Galapagos Islands (Ecuador Part 3)

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South America » Ecuador » Galápagos » Santa Cruz Island
January 13th 2013
Published: February 12th 2013
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Tuesday 1/1/13 – We were bleary eyed but excited this morning as we took the hotel shuttle to the airport. After some unsuccessful attempts at small talk with the driver, we arrived and went through the monotonous motions of airport travel. Eventually we were on the plane and flying towards the Galapagos Islands (located about 1000km from the Ecuadorian coast), where we would spend the next 10 days. As the plane landed and reached the end of the runway, we spotted a huge iguana sitting on the side of the runway – we weren’t even off the plane yet and we were spotting wildlife already. After collecting our bags, we jumped on a bus which took us down to the waterfront. From here we could see plenty of birds and even a sea lion sunbaking on the shore. We then took a short ferry trip across to the main island of Santa Cruz and then another bus which travels to the main city of Puerto Ayora. During the trip, a local spotted a giant tortoise in the tall grass and pointed it out to us. We arrived in the very disappointing town of Puerto Ayora, it had what we call ‘that Caribbean feeling’ meaning it was run down, dirty and full of rubbish – not what I was expecting on the Galapagos. We dumped our gear and went hiking around town looking for an elusive cheap mould-free hotel. Eventually we found one (whose owner looked like a beer-keg with a head), dumped our gear and went for a stroll along the waterfront. After a few minutes we started spotting marine iguanas everywhere. They were mainly sunbaking on the rocks or footpath, but we did spy a few swimming in the ocean and climbing out onto the shore. The smaller ones are really cute, the big ones are much larger than I imagined, very ugly, are territorial and chase the other large ones away. They really don’t seem to mind humans at all, sometimes if you get to close (within 1m), they will blow snot out their nostrils and starting aggressively bobbing their heads with their mouths open; however I had a few large ones walk straight past me and almost step on my toes!

We also watched many brightly coloured crabs amongst the rocks and mangroves, and a sea lion even climbed up onto the wharf for some photos (and some fish that the fishermen were cleaning in the area). We ended up at the Charles Darwin Interpretation Centre which was almost deserted of people, but full of giant tortoises baking in the sun. Despite the city being shabby, our first day here was pretty amazing!

Wednesday 2/1/13 – We decided we would spend as little time in the city as possible, so we hired some snorkelling gear and walked 5km along a trail which led to Bahia Tortuga (Turtle Bay). All along the trail we were joined by many different species of lizard and finch. My favourite lizards have bright red heads and bob them as you walk past, there are also some cute puffy black finches which watch you from the cactuses, and some bright yellow ones that dart across the path as you walk by. We arrived on the most amazing beach I have ever seen (and I’ve seen a few!). The colour of the water was an amazing blue-green, the sand was so soft and white, and there was hardly anyone in sight; but the most amazing part was the iguanas that would often be sitting on the sand or walking down to the water’s edge. There were large waves pounding the beach so we headed towards a nice sheltered lagoon where we found most of the other people sunbaking or snorkelling in the sheltered waters. We sat down to eat a quick bread roll lunch and within 2 minutes there were so many finches in the branches above us and on the sand next to us, I even had one try to snatch some food from my hand as I was raising it to my mouth. They were so cute it was hard not to feed them, I even had a few land on my feet waiting for crumbs! Unfortunately the visibility in the lagoon meant the snorkelling gear was worthless so we paddled over to a small rock and cliff face which was home to a few blue footed boobies and watched them for a while. We then found a great rock pool away from the other people which was full of many fish species and a few urchins, there were also hundreds of iguanas baking on the rocks. After a few hours of watching iguanas riding the surf onto the rocks, we walked back down the beach and played in the waves. Kenz was keeping an eye out for iguanas as she doesn’t want to meet one in the ocean!

Thursday 3/1/13 – This morning whilst eating breakfast, I watched a mouse running riot in the hotel kitchen, climbing cupboards, fridges, pots and electrical cords: again, more ‘Caribbean feelings’. Later we inquired at the information centre about going out of town to see some giant tortoises in the wild. Over here, they expect all the tourists to be loaded with cash and quoted us $35 for a round trip out to the town of Santa Rosa in a taxi. After some quick research we caught a local bus for $1 each out past Santa Rosa and walked a further 4 km to the area we wanted to visit. This area is renowned for its underground lava tunnels which we were keen to explore. We found the farm we were looking for and after an awkward discussion with the owner (and a payment of $3) we were allowed down into the tunnel. They had some lights rigged up for much of the tunnel which was a little disappointing, but it was still cool to explore anyway. The main tunnel was about 1km in length, however Zac and I found a smaller side tunnel which opened into some larger caverns and wound its way back to the main tunnel entrance. We had told the girls we would only be a minute and left them on the main path, it was about 40 minutes later that we returned to them (we didn’t know we had been that long – time is an untraceable concept when you’re in a pitchblack cave!) so we were dually chastened. We found the tunnel exit and as we stumbled out into the light, there was a huge giant tortoise only about 20m away. We went over to say hi which didn’t seem to bother him too much, he kept an eye on us but otherwise kept eating. A few minutes later he had had enough and walked off through a fence, into a cow paddock and into the long grass. In this area the farmers are encouraged to let the giant tortoises roam free in their paddocks and the rangers release many juveniles here, so it was common to see cows eating grass alongside the tortoises.

After watching many tortoises eating grass (do they do anything else?) we walked about 5 km back to town and flagged down a ute/taxi which let us squish 4 deep along his back seat and ride back to Puerto Ayora for a dollar each. Once back in the city, we organised a ferry ride out to the nearby island of Isabela where we would spend 3 nights. Again we had to work hard for the price to be reduced to a reasonable amount.

Friday 4/1/13 – We climbed on board the ferry this morning, which survived about 10 minutes before one of the outboards died and wouldn’t start. They spent about 20 minutes changing fuel filters and spark plugs before deciding to continue on regardless. Luckily for them they had two other 200hp outboards strapped on the back! About 2 long hours later, we arrived at Isabela which was stunningly beautiful; we passed sea turtles, iguanas and sea lions on our way into the harbour. This is the sort of place I imagined we would find on the Galapagos! We walked a short 10 minute hike from the pier to the centre of the small town. After dropping off our gear at a hotel, we walked into the middle of town which was home to a small waterhole with a few brightly coloured wild flamingos feeding in the water. Then we went for a walk along the beach and watched the iguanas sunbaking and the pelicans and sea lions feeding on schools of fish.

Saturday 5/1/13 – Today we hired some snorkelling gear and enjoyed a short walk out to the Concha la Perla. Along the way we had to carefully step over a couple of sea lions that were sunbaking on the path! The animals here are not afraid of humans at all. You can step over a pile of sleeping sea lions and they won’t even crack an eyelid open to look at you – it’s incredible! We arrived at a huge area that is like a rockpool at low tide. The pool is walled by rocks on one side and by mangroves on the other and is full of fish, urchins, iguanas and a few playful sea lions. Despite the water being really cold, it was crystal clear and we swam around watching the playing sea lions and the occasional swimming iguanas. As we got out a small group of older people turned up, including a woman (probably in her mid-seventies) who put her snorkelling gear and jumped into the water and then duck dived underwater for at least 15 seconds and continued snorkelling like she did it every day!

In the afternoon, we hired some mountain bikes and went for a ride down a beachside road which ended up at an iguana breeding ground on a remote beach full of iguanas and many mating sea turtles. Nearby there was a half collapsed lava tunnel that led out into the ocean. As it was low tide, we walked down into the tunnel which continued into pitch blackness into the ocean. There was a short conversation about returning with snorkelling gear to explore it but the more sensible people (the women) quickly put an end to that. We then continued up another dusty road and arrived at a tortoise breeding sanctuary which had plenty of baby tortoises ‘tortoising’ around. On the way back to town the chain fell of my bike twice meaning my hands got covered in rusty grease which put me in a bad mood. At one stage, Zac accidently used the front brake instead of the rear which resulted in him going flying over the handle bars and me being cheered up slightly. Then a few minutes from returning the bikes, my back wheel axle came apart from the frame meaning the back wheel had basically fallen off – this put me in a really bad mood! I let off some steam by carrying my bike the remaining distance and demanding my money back which did happen after a few phone calls and another quick walk across town.

In the evening we made dinner in the hotel owner’s house while they all piled around the TV watching their incredibly bad soap-operas. A quick glance into the kitchen showed what they would be eating for dinner – there was a huge cow’s tongue just sitting on the bench for the 3 hours we were sitting there. We played cards whilst they watched their soap operas, over this time we saw one woman commit suicide off a high building, one bubble bath sex-scene, one woman get a bucket of acid thrown over her, and one homeless man break into a house and attempt to rape a woman in her bed room – so much more exciting than Home and Away!

Sunday 6/1/13 – Today we went on a snorkelling tour out to Los Tuneles (the tunnels). It was us four and 6 Columbians on the tour, by chance it turned out the Colombians were riding motorcycles around Ecuador. They were interested in our trip and I lied to them and told them that Colombia was great. True to form, the Colombians would start talking amongst themselves or walk off whilst I was mid-sentence. Also their wives were typical Colombian woman who still acted like they were teenagers (even though they haven’t been since at least 1980) with tight pink shorts, boobs hanging out, etc. Despite the interesting company, the tour was amazing. We went to a coastal lava field that has eroded into thousands of tiny islands and spires with arches and land bridges linking many together. Most had cactuses on top and were nesting grounds for many kinds of animals such as boobies (both blue footed and masked), sea turtles, sea lions, spotted eagle rays, many fish species and white-tipped reef sharks – all of which were remarkably friendly when we snorkelled with them. The biggest, manliest Colombian (complete with tattoos, rippling muscles, full body wax and budgie smugglers) had to snorkel in a life jacket and the tour guide even had to drag one of them behind him because they were too scared to swim! There were many underwater caves, arches and swim-throughs which Zac and I enjoyed, and they were often home to a number of reef sharks. On the way back to the harbour we passed many manta rays gliding along at the surface. We also spotted a few penguins perched on the rocks at the harbour entrance.

Monday 7/1/13 – The day of transfers had begun! We rose before the sun and trundled down to the docks with all our belongings. We jumped on the ferry and spent 2 hours sitting at the back of the boat getting damp from the sea spray and mildly sunburnt. We spent lunch time at a café on Santa Cruz Island and then jumped on another boat to San Cristobal island. Once we arrived a lady approached and offered the top floor of her house for the next few days. With no other plans, we took a look and were pleasantly surprised at the price and facilities. Zac talked with her flamboyant English speaking son about a price. He was an interesting character who gave us a good deal. I believe he was (as they say) ‘the only gay in the village’ – I’m assuming he couldn’t be too picky as the island population is less than 5000 people (with the male population likely less than 2500) which may explain why he took a liking to Zac….

This Island is quite different from the other inhabited islands. There are an incredible number of sea lions which live all around the island, including in the only town on San Cristobal island. We walked along the waterfront in the evening, sometimes careful to avoid the sea lions lying on the boardwalk, rocks, beach, children’s play equipment, park benches, footpaths and other public areas. At one stage we were walking along a narrow boardwalk which was blocked by a large sea lion, when we decided to turn around and walk back the other way, another large male climbed onto the walkway behind us and started charging us (or maybe at the other sea lion). For about a minute we were stuck between two aggressive males which were barking at each other, it was a quite unnerving situation, but eventually one of the males let us pass.

Tuesday 8/1/13 – Today we went to the San Cristobal Interpretation Centre which gave a history on the discovery, colonisation and conservation of the islands; it also had information on the people and industries of the islands. We then continued along the coastline and up to a lookout where we could view some wild red frigate birds that were nesting in the shrubs atop a huge cliff. Upon the advice of a nearby signpost, we decided to walk to the nearby beach called Playa Bazquerido. About 10 minutes in the trail almost vanished and we had to scramble along volcanic rocks for about 30 mins. After almost turning back a number of times, we arrived at the deserted but beautiful beach and lay on the beach watching the iguanas, sea lions and turtles. We were surprised when a turtle came ashore about 10m away and crawled up the beach. We got excited thinking that she was going to lay eggs, but when she reached the top, she obviously decided against it so she turned around and crawled back down to the water.

As we walked back towards civilisation, Isaac stumbled on a particularly snaggily piece of volcanic rock and broke his thong (and cut his foot). Luckily we had bought a spare pair so he wore Renee’s and she wore Kenz’s. Of course, about 10 mins later Renee stumbled and broke Kenz’s thong. Luckily Isaacs’s thriftiness was far more welcome than the price of thongs on the island, so he repaired both broken thongs back at the hotel using some rusty nails scavenged from a nearby construction site.

In the evening, we walked down to the beach to watch the juvenile sea lions playing and waiting for their mothers to return from the sea. Often we would see a female come ashore barking and a number of baby sea lions would come over trying to get some milk, however she would bark at them or chase them away. Finally her pup would come down and she would roll onto her side letting her baby suckle milk from her. We also saw one entrepreneurial baby sea lion go up and down the beach trying to drink milk from all the adult female sea lions, but they were usually wise to this trick and chased it away. We saw one baby sea lion, probably no bigger than a small dog, with a black plastic bag wrapped around its neck. It spent the whole time rubbing up against the rocks trying to get it off – it was a horrible sight.

Wednesday 9/1/13 – We walked through town and towards the beach (and sea lion colony) La Loberia. We headed down a gravel track that skirted around the small airport and went past a huge quarry. We began to wonder if we had taken a wrong turn before eventually arriving at a small but beautiful beach. Each end of the beach was packed with sea lions basking in the sun or playing in the waves. We found a spot near the middle of the beach which was mostly sea lion free. We had hired some snorkelling gear and paddled out to a small island just outside the bay. There were many turtles swimming out here and feeding behind the sheltering island; we were swimming with 5 turtles for a while. Each turtle had an entourage of small brightly coloured fish which swooped in to eat the small particles of seaweed and substrate that the turtle disturbed whilst feeding. One particularly large turtle barely even acknowledged us and would regularly swim past just a few inches from my face. Once the others got out to relax on the beach, I swam over to one of the sea lion groups near the end of the beach. I must have gotten too close because the alpha male came charging down the beach and into the water where he charged me a few times and veered off only about a metre from me. I have had this happen quite a few times underwater so I realised he wasn’t really aggressive – he was just trying to scare me off.

We then lay on the beach for a while watching the sea lions play in the waves and on the beach near us, we also saw the odd iguana stroll along the beach looking like some primordial, evil creature in a beautiful white sand, blue water and sunshine filled landscape. Whilst we were relaxing another sea turtle came ashore and started her slow crawl up the beach. It didn’t last long though because she stopped about halfway up and stayed there for ages whilst swarms of flies perched all over her face and shell. Eventually she awkwardly turned around, headed back down the beach and into the ocean.

We then walked to another snorkelling spot which required a decent walk along the coast and beneath a huge cliff. There was a little bit of swell so we carefully swum along the cliff face spotting many tropical fish, thousands of sea urchins, a few large stingrays and some seabirds (pelicans and red frigate birds) plunging into the water nearby trying to catch the many small surface fish. Just as we were about to climb out a huge group of teenagers (probably from a cruise ship) turned up to spoil the serenity. They were all standing around the rock where you climb in and out flexing their muscles and showing off their bikinis, and wouldn’t get out of the way for us to climb out. Eventually we made it out and when I sat down I put my hand in a huge pile of sea lion shit. At least this gave me an excuse to go back down and bomb this incredibly annoying girl who kept dipping her toe in and exclaiming how cold it was whilst pulling incredible poses in her bikini like she was at a fashion show (I’m sure she practices at home in front of the mirror). I totally drenched her and she was not happy at all, once she was stripped of her poise and everyone was laughing at her she began yelling at me and calling me all sorts of names. I just cleaned my hand, climbed out and walked straight past her with a stupid grin on my face. I figured it was payback for the earlier serenity being destroyed by so many obnoxious and annoying people.

Thursday 10/1/13 – We walked down to the ferry terminal this morning, dodged a few sunbaking sea lions and jumped on a ferry for the trip back to Santa Cruz Island. The ferry was either overbooked or booked to its maximum capacity as some people didn’t have proper seats and had to sit up the front on top of the luggage. Luckily for these uncomfortable people it was a very quick trip and they even served us a white bread roll, a cup of coke and some chocolates for a 6:30 am breakfast! Once we arrived the day started heating up so we decided to spend our last day at Tortuga Bay. We found a nice spot along the water’s edge in the shade of some mangrove trees. There was a small island just offshore which was rapidly shrinking as the tide came in. As the island got smaller, more and more iguanas started swimming to shore and beaching right in front and around us. I decided to swim around the island and watch the iguanas swim ashore, there were also many turtles feeding around me. Once I returned to shore I noticed Kenz had moved up the beach away from the water as she was “chased away by beaching iguanas!” She was now up under a single mangrove tree which must have been a prime spot for alpha iguanas as we watched progressively bigger and gnarlier looking iguanas come over and chase the other iguanas away before plonking down right next to us. After a while we packed up and went for a short walk around the headland which had a small cactus forest all the way to the water’s edge.

After our day at the beach we walked home and found one of the main streets closed off so many small restaurants could pack the road with tables and chairs. We found a nice lady who served us a 2 course meal and a drink for $4 each. Despite hearing that the Galapagos was full of tourists and very expensive, we found it to be the opposite. There were very few tourists at all (most of them either stayed on their cruise ships or walked around with their cruise ship guides in huge packs and rarely stopped at all due to their tight schedules); and we could always find reasonable accommodation and cheap meals (just follow the locals rather than the gringos). Interestingly we looked at many cruise ship itineraries before the trip and they all visited the same free attractions that we did, the only difference was that they would sometimes go to some of the other uninhabited islands; however as they were all out there, there were very few tourists on the islands we stayed on. It only required a 10 minute walk out of town and we would find ourselves on some abandoned beach or coastline surrounded by incredible wildlife and no people. So yes, the Galapagos Islands can be done cheaply, and we think it was far better to explore it individually rather than with large tour groups with tight itineraries.

Friday 11/1/13 – Unfortunately our 10 days on the Galapagos Islands had to finish today, so we caught a taxi, bus, ferry, then another bus to the airport. There were so many tourists at the airport I don’t know where they all came from (likely the cruise ships?) but luckily we arrived just before the rush and were one of the first people in the queue. The lady offered to move us forward to an earlier flight for free, which we gladly accepted. We then went to the outdoor airport café and ate some snacks whilst watching many different finch species swoop to unguarded plates to pick at the food. After the usual non-descript flight (except for the amazing views of the islands out the window, and then the views of Quito as the plane approached its landing), we stopped at the supermarket and post office on the way home - sending postcards from the Galapagos IS expensive!

Saturday 12/1/13 – Today’s daylight hours were spent dusting off the bikes, a quick trip to the Kawasaki dealer, doing some laundry, and generally bumming around doing other boring but necessary tasks. In the evening we went out to the nearby Indian restaurant where we swapped trip notes with Zac and Renee as they would now head north and we were heading south. As we would be waving goodbye tomorrow, Zac and I decided to sit down and watch our favourite childhood movie which we had watched together many times as kids: Ernest Goes To Camp. Reality made liars of our memories and we were probably laughing more at our memories of the movie more than the actual movie. Despite this it was great fun, although I think our wives’ opinions of us went down a notch after being forced to watch the movie with us - I think Zac and I are back to notch zero…

Sunday 13/1/13 – We spent last night (and our last night in Quito) sleeping at Carlos’ (the hotel owners) house. His house was coated in pictures of himself, his sons, and other members of his families wearing military clothing at various ceremonies. The pictures were also accompanied by various pieces of military paraphernalia such as various banners, ribbons and military sashes, old walkie talkies and even an air force pilot’s helmet. After a few questions he opened up about his time in the Ecuadorian Army, more specifically as an intelligence officer working in southern Ecuador (during the recent war with Peru), in northern Ecuador (against drug smugglers and Colombian guerrillas), and in the USA military. He explained that the Ecuadorian war with Peru was finally resolved in 1995 when the USA, Brazil, Argentina and Chile determined where the border between the two countries should be. There had been a long term disagreement between the two countries which escalated in its later years once the disputed territory was found to be rich in oil. The work he did along the Colombian border was his most dangerous, fighting guerrillas during the Colombian Civil War in the 90s as they smuggled drugs and raided Ecuadorian towns regularly. He had sent his 3 sons to military college but was pretty disappointed that none of them chose a career in the military.

For breakfast he drove us down to the hotel where I got chatting with a young English man. He had an awkwardly shaped piece of luggage about 3 metres in length – it turned out he is down here for 2 weeks on a kayaking trip and bought his kayak paddle with him. At my exclamation of his apparent dedication to kayaking, he ruefully grumbled that the Swiss man who he travelled with had actually bought his kayak with him and he should have also bought his. We enjoyed our last breakfast with Isaac and Renee before packing the bikes, waving goodbye and riding south out of Quito. As we rode over the nearby mountain above Quito, the city looked like a polluted grey river that flowed between the mountains but is now frozen in time – the valley floor is thick with endless single story grey brick or cement buildings. Sporadically scattered amongst the suburbs is the occasional pale pink, blue or peach building like bright coloured debris amongst the otherwise frozen dead river.

We rode the spine of the Northern Andes along beautiful mountain ranges that crossed through mountain passes or along the sides of mountains whose tops were capped in snow. I had never thought I would find snow at the equator! At one stage we crossed over the top of the Andes at about 4000m and rode straight down to the vast plains at sea level. The different sides of the Andes are not just markedly different in location and geology, but also by the lifestyles and living conditions of its inhabitants. Riding up one side of the mountains was typical of Latin America – the sun was shining, the road was often lined with rubbish, there were billboards of various companies and corporations marketing their goods via images of the kinds of people we all wish we were; and people were driving their VWs and Chevrolets with terrible hip-hop beats blaring out the windows. Riding just 10 kms further, we crossed the peak and then rapidly descended into a completely different place. This side was blanketed in thick fog, there were no signs or vehicles, people were dressed traditionally wearing thickly woven shawls, sandals and velvet fedoras with feathers; people were riding on donkeys or using them for manual labour and there were many other animals all over the road and fields such as dogs, chickens and turkeys. Time and space have never bent so abruptly over such a small distance for me before, I felt as though we were intruding as we passed through each village slicing through the century’s old fog and spoiling the beautiful peace of the valley.

We travelled further south out of the mountains and towards the coast. As we passed through the small towns and villagers, I noted that they all had a round-about with a large statue of Mary in the middle, usually coated in garish tiles. The two most interesting were found in neighbouring towns. The first was in a town at the foot of the mountains were Mary was holding an elaborate trident and standing on top of an ugly slain dragon (unfortunately the bible passage depicting such a battle has just slipped my mind). Just half an hour later we passed an amazing statue of a huge ear of corn with hands, feet and the head of Mary complete with halo, crucifix and rosary beads; also she was standing on a bag of corn: evidence of Catholicism being far more dynamic in these countries than back home!

Late in the afternoon, we crossed the fertile plains of southern Ecuador which were blanketed in vast fields of sugar cane, and later banana trees. The air felt heavy with sweet smells of sugar and rotting fruit, the smell coated everything – even my skin felt sticky with the sweet smell. Just north of our destination (the city of La Troncul) we passed a large field of burning sugar cane which smelt of burning caramel. As we entered the town we passed many motels (most called Motel Amore?) which were all covered in red love hearts or pictures of snuggling couples. We picked the nicest looking motel, rode in and asked how much for the night. The man at reception looked at me strange before he made a phone call to find out how much a room would actually cost for a WHOLE night. We immediately realised what all these motels actually were but curiosity meant I had to look at a room anyway. It had me wondering what was in the water of this town - it only has a small population but a huge number of these ‘motels’ - eventually I concluded that the constant sweet smell of sugar and rotting fruit in the town was constantly getting people in the mood. The rooms were surprisingly clean and nice with an open shower, a few one way mirrored walls, mood-lighting, and a strange hole in the wall which I kept at least an arms-length from at all times. We moved on and found a hotel more accommodating for people who actually want to sleep for a night. We then walked around the city after dark. These small towns are always deserted on Sunday nights (is everybody at the motels?!) but we eventually found an open restaurant where we were served by an albino Ecuadorian who spoke rapid Spanish and was mostly blind. We snuggled down into bed with the impending feeling of doom which always hangs above us the night before a border crossing. Tomorrow we would cross from Ecuador to Peru.

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