Galapagos, or Bust!

Ecuador, Feature, Travelogue — By on January 27, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Majestic, awe-inspiring, magical: words barely do justice to the wonder of the Galapagos Islands, the remote archipelago of islands made famous by the grand daddy of evolution, Charles Darwin. Almost 1,000 kilometers off the cost of Ecuador, the islands are a place where sea lions play the role of dogs, pre-historic iguanas sniff at your shoe-laces, and birds tail you wherever you go, unable to contain their curiosity at the latest humans who have come to play.

The hostel we were staying at in Quito had a great partnership with a small travel agency called CarpeDM, who had advertised some pretty tempting last minute deals to the islands. After serious deliberation (15 minutes) we decided we couldn’t pass on the opportunity, even though it likely meant we’d have to skip seeing other places in mainland Ecuador, such as Cuenca, Baños, and Volcano Alley, a stretch of the Panamerican that plays home to Cotopaxi, Tungurahua and Sangay Volcanos. Decision made and tickets in hand, we went on a four-day boat trip through five of the archipelago’s islands: San Cristobal, Espanola, Santa Fe, South Plaza and Santa Cruz.  We extended our flight so we would have an extra day after the cruise to explore Santa Cruz and the town of Puerto Ayora.

Once we boarded our boat, The Monserrat, there was precious little time to waste.  We immediately set out on a hike around Cerro Colorado and were introduced to one of 11 Giant Tortoise species that call the islands home. They are massive, slow creatures, but in a strange way, they are both cute and endearing. These tortoises spend their entire lives on land, lumbering slowly through the brush eating on a type of tree fruit that is poisonous to every other species. Adults weigh well over a hundred pounds (they can weigh up to 250 kg) and live past 100 years!

Before going back to the boat, we had some free time in the town of San Cristobal where, everywhere we looked, we saw sea lions: on stairs, boats, rocks, park benches, sidewalks and pathways. The animals here have not been hunted so they have no natural fear of humans. Throughout the entire archipelago, sea lions approach humans as they do other sea lions, sniffing your shoes before comically walking away. Playful baby sea lions have been known to approach swimmers and nip at their snorkels, encouraging them to play!  Amazing, to say the least.  On the first night, we sailed five hours south to Espanola Island where an entirely different experience awaited us.

In the morning, we hiked a loop around the entire island, seeing Marine Iguanas, Land Iguanas and yes, more lounging Sea Lions.  In the air, there were Frigates, Blue Footed Boobies, Masked Boobies, Galapagos Hawks, Galapagos Doves, Yellow Warblers, Finches, American Oyster Catchers, even a baby Albatross trying to fly: Ecuador is home to over 900 species of birds, and we saw only a handful. We came within inches of a nest housing a baby Masked Booby — mom and dad watched us take pictures and move on with little more than mild interest. Stunning. Even the greenery is unique: many of the plant species are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else on the planet. In the afternoon we had a chance to do some deep water snorkeling, and found the protected ocean around the islands is home to as many species of colourful fish as there are animals on the land.

On our second evening, we sailed to Santa Fe Island, awaking on our third day to another new adventure. Once again, hundreds of sea lions were snoozing and playing throughout the island: sea lions are exceptionally efficient hunters, meaning they have to spend only a fraction of their days hunting for food, leaving the rest of the day for leisure. The rocks seemed to glow with brightly-coloured Sally Lightfoot crabs hopping and clattering about. Sante Fe is home to more species of Land Iguanas, some of them even coming up to us to sit on our shoes! The iguanas were remarkable, appearing like a cross between a snake and a dinosaur, with some of them so brightly coloured they can’t be missed, and others so camoflauged you have to watch where you step.  After more snorkeling in the afternoon it was off to (our personal favourite) South Plaza Island.

Landing on South Plaza Island seeming as if we had stepped onto another planet; it was like nothing we’d ever seen. There are cacti in the shape of a palm tree growing next to the ocean on the beach, volcanic rock is strewn about, and tufts of yellow, red and green coral cover the ground like webs.  The species of iguana living on this island seem to blend right in. It is a good thing our guide knew for what and where to look, otherwise the novice hiker may have seen nothing.

On our final evening, and mercifully before bed, we sailed to Santa Cruz Island which, as the most populated island and one of only two with fresh water (San Cristobal being the other), is home to about 15,000 full-time residents. It was on Santa Cruz Island that we hiked to the famed Charles Darwin Research Centre and saw more species of Giant Tortoises. These are in captivity in order to breed. Unlike many of the other animals in the islands, tortoises have been hunted to near extinction for their sweet meat and oil. The most famous guest at the centre is Lonesome George. He is the last of his species and — for one reason or another — will not breed. He was brought to the centre from his home after goats, an introduced and non-native species, introduced years ago by humans, ate all the vegetation, leaving the land bare and uninhabitable.  When found, Lonesome George was the only survivor of his kind, and he was put into captivity in 1972 to try and breed with females from a genetically similar species. As of today, George has been unsuccessful, and the Charles Darwin foundation will try cloning only as a last resort.

Our last day was spent at beautiful Tortuga Bay, a beautiful beach and bay 3km walk from the town of Puerto Ayora, where the sand feels like a fine powder on your feet. The waves rolled up so gradually that when they rolled back to sea, the beach looked like glass, or a mirror reflecting the sky. There was barely a detectable difference between the temperature of the air and the temperature of the water, and we spent the afternoon floating in the bay, surrounded by marine iguanas swimming by.

On most of our days on the islands, we marveled to ourselves how lucky we are to have seen such paradise. Tourism is ever-increasing in the Galapagos, and its hard to know what the islands will look like in 10 or 15 years: will the government of Ecuador be able to adequately protect the islands and its inhabitants, or will this piece of paradise disappear in the face of increasing commercial pressure? Selfishly, we’re glad we made it, a series of perfect days. Some things just can’t be described using the language of mere mortals.

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    3 Comments

  • Julie says:

    Kat,

    I love your photos and thanks for sharing your wonderful adventure. We miss you guys dearly and hope you’re having the adventure of a lifetime!

    Julie & Neil

  • admin says:

    Thanks Julie! We’re glad you’re enjoying our stories and photos and following along…it makes us feel a bit more connected to know our friends and family are up-to-date on our adventures.

  • Tracy says:

    So glad you guys made it to the Galapagos. It sounds like it was amazing and your photos are beautiful!

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