Lori and I chose to go to the Galápagos Islands on our vacation this year to enjoy the beautiful equatorial waters off the coast of Ecuador and see the land and wildlife where Darwin originated his theories of evolution. It's easiest to visit this national park with a tour group; we chose Wilderness Travel.
It was night by the time we flew into Quito. This was my first foray into South America (although Lori had vacationed previously in Peru, Colombia, and Brasil); my expectation was based upon movies such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid which shows small, rustic South American villages. I was therefore unprepared for the vast metropolis high up in the mountains. Quito is a city of two million people! Lights stretched out far in all directions. I was also surprised to learn that the currency is the US dollar and the electrical system is identical to that in the states. No conversions necessary.
The following photos show the approach into the city. (These were taken when we returned from the Galápagos during the day.) Note that the airport is in the city. If you're facing away from the airport while getting a taxi ride there, you'd be rather surprised when the taxi driver stops and says, Estamos aqui.
Our trip leader, Biti Espinoza and the Quito tour guide, Monica, from Wilderness Travel picked us up at the airport and took us to the Hilton Hotel Colon for some much needed sleep.
The next morning, we discovered that Miami airport had lost the luggage for two of the members of our group. We later learned that they had also lost the luggage for a few thousand other travelers as well.
We then took a tour of the old section of Quito, led by Monica.
Quito is arguably one of the most beautiful cities in South America.
Situated at 9300 ft. above sea level, and surrounded by mountains and
volcanoes, it features beautiful colonial architecture and charming,
We then hopped back into the bus to drive to the El Panecillo mountaintop to look out over the entire city and see the huge statue of the Virgin Mary up there. It was slow going. It turned out that a military band was marching on the street and we were stuck behind them (as the streets were very narrow).
We had the afternoon to ourselves and visited the Museo Banco Central and admired the archaeological artifacts within. It was a great museum and a steal at $1.50 admission. Outside, a whimsical public works worker had left his mark on a barrier and there were other more noticeable works of art besides. Our hotel is one of the ones on the right in the background.
We flew to Isla Baltra this morning which used to be a US military base. The landscape was a mix of lava and prickly pear cactus which has long trunks to escape the clutches of the land iguana. Apparently, someone has to search the runway for iguanas before takeoff and landings to avoid crushing reptiles looking for warmth.
I certainly wasn't expecting any airport at all, let alone one that's large enough to handle a large jet. Instead, I was expecting to be flown out to the boat on a seaplane! The second surprise came when a bus took us to the boat. So much for our perception of deserted islands!
Our gear was loaded as the boat was fueled up for our week-long journey. We boarded and motored to our first destination.
Landings are considered to be either dry or wet. We thought that a dry landing might mean pulling up to a dock and getting off. What really happens is that the panga (which is what you call a dinghy in Spanish) pulls up to the rocky coastline of the island while the panga bobs up and down in a two foot swell and you jump off onto the often slippery rocks at precisely the right moment without ripping yourself to shreds on the sharp lava rocks. You then attempt to slip by a battalion of sea lions keeping guard. Because two foot swells give rise to four foot swells, the whole affair goes quickly by necessity and has a feel similar to the deployment of a SWAT team.
With only a single fatality, we successfully landed on North Seymour and proceeded to see every animal known to man, or Darwin.
The first obstacle was a sea lion pup which was training to be a bouncer. As you can see, he effectively stopped the group.
Next we were introduced to the land iguana.
We then got to see frigate birds up close and personal along with a yellow warbler. Male frigate birds inflate their red necks with air to attract the attention of females. It works! We saw an excited female land right near a posing male.
Finally, we saw the blue-footed boobies. When mating, the male and female walk together in unison. The male picks up sticks and other presents for the female who uses these items to dress up her nest. We caught another in the act of using his wings to impress his future mate.
The boobies feed by dive bombing fish from high altitudes at extremely high rates of speed. It is very impressive. Like a boxer, the repetitious bonging about the head leads to brain damage and blindness in later years.
On the way back to the panga we smelled wonderful smells from the sap of a sandalwood tree which smelled just like the incense made from it. We also spotted large schools of yellow-finned surgeon fish feeding in the waters at the foot of the cliffs near the panga landing spot.
The Ecuadoreans are trying hard to preserve the individual ecosystems of each island. Toward that end, we were not allowed to bring any food to the islands during our naturalist walks. Also, whatever walking shoes we wore to the island were immediately hosed off when we returned to the boat, and kept in a special box on deck to insure that we didn't carry any organic material from one island to the next.
That evening we feasted on the first of many delicious, three-course meals. We fell asleep to the sound of the motor while we made our first passage to the next island and were later awakened when the anchor dropped with a roar. You would not believe how loud it is as the anchor chain rattles along the metal channel and reverberates throughout the ship. Incredible as it may seem, I did, however, manage to sleep through the drop of the anchor twice later in the week.
After spending our first night aboard we were treated to a large breakfast to build up energy for the activities that lay ahead. We landed on the southern island of Isla Plazas and saw both land and marine iguanas, a sea lion nursery, and many types of birds.
On the beach we observed a land iguana climb a prickly pear cactus, take a bite and then slip down. The cactus has evolved slippery trunks to make it difficult for animals to climb it to eat its leaves. These cacti looked older than dirt but in truth they are all about 22 years old. At that time, the El Niño brought heavy rains and all of the cacti fell down as they have very shallow roots which could not hold in the deluge.
We later spotted a colorful and friendly land iguana.
This island is replete with marine iguanas as well.
An oddity unique to this island is that it is home to the so-called weirdo, which is the offspring of a marine and land iguana. These weirdos have a shorter lifespan--about 7 years--and are sterile. We also caught a pair of land and marine iguanas in the act. It seems that this act was unusual as it was thought not to happen so close to water.
The species homo sapiens was also observed on the island.
What was so unexpected on these islands was the abundance of wildlife, everywhere you looked. You had to be careful where you were walking, you could easily step on an iguana or a sea lion. The animals were really well camouflaged with their natural environment.
After lunch we visited the Charles Darwin Research Station which is dedicated to restoring the Galápagos tortoise populations that have been decimated by sailors past and fishermen present.
Lonesome George. 100 years old. Broken shell. Infertile or otherwise can't mate. Last of his kind from Isla Pinta.
The station is adorned with the prickly pear cactus.
Afterward we walked to the surprisingly large town of Puerto Ayora and had a beer while we waited for the panga.
We found upon our return to the boat that the missing luggage magically appeared.
Española is the oldest of the Galapagos Islands--3 million years old. In the morning, we went to the beach to hang out. There we saw the not very shy Hood mockingbird which likes to try and open water bottles for fresh water. The rest of the time, it digs holes in the sand, ostensibly for water.
We also did a little snorkeling and saw our first green sea turtle.
Later we motored across the bay to Gardner Island where we snorkeled with the sea lions. We also saw moray eels, colorful fish, and a white-tipped reef shark. Unfortunately, the shots of the eels were completely unrecognizable.
After snorkeling, we motored to the other side of the island and took a walk where we saw a lot of bird life. The first bird we saw was the waved albatross, a huge bird with a 2-meter plus wingspan. It soars effortlessly, but is most ungainly as it walks, bobbing its head in large gyrations in order to get its feet to move. Like pigeons, it is entirely likely that if you splinted the albatross' neck, it could not walk.
The bird also needs a large runway in which to take off or land. We watched some juveniles strengthen their wings on the runway, although in practice, the albatross wanders over to the cliff and jumps off, using the strong updrafts to get aloft.
The albatross isn't the only bird on this island. There are several other species that we observed.
Wrapping up the bird life on the island is the Nazca booby. It is a very beautiful bird, and isn't at all disturbed by our presence, even when caring for its young.
The Española coastline is very picturesque. So are the visitors.
The marine iguanas on this island are extremely colorful this time of year. Some are bright red and green and have earned the name of Christmas iguana.
Other reptiles on the island include the ubiquitous lava lizard.
In the morning, we took a walk and viewed ping flamingos, sting rays, turtles mating, ghost crabs, and hermit crabs. Biti also gave us a long and colorful history of the few human inhabitants of the island.
Biti advised us to not walk in the water when we couldn't see the sand below our feet, since there could be rays underfoot. The soft rays rubbed against us several times, but we were not stung since as long as we stood still, we were just unmoving trees or rocks to them.
We then snorkeled around Devil's Crown in which we were treated to an absolute menagerie of fish. We were about to leave and then Pepe spotted a white-tipped reef shark and so everyone was back in the water and we saw many more sharks after that. This is an absolutely great dive location.
Since this was Christmas, we had a wonderful Christmas lunch dressed with a Christmas whale centerpiece.
We then went for our first kayaking adventure and saw turtles, rays, and the Galápagos penguin which is the northernmost penguin in the southern hemisphere. I don't have any pictures from this or any other kayak trip since I forgot to bring my dry bag.
Biti then showed us the Post Office Barrel where folks historically dropped off and picked up their mail while traveling between the islands and mainland. Today, the tourists maintain the tradition by hand delivering mail. I left a letter for us. Wonder if it will make it.
We took a hike on a recent lava flow at Punta Morena in the morning. The lava flow was approximately 300 years old. In this short time, oases had already cropped up around brackish ponds where lava tubes allows sea water to enter at the high spring tides. This provides a paradise for salt-tolerant plants and birds such as the pink flamingo.
We then snorkeled in Bahia James. At the bitter end of the bay, in a protected pool, we saw a pod of about 20 green sea turtles, swimming below us. It was magic.
We then kayaked in the mangroves nearby where we coasted over many sea turtles. Meanwhile, tuna and mullet and their prey jumped out of the water. In this bay, sea lions are found resting on trees.
Lori and I paddled back to the boat around the Islas Mariela which was absolutely covered with blue-footed boobies and their guano. There were a few penguins on the rocks as well.
The next morning, we made a wet landing on our first black sand beach in Bahia Urvina. This coastline is interesting because it has only been the coastline since 1954 when volcanic action raised the landmass 15 feet. Further inland we found a carbon copy of the beach we landed on. At the mouth of iguana burrows are the shells from the old sea floor. Dead mangrove trunks lay scattered about. We also saw our first (and only) wild tortoise, or more accurately, tortoise in the wild.
During the passages around the island we saw huge manta rays with 3 meter spans, whales, and birds. We only saw the whale's dorsal fins and their blow spouts, not their tails, nor did we see them breach. They were also far away so all I got were pictures of us looking at them.
In the afternoon, we landed on Punta Espinosa, a narrow spit of lava covered with marine iguanas. Many of their faces were bloodied from fighting; we caught them in the act of fighting a couple of times as well.
There are also many flightless cormorants here as well. Their wings evolved away with abundant food and lack of predators.
In the morning we visited tide pools where fur seals were nursing, lava herons and octopus were feeding. Meanwhile, back at the beach, the crew for the various ships were having a soccer match.
Once we got back to the beach, we threw on our snorkeling gear and snorkeled in the bay. This was another amazing snorkeling spot. A friendly sea lion followed us during our entire dive and only left us to go play with a white-tipped reef shark that swam by within a couple of meters of us. We also swam with a couple of sea turtles. The fish life was rich.
After lunch, we went for a snorkel around the Pinnacle Rock where we saw a white-tipped reef shark and a swimming penguin along with the usual cast of characters: yellow-tailed surgeon fish, Moorish idols, Mexican hogfish, wrasses, trigger fish, parrot fish, and others.
We then hiked to the top of a recent volcano which looked a whole lot like a Martian or lunar--take your pick--landscape. The surface was potmarked with spatter cones, formed by bubbles of gas exploding at the surface where the lava is cooling.
We hiked on a boardwalk to protect the delicate vegetation. The early plants include the lava cactus which contains sulfur for breaking down the lava and thyme-like plants whose network of roots helps to prevent erosion of the generated soil. These two plants provide a toe-hold for other plants.
Across the channel we could see the recent (< 100 years) lava flow on Santiago.
We took a pre-breakfast panga ride into Caleta Tortuga Negra (Black Turtle Cove) which has a weird blend of cactus and mangrove.
The cove does, of course, have sea turtles. We watched a pair attempt to mate, but it's a very slow affair for them. They didn't appear to make any progress during the half hour that we watched. Maybe it was stage fright. Maybe it's the huge shells. I don't know.
We also spotted a squadron of golden rays flying in formation, a spotted eagle ray, and lots and lots of sharks.
We then had breakfast while we motored back to Baltra where we said our goodbyes to the crew and departed for the airport with tears in our eyes. We didn't want to leave! It was a glorious trip.
The Sagitta is a 120-foot, three-masted ship. It definitely had the most character of all the other boats that we saw. Here are some shots in and around the ship.
The crew was exceptional. Everyone was friendly and helpful. From Pepe the captain who got us around, to Patricio the helmsman who helped out Pepe, and gladly spotted us as we climbed the mast, to Constancio who kept the engine (and hot water) running, to Walter and Saul who prepared delicious three-course meals three times a day and to Ramiro who served them, to Vicente and Jose who shuttled us back and forth and carried our gear.
A special thanks also to Biti who was a fountain of knowledge and just plain fun to hang around with.
Copyright © 2004 Bill Wohler
Last modified: 2006-02-09 19:14:02 -0800 (Thu, 09 Feb 2006)