Galapagos Islands Day 6: Islas Santiago and Bartolome (a.k.a. the moon and Mars)

Yesterday as I was complaining about the cold that is currently mushing my brain, my co-worker mentioned to me that the last time I had a bad cold was after my trip to the Galapagos Islands. By golly, she was right! I did get a cold in the Galapagos (probably from all the snorkeling and the fact that nothing that got wet ever dried). On Day 6 of our trip I began to get a nasty nasty cold that rendered my ability to process the crazy terrain of Isla Santiago and Isla Bartolome pretty much nil. The best my observational skills could come up with was, “This looks like the moon. I want to run around on it.” or, “This looks like Mars. I want to run around on it.” But still. Recognizing that you are somewhere that looks like it belongs on a different celestial body is pretty bitchin’. No complaints here.

So now, for your viewing pleasure (because I am too sick to write well and because I don’t think I could do justice to the lava field at Sullivan Bay or the view from the top of Isla Bartolome even if I wasn’t), I give you the Islas Santiago and Bartolome! Enjoy the results of volcanic activity and pretend you are looking at a lunarscape or the best real estate on planet Mars.

I’ve always loved clambering around on rocks so the lava field at Sullivan Bay on Isla Santiago (only a hundred years old or so) allowed me to indulge this particular compulsion almost fully. (Really giving in would have meant leaping and bounding away across the lava-y horizon, likely breaking my ankle and screaming until TC managed to find me in that big black expanse, and then TC having to carry me back to shore and he wouldn’t like it, so I just stayed with the group. Phooey.)

The hike to the volcanic summit of Bartolome was a lot more contained and did not allow for reckless clambering over lava, however, it was very educational (I learned about spatter cones!), and pretty effing cool. Huge chunks of red porous rock littered the slopes of the islet. Our guide Pedro called them “lava bombs”–lumps of molten rock that had been spit out by the volcano and had, for the most part, been lying in pretty much the same place since. Basically, the entire landscape, EVERYTHING, came from inside a volcano. If that’s not enough to make a person mildly interested in geology I don’t know what is.

The view from the top of Bartolome is stunning. Pinnacle Rock looms in the distance, leaning precariously over the sea. Wanna know why that pointy shaft of rock is separated so awkwardly from the mainland like that? Before telling us, Pedro checked to make sure that none of us were Americans. We weren’t, so here’s the story: Pinnacle Rock used to just be part of a big rock hill that sloped towards the water. When the US military stationed themselves in the Galapagos during WWII, they decided to shell the hill for practice. Eventually, the structure of the rock weakened and a big chuck broke away. And so that is how the United States of America created one of the most famous land formations in the Galapagos Islands. The end.

So not natural at all. Still makes for a beautiful photo though.

But the day wasn’t all barren lava fields and geology (though that’s all I took photos of). In the morning we sat in a dinghy while a group of 15-20 dolphins jumped and played all around us. I don’t think any dolphin show in any marine park could ever compare to watching pairs and triplets of wild dolphins leaping and diving for the sheer joy of it. Some of them had fish in their mouths. Some of them had babies (BABY DOLPHINS!). A few of our ship mates were taking photos but TC and I knew that if we hid behind a lens, we’d miss something amazing, so we decided that this moment was just for us.

The other moment that was just for me came while I was snorkeling off the beach near Pinnacle Rock. I rounded a point and surfaced. There, standing on the rock just a metre or so away from me, was a Galapagos penguin. There was no dinghy or naturalist guide this time to distance the experience. Just me, and this penguin. He stood on his rock and I floated in the water and though all I wanted to do was reach out and try to somehow own this rare wild creature and my experience with him, there is nothing in this world that could have made me disturb him, or break the strange and incredible trust Galapagos wildlife has in humanity.

It’s enough to break a heart.

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?

Galapagos Islands Day 4: Isla Floreana and the Mystery of la Baronesa

F01FloreanaIslandIt is my intention (despite my two-week hiatus to write about other things) to document each day of our trip to the Galapagos on this blog. Why? Because a travel opportunity like this comes but once in a lifetime and I feel this incredible experience requires thorough processing on my part. Besides, it means I get to share more cute photos of sea lions. SEA LIONS!

F06SeaLionThough I will agree that the Galapagos archipelago is indeed a paradise, it is far from lush, at least not everywhere. The most striking feature of Isla Floreana is its emptiness. Even the sky seemed blank and grey on this Wednesday morning. The island was quiet too. A sea lion or two slept on the sand and a few sally lightfoot crabs skittered on the rocks but otherwise we had to learn about Floreana’s other fauna through landmarks and traces: this is the lagoon where flamingos search for shrimp. These are the tracks left by a sea turtle on her way to her nest.

Marine tortoise tracks

Sea turtle tracks

The cracked earth, forbidding rocks, and mist-shrouded highlands provided a perfect backdrop for our guide Jose to tell us the story of “la Baronesa” and the other German settlers who took up residence on Floreana in the 1930s:

La Baronesa (a German baroness) caused a stir when she arrived on the island with her three lovers. Life on the barren Floreana was far from decadent and according to Jose, la Baronesa used her feminine wiles to obtain food and other necessary goods from among the male settler population (and not just among her own lovers). One man who was taken in was a Mr. Wittmer, who farmed in the highlands with his wife Margaret. La Baronesa seduced Wittmer and Margaret threw him out. Wittmer camped by the gates of his compound and begged Margaret to let him back in–this wasn’t necessarily his heart talking, but more than likely his stomach (now that he was cut off from his farm). Hungry and desperate, Wittmer ate the food he found near the compound fence, food which Margaret had poisoned for the rats. Wittmer died.

F02LagoonFloreanaAnd la Baronesa? According to my Lonely Planet, she and one of her lovers simply disappeared. Another lover died in a boating accident. A certain Dr. Rittmer (an eccentric vegetarian who’d had all his teeth removed before sailing for the Galapagos because he wanted to avoid dental problems) mysteriously died from food poisoning after eating chicken (suspicious, don’t you think?). One by one, the settlers died or disappeared under strange circumstances, until only Margaret and her children remained. Her descendents now operate the Hostal Wittmer on Floreana, and though Margaret wrote a book about her experiences, much of what happened to those early settlers remains unexplained.

The lagoon by which we heard the tale of "La Baronesa"

The lagoon by which we heard the tale of “La Baronesa”


Post Office Bay

Post Office Bay

Tales of mystery and seduction aside, our visit to Floreana was marked by two more highlights. The first was a visit to Post Office Bay. Post Office Bay is so-called because it boasts a small barrel with a little roof and a little door, mounted on a post. This little “post office” operates through the kindness of travelers. When you bring an addressed postcard to leave in the post box, it is expected that you will go through the postcards already there. If you live in or near the city the card is addressed to, it is considered polite for you to deliver it yourself (TC and I couldn’t find any for BC but took a couple for Eugene, Oregon….I hear it’s nice down there). We addressed a card to ourselves and promptly forgot all about it, thinking we’d likely never see it again. The other week, a nice gentleman from White Rock knocked on the door and handed TC our post card, safe and sound from Isla Floreana. What a system!


Galapagos cotton, Floreana

The lack of flamingos during our morning hike was made up for by our afternoon dinghy ride. At this point TC and I had gone on a lot of dinghy rides and that was no big whoop in itself, but when our boat stopped beside a little rocky islet off Floreana’s coast we saw two Galapagos penguins. I don’t think I ever thought I would see penguins in the wild. Galapagos penguins are tiny and adorable and when they swim they look like ducks. They are also the most northerly penguins in the world and the only species of penguins that lives in the tropics.

Oh my god! Penguins!

Oh my god! Penguins!

I was beginning to think there was nothing the Galapagos couldn’t show me.

Galapagos Islands Day 3: Isla Española

Our third day in the Galapagos was a wildlife day. Española Island is a wild place. First, another beautiful beach. Gardner Bay is famous (as most of the Galapagos is famous, I’m sure, in one way or another) for its huge expanse of white sand and the hundreds of sea lions lounging there. And not just sea lions, sea lion pups: sleeping, feeding, mewling when their mothers left their side to go swim. One pup was so new he still had his umbilical cord hanging beneath him (we also saw a placenta on the beach).

Española Island does not have a fresh water supply so the mockingbirds here survive by drinking sea lion urine (ew!) and eating sea lion placenta (ew!). According to our guide Jose, about ten years or so ago tourists used to give water to the mockingbirds from their water bottles. Even though the National Park has stopped the practice (in its attempt to keep humans from altering the natural lifestyles of the wildlife), mockingbirds on Española still become very interested in you if you look or sound like you are drinking from a water bottle (case in point, when TC raised his long-lens camera to his face, a mockingbird flew at it thinking it was a bottle). The crackle of plastic will also get them pretty excited. Too bad mockingbirds. The Park says no. It’s back to the sea lion urine for you.

Española also has marine iguanas. At Gardner Bay we saw about three, far out towards the water and almost impossible to see against the black rocks. It’s kind of funny thinking about us all craning and zooming to get a photograph of an iguana that morning. As if we’d never get another chance to photograph one!

Having fallen in love with snorkelling at Ocha Beach the night before, I was excited to go for two short snorkels near Gardner Bay. During the first snorkel I saw a huge stingray and a speedy sea turtle. There were also, of course, nifty urchins, fish, and sea stars. During the second snorkel I SAW A SHARK! It was a white-tipped reef shark (which are rather small and not a threat to humans) but still, I swam right over a GODDAMNED SHARK. If that’s not bad ass I don’t know what is. (Between them, TC and Jose taught me how to dive with my snorkel which also made things pretty darn cool.)

Also bad ass: I cut the heel my hand on a barnacle-y rock. It wasn’t a deep cut but boy did it bleed. When we got back to the yacht it I found it a bit comical to be standing on the deck in my wetsuit while my left hand was being pressed with alcohol-soaked gauze and my right was being offered fruit juice and an empanada. I still have a mark on my hand and I hope I get a scar, so that when people ask about it I can say I got it snorkelling in the Galapagos. I can also add, with a grave look on my face, I saw a shark that day, and let them draw their own conclusions. Bad ass.

In the afternoon we sailed to a different part of Española, Suarez Point, famous for its colonies of boobies and waved albatrosses. If we’d had difficulty getting a good shot of a marine iguana in the morning we had nothing to worry about here. They were everywhere on the rocks, congregating in large groups (and all facing the same way for some reason). A sea lion approached me and brushed my ankle with her whiskers, and a little pup almost walked right into TC’s legs (see video above).

Watching the albatrosses in courtship was really pretty cool. They make a weird popping sound, flap their wings, and do a lot of clicking with their beaks. Though they mate for life, my additional research has revealed that these albatrosses don’t seem to mind “extramarital” affairs, and in several cases, a female’s social mate (i.e. the one that helps her raise her offspring) is not the biological father of the chick. Progressive, I think.

It was only during this post-trip research that I discovered that waved albatrosses are a critically endangered species. Though protected for courtship and nesting in the Galapagos, once they migrate (to Peru for example), they have very little protection from fatal run-ins with fishing boats, etc. Which made seeing them now all the more special.

I’m sure by now you want to know about the boobies. There are three kinds of boobies in the Galapagos but we saw only two during our trip: the Nazca boobies (white with black “accessories”) and the blue footed boobies (easy to recognize for obvious reasons). I’d heard about these blue footed boobies and had found it hard to believe that these birds were actually real. Well, they are real, I’ve seen them. And they are about as blue footed as I’d hoped they’d be.

Complete with iguanas, boobies, and sharks, so far this trip was shaping up to be both nifty and cool, in so many ways.

Sea lion pup, Suarez Point

Galapagos Islands Day 2: Cerro Brujo, Kicker Rock, Ochoa Beach

Made of coral and volcanic ash, the sand of the beaches at Cerro Brujo (aka “Wizard Hill”) on the archipelago’s San Cristobal Island is as white as icing sugar and as soft on the bare feet. Crabs skittering along the shore leave hundreds of small pellets where their claws have scooped the sand in passing. Sea lions swim in turquoise water, roll in the sand, and bask on the black volcanic rocks. Darwin finches and yellow warblers hop unconcerned between them. Just behind the dunes, a freshwater lagoon waits.

On a sunny morning in October, it is a paradise.

[The first eight photos are of the beach at Cerro Brujo, the next is of Kicker Rock, and the rest were taken by my TC at Ochoa Beach.]

My TC and I were overwhelmed by the beauty of this beach. No camera could ever capture just how pure the sand was, how gem-like the water. Our own eyes weren’t enough. Our bare feet weren’t enough as we dug our toes into the soft powder sand. Sea lions, crabs, gleaming tide pools in volcanic rock–no description could really be enough. We were awestruck. What a place.

And what a place to go snorkelling for the first time! I swallowed a lot of sea water but I saw hundreds of colourful fish and even two small spotted eagle rays. The water was full of life, especially when three sea lions decided to play with me. They swam over and around and under me in a sort of game they just seemed to be loving. To share the water with these adorable wild animals was an incredible privilege and one I wouldn’t have jeopardized for the world by doing anything to startle them.

Our second snorkel that day was around the famous Kicker Rock. We had seen this rock from the plane on our way to the Galapagos and TC had said he was going to touch it. And I said, “You can’t touch that rock, it’s way out in the sea.” But touch it we did. This particular snorkel was too much for me. I have an absolute terror of the immensity of the sea, and swimming in water so deep I couldn’t see the bottom made me panic. The water was also quite choppy and for an inexperienced snorkeler who doesn’t know how to deal with seawater splashing down her snorkel and into her mouth, it was all a bit too much. I bailed about two thirds of the way around the rock and waited in the dinghy while TC and a few other brave souls continued the swim with our guide. TC saw sea turtles and I was very jealous. I’d only seen a few urchins and some fish (both very lovely) but had been too panicked to care.

Ochoa Beach made up for it. Worn out by the Kicker Rock snorkel, most of our group stayed on the boat while six of us (guide included) visited Ochoa Beach (still San Cristobal). I wanted to snorkel again and so I did, hand in hand with my TC. And we saw a sea turtle. A beautiful green elegant sea turtle swimming along underneath us. And then I saw more colourful fish. And another sea turtle. And a sting ray. And more sea lions.

As TC and I stood on the beach wrapped in our towels we watched pelicans and frigate birds dive-bomb for fish against the setting sun. It’s really beautiful to watch: the pelicans swoop over the water, then suddenly fold themselves up like origami and drop straight down into the water, only unfolding after they’ve submerged. A perturbed male sea lion barked to make sure we’d stay away from the female nursing two sea lion pups.

Behind us, an orange full moon rose over the trees. Besides the six of us, who weren’t saying much, there was not another human soul on this beach. When we boarded our dinghy to head back to the Monserrat, there was nothing left of us there but dents in the sand.

Each day in the Galapagos brought wonderful things. But this day was my favourite day.

Galapagos Islands Day 1: Isla San Cristobal (Galapaguera)

Blue heron, San Cristobal

The first creature to greet us as we disembarked from our AeroGal flight at the San Cristobal airport was a lizard (which we did not take a photo of because our hands were full of passports and coats). I am tempted to say it was a lava lizard, but as we did not yet have a National Park guide with us to tell us what was what, I can say with certainty only that it was a lizard, and that I was happy to see it.

As we got off the shuttle bus at the marina, we saw our second creature, a gorgeous blue heron (our guide was here now so I am confident in this). Walking towards the pier (to the dinghy that would bring TC and me to the Monserrat Yacht, our home for the next seven nights) I began to suspect that there was something unusual about this port town. The seaside promenade was a bit crowded–with sea lions. Sea lions who didn’t seem to be doing much besides loitering, and didn’t seem to care that they were surrounded by people (though one did bark at me when I got too close). It all seemed a bit too adorable to be real, especially when a sea lion was waiting for us on the stern of our yacht. But if I’ve learned anything about seeing sea lions in the Galapagos, it’s that there’s nothing unusual about it. They love to lounge around in the sun, they aren’t afraid of people, and they don’t seem to mind going to the bathroom wherever they happen to be lying (whether on a sandy beach, a rocky shore, or in a gazebo on the boardwalk).

In the afternoon we saw our first giant tortoises in semi-wild habitat at the Galapaguera Breeding Center, in San Cristobal’s highlands. I was a bit disappointed that we only saw three of them (and in partially captive conditions too) but a giant tortoise is a giant tortoise and words cannot describe how absolutely incredible it is to see these creatures in the flesh (or shell, as it were). Suddenly it feels as though you aren’t really where you are, that someone snuck a TV screen in front of you while you weren’t looking. Are you really looking at a giant tortoise in the Galapagos Islands? Yes. Yes you are. Your mind has just been blown.

Female tortoise, Galapaguera Breeding Center

Baby tortoises, San Cristobal

Fun fact about baby tortoises: their sex is determined by the temperature in which their eggs mature. If you want demure lady tortoises, keep those eggs warm. If you want big man tortoises, cooler eggs are the way to go.

As it turns out, this brief introduction to sea lions and semi-captive tortoises was just a preview. We sailed from the port that night and woke the next morning to the turquoise water, white sand, and black volcanic rock of Cerro Bruno (on a different part of San Cristobal). Our Galapagos adventure had truly begun…

Moonrise on San Cristobal

Galapagos Bound!

Oh backpack. How I’ve missed you.

Well, I’m at it again. Packing for an adventure, that is. This time, I’m taking the TC with me and we are flying to South America to spend two weeks in Ecuador. This will be our first trip to the Southern Hemisphere, my first time travelling on a US airline, and South America will be the first continent I visit that I hadn’t already lived in (I lived in Europe as a child before ever going there to just travel). It’s funny that after over a year and a half of using the term TC (Travel Companion), my TC and I are finally going to be doing some major travelling worthy of the title.

Our official reason for choosing Ecuador as our destination this year is that we want to see the Galapagos Islands (TORTOISES!) and even the untimely death of Lonesome George (George was only 100 years old, and the last giant tortoise in his subspecies, the Pinta) has not shaken our resolve (I would have loved to meet Lonesome George, but the other giant tortoises will hopefully cheer me up). So to the Galapagos we shall go, to spend a week living on a boat visiting various islands in the archipelago and having our minds blown by an amazing array of flora and fauna that can be found nowhere else in the world.

Bookending our week in the Galapagos will be 3-night stays in Quito, Ecuador’s capital city. Since Quito sits at an elevation of 2800 m, travellers flying in from sea-level (like us) can often find themselves suffering from altitude sickness. For this reason, TC and I decided to stay in hotels in Quito’s Old Town (to put ourselves close to most of the things we want to see), and to really just take it easy as far as our plans for Quito are concerned. Depending on how the altitude affects us, a flight of stairs might cause me to require a lie-down, so we don’t really have much choice but to gauge how we’re feeling when we get there and plan around that.

When I set out on my European Adventure last year, I was pretty anxious about the whole caper. This year, though of course I am visited by the usual worries of “what-if-we-miss-our-flights” and “what-if-we-lose-our-passports”, I’m feeling much better. I’m travelling for two weeks, not four. I’m not going alone this time. We’ve done most of our major planning (transportation, accommodation, etc.) already so we won’t be trying to plan and book things on the fly. As far as Ecuador-specific anxieties go, we’ll need to be vigilant about robbery (as travellers often do), and about trying not to get sick (let’s just say we’ve packed a big bottle of Imodium and are crossing our fingers like crazy). I don’t mind worrying a little bit, worrying sometimes keeps us smart. We’ll use our heads, I guess, and hope to be lucky.

Worries aside, we’ve been so busy lately we’ve hardly had time to get excited. But we are. Deep down behind our tired frazzled faces. We take off early tomorrow morning. In the words of Doctor Who, “allons-y!“. It’s time for things to get awesome.

P.S. No need to worry about Bunny. Our neighbour will be stopping in while we’re away to feed him and make sure he isn’t chewing the wall. But Bunny will, of course, be chewing the wall.