Galápagos Islands, part three: Santa Cruz

This is part three of a series of posts about our time in the Galápagos Islands.  If you haven’t seen them yet, here are the posts describing our time on Isabela and San Cristóbal.

If San Cristóbal was about sea lions, then Santa Cruz was about tortoises.

A giant tortoise strikes a pose, at the Charles Darwin Research Centre in Puerto Ayora

A giant tortoise strikes a pose, at the Charles Darwin Research Centre in Puerto Ayora

Turning up to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, to experience our final island in our twelve-day Galápagos adventure, the place actually felt fairly familiar.  Although the first two posts in this series were about Isabela and San Cristóbal, that’s because I’m slightly cheating for greater blogging convenience:  by now we’d actually spent a bit of time in Puerto Ayora already.  Our first day and a half was spent there after we flew in, and we’d used some of that to visit the tortoises in the Charles Darwin Research Centre, even though I’m only getting around to telling you about that below.  And adding to the familiarity, we’d had a good few hours layover in Puerto Ayora (spent in cafés, of course) while getting from Isabela to San Cristóbal, since there aren’t any direct boat transfers.

So it felt pretty much like coming back to our Galápagos home – almost literally, gladly staying again at the aptly-named, very friendly and comfortable Galápagos Best Home Stay.  And we arrived with more than a little relief, given that our transfer from San Cristóbal had been a tad more eventful than would have been ideal:  our original boat died about twenty minutes into the theoretically two-hour journey, and we’d had to limp back to port at San Cristóbal and switch over to another, slower and less comfortable, boat.  (But one which was taking on less water…)

Still, we got there, and this time, no one was even seasick – in contrast to our previous two early morning boat transfers, each of which had concluded, for at least a couple of other passengers, that eating breakfast just before a boat trip is not the best idea.  (Thankfully seasickness is not a problem for me or Chris.  I spent the whole trip with my head down staring at my phone, watching DVD rips of a BBC Galápagos documentary that my parents had given me for Christmas.)

And the fact that we had been here before meant that we already knew exactly where to go for a late breakfast – the excellent Il Giardino.  Off to a good start.

But speaking of starts, I said Santa Cruz was about tortoises, and really, instead of rambling about transfers and breakfasts, I should actually begin with the first point of interest in Puerto Ayora, which, as I say, we’d actually been through on day two:  the Charles Darwin Research Centre, and more specifically its giant tortoise sanctuary and breeding program…

Baby tortoises in the breeding program at the Charles Darwin Research Centre in Puerto Ayora

Baby tortoises in the breeding program at the Charles Darwin Research Centre in Puerto Ayora. I can only assume that the numbers painted onto the shell of each baby tortoise are in order to facility juvenile tortoise-racing. Go number 58, go!

Unfortunately we were about eight months too late for the Centre’s most famous attraction:  Lonesome George, last of his particular species, had died in June 2012.  (There are many different species of Galápagos giant tortoises – pretty much one per island.  This is why they were – in fact, are – so important to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection:  the tortoises on each island have evolved noticeably differently in response to the unique environment of their respective particular homelands.)

Instead we had Super Diego – the tortoise equivalent of Hugh Hefner, sans prophylactics, named for the San Diego zoo from which he was repatriated in order to assist – heroically, as it turns out – in the repopulation of his species.  For slow-moving, apparently lazy animals, giant tortoises sure do seem to get about a lot.  Super Diego himself has literally over a thousand children.  This despite his apparent confusion as to how the process of acquiring said children works:  as we passed the area in which he and his veritable harem live, he was doing his very darndest to impregnate completely the wrong end of one of his unfortunate companions.

He wasn’t the only randy reptile, though:  the tortoise sanctuary we visited on Isabela featured similarly, err, active examples – although at least those ones were proceeding in a manner more amenable to actual procreative success.

Super Diego unsuccessfully attempts to add to his impressive count of children

Super Diego: A+ for effort, I suppose. It’s not particularly obvious in this photo, but his partner in crime is facing away from the photographer. I.e. not in a position which allows Super Diego to achieve his stated goals.

The Charles Darwin Research Centre isn’t entirely about tortoises, it has to be said.  There are also land iguanas – and this was actually the only place we saw them, despite seeing their marine cousins pretty much covering the ground in many other a location.

One of the Charles Darwin Research Centre’s less celebrated occupants:  land iguanas

One of the Charles Darwin Research Centre’s less celebrated occupants: land iguanas

But when it comes to it, land iguanas are much less cool than giant tortoises.  So really, let’s move on.

Actually, our “moving on” didn’t involve giant tortoises either – nor any other form of local wildlife, except the human kind.  When we got back to Santa Cruz after the two other islands, we had a spare afternoon to kill, and so lazily headed out to Las Grietas, a sort of canyon thing filled half full with water (it’s apparently connected to the sea, although despite our best efforts it wasn’t really possible to follow it right out to shore – too much fallen rock in the way).  It’s where the local kids like to go dick about cliff-jumping and just swimming around to escape the heat of the midday sun.

Chris prepares for a graceful swandive at Las Grietas

Chris prepares for a graceful swandive at Las Grietas

So we had a nice relaxing afternoon swimming about in some nice clear calm water, seeing what there was to see.  (Which was not much, but hey – it was nice.)

Anyway, what else was there to do, now that we were back on our final island…

Having missed out on seeing any hammerhead sharks on our dives at Kicker Rock near San Cristóbal, we figured that, well, we might as well try again.  Especially since the dives were not too expensive.  So we headed out to what the consensus seemed to rate as the best dive trip available from Santa Cruz:  Gordon Rocks.

And this time, we got hammerheads.

A hammerhead shark (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A hammerhead shark (The photos taken during our dives were generously taken and given to us by our dive guides from Eagleray Dives – thanks, guys!)

In fact, we saw a whole school of them – somewhere between twenty and thirty, we think.  All of ten to fifteen metres away.  And we hardly even had to look:  they swam past shortly after we got into the water for our first dive!

Also there were sea turtles and other sharks …

A sea turtle and a white-tipped Galápagos shark cross paths (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A sea turtle and a white-tipped Galápagos shark cross paths (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

… and more hammerheads, some off by themselves …

Another hammerhead (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

Another hammerhead (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

… and rays …

A sting ray, up close and personal (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A sting ray, up close and personal (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

… and playful sea lions – even moreso than they had been at Kicker Rock, since these ones actually hung around and played with each other and with us as we were diving …

Chris says hi to a sea lion (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

Chris says hi to a sea lion (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

… and more rays …

An eagle ray (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

An eagle ray (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

… including a whole school of them swimming about in formation …

A school of eagle rays “fly” overhead (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A school of eagle rays “fly” overhead (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

… and more sharks …

A white-tipped Galápagos shark (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A white-tipped Galápagos shark (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

… and stonefish …

A stonefish (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A stonefish (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

… and even eels …

A garden eel – Chris and I didn’t actually see one of these, because we were snorkelling along chasing hammerheads instead of doing the third dive.  But hey, this is the sort of shit you can see… (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

A garden eel – Chris and I didn’t actually see one of these, because we were snorkelling along chasing hammerheads instead of doing the third dive. But hey, this is the sort of shit you can see… (photo courtesy of Eagleray Dives)

Put all that together and the dives were amazing – far and away the best diving I’ve ever done, certainly!

We didn’t even do all three dives:  we only paid for two, while the rest of the party did three.  The marginal extra cost for the third dive didn’t seem worth it to us, so we just grabbed our masks and snorkels and swam around while the rest of the group did the third dive.

And to be honest, I think we made the right call.  While the dive group had a good dive and saw a few cool things – more stonefish, and a garden eel – we spent our time chasing after the school of hammerheads.  And found them!  More than once, in fact.  So we were able to see them again, gracefully swimming past (them, not us – we weren’t graceful at all, we were trying desperately to keep up!) – this time from above.

Without wanting to sound all wilty-at-the-knees, it was a pretty magical day in the water.

Riding a tortoise (shell) at Rancho Primicias.  Apparently sitting on a shell is hard work, because I appear to be covered in sweat.  Ewww.

Riding a tortoise (shell) at Rancho Primicias. Apparently sitting on a shell is hard work, because I appear to be covered in sweat. Ewww.

But as exciting as all that diving stuff was, I did say before that Santa Cruz was all about tortoises.  So I feel obliged to revisit that aspect.  The day after our dive, we headed on up inland, to Rancho Primicias, an in-the-wild tortoise sanctuary, where we could wander about amongst the trees and streams and grasses in search of tortoises.  (Not that the searching was difficult:  they leave huge trails of flattened grass and undergrowth behind as they move around.  This is how pirates used to find them a hundred or so odd years ago, when they were searching out tortoises as a source of meat that could be kept alive in their holds – despite not being fed or watered – on long sea journeys.)

A truly giant giant tortoise at Rancho Primicias on Santa Cruz

A truly giant giant tortoise at Rancho Primicias on Santa Cruz. This guy weighs in 270kg and is 180 years old. He likes piña coladas and walks in the rain. His passions include eating and farting. No, seriously, he absolutely dropped his guts as we were standing around taking photographs. Like, thunderously. If we’d been less mature about it, we would have absolutely pissed ourselves laughing. We totally didn’t though. It was really inappropriate of him, and quite frankly I think we can all agree that he should know better. Dirty old bastard. No manners. Not funny at all.

So, after we’d seen the tortoises, what else was there left to do?

Well, for starters, there was Tortuga Bay.  It doesn’t have tortoises (well, not that we saw), but at least it’s named after them, so I can feel good about keeping my overall theme going here.  (How about that, mister middle-school English teacher?!)

What it does have, though, is an absolutely beautiful beach.

An iguana on the rocks on the beautiful beach at Tortuga Bay

An iguana on the rocks on the beautiful beach at Tortuga Bay

And, we were told, some quite reasonable snorkelling in nearby Finch Bay.  That sounded great to us, because one of the few remaining things on our to-do list was to try to find a marine iguana actually in the water, swimming around.  So we grabbed our snorkelling gear and headed off in search of one.

And, wouldn’t you know it:  success!

A marine iguana swimming towards the mangroves, in Finch Bay

Finally, a marine iguana (bottom right) actually being all marine and swimming in the water!

So we quickly ticked that off our list.  (Actually, not so quickly:  we had a great time swimming around, chasing iguanas and finding sting rays in the bay – it was a beautiful day, again, and damned if we were going to waste it just because we’d found our objective early on in the piece!)  And then we proceeded along the beach, around Tortuga Bay – where we discovered that just beyond the end of the beach, there’s another, more protected inlet, with yet another stunning beach.  Fantastic.

On the beach in the little inlet just beyond Tortuga Bay

On the beach in the little inlet just beyond Tortuga Bay

It would be a lie to say we were running out of things to do with our time in the Galápagos.  Had we had three times our twelve days, we would easily have found plenty to keep us occupied, and probably still wanted more time before leaving.  But at the end of our time in Puerto Ayora, once we’d finally managed to find those marine iguanas actually in the water, we were nonetheless satisfied and, I suppose, as ready as we were going to be to leave.

We’d been lucky enough to see pretty much everything we’d ever hoped to, and we’d had a stunning, amazing time while we did it.  Everything else can wait until next time.

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Galápagos Islands, part two: San Cristóbal

This is part two of a series of posts about our time in the Galápagos Islands.  If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s part one.

Basically, San Cristóbal is about sea lions.

Sea lions happily occupying the park benches in the rotunda next to the pier

Sea lions happily occupying the park benches in the rotunda next to the pier. Silly humans, you thought these were for you, didn’t you!

It has some other notable features:  it’s home to one of the Galápagos’s two airports;  it’s where Charles Darwin first set foot on the islands;  and Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, its town, is the capital of the Galápagos Province of Ecuador.

But when you arrive at the port in the afternoon on a boat transfer from Puerto Ayora, it’s the sea lions that you’ll notice.  Everywhere.

Sea lions lined up sleeping on the steps at the pier

Sea lions lined up sleeping on the steps at the pier

One of the more amusing scenes from our time in every botanist’s favourite archipelago was just after we arrived in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno.  As we took a short wander around the port and harbour area, looking over the fishing and tourist boats, I spotted a sea lion swim up to and flop over the gunwale of a currently crewless small fishing charter, plonk itself about through the boat a little poking its nose here and there (presumably looking for fish), and then give up and abandon ship.  Then it popped up on the boat next door to repeat the process, and then again, before giving up for good and flitting off out of the harbour entirely.

Clearly the sea lions are not particularly intimidated by the presence of humans and their various effects.

Sea lions playing and resting at the pier

Sea lions playing and resting at the pier

Of course, there’s other wildlife on San Cristóbal, too.  A hike out past La Lobería (a sea lion colony) will take you to a point where you’ll find a reasonable inhabitation of all kinds of birds – especially frigatebirds, blue-footed boobies and red-footed <something not as funny as ‘boobies’>.

A soaring frigatebird against a featureful sky

A soaring frigatebird against a featureful sky

I can only presume that they were able to edge out the sea lions because their stretch of shoreline is a nice sheer cliff.

Pretty coastline on San Cristóbal, hiking out past La Lobería

Pretty coastline on San Cristóbal, hiking out past La Lobería

In the process, the hike out to the birds will of course take you past a small colony of sea lions.  Hence the name ‘La Lobería’:  sea lions are ‘lobos marinos’ in Español.  It will also get you absolutely drenched, if you pick a nice rainy afternoon like we did.  Oh well.  What else were we going to do?  Stay inside?!

A frigatebird flies above the coastline of San Cristóbal

A frigatebird flies above the coastline of San Cristóbal

But that birdwatching expedition was really the only other wildlife-spotting we did from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, in truth.  And actually, the sameness of all the various different locations in which to see sea lions made San Cristóbal probably a little less exciting than the other two islands we visited, at least in my eyes.  (Of course, my saying that is kind of like asking someone who grew up in the sixties who’s their least favourite Beatle – all of the islands were great.)

Sea lions on the beach in the early morning

Sea lions on the beach in the early morning

But that said, San Cristóbal was also the first time we went diving in the Galápagos, so really I’m cheating by not yet having mentioned the off-island underwater stuff we got up to.

We hadn’t actually really expected to do any diving in the Galápagos.  Yes, the islands are famous for having some of the world’s most awesome scuba destinations.  But the best ones – Darwin and Wolf – are way off in the north of the archipelago, and only accessible on a week-long dive cruise.  So we’d kind of assumed that we’d just be snorkelling around when we wanted to check out what the sea might have to offer.

Wandering around town comparing prices of various day trip options, though, we found that there were plenty of dive shops offering trips which you could either snorkel or dive – and the diving was not much pricier ($140 for a two-dive trip versus $70 for snorkelling).  Combine that with reports that in recent days, divers had been consistently spotting hammerhead sharks at a couple of the sites (snorkelers too, to be sure, but if you’re going to see them, wouldn’t it be so much better to be down there with them?!), and we ended up pulling out our PADI licences and dive logs after all, for a trip out to Kicker Rock.

Kicker Rock (aka León Dormido)

Kicker Rock (aka León Dormido)

And we were glad we did!

In fairness, the day started off with some great snorkelling, not diving:  they take you first to Isla Lobos to do a pre-dive “equipment and buoyancy check” (in quotes because I’m sure as much as anything they’re checking that you can complete a very basic dive as much as that your buoyancy is right and that your equipment functions to spec).  That done, and weight belt and BCD unceremoniously dumped back on the boat, we kept the mask and snorkel on and paddled about for a while.  Pretty much straight off the bat we came across a sting ray which we proceeded to stalk around the area for a while (at a safe distance, obviously – just because I’m Australian doesn’t mean I’m looking to Steve Irwin myself).  But that wasn’t the entertaining bit:  the entertaining bit was the very thing I was claiming to be bored of above – the sea lions.

They may be a little lacklustre and tedious on the shore, having a nap.  But in the water, they’re something else:  the most playful – and agile – creatures you could imagine.  Snorkelling with them is somehow inspiring, as they zip around you, swimming in circles, doing loop the loops, alternately playing with you and with their own friends.  Twisting and turning, swimming upside down, playing chicken as they dart at your face and then flick off elsewhere and then return.

A sea lion underwater

A sea lion underwater. (Photo is actually from one of our dives, and is courtesy of Planet Ocean dive shop. Thanks to the dive guides for taking photos and giving them to us – but please direct all complaints re the photo being out of focus elsewhere!)

And that was all before the diving started.

We didn’t actually spot any hammerheads, in the end.  (Although our dive guide claims that there was one on our first dive that none of us saw because we didn’t follow him closely enough so weren’t around when it turned up.  So stay closer next time, OK?)  Still, there were black-tipped Galápagos sharks on both dives, as well as white-tipped ones on our second dive, so weren’t entirely sharkless.  And there were plenty of fish, some in large schools which we could swim right through without much disturbing – loads of fun.

And, on the second dive, another sea lion.  One which absolutely flew past only a couple of metres away as we were swimmingly calmly along about 20m underwater, casting its beady eye over us but apparently not giving us a second thought.

The channel between the rocks of Kicker Rock

The channel between the rocks of Kicker Rock

After the second dive, we said goodbye to Kicker Rock, and it was back to a nice sandy beach on San Cristóbal for some more snorkelling and general dicking about.  Which, given how much fun it was, for Chris and me meant playing with more sea lions.  This time there were some young ’uns to frolick with (cautiously, obviously, making sure not to agitate their nearby parents any, since an underwater fight with an over-protective mummy sea lion is not one I’m likely to come out on the winning side of).  So we spent our time mimicking the pups, discovering that if you twist and turn and barrel-roll underwater like they do, they respond in kind and become even more fun to be around.

All up, the day certainly had us appreciating the little guys’ inquisitive manner.  And even if it was the only thing of note we did on San Cristóbal, it was still definitely enough to be glad we went.

Boats out of the water on the sand in the early morning

Boats out of the water on the sand in the early morning

Galápagos Islands, part one: Isabela

An iguana on the beach on Isabela

An iguana on the beach on Isabela

The Galápagos Islands have been the single best part of my trip so far.  They were spectacular, as I hope the ridiculously photo-heavy next three posts will demonstrate.

Of all the awesome places we’ve been over the last year so far, the Galápagos is the place I most look forward to going back to.  And it’s the place I recommend to people – to everyone – the most.  Even to those who have never heard of it.  Perhaps especially to those who have never heard of it.

It’s cheaper to visit than you might expect, too, given its reputation as one of those far-off exotic places that you only see when the BBC or National Geographic wants to win some more cinematography awards for one of their spectacular nature documentaries.  Thank god once we’d got to South America and were planning our next few months, we figured out (in large part thanks to a few useful posts I found on the interwebs – thanks, helpful internet posters!) that it was actually much more accessible than we might have guessed.

But more about the costs and tedious details in a few posts’ time…  (I’ve got an upcoming post with all the boring day-to-day nuts and bolts of exactly what we did and exactly what it cost us.  So if you’re interested in going – hopefully you will be by the time you’re done reading – and want to know how, or how much, that post’s for you.  Check back shortly.)

In the meantime, we had twelve incredible days in the Galápagos, spending a few days on each of the three inhabited islands (Isabela, Santa Cruz and San Cristóbal).

After a rest day when we arrived (exhausted from an inconvenient but cheap flight combination that had us overnighting in the terminal at Quito airport), and a day two which was largely spent transferring between islands and finding ourselves accommodation, our Galápagos experience didn’t really get into gear until day three on Isabela…

Ghost crabs on the beach near Puerto Villamil

Ghost crabs on the beach near Puerto Villamil

Isabela is the most picturesque of the islands.  It also has, right next to Puerto Villamil (the one and only town), the best beach we visited in the whole of South America.

Throughout our time in South America, we got a lot of people (locals and other travellers) telling us how great various beaches were.  Largely, you end up responding that, well, thanks for the advice, but we’re Australian.  It takes a pretty damn good beach to beat the ones that we’re used to from back home.  Puerto Villamil, though, has an Australian-quality beach.  Long and wide, with beautiful fine yellow and white sand.

But that aside, there was another, perhaps more important reason it was the best beach we visited:  it has an expansive inhabitation of ghost crabs, all busily scurrying away into their hidey-holes when you approach them.  And I had a brand spanking new camera.  We spent maybe an hour chasing crabs and taking photos.  Seriously, if you ever need any photos of ghost crabs, let me know.  I have a good thirty or forty of them.  And those are the ones I haven’t deleted yet.

You can imagine that it was a spectacular experience.  The sun was shining.  The sea was blue.  The fine white sand was blowing gently between my toes.  The crabs were jumping in and out of their homes like some sort of environmentally-friendly (clubless) version of whack-a-mole.  It was fantastic, and I spent the whole afternoon with a stupid grin plastered all over my face.

Another ghost crab on the beach near Puerto Villamil

Another ghost crab on the beach near Puerto Villamil

(Hot nature photography tip:  if you have two of you, you can get a good close-up on a crab by having the both of you walk up to it, so it retreats into its hole, then having the other heavily stomp away.  It’ll take the vibrations as meaning that you’ve both wandered off.  If you perch near its hole and stay vewy vewy quiet, you can get some great photos when it pokes its head back into the world.  Their vision and/or threat assessment seems to be highly motion-based, so if you don’t move, it’ll happily go about its business with you there peering at it or snapping away at your shutter button.)

Our purpose in walking along the beach had been to hike out to the Wall of Tears (El Muro de las Lágrimas) once we reached the sand’s end.  It turns out the path out there was closed, so we had to make do with the large colony of nesting marine iguanas at El Espero – the black volcanic rock outcropping at which the beach terminates.

So we traded running around taking photos of ghost crabs on the sand for running around taking photos of marine iguanas and various other crabs on the rocks.

An inquisitive marine iguana surveys the area near its latest underground foray in the nesting around at the end of the beach at Puerto Villamil

An inquisitive marine iguana surveys the area near its latest underground foray in the nesting around at the end of the beach at Puerto Villamil

Taking photos of the iguanas wasn’t hard, either.  We were running around giddily, sure, but there was no actual chasing involved here:  the iguanas are just everywhere.  In fact, being a similar colour to the grey-black rock, they’re often there when you don’t even realise it.  A couple of times I spotted Chris focussing his attention on how best to get the right angle for a photo of an iguana or crab he found interesting say five metres off, and I had to point out that by the way, was he aware that there was a massive iguana sitting nonchalantly right next to him, maybe an arm’s length away?

A marine iguana (right) contemplates the foaming sea from its perch on the rocks near its nesting ground

A marine iguana (right) contemplates the foaming sea from its perch on the rocks near its nesting ground

After a leisurely stroll back in to town along the beach, we grabbed some snorkelling gear and headed to the port area for an afternoon dip at an area called Concha de Perla (‘Pearl Shell’).  It was a fairly indicative introduction to swimming in the Galápagos:  on the boardwalk through the mangroves, we had to walk around a sea lion which had chosen the walkway as an excellent spot to relax for the afternoon, and within minutes of getting in the water we swam pretty much right over the top of a large manta ray gliding majestically past not five metres out of reach.

A sea lion having a quiet nap on the boardwalk to Concha de Perla

A sea lion having a quiet nap on the boardwalk to Concha de Perla

Most of our snorkelling was in and around the mangroves, and we were fascinated to observe the crabs which were sitting around on the exposed roots of the trees, even out in a sort-of mangrove island out off the shore.  This was the Galápagos we’d hoped for:  nearly everywhere we looked, it seemed there was some beautiful product of evolution looking blithely straight back at us.  (For those who don’t know, the Galápagos Islands are famous not just because they’re beautiful and because their wildlife is so carefree in its attitude to humans, but also because they were Charles Darwin’s inspiration for his theory of natural selection.)

Crabs on the mangrove roots off shore

Crabs on the mangrove roots off shore

Day four was two organised tours with Carlos, the owner of our hotel.  I say organised tours, but the tour group was just Chris, myself, and a Canadian couple who’d flown in the previous night.  So still a fairly private experience surrounded by nature and not by a busload of noisy natterers with a forest of flashing DSLRs.

The caldera of Volcano Sierra Negra

The caldera of Volcano Sierra Negra

Our morning trip was up to two of Isabela’s five volcanos:  Volcano Sierra Negra and Volcán Chico (the latter is a parasite volcano on the side of the former).  Sierra Negra is one of the largest calderas in the world.  (I’m sure Carlos told us it was the largest, but I’m quite certain Yellowstone is bigger, and we spent a while debating amongst ourselves whether Santorini looked bigger as well, so who knows by what criterion anyone’s making that claim.)  Regardless, the volcano is still active – it last erupted in 1995, and there’s a lot of solidified lava flow around from that eruption, which is cool.  And the walk up to and partially around its rim was quite pleasant.  Carlos spent that time busily pointing out plenty of stultifying flora that I’m sure I would have found much more interesting if I were a botanist.  But I also recall musing that if I were a botanist, I would probably be even less interesting myself.  I guess there’s a trade-off.  I was happy to make do admiring the volcanic landscape and enjoying the stroll.

Volcanic rock and cacti

Volcanic rock and cacti

Once we got to Volcán Chico, that landscape suddenly became substantially more fascinating.  Bleak and barren but for handfuls of cacti.  A few holes in the volcanic rock, often filled with ferns.  A nice view from the volcano’s sides out over the flatter areas of Isabela, too, and all the way out to Fernandina (one of the islands we unfortunately couldn’t get to – it’s only accessible on a week-long cruise).  But really, as great a view as we had from the volcano, the dirt and rocks of the Mars-like landscape were not what we were in the Galápagos to see.

Colourful craters on Volcán Chico

Colourful craters on Volcán Chico

Back more towards the purpose of our visit, our afternoon activity was snorkelling at Las Tintoreras, a smallish group of tiny volcanic island outcrops near the port.

Before actually getting wet, we took a walk around the islets, which are home to a huge nesting colony of marine iguanas – literally thousands of them.

Literally a pile of marine iguanas

Literally a pile of marine iguanas

They’re home to just as many colourful crabs, too, as well as to a good handful or so of sea lions.  There was a lot to photograph in a short period of time!

A colourful crab on Las Tintoreras

A colourful crab on Las Tintoreras

Sea lions and marine iguanas

Sea lions and marine iguanas

A marine iguana who perhaps stuffed himself a little full at the buffet.  (Actually, they spit to get rid of excess salt.  It’s as charming as it sounds.)

A marine iguana who perhaps stuffed himself a little full at the buffet. (Actually, they spit to get rid of excess salt. It’s as charming as it sounds.)

And all that was before we got in the water.

Once we had our flippers on, there was even more to see – even if I don’t have photographs.  (Next time I’m in the Galápagos, I’ll definitely be investing in an underwater camera housing!)  First up there were the sea turtles.  Plural.  There were quite a number of them, in various different areas around the islets.  All of them fairly large and all entirely uncaring at our presence.  They happily swam around us, without a worry in the world.  In the way that you do, I suppose, when your life expectancy is over 150 years, you have few natural predators, and your plan for the next century or so is mostly to flit about elegantly under the waves, occasionally pecking at some of the more delicious-looking patches of algae, interspersed with the occasional spot of steamy turtle love-making while floating up on the surface.  (We were evidently there at breeding time, because we saw a fair bit of that going on as well.)

There were fish aplenty, too, some colourful, some not – in the latter category we saw plenty of pufferfish, though, so they were interesting even if not radiant.  Then there were the two sting rays.  I only saw one of them, but made up for missing the other by being chased by the one I did see for a bit, until I backed up enough to convince it that I wasn’t a threat.

I didn’t see the white-tipped Galápagos shark that others did, either, unfortunately.  Not to worry, there’d be other snorkelling opportunities over the next week or so!

On the way back from Las Tintoreras as the sun starts to go down.  Although you can’t really see it, that’s a penguin in the middle.

On the way back from Las Tintoreras as the sun starts to go down. Although you can’t really see it, that’s a penguin in the middle.

Flamingo Lake, by Puerto Villamil, at sunset that evening

Flamingo Lake, by Puerto Villamil, at sunset that evening

Opportunities like the very next morning, for example – day five now – at Los Tuneles (‘The Tunnels’).

The tunnels are lava bridges formed when volcanic eruptions met the sea, creating under- and over-water swimthroughs near the shore.  The result is a series of interconnected lagoons which are home to a wide variety of marine wildlife, amidst some of the clearest, calmest sea water you’ve ever seen.

Beautifully clear water at Los Tuneles

Beautifully clear water at Los Tuneles

Initially our tour guide was wary of letting us go exploring – when he wasn’t literally towing the Italian woman who couldn’t swim (it was a bit weird – she kept accidentally rolling over, face up, snorkel down, which is not the ideal water-viewing and, y’know, air-breathing position), he seemed to be spending quite a lot of his time telling us to come back to the rest of the group.  Much to our chagrin, since swimming with the rest of the group is a great way to see a whole lot of murky water full of kicked-up sand and seaweed, and not much non-human life.  But eventually he realised that we were fine off on our own, and stopped objecting when we routinely adventured over yonder in the distance.

Los Tuneles

Los Tuneles

And so we saw a lot more.  We spent our time chasing sharks – Galápagos white-tipped and black-tipped sharks both – and swimming alongside sea turtles, as well as spotting a couple more rays, each about 50cm across, each nicely decorated in black with white polka dots, and each swimming happily around the various lagoons, largely oblivious to our presence.  We found a quiet area with some tiny transparent shrimp, and at the second swim site of the day, Chris managed to find a bright red crayfish.  Plus we were surrounded by the obligatory colourful parrot fish, a pufferfish or so, etc.  You know, standard sort of stuff.

A small Galápagos white-tipped shark

A small Galápagos white-tipped shark

A sea turtle at Los Tuneles

A sea turtle at Los Tuneles

There wasn’t really much more to it than that, I have to admit.  Not that there needed to be!

I managed a nice impressive (read bloody) cut on my heel when my overly-floaty flippers pulled my underly-in-the-right-place foot up into the ceiling of an underwater swimthrough, but I was bitterly disappointed to observe that the blood-letting wasn’t particularly effective in attracting more sharks for our viewing pleasure.

So after our swim, we (well, I) spent much of our time on the boat trip back making juvenile jokes about boobies.  And that was our stay on Isabela pretty much complete.

Blue-footed boobies.  Best-named bird ever.

Blue-footed boobies. Best-named bird ever.

Funny currencies

This is a bit of a nothing post, boys and girls.  The next set of posts is about the Galápagos Islands, and, well, they’re sizeable.  And not done yet.  So have some light relief in the meantime…

I am not what you would call a mature individual – at least, not as far as my sense of humour is concerned.  And one of the ways I entertain myself as we travel around the world is to invent stupid names for the currencies of the various countries we pass through.  And so, without further ado, I present to you my favourites:

  • the Vietnamese Dong.  Really, you don’t even need to come up with a joke for that to be funny.
  • the Thai Baht.  Learning the denominated currency name for each new country is hard enough;  learning the names of the shrapnel is going too far.  Half a baht is fifty somethings, but I have no idea what the somethings are actually called.  Often, I’ll just go with ‘mini-Xs’, eg ‘mini-pesos’ instead of ‘centimos’.  In Thailand, there was something strangely satisfying about ‘baht bits’.
  • the Costa Rican Colón.  Any currency named after a part of the human digestive system has got to be a winner.  And obviously there’s plenty of choice for whatever the hell the equivalent of cents should be named…
  • the Peruvian Nuevo Sol.  This one’s mostly funny because the ISO currency code is PEN, and I once saw something that cost PEN15.  Like I said.  Immature.
  • still with ISO currency codes, the Argentine Peso:  ARS.  Argentina has a government-mandated exchange rate, supported by restrictions on locals obtaining the currency.  But US dollars are so popular that there’s an extensive black market, and the black market rate is about 60% higher than the official rate (you’ll get more than eight pesos to the dollar on the street, versus a bit over five for official money exchange).  So if you use official means of getting pesos, you’ll lose about 60% of the value you could have got.  I like to think of this as the ARS hole.
  • the Bolivian Boliviano.  This one just keeps on giving.  First off, the ISO currency code for this one is BOB.  “That’ll be five bob, please.”  Amusing enough for an ex-Londoner.  Better yet, the practical abbreviation is “Bs”, as in “Bs10” for something that’s worth roughly £1.  “How much is that one?”  “Ten bullshits, looks like.”
  • and finally, the US Dollar.  This one’s just funny coz it’s not worth as much as the Australian dollar any more.  Suck it up, yanks!  (Nonetheless, I suppose at least it’s still beating what I’ve heard a couple of unhappy Kiwis refer to as the New Zealand peso, so there’s that…)

Sights and sounds of the Amazon

In the Amazon

In the Amazon

A bit of a random post, this one.  But these are some fragments that stick in my mind – ways I’ll remember the sights and sounds of the Amazon rainforest after our five-day trip there from Iquitos.

  • the tranquil mirrorlike flatness of still black water
  • a menacingly furry tarantula
  • the lonely donkey-like braying of a camungo (jungle turkey)
  • the peppery bite of bright yellow ají
  • the triumphant hooting of monkeys overhead
  • the seeming ever-present sting of yet another mosquito bite (word to the wise:  skin in contact with a mosquito net renders said mosquito net remarkably ineffective – if you are tall and typically sleep in anything other than the foetal position, this will result in many an ankle bite overnight)
  • the burning and tingling of a fresh coating of DEET on the neck
  • the valiant struggling of little piranhas in the floor of the canoe
  • the dead-ant smell of crushed termites, smothered on hands as insect repellent
  • the fresh dirt taste of the water while swimming
  • the incessant buzzing, chirping, rustling of cicadas
  • the unfamiliar almost sing-song, nearly Brazilian accent to local Spanish
  • the blue and red flash of a passing macaw (guacamayo)
  • the acrid smell (and, unfortunately, taste) of DEET
  • the flashy rainbow sheen of the baby rainbow anaconda (anaconda arco iris)
  • flashing swings of Herman’s machete:  everything from path clearer to pencil sharpener
  • the peeking heads of river otter (lobo del rio)
  • the cool, refreshing lightness of a midday swim
  • the languorous floating in air of a mamavieja (‘old mama’ eagle)
  • the coiled danger of a lancehead snake (jergón)
  • the confused glare of the hypnotoad (la rana)
  • the fluttering azul of butterflies at the river’s edge
  • the cool misty humidity of the early morning
  • grey and rose dolphins, snorting as they surface, playfully swimming, infuriating to photograph
  • the oppressive heat and stickiness of a still afternoon
  • the comfortable laziness of an afternoon resting a-hammock
Comfortably a-hammock

Comfortably a-hammock

  • the puzzled concentration of misunderstood Spanish
  • languid paddling of the canoe’s oars
  • the dusky tastelessness of local instant coffee
  • the eager, energetic grin of Herman off to search out something new in the jungle
  • the jarring inappropriateness of counting new species of spider while squatting to answer the call of nature in the woods
  • the near-hollow echo of the jungle telephone tree roots
  • the ominous bellowing of distant thunder
  • the glorious freshness of an unexpected breeze
  • an early morning chainsaw as a local fashions new beams for his house
  • a subtle pinkish tinge to the clouds before darkness
  • the quiet boredom of another hour or so waiting, ‘relaxing’, for the next scheduled something of the day
  • the soaring grace of a condor/eagle/falcon
  • the satisfying squelch of the mud trail in gumboots in the jungle
  • the satisfying ‘swish’ of bats swooping through the campsite at night
  • the brown and black waters mixing as tributaries join just outside the national park (Marden calls it ‘cafe con leche’)

The Amazon, part 2

The highlight of our first (and only) full day out in the jungle proper – day three of our five-day adventure – was a three to four hour hike through the trees, wildlife-spotting.  Before that, though, we needed sustenance.

Yesterday, when we were off in search of anacondas, Rusber had set a fishing net near the other campsite.  Last night, when we’d gone frog-spotting, we’d checked it out in hopes of what would be this morning’s breakfast:  we found three piranhas, plus the front half of a fourth.  Presumably there was a fifth swimming around somewhere with a full stomach, feeling pretty happy with himself.  Plus there were two ‘walking fish’ and two catfish.

Breakfast piranha.  Tasty.

Breakfast piranha. Tasty.

When we arose this morning, these were already being prepared for our breakfast.  It was simple fare:  a thin oily, garlic-y soup with whole fish floating in it.  But it was remarkably good.  Eating piranha is much like eating other fish:  there’s not any particular special taste to it (or if there is, it was cunningly disguised by the garlic and oil).  But picking at the carcass, you do have to be careful of the teeth.  We followed our soup with some more incredibly fresh fruit salad, and we were ready to go.

Speaking of ready to go, we actually weren’t quite set to be off for our walk until right after a quick visit to the, err, jungle bathroom:  a short track out into the undergrowth, at the end of which you can pick whatever area looks least prickly/insect-ridden and squat and go about your business, as you watch the ants and spiders go about theirs.  One of the less restful restrooms I’ve been to, but I’ll grant that it did definitely add to the authenticity of the jungle experience.

Anyway, this was the highlight of the whole excursion.  (The jungle walk, not the making like the Pope.)  Much of the path we followed through the jungle had surely been taken by plenty of other tourists before us, but it was hardly a well-marked trail.  Many a time, forward progress required some eager machete-work on Herman’s part.  We might not have been trailbreaking pioneers, but we were very much immersed in the natural environment of the Amazon, about as far from civilisation as you’ll get without actually being lost.

Random pretty jungle scenery

Random pretty jungle scenery

And we were thoroughly surrounded by the teeming life of the jungle.

If I sit here and write out a detailed catalogue of what we saw, though, we’re going to end up with a bullet-point list a mile long.  The jungle environment is so different from our normal everyday experiences that every moment of our walk was spent spotting new wonders to steal our attention from the ones we discovered (or had pointed out to us) minutes ago.  So for the most part we’ll go with some photos instead.

Climbing on the root system of a tree hundreds of years old

Climbing on the root system of a tree hundreds of years old. The jungle is a fascinating mix of old and new. While much of the undergrowth is young – constantly growing, dying and being reborn anew – some of the arboreal behemoths we saw were as much as five hundred years old. The above-ground root systems of many of the trees – young and old – had a glorious dishevelled look to them, twisting and turning their way around for no particular reason, like an organic game of snakes and ladders. The older ones were simply enormous at the base, spreading out to claim huge patches of earth beneath their impressive canopies.

A tent-like set of roots

Other trees had simpler strategies, just splaying their roots directly outwards in a tent-like sort of structure.

A procession of leaf-cutter ants on a fallen tree branch across the path

A procession of leaf-cutter ants on a fallen tree branch across the path. I knew that there were ants in the jungle, definitely. I’m sure I have vague memories of David Attenborough telling me so as I channel-surfed one bored night many a year ago. But I didn’t expect so damned many. They were everywhere! Often, our path would traverse unexplained bumps, and we’d look back and discover that the mound we’d just walked over was an enormous ant hill, literally four or five metres in diameter.

A termite nest on a tree, complete with Chris’s hand, covered in termites

A termite nest on a tree, complete with Chris’s hand, covered in termites. This functions as a natural insect repellent: let the termites crawl all over your hands, then rub your hands together vigorously, squishing the termites and spreading the resulting oily ooze over your skin. It’s less unpleasant than it sounds, and surprisingly effective. Similarly, if there’s a termite nest near your campsite, you can, it turns out, treat it as a jungle version of a citronella candle and just burn it of an evening to keep the bugs at bay. For some reason, Herman seemed to get a lot more enjoyment out of that type more than the smothered-over-hands type.

Cutting out the soft, fleshy heart of a palm tree

Cutting up a palm tree which Herman has just felled with his machete. The outer layers of the palm peel off to leave a soft, fleshy but fibrous heart which went straight into a nice fresh salad for lunch when we returned.

But the photos aren’t enough to capture everything.

Partly, that’s because there’s a huge variety of things we didn’t see, but which contributed to the experience as well.  We didn’t see any caiman (yet), for example, although we heard several, including one large one which we spent quite some time running around trying to track down.  There were two animals for which we only saw tracks, too:  a large tapir, whose size Herman guessed at about 300kg, and a giant (dog-sized) rodent whose name I can’t remember, but which we later saw in Pilpintuwasi animal sanctuary in Iquitos (there’s a picture of one in the post on Iquitos, if you want one).

Partly also it’s because much of the fun was in the overall experience rather than just the (admittedly captivating) visuals.  I have photos of me swinging Tarzan-style on a giant vine, for example.  But I just look like an idiot hanging there with a dumb grin, and the photos hardly convey the fun of dicking about in nature, just playing.  Nor would a photo have adequately captured us chasing after the sound and confusion of a troop of monkeys hooting through the branches about our heads, off to their next party location, even if we’d had the inclination to stop and take one.  And the ‘jungle telephone’ trees – elderly giants with large hollow roots – are stationary and plenty visible, sure, but the point of them is the thundering boom they make when you strike their root systems:  obviously something you can’t capture in a pretty picture.

And even more than all that, partly it’s because much of the jungle is caught only in fleeting glimpses.  We spotted a lot of frog’s homes (just shallow holes dug into the earth) as we wandered along, one or two with flashes of nervous-looking frogs inside.  And in one of them I’m pretty sure I spotted a new inhabitant – a spider, waiting to surprise whatever smaller prey might walk past after me.  But I can’t be sure – there wasn’t time to look twice before the movement was gone, let alone time for a Kodak moment.  Out of the corner of my eye I was constantly seeing small twitches of movement that revealed nothing by the time I turned to pay further attention.  It was a central part of the experience knowing that for every creature we saw, there were uncountable numbers just as close but staying just beyond the corners of our eyes.

A lancehead snake – difficult to see in shadow where the two fallen branches cross, coiled up and head at the ready

Hell, I wouldn’t even have seen the lancehead snake we came across had it not stayed put, coiled up hidden under the fork of two fallen branches lying across our path, for long enough for Herman to point it out and warn us away.

(Partly, also, the photos aren’t enough because my camera was by this stage starting to not much appreciate its third day in near-100% humidity, and it had started the two-day decline which ended with it refusing to take photos at all.  In related news, I no longer recommend the Canon Powershot S100 to people, and am the happy new owner of a Sony RX-100, which I heartily endorse.)

So I guess you’ll just have to make do with those few photos, and with my repeated insistence that the jungle really is another world, and that our hours of wandering around with Marden and Herman really were the best way I can possibly imagine to experience it.

Our time in the Amazon was the end of January, well into the wet season.  Not at the river’s highest – the waters peak around March, one to two metres higher than during our time there.  But already eight to ten metres above their lowest.  The huge changes in the volume of water are difficult to conceptualise, but the difference they make is enormous.  There just isn’t nearly as much land to explore in the wet part of the year – the rivers really take over.  And the distribution of the wildlife is markedly different.  (For a start, there are a lot fewer mosquitos in the dry times, I’m told!)  For tourists like us, that means there’s less to explore on foot.  So the walk we just took was the only one we’d take:  captivating as the stroll had been, the rest of our time was spent on the water, fishing for piranhas, with eyes peeled for caiman, otters, dolphins, and birds.

We spent some time in the water, too.  After we’d returned from our walk and lunched on more piranha (this time in pasta), Herman and Rusber took us upstream in the middle of the river for us to jump off for a leisurely and incredibly refreshing swim back down to the campsite.  Well, the swimming downstream was leisurely, anyway.  There was a reason they took us upstream before we jumped in:  swimming upstream against the current was… challenging.  Of course we had to try it.  I’m not a great swimmer, but I’m certainly competent.  I won’t be winning any races any time soon, but I have reasonable stamina, I have less surface area to present drag to the water than I used to, and my technique is not abominable.  In this part of the river, I found that swimming freestyle at full tilt, I could make one or maybe two metres progress per minute.  As in, the myriad ants we saw on shore would have been beating me.

We went for a swim the next day, too – this time downriver, after the point where the Yanayacu River joins the Pucate, downstream of Buenos Aires, with stronger current.  Full tilt here had me staying exactly put as massive volumes of water rushed on past.  It’s a humbling feeling putting your full energies into going that-a-way only to be entirely defeated by nothing more than the natural course of a placid-looking expanse of water slowly making its way on its thousand-odd-kilometre journey out to sea.  Especially knowing that there’s a lot more water, from hundreds of other tributaries, to join in and strengthen the flow before it gets there.

Much of the rest of our time in the Pacaya Samiria National Park was spent piranha fishing and searching for caiman.  These are two of the iconic Amazon River tourist experiences, I guess, so our guides were keen to make sure we ticked both boxes.  We spent so much time doing both, though, largely because we were so stunningly unsuccessful at them.

Piranha fishing.  Not pictured:  piranhas.

Piranha fishing. Not pictured: piranhas.

Our piranha-fishing expeditions, unsuccessful as they mostly were, were a lot of fun.  They started so promisingly:  Herman cast his homemade bamboo rod out first and very quickly caught a couple of bait fish, including one where he fortuitously (no doubt he’d tell you just ‘skilfully’) managed to land the baited hook right in the fish’s mouth and pull it straight back, having barely touched the surface of the water.  We were suitably impressed, and excited:  this was obviously going to be easy – surely we’d be returning to camp with a productive catch for dinner.  It wasn’t to be, though:  Chris managed a small catfish, Marden caught a small sardine-like something, Herman chipped in with another bait fish, and I adroitly caught me some vegetables.  We tried a few locations over a couple of days, all with pretty similar results.  Some spots were more promising than others:  those were the ones where at least we managed to entice some piranhas to eat our bait, even if they wouldn’t get on the damned hooks.  At least our lack of a catch was reassuring us that going for a swim in the murky water mid-river had been a not completely ludicrous activity.

Still, eventually, on our last outing, we caught a few:  Herman spotted a termite nest on a tree above the water, and gave it a good poke to break it up a bit and spill some contents into the water.  That enticed the little marine bastards to start feeding, and once they got going, and once we’d churned through a tonne more bait, we finally started getting results.

Eventual success:  a caught red piranha

Eventual success: a caught red piranha

Our search for caiman was a similar story.  After many a fruitless tour of the river, at one point, Herman became quite excited and insisted on squeezing the boat through the vegetation to get closer to the shore.  He promptly clambered over a tree and off into the jungle, disappearing for a good five minutes.  But he came back with a baby ’gator (well, caiman) and a broad grin.  We took a few photos and then plonked it on the boat (suitably restrained, of course) to take it back to camp:  Herman thought we should get some photos of it with a fish in its mouth (and all the fish we’d caught were in the canoe back at camp, not in the main boat that we were in at the time).  So we did that, then Herman gave the relieved animal a bit of a gentle shove and it raced off into the water.

Herman’s catch:  our little baby caiman, complete with fish, before it disappeared back off into the river

Herman’s catch: our little baby caiman, complete with fish, before it disappeared back off into the river

So, I guess with the piranha fishing and caiman spotting complete, that probably adequately describes the rest of our fantastic Amazon trip.

Except that there is one other story I want to tell…

On our way back to civilisation, we spent our last night in Buenos Aires village again, in Herman and Wilma’s home (a basic open-walled pole house on the edge of the town’s main playing field).  There’s a tree behind their house which is home to a couple of tarantulas, which Herman showed us with an almost familial pride.  Chris and I decided later in the evening that we wanted a second look, though, so we wandered back.  We were made to promise first that we’d be very careful, however:  tarantulas are quite poisonous, they said.

The tarantula out back of Herman and Wilma’s house

The tarantula out back of Herman and Wilma’s house

This intrigued me:  so far as I knew, tarantulas were actually fairly harmless.  So, when we got back, I asked (in what I hope was mostly intelligible Spanish).  Oh no, I was told, muy venenoso (‘very poisonous’).  Ok.  So, what does ‘very poisonous’ entail, exactly, then?  Oh, if you’re bitten, it will be bastante penoso (‘quite painful’), and you will need to be treated with medicine.  Within probably a few days.  Or you will get quite sick.

“Oh,” I explained:  “when we say ‘very poisonous’ in Australia, we mean something quite different.  We mean you’ll probably be dead in about fifteen minutes.”

There followed a very entertaining conversation describing Australian snakes and spiders.  (My Spanish didn’t extend to ‘box jellyfish’, unfortunately.)  The locals were suitably impressed, and Chris and I (once I sort-of translated the conversation) were suitably reassured that when we’d been warned off the lancehead snake we’d almost stumbled over the other day, we hadn’t actually been in any substantial mortal danger.

So there you have it.  The Amazon jungle:  a fantastic adventure, and not even particularly likely to kill you!

A final look upriver, deeper into the jungle, before we hopped on our boat to head back to Iquitos

A final look upriver, deeper into the jungle, before we hopped on our boat to head back to Iquitos