hand as they all want souvenir shots with us. “Smile for the camera”, they say, but we are not in a smiling mood.

After about an hour the word is that the rescue boat is here. Excellent, I think. I go out and I can’t see a boat anywhere. Then around the ships corner I see a tiny speed boat. That can’t be it, I think to myself, the thing is barely big enough to fit us all. We are 16 people altogether.

But sure enough this is the boat. They can’t be serious… We get transferred over to the speedboat. Another lifevest. We all sit down. “How long will it take to go back to the main island?”, I ask the scruffy looking captain of the boat. “3 hours senior. And the ride will be somewhat rough.” Oh, my god! Three hours on that thing. And “somewhat rough…” I know what that means.

The boat has two powerful outboard motors. The captain gives it gas and we take off. The first 10 minutes are not too bad, but then we get out of the sheltered island and enter the open sea. The boat just pounds in the waves, we get thrown around and have to really hold on not to break our necks. Wrapped in a blanket we spot the Captain of the Pelikano. This is the first time we see the guy since the wreck. He doesn’t say a word to us, just sits down in a cubby hole and stares. We are not talking to him, I might say something I would regret later. I’m convinced the Idiot fell asleep and ran us a ground. There is no other explanation for the accident. Even if all electronics didn’t work, he would have seen the lighthouse, that’s what it’s for. Those are the thoughts running through my head.

After 1 hour we are totally exhausted. The little boat gets pounded so severely by the waves the captain – or better the driver – has to slow down or it will break apart. It is totally apparent that the little boat is not built for this kind of thing, especially not with that many people onboard.

I take out my little GPS. I want to see where we are at, I want to calculate for myself how far we are away from Puerto Ayora and how long it will take at our current speed. I don’t trust the Ecuadorians anymore. The GPS doesn’t lie and according to the distance we still have to go and the current speed, it will still take us more then 3.5 hours to the port. Did they calculate the fuel correctly? Do they even have a radio on board?

After another half an hour my worst fears come true. The engines don’t sound right and we smell a strong odor of gasoline. We are relatively close to the coast, but the waves are pounding onto a lava beach that is sharp and rugged. If we are getting thrown against those rocks, we are history. That’s when the engine die completely. The captain comes down from his driving seat. He and a crewmember of the Pelikano palaver pointing to the engines. He opens a cubby hole and digs out of a filthy box what looks like a fuel filter. The whole boat smells like a gas station, I hope they are smart enough not to smoke a cigarette now. We are getting dangerously close to the coast with its pounding waves. He tries to start the engines, but they are flooded with gas. He tries again and thank god they start.

For about 2 hours the engines run good. Dolphins and Manta rays jump out the water. Even the biggest ordeal sometimes has it’s fascinating sides.

All over sudden the gasoline smell is back stronger then ever. The engines start to stutter again. He reduces the speed. I overhear a conversation with another crew member. He doesn’t have another fuel filter! We are about 45 minutes away from the port. The engines barely run now and he drives at one fourth of the power. We are hanging over the boats side to get fresh air. Others try to cover their nose and mouth with a piece of clothes. I’m dizzy from the gas smell. Beth is pale, I’m worried because she has an allergy to some chemicals and she has asthma. How much bad luck can you have? Who knew the ‘rescue’ is just as bad as the shipwreck? By now we are sitting in a puddle of gasoline inside the boat. The engines are so oversaturated with gas, they can’t burn it anymore and squirt it out into the boat. The gasonline starts to burn our feet. The GPS says we are only 5 minutes away from something called ‘tortuga beach’, that must be a sandy beach. It’s about 10 km away from Puerta Ayora. I think he should land the ship there and we walk the rest. At this point anything is better than to die from the fumes. It’s that bad! I make the suggestion, but nobody really pays attention.

“10 more minutes”, he says. 20 minutes later we limp into the harbor of Puerta Ayora. The engines die just at the second we get tied up on the pier. Hallelujah we are on dry land! Right on the pier were we land two Police guys are standing and we assume that now we are getting taking care of by the officials and coast guard. But the police makes no effort to talk to us. Instead we are greeted by a tour operator from a company I have never heard before. We booked our tour with “Gecko’s” from Australia, the representative is from “Peak” in Edcuador. He explains “Peak” is authorized to deal on “Gecko’s” behalf. We are all getting loaded into two pickup trucks. The representative seems to be in a hurry. Now in retrospect I’m convinced the Police was not there to protect or help us, they were there to protect the local interests from us! They were looking out that we can’t talk to other tourists or journalists which I expected to see when we arrived. But that realization took place weeks later.

All we want to do at the moment is to get some rest. The representative explains to us that we are brought into a hotel and we shouldn’t worry, everything will be taking care of. And unfortunately this is what worries me the most.

I explain to him that for starters we all need shoes before we go into a hotel. We can’t run around barefoot. I don’t want to step in a piece of glass or something like that. It’s clear that he has his instructions from somebody in the background and he is a bit uncomfortable diverting from a plan that obviously has been layed out. After my request he talks on his cell-phone in a quiet corner. “Ok, we can go to a shoe store. Be aware that everything in Galapagos is expensive, because it needs to get flown in.”, he says. Well, we need shoes, no matter what they cost. They are absolutely essential. It’s actually funny, how something that trivial like shoes can become very important if you don’t have them. Plus we all assume that the shoes will be paid by the tour operator. We tell him that. Unbelievably, he has to make another call to confirm. I have a feeling that in the next 48 hours he will call a lot.

The shoe store has a lot of shoes, but not in our sizes. We all either end up in Flip-Flops like Beth or my crappy $20 sneakers that actually cost US$100. They were the only pair that fit. This store clearly is for tourists only, no local could afford to buy shoes here. I ask if there is another shoe store in town were the locals buy. He says no. I know he is lying. We have to pay with our own money, but get instructed to keep the receipt for later re-imbursement. Laurel from Australia doesn’t have any money. In fact she doesn’t have anything except a t-shirt and some sweat pants and a little bag that the good people of the Queen of the Galapagos gave her. The representative has no choice – after another phone call – to pay for her shoes.

We are transferred to the hotel. It’s a nice hotel and we all get our own rooms. The representative sees my bloody knees and shins from my fall during the wreck and asks, if I’m ok. “Actually I’m not.”, I say, “I think I would like to see a doctor.” The wounds are not too bad, but it’s always good to get this stuff checked out. He says, he will arrange one. Right around the corner there is a modern hospital, they even have a decompression chamber for diving accidents. The clinic is squeaky clean, it could be a positive example for many western countries including Canada.

The Doctor is very nice and competent, speaks English very well. He checks me out and gives me an antibiotic cream for my wounds.

Back in the hotel I report back to the other ship wreckers and tell them about the nice hospital. Everybody decides it is a good idea to get checked as well.

After about 3 hours we are ready get something to eat and the representative – after a phone call – invites all us of for dinner in a local restaurant. He says he will use the time to write down our concerns so that he can address them with his superiors. When we sit down and he starts to write down our ‘concerns’. When he starts telling us that they never lost a ship and this is a big loss for the company, my patience ends. I speak up: “First of all, we are all fine, thank you! Not once since the ship sank has anybody of the crew, nor the representative asked us this question. Next, I would like somewhat of an apology from somebody in charge. Put your boss on speaker phone so I can ask him why he is not here, because quite frankly I don’t give a darn about your ship. We almost died last night! That is what counts. Third, I would like to know what happened. We all spent thousands of Dollars and our hard earned vacation to be here. I would like to know your company’s concerns plus a solution to our obvious problems. Lastly, I want to express concerns about the safety of your cruises and the fact that we didn’t even get a Safety briefing. Who is responsible for this mess and who is responsible for cleaning it up?” 

Everybody is in agreement, the representative is pale in the face. “You didn’t get a safety briefing? – Oh, my god!” It seems this struck a nerve. Even in Ecuador this seems to a major oversight. Maybe this is something they could be sued for, maybe they won’t get insurance compensation when this comes out. But that’s not my goal. I just want to make sure they know “Hey! We are here, deal with us first.” Arbi, the fellow from England is just as fed up as I am, he voices his concerns loud and clear as well.

He assures us that everything will be taken care of when we go back to Quito. There is not much he can do here in the Galapagos, he has to do what his boss tells him to and has very little authority. I believe him and assure him that we are not mad at him. But we want to get as open a communication as possible and want everything to be dealt with swiftly as we are all on vacation and we don’t want to lose the rest of our vacation to bureaucratic paperwork. Deep in my heart I know this won’t be possible and we will deal with this for a long time. Basically our vacation is over. Our flight is booked back to Quito for the next day. Laurel has lost her passport and nobody knows how she will get back to Quito, let alone carry on her 3 month trip through South America. She is totally lost and has no money, no credit cards. We can tell she is a very proud individual and won’t take any presents or handouts from anybody. The people on the Queen of the Galapagos had to convince her to take the old T-shirt she is wearing right now. Beth and I talk about how to help her without hurting her pride. We are handing her $200 and tell her “Laurel, whatever happens next, you can’t be without money. This is a loan, you can pay us back whenever you are back in Australia.” She accepts it with tears in her eyes. “But it’s only a loan!”, she says.

After dinner the “shipwreckers” have a little get-together in the Hotel Lobby to discuss what happens next. Most of are going back to Quito tomorrow and although we are all in different hotels all over the city, we decide to stay together as much as possible in order to coordinate our next steps. We decide not to sign any ‘agreements’ without consulting each other. Those agreements will undoubtedly be handed to us in the next days.

I just dread the next days. There is nothing worse in a foreign country then bureaucratic paperwork. Beth and I check online if we have to report Beth’s damaged passport to the embassy. The water stain is relatively small, her face is still clearly visible. We read that any damage on the picture renders the passport void. Back in Quito we better check with the Canadian embassy. We are lucky that Quito has a Canadian Embassy. Australia doesn’t and that really worries Laurel.

Next day most of us are at the tiny airport of Santa Cruz. The Danish couple decided to go on another cruise. They must have nerves of steel, I wouldn’t have the nerve for that right now. I guess they think ‘if you fall from the horse, you should get right back up.’ But they didn’t lose anything and their passports have not been damaged, so they won’t have much of a follow up paperwork.

Between Beth and I we calculate that we lost about $3000 worth of travel gear. It’s amazing how quickly things add up. Our goal for the next days is to make sure, we get this back as well as a refund for the cruise. With this and sorting out the passport issue we probably have enough on our hands. But we hope we can at least salvage a bit of next week and do some side trips from Quito. Should the passport issue turn out to be quickly resolved by the Canadians, we might fly to Cuenca. I really would like to see Pater Crespi’s collection.

From a distance we watch Laurel’s progress in getting on the plane. She has no passport or papers whatsoever. In this day and age this is a problem with air travel, even on a tiny airport on the Galapagos Islands on an inner country flight. In passing she gives us short updates on her progress. It ranges from “no problem” to “absolutely not possible” depending on who she is talking to.

After two hours we are all onboard the plane, including Laurel.

On the airport in Quito, a ‘delegation’ is waiting for us. My speech yesterday seems to have made an impression. A lady – Maria - introduces herself as the ship’s owner. Her sister is here as well, I guess it’s a family business. Fausto is the manager of Peak Ecuador, he is the representative of Gecko’s as well. For the first time, somebody says “We are sorry what happened. We will take care of you and set everything right.” That’s a start. Understandably they don’t want to talk business at the airport, they invite us for dinner in the evening to talk about everything. Outside is a van waiting that will bring us back to the hotel. 

In the evening we are invited to Quito’s finest restaurant. By now some of us are wearing the same clothes for the last three days. Needless to say we look a bit out of place in the classy restaurant right across the Presidential palace. Maria and her sister – decorated in Gold, Diamonds and leopard print pants – start talking while the Gaston serves the traditional South American potato cream soup, a specialty to die for. 

We will be fully compensated for our trip and the items we lost. Fausto, Peak’s manager, will handle the compensation for our cruise, Maria and her company will handle the compensation for the things we lost on during the shipwreck. All she needs is a list of the things we lost with an approximate value attached. She says she might be able to pay us even before we go back to Canada or wherever we are from. Meanwhile they will personally accompany us to the shopping mall in Quito and we can buy whatever we need. As a personal apology to us all she will invite us all to a free cruise on her second ship, a catamaran within the next two years. It’s a 10 day luxury cruise so we can see the Galapagos Islands in their full glory. Everything sounds fantastic and everybody seems very enthusiastic. She explains to us that she is terrified of bad press and bad reputation on the Internet. Is we need anything we should just tell her and she will arrange it. She will drive us to wherever we need to go, starting tomorrow with a trip to the shopping mall.

Everybody seems very relieved, but Beth and I are skeptic. It all sounds a bit too good to be true. We are not telling the others, they are very enthusiastic and we don’t want to ruin the mood. In the end our doubts should be proven somewhat correct.

But the next day everything Maria said seems to be true. In the morning she is in our hotel. We told her last night that we are taking her by her word as we would like a ride to the Canadian embassy and we have no idea where it is. We want to get the passport story over with. We have still 5 days left in our vacation, maybe we can salvage some of it. We are pretty certain there is a temporary document of some sort that says something like “This passport is genuine, it has been damaged, sincerest the Canadian Embassy.” On the Internet we found out that the embassy’s opening hours are very convenient from 10:00 – 13:00. Convenient for the embassy personnel, I mean. The traffic in Quito is horrendous it doesn’t help that Maria’s SUV (with leather everything and golden shifter knob) driven by her sister is running on fumes. The emergency gas light is on, it can’t be lit any brighter. I’m sure the two women don’t even know how to gas up, this is probably done by a buttler of some sort in the garage of the climate controlled mansion. Unfortunately he forgot to do that today. I try to ignore the gas gauge and look how we drive the busy streets.

After 15 minutes we are told by a lady who is actually brave enough not to wear a bulletproof west or knight armour in the completely empty embassy to enter interview room #2.

#2 is hardly big enough for two people to sit. The embassy personnel sits again behind bulletproof glass. The room reminds me of the visitors room of a high security prison. A lady enters and asks what brings us here. Beth tells her that she is a Canadian citizen and unfortunately her passport got damaged during a boating accident. She puts the passport in a bullet-and-everything-else-proof sliding mechanism so the lady can see it. The lady has a strong accent, she is hard to understand. She is definitely not Canadian. I was always under the impression that in embassies people from the country of the embassy is working, but I was obviously mistaken.

She takes a look at the passport and says “This is damaged. You can’t travel with that!”. Beth says, “yes, I know, this is why I’m here. What do I have to do now?” “Do you want a replacement passport?”, the lady says. Beth asks “Well, do I need one?”. “Yes, if you want to travel…”, is the response. I’m shaking in my chair. It’s the travel agency from Quito all over again. I can’t believe the Canadian embassy doesn’t employ friendly Canadian staff, who actually wants to help. I can’t hold it in and say “Look, my wife’s passport has been damaged and yes, we would like to travel. We are from Canada, our vacation ends in five days. Yes, we would like to fly back as we do not want to stay in Ecuador. That’s why we need you to tell us if there is a temporary travel document in a case like this that the embassy can provide us with.”

“There is only a temporary passport. You have to apply for it. It takes at least three days and we need references. It costs $180 and I have to keep this passport as it’s damaged.”, she says. “We know it’s damaged. But the passport is brand new and the Canadian government prides itself to mention that their passport has 126 security features, one of which is damaged. I’m sure you have the ability here in the Embassy of the sovereign State of Canada to determine if this passport is genuine or not. Is there no letter the embassy can issue so that we can travel back to Canada with this passport?” 

“No, sorry. We can’t determine that this is a genuine passport.”, she says. “The only way is to apply for a temporary passport. We need you to pay right away with a major credit card as we don’t accept cash here. Then we need three references from people that know you more then 5 years. And you need to provide us with passport photos with the exact specifications for a Canadian passport. If you decide to go this route, I have to confiscate the damaged passport right away, you can’t have it back.”

“You are taking away my only travel document I have? I’m in a foreign country! What if something happens and I need to proof who I am?”, Beth asks. The lady on the other side of the glass has a look on her face that I have seen often in Ecuador. It says “I don’t care and don’t waste my time. When can I go home?” I wisper to Beth “Just do it, we won’t get anywhere.” The lady says, “Are you sure?”. I really have to hold back now. What a stupid question. She just told us there is no other option. I feel like screaming, but smile instead.

“Yes, we are sure!” Of course we pay first. Then we get handed a form that is too complicated to fill out then end there. We decide we will have to fill it out in the hotel when we have peace and quiet. We also have to come up with 5 references that know Beth for 5 years in Canada and that are home. The lady tells us the embassy will call them, if they can’t get a hold of them, we might not get the temporary passport. I’m sick to my stomach, Beth is pale. I hand back the key to my cell phone which gets handed back to me through a security window.

We are standing in the streets of Quito and Beth has no passport. No identification whatsoever. I had a hunch before we entered the embassy and took a photograph of her passport with my camera. This is now the only official proof of her existence. Isn’t it the job of an embassy to help their citizens abroad? Isn’t this the main duty of an embassy? Let’s see what tomorrow brings. 

At 11:00 we are back at the embassy. It takes us two hours with the taxi to go there. Three Taxi drivers refused to drive us there. (This is a first, I have never encountered this phenomenon in any other country.)

In a 3 hour sitting in the hotel we filled out the form for the temporary passport. For the five references we have the idea to let the embassy call at work in Beth’s department, so the embassy can do everything in one phone call. Yesterday we Skyped work to make sure who is working. References are big in Canada and a foreign concept to me as a German that I will never get used to. Pretty much everything works with references, official papers, job applications etc. Without references you are nobody. This concept comes from the olden days of “suspicion and small villages” where everybody knew everybody and strangers were not wanted. “Nobody knows you – you can’t be any good!” Like it or not, this is how it works. 

There is a little photo studio a block away from the embassy, so we stop there to get Beth photo for the temporary passport taken. It’s an old fashioned photo studio with an actual photographer who knows what he is doing. Refreshing to see businesses like these still exist somewhere in the world. He get’s the photos right first dry.

Back at the embassy the lady that dealt with us the day before is not available. We think this is a good thing. Sure enough the staff member that helps us today is nicer. Yesterday we talked to Arbi, the guy from England, and he told us that the British embassy we went to was much more helpful. He reported the shipwreck to them and they told him to investigate. We decide to do the same and report our ordeal to the Canadians. The lady writes everything down on some sticky notes and shows genuine concern. But obviously the Canadian government does not have any official procedures to help their citizens abroad if they are in trouble. Surprising as everything else is heavily regulated and there seems to be a form for everything. 

But the staff member from today – unfortunately I forgot her name – makes it a much more pleasant experience. It’s amazing how things change if people make an effort to deal with you properly. She tells us that this is considered a serious incident and the embassy will follow up and will let us know what happens. They never did. We are informed that the passport will be ready on Thursday. It’s Tuesday today and our flight back is on Friday. There is no room for error, if there is something wrong with our paperwork, we will have no time to fix it. We beg the lady to check our papers and the photos double and triple times before we leave. One last thing she advices us to do is file a Police report.

Now we know we are stuck in and around Quito for the rest of our vacation. No Cuenca, no Pater Crespi. Without a passport or other form of identification tourists can’t take commercial airplanes or long distance busses. We can’t even book a tour, as they also require ID. We decide to make the best of it and explore Quito’s shops and restaurants. We also want to go to Otavalo, one hour northwest of Quito. Apparently the biggest crafts market of South America is there. 

But first we get an email from Maria. We should come to her office. We think, maybe we will get our money. Nobody has heard from Fausto, the manager who is supposed to deal with the refund from the tour operator. Arbi tried several times to get a hold of him over the last two days, but he either just left the office or is not in the office, yet. Arbi personally went to his office and personally saw him there. 10 minutes later he was gone to an urgent meeting. Arbi told us he got pretty loud in the office as he realized that he was taken for a fool. 

We take a Taxi to Maria’s office. She tells us that she has ‘good news’. Her insurance company is willing to pay up to $1200 for lost items during the wreck. I tell her we lost more than that. Some people lost a whole lot more.

She says that this is what her insurance offers her to pay right away. Anything more would take a long time as we would have to fight for it. We think to ourselves: Fight for it? How? From Canada? In Canada you can’t even get a lawyer that will talk to you under a case value of $50000, let alone afford one. And then how do you fight something like an insurance company in another country? 

We also have to be careful that if we want too much money, Maria’s company will just declare bankruptcy and we will get nothing. I’m convinced that they already think about this option. Every smart business person would. If they do that, we won't see a cent.

So we say “Ok. $1200 per person for lost items. When can we get the money?”. “We can wire the money to your account by Friday, or early next week.”, she says. That sounds good if it’s true. We sign a form that says something like “We agree for a maximum compensation of $1200 per person for lost items during the shipwreck of the Pelicano.”, and leave the office. We want to use the rest of the day to go to Otavalo and see the market that the travel guide (now on the bottom of the ocean) was raving about. It’s certainly nice and lot’s of colorful art is displayed. Lot’s of locally handmade stuff but also imported made in China items. You have to be careful what you buy. We buy a nice vase and a very nice handmade blanket.
The market feels a bit ‘commercial’, by far not as authentic compared to the Peruvian markets we visited before. The bus ride back to Quito takes three times as long as going there. We do not enjoy our time. It’s official, we are not in the mood for vacation anymore, for the first time since 25 years of traveling I feel this way. Today we feel that we just want to go home.

Next day we feel a bit better. The sun is out. But today we have to go to the Police and report the incident. A representative from Maria’s company will help us, as we don’t speak any Spanish. Somebody recommended a specific police station. Apparently they have English speaking staff there. 

But before we go I write an Email to our tour operator Gecko’s with whom we booked the Galapagos trip. I don’t trust that Fausto guy to arrange anything. I have a bad feeling about him. I describe the problem and want to know if they even know about the incident. The answer comes about half an hour later. They just heard about it yesterday from the Coast Guard. Fausto did not report anything. Gecko’s apologizes for the terrible ordeal we went through and will issue a refund immediately as soon as they receive our bank information. An hour later the money is on our account. That’s good customer service. We can breathe a bit easier now. We are not rich people and saved our hard earned cash on the Galapagos trip which was a big part of our expenses. At least financially the loss is not that big now.

Let’s go to the police. The guy Maria sent to accompany us to the police has his little daughter with him. It’s his day off today. I feel bad for him and especially the little girl. This is probably the only day with her dad for her and she has to spend it with us in a boring police station. She is ten years old and already speaks a bit of English. Her dad tells us that nowadays it is crucial for kids to learn English as soon as possible as only in the tourist industry money can be made and more and more staff only get’s hired if they speak the universal language of the world. 

We are taking a Taxi. It is amazing how all over sudden prices change, if a local is in the taxi. Where we would have paid $4 for a trip before, now it’s $0.50. This is something I don’t like. I find people that rip off the ones that can’t know or are helpless are fundamentally dishonest. In Ecuador we met the highest concentration of dishonest people so far.

We arrive at the police station fairly quickly as traffic is very light today. It’s a holiday and on top of everything there is the football match Ecuador – Uruguay on. It’s a very important game. The winner will go to the 2014 world championship end-round in Brazil, the looser will stay home. Too bad we have to go to the Police Station. The game is in Quito and that would have been a blast to see. I’m a huge football fan and Beth has never been to a real football game before. On the way to the police station we pass the stadium with lot’s of colorful fans around. Oh man! While I see the excited fans a thought pops in my head. Everybody will be in front of the TV. I mean EVERYBODY! Policemen included. I doubt we will find anybody that even wants to deal with us.

I hate to be right with things like these. But when we arrive at the police station, a lot of words are exchanged between the Police guy and … The police man is very careful not to lose sight of the little TV next to him. Basically the outcome of the conversation is that this Police Station is not dealing with our case. Officially the reasons are not known, but I know the unofficial reason. So we head out to the next Police Station which is supposed to be the main station in Quito. At the gate the police men shake their head. A major discussion breaks out between them and … Palaver! Hands are making gestures back and forth.

After several minutes we are waved into the main building of the Police Station. It’s a huge, modern building with polished marble floors. The offices are divided by glass walls. We are guided to a waiting area where about 20 people sit and sleep. One woman with a black eye is in tears. She seems to be accompanied by her mother. In this respect, Police Stations and hospitals all over the world are the same. 

Three offices are occupied by police officers that help people. All over sudden the all get up and leave. David runs after them. Palaver! Hands are making gestures back and forth. My interpretation of the scene is that the football game has started and the police officers want to watch it. They don’t give a darn about how many people are sitting in the waiting area. David realizes that we would have to wait now at least the duration of the football game to get service. He gets up and wants to stop them. Will he be successful? 

After a long discussion two of the officers leave, one – the youngest – turns around and comes back. His facial expression looks like a small child in the supermarket that had a tamper tantrum for some candy, fought with his mother, but lost.

He goes back into his office and waves the next customer in. David comes back and takes a seat right next to me. “What was the problem?” I ask. “No problem!” He says. The usual answer. But his red face says otherwise. 

After about an hour people that came well after us are waved into the office by the police officer. David jumps up again and storms into the office. With the glass walls we can see everything that is happening. Palaver! Hands are making gestures back and fourth. I think the problem is now that the Police officer doesn’t want to deal with some foreigners. Shipwreck? That sounds complicated. 

After ten minutes of discussion – I admire David's stamina, but I guess this is how things are done here – we are waved into the office. The Officer doesn’t speak a word of English. Thanks god David is here to translate.
We would have never succeeded without him.
We describe how the shipwreck happened. I’m pretty sure the translation is not 100% accurate, controversial thing we say and could get Maria’s company in trouble are being omitted. I don’t care anymore. I just want to get out of here. “What a nightmare this all has become. Our precious vacation! A whole week of Bulls**! Tomorrow we have to go to this darn embassy again. Let’s hope we are getting the temporary passport now without problems.” These are all thoughts that go through my head. The Police offer is saying something to me, I don’t really pay attention. I naught. Sure! Whatever you say! I smile. He prints of a report and hands it to us. We thank him and leave. I quickly glance over the report. At least we have something official now from the police for Insurances, border guards or whoever wants or needs to see it.

We come back to the hotel at 17:00. We are mentally exhausted beyond description. In the evening we just stroll through the old town of Quito that we know very well by now. We are treating ourselves to a nice restaurant that we discovered the other day. Next day we are on our way to the embassy again. We didn’t get a call or an email, which we think is a good sign. Will the temporary passport be ready without a problem? Our heart are beating in our chests. We are going through the security procedures again and finally talk to the Canadian representative that hands over Beth’s temporary passport. It truly is temporary. A simple white piece of paper, stapled together in the middle with a laminated insert. Cut kind of crooked. This thing costs $180? I don’t even want to think about it! But we have it, now we can travel back home. The staff member says the following soothing words. “Here is your passport. Should you have any problems, with border guards, tell them to call the embassy.” “Yeah, right!” I think, “Our flight is going at midnight, the embassy is open from 11:00 – 15:00! I’m sure the border guard would get great information then”

The next day we shop a bit and finally fly back via the US to Canada. We don’t have any problems with the temporary passport. It seems everything is marked in the computer already and the border guards are already aware of the situation. We are glad when we come home to Calgary. This was certainly the worst experience we ever had during our travels. 

Our trip to Ecuador leaves us with very mixed feelings about the country. Of course we are a bit tainted because of our ordeal in the Galapagos Islands and the aftermath. But I think we are experienced travelers and we believe we can judge those things quite well. We had two great weeks in the Amazon Jungle and good days in the old town of Quito. The country is certainly beautiful and has lot of diversity to offer. What left a sour taste in our mouths was the fact that many Ecuadorians we met were quite dishonest, unmotivated, grumpy and inflexible. The women we met and dealt with had a bit of a tendency to be ‘divas’ and the men had a lot of ‘machismo’ especially towards women. A lot of the guides made inappropriate sexist comments towards female guests and left us with the impression that single women travelers should be careful. This is something we have not experienced in Peru or Bolivia or anywhere else in that form.

Another thing we didn’t like were two different prices for locals and tourists in many museums, and other attractions which gave us the impression that tour operators, restaurants etc. think they have a ‘license to rip off’ tourists. All third world countries have the usual ‘harassers’ that want to sell you something in the street and when you stand in front of the stores. That’s fine and somewhat expected. But in all of my travels around the world I have never experienced a downright hostility and nasty comments when we said “No, thank you”. I sometimes had the feeling that there is a deeply routed disrespect for tourists and strangers.

Maybe this is somewhat historical and cultural in Ecuador as the guide in the Amazon told us that many tribes in the Ecuadorian jungle immediately kill any stranger without warning that enters their land. Even he has to be careful not to enter certain areas. 

Another thing to watch for is the practice of well established tour operators to sub-contract local tour operators (this is not just for Ecuador). You think you are booking a tour with a well established and experienced global tour operator, but once there you find out that an inexperienced local guy is just a ‘representative’ who’s training was wearing the operator’s t-shirt with a logo and holding up a sign at the airport. It is highly recommended while booking to ask who the local representative is going to be as well as asking for accurate contact numbers. 

Maybe – someday – we will give Ecuador another try. I still want to see Pater Crespi’s collection.


After we left Ecuador communication between Maria’s Office and us “Shipwreckers” ended entirely. While we stayed in touch with each other as best as possible, no efforts were successful to contact Maria or her office. No sign of the $1200 either. 6 weeks I decided it’s time to increase the pressure a bit. With several emails and deadlines I finally got a response. She claimed the insurance was slow and no communication from the insurance was received. Finally, 3 months and numerous emails we got our promised compensation of $1200. We are all still waiting for the voucher for the promised replacement cruise. 

But that – we think – will never happen.

After all the chaos over the last days, we enjoy the tranquility of the monastery 'San Francisco'  Some munchs live here like hundreds of years ago.