We (my buddy from Charleston, Lou, and I) arrive in Quito late night and are picked up at the airport. We are staying at a very nice bed and breakfast for $12.50 each, and that is in the upper half of the price range.

Ecuador has to be one of the cheapest places on earth. The prices are like the U.S. in the 50's. A regular restaurant meal is about $2.00, and a steak at the fanciest joint will run you $5.00. Transit fares and everything not imported are at an equivalent level. It is a backpacker's heaven, with scads of places to stay from $2 to $10/night. To complete the time-warp illusion, the local currency is being eliminated and greenbacks and U.S. coins are used. The people are very unhappy about dollarization because sound money means that the country's disastrous fiscal and economic policies can no longer be disguised by running the printing press. The government was ousted over the issue a few months ago, but the replacement installed by the military is sticking to the policy.

The first day we walked around the old city. It is supposed to be a colonial gem (World Heritage List and all that), but I found it more congested than charming. Hilly, too. Why couldn't the Spaniard build on the flat land? The city lies in a valley running north and south. The new city lies north of the colonial part and has all the tourist stuff; south Quito, where the people live, is sprawling and dangerous.

In the afternoon we book our trip to the Galapagos. Prices in Quito for "last minute departures" are about half what you would pay in the U.S., although not as low as you would find if you flew out to the islands and hunted down space on a boat getting ready to depart. High season has officially arrived, so airfares were up and boat availability limited. For various reasons we select a "tourist class" boat. (More on that later.)

On Day #2 we head off to Mitad del Mundo, about 15 miles north, where the French "found" the equator in the 1735. There is a monument and tourist village with a yellow line marking the equator. (Big secret: modern satellite mapping has shown the line to be approximately 1,000 ft. off.) Like most of the tourist spots in the country, Mitad del Mundo is deserted and looking forlorn. Same old story: a few news reports about riots, crime and economic collapse and Mr. and Mrs. Tourist decide to go to Disney World instead. Me: I see bad news and read "bargains."

On Day #3 we are off to the Indian market in Otovalo. Odd, the bus leaves the terminal practically empty. All the buses do. The reason quickly becomes apparent: there is an 8? passenger charge to use the terminal. Only the gringos board inside the station. As soon as the bus leaves, the locals pile in, thus avoiding the terminal charge. The ride is only supposed to take an hour, but the first 45 minutes are spent cruising the streets looking for more passengers. Only when full do we leave the city.

Otovalo is considered a "must-see" destination, but looks to me like just another tourist trap. The guidebooks recommend that if you only have a week in Ecuador you should spend two days in Otovalo. I thought three hours was plenty, including a long lunch. On Saturdays the market is supposed to be mobbed with tourists. We were there on Wednesday, the other "market day" It looks like there are only 6 gringos in town, and we all end up at the same place for lunch.

The country is chock-full of active volcanoes. The one near Ecuador is Pichincha, which is under orange alert and closed to the public. That warning stuff is for weenies; we get permission to visit. A guide takes us in his four-wheel drive up a very rough track to the refuge near the top. The route is highly scenic. Lots of "verticulture," in which extremely steep hillsides are farmed without terracing. The volcanic soil is very rich, but the angle makes it inaccessible to any sort of machinery. There is quite a bit of dairy farming as well.

Once exiting the vehicle, we face the bitter cold and biting wind. We are at 15,000 ft., and the air is thin. The 20-minute walk to the rim is exhausting. Unfortunately, even though we had left at 6:00 a.m. the summit is clouded over. We can't see into the crater which, from the photographs taken a few days before, is spewing steam and gases.

The next day, we leave for the Galapagos, which lie about 600 miles off the coast. The plane fare cost as much as getting from Jacksonville to Quito (for foreigners, that is; locals pay a fraction, or they would if they could afford a ticket at all). The plane flies first from Quito to Guayaquil, at which point it becomes the Gringo Express. In the airport, Lou points out that it is easy to spot the radical environmentalists -- they're the ones with their feet up on the seats.

We land on a a former airstrip built by the U.S. Nary during WWII to guard the Southern approach to the Panama Canal. It is on an island two bus rides and a ferry away from Puerto Ayora, the main town, but our boat has come to meet us. El Yate Gaby is similar in shape to the one pictured and described in the brochure, but that's about the extent of the resemblance. It was constructed from wood in 1990 (or maybe 1890) on the island. It was built for 12 passengers, but converted to hold 16 in 8 double cabins. It was supposedly overhauled in 1999, but I think that means it was washed. The plus side is that the other passengers are youthful and friendly. Besides us, there are five Israelis, two Canadians, two Finns, two Italians, two English girls and a Dane. Lou and I constitute the senior citizen brigade.

The first afternoon we visit Las Bachas, a swimming beach on northern Santa Cruz island. It is picture postcard, Caribbean style beach. Transport from the boat is via "panga" (dinghy). It is a "wet" landing, D-Day style. Waiting for us on the beach is a large marine iguana. Just inland is a salt-water lagoon where pink flamingos pose. Further down the beach is the rusted skeleton of a floating pier from WWII. Giant, bright red, Sally Lightfoot Crabs crawl on the black rocks while little red Ghost Crabs scurry along the white sand. Snorkeling off the beach follows. It is like swimming in a tropical fish tank. Later, we are joined by a better class boat full of Americans, primarily old people, fat people, and families with little kids. There is no doubt which boat's passenger manifest looks better in bathing suits.

Ninety-seven percent of the Galapagos has been dedicated to the park. The entry fee, collected at the airport, is a stiff $100. There are about 40 visitor sites. There are more than 100 tourist boats, but the schedules are all worked out so that the boats visit different sites at different times. Apart from the swimming beaches, we only see a couple of other boats and do not encounter their groups on land.

The next morning we go to South Plaza island, where sea lions form a reception committee on the dock. (Actually, they are more blocking the dock than greeting us.) Directly inland are golden land iguanas waiting to be photographed. The islands are very dry with lots of cactus. Predominant is the tree cactus, which has evolved a "trunk" to grow beyond the reach of browsing tortoises.

In the afternoon we visit Santa Fe island, where the landing beach is so crowded with sea lions that we have to wade through them to get ashore. Sante Fe has the other kind of land iguana, kind of reddish. After we return to the boat, the panga takes us to nearby rocks for snorkeling with the sea lions. This is an authentic nature encounter: two people get bit. They are just being playful. Fortunately, the sharks we can see swimming directly beneath us do not seem to share the sea lions' curiosity. We also see sea turtles, rays and more tropical fish.

The islands tend to be between one and five hours apart. The program normally consists of a morning and an afternoon visit to different sites, sometimes on different islands, and some snorkeling. Inter-island travel usually takes place overnight. Although the seas are not particularly rough by nautical standards, we are on a bouncy boat. Some folk report seasickness, but Lou is an old salt and I feel fine.

The next day we visit Espanola (Hood) island. AM: more iguanas, more sea lions, more snorkeling. The afternoon is a treat: another site on the island contains the world's entire nesting population of the Waved Albatross. They are noted for an elaborate courtship ritual consisting of a sword fight with their long beaks, posturing, clattering, followed by the payoff, all happening just a couple feet away from us. We also see Masked Boobies and the Galapagos Hawk. This ain't like Africa, where you need binoculars and a long lens to see what's going on. The animals here are completely unafraid of man, which is why they were so easy to kill. You can just walk right up and grab them or bop them on the head (although, of course, you're not supposed to do that anymore). It's like being in The Nature Channel.

Day #4 is Floreana Island, where we start with the colored beaches. This is the green sand beach, the color coming from small, green, crystals of olivine, a volcanic mineral. On our walk, we see a night heron, and more flamingos.

In the afternoon, it's time for more snorkeling, this time at a rock formation called The Devil's Crown. The activity should have been announced: "who wants to be dropped off in cold, deep water with a strong current against sharp rocks in the middle of the ocean?" If so, there might have been fewer takers. My mask fogs up, and when I tried to clean it, I swallow a bunch of water. The panga has disappeared, and I think this might be the end. Luckily, one of the less confident swimmers had donned a life vest. I grab on to it/her until the boat returns to rescue me.

I never thought I could be on the equator at sea level and be so cold. The Humboldt Current flows north from the Antarctic, making the water fine for penguins but not for Floridians used to heated pools. It is supposed to be the dry season, but it is generally cloudy in the mornings and rains a lot. The days are nice enough, but at night you need long sleeves and pants.

Floreana also has the famed barrel post office. Outgoing whalers used to leave their mail in a barrel to be picked up by whalers on the return voyage home and who would then post it when they got back to England or America or wherever. The tradition continues with postcards. Most are for the U.S., but there are some for most everywhere. There seem to be two competing traditions: mail or hand delivery. I pick up a few for mailing, but the one I drop in ends up being hand delivered. Either way, it seems to take about the same time as the government postal sevice.

That night dinner is delayed because the plates in the kitchen were smashed when we encountered a large swell. Everything went flying. Luckily, we were on our way to Puerto Ayora, where they were able to buy some more crockery. We will be spending two nights in port and swapping out half the passengers. Two girls not scheduled to depart until the next day opt to spend the night on solid land. They are nice enough people, but, like most foreigners, a bunch of communists and eco-nazis: part of the do-gooder, save-the- whales crowd who would impose their vision of a just and orderly society like Pol Pot did in Cambodia.

There's not much to do in town, but at least there are restaurants. The food so far has been edible, but it's nice to have a choice of what to eat. Lots of T-shirt shops, too.

The main attraction is the Darwin research station which houses the only giant tortoises we get to see. The whaling and sailing ships pretty well wiped out the tortoise population. A single ship would take as many as five or six hundred at a time; they would stay alive for six months or so and provide the crew with fresh meat. A number of the subspecies are now extinct. The natural habitat of the tortoises is the highlands, not anywhere near the beach. (There are tortoise reserves on Santa Cruz Island, but they are closed for mating season.)

At the Darwin station you can get up close and personal. Their big business is raising new tortoises for release in the wild. Because rats (arrived with the whalers) on the island eat the eggs and baby tortoises, they can't release them before five years. The baby turtle corrals have to be covered every night with rat proof covers. At five years they are only about a foot across, and it will take another 30 or 40 years to reach full size. The Hood Island subspecie has been brought back from the brink of extinction: in 1960 there were only 14 left; they have grown and released about 2000 since then. We also see Lonesome George, the sole surviving member of the Pinta Island subspecies.

The station is staffed by gringo volunteers who fly half way around the world to clean the turtle corrals. If they really wanted to help, they would stay home and just send the money. And instead of begging for donations, the station ought to be selling baby tortoises -- there is no shortage of them. (In the wild 98+% get eaten by birds and other predators.) Everyone is so busy being politically correct that they can't see the obvious solution to their money problems.

In the afternoon we travel up into the highlands to look at a couple of giant sinkholes and walk through lava tubes, highway-size tunnels which stretch much further than you can see or would care to walk.

The new crowd on the boat consist of three Israelis, five Americans, and two Dutch. The Dutch are very nice, but the others act like they are on the Queen Mary and that everyone else are their servants. We veterans can't stand them. Good thing we're leaving soon.

The next two days are the least interesting. We go to Rabida Island, which has a red sand beach, and Santiago (James) Island, which has one of black sand. But no new animals worthy of note.

Friday morning is our last and is the best. We visit North Seymour Island, home to the Blue-footed Booby and Frigate Bird colonies. As advertised, the boobies have bright blue feet. Their courtship dance is hilarious. The Frigate Birds are albatross-size and black. The males have bright red pouches in their throat which they inflate like a balloon to attract females. Sort of like the avian equivalent of a fat wallet.

It's the end of the week and we are back at the airport. (Baltra, the airport island, is also known as South Seymour Island.) Unlike earlier in the week at Puerto Ayora, this time there are no fond farewells. After those two Israeli girls, I'm ready to join the PLO. The flight home consumes most of the day.

Back in Quito, with only three days left. Lou and I part company: he wants to go to the Amazon jungle and I head up into the mountains (I've already been to the Peruvian Amazon).

On Saturday morning I take the bus to Riobamba, some four hours distant. The ride south down "The Avenue of the Volcanoes" is a disappointment because they are hidden by clouds. The land is lush and fertile. Ecuador ought to be an agricultural powerhouse, but, apart from hothouse roses, I don't think much is grown for export.

Riobamba makes Quito look expensive. My hotel room costs $5. Most other places are in the $2 range, although one somewhat grotty place that costs 60? (with private bath). There is a large Indian market, but this is an authentic one, not for the tourists. I buy one of the cool, vaguely Tyrolian felt hats which every Indian man, women and child wears. (The Ecuadorian mestizos all wear baseball caps.)

Riobamba is the starting point for what remains of the trans-Andean railway. Running from Guayaquil on the coast to Quito and completed in 1908, it is one of the great railroad engineering accomplishments of the world. The building of the highway made it obsolete, and after numerous landslides and washouts in the 80's and 90's service has been discontinued. The steepest part, to Nariz del Diablo (the Devil's Nose), is preserved as a tourist run. Three times a week a train goes from Riobamba to the summit and returns. A ticket costs $12 for tourists; locals pay 24?. The best view is from the roof, so at 6:30 a.m. we all scramble for places on top. The train consists of two passenger cars, two boxcars for rooftop seating, plus locomotive. A youthful, festive atmosphere prevails. As the train chugs along, kids at trackside are waving, vendors are walking back and forth along the roof and, of course, the conductors ride up on top with us.

Unfortunately, our ride is cut short. At 10:45, we are halted by a landslide blocking the track. It must have occurred since Friday's run. Nothing to do but slowly back up. At the first road crossing, I get a lift from a group of Dutch girls whose bus has been following us. They give me a ride to the Pan-American highway, which runs parallel to the tracks. From there, I catch two local buses back to Riobamba. The other riders are all Indians, but I am wearing my official Indian hat so I fit right in. Just as I get back it begins to rain. The rain lasts all the way back to Quito.

My last day in Quito I spend shopping. Panama hats actually come from Ecuador, so I have to get one. They are made by hand from reeds and are graded according to quality. The typical hat you see in the US is a low grade, no higher than a 6. I spring for a grade 10 at $22. The highest grade sold is 15, at $88, which is as fine as linen. Of course, I have to wear it home. Oddly enough, I am the only person in the airport who has one. The other tourists must be content with buying more T-shirts. I also buy a giant wooden parrot and a toucan that takes up most of my suitcase so I have to get another bag to hold my clothes.

Trip date: June 2000