Saturday, May 16, 2009

Ecuador....The Galapagos Islands

We left the Galapagos Islands almost for the end of our trip in Ecuador, the idea being that a relaxing few days at sea level would balance nicely the time spent in the Andean highlands riding trains and attempting to walk up volcanoes. To get there we flew out of Cuenca to Guayaquil, where we connected with a Galapagos bound flight. I think all flights to the islands start from either Guayaquil or Quito, and some of them take in both cities. We organised the flights ourselves, although most of the agents who do island cruise bookings will also be able to organise the flights so that they fit with the cruise.

Our flight landed at the airport on Baltra which is separated from the island of Santa Cruz by a narrow channel. The contrast was stark, some of the weather we had experienced in the final few days between Riobamba and Cuenca had not been very good, but on Baltra we got off the plane into the warmest sunshine we had experienced so far in Ecuador. There are special controls for those entering the Galapagos, it was like going through a completely new immigration process. You get given a card which effectively identifies you as an approved tourist, and you have to pay $100 per person as an entry fee for the Galapagos National Park. There were rumours that this fee was about to increase quite steeply, perhaps as high as $200.

We had booked in advance a four day cruise around some of the islands, but decided to turn up a day early and stay for a night in the main town on Santa Cruz, Puerto Ayora. To get there from the airport you take one of the buses down to the channel, get the ferry across it, and then pick up another bus on the other side to take you to town. The whole process can take over an hour. At first sight, from Baltra, the impression you get of the islands is of a dry and inhospitable landscape. The trees and bushes had no leaves, and the ground around them was a mixture of volcanic rock and sand. For some reason this wasn't the vision I had of how it would look. To get to Puerto Ayora the bus must cross the whole island and as the road rises up towards the higher centre of the island then the vegetation becomes lusher and greener.

Puerto Ayora itself is not a pretty sight, it's breezeblock architecture is not very appealing. The hotel we stayed in didn't look too great either, it was a bit decrepit and basic considering the price we paid for it - Galapagos prices for anything do not compare favourably to the mainland. The room did have nice views though, facing towards the sea. Much nicer things lie just a short distance from town, for our first real glimpse of what the islands can offer we walked down to Tortuga Bay. This path takes you down to some nearby beaches which are used by turtles as nesting sites. The path itself is interesting as you get a closer look at the vegetation, including the very odd looking furry cactus that is so common here.

Also, you start to get a feel for how tame the unthreatened wildlife is here, the birds in the trees and bushes don't usually fly off as you pass. Then, walking past the first beach, you get to a rocky area full of marine iguanas who are also completely indifferent to the passing humans, often occupying the middle of the path for a bit of sunbathing. Going round a bit further brings you to a second beach where it’s possible to swim or just relax under a tree and watch the pelicans fishing.

One thing to note about staying on the island rather than just taking a cruise is that much of the available wildlife can be seen on Santa Cruz itself, perhaps not in such nice settings as on some of the less inhabited islands, but by dark on the first day we had already seen sea lions, blue-footed boobies, iguanas and pelicans; probably the most common species to be seen on the cruises. It is also possible to organise sea excursions to other islands by the day from Puerto Ayora as an alternative to a cruise - I can't say whether this is better because we didn't do it this way, but it will be considerably cheaper. The town has plentiful facilities in terms of restaurants and bars. We were recommended to go to a street full of fairly simple stalls and restaurants - the food wasn’t bad but was nothing spectacular. There are more elegant places to eat than this.

The next day we had to return to the airport again to meet up with the rest of the group for our cruise. This wasn't a very convenient arrangement as we didn't know when the rest of the group was showing up and ended up sitting around for about 3 hours at the airport. Eventually we were allowed to get onto our boat, the good ship Rumba.

Believe it or not, 10 passengers and 5 crew were squeezed onto this boat. We had a cabin below deck where I could only stand upright if I was underneath the hatch that opened up onto the deck. I soon learnt my lesson after banging my head about 4 times in the first 5 minutes - it's amazing how disciplined you can become with a few bruises on your head. This was not the worst cabin to have on the boat; at least we had space in it for our bags! We had a cook who performed small miracles considering the space he had to operate in and the food was surprisingly good. The boats doing these cruises tend to travel in packs, and every morning or evening you find your boat moored in the company of the others doing the same route. The guides then have to sort out between themselves who will do what at which time, so that everyone doesn’t end up in the same spot jostling to take pictures of the same iguana. Our cruise was to take us to the islands of Española and Floreana.

In most cases, except for the snorkelling and some short walking routes around those parts of the islands that are accessible, we were usually dropped on a beach and left to our own devices for an hour or two. The boats carry a guide, although at least in our case it was guiding of a fairly indifferent “this is the beach, over there are the sea lions and we leave in an hour” variety. Most of the long sandy beaches you visit belong to the sea lions, not to the tourists who are just passing through. This is in the end what makes the Galapagos a special place. A lot of work has been done in more recent times to get rid of the imported species that were wreaking havoc with the native ones - the rats, cats, dogs and goats had to go. It's also a special place for those who enjoy snorkelling; apart from the often brightly coloured fish you will be sharing the water with turtles, sea lions, sharks and rays.

Sea lion culture is generally very laid back.

Unless you're the dominant male - in which case you have to be on permanent and noisy alert.

The kids just go out to play.

The rest take it easy on the beach

Then there is the symbolic and odd looking bird of the Galapagos - the Blue-footed Booby. It seems the name of this bird comes from the Spanish word "bobo", because of its odd appearance and apparent clumsiness on the land.

If you look at the image below you might get the idea of the mother looking after both of her chicks. The slightly more cruel reality is that only one of these chicks is likely to survive. Every time the weaker one on the outside made any attempt to attract attention it’s bigger and stronger sibling would peck at it ruthlessly.

Not all boobies have blue feet, there are different species and the Nazca Booby seems to blend very well with the guano coated volcanic rocks on which it nests.

Nor are all the iguanas marine ones, they have their land cousins too.

We were there at the wrong time for some species, there was no sign of an albatross, and the few flamingos we saw looked a bit lonely.

On the other hand, pelicans, sea lions and boobies were so plentiful that sometimes you could catch them all together.

Back on Santa Cruz on our way back to the airport we had time to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station. Apart from its educational and conservation work the centre is now home to the most famous Galapagos tortoise of all – Lonesome George. He didn’t look so lonesome, as he has company in his pen, but the name really comes from the fact that he is the last of his line.

In the interior of the island there is a place you can stop to take a look at some of the enormous Santa Cruz tortoises in the wild -they all seem to hang out handily near to the cafe.

A question we were left with was whether the cruise around the islands is really worth doing? I enjoyed it, apart from the bruises on my head, it was a relaxing time after the more energetic activities of the mainland. However, I don't think it's worth the money you pay for it. We paid close to a thousand dollars each and it's clear that not much of that money is being spent on the boat itself. Then you take into account that we spent two nights out of four moored at Santa Cruz Island itself, where it's perfectly possible to sleep in more comfortable conditions. We went for the cheaper end of the cruise market, perhaps there are some lovely boats out there if you pay double what we did but the rest of what you get will be just the same as for the cheaper boats. Then you have to add the cost of the flights as well. It’s clearly a special place because of the protection afforded to the wildlife, but I reached the conclusion that Galapagos tourism is seriously overpriced for what is being offered. I don't say this with the aim of putting anyone off from going there, but if you're travelling on a limited budget then you might find there are better ways of spending your money than this.


Tom said...

Some great wildlife photos there!

Zuri said...

Hope you have enjoyed your trip around Galapagos and Ecuador.

These Islands are the most incredible living museum of evolutionary changes, with a huge variety of exotic species (birds, land animals, plants) and landscapes not seen anywhere else.

David said...

It all sounds and looks like a bit of a ripoff, sadly...plenty more fish in the sea, seals and breathtaking scenery in the Orkneys, honest, and comfy + affordable b&b's too.

"Roda el món i torna al Born", as the saying in Catalan goes...

Graeme said...

I wouldn't go that far David, I'm not sorry that I went there. On the other hand I wouldn't suggest that anyone really needs to travel half way across the world just to see the Galapagos. From the point of view of the scenery the smaller Canary Islands are much more attractive. It is however quite a special place from the perspective of the wildlife and the fact that some of the islands are (now) preserved as uninhabited reserves. The problem is that they've effectively ruled it out as a travel destination for those with limited resources.

Graeme said...

Given that I've now had to delete several comments from this post, let me clarify what the policy is. All comments containing links to sites selling Galapagos tours will be deleted. Blogger doesn't allow much flexibility for editing comments so there it is. Life is harsh and those of us who don't want unsolicited advertising on our blogs have to take that kind of decision.