Galapagos Islands: Santa Cruz and Isabela

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The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago consisting of over a dozen islands, only a few of which are populated. Santa Cruz is the hub of the Galapagos; it is the central island with the largest population of all the islands at a whopping 15, 000 inhabitants. The change of pace from Quito has been nice. For the past 3 nights we stayed at Hotel Espana in Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz.

On our first morning in Puerto Ayora we went around to all the travel agencies in town to get the lowest quote on a day trip to one of the farther islands – I kept notes of all their offered prices to then use them against other agencies – this approach seemed to intimidate them. In the end we got a price from Michael at Galapagos Mural S.A. agency, which none of the other agencies would match. We felt good about being such bargain hunters.

Once our next day’s trip was settled, we headed to the Charles Darwin Observation station to learn about the efforts on the various islands to rebuild the population of giant tortoises. Before man began visiting the islands the population of giant tortoises on the Galapagos flourished as these beautiful and slow-moving animals had no natural predators. Since the arrival of various pirates, colonists, etc. the tortoises have had a tough streak, being killed off by the thousands mainly for their meat. Despite what the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would have you believe, giant tortoises are basically defenseless – they simply hide their heads in their shell when threatened. Thus, the authorities at the islands have started a breeding program to rebuild their population. While visiting the station we saw what looked like giant tortoises at all stages of development in individual pens – some of them just a few centimeters long. Then we moved onto the adults.

The first time you see a giant tortoise your mind become blown. The best part about these tortoises, and basically all animals on the Galapagos, is that they aren’t scared of humans. One female giant tortoise easily weighing over 200lbs actually chased me – at a tremendously slow speed, mind you (see photo above). I pulled some leaves off the nearby tree and fed her – it was fantastic. We then moved over to the male tortoise enclosure. While the guys weren’t nearly as playful as the females, they were absolutely gigantic – 300-400lbs easy. We got up right beside them and they barely moved a muscle. This became my personal highlight of our trip up to that point.

Right after this, we saw male and female giant tortoises making passionate love. We were literally a few feet away as their shells grinded together and the male moaned with each thrust. We didn’t stay until the climax – one of the staff there told us tortoise sex can go on for hours.

The following day we boarded a boat on a day excursion to Floreana Island – one of the most southern of the Galapagos islands. Due to prior experience on rough seas while traveling from Malta to Sicily a couple of years back, Marina and I knew we had to prepare for this excursion which included about 2 hrs of very rough waters each way. So we went to one of the local pharmacies and got sea sickness meds – sold by the pill, over the counter for 25 cents each.

I love this medication!

Aside from a strong sedative effect, my stomach and head were perfectly fine despite the VERY rough water. Marina also felt perfectly fine, even falling asleep at one point.

On this trip we saw some more giant turtles being bred, some tunnels that developed from the flow of lava from one of the volcanoes that created the island. Apparently, a bunch of families from Europe colonized this island and used these lava formations as their homes. After lunch we went snorkeling. This was not the greatest idea as this was probably the roughest snorkeling I have ever done – the sea was angry, very angry. While we were being sloshed around by the waves we saw a couple small sharks and a sting ray. On account of the rough seas we moved onto another site with calmer water. This part was fantastic – we got to swim around with sea lions. They were so playful, doing all sorts of tricks in the water for apparently no other reason than to entertain the tourists. Marina tried to mimic the sea lions by following their every move. At one point, she started to blow bubbles in the water and two small sea lions mimicked her – spectacular!

Although the sea lions seemed friendly in the water, this morning I learned a very important lesson: they DO NOT like to be touched. We were walking by a tiny fish market, where a fisherman was selling off today’s catch to the locals piece by piece. Amongst the shopping locals and the fisherman were two sea lions, who would slither around, sniff around the counter, and patiently wait until they got a scrap of fish. Batting the sea lions for precious scraps were half a dozen huge pelicans and one stork-like bird with a giant and sharp beak. Given the cute mannerisms of the sea lions, and the way they moved around the fishermen, I assumed they liked people.

Not-so-friendly sea lion that tried to bite me

So I decided to pet the sea lion.

BAD IDEA.

The teeth of the angry sea lion grazed my forearm as I quickly pulled away when it started to twist its head around to bite me. I nearly soiled my pants. Right as it happened a few of the fisherman who saw the encounter altered me not to pet the sea lions as they can bite – advice that would have been very useful only seconds ago…

This afternoon we took a boat to the biggest of the Galapagos islands – Isabela. Once again the sea was very angry, possibly even angrier than the day before, but once again our butts were saved by the meds. Although Isabela is the biggest of the islands, it only has about 2000 people living on it. In other words, this islands is almost deserted. The roads here are not paved. There are no names of streets, or numbers on buildings. From what I can gather there are 1 or 2 places with internet access here, and that access is rather patchy – I will have to see tomorrow if I can actually post what I am currently writing.

The main 'street' on Isabela

Once again, we arrived at this place with no accommodations arranged, but as I write these words, I am sitting in a two bedroom ‘home’ with a bathroom, tv, dvd player, a makeshift kitchen. The owner of this place, Lauro, just happened to be at the pier as we got off our boat. We hopped onto some rickety truck, threw our backpacks on the flatbed and headed into town. Oh and did I mention we are paying 10$ per person per night?

It is now 10:05pm – as in 5 minutes past my bedtime. Marina has been sleeping for the past hour. She will have an unfair wakefulness advantage tomorrow morning. I must retire.

Good night,

Peter

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Galapagos explorations begin

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We haven’t even been in South America for 48 hours, and already it feels like we’ve experienced so much. After I posted yesterday, I chatted with the owner of our hostel, Carlos, regarding getting over to Galapagos. He had just been there with his wife and encouraged us to travel the Galapagos on our own rather than on a cruise with all the other gringos (tourists). Encouraged by his enthusiasm, we went down a few blocks to the TAME airlines ticket office and within 5 minutes had flights to Galapagos for the next morning. It is funny how before one explores various countries – some of which may appear very sketchy (case in point: Ecuador) – you just assume it would be so difficult to get around, to communicate, to find food, etc. And yet I am always surprised no matter where we go how easy it all is and how quickly one adapts to the new environment. One day we’re in Kingston at our friend’s home (thanks again Ian and Katie), Marina is stressing out about her PhD thesis defense, and 7 days later we are on a trolley with the locals in Quito heading to the old town to check out the sites while sipping on coconut milk we bought from a street vendor. The change is so drastic and yet feels completely natural. Two days ago we would easily spend over $30 for some sushi take out. Today, when offered a 3 course meal on Santa Cruz island of Galapagos for $6 I said ‘muchos gracias’ and kept walking in search of more ‘reasonably’ priced fare.

But before I get into Galapagos, I should say a few things about Quito. Quito is the capital of Ecuador, and at about 2800m above sea level, it is the 2nd highest capital in the world – after La Paz in Bolivia – where we’ll be traveling through later this summer. Since we live at sea level, the change in altitude can be a challenge for some, leading to altitude sickness – migraines, nausea, vomitting, etc. We actually got medication for altitude sickness – Diamox – to help us in case of potential trouble. However, knowing that we will be facing much higher altitudes in the near future we decided to save our meds. Luckily, other than getting winded walking up 2 steps, we experienced no issues with the altitude. We did, however, walk much, MUCH slower than we usually do as you can get out of breath very easily climbing the hilly terrain of Quito’s old town. For someone who is always revving very high, it was a nice, albeit physiologically imposed, change of pace. The old town has some interesting architecture, countless locals sitting about chatting in the various plazas, as well as a  multitude of child labourers who shine shoes, sell popsicles, and likely other vocations I didn’t witness. While Marina and I were sitting at one such plaza, trying to catch our breath while applying some recently purchased sun screen (it was surprisingly sunny and hot) a group of school girls approached us to do an interview for a school project. We were both a bit on edge as this type of encounter usually ends with an unsuspecting tourist being robbed while they entertain the cute local children. Anyways, turned out these kids weren’t part of any street gang and simply interviewed Marina in broken English, while video taping the whole thing. At one point the interview veered into my territory when the adolescent interviewer asked Marina what effect the Barbie doll may have had on female perception of ideal body shape. In response, I cut Marina off and went on about some study I once read…Needless to say, the interview ended rather abruptly after “the crazy fast-talking white man” decided to contribute his wisdom. I hope those girls can edit me out and pass their school project.

After touring around old town, we decided to head back to our hostel and check out new town, or Gringolandia, as the locals refer to it. Since our hostel had a spare classical Spanish guitar, I couldn’t resist plucking a few chords in the common room while Marina took a nap. After a nice dinner at Uncle Ho’s, we both crashed pretty early. I slept like a baby.

Today was an early wake up to make our Galapagos flight. The flight out of Quito was possibly the most scenic flight I have ever taken – within  minutes in the air we got crystal clear views of the various volcano peaks just south of the city. Marina snapped dozens of photos through the window. In the terminal waiting for our flight and even more evident on our flight was the obvious demographic bias towards those in their 60’s and upwards. I nicknamed our terminal: “Heaven’s waiting room for gringos”. We were 2 of maybe 6 people on our 100 plus person flight into Galapagos who were under 50. Its odd how many people wait until they retire before they take the time to explore the world – unfortunately, by that point, it becomes much harder to deal with the physical challenges of traveling in certain regions. Almost all the older people on our flight were booked on a big group tour on a cruise ship where they were herded through every step of the process from checking in at the airport, getting their luggage, to getting all their meals, and having a guide hold their hand for the whole 5 days they spend on a boat. Sure its easy and comfy. But the downside is all the experiences you missed by not having to figure things out yourself – forcing yourself to mingle with the locals, and trying to communicate with people in a language in which you know 7 words – now that is fun! And – its a hell of a lot cheaper. As a side note, we are staying at the Hotel Espana – which we simply walked into and asked for a room once we arrived on the main island. Our room has beds for 5 people – 2 for us, the other 3 for our luggage. We are paying $15 per person.

Ok, I am getting tired sitting alone in the lounge of the hotel while Marina watches random Spanish tv in our room.

Here is a list of animals we saw: hundreds of huge marine iguanas, sea lions, crabs, a sting ray, a few small sharks chasing after small fish, pelicans, and of course – the blue footed boobie in action; diving for fish in the crashing waves off the coast of Tortuga Bay.

Lastly, where do two atheists eat while visiting Galapagos, the land which inspired the theory of evolution? A Christian street bbq, of course.

No joke!

We walked by a few of the restaurants, but I had a sneaking suspicion something more interesting would be just around the corner. So we ended up eating chicken and fish which was bbq’d right in front of us while a procession of about 100 locals followed a man carrying a 10 foot cross and then prayed and sang. In the meantime, Marina and I tried to carry a conversation with an adorable girl by the name of Emily. Her little boy friend was less talkative – I still don’t know what music he was listening to on his MP3 player…

Buenos noches.

Peter

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