|Active Galapagos tour [from http://www.intrepidtravel.com/]|
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.|
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|
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|
|Isla Lobos landing|
|Keeping 2m from the marine iguana, Isla Lobos|
|Male frigate bird|
|Blue footed boobies on Isla Lobos|
|Parrotfish off Isla Lobos|
|1930s article on Floreana Island [http://coaliciongranadilla.com/]|
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|
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.|
|Adult marine iguana stands guard at nesting area|
|Galapagos mocking bird, Isla Isabela|
|Yellow warbler, Isla Isabela|
Marg was back at the hotel, buzzing from the views of lava flows and the massive caldera on Sierra Negre.
|Marg on Sierra Negre|
|Penguin and booby, Tintoreras|
|Tourist and pelican, Tintoreras|
|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|
|Kayaking off Tintoreras|
They even have protected bike lanes!
|Bike lane, Puerto Ayora|
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|
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|
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|
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.
|Hummingbird sculpture, Mindo|
|Cascada Ondinas, Tarabita|
|Canine passenger, Tarabita cableway|
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|
|Morpho butterfly, underwing|
|Morpho butterfly, top wing|
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|
More photos of the trip on Flickr