Good morning crew, everyone had their coffee? I am in fact having mine at this very moment. It’s Friday morning and we’re back aboard Walk On – home sweet home – after three days and two nights off the boat and touring a bit of the Islas Encantadas…. We’ve had some very memorable days. It’s time to try and write a bit about it! I’ll try to be brief, though the place deserves more than a brief review. Besides, being brief isn’t my specialty. I know my mother-in-law will try to read all of it, and my mother will read it all too. Sorry to Fabio and Patricia. 😦 If you keep at it, you might convince Lara to write some more in Portuguese. 🙂 Besides, after this, the next 20 days or so will be marked only by short posts during the passage to the Marquesas, with position reports and the like. I know you prefer pictures, but we no longer have the bandwidth to publish them, and I like to write sometimes.
Tuesday morning we were up early and on deck, waiting for the ferry to pick us up right here on the boat. The inter-island ferries are really not big slow steel jobbies that you might think of: they are smallish fiberglass powerboats – typically around 30 to 35 feet I believe – with a collection of large outboard motors on the stern. With two and sometimes three of them clustered together, you’re likely to get on a boat with 400 to 600 HP to push you along. It’s a good thing too, because the typical distances are around 50 nautical miles and the seas can be fairly large at times – so racing and pounding along at 25 knots, you’ve still got a good two hour ride. We kind of enjoyed our first trip, as we’re definitely not used to traveling on the water at 25 knots! I closed my eyes and remembered driving the boat out of Yes Bay, turning to port, and making the run up to the Bell Island drift in SE Alaska. 🙂
Our first ferry took us from San Cristobal to Santa Cruz Island, which is kind of the geographic center of the Galapagos. The town of Santa Cruz is quite a bit larger than San Cristobal, and caters to tourism. There is quite a selection of hotels, hostels, bars and restaurants – as well as countless shops and stores – to cater to any tourist budget. If you’re a cruiser, you can also check in and anchor here rather than San Cristobal – but Lara and I agreed that the anchorage where we’d left Walk On was less crowded, less rolly, and more protected naturally from predominant wind and swells. We left our bag at the agency office and started our 5 hour walking sojourn – we’d have to be back on the docks at 2PM for the trip to Isabela Island. First was coffee and tea at a cool place called The Rock. Yummy. Best espresso I’ve had since I can recall. Then we walked to the Charles Darwin Research Center – a conglomeration of buildings, small offices, and facilities otherwise totally engaged in raising the famous Galapagos Tortoise, you know, the really big ones. Giants. They also dedicate part of their facilities to raising and researching land iguanas, as well as native and endemic plants.
Again we managed to get the ‘exhibit’ order wrong and so ended up first at the pen with the largest tortoises! This was supposed to be the end of the walk-through tour. The first one we saw was about 25 meters away, immobile, and Lara said out loud – ‘that can’t be real – it must be a statue to show you what they are like in case you don’t get to see one!’ I did a double-take and wondered for an instant if she was right. It was the kind of disbelief that you might express on your first visit to Jurassic Park, if you get my meaning. It was very funny the way she said it. We walked into the pen to take a look and our eyes started to adjust to the sight… there were big tortoises sort of all over the place, and the statue was real enough when it slowly craned its long neck to check us out! You can enter the pens and walk around, being careful of course not to bother the big fellas – no sitting on them and silly stuff like that. But you can get very very close and what a sight they are to behold and observe, truly.
We continued our tour backwards, in sort of Benjamin Button style. We came upon the pen that is home to Lonesome George. George is the last of his species, poor fella, though he currently shares his pen with two lady tortoises – the swinging old bachelor of the Research Center. If I remember correctly, George has been there since the early 70’s. There are tortoises on nearly all the islands and though related, they are in fact different species, as they evolved completely separate from one another, on different islands. Some have flatter topped shells, while others are more round and so while both huge, a Floreana tortoise might differ significantly from an Isabela tortoise, if you see what I mean. We didn’t have a guide on our tour, but I think that what they do is bring tortoises from the other islands and then breed and raise them at the research center. When they are of adequate size (say after 5 years or more), they are carefully transported back to their native island and set free. When we got to the ‘beginning’ of the tour at the end our walk through, we saw the pens with juveniles – the classes of 2008, 2009, and 2010. These were small pens loaded with very small tortoises, divided by year and then individually numbered with a color-coded paint on their shells to make them identifiable by island of origin. So a pink 37 on your back might mean you were going back to San Cristobal when you were big enough, while an orange 5 would be your ticket to Espanola, and so on. The little ones are really cute, though you find yourself hard pressed to believe they grow into the really big ones. Another curious fact we learned: the sex of a tortoise depends on the temperature at which they are incubated I don’t recall which is which, but you can probably Google-it! We also enjoyed the land iguana pens. These guys are similar to the black marine iguanas that we’d already seen – but they don’t have the same flattened tail, nor are they black – many in fact have interesting coloring ranging from gold to green and so on (I’m color blind, remember?).
Walking back to town and our ferry, we stopped at The Rock again and had very good ceviche and cold beer for lunch – it was their special of the day! We boarded the second ferry for the slightly longer ride to the southern end of Isabela Island and the small village of Vilamil, our destination. We’d arranged for a small hotel, sight unseen, called Coral Blanco, and was met at the docks by David, the owner. Walking up the docks, we saw three rays swimming around below – two spotted leopard rays and an eagle ray. It was going to be a fauna fest! After checking in, we walked up the road (sand, all sand, but with sidewalks) to the main square. We needed to fix our itinerary for Wednesday, our only full day on Isabela. A short while later, we had two tours set up and were looking for a restaurant. For the cruisers: volcano tour, 5 hrs, 35 bucks a head; snorkeling tour, about an hour, 20 bucks a head, 15 if you bring your own snorkel gear. After a shower and a brief rest, we hit the town again 🙂 and had dinner at El Faro, a restaurant owned by David’s wife.
Wednesday started early as well. First we had a full breakfast down the street at the “Aloha Betsy” cafand restaurant. Very good grub, a very nice lady and a surprise: she was a huge Pink Floyd fan, and U2 as well. We asked, because she had a poster on the wall of a group of 5 or 6 naked ladies, seated at the edge of a pool. The view is of the back of the ladies, and the back of each one is a projected image of a separate Pink Floyd album cover. A curious photo, pretty cool actually. I took a picture of the poster. But to look at Betsy you would never believe she was a Floyd fan. I’ve got to send JP the pic – he’ll love it. Can’t judge anything, or anyone, by their ‘cover’.
Then we met Fausto, our guide for the Sierra Negra volcano tour, and a short while later boarded the mini-bus that would take us and others up to the hiking trail. You really have to make the drive to believe it. Near sea level, the terrain is flat, rocky (lava!), and dry – dotted primarily by cactus. As you proceed up, the terrain and indeed the whole ecosystem change dramatically. Soon there are all manner of trees, plants, bushes, and then – in a specific and controlled area – even agriculture. The farmers here grow a diverse selection of crops, from pineapple and mangoes to corn and coffee. And there are beef and milk cows as well. The further up we went, the cloudier and mistier it got – a sign of things to come…
Just off the bus, we met the other member of our small group – Spencer. Spencer is an undergrad at UNC (Chapel Hill), but originally from Marin County, California. He’s got a great story to tell and so as we walked up the trail through the mist we chatted – there wasn’t much to see anyway! Spencer’s been in the Galapagos for something like 10 weeks, working as a research assistant to a pre-PhD student from UNC, doing preliminary field work on her thesis. He was in Isabela on some ‘off’ time, and only a few days before leaving the Galapagos, his participation in the project coming to an end for now. They’ve spent most of their time snorkeling and diving all over the place in the islands, visiting some places not otherwise open to mere tourists like ourselves. Very cool stuff indeed. Spencer is considering a career in Marine Biology, though he seems quite aware of the trade-off: another 7 years or more and probably a good amount of debt before he’d become Dr. Spencer, Marine Biologist.
So the four of us (Lara, Spencer, guide Fausto and I) walked up and up and up the muddy trail, through the ever-cooler mist. The only interesting things for the first hours were the lichens and ferns, which of course thrive in this damp climate. Then you reach the ‘pinnacle’ of sorts – the actual rim of the great crater. And in a short while, you’ve gone from sea level to just over 1,000 meters altitude (mostly by bus). Great. Isabela was formed by 5 separate large volcanoes and who knows how many smaller ones, though this is the only one of the five that can normally be visited. Fausto told us a little bit about the crater – a monster with a 10 kilometer diameter and second only in that regard to another monster in Africa, called Ngoragora (or something like that – I’ve heard of it, but can’t imagine how it’s spelled). Ok, so we had a monster crater right in front of us – surely a spectacle and worth every penny of our tour fee… NOT! It wasn’t Fausto’s fault, but the weather wasn’t cooperating either. Mist, rain, clouds. That’s pretty much what it was all about. We couldn’t actually see anything beyond about 30 meters away, much less a 10km crater! I was frustrated too, but tried to keep it to myself. Lara wasn’t quite as successful at masking her frustration, and started to voice her disappointment to Fausto and the weather gods.
Somehow, it worked! Several kilometers later, now on the east and then northeast rim of the crater, the heavens did open up just a bit. Below, through the parting clouds, we could indeed see the inside of the crater. There’s a picture of that in a post from a day or so ago – with Lara on the left, Fausto in the middle, Spencer on the right (in blue), and the black, lava bottom of the crater behind them. We continued on another half hour or so, headed for a smaller volcano called Chico. I think this is what they refer to as a parasite volcano. In any case, we were eventually rewarded with the best view of the day.
Below was the exotic lava flow landscape of the Chico volcano, and in the distance, looking north, was a decent portion of Isabela Island. This was the kind of view that I’d been hoping for – the sweeping landscape, sea and mountains, the quiet bays and countless natural curiosities and wonders hidden somewhere down below. The break in the weather, all told, didn’t last for more than about 20 minutes. That was enough, however, to appreciate the view of Chico, as well as Elizabeth Bay on the left (west) and Enseada Flores / Bahia Cartago on the right – this is the narrowest part of Isabela (approx. 12km across). In the distance, we could also see Isla Fernandina, just west of Isabela, and another of the volcanoes on the island, Alcedo. Alas, The Darwin and Wolf volcanoes were out of sight. Someday we’ll have to come back All told, it was slightly disappointing because of the weather – but at least we’d hike something like 16 kilometers, putting a little exercise back into the routine.
Back at the Coral Blanco, we swapped backpacks and headed for the pier to meet our snorkel boat. We met Miguel, our guide, and motored slowly out towards the snorkeling area. It would be a short trip, but the ‘richest’ so far, in terms of fauna. First we saw two Mantas, then a sea turtle. When we arrived at the lava rock shoals that make up the protected snorkeling area, we got up pretty close to a group of Galapagos penguins. Lara squealed. They were just hanging out, many lying on their bellies. These penguins are amongst the smallest in the world, but still they’re penguins, and the fact that you’re only miles south of the equator makes it all that much more impressive. One went for a quick swim, then hopped up on a rock and leaned over to ‘kiss’ another, just within beak’s reach. A tender moment.
Next we motored around a corner to another outcropping, this time to see two boobies. These were the blue-footed boobies that we’d so wanted to see. They are about as cool as birds get – a remarkable face and beady eyes framed by a speckled kind of mask, perhaps a wig, on their heads. And then of course there are the blue feet – a sort of pale baby blue. Really stunning. It’s hard to resist the pun – but how often do YOU see two wild boobies?
We rounded another rock formation and headed up a narrow channel – dodging the ubiquitous sea lions on the way. A frigate bird rested on tree limb, alas, not the red-breasted Magnificent Frigate, but still a good close up view of a large and pretty incredible bird by any standard. Next we spotted two sea turtles swimming in the area and so made our first venture into the water. Cold? Yeah, it was, but when you can swim leisurely next to a one meter sea turtle, making his way with equal leisure and indifference to your presence, you forget the cold. Their grace in the water leaves you speechless. The last part of the brief trip would be the tintorera sharks. They are similar to white-tipped reef sharks. The trick is that you have to swim through a long, narrow and shallow channel to see them. It’s like a mini-canyon, made of lava and filled with the ocean. This is where they seem to gather and hang out at low tide. They are harmless to humans, but Lara wasn’t convinced, so I went alone.
Visibility was not great at this point, but cloudy and the sun was going behind the clouds in the late afternoon. The first 20 meters or so were slightly nerve-wracking. I couldn’t see more than about a meter in front of me and could hardly make out the sandy bottom about 2 meters below me. If I reached out to both sides, I could nearly touch the walls of this dark little canyon. Where were the sharks and where would the first one appear? Right in front of me? Behind me, god forbid – I know they’re supposed to be harmless, but they can still be 6 to 8 feet in length, and they’re sharks! Soon enough, I saw a lone shark, in front of and below me. It was just less than two meters in length and did a slow graceful u-turn right in front of me, as if to say ‘follow me’. I did, wondering where and how many more I’d see. I snaked my way slowly along the little canyon, and the shark doubled back every so often to check me out again, followed by more u-turns and forward he went. They moved with easy, but never seem to be in a hurry, the little white points on their dorsal fin and another on their tail fin marking a kind of gentle cadence as they slither and swim around. At one point the canyon made a sharp turn to the left and I was keenly aware of my accelerated breathing – a tense moment and a turn into the dim, the unknown
Something darted out from around the corner ahead of me and swam right past me at an incredible speed. It happened so fast that not until he was nearly past me that I realized – a curious sea lion had just zipped right by me and scared the you-know-what out of me. I had to laugh a minute later when I caught my breath. You go swimming to see the sharks and what takes your breath away is in fact an unexpected encounter with a playful child-clown of the seas. Go figure.
We walked back to town and started to think about dinner. It had been a full day – full of hiking, full of wonder, but mostly on empty stomachs. In the main square, we chose the Tres Hermanos restaurant – a place where most of the locals seemed to dine and no tourists! We were rewarded by a fixed menu and a full plate, for 4 bucks! Rice and beans and fried Pargo fish. Yummy!
Thursday started VERY early as we had to meet our transfer at 5.20 to make the 6.00 ferry back to Santa Cruz. We didn’t hear the alarm (small digital watch alarms are useless) but managed to wake up with a start at 5.39! In minutes we stuffed our bags, rubbed our eyes and staggered sleepily out into the street. We managed a ride to the pier and were the last two to board the taxi Spencer was already there, along with the other 15 or so passengers. The trip was terrible – very bumpy, very uncomfortable, and we were groggy and sleepy.
Back on Santa Cruz, we headed first for coffee and breakfast, just up the street from the agency. Then we walked up the road over to Bahia Tortuga (Turtle bay). Once inside the park, you walk about 2.5 kms towards the beach. The path is paved with stones and the landscape thick with flora and lava rock – very exotic. The highlights are the opuntia cacti. The only cacti of their kind, the Galapagos version of the opuntia actually mature into a combination tree-cactus, with a tall trunk of 2 or 3 meters in height, topped by an a array of ‘ears’ of cactus. A strange but wonderful sight.
The beaches are fantastic – the first a long and curved and wild, with roaring breakers and fine white sand. The second, off around another point and protected also by mangroves is serene and tranquil, perfect for lounging and swimming. The name of the bay of course comes from the presence of sea turtles – this is where they come ashore to lay their eggs, in the sandy bluffs just up the beach from the water. That happens in the evening, when the park is closed. No, we didn’t see any turtles. We did see plenty of marine iguanas – more pics at some point, at least of them piled one on the other, and also of the small finch jumping around on the back of one, apparently cleaning him while he was sprawled out motionless, soaking up the heat from the sun and the sand
We eventually had to leave and walked back to town. We had lunch with Spencer in another of those fixed-menu restaurants – very good and cheap too! Then a rocket ride back to San Cristobal on the fastest and most comfortable ferry yet. This guy pushed his 500 horsepower all the way – we hit 30 knots several times. The highlights were the 5 or so albatross we saw near Santa Fe Island – which you pass on the way back. The albatross are incredible birds, and you never tire of seeing them glide gracefully around the swells.
We pulled into the bay at just after 5pm, relieved to see Walk On safe and sound, resting on her anchor and waiting for us. Good to be home again. We crashed early after a three day marathon of wonder, flora and fauna, and island hopping. We felt lucky, indeed, and happy.
Today we’ll take care of some prep work: the next leg is of course the longest and we want to be as ready as we can. So a few trips ashore today and tomorrow: propane, laundry, fresh water and last-minute provisioning for fruits, veggies, and bread. Our plan is to cast off on Sunday for the Marquesas. Our friends Michael and Sharon on Larabeck, coincidentally, are arriving there today! Congrats to them on a successful and safe passage. Looking forward to catching up with them in a few weeks. In our absence, the big Oyster, Katharsis II has left, as well as the English double-ended ketch, Oyaghn (I think that’s what she’s called). We saw her yesterday anchored at Santa Cruz, so I don’t know what their plans are. So that leaves us, Alove, Nina and the French sloop here in the anchorage. Of these, I think only ourselves and the French sloop have plans to continue west this season – Alove is probably tied up in bureaucracy following the accident, and as far as I’ve heard, Nina has engine troubles with no easy fix in sight. Overnight another boat pulled in, a smallish catamaran with a South African flag. Perhaps they’ll be headed west too.
Have a great Friday gang.
MM & Larissa