Monday, November 28, 2016

South America (Galapagos, Ecuador) Day 149 - 151: Galapagos - Guantanamera - Bartolomé, Isabela, Puerto Villamil, Elizabeth Bay and Urbina Bay

Guantanamera day 3 - Isla Bartolomé

After breakfast, we had a dry landing onto Bartolomé. This is the most photographed place on the Galapagos, purely for the spectacular view from the top which takes in the pinnacle, the nearby crater in the water, and two sandy bays. Lava lizards (one of seven species of lizard on the island) roamed the blackened lava fields, but we didn't get to see any with regrown tails. A Galapagos central razor snake slithered under the steps which we climbed. It was a constrictor which was tiny, so not harmful to humans, although the lizards tried to give it a wide berth. Most of the $100 entrance fee is used to protect the wildlife population from creatures introduced by humans, such as the black rat which wiped out 40% of the Darwin finches. Reaching the top and seeing the panorama of the island and its surroundings was immense.













The pinnacle nearby isn't actually natural, as it's the result of the Americans practicing bombing there during World War 2. Over 3,000 troops were stationed strategically in Baltra to prevent the Galapagos from being taken. When we went snorkelling at Bartolome after our descent, Johan took us to see a US bomb at the bottom of the ocean - a remnant of more violent times. That was just the beginning of an amazing snorkel trip though. First, a penguin decided to jump into the water to go fishing as we started. Then a sealion joined us for a minute or so. Then we saw a couple of huge marbled rays lying between some rocks. Then we wandered into a huge school of surgeon fish gathering around a boulder on the reef. As they parted when I approached, I saw a shark on the ocean floor. Then another. Then another two. Then four more. I counted ten white-tipped reef sharks basking in total, and that was just in one place; as we swam further, we saw more and more. In total, we must have seen thirty sharks swimming about the reef - more than I've ever spotted underwater, let alone in one place. Gilly, who was hanging around at the back of the group, even saw a manta ray flapping by.




We were buzzing by the time we got back for lunch, and after wolfing down burgers, shitaake mushrooms, rice, veg and fruit, we took a boat out to our second stop: Sullivan Bay. This was part of Santiago Island, which we'd visited a different side of a couple of days earlier on the previous tour. The bay was a "new" lava field, a cracked black sea of hardened basalt left behind from the last eruption of 1910. There are two types of lava rock, which are due to the different speeds in which the lava cooled. The most common is the smoother pahoehoe rock (pronounced 'paw-hoey-hoey") which hardened gradually over time. The rougher aa rock (pronounced "ah-ah") which makes up only 5% of the field cooled quickly, leaving behind a sharp surface which is painful to walk on without shoes. It also formed some interesting formations, including holes which we amused ourselves with.




The island is the fourth largest in the Galapagos and is the last one that Darwin visited when he came here and developed his theory of evolution. There used to be iguanas on the island, but they were wiped out by dogs which were introduced by humans, and the dogs were in turn eradicated once the preservation of endemic species was considered vital. There is a breeding program which hopes to reintroduce iguanas back to the island, since they are an important pollinator. There are plants that live in the lava rock, spindly grass and bushes which have roots long enough to reach the sea, but other plant life is scarce.



Johan gave us a bit of background about the tourism on the islands too. Galapagos survives on tourism, and not all of it is good. National Geographic, for example, have huge boats of capacity of over 100 people and charge passengers around $8,000 per passenger per week. When other boat operators and guides complained that the sheer number of people was having a detrimental effect on the islands, NatGeo simply greased some government palms by paying for new buses, boarding up areas of Santa Cruz to help make them accessible, and so on. If a bus costs $80,000 then you can see why people would be sceptical about the actual reparations being made, given the amount of money the company are making. Similarly, the government were fighting to increase the $100 tax to $300, but locals fought the action stating that it would impact their business as people on "normal" budgets who would consider coming (including backpackers like us) would think twice, leaving the islands as an exclusive reserve for those who are happy to fork out thousands per week for luxury cruises. So far the resistance has been successful, but how long the local people will be able to stop the price increase is uncertain.

Our second snorkel of the day was far more murky, but was still worthwhile for the last ten minutes, when we were joined by a huge sea turtle who was completely non-plussed by having fifteen divers following it along. Normally they're quite skittish and keen to get as far away as possible once they spot you, but this one couldn't care less. It made Paawo's day, as he'd wanted to swim with turtles for years. I guess we have been spoiled by all of our diving as we've seen plenty of sealife (including turtles), so the sheer awe of that first experience was long gone, but there's still something magical about watching one flapping its way through the ocean.

We had another big boat ride ahead of us, so our day ended earlier than usual as we set off towards Isabela - our destination the next day. It was Anna's 22nd birthday, so the boat was in a celebratory mood. This manifested itself after a dinner of spaghetti and chicken, with the chef Eugenio baking her a delicious birthday cake. That he managed to make such fantastic food in such a tiny little kitchen was a constant source of admiration within the group, but a full-on iced sponge cake was a definite high point. Unfortunately the water got pretty nasty soon after eating, so the majority of the group retired to bed at the super-early time of 8pm to try and settle stomachs and heads.


Day 4 - Isla Isabela and Puerto Villamil

There was no snorkelling the next day. Instead, we had arrived at Isla Isabela which along with Santa Cruz and Cristobal is one of the three islands you can stay at in Galapagos. At 4588 square metres, it's also the biggest (the Galapagos is around 8000 square metres). Isabela is almost 1 million years old and has six active volcanoes, the Sierra Negra caldera being our destination for the morning. It's the second biggest caldera in the world (after Ngorongoro in Tanzania), and after a gentle 25 minutes hike up to the top this  becomes apparent. Even in the clouds, the sheer breadth of the crater is flabbergasting. It last erupted in 2005, but it doesn't erupt in the devastating Pompeii-style manner you might expect. In fact, the Galapagos islands are more at risk from tsunamis caused by earthquakes. The Nazca plate - which the boobies are named after - has convergent boundaries which means that one part of the land mass is sliding under the other, but since it's underwater there are no earthquakes in the Galapagos, only the potential for tsunamis. That said, other countries cause more issues for the islands; the Japanese tsunami caused severe destruction to Puerto Ayora, wiping out the Red Mangrove hotel and the dock, but fortunately no-one was killed. The less powerful Chile quake also caused some damage, but nowhere near as much. Combined with El Niño events, it's easy to see why the delicate ecology is constantly at risk.




After descending the volcano, we saw a man-made flamingo reserve. The population was again significantly affected by introduced animals - in this case, feral pigs reduced the number from over 4,000 to 327 two years ago. After removing the pigs, the last census taken three months ago pegged the number at over 500 so it seems like the population is recovering. The land tortoise breeding centre on Isabela is also helping the native population by breeding and then releasing animals into the wild. 80-85% of the tortoises released in this manner have survived to date. It takes time though, since they can live up to 200 years and aren't even mature until they hit 25. We saw tortoises at various stages of development, from eggs up to fully grown adults, and learned about the threats posed to them by goats, pigs, dogs and even ants. Lonesome George died in 2012, and was the last of his species. The centre had tried cross-breeding him with females from other species without success, so the extinction of his species remains a sad reminder of the effects of human interference on endemic animals.





The afternoon was spent in the bar, because why not. The town of Puerto Villamil is quiet compared to Puerto Ayora, but we found a beach bar with $5 beers, hammocks and crappy Wi-Fi, and relaxed until dinner. The evening held yet another long ride, but the following night was going to be far more serene since we would be travelling to the next spot in the afternoon rather than at night, and that meant we would be able to have a boat party. We'd already brought a bottle of Bacardi and Johnnie Walker with us, so the rest of the group hit the supermarket in preparation too. After dinner, we were introduced to the three new passengers who were replacing Brea, Lee and Anna - Mosh from Sydney, Emer from County Mayo and Samantha from California. After getting to know each other, everyone was getting a little drowsy - we'd all taken seasickness tablets (Anautin) which kick in after about an hour and a half and tend to knock you out, so after trying and failing to keep our balance in the chairs on the upper deck due to the crazy waves, we gave in and called it a night.






Guantanamera day 5 - Elizabeth Bay and Urbina Bay

The morning was the least interesting part of the trip to date, with another dinghy ride to a bay to look at some more animals. We saw more sea turtles, including the Pacific Green and the rarer Hawksbill, and a few marine iguanas clinging to some rocks. The brief highlight was seeing the flightless cormorant, which is endemic to the Galapagos. Out of the 28 species of cormorant, this one had evolved to no longer require flight and as such its wings are a lot shorter. It looks a little like a penguin from a distance. After lunch we travelled to Urbina Bay to hunt some land iguanas. These are larger and far more colourful than their water-based counterparts, as we'd seen when travelling with the Yolita. We found 11 or 12 of them hiding under bushes and digging burrows for sleeping. I don't blame them, as the sun was intense. We were very grateful to go snorkelling soon after, and even happier to find a group of three sea turtles hanging about the reef and munching grass off the rocks. The current was strong, so watching a turtle desperately try to keep his balance underwater whilst hanging almost upside down attached to a lump of grass was quite the sight.





Little else of note happened until the evening after dinner, when the upper deck was turned into a dance floor complete with pole, and Renzo the barman knocked out a couple of jugs of very palatable caipirinha for us to share. Then Johan hooked up his MP3 player to a crazy loud speaker, and before we knew it we were all dancing to merengue, salsa, and possibly even flamenco. Our lesson in Guayaquil from Felix came in useful, if only to show us how badly we were able to do it compared to everyone else.




The boat staff were naturals, but then they no doubt get to practice every week. Once the hard liquor got cracked open, events became a little hazy. I remember doing a pole dance which apparently went down quite well, Jack fell asleep face down on the floor, and the music was loud enough to keep our previous haunt - the neighbouring Yolita, which was following us on our itinerary - up until at least 2am. All in all, it was a fantastic night.







Thursday, November 17, 2016

South America (Galapagos, Ecuador) Day 147 - 148: Galapagos - Guantanamera - Black Turtle Cove and Genovesa

Yolita day 4 / Guantanamera day 1 - Black Turtle Cove and Puerto Ayora

We were up and on the zodiac at 6am. No-one was sure why. Sarah had said we needed to start at that time since some people might have flights to get to early that morning. After a brief show of hands, no-one did, but we still had to get up for stupid o'clock for no valid reason. It wasn't worth it. Aside from the hundreds of pelicans we saw en route, Black Turtle Cove was just a cove which contained around three turtles, a sea snake and a black-tipped reef shark. We had to kill the engines, and then the zodiac drivers paddled with oars in order not to disturb the huge masses of wildlife we didn't see. It was disappointing, but it didn't piss us off as much as when we returned to the boat. We were heading to breakfast when Sarah told us we had a call from Yoconda at the agency. We went to take it, and she told us that she hadn't managed to secure the spaces on the Guantanamera for us, but there'd be a taxi waiting for us to take us to the highlands when we returned to land. When we got back to the dining room, almost all of the food was gone. There was a sparce scattering of fruit, but there were no eggs and no bacon. The rest of the passengers had cleared the lot. Not to worry, I thought. Surely the chef can crack a couple more eggs for us? I asked Briandy - no. No more food. This was crazy. I went to Sarah to see if she could help us out, and she said that she would ask the chef. Ultimately, both the guide and the staff told us the other passengers had eaten our food, it wasn't their problem, and we weren't getting anything else. It ended the trip on a bitter note, especially given the previous evening's meal and the fact that Sarah had spent five minutes explaining that the "normal" tip for a trip was 15-20% of whatever you paid at the agency, as well as telling us that there would be comment cards in case we had any complaints or suggestions. As we expected, the comment cards didn't materialise for any of the passengers. Still, I guess that's what TripAdvisor is for...





We were dropped off at the airport, and after some confusion about which bus to get, we managed to get a free one to the ferry. As promised, there was a chap waiting for us at the other side with our names (well, a close approximation) on a sign. His name was Andre, and he spoke very good English which allowed me to practice a bit of Spanish on the ride to Los Gemelos - the twins. These are two craters which have formed in the highlands of Santa Cruz. They're now covered in trees and bushes in the base, but it's still impressive to see their depth.




Next up were more lava tunnels. These ones were actually lit and had an exit, so were easier to navigate. It didn't stop Gilly managing to smash her second pair of sunglasses on the roof of the tunnel, although they somehow survived enough for us to try supergluing them at a later date. Our final stop was a giant tortoise reserve. We were able to walk around and see the tortoises in the wild, rather than in a zoo or breeding centre, and they were absolutely huge. The reserve itself was pretty big, and had lots of swampy areas for them to roam and go about their business. This included mating, which didn't look particularly comfortable for either party. Given they can weigh up to 300kg, it was certainly a test of the strength of their shells. We got to try being tortoises ourselves a bit later on. It wasn't as comfortable as we make it look.













Back in town, we needed to decide on a plan of action. First though, food was the priority. We paid through the nose for an admittedly great pizza at Galapagos Deli (cooked on lava rock, no less, although I'm not entirely sure what that added to the experience), and made use of the Wi-Fi to do very little since the connection on the island was shocking throughout. We headed back to Yoconda's place to drop off the snorkel equipment, only to find that they couldn't locate my driving licence which I'd left as a deposit. We decided to hold onto the equipment. Then it was over to Mockingbird to see if we could speak to someone without ADHD. It turns out that Staling was on the desk - the guy who Sergio was trying to call on the day we bought the Yolita tickets. He told us that the Guantanamera was still available. Hold on, we said, Yoconda told us there were no spaces left! No, there were, but Staling had bought them to resell. Now he wanted to charge us an extra $100 per person for them compared to the price Sergio had given us. That clearly wasn't going to happen. Back at Yoconda's, she found my licence and told us that she wanted to give us the tickets but Staling wouldn't sell them to her. Over at Mockingbird, Staling eventually relented and gave us the tickets at the original price, but not before Yoconda had called him three times and messaged him on WhatsApp, accusing him of stealing her customers. It was hilarious - the two agencies are literally opposite each other on the same road. I was expecting it to climax in some sort of Wild West duel.




Whilst in the agency, we spoke to another couple who were going to be joining us - Steve and Sophie. Steve was a Kiwi, whilst Sophie was from Oz, but coincidentally they'd both lived in Bristol for a fair amount of time so we immediately hit it off. After a walk around town whilst waiting for the boat followed by a cheeky beer, we were back for our pick-up to the airport. Staling tried to tell us that we'd have to pay for a taxi because "there was some issue with the transport, and the guy isn't coming now", but the four of us made it clear that this wasn't our issue, and eventually a ride materialised to take us to the boarding point (after collecting a couple of hitch-hikers and somehow getting through a security checkpoint - only five people can be in a car at any time). We arrived on board the Guantanamera in time for a safety briefing and dinner, and were introduced to the crew and our guide Johan who immediately made us feel much more confident in his abilities than Sarah did. The room was probably the worst thing about the boat since it smelled of damp and was a little more cramped than our previous room, but it was still fine - we wouldn't be spending a huge amount of time in it, after all. The food was buffet-style but was very good, and the rest of the passengers looked like they'd be great fun to spend the next week with; aside from Steve and Sophie, there were three more Aussies (Megan, Craig and Jack), three ladies from Hong Kong (Jessica, Linda and Helen), two Swiss guys (Paawo and Jonathan), a German girl (Sylvia) as well as a couple of Canadians (Brea and Lee) and a California girl (Anna) who would only be staying for half of the journey. After the briefing for the next day, we all retired to bed - it had been a pretty exhausting day.



Guantanamera day 2 - Genovesa

It was definitely the most choppy night we'd experienced to date. However, while the bed was nowhere near as comfortable as the Yolita's, it was still good enough for us to sleep pretty well. The breakfast was a similar buffet-style too, but with more food (hurrah!) and we were raring to get going after eating. We'd arrived at Genovesa, a birdwatcher's dream. I won't claim to be any sort of twitcher, but I was very hopeful to see a frigatebird - the kind with the huge red membrane that puffs out like a balloon in order to attract mates. Johan told us that it was only a possibility, since we were in the last couple of weeks of the mating season. So, it was a great surprise to arrive in Darwin Bay on the island and find the beach and surrounding trees covered in them






Frigatebirds are known as the pirates of the skies (see also: frigate ships), because they steal 70% of the food they eat from other birds. They don't have the oily coating that other sea birds have, so if they tried to dive for fish they'd end up drowning. It isn't just food either, as we saw one snatch twigs out of the beak of a booby in mid-air. They are magnificent beasts, and when fully puffed up they shake their chest to try and attract a mate. The other attraction on Genovesa is the red-footed booby, which can only be found in a couple of places throughout Galapagos. What amazed me is how tame the wildlife is on the island. No predators have been introduced, so none of the birds have ever learned to be scared of humans. As such, you can get pretty much in their face (well, two metres away) without them even blinking. Other birds we saw included the Nazca booby which looks like a gull, Darwin finches, swallow-tailed gulls, doves and lava herons. There was also a red-footed booby which had white feathers; evolution is slowly replacing the recessive gene which causes this colouration with the more common brown feather gene.













After finishing our walk around the island, we tried some snorkelling near the beach to test our equipment, and after a short break we headed out on zodiacs to Darwin Bay to do some proper snorkelling with the objective of seeing hammerhead sharks. These were the animals I most wanted to see during our time here, but the waters were rough and the visibility pretty awful so our chances were slim. However, after hitting the water, another boat told us that they'd seen a couple of sharks not far away. Fifteen minutes later, I got a glimpse of them. In those brief ten seconds, it seemed like their tails looked quite similar to those of thresher sharks, and the mouths behind their odd-shaped heads were zig-zag lines. Thinking about it now, it seems almost like a dream - with the naff visibility and minimal time they hung around, I kept questioning what I actually saw. I tried to get the attention of the group, but by the time they got over to me the sharks had disappeared. I hoped we'd get to see more again before we left. We took a second snorkel over to the opposite rocks where the visibility was even worse, but we did see three fur sealions sat on rocks and a pregnant sealion who joined us briefly in the water.

Like all the meals we were going to get on the Guantanamera, lunch was a buffet and was excellent: a ceviche-style mix, pasta and pesto, rice, fried banana crisps, popcorn and watermelon. Three meals in, and we both felt that the food was already better than the Yolita. We had a bit of downtime to let it digest, and then another optional snorkel which we decided to take advantage of just in case we happened to see something spectacular. We didn't - the visibility was awful.

The Prince Philip Steps was our final stop for the day, named after the privileged racist who visited here briefly some years ago. The bird life was abundant, and we got to see Nazca boobies not only incubating eggs, but also nursing newly hatched chicks. They lay two eggs, and the biggest of the offspring will invariably kill the other (often with the help of the mother) in order to get the most food, in some Game of Thrones-style fratricide. We also saw male Nazca boobies offering presents to females as part of the mating ritual, usually twigs or other nesting material. The females we saw weren't particularly happy with the gifts, perhaps holding out for some bling or maybe a bottle of Coco Petrel. Johan got pretty excited when he spotted some black birds on branches in the distance. He had managed to drop his phone in the water, so enlisted Sylvia with her crazy zoom lens to take photos; they were smooth-billed anies, a species that had been introduced to the Galapagos some years ago by humans and which rangers were trying to eliminate. They fought for food amongst the endemic species, as well as having parasites which played havoc with the ecosystem. It hadn't been known that they were on Genovesa, so spotting three of them here was pretty significant and Johan needed to tell the rangers on Isabela when we arrived there in a couple of days. Other avians spotted on the walk were the short-eared owl which, unlike our owls, are active in the day, the mockingbird, the Galapagos dove, and Johan's favourite bird: the red-billed tropicbird.








Dinner was soup (which I suspected we'd have as a starter every day), beef stew, rice, veg and a weird flan dessert thing which looked like it had been made from bread. We taught Sylvia, Paawo and Jonathan how to play the variant of whist that Richard and Sara had shown us, but none of us fancied a late night as we had a big journey over pretty choppy waters which set off after dinner, and the boat was rocking all over the place. It is apparently much worse later in the year in terms of rough seas, and given the heat is also a lot more intense, I think we had inadvertently picked a perfect time of year to visit. We were utterly exhausted after the day, and were asleep pretty much straight after we turned out the lights.