Editor’s note: Joe Waite, a Bruce native, retired Cumberland teacher and occasional contributor to the Barron News-Shield, recently visited Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. He filed this report on his experiences.

By Joe Waite

The Galapagos Islands are 500 miles west of Ecuador, the remnants of 13 exploded volcanoes that thrust themselves out of the Pacific Ocean millions of years ago. Made famous first by English naturalist Charles Darwin who authored his now widely accepted theory of evolution, the island chain includes some of the world’s most unique animals and plants, living in an incredibly diverse terrain.

The Galapagos sit on or near the equator and lie at 90 degrees west -- which means that if you had some superpowers, and walked in a straight line from just west of Wausau, you’d end up on Santa Cruz, the chain’s oldest island and its major population center with about 15,000 citizens and tourists.

In early November, I traveled with World Strides and 21 other lead teachers that run tours with students and their families, as I have over the past 30 years.

I also met Diego, our Ecuadorian guide. He quickly became a good friend, and his knowledge and pride in his homeland, along with his infectious smile, quickly endeared him to our group.

The islands are not easy to get to. From Minneapolis, I had to first fly to Miami and then connect to Quito, Ecuador. From there, it was another two-hour flight to a tiny, desolated island named Baltra, whose airfield exists because it was built by the United States in World War II.

After traveling by bus across the moon-like landscape of this 10-mile wide island, the other teachers and I took a ferry across a small bay to Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz initially looks just like Baltra: otherworldly. It could easily be mistaken for Mars other than the scraggy vegetation that shelters an occasional sleeping iguana.

An encounter with tortoises

From the Santa Cruz docks, we then took another shuttle to Puerto Arroyo, the only city on the island, on a bay on the other side of the 15-mile wide island. The terrain quickly changed, however, as we began a 1,900-foot climb. In just 10 minutes, the island changed from a rocky outcrop to a cloud forest in which it is raining or at least misting most of the time.

The first stop was Los Gemelos, or the Twins. Two massive craters caused by collapsed volcanoes are surrounded by and filled with lush vegetation, much of which is unique only to Santa Cruz. The beautiful Scalesia trees have tall, sinewy white trunks and are capped with lush green canopies.

Slowly descending back to Puerto Arroyo and the sea, we stopped at a ranch that was dotted with hundreds of the famous tortoises that Darwin described more than 150 years ago. These tortoises, which gave the Galapagos their names, can weigh up to 500 pounds and live between 100 and 150 years. They lumber along, looking for mud pools to sooth their wrinkled skins with just their thick, brown saddle shaped shells and nostrils, perched just above the mud.

There are thousands of them, and, as I would find out the next day, they are doing very well because of the government’s aggressive tortoise breeding program. They have no natural predators -- including humans, who have been leaving them alone since they were driven to near extinction in the 19th century.

In fact, all of the chain’s animals are protected by a ‘two-meter’ rule. It is illegal to touch the animals much less approach within two meters of them. I found out this is difficult when there is an iguana stretched across the path, but more about this later.

After settling in at a very modest hotel just a block from the water, I walked out onto a pier. I watched sharks swim in figure eights as tiny fish caused a feeding frenzy of sharks that ranged from two to five feet long. Occasionally, a sea lion would swim from under the dock as well, as annoyed pelicans flapped out of the way.

Sea lions really couldn’t care less about humans: unless you get within two meters of them, at which point they growl loudly. They jump onto the dock and onto park benches whenever they feel like it. There are no seals in the Galapagos, just these beautiful sea lions. They have dark brown skin, with occasional black spots, and big black eyes with long whiskers.

Saturday morning afforded a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station in which sleepy dark grey marine iguanas covered the trails. Here I saw mangroves and cacti growing in the same place, a thing I never thought could be possible. Darwin had to have been even more amazed than I was, because I had the advantage of looking up some things on Youtube before I left.

The colors explode

That afternoon, a long trek to Tortuga Bay featured spectacular white sandy beaches and dozens more marine iguanas that stacked upon each other for warmth. These lizards are the only iguanas in the world that swim, and were one of the species that led Darwin to his theories on how species adapt over time.

I also saw spectacular sea crabs, several different kinds of finches and mockingbirds that are unique to the Galapagos. One of my fellow teachers was almost hit by a sea turtle in the surf. My iPhone showed I walked over 14 miles that day and I had the blisters to prove it, but it was very much worth it. It was an amazing day, but the best was yet to come.

We boarded a small schooner for the island of Plazas on Sunday morning. The day began with snorkeling the waters off the rocks surrounding Santa Cruz on the way there. Neon fish of every color darted in and out of the rocks.

Lifting my head out of the water, I came within 20 yards of the famous blue footed booby. These birds are about four feet tall when sitting up and have black beaks, yellow eyes, white bellies, and, of course, their famous Carolina shade of blue webbed feet. They hover above the water, diving sharply down for fish, which I got to see happen a couple of times.

A rubber dingy took us from our schooner to the Plazas dock, which was surrounded by dozens of swimming sea lions. A few of the large males would sit on rocks and bellow loudly, but, for the most part, they swam or came on shore to sun themselves all over the island.

Yellow and orange iguanas were everywhere, as were the tiny brown lava lizards that would occasionally catch a ride on the iguanas’ backs in perfect symbiotic relationship.

After hiking over black rocks that were ejected from ancient volcanos, we were able to see the waves of the Pacific explode into the cliffs as thousands of beautifully plumed birds skirted both the waves and cliff faces looking for food.

Several sea lions had, apparently, scaled the cliffs as well, despite having no arms or legs, much less fingers. Our local guide explained that they can launch themselves several feet into the air and have terrific balance. I didn’t get to see it but I believe it.

I took a picture that had brilliant, red vegetation growing over white shiny rocks, with a yellow iguana walking by in front of a brilliant green cactus, with a black sea lion sleeping underneath, all framed in by an incredibly azure sea in the background. There is no other place like this on earth. The colors explode.

I was able to make it back to the city and watch the Packers beat the Panthers over a weak hotel WiFi signal, converting our guide and new amigo Diego to Packer Nation in the process.

A return to Ecuador

Monday morning, the journey reversed, and we caught a two hour flight back to Quito.

At around 9,000 feet above sea level, perched high in the Andes Mountains, the Ecuadorian capital city is a combination of poor, urban sprawl and quaint Spanish colonialism that features spectacular Catholic Cathedrals in the city’s center. Shrouded in clouds, Quito, even though it is just half a degree north of the equator, is generally cool, and features late afternoon mists, reminding me more of a late fall day in Barron County.

We started at the top of the city under the metallic wings of the Virgin of Panecillo. This unique statue of the Virgin Mary, made of 7,000 pieces of overlapping aluminum, towers just under 150 feet from the ground and sits upon one of the city’s peaks.

Darkness fell quickly at 6 p.m., as it does every day. Sitting so near the equator, there are no seasons, as well as no sunrises and sunsets in Quito. The sun comes up quickly at six in the morning and sets just as quickly at night.

Taking a bus down a serpentine mountain road crowded with traffic, I and my fellow teachers were dropped off at the historic center of the city that the Spanish conquerors of Ecuador began building in the 16th century.

So impressive is the architecture of the cathedrals and basilicas that used recycled volcanic rock from Inca ruins, that UNESCO named the city its first ever protected World Heritage Site.

Breathing is an issue. The air contains just 63 percent of the oxygen it has at sea level, and with steep ascents, my lungs began barking at me much more quickly than usual when faced with such climbs.

No escape from politics

As we went by the unoccupied Presidential palace, a woman with a megaphone was screaming about how the government had just murdered several protestors, and in fact, just three weeks before this, protestors had taken to the streets and several were killed when military police opened fire on them as the President fled to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s second largest city.

The palace is still fenced off and the police presence there was still strong. The protests had erupted because of an increase on the price of gasoline and diesel fuel. Though President Lénin Moreno rescinded the tax after three days of rioting, Diego said that all Ecuadorians expect him to reinstate the tax and that violence will once again erupt. They fully expect protestors to blockade major roads and the police to come out in force once again.

Ecuadorians are gentle and friendly people with quick smiles and are very welcoming. They deserve a better fate.

A foot in each hemisphere

Our next day featured a trip to Ciudad Mitad del Mundo, or the middle of the world, which features a 100-foot tower, signifying its exact location on the equator: which it is not. The true zero degrees latitude is over 250 yards to the south, featured in an outdoor museum that reminded me of an Andean version of Pioneer Village between Barron and Cameron.

The highlight was a red line which we gathered for photos, with one foot planted in each of the earth’s hemispheres. A museum guide poured water down a sink above the line as we watched water drain straight through the hole. Just three feet north of the line, the water rotated clockwise down the drain while three feet south of the line saw just the opposite.

The guide then balanced an egg on the head of a nail.

An experiment that amazed me was trying to keep your balance on the equator: it is almost impossible because of the earth’s gravity. Another experiment I was involved with had a woman trying to push down my outstretched hands with both of her hands. She couldn’t. However, when I stood on the equator, she was able to push my arms down with just two fingers.

It was an apt fit to a short but unique adventure. Ecuador has so much more to offer and I do hope to return their someday.