My knowledge of the Galapagos Islands before our visit was limited to images of rugged islands with lizards and tortoises on land and amazing diving with turtles and sharks off land. I didn’t expect the bustling town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. I learned so much while we were with my sister Julia’s family and my dad. Luckily Julia and I had done much of the planning over the summer before we left on our trip. It was nice having much of the logistics figured out ahead of time for our group of 9.
We knew we were in a magical place immediately upon landing on Baltra Island (an old US Navy base). We gawked at the land iguanas we saw from the tarmac on our way into the tiny airport. After paying our Galapagos Island National Park fees (really glad they do this!) and gathering our luggage, we were greeted by Eddie who transported us to our hotel as part of the 3 day tour we had arranged many months ago. Before going to the hotel we stopped at El Chato - the Giant Tortoise Reserve. We were all in awe as we were able to see from the van giant tortoises in the grassy green fields among the cattle. As we got out and walked on the trail we got closer to these giant slow ancient animals. We were able to catch two of them “in the act”, which was a great segue for our guide to explain their mating behavior. We learned that they are not sexually mature until about age 25 and then can have sex into their 100s. But what we found most interesting is the fact that the gender of their offspring is determined by the temperature of the eggs. The eggs that are deeper and colder are the males, the eggs on top are warmer and are the females. Since the females are the first to hatch they are more likely to be killed by predators, mostly birds.
We then went onto Puerto Ayora, the bustling town of about 20,000 locals. At our humble hotel in the center of town we all encountered difficulty in getting hot showers and decent wifi over the next three days. Keegan was quite happy with the location since there were ready made empanadas next door at the mini mart. He found empanadas quite similar to his beloved Aussie and Kiwi meat pies. We spent our first dinner eating fresh local seafood seated at a table in the middle of the street among many other bustling restaurants. This location became a favorite of ours. The ceviche was delicious as were the tuna and lobster.
The next day Astrid was our official naturalist guide of Floreana island. She took us on her dad’s boat, Queen Astrid, of which her dad was the captain. The boat trip took about two hours but we were lucky to have some dolphins entertain us on the way.
As we got closer to the island we started to see more birds, including flamingos in flight! On land we were immediately mesmerized by all the wildlife especially the only marine iguanas in the world. The males were large and colorful as well as territorial, within minutes we saw two large males bobbing their heads and physically fighting. They can only be found in the Galapagos and are believed to have evolved from land iguanas. They can not only swim in the ocean, but can dive up to 60 feet. They feed on the algae in the water and have a special nasal gland that allows them to sneeze out the excess salt. We quickly learned it is best to not get too close.
The density of wildlife was shocking. There were so many iguanas, sea lions and birds everywhere. After our walk among the iguanas on the black lava trail, we went snorkeling where we also saw rays, turtles, fish and penguins. The kids especially enjoyed snorkeling with the penguins and watching them dive into a school of fish. Astrid was wonderful with my dad and helped him find the easiest path to the beach and helped him see a sting ray when we were snorkeling.
Floreana island only has 125 residents despite being the first human settlement of the Galapagos. There were whalers and pirates that raided the island in the early 1800s for water and took almost all the tortoises for fresh meat since they can live a year on a ship without water or food. This is an ugly part of the Galapagos history in which the populations of tortoises went from the many hundred thousands down to tens of thousands on the islands. We went to the highlands of the island where we walked among the few Floreana Giant Tortoises left which are a different species from the ones on the other islands. We learned how the Darwin Research Center is breeding these tortoises with other species with the goal of making fully Floreana DNA tortoises in a few generations.
Astrid shared the interesting folklore about the first residents of the island in the 1930s including a German doctor and his wife, the Wittmer family who fled Nazi Germany, and the strangest resident Baroness von Wagner Bosquet (a self-proclaimed Austrian elite) with her three lovers. Apparently these colonists did not live peacefully and only the Wittmer family remained, the others either left, mysteriously perished or disappeared. We actually shared the boat ride back to Santa Cruz island that day with a descendent of the Wittmer family. Our guide Astrid also grew up there. She is currently a University student in Guyaquil back for Christmas break, but plans to return to Galapagos when she finishes her biology degree. We felt fortunate to have such a knowledgeable and caring guide.
The next few days included excursions to beautiful Tortuga Beach with sun bathing iguanas, Las Grietas (a swimming hole between two tall cliffs), and the town’s fish market where sea lions and pelicans hang out waiting for scraps.
We also had a wonderful tour of the fascinating Charles Darwin Research Center and the amazing work they do. We learned more about the tortoise species on the brink of extinction and some which had been fully eradicated on many of the Galapagos islands. The most famous being Lonesome George, the last remaining Giant Tortoise from Pinta Island whose species is now extinct since his death in 2012. We also learned about Super Diego who rescued the Española Island Giant Tortoise from the brink of extinction when in the 1960s only 14 tortoises (2 males and 12 females) were left due to the infestation of tortoise egg eating rats and habitat destroying goats on the island. The 14 tortoises were brought to the research station and in 1977 Diego an Española tortoise found in the San Diego zoo was also brought to the station and went on to father 40 to 45 percent of the approximately 1,780 Española tortoises that have been born at the breeding center and returned to the wild. His grandchildren are now living and breeding on their native island. It was just announced that Super Diego, who is now 100 years old, will be brought back to Española Island this March.
We celebrated New Years with the locals in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz island. Before the holiday people make effigies, scarecrow-like dolls, and display them. We saw many on the streets of Puerto Ayora. The tradition is to burn them at midnight however it is not allowed on the eco-conscious Galapagos Islands. So instead they are judged and an overall winner is picked. I assume Thanos was the winner this year as it was on display at the port where the New Years festivities were centered.
Another New Years Eve tradition are the "viudas" (the widows), who are apparently widows because their husbands are the effigies being burned that evening. They can be young children or grown men who dress up as women and beg for money. The picture below is of two young children who with their moms in the background put on a great show of being in mourning… of course they got my money.
We had a wonderful waterfront New Years dinner buffet, which Keegan and Sergei took full advantage of, with their many helpings. We then went to the New Year celebrations down at the town square/port where two bands played with many families with young children in attendance. It was definitely a family affair. We were quite befuddled when the emcee on stage announced New Years 5 minutes early, however we celebrated then and then again 5 minutes later. We had our bottle of champagne, we gave hugs and a local woman looked at me and gave us hugs. It was a great way to start 2020. Feliz Año Nuevo!
Early on New Years day I had to say goodbye to my extended family - my dad, my sister Julia, her husband RJ, my niece Katja and nephew Sergei, as they left for Quito where they would catch a plane back to the States. We are so thankful that they were willing to join us for an nontraditional but quite memorable holiday season together. Of course they were sad to go but they were looking forward to consistent hot showers and wifi.
We were back down to our family of 4. We checked into the unique labor of love Lonesome George Lodge. We spent the next two days scuba diving. The diving was truly spectacular. It was like diving in an aquarium, we could see so much in every direction. At Mosquera we saw hammer head sharks swimming around us, garden eels, eagle rays and Galapagos sharks. It was definitely one of our best days of diving. However the next day was one of the scariest.
We dove Gordon Rocks which is famous for schools of hammer head sharks. It had the strongest currents I had ever experienced diving. Naomi was my dive buddy and we had to physically hang onto and climb the rocks in order to go in the direction of our dive master. We each had to grab each other from being taken away by the current. Needless to say it was not a meditative dive and too much energy was spent just staying in one place. Naomi started running out of air so we ended up bailing on trying to catch up to the group and buddy breathed during our safety stop and made it to the surface together. It took a while to recover but luckily during the surface interval we were at a calm area with sea lions. John, Naomi and Keegan had a great time snorkeling with the playful sea lions. Our next dive was much better, as we swam with the current along with turtles. At one point there were 5 turtles swimming around us at the same time. It was truly magical. The Galapagos wildlife on land and in the ocean is truly stunning. I would not hesitate to come back.