Our last day of excursions and fun began with a trip to some massive lava tunnels formed by the solidifying of the outside of a molten-lava flow years and years ago.
Tortoises in the Wild
The lava tunnels were on private land, and nearby was also some private land with tortoises in the wild. (The previous ones were all in pens) In order to get onto the land, though, we had to suit up in WELLIES!
From there, we hopped on the ferry from Santa Cruz to Baltra and then straight to the Baltra Airport.
Back in our Quito hotel rooms, we took quick showers and changed into clothes for dinner at Uncle Ho’s restaurant. This is where we spent our last night together, laughing and singing and dancing and drinking delicious drinks like “Me Love You Longtime”.
Liz left at 9PM – saying good-bye and catching her flight back to the states. I caught a flight early the next morning. Really a remarkable trip.
Update from December 2012:
It’s worthwhile to note that – eight months later – Liz’s frequent sea sickness and exhausted naps were fully explained:
Liz looked around the explosion of clothes in our room and said, “Hm. What am I going to re-wear today?”
We had breakfast and then a 2.5 hr boat ride to Santa Cruz Island. We shared the boat with a mother and daughter who were going to Santa Cruz so the daughter – deaf in one ear – could get treatment. Though they didn’t speak English, the mother was kind enough to offer a seasickness remedy to Lina (spray perfume in your hand and smell it to dissuade the nausea). That was a rough ride for our still-recovering-from-stomach-bug group.
On land in Santa Cruz we loaded up on a bus and drove to the Darwin Center to hear more about the reintroduction do the tortoises onto the various islands of the Galapagos. There was a lot to learn about the differences in shells between different islands and the efforts to reestablish populations on each island.
We met Lonesome George, who is the only living tortoise from Pinta Island and discovered in 1972, so he was at least 70 years old. Maybe even 90. Initially he showed no interest in mating with the females in his den (was he gay? Asexual? Or just never knew how since he was alone for so long?), but eventually nests were dug. Sadly, the eggs were sterile. We asked if there was a way to extract sperm from a reptile: it can’t really be done, at least not the way mammals do it. The other option was electric stimulation. Per Pablo: “you attach the electrodes to the tortoise’s gonads, and zap zap PING! You have sperm.”. Needless to say, no one cared to risk LG’s unique gonads. So Lonesome George may never be a dad and his tortoise DNA will go with him. (Edited to add: George died one month after this entry, on 24 June 2012. I’m so glad I got the chance to see him.)
It was extremely hot that day, so many of us felt nauseated because of the outrageous heat. We walked back to town to eat lunch. We had the option to hike for 50 mins to a gorgeous beach and shoreline. Liz and I opted for a nap.
Post Nap Sightseeing
Liz and I took some time to wander around town, shop, and watch the locals.
Dinner was on a balcony overlooking the water, then we went shopping for curios and artwork. We found some very gorgeous etched gourds and both bought one for ourselves.
Another 6AM wake up for an 8AM kayak. A minor stomach bug made the rounds of our happy little group – first Dennis, then Fany, then Rehana, then Lina, and finally my roomie Liz. She sat out the kayak trip but rallied later.
We love Pablo. He likes to talk, and he has wonderful, fully educated stories and facts to share – often with a full range of sound effects. He’s also no stranger to novice travelers so his directions have details for all levels of experience, which is why his snorkel briefing days before was 50 minutes in length. So in honor of our Irish wedding tradition, the night before we bet how long Pablo’s kayak briefing would last. We each bet $1 on different times, ranging from 19 minutes to 50 minutes. And none of us could lengthen the time by asking questions. So we were all surprised when Pablo finished his briefing in a speedy 10 minutes 15 seconds, making Sara the winner of an entire $7.
Since Liz stayed in, I kayaked with Sara and we made an excellent team. She’s also interesting to speak with for a number of reasons. She is from Switzerland but spent many years in Hong Kong leading the BA salesteam. She’s currently onto what she calls her “second career” as a wine maker, traveler, and cyclist. Over the last few days I’ve used the time to pepper her with questions about all sorts of interesting things.
During the kayak trip we saw pelicans, a few penguins, two blue footed boobies, and a bevy of playful sea lions who joined us for our one hour trip around the volcanic rocks and mangroves.
Giant Tortoise Breeding Center
We returned to the hotel to pick up Liz and Gail and then went to the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center, a refuge to help repopulate the Galapagos tortoise population. Pablo volunteered here years ago and helped relocate tortoise nests into the incubators at the Center. We learned all about tortoises and the efforts to save them, and then walked around in the different nurseries to see different ages and species.
The sex of a baby tortoise is determined by the temperature of the incubation. (Liz: “Whaaaaaaaaaa?”) Warmer = female. A few degrees cooler = male. The Center is breeding more females so of course there will be more opportunities for more eggs.
Female tortoises can store male sperm for up to a year, making their own decision on when (and if) to use it. This would come in handy in a number of ways for many women I know.
The Center relocates the tortoises at 4-5 years of age. Approximately 50% of them are tagged with trackers, though of course the tortoises don’t venture beyond the island.
From the Center we walked down a lovely path and across inlets with brackish water. We saw native passion fruit, flamingos, mangrove trees, iguanas on tree limbs, and juvenile herons.
Bar de Beto
After lunch we had an afternoon of free time. We could have hired bikes, but many of us opted for relaxation time. Like this:
Liz was fast asleep in the room, so I stayed on the hammock at Beto’s Bar for a few hours until 4:00, when the sun lowered beneath the edge of the building and encroached on my shady hammock. I walked Up the beach and plopped my things with Trish and Rehana and went for a swim. Then back to the room to shower before dinner.
Beto set up a table for us with a table cloth and everything. Some of us got there early so we had a few drinks (though we noted that the piña coladas weren’t as good as the night before) and played word games until the sun set and dinner was served. Pablo, who lives on Isabela, brought his wife Lara and their adorable 8 month old son Kian, so we were a happy party.
As we did every morning, we woke up at 6AM for a 7AM breakfast for an 8AM departure.
We set off for our 7 hour hike on Sierra Negra, an active volcano on the south eastern end of Isabela.
It wasn’t a difficult climb, but it was hot and humid. We took advantage of every bit of shade we could find; especially when Pablo would stop to talk. (And talk. And talk. And talk.) He quickly realized two things: (1) We wanted shade, and (2) We weren’t taking pictures of the birds. He could pinpoint each and every type of the 14 Galapagos finches by their shape and often their sound. But none of us were bird-watchers. After 30 minutes of hiking he looked around and said, “No one is taking pictures. Ok I am not with bird watchers. No more finches.” Hilarious.
Pablo’s shared his personal story of the 2005 eruption of Sierra Negra. He was reading a book on the beach after surfing and felt the rumble. Of course, he gathered friends and came up to the rim to see but rangers turned them away. The Park opened two days later to locals who wanted to watch the fireworks. Pablo said it was “like a bar b q!”
This made me think of the other volcanos I’ve climbed or been to one way or another:
We had our lunches under a huge old tree before continuing into the lava fields. This was especially interesting, as Pablo taught us the history of each area and we could learn to tell the difference from the lava fields of 1979 to the newest fissures of 2005. The terrain was so strange – almost Mars-like – and Liz joked, “They could film a Star Trek here.” It looked alien, barren, and really cool.
She’s such a trouper. To hear her tell it – “a volcanic rock grew out of nowhere”. Out came the band aids from Pablo’s bag. Between the bike fall four days earlier and this, the poor girl looked like she’d been in a war.
On the top of the fissure was “a very soulful place” said Pablo. He was right. We all sat quietly and enjoyed the view.
Pablo suggested that we take 60 seconds of silence, then he walked to a quiet place and said “ok go”. We started giggling immediately.
Then – as if nature knew we were being naughty – it began to pour. We packed up and headed out. A few hours walk – down the horse path this time – for a ten mile hike total.
Fun on the Beach
Our laughter in the bus all the way to the hotel. Liz and I both showered and headed to the “Bottle Bar” (Bar de Beto) for some celebratory drinks on the beach to enjoy the sunset and watch the iguanas parade out of the ocean and into the rocks of the little hostel next door.
Girl’s Night Out
Paola, Trish, Rohanna, Sara, Gail, and Fany joined us and our beach time turned into a fun girls’ night. Drinks flowed and Fany told a scary story.
We all went to dinner at a place called El Faro to eat ceviche and paradilla and had a lengthy discussion about arranged marriages. I can’t remember where we ended up on the spectrum, but we covered all the bases.
Our rooms at the Wittmer Lodge in Floreana were small and slightly dingy – and there was no cross-current. So I woke up at dawn from the heat and went outside to take sunrise pictures.
Shoreline Walk to Bay
Pablo took us on a long, lovely hike along the coast to see crabs, volcanic rock, and other cool things. The sun was very strong so of course I got a sunburn on the one shoulder that was always facing the sun. Totally worth it, though.
Isla Floreana to Isla Isabela
We embarked on (another) two hour boat trip from one island to the next. This time to Isla Isabela. It was long. And bumpy. As the days and boat trips move on, more and more of our group moves toward the back of the boat to manage the sea sickness. It’s pretty difficult to think of anything else… until… WHALE!!!!
Then, just 20 minutes later, WHALE SHARK! It’s like all our dreams of the night before came true. I’m not exaggerating when I say I jumped in with all my clothes.
Despite the beauty of seeing hundreds of them together in Isla Mujeres, whale sharks never cease to be amazing in any setting. They’re glorious.
La Laguna Hotel – Isla Isabela
We were delighted to get to Isla Isabel, where we’d be for a few days. Our hotel was lovely and clean and AIR CONDITIONED – which was a huge bonus after Floreana. We celebrated by taking a power nap after lunch. Then we went for a walk along the coastline to the pier so we could hop a boat to explore the islands and see penguins.
It’s a shame I didn’t bring my underwater camera, because we had a glorious snorkel trip from the shore. We saw green sea urchins, spiny sea urchins, the other sea urchins that I can’t remember. I also saw schools of salema fish and scorpion fish. And for a while we hung out in a ravine to see marine iguanas swim by. It was really extraordinary to watch.
Dinner was at a little place down the street with delicious BBQ. We had – as we always did – lots of laughter. One of the other two tour groups there was given their itinerary and got to sleep in until 9:00 AM. NINE AM!!! We teased Pablo since we were up by 6:00 every morning and he grinned, “There’s a reason this is called ‘Active South America’.”
As we are with every night, we were in bed and asleep by 9:45. Since, ya know, it’s “Active South America” and we had to wake up at 6:00.
In the morning we embarked on a long boat ride from San Cristobal to Floriana. It was very, very bumpy. And very very sunny. We all wanted to be in the front of the boat where it was shady, but we also wanted to be in the back where it was less bumpy. How to choose? Sunburn? Or sea sickness?
We stopped briefly for some quality photo time at Devil’s Crown; a beautiful outcropping of volcanic rock above (and below) the surface.
Snorkeling with playful sea lions. Saw a turtle. Susie the sea lion, with both flippers tagged. She loved to play, and would hang, suspended mid-water, waiting for me when I went to catch a breath. At the end of the snorkel trip I was the last one out of the water, having to leave my four new slippery friends. As I climbed the ladder a sea turtle swam beneath the boat.
Lava beaches. Marine iguanas. 150 ppl total on the island. Spartan rooms sun my Florianita Qhitmer – daughter of Margaret Whitmer years ago.
Hike up to the highlands. Water for settlers. Pirate accommodations. Maybe treasure? Warblers, finches, etc.
After 45 minutes of hiking we climbed over a rock wall and gasped: giant Galapagos tortoises! At least six of them in a large pen. They were amazing. I could have stayed there for hours.
We spent sunset with the marine iguanas that climbed out of the ocean so dry on the rocks in the sun. I wasn’t thrilled with my camera and the lack of crispness. I’m sure this is user error, but I wish I could figure out why even auto setting yielded less than momentous results.
Group dinner was at a restaurant up the street. (read: dirt road). We spent time going around the table and answering one question: “What do you most want to see in the Galapagos?” Liz: penguins. Me: a whale shark. Amanda: a whale. That she can ride.
Back in our hot and stale room, we showered and packed our stuff for the next morning. And avoided spiders, wherever possible.
We woke up with the roosters, and Liz rallied out of bed for a quick 3 mile run. Breakfast was at the hotel (the Blue Marlin) with the group, and a seemingly benign conversation about books turned into a talk about e-books and Fifty shades porn. Can’t make this stuff up.
We walked down the the Galakiwi offices to get suited up for our morning snorkel trip. This was my one opportunity to dive in the Galapagos – though I was the only diver – and I was excited to go underwater.
While we waited for the gear assembly we watched the handful of 100 runners who were running the Galapagos Marathon. It was a brutally hot day, and we sweat just cheering them on – but we still cheered. They appreciated it since there was no one else out in this heat to clap.
This was a great group to travel with. We all liked to laugh and have fun, as was evidenced by a re-visit from a big black (native) Galapagos carpenter bee.
Liz: *jumping up* “Oh no! A carpenter bee!”
Lina: “Why? Are you made of wood?”
These things never seem as funny when written out later, but five of us laughed hysterically for a while.
Before our snorkel destination we stopped to bird watch and learned the differences between the blue footed boobies and frigates.
As soon as my dive master Franklin realized I was a dive instructor, he quickly changed our itinerary. “This is too easy a dive for you.” So I snorkeled the first time rather than dove the first time out. The visibility wasn’t great, but we had a very playful sea lion that came sort of close.
We knicknamed Amanda and Lina “the gigglers” becauser they constantly made each other laugh. I loved being around a group that has so much fun together.
For our first dive, Franklin and I dove through a gorgeous cavern. We saw some black tip reef shark and another sea lion. I love diving with sea lions – they’re so fast, sneaky, and playful. One minute you’re diving along and looking at coral, and the next minute you have a pair of huge eyes and whiskery sea lion in front of your mask. They like when you do flips underwater, because then they can dart in and out around you and your bubbles. This makes me ridiculously happy.
We ate lunch on the boat, taking bites between an animated discuss about animated movie. And then we had a walk a nearby beach. This was a bit of an ordeal since one of the motors wouldnt rise so we couldn’t back up too far into shore. This prompted a hilarious process of each of us jumping off the side and wading in. Pablo told us all about mangrove trees and how they use water to take root elsewhere on the beach.
Franklin and I returned to the cavern for another dive and in search of the hammerheads. We saw eagle rays and turtles, and some schooling hammers off in the distance.
Back on San Cristobal we quickly changed and hopped on a bus to the “Interpretation Center”. It was still hot and humid, and we were all walking a bit slower from the morning’s activity. (“They don’t call this Active South America for nothin’!”). The Interpretation Center was a place (unfortunately not air conditioned) where Pablo could use background maps and exhibits to tell us all about lava flow, the Nazca shelf, water currents, air, and animals, and how all of this created the Galapagos Islands as we see them today. We learned that the easternmost islands are the oldest, because the Nazca shelf moves from West to East – with the east eventually disappearing underneath the South American plate. Thus the volcanic activity.
We also learned about the flightless cormorant, which we wouldn’t see on this trip because they’re only in specific areas of two islands. There are also 14 different types of finches, though all of them can be traced back to one kind of finch.
Having said all of that, we also learned a great deal about Darwin. I had no idea that he visited the Galapagos at 24 years old but didn’t actually publish his theories until the age of 49.
Finally – when the heat had gotten the best of us and we all needed naps – Pablo told us about the crazy settlers who landed on Floreana. Like the dentist who brought his lover to Floreana; they both pulled all their teeth so they wouldn’t have any teeth problems when they got there. And then there was the “Baroness” Eloise Wehrborn de Wagner-Bosque who lived there with her two German lovers and who treated everyone as her underlings. All of this is documented in a book called The Galapagos Affair which, as of this writing, has a whole five reviews on Amazon.com.
Dinner on our Own
After a walk back into town, we were all on our own for dinner. Liz and I opted for athe “San Jose BBQ” which was outdoors with plastic tables and chairs. There was a huge grill filled with fresh meats and fish. We almost ordered pescado for two but decided to split it – a good thing too since it was HUGE.
We also ordered beer but the waitress said something about “no” and “Sunday”. Liz joked, “Apparently they haven’t evolved that far yet.”
On the way out of the restaurant we ran into Pablo and asked him to point us to dessert. He sent us to a tiny little bakery right around the corner. There, we waited for over 5 minutes – which is notable because we were the only ones there until 5 Ecuadorian women came in after us and walked right in front of us to the counter. Apparently Aggressiveness is rewarded here, so after a few minutes of still not being served, Liz looked up “cake” in her dictionary and then got her pushy on. The end result: us back in the room with a cake and a chocolate covered donut. (a word which, incidentally, has no translation in Spanish)
Finally to the Galapagos! We met in the hotel lobby at 6:00AM and were out the door by 6:20 to the aeropuerto for our flight to San Cristobal. The flight was uneventful and filled with westerners headed to the islands. We did make a stop… Somewhere… To let people off and other people on and to refuel. And the most exciting thing was during refueling, when the flight attendant told Liz she needed to unbuckle her seatbelt while the refueling was happening. I’m sure there’s a logical reason for that.
San Cristobal, Galapagos
In San Cristobal we met Pablo, our guide for the next 7 days, who took us to out hotel to unpack and change. Then we went for a brief walkabout around the shoreline. Here we saw our first of many sea lions and crabs. the sun was brutally strong and the weather hot. Neither of these things are complaints, since one can’t really complain about the Galapagos.
Lazy Sea Lion
Lunch was at a local spot with a starter of a hot vegetable soup – surprisingly tasty on such a hot day – and locally caught fish.
Mountain Bike Trip
Our afternoon excursion was a mountain bike ride from the top of a hilly area and down to the beach. We started at the top of the hill at a small church, where Pablo gave us our first taste of his story-telling skills. He explained the difference between species types:
1) Transported – brought onto the islands by settlers. Like guava or passion fruit
2) Native – came to the island by their own natural way. Can often be found on other locations as well (such as the mainland)
3) Indigenous – came to the island as “native” but evolved into a species specific to living on the island.
It was interesting to hear that guava and passion fruit – two fruits we associate with islands and the tropics – actually have a negative impact on the environment. They take over the native vegetation and grow over it, essentially smothering the local plants.
After our talk and a few pics of the view, we got on our mountain bikes and spent the rest of the day cruising around San Cristobal. I forgot how much I love mountain biking. I have a road bike in the city which is a lot of fun, but there’s nothing like riding over bumps with a mountain bike. It was great. Made me think of the cycle safari I did in Botswana in 2006. So spectacular. What also made me think of Botswana is poor Fany, who hit a patch of gravel, skid, and flew off her bike – almost exactly the way I did in Botswana. She was as proud of her war wounds as I was of mine; maybe prouder since hers were much more expansive.
After an hour we parked our bikes at a beach way and spent time on a nice afternoon walk along the shore where we saw our first marine iguana and a number of sea lions.
Pablo is a plethora of information about the flowers, the birds, the sea lions, and the Galapagos in general. He tells us everything and then tells us more, and as we wander around he also asks if we have questions he can answer. We’re going to learn a lot on this trip – and I love that.
Despite our lengthy trip to the beach, our hotel was a short ride around a few corners. We showered and rested and then changed for a group dinner of chicken, fish, and what seemed to be the most delicious beer ever.
We tried to stay awake for as long as we could, but Liz and I were both asleep. By 9:30.
I met my friend Liz in 2004 during a memoir writing class. Since then, we’ve bonded about families, boys, running, books, relationships, cupcakes, and life. Liz has become a wonderful friend and as hungry for adventure as I am. This is our Galapagos Adventure.
We flew in separately the day and night before and reuned in our hotel room in Quito – the Hotel Sierra Madre. We live 12 blocks apart in New York City but I hadn’t seen her since February because of our work travels. Funny that we had to go to a different continent to see each other.
We had a day in Quito to explore before meeting our Active SA tour group for dinner. So we decided a leisurely sightseeing day was on order. After sleeping in just a bit (hooray vacation!) we walked into the Mariscal district for brunch at the Magic Bean restaurant; a nice place with “proper” breakfast. They played country music and the waiters had Shel Silverstein quotes on their t shirts. Not really a “local” place, but it hit the spot.
Liz and I hailed a taxi to the Capilla del Hombre, a modern art museum on the outskirts of Quito (or at least the outskirts of our map). It was a gorgeous space; cavernous and stark but somehow still warm. The exhibit was entirely full of Eucadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamín whose paintings were a mixture of misery and happiness – depending on the painting. And the space allowed for the huge size of the paintings. Some reminded me of Picasso’s La Guernica with their length and coloring. But different. Photos weren’t allowed, but here are some other pictures of Guayasamín’s work:
We also walked up the hill to what appeared to be a private residence but was really a showcase for some sculptures and a few old cars. Odd, but it made for some fun pictures.
Next stop was into Quito’s old town. We wandered around the Basillica and took pics, the wandered onto the Plaza Grande.
Soon the altitude (10K ft) had kicked and made us especially exhausted, so we caught taxis back to Mariscal and ate lunch at a sandwich shop. the. Back to the room for a “siesta”. I figured I’d take a quick 20 minute power nap, and next thing I knew it was 3 hours later. One more time: yay vacation!
In the lobby we met Nick, our Kiwi Active South America contact who gave us our briefing and would get us to the airport the next day. We also met the rest of the group:
Amanda – a Brit who lives in New Zealand and who works for active SA but is on holiday in SA for the next 3 months
Lina – a Kiwi who works with and is friends with Amanda. They’re traveling together.
Rahana – a filmmaker from the UK
Trish – a math”s” (that’s pural) teacher from the UK
Jocelyn (aka Fany) – a sunny and smart 16 yr old from Ireland but who was born in France
Paola – Jocelyn’s father’s work colleague who suggested to Jocelyn that they go to the Galapagos together
Sara – A well-traveled German who’s spent many years in Hong Kong
Gail and Dennis – a retired couple from Los Angeles
For dinner we ate at Estacion, a restaurant in the Mariscal that offers Ecuadorian cuisine. It was a great dinner and a nice way to get to know the group. I had the chicken stew, which of course had a local name but I have no idea what it was. The amusing part of the evening was that our restaurant was located right across the street from a bar called The Dirty Sanchez. This, of course, is where Liz checked us in on Facebook.
After dinner we were back at the hotel to repack our belongings into our official matching SA Aventures bags and to leave our extra luggage at the hotel. Then to sleep. I was surprisingly tired for someone who took a 3 hour nap earlier that afternoon.