Pachamama’s Gift: The Galapagos

After much partying and a little bit of a hangover, we left our lovely mansion hostel in Cali, Colombia and carried on south for Ecuador. Back on the ice cube with wheels (bus), we had another break down (our third) which put us behind about three hours. Not bad considering we had a blown tire in the middle of nowhere and our driver had to make the change in the pouring rain. However the comparitively short delay, lead to a monsterous delay at the border between Colombia and Ecuador. When crossing borders in South America, you have to actually exit one country before entering another. Because of the time of year (holiday season) and the fact that there was a huge festival in Pasto, Colombia, it meant that what seemed like all of Ecuador were emigrating to Colombia for the party, while the whole of Colombia were escaping for some peace. Hence we were in line for five hours at the Colombian border just to exit the country and then another four hours at the Ecuadorian border to enter. Painful! And even more so when stuck next to a Commi from Austria who argued that someone working at McDonalds should be paid the same as a Surgeon. That was a fun debate. However we did have a rubix cube fanatic on the other side of us who entertained us with his skills for a while. Finally we made it through, then just had to take another three hour bus to Otavalo. OK Ecuador has the award for craziest drivers now.

We stayed in Otavalo for a couple of nights, and enjoyed the tranquil setting. The town is famous for its large markets on Saturdays. Unfortunately we weren’t there on a Saturday, however there are tons of stores where you can buy local crafts, or Hollister and Aeropostal products. I’m sure the latter two are real. After walking round the town, we decided to head up to the famous Cuicocha Lake. Ecuador is full of volcanoes. In Otavalo alone there were four surrounding the town. The Cuicocha Lake is actually a huge crater, about 3km wide and 200 meters deep. On a clear day you can see the top of the volcanoes, islands and the lake.

From Otavalo we headed to Quito to get ready for our Galapagos tour. However little did we know the flights we thought were confirmed, were never actually booked. We found this out at 7pm the night before we were to fly at 9am the next day. Strike 1! After a few swear words, tears, and frustration, we (I) pulled ourselves together and submitted to buying some more flights for the following day at twice the price. Hey ho, it’s only money right? Trying to not let the situation taint our experience in Quito, we started to explore the city and were surprised to see how modern it is. There’s a huge swanky mall, nice restaurants and the architecture in Old Town has been well kept. The Church of the Society of Jesus was incredible. The interior is covered in gold leaf and is gleaming. Apparently it took 160 years to build and I can see why. Finishing our time in Quito, we headed out for some real Ecuadorian food at Mama Calinda, which to be fair was not far from our typical Menu del Dia, however very tasty.

Next morning we woke up early for our 6am flight to the Galapagos. I had butterflies in my stomach like a little kid going to Disneyland. So many people we met had raved about the islands, and now it was our turn to go. We were so excited that we turned up at the airport before I think the airport had even opened. After a couple of hours of waiting, we borded the plane and headed off. The flight out of Quito was dramatic and we flew up in between the mountains and the famous Vulcan Cotapaxi. (Perfect, saves us from doing the 2 day hike up there!) Fortunately this flight was larger than our other mountain bearing flight. They even had TV screens in the back of all of the chairs. We flew with Aerogal which is a lesser known airline but extremely comfortable. Three hours later we arrived at Baltra, the main airport on the Galapagos. To enter the Galapagos tourists need to pay $100. We had asked our travel agent if we needed to bring cash or if there was a cashpoint at the airport. In true South American style we were told the wrong information, and so turned up without cash expecting to find an ATM. And of course they don’t take credit cards. Strike 2! After being made to stand in the corner while everyone else passed us by, looked at like we were stupid and shouted at a bit, they finally took one of our passports and we just had to pay at the Charles Darwin Research Center in Santa Cruz (where the main town is). Apparently this happens all the time, so god knows why they needed to make us feel stupid.

Taking the bus from the Airport to Puerto Ayora, we crossed through the different types of landscape between Baltra and Santa Cruz. It surprised me how dry everything was in the first part of the journey, but then how green it gets in the highlands. The islands are not tropical at all like I had expected, and on a whole are pretty dry and arid. The first wildlife we saw was a huge pelican that greeted us at the dock when crossing the canal between Baltra and Santa Cruz. It amazed me how comfortable he was around humans. I could have probably reached out and touched him (although he would have probably pecked me first). The other amazement, was more of a negative. In my head, I have envisioned the Galapagos Islands as an environmental icon. A place that should be looked up to and copied in tourism and in conservation. However pulling up to Puerto Ayora you still see rubbish in the streets. Santa Cruz isn’t as bad as Isabella (which we visited later on) where there were beer bottles on the beach and rubbish underneath the stones. Unfortunately the South American culture and lack of education is still apparent in the Galapagos, even with the amount of money going into the World Heritage Site. Talking to one of the guides, it seems that, as with all South America, there is a lot of corruption between the organizations. The exorbitant amount of money coming in from tourists every day (the $100 entry fee) and the donations are being embezzled rather than being put to use and educating people. You would think there would also be a visitor center to inform tourists about the park and the discoveries of Charles Darwin, however the Charles Darwin Research Center is just that, and doesn’t really educate the people. I also thought that the islands had remained relatively untouched, however Sailors brought goats and rats, mosquitos came with bananas, and a US Army base was built on Baltra during the Second World War. Fortunately now they have more or less irradicated the rats, and have restricted farming areas. There are still mosquitos however we never had a problem with them.

Whining aside, the islands are still incredible and we were ready to explore them. When we arrived in Puerto Ayora we headed straight to Joybe Tours to try out our luck with a last minute cruise. Although we were lined up for strike 3, we hit the ball out of the park and scored with a four night cruise on a first class boat, The Monserrat. Our boat was spacious, our group was fun and surprisingly all around our age (turns out everyone doing the 4 night deal had booked the day before, like us), the food was delicious, our beds were comfy and the shower was probably one of the best showers we had in our trip. And our itinerary was perfect. We started off at Bachus Beach on Baltra which was our first taste of Galapagos sand, which I have to say is the softest, whitest sand you will ever see. Here we were welcomed by Red Crabs scuttling across the black rocks, Iguanas sunbathing, and Turtles mating in the sea. Apparently turtles can mate for up to an hour! Talk about stamina! We also saw a Blue Heron fishing in a little lagoon. After checking out the land wildlife it was time to get in the water and do a spot of snorkeling, however unfortunately the water was a bit cloudy so we decided to just swim instead. After a while we headed back to the boat to watch the fabulous sunset on deck.

Day two and Justin woke me up bright and early to watch the moon go down and the sun come up over Santiago and Bartolome. These two islands have to be my favorite, number one because of the amazing snorkeling and number two because of the incredible landscapes. This is where you can get the famous shot of the Pinnacle Rock. This was also an incredible experience for us as there were only two boats, which meant there were only 30 people in the whole area. Our daily itinerary was breakfast, walking, snorkeling, rest, lunch, walking, snorkeling and dinner. Our walks this day were up to a view point to take in the breath taking vistas and then over to Santiago to admire the artwork done by the volcano. The rope like patterns of the lave flows mixed in with the colours of the minerals was nothing we had ever seen before. It’s hard to believe that goats were able to live out there. After both of the walks it was good to refresh in the water and explore the life of the sea. On the rocks penguins were relaxing taking in the view, but underneath the water was a colorful array of yellows, blues, purples, pinks, greens all floating, or darting past us. We swam with turtles and followed their movements going down to the sand to nibble some food and then up to the surface to get a quick breath of air. A lone Blue starfish clung to a rock while the King Angel fish swam in rehearsed unison surrounding the corral. A Diamond Stingray hid quietly buried in the sand as a White Tipped Galapagos Shark quickly appeared and then vanished into the depths of the sea. The water was bathtub warm, and immaculately clear. I always freak out a little when submerging myself in open water (Justin takes to it like a fish), but after this experience I didn’t even want to get out.

The next stop, after a rather rocky overnight journey across the equator, was to Genovesa, one of the northern islands. This island is pretty much a sanctuary for birds, although the sea lions are invited too. Here we saw an abundance of Frigate birds, the pirates of the sea, flying around, the famous Blue and Red Footed Boobies (I was tempted to by the very touristy t-shirt ‘I love Boobies’ but I withheld myself), Tropic Birds, Mockingbirds, Pelicans, and the legendary Finches. I can’t believe how the birds are so comfortable with you. You have to be careful you don’t step on them. Especially the Blue Footed Boobies. They seemed as interested in us as we do in them. In the afternoon we went to see the sea lions who seem to just love sunbathing all day and being looked after by their Alpha Male. The poor guy is constantly swimming around his territory, calling out, and having to chase the odd male who dares to try and get into the lare. Snorkeling was an experience this day, swimming in the ocean while birds are dive bombing for fish right next to you. We also had fun jumping off the boat and watching sharks and manta rays swim by.

Our last main day was at a couple of the southern islands, Santa Fe and Plaza. The water at Santa Fe was incredibly clear. You could see the bottom 40 foot below. This is where a huge sea lion colony lives. Arriving on shore we were welcomed by a chorus of sea lion pup vomiting sounds as they were playing with each other in the nursery. The pups don’t make the traditional arghh-arghh sound. Unfortunately, just as everything was seeming happy at the Galapagos, Darwinism was at play and we saw a poor little seal pup crying for its Mum. Unfortunately the Mum was probably attacked by a shark, and the pup wouldn’t last through the night.

Santa Fe is famous for its huge cactus trees, and the Hybrid Iguanas created by male Mairne Iguana and female Land Iguana. Also the Land Iguanas here are yellowish which is diiferent to the normal dark colour. After our walk around the island it was time to jump in the water, however when we went back to the boat to grab our gear, Sammi and Tommy from our group spotted a Bull Shark in the water. Apparently these are more dangerous than Great Whites! So we changed our plans and headed back to shore to snorkel from there. However then we had to deal with the Alpha Male Sea Lion. Justin and I waited on the land while some of the others went in. After about 15 minutes and all was OK, we took the dingy and met them. We swam with a turtle and also watched the sea lions dart passed us.

Plaza Island was our last stop before heading back to Santa Cruz for our last night. The red fauna here, mixed in with the cactus trees was stunning. We enjoyed watching more of the sea lion habits, visited the bachelor pad for the sea lion males, and admired the view. Back in Santa Cruz, we went to shore to enjoy a fairwell drink, and well enjoy a drink since beers were $5 on the boat! The next morning we headed to the Charles Darwin Station where they are breeding turtles and said goodbye to the group.

Justin and I had decided to just stay on the Galapagos rather than heading back to the mainland, so that afternoon took a boat out to Isabella. Here you can see the volcanoes and the second largest crater in the world at Vulcan Sierra Negra. The last eruption was in 2005 and they are waiting for another one to happen here soon. We also did some snorkeling and saw a shark, although it was nothing compared to what we had done on the cruise. We finished our time on the Galapagos back on Santa Cruz, staying at a lovely hostel, and going to Las Grietas, a lava tunnel which is a cool area to go snorkeling, and Bahia Tortuga, which has to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

After ten days we were sad to leave the Galapagos, especially when we had to go to Guayaquil, a huge ugly city. However we will be back one day. We are now back in Peru getting ready for the wedding, and have enjoyed surfing in Huanchaco, the beautiful town of Trujillo and catching up with Catie and Juan Carlos in Lima. Two days to go for the wedding!

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