In April and May of 1995, I finally took my dream trip to the Galapagos. I took hundreds of photos, someof which you'll find in my photo album. I kept a diary but it got pretty sketchy in mid trip when I was worn out from twice daily island visits and twice daily snorkeling trips. The text here is taken from a series of e-mail messages I sent to friends. I hope to get around to editing and enhancing it eventually.
Are you supposed to tip the guy who shrinkwraps your luggage? I didn't.
With 5 hours to spend in the Miami airport I had plenty of time to observe what US items people take back to South America. The most popular items seem to be stereo equipment, Graco baby strollers & playpens & car seats, computer monitors & printers, televisions, and fax machines. Someone could make a fortune importing Graco baby strollers to South America! Every family had at least one.
The most popular sports team logo among South American boys returning from Miam was Anaheim Mighty Ducks, closely followed by Charlotte Hornets. Another odd phenomenon was the vast quantity of pink dinosaurs - T. Rex and mastodons mostly. Not any known famous dinosaur like Barney or Figment, just shocking pink in various sizes.. No one shrinkwrapped their dinosaurs but everyone shrinkwrapped the baby strollers.
Met some of the folks in our group. Lucie and Guy from Montreal; Jean from St. Louis, Dena from Maryland...
On the flight to Quito we were surrounded by members of a travel club from the Detroit area, the Nomads. They have their own plane but were forced to fly SAETA with us because the Ecuadoran government wouldn't let their plane land in Quito or the Galapagos. The Nomads were on a whirlwind tour - 5 days in Quito and 6 days in the Galapagos. Half of them were scheduled to do the Galapagos first/Quito last; they switched in the middle. They traveled on a luxury cruise ship, the M/V Corinthian. There were way more of them than of us.
We learned our first important Spanish phrase: "sin hielo" - without ice.
After a good night's sleep at Hotel Alameda Real and our last hot showers for sometime to come, we were off to the Quito airport once again for our flight to San Cristobal Airport in the Galapagos Islands. The airport was crowded and anything but orderly. Seating was a free-for-all. The Nomads got all the good seats.
The flight stopped in Guayaquil. Men in blue jumpsuits came on board carrying life rafts. The flight attendants handed out life vests (or in some misprinted cases, live vests) which we held in our laps until we landed on San Cristobal. The Nomads applauded on takeoff and landing.
The first sight of the waves breaking on the shore of San Cristobal made the seemingly interminable trip worth it.
We were ferried out to the San Jacinto in one of the pangas (the other panga wasn't ready so the pangero had to make two trips) After lunch and a preliminary briefing, Ernesto, our guide,. announced that since the San Jacinto was not ready to sail yet we would make a "civilized landing" back at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and take a bus up to Los Lobos to see the sea lion rookery.
We counted about 140 sea lions on the beach, not counting the ones surfing on the waves off shore. Pups were nursing at their mothers' teats, huge bulls were sleeping on the beach, all ages rolling in the sand and barking. Our first sight of Galapagos sea lions was an extravaganza for all the senses.
Back on board the San Jacinto we had our welcome cocktails (sin alcohol for me) and were formally introduced to the crew: Julio the captain, Angel the first mate, William the steward, Cesar the cook, and Kevin and Milton the pangeros and jacks of all trades.
Day 2 began our routine of Ernesto's wake up call at 5:30 or 6:00 AM depending on whether we were landing before or after breakfast. Ernesto called it "bottling the doors" because he had to bang on the cabin doors with a beer bottle to be heard above the engines.
Breakfast always included fresh fruit AND fresh juice as well as toast and a main course of eggs or cheese or french toast or pancakes or cereal. The morning routine included a fruit lesson if warranted. Someone, usually Kristin or Lucie since they had the best Spanish, would ask the name of an unfamiliar fruit or juice. William would tell us the name then knock on the pass thru to the kitchen yelling "Cesar! Cesar". Cesar would hand him one of whatever the fruit was in its whole, unpeeled, unjuiced form and William would dissect it and pass it around the table for us to examine. Thus we learned about naranhia and tree tomatoe, etc. As the days went on, breakfast grew to include a ritual argument between Jim(right) and Harry (left) on some political topic, and often an argument between Jim and whoever else he could get to take the bait. This custom extended to all meals.
After breakfast we would land at the day 's first landing site and walk/hike in search of "stuff" as Ernesto called it. Sea lions greeted us at almost every landing. We were always the first group on any island. In some cases we were there two hours before groups from any of the other boats landed. After 2 to 3 hours depending on the photographic opportunities, we would head back to the boat via our trusty pangas and change into our snorkeling gear for the first snorkeling trip of the day.
After an hour or so of snorkeling, back to the boat for lunch and siesta then the afternoon expedition or panaga ride and another snorkeling opportunity.
The evening briefing in which Ernesto would tell us where we would be tomorrow, whether it would be a wet, dry, or civilized landing, what kinds of "stuff" we would be looking for/likely to see, whether or not bug juice was recommended, Tevas or hiking boots, and what time he would bottle the doors. Laura (our tour leader) would recommend lenses and film speeds for photography and then give her nightly natural history lecture. I particularly like the one on the sex lives of fish. By 9:00PM almost everyone was in bed.
That was to be our routine most of the trip.
Wet landing at Gardner Bay. We were greeted by sea lions. Saw our first marine iguanas, wonderful prehistoric looking spiny creatures with mottled black/green/red coloring. The endemic Hood mockingbird tried to untie our shoes, open the camera bags, and follow us around. The sight f our first bright red Sally Lightfoot crabs against the black lava was stunning. I stood transfixed, too taken with it to take a picture ( I got many Sally Lightfoot pictures later). Jim complains about not having enough time to take pictures (he is a professional photographer using medium format equipment - big and clumsy and heavy).
Our first snorkeling session is around Tortuga Rock. This is the first time I have snorkeled in my life. Guy records this event with his underwater camera. Highlights were two white tipped reef sharks, a sting ray, huge starfish with red spots. Back at the boat, Jim informs us the reason he didn't go snorkeling with us is that he does not want to see anything he can't photograph. He is not interested in anything that is not a saleable image.
After lunch, wet landing at Punta Suarez. Greeted by Hood mockingbirds deeply interested in camera bags and Tevas. We hiked up to the largest blue-footed boobery in the islands. The boobies were mating furiously.
The blue-footed boobies ' mating dance is really something. Justifiably famous. The male points his beak directly upward and spreads his wings upward in a gesture called skypointing. He skypoints 3 times. The female responds either by skypointing or beaking if interested. Ignores him otherwise. They do a dramatic circling slow dance in which the male shows off his big blue feet to best advantage. They bow to each other and the male presents ritual gifts of nesting materials. If all this impresses the female, the actual mating act itself takes place and is over in the blink of an eye. All that for a half a second...
We also saw a marine iguana nesting area and observed females fighting over nesting areas. They headbutt each other but don't get any more violent than that. There were so many marine iguanas on the trail that we had to watch where we stepped. The marine iguanas remove the salt from their systems by explosive sneezes. It looks like little geysers coming out of their snouts. Comical but efficient.
A bull sea lion charged Ernesto. A tiny male lava lizard made little lava lizard threat displays (which look a lot like pushups) at Ernesto.
Jim got mad because he was about to take a backlighted portrait of a masked booby and chick when Laura told him it was time to go. Instead of clicking the shutter and then going, he packed up and harangued Laura for the rest of the trip.
Wet landing. Green olivine beach at Punta Cormoran. The usual sea lions. 11 Flamingos in the lagoon. 3 Franklin's gulls, one black-necked stilt and a bunch of sandpipers.
White sand "flour" beach alive with ghost crabs, hermit crabs, and a few Sally Lightfoots. The ghost crabs zip back into their burrowws as soon as they feel the vibration from us walking. Later groups never see the ghost crabs. Waded in the water doing the stingray shuffle. Saw several rays.
Snorkeling at Devil's Crown. Highlights: 2 green sea turtles, schools of yellowtail surgeonfish, blue starfish, white coral, orange cup coral.
Afternoon snorkeling at Champion Island with sea lions. Hordes of them. They played with us. One jumped over my back exactly the way they do with each other. A young male tried to get Roy to play catch with a sea cucumber.
Wet landing at the famous post office barrel.
Panga ride just before sunset at La Loberia. Surrounded by green sea turtles. too many to count.
You should've seen the diagram Ernesto drew for this one at last night's briefing! Two headed horses, giant jaboncillo trees, erupting volcanoes. The briefing was almost as good as the trip.
Civilized landing at Puerta Villamil. Bus to the highlands @ Santo Tomas (alleged to be a town - really a house with a stable). We rented horses to ride to the rim of the Sierra Negra volcano. As I had never been on a horse before, Ernesto picked out the supposedly gentlest most manageable horse. A horse named Morro.
Morro carried me up to the caldera without incident except for trying to bite Kristin's horse a few times. The caldera is spectacular! A vast expanse of flat eerie landscape. We tied up the horses at the two giant jaboncillo trees and hiked into Volcan Chico, a parasitic cone of the Sierra Negra volcano. On the way down into the crater we met 3 Ecuadoran boys on their way up. They were excited and overwhelmed by the beauty. They told us it was their first visit to the volcano and they loved it.
We hiked on broken aa lava (aa is crumbly rough lava as opposed to pahoehoe, the ropy smooth flows). Hiking on aa is to put it mildly, not easy. I fell and cut my hand, embedding a small piece of aa in the cut. Many jokes about not removing anything from the national park ensued. Got seriously bruised knees in that fall too but managed to save my camera from damage.
Picture this landscape: nothing but black lava punctuated by huge candleabra cactuses (sort of like saguaro cactus but eerier). The lava took on shapes out of fantasy and science fiction. Like the moon only weirder. I found a Galapagos centipede and a painted locust - just about the only fauna in the crater. Ernesto said I had an eye for the bugs.
Across the crater and up the other side of the rim we looked into the fumeroles - cracks venting sulphurous steam (did I mention this is an active volcano?). We could feel the heat from the center of the earth and smell the sulphur. No wonder the early explorers equated this with hell!
The view from the top of the rim was spectacular. It alone was worth the whole climb. The other islands shimmered like mirages.
Back down and back up and back down to the jaboncillo trees. I told Larua I now had an idea how the female land iguanas on Fernandina feel when they climb up and down into the caldera to lay their eggs and then back up and down again.
After lunch under the trees, Morro refused to get started again. All he wanted to do was eat. Every few yards he stopped to munch grass. Once in awhile he would gallop at a pace that terrified me - usually if he heard the caballero behind us with the pack horse or if he spotted Kristin's horse (his arch enemy). For most of the trip we stayed with the pack although in the back. Suddenly all the horses except Morro took off. Even the caballero and the pack horse passed us. I was alone on the rim with Morro! We continued to make slow progress until we reached a ranch with a few cattle. Morro decided to take off and herd the cattle. We engaged in a long contest of wills. A vacquero working on the barbed wire fence watched intently but did not intervene. Finally by some miracle I got Morro back onto the trail. Everyone was back at the stable. They noticed me and Morro missing. Laura came back looking for us and rode the rest of the way back with me. I insisted I would not dismount until someone took a picture of me on Morro.
On the way back to Puerta Villamil we stopped at a tortoise raising center run by the Darwin Foundation. Two giant tortoises were in the act of mating. The male makes a low moaning sound. Impressive.
Elizabeth Bay - tons of sea turtles, penguins, chocolate chip starfish, flightless cormorants.
Urvina Bay - flightless cormorant nesting area, pelican nesting area. Tagus Cove - penguins, marine iguanas, brown noddy terns. Snorkeling @ Tagus Cove - barnacle blenny, spotted porcupine fish, nudibranch.
Punta Espinosa - HORDES of marine iguanas - bigger than the ones on the other islands. Hordes! A pair of flightless cormorants. One Galapagos hawk.
Crossed the equator this afternoon en route to Santiago. Saw bottlenosed dolphins, the guardians of the equator.
Puerto Egas - tons of sea lions, lava heron, sea hares, nodilittorina, yellow tail mullets. The best tidepooling of the trip. Ernesto picked up a yellow scorpion. Kristin wanted a closer look and invented scorpion juggling.
Rabida Island - red sand beach, yet more sea lions, pelican nesting area, sand crab holes, bachelor sea lion colony. Great snorkeling right off the beach.
Puerto Ayora - visited the Charles Darwin Scientific Station where they are raising giant tortoises and land iguanas to restore them to the wild. Our first sight of "giant galapagos tortoises" was of the nursery with 1-year old galapaguitos. The yearlings are about the size of box turtles. Ernesto had great fun announcing "Ladies and Gentlemen, the giant tortoises!" The adults were in fact giant and very approachable.
Lunch with Laura Chellis of the Darwin center - coordinator of the visiting scientist program - and Jacqueline de Roy one of the early settlers (and mother of Tui de Roy the photographer whose work motivated me to finally get myself to the Galapagos).
Bus to the highlands to two giant pit craters, Los Gemelos, where we encountered our old friends the Nomads and learned that they call us "the camera people". Dinner at Narwhal, a by appointment only restaurant in the highlands (by now you have discerned that Santa Cruz is one of the 3 inhabited islands).
"Otra Lado - The Other Side" - visited Jacqueline's house - added to our count of finch species. Jacqueline's patio is a finch fiesta!
Land iguanas at last! 8 of them! Sea lions of course. Swallow tail gulls, red billed tropicbirds, Audobon shearwaters.
Darwin Bay - great frigate birds, swallowtail gulls, lava gulls, red footed boobies, fiddler crabs, masked boobies...
Prince Phillip's Steps - fur seals, king angels, vampire finch, wedge rumped storm petrels, short eared owls...
That afternoon on the way to Bartolome we spotted a school of what we thought were dolphins until we observed they didn't come near the boat and didn't act like dolphins. There were about 70 of them and they leaped about and then in formation sped ahead of us frothing the water. We determined after much debate and repeated observation that they were either pygmy killer whales or melon-headed whales. Ernesto leaned toward melon-headed. They are rarely seen. A spectacular sight!
That night a group of dolphins joined us and rode the bow wake for awhile. In the dark, outlined in bioluminesence, they looked like a laser show.
Climbed "Heartbreaker". Good views of Pinnacle Rock. Wild surreal lavascapes. Roy invented photographer bowling.
Snorkeling at Pinnacle Rock we encountered a very aggressive sea lion. He at first seemed to want to mate with Kristin then just seemed to want us out of there. We and the sea lion discovered a starry moray eel. The sea lion started playing with it the way a cat plays with a mouse. Harry surfaced and said"I hope it doesn't act like a cat and bring it to me!" The sea lion developed the notion that we were after its eel and alternated between harrassing the eel and harrassing us.
Sullivan Bay - huge ropy flows of pahoehoe lava, totally surreal. One lava cactus and a few tiny mollugo plants were beginning to colonized the lava flow.
Snorkeling again we saw more penguins and some lobsters.
Sea lions, marine iguanas, Sally Lightfoots, penguins, sharks.
Volcan Ecuador - flamingos, partial solar eclipse.
Las Baches - great blue heron, sea turtle nests.
Caleta Tortuga Negra - golden rays, spotted eagle rays, sea turtles, black tip sharks.
More blue footed boobies. Saw a booby chick hatching!
Great frigate birds, magnificent frigate birds, marine iguanas, aggressive sea lions.
Santa Fe land iguanas, giant opuntia cactus, Galapagos hawk. We were privileged to see 8 land iguanas. A huge number for that island - they are very shy.
On our last day at sea, Ernesto woke us at 5:30AM so we could watch the sun rise over Kicker Rock. I was already up. There was heavy overcast and garua (a cold mist they get in the Galapagos) and we did not see the sun rise. However, Kicker Rock is impressive even on a gray day. Jim insisited on making multiple passes around the rock to photograph it. Julio, our captain, obliged.
After our last breakfast/fruit lesson/Jim-Harry argument, we went ashore for last minute shopping and postcard mailing in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno - the San Jacinto's home port and Ernesto's home. The postcard mailing mission was a failure because everyine failed to realize it was May 1, May Day, Labor Day in most of the world includining Ecuador. No matter. I gave Ernesto 5000 sucres and the postcards and he promised to mail them - and read them.
Back to the San Jacinto again to fetch anything we may have left behind. Good thing, as I had left some underwear and my Someday Cafe T-shirt on the clothesline. William asked again if he could buy my shoes (my Teva Sandal Hikers ) and I said no again. Feeling guilty but determined.
Back to shore. Bus to the San Cristobal airport. SAN flight to Guayaquil and on to Quito.
We arrived in Quito to a torrential rain. I mean like wicked serious rain. The ground crew greeted us at the plane with umbrellas but we still got wet. Our luggage was soaked through. Everything was wet.
The drive to the hotel through whitewater was slow and entertaining. Gushers issued from every sewer and storm drain. You couldn't even tell where the streets were in some places. Our Ecuadoran guide, Tania, said they had had a flood like this 10 days ago and had prayed not to get another one but this one was worse. So on thru the flood our bus plods.
Finally at the hotel, the doormen greet us with umbrellas, which is nice but does nothing about the ankle deep stream we have to cross. Many jokes about a wet landing at the hotel.
Our farewell dinner at La Ronda (where the doormen greeted us with umbrellas) was fabulous. We had a multicourse meal of typical Ecuadoran specialities - potato soup, avocados, empanadas, umita... Two bands serenaded us: one quartet singing old Spanish folk songs/ballads, and a group playing traditional Andean music with drum, flute and guitars.
During the night we had an earthquake that lasted a minute and a half. I woke up but thought it was just the boat engine starting. It wasn't til the next morning I realized I wasn't on the boat!
So, after flood and earthquake, we headed out for a day of "experiencing the culture of the Andean highlands". This turns out to mean shopping. We did have a fruit lesson, chirimoya, and a cheese lesson. We saw traditional artisans making bread dough figures, weaving, leatherworking. Picked up some Otavalo Indian hitchhikers who sang for us in Quechua. Had lunch at Hostel Chorlavi. The Minister of the Army was dining there too so the place was crawling with armed troops. I ate a salad.
Back in Quito, Genie, Lucie, and I went to Libri Mundi, a fabulous bookstore.
In the morning we left for Miami and home.
Since I've been back I've lost my voice, suffered severe turista, experienced vertigo, sorted my photos, readjusted to civilization and sorted thru 3 weeks of mail.