It was a long day. We were up at 4am and off the ship by 6am for a three and a half hour bus ride to Guayaquil Airport. We passed through Manta Ecuador, home of the panama hat and beautiful lush scenery along the way,. We learned that Ecuador is the leading exporter of tuna to the world. And bananas. If you are eating a banana right now it probably came from Ecuador. Their economy runs in this order, tuna, oil, bananas, roses & tourism. They also have a lot of shrimp.
At the Guayaquil Airport we board our LATAM plane. We are all so excited to be heading off to the Galápagos Islands, tortoises, birds and Darwin. When Oceania cancelled all of the Peru ports, we were not so sure we would be able to go to the Galapagos, but here we are in the noisiest old airplane. It sputtered and creaked and groaned its way for the two and a half hour flight to the airport on Baltra Island, Galapagos.
First impression was of a very barren, hot, almost desert like country. I was really expecting lush and green and it looked like Arizona. They are very eco conscious here and you are really checked to be sure you are not bringing in any species of flora or fauna, or anything that does not belong there. It is a new airport, but 80% of it was built using materials from the old airport. There is no air conditioning. They use the natural breezes blowing through the building and surprise!! It was very comfortable. They use a lot of solar panels everywhere, even where they have bike paths, each light along the path has its own little panel. They also use desalination and some people actually have desalination equipment in their homes.
The old airport was originally built by the Americans just after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The Americans wanted to be sure that the Japanese could not bomb the Panama Canal. So there was a large military base here. All that is left today are the cement slabs that had houses and other buildings on them.
We board another bus that takes us to the harbour and then board a zodiac for the short ride across the channel to the island of Santa Cruz. Here we board yet another bus that will take us up into the highlands and once we start on that journey the landscape begins to change as we drive higher and higher. The sun has disappeared and it is now pouring down with rain and here is all the lush vegetation of a rain forest that I was expecting to see when we arrived. It is a whole different world.
We were very lucky it was raining because when we turn onto the dirt road that will take us to the Rancho Manzanillo for lunch – zoweee!! before us we see tortoises everywhere! They are in the fields and on the road. Some the size of table tops, some middle-sized and a few smaller ones too. Looking down the road we see tortoises everywhere!! They are in the middle of the road, absolutely luxuriating in the rain and drinking from the little puddles it is creating. They could care less about our bus, or our lunch, they are just enjoying the weather. We wait until they move, or our bus driver skillfully maneuvers around them. If you kill a tortoise accidentally or on purpose, you can be fined anywhere from $12 to $17 thousand dollars. So our driver is very careful. We were late for lunch but it was well worth it to see all these wonderful huge creatures lumbering around everywhere. Because of this, we will miss our visit to the Darwin Centre, but our guide Valentino promises he will fit it in the next day.
The Finch Bay Hotel in Santa Cruz is lovely and we settled in and enjoyed a lovely dinner in their open dining room. The Galapagos is made up of 13 major islands and scores of smaller islands, islets and rocks. The population is about 25,000, Most of the population live on Santa Cruz. Galapagos is a Unesco World Site and ninety percent of the area is a protected National Park. As I mentioned they are very careful about what they allow people to bring in, no plants, foods, animals, even people, nothing that will contaminate the area. They are self sustaining to a great degree and have their own animals, pigs, chickens, goats, cows etc and also grow their own vegetables, plants and food. The cows for example can be traced back many generations. I asked how they get new blood into the herd and he told me they use artificial insemination. So I also asked what they do about people, because you cannot just move here, making it a relatively closed community. But one can go over to the mainland and find a bride or a groom and bring them back. However, they must stay married for at least 10 years. It used to be five. But this was being abused so they raised it to ten to eliminate people getting married just to move there and then divorcing soon after.
The next day after breakfast we are ready to board the beautiful yacht with an air conditioned cabin, owned by our hotel, to head out for swimming, snorkelling and bird watching. We anchor offshore and make a beach landing with the zodiac. Snorkeling was disappointing because the water was stirred up and cloudy and there was not much to see. However we did have a lovely swim, played around in the surf, saw a flamingo, and saw the tracks where a sea turtle had made her way out of the water onto the beach to lay her eggs. Thousands of eggs are laid each year, and we were told that maybe one little turtle in one thousand actually will make it to adulthood. Some of the little hatchlings don’t even make it to the water. Birds dive down and eat them, as do iguana or domestic cats who wander the area. If they do make their way into the water, there are other predators waiting there for them. On their way from the nest to the sea, they keep stopping and sniffing and looking around. This will imprint the area on them and they will be able to return to the exact same spot when they are ready to lay their eggs one day in the future.
After changing into dry clothes, we move to another island where we went from yacht to zodiac, and jumped out of the zodiac onto the rocks. We hike for what seems like miles in the heat and over rugged terrain to search for the mating frigate birds and the blue footed boobies. As I struggle along, my two old ‘new’ knees complaining, overheated, and my face as red as the puffed out chests of the male frigate…. there they are! In all their splendour. Sitting there with their balloon of bright red puffed out under their chins, waiting for some female to come along and find them irresistible. At this point I want to say, typical male. When a female flies overhead, the males gurgle and coo and flap their wings as if to say, “choose me, choose me!!” Meanwhile the gal frigates just keep soaring around overhead checking out all the guys before finally choosing a mate. Well, I guess that may not be much different than how some of us humans chose mates along the way!!!
We also saw blue footed boobies, but they were all sitting on their eggs and were not about to move for this tired group of overheated tourists. But I did manage to get one picture of a blue leg – if you look closely. Finally we get back to the rocky cliff where we started, clamber down over wet rocks and jump back into the zodiac and back out to where the yacht with the air conditioning was anchored. Thank God. We had some extra time, so Valentino, our guide, said we could go for another snorkel then have lunch, or have lunch right now. Any woman who has ever tried on bathing suits, will know exactly what was going through my mind. The thought of trying to squeeze this sweaty body into a wet bathing suit was not appealing. So I opted to stay on board for lunch and a glass of wine. Snorkeling had been pretty disappointing earlier. But the three who did go, came back with eyes as wide as saucers. They had seen many many fish and manta rays and also a few hammerhead sharks!! I was just a tad sorry I had decided not to fight with my bathing suit.
Back in Santa Cruz we hop on our bus for our visit the Darwin Centre. Established in 1959 to be a “guardian of the Galapagos uniqueness and protect species such as the giant tortoises, Galápagos penguins, fur seals and other endemic flora & fauna to ensure they remain a natural paradise for generations to come.” As such, they have an important breeding and reparation program for the Giant Tortoises. As proof of Darwins theory of evolution, and natural selection, they point out two things to us here. A cactus that has become a tall tree where it once was a low growing shrub-like plant. The tortoises love to eat this plant and it was in danger of becoming extinct. So the plant began to evolve and it eventually became a tree with its ‘paddles’ high up. As the tree grew, so the tortoise’s shell shape changed in order for the tortoise to raise its head up higher. The shell began to arch over the neck area allowing the turtle to reach higher for its food. This happened of course over generations and generations of both.
Lonesome George is a Pinta Island tortoise and was the last of his species. He died in 2012 at 101/102 years old. He was ‘taxidermatized’ and is on display at the Darwin Centre.
They say Darwin’s visit to Galapagos is where he started to develop his theories on evolution. At about the same time a gentleman by the name of Alfred Russel Wallace was also developing theories of evolution. Wallace actually sent his writings to Darwin in 1858 and Darwin was surprised that Wallace’s theories matched his own. They both agreed that ‘natural selection’ was a natural and observable way for life to change. In 1858 they were both invited to present their theories to the Linnaean Society. Darwin who had been working on his major book, “On the Origin of theSpecies” kept on working and published it in 1859. Did Darwin ‘borrow’ some of Wallace’s research for his book. Who knows? Meanwhile Wallace continued his travels and focused his study on the importance of biogeography.
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