From the very get-go we had both wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands, land of myth and mystery made famous by Charles Darwin and his groundbreaking “Origin of Species”; his theory of biological evolution and natural selection shaped following his short stay on the islands in the five year voyage aboard the Beagle.
Santa Cruz giant tortoise
The Galapagos Islands, Archipiélago de Colón or Islas Galápagos are located some 900km west of Ecuador on the Nazca tectonic plate and given the spanish name for (giant) tortoise by Tomás de Berlanga, the first Bishop of Panama. He drifted off course while sailing from Panama to Peru and accidently discovered the islands…and the tortoises. The group of islands straddle the equator and consist of 18 main and three smaller islands across a land area of nearly 8000km. In spite of being located in the tropics, the islands’ micro-climate is curiously dry, with annual rainfall of as little as 6-10cm in the lower regions and only a handful of islands with their own source of freshwater.
With only a matter of days before our plane touched down in Guayaquil, gateway to the Baltra, Santa Cruz and the islands beyond, we still had not secured passage on a live aboard boat for the dates we wanted. Not for want of trying; Matt had contacted all of the small boats that fitted the bill, but with limited internet access since leaving Mendoza, his travel agent and negotiation skills were tested to the limit!. Eventually we secured one of the last cabins on the 16-passenger boat M/S Beluga (ironically one of our first choices) that was bound for the older eastern islands. Result!!!
Arriving in Baltra, we were hit by the heat – 32 degrees with shirt-sticking, hair-frizzing humidity that had us diving for the air-con button, the minute we checked into our hotel on Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz and with it’s key port town of Puerto Ayora, is the main tourist hub of the islands and boasts the longest pedestrianized street with more souvenirs shops than-you-can-shake-a-stick-at, a cute and colourful artisan market, galleries and tour operators galore. The small fishing dock cum market draws big crowds of people plus its fair share of sea lions, pelicans, and as you’d expect,the restaurants serve up pretty mean seafood – fresh off the boats – Isla Grill ticked the boxes for us, with a sweet and tender Mariscada salad of chargrilled shrimp, octopus and calamari, that went down rather nicely with a icy cold bottle of Palomino Fino Ecuadoran white wine. Perfecto!
From here we boarded our boat and met our fellow passengers, half British and half North American. All of us up for the adventure of a lifetime. We cruised at night and making landings by day; island hopping across the eastern archipelago with chances of seeing colonies of sea lions, the odd penguin (yes please!) iguanas, tortoises, frigate birds and the infamous boobies plus other species. Not a card carrying twitcher, I was not as excited about seeing lots of different birds unless they were really different (boobies and flamingoes), or didn’t fly (penguins). Wriggling into a wetsuit and going snorkelling or diving with fish, rays and sharks – now that got my heart racing!!
Cerro Dragon, Dragon’s Hill was to be our first landing and not quite the dry one we were expecting, scrabbling last minute to take off our boots and wade ashore. We headed inland towards the two salt lakes (there was no fresh water on the island) and stopped to quietly watch seven flamingoes, filter feeding on the brine shrimp. With dusk not that far away we carried along the trail and up the hill, black/white sticks marking out the path, so we couldn’t accidentally stray. In the short dense grass we saw our first land iguana and stopped in our tracks to stare. Not as “pre-historic” as the marine variety, golden yellow, streaked with shades of burnt orange with patches of shedding skin, it blended in to the scenery. And then we saw another, and another… by the time we counted close to a dozen littering the path, we began to joke with our guide, Silvia …. whatever she had paid the chap ahead to plant them for us to find, it was worth it!
Land iguanas … or mini dragons ?
The next morning we visited South Plaza, one of the twin islands off the coast of Santa Cruz. Scrambling ashore we tried hard not to tread on the ‘sally lightfoot’ crabs that clung to the rocky shore as waves rolled in. One firmly eye fixed on the crabs and the other on the sea lions littering the beach and the landing platform. Never mind the two metre ruling for their benefit… what about us?!
Welcoming committee of sea lions
Despite its small size, South Plaza is also home to a ridiculous amount of nesting birds; numerous gulls, Tropic birds and Swallow-Tail doves, for starters. No sign of the blue footed boobie, but we had plenty of time yet and more islands to visit.
Santa Fe, also called Barrington Island after British Admiral Samuel Barrington, is a small island and home to a different species of iguanas, paler and smaller along with giant prickly pear cactus. The iguanas, patiently sit for days, weeks in fact, waiting for the lush pads to fall before feasting away on the juicy pulpy flesh. We watched an iguana tearing into the cactus pad – prickly spikes included – wondering just how long he had waited.
After a fab three course dinner – soup, succulent pork chops, red cabbage with spiced sultanas and prunes, broccoli and a decadent chocolate pud – that I could have laid down and died for – we slept like babies as we made our way towards the fifth largest and easternmost island of San Cristobel, stopping at Cerro Brujo on the way. Pristine coral beaches, with lava rock breakers and sandy dunes were a welcome surprise. We braved the chilly surf for a paddle and watched boobies, frigates and albatross punch-diving for their breakfast.
Giant saddleback tortoise
Visiting the tortoise reserve and breeding centre was an eye-opener as we discovered some 200,000 had been eaten over previous centuries – ships fodder and local fayre when it was discovered tortoises could live for a up to a year on their own fat reserves without any food and water- providing a tasty source of fresh meat on long voyages. Following man’s introduction (and later eradication) of other species on some islands entire populations were wiped out as they struggled to compete for food. They inhabit seven of the islands and can grow to a whopping 500kg, living to a ripe old age of 100, however at five they are tiny, barely 20cm, living in a semi natural habitat, awaiting repatriation with their ancestral island where they adapted to, hundreds of years sgo; ‘saddle backs’ are able to reach high up into the cactus plants and under vegetation, ‘dome backs’, found on islands with humid lowlands, just bulldoze their way through the undergrowth!
Iguana pile up
Espanola was one of the oldest and southernmost islands that we were keen to see; created from a single caldera, it has, over thousands of years, moved away from the volcanic ‘hot spot’ and is flat as can be. Similarly to Hawaii, the islands are located on s particularly hot mantle, that, in essence, burns through the earth’s crust, creating volcanic activity, which give the islands their harsh and dynamic landscapes. Espanola is home to the ‘Waved’ Albatross, loads of other bird species and masses of marine iguanas. Basking in the afternoon sun, sprawled all over each other, they lifted a lazy eye – almost in acknowledgement of our presence. Inland we came across the females, more drab (natch sadly) and ready to fight for their square of land to lay their eggs. Everywhere we looked there was a bird we hadn’t seen before, a new species of lizard or a pile of iguanas. Wildlife overload, it was almost a welcome relief just staring out to sea at the blow holes – incoming tide forced through fissures on the porous lavarock, spraying jets of water as high than the geysers we had seen in the Atacama desert.
As we picked our way between the rocks, careful not to disturb any birds we stumbled across, we hit the headland and “Albatross Runway”. Hard not to miss this particular bird with a wingspan over two metres… even so, we struggled to capture one on the wing. We all laughed as we tried to get the ‘money shot’ of an albatross perfectly framed in full flight. The National Geographic would not be knocking on our door anytime soon! . It was touching to see the males perched in the long grass, waiting patiently for their mate to return to the same spot as last year, as they mate for life. True love!
Waved albatross waiting for his mate
Onward we tramped along the trail, hot and sweaty, swapping skittish lava lizards for marine iguanas, piled high on top of each other to conserve body heat, arms and legs akimbo and playful sea lions, making the most of the surf along the reef. Silvia had to put her finest naturalist skills to the test… “shoo-ing” and cajoling along the sea lions that blocked our path to the zodiacs and return to the boat!
Sea lions on the shore..
All the islands were formed through the layering and lifting of repeated volcanic eruptions, building layer upon layer over time. Santiago, our next stop, was an incredible example of this. Originally named James Island, after King James II, it was the second island that Charles Darwin visited. Just a couple hundred metres offshore are two islets; Chinese Hat, with its delicate lava and spatter cones, has intricate channels of lava that lead to the sea to create little coralline beaches. The perfect hang out for juvenile reef sharks and sea lions, golden rays and the odd penguin. Yep, we really got to see the tiny Galapagos penguin bobbling along, like a duck in the current, completely fearless of our approaching zodiac – with only five percent of the total population spread across three western islands, we were very lucky. We even got to snorkel with them.. More on that later!!
Penguins inspecting the pahoehoe lava flow on Santiago
Sullivan Bay, our landing spot was incredible in its barrenness and beauty. As you walk along the flow, or lava field stretching more than 50 km square, smooth sheets of lava rock, pock-marked by lava ‘bombs’ spewed out from the nearby eruptions a hundred years ago, are all mixed up with sections resembling twisted rope, silky ribbons of lava toffee and cake batter and scrunched up knotted entrails. You can just imagine the slow moving surface lava, oozing, creasing, wrinkling finally crumpling as it’s surface cools, completely at odds with the molten magma river flowing much faster below, both further inland and towards the sea.
Bubbling lava rock
We peered into gaping chasms made by lava flowing out below the solidified surface lava crust and later collapsing, intrigued by the coloured multilayered rock made up of minerals, gases and crystals that get picked up and mixed up on the way. The slow moving pahoehoe lava flow looks completely different to the more common aa flows (phonetically named this in Hawaii because it hurts when you stand/fall on it!), the faster flowing lava flows found on other higher islands, that we had seen. It’s leaves a far more spectacular landscape in its wake.