12 Days of Natural Wonders
21.05.2013 - 01.06.2013 26 °C
We have been so fortunate to visit some places that have been lifelong dreams like Machu Picchu, and this was another. The Galapagos Islands are very unique. They are world-famous for their unusual and fearless wildlife. This is the result of the archipelago´s isolated location, lying some 1000kms of the coast of Ecuador. The Galapagos archipelago is made up of 13 main islands, 6 smaller islands and many tiny unnamed islands. Four are inhabited by humans. Along with its isolation, the late discovery by humans and the historical lack of predators are all contributing factors into the phenomena that is the Galapagos Islands.
On the islands we learnt about the current conservation projects and education efforts. The importance of breeding programs, minimising the impact of human presence on the islands, and reducing the numbers of introduced animals and plants that can both have devastating effects on native species. The first settlers introduced animals like goats, pigs, cattle, burros, cats, while animals like ants and rats accidentally arrived on ships. All of which still cause problems today for the natural ecosystem.
We arrived at the airport on Baltra Island and along with everyone else on our flight, took the short ferry across to Santa Cruz island which would serve as our base for the first few days. We had hoped to pickup a last minute cruise deal along with spending time seeing parts independently. We ended up not finding a cruise to suit our time frame, budget or interest. We are happy it did work out this way as we saved heaps of money and thoroughly enjoyed doing day trips along with seeing some of the sights for free ourselves. Over the 12 days on the archipelago we based ourselves on 3 islands; 4 nights on Santa Cruz, 3 on Isabela, and 4 on San Cristobal. Along with exploring these 3 islands we also partook in day tours from Santa Cruz to Floreana and to Santa Fe islands. There were surprisingly few other tourists around, likely because the vast majority do the 5 or 8 day cruises so it was nice to be off exploring often completely on our own (apart from the wildlife of course).
Isla Santa Cruz
On arrival to the island`s sole town, Puerto Ayora, we were instantly greeted with wildlife: sea lions all around the port, many Galapagos brown pelicans and some marine iguanas. After feeling slightly overwhelmed at a few tour companies we made our way to the Charles Darwin Research Centre. On the brief 10 minute walk we passed a tiny outdoor fish market where a sea lion was begging the vendors for fish much like a dog would beg, along with dozens of pelicans. Over the course of our time in Santa Cruz we walked past the fish market on quite a few occasions and Sammy (as we started calling him) was always there eating fish scraps and basking in the attention from the tourists... Well we assumed it was always the same sea lion. The Darwin Centre was once home to the famous tortoise, Lonesome George, who only recently passed away there after decades of unsuccessfully trying to find him a mate. Sadly he was the last of his species of giant Galapagos Tortoise. This place houses Santa Cruz´s tortoise breeding centre, where we could view different sectioned off areas with little tortoises by their age. There was not much information at the Darwin Research Centre and it did feel a bit like a zoo but lucky for us we saw some in the wild and received much better information on the Galapagos later on in our trip.
On our second day we went to Tortuga (Turtle) Bay. This involved a 45 minute walk through scrub and along a beach to eventually reach the wonderfully sheltered bay; white sand, turquoise water, and surrounded by mangrove trees. While relaxing on the shore of the bay we had very close encounters with several of the famous Galapagos Finches who showed no fear, hopping all over us in an attempt to rifle through our snacks. If we had tried, we probably could have caught them quite easily in our hands. Currenty there are 13 different species of finches on the archipelago which Darwin famously hypothesised to have come from 1 common ancester. Then through chance and due to isolation, different climates and natural circumstances, the finches evolved from 1 into 13 species. This was the basis for Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. The finches all have different beak sizes depending on the seeds they consume and depending on food availability the females today mate with a male who has a desirable characteristic (beak size) to ensure the success of her offspring. Also on this trip to Tortuga Bay we got very close to many large marine iguanas at the end of the beach, all laying under mangrove trees. Their were plenty of little Galapagos lava lizards on the walk in the bush and we were followed by several mocking birds.
That evening we walked up the pier to see the pretty lights of the boats and hotels but the highlight was looking at the port lights that shone into the water. We watched about 10 or so little sharks swimming as schools of fish darted out of their way. A sea lion also swam amongst them all.
The following 2 days were spent on day tours from Santa Cruz to Floreana and Santa Fe Islands respectively.
Isla Floreana (Santa Maria)
Floreana Island is located at the far southern part of the archipelago. It is the smallest of the four inhabited islands and the only one of the four where tourists cannot stay the night. We took a tour from Santa Cruz to the island on an hour and a half very rough boat ride resulting in the boat crew running back and forward to the bin with bags of vomit. We didn`t get seasick but were very happy to arrive to the port of Floreana! On the way we did slow down for a few minutes to watch the dolphins. On arrival we all cheered up immediately as we were met by many sea lions. From the port we took a short trip in the back of a truck to the start of the highland trek. We learnt about different plant and animal species along with the history of this island. The main area of interest was interacting with the giant Galapagos tortoises in their natural habitat. Our guide told us the biggest weigh around 250kgs!!! This is the only place in the whole of the Galapagos that humans can interact so closely. We were entertained by one male harassing the females. We didn't know they were capable of moving that fast!
The tour guide led us through interesting lava rock formations that had deep engraved patterns on them thought to have been made by the first inhabitants. We also saw a giant head that had been carved out of this stone. Our guide provided incite into the first settlers, pirates and history of this island. We visited the only fresh water spring across all of the archipelago, along with some huge healing rock.
After lunch the boat took us further around the island to a snorkelling spot, where we jumped in from the side of the boat. This was our first of many snorkels in the Galapagos. We swam with playful sea lions, fish of varying sizes and colours such as anglefish, barberfish and surgeonfish, and sea anemones. This was actually one of our favourite snorkels as although we swam with sea lions a few times, on this occasion they were extremely playful and would swim directly at us at a rate of knots before darting off in another direction at the last second. The young ones loved to swim upside down, do somersaults and generally show off in front of us. The sea lions are quite comical on land and have poor vision out of the water so seeing them in their element in the water was fantastic. They probably thought we looked equally as comical in the water as we thought they did out of it.
Isla Santa Fé (Barrington Island)
Santa Fe island is uninhabited by humans and geologically it is one of the oldest. The island is very arid and its landscape is characterised by volcanic rock and dry vegetation such as palo santo trees, bush and the large treelike prickly pear cactus. This island has an endemic species and one endemic subspecies unique to it; the Barrington Land Iguana and the Santa Fe Rice Rat. We took a walk across the island observing these species along with mocking birds, frigate birds, finches, galapagos pigeons and lava lizards. We learnt that the reason the majority of plants on the Galapagos produced yellow flowers and some white was due to an adaptation caused by the yellow Galapaos bee having a preference for yellow flowers (we saw so many of these bees across the islands).
On the two short stretches of beach on the island were a vast number of sea lions. Probably about 50 or 60 all in a line. From one of these beaches we watched 3 white-tipped reef sharks hunting the baby sea lions who fled for the beach screaming for their mothers. The boat took us out to a turquoise bay; another snorkelling spot. This snorkel was as exciting as the last. We saw many more fish and also a white-tipped reef shark and a sea turtle, both so close to us! At one point the sea turtle and shark passed only a few metres away from each other but neither were fazed. At the time we thought the sea turtle was huge but as we found out on our next snorkle, it was probably an adolescent. The shark was around 1.5m. Most sharks we saw in the Galapagos were about the same size.
On our last morning in Santa Cruz before catching a ferry to Isabella island, we made our way to Las Grietas, a volcanic rock formation that looks like a steep gorge with water in the middle. On the walk to this area we passed Finch Bay, a salt mine and some luxury hotels. We both snorkeled in the 3 sections up this gorge but only in the last did we see some fish although none were as interesting as those in the ocean. With beautiful weather on this day we spent the time we had before the ferry departed basking on the white sand beside clear waters and mangrove trees at Finch Bay. We watched a baby marine iguana make a run for it out of his original shady spot and ending up under Georgie's legs for a few minutes, enough time to grab some photos of the little creature, before racing to Scott and finally under a mangrove tree.
Isabela is the largest island on the archipelago and is known as the island of volcanoes. Puerto Villamil is the port town on the island where we stayed. It`s advantage over Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz) and Puerto Baquerizo Mareno (San Cristobal) is its brilliant sandy beach right by the town instead of a rocky shore. It has several other beautiful beaches in close proximity to the town filled with wildlife.
Our first two nights on the island were part of a tour which started late on the first afternoon visiting one sight. The tour included 2 nights accommodation in a very nice hotel, large gourmet meals and a 12 hour day of sightseeing on the second day. We stayed an extra night to have a full day to ourselves to explore. After arriving on the small, rough ferry we started the tour late afternoon visiting a lagoon just outside Puerto Villamil. Here we observed pink flamingos unique to the Galapagos, solely living on the islands, not migrating. The adults were a much brighter pink and taller than any of the Chilean, Bolivian, or Peruvian flamingos we had encountered in our travels. During the El Niño in the early 90's, 95% of them disappeared leaving only 500 of this species. Unfortunately there has not been an increase in their population since.
With a packed lunch in hand we set off with the tour group at 7:30am the next day to hike in the highlands to Sierra Negra and Volcan Chico, a total distance of 16kms. It was very foggy so we were unable to see much off the path. We walked past Sierra Negra to Volcan Chico but we could not make out much of the crater. On arrival to Volcan Chico the fog began to clear so we were able to photograph the deselic landscape made up of the different lava formations. A vast black moonscape section was the reminder of the last eruption from this still active volcano a couple of decades ago. The last photo stop before we walked back was a 360 viewpoint of Volcan Chico, being able to see out to Elizabeth Bay in the distance. Sierra Negra is supposedly the second largest volcanic crater in the world, with a 10km diameter. On the way back, fog still covered the majority of this crater but we could get an idea of it size.
That afternoon we visited Las Tintoreras, which is a small group of islands off the coast of Isabela that form a series of sea channels. A short boat ride around the islands allowed us to see sea lions and pelicans living in old boats, and penguins and blue-footed boobies perched on the rocky edges of the islands. It was quite funny slowly going by these old boats to see a curious sea lion waddle out of the cabin to see who was making the noise. We snorkelled in the clear waters viewing many types of fish and were shocked to see a couple of sea turtles about 4 times bigger than the one we had seen a few days earlier. We had no idea they got so big. They would have weighed around 100kgs. We followed three of them for about 10 minutes observing them eating, moving around and coming up for air. They seemed as chilled out as the one off Finding Nemo. Such beautiful placid creatures. We also caught a glimpes of a stingray from the boats edge just after we climbed in. The last activity was a walk around one of the small unnamed islands. This island was very arid and its surface covered with volcanic rocks, so lycan is the only vegetation that survives on its centre. In the sea channels were dozens of white-tipped reef sharks who spend their daytimes resting in the shallow water before heading out into the ocean to hunt at night. Close to the tunnel we saw hundreds of baby marine iguanas in their nursery area while their parents were in scattered groups across the rest of the island, basking in the last rays of sun. Sea lions played on the shore as we watched the sunset.
Our last day on Isabela was a free day for us to explore some of the other recommended sights. We visited the marine iguana crossing, a piece of rope across the road which the iguanas all walk across to get from the mangroves to the beach. Funny enough they all actually follow it! The Concha de Perla, a boardwalk, took us through mangroves and swamp water to dryer forests filled with little birds. At the end of this walk we unexpectedly reached the Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre on Isabela. The setup was similar to that on Santa Cruz but on a lot larger scale with many sections for tortoises at different sizes up to 5 years. They have to be kept in cages so introduced rats can`t get in. It's incredible to think how these little ones, just a few months old can reach such a huge size, but we suppose after 200 years of consistant growth they would get pretty big. Giant Tortoises only live on the Galapagos islands and in the Seychelles, as there is no competition with mammals. Presently 12 species survive worldwide, 11 of which are on the Galapagos. Another 3 are now extinct including Lonesome George`s species. 5 of the remaining are native to Isabela. At the Centre on Isabela they breed tortoises from the south of the island which are the most endangered. We were entertained for a while watching a few of them fighting over an applecore, biting each others necks and crawling on one another.
After the breeding centre we walked up the beaches and rocky shore from the edge of the town. Pelicans, boobies, and gulls dove into the water like torpedoes when they spotted a fish or were found resting on the rocks. Red crabs scattered along the beach and inbetween rocks, while marine iguanas basked in the sun. We reached an area recommended to us by the hotel for a snorkel but today the water was murky and we could not even see our feet in it. We had planned to walk further into the highlands to the Wall of Tears, a huge rock wall constructed by convicts who were commanded to build this to give them something to do. As we were tired and heard that it wasn't that great we opted for some down time on the beach instead. We went in for a swim and discovered a shark fin close by hunting the fish.
From Isabela our last island was San Cristobal but as there are no direct ferries between the two, we had to go via Santa Cruz with a 6 hour wait. In between ferries we went to Playa de la Estacion, a small beach with shallow water and rocky areas in the water where we could see many tropical fish, sea anemones, sea cucumbers and coral by just walking around in the water.
San Cristobal Island
San Cristobal is the easternmost island and one of the oldest geologically. We arrived at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno late afternoon after yet another rough ferry trip. We were so glad not to have to take another one of those. The sea lions on San Cristobal were even more at home than on the other islands. Park benches, sidewalks and playgrounds were often occupied by them. We had a list of things we wanted to see over the 3 full days we had here, the main one being a trip out to Kicker Rock (León Dormido). It didn't take us long to book an excellent day tour to this sight which included visiting 2 other places. We also found another day tour that covered everything else on our list plus more.
On our first full day in San Cristobal we had a day to ourselves to check out a few sights, the first being the Interpretation Centre. It is renowned to be the most informative and sophisticated centre in the Galapagos, dedicated to natural interpretion of the Islands. It went into much detail about the volcanic formation of the island, the evolution of species, to the disputing history of the earliest human settlement. Starting with Fray Tomas de Berlanga discovering the archipelago in 1535, to the Spanish, English, French and many others who all wanted a piece of the land. Also about the convict colony setup on Floreana, once Ecuador had ownership of the islands. In was sad to learn of the killing of 100,000`s of tortoises for lamp oil, and sea lions for their fur even centuries after Darwin´s visit. The final room in the centre explained current conservation projects on the island to ensure this unique and valuable ecosystem is preserved and not destroyed.
That afternoon was spent visiting Las Tijeretas, a snorkelling spot and a series of lookouts to see frigate birds. Our snorkel was short lived as the water was the coldest yet. A mother and a baby sea lion playfully swam around us coming only a few centimetres away from our faces, looking straight onto our eyes. On the return of the hike we visited Punta Carola, a surf beach covered with yet more sea lions, so yes more photos of them were taken.
The Kicker Rock tour was a full day focused on going to different snorkelling spots. First stop was La Loberia, a shallow bay with good surf behind. We observed dry vegetation such as salt bush, green stick and muyuyo close by. On the beach we were greeted by sea lions and a small sea turtle (the only one we saw on land). We were glad to have hired a wetsuit for today as the water was fresh. We saw enormous sea turtles, fish and sea anemones.
We then took a half hour boat ride from the port to arrive at Kicker Rock. It was even more impressive that we could have imagined. The boat took us for a full loop around it, we looked up its sheer cliffs, mesmerised by the birds circling about. These cliffs were home to nasca and blue footed boobies, frigate birds and gulls. Kicker Rock has a recognisable gap of a few metres separating an end piece off. The sun shone on the rock face when we swam over giving us nearly full viability to the sea floor 20 metres below but as soon as we swam up the gap this was lost. We spent the majority of the snorkel in this gap as we were rewarded by seeing dozens of reef sharks and galapagos sharks often coming so close and circling straight below. We saw 5 spotted eagle ray swim straight under us too. As usual the water was filled with fish. On the cliff wall just under the water we saw a yellow spotted starfish. Swimming along the outside of the rock we found a huge coral wall, not tropical coral, dark and black in colour but still full of life. We were so lucky to see so many sharks but at the same time quite disappointed we had missed seeing a hammerhead which some others saw. We had one final snorkel in a bay on the way back before arriving to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.
On our final full day on the islands we went on a Highlands tour, which was more like a taxi service for just us and a friendly Ecuadorian guy, dropping us at sights to let us explore them ourselves. It was a cloudy and drizzly day meaning that our experience at some of the sights was limited. Our first stop was La Galapaguera, a tortoise reproduction centre set in a semi-natural habitat. We walked along a track through the bush for 20 minutes spotting 5 or 6 giant tortoises. At the end we visited a small enclosure for the very young tortoises.
Second stop, Puerto Chino. Here we were meant to snorkel but the water was rough and it was too cold so we opted to spent time with the sea lions on the beach and climb up a rocky lookout point to take photos. We could see a sea turtle swimming in the water from up there.
Third sight, Laguna El Junco, the largest fresh water lake in the archipelago located in a crater. We were meant to be able to observe a large variety of birds here and admire this water span but due to the fog and light rain we could only see a couple of metres in front of us.
Fourth stop, El Ceibo in El Progreso, a treehouse, underground playground and cafe made of recycled objects. Ceibo is actually the name of a tree, there are only 3 species across the Galapagos and this particular tree is the oldest and largest on the Galapagos being over 300 years old. The treehouse can be rented out for $20p/n, which we wish we had known about before as it would have been a bit of an experience. To reach the treehouse you walk across a rickety, wooden bridge from the entrance gate and it is fully set up with a kitchen, bedroom and living room. From the ground we climbed through a hole between 2 massive roots and straight down to a small room, the underground play room. The whole interior of the treehouse is very retro in design. We saw several exit or entrance ways which had now been closed off - a fire pole, foot pegs build into the side of a tree, and a climbing rope. There was also a swinging role which Scott had some fun on. Next to the tree was the cafe/bar made of recycled bits and pieces. 22,000 bottles made up the walls leaving a gap for the word 'Welcome'. A funky retro bar was also made out of bottles and mirrors, and there were recycled sculptures. The kitchen wall was made of milk crates and other bits.
We caught a flight late morning to Quito the following day. The Galapagos Islands were certainly an experience of a lifetime and we are glad we forked out the extra money to make this side trip. Although very expensive compared to our travels on the mainland, it was worth every penny, and by doing the islands independently it worked out about half the price of doing a cruise. Our only regret was not hiring an under water camera!