Galapagos Islands Day 5: Isla Santa Cruz a.k.a. the Day of the Tortoises

We called him Hank. (photo: TC)

We called him Hank. (photo: TC)

This day was the Day. The Day my TC and I had been waiting for. The reason we flew thousands of kilometres to Ecuador, and on to the Galapagos. This day, on Isla Santa Cruz, was the Day of the Tortoises.

This day started earlier than our previous days on the Monserrat, with breakfast served at 6:00 am and our “go to shore” time set for 7:00. For those of us who weren’t continuing the cruise (which was everyone but my TC and I; even our guide Jose was leaving us), there was only a little time to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station at the outskirts of Puerto Ayora before speeding away in a bus for the Baltra airport.

The work of the Charles Darwin Research Station ( is incredibly important to the survival of the unique and varied species that call the Galapagos Islands home. It also ended up being the only place we saw a land iguana during our trip (like the marine iguanas but larger and yellow!). That said, after experiencing so many incredible species in the wild, viewing iguanas and tortoises in captivity was…anticlimactic. Had Lonesome George still been alive, I may have felt differently (as it was, we paid our respects at his old enclosure), but I wanted to see tortoises just, y’know, out there. Being tortoises. Doing tortoise stuff (I also wanted to take a tortoise home with me but I knew that wasn’t going to happen).

Once everyone (and I mean everyone) else was packed into a bus bound for the airport, TC and I were left by the side of the road with a vague promise that a dinghy from the Monserrat would meet us at the main pier around 11:30, and that the main pier was “that way”. Huh.

As it turns out, Puerto Ayora, though the largest town in the Galapagos, is not a metropolis by any means. There is really only one main drag, so TC and I followed it past souvenir shops and restaurants, construction pits and tourism offices. Within 15 minutes we had reached the main pier at Puerto Ayora, with over two hours to kill.

Greater adventurers than us may have used those two hours to go on various capers–TC and I were just happy to be alone (even in public) and have unscheduled time on our hands. Time to sit on a bench and look at all the photos we had saved so far on our cameras. Time to putter around and buy postcards and use pay toilets. Time to sit on a bench again and eat some potato chips.

By the time the dinghy came for us we were more than ready to return to the boat, enjoy a nap and a long shower, have lunch (once again, gloriously alone), and sit on the deck in the sun while we waited for the next group of passengers to arrive.

Sounds nice, you say, but what about the tortoises? Good point, what ABOUT the tortoises? Well, once our new group was settled in, we went back to Puerto Ayora, boarded a bus, and headed off to the Rancho Primicias in Santa Cruz’s highlands. The Rancho Primicias is a private ranch next to the El Chato Tortoise Reserve. Giant tortoises wander in from the reserve, and the owners of the ranch are content to let the tortoises trundle around and eat plants while they (the ranch owners, not the tortoises) collect a small fee from tourists and serve food and coffee at a little cafe on site.

This was IT. Our new guide, Pedro, was incredibly knowledgeable and while all I wanted to do was run around the whole ranch screaming “Tortoises! TORTOISES!” I managed to learn a lot in spite of myself.

There is nothing quite like watching a giant tortoise in the wild (my poor photography skills and old Sony Cybershot really can’t do them justice). It is incredible–like watching a dinosaur. Unless we got too close, the tortoises seemed pretty indifferent to people, and mostly ignored us while they bathed in the mud or slooooowly stretched their long wrinkly necks to chomp on some weeds. FYI, the tortoises on Santa Cruz are dome-shelled tortoises, and they are so awesome it hurts.

P.S. Fun facts about Santa Cruz tortoise reproduction:

  • Male tortoises are larger than female tortoises and the shell on their belly is concave, allowing them to mount the female (and stay there mating for up to four hours).
  • The bigger male gets the girl. If they are the same size, they stretch their necks out. If they still seem to be the same size, they stand up. If they still seem to be the same size, they fight with swords (that part isn’t true).
  • Females mate every few years. To test the fitness of her partner, she will continuously attempt to run away during mating to make sure he’s got it in him.
  • Once pregnant, the female will leave the Santa Cruz highlands to lay her eggs on the beach. It will take her about thirty days to walk from the highlands to the beach. Once her eggs are laid in her nest in the sand, she walks back up to the highlands (another thirty days).
  • Those baby tortoises that are not picked off by birds of prey somehow figure out how to make their way up to the highlands (where the tortoises like to live) and the circle of life continues.

Romantic, eh?

Quito for Quitters

Quito rooftops

Hola! It’s been two days since the TC and I returned from Ecuador/the Galapagos Islands and we seem to have brought with us the nastiest colds that could ever befall a body. Fantastic.

We also brought home lots of dirty laundry, lots of photos, and lots of mind-blowing experiences. Our trip was so removed from the everyday lives we lead in Vancouver that it will take me awhile to process and write about it all. So I’ve decided to break it down. This post will be devoted to the approximately five days (two and a half before the Galapagos and two and a half days after) that TC and I spent in mainland Ecuador, i.e. in Quito, Ecuador’s capital.

The city of Quito is nestled high in the Andes, at an elevation of 2800 metres above sea level. Given its high altitude, travellers to Quito often experience altitude sickness for at least the first couple of days that they are in the city. Since there was really no way of knowing beforehand whether the altitude might affect us (or how badly), my TC and I arranged to stay in the Old Town and pretty much take it easy. This turned out to be a good plan, as our colds combined with a lack of oxygen left us fatigued and lightheaded through both our stays in the city (neither of which were long enough to allow us to acclimatize).

For this reason, I can’t give a full report on the charming colonial city of Quito, much as I would have liked to. We didn’t see enough of it. We were too damn dizzy so we gave up on our more ambitious plans (even climbing a cathedral tower or visiting a museum were ambitious plans for people in our condition). What I can provide, however, is “Quito for Quitters”.

Even for quitters like us (who spent more time lying in bed at the hotel than we would have liked), the city has its share of sights and atmosphere. Wandering the streets of colonial Old Town was really my only goal for our time in Quito, and it is a goal that delivers; winding lanes full of women selling mandarin oranges and lottery tickets are crisscrossed by one-way streets packed with taxis and buses, and it seems there’s an old church on every corner.

Keep in mind that churches in Old Town aren’t just any old churches–Quito’s Catholic iglesias are about as ornate as they come. Since I got a bit “cathedral-ed out” travelling through Portugal and Spain last autumn we only visited three of the seven major churches packed into the area (all within walking distance of one another):

  1. The Monastery of San Francisco looms over the Plaza San Francisco and (according to my Lonely Planet) is Ecuador’s oldest church. The interior is a little faded but still dazzlingly opulent, in that shiny but gloomy Catholic sort of way. It was interesting to see the way in which the decorative wood in the ceilings resembled the star-patterned wood ceilings of the Moorish Nasrid Palace of Spain’s Alhambra.
  2. Just down the street and a little north from the Plaza San Francisco is the Jesuit church La Compania de Jesus. Our driver from the airport had pointed it out on the way to our first hotel. He said the entire interior of the church is covered in gold. It is. You really have to see it to believe it. The interior of that church is absolutely covered in gold.


  3. The Gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional is relatively new (construction began in 1926). I felt it lacked some of the soul-tapping je ne sais quoi that spaces like churches acquire over the centuries, but it was an otherwise imposing and impressive building. One really nifty detail was the use of lizards and tortoises, instead of gargoyles, on the church’s exterior. We apparently could have had a very interesting (and slightly white-knuckled) climb up the bell tower, but unfortunately TC and I were wiped from our uphill trek just to see the Basilica itself; it was all we could do not to fall asleep in the pews so we gave the steep staircases and ladders a pass.

Though we spent most of our time in the winding streets of Old Town (when not resting back in our room), TC and I did reach for even loftier heights by riding the TeleferiQo up the side of the Volcan Pichincha (a dormant volcano). This required us to take a taxi up to the western edge of the city. After ripping us off, our driver dumped us at the gates of what appeared to be an empty, volcano-themed amusement park, complete with creepy happy Spanish music screeching from a metal box mounted on a lamp post and echoing around the vacant lot we stood in.

At first, we thought there’d been a mistake. Quito’s TeleferiQo had been a multi-million dollar project. Why were we standing outside an empty amusement park, in a weed-covered plaza, flanked by abandoned buildings and rusty signage? The Lonely Planet had advised us to arrive early to beat the long lines for the cable cars, especially on weekends. It was about 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday, but there wasn’t a soul in sight. Our cab was long gone, and that creepy music just kept playing.

When on a mountainside, you can go up, you can go down, or you can go sideways. We did not want to go sideways into “Volcano Park”, so we decided to climb a staircase on the edge of the plaza, and once at the top (thoroughly winded I might add), we were able to see the TeleferiQo and the large ticket office adjacent. Foreigners pay double fare compared to Ecuadorians, but they are also fast-tracked in an express line it seems. Since there was still hardly anyone around, within 5-10 minutes we were in a cable car and heading another kilometre or so skyward (to an elevation of 4100 metres).

The view was incredible. I wasn’t so interested in seeing Quito from above (besides noting that it is very big, over 40 km long apparently and only 6 km wide in some places, depending on how it can squeeze in between the mountains), but I was enraptured by the green valleys and mountains to the west. I had one of those moments where I thought to myself Wow, I am in South America. And I would squeeze my TC’s hand and say Wow, we are in South America. It was an amazing feeling.

We were exhausted. And light headed a lot of the time. And altitude sick. And plain old sick sick. But damn it, we were in an old colonial city, nestled in the Andes, in South America. And that’s pretty amazing.