Galapagos & Ecuador 1st to 12th October 2011
If you have ever seen anything about the Galapagos Islands it is hundreds of times better in person than on a video or in a magazine. Galapagos is the Spanish word for tortoise.
We met our group at Heathrow, bleary-eyed and sleep-standing in the queue to book our seats at 5:30 AM. There was
Richard, our leader from the tour company we chose.
Mike, another of Ornithology’s leaders on a busman’s holiday
Sue, an avid ornithologist
Kevin, Carol & Bob, Kevin’s father and all interested in photography
Gill and Ann, friends for 30 years had flown to Quito a few days earlier
Maurice would join us when we flew to the Galapagos Islands
Roger & I made up the rest of the group.
The flight to Madrid on Iberia was uneventful. We had a short interval, enough time to get a coffee. Don’t forget to take a few Euros no matter how long or short your layover is!! We then had the long haul from Madrid to Quito. From leaving Heathrow to arriving in Quito was about 15 ½ hours. A representative from the local company met us with a bus & driver & got us safely to our hotel in the middle of the old town. Do NOT EVER try to drive in Ecuador!
The hotel was lovely, built in the old colonial style around an inner courtyard. Quito was named the American Capital of Culture 2011. It is a colourful city set in a valley of the Andes Mountains. The capital of Ecuador, was founded in the 16th century on the ruins of an Inca city and stands at an altitude of 2,850 m. Along with Krakow, Poland it was declared a World Heritage site in 1978 – the first cities to be given this distinction.
We found our rooms, had drinks and dinner and went to a very early bed. The next morning the rest of the group went on the land tour portion of the holiday into the Ecuadorian rainforest to spend 3 days bird watching. Roger & I had previously arranged to remain at the hotel to minimize jetlag, altitude sickness and see a little of Quito. We had been told it was not safe and to be extremely careful. We were either very lucky or scary targets as we had no trouble at all. The people are mostly cheerful and helpful. There were no beggars but the poor were everywhere selling what they could to make a living. Little boys polished shoes, girls sold ice cream cones from trays they carried, the elderly sat on the church steps selling beads, cloth or whatever they had. Only one little shoeshine boy was persistent and no one bothered us.
The squares were large and used as outdoor museums displaying the history of Quito through the ages on large screens. The churches were opulent with gold leaf and beautiful frescoes everywhere. They could probably solve the country’s poverty by selling the gold found in any 1 church.
When the group returned on the evening of the 4th we all went out for an authentic Ecuadorian meal at the Opera House. Some of the plates were “interesting” as Richard politely expressed. We all had fun and were ready for the Galapagos leg of the holiday.
The Galapagos National Park was established in 1959
Wednesday, 5th October. South Plaza Island
After an early breakfast and bags outside our rooms tagged for our individual cabins on the M/S Cachalote I, we set off back to the airport. A short flight to Guayaquil to pick up more passengers and then 625 miles west over the Pacific Ocean to the 13 large islands and 6 smaller ones that make up the Galapagos archipelago.
The Baltra airport was originally constructed by the U.S. military during World War II as a base to protect the Panama Canal from enemy attack. We used Tame Airlines which have frequent flights between the mainland and Galapagos. Note: Keep your baggage tags handy for every flight as they are checked against your bags before you can get through security. I had put ours safe but couldn’t remember where and just as we shuffled to the security man we found them in Roger’s backpack. Baltra airport is quite open so Sandy, the Galapagos representative, was able to watch our progress through the security stages. From there, we were bussed down to the boat landing and transferred to the Cachalote in inflatable zodiacs locally referred to as Pangas. Once on board we had a safety drill.
That afternoon we went for a 2 hour walk on South Plaza Island. Our first real taste of what was to come. Frigate birds, Blue Footed Boobies, beautiful Tropic Birds with long graceful tails, Sea Lions with newly born pups, Iguanas, Lava Lizards, Sea Turtles and Sally Lightfoot Crabs were the subjects of our camera shutters as well as our eyes. Sandy explained the importance of staying within the path boundaries, not trying to touch the animals or birds so they remained wild and how the coral seabed was uplifted during an eruption to become the island.
By the time we returned to the ship, I was exhausted and fell into bed. Roger went up for supper, met the crew and had the daily checklist of what we saw and briefing of what would happen tomorrow.
Thursday, 6th October. Santa Cruz Island
Overnight we had sailed from South Plaza to anchor at Puerto Ayora, the main town on Santa Cruz Island. This morning Juan joined us. He was to be our guide for the rest of our trip. He spoke perfect English and had been a Galapagos guide for 23 years. He was very knowledgeable about all aspects of the islands (geology, plants, insects, birds and animals).
We visited the Charles Darwin Centre where we saw Lonesome George, the last living Pinta Island Tortoise. He has lady companions but has never managed to breed with them as he always falls asleep. They tell the species of tortoises apart by their shells or carapaces and the sex by the length and breadth of the tail. The Centre has a breeding and preservation roll for tortoises, iguanas and other rare species.
That afternoon Roger & I relaxed on the ship while the rest went into the highlands to visit a tortoise breeding ranch and do more bird watching. While they were gone Roger snoozed in the cabin and I relaxed on deck watching the birds feed on fish in the harbour. Pelicans, boobies and frigates all attended the anchored ships.
Friday, 7th October. Espanola (Hood) Island
Each day was a different location with different birds and animals. The ornithologists were eager to see and document as many of the 13 species of Darwin’s Finches as possible. There are small, medium, large and sharp beaked ground finches; cactus and large cactus finches; small, medium and large tree finches; woodpecker, mangrove, vegetarian, warbler and Cocos Island finches. Only experts can tell them apart – usually by beak size. Little Yellow Warblers, Brown Pelicans, Frigate birds (either the Great or Magnificent species), Mockingbirds, Blue Footed Boobies, Galapagos Shearwaters and the White-vented (Elliot’s) Storm Petrol that danced on the waves were seen every day.
Today we had a 3-4 hour rocky walk through the Waved Albatross nesting area. These birds are magnificent in the air and quite ungainly on the ground trying to take off. They need a clear runway with a sheer cliff drop at the end in order to take flight.
In the afternoon Roger & I found out we need a lot more snorkelling practice. We tried dropping off the panga in deep water but that didn’t work so we went closer to shore & Roger was able to do better. I was pretty hopeless. The rest of the group had a beach walk and some of them went swimming until the bull sea lions decided to have a disagreement in the swimming area.
Each time we arrived back onboard the Cachalote, Roberto was ready with refreshing fruit drinks and nibbles. Breakfast was fruit, yoghurt, juice, cereal, eggs, cold ham & cheese. Lunch was salad, fresh fish usually with rice, vegetables and fruit for pudding. Dinner was soup, meat (roast chicken, pork or beef), fresh vegetables and pudding. Two nights we had birthday cake as Bob and Sue both had their birthdays while we were onboard. All the food was plentiful, fresh and delicious. Carol had requested vegetarian meals and she was always more than pleased with what they gave her.
Saturday, 8th October. Floreana Island
This morning we beached at Punta Cormorant and hiked inland to a lagoon where flamingoes were feeding. In the afternoon we stopped at Post Office Bay. Some of us posted our cards hoping that someone will pick them up and they will eventually reach their destinations. Roger & I took some for England & Ireland to be posted here in the next few days.
Juan told us the story of the toothless dentist, his mistress, a young family, a baroness and her 3 lovers. To this day no one is sure what happened. People went missing and some bodies were found years later.
Afterwards we went by truck from Puerto Valeaco Ibarra, the smallest town in Galapagos, into the highlands. Here we saw more giant tortoises, Galapagos flycatcher and tree finches.
Sunday, 9th October. Isabela Island – Punta Moreno and Elizabeth Bay
This morning was a hike over lava flows from 2 active volcanoes. Juan explained the two types of lava. Pahoehoe is a Hawaiian name for basaltic lava that has a smooth, hummocky, or ropy surface. `A`a (pronounced "ah-ah") is a Hawaiian name for lava flows that have a rough rubble-like surface composed of broken lava blocks called clinkers. The incredibly spiny surface of a solidified `a`a flow makes walking very difficult and slow and if you are not careful you will be saying Ah! Ah!
In the afternoon we stayed in the pangas and silently moved in and out of the red mango lagoons at Elizabeth Bay. Black (Pacific Green) Turtles, Spotted and Golden Rays and White Tipped Sharks silently swam around and beneath us
Monday, 10th October. Isabela Island
Urvina Bay was our first stop. Once on shore the rest did a shore walk amongst boulders and sand but I had put my walking shoes on instead of the hiking boots so I decided to stay at the landing spot and wait for them to come back. There was a juvenile Galapagos Hawk near. I took some photos of yellow warblers and Blue Footed Boobies fishing. Then I saw that the hawk had moved to the bush behind me. He was soon hovering overhead checking me out. Slowly more and more hawks arrived so that I had counted 13 by the time the others arrived back. It was truly magical to have these majestic birds all flying around me with no other sound but the waves. When the group returned they counted 18. Juan explained it was a breeding site for the hawks. They were all juveniles and were practicing their hovering in the onshore breeze. Every time Roger looked at me I was still grinning.
During our walk we had to go single file to avoid stepping in or on the nests of sea turtle eggs. We did a panga ride around the cliffs to see penguins and Flightless Cormorants. As fish, their main diet, are so plentiful, these birds have lost the webbing between their toes and their wings have shrunk to tiny stubs. They are unable to fly but instead swim and dive and live on the cliffs where they were born.
In the afternoon the sea was too rough to land so we elected to sail and the captain made good time around the northern tip of Isabela. We saw several blows from Humpback Whales today but only a very few glimpses of flukes by those with powerful binoculars. We all joined the Captain for a drink and photo of the navigation equipment when we passed from the Southern to Northern Hemisphere at 00.00 latitude.
Tuesday, 11th October. Santiago and Bartolome Islands
In the morning we landed at Espumilla Beach on the west coast of Santiago Island and hiked around a dry salt lagoon.
Just after lunch, Roger & I went on deck for a short time. We were sailing from Santiago to Bartolome Island. As we were watching, a bottle-nosed dolphin dived under the prow of the ship. We watched but didn’t see him again and he was too quick to let others know. Juan had seen us run from one side of the ship to the other and came out of the wheelhouse immediately but even he wasn’t fast enough to see it.
That afternoon the rest of the group climbed 376 steps to the top of Bartolome lookout for a very windy panoramic view of the surrounding islands. Knowing I wouldn’t be able to make it to the top, I stayed back and started packing.
Friday, 12th October. Santa Cruz – Black Turtle Cove
Our last morning, and what a morning it would turn out to be. We were up and had a quick coffee before a 6 AM panga ride in black mango lagoons. As we approached we saw hundreds of Blue-footed Boobies and pelicans perched on the rocks near shore. In the lagoons there were more white, black and hammerhead sharks, stingrays, turtles and sea lions sleeping in trees.
When we came out of the lagoons we heard the sound of hundreds of wings and looked to see the boobies fishing. We crossed over to them as quickly as possible. They all take wing and form a large circle getting tighter and tighter to corral the fish. Then all at once they fold their wings and dive straight down. The successful ones take their fish to eat. The others all lift off and start again. They would fly right over the pangas so close you could almost touch them. Even Juan said he had seen it happen but had never been so close.
What a way to end a magical trip!
After a later than planned breakfast, we were on our way back to Baltra and the airport. At Guayaquil we disembarked and were met by another rep who took us for lunch at an authentic restaurant, then back to the airport for booking the long haul to Madrid and Heathrow.