Trip Start Sep 09, 2006
113Trip End Aug 18, 2010
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Peering through the tiny portal in our airliner, we couldn't help but think that we were cruising over some extra-terrestrial surface over a distant planet far from Earth.
The Galapagos inspire you to think differently about the world. Nowhere else can you stare eye-to-eye with wild animals and watch them behave without fright or flight.
Little did we know that the next 17 days here would provide us with some of the most memorable moments we've ever experienced in our lifetime. From snorkeling with Sea Lions, to diving with Sharks, to observing the mating dances of Blue Footed Boobies, to sailing with dolphins, to climbing into volcanoes and walking through ancient lava flows. Indeed, the memories will forever leave a mark on our minds.
Arriving here wasn't even in our initial plans from the onset; the costs and time required to tour the Islands were certainly not favorable to our budget and itinerary, and in a sense, landing on the lunar-like surface of Isla Santa Cruz was an experience filled with, well, let's say...an unexpected geological and biological mystery!
The geology: An isolated group of volcanic islands that lie in the Pacific, on the equator, 1000 kms off the coast of mainland Ecuador. There are 13 major islands (from 14 - 4588 sq. km in size) spread over 50,000 sq. km of ocean. The oldest islands visible were formed roughly 4 to 5 million years ago by underwater volcanoes erupting and rising above the ocean's surface. The islands were NEVER connected to the mainland, a principle that leads to the biological wonder of the archipelago.
The biology: When the Galapagos were formed, they were barren volcanic islands, devoid of all life. This makes sense because the islands were never connected to the mainland. Therefore, all the species currently present must have somehow crossed the vast open ocean. Some flew, some swam, some floated on vegetation, some were attached to other animals (inside stomachs, or on feathers). Those that survived the journey found the islands harsh and different. Some were able to survive, reproduce and proliferate. But because of the large variance of the environment, compared to the mainland, the better-adapted survivors passed on their favorable traits to their offspring, and over many generations, these traits were selected over less favorable. The difference between the original species that arrived initially and their distant descendants is so great that they can be characterized as entirely different species. All this was studied by Charles Darwin when he first landed on the islands in 1835, which led him to formulate a Theory for Evolution. His 1859 publication of the Origin of Species, is considered by scientists as the most influential books ever published.
Isla Santa Cruz - Puerto Ayora
After our plane touched down, a short ferry ride across a turquoise canal and a long bus ride through to the south of the main island of Santa Cruz, brought us to the principle human settlement known as Puerto Ayora. Upon our arrival we were fascinated to immediately catch sight of some of the special animals known to the islands. A short walk to the dock allowed us to see hundreds of vibrant red Sally Lightfoot crabs crawling around the rocks, and we were happy to spot our first sea lions goofing and lazing around an abandoned fishing boat.
Puerto Ayora has an interesting feel to it...chock a block travel agencies, diving outfitters, a fish market, and the Darwin Research Center. A nice hub for our adventures, however, people seem just a little too eager to make a buck, and attempting to book a tour from here ended up being a little challenging. But, by the end of about a week here, we knew all the inīs and outīs of types of boats, cruises, prices, and even spent some time in the office of the Captain of the Harbour, who told us that "all boats made out of wood are no good!"
Baytour from Puerto Ayora to Loberia - $25
Our time in Ayora was spent trying to wheel and deal agents in hopes of securing an 8 day cruise around the islands. In between bargaining and researching the boats, we took the opportunity to head out on a day tour with a local outfitter. Just a 40 minute boat ride to a nearby island off the shore of Puerto Ayora, there lives a thriving colony of sea lions. Here we attempted to snorkel with the playful creatures, but due to choppy waves pushing us onto the sharp lava rocks just under the surface of the water, most of our group came back onto the boat with wounds and cuts. We found out just a little too late that the sea lions came to us if we just hung out near the boat. A fascinating intro to swimming with sea lions, but a rather scary entry into to Galapagos waters. Then the tour brought us to land onto the island where we saw "Tintoreras" (white-tipped reef sharks) resting in a shallow canal. Our first glimpse of these sharks was breathtaking, little did we know we would soon be snorkeling and diving just inches away from them!
NEMO I Catamaran - 8 Day Island Tour
After a few days of hard bargaining, we finally secured a vessel that would tour us around the archipelago for 8 days. At first, we couldn't believe that we would be living on the open ocean for an extended period. Pre-conceived thoughts of potential hurlfests thanks to probable sea-sickness made us wonder what we were getting ourselves into. However, in the end, we were extremely happy to have proved ourselves wrong and actually came out of it with increased confidence in our own seaworthiness! Aye Aye mi Capitan!
Day 1 - Bachas Beach (Santa Cruz Island)
Day 2 - North Seymour Island & Plazas Island
Day 3 - Espanola Island
Day 4 - Floreana Island
Day 5 - Santa Cruz Island
Day 6 - Santiago Island & Bartolome Island
Day 7 - Rabida Island
Day 8 - Black Turtle Cove
The NEMO I was a fabulous boat, and the tour on this 1st class Catamaran was well worth what we paid from Puerto Ayora ($1250 USD each). Cozy cabins hidden in 2 hulls, hot showers, plenty of dining space, diving facilities, lounging areas near the front nets, and sunning decks just below the sails. It was absolutely lovely and we were all very sad having to leave after our 8 days had come to an end.
The guide, captain, and crew were also extremely friendly, and knowledgeable, and worked very hard to make our stay as comfortable as possible. We can't say enough about the world class chef, Victor, who must have been kidnapped from one of the fanciest fine dining restaurants in Ecuador. The 3 course meals he served up were exquisite, abundant, and served superbly. And Walter, our certified Naturalist III guide (and Dive Master) provided us with great insight to the flora, the fauna, the geology and history of the area. And 10 other travellers from around the world became our shipmates for the 8 days. A friendly group that added a lot of fun and laughs to the journey.
Each day was jam packed with snorkeling and diving opportunities into clear turquoise waters, and land walking tours onto the lunar like surfaces of the various islands, where we learned about and observed the wildlife and geology. It is true what they say about the Galapagos, "you can get closer to the animals than in a zoo" and stare face to face with creatures that seem happy to sign for autographs! There were countless opportunities to observe from a few inches away colonies of blue footed boobies during mating season, waved albatross, frigate birds, mocking birds, marine iguanas, Darwin's finches, pink flamingos, penguins, and of course the winner of the cutest animal award went to the animated and indescribably adorable sea lions.
Diving in Galapagos was a unique experience. An advantage in sailing with the Nemo, was that it is equipped as a diving vessel - complete with equipment, air compressor, and an ample diving platform. So, whenever you felt like it, you just raised your hand when the guide asked during the regular nightly briefing if anyone would be diving the next morning. We managed to add about 5 more amazing dives under our belt and saw some fantastic things in this underwater realm. Because cold water currents are abundant in these waters, bringing with it large amounts of food sources, you are able to see much larger marine life than normal. Among the water dwelling animals we caught glimpses of were 3 kinds of sharks (Galapagos Sharks and White & Black Tipped Reef Sharks), marine turtles, manta rays, 3 kinds of sting rays (golden eagle, yellow-spotted, and mottled), sea lions, sea horses, trumpet fish, scorpion rock fish, balloon fish, box fish, trigger fish, parrot fish, starfish, garden eels, and penguins! Diving here required us to to battle colder water temperatures due to thermoclines, strong currents and surges from various directions, and sometimes poor visibility. Not the most beautiful and calmest dive sites we've ever visited, but still a very rewarding and challenging experience.
One of our most unforgettable and captivating experiences had to be the 3 times during our cruise that we had the privilege of sailing alongside schools of Bottle-Nose Dolphins. The captain's expert eyes would spot them in the distance, ring the bell as if it was an emergency, and all of us would rush to the bow of the boat looking over the edge to get a closer look. (Once, Reeshma heard the dolphin bell while in the shower, and actually ran to the bow of the boat in nothing but her towel!!! My, my...what women will do just to see a fast swimmer!) The dolphins would hear our clapping and whistling, and get geared up for a show of speed and acrobatics. Jumping in unison, they would swim at phenomenal speeds, enough to keep pace with the boat, just avoiding the hulls of our catamaran, and stay with us for 5 whole minutes for no reason but to play and entertain. Looking around at our faces in these moments, you could only see smiles of happiness. Remarkable animals. Wish you could see our video footage!
Isabella Island - Puerto Villamil
After our boat tour, we decided to ferry across to Isla Isabella. The island, which was not included in our tour, is the largest in the Galapagos. With its gorgeous stretch of beach, 3kms long, and the small human settlement of Puerto Villamil which only has roads made of sand, and a very laid back atmosphere...we spent our final days out here taking in some interesting sights, some sun and numerous bottles of Cerveza. There were a number of things you could do around the island.
Volcano Sierra Negra
We took a tour on horseback to the 2nd largest volcanic crater in the world (the first is the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania). It measures 30km in circumference, and 10km in diameter. Newly deposited lava from an eruption in 2005 could be seen. Our guide told us that many of the wildlife in the area were killed in the eruption, and some such as land tortoises were airlifted by helicopter in an under-sling. We hiked along the moonscapes, scooting around holes where "fumaroles" are connected to the lava tubes, stepping over "pyroklastic" material, and imagining the rivers of molten lava that flowed just over a year ago. The view on a clear day from the top of a sub-crater called Volcan Chico shows off an isthmus of the immense island between 2 bays, and 3 different volcanoes in the horizon and a view of the nearby Isla Fernandina. Our horses however, were another story...biting and kicking one another at every opportunity throughout the entire journey in order to get in the lead, not allowing one another to pass, and not really having a sense of space around them...we had a few close calls, especially when Ashif's horse got himself stuck to Reeshma's horse's ass, nearly tossing both riders into the surrounding foliage of cacti.
Snorkeling trip to Tintoreras
A motorboat ride out to the island opposite Puerto Villamil for a snorkeling trip. Snorkeling with even just one sea lion makes everything immediately worthwhile. Playful, acrobatic, and not afraid to swim inches away from your face. On land, they laze about and move without grace, but once they hit the water, they glide and propel masterfully with great skill and ease. From there, we hiked onto the land to see a resting channel for more than 25 white tipped reef sharks. These sharks hunt for food during the night, and rest during the day, which makes viewing these animals quite convenient. The island also hosts a multitude of juvenile iguanas which are seen camouflaged on lava boulders, heating up their cold-blooded bodies in the sun, and in coexistence, numerous colonies of sea lions living under the shade of mangrove trees.
Tortoise Rearing Center (Centro de Criancas)
The Galapagos research foundations play a large role in the revitalization of the endangered Giant Tortoise population by raising babies, releasing juveniles back into the wild, and protecting selected male/females, so that they may breed in captivity and eggs can be collected. This animal population, non-existent anywhere else in the world (like most Galapagos creatures) is in grave danger of being wiped out of existence. The main factors for this are natural volcanic activity, human interference (the early settlers used to eat them), and the devastating effects of introduced species (goats, cats, rats) that destroy eggs and wreak havoc on the habitat. We had a chance to visit the Tortoise Rearing Centre and learn about these extraterrestrial-like creatures. Every other day, tiny baby giant tortoises get fed at 8am, which is definitely worth a visit. The tiny little ones hear the sound of the wheel barrows full of fresh green leaves and stalks, and begin running around anticipating food like an army of robots. The little ones climb over each other to get closer to the food, and some fall over and lay squealing upside down. A volunteer from the Center rushes to turn them right side up...out in the wild, if this happens, they have basically met their . We were also fortunate to have been visiting during mating season...and could hear the loud grunting sounds of the massive males as they got a little action bright and early that morning.
Hiking/ biking trails through wetlands to the Wall of Tears
We took a couple of crappy bikes out through Isabella's vast wetlands to the Wall of Tears. In the early 50s, this area was used as a penal colony by the Ecuadorian government, and prisoners were forced to build a wall out of lava stones, that still stands today. Along the way back, we stopped (with our feet - "brakes what brakes? Oh, those bikes cost more.") at various viewpoints, secluded beaches, and lagoons, and even said hello to a lone Giant Turtle trying to survive in the wild by the trail. We walked along a lava tunnel that reaches all the way out to the sea, had long staring matches with some rather large iguanas, and spotted various seabirds doing their thing just beside our feet.
Concha de la Perla near the harbour of Puerta Villamil is a beautifully calm and peaceful saltwater lagoon. It was here we swam one evening, and two baby sea lions heard us splashing around. They awoke under the mangrove trees, and slowly approached us, first eyeing us from the pier, and then jumping in to swim. Pretty soon they were inches away from our faces, dipping their heads in, and popping them out to catch a breath, all the while looking at us with their gentle eyes. It was almost as if they understood we were departing the next day and decided to leave us with a simple and magical moment as a lasting impression of the beauty of life as it is...only on the Galapagos!
DID YOU KNOW?
On his visit to the islands, Charles Darwin was revolted by the the appearance of marine iguanas, writing: "The black Lava rocks on the beach are frequented by large (2-3 ft) most disgusting clumsy Lizards. They are as black as the porous rocks over which they crawl & seek their prey from the Sea. I call them 'imps of darkness'. They assuredly well become the land they inhabit."
NOTES FOR THE TRAVELLER:
Isla Santa Cruz - Puerto Ayora:
- Hotel Gardner connected to Hotel Espana, is a great option. Spacious double rooms $25, free use of common kitchen, and hammocks to laze about in. You can also leave luggage here if going on a tour.
- Favorite restaurants: Garapata near La Panga discoteca. Also fantastic dishes at Angermeyer Point restaurant reached by a water taxi across the bay. All you can eat SUSHI bar $15 only on Fridays.
-Panaderia across from Joybe Travel is a great place to pick up some hot buns, or for a huge breakfast. The hardworking couple who run the place will treat you like family.
-Recommended Travel agencies for boat tours and excursions include Charles Darwin, Moonrise Travel, and Joybe Travel Agency.
-Favorite dive site: North Seymour Island. A must!
Isla Isabella - Puerto Villamil:
-Ferry back to Puerto Ayora leaves at 6am, and costs $30. Buy tickets from office at main square a day in advance. It's a fun and long ride on a 200hp motorboat through the open sea.
-Hotel Isabella de Mar connected to Hotel Ballena Azul has cabanas that are right on the beach for $30 (double with hot water showers). Hearty breakfasts are $3.50 extra. We heard that the Cormorant Hotel was $20, with free use of the kitchen.
-Few restaurants along the main square to choose from. Seafood here is delicious.
-Sea Lion Cafe at the end of the pier is a great spot to catch the sunset and a few cheap beers or huge fresh fruit juices. Beto's Bar is the place to be on the beach for tails and live music after dinner.
-Hotel San Vincente is great for booking tours. Antonio, the owner is a charmer, and can be easily bargained down a couple of bucks. They provide a good lunch with the horseback tour to the volcano.
-You can rent bikes for $1.50/hour at a couple of places around town. Great way to get around the sandy roads...without brakes and working gears of course.
(View This Entryīs Slideshow/Photo Album Above)
Where I stayed