Expecting Barney Rubble to emerge with Fred and Wilma, Diane and I visualized a scene from Bedrock on the fourth day of our fascinating cruise around The Galapagos Islands. Already experiencing close up views of adorable fur seals and penguins, large treeless birds staring up at us from the ground and marine lizards emerging from the sea like scaly fish, it all seemed surreal. Imagining a scene from a prehistoric world was easy while viewing North Seymour Island’s beautifully colorful land iguanas and walking among enormous Galapagos tortoises older than both of us on Santa Cruz Island, the main population center of the islands.
Following our phenomenal trip to Southeast Asia that included trekking with hill people, monkeying around with orangutans and learning how to be an elephant owner for a day, we chose Ecuador for our annual Expat Destination Research Vacation. Before visiting Cuenca, South America’s most renowned expat haven, we enjoyed trips to the Amazonian Rainforest and the shortest Galapagos luxury cruise available. Originally planning several more trips including some European destinations, one shitty company changed our long-term plans with my firing disguised as a layoff, inspiring us to choose early retirement in Malaysia in a few months. Concluding our last full day in the Galapagos with a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station and a lava cave as well as more close up views of fascinating wildlife, we reflected on the first three days and headed for the shores of North Seymour Island.
Named after an English nobleman and formed by a series of uplifts of submarines,, North Seymour Island’s geography is mostly flat plateaus. With over 2,500 land iguanas, it’s interesting that they’re not native to the island. Brought over from neighboring islands to provide better conditions for their survival, they thrive and roam freely. Our guide Javier explained that introducing goats to their native island threatened their survival, reiterating how important ongoing conservation is to keep the islands pristine. Almost on cue, we greeted our first iguana who looked like he stopped to stare at the “stop” sign which was of course for humans, not iguanas.
Arriving on the island, the strange and bizarre landscape quickly came into view. Activities for the morning included a walk on a 2 kilometer trail exploring the rocky coast. Comprised primarily of cactus and other desert like vegetation, large and beautiful yellow land iguanas live in the drier areas of the island and spend the mornings sprawled about, often feeding on low-growing plants and shrubs, fallen fruits and cactus pads.
Seemingly friendlier and more personable than the marine iguanas who looked so serious, it almost looks like they smiled at us as and like almost every creature in the Galapagos, they show no fear of human presence, allowing us to get as close to them as we wanted. Weighing more than 30 pounds, males clock in at almost 3 feet long and reach maturity between ages 8 and 15. Females lay between 2 and 20 eggs and amazingly, they live upwards of 50 years if they can survive the difficult first few years of their lives.
Because fresh water is scarce, land iguanas get most of their moisture from the prickly pear cactus that makes up most of its diet. Sometimes supplementing their diets with insects, they’re primarily herbivores and we as we navigated further, we took this awesome video of an iguana eating his breakfast:
Curious how they arrived on the island, we asked the resident expert (Javier) who explained that scientists believe they had a common ancestor that somehow floated to the islands from the South American continent on rafts of vegetation.
Amazingly, they estimate the divergence between land and marine iguanas is 10.5 million years. Another interesting fact is their interaction with Darwin’s finches. Similar to the tortoises, the iguanas raise themselves off the ground, allowing the little birds to remove ticks. Here is Javier, our primary guide and resident expert posing with one of his friends.
Probably one of my favorite creatures from the islands, we heard stories of idiots trying to sneak iguanas past immigration officials using very strange methods. Punishable by long stints in federal prison as well as being morally reprehensible, I began to understand why passports are re-stamped and they scrutinize the entry/exit process so heavily. Personally knowing some reptile lovers, some people would probably do almost anything to own an endemic species as a pet but please: Don’t even think about doing something that dumb !
Home to many other creatures besides the land iguanas, the small island supports an amazing array of other smaller lava lizards as well as blue footed boobies, although we only saw them on other islands. Also home to beautiful colorful crabs known as Sally Lightfoots, the specimens we saw in between the rocks on North Seymour Island were larger than ones we’d seen a few days earlier that gathered in large groups on the beach.
Incomplete without Galapagos fur seals or sea lions, an island visit in the Galapagos simply doesn’t feel right unless you take some pictures with the islands’ most adorable creatures. Not realizing the next morning’s last island visit would be filled with nothing but dozens of the cute creatures, we took some of the best shots sitting on the rocks and were also treated to a seal sleeping upside down.
Amazingly, every time we thought we’d seen everything on an island, we always seemed to find something better. Possibly my favorite picture of the entire trip, check out this adorably cute little pup that greeted us as we headed back from the trail and boarded the boat for lunch
Finishing our deliciously fresh lunch, we all headed outside for some free time on the deck. Setting sail, the ship took a slow cruise through the calm waters and headed for Santa Cruz Island for the afternoon excursion. As the population center of the islands, about 12,000 people live here and it serves as the hub for visitors that prefer sleeping in a quaint B&B instead of on a ship. While it’s possible to book a variety of day trips and see some of the same sights, we don’t recommend it. Often run by locals unable to secure employment with reputable companies, in the Galapagos you really do get what you pay for and settling for anything less than four star service (out of 5) will not allow the most enjoyable or educational experience.
Back in civilization for the first time in four days, the afternoon’s activities included a bus trip to a lava cave, a visit to the Charles Darwin Conservation Center and a walk through a privately owned ranch where giant Galapagos tortoises roam free. Easily the most prehistoric looking creatures on the islands, they represent one of two remaining groups of giant tortoises anywhere in the world and the islands name comes from the old Spanish word galapago meaning saddle, a term early explorers used for tortoises.
Transported in a small bus, we climbed up a paved road into the highlands and approached the lava tubes. Formed from hot liquid rock that created channels on the island, the outer parts of the channels hardened and cooled even as the interior lava continued to flow. Eventually, the flowing lava emptied out creating hollow cave-like structures. Well lit with flashlights, we took a thirty minute walk through the tunnel and gazed at formations created by nature millions of years ago.
Returning to the bus for the short ride to the ranch, we all gathered around Javier as he explained the ground rules. Basically the only part of the entire trip that they allowed us to roam independently among the wildlife, Javier explained although they may not seem to startle, they get stressed out when approached from behind or too suddenly. Despite their enormous size, they’re relatively sedate and spend an average of 16 hours a day resting. Feeding primarily on cactus pads, grasses and native fruit, their activity level depends on the season. Traveling in November, Diane and I arrived at the tail end of cool season and were lucky enough to see them active.
Breeding primarily during hot season, they can mate any time of year and that’s exactly what we saw as we noticed a large tortoise heading towards another smaller one. Obviously wanting to breed, they sure didn’t seem to put on any displays to attract a mate like so many creatures. Making no vocalization, they’d almost be boring if it weren’t for their enormous size making them look like they stepped into the time machine on Back to the Future and arrived from about 10,000 BC.
Allowing everyone about 90 minutes to roam free, Javier relaxed on the bus and gathered us all together for the short bus ride to the Charles Darwin Research Station where we’d be able to learn some history about the tortoises and check out their breeding program with a short tour around the facilities. Perhaps due to the overwhelming nature of recreating this trip, I’m spacing out on the mission and purpose of the station so here is a quote from the website Galapagos.org:
A ten minute walk from the center of town, the Charles Darwin Research Station is the operational center of the international non-profit Charles Darwin Foundation. A visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station is included in many cruises. The visitor center contains exhibits dealing with climate and geography and provides insight into the evolution of flora and fauna as well as current conservation programs.
The Darwin Station conducts research and provides technical assistance to other researchers and governmental agencies, in particular the Galapagos National Park. The results of the research are published in scientific journals, reports, and also included in interpretive displays for visitors. The Darwin Station also provides environmental education to communities and schools in Galapagos.
Eerily similar to a million year old archeological formation in Aruba that collapsed about two months before we visited, we missed seeing Lonesome George by five months because he died. Famously known as the last survivor of the Pinta tortoise, they estimated George’s age at over 100 years old and his death marked the extinction of the species. Settling for signage about George, we toured the grounds and examined cute little numbered baby tortoises being raised on the grounds as part of a breeding program. Filled with important facts and information for anyone interested in conservation, the Charles Darwin Foundation website is a fabulous educational source.
Despite their size, scientists consider Galapagos tortoises the most devastated of all species in the Galapagos Islands. Exploited as a food source, harvested for oil, and preyed upon by introduced species like goats, rats, pigs and dogs, establishing the Galapagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Foundation in 1959 helped spearhead a systematic review of their status. Beginning in 1965, the first transfer of tortoise eggs from the center back to their native islands was successfully implemented five years later. The current project aims to restore populations, evaluate habitat conditions and improve education.
After visiting the center for about an hour the group boarded the small bus again and they drove us into town where we could peruse the local streets, eat some delicious local seafood, shop for crap or just gaze at the locals. Situated the southern coast of Santa Cruz Island, the picturesque town of Puerto Ayora is the hub of all tourism activity in the Galapagos Islands. Offering numerous day trips and lodging opportunities, anyone wanting to explore the islands on a lesser budget starts here. Although we highly recommend using a cruise to explore the islands, the town is rather quaint and has an Ecuadorian flare that feels different from the mainland. Like many places we visited in Ecuador, however, the entire main street was under mass construction although we saw no signs of workers despite a mid-day weekday visit.
Given about two hours to explore, Diane and I split from the group and decided to eat lunch in a local restaurant. Drinking beer with the locals, we also checked out some shops and bought some junk for co-workers. Interestingly, the nicer shops selling hand crafted artifacts were all owned by Europeans while most of the island’s locals were found across the street in a park kicking around a soccer ball.
Standing out more than anything was the incredible lobsters for sale on the dock. Freshly caught, even the crustaceans in the Galapagos were colorful and beautiful. Taking bids, the local fisherman sold the bulk of the lobsters for what looked like about $5 each. Wishing we could buy some, it was almost time to meet back at the dock and board the ship for our last dinner of the trip. Unfortunately, l missed my lobster due to sea-sickness two nights earlier.
Honestly, the only part of the trip I didn’t like was the long speech given by Javier and the entire crew on the deck before the last dinner. Leading into a ploy for a ridiculously generous tip, the speech was bit cheesy and made way too many direct requests for cash. Nowhere had we ever been subject to this kind of ploy for extra cash.
Understanding that wages are not top-level, the coveted positions that every crew member had on the most reputable company in the islands means they already live a better life than most Galapagos residents. Javier had visited Miami five times and even explained how most Ecuadorians have a 50/50 shot at best of even getting a tourist visa to visit the USA and with his social status as the head guide of a luxury catamaran, I found the speech a bit much given the astronomical price of the trip.
Never one to deny anybody a proper tip for excellent service, I wondered if I was the only one not appreciating the speech so we approached the other couples on the boat and tried to figure out what was an appropriate amount. Providing excellent service, the crew was nothing short of professional and they receive five stars for everything in my book but with a price tag just south of 5 digits for only five days and nights, nobody on board gave anything higher than $200, including a professional baseball player with a salary in the millions. My advice here is don’t feel intimidated, consult with everyone else and give what you are comfortable with, not what they want.
Enjoying one last dinner after the speech, we packed our bags per the crew’s request and looked forward to one last morning excursion at nearby Mosquera Beach. Given the choice between snorkeling or visiting an incredible little island with a huge sea-lion population and no trail restrictions, everyone but the reclusive Swiss bankers opted for the beach with the adorable seals. Please follow along with my last post in the series for highlights.
Following the island visit, we’d all be driven back to airport for return flights to the mainland. Although the plane makes a first stop at Guayaquil, a large Ecuadorian port city with little to see or do, nobody ever departs there which of course meant Diane and I had to be different. Meeting a guide to continue our annual Expat Destination Research Vacation, we’d be driven overland on a spectacular road that climbs almost 6,000 feet to the expat haven known as Cuenca to see what all the excitement was all about. Taking incredible memories of the Galapagos Islands with us, we slept well and took in the events of the past four days.
Overall Trip rating: Six stars out of five !!!!
We love comments and questions about any part of the trip. Please share !!
Coming next: Day Five and
Our first experience eating a cuddly pet as dinner (see below)