Not even halfway into our ten days in the Galapagos and we are totally charmed. A massive day trip to Bartolome and visiting the local school are big highlights so far.
The desert is a real surprise. Any Galapagos photos are always of idyllic scenery and amazing creatures. I am taken aback at my first view of the terrain. So barren. Cacti are scattered around, along with tufts of grey grasses typical of a desert environment plus trees that appear to have barely any foliage. From a distance they look a bit like African thorn trees or a hardy acacia from central Australia with pendulous narrow “leaves” and narrow green trunks.
I constantly remind myself that everything I see is unique to this place as my brain tries to reference to the known.
The wind buffets as we walk from the aircraft, another surprise because the wind turbines were still. No wonder we bucked into the landing.
A quick negotiation with waiting taxi (ute) drivers and we arrange for our first diversion to break up the 40 minute drive across the island of Santa Cruz to Puerto Ayora. That was an excellent tip from a new friend Jill, an Australian teacher here.
The scenery changes as we drive with more vegetation appearing. The Twins is first. These are a strange feature being two adjacent sunken craters, not volcanoes, large and dry, with steep sides and a rough gravel track to walk partway round.
On to the tortoise ranch. Again we just wander around and observe the tortoises in their expansive scrubby environment. They love to wallow and shallow mud pools are scattered around with many large tortoise shells protruding bizarrely above the water line. As they lumber into the water and allow themselves to sink, air bubbles are released, glugging their way out of the enormous cavity.
The final stop is an amazing lava tunnel at Bellavista in the Highlands of Santa Cruz. We check that our torches work and head off through a lovely garden until we reach some precarious stone steps down into the tunnel.
Now this is impressive.
The tubes were formed when surface lava cooled and solidified while the underground hot lava continued to run. This tunnel extends for about 2kms. At first there are a couple of lights, but then it becomes as dark as pitch. It starts to get pretty slippery and the odd evidence of rockfall is a little disconcerting. We push on – 2 kms in a dark tunnel does not call for daydreaming.
That evening we catch up with Jill and get invited on the spot to a vegetarian Thanksgiving. This involves taking a water taxi across the bay, a hike down a boardwalk then along the sand to a fairly exclusive part of town. About a dozen of her generous colleagues and friends share a candle light feast under the magnificent starry sky. A fantastic introduction to Galapagos.
The first highlight of Day 2 is a breakfast that does not include eggs. Bliss is a large super fresh fruit salad, delicious home made yoghurt and honey from sugar cane, very dark and not too sweet.
The Charles Darwin Research Station is an impressive facility, providing an insight into the local wildlife and conservation strategies. It extends over quite a large area of natural bushland and we get a close up look at land iguanas.
It’s a very hot afternoon but we head off to Turtle Bay, about 2.5 kms along a path, winding up and down through a cactus forest. The cacti have large solid and colourful trunks with the more usual cacti lobes suspended up high. Some are in flower, a pretty yellow.
A massive white sand beach finally comes into view. Currents are strong but surfers are out. We park next to some vegetation with the only semblance of shade and discover our fellow parkers are a trio of large marine iguanas. These guys are dark compared to their more orange land cousins.
Observing the marine iguana swimming is a big tick off the list.
Back just in time to grab a bottle of Chilean Shiraz. Jill has kindly invited us for roast chicken at the home of another Australian, Ros, a long time resident who built an amazing house and created a great environment.
An early night though as we have to be up at 5 am to head off to Bartolome. This island is a 2 hour trip away on the lovely Adriana, a catamaran. Just 16 of us with Frank, the guide, the captain and a cook who prepares a delicious breakfast and later a yummy tuna steak lunch.
Halfway we idle along the side of a giant rock called Daphne Major. Great excitement as about 10 giant manta ray appear and very actively feed right beside us. Frank is excited so I think it is pretty special. Oh and plenty of birds. Nazca Booby, Blue footed booby, booby with chick and many more. We love the frigate birds that seem to enjoy searching in the wake of the boat. Almost seems as if they will fly right into us.
Bartolome has picture postcard vistas. Part of Master and Commander was filmed here.. We climb the volcano, thankfully with rest breaks in the heat. A short hike across the lava field and we hit the sandy beach.
Snorkeling time. The water is a little chill for me but eventually I’m in. There were colourful fish around the rocks but highlight number one was a turtle swimming right below. Highlight number two was a very playful sea lion who swam within touching distance. We watched him for ages frolicking with the snorkelers and demonstrating amazing aquatic skills of speed and dexterity as he somehow avoided smashing into the rocks he seemed to be heading right for at torpedo speed.
As we head for home a pod of dolphin play chicken in our bow wave. Their speed and confidence is awesome.
We head off next morning to Jill’s school in the Highlands in a open casual bush setting. Two girls are allocated to each of us for a school tour. This is all English practice for them. We do a Q and A with older less fluent students. The final class is younger, very fluent, precocious and very intelligent.
Our last full day on Santa Cruz and we visit Las Grietas. A water taxi takes us in daylight this time to the other side of the bay. Our first night destination was over here. Up the garden track, along the board walk, cross the sandy beach, past the salt marshes where salt is harvested, along a track of volcanic cinders up and down stairs and finally we have arrived.
One last dinner with Jill. Food is great and the mojitos are excellent. We take the ferry to Isabela tomorrow. So only one more Galapagos Deli breakfast. The family make the delicious fresh rolls, that I can only observe, right there on the spot.