Farewell to the Galapagos

Turtle in the pond at the El Chato Ranch
Turtle in the pond at the El Chato Ranch

Sadly, today was the last day of my tour. With hindsight, I should have stayed some extra days and organised some day trips for myself, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. I also wish I had realised how easy it would have been to have organised the entire trip myself as it is really not necessary, as I had thought, to come here on a tour or with a very expensive cruise boat. However, given that the Galapagos are very expensive, I am not sure that I would have actually saved much money – just had more time to enjoy the archipelago.

Galapagos duck at El Chato Ranch
Galapagos duck at El Chato Ranch

After breakfast, which, for once, was in the hotel, we drove in utes/pickup trucks, along the very straight road to the other side of the island to catch the ferry to Baltra, where the airport is located. On the way, we detoured, in the Highlands, to El Chato Ranch, a private ecological reserve where Giant Turtles lived in the wild. Here, we all tried on a turtle shell (very heavy) and visited a lava tunnel, which had been formed when lava continued to flow under lava that had already cooled and hardened. Once the lava had stopped flowing, the tunnels or tubes remained. There are a number of these, some very long, on Santa Cruz.

The post box at Baltra airport
The post box at Baltra airport

After each of us had had our photograph taken with an 80 year old, 180kg turtle, we set off for the ferry across the short channel to Baltra and then transferred to the airport in a bus. Baltra itself is very dry and brown with little on it apart from the airport.

Having arrived in plenty of time, I almost missed the flight as I didn’t go through to the departure lounge until the last minute as I had gone to post a card. It was only when one of the members of the group, who was travelling on a later flight, told me that I should board that I realised that rather than the flight not having been called yet, the gate had actually closed! Whoops!

Flying out of Baltra
Flying out of Baltra

On arrival in Guayaquil, it was pouring with rain and continued to do so whilst I transferred to the bus terminal and then all the way to Cuenca. Consequently, I couldn’t see much of the mountains although we must have travelled over an extremely high pass as we ground our way upwards for a long time and then descended a very long way before arriving in the city, which, itself, is located at 2,600m.

I had some trouble getting a taxi at the terminal as the Ecuadorians kept jumping in front, but eventually, I arrived at the apartment, which is situated above office blocks in Gran Colombia, the main shopping street of Cuenca. There was no door bell and no way of getting in so I had to fumble in my bag, find the phone number I had been given and call Pilar to let me in. She had been waiting, a little impatiently, having anticipated that I would arrive earlier. She was going to her daughter’s to stay, having relinquished her room to another guest, who wanted to stay longer. By the time I had settled into my room, I was exhausted. However, as I was having a cup of tea, a Canadian couple returned and I ended up chatting to them for quite a while so it was very late before I actually made it to bed.

Blue footed boobies and Charles Darwin

View from Tintoreras Island
View from Tintoreras Island
There are white tip sharks in there somewhere!
There are white tip sharks in there somewhere!

We were on the move once again today, this time to the island of Santa Cruz, so it was  another 6.30am start. However, we first had to visit the island of Tintoreras, which we did with some of the other group and their guide, Danny, who is infinitely more helpful than ours.

We caught a taxi over to the island, which is just in the harbour, and alighted for a walk. Our first stop was at Shark Alley, where we saw white tipped sharks swimming beneath us. (And, yes, they really do have little white tips on their fins.)

The only other animals of interest were the marine iguanas, of which there were a great many of all ages on the small island. I find them endlessly fascinating as they are so strange to look at and blend in so well with their environment that it can be hard to spot them.

The lava, here, was also very different and was referred to as ‘A A’ lava, a name that originated in Hawaii, and so called because it is very sharp and people said ‘ah ah’ when they tried to walk across it. It is also covered in lichen so the landscape, whilst flat, is very interesting.

After the walk, we got back onto the boat and travelled a little further round the bay where we were lucky enough to spot some blue footed boobies, which was very exciting, as well as a penguin or two. Some of the group then went snorkelling but I, and a number of others, were unsure of the currents, so decided against it. (A couple of the other group also had to be rescued at Kicker Rock, apparently, so they were also wary.) The snorkellers swam with a shark and a penguin but I don’t feel as though I really missed out. This part of the trip was a highlight, probably because we didn’t have Jocelyn as a guide.

Charles Darwin in a cafe in Puerto Ayuro
Charles Darwin in a cafe in Puerto Ayuro

Back on the jetty, we had to wait a little while for the people Jocelyn had taken out (we were too big a group to go in one boat all together) and then we loaded into another water taxi to go to the motor boat that was transporting us to Santa Cruz.

This trip again was extremely fast and took about 2 hours. Santa Cruz is the most populated of the islands, with about 20,000 inhabitants. It was certainly the most touristy as, being in the centre of the archipelago, it is used as a base by visitors to do day trips. On arrival, we walked to the hotel and then went straight out to lunch, after which Jocelyn accompanied some of us to the Charles Darwin Research Centre, whilst the others went to the beach.

It was extremely hot as we walked around but it was very interesting to learn how they were trying, successfully, to increase the population of giant turtles, of which there are different species on each island. Unfortunately, Lonesome George remained the last of his species until he died in 2012 but they are still trying to reproduce turtles using his DNA. At the Centre, there were also a couple of land iguanas, which were extremely yellow and nothing like the marine species. This breeding programme had already been successful so it is no longer being undertaken.

Main street in Pueto Ayuro
Main street in Puerto Ayuro
Statue at Puerto Ayura on Santa Cruz
Statue at Puerto Ayura on Santa Cruz

The rest of the day, until dinner, was free, so I had a bit of a wander around the many souvenir shops, trying to refrain, unsuccessfully, from buying anything. Somehow, I ended up with a T shirt that is very pink, a colour I never wear, and a square tea towel type cloth with a map of the islands on it.

Close to the hotel was a small fish market where three ladies were filleting and selling fish whilst a sea lion and several pelicans begged at the bench. It was a sight to behold! I stood watching for quite a while and then went with Laura in search of a shop selling beer, after which we sat on the deck outside our room, with a beer, and attempting to use the internet, which has been unbelievably slow in all the islands.

Dinner was, as usual, at 7pm, and again was very good. As it was the last night, I accompanied it with a cocktail or two, which went down very well!

 

Hiking on Sierra Negra and more snorkelling

Our chiva transport waiting outside the hotel
Our chiva transport waiting outside the hotel

Today, our two groups were mixed up as some people from each group were doing the volcano hike whilst others had paid extra to go to the lava tunnels. The German family, Laura and I therefore went with some Germans from the other group and Jocelyn, our guide, up to Sierra Negra, an active volcano at the southern end of Isabela. There are a number of volcanos on the island, all active.

Lava field on Isabella
Lava field on Isabella

We first took a chiva up to the start point, passing the lava field along the way. The entire town is actually built on lava so there is black rock everywhere, even as part of the inhabitants’ gardens, which makes for quite a lunar landscape.

Start of the walk to Sierra Negra
Start of the walk to Sierra Negra
Our 'path' along the top of the crater
Our ‘path’ along the top of the crater

The view was a little hazy as we set off. It was also very hot and humid. We had been told that the hike would be 7 hours. By the time we arrived, it had been reduced to 5 and by the time we were at the crater rim, it was 4. By this stage, we had all decided that Jocelyn was managing the schedule to suit herself so that she could spend as much time as possible with her son, who was also on the trip.

The track was almost impassable along the rim and Jocelyn and her son strode ahead, checking occasionally to see if some of us, at least, were in sight.

At one point, she asked if we wanted to continue but the ‘view would be very much the same’, so she recommended that we return and have longer for snorkelling! The rest of the group, unfortunately agreed.

The crater was full of black lava and is the second largest crater in the world (after one in Tanzania, I think). We saw various finches as well as a mocking birds, but the main attraction of the hike was the view of the crater, which was very impressive.

View on the walk back from the crater
View on the walk back from the crater
Iguana shielding itself from the sun
Iguana shielding itself from the sun

There were other groups at the rim, but they had ascended on an easier path on which we then returned.

The walk back took about an hour and the chiva appeared not long after we arrived and transported us to lunch. This was at a very nice restaurant where we had a buffet style lunch.

Afterwards, we made our way, once again in the chiva, to Perla Concha, which is a very tranquil bay in which we could snorkel. Jocelyn actually got in the water with us and guided us around the lagoon, where we were lucky enough to see swimming iguanas (apparently quite rare), and a penguin zoomed past some members of the group (but not me). I spent quite a lot of time, as usual, emptying my mask and snorkel of water.

In the mangroves on the walk to Perla Concha
In the mangroves on the walk to Perla Concha
The beach at Isabella
The beach at Isabella

The last part of the afternoon was free so we were dropped off at the beach and were warned not to go too deep as the current was extremely strong. The last couple of days have seen the strongest currents around the beaches for a very long time, which is what is making snorkelling so difficult. I had a quick dip and then lay on the beach relaxing, although the sun had almost disappeared behind the clouds.

Dinner that evening was at yet another restaurant and we once again joined with the other, larger group. This time, Laura and I made sure we walked back with the others so we didn’t get lost again!

Giant turtles, flamingos and speed boats

Bag inspection at San Cristobal
Bag inspection at San Cristobal

We had an extremely early start this morning as we were supposed to be catching a ferry to Floreana island at 7am and, of course, we first had to have breakfast at the same restaurant as the day before.

Once down on the jetty, we had to wait our turn for the boat, a system that is apparently controlled by the Navy, although it is still unclear as to how it all works. We also had to have our bags checked for fruit, seeds etc. This occurs each time you arrive or leave an island. However, it appears to be a bit of a farce as it is a very perfunctory search.

Arriving at Floreana
Arriving at Floreana
The bay at Floreana
The bay at Floreana

When we finally got under way, it was 7.30am and as we made our way out of the harbour, we were stopped by the Navy in a zodiac, who checked that we were all wearing life jackets (which, of course, we weren’t) and then the boat’s documents. One paper was missing so we had to return to the pier for the captain to obtain it. We finally got underway, having been stopped and checked once again by the Navy, at 8.20am, so could easily have had another hour’s sleep.

Epitome of the Galapagos - sea lions and marine iguanas
Epitome of the Galapagos – sea lions and marine iguanas
Giant turtle
Giant turtle

The trip to Floreana took 2 1/2 hours, during which time I dozed, having taken a sea sickness tablet that seemed to be masquerading as a sleeping pill. On the way, we saw flying fish, which managed to ‘fly’ very impressively many metres above the surface of the water, yellow fin tuna, leaping up to chase the seagulls and several lonesome turtles paddling along.

On arrival, we all piled into trucks/utes and were taken up to the Highlands, where it was raining, to see the Giant Turtle Conservation park, which fed and nurtured approximately 50 turtles, all of which were in the 30 – 80 year old category. We also had a walk around the park and examined some caves that had been used by pirates and by early German settlers on Floreana.

Feeding time for the giant turtles
Feeding time for the giant turtles
Former pirates' cave on Floreana
Former pirates’ cave on Floreana
Face in the rock
Face in the rock

Lunch was in a local restaurant (probably the only local restaurant, given that there are only 150 inhabitants on the island) and I had some excellent yellow fin tuna, which was more like meat than fish. We were supposed to be going snorkelling at the beach afterwards but the sea was too rough so we were taken in a water taxi back to our ferry and set off for Isabela island, which is about 2 hours ride away. Our driver appeared to be in a hurry and we raced over to Isabela, passing a pod of dolphins so fast that we could barely see them, which was very disappointing.

Once there, we offloaded ourselves and luggage and then took a chiva to see the pink flamingos in a lagoon near town. Apparently, their pink colour is caused by the prawns they eat, a little fact that I did not know (amongst many others!). There are about 600 pairs of flamingos on Isabela.

Pink flamingos on Isabela
Pink flamingos on Isabella
Pink flamingo stretching its wings
Pink flamingo stretching its wings

At the hotel, which is brand new, our luggage had preceded us. In theory, we were going to have time for a swim at the beach but, in practice, this did not happen as it was already 6pm and it had been decreed that dinner was at 7pm. The day seems to have been very tiring and busy but, in fact, we have done very little.

We all met for dinner, joining with the Germans and Americans doing the same tour but in a different group, after which Laura and I had trouble finding the hotel again, having not returned with the rest of the group. Nobody we asked knew of it but we eventually found someone, who telephoned someone else to find out where it was and we were able to return. However, it was starting to get a bit worrisome and a lesson to me to take more notice of landmarks. (Our guide was unconcerned when we told her and her total lack of interest is beginning to spoil the trip.)

Kicker Rock and idyllic beaches

Today was spent on a boat trip to Kicker Rock, where there was supposed to be some excellent marine life, and then on to a beach. The rock itself is formed from volcanic ash. The young Germans and I had to join another group for the trip and these turned out to be predominantly young Americans, who had been travelling together for the last 2 months.

Waiting to board the boat to Kicker Rock
Waiting to board the boat to Kicker Rock
Charles Darwin Bay - original landing site
Charles Darwin Bay – original landing site
Kicker Rock
Kicker Rock

It was a beautiful day and the journey out to the rock took about an hour. There was the prospect of snorkelling with hammerhead sharks, about which I was a little apprehensive. However, the guides tried to assure me it was perfectly safe as there was enough of a food supply in the Galapagos for them, so they weren’t interested in eating humans!

As it transpired, it wasn’t the sharks I should have worried about but the swell and the currents. The group, once in the water, was instructed to follow the guide, Jorge, over to the rock wall. However, I got into difficulties fairly quickly, as water kept going down my snorkel in the swell and my mask also leaked water. In true fashion, I panicked. Luckily the guide that had been left on the boat heard me calling and came to my rescue, unlike my last panic when the boatman was totally disinterested and I had to rely on Thomas calling instructions from the boat. It was quite a frightening experience and left me a little shaken.

The group proceeded through a channel and once they were on the other side and in calmer waters, I was encouraged to jump in again. This time, I held on to a life ring, which, Christian, my rescuer, was pulling, so it was much easier. There were quite a number of fish and I also saw a couple of turtles, the rest of the group having seen many of the latter in the channel. After returning to the boat and circling Kicker Rock, they all jumped in again into some very rough looking water but, not surprisingly, I decided to stay on the boat.

Beach near Kicker Rock
Beach near Kicker Rock
Sea lions and sunset at San Cristobal
Sea lions and sunset at San Cristobal

Afterwards, we headed to a magnificent beach where we had lunch on the boat and then had some free time to walk, swim or relax. I walked for a while and then had a swim, after which all I really just wanted to do was lie in the hot sun. However, the wind was blowing the sand and there were some very vicious horse flies inhabiting the beach, so it was by no means relaxing.

Once back in town, I went for a last wander around to watch the people and the sea lions, who have the run of the waterfront. They are quite entertaining and make the most extraordinary barking noises, which can sound very agressive.

Four more people joined our group this evening and we had an excellent fish meal at one of the local restaurants. I am now sharing my room with Laura, from Watford, and the other three are a German couple and their 18 year old daughter, who is doing a volunteer programme for a year in Ibarra, northern Ecuador.