The Galápagos! "Survival of the FIttest"

Trip Start May 22, 2010
Trip End Sep 21, 2010

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Where I stayed
Hotel Salinas
Hostal Bella Vista

Flag of Ecuador  ,
Wednesday, July 7, 2010

[Owen] The Galapagos Islands were accidentally discovered in 1535 by a Spaniard who had drifted off course from Peru. The naturalist Charles Darwin travelled here in the 1830's on his famed five year "Voyage of the Beagle" (on which he was initially only invited as gentlemanly company for the captain) and his time on the islands formed the basis for his theories of evolution.  Darwin observed how on each island the animals and birds had developed slightly different traits (e.g. longer beaks) to exploit the local resources of each island.  It prompted the idea that in a competitive world of limited resources, certain animals with innate advantages tended to prosper while others failed and those advantages were passed on to their offspring, such that those species would continually improve, prosper and multiply, whereas the weaker would by consequence, diminish.   I learned later, somewhat ironically, that Darwin married his cousin – hardly the most conducive behaviour to developing successful and prosperous offspring!

We flew with specialist airline AeroGal to tiny Isla Baltra on Wednesday morning.  We spent a week on the archipelago of the Galapagos, spending the first night on Isla Santa Cruz, before taking the 5-day, 4-night cruise we booked in Guayaquil.  The last couple of nights were spent on Isla San Cristobal, where we had hoped to add some scuba diving to the list!

The islands are really beautiful from the air, although on the ground a little more barren and volcanic than I expected. We arrived in Isla Baltra, paid our US$100 tourist tax (it was just US$6 for Ecuadorians!), had our baggage inspected for prohibited items and took a short bus journey to the port, followed by a short ferry across to Isla Santa Cruz (the most populous island in the archipelago) and a 45 minute bus journey south to the town of Puerto Ayora, the biggest town in the Galapagos.

We stayed in a comfortable little family-run hotel (Hotel Salinas, US$17.50 pp) near the harbour on Wednesday night.  It was only a small little town with a few hotels so we didn’t have much to pick from anyway, unless we wanted a fancy seafront hotel with a private swimming pool for US$200 per night!  That afternoon I took the trip to Tortuga Bay.  After signing in at the security hut, it was a decent walk from the hotel (roughly 3k each way).  It was entirely worth it, as I enjoyed my first interactive experience with the renowned Galapagos wildlife.  White, sandy beaches running for miles…. this is where turtles come at night to lay their eggs.  I saw dozens of marine iguanas, lizards and the famed blue-footed boobies (birds with strikingly colourful blue feet who sing and dance).  I won’t forget the iguanas, my first experience of a tropical animal in the wild.  Amazing creatures, they lie and climb all over each other…. You can get really close to them as they’re not dangerous to humans, although they occasionally spit salt out their noses from the sea which can appear like an aggressive act.  It’s possible to come up behind them and pull their tails and they don’t react, because they think it is other iguanas.  I also saw dozens of bright red sally lightfoot crabs, fairly big crabs but not edible, as they’re poisonous, which also explains why they’re so abundant on the islands!  I chilled out on a lovely, calm beach lined with mangroves and sheltered behind a spit, before heading back to the hotel.

That evening, we enjoyed a nice bite in a seafood restaurant before going for a couple of beers in the only happening place in town – Bongo’s!!  The place was fairly busy for a Wed night, we even saw our guide (Andres) from the rafting in Banos.  Everyone was hanging around the pool table for the night as the locals took on the gringos… Ciaran and I were tempted to step up and show them what was what, but the queue of names was massive and the locals somehow seemed to keep the table win, lose or draw… all seemed a bit too much effort so we just chatted to some Danish girls who were volunteering in Ecuador for most of the night… the bars all shut at midnight anyway!

We stocked up on supplies for the next 5 days and joined our boat on Thursday afternoon.  The boat was in pretty good condition, considering it was built in the late 1800’s and has seen a lot of action.  It’s quite nice inside with a wooden interior.  Met up with everyone from the cruise, not quite a diverse bunch….. of the 16 passengers, 7 were Israeli guys (Elad, Dan, Daniel, Yuval, Ben and two other guys whose names I don’t recall).  Of the remaining group, there was a Canadian girl (Alexis) who now teaches in Mexico, two Aussie friends (Mik and Natalie), an elderly English couple (Maurice and Dorothy) and two brothers from the US (Mariano and Andrew).  It turned out that the Israeli guys were straight out of the army (one of which, Ben, was a navy commando!) And so was Mik as it turned out; he served as a commando in Afghanistan for a bit and to quote him "yeah, we killed some guys"!  It made you feel a little safer on the high seas, and less so in other ways!  After meeting our guide, Miguel, he explained the schedule for the next few days.  We would rise early each morning, a little after sunrise, and spend each day on a different island, snorkelling, hiking etc, before travelling late evening / night to a new island. 

Thursday afternoon we went to the El Chato giant turtle reserve deep in the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz before moving onto some “lava tubes”.  The giant turtle reserve was pretty amazing and our guide estimated that one of the turtles was 160 years old, so I guess that means he was born when Lincoln was president and Victoria was Queen…. Christ!  They don’t know for sure, as obviously no humans are still around to say definitively, but they take a guess based on the condition of the shells.  You can get right up close to the turtles and touch them (but we shouldn’t and didn’t).  We fed them some mangos from the trees…. They love them and you see how strong their teeth are when they crunch through the fruit!  Miguel our guide mentioned that animals being brought in by residents as pets (such as goats) are threatening the turtles food source as they eat the same food.

The lava tubes were pretty underwhelming.  It’s a large tunnel formed decades ago by lava…. But essentially it’s just a cave.

After some dinner, Miguel gave us our daily speech regarding the following day’s activities.  He let us know we could each take a sea sickness tablet for the night and that this would help a lot.  After a long, tiring day, we played some cards with Andrew, Dan, Dorothy and Maurice (taught them our travelling game called Sh*thead!) over a couple of beers, before going to bed.  The journey to the island of Floreana was really tough, quite rocky, so we hardly slept a wink!

Early Friday morning, we awoke off the shores of the island of Floreana, to another long, white sandy beach.  The beach was called Post Office Bay, after the whalers who used to use a barrel to leave letters in a barrel for their family back home and other whalers would collect them and deliver them.  Nowadays, it’s still used by tourists to leave postcards for their family and friends and other tourists come and collect them and deliver them when they get home!  Pretty cool, but we had no postcards on us to send, which was a real pity.

Later in the morning we hit the waters as a group and snorkelled for a bit.  Swimming alongside sea turtles was definitely the highlight.  Natalie saw a small shark and panicked, but thankfully so did the shark!  Afterwards we went for a walk through more lava tubes, these ones were a lot better than the ones from Santa Cruz cos they weren’t lit at all and there was water in them…. The further into the cave we went, the deeper the water went.  We were starting to get worried that this involved some diving and swimming under rocks when the guide found us and told us we’d gone too far and to come back.

We returned to the boat for a spot of lunch before heading off on another hike / snorkel in Punta Cormorant.  The afternoon snorkel was really tough as we were swimming around a really small island offshore of Floreana.  It had a really beautiful, untouched beach inside, although we weren’t allowed in.  At one point, the current was so strong that sent us backwards no matter how hard we swam.  Watching all the beautiful fish down below, we could see them getting swept back and forth and even smashed into the rocks by the current!  We tried in vain to get to our target point but it was difficult that the guide just picked us up in the dinghy.  The visibility was ok, we saw some nice colourful tropical fish but still, no sharks!

In the afternoon we hiked to a cool beach called Flour Beach (because of the sand)… with turtles eggs laid in the dunes.  Some birds swooped in from above and stole the eggs…..  We would have tried to scare them off but the guide warned us off, it would have been interfering with natural selection.  We saw lots of rays swimming right up to the beach too, pretty cool!  In the evening, the Israeli lads introduced us to a fantastic new card game, I don’t know the name of it but it involved tequila, spoons, a deck of cards, a broken chair, badly scratched table, angry barmaid…… and highly entertained captain!

Saturday we landed on Isla Espanola and had another a great day; in the morning we went to a seal colony in Gardiner Bay… there must have more than 300 seals on the beach!  They sleep all day and swim for fish all night, so most of them were asleep, but there were a few moving about, barking at each other and playing.  One young seal was going around for ages trying to find its mother…. I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been disowned due to human contact (the mother and baby rely on smell to recognise each other).  We spent a couple of hours relaxing on the beach with the seals and mockingbirds, who come up to you when you’re sitting down, try to open your backpack and look for water bottles!! Clever little things.  After we were finished on the beach, we moved to a different spot and went snorkelling for a bit.  There as quite good visibility and we saw lots of seals swimming in the water, they’re great fun actually cos they swim right up to you, full of curiosity.

After lunch we went for a hike to Punta Suarez.  On show were blue footed boobies, albatross, masked boobies and even a relatively rare galapagos hawk.  We also saw some more marine iguanas, seals and sally lightfoot crabs.  There were so many of them by that stage, that we risked tripping over them as we walked along the trail.  Miguel also brought us to a cool cliff spot on the beach with blowholes in the rocks which shoot water up in the air when the waves crash up.  The sun was out for a nice change, which made the whole day much more enjoyable!

The journey to Isla Santa Fe on Sunday night was pretty rough, so we didn’t get much sleep.  And Ciaran and I were interrupted in the middle of the night by one of the other passengers coming into our room at 3am looking for the remote for the air-con!  A little scary to see someone fumbling around in our cabin, but it was resolved in the end!

The beach landing at 6am on the seal beach in Isla Santa Fe was really enjoyable, we got to see the sun come up.  After that we hiked a trail through the island and saw some yellow / green land iguanas and some giant cactus trees.  Then back to the boat for some more snorkelling!  The weather has picked up a lot and it’s now a lot warmer in the water, thankfully.  This was the best snorkelling experience yet, as we swam for a couple of hours in a protected inlet about 300 metres x 300 metres.  We got to swim with some seals, at least 10 or 12 of them were swimming around me, Ciaran and Yuval.  Initially I was a bit fearful because they do bite, but these seals were more intrigued by us so they were swimming under, over and around us.  Really agile creatures and great fun!  We pursued two fairly large rays on the way back to the boat (not the manta rays that took out Steve Irwin) but big enough fish all the same!! 

After doing a spot of sunbathing in the baking sunshine that afternoon, we did another hike on Plazas, where we saw more of the same (land iguanas, giant cacti, more seals and lizards) and walked along a beautiful cliff face, before doing another snorkel in another spot on the island.  This time we were actively on the hunt for hammerhead sharks; we saw three massive ones swimming around the boat before we got in to snorkel, definitely a bit scary even though they are not dangerous to humans!  Water really warm and enjoyable to snorkel in now – we swam from the main boat across to the island this time, some 200-300 metres and visibility was great, we see 15 metres down to the bottom!  Saw some colourful large shoals of fish, which tempted Mik and I to dive down into them to disperse them for a photograph!  Unfortunately though, no sharks.  Got back to the boat and tried some highboard jumping off the bow, quite high (maybe 6 metres!).  When the main other group returned to the boat, we learned that some had seen 2-3 sharks in the water, which was raging for us!

his was also the day of the World Cup Final in South Africa, between Holland and Spain.   While we tried in vain to watch the match on the small, dated aerial tv on the boat, it was a fantastic day’s memories to have. 

The Monday morning hike was mildly interesting, we’ve seen all the animals already but we did see a couple of freshly hatched blue-footed boobies, no more than a couple of hours old… the mothers actually lay more than one egg but are only able to source enough food to feed the first one and the other one usually dies…. Dorothy described it well as “heir and a spare”, which was quite clever.

After that we were back to the boat to say our goodbyes to everyone before making the trip back to Puerto Ayora.  Bought our tickets for the 2pm boat to Isla San Cristobal (US$25 pp) before heading to the Charles Darwin Centre with Mik and Natalie for a couple of hours…. Didn’t spend too long here, just long enough to go the see some more turtles and the baby tortoise nursery.  Ciaran met up with Vy and the decision was made for her to join us on the trip to Mancora later in the week.

Said our goodbyes to Mik and Natalie.  We had hoped to see Natalie again in Mancora but Mik headed back to Oz and a new career - hopefully one less detrimental to his well being!  Jumped aboard the high-speed yacht to Isla San Cristobal, which I remember for the back pains it caused me for days afterwards, crashing through the waves!  We stayed two nights in the half-decent hotel (Hostal Bella Vista) in the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, which happens to be the capital of the Galapagos!  We had hoped to do some scuba in Kicker Rock, as it was meant to be immense, really clear and great opportunities for seeing hammerheads… but unfortunately they hadn’t enough other people to do it so we had to miss out!  I found a beach (Playa Loboria) on Tuesday afternoon to relax, read a book and watch the surfers out in the water wiping themselves out on some class looking surf breaks.  Had the beach to myself and fell asleep for a while before being startled by something cold and wet rubbing my arm.  Opened my eyes sleepily to see a baby seal lying beside me on the beach, poking at me interestingly with his nose!  I leapt quickly to my feet with a yelp, which evidently scared the seal, who shuffled back to his mother.  It turned out the beach was also a seal colony!  Other than that, there wasn’t much to say about Isla San Cristobal, very little of anything to do and restaurant / hostel choice was poor and overpriced

We had had everything easy up to that point in terms of transport in South America.  So much so, that it came as no surprise to find on our arrival to the airport that there had been a mess-up with our flight.  We arrived with the bags to check in for our flight and the lady at the desk seemed puzzled and informed us that our flight was from Isla Baltra and not from Isla San Cristobal.  We never did figure out how this had happened, as the booking was clear in Guayaquil.  We had looked into changing some flights (dates, airports) in the Aerogal offices in Isla Santa Cruz, so we suspected the lady may have changed our flights for us and failed to tell us!  As we were keen to move on and Ciaran had arranged to meet Vy (and didn’t want to let her down again!) so thankfully the check-in lady managed to work something out to get us on the flight. 

So we left the Galapagos and Ecuador –we had another great time, the Galapagos was another lifetime highlight to add to Angel Falls!!  Ecuador and in particular, Banos, was great fun, although not as good as Colombia.

[Ciaran] Not gonna harp on to much I think Owen has explained in great detail already, other that I had the time of my life and words can’t do the Galapagos justice, just go there if you ever have the chance, it’s a life changing experience. If I may bring Owen up on a slight mistake, there Seal lions not Seals, oh no he didn’t. Great time though although our boat was ok it was a bit cheap and I think the other boats think that we were the crazies. It was like a backpackers boat and everyone else from other tours on big yachts who had paid 2000 dollars for there trip I think were afraid of us, which added to the fun. I think the name of the card game was spoons surprisingly enough, great crack. It was great to get back to dry land at the end and get soom space to sleep and wash but wouldn’t change the trip for anything.
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