Reflections 2015
Series 12
July 17
Galápagos III – The Mystique - Ship or Shore? – The Visit I


Once again we'll provide below our two maps for reference, for the Galápagos and one for Puerto Ayora. Copy and paste them either now or later, when needed:


The Mystique    Just to be sure I was using the right word when describing the Galápagos mystique, I looked up the word. The Oxford Dictionary online gives two versions of what it implies:

 A fascinating aura of mystery, awe, and power surrounding someone or somethingAn air of secrecy surrounding a particular activity or subject that makes it impressive or baffling to those without specialized knowledge

The first version is closer to what I perceive. For some reason I never did understand, the Galápagos islands exert a fascinating aura of mystery and awe, perhaps even a powerful attraction, to many visitors, which had once included me. While I wouldn't go so far as to call it an air of secrecy, since that implies a deliberate holding back of facts, perhaps we could just call it a baffling lack of specialized knowledge that I had; insufficient knowledge can tend to impress. Think of the impressive, booming voice of the Wizard of Oz across the Emerald City. Picture Toto pulling back the curtain to reveal the actual Wizard, still impressive, though a lot less so. Welcome to the Galápagos.

 Tahiti also lives under a mystique (2009/12) as some sort of an island paradise, probably brought about by Gauguin "escaping" there and the romance of the HMS Bounty being associated with it. Tahiti is nice, but it, too, doesn't live up to its mystique. How can it, really? Escaping civilization to a romantic desert island has been a romantic fantasy since Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe in 1719. Defoe even initially published the book under Crusoe's name, making the public think it was an autobiography rather than fiction. These island mystiques go way back.

I think I started hitting on one reason for the mystique when I said in the last posting that one reason for going to the Galápagos was Darwin and the Beagle, but that that imagery can be intellectually enjoyed without ever coming here. All educated people are aware of Darwin and his trip and how what he found here affected world thinking. But as I discovered when planning, as mentioned in the previous posting, all of that fires up the mystique more than its being a reason to physically visit. Does any lay traveler, as opposed to a biologist, ornithologist, or even a bird watcher, really have to go seeking out each of the four mockingbirds—or frankly, even one of them? Or can't you find a mockingbird back home?


Deconstructing the Mystique    Do not misunderstand. I think the Galápagos is worth a trip, and I'm glad I did it. But is it really THAT outstandingly special? How you end up answering that question might likely determine how you answer the following section called "Ship or Shore?" But let's first take apart what there is to see. Fortunately, friend David E helped me in a recent flurry of emails, which we'll get into more deeply shortly. Primarily, though, David is a proponent of cruising to many islands in the Galápagos, and we went back and forth at it, and ended up agreeing to disagree. And make no mistake, David is a traveler. I met him on the Deutschland in Greenland, and, in the Pacific, he's also been to Hawaii and the Societies (Tahiti, Bora Bora), and assuredly much more, so this is not a debate among rookies.


Let me quote David as he refers to cruising between multiple islands in the Galápagos: "As you know, the topography, flora, and fauna varied greatly from island to island." On that basis, my argument started with topography, although it must be kept in mind that I have been only to some selected islands, and my opinions are formed on research, written descriptions, and pictures. As far as I can tell, the various islands of the Galápagos have precious little variation. Some were created by oceanic uplift, most by volcanic activity, but otherwise they're Tweedledum and Tweedledee as far as I can tell. True, Isabela, and especially Fernandina show some volcanic activity. But anyone wanting to come to the Pacific to see volcanoes goes to the Big Island of Hawaii, where you can observe white-hot magma flowing before your eyes. And you can't seriously compare any perceived difference between San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz as comparing to the difference between Hawaii and Oahu, or Tahiti and Bora Bora. There's no contest. My opinion: the islands in the Galápagos are nice enough, with pretty coves, bluffs, and beaches, but there's no reason to go island hopping here as you would in the Societies or in Hawaii.


I don't think too many lay travelers travel for flora beyond visiting famous gardens, or the Redwoods and Sequoias of California. If you want to be bowled over by Pacific island flora, it's again to Hawaii that you should go. The Galápagos have some rain forest, and I loved the mangrove forest in Puerto Ayora, but some islands are quite arid. That's not a negative—we'll be describing cactus later—but it's not a major draw. We'll be discussing the Opuntia echios cactus later, also known as the prickly pear. I saw that one species on South Plaza, but I'm quite satisfied. There are a total of six species in the Galápagos, by island—how very Darwinesque! If you're a botanist, the five others are: O. galapageia, O. helleri, O. insularis, O. saxicola, O. megasperma. However, I refuse to island-hop. I can intellectually appreciate the implications of there being different species on different islands without seeing all of them.


So it all comes down to the fauna, which is really the Galápagos's only strong suit once the mystique is put aside. And it IS a strong suit—the giant tortoise especially, the blue-footed booby, the magnificent frigatebird. But beyond that, the variety runs low, and gets weaker. Can it really match Africa, Australia, Antarctica? And how about moving over multiple islands in the pursuit of varied fauna? In a similar argument to the above, there are three species of land iguana. I saw Conolophus subcristatus on South Plaza and elsewhere. I have no desire or interest to go to Isabela—and specifically only the northern end of that island, at that—to see Conolophus marthae, yet can appreciate intellectually the fact of it being a different variety. And the third species, Conolophus pallidus, is limited to Santa Fe island, a fact I was informed of at the time, and in which I also had no particular interest. As a matter of fact, I cancelled a trip to Santa Fe for other reasons, and a unique iguana was not enough to draw me there, since there is apparently very little other fauna available on that island. Beyond the hullabaloo of its historical Darwin/Beagle mystique, the Galápagos is a one-trick pony, for the fauna, and sometimes that can run a bit weak.

 I'm not being the little boy on the side of the road saying that the Emperor has no clothes. The Emperor does have clothes, and nice ones. He's just not quite as well-dressed as some of the other Emperors, say in Africa, or in Antarctica.

Let me summarize some Pacific islands, some of which David has been to as well. Ranking the ones I've seen low to high, I'd start with Fiji (2009/7). Above that, I'd put the Samoas (2009/4-5-6). Above that, I'd put MOST of the Societies (2009/12-16): Ra'iatea, Moorea, Tahiti (Bora Bora comes later). Above that, I'd make it a tie between Rapa Nui/Easter Island—for the culture of the ahus and the moai (see 2006/14 for pictures)--and the Galápagos, for the wildlife. Above that come the Hawaiian islands, with the Big Island of Hawaii first, Oahu second (2008/22-25) in my book. Finally, comes Bora Bora, for me the most impressive spot in the Pacific. But of all of these, it's Tahiti and the Galápagos that have the mystique. All right, maybe Rapa Nui/Easter Island a little, too.


Ship or Shore?    There are three standard topics that, as we all know, it's dangerous to discuss. One is religion. Another is politics. The third—and most volatile, so be careful--is whether rolls of paper towels and toilet paper should be set up to tear from the front or from the back, against the wall. On this last one, give the wrong answer and someone might go for the jugular.


But to these three standard topics, I need to add a fourth, that is just limited to the Galápagos. It can also be a volatile subject. The simplest way I've seen it expressed is this: Ship or Shore? That is, should you take a ship-based tour to several islands, sleeping, and dining on board, and stopping at visitor sites from the ship, or should you take a hotel-based tour, sleeping and dining on shore and taking a number of day trips by boat? Living on shore, one would probably stay in the largest town with the best infrastructure, beautiful Puerto Ayora, but some plans call for staying in hotels as well on San Cristóbal, Isabela, or even both.


If you've been following these postings, you can see that I eagerly opted for a hotel-based tour, also called a land-based tour. Everyone I spoke to that was doing it seemed perfectly pleased with it, as I was. But the first time I broached the topic with an outsider, which was later, during lunch on the train tour on the mainland, I explained to an Australian lady how I'd done my visit, even as she had taken a cruise during the same time frame. I remember how she looked at me askance, not wanting to say what she really thought. It was as though I'd hung the paper towel wrong. I kept away from these taboo subjects from then on.


Fortunately, when I got home, I bumped into friend Gary S in my building lobby. I knew he'd recently been to the Galápagos, and I confirmed he'd taken the boat option. When I told him about my hotel-based tour, he brightened with interest and commented that, when he was on his boat, he'd been told that land-based tours are getting more and more popular, so I was glad of his positive reaction.


Most places you visit involve a hotel stay, and that includes islands. For instance in the Azores, I stayed in a hotel on each of three islands, and island-hopped by plane. Then I continued to Madeira and the Canaries by plane (2012/6-10), with multiple hotel stays. I love ship travel, and espouse it as part of "rail 'n' sail", my voyage total now being up to 52. And in addition, there were two groups of islands, both in the Pacific, that I did visit by ship:

 In 2008, my second visit to Hawaii was by ship, the Pride of America, with extra time on Oahu at the beginning, and extra time that I really wanted on the magnificent Big Island at the end (2008/22-25). (My first visit, in 1970, involved plane-hopping four islands.)

In 2009, I visited the Societies by ship, the Paul Gauguin (2009/12-16) as well. Aside from some extra time at the beginning in Tahiti, the time on the other islands was satisfactory, even the condensed marvel of a day on Bora Bora.

But after a lot of review, going by ship didn't seem right—for me—for the Galápagos. And I did work on it. In the first posting on the islands, I said there were two reasons why I kept putting off this trip time and again. One was the inaccessibility, but we got that fixed by overnighting in Guayaquil. The second was that I'd allowed myself to fall into the trap of believing that the only way to see these islands was by living on a boat to do so. It was the pure inertia of believing that "everyone else does it" that way, and that there's no alternative, certainly not any hotels, right? You'd almost think it a conspiracy.


If you google the subject, you'll find maybe a hundred possibilities of boats, large, medium, small; luxury, midrange, cheapie. And worse than deciding on which boat, which islands to visit was even a harder choice. Longer trips, 7-10 days, went to many islands, 3-4 day ones grouped more local trips to northern, southern, eastern, or western ones. Being uninformed about what islands to see in this array kept me pushing the materials aside. And very interestingly, the Frommer book, while giving a full three stars to the Galápagos in general, was not impressed with individual islands. It gave Española three stars, largely for the waved albatross; Genovesa one star because of the red-footed booby; and Fernandina one star because of the flightless cormorant. (None of those birds attracted me sufficiently.) Every other island, including Santa Cruz, got no stars at all, I assume because the tortoise reserve is its only outstanding wildlife asset. This is an indication that, other than in those special cases, the birds and lizards you want to see are pretty much everywhere. My head was spinning. There was no rhyme nor reason to help making a decision. And I still believe that's the case when reviewing the boat possibilities.


Then I discovered that there was actually a possibility of a hotel-based tour, and was floored by the statistic I found--that by 2012, more than half the visitors to the Galápagos did hotel-based tours, taking day tours on day boats. The proliferation of hotels, restaurants, easy access, and economy made this an attractive option. Yes, it is a less expensive way to do it, and there's nothing wrong with that. For me that plan has sufficient other attractions to make it far preferable.


How did this unusual situation of so many people taking boats start? When I found the answer to this I was surprised. Knowing Darwin made it here in the 19C, I always had the mental image that more and more people have been coming here over the 20C. And it's not true at all. Up until the very late date of 1969, the only outsiders who went to the Galápagos were those who had their own yacht, or chartered one, to get there. No general trips were planned once there, and there was no infrastructure to speak of anyway. Remember that we said in the last posting that until the early 1970s, there were only a couple of hundred people in Puerto Ayora, the principal town, and no infrastructure for visitors to speak of. There was a military airport in Baltra, but it was not for civilian use.


Finally, in April 1969 a tour operator arranged the very first organized tour, including air service. But hotel and restaurant infrastructure was sorely lacking, so travel companies started bringing in tour ships and yachts to house the visitors. Even local fishermen—as one description put it "everyone and his brother"—began converting their wooden boats for rudimentary tours. It's because of this abrupt start of tourism in the islands, and because boats filled the vacuum of missing hotels and restaurants, that this curious custom of living on boats to see wildlife was born. And for quite some time, boats remained the main source of overnight accommodations. And it was convenient, since reaching the wildlife tours was done by boats anyway. But this is 2015, and the old mold of how to visit the Galápagos is broken, with more people staying in hotels, with selected day tours by boat, than on boats for the whole visit.

 In addition, I'm rather sure that there's some misunderstanding about calling these boat trips cruises. They are cruises, as long as you understand which kind. Although I've not taken one myself, my impression is that these are closer to the "roll-up-your-sleeves" type cruise, rather than a "sit-back-and-relax" cruise. David, who very much enjoyed his cruise, said "The boat was basically t-shirts and shorts. Most went barefoot . . ." That's great, and lots of fun. But the day trips I did were just the same. I just wouldn't want to do it day after day for a whole week.

David added: "We visited 6-8 islands plus the museum/preserve before we initially sailed. I would estimate that we spent about four hours on each of the islands we visited." I, too, visited the Darwin Center and Tortoise Reserve on Santa Cruz. Everybody does that, since the giant tortoises are the main island attraction. And I wrote David that for me, four hours on each island is 2.5 to 3 hours too long in the hot sun. My reason for going is the nature walk, and they shouldn't exceed 1 to 1.5 hours in the heat. In addition, seven days of nature walks are just too much in my opinion.

I think, from my research, that those cruises are inflated vacation times—snorkeling is usually included--added to the wildlife visits--and I rarely, if ever, do that type of vacationing. My vacation speed is a couple of days strolling around New Orleans—or Puerto Ayora.

I think David and I, after extensive online debating (always fun) are going to have to agree to disagree. And any reader who is considering going—either in fact or vicariously as an armchair traveler—can make his or her own choice. I know that many like that sort of trip, which is why so many still do it. To all those who think they'd like it, I wish a hearty mazel tov!

But before I get into additional details, there's a bit more to discuss. These factors may not be the burdens for others that they were for me, but let's discuss them.


I tolerate heat very poorly. I suffer, and sweat, and it slows me down. For that reason, I tend to visit cooler places (Canada, Greenland) or warmer places in cooler seasons (Texas, the Lower Mississippi). I don't avoid hot places. The day in Macau was a major enjoyment, despite the fact that I had to keep stopping in buildings to cool off, and keep buying water to drink. The same with Hong Kong, and Singapore.


I was very lucky on the Amazon cruise. The mouth of the river crosses the equator, but I found that the heat and humidity was quite comfortable on that whole trip. I knew Quito was cool, up in the mountains, but I knew I'd suffer in the Guayaquil heat on the coast. But the islands? I knew that the equator passed through northern Isabela, and found out that the latitude of Puerto Ayora was 0.75° S, or just ¾ of a degree south of the equator. But I was naïve, and engaged in wishful thinking. I believed it when I read that the Humboldt Current brings cold water to the islands and pictured it cooling them off as well. The Humboldt Current might cool off the Galápagos penguin, but it sure didn't cool me off. I also didn't pay attention (or didn't want to) to where it said that the Current causes frequent drizzles during most of the year. (Do I have a rain story!) I also believed it where it said about Academy Bay, that a refreshing breeze often provides pleasant weather. It didn't say that pleasant weather was cool weather. And I didn't take the warning, either, of this well-known commercial ditty written in 1944, which has since become part of the culture:

 I'm Chiquita banana and I've come to say - Bananas have to ripen in a certain way - When they are flecked with brown and have a golden hue - Bananas taste the best and are best for you - You can put them in a salad - You can put them in a pie-aye - Any way you want to eat them - It's impossible to beat them - But, bananas like the climate of the very, very tropical equator - So you should never put bananas in the refrigerator. No, no, no, no!

It's surprising that, in that era, the public had to be taught how to use bananas, which apparently were new and relatively unfamiliar. But Chiquita was warning me about the climate of the very, very tropical equator. Why didn't I listen?


I was also warned in something I read that the hot season runs from December to May, but May also ends the breeding season in many cases, and I certainly wanted to see the boobies and frigatebirds doing their thing. So I ventured into the heat. I made it, but sometimes barely.


As an extension of the heat issue, there's a personal quirk about the ocean. I swim, but what I do is laps in a pool. I can also go the length of the pool underwater. But at the deep end, I always grab onto the pool edge, because what I do NOT do is tread water. When it comes to beaches, I only go late in the afternoon to avoid the heat, and always sit somewhere in the shade, for the same reason. My water activity at the beach is to frolic a bit in the surf. Period. I've never gone into deeper water beyond the waves, and never will, because there's no pool edge to grab on to. It therefore goes without saying that I do not snorkel. When I noticed that all boat trips, even day ones, included a "snorkeling opportunity" (and also, the occasional "beach opportunity" in the hot sun), I naïvely assumed that the snorkelers would be dropped off somewhere while the rest of us went on a nature walk. Silly me. The rest of us sat around on the boat wasting time and money while the snorkelers did their thing. Fortunately, it wasn't for me a total waste of time and money, because apparently all of us non-snorkelers make good conversationalists. Maybe it's in our genes—extra conversation genes to replace the non-existent snorkeling genes.

 Despite all my research in advance, I failed to find one important statistic until afterward. This much I knew: because of the national park status, visitors are restricted to a limited number of official visitor sites to limit impact on them; only small groups are allowed to stop at them, only in prescheduled 2-4 hour shifts, and only with a licensed guide/naturalist. All that is fair enough. What I didn't know about the 116 official visitor sites is that only 54 are land sites and 62 other ones are snorkeling or scuba-diving sites. Actually, it's probably just as well I didn't know that before I went.

The other thing besides the heat that I either didn't know about in advance or naïvely ignored, still being influenced by the Galápagos mystique, involved exactly what I was interested in doing, the wildlife nature walks. As I mentioned above about other wildlife trips, there was little exertion in getting to see the wildlife. I knew here it would be walking, and in the hot sun, but it couldn't be that hard, could it? Usually shore excursions on cruises have icons next to how difficult they are: an easy walk has one icon of a hiker, a harder one perhaps three, a very hard one, maybe five. But only afterwards, in a different, online edition of the Frommer guide, talking about a Galápagos cruise (but day trips are the same) it says, that a cruise here is not your typical cruise, and that "trips here involve some seriously strenuous activity" (boldface mine).

 Previous hiking, while never a favorite activity, has always gone well, but for complete disclosure, there was one incident in Easter Island/Rapa Nui (2006/14). We were on a day trip by van to see the moai (statues with long heads, large torsos). We then stopped to go to the hilltop quarry where 90% of them had come from. This involved a long uphill hike to the quarry. Coming down, though, the dirt path suddenly became very steep. I lost my footing, and rode down about two meters/yards in, shall we say, a seated position. That had been my only difficulty hiking before the Galápagos, where, however, the hiking challenges were different on the nature walks, more as to length, mud, rocks, and heat.

I've since gone to my thesaurus for synonyms for "strenuous" and found "arduous, laborious, rigorous, vigorous, intense". Yep, any one of those could describe some of the walks and other activities, which gave you a workout, more than I, for one, am used to. In Africa we were in vehicles. In Antarctica, the wildlife was just steps from the landing area on the beaches. Even the landings there were easier. They were mostly wet landings, in the water, which is a cinch. Here, they were mostly on docks, some better than others, but even getting in and out of the small dinghies ("pangas") was awkward. Paths were often muddy, and sometimes rocky.


My friend Sue recently wrote me about her Galápagos trip some years ago, and we, too, had an exchange of emails. On the positive side, she did enjoy snorkeling. She seems to have seen all kinds of wildlife, and enjoyed her cruise, going to many islands, although she had problems with the boat when the air-conditioning failed and she had to go sleep on deck. She concedes, perhaps the boats are better now.


But when I countered that I was hotel-based with day trips, and was planning on questioning the Galápagos mystique, she yielded, saying "I agree with what you said. It was not an easy trip. . . . It was hot, well the equator. . . . [T]he heat nearly did me in . . . on a hike to see the tortoises in the [tortoise reserve. The] guides noticed and put me on a horse, and that was after a few of the fire ants bit me . . . . [H]eat and ants, not all of Mother Nature is so enticing." In regard to the many different species, I also found it interesting that she made this point: "It was a trip for a biologist (which is what I was)."


Making Final Decisions    The breakthrough to go to the Galápagos this year, after several failed planning attempts involved (1) solving the inaccessibility problem by staying overnight in Guayaquil and (2) freeing myself from feeling I HAD to take a boat. The program I eventually put together was closer to the ideal of what suited me, although hindsight shows I could have simplified it even further—see what you think. I knew it was the sort of thing I couldn't do on my own. After exhausting the possibilities of the couple of tour operators early in the year and throwing up my hands, I decided to give it one more try, and checked what Google had to say. A few websites came up, but the one with the unlikeliest name—for me—was the one that worked, and worked well. It was Amazon Adventures (, whose website says they specialize in "Amazon, Trekking, Canoeing, Survival, Multisport, Hiking, Kayaking, Rafting, Horseback Riding". While none of that sounds like what I do, when I looked into the website, they did have what I wanted, too. It's run by Jim McDaniel out of Austin—unusual, since I'd just been to Austin in passing as part of the Texas trip—and Jim, who specializes in South America, works with local tour operators in each country, and gets good results—and, at surprisingly low prices, to boot. He worked with one tour operator on the islands and another on the mainland, and put together exactly what I wanted.


Jim got me the train trip, transfers, and the private tours I felt I needed on the mainland, both the one already described in Guayaquil and one later, in Quito. On the islands, there was an interesting choice for hotel-based tours. It's possible to book a hotel on more than one island, the other candidates being Isabela and San Cristóbal, but I saw no need in that. As a matter of fact, I read about someone who tried to do long-distance day trips by boat out of Puerto Ayora, and complained those trips took so long, there wasn't enough time on the island before you had to come back. He should have stayed overnight, and there are programs that do that.


There were shorter or longer packages on his website at the time for a stay in Puerto Ayora. I saw no reason to go all that way for a shorter stay, so I took the seven-night one, which included two free days, something I rarely include (although I did so in New Orleans in the last posting). What Jim and I put together with the tour operator was this:

(1) an arrival day at Baltra, which included a half-day Santa Cruz visit: the tortoise reserve, a lava tunnel, and the Darwin Center;
(2) a Beach-and-Bay day--I wasn't eager about the beach visit in the morning, and ended up cancelling it, but the boat tour, the half-day Academy Bay visit in the afternoon looked, and was, quite good;


(3) three full-day boat trips by yacht: a day trip to South Plaza (good!), a day trip to North Seymour (great!), and potentially a day trip to Santa Fe, which was not attracting me as being nothing special, and then there were problems, so I ended up cancelling it;
(4) two free days, which became three free days with the cancellation, so I used half the middle free day for my own morning stroll to the Darwin Center;
(5) a departure day from Baltra, which included what was clumsily billed as a stop at a coffee plantation, which turned out to be a highlight. I'm instead describing it as a morning visit to an artisan coffee farm, a description that does it more justice.


This seemed to me the perfect solution, and turned out to be so. With current hindsight, though, I should have cancelled that third boat trip in advance. I had enough nature walks to have seen everything I wanted to in 2 ½ boat trips, including the Bay Trip, and continue to be glad I didn't take a seven-day cruise.


The Visit I    We'll now pick up the thread of the narrative of the visit, which we left off in 2015/10 as the 2h50 flight from Guayaquil let down in Baltra. I shall quote the end of that cryptic entry: The flight was pleasant, and we landed on Baltra at the scheduled 11:30 to a bit of haze, moving into a bit of a drizzle. I could only imagine what adventures—and misadventures—awaited this planeful of naïve arrivals.


As we now continue the visit, I shall quote Bette Davis channeling Margo Channing in All About Eve in 1950. Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night.

 When the American Film Institute compiled its list of the 100 most-memorable movie quotes in American cinema, ranking a high #9 was the above quote. See how long the Galápagos mystique continues to hold firm in your mind, assuming it still does.

Baltra    Our arrival was on a Saturday. Baltra, whose alternate name, as we know, is South Seymour, is small, flat, and very arid, not unlike some of the other islands. What vegetation it has is largely palo santo trees, which we'll discuss in North Seymour, and prickly pear cactus, which we'll discuss in South Plaza. This type of vegetation can be attractive, but it's for those who appreciate cactus gardens and rock gardens. For others, it's vegetation "only a mother can love". I've grown to be reasonably comfortable with it.


We said in the history section that, at one point between the wars, Ecuador sorely needed funds and was looking to sell the Galápagos, with the US being a likely purchaser, since the islands are in a position to protect the Panama Canal. That never happened. But in a reflection of that thinking, during WWII, Baltra became a US Army Air Force base. That's the basis for the civilian airport being located on the island, having replaced the base. The current, very modern airport opened in 2013.


Baltra is not within the National Park, but it has an interesting wildlife story. The Galápagos land iguana was affected by the activity on the island, and became extinct—on Baltra—in 1954. But in the early 1930s, a California philanthropist named George Allan Hancock arranged for a population of the iguanas to be transferred a few hundred meters/yards north across the channel to North Seymour. They survived there, and are the iguanas one sees there today. But they also became the breeding stock in the 1980s for the Darwin Center breeding program. In the 1990s they were reintroduced to Baltra, and by 1997 there were 97 iguanas again on Baltra, 13 of which were born on Baltra. What Hancock started became an early instance of bringing the Galápagos back to an earlier wildlife status. Today, I understand it's possible to see iguanas crossing the runway or main road in Baltra.


When the plane landed, the haze continued to turn into a bit of a drizzle. While Guayaquil (and Quito) have jetways, Baltra airport is small, and has staircases on wheels that roll up to disembark from the plane. While that means you're introduced early on to the heat, it also gives you a feeling of accomplishment, that you're walking on an island in the Galápagos. Walking across the tarmac, while I looked for iguanas, I didn't see any in the arid landscape, but there were plenty of small cactuses.


I had paid the recently raised US$20 "transit tax" in Guayaquil, and upon entering the airport building, one couldn't miss the first stop where you pay the US$100 National Park Fee, in cash, cash that I was glad not to have to be carrying around any more. Right after that, you also couldn't miss the three podiums for pickups by guide/naturalists, and one named Ricardo was standing behind a plaque that had my name x1, another name x2, and a third x3, so he was meeting six arrivals. I was first, and I tried to discuss with him the problem of that middle day trip to Santa Fe, but he claimed to not know about it, implying that it'll all work out. (Ha!)


My use of language may surprise some. I rarely if ever speak another language in the US. Beverly and I were both fluent in German, and almost without exception, always stuck to English in the US. Anything else didn't seem natural. But upon setting foot in Germany or Austria, with signs in the language and others speaking it, we switched immediately to German without even thinking, as the normal, natural thing to do. This goes also for me for Spanish and French, less so for other languages which I'm weaker in. Therefore, on having arrived in Guayaquil, I spoke to the pickup driver in Spanish, which was good, since he didn't speak English, and on arriving here in Baltra, without thinking, I spoke Spanish to Ricardo. He seemed relieved. He must have known English, because all licensed naturalist guides have to, but seemed glad to hear Spanish. When the other five arrived, a couple and a threesome, they were all Spanish speakers, and it was fine with me to continue all day in Spanish.


Beyond the airport, arriving in the Galápagos is a bit of a bother. First, everyone climbs into free buses provided by the airlines, but loading the luggage in the increasing drizzle and finding a place in the growing humidity (no a/c) was a bother. The ride lasted 5-6 minutes to the south end of the island. There, for those going to a hotel in Puerto Ayora, was the ferry to Santa Cruz. People who are going on a cruise go to a nearby dock to meet their boat.


The busy, somewhat rudimentary, ferry also took just a few minutes, since the Itabaca Channel is only about 400 meters/yards wide here. We'd been told it was free, and it was indeed included for us, but $1 was being collected from local passengers. On the Santa Cruz side our mid-size tour bus and driver were waiting for us. The luggage filled the back seats and the six of us were facing Ricardo, awaiting our upcoming adventure in the drizzle.


This view of the Itabaca Channel (Photo by David Adam Kess) is to the SW, so that's Baltra on the right (north) side—click to see the dock and a ferry approaching it. Santa Cruz on the left (south) side, with the ferry buildings and small port. You can also see the one road leading uphill to the Highlands and to Puerto Ayora. You can sense that Santa Cruz is largely quite a bit greener than arid Baltra, and can notice on both islands the bluffs that are typical everywhere here. The Itabaca Channel sometimes has penguins, but as reported earlier, none were home and we never saw one.


Half-Day Santa Cruz Visit    The visit that everyone, on a cruise or in a hotel, takes on Santa Cruz goes to the Tortoise Reserve, usually a Lava Tunnel, and the (Darwin Center). The reason for the parentheses will become obvious. Once when we were on the bus, the rain got heavier, until it was a downpour, with sheets of rain coming down in front of the bus. It became what I've been referring to since as a "Noah, go build the ark" tropical storm. This was our welcome to the Galápagos. It affected everything we did for the rest of the day.


You have to first figure that all the walking around we're about to discuss is awkward, challenging, and stressful on the best of days. Do not picture a "stroll down the garden path", and remember Sue saying "It was not an easy trip." Then compound that with a tropical storm. The good—great--news is that I "walked with the turtles" right in their habitat, the sort of thing you remember forever. The bad news is that the downpour added to the already difficult challenge of doing so.


And of course, there is irony. In the last posting, I spoke about a fellow boat passenger I called the "guy from Atlanta", who said he did go to Bartolomé yet saw no penguins. I have more that he told me. When I discovered he flew into Baltra the very same day I did, yet had no downpour to contend with, it turned out he came in on the 9:00 flight, which is why I've been pointing out I came in at 11:30. His luck got him in right under the wire, and saw everything before the storm started.


The bus lumbered along for a while, then went off on a dirt road somewhere, until we stopped at the edge of some wooden buildings. Where were we? I had no idea whatsoever where the Tortoise Reserve was, other than somewhere in the center of the island, or what it was all about. That's one thing I hate about organized tours—I want more information, so I know what to expect. Were they really out loose, or in pens? Did they also raise tortoises? While many people are satisfied with just being dropped off somewhere in the wilderness to be shown things, I want to know where I am. So, after the fact, I found this out. First refer back to the Puerto Ayora map above. Look at the inset. You see the road coming down from Itabasca Channel to Puerto Ayora goes through two villages on the way, in an agricultural and cattle-raising area. I now know we turned off at Santa Rosa onto a dirt road. This map, quite oddly, instead of saying "Reserva de Tortugas" says "Reserva de Galápagos", calling the tortoises by their old, outdated name. But there are two destinations, La Caseta, where I believe more horseback riding is involved, and El Chato, where we went. I didn't know the word, so looked up chato, which is "flat". Perhaps it describes the area, I don't know.


At this point, let's look at a much better map of Santa Cruz and adjacent areas. Keep this handy with our other maps:


We again find North Seymour and Baltra; across Itabaca Channel is our road, the longest paved road in the Galápagos. You can see that we've been coming across La Parte Alta, literally "The High Part", but meaning "The Highlands" of Santa Cruz. This map was the first one I saw that showed that the Tortoise Reserve covered a large part of southwestern Santa Cruz beyond Santa Rosa. In addition South Plaza is among the Islas Plaza to the northeast.


But the actual connection of these wooden buildings to the Reserva de Tortugas El Chato was unclear even as we were there. So once again, I rely after the fact on information the guy from Atlanta had gotten. When the reserve was founded, it bordered many farms and ranches in the area, and this was one of them. It raised coffee and guavas, and the guavas falling on the ground here attracted tortoises within the reserve to come close to the border. Thus this property serves as the entrance to the reserve. This explanation explained to my satisfaction why we were going to El Chato, but then visiting the adjacent reserve. I'll put the following picture here as a lead-in to El Chato, although at no time did we actually see a sign like this:


While still in the bus, Ricardo explained that we'd be putting on boots—the first I heard of it—because of the fango y hormigas. Now I knew that hormigas are ants, and have since heard that Sue had trouble with fire ants here, although we were OK. I didn't know what fango was, but it sounded like something you wanted to have boots on for, anyway. The next day in the hotel, I looked it up. Google Translate, which is good, but not perfect, said it was "mud". But I knew that barro was mud, and this sounded like more. So below the translation were explanations. Since we're all in this together, I'll walk you through the explanation (not through the mud—yet). Fango is:

Barro blando y viscoso, Viscous, soft mud, mezclado a veces con restos orgánicos, sometimes mixed with organic matter, que se forma en el fondo de una corriente o depósito de agua, that is formed at the bottom of a stream or deposit of water, o en un lugar en el que queda circunstancialmente agua estancada. or in a place which ends up by chance with stagnant water. So what is fango? MUCK! MIRE! ORGANIC GOO! I'll say you'd want boots. Did I say that, even without a tropical storm this walk would be challenging? We're going to walk through a swamp! Ok, let's be more politically correct. They're wetlands.


Ricardo handed a large umbrella to everyone as we got off the bus. He wouldn't have come so prepared if at least a little rain didn't fall on a regular basis. We moved to an open building next to the rest rooms (already needed in the heat and humidity to wash off). There were benches on three sides, and we took off our shoes and put them on a shelf behind our heads. Then Ricardo and a worker came by with boots. (The guy from Atlanta was a big, refrigerator-sized, football-player type. He said when he was there, they didn't have boots big enough for him. I'm not sure—I don't want to think about it—but I think he must have told me he went barefoot through the fango. Poor guy.)


It was a few steps to the edge of the reserve. In the National Park, you quickly learn to stay on a path between the white-tipped stakes. In this case, the border of the reserve was also marked by the stakes. And so we crossed the line into the reserve. The route we took, if it were anywhere else, would have taken maybe 20 minutes. The wetlands and fango would slow you down on a regular day, but in a tropical storm even moreso—use your imagination. Copy and paste this link to see the "dry" part of the path:


It IS a pretty area, isn't it. This is tropical jungle, but again, the politically correct term is rain forest (you bet, rain!). The dirt path, with those rocks, is challenging when dry. In the rainy season, at which time there's mud between the rocks and along the path, even moreso, so that you want to walk on the grass on the edge of the path. But in a tropical storm, picture rivulets of water running down between the rocks. Also picture trying to keep you balance moving along by grabbing onto branches, and also maneuvering the large umbrella in your other hand.


A few steps along the path and we reached our first pool of water and found ourselves walking in fango and water halfway up our boots. And then POW! it's all worth it, when you walk around a shrub and see this:


Except that in our case there was water underfoot, on passing the bush we were all of a sudden this close to nature. It was a great start. But then, the inevitable happened. Instead of just taking a wonderful picture of nature like this online one, one of the women moved nearer (you're supposed to stay 1-2 meters/yards away from wildlife), and had her picture taken with the tortoise. It was the typical ego trip that you find with tourists, wanting to show their own mug as part of every picture they take of their trip.


We went from path to pool, pool to path, and on to the next stream. That's how it is with wetlands. Here are some assorted pictures of the sort of thing we saw. No one here has stuck his or her egotistic mug into the view:


Do appreciate the lovely fango we slogged through, all while balancing our umbrellas as the rain came down in sheets. But we were "walking with the turtles!". They apparently appreciate being in the water and mud, and it's believed that it's in order to regulate body temperature, to say nothing about relaxing.


The last water we went through was actually a stream, which was getting deeper and deeper, reaching perilously up to the top of my boots. Ricardo had to stand to the side to give each of us a hand, while we balanced the umbrellas. We then gathered on the far bank, at which point I can say I was still in a good humor. One of the guys was still only halfway across as Ricardo started to lecture, so I pointed to the guy and said to Ricardo ¿Y él no importa? (And HE doesn't count?), which brought a laugh from all as the guy caught up.


We crossed the line out of the reserve, at which point some things started to irritate me. We went into an open gazebo-like area where there were a couple of empty, large tortoise shells. Actually, since the upper and lower parts are not attached in life, these must have been glued together, which alone seems to me a disrespectful affront to nature. Ricardo held up some large tortoise bones, and tried to hand one to me, but I refused to touch it. Then he whispered something to one of the women, and, like a sheep, she did what he asked. She got down on the ground and backed into a glued pair of shells, with just her head and arms sticking out. The others clicked pictures. I found the whole thing childish and petty, and turned to Ricardo and said in Spanish that this is one of the reasons I no longer take photos. This was the start of my no longer being a happy camper, and he was catching on. If I had been on my own, or the only one on a private tour, we would have walked right by this nonsense. However, this sideshow must be a typical thing they do, because I found more than one such picture online. This one's typical, and totally disrespectful of the wildlife:


It was just steps further to where we passed by that café. The rain continued pouring, and I continued sweating in the heat and humidity. I couldn't believe it when Ricardo suggested stopping for a coffee—we'd just eaten on the plane—and all five sheep went along with it. The three women had coffee at a table and the two men bought sandwiches at the counter. I sat down by myself at a table and was fuming as the storm continued and the puddles got deeper. I told Ricardo ¡Esto es una pérdida de tiempo! (This is a waste of time!) While the umbrella had kept my head dry, I was sweating profusely, and my tissues were waterlogged. I squeezed them and a stream of liquid hit the floor. I told him ¡Esto no es lluvia--es sudor! (This isn't rain—it's sweat!), at which point he went and picked up a wad of paper napkins for me.


About 20 minutes went by as rain puddles grew and sweat was mopped. Finally, I started toward the shoe-changing area, and the others started to follow, at which time Ricardo told us not to do that, but instead to keep the boots on and carry our shoes. I knew the lava tunnel was next, but had absolutely no idea what the normal procedure was, what he was planning because of the rain, or even where the tunnel was. This is NOT how I travel, in total ignorance like this. The umbrellas got us to the van, and we drove about 8-10 minutes away in the downpour. The van pulled up to the top of a small stone staircase at the edge of the road in the rain forest for our lava tunnel adventure—surely normally an uncomplicated visit, but now compounded by the downpour.


Lava tubes exist anywhere there is, or once was, volcanic action, and I have experience with them, also with blowholes, from Hawaii. They are an absolute wonder of nature. During an eruption, incredibly hot magma flows downhill and eats a trench, or channel, into the earth. There is such a striking temperature difference between it and the air that the much lower air temperature causes a crust to form on the exposed magma. When this crust cools, it's as though the magma has formed its own pipe for the remaining magma in the center to keep on flowing. Sometimes lava tubes are up on the mountainside, but the ones I've seen are at the shore, coming down a hill and into the water. These must be recently-formed lava tubes, whose cross-section is more of an arch. They run, exposed, down beaches and into the ocean. Others get buried entirely underground by later lava flows. This illustration shows the underground type:


It strikes me that this is nature building its own infrastructure, in this case, similar to water mains. It's reminiscent of the silt-laden Mississippi laying its own riverbed in the Birdfoot Delta, then flowing across it. But the additional oddity of the lava tube is that nature sometimes will recycle an old, hollow one long after the lava has stopped flowing. Newer ones along the beach and into the surf become blowholes rather easily. When a wave comes in onto the beach, some water goes up the lower end of the lava tube, then the momentum pushes that water up the tube until it bursts forth at the top end of the tube, fountain-like. Long buried lava tubes become blowholes as well, once the ocean eats away at the shore and exposes the lower end of the tube. This YouTube video from Hawaii (1:56) shows a blowhole of the latter type on Maui. Don't let the waves hitting the shore distract you. The blowhole is the geyser-like spray that always has a slightly delayed action. Just remember blowholes as being recycled lava tubes.


Santa Cruz Island is a large dormant volcano whose maximum altitude is 864 m (2,835 ft). However, the last eruptions took place about a million and a half years ago. If you check our island map, you'll see that Santa Rosa is still in the Parte Alta / Highlands, so we're not talking about the shore here. And this was to be something new for me, ancient lava tubes that were so large that they were called instead lava tunnels, also lava caves. Ricardo told us there are something like 42 of them here. We were apparently going to see a particularly popular one nearby. And that's all we knew about location or name—nobody tells me anything like that. Subsequent research shows that our Lava Tunnel was indeed located next to El Chato Tortoise Reserve on Rancho Primicias, and it has a name, Panchita Tunnel. Of course, most visitors couldn't care less about these details.


So there we were, shoes now left on the bus, getting out with our umbrellas and boots, and going down a few steps to a tiny terrace, where a left turn went down a longer staircase into the tunnel. Later, inside, he explained, roughly, what a lava tunnel is, but we had no idea of the logistics, not what is ordinarily done here, nor what we were going to do if it varied from that. As we made the left turn on the terrace between staircases, I paused at this sign:


Now let's figure this out together. It would seem that, on a normal day, your bus drops you off at this entrance at the bottom of the map, and will pick you up at the exit shown at the top. I've also since read that the tunnel is over 2 km (1.2 mi) long. I have no idea if that's what's always done—frankly seeing the tunnel is of great interest, but I don't see the need to walk its whole length; a little distance is enough. To my surprise, and actually my relief, that's just what happened—in and out. But we were told nothing about what we were going to do until we did it.


Now on a normal day, it would be relatively dry here, not like in the earlier wetlands. But today, it was unbelievable. As we went down the first steps, so much water was flowing from the road down the steps that it came up halfway on our boots on each step. Then we turned, and the longer stairway was even more of a cascade of water flowing downhill:


The place was really as beautiful as it looks, which I didn't expect. But cancel out the sunlight in this picture—there was none behind us, and picture ankle-high water rushing down the stairs. Thank goodness for the railing, which you really needed to hold on to. Then worse, there was a wannabe waterfall coming down at the cave's entrance, and the water boomed down on the umbrellas as we passed under. The tunnel was 2-3 times a person's height, at least at this point. There was some illumination up ahead, which looked just like more of this entry area. We were glad to get out of the rain, and once off the steps, the water flowed to the side and out of the way.


This was where Ricardo gave some general tunnel information, though nothing about the logistical details of what we'd be doing. One of the things that he said I didn't get the import of immediately. He said that these tunnels sometimes channel water downhill (sounds like a reverse blowhole) and sometimes the water can be hasta la cintura (up to your waist). I just took that as an interesting fact until it struck me—could that happen NOW? It was with that realization that we turned around, and only then did I realize we would not go any further, and we started to leave. We had this view:


I found the view back upward absolutely gorgeous! This view was a high point of the day for me, and I said to Ricardo ¡Qué vista tan hermosa! (What a beautiful view!). No, it was not sunny outside, but looking out at the rain—in the rain forest—gave a very cozy feeling, and I was really pleased. But then we had to go up the ever-deepening cascade coming down the stairs—which was harder to do—and then had to go under that waterfall at the cave entrance, thundering down on our umbrellas. It was a relief to get back on the bus. When we did, Ricardo took all the boots and threw them out the door into the mud on the side of the road. I'm assuming he made plans with El Chato that they'd come back and pick up their boots. But he gave us no explanation.


The day trip so far had been exhausting and stressful, but we had walked with the turtles, and I did like the lava tunnel, with its view back outside. Here in Santa Rosa we were 2/3 of the way to Puerto Ayora, where we were supposed to visit the (Darwin Center), then be dropped off at our hotels. While the day trip had been unusual, to say the least, up to this point, from here on in it became a total fiasco. Despite the difficulties, it had been a great adventure; now it became a misadventure. For that reason I just put parentheses around our destination. I went back to it later in the week, and will describe it then. Now we'll just discuss the fiasco.


As we entered Puerto Ayora (see town map) from the NW, we zigzagged to the NE near the Hotel Fernandina. Ricardo had the bus driver stop at the end of the street and he pointed down to the hotel mid-block, where most, if not all of us, were to stay. With the continuing driving rain, he made his big mistake here. He should have at least asked if anyone wanted to skip the Darwin Center in the downpour and go right to the hotel, especially since he'd seen my schedule, and knew I had free time during the week. But he just pointed it out, and off we went to the Darwin Center.


But the van had to park at the entrance right near the cemetery (see town map), because traffic isn't allowed further in. At least he did ask if everyone wanted to go, and the consensus was yes. Of course we knew nothing about location and logistics. He knew how long a walk it was going in and around the area. Up ahead we could see that it was all paved, with a sidewalk, so maybe it wouldn't be too bad?


I had no idea what the Center was. A museum? A zoo? Was much of it indoors? He had the knowledge, we didn't, and I don't think he chose well to continue. He wanted to complete the schedule come hell or high water. It had already been turning into hell, and the high water was on its way. And shortly before this, we'd been sitting complacently in a plane, wondering what was ahead for us that afternoon.


We now had no boots. I'm not sure what shoes the others were wearing, perhaps sneakers. I had a pair of brown leather shoes. They weren't new, but were to alternate with sandals during the trip. With our umbrellas, we stepped onto the paved road. As we walked in, there was a sidewalk on one side, but the puddles on the sidewalk were as bad as those on the road. I thought I maybe could tip-toe in the rain, but before long, I and my shoes and socks were ankle-deep in puddles. While the umbrella protected one's upper half, with this much rain going on and on, my pants by now were wet to the waist. We did pass a marine iguana (black) on this road, since we were near a beach, but on and on we plodded. It was the long entrance road, then a lo more walking. We stopped at one small exhibition building, and sat down to rest. I took off one shoe and did what I'd only seen before in the movies: I poured water out of the shoe, à la Laurel and Hardy. Ricardo was watching, so at this point I reversed what I'd said to him at El Chato: ¡Esto no es sudor, es lluvia! (This isn't sweat, it's rain!) We still hadn't seen anything of value, and I said to Ricardo about the long walk and the mess we were in ¿De veras vale la pena? (Is this really worth it?), which finally got a response, that he was only doing his job. Well, I thought, he was doing it at the expense of the well being of his clients, but I didn't say any more.


We finally made it to breeding pens, to where Lonesome George had lived, and more. He did do some explanations, but you really couldn't concentrate on tortoises, just on survival in the rain. We finally walked the long path back to the bus, which then went to the Fernandina Hotel. This is were he handed out comment sheets, one to a woman from the couple, one to a woman from the threesome, and then, finally, reluctantly, to me. The sheep filled it out quickly and went into the hotel. I told him I'd get it back to him, but he asked me to fill it out then. One side was in Spanish and one in English, but I was still running in Spanish mode. Actually, I checked high marks in just about all boxes, after all, the storm wasn't his fault. But then there was room to write out a comment, and that's where I went to work. I wrote quickly, and therefore somewhat clumsily in Spanish about not being offered the chance to go to the hotel early, then went into the Fernandina. Finally, a refuge.


I was obviously not seeing the Fernandina to its best advantage (see pictures in previous posting). Like so many tropical buildings it had tile floors, and all the workers were barefoot, mopping and sweeping water, including he guy at reception. The room and bath were large and comfortable, I liked the painting above the bed of a blue-footed boobie, and the small plush-toy tortoise hanging on to my room key was a bit much, but still appreciated. But it struck me I needed two things, so I went back to Barefoot Boy at reception. I asked for the internet password, which he gave me, with the warning that the internet was out at the moment because of the storm. Ok, it was fine the rest of the week. Then, since I'd noticed there was no dryer in the room for shoes and pants, I asked him for one. I knew secar is "to dry", and that I needed a secadora because I was soaked. He looked at me strangely, then started talking about a laundry a couple of blocks away. Then he realized that, oh, I wanted a secadora de PELO, a HAIR dryer, and he pulled one out from behind the desk. I mention this because it was not a bilingual misunderstanding. It was purely monolingual confusion in Spanish, and would have been monolingual confusion in English, too.


I showered, washed the tee-shirt (I use quick-drying ones for travel) and unpacked. Then I started drying shoes and pants, and I looked in my pockets. Having just gotten off the plane, I found in my left front pocket my passport, which was moist enough to have curling edges. The dryer helped, but it's good that it has only two more years until renewal. My left front pocket had items I'd printed out, my weekly schedule, and map of Puerto Ayora. The dryer helped there, too, and they were usable the rest of the week.


Then I realized I had to find a restaurant for dinner, so I got out my dry shorts and tee-shirt, and dug out the flip-flops I'd bought just for the Galápagos—I hadn't used flip-flops in years. At the reception desk, I picked up an umbrella from the stand, which made me realize at least a little rain is common here, and set off to the corner, then down the two blocks (see map) to Avenida Darwin. By now it was only drizzling. I really didn't want to go downtown and start checking out my list of restaurants, and was delighted when I saw, right at that corner, the Hotel Silberstein with its Pelicano Restaurant. Puerto Ayora can be a joy!:


Both sides of the hotel on the corner had these arches, which were attractive even in the remaining drizzle. The menu looked good, so I decided to give it a try. It was maybe half-full, but the waiter looked dubious that he could find me a table, a dry one, that is, since the roof was leaking because of the storm, but he did. Wanting to be sure I had enough cash, just in case, I asked if they took credit cards. Yes, usually, he said, but the storm had knocked out their credit card machine, so tonight it was cash only (the rest of the trip—no problem).


Once I sat down I knew I'd found here my second refuge after the hotel refuge. He put a dip of some sort on the table, and a dish divided in sections, each with a different kind of chip—corn, plantains, and more—how interesting. I ordered an excellent pumpkin soup, and quite unusually, it was served with a small side dish of dried pumpkin seeds to be added as desired. I then had chicken in coconut-lemon sauce with rice and fried plantains. It was a very Ecuadorean meal. My second refuge was as good to me as the first.


Half-Day Academy Bay Visit    The second day in the Galápagos was Sunday, which was when the Beach-and-Bay day had been scheduled. It was one tour, morning, break for lunch, afternoon, so you had to take the package. I'd read in advance that you'd be driven across town to to the long boardwalk (see town map) leading to Tortuga Bay Beach, and then would have a long walk to the bay, then more to the beach itself. The total walk was about an hour, and then came the kicker. This was maybe the only walk in the Galápagos that was rated, and it didn't sound good: "moderate to strenuous due to heat"--and bring bug spray. I'd thought I'd want to skip the morning beach visit, and after experiencing the heat and humidity Saturday, I was convinced I should cancel. I got the note the evening before at the desk about the pick-up time, so after breakfast I went to the open-air lobby. When the woman came to pick me up, I told her I was canceling the morning but wanted the afternoon. I got the feeling it wasn't uncommon to do what I was doing. She said fine, be a the malecón at 2:00 after the lunch break.


This way I had a pleasant morning in the hotel garden, writing and relaxing. While I knew evenings in town were cool, midday would be brutal, and then we'd be out in the sun, so I got my cap, put on sunscreen, and ventured out at about 1:00. I passed the turtle statue, and Fisherman's Wharf. I didn't check out the wharf, pelicans, and mangrove forest until an evening when it was cool, and walked the length of Darwin to the malecón, maybe a half-hour. On the malecón, the group was gathering around the woman, who then introduced the naturalist guide for the trip. We then went to board.


In the Galápagos, I was on two boats, the yacht for the island excursions and the harbor tour boat this first time. Neither ever pulled up to a dock--I presume it was a matter of low water depth. Only the ferry on arrival and departure pulled up to a dock, so it must have been flat-bottomed to have minimal draft. All other boats required a shuttle boat to get to and from it, which they also used for wet and dry landings at the visitor sites. These little shuttle boats are called dinghys in English, but in the Galápagos, the Spanish word panga is used. That's not the normal Spanish word, which is bote "boat", so of course I looked it up. Spanish Wikipedia indicted that the word describes specifically a small flat-bottomed boat common in Central America (and Africa and Asia) so its use in the Galápagos would have spread from the mainland. Since understanding about pangas is essential, here are several views of them:


The first picture shows that they are usually small-sized inflatables, although they don't always come with two penguins and a sea lion—though here, that's not impossible. They are flat-bottomed so they can go anywhere, have an outboard motor in the back, and always seem to have that extra padding that you see on the prow. The second picture shows how passengers sit on the sides, which usually can accommodate 6-8 per side, and have to put on life jackets when getting in, although they usually come off on arrival. For a wet landing (easier) on a beach, the panga pulls up into the sand, each barefoot passenger slides up toward the front, but leaves over the side, simply by swinging both legs over to the outside and stepping into the water, nicely warm here, not too cold in Antarctica, where boots were supplied, anyway.


The third picture shows a typical dry landing. You can see why there's padding around the prow, as the panga pushes up against rocks, a wooden dock, or whatever. The awkwardness of these dry landings is that you get off by clumsily stepping up onto that prow, and then onto whatever you're landing on. Someone, usually the guide, always has to help everybody because it's just so awkward to do, very inferior to a wet landing, but usually necessary. We only had one wet landing in the Galápagos, while in Antarctica, almost all of them were. Finally, the fourth picture shows that a yacht just tows its panga behind it, as shown.


The much smaller harbor tour boat, however had us come out on a panga which seemed based at the malecón, and again, it was a struggle to get off the prow of the panga onto the prow of the boat. The tour boat was roofed, but open sided, with benches along both sides, accommodating the 12-15 of us. I enjoyed the afternoon, although one part stood out, surrounded by other uninteresting events, but that was also typical for my experience on the wonderful yacht we were on as well. In other words, each of these trips had its great ups, and a few boring downs.


As so often happened here, while they mentioned two stops, plus snorkeling, it was never clarified just where in the bay we were. Up until doing this writeup, I was under the belief that our first stop involved a little island in the bay, but further study showed that to be impossible. The problem as I've figured it out is that you can call anywhere a group a sea lions (lobos marinos) hangs out a lobería, and there's more than one in the bay. I can now, long after the fact, finally confirm that everything we did on the bay visit was along the south side of the bay, along the edge of that orange peninsula at the bottom of the town map. This now explains to me why, within 2-3 minutes of leaving the area of the malecón, we were going along a typical low bluff, 1-2 stories high—we've seen them in earlier pictures, where we instantly saw our wildlife. It was shockingly spectacular to so quickly see a sea lion on one ledge of the bluff, a blue-footed boobie sitting on another ledge, and a magnificent frigate bird flying overhead. There was also an area where the white-tip reef sharks were pointed out below us. Now this isn't enough, of course, we still want to see colonies of these birds doing their mating dance, but it proves that wildlife is everywhere here and long distances are not required to see it. All in all, I think I can say that, other than the tortoises, I saw at least one, if not many more, right on Academy Bay, of everything I said I saw in the Galápagos.


I see now that the first stop we made was along that same shore as these bluffs we'd been viewing. This sketch shows that peninsula, with the hiking path. Very roughly, compare it to the town map. Where the ship is shown is the particular lobería we saw, directly to the right of the dock (a slightly awkward dry landing), dozens and dozens frolicking on the rocks. One or two was on the dock, and the guide clapped to shoo them away. A few were even "walking" uphill where the path was. It was great.


The problem with all these excursions is that they want to show off other local sights, since it really doesn't take all that long to see the wildlife, and I'm not particularly interested in these random sites. So as interesting as the dock area was, we were off on a hike to see the Playa de los Perros (Dog Beach), at the far end of the sketch. Right at the beginning, on a boardwalk, I was the lucky one who stepped on a wide slat and it gave way, so that I caught my left shin on the next board, causing a bruise and breaking the skin. It didn't hurt at all, but it was the first of two Galápagos "war wounds".


To some extent, this was a nature walk, since I saw my lava lizard, and plenty of land and marine iguanas, including some burrows. But the path was still very muddy from the rain the day before, and after about 20 minutes, someone asked for a clarification of just what we were doing, and why. The beach we were headed for really didn't seem too impressive, and I asked how much further, and it turned out we still weren't halfway there. At this point half the group decided to turn back (I don't think we missed anything), and spent maybe 45 minutes back at the dock totally on our own, the highlight of the day. The sea lions were frolicking right next to us. This is where the sea turtle surfaced twice. Two large marine iguanas were sitting right there on the dock, as was a brown pelican. And I had the most fun taking plenty of time watching the Sally Lightfoot crabs (Photo by Joseph C Boone) scrambling about on the rocks right next to the dock.


After this highlight, we stopped somewhere nearby for snorkeling. About a third of us just stayed on the boat, and I had a nice conversation with some people from Denmark and a guy from Quito. When the snorkelers came back on board, one lady passing me by lying back on the bench asked ¿Cansado? (Tired?), and before I could say anything, the more insightful lady with her said No, aburrido. (No, bored.) We all laughed, but she was right, boredom was something that would pursue me on these trips outside of the nature walks.


Our second stop, Las Grietas was not that big of a deal. The guide explained that it was an area for fresh-water swimming, which was a turn-off for me and the third of those who didn't snorkel, either, but we went anyway. On the town map, you can see the road to Las Grietas, as well as here:


Only when I saw this map, long after the fact, did I realize what it was that I had seen, and I still don't have a full explanation as to why it's there, other than it's somehow volcanic in origin. This sketch shows the path from the dock that takes about 20-25 minutes arriving at a great, very long fissure in the earth. I had no idea until now how long it was. When we got there, it was attractive:


It just seemed like this little stretch of canyon. I've since looked up the name, and grietas are clefts, cracks, fissures, rifts, chasms. Apparently fresh water runs down the sides and collects over the salt water below. But it was so bloody hot, especially after the long walk. We arrived at the top of a long wooden staircase, and the water and steps were crowded with Sunday sightseers from town, since there's apparently an easy connection. I walked back to the dock before the swimmers, and even before non-swimmers did, and relaxed with some marine iguanas sunning on the dock. We then had a refreshingly pleasant ride back to town, where a panga met us. I had dinner on Darwin, but this once on the south side of town, at the Isla Grill, a nice berenjena (eggplant) in sauce, and a nicely-prepared pork chop. All in all, I loved the wildlife at the dock and cruising across the bay, also with its wildlife, aside from the less appreciated parts of the visit.

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