Monday, June 8, 2015

Gadding around the Galapagos

Active Galapagos tour [from]
At San Cristobal airport, the official snapped his blue latex gloves and beckoned us out of the immigration queue. For a moment I had nervous thoughts about body cavities and Galapagos biohazard restrictions. But then he motioned us to the head of the queue, indicating that my walking stick and obvious decrepitude gave us priority.

You really need to join an organised tour to explore the Galapagos, since you can only visit the national park areas with a guide. This means either  a boat based tour where you stay on a motorised yacht that cruises to the different islands, or a land based tour staying in hotels in the towns on the islands. Of course, if you're really environmentally responsible, you stay at home, avoid contributing to carbon miles and tourism impact (180 000 year hit the Galapagos), and watch David Attenborough's excellent Galapagos video series.

We persuade ourselves that our bike commuting justifies an occasional long haul flight, and battling seasickness in the confines of a motorised yacht didn't make a boat based tour attractive. So we went with an Intrepid Active Galapagos tour, which promised walking, biking, kayaking and snorkeling on four of the islands. Only trouble was that as our departure date approached, my hip pains got worse, and I was feeling less and less active. To cap it off, I started developing a cold the week before I left - with my depleted immune system this is now often the precursor to a lung infection and a stay in hospital. Our old tramping friend Mike who was planning to join us had similar problems - a treadmill test a couple of days before departure resulted in a major reduction in his insurance cover for heart related events. Mike wisely went for the Attenborough option, but I got a bunch of antibiotics and decided to go. Marg bookmarked the hospital admissions section of the phrasebook.
Intrepid descent of the Quito Basilica spire.
It took a couple of days in Quito to adjust to the 2800m altitude, but by the time we met up with our group and our Quito based guide David, I'd sort of acclimatised and shaken off the cold. David checked whether we were truly "Active" by leading us on a walking tour of the old town, which included a dizzying ascent on flimsy ladders to the central tower of the Basilica. Next day we flew to the Galapagos, and our queue jumping at San Cristobal airport.

Our guide, Juan Zambonino, known as Zambo, was a youthful but knowledgeable Galapagos naturalist. After a brief stop to unpack at our base for the next couple of days, Casa de Nelly, we walked down to the shore and into town. I'd been concerned that on a land based tour we wouldn't see as much wildlife as on a boat based tour. But just on the trip to lunch we saw frigate birds, blue footed boobies, Sally Lightfoot crabs, sea lions, and herons.
"We preserve what is ours" - a sea lion preserves its seating spot on the San Cristobal waterfront
Sea lions were ubiquitous everywhere in the Galapagos, and seem to have achieved a great lifestyle. Apart from the occasional geographically confused orca, they don't have natural predators, and the Humboldt current sweeps fish from along the South American seaboard and out to deliver a constant stream of tasty morsels to the Galapagos. The narrator of Kurt Vonnegut's 1985 novel Galapagos is a human from a million years in the future when people have evolved into something very equivalent to sea lions - the narrator blames the overcomplexity of the human brain as the reason why it took so long to reach this state of perfection.

That afternoon we picked up bikes from "the Darwin shop - since 1835" - and indeed some of the bikes looked like they may have been rented to Charlie Darwin on his 1835 velocipede tour of the island. We biked over to La Loberia beach, a popular Sunday afternoon destination for local families, not just human but also sea lion and iguana. Snorkeling was rewarding - lots of equatorial fish, and some lucky snorkelers had a turtle encounter.
Beach life at La Loberia
Next day we boarded a boat for Isla Lobos, a low scrub covered island just up the coast from the town. There's a rule that tourists are supposed to stay 2m from wildlife, but no one had told the young sea lion lolling on the landing jetty, so we gingerly stepped past it.
Isla Lobos landing
Keeping 2m from the marine iguana, Isla Lobos
Spots of scarlet in the scrub were male frigate birds, advertising that their nests were open homes. The impressive puffed chests require a significant investment of energy - 45 minutes to inflate, 30 to deflate. Simply catching fish must be restful by comparison.
Male frigate bird
A pair of blue footed boobies, a bit like NZ gannets that had had an  encounter with a Resene paint tray, unselfconsciously strutted their stuff for us. I was a bit disturbed by the smelly brown deposits along the trail - surely our fellow tourists weren't that careless in their toileting? Zambo enlightened me - just sea lions doing their thing.
Blue footed boobies on Isla Lobos

Back on the boat, we donned snorkels and masks and dived in to follow Zambo along the shore. Apart from the bright yellow tailed angel fish and the kina-like sea urchins, from the water we had good views of nesting pelicans and herons. Our route, though, needed to take a wide berth around a cove occupied by a territorial alpha male sea lion.
Parrotfish off Isla Lobos
In the Wellington Film Festival we'd seen the Galapagos Affair - about several groups of Europeans who settled on Floreana Island in the 1930s, with mysterious and tragic consequences. So we were keenly anticipating  the next day, a 3 hour speed boat ride to Floreana.
1930s article on Floreana Island []
Maybe we'd find answers to questions like (a) "how come the vegetarian doctor was poisoned by chicken soup?" and (b) "Did the Baroness disappear to Tahiti, or was she summarily executed on a cliff top?". At Floreana, sea lions and equatorial penguins gamboled by the breakwater, and we walked around to Black Beach, where there is still a hotel run by the Wittmer's, one of the 1930's settler families. I'd read Margaret Wittmer's Floreana, and thought I saw her philosophy reflected in the saying over one of the hotel doors, "If you help yourself, God helps you".

We had lunch (serendipitously chicken soup wasn't on the menu) and ambled back to the wharf, The original Galapagos mail service was a mail box on Floreana Island - people dropped mail in it, and passing ships would pick up and deliver. Today people still check the post box for mail to deliver to their home country.
Marg and Heather check the mail, Floreana
For the record, local consensus on the Floreana mystery questions is (a) "Yeah Right (in the Tui billboard sense)" and (b) "definitely the clifftop".

Another 2 hours of pounding the waves saw us at Isabela Island, our home for the next couple of days. Isabela is one of the geologically newer islands, formed by a string of several volcanoes, the northernmost one of which erupted shortly after our stay. our tour group climbed Sierra Negre, the southernmost volcano. I decided, to Zambo's relief, that my hip wasn't up to the ascent, and hired a bike instead. "Watch out for thorns - they puncture the tires easily" said the woman at the bike shop. My objective was the Wall of Tears, a stone wall built by prisoners in the 1940's and 1950's when Ecuador saw the Galapagos as a place to exile undesirables, rather than a ecotourism goldmine.
"To those who suffered and died" Wall of Tears, Isla Isabela.
The road ran about 7km along the coast, passing the picturesque town cemetery, lagoons, an iguana nesting area, surf spots, and a lava tunnel.
Isabela cemetery

Adult marine iguana stands guard at nesting area
I occasionally had to dodge Iguana basking on the gravel road, although despite the "don't touch tortoises" signs the route seemed to be tortoise free. I paused to climb a small hill with a view back up the coast, accompanied by frisky lava lizards. At the Wall, which seems to have had no purpose other than making prisoners move large rocks around, I rested in the shade, and snapped away at the local birdlife.
Galapagos mocking bird, Isla Isabela
Yellow warbler, Isla Isabela
Back in town the bike had developed a slow puncture "I didn't ride over any thorns" I told the bike shop guy. "What's this then?" he said as he extracted several thorns from the tires. "oh!"

Marg was back at the hotel, buzzing from the views of lava flows and the massive caldera on Sierra Negre.
Marg on Sierra Negre
Next day we were back on the water, exploring Tintoreras Island just off shore. Penguins, descended from Antarctic ancestors swept up the South American coast by the Humboldt current, shared rock space with Blue footed boobies. We snorkeled along the sheltered side of the island. At one stage I surfaced by a rocky dropoff to find a penguin peering quizzically down at me. Pelicans hung out hopefully beside a fishing boat where the crew were gutting their catch.
Penguin and booby, Tintoreras
Tourist and pelican, Tintoreras
Galapagos' penguins, a bit larger than the Blue Penguins I help monitor in Wellington, are the most northerly penguins in the world, and are victims of climate change - they're dependent on La Nina currents to bring fish from colder regions, and the increasing frequency of El Nino patterns has caused periodic famine. It's a grim thought that the fossil carbon we spew into the atomsphere to reach places like the Galapagos ultimately threatens the wildlife we come to see.
Flamingo, Isabela
In the afternoon we admired the flamingos that have populated a flooded quarry, and visited the Isabela tortoise centre, where tortoises are hatched and spend the first three years of their life before being released into the wild. Although the giant tortoises are icons for the Galapagos, they're not secure. Although passing ships no longer stock up on tortoises for dual duty as ballast and long term meat supply, imported pests and human activity continue to threaten them. The tortoises on Isabela, for example, are only just recovering from a plague of goats - goats can browse higher up a tree than a tortoise, and it took several years of helicopter shooting to restore the habitat.
Baby Galapagos tortoise demonstrates its egg escape technique - when it reaches maturity in 2055 it will weigh in at a quarter tonne.
Always one that doesn't follow the crowd. Isabela Tortoise Centre
For our last morning on Isabela, we kayaked out to Tintoreras, getting another close look at the penguins, herons, and boobies.
Kayaking off Tintoreras
A couple of hours speedboating - by this stage we'd got our sealegs and sick bags were no longer in demand - took us to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, the largest town and Zambo's home.

They even have protected bike lanes!
Bike lane, Puerto Ayora
Next morning Marg and I had an early snorkel at Playa Estacion, close to the Darwin Research Station. A brown shape sped past me, did a quick turn and I was face to face with a sea lion. After a few seconds it decided I was too big to eat, but too ungainly to be a threat, flicked its tail and headed off in search of breakfast.

A bus trip into the Santa Cruz highlands, via a coffee roasting shop, took us to a dairy farm. As it happens our group had a preponderance of dairy farmers, who enjoyed checking out Ecuadorian farming practices, until it was pointed out to them to we were here to see the Giant Tortoises that also roam the farmland. Although it takes them 25 years to reach sexual maturity, the tortoises seem to make the most of it - the quick way to identify a female is by the wear marks on the shell from the three hour mating sessions.
Santa Cruz tortoise
Marg explores the lava tunnels
Volcanic origins mean that the Galapagos are laced with lava tunnels, formed by air bubbles as the lava cooled, and we got to troop through some fine examples before busing to lunch at Fundar Galapagos, where we learned about their environmental  work supported in part by Intrepid.

In the afternoon we walked through opuntia forest to Tortuga Bay, a golden stretch of beach and Zambo's favourite surf spot, dampened somewhat by the onset of unseasonable heavy rain. Back in town the harbourside park had flooded, and the local lads were enjoying sliding down a sloping wall and into the water.
Surf scene Santa Cruz, Tortuga Bay
Next day was the last on the Galapagos. We had a dawn tour of the Darwin Research Station, getting to see a yellow land iguana, and visiting the female companions of Lonesome George, the last known Pinta Giant Tortoise who died in 2012, unfortunately without passing on his DNA. This musical tribute to George is touching.

A bus ride across the island took us to the small ferries that connect to the airport on Baltra Island - originally a WW2 US airbase for patrols seeking U boats. Intrepid has a philosophy of using local transport where possible, though we'd largely avoided this so far. We made up for this in the crush to get on the airport bus - "use your elbows" Zambo commanded as he lead us forward.
Airport ferry, Baltra
Soon we were back in Quito where the air hadn't got any thicker. A final dinner with the group, and the tour phase was over. Although we'd enjoyed the well organised tour and our interesting companions, it was a bit of relief the next morning to get up when we felt like it, and decide for ourselves where and when we were going. We got a taxi up to the Ophelia bus station, and the bus to Mindo in the cloud forest west of Quito.

The route to Mindo involved crossing the equator, at the Mitad del Mundo "middle of the earth". Crossing the equator used to be a big deal - on ships a crew member dressed up as Neptune dunked equatorial newbies with sea water or worse. Fortunately our bus conductor was too busy to organise a ceremony, instead drumming up extra custom, running alongside the bus with cries of "Al Mindo, Al Mindo" at the bus stops.

At Mindo we stayed at the Dragonfly Inn, run by a jovial giant German and his petite Ecuadorian partner. A babbling brook ran past the deck where we could knock back  a beer while watching the hummingbirds dart around the sugar water feeders. Best of all, at 1200m I was no longer gasping for breath at every step.
Hummingbirds, Mindo
Hummingbird sculpture, Mindo
Next day we got a taxi up to the Tarabita cableway, a version of the classic NZFS river crossing solution, except that it whisks you half a kilometre across a bush clad gorge to a series of tracks linking pretty waterfalls, very reminiscent of the Waitakeres with even a few tree ferns thrown in.
Cascada Ondinas, Tarabita

Canine passenger, Tarabita cableway
A dog came padding along the track and hopped confidently into the cablecar, acting as if he had a season ticket. "is he yours?" asked the operator, as  bemused as we were, before heading back with his canine passenger. Later on our return trip we have a small world moment when Marg notices that the woman sitting opposite is wearing a St Clair Half Marathon T shirt, the same run that our daughter had done some weeks earlier. Sure enough, she's a Cantabrian on her OE.

Back in town, a big semitrailer, courtesy of the Ministry of Culture and Patrimony, has been parked across the main street and is being converted into a sound stage for the talent quest component of the annual Fiesta that starts that evening.
Mobile sound stage, Mindo
Next day we explored the Yellow House tracks, bush tracks on farmland leading up to a lookout from where we could hear the Fiesta drumming  practice in the valley below. Marg had spotted a Toucan doing a flypast on a previous visit, but it clearly had an urgent appointment for a Guinness ad, and wasn't available that day. We did however see a bright blue morpho butterfly fluttering along the track, and a raptor (I thought about an Andean condor, but more likely a turkey vulture) wheeling overhead.
Dairyman, Mindo
Morpho butterfly, underwing
Morpho butterfly, top wing
We headed over to the Mariposa butterfly farm for lunch. Here several hundred butterflies flutter around a netting enclosure, and can be persuaded to settle on your finger if you dip a bit of banana juice on it.

That evening the demands of the Fiesta trailer blew the town electricity supply, so our hotel staff spent the evening dashing between taking food orders and tending to the temperamental generator.

Next day it was time to start the trek home. We caught the early bus back to Quito and the Real Audiencia Hotel on the Plaza San Domingo in the old town. I was still no better at altitude so Marg did the sightseeing for both of us, though I did manage a dusk taxi ride to the Winged Virgin overlooking the town, Quito's answer to Rio's Christ the Redeemer.
Virgin of Quito
On the flight back across the Pacific, I watched the Morgan Freeman/ Jack Nicholson Bucket List movie, in which two men with terminal cancer work through a list of things to do before they die. When asked why we were going to the Galapagos, I'd flippantly said that it was ticking off another destination from the Bucket list. Of course, it was a lot more than that: the wildlife, the evolution connection, the mysteries of Floreana. But day after we got back, the doctor scowled as he scanned my Myeloma test results. "There's a limit to how long we can keep pulling rabbits out of hats, you know". So perhaps the bucket list wasn't that far from the truth.

More photos of the trip on Flickr


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