Thursday, June 28, 2012

It wasn´t ALL bad you know

So now that I've had a chance to complain about my time on the Galapagos, I have to admit it wasn't all bad either. I had almost a full week off where I had the opportunity to explore 2 of the neighboring islands; Isabella and San Cristobal. These two islands are available to people like me who want to visit some of the other sights without going on an organized tour...this is because these two islands have towns were people live full time and a regular commuter system takes people between them and Santa Cruz. So no, it wasn't the virgin Galapagos thing, but each island WAS distinctly different, not just in the animal life, but also in the culture. It didn't take long to realize that I had been living on the tourist trap island and these other two spots were still slightly tourist trappy but also had a lot of other stuff going on animals, lots and lots of animals.

Yes, cool animals DO live on the Galapagos and they really aren't shy, not even a little. My first stop on my shoestring Galapagos tour was to Isabella Island. This is the largest island in the archipelago, and home to the second largest volcanic crater in the world (the first being in Hawaii) as well as GALAPAGOS PENGUINS! uh-huh, I said penguins. Obviously this was high on my list of things to see while there, as well as the Tintoreras sharks, manta rays and green sea turtles. I was planning on spending about 3 days on the island and hoped that would be enough time. There are two boats that leave daily from Santa Cruz to Isabella, one at 7 am and the other at 2:30pm. I stayed in town the night before and opted to take the 7 am so at to arrive at Isabella around 9 and have a full day there. I was blessed with absolutely perfect weather the entire week and to top it off I found a cheap little place to stay that had a kitchen, hammocks and free bananas for the taking.

Like usual, I didn't really have a too much of a plan for my time there. I was considering some of the tours, one in particular that took you specifically by the little island where the penguins were rumored to live. Maybe I would rent a mountain bike and ride around to some of the sights on the island, there was a ride that you could do to go out to the Muro de Lagrimas, a famous wall built during the period of time where the island housed a penitentiary. The job of the wall was that it made "weak men die and strong men cry." Looking at the wall it wasn't hard to understand why that was the case, it was tough sentence to be sent to the Galapagos to fulfill your prison term...these islands weren't always a dream vacation destination.

But first things first, I had to get my bearings in the little town and had to scrounge up some food. I noticed on the walk over that there were a few little stores that would have the basics: cereal, yogurt...ramen, kind of like being in college again. There was a nice beach not too far away where surfers hung out, and a good portion of it was roped off because it was a nesting beach for marine iguanas.

Close to where the boat docked was the short trail head for a popular snorkel area called Concha y Perla. It is in essence a natural salt water pool that rises and falls with the tide. I figured that would be a good place to start my search for animals. I had borrowed a snorkel and mask from GSC so as to save myself a few bucks in rental fees and headed off toward to the pool. It was high tide, I wasn't really sure what that meant for wildlife, but I figured I would try my luck. I wasn't that lucky, but there was one very large, very lazy adult green turtle munching away on some delectable sea treats, which meant that I could get within inches of his/her face without it so much a bothering to look at me. I took advantage of this apparent weakness and got all up in that turtle's face, swimming around it, coming up for air and diving back down. I never touched it, I can respect the rules, but it wouldn't have been a challenge if it wanted to; I honestly doubt it would have even bothered to move. Eventually though, I got bored with him/her and was getting a little cold so I bid her farewell and collected my things to do some other sightseeing. I was stopped by a guy, perched up on the wood fence that surrounded the natural pool. We got to chatting, his name was Luis, he was from the island and worked as a dive guide there. He had the next couple days off and wanted to know if, well, I wanted some company. Sure, why not?

So I managed to get myself a local guide. I didn't know how handy this was actually going to be. It turns out my new friend Luis knew other people who could get me things for free or for very cheap. For the first time on this trip I was going to pay local prices. This was a welcome change. Plus I did get the added bonus of having someone to show me around. My tour started right there, we walked back to my hostel to drop of the gear and then went to the land tortoise breeding center. This was similar to the Darwin research center on Santa Cruz, where the famous lonesome George lived, but this one was much better done. There was a really great information center that showcased the life of the land tortoise, the reproductive process and had handy life-sized models showing their growth.

My guide Luis, asked me if I had any plans for the following days, or if there was anything in particular I was interested doing. I told him that I was thinking about doing the tour to Las Tintoreras maybe tomorrow or the next day. If I was willing to wait until the next day, he might be able to get us on the tour for free. So I readily was definitely in my price range. He had the next day off and suggested we take bikes and ride out to the wall. He would show me all the cool things along the way. I wasn't entirely sure what I had done to earn this guide, but I wasn't about to complain. He wanted to show me around and I wasn't about to complain.

So that is exactly what we did. We made plans to meet the next day, rent bikes and ride around to everything we could get to on bike.  I really did have a great guide. He had the route all planned out, and we saw the Muro de Lagrimas, all the fresh and saltwater pools along the way – one of which had a couple bright pink flamingos, small beaches full of marine iguanas, lava tubes, and finished up in town to return the bikes.   It was full great day, he even accompanied me to dinner, showed me his favorite spot in town.  It was the local spot with local prices and a very predictable local menu, beans, rice and meat. We made plans to meet the following day to snorkel and go on the tintoreras tour. He had been able to get in touch with his friend and they did have space for us to go for free.

I had the whole morning to myself so I decided to park it down on the beach and read. It was easy for Luis to find me and in the early afternoon he showed up. It was time to rent me a decent snorkel so I gathered up my stuff and off we went. We spent a good 2 hours snorkeling around Concha Y Perla, climbing up and over the rock pools, but mostly we just saw fish. All the sharks and turtles were hiding somewhere else. We saw them that afternoon when we got on the tour…and the sea lions, and penguins, and rays. There were so many of these critters around and they wanted to play! The sea lions wanted to play more than anything. I was so thrilled, I got to not just see the penguins and sharks but swim with them too.

So I really am on the Galapagos!

I thanked Luis for being such a great guide, he really made my time on Isabella that much better. If it wasn’t for him, I probably would have missed a lot…and paid considerably more. I had an early morning boat back to Santa Cruz the following day, but the connecting boat to San Cristobal didn’t leave Santa Cruz until the afternoon. That meant that I would have practically half a day to bum around, which clearly meant that I would go to Tortuga Bay, the beautiful white sand crescent beach on the island. The boat left at 2 and got me to San Cristobal by 4:30. I found a great little place to stay close to the dock, dropped off my stuff and took to walking along the pier. The first thing I noticed was the obscene amount of sea lions. They were everywhere. They had completely taken over the pier.

I would only have 2 full days on San Cristobal, and there were a few things that I was hoping to do. Mostly, I wanted to surf. I had seen pretty much all the critters I’d wanted to see on Isabella, but I hadn’t had a chance to surf.  I didn’t get to do this. It is stupid expensive and only reef breaks. I am not good enough to mess with reef breaks. Fortunately there are lots of other things to see and do on the island so it was easy to fill my days.  

There is actually a really, really great information center on the island. Cristobal is the historical capital of the islands as well as the base for the military. The information center talked a lot about the history of the islands, the challenges that the islands currently face and the hopes for the future. From the information center was couple of trails to take you to different look-out points and swim spots. It was easy to spend a whole day there, and that was exactly what happened. One of the swim spots was a rocky cove and a small group of sea lions were hanging out there and wanted to join me for a swim. Of course I had to indulge them. J
The next day when I was walking along the road to the beach I started talking to a guy the same way. He was an American who got a job teaching English at the university on the island. It was his day off and he was heading to the beach.  But he knew a different beach, so he invited me to go with him. He would be meeting some friends there, and hopefully if there were good waves, he’d be able to surf. So I tagged along. What great luck, this beach swarming with sunbathing sea lions and in the water…tons of giant sea turtles.  My new American friend let me borrow his mask and snorkel so I could see all the turtles. I had no idea how many there were! He told me some great stories about his life on the island and how the sea lions had taken to playing with him and his board. They are like giant puppies he told me. I soon got to see what he meant. These were the most playful yet, not a care in the world as they spent hours sunbathing, rolling in the surf and swimming. If I ever get to come back and give this world another shot, I think I’d like to be a sea lion. I stayed on that beach until the sun set, fully aware that my time on the islands was drawing to a close. Pretty soon I’d be back on the continent and scooting my way up to Colombia and then all the way back to Chile. I must just well enjoy my last day to sit on the beach; it will be a while before I get to this again. It is most certainly the last day that I will ever be here.

It was a happy place to be. Things were going to be changing for me pretty rapidly. My time as a solo backpacker was ending. I was going to be meeting up with my brother soon and reuniting with old friends.  Soon after that I would be heading down to Chile to work…and then I would be coming home. In whatever form that might take.

Home…it’s time to start thinking about what that might be. So with my toes buried in that tropical Galapagos sand, the sinking low over the horizon, and sea lions beckoning me for one more round of play, I really started to think about home.


  1. I want to go to the Galapagos too!
    I so much like reading your stories, my friend, that I nominated you for the Illuminating Blog Award (have a look at my post of June 28th to know what it's all about)!

    You're illuminating my days when you write such things! you tried your luck and enjoyed it well! You'll have to share your tips!
    Take care and keep trailing happy!

  2. Sounds beautiful! I'm jealous of your swim with penguins!!!