Hi everyone, we have now been on the Galapagos Islands for almost a week! I’m sorry about the hiatus in communication, the Internet at the Little House was difficult to come by. Here is an update, starting where we left off.
After a nice night at Hosteria San Carlos, we left at 6:30 for the airport (after saying good bye to our new buddy Lucas, the insane sheepdog and escape artist). we got aboard a plan to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s other large city. From here, we were off to the Galapagos! Soaring over the span of ocean between the mainland and the islands, we peered intently through the window, trying to catch a glimpse of the brown dot in the middle of the blue ocean. As we dropped below the clouds to land on Baltra, the tiny island that houses the airport, both Zach and I expressed surprise at what we saw. Below us spanned miles and miles of what appeared to be cactus, as far as the eye could see. We knew the islands were volcanic, but we didn’t expect to see such a desolate landscape ahead of us. And the cacti here are very strange. Called tree cactus, for the first five to seven feet they have a bark like exterior, leading up to large, spiky prickly pear like pads. After a bus and a water taxi ride to Santa Cruz (upon which we saw our first Blue-footed Booby) we hopped in a taxi to head south to Puerta Ayora. As we traveled inland, signs of life began to appear. First, some small birds in the cactus, then other types of trees, farms, livestock, and eventually a few giant tortoises along the road.
The little house was a cute place, and a great home base located just five minutes walk from the main drag, Charles Darwin Avenue. We spent the afternoon exploring the town, and were amazed to find marine iguanas sprawled in the main sidewalk through town, along with an abundance of frigiate birds, pelicans, Sally Lightfoot crabs, sea lions, and other animals visible nearly everywhere. Nothing was even the tiniest bit phased by our presence. The first whole day, we went to the Darwin Research Station and explored the tortoise hatchery and land iguana exhibit. Afterwards, we caught a water taxi across the port to a snorkeling spot where we ended up getting confused and losing our way through a very, very rough trail of sharp volcanic rocks and finding an amazing place called Los Grietas. This was once a lava tube which collapsed, creating a fissure where salt water and rain water mix in a giant and very deep pool. Here, we jumped in to explore the depths inhabited by giant parrotfish.
The next day we hiked out about an hour to Tortuga Bay, one of the most highly recommended snorkel spots in Santa Cruz. While we were really excited by the amount and variety of fish in the water, we were most excited to pop up above water to discover the blue feet of a booby just a few feet away from us.
On Monday, we hired a taxi to take us out to see tortoises in their natural habitat. There are a few reserves that preserve land for the giants, and our taxi driver happened to be a very knowledgable guide as he led us through the soupy land (it had been raining a bit earlier) to find the tortoises. The ones we saw were much bigger than the ones we had seen at the Darwin Station previously, big enough that on the way out Zach and I were both able to crawl inside the shells of two deceased tortoises to test out how heavy the shells were and snap some touristy photos. We then went to pass through a lava tube, left when the island was still volcanically active. Afterwards we headed back to town to hang out, go back to the station to pick up some tee shirts at the gift shop, and hang around the fish market. This was one of our favorite activities on Santa Cruz. The fish market attracts an amazing and diverse group, including locals, tourist, lots of birds, and sea lions. On multiple occasions, we watched exceptionally brave pelicans steal fish while the butcher had his back turned, and we also watched the butchers chase down and retrieve fish from a bird sometimes. Sometimes, a sea lion would show up to beg, and would fight the pelicans for the scraps thrown away. Also present were the occasional frigate birds, who apparently don’t have the necessary oils to stay waterproof, so if they dive they sink. This makes them what I hope to be the only seabird that can’t hunt for fish, forcing them to hover over the water and steal from other hunters when they can. Appearances were also made by some sort of very large Herron and a small one called a Lava Herron.
As a side note, the juice in Ecuador is incredible. This picture is melon juice. A minute before this we watched a woman put half a cantaloupe into a blender, producing a delicious to-go bag of pure juice. Heaven.
Our last day on Santa Cruz we took a day tour to Floriana, a small island (120 inhabitants) to the south. We spent the day hiking through another tortoise reserve (there were 11 species of tortoise on the islands, but many were hunted to extinction by whalers and other sea goers. Floriana’s tortoises were of the few hunted to extinction. The tortoises now on the island were imported from other islands) and snorkeling. This was where we saw our first sea turtles, along with a ton of fish and some playful sea lions. They also have a different species of marine iguana, which is red.
The next day, we were off by boat again to Isabela Island. Since Zach felt a little queasy on the boat ride to Floriana the previous day, we chose to sit in the very back of the boat for less waves. Good thing too: before we took off, a boat hand came through and handed out puke bags. During the two hour boat ride, water poured over the top of the boat and onto the back, and us, as people ran to the back to throw up. We got off the boat drenched, and a man commented on the water taxi ride that we should be an ad for REI because we were totally drenched in all our gear but still smiling. After passing through customs (you do this every time you leave and arrive at any island here) we headed off to Caleta Iguana, surfer paradise and hostel.
Here, we found a place to really relax. The manager, Emilie, knows everything and everyone on this island; there are iguanas everywhere, including on our private deck; there are almost as many hammocks as there are iguanas (including on our private deck); and they rent surfboards here. The day of our arrival we put our bags down and then went to find lunch. While out, we ran into our friend Fabricio, the man who complemented our positive attitude on the boat, and his wife, Angela, who are here honeymooning. We ate together then decided to go to the tortoise hatchery close by. The next day, we dexided to take a tour of the Sierra Negra volcano, one of the largest active craters in the world, and volcan chico, its smaller cousin to the north. There, we ran into Fabricio and Angela again and decide to meet up for drinks later. When we got back to the hostel Zach got on a board for the first time in almost two and a half months while I went to check out the flamingos that are sometimes in a nearby lagoon. We went off again search of dinner (all the places here have two menus: an actual paper menu with plates no less than ten dollars a piece for anything, even breakfast or lunch, and a whiteboard with the Spanish desayno, almuerzo, or cena, which is usually a huge but simple set meal for cheap. We always get these when we can, but sometimes resturants are sneaky. We even went to one that had the almuerzo price under drinks instead of the lunch specials) but had a difficult time finding a decently priced cena. After looking over all the menus downtown, we wandered into a side street here we saw El Faro (the same name as the spot Zach surfed earlier) and we had just decided that it smelled good enough when we saw Fabricio and Angela again and a sign for seven dollar cena. This was so far the best meal I have had since leaving Maquipucuna. After dinner we walked on the beach and around town, then parted ways since they were returning to Long Beach the next day.
Today, we hopped on a tour which took us to Los Tuneles, a series of submerged and fractured lava tunnels. We had one of the best days of our trip, starting with a precarious landing on the volcanic rock, where we observed many blue-footed boobies, their nests, their chicks (Shayna, wait till you see the pictures!), and even a booby mating dance! Afterwards we headed into the ocean to snorkel through some of the tunnels, arriving in very quiet pools where we observed a ton of varieties of fish (including a school of large surgeon fish and a family of parrotfish), a ray, and the biggest sea turtles I could imagine. Our guide led us to a cave where we ducked down to see from one to about five white-tipped reef sharks sleeping on the sand (unlike some sharks, these don’t have to be constantly in motion so they can rest on the sea floor). We even got to swim with one, about four and half feet long) for a while it sought a tunnel into the open sea.
The islands are amazing in so many ways and it is truly a privilege to be here to see the beauty of the surroundings and the efforts put forth to preserve the native species that made these islands the birthplace of evolutionary theory. That being said, it is really interesting and often disappointing to see how the tourism industry here has destroyed much of what the money it brings tries to preserve. These are not islands to go to for a relaxing time: the sun is not very hot but burns quickly, the landscape is inhospitable, and most of the animal life you see is the same on every island. Therefor, it would seem most people would come because of their interest in understanding the unique ecology of these islands and appreciating the species that are here by respecting them. Instead, the first day here I saw nearly every park rule broken: people collecting plants and shells, touching the animals, feeding the animals (the Darwin finches are very cute and persistent beggars), using flashes on the animals, etc. There are many sides to this story that make it far more complex: without tourism here, the main employment of many people is fishing, which is destroying the fish and lobster populations near the islands, and the tortoise reserves and breeding centers may not have been set up or funded adequately without the interest of foreign visitors. All the same, it seems to me that it would be so easy to respect and be a part of what these islands have to offer without taking shells from the beaches and pictures of your friends feeding the finches (destroying their ability to find their own food and filling them up with processed junk) and leaving behind trash for the seabirds and sea turtles to choke on. I always considered ecotourism another way for companies to capitalize on the green movement without making any real difference in the actual ecological quality of the tours and services, but I think now this may be the best bet for places like these islands and other places. It is yet another difficult topic for thought and discussion, and certainly not one any singular person has the solution to. But for now, I will do the best I can (and encourage you to as well) to find daily solutions that add up to make small differences, which become big differences if enough people do the same.
Off to bed in preparation for another full day of snorkeling the harbor, a visit to the Wall of Tears, and biking all around the island! Buenos suenos!