For those of you who haven’t yet got bored of me going on about the Galapagos, I put together a short (10 minute) video of some of the highlights. I didn’t have an underwater camera, we were going to get one in Quito but ran out of time being ill, but still, it gives you an idea of the land-based part of our trip.
Someone else on another Ecoventura boat at the same time as us and doing the same itinerary had some decent kit and made a much more professional looking one, so for the underwater stuff, check this out…
Week two can be summed up by a daily routine that barely deviated from: wake up, breakfast, pool all morning, lunch, stroll along the front, ice cream, beach and swimming with sea lions, cocktails and cards, dinner, bed.
After an exhausting but exhilarating week aboard the Letty it was wonderful not to have to jet back off to a job or onto another intense destination, but to instead enjoy the (very) slow pace of island life and to have time to absorb what we had seen and learned. The plan had been to spend this week doing schoolwork in the morning and beach stuff in the afternoon, but the internet was so atrociously bad that no schoolwork could be accomplished. It took half an hour a day to upload one photo!
Nonetheless the lack of internet gave us plenty of time to catch up on our books, and the days passed gently and calmly.
The highlight was, without a doubt, the time on the beach, where sea lions would regularly come up to us and want to play. The pups especially seemed to single Lauren out, and it was hilarious watching them play in the waves in exactly the same way, jumping over the bigger ones, and riding the surf all the way to the beach, before rolling around in the shallow water.
Look at this beautiful clip of Lauren and the pups:
One big one came up behind me at one point and headbutted my bum, which gave me a hell of a shock. It seemed to want to play, but while the pups are cute, the big ones are a bit scary. While we tried to keep our distance, they had no such concerns, and the pups regularly bashed into Lauren in the waves, or their whiskers tickled our legs as they ducked and dived around us.
On the beach, they could actually be a real pain. One came and sat on my towel, and I had to ask the lifeguard to remove it. Another tried to nab my sunglasses, and it was only due to the intervention of a quick thinking guy nearby that it didn’t get them. I saw one dump itself down on a kids sandcastle, and others simply made people get out of their way. They were never overtly aggressive, but they certainly let us know where we stood in the Galapagos pecking order (definitely below sea lions).
Check this guy out:
I was impressed by the lifeguard on duty, who must be one of the few lifeguards in the world to spend more time dealing with human-animal interaction than saving people from the sea. From stopping kids getting too close, to the inevitable selfie-takers, to rescuing items they had fallen asleep on, he did a sterling job of keeping the peace.
On our last night we invited a lovely French girl Lauren met on the beach – who was also travelling for a year with her parents and brother – for dinner, and the girls had a great time playing Uno and nattering away while I made the most of happy hour.
Now we are in Bogota, and have excellent internet, so poor Lauren is putting in long hours to catch up with her schoolwork, before Mexico and then (very excited to see our friends!) the States.
If we had thought that a 09.30 disembarkation would mean a lie in, we were very wrong when we were told at the briefing the previous night that there would be a 0600 wake up call to fit in a visit to Isla dos Lobos, where we would have the chance to see the famous blue footed boobies and their mating dance.
Now don’t get me wrong, boobies are fascinating and all, but there was a tiny, exhausted part of me wondering if they were worth getting up before dawn for. Because, while on ‘boat time’ it was 6am (they operate on mainland time) it was actually 5am by island time, which we were now on….
We had said we would take every opportunity however, and really, why miss it when we had a week’s rest coming up, so up we got and went to see some boobies before breakfast.
It was brilliant. First, being on the island just after the sun came up meant it was cool and beautiful. Secondly, the boobies are just hilarious, the male fluttering his wings and whistling dementedly, the female pretending to not care and occasionally flying off, only to return minutes later, strutting about without ever seeming keen. The male whistles and ruffles his feathers and lifts one foot then another while the female looks the other way.
I wandered away from the group and spent a while just sitting on a rock observing them.
There were also some very curious sea lions that we literally had to scare off through clapping our hands, or they would have got on the panga with us.
All too soon though, it was time to head back for a last breakfast, and our last panga ride back to San Cristobel, where we would disembark.
Luckily for us, I had foreseen the need for a week of complete rest and booked us a guesthouse with a pool on San Cristobel, so we could just flop for a bit after a lot of travelling, my illness, and a very full on week on board the Letty. While most of the others headed to the airport, we jumped in a taxi and within half and hour were laid out by the pool, where I still am as I write this, and from where it is unlikely we will stir much for the next few days.
Of all the days, this for me was the least enjoyable, mainly because we were back in civilization (although it was nice to have network and send a few pics to family) and because the constant information from the guides was wearing thin. All of the information was interesting, but I felt (and later gave this feedback) that we weren’t given enough time to simply quietly enjoy being close to the incredible animals. I am interested in the breeding habits of, for example, the land iguana, or the feeding habits of the red footed booby – but I also want the opportunity to simply be alongside them. I had started to rebel (as had others) and hang back from the group so that I could simply enjoy observing the creatures in peace. Lauren, naturally more sociable, stayed with the group, talking up a storm with the guides and asking a million questions, all of which were graciously answered by Malena and David.
Anyway, we disembarked at the pier in Santa Cruz – into a proper town with cafes, bars, shops, ATMS etc and took a short bus ride to the Santa Cruz breeding centre. This felt a bit like a repeat of the first day, but far busier, and I got a bit frustrated. Things livened up a bit when two of the giant tortoises decided they’d better prove they were doing their job (it is a breeding centre after all) and we got ringside seats for ‘tortoise pay-per-view’….. it did look hard work…
After the breeding centre, we trooped back on the bus and visited the highlands, where we visited some ‘lava tunnels’ made when the lava on top solidifies but that underneath keeps moving, where we were lucky enough to see a nesting barn owl. This was interesting but felt a bit like filling.
Then we visited a farm that had tortoises just wandering around – the tortoises don’t belong to the farms, and can wander freely, but basically just stay put where there is lots of food and water. It was nice to see them, clearly happy and co-existing with humans, and in my rebellious mood I hung back for ages after the group had moved on, and just enjoyed sitting close by while they munched on the grass.
At the farm cafe they had some shells of tortoises that had died. Lauren was encouraged by one of the guides to get in and demonstrate the relative size… this was a medium sized shell…
After this we returned to the boat for lunch, then headed back into town to ‘contribute to the local economy’. Lauren got a couple of very cool t-shirts, and we bought one for her cousin too, although trying to guess his size after nearly a year apart and knowing he wouldn’t get it for another few months was interesting… We stopped for ice cream and had a pleasant enough time wandering around town, observing island life.
Back on board it was time to pack and agonize over how much tips to leave before enjoying a farewell glass of champagne with the crew. We thanked each in turn, and they had been truly extraordinary, from the guys in the very hot kitchen preparing three meals and two hot snacks (plus gluten free and vegetarian options!) a day, to Sr Luis the barman/server, to Claudia who not only kept all the cabins spotless despite 3 or 4 quick turnarounds a day but also washed us down assiduously every time we returned (to keep the boat clean but also for environmental reasons to avoid taking organic material from one island to another) and helped everyone on and off the pangas and gave us chocolates every night and even sailed the boat at times, to the captain and first mate who sailed through the night to get us where we needed to be, to the panga drivers who not only got us from A to B but made sure we de-fogged masks before getting in the water, drove alongside us while in the water, and helped us in and out.
And of course the two naturalists, always willing to answer questions and working from before we get up until they finally got rid of us at night.
All these guys work hard. Often on back to back trips for weeks, away from family and mostly away from any form of communication.
Day 5 was a slightly easier day, much to everyone’s relief! Due to national park restrictions, we could not land in this area, so explored the coast of Isabela in two panga rides and a snorkelling session. The first panga ride took us up the coast, seeing birds nesting with chicks, sea lions, marine iguanas, penguins, and a number of rays. We were also lucky enough to see some of the elusive Galapagos penguins, which are smaller than those we saw in Ushuaia and closer to those that can be seen in South Africa.
Once back on board, we fulfilled our promise to visit the bridge, and the Captain let Lauren sail the boat – this wasn’t like the cargo ship that would have taken a mile to register any movement and was probably pre-programmed anyway – the Letty is steered manually and Lauren got to hold the wheel for a bit as we sailed the Bolivar channel.
Over lunch we sailed to a second bay on Isabela, Tagus bay, where there was all sorts of ‘graffitti’ carved into the almost-sheer sides of the cove – mainly by the Ecuadorian army that used the area as a training ground in less enlightened times.
The snorkelling was, again, fantastic, although a manta ray we spotted from deck had disappeared by the time we got in, and then it was back on board to get ready for panga ride number two, this time into the interior of the islands, surrounded by mangroves and full of huge turtles, golden, eagle and manta rays, various birds, big fish and an eerie quiet. At times all the information from the guides could get a little overwhelming, so it was nice to drift along with minimal intervention, enjoying the peace and surroundings.
We crossed the equator twice overnight, which according to the captain accounts for the extremely choppy seas. We were fine but some people were not enjoying the amount of movement. Seasickness pills were on the bar for people to help themselves, and many did so.
An early morning walk on Fernandina, the newest and most obviously volcanic island in the archipelago, brought a discussion about the formation of the islands from volcanic activity that is still ongoing, as well as plenty of opportunities for silly photos with the lava.
There were numerous marina iguanas, in fact it’s the biggest colony in the islands, with hundreds of the creatures sprawled on the black rocks, amazingly well camouflaged, lying on top of each other and spitting the salt water out of their nostrils.
There were also of course the usual playful sea lions and birdlife, including the flightless cormorants who have evolved to not be able to fly, with stubby little wings that no longer do much in the air, although still help in the water. While they have evolved not to need to fly, as they can get all the food they need by swimming, this is a downside when catastrophic events happen like volcanic eruptions or an el Niño year – half the population was wiped out in 1983 due to el Niño, leaving just 400 birds – as they can’t fly away, only swim. It was certainly interesting to see evolution in progress, in the place where the theory was first developed.
We also saw some lava cactus, which grows on the lava… stubby little thing but resilient.
Once we had finished our hike, it was snorkelling time again, and this time it was spectacular. We saw a number of big marine turtles, huge, placid and totally at home in the water. I think Lauren counted 18 in the hour we were in the water. Often just swimming by (they know you will get out of their way and just keep going) or munching on seaweed. It was also very cool to see the marine iguanas – so slow and motionless on land – swimming and grazing on the seabed. We also saw a range of different fish, from immense shoals of tiny blue and red ones that made it seem like we were swimming through clouds of shiny confetti, to big ponderous parrot fish and those weird ones with a bump on their foreheads…. (anyone?). It was fun anyway and I struggled to keep up with Lauren and her new-found confidence.
After Fernandina, we sailed through the channel between Fernandina and Isabela, keeping a lookout for whales and dolphins. Around 30 minutes after departing, the captain announced a whale sighting, and everyone trooped up to the sundeck on the roof, where we saw the whale a good few times, rising up to the surface. While I have had the opportunity to see whales breeching and far closer up, Lauren hasn’t (well, she was too small and doesn’t remember which amounts to the same thing).
Once arrived on Isabela, it was time for yet another highlight of the trip – seeing the giant tortoises in the wild. This is one of the only places to see them truly in the wild, and is only accessible by boat. During the rainy season they migrate from the highlands to the lowlands, so we didn’t have far to go (we were right in between the two seasons).
As we piled into the pangas to make the short journey to shore, the rain clouds were gathering, and we got absolutely soaked to the skin before we even landed. But who cared? Within 5 minutes of landing, as we walked through the lush green lowlands, we spotted our first giant tortoise. He/She was big and it was completely different from seeing them in the ‘semi-wild’ environment of a breeding centre. It was absolutely pouring down, which turned out to be a boon, as the tortoises come out to drink the precious rainwater, not caring one bit if they were on the narrow path, as they almost all were as that is where the puddles gathered.
It got to be ludicrous as we tried to walk around the tortoises that littered the path, pushing ourselves into trees and the deep undergrowth to try to give them as much space as possible. It was clear they didn’t like it when 9 or 10 of us (we had to stay in groups, National park rules) pressed past, they hissed and stuck their heads back into their shells, but they didn’t move out of the way, just carried on drinking or lumbering at their slow speed down the path.
The rain also had the positive effect of making everyone put away their cameras once they had a few decent shots, and actually enjoy just being among these amazing creatures. At one point, there was a bit of territorial face-off between two males, with the bigger winning hands down after a bit of shoving. Basic way of sorting things out, but it works.
Four of the original 15 species of Galapagos tortoise are already extinct – caused by hunting and then by rats, goats and cats introduced by humans over the years.
What a day, topped off by dinner with the Captain (we rotated) during which we had a lively and entertaining evening with him regaling us with stories of when he was almost captured by Colombian smugglers when he was in the navy. He insisted that the next day we should join him in the bridge so that Lauren could drive the boat.
Tired, extremely happy and glad to be far from Colombian waters, we tumbled into bed for another nights’ sailing.
We crossed the equator again overnight and reached the north side of Santa Cruz island at dawn. Santa Cruz being inhabited, we even picked up a tenuous mobile signal and I could send a few whatsapps to people who had last heard from me when in hospital in Quito and were worried. That all seemed very remote and I reassured everyone I was fine.
We went for a long walk along the beautiful beach, including a detour to a pond where flamingos had made their home.
Marine iguanas were everywhere, with their ridiculous spitting and scales, and the island itself was your typical image of a tropical island – powder white sand, lush green interior, the odd cactus, black volcanic rocks and a blue-green sea.
Pelicans stood about on rocks, or occasionally plunged into the sea to catch a fish, and sea lions frolicked in the waves, seeming to put on a show just for us. Lava lizards were everywhere – great big lizards that were remarkably difficult to see against the black lava rocks, apart from the females who had bright red chests indicating they were open for (mating) business so to speak.
I decided to ditch the wetsuit (it took more energy getting into than an hour of swimming in cold water did) and had a surprisingly refreshing snorkel after the walk. The water ranges from pleasant to bloody cold depending on where you are in the islands, as they are at the confluence of currents coming up from Antarctica, across from New Zealand, and down from the North. I should remember the names of the currents (Humboldt… something and something…) as it was part of one of the briefings one night, but we were all fairly exhausted by the time evening came round…
One highlight of the snorkelling was coming face to face with an enormous sea lion. I was quite close to the cliff edge, inspecting the rocks and patches of seaweed for fish, when it dived in off a rock at huge speed, comically turned on its side and thrust its whiskered face right up to my mask, blew some bubbles, then continued on its way. It gave me quite a fright, not that there was anything remotely threatening about it, but the speed of this enormous creature rushing towards me and coming so close was unusual – I’m used to animals on land or in the sea avoiding me, not coming right up to me and inspecting me! I also got a very brief glimpse of a Galapagos penguin, streaking through the water like a bullet.
In the afternoon we went for a hike around ‘Cerro Dragon’ – we didn’t climb this mountain, so named by Darwin because it was full of land iguanas that he felt looked like dragons – but we got lovely views from our walk, which was all about these weird land reptiles.
Lauren kept count and between us we saw over 20 in the couple of hours we had to wander around this part of the island. Ponderous and not at all bothered by us, I stayed behind at one point to film one and it literally bumped into my boot with its leg, forcing me to move backwards out of its way.
They can hardly be described as beautiful, but they are certainly impressive, and we learned a lot from David, one of the naturalists who travelled with us, about their behaviour and lives. They have also suffered extensive losses since Darwin’s time, and since the introduction of non-native species of animals, and the Galapagos trust also has a breeding and re-introduction scheme.
We ended the day as always with a wonderful dinner and an early night, ready for the next day, which we had been told by others who had done this itinerary would be a highlight – the islands of Isabela and Fernandina.