Thursday, March 4, 2010

Guayaquil Walkabout

Experience has taught us to include at least one “buffer” day, or more, when traveling from a winter climate to allow for weather-related flight delays. The last thing anyone wants is to miss the first official day of a tour. Since most members were coming from winter-impacted areas of the country, it was suggested to try and arrive in Ecuador a day early. Marge would be the first to endorse having planned for a buffer day!
Typically our bird tours are very jam-packed with birding activity. We are either birding or on our way somewhere to bird with little room for down time. One plus for arriving early was having the opportunity for some down time to explore our surroundings without being in full birding mode. In a word: sightseeing (code word for shopping).
The extra day also allowed time to unwind, reorganize our travel bags, stow any extra winter clothing, dig out boots, assemble birding and photo gear or simply to relax a bit. As we would be returning to the Hotel Continental two times before the final end of the tour, we had the option of storing extra un-needed luggage at the hotel.
Having recovered somewhat from a sleep deprived travel day, caffeine and breakfast seemed in order. Across from the hotel lobby was “La Canoa”, a 24-hour restaurant which offered a breakfast buffet including native or American-style food and an option to order ala carte.
A couple of important points about food and drink in Ecuador: First, don’t drink the water. Tap water in Ecuador, even in the cities, harbors endemic disease-causing organisms. Unless you’re a native and have developed a resistance to these endemic nastys, stick to bottled water. Always use agua pura (bottled water) to brush your teeth (bottled beer will do in a pinch). Also avoid any fruits or vegetables washed in tap water. Unfortunately, several of our group over the course of our stay suffered, to varying degrees, effects from bacterial attacks. Thank goodness for Cipro (Ciprofloxacin).
Coffee drinkers: Ecuador will disappoint you. The national culture seems to have a fetish for freeze-dried coffee. Coffee is typically served by pouring a syrup-like concentrate of instant coffee followed by adding either hot water or hot leché (milk). For more details visit Frommer’s about the overall food culture in Ecuador.
Somewhat fortified with food from La Canoa, most of our group set off to explore Seminario Park located directly across from the hotel (mind the horn-honking impatient drivers when crossing the street). Also known as Simon Bolívar, locals commonly refer to the park as “Iguana Park” referring to its numerous iguanas. Hundreds of them, in fact (mind where you stand when beneath a tree filled with iguanas to avoid an amazingly large shower of iguana urine). The population remains from the late 1800’s when the park marked the edge of town adjacent to a vast savannah. On the opposite side of the park from the hotel is a neo-Gothic Metropolitan Cathedral built in 1948 with huge stained glass windows and works of art.
Regrouping at the hotel, everyone opted to stroll the city’s waterfront attraction Malecón Simón Bolívar along the west bank of the Guayas River. The entire walk stretches for 2.5 kilometers and includes several monuments, museums, gardens, shops and restaurants. Access was via an easy walk from the hotel up a handful of city blocks along Av Diez de Agosta. For most of the non-Texas members it was refreshing to walk without plodding through snow or suffering a negative degree wind-chill.
By late afternoon we gathered again at the hotel for a bite to eat, this time in the hotel’s upscale restaurant, “El Fortin” which had been recommended by locals.  The food turned out to be quite agreeable although a few days later some of the group impacted by intestinal discomfort wondered if the restaurant’s use of tap water during food prep didn’t come into play.
Richard had informed us a few weeks before arriving that our guide from Tropical Birding would once again be José Illanos. When we arrived at the hotel the night before we learned that not only would we be reunited with José, but Niko our driver from 2008 would also be with us. Some of the group went up to Niko’s room to reintroduce themselves - it was like old home week!
Given the exhausting travel day and having spent our first day hoofing it around Guayaquil, an early bedtime seemed in order. We would need to meet the next morning in the La Canoa for breakfast at 6:00 AM. And prior to that we needed to bring all our luggage to the lobby to be loaded on our bus.  One small detail: Marge was still to arrive on the late night flight due in at 11:00 PM. Someone needed to greet and retrieve her.
Carol made arrangements with the hotel for us to do just that. Unfortunately as the time to depart for the airport grew near, we were informed that her flight had been delayed. Not by minutes but by hours. The actual time to leave for the airport had been pushed back to after 12:30 AM. With much needed assistance from hotel staff in the form of Carlos, we wound up waiting at the airport until after 1:00 AM when her flight finally landed. Marge needed to deal with customs and immigration but at least all she had to cope with as far as luggage was her carry-on. Remember we had already retrieved her check-through bag the night before.
Still, it seemed to take forever. After 1:30 Marge finally emerged to grateful hugs and smiles. After a fast taxi ride back to the hotel we managed to fall into bed after 2:00 AM! We would need to be up by 4:15 AM…but at least Marge was back in the fold and would make the trip afterall. Thank goodness for that buffer day!