Sunday, March 02, 2014

Galapgos Islands Trip in February, 2014

3/1/14 The 8 day boat excursion in the Galapagos Islands occurred at the end of our 5 weeks in Ecuador. I am going to tell you about it first, because it was the main reason I wanted to go to Ecuador, and also it is perhaps the part of the trip of most interest to people. We have been back in the USA since Feb. 18 and have been so busy getting back into the RV lifestyle and taking care of accumulated chores, that I haven’t had time to write until now. My apologies for the delay. On Feb. 9 we had a very early flight from Quito to Baltra, one of the 2 airports in the Galapagos Islands. The islands are about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, and the flight there costs $495, round trip. It was arranged by Cometa Travel, the agency we used to book the yacht we stayed on, called The Angelito. This 16 person yacht (with an 8 man crew) was specifically recommended to us by RV friends Rick and Kathy Howe, who had done this trip years ago when they were RVing through South America. They were quite impressed with Maja Homberger, the naturalist, and they suggested that we make sure that she would be the one to lead our trip. Maja is Swiss, married to the Ecuadorian owner of the yacht, and she not only speaks excellent English, but is an amazing naturalist as well. Any trip in the Galapagos Islands is pricey. The Angelito is considered a mid-level yacht and the cost for the 2 of us for 8 days, plus our flights, was $6460. Despite the “mid-level” label, we would rate our experience as outstanding. I’m not sure that a more costly yacht would have provided anything superior to what we had with Maja and the Angelito Baltra airport was built by the USA during WWII to help protect the Panama Canal. After the war it was turned over to the Ecuadorian government and has been the main airport for the islands until recently. The procedure upon landing at Baltra is that everyone has to show a passport, pay $100 per person in cash to the National Park person, and show the $10 tourist transit permit which had to be purchased at Quito airport before the flight. Ecuadorians pay less for the flight and also for the park permit. Here is a picture which greeted us at this airport.
Maja collected everyone who was going to be on our yacht and a bus took us to a dock where we were met by the 2 dinghies and the Angelito crew, who transported us to the yacht.
We took our shoes off on the back deck and left them there, in order to help keep the boat very clean. The yacht had a million dollar renovation last Fall and is in beautiful condition. The cabins were more spacious than we had expected.
The crew quarters were below deck, then our cabins, then the deck with the bridge, galley, dining room, etc.
And the top deck was totally open and carpeted in Astroturf, with lounges and chairs for sunning and an area of clotheslines for drying wet things.
About one minute after we entered our stateroom, a big green turtle swam right by our window. Birds were flying overhead. There had been a land iguana at the airport. The Galapagos wildlife experience had already begun. Manuel was the cook and the meals we had while aboard were all extensive and delicious. Lunch was served as soon as we got settled in, and we met all our fellow travelers: 10 German and Swiss people, 2 Canadians, and 4 Americans. Maja told us that she had 27 years experience in the islands and that their boat used to rely on American customers. But the recession had hit them hard because Americans stopped coming, and their European clientele had kept them in business. The crew was all Ecuadorian, and by law, they have to be from the Galapagos Islands. They dressed up and did a short presentation on our first night, and last night.
In the dining room was a map of the islands, and everyday Maja pointed out where we were going and drew it on the map. This is what the map looked like at the end of our trip:
After lunch, there was a rest period until 2:30PM when we went on our first shore excursion. The yacht had relocated to North Seymour Island, which was a short distance from Baltra. It was fairly hot and we were reminded to put on plenty of sunscreen, wear a hat, and carry water. The islands are volcanic and all look very dry. Walking on the islands reminded us of hikes in the desert in Nevada and near Death Valley, CA. We put on our hiking shoes and the dinghies dropped us off on some large rocks where we could climb up onto the lava rock island. Immediately we began seeing Sally Lightfoot crabs,
sea lions,
and land iguanas.
Frigate birds, some males with their red throat pouches inflated, were flying overhead.
The terrain was fairly rough because of the lava rocks, but we were so busy taking pictures of wildlife that we didn’t move very fast. One of the animals I was excited about seeing was the Blue Footed Booby, and we saw many of them here, even a courting couple, where the male was dancing for the female.
Marine iguanas were also there to greet us on the beach rocks.
Because the islands are so dry, one of the main vegetative features is cactus, and here they are in the form of low trees:
The land iguanas hang around underneath them, hoping that flowers, fruits, or pieces fall off for them to eat. As we started to walk through the interior, we passed many plants where frigate birds had nests with young chicks in them:
The chicks are fuzzy looking, especially when they are younger.
The most surprising thing about the wildlife on all the islands is that we could walk right up to the birds and other animals and they would not run away. Most of the pictures in this blog were not taken with a zoom – I was right next to the birds in these pictures. There were small lava lizards running around on the rocks, and some had very colorful throats:
I thought that the Galapagos gulls were very elegant looking:
We continued to see many birds, sea lions, and iguanas. After our afternoon hike, which lasted 2 ½ hours, we returned to the boat where there was a snack and juice waiting for us on the back where we took off our shoes:
This happened after every hike or snorkeling trip, with different delicious delights every time. Then we had 2 hours to have Happy Hour up on the sundeck, rest in our cabins, or chat with other guests. Dinner at 7 was delicious and with a nice variety of choices. Then Maja gave us a preview of what the plan was for the next day, explain what we were likely to see, and prepped us on whether it would be a wet landing, or dry landing, and what to bring. The first night, this was the sunset:
The pattern for each day was usually an early morning hike after breakfast, a snorkeling session in the late morning, lunch, rest, afternoon hike, dinner, and the day ended with an educational session given by Maja. The boat would move to a new location each afternoon, and overnight. Often we had frigate birds flying right over our sundeck as the boat moved. The second day we did a wet landing on Chinese Hat. That meant that the dinghy dropped us off on a sandy beach, so we hopped out barefoot, and put our shoes on there.
Of course, we saw some of the same animals on different islands, but usually we saw different ones as well. There were lots of sea lions playing in the water and laying on the sand. We also saw some new birds: oystercatchers,
and Darwin’s finches
which have different kinds of beaks based on the kind of food they eat, such as seeds. We got up close and personal with marine iguanas:
A momma sea lion was feeding her youngster:
From the dinghy on the way back to the boat we saw a penguin,
and a great blue heron.
Our first snorkeling trip went well and we saw lots of very colorful fish, sea urchins, corals and other sea life, which many people identified from Maja’s books back on board. We found the water to be warm enough to be comfortable, which was one reason we wanted to come at this time of year. In June the Humboldt current arrives, bringing lots of nutrients for the wildlife, but also colder water. The Angelito provides good snorkel gear and offers the use of wet suits for $5/day. No one in our group needed wet suits but some people used life jackets. The dinghies were always nearby when we were snorkeling so that we could be quickly picked up when we got cold or tired, or if there was a problem. After lunch the boat moved to Bartolome Island and we saw a very different landscape than the other islands:
After a dry landing on some cement stairs, we walked on boardwalks and up more than 366 stairs to the high point of the island.
On the way we saw some very different cacti than on previous islands:
There was a beautiful view from the top.
We could also see our boat anchored near several other boats.
This was the usual situation; we were anchored near several other boats and occasionally we would see their groups when we were hiking on shore. But most times we were alone on our hikes and when snorkeling. The itineraries of the boats are carefully regulated to make sure that people are spread out all over the islands and not impacting the animals by being there in large groups. No one can set foot on the islands without an approved naturalist. And the paths we were allowed on were marked and our naturalist could lose her license if we didn’t abide by the rules and stay on the paths. When we got back to the landing platform, there were some sea lions napping there.
This is what the dinghy looked like with half of our group in it.
Overnight we had a long trip to Genovesa, the most northerly of the islands. Some of our group were seasick, and everyone had been warned to bring meds for this. Elaine and I enjoyed the movement of the boat and slept well. On the hike the next morning, we saw more new birds: the red footed booby,
the Nazca booby,
some frigates with heart-shaped pouches,
mockingbirds,
other Darwin’s finches,
and a green heron.
Once again, we were able to get right next to the birds.
I won’t bore you with detailed reports of every island we went to, but we did get to see some fur seals,
a Galapagos owl, which nests in the ground and mainly lives on sea birds called petrels,
there were lots of brown pelicans, of the same type we have in California,
and marine turtles, which are all green turtles.
The topography was different on each island, although all are pretty dry. This picture shows the tide pool area of Puerto Egas, where there were lots of marine iguanas who rely on the green algae for their food.
You can see that the marine iguanas here look different than the previous one pictured, because each island has iguanas with their own adaptations.
There were shore birds here too, such as the sandpiper,
and on the way back to the boat we were visited by a Galapagos hawk.
Some of the islands had white sand beaches, Bartolome Island had black sand, and Isla Rabida had red sand, all due to the different volcanic action:
Rabida also had different cactus trees and no land iguanas.
A yellow warbler decided to visit us here.
Puerto Ayora is on Santa Cruz Island, and is the largest town. This is where everyone comes to get their supplies, and where many people stay in hotels and do day trips to some of the surrounding islands, if they don’t stay on a yacht. It is a cheaper way to experience the islands. Our boat went there so we could visit the Charles Darwin Research Station. This station has been instrumental in reviving the populations of tortoises from the various islands. Some of the animals which had been brought over by settlers, such as pigs, goats, dogs, cats, rats, had been affecting the populations by eating the eggs and turtle hatchlings. The numbers were already down because pirates and whalers used to come to the islands and collect the tortoises because they could keep them for a long time on the ships with no food or water, and use them for fresh meat. So the National Park people collect eggs and hatchlings from the islands and raise them at the research station until they are big enough to survive on their own, then they are returned to the correct island. There are 2 main types of shells, the dome shape,
and the saddle back shape.
This is where the islands get their name: galapago means saddle in Spanish. The tortoises like to lay in the pools of water at the station.
This picture shows a young tortoise at the station which is identified by a number painted on its shell.
The color indicates the island it is from and the number identifies it so they know its age. Here is a picture of a tee shirt to inject some humor here.
The tortoises live to be well over 100 years old, and many have been 150 or more when they died. They also raise land iguanas at the station:
After we left the station, we passed the fish cleaning station near the waterfront in town and were amused by watching the men clean fish while a sea lion and lots of pelicans begged for scraps.
The sea lion ate most of the skin which the men threw to him. In the afternoon, we took a bus up to the highlands of Santa Cruz, one of the largest islands. They get more rain there and this is where the tortoises like to hang out. Several of the farmers allow tourists to visit their property to see the tortoises which roam freely. The first thing we saw was some coffee bushes with big berries on them:
Ecuador exports good coffee. There was a display of 2 empty tortoise shells so we could lift them to see how heavy they were:
Then we climbed into them and tried to crawl while wearing them:
They were much too heavy for that!!! Walking around the fields, we could easily get right next to the tortoises.
They mostly ignored us and went on eating grass. There was also a visit by a vibrantly colored yellow warbler:
Our day ended with a hike through a large lava tube, which I wouldn’t recommend because it gets low in one part and you have to crawl through and it is muddy. The next day we had another sandy beach landing on Espanola Island, where there were lots and lots of sea lions. We could sit right by them and they didn’t budge:
As we walked along we saw some huge tracks, which we thought were made by heavy machinery, but which really were made by a marine turtle who had come up to the beach at night to lay her eggs:
The marine iguanas on this island were very brightly colored.
This was the wrong time of year to see the waved albatross, which only nests on Espanola Island, and only from March to January. We did see a blow hole on our hike there:
There were many Nazca boobies with their chicks, and they nest on the ground:
On Santa Fe Island, the land iguanas are quite pale in color, and so numerous and unafraid, that you have to be careful not to step on them!
This island was also colorful with vegetation, but once the rainy season starts, everything will be green
The last night there was a special dinner on the boat, and Manuel had made some special veggie and fruit carvings as decorations, plus baked a delicious cake.
The last day, we got up early and took the dinghies to Black Turtle Cove where we saw quite a few sharks
a black spotted manta ray,
and lots of green turtles
After breakfast, they took us to the airport, and we flew back to Quito. It was sad to leave the crew, who had taken such good care of us, and the Angelito, which was a very comfortable boat. Overall, it was a marvelous experience and we would recommend doing it. This is a link to some information about it: http://www.galapagosislands.com/mid-range-cruises/angelito/angelito-itinerary.html. And there are some good trip reports on Tripadvisor.com.

5 comments:

dorothy mitchell said...

wow what a fantastic trip. The pictures are amazing and you guys look amazing too.. I am so jealous.. take care your friends from Canada!

jil said...

looks like a really great trip...

CaliforniaGrammy said...

You guys cease to amaze me with your love for just plain ol' having fun, seeing the world, making so many friends, and most important . . . fulfilling your dreams! Great blog Mary, what a fun trip this was. I love, as I'm sure you did too, how you were able to get so up close to the animals and birds.

Joyce Strand said...

Looks wonderful, as you know we had a land tour and saw some of the same birds and stuff but you certainly did it the right way. Cruising is the way to go...
Cheers Joyce

George R said...

What an awesome adventure you two went on. Jealous in all the colors of green there are. Glad to read about them being very protective of that very special ecosystem. It is so true that people can literally love a place to death. Surprised that the animals let you get that close. Great blog! Hugs to you both!
Diana and George