Les Trois Escargots

A growing family of snails.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Galapagos, Ecuador

Everyone has heard of the Galapagos islands, but few could tell you that the archipelago consists of a large number of islands (only 4 of which are inhabited by humans) which were created by a number of volcanic eruptions beneath the Pacific ocean. While the large islands have relatively wet and green highlands, the coastal parts of the islands are baked volcanic rock scattered with cacti and scrub vegetation. It is hard to know where to start with the Galapagos. It has gorgeous beaches, incredible and unique wildlife, beautiful seas for swimming and a very healthy tourist industry. Most foreigners join a boat and spend a week sailing round various islands, but the cost was too much for our budget and we decided to DIY it - simply buying a flight and seeing what happened.

Our plane tickets stated that we would fly from Quito to San Cristobal island, but when we touched down and entered the airport, we saw a sign reading "Bienvenido a la Isla Baltra" - Baltra and San Cristobal are a hundred or so kilometres apart. It was an introduction to the relaxed nature of the islands.

We crossed from Baltra to Santa Cruz island on a small boat and managed to find a bus that took us the 42 kilometres to Puerto Ayora, the hub town of the Galapagos. Settled in Hotel España, Albane managed to pull the sink off the wall and it fell onto the tiled floor, shattering into pieces. Luckily, the water pipe did not come off and flood the room. It was good practice for her spanish explaining what had happened to the owner. In the evening, we walked back from the main tourist street and found the local restaurants where we ate soup, fish, rice and beans for a pound.

The next day, we took a boat tour to a small rocky island just offshore and, having donned mask, snorkel and fins, we jumped into the deep blue to be immediately approached by seven sea lions. Sleek and elegant, they twisted in the water, their big eyes watching us as they twirled around us. We dived underwater to encourage them to play and smiled as they shot past us like torpedos. We stayed an hour, shivering at the end, but euphoric after the close encounter. As the captain chugged across to a narrow channel between steep cliffs, we ate some food and warmed up in the hot sun before jumping overboard again and snorkelling up the narrow channel. It was a place where white-tipped reef sharks spent the day, before feeding at night, and we found them swimming sinously beneath us, scarcely three feet of water separating us. Scary and exciting at the same time.

The next day, we took a small boat for the two hour crossing from Santa Cruz island to Isabela island. All the people we had spoken to had professed the island to be their favourite and as we passed the volcanic cliffs topped with cacti and pulled into the small village perched on a beach, we could understand why. We booked into a beachside room and went straight for a swim. I think that we swam more in the Galapagos than we have in the entire trip. It seemed that we lived in our swimming gear. The village had sandy roads, ramshackle houses and a few restaurants which served the usual set meals.

The next day, we took boat trip to a nearby islet and saw the small Galapagos penguin (is the penguin the only animal to live on the equator and a pole?) before landing on a jagged piece of rock sticking out of the ocean. We walked through crowds of prehistoric, black marine iguanas, all claws and spiked mohicans. They didn´t move as we approached and we could look them straight in the eyes, though their habit of spitting (to remove salt from their bodies) made that a risky move. At a small bay, we snorkelled and saw a shark and a large turtle, but the sea was choppy and visibility not great, so we swam back to the shallows and found four young sea lions who played within a few feet of us for half an hour. At one point, one lay opposite me in the water and, as I put my head under the water, he would copy me, lifting his head as I did. It was wonderful and we had to be dragged away by the guide.

We spent the next few days on Isabela walking to the beautiful Tortuga Bay, a curve of white sand so fine that it was like flour or dust, riding bikes inland, and swimming with the sea lions at the local beach at every opportunity. It was like a mini-holiday and was made appropriately decadent by the bakery making delicious pineapple pastries, which we ate far too often.

Eventually we left Isabela on the 6am boat, crammed and uncomfortable, and arrived before breakfast at Puerto Ayora. On a spur of the moment decision, we signed up for another boat tour of the bay, but the low tide and rougher sea conditions meant that we saw less sea lions, though snorkelling in a vast school of fish with a handful of small sharks crusing between them was compensation enough.

In the evening, I went to talk to a diving company about snorkelling trips and, in the course of the conversation mentioned that I had once been qualified, but that my certificate had expired. Not so, I was told and a quick search of the PADI website revealed that I was still certified to dive - despite the fact that I had not dived for 13 years! It wasn´t long before I had signed up to do 2 days´diving and Albane was going to get her chance to dive for the first time, a prospect that probably scared her more than it excited her!

The next day, we took a boat trip to North Seymour island and saw the huge frigate birds. The males have a vast red pouch on their chest that they inflate to attract females. We saw the famous blue-footed boobies (featured on many joke t-shirts)and the large, orange land iguanas hiding in the shade of the stunted trees. It was nice to see some of the land fauna, but we felt that we had done the right thing focusing on the sea.

For the last two days, we dived. A dive briefing at 7am, a drive and boat trip to the dive site and then hour long dives with the incredible wildlife. We saw sea lions, turtles, manta rays, white-tipped reef sharks, hammerhead sharks, tuna, moray eels, barracuda and enormous shoals of fish. It was the perfect way to finish our trip to the Galapagos - famed around the world for its large pelagic animals, we felt that we had seen the best and had no regrets about not going on a boat tour (though we might do so sometime in the future......)


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