From mountains to the sea in Ecuador: Part 4

By Michael Carignan

On our first full day in the Galapagos Islands all those in our tour group gathered in the lobby area of the hotel, which is really an open covered area with a feel of being in the midst of nature. Once all 28 members of our group were assembled we began the trek to the dock and the water taxi to take us back into town where a bus awaited us. We boarded the bus and traveled to the north end of the island where our boats were waiting for us.

Our destination for the day was North Seymour Island and our guide, Mario, explained it was much quicker, by about two hours one-way, to drive to the boats there rather than board the boats at our hotel and cruise to our destination.

Along the route we passed an occasional tortoise along the road. Thankfully they weren’t in the road because I sure wouldn’t want to hit one, for various reasons.

Two boats awaited us and our group was split into two groups of 14. We took the pangas or zodiacs (small rubber boats that hold up to 20 people) from the dock to the boats and off we went. Our cruise lasted about an hour. Upon arrival we joined back up with the others and were given the option of either a longer, two-kilometer hike over rough, rocky terrain or a shorter, one kilometer hike with only a few rocks at the beginning and then solid ground or sand the remainder of the way. We were promised to see the same creatures on either route and would not be short-changed. Eight of us, including me and Dawn, chose the short route.

For the short trip were had a different naturalist guide, Valerio Repetto. I cannot say enough good things about this man. He was a wealth of knowledge and took me under his wing and went the extra mile in looking out for me. It was much appreciated.

Valerio Repetto with Dawn.
Valerio Repetto with Dawn.

By the time we started our trek, temperatures were in the low to mid 90s with fairly high humidity. Valerio said the high humidity was not characteristic of this time of year but said they were having more rain than usual as well.

From the very start of our walk we encountered wildlife. There was a pair of Galapagos doves doing a mating dance not 10 feet away from us. Next we discovered a lava lizard that was missing part of its tail. And then there was a male and female swallow-tailed gull with a baby, also only a few feet away. The swallow-tailed gull is the only gull in the world that feeds at night. They do so to avoid competition for food.

A lava lizard. Small lizards like this one were abundant in the Galopogos. In fact were often ate our meals with lizards near by.
A lava lizard. Small lizards like this one were abundant in the Galopogos. In fact were often ate our meals with lizards near by.
A swallow-tailed gull family. The swallow-tail gull is the only gull that feeds at night.
A swallow-tailed gull family. The swallow-tail gull is the only gull that feeds at night.

As we walk we learned about the flora as well.

Valerio pointed out numerous birds soaring in circles over the island. He said they were female frigate birds and it was mating season. The male frigate birds remained on the ground and build three to four nests each. When they are ready, the males inflate a very colorful, orange wind sack on the front of their necks and chest in an attempt to attract a mate. When the female spots a male she thinks she may want to mate with she goes down to him. But as Valerio pointed out she is more interested in the nests than the male bird. If he has built a suitable nest then she sits on it and eventually they mate. If she doesn’t like any of the nests she resumes her flight.

We reached an area where numerous males had built nests. I would guess there were 50 or more and they would take turns inflating their orange chests. Occasionally a female would come down. We were able to get within a few feet of some of them.

Male frigate birds on nests trying to attract a female.
Male frigate birds on nests trying to attract a female.

With all the rain the island had had there was a shallow pond in one spot and both males and females would fly over the pond and dip down into the water as they flew for a drink.

In another spot some sea lion pups were playing in the surf.

We eventually met up with the other group, many of whom had wished they had taken the shorter route because of the heat and the rough terrain.

We got back in our zodiacs and cruised along the rocky coast for a ways. We encountered a mother seas lion with a pup hauled out on some rocks and got within six feet of her. We also came within 10 feet of some blue-footed boobies perched on the rocks. Boobies are one of the birds the Galapagos are most noted for.

Blue footed boobies.
Blue footed boobies.

Back on our boats, some of the group suited up to go snorkeling. Dawn and I decided not to, mainly because they were going off the zodiacs, which did not have a good ladder for getting back into them. We hung out on the deck and took in the scenery.

When they returned, the boats took off for a beach not far away. Behind the main dune of the beach a small freshwater lake was dotted with flamingoes. Not native to the Galapagos they are believed to have been abandoned when young by their parents as they traveled through en route back to the Caribbean. The young survived and maintain a small flock.

A small flock of flamingos.
A small flock of flamingos.

The walking path on the beach was very restricted to protect sea turtle eggs that were buried in the sand. We didn’t see any sea turtles but were given time to go snorkeling off the beach and saw a variety of fish.

Then we headed back home.

The next day started much the same as the first and soon we were again aboard our boats this time headed for Plaza Island.

Before arriving there we were given another opportunity to go snorkeling. Some again went in the zodiac but Dawn and I went off the back of our boat, which was anchored near a rocky shoreline. The water temperature was very comfortable and we saw many different species of fish and rays, more even than what the others saw that went in the zodiacs. Dawn had purchased an underwater camera and this was a first experience for both of us on taking pictures under water. It wasn’t a real successful venture but it was also far from being a total loss.

Plaza Island is very small at just a kilometer long and half a kilometer wide.

At the docking area there were upwards of 30 sea lion pups. Some were swimming, some were hauled out and some were hiding under the rocks to stay cool. They could care less if we were there or not and seemed at times to actively pose for the camera. Getting within three feet of them was no problem.

 

After numerous photos again we split into two groups with one group taking a longer more strenuous hike and the others a shorter one but seeing all the same things. This time we had a few more people in our shorter tour. As we were beginning our hike, a grown male sea lion came by and let out a bellow to tell us to stay away from his pups. The males can grow to 600 pounds.

The island was abundantly covered with prickly pear cactus, which grow into tree size plants. Valerio pointed out that the cactus on this island hand long spines on them. He explained that in some parts of the islands they do not. It was a matter of whether land iguanas lived on the island. The land iguanas like to munch on the prickly pear leaves so the cactus tries to deter them with the spines.

Prickly pear cactus grow like trees.
Prickly pear cactus grow like trees.

There were many land iguanas on Plaza Island. They were considerably larger than the marine iguanas and were yellowish-brown in color. Again they found humans to be of no concern and you could walk right up to them without fear on either species’ part. It was also common to see a land iguana up in some of the small trees growing on the island.

A land iguana.
A land iguana.

After our hike we boarded the boats again and this time cruised back to Puerto Ayora, which was about two hours away.

Downtown Puerto Ayoyo.
Downtown Puerto Ayoyo.

When we arrived back in the bay a large ocean liner was anchored in the deeper waters. The ship was the National Geographic Explorer. Back in our hotel room, the view from our deck looked directly at the ship. When we got up in the morning it had already weighed anchor and sailed off.

The following day we were to go to the Charles Darwin Research Center for a short visit and then have the day free. We chose not to go to the center as we were having some gastrointestinal issues. Instead we stayed at the hotel and went snorkeling a couple of more times out in Finch Bay. Dawn has decided snorkeling is wonderful and is now planning more trips that include snorkeling.

After a very relaxing day it was time to leave. The next morning we flew back to Quito and enjoyed an afternoon and evening there. The following morning we reluctantly began our trip home.

I for one would highly recommend a trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands but unless you speak fluent Spanish be sure to consider a tour group. It was wonderful.

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From mountains to the seas in Ecuador: Part 3

By Michael Carignan

The first two parts of our adventure took place high in the Andes Mountains around Quito, Ecuador but now for the last part of the trip my wife, Dawn, and I will travel to the Galapagos Islands where we spent four nights at the Finch Bay Hotel.

We arose early Sunday morning and our tour guide arrived with a van to hurry us off to the airport. Soon we were on board our plane and headed first to Guayaquil, Ecuador on the coast about 165 miles southwest. The flight took only a half hour. At Guayaquil two-thirds of the passengers got off the plane and before long they were replaced with an equal number of passengers ready to make the final 600-mile flight west to the islands.

The archipelago or chain of islands known as the Galapagos Islands is of volcanic origin and actually some islands are still forming. According to our guide the archipelago is made up of 13 islands, 38 islets and 45 named rocks. Ninety percent of the land is part of the national parks and only three islands are inhabited by humans with a total population of around 40,000.

The Galapagos Islands are probably best known as the place where a young naturalist on the ship HMS Beagle made his famous discoveries. The years was 1835 and the young man named Charles Darwin, over the course of his five week stay in the islands, collected specimens and made observations of the unique flora and fauna on the island. His observations would later serve as the evidence behind his book On the Origin of Species and his theory of evolution.

The uniqueness of the wildlife on the islands remains today as it is profoundly protected as part of the national park. Visitors are allowed to observe the animals up close and personal. But a no-touch and no-feeding policy is strictly enforced but as we found in many cases the animals were just as curious of you as you are of them and will come right up to visitors.

The environment is fragile in the Galapagos and the number of visitors allowed annually is restricted. It is estimated that the maximum number of tourists the environment could handle without damage to the eco-system is 200,000. However, the current number is maintained at about 130,000 annually.

We flew into Baltra Island. Baltra has the only airstrip in the islands and also houses a small military complex. Once we were through security we joined up with a couple dozen other visitors and our guides. We boarded a bus that took us from the airport to a small ferry dock. We got off the bus and loaded onto a ferry and made a short quarter mile passage across the channel to Santa Cruz Island.

Once back on shore we again boarded a bus and began working our way from the north end of the island to the south end to the city of Puerto Ayora, about a 45-minute ride away.

A view looking back toward Puerto Ayora from the landing dock near our hotel.
A view looking back toward Puerto Ayora from the landing dock near our hotel.

Our guide, Mario, gave us some historical background as we traveled. Along the way we made three stops. The first was at what’s know as The Twins. The Twins are two large sinkholes left behind by the lava when the island was forming. They are circular and I would estimate each had a diameter of around 300-400 feet and were perhaps half that deep. Vegetation was growing in the bottom and along the steep sides. They were within walking distance of each other and the road we traveled on went directly down the middle of a solid strip of land between them.

One of the sink holes known as the Twins.
One of the sink holes known as the Twins.
The other Twin.
The other Twin.

While we were at the Twins a light rain began to fall, cooling us off in the 90-degree heat. Unfortunately the rain made our next two stops a little muddy. The first stop was at a visitor center where a number of the large land tortoises roam the meadows outside. These tortoises are one of the creatures the islands are known for. Males grow to be 500-600 pounds. They are protected and can roam free wherever they desire on the entire island. In our travels it was not uncommon to see one along side the road. There were two tortoises within a short walking distance of the center. Boots were provided, however, there were none that fit me so I did without.

Dawn with one of the tortoises.
Dawn with one of the tortoises.

After spending a half hour with the tortoises we were treated to lunch. We boarded the bus and headed to our third stop, a lava tunnel not far away.

The lava tunnel was formed by a river of molten lava traveling through hardened lava making its way to the sea. When the flow subsided it left behind a tunnel about 30-feet in diameter that we were allowed to go down into. Mario again supplied the natural history lesson for the spot.

Our group inside the lava cave.
Our group inside the lava cave.

Back on the bus and off to Puerto Ayora. This is the largest city in the entire archipelago with a population of around 10,000. It is located on the very southern tip of Santa Cruz Island, the second largest island in the Galapagos.

Along the way we passed many small farms. Mario told us that Santa Cruz is only 80 percent national park land and the remainder is privately owned. The landowners, however, must live with the wild creatures that roam the island that are protected and they can not harm them.

Once in Puerto Ayora we discovered there are no roads out into the countryside. There are the city streets and a handful of main roads on the island but that is all. In order to get to our hotel we would have to take a panga or water taxi. The hotel operated its own taxi service so we waited a short while for one to arrive. We got ourselves and our luggage on the panga and off we went for a short ride to another dock. There we disembarked and began a five to 10-minute walk to our hotel. It was a challenge in the heat so we took our time and eventually arrived at the hotel.

One of the pangas or water taxis.
One of the pangas or water taxis.
When we arrived at the loading dock near our hotel the rocks were covered with Sally Lightfoot crabs.
When we arrived at the loading dock near our hotel the rocks were covered with Sally Lightfoot crabs.

Along the way we encountered our first group of marine iguanas, which are found nowhere else in the world except in the Galapagos Islands. The marine iguanas dive into the ocean and graze on seaweed, which grows on the rocks in shallow waters along the shores. Once they’ve eaten their fill they return to land and bask in the warm sun. The ones we ventured upon were basking. Males can grow to be about five-feet long while females get only about three-feet long but those we saw were only about two and a half-feet long. Marine iguanas developed their ability to dive to depths of 45 feet for nearly a half hour in an effort to avoid over competition for food on land.

Marine iguanas outside out hotel at Finch Bay.
Marine iguanas outside out hotel at Finch Bay.

The wooded walkway across the beach in front of our hotel was destroyed in the tsunami that resulted from the Japanese earthquake a few weeks earlier and so made hauling our luggage even more challenging. Crews were working on restoring the boardwalk but progress was quite slow and I will leave it at that.

Our hotel has only 21 rooms and only four have ocean views and we had one of those. From our deck we looked directly out over the beach and across the tiny bay, Finch Bay, leading out to the larger bay.

The beach in front of our hotel.
The beach in front of our hotel.
Looking toward the bay from the deck off our room at Finch Bay.
Looking toward the bay from the deck off our room at Finch Bay.

We settled in to our accommodations and showered to get some of the sweat off before we went down to the bar at poolside. Dinner was served from 7 to 9 p.m. only and with losing a time zone in our travels west 7 p.m. was really 8 p.m. our time so we were ready for dinner.

Dinner was very fancy, and always very good. It always began with an appetizer served with fresh made bread and butter. The butter tray not only had butter but one compartment had a dipping oil as well and beneath the dipping oil was a drawing made with wine dribbled into a design. One night it was a very fancy rose another just the initials FB for Finch Bay. Soup followed the appetizer. Next we were given a choice of two meat entrees, one usually fish or seafood of some type and the other a meat dish and a third was a vegetarian choice. After the entrée were could choose from two desserts, one was always a fruit assortment and the other was something quite decadent.

Back in our room there was no TV, clock or radio. Just a phone so we could get a wake up call.

Remember again we are very near the equator and sundown is roughly 6 p.m. and sunrise is 6 a.m. We hit the sack and were awaken early by a bird chattering outside our patio doors. Breakfast was included and was always a buffet of traditional foods as well as island and Ecuadorian specialties.

I guess this portion of our adventure is longer than I anticipated so I guess I’ll have to add a part four. Until next time, happy travels.