Gallivanting in the Galapagos

Our Galapagos Islands Adventure –

Giant Tortoises Santa Cruz GalapagosOn bended knee we pose behind one of Mother Nature’s wonders, both in humble recognition of a species that can double our lifespan (some roaming the earth for 200 years) and to give perspective to its mighty size. The surprisingly loud breathing of this giant tortoise and the resounding snap as he rips off mouthfuls of grass are the only sounds that break the silence. We are in the Tortoise Reserve out of Santa Rosa on the central Galapagos island of Santa Cruz.

Our Galapagos Islands Photo Gallery

We are “wowed” seeing about twenty of these giants wandering in their natural habitant;Giant Tortoises Santa Cruz Galapagos grasslands dotted with a variety of bushes and trees. Gustava our guide says, “Sixteen species of giant tortoises have been documented in the Galapagos, of which four are extinct.” He fills us in on many more tortoise facts, such as how to tell the difference between males and females by the shape of their shells. “How old it this sizable fellow”? I ask. “About seventy”, says Gustava, which prompts me to be in a photo with my near- same-age-buddy. Some subspecies of the Galapagos Tortoise can grow to 1.5m (5ft) and weigh in at 250kg (550lbs).

On many ranches around the reserve these gentle creatures co-exist in harmony with cattle, grazing without so much as a worry about whose patch of grass is whose. The ranch owners also allow access to their pastures for tortoise viewing for a small fee.

The Galapagos archipelago is composed of 13 major islands and many smaller ones with some of the greatest biodiversity in the world – nature’s glory and mystery intermingled. Charles Darwin coming here in 1835, leading to his evolution theory, is the first thing that comes to most minds when thinking of the Galapagos, and Darwin will forever remain the island’s most famous visitor. The archipelago was uninhabited when discovered by the Spanish in 1535. They found the wildlife fearless; a trait that curiously remains today.

Lava Tubes Santa Cruz GalapagosI find it difficult to tear myself away from these awesome tortoises, but do so with Gustava’s promise of good things yet to come. It is onto the lava tubes! Gustava explains, “The tubes were formed by the solidifying of the outside skin of a molten lava flow. When the lava flow ceased, the molten lava inside kept going, leaving the solidified outer layer, hence these tubes or tunnels.”

We are to go through this 400m long tube on our own, while Gustava drives to the exit to wait for us. “There is a section that is so narrow you must crawl through,” our guide warns, “do you still want to go?” We assure him our grey hair and wrinkles will not deter us.

Down a series of steps we go. My breath catches at yet another of nature’s phenomenal masterpieces. The cavernous tube is dimly lit with sporadic electric lights strung along the sides; the air smells damp and is considerably cooler. We move along the smooth bottom of soggy black earth, the sides are ever-changing with subtle hues of pale grey, charcoals, wan yellows and salmon pinks, some glistening with moisture.

“Oh, oh, look up ahead,” Rick’s voice echoes. Jagged chunks of lava rock in an Lava Tubes Santa Cruz Galapagosundulating pattern need careful foot placement. Then we see the “narrow” passage that Gustava warned us about. I send Rick through first, figuring if Rick doesn’t get stuck, then I’m okay. At tortoise speed he makes it, at one point he is flat on his stomach inching along. My turn to crawl then slither until I’m through. More rough rock to maneuver over before the floor smooths again and the tube expands in circumference with sunlight beaming near our exit steps. We find Gustava peering downward and breaking into a grin, relieved a rescue mission won’t be necessary.

Our last excursion stop for today is the Los Gemelos Craters, which are really sinkholes created by the collapse of lava caves. We walk through the lush terrain, and stand before the gaping indents in the earth. Down the cliffs the bottoms are filled with lush vegetation, and above us are endemic Scalesia forests, that to me look like gargantuan broccoli plants. “A day to remember!” I say as we wend our way back to our cozy Galapagos Dreams Hotel in Puerto Ayora, the largest town on Santa Cruz and all of the Galapagos with 12,000 citizens.

Tortuga Bay Santa Cruz GalapagosThe next morning we are on our own, and take the 30 minute walk out of town to the small registrar station (entry is free) to Tortuga Bahia (Turtle Bay). From here we start down the path of interlocking bricks with low sides of volcanic rock. Many types of cacti, some so grand their stocks and height are tree-like, dry tangles of mangrove branches and roots, and various bright green bushes all look eerie in the shadowy light under a cloudy sky. Lava Lizards dart across our path, finches flit about, sometimes perching on the ledge more concerned with their own agenda than our passing.

Magically the sun comes out as we approach the white sand beach in vivid contrast to theMarine Iguana aqua waters that further out morph into rich turquoise and sea-green. Waves roll into shore and splash against areas of black volcanic rock. Marine Iguanas are everywhere! Their predominant black is a camouflage as they sun themselves on the rocks. Some swirl in the ebb and flow of the waves, others lie on the wet sand and still others leave a snaking trail with their tails as they move on the soft white sand near bright green salt-bushes. There are so many we walk gingerly so as not to accidentally step on one; they are not about to be inconvenienced by having to move.

The name Turtle Bay stems from the upper beach where the Green Pacific Turtles, the only turtles that lay their eggs in the Galapagos, hollow out their nests. This area is rightly off limits to people, so as not to disrupt their important mission.

Lagoon at Tortuga BayJust before this upper beach we turn right to a pristine slice of paradise – seriously… not a structure in sight, not even a vendor shack. The water is so calm the only ripples are the people splashing and further out iguanas swimming. The fine white sand has a smattering of locals and visitors perched on blankets, some sheltered under mangroves partaking in their picnic lunches. Shucks! Why didn’t we think to bring along some snacks.

Later that day we pay a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Center in Puerto Ayora,Land Iguana Santa Cruz Galapagos which for over 50 years has looked for scientific solutions to conserve the islands. Here we get to see land iguanas, which are a golden or rusty brown colour and their favourite food is the fruit of the prickly pear cactus (as opposed to their sea cousins who dine on algae). The station is a breeding centre for tortoises. In June 2012 their star tortoise went to meet its maker – Lonesome George died at over 100-years-of-age. He was the last of the Pinta Island tortoises, (Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii) due to the devastation of vegetation by the introduction of goats. He was brought to the centre in 1912, and although attempts to mate him with similar species were successful, the resulting eggs were inviable.

One morning we rise before the birds begin to sing for our boat excursion to the largest of the Galapagos Islands, Isabela. We meet our group at the dock and follow Milton our guide to a good-sized vessel. Within two hours we land on the island’s southeast shores to mingle with the seals lounging under the shade trees and beaches, some are plunked in dry-docked boats while others are flopped along the wooden walkways where we dodge them on our way to the snack shops and lavatories.

Blue Footed Booby Isabela Island GalapagosThen it is off to cruise the shore’s rocky ledges in a smaller boat to meet Blue Footed Boobies, Sea Lions and the Galapagos penguins, the only penguins found north of the equator.

We disembark the boat for a short walk to fields of black jagged AA lava splotched with green moss and white lichen. Milton tells us this is how all the islands of the Galapagos were formed, this being the rudimentary type of lava that erupts from the ocean floor. “There are six volcanoes on Isabella, five of which are active, making the island an evolving landscape.” Here again, the marine iguanas raise their reptilian temperatures on the rocks between foraging for algae in the sea. It will take eons for this rock to become soil to support the other forms of flora and fauna.

Another stop awards us with pink flamingoes strutting about and a channel where white White tipped Reef Sharktipped reef sharks abound. Lastly we visit the island’s Giant Turtle Breeding Centre to see the mom’s and pops used in breeding, and tortoises in the egg, embryo, new-born, juvenile stages. For sure it is a worthy endeavor, but we wonder why the enclosures are so cramped and dry-dusty earth based with little greenery. Milton points out a poison apple tree. He pulls back the peel on this marble sized fruit, saying, “It looks and smells like an apple, but tasting it would be the last time for you, as the tortoises are the only species that can digest this fruit.”

On our boat trip back to Santa Cruz the waves are higher making it a choppy ride indeed. A rogue wave or two had us wondering if we might capsize, but luckily not. It was another day to practice the Galapagos creed: wander, wonder and learn.

Puerto Ayora Santa Cruz GalapagosWe had a few more days in Puerto Ayora, where there is never a dull moment. The variety of restaurants and shops is great, a fish market along the shore is a good place to see gulls, pelicans, and seals honing in on the boats unloading their catch. Behind a slab table on the peer knives flash as expert hands move with lightening speed, gutting, filleting and all things to ready the sea harvest for kitchens. Bins of fresh lobster are front stage. A mere few feet away caldrons of rice, bubbling veggies and vats of fish are cooking ready for an evening feast. Plastic tables and chairs set up and are filled, and refilled until nary a morsel is left – meal choices ranging from $5 and $9 dollars.

It is always good to come home to our fine Galapagos Islands Hotel for a good nightsPuerto Ayora Santa Cruz Galapapgos sleep, and to look forward to a deluxe breakfast to start out the next day in good form. Heading the tour arranging for this facility is Jonatan Garcia of Galapagos Dreams, who made our dreams come true arranging our day trips with finesse, and many suggestions on what we planned to see on our own.

The cost of going to the Galapagos need not be a factor. We stayed four nights and were able to tick off every species we wanted to see, and more – and all for $2,000 dollars, including airfare from Quito to Baltra, tours, accommodations and food for us both!
{The same duration cruises (which may be your choice) cost between $1,500 to $3,000 dollars per person, plus the additional cost for airfare to get to where the cruise ships await on the islands, to either Baltra or San Cristóbal – which in total would come to between $4,000 and $7,000 for two people.}

Galapagos Dreams – Jonatan Garcia
Tours, Rooms, Island Hopping
Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz

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