By Karen Rubin, Dave E. Leiberman, Laini Miranda, Eric Leiberman & Sarah Falter
Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
On the second day of the four-day cruise aboard the Galapagos Legend, we sail on to Santiago island. Early in the morning, after a talk about snorkeling and getting outfitted with our gear, we have a dry landing at Bartolome island just off Santiago.
We climb a long boardwalk, 372-steps, over a barren landscape that evokes a moonscape, up to the summit for an iconic view overlooking the famous Pinnacle Rock and Santiago Island. On the way up, we get to see sea lions frolicking (courting, perhaps?) with each other, and on the way down, one perches on a deck, perhaps putting on a show for us, until another literally pushes it off (wanting attention?).
When Darwin visited here on October 5, 1835, he encountered Spaniards who came to catch tortoises for food; he also found many land iguana which today are extinct. Goats, pigs and donkeys were released on the island in the 1800s, “causing havoc for the island ecosystem and many of its native species,” the Galapagos Conservancy, a US-based nonprofit, notes. “Goats destroy habitat, cause massive erosion, and compete with native herbivores, including the giant tortoise. Pigs dig up both giant tortoise and sea turtle nests and destroy both eggs and hatchlings, dig into Galapagos petrel nests in the highlands, and destroy other ground-nesting birds. Donkeys are particularly destructive to Opuntia cactus in the arid zones. The presence of these species on Santiago had created an ecosystem very different from the pristine condition.” (https://www.galapagos.org/about_galapagos/the-islands/)
Today there are programs to eradicate the goats, which have provoked ire from animal rights groups. “Which would you prefer,” our guide, Billy, challenges, “penguins or goats? Penguins or cats? Flightless cormorants or dogs? We are sorry for animal-loving people” but the Galapagos has made its choice.
Then we ride in the dinghy along the coast where we get a glimpse of the Galapagos penguin (one of 18 penguin species but the only one found this close to the Equator).
We are returned to a beach on Santiago Island to snorkel and explore for an hour. (Those who don’t want to snorkel can take a 12-passenger glass bottom boat to observe the marine life). Naturalist Alejandro, who is also a Galapagos National Park ranger, tells us to look for sea turtles, rays, maybe a small reef shark and the Galapagos penguin. (Karen is so happy with her Olympus Tough6 waterproof, shockproof camera, though David got excellent video with his cellphone in a waterproof pouch).
It is amazing to literally share the beach with sea lions. This also provides an opportunity to see the extraordinary Galapagos penguins; Sarah gets to swim with one. One of our group (we are Albatross; the other group is Booby) actually sees a white-tipped reef shark as he snorkels.
In the afternoon after a wonderful lunch, we have a dry landing off the dinghy and into the water at Sullivan Bay (Santiago Island) – a fascinating geologic site of a relatively “young” pa-hoe-hoe lava flow that came from 10 km away. It is like being dropped into a sculpture of black swirls and shapes – an absolutely stunning and dramatic landscape. Billy explains the black is because of oxidation but the layers underneath still have the original reddish-mustard color.
Billy says that when Darwin visited this very place, he estimated it formed only 200 years before and was spot on because scientists believe this land mass is a mere 350 years old. Now it seems virtually devoid of life – a moonscape – though when we look more carefully, we see the very beginnings of life taking hold: small mollugo plants beginning to grow out of fissures, a cactus, a locust flying by.
There is no organic soil, no water, the food chain is poor, but that locust eats the little bush and drinks its liquid and becomes food for lava lizards. This is like what Galapagos would have been at the beginning, just the top of volcano above the surface and nothing living, he says.
We are already witnessing the process of how the surface material will be broken down by lichens and eventually become soil.
Lichens are key to “terraforming” this barren landscape. “Look for moisture from steam coming out from fissures – that’s where lichens colonized.” The lichens crack the rock and turn it into organic soil that can support a plant or tree. Come back in 500 years, he says, and there will be life.
Billy tells us there used to be coal mining here, but after the National Park was established, the company was evicted. Today, the government has resisted permitting any kind of drilling, mining – for fresh water or for any of the valuable minerals that are likely in these islands, nor any of the resort or real estate development companies that would pay a small fortune for the rights to establish themselves here. The government has resisted all offers in order to preserve the Galapagos, “Nature’s Greatest Laboratory.”
“We know the Ecuador government has pressure to build resort hotels. But Galapagos has been a UNESCO Heritage site since 1978 – even if a corrupt government would want to sell, it cannot. Politically and geographically, Galapagos belongs to Ecuador, but culturally, Galapagos belongs to world.” But a lot of celebrities and billionaires have been so moved by their experience, they deposit hefty checks on their way home. “Bill Gates wrote a check for $5 million and left it at one station.”
Sullivan Bay was made famous because “Master & Commander” was filmed here – but the images of the ship were all digitized because the only boats allowed in the Galapagos have to come from here. Also, all the wood that is used to build boardwalks has to be already cut down – no living trees can be cut.
Back on board, Alejandro gives a talk about how the weather and currents are responsible for the unique life found in the Galapagos, and why, only in the Galapagos, can you see sea lions, penguins, tuna with parrot fish, angel fish and flamingoes.
From December through May, the water temperature (avg. 76°F/25°C) and air temperature (avg. low/high 72-86°F/22-30°C) are slightly warmer. Seas tend to be calmer. Rainfalls are common for a short period of time each day, but the remainder of the day tends to be very sunny resulting in high humidity. Flowers come into bloom and vegetation is more colorful. This is a good time to observe birds mating or sea turtles nesting on the beaches.
From June through November, when we visit, the Humboldt Current brings colder water (avg. 72°F/22°C) and cooler land temperatures (avg. low/high 66-79°F/19-26°C) It also brings nutrient-rich water that attracts fish and sea birds: albatross arrive on Española and penguins are easier to encounter. This is the mating season for blue-footed boobies. During this time of year clouds fill the sky and a misty rain called Garua is common. Winds tend to be stronger and seas a bit rougher. The abundant marine life makes this the preferred time of year for experienced divers.
Alejandro tells us that the sunny, blue skies we have had are unusual for this time of year (late August).
Back on board the Galapagos Legend, we thoroughly enjoy relaxing on the deck, hanging out together – there are two hot tubs and a nice-sized pool, plus a fitness center, a library, a children’s playroom, and a gorgeous lounge where coffee, tea, hot chocolate and fresh fruit are always available.
The M/V Galapagos Legend has 52 ocean view, air-conditioned cabins plus 3 interior ones, each cabin which can accommodate a matrimonial, double, triple or quadruple option, accommodating 100 passengers. The Balcony suites have private balconies and panoramic windows. The Junior suites have three meters of panoramic windows. Housekeeping is provided twice daily. You can use US plugs, and US currency. Our cabins on the Earth deck are gorgeous and spacious and can easily accommodate a triple.
The ship is large enough to feel very comfortable and have all the amenities you would want in a luxury cruise, but small enough to feel intimate.
The cuisine on board is superb (we especially love the BBQ banquet served alfresco on deck), how we are greeted on the return from our excursions and snorkeling with hot chocolate or tea and a snack, and how coffee, tea and fresh fruit are always available.
There are special touches: we absolutely adore the electronic key-bracelets we wear throughout our stay (even snorkeling) so you never have to fish for a key; how they keep track that everyone is onboard with a computerized check-in. (You can purchase beer or wine packages; wet suits are $25 to rent; kayaks are $40 pp, and you can purchase access to wifi.)
For a place that seems so remote, so exotic, so far from the reaches of the everyday and which affords such a unique opportunity to see rare and endangered animals, the Galapagos is surprisingly easy to reach – not at all like Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” All that it takes to have this “once in a lifetime,” “bucket list,” wonder-ful experience, is making the decision to go.
“Nature’s Greatest Laboratory,” the Galapagos is where you see natural selection and evolution unfold before you in real time. The Galapagos is also the poster child for the importance of tourism to provide the economic resources to protect the environment and culture, but also the critical need to rein in tourism and development. In effect, the Galapagos is the model for what responsible, sustainable tourism can mean to preservation, conservation of these precious places.
The Galapagos became a national park (Ecuador’s first) in 1959, the same year that the Charles Darwin Research Station was founded and 100 years after Darwin published his seminal “On the Origin of the Species”- introducing the concepts of natural selection and evolution which he developed as a young naturalist who joined the voyage of the Beagle. The park began operations in 1968. In 1979 UNESCO declared the Galápagos Islands Natural Heritage for Humanity, making the Park Service responsible for park conservation and guarding the islands.
Karen has been writing about the origin of “soft adventure” travel since Lars Eric Lindblad basically invented it and more than anyone else, opened Galapagos to the world in the 1970s. At the same time, Lindblad crusaded for insuring the protection of the Galapagos – lobbying to limit on the numbers of visitors, the size of ships, which are in force today. (His son, Sven Lindblad now continues that legacy with his own company, Lindblad Expeditions, and specially designed expeditionary ships in partnership with National Geographic.)
Finally, we have the opportunity to see the Galapagos and its responsible tourism preservation strategies first hand.
The best way to experience the Galapagos is by ship (you feel a little like Darwin) and we book a four-day/three-night cruise on the 100-passenger MV Galapagos Legend, a gorgeous ship that affords all the luxury amenities, which is operated by Go Galapagos (gogalapagos.com).
We cleverly organize our trip to arrive in the Galapagos a couple of days before the cruise, on Santa Cruz, easily accessed from the Baltra International Airport where we will meet up for the cruise.
We fly in separately from Quito and Guayaquil into Baltra International Airport on a tiny island that became a US naval base during World War II. Just walking from the plane at Baltra Airport into the terminal, Karen ise met by a “welcoming committee” of a golden iguana (land iguanas were extinct on Baltra by 1954, but thanks to repopulating effort from nearby North Seymour island, they have recovered).
Along with most of the other air travelers, we get on buses to the ferry ($5 fare), and the short ferry ride ($1 fare) to Santa Cruz, one of four inhabited islands, where we have the most splendid introduction to the Galapagos.
It’s almost an hour’s drive from the ferry to get to Puerto Ayora on the island’s southern tip along the longest paved road in the Galapagos, and you already see the variety of geology and ecosystems which support such diversity of animal life and vegetation. The taxi driver pulls over so Karen can see giant tortoises wandering in a pasture, mixed in with cows.
Ecuador has the highest biodiversity per square kilometer in the world, spread out among a wide variety of environments such as the rainforest to the east and the dry forests to the south. Indeed, within minutes of landing, we already see many of the animals and birds that the Galapagos is famous for.
Santa Cruz has a long history of human settlement and agriculture, which has left the landscape permanently altered by invasive species. But the island really developed with World War I and II and settlers from the United States and Europe. Some 12,000 people now live on the island, the second largest of the archipelago. Besides ranches and farms that raise avocados, coffee, sugarcane, bananas, oranges, and lemons, Santa Cruz is the main tourism hub for the Galapagos and in fact, offers a microcosm of what you see throughout.
Karen’s taxi stops at Playa Garrapatero, a long beautiful white powder sand beach with clear waters (and no kiosks so bring your own food!) where David and Laini, Eric and Sarah are already encamped – Eric and Sarah on the last legs of their six-month odyssey. (Imagine, meeting up in the Galapagos!). We arrange with the driver for a taxi to pick us up later (no cell service!). (They have biked here about 15 miles along a hilly route from their AirBnB in Puerto Ayora).
Laini organized a stay in a fantastic AirBnB, Encantadas Guest House, walking distance to everything Puerto Ayora, and steps away from the entrance to the boardwalk that leads to the fabulous beach at Tortuga Bay.
Puerto Ayora is absolutely charming and fun – unbelievably wonderful restaurants and delightful (and tastefully upscale) shops. (Calle Charles Binford is a bustling street of seafood restaurants where you order that day’s catch the length of your arm, some of them still moving, for a $10 complete dinner; elsewhere you can also get a three-course lunch for $5, such as at Laguna Beach, one of our favorite stops; also La Pausa, which Karen insists is the best cerviche ever!).
One of the fun places to stop is the fish market on the pier where the fishermen bring in their catches, eagerly awaited by a gaggle of pelicans and a sea lion or two that hang out daily, waiting patiently for their share of scraps.
There also are any number of tour companies offering day-trips to the various islands, scuba diving, bike rentals.
We walk along the rocky shore and are dazzled to see the marine iguanas, red crabs, sea lions and pelicans.
Visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station/Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center is a must to learn about the conservation efforts of the islands’ giant tortoises. Established in 1959, the center has a new guided tour – including infrastructure to support it. The tour is fantastic, introducing you to the concepts – which you can see in real life – of natural selection and evolution which Darwin developed on his five-year voyage (1831-1836) around the world on the Beagle; he studied and documented flora and fauna, particularly noting the specialization of species living in the isolation of the Galapagos islands.
The dramatic climax of the tour comes when you enter a special darkened room to see a mummified Lonesome George, the last of his species, the Pinta tortoise. Lonesome George died in 2012 at the age estimated to be around 100 years old. (Lonesome George was named for comedian George Gobel because of a character the comedian played.) His body was sent to a taxidermist at the Museum of Natural History in New York City to be mummified, and is now both a cautionary tale of extinction and an iconic symbol of the conservation efforts in the Galapagos.
The Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center, a long-term program run jointly by the Galapagos National Park Directorate and the Charles Darwin Foundation, began in 1965 to save the giant tortoise population on Pinzón. It was quickly expanded to include other populations, in particular that of Española where only 14 individuals remained. As of 2008, more than 4,000 young tortoises from eight different populations have been repatriated to their native island, with nearly 1,500 going back to Española. At the Tortoise Center, we observe a variety of tortoises, including hatchlings, juveniles and full-grown individuals.
There would have been 350,000 tortoises in the 15th Century – the pirates and explorers who found their way here used tortoises and sea turtles for food and fresh water; by 1959, when the Darwin Research Center was founded, there were only 16,000 great tortoises left. The efforts of this center, and three others located in the Galapagos have resulted in the population reboundng to 50,000.
Among the fascinating facts: the conservationists impact whether a tortoise egg will hatch as male or female by controlling the incubator temperature – a higher temperature produces a female. The eggs are brought here to hatch because they would not survive in the wild due to the introduced animals – rats, cats, dogs – and are kept here for four to six years until their shells are firm enough to give them a defense against predators, and then are returned to their native island. We see their colored markings and numbers on their shells. “If left to nature, their survival rate is zero because of intruder animals,” our guide tells us. “We investigate how they live, behave, learn what tortoise need, study mortality. After, we restore the population.”
We keep hearing that the tortoises are not “social” but we keep seeing interactions. Perhaps they are changing their behavior simply by putting them together in these reserves, Karen wonders.
There is a sandy path that goes along the coast where we find many black marine iguanas and their babies.
We pick up some sandwiches at Galapagos Deli in town and then go off to what is easily the most wonderful day on any beach Karen has ever had, on Tortuga Bay – soft powdery white sand, the most exquisite blue-aqua-green waters, white waves, black lava rock, and a quiet cove where you get to snorkel with parrot fish and black marine iguanas (the Galapagos is the only place in the world where you see these marine iguana).
But first, we walk about 45 minutes down a mile-long paved path through a gorgeous lush forest (cactus trees!), before you get to this most stunning beach. There are actually two beaches – the long beach which is open to the ocean, has strong undercurrents and is not great for swimming.
But then we come to a small cove at the end which offers superb calm waters for snorkeling and swimming with those black marine iguana as well as colorful parrot fish. Just passed this cove and around a thicket of mangrove trees we find a second beach at “Tortuga Laguna” that is more of a protected lagoon area on the bay, where the water is calm and families gather along the more narrow strip of sand.
We round out this exquisite stay on Santa Cruz by arranging with our taxi driver on our way to meet our Go Galapagos cruise group at Baltra Airport to stop at the El Chato Ranch – Giant Tortoise Reserve in the Highlands (a rainforest), where we get to see where great tortoises are protectedand also get to walk through two lava tubes.(The boots they give you to wear through the mud is appreciated, $10 admission, General Rodriguez Lara 629 Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz 200350, Ecuador, +593 98 864 4178, www.ranchoelchato.com).
At the driver’s suggestion, we also make a quick stop at Los Gemelos (Twin Craters) – two giant pit craters which were caused by the collapse of empty magma chambers, located just off the road. If we had more time, we would have walked the trail through the Scalesia forest, which is an excellent place to spot terrestrial birds such as Vermilion Flycatchers, Short-eared Owls, the Galapagos Dove and several finch species.
Two days is really not enough time in Santa Cruz to take advantage of all it offers – you can easily spend a week. On our list for when we return:
Las Grietas (The Crevices), a strip of water through two rock formations where we hear the snorkeling is fantastic. From there the trail passes by lagoons, a beach, and the residential zone until reaching the cliffs of the main crevice. Take care climbing down into the crevices. There, you can see fresh water at the surface and the salt water of the sea at the bottom. It’s a great place to swim or snorkel. (Take a water taxi from the municipal pier to the pier of Finch Bay Hotel on the other side of the bay.)
El Mirador is a partially collapsed lava tube. Located in the arid zone, you may also get to see several of Darwin’s finches and a barn owl that lives inside the tube.
Dragon Hill, created by the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Park to restore the population of land iguanas that had been decimated by feral dogs, is also a wonderful place for snorkeling. Heading inland on the trail, you pass two small salt-water lagoons where you might see flamingos and other shore birds.
Playa de los Perros is a very short beach out on the western outer point of Academy Bay. The highlight is a white-tipped shark pond where you can watch sharks. It is reached by an 8-minute boat ride from the municipal pier followed by a ½ km hike on a rough trail.
Santa Cruz is ground zero for the urgency and need for sustainable tourism and development of such precious and rare places as the Galapagos. Indeed, the main point of visiting the Galapagos is that you see this process unfolding in front of you – this delicate balance between predator and prey, population numbers and the resources sufficient to sustain it, whether it is the giant tortoise, the iguana or humans. Humans have been the invasive species for centuries, not only decimating the population of sea turtles and tortoises for food and water, but introducing rats, cats, dogs and goats.
The growth of tourism has led to the growth in population in the Galapagos, putting pressure on local resources and municipalities in health, education, waste management and all the aspects of daily life, the Galapagos Conservancy notes. In effect, the Galapagos demonstrates in real time the principles of natural selection and the need to keep resources in balance. The islands are also a model in terms of adapting to these pressures – so there are strict limits on everything from owning a car to requiring the ships that bring in vital goods take away the waste that cannot be recycled (before, they just piled waste onto a dump without treatment). In 2006, the community and the national park built the “Fabricio Valverde Environmental Center” that now recycles 40% of the waste materials generated in Santa Cruz. On our walk from Tortuga Bay we also see the Galapagos Renewable Energy Center building.
Not discussed with us tourists but what must be a major concern to islanders: the impacts of human-caused climate change – stronger storms, rising sea levels. But it all adds to the urgency: see the Galapagos now.
An excellent source of information is the Galapagos Conservancy, which, since 1985, “has been the only U.S.-based nonprofit dedicated exclusively to the protection and restoration of the Galápagos Islands and its brilliant mosaic of life, including more than 2,000 species found nowhere else on Earth.” (https://www.galapagos.org/about_galapagos/the-islands/)
Some important tips: You pay $20 airport fee at Quito or Guayaquil for the flight to the Galapagos, $100 in cash to the Galapagos National Park (US dollars are used for currency in Ecuador) upon arrival. The electrical plugs are the same as we use in the US. Karen really appreciated her waterproof Olympus Tough TG-6, though an inexpensive waterproof pouch for David’s cell phone also worked well (video!).
We get to Baltra airport and meet up with the guides and fellow passengers for our cruise aboard the Galapagos Legend (www.gogalapagos.com).