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Published: July 28th 2017
Geo: -0.455928, -90.2747
Boobies waited for us on the rocks as we skimmed over the surface of the water in our panga. It was sunrise on our final morning in the Galápagos and we were on our final excursion from the yacht. The sun shimmered on the surface of the water as its face appeared slowly over the horizon, pink clouds illuminated by its glow. We sailed into Black Turtle Cove, surrounded by mangroves, their green branches still in the morning light. Pelicans landed softly in the trees and shook their large wings. In front of us, what looked like huge white flowers dotted the mangrove bushes in the distance. As we got closer, however, the flowers began to move and took flight - revealing themselves to be beautiful tiny egrets that were roosting, ready to fly back to the mountains where they would spend their daytime.
As we moved around the lagoon, huge black turtles raised their heads from the water, giving a loud snort as they took in lungfuls of air, before elegantly gliding away. Sardines leapt from the water, creating splashes that radiated out on the calm surface. Our guide told us to look out to the left hand side, where a huge spotted eagle ray, its diameter well over a metre and a half, was moving slowly along just under the surface of the tranquil water. Its fins broke the surface every now and again showing the soft underside of its incredible body, before folding back on themselves, giving us an enticing view of the white spots dotting its beautiful blue back.
As we passed close to some of the branches from the overhanging mangroves, we saw a lava heron stalking from branch to branch, the subtle chuck chuck of his song almost muttered under his breath as he moved, before flapping his wings and flying off across the water into the distance. We continued on our ride, searching the water for more wildlife and were treated to the rare sight of not one, but two, golden Rays, swimming side by side, their wide fins touching each other as they surfaced. We watched them, enchanted by the privilege of seeing these elusive creatures up close as they swam along next to the boat before disappearing from view beneath the surface once more.
As quickly as they disappeared, the single dorsal fin of a white-tipped reef shark poked above the water and we followed the shark for a while before losing sight of it. It was the final wildlife sighting of our organised trip and we sadly made our way back to the boat for our goodbyes to the crew and passengers that had made our trip so rewarding. Then it was a short panga ride to the docks of Baltra, where we were given one last encounter with a huge sea lion that was stretched out under the landing platform, lolling on the iron girders supporting the wooden structure above, paying no heed to the boatload of passengers that had disembarked inches from his nose. We made our way to the airport, the original air strip for the U.S. army when they used the Galápagos as a base from which to protect the Panama Canal and the rest of the Pacific during WW2. Here, we boarded our flight and were ready for take-off when one of our group was recalled to security. Puzzled, we asked her companion what she could possibly have done wrong. Incredulously, we listened as her friend explained quite calmly that she had taken three rocks from the island to test in the laboratory of the Geology department she was a professor in. We had been told explicitly on day one not to remove even a pebble or shell from the beach and she had flouted the rules massively. Unbelievably, she was let off with a simple confiscation of the offending rocks and was able to board the plane with little delay to us.
After a bumpy flight, we came into land, the snowy peak of Cotopaxi in the distance completely obscured by the vast cloud of ash spewing from its crater. The rest of the volcanoes surrounded the city, and as we dropped closer to the runway, it seemed as though the wings of the plane would graze the mountainsides, so close and imposing were they to the airport. Our bus ride to the city consisted of us watching the ever-changing landscape in front of us, catching glimpses of the ash cloud as we rounded bends.
After freshening up at the hotel, we headed out to the park across the street to a local art market, where we saw some temptingly beautiful pieces but, as our bags are already full to bursting, resisted the urge to buy another canvas. Then we meandered around the local artisan market, oohing and aahing over the textiles and trinkets in the cramped alleyways. As a group of 11, we then tried to make a reservation for dinner, only to be told that only two restaurants were open in Quiito on a Sunday night, and we were unable to get a table at either. Disbelieving the concierge, we headed out into the streets to find our own restaurant. It took a long walk down deserted streets, all establishments locked and barred, before we found a small square with four homogenous bars serving uninspiring food and overpriced cocktails. However, there literally was nowhere else to eat and so we ordered bland western food, but enjoyed the company of our new friends - including Mark and Helen from Oxford who had been our good companions in the cruise and with whom we had enjoyed general rivalry banter between our two university cities!
After dinner, we braved the lonely streets, glad to be travelling in a pack through an area that we'd been told wasn't especially savoury at night, although we figured that 11 of us would be fine! Bolstered by our numbers, we made our way to the hotel, laughing and joking as we went. As we walked down one of the desolate roads, we passed by a man standing shiftily on the kerb, his hood pulled up tight around his face. As we passed him, he fell in behind us, getting close to the back of our group and following us over four different streets. Paranoid, we tried doubling back on ourselves and realised that he was definitely following us, as he changed his course and stuck closely to us too. The four men in the group formed a protective layer around the girls and eventually, after a brief acceleration by us, and some rapid crossing of the road, he stole past us, muttering something under his breath. Unnerved, we raced back to the hotel and bade our friends goodbye. It was the most uncomfortable I have felt travelling, and we were glad to have the safety of the hotel for a good nights sleep. We came to the sudden realisation that we truly had left the island paradise behind and were back in a major city for the next five days, where we would have to have our wits about us.
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