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Ecuador

Cruising the Galapagos

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South American archipelago a wildlife wonderland

The Arizona Republic/USA Today.com — January 9, 2022

SANTA CRUZ ISLAND, Ecuador – “Work it. Work it.”

Blue-footed boobies

A pair of blue-footed boobies perched on volcanic rocks on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos

On a black volcanic rock formation in a remote part of the Galapagos Islands, a pair of resplendent blue-footed boobies need little coaxing from a fellow traveler who wants the marine birds to remain perched while we photograph them.

The boobies are more than happy to oblige.  Like runway models, they’re not bashful about posing while our small group clicks away.

With few natural predators, there aren’t many places on Earth where the wildlife is as unafraid – and even welcoming – of human visitors than the Galapagos.  The result is an unparalleled chance for nature lovers to see up close everything from 5-foot-long iguanas to pink flamingoes to tortoises more than 100 years old.

If Charles Darwin were alive today, he would find this archipelago of tiny islands in the Pacific Ocean – 600 miles west of mainland South America – little changed from his historic journey here nearly 200 years ago.

It was the English naturalist’s exposure to the rich diversity of wildlife in the Galapagos that led to his revolutionary theory of natural selection.  Today, visitors can experience the same access to birds, animals and marine life that Darwin documented during his five-week visit in 1835 on the HMS Beagle.

I recently visited six islands in the Galapagos on a one-week cruise aboard the Ecoventura Origin, named after Darwin’s landmark 1859 book “On the Origin of Species.”  Our sailing was at full capacity with 20 passengers (all Americans) and 14 Ecuadoran crew members.

Ecoventura Origin

The 20-passenger Ecoventura Origin anchored in a cove near Isabela Island, the largest island in the Galapagos archipelago

The Origin’s sister yacht, the Ecoventura Theory, was often visible in the distance as it traveled roughly the same itinerary.  We were on the “northern and western route”; on alternate weeks the two boats take the “southern and central route” through the islands.  Passengers can opt to book passage for two weeks to experience both itineraries.

Twice a day, we were ferried from one of the Origin’s two blue dinghies to an island for a nature walk.  Many of these visits involved “wet landings” in which we would step off the dinghy into shallow water and walk ashore.  There were plenty of opportunities for snorkeling, kayaking, paddleboarding and viewing marine life on the Origin’s glass-bottom boat.

“You don’t see in other places what you see here,” said Yvonne Mortola, one of the Origin’s two onboard naturalists, who has been guiding tours in the Galapagos for 37 years.  “Things happen just in front of you.  And it’s safe.  None of the animals wants to eat you up.”

If there was any aggression on display, it was between the animals themselves.  We watched as a barking male sea lion emerged from a lagoon on Fernandina Island to stake out his beachfront territory, nearly trampling a group of marine iguanas in the process. (see video shot by the author: Sea lion staking his turf on a beach in the Galapagos).

Kicker Rock

The Ecoventura Theory cruises past Kicker Rock just before sunset near San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos

We also saw sharks, whales, dolphins and the black-and-white Galapagos penguin.  It’s the only species of penguin found north of the equator.

But it was the blue-footed boobies that I found most captivating — not just their eye-catching feet but their friendly dispositions.

“Blue-footed boobies are just special,” said Mortola.  “They’re curious.  They have no shame in just walking right up to you and checking you out.”

Governed by Ecuador, the Galapagos consist of 13 major islands straddling the equator.  We crossed the equator six times during the trip, stopping each time so the captain could “lift up the line,” as Mortola joked.

Only four of the Galapagos are inhabited by humans; the entire population is less than 30,000.  Nearly half live in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, the largest city in the Galapagos.  During a stroll down Charles Darwin Avenue — the city’s main drag — we needed to step aside for a pair of sea lions, indifferent to our presence as they waddled down the block to the fish market looking for scraps.

The Galapagos are volcanic islands — there have been eruptions as recent as 2020.  We hiked through black lava fields and red sand beaches created from volcanic ash, visited an underground lava tube in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island and sailed at sunset past the dramatic Kicker Rock, the remains of a volcanic cone.

Galapagos nature hike

Ecoventura Origin naturalist Yvonne Mortola leads a nature walk on the island of Genovesa

Even though the Galapagos are near the equator, the climate is surprisingly temperate.  The cool Humboldt Current and steady trade winds kept high temperatures from surpassing the mid-70s most days, and I needed to put on a sweater when going out on deck to watch the stars after dinner.  We were fitted with wetsuits for the week, which helped provide insulation from the chilly Pacific waters while on morning snorkeling trips.

The remoteness of the islands, which helps to protect the wildlife from predators, makes the Galapagos a challenging destination to reach.  There are no international flights into the islands; visitors need to fly into one of mainland Ecuador’s two largest cities, Quito or Guayaquil, then catch a flight into one of the small airports serving the islands.

We flew into Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the provincial capital city of the Galapagos on San Cristobal Island.  There also is an airport on the island of Baltra, the site of a U.S. military base during World War II.  Once we left San Cristobal, we never once set foot on pavement the entire week until the final day of the cruise, when we anchored in Puerto Ayora.

In the towns near both airports, it’s possible to stay in a hotel and take day trips on small boats.  But a weeklong cruise is a far more ideal – albeit pricier – way to explore the remote islands in the Galapagos while enjoying fresh seafood (the ceviche was amazing), onboard lectures and the expansive expertise of the two naturalists accompanying us.

Galapagos tortoise

A Galapagos tortoise wades into a pond on Santa Cruz Island

To commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s “Origin of the Species,” the Ecuadoran government designated 98% of the Galapagos as a national park.  There is a one-time $100 national park entrance fee, payable upon landing at the airport. (Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar as its currency.)

The government has imposed strict regulations to avoid the pitfalls of over-tourism.  For instance, only cruise ships carrying fewer than 100 passengers are allowed to sail the Galapagos; most of the boats we encountered were far smaller.  Visitors need to present proof of COVID-19 vaccination and a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours prior of boarding the flight to Ecuador.

Darwin described the Galapagos as a “little world within itself; the greater number of its inhabitants, both vegetable and animal, being found nowhere else.”

Indeed, Darwin found a living laboratory that continues to offer visitors an education about nature and the environment in the most wonderous classroom imaginable.

Website for more info:
Ecoventura Cruises
                                                                                © 2022 Dan Fellner

The Only Jew in the Galapagos

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Israeli Adi Aidinger welcomes Jewish travelers to her remote hotel in this wildlife wonderland

January 1, 2022

PUERTO AYORA, Ecuador – When Charles Darwin arrived in the Galapagos Islands on his historic voyage aboard the HMS Beagle in 1835, he marveled at the diversity and abundance of wildlife he found in this archipelago of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean 600 miles west of mainland South America.

Puerto Ayora

Two sea lions stroll through downtown Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. With a population of 12,000, it’s the largest city in the Galapagos

Darwin observed everything from giant tortoises and iguanas to numerous species of birds found nowhere else in the world.  His journey here led to the landmark book “Origin of the Species,” which put forth the theory of natural selection, revolutionizing the field of science.

Nearly 200 years after Darwin’s visit, I also had the opportunity to gaze at some of the Galapagos’ magnificent creatures – on land, in the sea and the skies above – while on a one-week cruise aboard the Ecoventura Origin, a 20-passenger yacht.

As I photographed playful sea lions, blue-footed boobies and pink flamingoes, I wondered about the diversity of a different type of species found in the Galapagos – human beings.

Might this remote cluster of islands with less than 30,000 inhabitants be home to any Jews?

Turns out, there is Jewish life on the Galapagos.  But it’s not exactly abundant.

Meet Adi Aidinger, believed to be the only Jew living in the Galapagos.

I found out about Adi on our final day of the cruise.  The Origin was anchored in the harbor of Puerto Ayora, the largest “city” in the Galapagos with a population of around 12,000, located only 50 miles south of the equator.

Adi Aidinger

Adi Aidinger, the only Jew believed to be living in the Galapagos Islands (photo courtesty of Adi Aidinger)

Our stop in Puerto Ayora marked the first time since the cruise began a week earlier that we actually set foot on pavement.  The rest of the week had been spent on mostly uninhabited islands hiking, snorkeling, kayaking and consuming way too much food prepared by the boat’s onboard chefs.

Ivan Lopez, one of the naturalists on the Origin, had recently visited Israel and told me he had Jewish relatives through marriage.  I asked him if there were any Jews living on the islands; he said that he heard there was a grand total of one — the owner of the Hotel Solymar on Santa Cruz Island.

After spending the morning visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora where Galapagos tortoises are bred and studied, my wife and I set off to find the Hotel Solymar.  Ivan told us the hotel was on the main drag – fittingly called Charles Darwin Avenue – two blocks past the fish market.

Sure enough, at a prime beachfront location in the heart of downtown Puerto Ayora, we found the Hotel Solymar (Spanish for “sun and sea”).  As we entered the lobby, I noticed a huge sea lion camped out on the floor.  Apparently, the animal is such a permanent fixture in the hotel that it’s been given a name – “Wendy” – by the hotel staff.

Adi was out-of-town during our visit, but the hotel receptionist was kind enough to call her.  So, during an illuminating phone call in the lobby of the Hotel Solymar, I learned how Adi came to live in the Galapagos and what life was like as the only known Jew on the islands.

Adi was born and raised in Haifa, Israel.  She and her family were on a cruise in 2004 when she met an Ecuadoran named Renato Perez.  The two fell in love and decided to build a life for themselves in Puerto Ayora, where Renato’s family owned the Hotel Solymar.

Hotel Solymar

Entrance to the Hotel Solymar in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos

“In the beginning, everything was magical,” Adi recalls.  “I saw the fact that I lived in the Galapagos as a unique adventure.  Very quickly I had my group of friends who were foreigners like me, and I fell in love with the quiet and nature-filled life of the islands.”

During the first six years of their marriage, the couple lived full-time in Puerto Ayora while focusing on a massive construction project.  The old Hotel Solymar was torn down and a new building – with 17 rooms – opened for business in late 2006.  Five years later, a second four-story “tower” with 14 additional rooms and a space for large events opened across the street.

Now with three children, Adi and Renato go back and forth between Puerto Ayora and Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, about a 90-minute flight from the Galapagos.

“It’s really hard, but really beautiful,” she told me about being a Jew in this remote archipelago governed by Ecuador.

Challenging, she said, because there are usually no other Jews with whom to pray and celebrate Jewish holidays.

“Of course, it was difficult on special dates like Rosh Hashana and Pesach,” she said.  “On those dates, I always went to Guayaquil to celebrate with the Jewish community or to Israel to celebrate with my family.”

Hotel Solymar lobby

A sea lion named “Wendy” relaxes in the lobby of the Hotel Solymar

But at the same time, Adi said she’s felt uplifted by the interest and warmth of other residents of the islands, who continually express curiosity—and respect – for Judaism.

“Everybody is pro-Israel and pro-Jewish,” she said when I asked if she experienced any anti-Semitism here.

Adi says she didn’t grow up particularly observant in Israel.  But once she found herself living in the Galapagos with no other Jews around – aside from occasional tourists — her Jewish background became much more important.

“Living outside of Israel, you always look for a connection to your roots,” she said.

Adi began to light Shabbat candles and put up Chanukah decorations in the Hotel Solymar.  Occasionally, she serves Shabbat dinner to Jewish guests.

The hotel has become the one place in the Galapagos where travelers can take a break from nature hikes, birdwatching, snorkeling and diving, and just hanging out in a jacuzzi next to a sea lion named Wendy — while experiencing at least a small flicker of Jewish life.

“When we have Israeli groups or Jewish groups, I’m the happiest person,” Adi said.  “It’s an honor for me to give them a place that they feel comfortable.”

Website for more info:
Hotel Solymar

                                                    © 2022 Dan Fellner

Quito Ecuador new international airport

Quito’s New International Airport

By | Ecuador | No Comments

Replaces one of Latin America’s most perilous airports

The Arizona Republic — April 7, 2013

QUITO, Ecuador — One of Latin America’s most dangerous airports has seen its final landing.

In late February, Mariscal Sucre International Airport opened in Quito, replacing the city’s old airport of the same name.  The old airport was known for its short runway, high elevation and proximity to the Andes Mountains, making takeoffs and landings tricky — even for experienced pilots.  There had been 10 serious accidents since the airport opened in 1960.

Although the new airport is expected to be safer than its predecessor, it is farther from the city’s main attractions.  The new airport is in a rural area northeast of the city, at least an hour’s drive from Quito’s historical downtown.  Taxi fare is about $35.

© 2013 Dan Fellner

quito ecuador jewish community center

Ecuador’s Small but Thriving Jewish Community

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Jews in Quito prosper near the “middle of the world”

The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix — April 5, 2013

QUITO, Ecuador – In a northern Quito suburb called Carcelén, just a 15-minute drive south of the equator, sits a Jewish Community Center that – in its own way – is every bit as impressive as the Andean peaks and volcanoes that overlook it.

Jewish Community Center of Ecuador

The architecture of the Jewish Community Center of Ecuador is evocative of Jerusalem

Ecuador’s capital city is home to only about 700 Jews.  Yet the 13-year-old Sede de la Comunidad Judia del Ecuador – the Jewish Community Center of Ecuador – is a multi-million dollar facility that is as expansive and lavish as you’ll find in many large American cities.

I recently visited what the Jews in Ecuador simply call the “Community” as part of a five-day trip to Quito, a city of more than 2 million people.

With an elevation of about 9,200 feet in a valley surrounded by the Andes Mountains, Quito is the second-highest capital city in the world.

Even though it’s located so close to the Equator, the city’s elevation gives it a springlike climate year-round.

Rolf Stern Ecuador Jewish Community

Rolf Stern, outgoing president of the Ecuador Jewish Community

After a one-hour taxi drive from my hotel in the city’s historic downtown district – a UNESCO World Heritage Site — I arrived at the hub of Ecuadorean-Jewish life.  As I approached the complex, I was immediately impressed with its architecture of thick stone walls, resplendent arches and rust-colored domes that were much more evocative of Jerusalem than Latin America.

Inside, I met with Rolf Stern, who runs Ecuador’s member firm of the BDO International accounting network and is just completing a six-year term as president of the Jewish Community.  Following our meeting, I was given a tour of the complex by Sebastian Medina, the Community’s on-staff director.

The heart of the complex is a beautiful two-story synagogue, complete with several exquisite stained-glass windows, and enough space to accommodate about 400 worshippers.  Services at the Conservative temple are conducted by Rabbi Alexander Mylinski, who originally is from Argentina.

In addition to the synagogue, the Community has a mikvah, squash and tennis courts, a large indoor swimming pool, a youth center and its own soccer field.  There is an on-site kosher kitchen and cafeteria.  It not only offers home delivery, but also provides kosher food for some of the cruise ships that sail to Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands.  The complex also boasts one of the largest ballrooms in Quito, which is used for bar mitzvahs, weddings and other social events.

Jewish Community Center of Ecuador Swimming Pool

The JCC’s indoor swimming pool

Stern said the complex was funded by the sale of the Community’s prior facilities as well as the financial contributions of Ecuadorean Jews.

“We’re very fortunate and blessed in having a strong community sense, which is reflected by the generosity of our members, including the large donors,” he said.

Just a couple of blocks away from the Community sits what Stern called “one of the three best schools in Quito” – the Albert Einstein School, which serves students from kindergarten through the 12th grade.

The school was founded 40 years ago by members of the Jewish community; Jews still lead the school today.  Even though 92 percent of its 660 students aren’t Jewish, all students are required to study Hebrew and learn about Jewish culture and history.

Mitad del Mundo Equator

  The Mitad Del Mundo monument near the equator

Stern is typical of most Ecuadorean Jews in that his parents – German Jews – immigrated to the country in the late 1930s to escape the Holocaust.  In 1950, the Jewish population in Ecuador peaked at about 4,000.  That number steadily dwindled over the years, although Stern notes that there has been a slight rebound in the past five years.

“What we’ve seen is that young members of the community who were working or studying abroad have now started to come back,” he said.

Under Stern’s leadership, the Community has launched an outreach effort – called the “Community Growth Program” — designed to attract foreign Jews to migrate to Ecuador.

“It’s a great place to live and bring up kids,” he said, adding that the relationships between Jews and the Ecuadorean government and the population at-large are excellent.

“Jews are generally admired for being hard-working and are considered to be successful people,” he said.  “There is no anti-Semitism in Ecuador, at least not in the last 30 years.”

The Community is in the process of building a new residence for seniors.  Expected to open in 2015, it will initially have 12 suites, with plans to eventually grow to 20 units.

View of Quito Ecuador

View of Quito, the world’s second-highest capital city

After my visit to the Community, I took a short taxi ride to perhaps Quito’s most famous tourist destination – La Mitad Del Mundo (the Middle of the World) – a monument at the site where a French scientist in 1736 calculated the equator to be.  Turned out, he was off by about 600 feet.  But it’s still a fun place to visit and pose for the obligatory photo with one foot in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

Later in the day, I visited an upscale Jewish-owned shopping mall in downtown Quito.  There, I had lunch with Offir Adaki, an Israeli who has lived in Ecuador for 18 years.

Adaki, who serves on the Community’s board, went backpacking in Ecuador after serving in the Israeli military.  He so enjoyed the weather and the slower pace of life compared with Israel, he decided to make Quito his permanent home.

“Everything is calm,” he said.  “People are really nice here.  I think it’s the ultimate place to live.”

Adaki owns a travel company called Ecuador Nature (www.ecuadornature.com) that brings Jewish groups — 50 percent of which come from Israel — to see the sites of Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.  He said he makes a point of taking each group to visit the Jewish Community Center for lunch.

“When you bring them inside, everybody says, ‘Wow, that’s a beautiful place,’” he said.  “They didn’t expect to see something so impressive.”

Stern said Jews planning to visit Ecuador are more than welcome to attend services and come for a kosher meal.  Due to security issues, it’s best to send an email in advance to Sebastian Medina (dir.comunitario@cje.ec).  Stern said Quito is also a great place to have a “destination celebration,” such as a wedding or bar mitzvah.

“People should know that we are a very welcoming community,” he said.

© 2013 Dan Fellner

equator line in ecuador

Will the Real Equator Please Stand Up?

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Mitad Del Mundo; Quito, Ecuador

This is one of the most famous tourist attractions in South America.  It’s a globe-topped monument called Mitad del Mundo – “middle of the Earth” in English.  The yellow line dissecting the complex is supposed to designate the exact spot where the equator passes just a few miles north of Quito, Ecuador.  It’s set in a beautiful park in the Andes Mountains and the entrance fee is a bargain — only $2 (Ecuador has adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency). 

Hundreds of tourists visit the monument each day to have their photos taken straddling the yellow line, with one foot in each hemisphere.  I did the same.

The real Equator in Ecuador

        The so-called real equator, marked with a red line

Actually, though, to quote Conway Twitty, one of my favorite country singers:  “It’s only make believe.”

The monument is located at a site where a French scientist in 1736 calculated the equator to be.  For the technology of his time period, he did a pretty good job.  But with modern GPS technology, we learned a couple of decades ago that he was off by about 600 feet.

But since the monument, museums, restaurants and souvenir shops had already been erected at this location, the Ecuadorean government decided to stick to the party line – literally and figuratively.

The real equator is about a quarter-mile north – or to the right – of where the monument was built.  There, the equator is marked with a red line. 

To see it, visitors must pay $4 to enter a private attraction called the Intinan Solar Museum.  Admission includes a guided tour featuring a number of fun — but fake — science experiments that supposedly demonstrate the powers of the equator’s force.

For instance, our guide set up a portable sink a few feet north of the equator and we watched as the water went down the drain in a counter-clockwise direction.  She then moved the sink south of the red line and sure enough, the water drained clockwise.  It was more of a magic trick than a bonafide experiment, as scientists long ago debunked the urban myth that water drains in different directions in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.    

And, after further research, I learned that even the newer “real” equator is now believed to be a bit off the mark.

Yellow or red, it was close enough for me.  I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to somewhere in the vicinity of the middle of the Earth.

Copyright © Dan Fellner 2013