Ecuador Part 3 – The Galápagos Islands

October 8, 2019

We were up early for breakfast in the hotel before heading to the airport with our tour group at 6:00 am. Originally, we were going to leave at 7:00 am, but they were unsure about the time it would take to get to the airport due to the protests. We ended up getting there with tons of time to spare before our 10:13 am flight to the Galapagos. We gave our passports to our GAdventures Representative with $20 USD and she obtained our transit control cards for the Galapagos. We took out a lot of cash at the airport as we were warned there isn’t a lot of opportunity to get cash on the islands and most places would not take credit card.

Our tour group at the airport in Quito

The flight had a stopover in Guayaquil to re-fuel and some people departed and new people boarded. We stayed on the plane and headed off to San Cristobal Island. Upon arrival at the airport in San Cristobal we had to show our transit cards and then pay a $100 USD Galapagos Island Park Entry Fee. The fee funds the maintenance and supervision in the Galapagos, as well as ecology study, conservation and infrastructure development.

We met our GAdventures CEO, Dario, outside and loaded onto the bus. It was about a five minute drive to our hostel. The capital city of San Cristobal has 9,000 inhabitants. To live in the Galapagos you must be a resident or marry a resident.

We dropped our bags in our rooms and changed into our swim suits. We were able to rent snorkels for $25 USD for the week. I rented one, but Danny had brought his own that he had purchased on our round the world trip. The bus took us to the Interpretation Centre where we learned about the history of the Galápagos Islands and how they were formed. The islands were formed in the Pacific Ocean by the interaction of the plate tectonics and hot spot volcanism. The Galapagos lie on the Nazca Plate which is moving to the southeast towards the South American Plate at 5 cm/year. Volcanoes are formed in this hot spot creating new islands. Previously formed islands slowly move away from the hot spot allowing room for new islands to be formed. Older volcanoes eventually become inactive and erode into the ocean. Hot spots created the Galapagos as well as the islands of Hawaii.

There are thirteen major islands with hundreds of smaller rocky formations. A single volcano formed each island except for Isabela which was formed by the union of six different volcanoes. The majority of the islands were formed less than one million years ago. The islands were originally devoid until eventually, seeds carried by the wind arrived on the islands. The pioneer species were lichens and cactus capable of living with little water. Vegetation rafts from the continent would take a minimum of two weeks to reach the islands and only those capable of living with a lack of water such as reptiles, would survive. Just outside the interpretation centre were some candelabra cacti that grow only one metre every 100 years.

Candelabra cacti

There are two seasons in the islands: between June and November the average air temperature is 22 degrees Celsius and between December and May the average air temperature is 25 degrees Celsius. It is not quite as warm as one would think being so close to the equator. This is due to the predominant current coming up from Antarctica.

We walked along a trail behind the Interpretation Centre to a bay. There were steps down to the water. We left our clothes and grabbed our snorkels and jumped in the water. It was absolutely freezing. I think we lasted in the water for 30 minutes and really didn’t see much except fish. We got out and Danny was shaking from the cold.

Snorkelling in the freezing water

Some others that had gotten in the water later were still swimming when a sea lion came over to swim with them. We were a bit jealous. We got dressed and headed back to the hostel. Along the way we were shown some other beaches that we could go to the next day.

We had showers and got ready for supper. After supper we went for a walk around the town. There were tons of sea lions on the beaches. Most of them were resting. They make some very interesting noises that don’t suit their looks. After getting our fill of staring at the sea lions, we returned to our hostel for some sleep.

Nap time in the streets
October 9, 2019

In the morning, we had breakfast in the hostel then went for a walk around town. We bought some groceries for lunch and then went down and sat on one of the piers. We watched the sea lions for a bit, saw some iguanas and then a bunch of different birds.

Iguanas

When it had warmed up a bit from the morning temperature of 15 degrees Celsius, we changed into our swim suits and packed our bags to head to Playa Mann. The beach was about a 45 minute walk from our hostel. It was quite a large beach that was mostly covered by sea lions. We took our snorkels into the water and immediately saw a huge sea turtle.

Swimming with giant turtles

There were also sea lions swimming around. They were a bit scary because they would come up and swim past you very quickly. The sea turtles would just float in the water and you could stare at them for awhile.

Swimming with sea lions

When we walked along the beach we found a little sea lion that still had its umbilical cord attached and was laying next to its mother. The male sea lions will stay with their mother for three years, while females will only stay for one year.

Mom and baby sea lion

We spent most of the day at the beach and left when we realized how burned we had gotten. We returned to the hostel and along the way stopped to watch the sea lions again and then saw some blue footed boobies and more iguanas. We had supper then returned to the hostel to pack up for the next day.

Napping sea lions
October 10, 2019

We were up fairly early for breakfast and then caught our bus down to the pier. Each of our bags were looked through to make sure we weren’t smuggling any sand, plants or iguanas. We took a private boat to the island of Floreana which has approximately 150 inhabitants.

Danny on the boat to Floreana

We saw some more iguanas right when we arrived on the island. Apparently the red colour on the iguanas means they are males that are ready for mating. We hung out at a bar on the black sand beach. According to the bartender the bar was opened two weeks ago just for us.

Beach on Floreana

Some of our group including Danny went snorkeling out in the water. I was feeling too sun burned and didn’t want to make it any worse. After snorkeling we walked up the road to a little restaurant for lunch. It was a GAdventure supported community restaurant.

We were also able to purchase postcards there. At the pier there was a barrel you put your postcard in and other visitors that lived nearby would pick it up to hand deliver it. I found this idea very exciting and was hoping to find one near Edmonton to deliver, but the closest was Vancouver so we left it there. We will see if the postcards we wrote to our parents ever make it to them. An address in rural Alberta may be hard to find…

We hopped back on the boat for another 2 hour trip to the island of Isabela. Isabella has a population of about 2,200 inhabitants. A bus picked us up at the port and drove us into the highlands where we were staying at a camping site. Each set of two had their own tent. Inside were mattresses and towels for us. We had time at the campsite before dinner for a little ultimate frisbee game.

Supper was served at the campground and then after we had a fire. Danny and I had heard there was going to be a fire so had purchased cookies, chocolate and marshmallows the previous day while we were in San Cristobal for s’mores. The s’mores went over very well. No one had the traditional scary stories to tell, but we did have a lengthy discussion about serial killers. We knew we had an early morning so we didn’t stay up too late.

October 11, 2019

We were woken up very early by the roosters next door to our campsite. They seemed to have woken up at 4:00 am. We had breakfast at the campground then hopped on our bus to head up further into the highlands. There we hiked about an hour up to a viewpoint of Volcano Sierra Negra.

Volcano Sierra Negra

Volcano Sierra Negra has the largest caldera (bowl shape) of all of the Galapagos volcanoes. The volcano area is approximately 10 km x 8 km. It is a shield volcano which means the eruption occurs along the edges and is therefore less explosive than a strata volcano. It is also one of the most active of the Galapagos volcanoes. The last eruption was in June 2018 and locals hiked up to edge to watch. The green part of the volcano is lifting at 15 cm per year and the black part is lifting at 5 cm per year.

There is another volcano on the island that has giant tortoises living inside it. Goats also used to live inside, but would compete for food with the tortoises. Hunters have had to kill the goats to save the tortoises.

We hiked back down and drove into town where we walked out to a marshy area to see some flamingoes. There are about 250-300 flamingoes in the Galapagos and they fly between the islands. The dark pink colour indicates they are an adult and the lighter pink indicates they are younger.

Flamingoes

In town we met up with a local tour guide that would take us on our next adventure. We took a boat out to Los Tuneles, an area created from the Sierra Negra volcano. The many bridges are simply collapsed lava.

Los Tuneles

We were able to walk around the interesting landscape and view the entire lifecycle of the blue footed booby. There is no specific mating season for boobies. It is more dependent on food availability so differs between the islands. Males make a whistling noise while females make a honking noise. A male will flap out his wings to attract a female to mate with him. The female will choose the male she wishes to mate with.

Male booby dancing on the left, disinterested female in the middle and second male on the right

The parents will poop around an area to mark out their nest and usually they have one or two eggs. There is a 35-40 day incubation where one of the parents will stay at the nest while the other goes fishing. Once the babies are a bit older both parents will go fishing while the youngings stay at the nest. They eat fish exclusively and mostly sardines. Children start with white feet and develop their blue feet in adulthood.

Blue footed booby nest

After our walk we had lunch on the boat. Ecuadorians eat a lot of rice and beans which is what we had for lunch. After lunch the boat took us out to another spot along the shore where we put on our wet suits and snorkels and hopped in the water. There we saw a huge sea turtle who must have been about four or five feet long.

Sea turtle

We also saw a bunch of small black tipped sharks swimming around. The guide then pointed out a little tiny sea horse. The Little Mermaid really disillusioned me to the size of sea horses. Danny also saw an octopus.

Black tipped shark and seahorse

We swam over to this underwater ledge where you had to peak your head under to see the cave below where there were a set of white tipped sharks. They were really cool looking. We did see a lot of cool things there, but the way it was described to me I thought it was going to be so much more so I felt a little let down.

The boat took us back into town where we sat and relaxed for a bit. There was a bit of a protest going on in the main square, but nothing as large or as climactic as what was going on in Quito. Just before 6:00 pm we headed out to the beach as a group and watched the sunset. We met up for a spaghetti supper before heading back to the campground.

Sunset
October 12, 2019

Our morning started very early for us to catch one of the public boats to our next island, Santa Cruz which was about a two hour ride away. Santa Cruz has a population of about 12,000 residents making it the most populated island of the Galapagos. We arrived at our hostel, but were unable to check in so early. Instead we all walked to the Darwin Research Centre and Fausto Llerena Breeding Centre to see all the giant tortoises. In the Galapagos there are 12 of 15 species of giant tortoises still surviving.

Giant tortoises at the breeding centre

In the 18th century explorers would take the tortoises for food on their ships because they would live without food and water for a long time. Their heart rates can drop to 3-4 beats per minute at rest. Apparently the taste is a mixture between chicken, pork and beef. Tortoise oils were also burned in lamps before electricity and the shells served many purposes before the invention of plastic. There are only 30,000 giant tortoises remaining in the Galapagos. Volcanic eruptions kill a lot of tortoises and there is an ongoing black market for tortoises. A small one can cost $65,000 on the black market.

The breeding centres search for eggs in the wild. Only 1-2 of twenty eggs will survive in the wild. At about 3-4 years old the tortoises are released back into the wild. The temperature the eggs are kept at determines their sex: warm breeds females and cold breeds males. This means that there are more males in the highlands. The males will walk to find the females to breed using the smell of their poop. Females walk away from the males and do not want to breed. The males continue their pursuit until the females cannot escape, the males hop on and essentially rape the females. Giant tortoises move at a rate of 1 km/h. Tortoises can live up to 200 years. The breeding centre pays about $1,000 per tortoise per year.

Baby tortoises

Dome shelled tortoises are adapted to wet zones where food is close to the ground. Saddleback tortoises are only found in the Galapagos and have long neck and legs adapted to finding food in desert zones.

Super Diego is a famous tortoise from the breeding centre. He was one of the last males of his kind and the breeding centre found him at the San Diego zoo. They brought him to the breeding centre where he repopulated the species producing approximately 2,000 offspring.

Super Diego

We walked back into town and I was getting very hangry. It took us forever to get to our lunch place. After lunch we took a bus about 45 minutes into the highlands. We were able to walk through a lava tube that was found when a farmer kept losing his cows. The last eruption there was 2.5 million years ago. The lava tubes are essentially arms of the volcano.

Inside a lava tube

Next we walked around an area with a ton of tortoises in the wild. We saw a couple that were over 150 years old. They didn’t seem to care too much that we were there. They have no predators in the Galapagos except for humans. They are herbivores that mostly consume grasses and leaves.

Wild tortoise

At the end we were able to look inside a tortoise shell to see where it’s spine is attached to the shell. We were also able to crawl inside to get a sense of the weight of the shell. Male tortoises can weigh more than 500 pounds and females average about 250 pounds. The shell encompasses the spine as well so a tortoise cannot leave its shell.

Danny as a tortoise

We returned to the hostel where we were able to check in and rest a bit before supper. We had some delicious sushi for supper and viewed another calm protest in the town square. It seemed more like a celebration of culture with singing and dancing. Danny and I got some ice cream on our way back to the hostel before bed.

Protest on Santa Cruz
October 13, 2019

We slept in a bit then had breakfast at the hostel. We chatted with some of our tour group about the situation in Quito. We had been hearing the situation had gotten much worse with the protests. Many others on our tour had rescheduled their flights to leave from Quito right when we would be arriving back from the Galapagos. Danny and I looked into it, but the cost to change our flights would have been $300 USD each. We decided to wait and see what the situations as like in Quito when we arrived. We also found out that the same flight we were taking out of the Galapagos was canceled today so we didn’t want to change our flight and then have to change it again.

We decided to head into town and grab some food to pack for lunch. It was an hour walk along a hilly path to Tortuga Bay. When you reach the water there is a beautiful beach that you cannot swim at as it has strong rip tides.

Tortuga Bay

We walked passed a bunch of iguanas that were swimming.

Iguanas basking in the sun

Up further there was a cove that had calm water for swimming. We found a spot in the shade to lay out our towels. We took out our snorkels and jumped in the water. The water, however, was not clear enough for snorkelling. We could barely see our hands in front of us. Instead we swam for a bit, lounged for a bit, swam for a bit then decided we were a bit bored and worried about getting more sun burned. We walked back to the hostel and relaxed for a bit.

We met the group and went for supper together. I had a big lobster which was pretty exciting. After supper we walked down to the main pier and were able to see a ton of sharks swimming around. Then we enjoyed a quiet walk back to the hostel.

October 14, 2019

We were up pretty early to take our bus down to the pier where we caught a boat out to Isla Baltra, an island just north of Santa Cruz. The island used to be a US Military Base during WWII to patrol the eastern Pacific and protect the Panama Canal. At the Pier of Isla Baltra we caught another bus to the airport on the island. Here we said goodbye to our guide Dario and went through security to wait for our flight back to Quito.

Our flight returned to Quito as planned. We said goodbye to many of the people from our tour at the airport as they had their next flights to catch. We returned to the original hotel we had stayed at in Quito with a set of five others from our tour.

We checked in and relaxed for a bit. We met our remaining group and walked up the street for supper. I had a plate full of vegetables and Danny had a quarter of a guinea pig. It tasted like rabbit and was actually very good.

Quarter guinea pig

Following dinner, we walked back to the hotel and went to bed exhausted.

We booked a nearby Airbnb to stay at for the next couple of days. The President met with the leader of the Indigenous the day before and everything seems to be going all right now. On our drive back into Quito there were people cleaning up the blockades in the streets so that is a good sign. Everything seems to be calm in Quito now so we plan on keeping our original flight and spending the next couple of days checking out Quito.

M

One thought on “Ecuador Part 3 – The Galápagos Islands

  1. Helen December 5, 2019 / 8:12 am

    So enjoyed reading about the adventure. Thx, very informative

    Like

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