Sunday, April 27, 2008

Galapagos Trip Part III - Isabela & Quito

On Friday, April 18, we took a slightly larger puddle-jumper plane (9-passenger) from Baltra to Isla Isabela. The Galapagos Islands are located over a magma "hot spot", which creates the volcanic islands. As the Nasca tectonic plate moves eastward, new islands are born. Because of this, the older islands are in the east, and as you move westward through the archipelago, the islands are newer. The newest is uninhabited Fernandina, which is the most westward island and is currently directly above the hot spot. The second-newest island is also the largest: Isabela. Isabela only has about 2000 human inhabitants. There are five subspecies of giant tortoise endemic to this island, and they are isolated from one another by five volcanoes. Because the island is so new compared to the more easterly islands, many places are bare, sharp, a'a lava. The tortoises cannot travel over this inhospitable terrain, so they remain isolated and unable to interbreed with the other subspecies on the island (for now, anyway). As we flew over Isabela, we could see the raw volcanic landscape below, and noticed there was much less vegetation than on San Cristobal or Santa Cruz.

Penguin, Isla Isabela

Our home away from home for the next two nights would be La Casa de Marita, a homey beachfront property which was artistically decorated and had very friendly and helpful staff. We met Marita, the owner, who gave us a warm welcome to her home. We would eat all of our meals on the island here, and Marita's kitchen staff was wonderfully talented.

We changed into our bathing suits and met Carlos, the day's naturalist. We walked down a sandy road to the pier and met Anselmo, who would drive our boat. In the immediate area of the pier we saw a sea turtle, many birds, and some sea lions. Soon Anselmo directed our attention to a flock of penguins. It was amazing to see penguins so close to the equator, as we had previously only seen them very far south, in Patagonia and New Zealand. These penguins had made their way to these equatorial waters via the Humboldt current, and had found the place suitable and decided to stay. They are the world's most northerly penguins, and the second-smallest species. They spent a lot of their time on the surface, and at first glance looked like black ducks. When they submerged they swam very quickly; they were like mini-torpedoes in the water. Sebastian decided that we should take advantage of this opportunity and snorkel with the penguins. At first they were a bit shy and kept their distance. As we snorkeled, we saw many sea cucumbers laying on the sandy ocean bottom, sea lions, parrot fish, sponges, and even a little bit of coral. Eventually the penguins got used to us and swam very close. Our underwater camera did not work for any part of this adventure, but Sebastian stayed on the boat and managed to get some photos with our regular camera.

Marine iguana, Isla Isabela

Next we took a short hike through the craggy lava shore at Tintoreras (named after the white-tipped reef sharks who breed here, but whom we would not see today). We saw many small lava lizards and large marine iguanas here. Lack of food for them on the land has caused the marine iguanas to evolve the ability to dive for food. We saw some swimming in the ocean here and washing back ashore on the waves or climbing on the rocks. We got very close to them, and were able to see several of them "desalinate". When diving, they take in lots of water, and salt collects in their bodies. Occasionally they will expel the salt by appearing to sneeze, and a white puff of salt sprays out of their noses. It is an amazing process to observe.

Beach, Isla Isabela

Isa Isabela has a gorgeous 7-mile expanse of unspoiled beach, and after lunch we walked through the soft white sand to the center of town. We went to Isabela's tortoise breeding center. It was very similar to the other breeding centers we had visited, but it was more personal. One of the caretakers brought out a tortoise egg to show us. The eggs are collected in the wild and kept in an incubator until they hatch. The egg "settles" in a certain way, and the top is marked with an "X" when they collect it. If they don't replace the egg right-side-up, the baby tortoise won't make it. They also mark in pencil on the egg shell the location the egg was found, where in the pile of a dozen or so eggs in the nest it was positioned, and the id number (painted on each tortoise's shell) of the mother. Eggs from the same nest are kept together in their original positions. It was fascinating, and due to the number of juvenile tortoises running around, it was obvious that they had the process down to a science. Then the caretaker brought over a 2-month-old baby tortoise for us to observe. It was incredibly tiny, and the man held him between his thumb and forefinger. It was less than the width of his palm. As he held it up, its legs were going as if it was trying to run, and its little mouth opened and shut to reveal a tiny pink tongue. The little claws on its feet were precious.

2-month-old giant tortoise at Isabela breeding center

This breeding center also had adult tortoises who had been relocated here after a fire several years ago. They had been evacuated via helicopter (that must have been quite a sight!) and some of their shells showed the remains of burn damage. It's a wonder that their skin didn't burn, but they appear to be happy and healthy now, and these same tortoises are reproducing, so the damage definitely could have been much worse.

Sunset at Puerto Villamil, Isabela Island

We then waked on a nice boardwalk over some mangrove swamps in search of pink flamingos. At first we didn't find any, but we did see the white-cheeked pintail, some stilts, and a marine iguana totally submerged except for his head. When we reached town after this short pleasant walk, we did find one solitary flamingo (who reminded us of Lonesome George in his solitariness). We watched him while the sunset painted the sky in gorgeous colors, and we met some other tourists who also came from the Boston area (small world). We had an excellent dinner at Casa de Marita and then went to sleep.

Horseback riding at the crater of Volcan Sierra Negra, Isla Isabela

On our last full day in the Galapagos, we rode horses to Volcan Sierra Negra, which had last erupted in 2005 (several hours after our naturalist guide Omar had been up here with a group of tourists!) Our horses were quite friendly, and in fact rather spirited (in a good way). We had a pretty low-key ride up to the crater, but once we got there, they wanted to run! My horse, Chavero, always wanted to be the leader. He trotted quite a bit and at some times burst into a full-tilt galloping run. I really trusted him, though, and this was the most comfortable I had ever felt on a horse. Craig's horse, Lucero, was very similar, though he didn't mind as much if he wasn't the leader.

Lavascape, Volcan Chico, Isla Isabela

We left the horses with horseman Hoover, and took a walk with Omar and Sebastian across the lava to nearby Volcan Chico. The lava was amazing, with iridescent scoria and "silica hairs", formations that look like very thin-gauge wire, which are formed when the wind sweeps the molten lava into hair-like strands. The lava ranged in color from black to brown to red to yellow. It was like a moonscape. The lava was pahoehoe as well as a'a, and we saw small lava tubes and places where the pressure from below had left a hardened bubble in the landscape. Luckily today was overcast, because if the sun had been reflecting off of that lava, we would have been fried.

Our last night with Sebastian, Beto's Bar, Isla Isabela

We rested in the afternoon (our first down-time of the trip) and then had our final dinner with Sebastian: spaghetti with fresh octopus. Then we walked down the beach in the light of the full moon to Beto's Bar. You can tell you've reached the bar when you reach a tree with glass booze bottles hanging from the limbs. We sat at a wire-spool table on the sand and enjoyed drinks with Sebastian and Omar while watching the locals dance. We had a lot of fun and stayed until closing time.

La Boca del Lobo, Quito

The next day we flew to Baltra where we said goodbye to our dear friend Sebastian, and then continued on to Quito. The temperature on the planes was very hot, and by the time we arrived at the Hotel Eugenia for the second time on this trip, we were exhausted. We almost couldn't muster the energy to head out for dinner. We weren't sure where we would eat, and being Sunday night, not everything was open. We wandered through the Mariscal district, and eventually decided on the funky bohemian looking La Boca del Lobo. It was some of the best food we ever had. Everything was artfully presented and tasted unbelievably good. We enjoyed a couple of drinks, and then headed back to the hotel to pack and go to sleep for an early flight home.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Galapagos Trip Part II - Santa Cruz

On Wednesday, April 16 we left San Cristobal for Baltra Island in a 5-passenger puddle jumper. The flight took about half an hour, after which we landed on an airstrip on the small uninhabited island of Baltra. Baltra was used by the U.S. military during WWII to protect the Panama Canal after the invasion of Pearl Harbor. All that remains here now are some abandoned military buildings and a small airport. The resident land iguanas have been relocated to other islands, due to the danger of being run over by planes and support vehicles.

Steph and Craig encounter a giant tortoise while mountain biking

We took a short bus ride to the small Canal de Itabaca which separates Baltra from Isla Santa Cruz. We took a very short ferry ride and were picked up on the other side by Angel in a pick-up truck with mountain bikes in the back. He drove us for a while and then we got onto our bikes and pedaled down some dirt roads. Sebastian directed our attention to a giant tortoise poised on the road's shoulder. It was amazing to see a tortoise while on a casual mountain bike ride. Then, after turning a corner, an even bigger tortoise was laying in the center of the road. Although tortoises can go for a year without food or water, this one was apparently making up for lost time. He seemed not to know whether to eat or drink first, as he had a clump of vegetation in his mouth while trying to drink from a puddle. When he raised his head a bit he was drooling. We approached him slowly and quietly on our bikes, and he didn't seem to care about our presence one way or the other. It was truly surreal.

Giant tortoise drinking from a puddle

We then reached a lava tube which we entered on foot. It was much taller than lava tube caves we had seen before. It almost looked like a subway tunnel. Next we rode our bikes to Primicias Farm. Farmers in Santa Cruz are encouraged to let tortoises live on their farms. The farmers keep watch over the tortoises' safety, and in return, the farmers charge an admission fee to tourists (in this case, $3 per person) to wander around the land and view the tortoises. We walked around and found very large male tortoise in a small pond. He made a noise that Sebastian said he had never heard a tortoise make before. As we marveled at his size and pre-historic presence, Craig saw something move out of the corner of his eye. It was another very large tortoise lumbering into our view. After walking a few steps, it collapsed to take a rest and started eating grass. He looked at us with his mouth full, and we could really see the details of his face. His nostrils were two little round holes between his eyes, and it was very cute.

Giant tortoise eating of Primicio Farnm

Angel drove us up to the paved roads and then we rode the bikes into the town of Puerto Ayora. We had a nice lunch in town and then walked down a very nice 3 km trail through the vegetation and popping out at Tortuga Bay, a gorgeously pristine beach with white sand as fine and soft as flour.

Craig at Tortuga Bay

We walked the length of the beach admiring the scenery and the wildlife: marine iguanas (the only iguanas which are adapted to dive for food in salt water) and Sally Lightfoot crabs (whose appearance changes depending on their age - juveniles are black, as they age they develop spots, and then as they mature they become bright shades of yellow, orange, and red). We swam in a peaceful lagoon and then hurried back down the path before the beach closed at 6 pm.

Adult Sally Lightfoot crab

While eating dinner, it started to rain. We hoped that the rain would stop before we had to walk back to the hotel, but it kept going for hours. By 11 pm, we decided we had to brave the weather, and we were drenched within one minute. We splashed our way down the streets, laughing the entire way.

The next day we kayaked in Puerto Ayora. We saw mangroves, sea lions, turtles, and rays, as well as pelicans, blue-footed boobies and common noddies. The noddies were standing as sentinels on the rocks and we could hear babies chirping from inside a nest, though the parents blocked our view. The noddies then displayed their habit of going to another bird's nest and stealing materials to use in their own. It was quite interesting to watch their antics. Of course, the new underwater camera decided not to work at this moment, so we have no photos.

Kayaking with Sebastian and naturalist Telmo

We paddled to the only-accessible-by-boat Finch Bay resort for a lunch of fresh ceviche, and then paddled back to the pier at Puerto Ayora. After cleaning up, we walked to the Charles Darwin Research Station. We observed more baby tortoises here, and overlooked the pen of Lonesome George, the last of his subspecies from Pinta Island. George is not social, and stays at the far end of his pen so that it is pretty difficult to get a good look at him.

But we were able to wander within the corrals of some of the other large tortoises. Males and females were kept in separate corrals. In the male corral we crouched down right next to a big guy who was in the process of scraping vegetation off of the rocks with his mouth. He was as big as Craig and I (crouching down) combined. We got a good look at his scaly legs and the large claws on his feet.

Steph and Craig with giant tortoise at the Charles Darwin Research Station

We went back to town and browsed in the shops. I found one shop which sold T-shirts with a picture of Darwin in a Che Guevara hat which is captioned "Evolution Revolution: Galapagos". I had to have it, and I had Craig take a picture of me in front of the sign.

Evolution Revolution

We enjoyed our last night in Santa Cruz by eating a nice meal at an Italian Restaurant, and then having dessert and drinks at another restaurant before heading back to the hotel.

Santa Cruz was a gorgeous island, but we definitely preferred Puerto Baquerizo on San Cristobal to Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz. Puerto Baquerizo is much quieter and less developed. It has a few restaurants, shops, and hotels, but by far the best attraction in town is the beach where the sea lions sleep. Puerto Ayora is much more commercialized, with many shops, galleries, and restaurants, as well as bars which tout body shots and karaoke. It seems like it wants to be a Caribbean resort town, which seemed a bit out of character with the archipelago's focus on eco-tourism. It was interesting how these two islands have different personalities, and we were very excited to see our third and final island, the least-developed of the three, Isla Isabela.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Galapagos Trip Part I - Quito & San Cristobal

Charles Darwin Statue near Frigatebird Hill, San Cristobal

We returned home last night after just over a week in Quito, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. What an amazing trip. They call the Galapagos Islas Encantadas, or the Enchanted Islands, and I can't think of a better word to describe them: enchanting.

Most people visit the Galapagos via boat. They eat and sleep on the boat and come ashore for day excursions. Most people don't even know that land-based Galapagos tours exist. Our good friends at Adventure Life offered a multi-sport land-based trip that was very intriguing to us. 97% of the Galapagos is national parkland. Only 3% is populated by humans, most of whom emigrated from mainland Ecuador, locally known as "The Continent". This 3% of land (on four islands: San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Isabela, and Floreana) comprises farmland as well as small towns whose main income comes from tourism. the problem is that people who stay on boats don't inject much money into the local economy. They don't stay in hotels or eat at restaurants, and the ships even have souvenir shops, so many of these cruisers never spend a dime on the islands. Money that could help the locals instead goes to foreign investors who own the boats. When we saw all of this first-hand, we were very glad that we chose the land-based option. We would recommend it to anyone. We saw a lot of the cruise passengers on our flights, and they all seemed to have been seasick, gotten stomach ailments, and/or had bad coughs. We have no regrets about our decision.

Colonial Old Town, Quito

We started the trip with a free day in Quito. It's a gorgeous city that is a blend between modern urban architecture (in New Town) and quaint colonial vestiges (in Old Town). Old Town features cobblestone streets and colorful colonial buildings. Like many Latin American countries, some if its most gorgeous buildings are its churches.

Basilica in Quito

The Basilica sits atop a hill overlooking Old Town, and is topped by Gothic buttresses and gargoyles. It has amazing stained glass windows, and looks like it would be more at home in Europe than south America. In contrast, La Compania de Jesus is rather modest-looking from outside, but once you enter, you are inside what is arguably the most beautiful church in Latin America. Practically all surfaces are plated in gold, and the altar is bedecked with gold statues. It took our breath away. We were in Quito on a Sunday, so lots of local families were out and about and we got a chance to view a bit of the local culture.

Iglesia de San Francisco, Old Town Quito

Che Guevara? Nope...our guide Sebastian!

The next day, we met our guide Sebastian at the Quito airport, and flew 600 miles offshore to the Galapagos Islands. We liked Sebastian right away. In his hat and sunglasses we joked that Che Guevara was our tour leader. We landed in San Cristobal, the first of the islands on which Charles Darwin set foot, and the island where he spent the majority of his land excursions during his 5 week stay in the archipelago. San Cristobal immediately reminded us of Easter Island, and its main town Puerto Baquerizo Moreno reminded us of Hanga Roa.

Craig and Sebastian on the beach in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno

The sleepy fishing village is situated on the coast, and has a small coastal road (named after Darwin) which contains a few small hotels, restaurants, and shops. There is a beach that is covered with sea lions, night and day. We spent a lot of time watching them from a very close distance. At night, pups would look for their mother in order to nurse. They would go to each female and let out a sound reminiscent of a lamb ("Maaaap!") If it was not the pup's mother, she would bark and him and he would go on to the next female. Some of the pups were absolutely tiny. As we watched, some of the sea lions would climb up from the beach onto the sidewalk. Two approached us and came close enough to sniff my feet and tickle me with their whiskers.

Night shot of sea lions at the beach in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno

In addition to sea lions, San Cristobal also has a large population of birds, including frigatebirds. The males of this species have a bright crimson
throat pouch which they proudly inflate when courting.

Blue Footed Booby

This island also has a large population of blue footed boobies. These birds, with bright blue beaks and tails, are very clumsy on land (hence the name "boobies") but are very adept at flying and diving for fish from extreme heights.

Snorkeling with sea lions

We did some kayaking on San Cristobal, and then took a boat to Isla Lobo, a breeding ground for sea lions. Sebastian had told us that we would get to snorkel with sea lion pups, but we never could have imagined the experience that we got. We hopped into the water and immediately countless sea lion pups dove in from the rocks where they had been laying.

Watch a 15 second video (with sound) of sea lions playing with a seashell while we snorkeled with them

They were curious about us and swam right up to us. They were incredibly adept in the water, twisting and turning, playing with shells and urchins, chasing each other and us. They would come right up to our faces, peering at us with their magnified, limpid, Gollum-like eyes and showing their surprisingly large sharp teeth. They were not aggressive at all, but we were still aware of our bodies. They nipped at each other in play, and our skin isn't nearly as thick as theirs, so...we didn't want them to try to do the same to us. It was an invigorating experience, the only time I have ever experienced such harmony with a wild creature before was in Rwanda with the mountain gorillas. Our new underwater camera worked wonderfully to capture stills and videos of this incredible experience.

Snorkeling with sea lions

After frolicking with the sea lions, we took our boat to the sheer cliffs of Kicker Rock (aka Leon Dormido), a large rock formation off the coast. We snorkeled between its two cliff faces, seeing many fish. Our naturalist guide Pedro pointed out a group of around 7 Galapagos reef sharks swimming below us. Sebastian said that the Galapagos is the only place in the world where someone yells "Shark!" and people jump INTO the water. Due to the abundance of food, they don't pay much attention to humans. At one point, two Pacific sea turtles swam right by a shark...we felt like we were in the
midst of a Jacques Cousteau special. Unfortunately, during all of this, the new underwater camera decided not to function at all.

Kicker Rock (Leon Dormido)

Giant Tortoise at San Cristobal breeding center

We also visited a giant tortoise breeding center in San Cristobal. Almost all of the giant tortoises on the island reside here. Babies are vulnerable to an array of predators until they are 5 years old, at which point their shells have hardened. Baby tortoises have been bred at this particular center since 2005. Only one tortoise from their original batch of eggs survived, and it is named Genesis. We saw it, as well as many other babies which have been born in the intervening three years. They are really cute, because they look just like a fully developed giant tortoise, only on a much smaller scale. Their shells are comprised of separate plates which have concentric rings in each one. These plates grow and eventually fuse together, like the fontanelle on a human's head. You can tell that a tortoise is a juvenile if rings are still discernible on its shell. There were also older tortoises wandering the grounds, and we got a good look at several of these dinosaur-like creatures.

Baby Tortoise at San Cristobal breeding center

I will post about our time in Santa Cruz and Isabela soon. We would like to thank Sebastian, who has become a very good friend. He was an excellent, knowledgable, smart, funny, friendly, genuinely kind guide and we were really lucky to be his clients!