Ecuador - Giant Tortoises, Hammerhead Sharks and Cocktails

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South America » Ecuador » Galápagos » Santa Cruz Island
January 3rd 2012
Published: January 16th 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

The First Water in Quito!The First Water in Quito!The First Water in Quito!

I think the beer arrived 2 seconds later!
So the time had finally come for me to leave Central America and fly over the Darian Gap to meet mum and Sara at Quito Airport. As ridiculous as it sounds I was a little it nervous about it, what if South America wouldn´t live up to my expectations? The only words of wisdom I had been given was "Always carry toilet paper and hand sanitiser, the toilets are disgusting". Not exactly confidence inspiring and after mum and Sara left I still had another 2 months to travel around the area.

After months of experiencing the chaos of Central American bus transportation, it did feel a bit like cheating flying, it was so easy! Despite rumours of constant airline delays, terrible planes etc. Not only was the plane pretty good (luckily), it landed early and in Quito airport I didn´t need to queue for longer than 5 minutes. I don´t think I have ever had a plane flight that went that smoothly.

As plans go ours was fairly simple, I land and then 50 minutes later Sara and Mum arrived on the same plane. With only 50 minutes to wait I was so excited and time seemed to slow
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I promsie it was sunny most of the time!
right down. I kept trying to find the best place to see them at the earliest possible moment. At the half point part of my trip it was the perfect time for a visit from home!

I waited and waited and waited and an hour after they flight had landed (and in fact it had actually been taken off the arrivals board) and they still hadn´t appeared I started to panic slightly. Had I misunderstood the plan? Had they slipped past me? Maybe they were stranded in Maimi with way to contact to me? Or maybe they missed the flight in London (actually I think Mum almost did miss her London flight). Its amazing when you start to panic how many different disasterous scenarios can run through your head. Finally at 1am in the morning the sliding door opened and thankfully they had arrived!

The first couple of days were relatively unstressful, as Quito sits at really high altitude it took us a couple of days to acclimatise. We mainly walked (very slowly) around the old and new town, visiting local churches, markets and of course visiting El Panecillo, the "Virgin of Quito" (its a statue that is
The Galapagos IslandsThe Galapagos IslandsThe Galapagos Islands

As promised, beaches and sun!
a cross between an angel/mermaid complete with wings and of course a halo). We had a lot of "firsts" in those two days "first beer/wine/cocktail" of the holiday.

As nice as Quito we were all waiting for the Galapagos Islands. I think all 3 of have been talking about this trip since we booked it. Since I studied Eco-Tourism I had heard so much about the place I couldn´t pass through Ecuador without visiting. The trip itself was perfect for us, we were not doing the traditional boat trip around the islands but we were staying on three of the islands with a programme of adventure activities.

So the morning arrived for our flight to the Galapagos Islannds and it was quite frankly chaos. We woke up with plenty of time and strolled down for a leisurely breakfast before our transport to the airport arrived at 7.30am. As we were eating the hotel gave us an envelope that had been delievered for us a few days before. It was an updated itinary stating that we would be picked up at 7am to go to the airport. As it was now almost 7.30 it seemed likely that we had
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On the Sea Lion beach!
missed our shuttle. Well we started panicing, running to get our bags and trying to find a taxi. All while we tried to understand why we had not been given the envelope when we checked in. When I think back on it maybe we should have been a bit more sceptical as there were quite a lot of errors on the updated sheet (for example the name was wrong on the document).

As we rushed out the hotel this car drove up (it was about 8am by this stage) and it was our lift. All he said was "Sorry, the traffic was bad". Then he started Formula One driving through Quito to the airport in the hope we wouldn´t miss our plane. On arriving at the airport things didn´t get much better. The airport was complicated, you had to get your bag searched and pay the airport tax before you checked into your plane. As none of this was explained to us we were getting later and later and standing in pointless queues. Eventually after I shamelessly queue jumped past an entire plane of people waiting to check in, we managed to catch our plane and we still had
The Giant TortoiseThe Giant TortoiseThe Giant Tortoise

He was waiting for me!
time to grab a quick coffee in the departure lounge.

Around lunchtime after an uneventful flight we landed on San Cristobal island around lunchtime. We just kept looking at each other and saying "I can´t believe that we are finally here". It was beautiful; hot, crystal clear seas with an abundance of wildlife everywhere. One thing that I will say about the Galapagos Islands is that you don´t need to hunt for the animals. As we sat and ate our lunch with the guide there were literally hundreds of sea lions lazing on the beach in front of us. You couldn´t walk round a corner without tripping over an animal. One morning we were walking down to the port and we passed a sea lion that had given birth to a baby 3 minutes before in the fountain in the middle of the town. It was still attached to the mum and you could also see the placenta. It was an amazing sight.

So the first afternoon was packed, we visited the first (of many) Giant Tortoise refuges and watched how they are really successfully reintroducing wild tortoises into the wild. It was incredible, almost as it was
The Sea LionThe Sea LionThe Sea Lion

Right before it tried to attack me!
sitting waiting for us was a Giant Tortoise sitting by the gate, and it looked right at me. Its one of my favourite pictures. After the tortoise santuary we headed to a nearby lagoon and watched birds diving and feeding in the waters. By this time it was almost 4pm so I guess I assumed that we would be heading back to the hotel. Instead we headed to the beach to visit one of the 100´s of sea lion colony, once again the sea lions were so photogenic. As I sat on the beach taking pictures they just waddled right up to me, actually I think one wanted to attack me but I got a great photo!

I think the second day was perhaps one of my favourite on the Galapagos Islands. This was mainly as I managed to acheive one of my biggest dreams and to dive with Hammerhead sharks. It was an incredible experience! We went diving to a nearby rock formation called Lobus Island. The water was freezing (one memeber of the dive group refused to get back into the water for the second dive and so missed the sharks) and there were really strong currents.
Climbing out of the Lava Tunnel!Climbing out of the Lava Tunnel!Climbing out of the Lava Tunnel!

OK, I am posing a bit!
Basically it was perfect shark conditions, not quite so good for divers though. At one point I looked in front of me and could see the diver in front being moved a metre up and down as the currents surged.

Despite the highlight of my dive being the Hammerhead Shark (which was circling above my head) we saw so much marine life. As we did our practice dive a sea lion swam into the circle of people and started trying to play with us, turtles would swim lazily passed us (one actually followed us for a while), there were sting rays and a huge abundance of fish. Whilst it was one of the most physically tiring dives I have ever done it was also one of the most rewarding. The second I surfaced I was shouting "I saw a Hammerhead". All mum and Sara heard me saying for the next week was "Did I tell you I have seen a Hammerhead?". It must have been pretty boring for them. To celebrate myself and Sara went to experience the local nightlife where we salsa danced the night away (or at least tried to Salsa dance anyway).

The next day
The winning Horse!The winning Horse!The winning Horse!

Mum and the Leading Horse
it was time to jump on a water taxi to head off to the capital of the Galapagos Islands, Santa Cruz. The process to ove between islands is not quite as simple as you expect, due to the diversity of the ecosystems on each island every single bag gets searched as you get on the boats. They actually don´t let your bags on the island if you don´t have a label declaring that your bag has been searched. On arriving on Santa Cruz island we were met by a new tour guide and given 10 minutes to drop our bags off and then we headed off to our second Giant Tortoise sanctuary. Fundamentally the process was exactly the same as the Tortoise santuary on San Cristobal but they had one special addition, Lonesome George. I think there is a good chance he might be one of the most famous Tortoises (as hard as that is) in the world, on San Cristobal you can buy all sorts of Lonesome George memorabilia. Lonesome George was discovered on an island in 1971 and he is the only one of his particular Tortoise species left in the world. At the moment they are desperately
The Horse in Last Place!The Horse in Last Place!The Horse in Last Place!

Still she´s Cute!
trying to cross breed him with other Tortoise species but as of yet they have been unsuccessful at finding a species that is genetically close enough to have fertile eggs. They still haven´t given up yet though and he has a new harem of ladies that they are trying to breed him with. What a tough life Lonesome George must have now!

The plan for our second day was "adventure biking" and actually I was really looking forward to it. I pictured beautiful scenary and us whizzing past Giant Tortoises etc. When we saw the bikes they were disasters. Not one of us fitted our bikes, mum and sara´s bikes were to big (and I think the breaks weren´t working either) and mine was tiny. I felt like I was sitting on a childs bike. The cycle itself was downhill all the way, I don´t actually think that I peddled once and with the limited breaks that my bike had I was a little concerned that I wouldn´t be able to stop. As adventure cycles go it was pretty poor, I think we were on the bikes for about 40 mins before we got off and headed into the
The Turtles MatingThe Turtles MatingThe Turtles Mating

There are loads of turtles underwater that you can´t see!
wilderness to find some Giant Tortoises in the wild. It wasn´t that hard, we walked up to a pond and there were about 17 Tortoises taking a bath making these really happy sounding noises.

The highlight of the day was visiting the lava tunnels, basically large underground tunnels about 1km long that they found about 20 years ago. Apparently they were discovered after a local farmer´s cows kept disappearing. Eventually they found a hole in the ground presumably filled with dead cows. Its now a tourist attraction and you can walk (or in parts crawl) through. At the end there is a visitor centre that has the shells of Giant Tortoises that you can climb into and get a picture taken in.

The next day on Santa Cruz was a morning of Sea Kayaking and then a trip to a nearby beach to relax in the afternoon. The morning of Kayaking was great, we had a really fun energetic guide. I had my own kayak and Mum and Sara shared one (it was kind of funny listening to them trying to row in time with each other). We were taken out of the harbour and into these beautiful
Sunset Shot Part 2Sunset Shot Part 2Sunset Shot Part 2

It was cocktail o´clock!
little tunnels where you could see small reef sharks basking in the water right next to beautiful sting and manta rays. It was fantastic and as the water was pretty shallow we were so close to the animals. It was great until we heard "Oi, no boats are allowed into the caves", we look up to see an entire tour group frowning at us from the shore above us so we quickly paddled out. When we asked our guide about it she said we were allowed in there but to this day I don´t know, saying that I am happy that we had seen everything that we wanted to before we got kicked out the caves. Later we walked to another picture perfect beach where mum and the guide went on this epic swim in search of sharks basking in the sun. After Sara´s disaterous attempt at spotting sharks (she almost stood on one and still couldn´t see it) we decided to relax on the beach, work on our non-existent tans and gossip. It was a nice afternoon.

The next day we had out final morning on Santa Cruz island and we decided to head off and go for another snorkelling/diving trip. This time Sara also decided to have a another shot at diving. Weirdly enough the last time she went diving was when we met each other in Australia 10 years ago, she loved it then and I hated the experience. The diving was much easier than the first day with substantialy lighter currents and it was a really nice drift dive . The diving was also incredible, at one point there were 20 sea turtles swimming past in a roughly triangler formation. Of course there were more sharks and sting rays as well. Sara loved her dive and came up with stories of underwater salsa dancing lessons which I am confused on how that works but would also have loved to photograph it. The it was time for our final water taxi ride to the lovely Isabela Island.

Now I think I can safely speak for us all and say that Isabela Island was without doubt my favourite island. Just the place, the people, the salsa dancing and the exceptionally strong cocktails all made it an incredible place and one that the three of spent hours debating how we could move there.
Another Cheesy PhotosAnother Cheesy PhotosAnother Cheesy Photos

Different people though!
Not as easy as it sounds apparently!

The plan for the first day was to Horse ride to a nearby area of what I can only describe as Volcanic destruction. The lava itself had flowed into the sea and the contrast in colours between the black and brown volcanic rock and the green vegetation nearby was breath taking. Unfortunately I had to get there first. Now I will be the first person to admit that Horse riding is not my strong point and when we arrived to find 5 (really well fed) horses waiting for us I was pretty nervous. If I had realised that we were all going to be in the middle of a horse pecking order war I might not have slept the night before. After about 10 minutes, just when I was starting to get into the swing of sitting on the horses back without falling off, it appeared that Sara´s horse and mine were arch enemies. There was a very definate hierarchy established (first our guides horse, then mum´s horse, then mine followed by Sara´s at the back. The final horse was the man who owned the horse and it was allowed anywhere. It was the only Stallion of the group) apparently though Sara´s horse was unhappy with being the last horse so it spent the entire time trying to overtake mine. It got a little bit stupid, at one point we were passing a group of Americans walking the trail who were staring longingly at the horse when Ecuador (that was my gorse) suddenly galloped past them to escape Sara and I almost fell on top of them. It was unelegant and I could hear them laughing for miles. There was also another memorable occassion when my horse forced Sara and her horse against a brick wall with an overhang. It was a shameless technique to prevent them passing. What I would like to say is that neither myself and Sara had any control over the horses so we just had to let them get on with it, it didn´t stop us getting competitive though. Sara - Ecuador definately won, he finished first and so was definately horse 3!

The afternoon was spent visiting the wall of tears which is essentially a huge wall that was built by prisoners. There was no real point in the wall it was more to keep the prisoners busy (I think they were mainly political prisoners) and everytime the wall got to big it just got knocked down and they had to start all over again. That must have been pretty soul destorying and also pointless. Every morning getting up to lug stones about 5km for a wall that you knew was going to get knocked down again. Saying that as we stood to get a picture taken our guide said to us "Oh, look 3 more prisoners for the Wall of Tears" and started laughing. It would have been funnier but I kind of had the feeling she had said it about 300 times before.

That evening we headed down to the local pub for some more fantastic (and really strong) cocktails and a bit of Salsa dancing. The nice thign about South America is that they can´t understand how anyone can´t Salsa dance so they are desperate to try and teach us. Sara got some classic pictures of me trying to learn with a man called Mike (he looked a bit like Santa), there is an empty dance floor and a group of really bemused looking locals standing around wathcing me and trying not to laugh. On Sara´s return I was pretty devestated to learn that somehow the photos had got lost.

With time passing at the speed of light it was our final day on the Islands so we were picked up early and bustled onto a waiting boat and taken out to an area called The Tunnels of Cape Rose (effectively more Lava Tunnels but in the sea and they had caved into to make lots of underwater channels) to look at sting rays, Blue Footed Boobies (its a bird in case you are wondering), penguins and we were also lucky enough to see both seals and sea lions, which we were told was pretty rare. The visit was really nice and again with the water being pretty shallow it was really good to get close up to the animals. Saying that the real highlight was on the way back we passed not only a huge pile of turtles who were all mating (there were about 20 turtles in a giant pile floating on the top of the sea) but we then stopped and got to swim with turtles. They were so docile, they just sat and looked at you as we bobbed around on the surface water. If anything they looked pretty bored to see us. We saw all sizes, really small turtles that were onlt about a year old and giant turtles that it seemed like it would be impossible for them to swim. After 30minutes of swimming in the sea (it was really cold) we all got out and headed back to shore.

It was time for our final visit to the last Giant Tortoise santuary. It might not surprise you but it was pretty similar to the other two santuaries. Same process etc. however they did show us Tortoise fetuses, in differing stages of growth. It was quite gross but also quite fascinating. It was safe to say though that by the end of 3 visits to different santuaries there wasn´t a huge amount about Giant Tortoise breeding that we didn´t know.

It was then time to sadly return to the airport and fly back to Quito where Sara and Mum had a few days before they flew back to the UK. As this blog is already pretty long (congratulations to those of you who made it this far with me raving about the Galapagos Islands) I won´t go into too much detail. However we went to visit the Ecuador and took loads of cheesy Equator photos, we met a famous matador in the Papallacta Hotspring about an hour of Quito, I watched a record breaking attempt by mum and Sara to spend the most amount of money in the shortest amount of time at Otavalo market and we took the Teleferico up to the mountain that Quito sits on unfortunately due to altitude sickness we couldn´t climb to the top so we had a coffee and then headed back down to a more normal altitude.

Suddenly mum and Sara´s holiday had ended and I was watching a taxi drive away with them waving out the back. After the beauty of the Galapagos Islands there wasn´t anything I felt could beat it in Ecuador so I was ready to head to Peru!


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