Cheshire Cat in Galapagos

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The mysterious Islands of the Galapagos

A face only a mother could love

2005 and 2006 - we visited two times in Cheshire Cat.

On our first visit we sailed from Bahia de Caraquez in Ecuador with Helen and Tabatha on board and in company with Susan and Chuy on Libre. The 6 day passage was a bit lumpy and Tabs was a rather bored as there wasn’t a whole lot to do and watching the sea wasn’t very inspiring either.

Our first landfall was Isle Cristobel, where we found the small bay full of activity with an assortment of cruise ships busy loading and unloading passengers and baggage. We saw old fashioned wooden pirate ships and brigantines types, several efficient looking power boats and even small cruise liners. Water taxis were kept pretty busy ferrying their passengers to and from the dock along with boat loads of luggage, diving gear and camera equipment.
Seals on the beach

Tabatha had collected all the squid and flying fish that she had found on deck that day, and we were highly entertained when she fed the greedy and surprisingly aggressive pelicans. We also enjoyed watching the seals climbing with surprising agility on to any small boat they could find unoccupied; they seemed to revel in basking in the sun on small fishing boats. They even climbed up the steps of catamarans; friends of ours returned home to theirs one evening to find a whole family had taken up residence on board! Apparently they were exceedingly smelly and obviously not at all welcome guests.

Walking on the beach proved interesting as well – a person could be wandering along the sand carefully avoiding the large black lava rocks to be quite taken by surprise when a rock suddenly sat up, cast a filthy look in ones direction and growled threateningly! What an excellent disguise!
We explored and visited the very smart new and interesting information center where there were several excellent displays explaining the geological and evolutionary history of the islands and surrounding area. We saw how finches developed their unique characteristics and learned how the early travelers, bringing cats and dogs and pigs soon changed the habitat. We quickly learned that local turtles and tortoises made for excellent provisioning on their long voyages. Between the intruding animals preying on the young and the unstinted kidnapping of the tortoises by passing ships the species soon became rare.
Blue footed booby
A nearby shoreline wediscovered a great many really ugly, large marine iguana sunbathing on the lava rocks above the surf line. They too were well disguiesed as we could barely distinguishe them from the rocks until we were quite close to them.

On another day we hired a taxi and toured some of the island: we visited a small volcanic lake and a tortoise centre. Tortoise eggs were incubated here and the diminutive young were protected in small enclosures with high wire walls designed to keep out predators. The older tortoises – two years and up, were allowed to roam in a widespread enclosed area in their natural habitat. The little ones make good dinners for rats, cats and dogs running wild in the bush.

A few days later we sailed the short distance to Santa Cruz where once again we found a hectic anchorage. A water taxi helped us by taking our stern anchor out and dropping it for us, and came back later to pick us up so that we could go to shore. Attracting the attention of these taxis was sometimes very exasperating, and one could shout and holler, wave and jump up and down on the deck, or call “Moye, moye” on the VHF radio for well over an hour without sucess.

Herein Santa Cruz we took the opportunity to visit the world famous and excellent Darwin Centre, saw the four remaining types of tortoise, (there used to be seven distinct varieties) and visited their informative study centre.

The Center’s property is quite large and consists of a number of natural ‘compounds’ where the tortoises live in groups. They are fed every few days and are provided with shallow pools where they spend a great deal of time lazing around and cooling down. Each area has lots of shade with thickets of scrubby bushes and trees through which the creatures have created their own paths and resting spots. We stopped and watched Lonesome George with his harem, but he wasn’t very exciting that day. In fact, generally speaking, the tortoises were a pretty laid back group most of the time – they only really only got mildly energetic when they were expecting to be fed or trying to make amorous advances on each other and even then it was all a bit like watching a slow-mo movie.

We took another taxi ride, this time to explore the nearby lava tunnels inland a short way – the interior countryside was very green and fertile by comparison to the rocky and more dersolate shorelines. The lava tunnels weren’t really terribly interesting. These dark caverns and tunnels were created by volcanic lava flows, where the outside lava cooled more quickly than the inside and where the hot core lava flowed out leaving a tunnel behing in the cooler crust. The one we saw was like a long black cave with some interesting rock formations. As there was no light, it was lucky we took a torch with us.

Susan, Chuy, Tabatha, Mike and Deirdre in the lava tunnel

This island proved to be the best for restocking our boat supplies and provisions. There was a reasonably good supermarket near the ferry dock and we found several different shops, an early morning vegetable market and a selection of reasonably interesting touristy trivia shops. This was definitely the place to purchase the t-shirts, postcards and local artwork or souvenirs.

The blue footed boobies dived like streamlined missiles so close to the boat that we were splashed every so often!
Sally Lightfoot crabs were abundant in amongst the rocks

Our last call with Tabatha and Helen on board was Isabella – our favorite of all the islands. This anchorage was lovely – sheltered by the lava islands, no big tour boats coming around us and the added benefit of being able to use our own dinghies to get to shore. There was a lovely long, clean, golden sand beach in front of the village just across from our anchorage. We found Henry’s welcoming bar and restaurant on the shore after wending a circuitous route through the reefs in shallow water. It consisted of a hut on the beach with tables and benches set in the cool shade of some banyan trees. Meals had to be ordered a day in advance – the menu consisting of the usual Ecuadorian chicken or fish with rice!
Henry's bar - decorated by passing cruisers no doubt!
Walking into town was a little hot and dusty, but when we got there we found a few little restaurants where we could sit and have a cool beer. Chuy was the best at searching out the cheapest beer, it was just a pity that those bars were usually to be found in the furthest away building on the edge of town!

Local delivery to the island was made by a small plane on Monday mornings and after that we could find some fresh goods in the shops. While we were there a small coastal freighter arrived loaded with heavy goods. We watched everything being loaded into small boats and taken to shore, including a new car. Traveling in the opposite direction we saw some unhappy cows leap off the dock into waiting barges and then wait to get winched onto the freighter.

Helen and Tabatha were treated to a wonderful interlude when they were in the water and some seals decided to play tag with them. The seals swam at full tilt towards them and only turned away at the very last moment. There was also a group of baby seals that enjoyed cavorting around the dingy, swimming under and around it and tumbling around in the prop wash. We saw the diminutive penguins swimming in the bay – they looked like miniature ducks until they all disappeared underwater. The penguins roosted on the edge of a small island near our boat.

When we visited the following year we saw many more penguins swimming around the boat. These one were quite bold and waited until a small pelican caught a fish nearby and then tried to steal the fish out of its beak!

One of our walks found a secluded area where small white tipped reef sharks basked in the sunshine.

The Wall of Tears looked as though it would be a long, dusty and hot trek – so we took a taxi! The taxis are trucks with wooden benches in the back at reach side, leaving space between feet to stash shopping or luggage. Not very comfortable for a long run. The formidable wall had been built at great personal cost by prisoners of war. The rocks were cut and carried with bare hands to build a giant perimeter wall for the prison grounds. They say there are bodies buried in the lava rocks and I am sure it was truly torturous sentence, as lava is very hard and exceptionally sharp. Working hard in the sweltering sun without benefit of a breeze must have been dreadful.
On the way home we stopped at a lagoon to see the vibrant pink flamgoes paddling in the shallow water.
All too soon Helen and Tabatha had to leave – they had to get up early in the morning to catch a 6 am ferry to Santa Cruz. We heard afterwards it was a terrible expedition – a lumpy, bumpy two and a half hour ride. And they had to repeat the effort to San Cristobal the next day in order to catch a flight back to Ecuador and then home to Canada.
Volcano Negro - rivers of lava left from the last erruption

Here is a picture of the lava bursting out

Mike and I had more time to spend in the islands and arranged to goon a tour up to the Volcano Negro and the lava fields. At daybreak we assembled with Chuy and Susan and some other tourists for a half hour drive before transferring to horses. Up and up we went, passing a gigantic volcanic crater which the guide told us was second in size only to a similar crater in Tanzania. Eventually we came to a place where we left the horses, and began our trek through unyielding grottoes, tunnels, caverns, rivers and hills of lava. We finally arrived at a spot where we could see the sulphur steaming out of fissures and cracks and felt the rocks hot under our feet – a living volcano! Trudging back was laborious in the heat of the day – but we were quickly revived when we reached the horses and had a picnic before returning down the hill.

Three months later the volcano erupted!

The highlight of our Galapagos adventure was a boat ride to Cabo Rosa. Henry (from the bar) took us in his two engine power boat.
We traveled along the shore line for about an hour, reaching an area of reef off the coast where we could see the seas roaring with torrents of white spume onto jagged rocks of coral. Everyone in the small boat looked at each other questioningly - this was where we were supposed make the dash inside the reef. All we could see were large white spumes of spray crashing across the rocks. Oh boy! – Henry throttled back, counted silently for a few beats, then suddenly pushed the engines to full speed ahead and we plowed blindly into the maelstrom of waves and flying spray. Seconds later we emerged into calm water and absolute silence. We had arrived at the lagoon and the lava grottos. Lucky for me that Chuy and Susan had brought their kayaks, as I was able to borrow one and go and explore with Susan and not get cold and wet in the water! It was easy to get lost in the peaceful pools in amongst the lava turrets and arches. The brightly colored yellow kayaks were particularly interesting to turtles, as we found that several very big ones swam up, around and under us, sometimes poking their heads out of the water to get a better look at these strange creatures invading their territory.

Large turtles came to investigate our kayaks
We wanted to stop at Post Office Bay on Florrianna but it wasn't a legitimate stopover so we had to anchor off the main town beach. We had a torn sail to repair. We were able to walk around the bay and saw a family of huge seals with a gargantuan bull keeping a watchful and aggresive eye on his harem. After a couple of days we left for the long trip back to Ecuador.

Half way across on a really dark night the VHF suddenly burst into life - a vessel calling to talk to us. Apparently there was a US ship patroling in the area and they wanted to know all our details. It was a bit of a shock to be accosted in the middle of the ocean and in the middle of the night by an unknown ship. And to make it worse, we couldn't see any navigation lights anywhere!

On our return to the Galapagos the next year we were on the way across the Pacifc. we had asked for a permit but it turned out we really didn't need it. We spent our 50.00 for nothing! Many cruisers just visited to restock. We did stop in Cristobal as we had a small problem with the engine, but we soon went off to Isabel as we knew we liked it better there.

We made landfall at Puerto Lopez further south along the coast. Here the people very friendly and happpy to show us around. We discovered the Hostel Mandela - a very interesting hotel, run by an ex greenpeace member and filled with interesting and unusual artefacts. When we had to visit a bank we discovered we had to take an hour bus ride to the local surfing village. This was also a great little place, lively and we were told, with the best surf on the coast. There were certianly lots of long beaches in the area.

On our way north to Manta we were momentarily entertianed by whales swimming and jumping very close to us. The large port was a hive of industry - huge tuna boats (many with their own personal helicopters), hundreds of fishing boats, mostly old and some without engines - and always noise and bustle in the town.