Friday, March 30, 2012

1ºS, 91ºW

We weren’t entirely sure we were going to make it to the Galapagos until a few days before we left. Despite pre-booked tours being the best way to reach the islands, the booking process was not exactly straightforward. Ecuador has some strange credit card rules so in lieu of being charged tons of fees, we paid in cash just four days before our tour. Additionally, the main cheap airline that flies there, TAME, for some antiquated reason only accepts Diner’s Club cards to book online (who even has those anymore…). Without one, you have to pay in person at their office in Quito and they won’t offer you their cheaper online fares. So we had to “reserve” via email then wait for at least an hour at their packed office to pay tons more than we should have. The whole thing was preposterous. But we made it there with no problems and even got lunch on the plane which was a surprise.

Our tour was a 4 day and 3 night island hopping tour. We chose this over a cruise because it was much cheaper (although still quite expensive) and didn’t involve being on a boat for more than 3 hours total (we’d had enough of boats in Panama). Our tour turned out to be a good length for us, a perfect intro to the islands and plenty of opportunities to see all the animals we wanted. Although our tour (through Nature Galapagos and Ecuador) seemed a bit disorganized at times, we didn’t have any major problems and even got our hotel upgraded for free, so we had no major complaints.

The Galapagos are made up of 14 major islands, 4 of which are inhabited with a total population of about 25,000 people. Santa Cruz is one of two islands with a major airport, and this was where we landed and had lunch before setting off via speedboat to Isabella, the largest island. The boat ride was smooth and serene and we passed many interesting island rocks. Arriving in Puerto Villamil on Isabella, we were stunned to already see so many animals. Huge pelicans and frigatebirds were hovering and swooping all around us. Lazy sea lions had jumped up onto the anchored water taxis and lounged in the sun. As our boat docked, we spotted huge rays in the shallow water as well as more playful sea lions. The rocks were covered with colorful crabs and motionless iguanas. All in the first 5 minutes!

Sea lion snoozing in a boat
Pelicans and seagulls own the boat
We transferred to our hotel, already hot and exhausted, then headed out for a quick trip to see flamingoes that feed in an old mining lagoon. They were too far away to get a good look, but it was amazing to watch them gracefully feed on brine shrimp (that’s what makes them pink!) and stretch out their long wings. We even saw a young one who was not quite pink yet. We saw 12 which supposedly was more than anyone had seen in weeks. The landscape on both Santa Cruz and Isabella was not at all what we were expecting. Most of it looked like a desert with low brush and an abundance of lanky cacti in very rocky reddish black volcanic soil. There were areas of mangroves on the shoreline and your typical palms, but for being islands on the equator, it wasn’t exactly the tropical paradise we had pictured.

Beautiful sunset on Isabella
As usual, we were the only Americans in our tour group among Aussies, Scottish, Irish, Dutch, Spanish, and Finnish tourists. The Dutch couple had actually sailed on the same boat we did from Panama, so we had fun sharing sailing stories with them and other travel adventures with everyone. Everyone was at a different point in their travels, either heading north or south and a surprising number of people had quit their jobs with no future plans except travel.

Day 2 we started early to hike up to the Sierra Negra volcano on Isabella, one of 4 on the island. Luckily they drove us up most of the way and we only had a 3 km gradual hike up to the amazing crater which is 10 km in diameter! Unlike the rocky lowlands, the top of the volcano had a misty cloud forest with wild guavas and lots of ferns. We continued past Sierra Negra to a second volcano, Chico, which had a more lunar landscape with clearly visible lava trails and sparse vegetation. It afforded amazing views of nearly all of Isabella though; we could see both sides of the island at once. There was little to no animal life up on the volcanoes except a few birds, which was the only downside to the 6 hour hike.

The crater just keeps going and going...
Crazy cactus with a finch perched atop
After lunch, we put on our swimsuits and hopped in a boat out to some of the rocky inlets just outside the port to snorkel. The water was surprisingly cold, but the snorkeling was fantastic. Near the shore, sea lions swam with us, playing in the shallows. We spotted tons of sea life including orangey purple parrot fish, sea cucumbers, a huge ray, flounder, pufferfish and at least 4 schools of some tiny fish.  After the wonderful swim, we went ashore to see a small deep channel where tons of tintoreras, or white tip sharks, live. While there, we saw a big sea turtle, got up close and personal with some sweet sea lions, and watched iguanas sneeze out salt. On our boat ride back, we spotted the famous blue-footed boobies and some penguins hanging out on the rocks and saw a school of golden rays swimming in formation just under the surface! What’s most amazing is that the animals have been so well protected; they have no instincts to run from humans, so you can get in close for a look.

Penguin catching some rays
Tons of iguanas huddling together for warmth
Day 3 we had to catch an early speedboat back to Santa Cruz and were rewarded with a stunning sunrise that had an almost aurora borealis look with steams of green rays lining the sky. Upon arrival, we headed into the highlands to spot giant tortoises in their native habitat. The islands were actually named for a species of giant tortoise the Spanish called galapagos for its similarity to a horse saddle, so they are an icon of the national park. We were lucky enough to see two of the huge reptiles in the wild, slowly munching on grass. Afterward, we headed to the famous Darwin Research Center which does controlled breeding and research to help repopulate the islands with animals that have been endangered due to development. They had several different species of tortoise and stunning golden iguanas. We also met Lonesome George, a tortoise that could be 100-200 years old who is the last known member of his species. It was sad to know that because of tortoise hunting and the induction of non-native animals, species like George’s will shortly be extinct.

Tortoise in the wild
Lava lizard
We had some time to take in the local life on Santa Cruz before our day 4 departure. The islands really aren’t as touristy as we were expecting. They basically look like any beachside Latin American city, but luckily a lot cleaner. One of the highlights was watching the fisherman clean and filet fresh fish while sea lions and pelicans sat next to them waiting for a fish head to fall their way! It was also nice to just gaze out at the azure ocean, ice cream in hand, and take in the beauty the islands have to offer. It was a great trip.

Sea lions and pelicans awaiting their fish dinners
We decided our advice for other backpackers or budget travelers would be to book some last minute flights (since our flights were half empty, we probably could have gotten cheap fares the day of), book a hotel in Santa Cruz’s main town of Puerto Ayora for a few nights and figure the rest out when you get there. Despite the notion that cruises or tours are the only way, there are dozens of dive, tour and cruise shops on the islands that can book anything for you at much cheaper prices than if you pay in advance, you just have to be flexible and okay without a lot of hand-holding. We’re happy to answer more questions about logistics etc if you send us a message!

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