The journey from the airport on the small island of Baltra to the main town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz serving the Galapagos Islands is in three stages - a free bus from the airport to a jetty from which a ferry crosses the channel to Santa Cruz, then finally a 45 minute bus ride. For some time now M has been troubled by a sore shoulder caused by lifting and carrying her rucksack. E had therefore stubbornly decided that enough was enough and he would therefore carry both main rucksacks as well as his own (heavy) day sack to give her shoulder a chance to get better. All the lugging of these bags between planes, buses and ferries made E a sorry sight, especially on the road from the bus to town to the travel agent (Moonrise Travel) where we were to try to book a cruise round the islands. Walking along the road with M's rucksack balanced on his head brought some strange looks. But it was worth it because our strategy to make the travel agent our first port of call worked. We managed to get a good deal (we hope) for a 4 day cruise visiting some of the islands that we particularly wanted to see and on a boat that was mentioned in our travel guide. Gardner Hotel in town that we'd booked a week or so before wasn't too far away and has also turned out to be better than expected. None of the accommodation in the Galapagos is cheap and the fact that Ecuador has adopted the US dollar as its official currency means it is especially disadvantageous for us at the moment - thanks Gordon!! After the previous couple of days' exertions and traumas we were in need of some rest but as always managed to enjoy a wander round the town, a meal and a few beers. We already noticed some of the unusual wildlife and are looking forward to seeing more, much more.
With a couple of days to spend around town before our cruise on Thursday, we decided to take it easy but visit the renowned Charles Darwin Foundation on the edge of town. This is where a lot of research is carried out and has successful breeding programmes for endangered species of wildlife, mainly the different types of giant tortoises. It is free and you can wander around and through the tortoise corrals and see them right up close. We'd arrived just around lunchtime so decided to spend a couple on the beach within the reserve. While relaxing and swimming we saw lots of birds and marine iguanas. It is amazing to see such big lizards swimming and wandering so close humans that you watch out where you your feet sometimes. Afterwards we headed for the tortoise compounds and were further amazed to see how big they are - we hadn't expected them to quite as big! Unfortunately we didn't get to see the world famous Lonesome George, the last Pinto Giant Tortoise known to exist.
Wandering back into town we popped in to have a look at the Red Mangrove hotel and restaurant, which we'd checked out as a possible place to stay but was much too expensive. When we saw the menu and the view we booked a table for that night. Just as we were turning to leave the waitress drew our attention to a 'visitor' - a Galapagos sea lion which had made it's way out of the sea and was stretched its whole length along one of the hotel's benches at the side of the restaurant (see Galapagos photo album). When we went back that night for a splendid Japanese repast the sea lion was still there, more than four hours later.
The second day we went in the opposite direction this time taking a water taxi the short hop over to Punta Estradas, the start of a short walk to the gorge at Las Gietas. However, such is the pace of life that we decided to lay out our towels on the wonderfully clean beach at Finch Bay. Although not overly sunny, we soaked up the heat, spent loads of time in the water and enjoyed watching many species of birds and marine iguanas, including Brown Pelican, Frigate Birds, Pintail Duck and various Darwin Finches and Waders. Earlier, on the taxi ride over we'd seen our first Blue Footed Boobies nesting on the rocky inlet, and from our spot on the beach we saw them diving to catch their lunch. This has really whetted our appetite for our cruise tomorrow. Having started the walk to Las Gietas we thought we'd better go the whole road so continued along the rough, rocky lava track until we reached the pool in the gorge. However, it was too rough and difficult to get in for a dip so we returned to the beach for half an hour to cool down.
Today was the first day of our Galapagos cruise and we had to be down at the town pier for noon. There were lots of other people waiting around in groups who were boarding ferries and getting whisked away in zodiacs. Then, to our relief, a cry of 'Guantanamera' (yes, that was the name of our boat) rang out and four people marched forward - us and Tony and Cassie from New Mexico. We were taken on board and given our cabins, then lunch. The boat held 16 and we'd been told that it was full, so where was everyone else? Eventually people arrived in dribs and drabs - three Irish lads (Cathal, Aodh and Jim), who'd been on a morning snorkelling trip, three Russians (Serge, Polina and Yana) who'd just flown in, a couple from Denmark (Morten and Cecilia) and lastly Daniel from Italy - the 'Italian Stallion' and the only one who couldn't speak English. After everyone had settled in and had lunch we were taken back on shore to visit the highlands of Santa Cruz, specifically the massive lava tunnels and an area of land popular with the famous Galapagos giant tortoise. It was great to see so many so close up, and interesting to hear details of their habits and behaviour from Camilo our guide. We were back on board for dinner and time to get to know our companions for the next few days. Before turning in for the night we spent a while on deck soaking up the peace and quiet of the balmy evening and the lights of the other cruise boats as we waited to set sail at midnight.
Overnight, we sailed from Santa Cruz to the small unpopulated island of Rabida. Woke at 6.30am to find ourselves anchored off a huge red cliff. Our first landing was on the nearby very red sandy/gritty beach where we walked amongst a colony of sea lions with very young pups. They were totally unfazed by our presence, although the resident male who was patrolling the shore fired a few warning barks across our bow. One young pup, only about a week old, was looking pretty lonely waiting for his mother who was out fishing to come, was keen to make friends with anyone who passed by. We were also fascinated to see at close quarters loads of marine iguanas and blue footed boobies on the rocks. The walk was followed by the opportunity to snorkel to take in some of the marine life. Hugging the rocks of the promontory the water was teeming with fish of all types and sizes: black angel fish, starfish and large shoals of different types of small fish flashing silver as they dashed through the water. The biggest thrill though was the two white tipped reef sharks circling below us.
Back on board for lunch and time to relax as we made our way to our afternoon stop at the small island of Bartolome, also uninhabited. As we cruised through the islands we were joined by a flock of Frigate birds, some of which hitched a ride on board, saw lots of turtles, were sure we saw the fins of a couple of sharks passing by, and witnessed the wonderful sight of a manta ray several times throwing itself into the air and turning double somersaults before crashing back into the sea - absolutely amazing. Our anchorage at Bartolome was at a beautiful golden beach beside the distinctive Pinnacle Rock. Here we had another chance to snorkel and enjoy more marine life, including this time a couple of stingrays and a manta ray. Before heading back to the Guantanamera we took a short walk to another beach where we so lucky to see a pair of turtles mating in the waves on the beach. Back on board we had time only to dry off before we were back in the dinghy and heading ashore again. Bartolome was our only opportunity on this trip to see the Galapagos penguin, the only penguin that lives in tropical waters and is found in the northern hemisphere. Carmilo had warned us that a sighting could not be guaranteed - unlike Antarctic penguins they are solitary so there are no big rookeries to be found. So we were delighted to see a couple of them swimming and two more sitting on the rocks. Our walk on shore took us through the lava fields and up to the highest point on the island. From there we had superbly stunning views across the two beaches we had walked on earlier and Pinnacle Rock, and the volcanic landscape of the nearby island of Santiago and other smaller islands on the horizon.
That evening it was a magical experience sitting on deck as we set sail under a full moon on the calm and peaceful waters of the Pacific. Overnight as we slept the Guantanamera took us to our next island, Genovesa, which is one of the most northerly islands of the Galapagos about a 10 hour sail from Bartolome, and is actually a caldera, which is the sea filled crater of a volcano.
Genovesa is known for its birdlife and we were not disappointed - this is what we'd really come to the Galapagos for. Here we relished walking through the nesting areas of all three species of Boobies (Blue Footed, Red Footed and Nazca). Everyone hears stories of how the birds and animals of the Galapagos are totally unafraid of man - and it really is true. We passed by so closely that sometimes we almost stepped on the birds which were so laid back they didn't flinch or move, even when we were right next to their chicks. The adult birds were obviously used to humans but the juveniles were often as curious about us as we were about them and came right up to 'have a chat'. Genovesa is also home to a large colony of Storm Petrels and the sky was full of them wheeling and diving off the edge of the cliff. E had the great fortune to spot a Tropic Bird (a beautiful white bird with a long elegant 'tail') in amongst them. Frigate Birds were also much in evidence. This is a big bully of a bird and we watched as they chased and harassed the Boobies to steal their food from them in mid-air.
It was a very hot day so we were happy to take to the water for a deep water snorkel along the edge of the sheer sides of the caldera as they plummeted hundreds of metres down into the murky depths. Again we saw a good variety of fish but were really thrilled when three sea lions dived in to play with us and show off their swimming skills as they swam around us.
After lunch and a siesta we were dropped off on the beach at Darwin Bay, which was crowded with sea lions and their pups. As it was so hot Carmilo decided we should snorkel first and leave our walk until later when it would be cooler. Snorkelling off the beach meant that there was lots of sand around in the water and visibility wasn't too great so we didn't see as much this time. However, while swimming on her own M got the fright of her life when she came across a really big shark in the murky shallow water, so high tailed out of it pretty damn quick. Our walk along the cliff took us past lots more Red Footed Boobies (the only ones to nest in trees), herons, petrels, land birds and lots more and gave us a splendid view of the caldera. The water was so clear as we looked down on four Spotted Manta Rays as they glided so effortlessly and elegantly in the water below us.
Sadly this was to be our last night on board, but the enjoyment wasn't over yet. To mark the occasion we had drinks with the crew and Cook had baked us a lovely cake to celebrate our trip. We'd had a really good crowd and had enjoyed hearing their experiences both from a traveller's perspective and from the point of view of their nationalities - it seems that the recession is very widespread and is affecting everyone.
All too soon we were sailing southwards, again overnight, and in the morning we awoke to find ourselves at the small island of North Seymour which is a nesting site for the Frigate Bird. This is a very common bird and we'd seen lots of them on the wing in Colan as well as in the Galapagos. But on North Seymour we were able to see the males trying to attract the females by puffing our the huge red 'balloons' that hang just under their necks - very impressive. Interestingly we also saw a Blue Footed Boobie which actually had green feet, an occasional genetic modification we were told. As we turned to head back to the boat we were really fortunate to see our only land iguana in the wild.
By 9am we'd said our goodbyes leaving Tony, Cassie, Morten and Cecilia to continue their cruise for another few days and Yana, Polina, Serge and Daniel to catch their flights. Later that night in Puerto Ayora we met up with Cathal, Aodh and Jim for a bite to eat in the street food area. Next morning we too were on our way to Quito, our last port of call in South America.
Eric & Margaret xxx