Arrival in the Galapagos: San Cristobal
Craig and Steph's Land-Based Galapagos Adventure
We checked out, and at precisely 8:15, as promised, Guillermo arrived to pick us up. He was very friendly and immediately gave us our paperwork for the Galapagos as well as our e-tickets for AeroGal airlines. We had seen an AeroGal office in Quito last night, and we had laughed at the name. "Gal" of course was short for "Galapagos", but it sounded funny in English nonetheless. Guillermo told us the routine for the airport and wasn't sure if our guide would be traveling with us or meeting us on the islands.
When we arrived at the terminal, our guide Sebastian was waiting for us. We hit it off right away. He was my age, had longish hair, sunglasses, and a hat. His entire visage reminded us of that iconic picture of che Guevara as he led us into the airport. Our bags were checked, and then Sebastian checked us in at the counter. We went through security and entered the "departure lounge" (shared gate). I told him that my foot was recently healed from a fracture, and he said that we could play things "by the ear" and that the itinerary was pretty flexible.
Sebastian showed us a map of the islands and told us some preliminary facts. The Galapagos is an archipelago made up of 13 major islands and 120 rocks, islets, etc., 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador and straddling the equator. They are volcanic in origin and are situated over a hot spot in the ocean floor. As the magma escapes through the earth's crust, it forms islands. The movement of the Nazca tectonic plate shifts the islands sotheastward over time, at a rate of 1-2 inches per year. The easternmost islands (San Cristobal, Española) are the oldest, having been formed 4-5 million years ago. The westernmost islands (Isabela and Fernandina) are much younger, at only a million years. As the islands move away from the hot spot, their lava cools down and they are eventually able to support life.
Each island goes through the same stages, so Fernandina is at the same stage now that Española was at 3-4 million years ago. Fernandina is currently over the hot spot, and as such has the greatest number of active volcanoes. As it is so new, it does not yet support much life. Nearby Isabela is 12 times as old as Fernandina, and has much more vegetation and supports many more species, though it still has some active volcanoes of its own. As the islands move eastward over the course of millions of years, they are eroded by wind and waves until their volcanic peaks are flattened. The lack of mountains means that clouds no longer form over the islands, and rain no longer falls. They eventually will join the group of submerged islands in the eastern end of the archipelago. 30 million years from now, the islands that we currently know as the Galapagos will be underneath the sea.
The extreme diversity of ocean life is due to the fact that the cold Humboldt current from the south meets the warmer El Niño current from the north. The cold water is very nutrient rich, and supports much life. The convergence of warm and cold currents means that the oceans here can support warm water creatures as well as cold water creatures (which makes it the most northerly place where penguins are found). Over 500 species of fish can be found in the waters of the Galapagos. The abundance of fish has attracted sea birds to the islands. It is speculated that land creatures floated to the archipelago on "rafts" of plant debris. Reptiles are particularly well adapted for the journey, having thick skin that protects them from the sun and being able to survive on less food and water than other creatures.
The first known discovery of the islands by humans occurred in 1535. Because the species had evolved here without human presence, they had developed no fear of humans, a charactersitic which they still exhibit to this day. The Galapagos is a nature-lover's paradise, as you can get up-close views of the wildlife without disturbing them. Today, not all of the islands are allowed to be inhabited by humans, and those which are have vastly differing populations. The island of Santa Cruz has 20,000 human inhabitants, while San Cristobal has 10,000, Isabela has 2,000, and Floreana has a couple of hundred.
Leaving us to ruminate over these facts, Sebastian headed over to the food counter to get some breakfast. We soon boarded the plane outside and took off at around 9:30. We were given free newspapers, drinks, and muffins with chocolate chips on top. I had Sprite and Craig had orange juice. We would be stopping in Guayaquil, on the Ecuadorian coast. As we approached, we could see how recent rains had caused the river to overflow into its floodplain, and that a lot of fields appeared to be underwater. Sebastian explained that this had been a severe problem. We landed at Guayaquil at 10:25 for a 30-minute stop for refueling and dropping off/picking up passengers. We took off again at around 11:10. We were served a "snack" consisting of lunch meats, cheese, a roll, and a slab of chocolate cake. Yum! And we knew we were supposed to have lunch soon after arrival - we're not used to eating this often! The flight attandants sprayed the overhead bins with strong lemon smelling chemicals, to disinfect everything being brought to the islands.
As we approached the islands, we looked out the windows and saw black and red volcanic coastlines, a few sandy beaches, and green vegetation. We landed on Isla San Cristobal at 11:45. The airport really reminded us of the Hanga Roa airport on Easter Island - a tiny airport on a volcanic island. The lava rock was reddish black. We paid our $100 per person Galapagos entrance fee, got our entry cards stamped, and collected our luggage. There were some very interesting mosaic statues of Galapagos wildlife adorning the airport grounds.
Sebastian made a call and soon a white pick-up truck taxi arrived to drive us the short distance to the Miconia Hotel. The facade of the hotel was very cheerfully painted, and we were led out the back of the lobby into a courtyard. Tropical plants and vines lined a stone pathway to our room. Hammocks hung between small trees, and there was a small swimming pool. It looked like a very nice place to relax. We were shown to room #2. It was a 2-bedroom unit with a little entryway and a private bath. There was a little refrigerator and air conditioning, which were quite refreshing, as it was much hotter here than it had been in Quito. Surprisingly, there was also a television. Sebastian gave us half an hour to get settled, and then we met him in the lobby for an orientation walk around the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.
It was amazing how much the town felt like Hanga Roa on Easter Island! There was a street right along the coast. On one side was the beach and the piers, and on the other side were some sleepy hotels, restaurants, and shops. Most were closed, as it was now 12:45, during siesta time. Sebastian explained that they usually open early in the morning and late in the afternoon. During the rest of the day, the tourists are usually on excursions and are not in town anyway.
We walked over to the beach, and could smell a strong fishy odor. Sebastian explained that was the smell of sea lions. We were looking out to sea and nearly didn't notice our first sea lion, who was lounging nonchalantly in the shade of a small building. He took little notice of us, even as I photographed him. We continued on to a small jetty, where a blue footed booby and a great blue heron were sitting on the rocks next to one another. The rocks were alive with Sally Lightfoot crabs. We approached the birds to take some pictures, and they didn't even pay any attention to us. It was amazing - we had heard that animals here didn't fear humans and were quite approachable, but our first-hand experiences with wild animals in the past hadn't let us believe it until we saw it with our own eyes. Now here we were, in town, only on the island for less than an hour, and we were seeing all of this wildlife which we had only ever seen before on television!
We walked down the beach past fishermen and some old boats to the Playa Restaurant. It had a great view of the bay. Craig ordered ceviche mixto with camarone y pulpo (shrimp and octopus) and I had deep fried wahoo with french fries. Salted plantain chips were served with Sebastian and Craig's ceviche, and I munched on a few as well. Sebastian ordered a pitcher of fresh ice cold lemonade which was an incredibly refreshing complement to our beachside seafood lunch. We enjoyed chatting with Sebastian and getting to know him. The mustard and ketchup bottles on the table reminded Sebastian of something. He brought up the fact that he had heard rumors that there was a scam going on in Quito where people would squirt tourists with ketchup or mustard, then under the guise of helping them to clean up, would run off with their bags or wallets. We told him that this exact thing had happened to us yesterday. He couldn't believe it; he had just heard of this tactic. We told him that it is a popular one throughout Latin America, and that we had read about and heard about it in other countries. Because we were familiar with it, we didn't fall prey to it. Sebastian took note of that and said he would need to relay the story to his other guide friends and warn their tourists.
After lunch, we stopped at a store to buy Gatorades for $1.25 apiece. We met Pedro, who was our Galapagos National Park naturalist (required to accompany you when doing activities on the islands). We climbed a flight of stairs to a nice building overlooking the sea where Pedro and Sebastian got our snorkel gear from their storehouse. There was a nice breeze up there, and we took in the view of the bay. To the extreme left was the restaurant where we had eaten lunch. We could see the pier surrounded by tourist boats and fishing boats. Pedro carried the snorkel gear as we walked back down the stairs and along the coast.
We walked down Playa de Oro (Beach of Gold), so named because it used to be covered with extremely fine golden sand, until it began to be used as a location for repairing boats. Now the sand is more coarse and there are several concrete drydocks and boat ramps on the beach. There are plans to replace quality sand here and restore it to its former pristine state. We continued to Bachelor's Beach, the refuge of male sea lions who have lost their harem. Locals were taking in the sun and sand.
As we walked, Sebastian and Pedro pointed out the local flora and fauna. The plant which I mistook for a yellow hibiscus was in fact the Galapagos cotton plant. What we thought were geckoes were actually lava lizards. They were dark green, and the females had bright orange cheeks, which made it appear as if they were blushing. Sebastian pointed out one which had a stubby tail, and explained that they have the ability to detach their tail if it is caught in the mouth of a predator.
We passed the oldest elementary school in the Galapagos, and then the marine biology building of the College of San Francisco in Quito. We saw yellow sulfur butterflies as well as the Galapagos Azul (blue) butterfly fluttering past us. We walked along a raised boardwalk to the information center. After a brief orientation by the curator, we had a self-guided tour. They had exhibits such as a zoetrope wheel in front of a mirror depicting a finch eating a worm. This is related to the evolutionary characteristics of Darwin's finches (different finches evolved different traits on different islands, due to the different conditions they encountered trying to get food). There was also a re-creation of the Floreana Whaler's post office (a place on the island of Floreana where whalers would drop mail, and other seafarers would deliver it if it was destined for one of their ports). There were exhibits and placards depicting the natural and human history of the archipelago. The final room was devoted to a new exhibit depicting the impact of introduced species (including humans) on the islands. There were aerial photos of the islands in the 1960's, 1980's and present-day. It was amazing how much the human settlements had grown in these past few decades, and it is easy to see why the Ecuadorian government has restricted immigration to the islands, and even tourism needs to be strictly controlled. We could have spent more time in this museum, but there was plenty to see for ourselves outside.
We started a hike up to Frigatebird Hill. There was a nice trail through the lava rock. We chatted with Pedro using Sebastian as a translator. We asked if Pedro had been born on San Cristobal, and they laughed and said that he is an endemic species; his family has lived on San Cristobal for generations. We were able to understand some of the Spanish as Pedro was speaking. We and Sebastian also taught him some English words. As we walked I was especially careful of my foot. This was the first time I had walked on rugged terrain since my fracture. The sun was very strong and it was really hot. In several places we came across a thin whitish film on top of the lava rock. Sebastian explained that during the rainy season, rainwater had collected into a puddle. When the water eventually evaporated, this was the sediment that remained.
The last part of the short hike had a series of stairs up to a mirador (lookout) platform. I was incredibly hot and sweaty, and I was drinking a lot of water as well as my Gatorade. When we got to the top we had a gorgeous view of Darwin's Bay below us (where Darwin first set foot in the islands in 1835 at age 26). This used to be the breeding ground of innumerable frigate birds, who puff up red pouches under their chins to attract females. However, in the past few years, the hill has become very popular with tourists, and the frigate birds have subsequently moved a bit further down the coast for their courtship rituals and breeding. This led us to think about the fact that even though tourism is strictly regulated and there are clearcut rules as to what tourists should and shouldn't do, even the best intentions still have an impact on the wildlife, and it must be carefully monitored.
We saw several frigate birds fly by, but the most interesting thing to watch were the blue footed boobies. They would dive from great heights of up to 80 feet to catch fish. The water was clear enough that we could see their trails of bubbles even after they had broken the surface of the water. It was interesting to see when parallax had come into play, because they hit the water at one angle, and once they were below the surface we could see them immediately correct their direction and continue for another 20 feet or so underwater. One did this and we saw him actually come to the surface with a fish in his beak. It was very satisfying to see him achieve his goal. We could see Kicker Rock (also known as Leon Dormido) in the distance rising straight out of the sea. Sebastian informed us that we would be snorkeling there tomorrow, and we were very excited. Craig had even noticed this huge landform from the plane during our descent.
We walked down the steps and down a little trail to Darwin's Bay, where we were expecting to take a swim. Sebastian said that we could snorkel if we wanted to, and of course we did! The lava rocks were very sharp, and I had to be very careful of my healing foot. I used my sarong as a screen to discreetly change my clothes, and we put our snorkel gear on. There was a sea lion on the rocks right next to us, as well as many Sally Lightfoot crabs. We had seen these crabs on TV, and adults usually have a very pretty orange and yellow coloration. As juveniles, they are completely black and blend in with the rocks. As they mature they get bright spots on their black exoskeleton, and then eventually they become yellow orange adults. The ones that we saw here were completely black, and some were black with greenish spots. At first glance they were well-camouflaged, but if you looked closely you could see them everywhere.
We hopped into the water, which was pleasantly refreshing after our walk in the hot sun. It was late in the afternoon and a good part of Darwin's Bay was in shadow, but we were still able to see fish and other sea life. We are used to snorkeling with coral, where you have to be very careful not to touch or bump into the coral. But this was all lava rock, and touching it wasn't a problem. We saw schools of silver iridescent fish with black lengthwise stripes. We saw several black fish with striking bright blue eyes and bright yellow lips. There were others with black bodies, bright blue eyes and bright blue lips. We also saw black spiny sea urchins, and Craig saw an orange sponge attached to a lava rock.
A boat pulled up, and driving it was Pedro's brother. He had brought our kayaks in case we had wanted to use them here at Darwin's Bay. It was so nice of him. But the sun was getting low and we were enjoying our snorkel, so we decided to save kayaking for tomorrow, following the original plan.
The water was not crystal clear, and between the waning dayight and the black lava rock, the visibility wasn't great, but I tried out my new waterproof camera anyway. Its flash allowed me to get some pictures that a waterproof disposable would never be able to get. Pedro pointed out a Pacific green turtle. I saw it as a vague silhouette beneath me. I took a photo that I was sure didn't come out well, and then lost sight of the turtle. We could hear the clicking noises of the fish as they ate underwater. It was a lot of fun and an unexpected treat to be able to snorkel after our hot and sweaty walk. I had a hard time getting out of the water onto the sharp rocks on my delicate foot, and I kind of flopped out of the water like a beached whale. The late afternoon light was golden and shadows were long, and we were able to get some good photos.
There were some Ecuadorian tourists and nature volunteers sitting on the lava rocks here, and two of the teenage boys started talking to Pedro and Sebastian. They tagged along with us as we walked down the path to the statue of Darwin with giant tortoises and sea lions. We got some photos and then walked some more, and came upon a large navy gun which was used in the past to defend the island. We got some photos there and then tried to make it to a particular beach to watch the sunset. But we were moments late, and were still on the trail as the sun set. We had a view of the water through the vegetation and stopped to watch as the sun descended and the sky took on the colors of an impressionist painting.
We walked back to town and could see the boats in the harbor silhouetted against the sunset. This is when it really hit us. We were in the Galapagos. We felt like we were in the middle of a nature documentary. We freshened up at the hotel and bought Gatorades in the lobby for $1.50 apiece. The price was getting higher and higher as we got further from Quito. Our hotel had a gym across the courtyard from our room, and the place was hopping. We wondered if it was the only modern gym on the island, because there were a lot of locals were in there taking aerobics classes and lifting weights, and music was blaring out. Once we closed the door to our room, we could no longer hear it.
We freshened up and then headed out to find some dinner. The pier was lit up with ghostly green lights, and we could see the silhouettes of sea lions in the foreground. We walked near the beach and saw two sea lion pups sitting nonchalantly under a family on a park bench. It was incredibly surreal and we were enchanted. The beach was full of sea lions, as they had all come out of the water for the night. Adults spend up to 15 hours a day at sea, and retun to the beach at night to snuggle into the warm sand and get some rest. The reclining females would occasionally bark or cough. Babies would say "Maaaaap", bleating like lambs, going up to each reclining female in turn. The females would not even move, but if the baby persisted, she would bark at him harshly and he would move on. It turned out that the babies are searching for their mother. Other females turn them away, but when they finally find their own mother, they start to nurse.
We walked the beach a couple of times trying to decide where to eat. We weren't sure whether we'd rather eat indoors or out. No place seemed extraordinarily busy, as if it were the obvious place to be. As we walked around we ran into Sebastian and his friend and fellow guide Felipe. We stopped to chat and they invited us to join them for dinner. We eagerly agreed and they chose a place called Calypso, which was just around the corner from where we had eaten lunch. We sat at an outdoor table. The waiter went through the menu telling us all the things they didn't have. It reminded us once again of our time on Easter Island. Why didn't people just tell you what they DID have? Sebastian and Felipe were amused by the whole thing. They asked if we wanted to split a pizza (but not one with bacon or ham or pineapple, which they didn't have...). We said sure, but doubted whether a single pizza could feed all four of us. They insisted that a "gigante" was as big as the table itself, so we deicded to trust their judgment. They ordered a gigante vegetariano pizza. Craig and Sebastian shared a grande Pilsener, and I had fresh naranjilla juice.
The pizza was very good and we had a great time chatting and joking around. Felipe was very personable and we found his stories quite amusing. Sebastian told Felipe that we had been targeted for the new "mustard scam" and Felipe looked at him blankly. Felipe had never heard of it at all, and was very interested to hear about it, so that he could warn his clients to be vigilant in Quito. That world with all of its problems seemed very far away from here, as local kids congregated at the next table to enjoy pizza. Local families walked the strip now that a lot of the day's tourists had gone back to their boats for the night. One little girl rollerskating around really reminded us of Paola in Guatemala. We thought about Humberto, Paulina, and their five girls, and we wished we had somehow been able to bring them with us, knowing how much the girls would enjoy the animals and their first-ever glimpse of the ocean.
Not only was the gigante pizza large enough to feed four hungry adults, there was a piece to spare. We started to head back to the hotel at around 10:00. As we were passing by the park area near the beach, a yellow-crowned night heron was chasing a butterfly. We saw it catch the butterfly with its beak, and the butterfly kept fluttering its wings. It was amazing to see the drama of nature at such close range. When we got back to the room, I wrote in the journal and we went to sleep at 11:17.