South America Diary: Day 1

Sydney to Guayaquil. Friday, 15 April, 2011

Auckland AirportThis diary is beginning a little unusually. Although I kept a handwritten diary for the entire trip, I accidentally lost the book I’d been writing in for the first five days of the trip, covering our entire time in the Galapagos Islands. So I’m typing this part of the trip up from memory after returning home.

Our flight from Sydney left at 09:55 on Friday morning, so we had to be up early to get to the airport with plenty of time to check in. We got up around 06:00, having packed the night before, and simply got dressed and called a taxi. The plan was to have breakfast at the airport after checking in. We checked our bags, went through immigration and security, then found a cafe where we got some muesli, M.’s with milk and mine with yoghurt. I also got a small pastry.

Our first flight was a short hop over to Auckland, New Zealand. We arrived there mid-afternoon local time, and had about an hour and a half to kill in the terminal before being let back onto the plane, which was refuelling for the haul to Santiago. After checking out the shops for a bit, M. got a coffee from one place that took Australian dollars, giving us change back in NZ currency. Then we got a snack from another place that had great looking food. The guy there told us they’d only opened new in the airport that day. They didn’t take non-NZ currency, but we paid for a frittata for M. and a huge slice of carrot cake for me with credit card. The carrot cake was excellent, with a thick slab of cream cheese icing on top.

NZ Carrot CakeBack on the flight, we settled in for the 11 hour haul to Santiago. We crossed the date line during this flight, meaning we ended up arriving in Santiago around noon on 15 April again. I watched the movie The King’s Speech on this flight, which I really enjoyed. We had almost three hours in Santiago airport before our flight to Guayaquil in Ecuador. Despite being tired, we walked up and down the terminal, checking out the shops and various food places. We decided to have a bite to eat in one called La Sebastiana. M. got them to make a toasted cheese sandwich, and we ordered a bowl of chips to munch on too.

At 14:55, our next flight took us another five hours north to Guayaquil, the largest city in Ecuador. We arrived after sunset, our flight slightly late. Customs and immigration took forever, as clearly another flight had landed just before us, a large one from Spain, full of returning locals, visiting family members, and immigrants. We later learnt that this particular flight from Madrid was notorious for having a lot of people on it who required extra time to go through immigration clearance. The queue was long and we took well over half an hour merely to progress to the front.

Well that's usefulAfter finding our bags and navigating Ecuadorian customs, we emerged into a chaotic scene in the arrivals area. We were expecting to be met by a driver with a name plaque, ready to take us straight to our hotel, as we’d arranged with the hotel in advance. We saw a few drivers with plaques with various names on them, but not ours. Furthermore, the arrivals area was extremely clogged, with enormous family reunions smothered with much hugging and gesticulation occurring in the middle of the exit corridor without regard to anyone emerging from the customs area being able to get past, or even have anywhere to go other than get caught in the middle of it all.

We fought our way around the crowds of people and out into a relatively open and calm area, then looked around again for our driver. I was just starting to suggest we should call our hotel when M. spotted a guy over near the doors holding a card with our name on it. Relieved, we walked over, by this time an hour or more after our scheduled arrival time. We were thankful the man had waited for us, though he spoke little English. He grabbed our large bags and raced out the doors, with us following quickly. We discovered that it was pouring rain outside – a hot, tropical, sticky rain in a warm, steamy evening. Our route was under cover though, and the driver led the way to a van which already contained about eight other people, all apparently waiting for us. The driver showed us into seats then placed our bags inside and closed the door before racing around to the driver’s seat, climbing in, and taking off into the night. We were silently hoping that all the other people in the van hadn’t been waiting an hour for us to emerge from customs!

Guayaquil NightThe drive through Guayaquil to the Unipark Hotel was interesting. It quickly became clear we were in a third world city, not a western one. The traffic was heavy, heaving and pulsing along the rain-slicked streets in thick clogs of steaming metal, punctuated by the sound of horns. People leaned out of packed buses; people were piled into the back of battered pick-up trucks, oblivious to the hot rain falling on them. Apparently they saved money on the road infrastructure by not bothering to paint lane lines on them – they would have been ignored anyway. There were six or seven cars packed side by side in a space you’d normally expect to see three lanes of traffic. The rule simply seemed to be that if there was any amount of space in front of you wide enough for your car, you could go.

We crawled along a main artery like this for several minutes, before finally turning onto a freeway where the flow was quicker. This took us to a tunnel under a tall hill. We emerged into a grid of streets that was the downtown area. There were raised bus platforms in the middle of the street, with gates and turnstiles on them. The architecture was run-down and decaying, with heavy metal bars over all the closed doors and windows. It looked like a scene out of Blade Runner, only not so modern.

Seco de ResThe van turned a couple of corners and pulled up in front of our hotel, which fronted on to a park that occupied a full city block. We checked in (in front of everyone else on the van, since we were the first ones out – but we didn’t care about civilities at this point, after approximately 30 hours in transit since we’d left home and desperate for a hot shower and a decent meal). Our room turned out to have a window facing the park, and when I turned to the right I saw we also had a magnificent view of the cathedral that also fronted on to the park. The park turned out to be the famous Parque Seminario, which is populated by
a family of large green iguanas, that flop lazily around on the statues. We didn’t have time to check them out close up, but we could see some from our room widow.

We didn’t want to risk wandering the streets after dark outside in a city notorious for petty crime, especially in our tired state, so we went down to the hotel restaurant on the ground floor for dinner. I ordered a local dish: seco de res – a sort of beef stew with vegetables, served over rice. It was delicious and very satisfying after 30 hours of airline and airport food. M. had a “bruschetta”, which turned out to be a serve of focaccia bread smothered in eggplant, tomato, cheese, and a tomato sauce.

With dinner done, we flopped into bed to try to get some sleep before being picked up at 08:00 in the morning for the beginning of our tour of the Galapagos Islands.


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