Saturday, July 06, 2019

Galapagos

The Galapagos. It's one of those places you hear about all your life. Everyone knows of it even if they aren't sure exactly why. Maybe something about Darwin, or "those big turtles" and other special animals. It's almost a place that has developed its own legendary aura. For me it will most likely end up ranking as the top destination of this trip, not just because it is a great place in its own right, but because it was also something of a pilgrimage of sorts on 2 fronts.
1. For anyone serious about biology and the natural sciences, there is something special about following in Darwin's footsteps and trying to ignore the really cool animals to make note of the finches as he once did. A lot of how he developed the Theory of Evolution has taken on simplistic, mythological-type dimensions, but there is no denying that his experience in the Galapagos played an important role in a humanity-changing revelation. 
2. As a previously mentioned Unesco WHS geek, it is interesting to note that the Galapagos Islands were part of the first batch of 12 inscribed locations in 1978 and actually has ID #1 making it the first of all world heritage sites recognized.
Nowadays, tourism in the Galapagos is booming, so much so that the unique ecological experience and conditions are being threatened. As always, conservation is complicated by many factors, especially economic, political and demographic ones. There have been rumours for ages that the Ecuadorian government will try to limit or cap tourist numbers some day but so far it has mostly been economic influences limiting visitors more than anything. In theory immigration to the islands has been stopped as even mainland Ecuadorians are not permitted to move there freely and tourists must have a return ticket out to go there in the first place. Although it is a domestic flight, visiting the G's feels very much like going to another country. There is a special check-in area at the airport for flights to the islands where you purchase a transit card (purely an official money grab) and go through an extra luggage check for contraband items. Technically plastic bags and fresh food are banned but enforcement of many rules is lax at best and even on the islands themselves we were given plastic bags at the store. Introduced species has been an ongoing problem as well and they are still trying to rid the islands of various plant and animal species intentionally introduced a hundred years ago. They even search your bags at the ports when you travel between islands. We should've tried to steal a penguin in Antarctica because it would be much harder from the G's.
The G's are known as an expensive destination. While that is very strictly true in a relative sense compared to most of the rest of South America and especially mainland Ecuador, a lot of the reputation has more to do with the cost of access more than anything. There is a $120 US entry fee to the islands and the short domestic flight is eye-wateringly expensive, especially for most budget travelers in the region. We were lucky enough to be able to use frequent flier miles for our flights to save us quite a bit overall. Traditionally, tourism has been done via small cruise ships which travel in small circuits around some of the islands in 4, 5, 8, etc. day loops. As these are all-inclusive and of limited size and availability, prices can get astronomical during the busy season or on some of the nicer ships. Many people still think last-minute cruises are still the only way to visit on a budget. Yes, you can save money this way but in the last several years, land-based packages or day-trip tours have become much more popular and are significantly cheaper. These can either be full guided-tour setups or DIY.
Before going any further there are a few misconceptions to clear up:
1. The G's are a group of islands and they are not all equal. Different species and different activities are found in different areas so it is important to know what you want to see/do before committing to any course of action.
2. The G's are not a remote, uninhabited, isolated destination without any amenities. There are 3 "towns" on 3 of the islands and the area is a big tourist destination. Sure, there is no Hilton or big resort vibe but it is most definitely not Cast Away either. These villages are like any other anywhere on the mainland, complete with pollution, garbage and traffic.
3. Most visitors take the "safari" approach to the animals and islands believing that this is the only way to see anything. With this mentality you spend big and start ticking off the list. But if you only care about the most popular animals, (penguins, sea lions, sharks, turtles, tortoises, blue-footed boobies, etc) you will see them without going anywhere or doing anything. They are everywhere and easy to find, basically for free.
4. There is free stuff and independent activities to do. It is true that there are many islands you can't get to without a tour or without being on a cruise, but this is why it is so important to know why you are going in the first place.
Having a hunch but not full understanding that all this was the case, we booked 2 weeks on the islands, intentionally giving ourselves plenty of time to see each of the 3 independently-accessible islands ourselves and/or having enough wiggle room to find a last-minute tour if we needed/wanted to. Our mentality was that this was going to be a vacation within the vacation to relax and enjoy the fact that it also had more wildlife than most other tropical island getaways would. This worked out really well for us and we left feeling great and not like we'd missed out or gone way over budget either.
Fortunately for us, the month of May turns out to be a great time to visit. It is still technically the low season so things weren't crazy busy, the weather was still good and transitioning to the cooler time of year, and it is a good time for wildlife as well. There were lots of sea lion pups, baby marine iguanas and the blue-footed boobies were in mating season and doing their dance. There are 2 airports in the G's and the best plan is to fly into one and out of the other because they are on different islands so less backtracking is required.
We flew into the smaller of the 2 airports and started our visit on San Cristobal island. It is the easternmost and geologically oldest of the islands in the archipelago. In all honesty you could visit the islands much faster than we did but we took it slow and had 5 nights on each. San Cristobal is pretty laid back and friendly and we really enjoyed it. The whole waterfront area of the town is overrun by sea lions, much more so than elsewhere in the G's. They took over the small beach and even up onto the sidewalks and in the playground. The pups are very noisy but fun to watch though they seem rather mistreated and ignored by their parents. A short walk out of town there are a few other beaches that were largely deserted and it was nice to just sit in the sand and watch the wildlife pass by. Sea lions have no sense of personal space and on several occasions we or others nearby were forced to move when a sea lion would exit the water and clumsily hop up the beach and try to lay right on top of your stuff (or you if you'd let it). Officially there is some rule about staying 2m away from all the wildlife but this is impossible because the wildlife doesn't care so it becomes more of a "don't touch them, but if they touch you...". This even applies to the small birds and lizards around the islands. Everywhere else they usually scatter at the first sign of movement but we were constantly having to adjust our walk to not step on little lizards as they were so slow to move out of the way.
Beyond a little interpretation centre on the edge of town with some interesting information about the history of the islands (and there is a lot more than you think) we found a small protected bay (Tijeretas Bay) that is great for snorkeling on your own. This became our go-to activity. Rent a mask and snorkel for $3 and jump in. It is probably the best $3 you could ever spend. There aren't that many fish, but with half a dozen juvenile and very curious sea lions swimming around you it is intense. They swim right up to your face and veer away at the last second. It is funny to see snorkelers getting spooked all the time but after a while you realize that they won't actually touch or attack you and then it becomes simply amazing. We also saw a couple turtles in the same area and were able to follow and watch at very close range for a while. Day tours are expensive and we just didn't see how it could provide 40x more value and experience. We'd heard that the visibility was a bit iffy further out so stuck to doing our own thing.


They took over the main beach

Tijeretas Bay

Good luck getting your shoes back...


Playing with a stick

When we finally left San Cristobal I was reminded again how much I dislike boats. Inter-island transport is via speedboat and takes about 2 hours. Even when conditions aren't bad I find boat travel tedious and I seem to get nauseous much faster now than I used to. So unless it was going to be completely mind-blowing, I wasn't too keen on spending most of the day on a tour boat.
Our second island was Isabela, the largest of the islands with the smallest of the 3 communities. It is the farthest west so is very young geologically and still very much volcanically active. All of the islands have inland tours and the volcano tours on Isabela are potentially the most interesting but we decided early on that our interest and focus was going to be on coastal/water based species/activities so we didn't go. Isabela was easily the most laid back and beautiful. There is a huge, mostly empty beach stretching for at least a km heading out of town with many roped off areas to protect sea turtle nests.


Isabela island


Can't believe we have this to ourselves. Except for all the iguanas in the foreground.


We'd been told that the best tours were from Isabela so we actually signed up for 2. One was a kayak and snorkel trip around the bay close to the port where we saw lots of sea turtles and a few penguins (the only place to be really sure to see penguins is on Isabela). This trip was short but we got unlucky with it as we ended up doing the tour in the roughest and worst weather conditions of our time in the G's. The next day we did the highly recommended Tuneles snorkel tour. Conditions were much calmer and we saw white-tipped reef sharks, sea turtles, a school of golden rays, penguins, and sea horses in the water. You couldn't get any closer to any of them without touching. On land we explored the rock formations caused by old lava flows forming some interesting tunnels to swim through and even found a couple blue-footed boobies doing their mating dance where the male shows his blue feet to the female and spreads his wings to woo her. We were lucky enough to see a dance-off with 2 males competing for 1 female. That is usually a pretty high bucket-list event for visitors to the G's. On the boat ride out to the tour site we also saw tons of manta rays and sea turtles, usually as dark shadows beside the boat but a few were clearly visible and one manta even jumped.

Blue-footed Boobies

On the Tuneles tour
Golden Rays

So close
Galapagos penguins


Each island has a Galapagos Tortoise breeding centre and the one on Isabela is a short walk from town through a lagoon with multiple flamingos. I didn't realize there were 11 surviving sub-species of tortoise, many specific to their own little island. Numbers of some have been decimated by humans or introduced predators over the last 200 years so now there is a concerted effort to breed and reintroduce them throughout the archipelago.


When life is too exhausting...


Our last stop was on Santa Cruz, the main island with the biggest town of Puerto Ayora. It was much bigger than I expected and is the main hub for tourist arrivals and has more on offer in terms of tours, cruises and diving. Having seen pretty much everything we really wanted to see already we opted to forego the snorkeling activities from Santa Cruz and visit the local beach, the Darwin Research Centre to see even more tortoises including tons of hatchlings and their feeding time (so tiny and cute) and the local fish market where the sea lions and birds get right up in the vendors' way begging for food. The local seafood is also delicious and relatively cheap so we had to splurge a little on that too. One other thing I had to do was at least one day of diving so I went out and although the conditions weren't the best, managed to see a school of large hammerhead sharks :) Another done from the bucket-list! I'm sure there was a ton of things we missed out on but as an example of how good things can be without trying, from the main pier in Puerto Ayora in our last 10 minutes before leaving for the airport we saw swimming marine iguanas, a sea turtle, sea lions, baby sharks and a ray of some sort. Not a bad farewell!

Santa Cruz harbour

Moochers at the fish market
Hard to get a seat at the pier

Fresh fish!


Ammon

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