Saturday 31 August 2019

Ecuador and Galapagos...and Some Football Grounds

Ecuador and Galapagos Islands (...and Football)

As someone who enjoys travelling, and who enjoys football I often find ways to combine both these pleasures. After previous holidays I have written about taking in football matches in Greenland, and in the Faroe Islands. I have spent decades attending football matches (if you are American, I mean soccer) in Scotland. It is part of our history and culture that I understand, I feel part of. I can go for a jog in Glasgow around all the old football pitches that Partick Thistle have ever played at over the past 143 years and it tells may about how people in my city have lived, how industry has grown and fallen away in my hometown. 

So it is maybe no surprise that when I am on holiday in a foreign town looking for a wee running route, I often pick out local sports stadiums to run around. This is proving increasingly difficult as redevelopment often robs a local community of its historical social focus, and plops the new concrete bowl out of town on a turn-off from the motorway. 

I have been lucky enough to watch football matches in some of the world's most iconic stadiums. From the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, to Camp Nou in Barcelona or Carrow Road in Norwich it helps you see how a city lives and breathes. As well as being an entertaining spectacle you see what their equivalent of a pie and Bovril is, how their public transport copes and how the locals celebrate or drown their sorrows. As I am usually holidaying with my family during the school holidays, there are often no actual football matches to watch in the leagues' summer breaks. Nonetheless, whether I am in Hamburg, or Thessaloniki I will often get up before everyone else and batter round a quick 10K to see what part of town St Pauli calls home, or what the neighbourhoods around PAOK's Toumba stadium look like. I sound like am obsessed with jogging past football stadiums when no football is on the go, and on thinking about it, maybe I am. Over the next 6 weeks I am doing a half-marathon in Manchester that goes past Old Trafford, and a 10K in Cumbernauld that finishes at Clyde FC's Deadwood Stadium.

So this summer was no exception, just more scenic than these last two.

Why go to the Galapagos Islands?

Visiting Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands was never going to be an ordinary holiday. On my own personal bucket-list of destinations, this has always really been the only place listed. After my granny died recently a few years short of her centenary a wee bit of money came our way from her will and we blew it all on the trip. 

People in Quito's Plaza Grande
Flying halfway around the world to visit a place famed for its wildlife and natural beauty is not sustainable in a world being damaged by climate change. We sought out travel agents using local guides and companies in the region, and paid for carbon offsetting of our flights. Despite this I understand it would be better for the environment across the world, and in the Galapagos Islands, if we all traveled less and I justified it to myself as a way to inspire my children to care about these places, particularly my oldest who is at university studying animal biology, and who got so much out of the trip. 

My own personal interest in this area came from one of my favourite books that I read as a child, Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle. Re-reading it again earlier this year reminded me how exciting I found it at the time. Darwin is often depicted as an older man with a long grey beard, but he was only aged 22 when he set off as a supernumerary member of the crew of HMS Beagle in 1831, working as naturalist as the ship circumnavigated the globe on what became a 4 year surveying and mapping expedition. Spending time on board collating his notes and reading other people's ideas, the things Darwin saw on his trip led him to conclude that species were not fixed. Why were the tortoises and mockingbirds of the Galapagos Islands recognisable, but unlike their nearest cousins anywhere else? Even between nearby islands in the archipelago he saw differences in the mockingbird species. It was not until 1859 that his thoughts and further researches were pulled together and presented in his book Origin of the Species. The full title summarises his theory, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, controversial at the time, but now "omnipotent because it is true" as someone once said about another writer's ideas. 

In a ground-breaking documentary series, full of portentous title music and beautiful exotic scenery, David Attenborough introduced children of my generation to Darwin's theory of evolution. Life on Earth starts with the Galapagos marine iguanas and giant tortoises appearing in episode 1. The Islands are classic example of where the powers of evolution can be seen in front of your own eyes. Funnily enough the Galapagos Islands' famous Darwin's finches don't actually feature in the Origin of the Species despite being such a visible proof of his ideas, although the mockingbirds appear. Although he collected many specimens of the finches, he had been less fastidious on documenting which specimens came from which island, only noticing whilst reviewing them on board The Beagle when back at sea that they were remarkably varied in the shape and function of their beaks. From common ancestors, 15 species had developed on the islands each with adaptions helping it to survive in its particular environment, from Cactus finch to the blood-sucking Vampire finch. An example of divergent evolution, the finches had changed over time to become different species, taking advantage of an ecological niche.

David Attenborough's Life on Earth, signed book from the series
After being enthralled by the television series aged 9 or 10, my brother and me had our copy of the book that accompanied the programmes signed by David Attenborough in a city centre bookshop in Glasgow, back in the days before he was a national treasure. Thankfully I have still held onto this fantastic book. 

This holiday was the one my 9 year old self has always wanted to make, to visit the islands where Darwin developed his ideas. Thankfully that Darwin connection now means that the islands are desperately trying to maintain their status as a unique, wild environment that jump-started scientific thought. As the Ecuadorians go forwards, the balance is between encouraging tourism and the money that it brings to fund environmental projects, and strictly maintaining the wildlife's isolation by rationing tourist numbers and designating 97% of the islands landmass as a protected national park. 


Quito, capital city of Ecuador
Plaza de San Francisco, Quito
Quito is home to 1.6 million people. The Ecuadorian capital city sits high in the Andes at over 9000 feet above sea level, a long stretched out city which has at its centre an old quarter with many buildings dating back to the Spanish invasion in the 1500s. Ascending the TeleferiQo cable car to the west of the city you quickly ascend to almost 13,000 feet, with views over the river basin where the city sits and the active volcanoes of Cayambo, Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, and more beyond. 

Quito, with the peak of Cotopaxi volcano beyond it
Do they like football? If the number of people wearing local football strips is anything to go by, that's a yes. There are four teams from Quito in the country's top league at present. Aucas have the best look, with their red and yellow tops (the corporate colours given to them by their former owner Royal Dutch Shell, the oil company), but Liga de Quito (LDU) was the one that was seen most frequently about town. Our taxi driver was excitedly telling us about the team's new signing, Ecuadorian former Manchester United player, Antonio Valencia. The other strip that was seen commonly all over the city was for Barcelona SC, which confusingly wears the Spanish team Barcelona's badge, put their by the club's founder in 1925, in tribute to his home city that he had left behind.

Aucas FC
The Ecuadorian national football team have qualified for World Cup finals three times since Scotland last made an appearance in the competition. Their most successful run in the competition was in 2006, when a David Beckham free kick eliminated them 1-0 in the round of 16. My son came home with a very authentic $10 Ecuadorian replica strip from a market in Otavalo, and was delighted to see an identical shirt on sale at the airport in Quito for $110. On the couple of days we were in Quito, none of the local teams had a match on. Any plan I had to go a wee run to eyeball some of the stadiums was thwarted by three things; how far from any of the grounds we were staying, the amount of hills in Quito, and the altitude. It was the first time I have ever been anywhere that high, and although we all adapted after a couple of days, when walking up a flight of stairs was leaving me puffing and peching, a 10K run was a non-starter. 

A flat back four. Dogs dozing on Panecillo, Quito
Quito card school
Quito is a spectacularly dramatic city, with great cafes and restaurants and a lively main square where buskers performed nightly in front of large crowds, before groups of men gathered to play cards together later on. Soon we were off to try and track down some wildlife though. After a couple of days in Quito, we headed to a lodge in the nearby cloud forest. One lodge in the mountains that we visited in the forest here, as well has having hummingbirds, tanagers and agoutis roaming around, also had a small football pitch laid out in among the trees. Nicely maintained and with a net behind one of the goals to stop any stray balls heading into the wilderness, it did rather beg the question of who was coming up here for a kick about?

An agouti ambling around
Sachatamia Lodge, Cloud Forest Ecuador
There is apparently a thriving local football scene in Ecuador, with hundreds of community teams playing off against each other regularly. One feature of a lot of these leagues is that many have mixed teams of men and women, and for many taking part is as important as winning.

Trekking around Cotacachi volcano

Mindo football stadium
A popular base for tourists in this region is the town of Mindo. A one time logging town, the area is part of a protected reserve now and the town has found benefits in protecting the forest as a home to various tours and outdoor activities. It is also home to orchid and butterfly farms, coffee processors and chocolate roasters all of which are happy to offer tours.

A collared aracari, my new favourite red, yellow and black bird
Every small town we passed through sported a well maintained grass pitch, whether nestled in among houses or commanding views over the Andes, such as on the outskirts of Otavalo, giving me plenty of targets for random evening running. I was advised that the large number of dogs roaming the streets in these areas were not strays, but much as we let cats wander off during the day, Ecuadorians will do the same with their dogs. Used as effective burglar deterrents, avoiding or fleeing these "pets" regularly added a couple of kilometers to any runs that I attempted.

Otavalo market
Otavalo, with beautiful views over the Andes
So, farewell to the volcanoes (and llamas) of the mainland

Galapagos Islands

The Galapagos Islands lie about 800 miles west from the Ecuadorian mainland. At one time it was only home to buccaneers and whalers, who between them almost wiped out the giant tortoise population by using then for food and oil. There are now about 35,000 people living, on 5 of the 21 islands. The largest town is Puerta Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz, home to 12,000 people and the Charles Darwin Research Station. Landing at the airport on Baltra Island the cabin of the plane is fumigated to prevent alien insects landing on the islands. Then your baggage is searched, by hand and by sniffer dogs, for any foodstuffs that may contain pests, or muddy shoes that could carry non-endemic seeds. You pay your $100 per person tourist tax (most of which now goes to the local economy) and finally you are let loose on one of the most unique places on the planet.

As the birds and animals of the Galapagos Islands have no instinctive fear of humans, the problem is not spotting the wildlife, but avoiding tripping over it. Local rules ask you to stay 2 meters away from any animals, and to not touch or feed the animals or birds, all with the aim of preserving their wild habits. 

Giant tortoises on Santa Cruz

Brown pelican in the mangroves
Marine iguana
There is a balance in the Galapagos Islands, with many people keen to benefit from the money that tourism can bring, and others see the need to control the numbers visiting the islands. The locals that we spoke to held different opinions about how far things should be allowed to go. At the moment the balance is tilting in favour of preserving the environment, but as Brazil has recently shown that needs political will and government investment to persuade everyone of the benefits.
The balance between tourism and nature, on Avenue Charles Darwin
Estadio Pampas Coloradas, Puerta Ayora, Santa Cruz. Galapagos Isalnds
There are two sports that we saw being played by the locals everywhere we went  in the Galapagos Islands; volleyball and football. The Ecuadorians play their own version of volleyball apparently (see below). The stadium above, in Puerta Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz, is part of a sports complex in the town which has other facilities including a swimming pool. It has all recently been renovated. There were many other small pitches around town, and most schools seem to have a covered area for playing sports in the playgrounds whatever the weather, pitches which aren't chained up behind fences at night and were regularly being used. The Galapagos Islands have at least one footballer who has made it to a World Cup finals, Denise Andreas Pesantes, who played for Ecuador at the 2015 tournament in Canada. In an interview on the FIFA website at the time she says
"The Galapagos are a great place to live your passion for football. A lot of people think there's no time or place for football there, but you can play from Monday to Sunday, from eight in the evening to midnight. Men, women, everyone plays."

Welcome to Isabela Island, the largest in the Galapagos
Sally Lightfoot crab
Isabela Island is the largest in the Galapagos archipelago, and home to almost 2000 people. In the mid-twentieth century it was known for two things, sulphur mining from the active volcanoes, and as a prison colony, with prisoners here forced to build and dismantle pointless walls of volcanic rock under the heat of the equatorial sun. Now it is the wildlife that it is known for, and the chance to enjoy snorkeling among turtles and sharks in crystal clear waters that attracts people.

Los Tuneles, Isabela Island. Popular place for snorkeling
Looking for places to go for an early morning run I headed to the outskirts of Puerto Villamil to wander around the municipal stadium, Estadio Municipal Misael Franco Vera. The old signpost for the ground seems to have been "up-cycled" as the bench in one of the dug-outs, but I can only guess the place's former name. I have a soft spot for empty football grounds. You are halfway around the world from home, but everything is instantly recognisable, but also a wee bit exotic and different. It is a place where local people spend there time, relax, have fun and is a universal environment, far removed from the glitz and showbiz of a Champions League TV game. 

Some people visiting the Galapagos Islands spend their whole time on a cruise ship, which allows them to visit lots of different islands, but we were happy staying in just a couple of places, getting to know them better and relaxing. Also the speedboat trip between Santa Cruz and Isabela Island across choppy waters convinced us that being on dry land for most of our holiday had been the correct decision. 

You need to get down to the beach early in Puerto Villamil if you want to get a bench before the sealions hog them all

Local teams played every night at the wee 5-aside pitch by the beach here

Blue-footed boobies dancing like nobody is watching

Swimming with sea turtles was a real highlight of our trip
Volleyball is very popular in Ecuador, in towns and on beaches. I don't play volleyball so I apologise if what I am saying makes no sense at all, but one of the local guides was telling us that here they play "Ecuavolley", which is similar to the traditional game, but involves a lot more scooping up of the ball into the air. To me it looked like volleyball, but as I say, I am ignorant of its finer tactics.

Volleyball in the main square of Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz
This was our first trip to South America. We came here to follow in the footsteps of a European scientist, but fell in love with the spectacular scenery, the wonderful wildlife and the friendly and welcoming people. All our guides were knowledgeable, accommodating and keen to go out of their way to show us as much of their country as they could squeeze into the time we had. So, special thanks to Tania, Andrea, Miguel, Cesar and Memo. Salud!