Saturday, November 14, 2015

Touring the Galápagos

14 November 2015

 We've been enjoying our time in Puerto Ayora, walking around the town and finding random murals and sculptures.  Also window shopping, watching part of a folk mass at the church (where the people were dancing around what we guessed was the altar?), and just falling into the rhythms of island life.

The friendly tour guide we met in Puerto Lopez told us that while the Olmecs and Aztecs in Mexico introduced the Spanish to chocolate, the Olmecs and Aztecs (and the Incas in Peru) actually got cacao from Ecuador, that the plants originated here.  So of course we've been sampling made-in-Eucador chocolate.  I tried some 100% cacao in Quito, and it was good but a little acidic.  I prefer the 85% dark chocolate with a little vanilla, cacao pod on the front of the black box, just so you know that this is DARK chocolate.  Really, really good!  The vanilla smooths out the chocolate and makes it a little mellower, not as much like the 100% that I was nibbling in Quito.

We've had a few drizzly days, and a few sunny days - most of the time, mornings begin overcast, but the clouds burn off by late morning.  The islands seem to be almost like desert around the coastal plains, with the major part of the greenery (and rain) in the highlands.  On Santa Cruz, that would be the center of the island, where the hills are high enough to cause those clouds to release the rain.

So even though we're not
even one degree
south of the equator, it isn't HOT hot.  Days are probably in the 80s F (25-28 C), and nights get cool enough for me to wear a sweater.  There's usually a breeze, which sometimes turns into quite a wind, and that keeps things cooled down as well.

We've found that the seals have discovered easy human-built resting areas - a few seals gather every day on the army/navy dock, and hang out with the marine iguanas.  We went to see them one sunny afternoon, and just watched the seals (or sea lions) sleep.  Two had injuries, which might explain why they were relaxing in the middle of the day rather than fishing or playing - although I remember hearing a marine biologist once explain that seals need to spend something like 25-30% of their time out of the water to warm up again, because water depletes the body temperature so rapidly.

The large seal rolled over and decided Richard was standing too close to him, so he gave a couple of loud barks, definitely a challenge to this other large male nearby!  Startled us, and Richard moved.  The seal settled down and went back to sleep.  (I suspect he was the deposed alpha male of a group, he had a fair-sized bite mark on his face.  So I think he didn't feel like having another male pushing into his space.)

The seals also seem to enjoy sleeping on the pier at night, climbing the ramps to settle down around the benches.  Not a lot of seals, but they seem to be there each evening when we walk by.

I think my favorite piece of public art, though, is in a restaurant - sort of a Galápagos take on the creation story, borrowed from Michelangelo.  With the spark of the divine given to Adam the Tortoise.  And tiny flying tortoise angels instead of the usual Italian putti.  Just too funny!  (In an art pun sort of way.)

On Friday, we went on a boat tour to Isla Bartolomé, which is quite a distance from Santa Cruz.  (Maps at the end of the blog.)  We rode from Puerto Ayora to the north end of the island, where we transferred to a fair-sized motor boat.  (I'm not good at estimating the length of boats, but it fit the twelve passengers and four crew members just fine.)

Our group consisted of the two of us; five women from the San Francisco Bay area who are travel buddies; a young couple from Firenze, Italia; two older women from southeastern France, near Grenoble; and a young man from Switzerland, near Bern.  Quite an assortment!  We chatted a bit on the boat, since it was a two hour trip from Santa Cruz to Bartolomé.

Isla Bartolomé is uninhabited, one of those islands in the Galápagos that's volcanic.  Or created by volcanoes.  The island is like a desert, with only a few scrubbly plants and cacti that can grow in the volcanic soil.  Some of the rock actually shows the flow of the lava and how it solidified.  Other rocks are pumice, or what our guide referred to as pyroclastic rock.  (Meaning compressed volcanic ash.)  

People come to Bartolomé for the landscape, and the nearby beaches.  (More on that later.)  So the first order of business, once we arrived, was to climb the hill (which was one of the volcanoes, or at least the lava flow rocks looked like they came from there).  Because the soil is somewhere between coarse sand and gravel, boardwalks and stairs have been built, and that's what we climbed.  This also protects the environment and prevents tourists from damaging the plants and picking up rocks.

It was quite a climb, especially in the sun which is absorbed by the dark sand and rock, making this a hot environment.  The guide checked occasionally that we were okay, since we were the slowest.  I explained in my bad Spanish that I have a sick knee.  (I don't know the word for injured.)  So he told us to just go at our own pace.  

It definitely was worth the climb - the view was gorgeous, looking down at a peninsula with Pinnacle Rock at the end, and a small volcano, plus looking across a channel to another island with a larger volcano.  Sandy beaches in the scalloped edges of the islands, dark volcanic rocky headlands, and turquoise water.  Just a few boats, since access is controlled by the national parks.

And of course Dad's hat was nearly jumping up and down with excitement!

Eventually we had to walk back down, and climb back into the inflatable dinghy to go back to our boat.  (The boats are too large to get close to shore, so each tows an inflatable, which has a much shallower draught.)

Then we went over to one of those beaches we could see from the peak, off on the island across the channel.  This is one of the areas where the Galápagos penguins can be found.  And of course that's really why I was there, to swim with penguins.  
The only problem with that plan is that even though these penguins have adapted to life in warmer waters, they're in this area because there are cold currents that sweep through, cooling the waters enough to keep the penguins happy.  Which meant the water, even the shallow water, was cold for Richard and me, with our Virgin Islands acclimated blood.  Really cold water!

And the boat ran out of fins in my size.  I've lost fins while snorkeling around, so I knew better than to try fins that were too big.  So I took the dinghy to the beach, and tried a bit of snorkeling without fins.  Not a problem, I was just really cold.  I saw some big fish, and a marine iguana swimming around (just a little creepy to see them, they look like mini dinosaurs in the water!) - but no penguins!!!!

Richard swam a bit near the boat, but also thought it was really cold, and climbed back on board.  He saw some little penguins, or at least the captain said they were penguins - they saw them from a distance.  I walked around the island to warm up, and the rocks were interesting black swirls of solidified lava, with marine iguanas and bright red crabs walking around.  But no penguins for me.

Eventually we headed back to the boat, where  lunch was waiting for us before we motored back to Santa Cruz, another two hour trip.  Certain sections of the crossing were pretty rough, so it wasn't the most comfortable ride.  And we most likely won't plan on another distant island visit, we'll stick with islands that are a bit closer to Santa Cruz.

Even though I didn't see any penguins, I did see a marine turtle, several seals/sea lions (who stop in the water and watch the boat go by), a shark on the surface skulking around, and a few dolphins (or possibly orcas) in the far distance - just enough to see something jump and splash back into the water, but not close enough to identify exactly what that was.

Richard saw a small shark or two jump out of the water and sort of play in the waves - I missed that too.  

All in all, we had a good day.  As did the hat.

The first map is of the Galápagos, and shows where we are (red stars for Santa Cruz and Puerto Ayora), plus where we went (purple star for Isla Bartolomé).

The second map shows where the Galápagos are in relation to Ecuador (lower left corner) as well as a smaller map of the archipelago.

We'll see what other adventures we can get into while we're here for our second week!

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