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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.