Itinerary of Playa Espumilla and Puerto Egas, Santiago Island
After a bumpy night, our boat was moored in the early morning off James Bay, Santiago Island. Santiago Island is located northwest of Santa Cruz Island and has been a supply location for whaling ships since the early nineteenth century. Roads and buildings were even built near James Bay in the early twentieth century to extract the salt from the volcano. Introduced species brought by humans have caused great damage to the island’s ecosystem. According to Darwin’s diary, the island was home to a large population of land iguanas, which are now extinct on San Diego Island. Beginning in the 1980s, the project to remove introduced animals from the island was carried out. By the turn of the century, the island was declared pigs, sheep and donkeys free and the island’s ecosystem began to recover. In contrast, some introduced plants began to proliferate because of the disappearance of these animals. They are more difficult to eradicate than the larger animals, so their spread has to be controlled.
Near Espumilla Beach, Santiago Island
The northern landing site of James Bay is at Espumilla Beach, a sandy beach surrounded by mangroves. This is a Galapagos sea turtle nesting site. A few days before we arrived, a turtle had laid eggs in the woods. The guides blocked the path to the forest with tree trunks, telling later visitors not to pass, so we had to walk along the beach.
Espumilla Beach, Santiago Island
Mangroves on the Espumilla Beach, Santiago Island
A number of seabirds can be seen on the beach, and a flock of blue-footed boobies are hunting for food. The blue-footed boobies waddle around on land and make funny moves, but they have a jaw-dropping skill. When they find prey in the water, they suddenly turn their bodies in the air and dive for the water. When they get close to the surface, their bodies almost form a line, and they hit the water like a bolt of lightning. Sometimes nearly a hundred blue-footed boobies are hovering over the water, and when someone calls, all the blue-footed boobies dive almost at the same time. The view is really a wonder of nature.
Since the blue-footed booby preys on fish by diving headlong into the water, their nostrils are closed and they need to breathe through their mouths. Blue-footed boobies have special air sacs in their skulls, and their necks are much thicker than other birds. These body structures protect their heads and necks from damage when they dive into the water at speeds approaching 100 kilometers per hour.
Blue-footed boobies diving, Espumilla Beach, Santiago Island
American Oystercatchers normally walk on beaches and riverbanks, feeding on shellfish and oysters. Their beaks are long and sharp and can pry open shells. Oystercatchers are fast runners and long fliers. I wonder if it’s a lot of trouble for a bird that’s not that big to move with such a long bill. But think about Hummingbirds, who has the longest beak compared to their body, they are actually the most aerobatic flyers.
American Oystercatcher, Espumilla Beach, Santiago Island
Galapagos Mockingbird, Espumilla Beach, Santiago Island
Cabo Cowan is a tuff cone located on the northern rim of James Bay. Years of weathering have eroded one side of the mountain into a cliff, exposing the sedimentary strata inside the mountain. Seabirds have not missed the opportunity to build nests on the layers of rock walls. Lava Gulls and blue-footed boobies can be seen perched on top from a distance.
Cabo Cowan, Santiago Island
Cabo Cowan, Santiago Island
Further north from the crater is the small island called Isla Albany, which is actually a few rocks jutting out of the water from Santiago Island. Isla Albany is a great place to snorkel, because of its complex rock formations and attached coral that provide an ideal place for marine life.
Near Isla Albany, Santiago Island
Near Isla Albany, Santiago Island
Near Isla Albany, Santiago Island
Instead of going snorkeling with the others, I lay on a deck chair at the top of the boat and read a book. Traveling on a cruise is a great opportunity to read, with a ton of time and not much to do, and often books that haven’t made much progress in months can be completed in one trip. This time, I brought “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, a book that has been recommended by many and is indeed a masterpiece. While telling the story of the grand history of mankind, Jared Diamond supports his theories with great amount of details and discoveries in geography and archaeology, reasoning and deriving theories step by step. It is an inspiring and rewarding experience.
Lying alone on the top deck, the only thing I could see are a few rocks on the calm sea, the only sound I could hear is the creaking as the boat swaying around with the breeze. It was as if I was the only one left in the world.
During lunch time, the yacht returned from Fernandina Island to Isabela Island. The yacht docked at Punta Vicente Roca, which is located at the mouth of seahorse-shaped Isabela Island. The western side of the Ecuadorian volcano collapsed into the sea, leaving only half of the mountain attached to the island. Ecuadorian volcano is the smallest among the six volcanoes on Isabela Island.
Itinerary for Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island and Punta Vicente Roca, Isabela Island
Punta Vicente Roca is a good place for snorkeling because it is located near the equator, where wildlife converge because several ocean currents meet here. After lunch, we first dived in the bay near the crater, probably because there are more plankton, the water here is not very clear. There are many sea turtles, almost within reach.
When it comes to the diversity and uniqueness of the flora and fauna of the Galápagos Islands, it is important to talk about the geographical location and geography of the islands. Like Hawaii and Tahiti, the Galápagos Islands are volcanic islands. Instead of being located where the earth’s plates meet, these islands are in the central part of the plates. The popular explanation for the high volcanic activity is attributed to the hotspots in the Earth’s mantle, and the Galápagos Islands are on top of such a hotspot. The release of energy from the hotspot causes the formation of volcanoes, and the eruptions form islands that move eastward with the plate they are on. Therefore, the eastern islands of the Galapagos Islands are more ancient, and the western-most Fernandina Island is the youngest, only about seven hundred thousand years old.
The newly formed islands had intense volcanic activity, the soil was infertile. The surface was mostly covered with volcanic rocks and it was difficult for plants to survive. As the altitude of volcano increased, precipitation increased; the accumulation of plants and animals also slowly improved the soil, and forests gradually formed in the higher elevations of the mountains. Santa Cruz Island is representative of this type of island in the intermediate stage. The eastward shift of the plate took the island out of the hotspot and volcanic activity stopped. Because of self-weight and weathering, the volcanoes gradually collapsed and slowly sank into the sea. This is the fate of all the islands of the Galápagos Islands, and the whole process took about two to three million years.
Hotspot under the Galápagos islands, from BBC.
Volcanic remains as far back as 7 or 8 million years have also been found underwater further southeast in the Galápagos Islands, and the emergence of islands in this region may be as far back as tens of millions of years. The volcanic islands were separated by seawater, allowing species to evolve independently; and the islands were not so far apart that a small number of plants and animals were able to migrate to the emerging islands and begin a new evolutionary process. Those islands that sank to the bottom of the sea did not stop evolving; they provided nutrients and habitat for marine life.
Punta Vicente Roca
After the snorkeling, we took a short break and reboarded the zodiac. The zodiac departed from the southern end of the crater and slowly floated south along the rocky shore wall. There were several pairs of Nazca Boobies, some with their young, on the rocks jutting out from the shore. It’s just a pity that the wind and waves were too strong here and the zodiac undulates so much that it’s hard to get a clear picture.
As the zodiac continued south, the rock walls here are made of layers of volcanic rocks. Various birds are nesting and landing on this steep rock wall.
Marine Iguana on the rock wall
There is a large cavern in the small bay on the south side of the crater, probably formed by the flow of magma, similar to a lava tunnel.
Volcanic cavern, Punta Vicente Roca
Such top-to-bottom cracks can often be seen in the rock walls, which are vertical faults between rocks. The volcanic activity caused the fault to split and the magma to pour in, creating such a geological structure. The intensity of volcanic activity in this area is evident.
Vertical faults between rocks, Punta Vicente Roca
Leaving Punta Vicente Roca, we’re heading back to the central islands of the archipelago tonight, circling around Seahorse Head of Isabela Island. The boat would cross the equator as it headed north. It is a tradition for ships on long voyages to hold a ceremony for the crew of the ship crossing the equator for the first time. Like a Halloween celebration, the crew dresses up in fancy costumes, usually with someone dressed as Neptune, and there are often crazy antics during these ceremonies.
The location of the Galápagos Islands also contributes to its diversity of species. The Cromwell Current, also known as the Equatorial Current, is an ocean current that runs west to east across the Pacific Ocean at about 100 meters below the surface. Cold currents from the Panama Basin in North America and Peru in South America meet the Cromwell Current at the Galapagos Islands, which are located on the equator. The cold currents rise to the surface when they reach the islands, bringing large numbers of microorganisms to the surface and nourishing the life in the waters around the islands. In some years, for unknown reasons, these cold currents weaken, causing the temperature of the sea surface to rise, and an El Niño phenomenon is formed.
Currents near the Galápagos Islands, from BBC
Traditions need to be observed, but of course our celebration was much more civilized. Everyone on board gathered in the cockpit of the boat, Marco poured a glass of champagne for everyone, and we gathered around the GPS device, waiting for the moment of crossing. When the number on the panel jumped to zero, everyone broke out in cheers. After the celebration, the captain also let the young boys on board to drive the boat himself.
The sun is gradually setting at sea level. Tonight the boat will sail out of the area surrounded by islands again. It will be a bumpy night.
In the morning, the boat was moored in the calm water near Punta Espinoza. The sun was shining through the dense clouds, adding a sense of sanctity.
Near Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island
There is a section of stone stairs for boats to dock at the Punta Espinoza. Fernandina Island’s volcano is highly active, with La Cumbre had erupted the year before we arrived and again in January 2020. Punta Espinoza is probably the only place where visitors can board the island. Because there have been no humans living on the island, Fernandina is also the only island free of invasive species.
Punta Espinoza landing site, Fernandina Island
The volcanic rocks run from the foot of La Cumbre to the sea, with a sandy beach in between. Large gatherings of marine iguanas could be seen everywhere, some of them occupying the paths marked out for visitors to. We had to pass by carefully, not daring to disturb these little sunbathing dinosaurs.
If you looked closely, you’d find that some marine iguanas nod their heads and spray something between their nostrils from time to time. It turns out that marine iguanas go down to the sea to feed on moss and bask in the sun on the shore, and over time, salt from the seawater will gather in their bodies. Like other marine reptiles, there is a gland near the nasal cavity of marine iguana that can filter the salt in the blood and then discharge it from the nostrils to maintain the balance of salt in the body. The sprayed salt falls on the top of the marine iguana’s head, just like with a white hat, which is very comical.
The skeletons of dead marine iguanas can be seen on the beach. In addition to the change of body form, marine iguanas have a special skill of adapting to the environment. In the years when the El Niño phenomenon is severe, the marine iguanas have less food because of the increase in seawater temperature. If the El Niño lasts for a long time, it will cause a large number of marine iguanas to die. At this time, the marine iguana will not only reduce feeding and weight, but even shrink the length of its body by more than 20% until the water temperature returns to normal and the food is sufficient. Such a process will happen many times in the life of a marine iguana.
Fernandina Island is covered almost entirely with volcanic rock from La Cumbre volcano to the sea. Except for the mangroves on the beach, only the lava cactus can take root from the barren volcanic rock.
La Cumbre Volcano, Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island
Lava cactus, Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island
We walked along the shoreline to a small bay surrounded by mangroves. The narrow bay extends deep into the land, and the water is shallow and crystal clear. This is a quiet and secluded place. The calm waters also attract marine animals to inhabit here. Several sea turtles can be seen here and there. Some were crouching on the shore, while others were crawling in the water very close to us.
Green turtle, Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island
Green turtle, Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island
Roots of mangroves, Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island
Back on the yacht, just after a short rest in the room, we heard the crew calling everyone outside the cabin door. It turned out the crew discovered a school of dolphins passing by not far from us. Marco and the crew decided to go after the dolphins. We put on the life jackets and boarded the zodiacs, which accelerated to the direction of the dolphins.
Within minutes, we caught up with the dolphins. It was definitely the most spectacular scene we have ever seen. We were surrounded by nearly 100 dolphins and sea lions speeding forward with us. Usually two or three dolphins were swimming side by side, riding the waves, playing and cheering. They burst out of the sea, drawing a beautiful arc, and then submerged in the water.
Chasing dolphins, Punta Espinoza, Fernandina Island
After about 15 minutes, the dolphins swam away. After the quiet and calm time around the shallows water of the bay, we also experienced the excitement of chasing dolphins. What a good time in the morning!
It is only about 10 nautical miles to cross the channel between the two islands from Punta Mangle on Fernandina Island to Bahía Urbina on Isabela Island. Our yacht arrived in the late afternoon and was anchored in the sea near Isabela Island.
The next morning’s landing site was Urbina Bay, a half-moon shaped beach. This area was below sea level until 1954, when crustal activity caused the surface to rise five meters overnight, pushing the coastline outward by more than a thousand meters. the beach at Urbina Bay is dark black, and many shells and rounded stones can be seen, showing that it has not been exposed to the water for long. The geological activities on Isabela Island are still very active.
Bahía Urbina, Isabela Island
Sea lion’s spine, Bahía Urbina, Isabela Island
The half-moon shaped beach is surrounded by bushes and we followed the trail deeper into the trees. Throughout the Galapagos Islands, Bahía Urbina is the only place where giant tortoises are still lived naturally, while elsewhere they are mostly affected by migrations and invasive species. On the paths we walked, we could see tracks of giant tortoises and their excrement left behind. The small apples that they eat contain substances that are toxic to humans, but they are not only harmless to the turtles, they also help them digest other foods.
Bahía Urbina, Isabela Island
Giant Tortoise’ excrement，Bahía Urbina, Isabela Island
Not long into the walk, we saw an giant tortoise coming head-on toward us. Our group immediately stepped to the side to give way to the tortoise. The giant tortoise did not seem to be bothered by our presence, still walking unhurriedly in front of us, and occasionally looked up at us, as if reviewing the team to salute it.
The giant tortoises walk slowly and don’t work very fall. Those living in different parts of the archipelago have evolved independently and have developed different body forms due to environmental differences. In arid areas, where there is a lack of vegetation on the ground, tortoises must hold their heads up to eat leaves from cacti or shrubs. The heavy shell of the tortoise becomes a burden and needs to make way for the raised neck. Over time, the front of the back of the tortoise has evolved into a saddle-shaped bulge. The tortoises that live near Bahía Urbina apparently do not require this much effort, and their shells are still relatively flat and round. The following picture is displayed on the wall of the tortoise farm we visited on our first day. It depicts the shape of tortoises’ shell in different parts of the Galapagos Islands. This is one of the most important pieces of evidence to support the theory of natural evolution.
Giant tortoise distribution
We followed the trail for about one and half miles to the top of the hill and back, seeing a variety of plants and animals unique to the Galapagos Islands along the way. Interestingly, the majority of the wildflowers in the archipelago are yellow, again as a result of natural selection. There is only one type of bee on the Galapagos Islands, the Galapagos carpenter bee, and they are only interested in yellow flowers, so the flowers on the islands do not have to be colorful, and only plants with yellow flowers are survived over generations.
On the way back, we saw a land iguana lying on the side of the road. There are three species of land iguanas in the Galápagos Islands, besides the Galápagos land iguana we saw, the land iguana that lives on Santa Fe Island, and the pink land iguana that was found after 1986 at Volcán Wolf, north of Isabela Island. The Galapagos land iguana has a yellowish body and a more prominent mouth than the marine iguana, and feeds mainly on cactus and leaves. According to recent studies, the land iguana and the marine iguana separated about 4.5 million years ago. Since humans moved into the islands, invasive species, such as feral cats and dogs, brought by humans have posed a great threat to the survival of the land iguana, and the naturally growing land iguana on some islands has become extinct.
Galápagos land iguana，Bahía Urbina, Isabela Island
When people talk about the Galapagos Islands, they often think of marine iguanas and giant tortoises. The unique physical appearance of these animals did provide strong evidence for Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but it was the unimpressive finches that really inspired Darwin’s discovery. It is said that although Darwin collected many specimens of finches in the Galapagos Islands, he himself did not pay much attention to them and did not even record them in his diary. It was not until after his return to England that a painter named John Gould depicted and classified these specimens as belonging to different species. It was only then that Darwin began to organize these finch specimens, tracing the locations where they were collected, which eventually inspired his theory of the evolution by natural selection.
At noon, the boat left Bahía Urbina for Caleta Tagus. There were several frigatebirds flying with the boat with the help of the wind. Frigate birds are large, and the males have red throat sacs on their necks that can rise to a balloon-like, reddish color during breeding. Now that the season is not right, the red throat is just deflated and attached to the frigatebird’s neck.
The Frigatebird following the boat, en route to Caleta Tagus
Caleta Tagus is a bay with calm winds and waves. The first activity after lunch is kayaking.
Kayaking at Caleta Tagus, Isabela Island
Caleta Tagus is located at the foot of Darwin Volcano. Because of the calm waters, this was once a regular resting place for pirate ships and whaling boats. The place where we landed not only has stone steps carved out of the rocky shore, but also several sections of wooden handrails. On the cliff face by the “port”, the captains carved the year and their boats’ name on the rock, some can be dated to as early as 1800. As our guide Marco said, the Galapagos Islands National Park was established in 1959, before that, the carvings on the rocks are history; after that, they are graffiti.
Caleta Tagus, Isabela Island
We walked up the trail and then along the ridge of Lake Darwin Crater again. In addition to Darwin Volcano, there are actually several smaller craters around Caleta Tagus. As we walked up the ridge and looked back, we could overlook the bay and Lake Darwin separated by the narrow crater ridge. Lake Darwin is twice as salty as sea water and there is little life in the lake. Nearby are a few Palo Santo trees, a unique sight against the turquoise blue water of the lake.
Lake Darwin, Caleta Tagus, Isabela Island
The Palo Santo tree grows widely in Central and South America and is known as a sacred tree. the wood of the Palo Santo tree contains natural oils and aromas and was often used for rituals in the past and is now also used as incense for its refreshing effect. the slopes around Caleta Tagus are covered with Palo Santo trees, the top branches of which resemble an umbrella. They are especially beautiful as they as covered the entire hillside.
Palo Santo tree, Caleta Tagus, Isabela Island
Palo Santo tree, Caleta Tagus, Isabela Island
The end of the trail brought us to the western slope of Darwin Volcano and a large area of volcanic land. It was quite hazy that late afternoon. We couldn’t really see it from a distance.
The western slope of Darwin Volcano, Caleta Tagus, Isabela Island
It was dark when we were back at the boarding area. There were several sea lions on the rocks by the beach, and one of the baby sea lions was staying in the middle of the steps. This was the third day of our trip and we had seen all the animals we were supposed to see. Will there be more surprises to come?
During lunch time, the yacht sailed from Punta Moreno on Isabela Island to Punta Mangle on Fernandina Island, the westernmost and youngest island in the Galapagos Islands. Because of the active volcanic activity, there is little vegetation on the island. The island is completely covered with volcanic rock. Punta Mangel is a a natural inlet with calm waters surrounded by the mangrove forests. It provides shelters for both marine animals and birds.
Our boat cruised slowly along the coast. There were hundreds of marine iguanas crawling on a rock by the shore. Among them, there was a Flightless Cormorant, hatching baby birds. He barked loudly when he saw us coming, not sure if he was warning strangers approaching or complaining at being surrounded by a group of “monsters”.
Flightless Cormorant surrounded by Marine Iguanas，Punta Mangle
The ancestors of marine iguanas originated in South America and probably reached the Galapagos Islands by drifting for months on tree trunks. Through long-time evolution, the marine iguana’s body has adapted to island life. Although they are clumsy on land, they are very nimble in the sea. Not only can they swim but also dive. Underwater they can hold their breath for an hour and dive 20 meters. Compared with their land-based counterparts, marine iguanas’ mouths become shorter and more rounded at the front, making it easier for them to eat algae attached to rocks. Their tail is thick and strong, which is a propeller for swimming in the water.
Marine Iguanas，Punta Mangle
Marine Iguanas，Punta Mangle
A Galápagos Eagle can be seen on the shrub branch on the shore, Marco says, most of the islands’ flora and fauna originated on the mainland and evolved over time to become endemic species. They are commonly named in one of three ways: prefixing Galápagos-, or Darwin-, or Lava-. Interestingly, after DNA analysis, the Galápagos eagle is a close relative of the Swainson’s Eagle , which started living in Galápagos about 300,000 years ago, which makes it the latest animals to arrive in the archipelago.
Galapagos hawk，Punta Mangle
Galapagos Sea Lion，Punta Mangle
Blue-footed booby can be found throughout the tropical waters of western America, but half of them nest in Galápagos. Blue-footed boobies are comical looking and their most obvious feature is of course their large blue feet. The males use their feet to attract females. The brighter the blue, the more likely the male is to be favored by the female.
There were a few blue-footed boobies standing on the rocks at the beach. We happened to witness a male booby wooing the female. The male gradually moved closer to the female, lifting their feet back and forth as if to prove that they had the brightest color. Then the male arched his back and stirred his wings to attract the female’s attention. Unfortunately, the female seemed uninterested and unmoved.
Blue-footed boobies，Punta Mangle
Blue-footed boobies，Punta Mangle
Galapagos Heron，Punta Mangle
The zodiac sailed into a small inlet bay surrounded by mangroves. Mangroves are able to grow in high salinity water, so they are often found in wetlands along tropical and subtropical seashores, and sometimes grow into forest.
Mangrove is a amazing plant. Usually the seeds of plants are embedded in the fruit. When the fruit falls to the ground and rots then the seeds germinate and grow. But mangrove fruits do not fall off after ripening, and the seeds in them start to grow until they become 20 to 30 cm long. This mechanism to help their seeds to survive is called viviparous. The propagule then drops into the water. It has a similar density to seawater and can floats with the waves to great distance. When the propagule has absorbed enough water, the roots become heavier and it floats vertically in the water. When the tide fades, it can plant itself into the mud and grow into new plant. This cycle repeats itself, and soon the entire mudflat area will be covered with mangroves. Because mangroves grow on the shore, which is frequently flooded by waves, they are generally not very tall and their roots cannot be planted very deep, but they do have well-developed root-like branches that are inserted into the shallows to keep the plants stable. The stilt roots above the soil are exposed at low tide and can absorb oxygen from the air. These distinctive characteristics give mangroves a competitive advantage over other terrestrial plants in the shallow coast.
The water in the bay was very calm. There were a few sea lions swimming and playing in the bay and making occasional whimpering sounds. The zodiac took us cruising among the mangroves. When we returned to the boat, we passed through the bottom of the yacht. Our boat is a catamaran structure. The zodiac had no difficulty passing between the two hulls.
Before dinner, Marco introduced us to the entire crew of Seaman Journey. There are only 11 passengers on board, but there are 9 crew members including the guide. Through the narrow hatch and ladder, you can reach the bottom of the boat where the crews were living. The space is quite confined.
From Santa Cruz Island to Isabela and Fernandina islands, we had to sail out of the area surrounded by the archipelago to the outer sea, where the wind and waves are stronger. Our boat was much smaller than the one in Antarctica, so it felt very bumpy on the rough water. Fortunately, we took anti-seasickness medication first and slept through the night.
The next morning we woke up to calm seas and the yacht was anchored on the west side of Isabela Island. Our yacht has four levels, with the crew cabins, galley and machinery room at the bottom. Visitors live on the first level, which is also the main public area and dining room. The second level is the cockpit, high-end guest rooms and open space where meals can be served when the sea is calm. The top floor is the observation deck with sofas and loungers.
The open space on the second level of the yacht
The observation deck on the third level
Isabela Island is the largest island in the archipelago, shaped like a seahorse, formed by six volcanic eruptions that connect the land. Five of the six volcanoes are active, including Sierra Negra, the largest of all the Galapagos Islands volcanoes, with a crater nine kilometers in diameter. It was actually erupting while we were there, but it would take a few days more before the lava would spew out. Isabela has permanent residents, mostly in Puerto Villamil on the south coast, and land-based visitors often stay overnight in Puerto Villamil to participate in the island’s various activities, including climbing of Sierra Negra volcano.
Marco wrote the daily itinerary on a whiteboard. The morning activity was hiking on the island, followed by snorkeling. The place we boarded was Punta Moreno, located on the south side of Isabela Island, at the tail of the seahorse.
Before going ashore, we saw one of the most famous animal of Galápagos, the marine iguana. They like to gather by the dozens or hundreds when they are sunbathing on the rocks, crowding together and stepping on with each other. Perhaps because humans have never posed a threat to them, marine iguanas are not afraid of people. Even we walked by closely, they seemed paying no attention and do not move at all.
The marine iguanas baking on the rock
Punta Moreno’s landing site is a great place to observe a variety of seabirds. Just as we were about to dock, a black and white figure appeared on a reef near the shore. While most penguins live in or near the Antarctic, Galápagos penguins can survive near the equator because the cold current from Peru and the Cromwell Current below the surface of the ocean meet here, where the water temperature is much cooler than in other equatorial regions. The size of Galápagos penguins are less than 50 cm. Only the Little Penguin, which lives on the south coast of Australia and New Zealand, is smaller than them.
A Galápagos penguin
On the volcanic rocks by the shore, we see another bird endemic to the Galápagos Islands, the Flightless Cormorant. The Flightless Cormorant lives on the west coast of Fernandina and Isabela islands, feeding on small fish and octopus and rarely leaving the shore. Because they have adapted to feeding on fish in the sea, their wings are slowly degenerating and the keel that support the flapping of their wings are getting smaller and smaller. They are no longer able to fly, but they have become good divers.
Punta Moreno is a large area of volcanic lava field dotted by lagoons. Most of the vegetation is concentrated in the mangroves along the sea and areas around the lagoons.
Mangroves and lava fields
Lagoon in the lave fields
The volcanic rocks of the Galápagos Islands are rich in basalt. Instead of explosions of gas and ash high into the sky, eruptions tend to discharge molten lava flowing slowly, much like the volcanoes of Hawaii. There are two main forms of lava flow. The faster flowing lava is called ‘a’a (hurt), which forms a jagged rocks as it cools; the other type of lava flow, pahoehoe (ropy), moves much more slowly and cools to a relatively smooth surface with a twisted texture, hence the name “ropy”. Lava field in Punta Moreno are mostly of ‘a’a type. There are sharply edged volcanic rocks everywhere, so you have to be extra careful when walking.
Jagged lava fields
Fractures of lava rocks
Some lava fields are of pahoehoe type
The barren lava fields have no water to support anything, but there are always plants that have managed to take root among the volcanic rocks. All three species of cactus unique to Galápagos can be found in Punta Moreno. Little by little they change the composition of the soil, and over time, when water is available, large areas of vegetations will grow here.
Thin Leafed Darwin’s Shrub
Prickly Pear Cactus
As we walked among the dry lava, Marco explained the landscape, flora and fauna of the surrounding area. The occasional lagoons not only support water plants and shrubs, but also provide a place for birds to enjoy. We found two pairs of flamingos in one of the larger lagoons. The flamingos in Galápagos are small and not very numerous. From March to July is the breeding season and it is easier to spot them at such lagoons.
Galápagos means “Island of the Tortoise” in Spanish, and its English name is the Colón Islands. Each island in the archipelago has both English and Spanish names. In the English-speaking world, we call the islands by their English names, but the name Galápagos is just more popular.
Our flight was scheduled to leave at 6:45 a.m., so we woke up at 4 a.m. to leave the hotel and arrived at the airport around 5 a.m. The travel agent had already collected our tickets. The Galápagos Islands are far away from the South American continent and in order to protect the natural environment and control the number of tourists and residents, each visitor to Galápagos has to buy a $20 TCT card and have their luggage checked separately. Probably because it was still early in the morning, there were not too many people in line.
It was raining sporadically during the boarding time, but the plane was on time. Two days ago, it was already midnight and we couldn’t see anything. This time, we were able to see the majestic Andes mountains, the city, the quarry and mining factory surrounded by mountains.
The flight from Quito to Galápagos is via Guayaquil. Guayaquil is the largest city and important port of Ecuador. The Guayas River flows into the Pacific Ocean, forming a vast delta, and the land is fragmented by the river. The plane follows the Guayas River when we are about to land. We can see the river side gradually changes from swamps and farmlands to a densely populated city.
The Guayas River
The plane stopped in Guayaquil for about an hour before preparing to take off again. The flight attendant announced that the cabin doors would be closed and that the aircraft would be sprayed with insecticide. This procedure is required by the World Health Organization for all aircraft flying to Galápagos. The spray came out of the air vents and lasted for about a few seconds. We hardly noticed anything, except for the faint sound and a slight smell.
After about two hours of flight, the plane entered the skies over the Galapagos Islands. The airport we arrived at was on Baltra Island, separated from Santa Cruz Island by a narrow channel about 400 meters wide. The sea was foggy as we were about to land, and we could slowly see scattered small islands on the sea surface. Baltra Island is very small, bare and almost devoid of vegetation. It is mainly used as an airport.
The plane preparing to land at Galápagos
After getting off the plane and buying the $100 per person ticket to the national park, our journey in Galápagos officially began. Tourists on the same yacht gathered in front of their buses. Our guide, Marco, arrived as well, a sturdy man who spoke excellent English. Marco was a great guide and the key to our perfect trip.
The embarkation dock for the cruise was Puerto Ayora on the south shore of Santa Cruz Island, Baltra Island is on the north shore and we had to cross the whole island. After disembarking the ferry, we started heading towards the high land of Santa Cruz Island. Looking at the map, this section of the road is a straight line. As we gained altitude, the surroundings changed from bare volcanic rock and low Mangroves to a dense “forest” of vegetation. The landscape of the galápagos Islands follows a similar pattern: the low elevation by the seaside is characterized by sandy beaches and arid, barren land with only low vegetation such as cacti and mosses; inland, the presence of mountains makes it easy for rain to fall, which can support lush vegetation.
Itabaca Channel between Baltra Island and Santa Cruz Island
A few steps from the parking lot, a huge deep crater appears in front of us. The pit crater is approximately oval in shape, with a diameter of about 150 meters on the long side. The walls of the pit are straight up and down, almost perpendicular to the ground, and from the four walls to the bottom of the pit are covered with vegetation. It is inaccurate to call it a crater, because it is not created by a volcanic eruption.
The volcanic activity did not stop after the volcano erupted to form the island exposed to the sea. The lava flows along the gaps in the rocks. The lava on the outside is slowed down by the rocks and gradually cools and solidifies; while the lava on the inside flows faster, and the gaps gradually expand over time. When the lava runs out, a hollow tunnel is formed. Such tunnels are quite common in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island. After thousands of years of corrosion, some of these underground tunnels have collapsed and formed the deep crater in front of us.
Los gemelos – Twin Craters
Los gemelos has two deep craters, on either side of the road. Marco led us along the trail, explaining the flora and fauna around us along the way. The most amazing thing was the plants around us that were nearly 10 meters tall. Technically speaking they are not trees, but a type of dandelion. Their seeds were carried here by the wind and took root among the dry volcanic rocks. As the terrain of the volcanic island rose and precipitation increased, the plants were able to survive. With no competition, the otherwise common low-growing daisy plants can grow more than ten meters tall, covering most of the uplands of the high elevation islands, including Santa Cruz Island, and forming dense forests.
Before leaving Los gemelos, we saw a short-eared owl standing in the bushes by the roadside
Leaving Los gemelos, our next stop was the highlight of our trip on Santa Cruz Island, a visit to a tortoise ranch, Rancho El Manzanillo, and once we got off the main road, we could already see the turtles walking slowly along the dirt road. It’s called a tortoise ranch, but it is not fenced, the tortoises can wander in and out unhindered. This farm is the partner of the Charles Darwin Foundation.
Giant turtles could be seen by the dirt road
Rancho El Manzanillo
Upon entering the farm was a large open shed that could accommodate 30 to 40 people eating at the same time. Two of us, a family of four from California and an old British couple were the only tourists on the boat. Since there was still room left, a young British couple and a female backpacker from Korea joined us. There were eleven people in total. There are a lot of tourists on Santa Cruz Island. This happens all the time.
The dining place of Rancho El Manzanillo
A map of the distribution of Giant Tortoise on each island, as well as illustrations of the different forms of different species, is posted on the wall on one side of the hall. The Giant Tortoise is not only the source of the name of the Galapagos Islands, but also one of the most important species that supports the theory of natural evolution. More about it will be covered later.
After lunch, we put on our rubber boots and went out to the open muddy areas to have a close look of the tortoises. Marco had already told us to keep at least two meters away from the wildlife. The tortoises are huge and this distance was enough to get a good look at them. Besides, the turtles were not afraid of people and often walked slowly past us, seemingly unconcerned with our presence.
There is a small pond in the middle of the open area, probably from the rainwater gathering. We were in the center of Santa Cruz Island, about 400 meters above sea level. July is the dry season on Santa Cruz Island, but the highland is often engulfed in fog and the air is moist, which allows the vegetation to grow. This drives tortoises to migrate to higher ground. They like to rest in muddy ponds, sometimes with a dozen Giant Tortoises gathered together, and it is said that being covered in mud protects them from mosquito bites. When the rainy season comes, the Giant Tortoises migrate to lower elevations on the island where the food is more nutritious.
The small pond in Rancho El Manzanillo
Giant Tortoises’ seasonal migration routes in Santa Cruz Island (based on Max Planck Institute’s research)
We stayed here for about an hour and could see dozens of Giant Tortoises moving around, including a few huge males. The males were over a meter long and could weigh up to 300 kg; the females were much smaller. June and July is the mating season for Giant Tortoises, and we also witnessed a male chasing a female. It seems that the Giant Tortoises can run pretty fast when they are in a hurry, they can advance about 10 meters a minute.
After leaving Rancho El Manzanillo and driving for another half hour, a small town appeared in front of us. We got off the bus at the harbor, Marco briefly introduce the surrounding area and gave us an hour and a half of free time, then we met at the harbor at 4:30 to board the ship.
I had thought that Galápagos was just a large national park, but in fact the national park covers about 97% of the area, with the remaining 3% inhabited by humans. The largest town is Puerto Ayora, where we are located, with 12,000 residents. Because Santa Cruz Island is located in the center of the entire archipelago, it is the departure point for most tourists and has the most developed commercial and service sector. The second largest town is Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island, that is the capital of the Galapagos Islands, with a population of about 7,000 people.
Charles Darwin Street runs along the harbor, lined with restaurants, bars and souvenir stores, and small and large hotels are tucked away in the streets of the city. There are two main ways to visit the Galapagos Islands, one is land-based, where visitors stay in hotels on several of the larger islands at night and visit the sites on the island during the day or take a speedboat to other islands. There are many one-day excursions from Santa Cruz Island to the main islands. The advantage of this way is that it is cheaper and with more choices. In comparison, the cruise option is much more expensive, but it is much more enjoyable as you don’t have to spend hours rushing from island to island and you can visit more distant islands and stop at more attractions.
We walked all the way down Charles Darwin Street to the small fishing port. Fishermen return from their daily fishing trips and land here, where fresh fish are cleaned on the spot and sent to the restaurants. There are always a few seals and pelicans waiting for the fishermen to throw them something. Sometimes fights break up for the fish or seals can sneak away fish on the ground. This is probably one of the most unique sight in town.
Fishing piers of Puerto Ayora
Fishing piers of Puerto Ayora
We sat down at a restaurant, had a beer and rested for a while before returning to the port. Puerto Ayora was commercialized, but you can always found a few Marine Iguana on the roadside if we looked down; pelicans and grey herons stood on the mangroves by the sea; baby seals would jump on the dock and interact with the visitors; and a group of rays often swim elegantly in the water under the dock. All these remind us that the unique and mysterious natural world is not far away, waiting for us to explore.
Marine Iguana，Puerto Ayora
A Pelican on the mangroves，Puerto Ayora
But human settlement has also had a real impact on the environment. There have been cases of human pets attacking wildlife. One study found that the human food makes it easier for birds to acquire food. After decades of evolution, the pinches living in Puerto Ayora have significantly smaller bills than their counterparts in the forest.
At 4:45, we boarded the Seaman Journey by the zodiac. For the next seven days, we will sail around the western islands of Galápagos.
2018.6.28As usual, our trip to Galápagos was not fully confirmed until only days before departure. Up until two weeks before departure, I was torn between Galápagos and Greenland. I even had the connection flights between Greenland and the Faroe Islands all planed out, but in the end it felt like time was running out, and it was much easier to plan the Galápagos plan, mostly because we would stay on the small cruise boat without having to think about the daily itinerary. The week before we left, the cruise boat was finally confirmed, the itinerary was good, and the travel agent gave us a free day trip in Quito.
If you read the online travel forums, Quito is described as an super dangerous city. Someone even said that all taxis in Quito have a Panic Button, and if someone opens the door and jumps in, the passenger can push the button and the camera in the taxi kicks in and starts recording. We didn’t see such devices in a taxi anyway. Quito, like many cities in South America, or most of the less developed countries of the world, is chaotic and noisy, but as long as you don’t go to the unsafe neighborhoods at night, it’s usually far less scary than it’s described online.
Flights from the US to South America always seem to arrive at midnight. We had a connecting flight in Miami, the flight was scheduled to arrive at 10pm, but it was actually more than an hour late. Luckily, we had arranged the hotel pick up in advance. Quito’s international airport is quite far from the city and takes about 50 minutes to reach the hotel. Passing through a valley, we saw city lights ahead, we thought we were not far from Quito. The driver told us it was Tumbaco and was only halfway there.
It was one o’clock in the night when we arrived at the hotel and it took almost ten minutes before anyone heard the doorbell and came out to check on the door. Our hotel is Hotel Casa Q. It is located in the business district of Quito, not quite downtown. The hotel is not large, but well maintained. You can notice that the owner put a lot of thoughts into the design. It was at breakfast time the next day that we were able to see what the surrounding streets looked like.
Breakfast in Hotel Casa Q
Quito city looking from the hotel
The booked city tour was supposed to start at 9am and the guide arrived at almost 10am. This is common in South America and part of the local culture. The first stop on the day trip is a cable car ride up Pichincha Volcano. Quito is located in a valley at the eastern foot of the Pichincha volcano. At 10 o’clock, the streets are very crowded with traffic. The main road is mostly two-way, four-lane and looks modern, and but the small streets are still a bit messy.
Quito’s local street
Quito’s local street
The gondola to Mount Pichincha is called TelefériQo. the station at the foot of the mountain is on the edge of Quito, the facilities were still new and there were not many tourists. Probably the maximum capacity of one car is six people, there are six circles on the ground where the car was boarded, and each one of us stood in the circle waiting for the car.
Boarding the gondola to Pichincha
The cable car took about 20 minutes to get from the foot of the mountain, which is 10,226 feet above sea level, and the drop-off point is 12,943 feet. The vegetation at this height is mostly shrubs with some low trees. Further up, the woods fade away and the grass gets shorter and sparser. At the top of the mountain is the Ruku volcano, which is 15,696 feet above sea level. The most recent eruption was in 1999, falling several inches thick of ash into the city of Quito.
Climbing route to Ruku Pichincha
Visitors to Pichincha volcano
We walked up to an elevation of about 4,000 meters. This is the highest elevation we’ve ever been to. Indeed I had to breath heavier when I walked faster. There are plenty of places in between to stop and overlook the city. July is the dry season in Ecuador. According to the guide, it should be sunny all day, but the clouds were low and the city of Quito was hidden from time to time in the clouds. It’s on the cable car when we ware under the clouds, we were able to get a panoramic view of Quito.
Overlook Quito from TelefériQo
The following day trip was a city-tour to the old town. I will cover it in another blog.
We took the taxi from the marketplace to the hotel in the afternoon. We had book the dinner at Zazu. It’s only one block away from the old, there were plenty of time left to explore the surrounding places. The hotel attendant said there’s a Food Garden not far from where we were. Just make a turn from the hotel to the street where Zazu is, we found the road lined with restaurants from the low-end street food to the high-end establishments. We walked into o restaurant called Swing at the corner. Listening to the familiar disco dance music, there’s suddenly a feeling of lost in time.
Mount Pichincha in sunset
La Pradera Food Garden is just two blocks from us at the intersection of de la Republica Avenue. It looks bland from the outside, but it’s getting more interesting when you walk in. The modest area is home to dozens of open space eateries, each with its own distinctive style, with relaxing atmosphere. Such a place to put in America would also be a gathering place for trendy young people. It was 6pm and there weren’t many people. Maybe it’s because it’s not the weekend, or maybe such spending is still a bit high for locals.
La Pradera Food Garden
La Pradera Food Garden
Dinner reservations at Zazu are at 7pm. From the design to the plating, Zazu is one of the more upscale restaurants with moderate prices by American standards. We ordered the chef’s tasting menu. It look certainly beautiful, but the taste were not as exciting.