South America Plus 2002-2004 travel blog

Blue Footed Boobie Feet



Frigate Bird

Galapagos Map

Giant Tortoise

Land Iguana

Marine Iguana

White-Tipped Shark

Wilo, Galapagos Guide

Copyright 2004

David Rich 3600 Words

G a l a p a g o s G a l l i v a n t i n g

The earliest thing you should do when visiting the Galapagos is to plan your trip a little better than I did. I was piddling around the middle of Argentina when it struck me I should figure out the best time to go to the Galapagos because, though I was headed north toward Peru, I wouldn't be there for months. I pulled out my half dozen guidebooks and studiously did the research, also plugging into South American Explorers Club info on the Internet. It appeared that the best weather was during the transition between super hot and cold/rainy in May and November, when it's neither too hot nor too wet and cloudy. May seemed the best; that's low season when boats and other prices are about one half to two thirds that of high season. This was April 24. To make it by May, I had to hook together three buses over five days, just to get to Guayaguil for the flight to the islands, leaving the van temporarily in Argentina. Only the Ecuadorian airline, Tame, flies to the Galapagos, $390 roundtrip from Quito high season, $345 low season.

How would I fit into the Galapagos tourist scene? Thirty percent of Galapagos tourists hail from the United States, the other near seventy percent from Europe as few in South America can afford the prices and airfare, which from most any point outside of Ecuador is more than an around-the-world ticket. At the airport you'll pay a hundred dollars for a pass to Galapagos National Park, ninety-seven percent of the Galapagos' land mass. One further note, because of the Humboldt and Cromwell currents the water is never "warm" though it's bearable up to a hypothermic hour from November to May. A wetsuit rental in Puerto Ayora (twenty-five dollars per week) is the best option for most. And whenever the sun is out, it's vicious; cover up and bring top quality SPF sunscreen.

The second thing I had to plan was which of the eighty-three Galapagos boats to climb aboard. This didn't turn out to be a problem because a boat found me five minutes after I landed at the airport, but I lucked onto a good one. Low-season prices ranged from last-minute lows of $45 a day to luxury $300 a day. High-season rates are almost double. There are four classes of boat: budget and tourist classes usually offer shared marine toilets and cold deck showers, the latter traumatic only after a full hour's snorkeling without a wetsuit, precisely when you need a hot shower. Otherwise, cold showers are refreshing for many, especially the largest tourist group, which is German (thirty-two percent; Americans make up thirty percent). The food is uniformly excellent on all boats I surveyed and sampled, as are the guides who seemingly all speak nearly intelligible English. Less expensive and smaller boats may suffer more motion (tourist plus and luxury boats provide seasick pills) and are slower, which means they may have to travel during the day. Smaller boats provide more convenient landings for their fewer passengers.

All boats are tightly scheduled for one week, though uniformly billed as eight days (seven nights, six days and two half days, the last half day being practically nonexistent) or half a week (touted as four days). One expensive day of your week is wasted at Puerta Ayora, where you could see the Charles Darwin institute (giant tortoises breeding, feeding, and more) and the highlands (giant tortoises in the wild plus lava tubes) for a fraction of the daily tour price, but the tour package is extremely convenient.

I sailed a weeklong trip on Pulsar (tourist class catamaran, maximum ten people) and another week on Samba (tourist plus class) and can highly recommend both (unless you end up with cramped cabin number seven on Samba; Samba's other cabins are superb) for good food, guides, and sheer unadulterated fun. Samba is unique as one of the very few boats that go to Fernandina and Isabella Islands. Friends sailed on the least expensive boat in all the Galapagos, the Queen Mabel ($330 to $360 low-season week, food good and great fun they said, cheapest booking in the Queen Mabel office at the Los Amigos Hotel in Puerto Ayora) and loved it. Save a fortune by bringing your own drinks, prices of which on board more than double the cost at Proinsular Supermarket, the largest in Puerto Ayora. Most people tip twenty to forty dollars each with one third to the guide and two thirds to the crew, all of whom are grossly underpaid. Now you're ready to hit the road to the Galapagos.

Charlie Darwin, way back on September 15, 1835, penned a great introduction to Galapagos gallivanting:

The natural history of this archipelago is very remarkable: it seems to be a little world within itself; the greater number of its inhabitants, both vegetable and animal, being found nowhere else. As I shall refer to this subject again, I will only here remark, as forming a striking character on first landing, that the birds are strangers to man. Tame and unsuspecting were they, that they did not even understand what was meant by stones being thrown at them; and quite regardless of us, they approached so close that any number might have been killed with a stick.

His remarks continue to be accurate today, the wildlife so tame it should be extinct, but in retrospect, who'd throw rocks at tame birds? Probably someone who had to knock off one of every species to take the carcasses back for concocting a scientific theory.

Darwin spent only five weeks in the Galapagos, were we so lucky. My three weeks there leads me to guesstimate that it takes at least three weeks to see the highlights, coincidentally the maximum period for which a roundtrip plane ticket is valid from mainland Ecuador. Buy a one-way ticket and stay as long as your visa allows.

The cockeyed menagerie of animals, birds, and reptiles you'll see is best grouped in categories I've invented that Mr. Darwin would never have imagined: clowns, predators, dinosaurs, the astonishingly graceful, giant lizards, dive bombers, lava-livers, and those with the most remarkable mating dances; first, the clowns of earth and sea.

You'll meet the foremost clown of terra firma Galapagos when you land at the airport, its bright blue feet plastered on half the T-shirts you must wend your way past to begin the great Galapagos adventure. The blue-footed booby appears comically and studiously cross-eyed as he stares down his long rifle of a beak. In real life he'll be preparing a pointed peck at your pants if you venture too close to his hilarious antics. He looks like Scrooge McDuck doing a slow motion ballet in blue feet, gingerly lifting each vivid foot to maximum height before plopping it down in an unexpected direction, all the while peering myopically elsewhere. Upon discovering a lamentable lack of progress, he will suddenly jump, blue feet extended, onto the nearest rock, only to toddle off and begin his weird shuffle afresh.

The clowns of the sea, where many of the most interesting creatures reside, had best be given a few feet clearance on the beach where they are less funny and apt to nibble if you too severely compromise their space. Yet in the sea, if you refrain from a temptation to pet, no creatures are more playful and funny than the sea lions that seem to inhabit every nook and cranny of every beach. If you haven't forgotten your snorkeling gear (take your own rather then renting last minute because you'll spend two hours a day under water), you'll have many playful encounters that usually begin with one or two sea lions shooting by you so fast you might have been strafed by a low-flying jet. Before you can recover your wits, a friendly furry face will appear headed for a collision course approximating the speed of light, missing your nose at the last split second by a whisker, and yes, he was chortling. From day one you'll find the sea lion's not-so-secret wish is to become the closest relative to a kamikaze though they wouldn't harm a hair on your head (if you don't try to pet them).

The predators are fascinating, especially those you'll encounter under the sea. The single land predator, the Galapagos hawk, is mostly seen from halfway afar, perched on a tree or soaring way up above, a bushy brown bird of ferocious visage. The predators of the sea are far more up close and interesting, their near universal presence driving a significant number of snorkelers to excited and fearful exclamations along the order of: "Shriek—oh my God, there's a shark." Or more likely half a dozen sharks. Yep, there're lots of sharks and you'll see many up close, all harmless from the commonly seen-everywhere, white-tipped reef shark, a small specimen from three to four feet long, to the less common and much larger Galapagos shark, and the fearsome hammerhead. All sharks in the Galapagos, according to my trusty guides, were so well fed on the abundant sea life that they had no interest in white fatty doughboys and dough-girls hanging out in masks. Reportedly, no one has ever been munched by a shark in the Galapagos. I can testify that a hammerhead, under no circumstances, looks benign but more like a steamroller with teeth.

The dinosaurs of the Galapagos are well represented above and below the water. Indeed, the giant land tortoise has become the most common symbol of the islands. These huge tank-like animals, mowing down the vegetation as they locomote, some over 500 pounds after living up to 200 years, exhibit unexpected attributes, from heads bigger than a breadbox to impromptu races. Imagine two monoliths on tiptoes with legs bent ninety degrees, necks stretched toward an imaginary finish line, racing, or more accurately tilting in slow motion at perhaps twenty feet a minute. But trust me, you won't go to sleep watching land tortoises race. I tried snapping a picture to prove the drama, but the automatic focus unfortunately couldn't handle the lightning speed.

The dinosaurs of the sea are rather more rapid, green sea turtles which will leave you in their wake unless you: (a) sneak up on them in murky water; (b) you have excellent flippers and an efficient kick; or (c) you find an old turtle; all of which may work, giving you close up views of these gorgeous turtles with their checkerboard green shells and graceful flippers. You will also see dozens in shallow mangrove lagoons, gliding barely under the surface, occasionally craning their boxy snouts above the water.

No Galapagos creature is graceful on land other than the seldom seen Galapagos snake, nonpoisonous, and the lagoon flamingos. The most graceful in the sea and air are a beauty to behold. The king of the air is the magnificent frigate bird with its black arched wings, always hanging in mid-sky, brilliant eyesight peeled to catch a fish sufficiently close to the surface for plucking. The frigate can't dive bomb the water, because its feathers have no oil and won't dry. Thus it must watch and wait and swoop the surface of the ocean while gliding for hours on end, a graceful black kite against the eternally blue sky.

In the water, none match the grace of the various species of manta ray, from the golden ray to the stingray and liberally spotted eagle ray, looking like a leopard of the sea as it gently flaps its fins, tips giddily waving above the surface. Swimming with these beautiful rays makes Swan Lake ballet look comparatively lumpy, leaving dolphins (of which you'll see hundreds) and the torpedo-like penguins, as also-rans.

You'll gawk at the giant lizards, iguanas physically more reminiscent of dinosaurs than the giant tortoise or great sea turtle. The marine iguanas, lava black with major flashes of red and green during mating season, and the land iguanas, golden blonde, are both stone cold ugly, so ugly as to be magnificent. The swimming or marine version of the iguana is slightly smaller, but both models sport spiky ridges up to several inches long, fearsome creatures if you have a zoom lens.

The Humboldt Current sweeps directly to the Galapagos from Antarctica 4000 miles south, barely warming up on its spiral to the equator. To avoid frost after a chilly morning chomping seas grasses and moss under the Galapagos' nippy waters, marine iguanas will stack their ugly black, red, and green selves into half a dozen layers, claws comradely clasped over each others' spiny backs, casually cozy. If you venture too close they blow salt through their nostrils, startling the average tourist to bits.

If you have trouble finding the golden land iguana under its camouflage of similarly colored foliage, you can always spot his track, the heavy tail leaving a line like a bicycle tire dug into the sand. Both kinds of iguana are tended by the Galapagos Mockingbird, which pecks off their molting skin almost faster than they can shed it.

The dive-bombers are in a class by themselves, dissecting the seas from fifty feet straight up, dropping like a rocket. We'll ignore the ubiquitous pelican, which is far from unique to the Galapagos. The other spectacular diver is the booby in three flavors, folding their blue, red, or gray (masked booby) feet to shoot like an air-to-surface missile. These myopic looking birds boast among the sharpest eyesight of any species.

The lava-livers are amazing not for their uniformly drab and lava-like colors, but for the fact they can survive at all among the untold acres of raw lava blanketing the islands. These include the slithering brown-striped lava snake, the lava lizard (females have vivid red throats), and the lava cactus, a tubular spiky affair in brown, green and yellow, all on one plant, representing the age of its tubes from oldest to youngest, respectively.

The highlight of the birds, animals, and reptiles is the mating dance of four species. Perhaps the most singularly striking and the least familiar, until you peruse your first array of Galapagos postcards, is the amazing frigate bird, our kite-shaped big black stalwart glider-for-fish who has no mating dance whatsoever. Off-season the male has a wrinkly red neck, but in mating season he inflates this red sac from chest to chin, beak pointed skyward, and thence he sits, patiently waiting to attract the female. Seeing a half dozen of these colorfully inflated brethren in a circle, heads thrown back and chests out, looking like red balloons preparing to ascend, sets every camera clicking.

For a real mating dance, I'd guess only one species on earth can beat out the fascinating and practically unbelievable choreography performed by the blue-footed booby and the rare-waved albatross, the latter found nowhere except on Espanola Island, Galapagos, except during the three months when they soar 4000 miles south to Antarctica for their summer vacation.

The blue-footed booby female is usually courted by two or more males doing their stumbling out-of-control-blue-feet-held-high-dance frequently interrupted by a forward bow, wings held wide behind the back and beak pointed toward the booby god, abruptly stumbling around to catch the female's attention. Often they succeed, the female sidling up for a cozy snuggle but the male is so engrossed in being cool that he fails to notice the female, continuing his loopy dance and stretch, giving the rival male equal opportunity. The booby is perhaps the most appropriately named bird in Christendom. Once a male finally notices an expedient and willing female, they stand head to head and gracefully fence with their long beaks and necks, vividly illustrating the origin of necking.

The gorgeous waved albatross performs a fencing dance that would put the Three Musketeers to shame, accompanied by lusty beak fencing that sounds like castanets gone berserk, this cacophony performed for up to five exhausting days. Clickety, clack, don't talk back. These unique birds excel in stamina. They can soar for months at barely an inch above the most raucous waves, necessarily gliding in their sleep.

But for the wildest, noisiest, weirdly nocturnal, and most colorful mating dances of them all you have to stay up later than I hardly ever do anymore. Even though you have to get up at 6 a.m. for the next morning's island, try to make a special effort to plug in a nap the day you stay up late to catch this absolutely incredible mating dance. This dance never begins earlier than 10 p.m. and continues throughout the night, jangley and irritating to others of the species not similarly in heat. You can catch the gold chains swinging, miniskirts a-jiggling, and the species in full roar, every night except Monday, at any Puerto Ayora disco.

Even after you've seen this entire array of clowns, predators, dinosaurs, the astonishingly graceful, the giant lizards, dive bombers, lava livers, and those with the most remarkable mating dances, there are many more amazing dozens of species to see including the whale shark, the world's largest fish by far, a true monster up to fifty feet long. Try stretching your arms that wide when telling the amazing story of how this fish barely got away. There are seven species of whale from the humpback to minke, sperm, killer, finback, sei, and pilot (though what you'll actually see looks rather similar, which is to say fins), moray and other eels, colorful tropical fish in dense undulating schools, a decimated population of frolicsome fur seals, cutesy little Galapagos penguins, the smallest and furthest north of all penguins, flamingos, and octopuses, to list a few marvelous others.

The Galapagos offers an array of inanimate wonders. Darwin estimated 2000 volcanoes, still officially uncounted, which due to the nature of their flows have created gigantic lava tubes. A lava tube on Floreana Island connects with the sea. You enter via a series of stairs and descend with flashlights, a hundred feet from Post Office Bay. After a few hundred yards you're up to your Tevas, then to your ankles, knees, and waist in short succession, suddenly swimming in ice-cold water that has never seen the sun. If you've brought a snorkel and mask, you can dive to the end of the tube to see an opening the size of a grapefruit, then apply all remedies for hypothermia.

Or explore a unique lava tube in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island where you enter a monstrous linear cavern (electrically lit) and wander for what seems a mile to where the lava tube appears to have abruptly stopped. There you drop to all fours and trundle under a two-foot-high ledge for a few yards to emerge into another monstrous linear cavern. You bewilderedly follow the new tunnel a lengthy distance until you exit scratching your head. Where does this thing hook up to a volcano? As you rinse your hands and knees with a gallon jug of water your guide reveals the mystery. The cavernous high top of the chamber is multiply linked to the volcano, well above where you could catch a glimpse. The lava exited at both ends. Plus on Espanola Island you'll see an impressive (at high tide) blowhole, spewing jets of seawater vertically up to a hundred feet.

If you have time, go to Isabela Island, which constitutes fifty-eight percent of the Galapagos land mass. There you can climb Sierra Negra volcano, the second largest caldera in the world, measuring nine by eleven kilometers (five and a half by six and a half miles), far too large for the widest wide-angle lens. You can explore the volcano by foot or on horseback (twenty to twenty-five dollars), see flamingos up close, relax at Hotel Ballena Azul (twelve dollars single, sixteen dollars double, solar hot water, lovely and spacious and say hi to interesting Swiss-owner Dora) and eat at quaint Cuna del Sabor in Puerto Villamil, the only village on Isabela, population 1200. The ferry from Puerto Ayora to Isabela is five to six hours, forty-six dollars each way, twice weekly. I've been told that pangas are available for thirty dollars each way, two hours. Isabela Island is very remote, quiet and relaxing.

Like ninety percent of visitors you'll likely see only a single town, the largest in the archipelago, Puerto Ayora, naturally touristy but imminently pleasant, laidback and quaint once the plethora of travel agents, T-shirt and souvenir shops no longer register. The two best inexpensive hotels are Lirio del Mar at eight dollars a room, clean, tiled, views, fans and Peregrina B&B (and laundromat, one dollar per kilo, the same price as the other dozen laundromats in Puerto Ayora) at seven dollars person with air conditioning, assuming a room is available. Better hotels with air conditioning and all amenities include Castro (twenty dollars), Sol y Mar (eighteen to forty-five dollars) with seaside rooms, lovely atmosphere, Angermeyers (P: 526-677) (twenty-six rooms, fifty-six to seventy-eight dollars), Red Mangrove Inn (six rooms, $61 to $134, Jacuzzi, special tours, The best restaurant is Garrapata, slightly higher prices but excellent value, four dollars set lunch. The kiosks on Charles Binford Avenue serve wonderful set meals of fish, chicken, and beef for two to three dollars. Internet, a dollar-fifty an hour on Charles Binford, a few blocks east of the kiosks, others two dollars per hour. There is a MasterCard ATM at Banco del Pacifico (the only bank in town), cash advances on Visa with a four percent commission and long lines. Puerto Ayora's 10,000 residents will provide your every need at a price, similar to every other population center on earth where you go gallivanting.

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