Still amazed by the sight of the large coral heads, a good hundred yards inland, we slowly and somewhat reluctantly leave the striking scene and rather fresh testimony of the forces of nature, the evidence of that great oceanic uplift of 1953, at Urbina Bay, on the western coast of Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos Islands. Our Naturalist Guide, Vanessa, has taught us a fascinating lesson of geology and the nature walk becomes an enriching educational experience too….
Now we continue down the marked trail which, on the last segment of its loop design is quite rocky, over volcanic terrain, dotted with irregular boulders and a few sandy patches. As we approach the black lava boulders which mark the northern coastline of Urbina Bay, we start finding the largest specimens of marine iguanas on the entire Archipelago. Stretched over the lava rocks, the truly pre-historic looking reptiles seem little concerned with our presence, even though some territorial males do show their discomfort with us by shaking their heads up and down, a kind of threatening signal to leave their territory. Even though ferocious looking in appearance, this ancient and unique creatures, only possible to find in the Galapagos Archipelago, are absolutely harmless and another case of being themselves living testimonies of natural evolution.
As we approach the beach, we pass quite close to two pairs of flightless cormorants, needless to say, another unique feature, exclusive to the Galapagos Islands… The fearless birds show their distinctly atrophied wings, their dramatically blue-violet eyes and the large webbed feet which allow them to be phenomenal swimmers and divers in the nutrient rich waters of western Isabela. Back at the dark sandy beach, there is time for a refreshing dip in the ocean, the water being surprisingly cool for the Equatorial location, due to the convergence of two cold oceanic currents: the Humboldt, coming from southern sub-Antarctic waters, plus the cold Cromwell Undercurrent, flowing from the west like and underwater river, which surfaces as it reaches the western waters of the Archipelago. There is a bit of a swell, so the visibility is not ideal to try some snorkeling.
The sunny and warm midday hours find us back in the comfort of our charming Santa Cruz ship, enjoying some relaxation time which includes a superb buffet lunch, where delicious salads mix with beautifully presented and garnished fishes, shrimp cocktails, Ecuadorian specialties and delicious fruit desserts. The perfect match for the meal is of course the great tasting Ecuadorian beer.
As we enjoy the midday break, the ship has almost imperceptibly sailed a short distance south, parallel to the western coast of Isabela Island and now we disembark for our afternoon visit, a prolonged boat tour at Elizabeth Bay. The rocky shoals which mark the entrance to the Bay are covered with blue-footed boobies and scores of Galapagos penguins, already one more startling view for the day…. They stand there as roosting and resting areas, from where they undertake their fish-hunting outings. Elizabeth Bay is made of an intricate maze of shallow canals and waterways, lined with tall mangroves, particularly red and mangrove types. Our Naturalist guides tell us to watch the waters and indeed, we soon start seeing small schools of amazing spotted eagle rays; golden rays; colorful parrot fishes and several white-tipped reef sharks quietly cruising the shallow and clear waters….. We keep reverent silence and the clicking of the cameras is the only sound to be heard as we admire this secluded corner where these marine creatures thrive in apparent harmony. To complete the scene, several green sea turtles also come into view, occasionally sticking their rare heads above the water surface to breathe… We spend over an hour at this fascinating location, enjoying every minute of this outstanding natural show, only possible in the magic world of the Enchanted Galapagos Islands…. Just to top a fabulous day, one of those post-card sunsets settles over the impressive volcanic mass of Fernandina Island, while we toast with an apple martini, to this World Wonder of Nature…..!!
We sadly leave the splendid sight of El Junco, the only fresh water lake in Galapagos, and descend the staircase, as Darwin’s finches busily fly from bush to bush on the forest type of vegetation, typical of the highlands of San Cristobal. We decide to walk down the road to the nearby Tortoise Rearing Center of the Galapagos National Park Service, a relatively new installation , which complements the main one in Santa Cruz, existing there for decades. Our company for the short hike is the one of noisy San Cristobal Mockingbirds, an endemic species, exclusive to this island. Having seen on the previous days the other species of mockingbirds on other islands, we can readily tell the difference and Jose gives us a complete explanation on how evolutionary processes developed such distinct features between islands, not too distant between each other.
The Giant Tortoise Reserve and Rearing Center of San Cristobal is a large surface of land, discretely walled with lava rocks, to keep it as natural as possible…. The Interpretation buildings, small and equally discrete, welcome us for an introductory talk about the purpose and objectives of the Center. The main tasks here are to rise, in semi-captivity, individuals from the unique species of San Cristobal Giant Tortoise; conduct a controlled reproduction program of them, for later repatriation to the specific (and in many cases remote) locations they originally came from in the higher and farther parts of the island and also to rise and study some specimens from other islands or from unknown origin. Outside, a natural environment of vegetation and lava rocks greets us as we start touring the complex. It just takes us a few minutes along the rocky trails to spot the first giant tortoise, this one, according to Jose, a relatively young adult (some 40 to 50 years), with the distinct carapace which identifies the species’ found on islands with not too abundant pasture or dense vegetation. Soon, more of this gentle reptiles appear, slowly wandering through the brush, some of them in search for shade on the sunny morning, others heading for the natural ponds to drink some water… Our cameras click away at every new sighting, while we learn more about the animals which are the symbol, main icon and name-givers to the Galapagos Archipelago….
The driver has already disembarked from our white pick-up, four mountain bikes, with the respective helmets, and soon we are pedaling our way, downhill, towards the south western tip of San Cristobal Island. The air feels crisp and delightfully clean, the temperature on the rise and the sun shining against a blue sky, just dotted with a few scattered white clouds, are the backdrop for our bike adventure, as we see, once again, the amazing changes between vegetation zones as you descend (or climb, according to the occasion), from the greener highlands to the transition zones and into the more arid lowlands… Endemic Scalessia and Miconia trees are replaced by grasslands and then by the ghost-like “palo santo” forests. Straight ahead from us, on the gravel road, as a desired oasis, is the blue bay which we are headed for. Sweating and sore-legged, we finally arrive to Puerto Chino, a beautiful bay of turquoise waters, framed by a golden colored beach. Frigate birds fly high above us and we can see some pelicans awkwardly plunging in shallow waters, looking for fish….
A refreshing dip on the slightly cool waters of the Pacific is the prize we get for our biking effort…. Within some three hours, we have ridden a pick-up to the highlands of San Cristobal; walked around El Junco lagoon; hiked to the Tortoise Reserve and Rearing Center and biked to the opposite end from our point of departure, to meet the sea again and feel its water and energizing power on our bare skin…. The uniqueness of Galapagos, the combination of land and sea worlds merging together, and the overall magical environment, produce on Ana Maria, Javier and myself a sheer feeling of joy, which is visibly shared by Jose, our native islander guide, who has taken us on this thrilling outing, just one of so many memorable travel experiences one can live while exploring the Enchanted Galapagos Archipelago…. And there is more to continue sharing with our readers about San Cristobal on the following weeks…..
San Cristobal is the easternmost of the Galapagos Islands, and, geographically, the closest one to continental Ecuador, 600 miles away. This is an island rich in human history as it was one of the first to be colonized by early human settlers. Since decades ago, it has been, and continues to be, the administrative and political capital of the Archipelago, a maritime province of Ecuador.
We disembark from our vessel and instantly marvel at the colorful mosaic of homes at the end of the rather narrow bay…. The sun is spreading its light in all directions over Wreck Bay, the location along which Puerto Baquerizo, the capital city is situated. Green hills frame the small and picturesque town , sort of crushing it against the coastline. As our small dinghy makes its way towards the pier, there is an amusing surprise waiting for us to see: dozens of young and adult sea lions snooze comfortably on the bows and decks of almost every one of the myriad of small boats which ply the bay…. They have made the boats their homes, as secure and pleasant resting sites, to the displeasure of boat owners and crew members, and much to the fun of tourists and visitors who cannot refrain from smiling at such an unusual sight and delight in photographing the scene.
We land on the town’s cement and rock main pier, bustling with people: tourists, local residents, fishermen, merchants and voyagers departing on the inter-island service boats. Jose, our guide, leads us through the attractive Waterfront, nicely gardened and supplied with benches to watch the beautiful bay, teeming with small fibers and “pangas”, the local name for small dinghy’s, as well as fishing boats of all sizes and several tourist vessels, equally of varied sizes and types. Across the street, a host of souvenir shops, sidewalk cafés, restaurants and bars (the later only open at night, of course), tell us of a tourism-oriented town. We will have a chance to stroll the town later. Now we are headed for the highlands of San Cristobal, and, together with Ana Maria, Javier and Jose, we board a local double-cabin pick-up, especially hired for our trip.
Leaving the village, we go past the Naval installations, where a monument to Charles Darwin honors his memory and reminds locals and visitors the importance of his five week voyage through the Archipelago, in 1835. As we ride the paved and later gravel road, we begin to get, from higher vantage lookout points, more splendid views of the village and the dark blue, boat-filled Wreck Bay, providing superb photo ops…. Passing by some rock and sand quarries, we soon enter the rich and fertile highlands, and we can see the amazing changes in vegetation….. Leaving back the more arid lowland and coastal zones, with their “palo santo” , white-barked trees, scrubs and cacti, we now start seeing a combination of green pastures and farmlands, alongside with natural forests of the native Scalessia trees and moss-covered larger trees, typical of the higher and more humid areas. We are headed directly to our first stop: El Junco Lake, the only fresh water lake on the entire Archipelago. We must disembark from our vehicle and walk uphill to reach the lagoon, which actually fills the inside of an almost perfectly circular ancient crater. As we climb up a wooden staircase trail, especially built by the Galapagos National Park, we see our first San Cristobal Island Mockingbirds, an endemic species, exclusive to this island, notoriously distinct in coloration, streaks and bill shape and size, from their cousin species, found on other islands. They put on their own show of songs, mocking sounds and harassing other birds, mainly Darwin’s finches, while Jose makes his best efforts to explain to us the differences in the beak sizes and shapes as well as color tones of the finches, adapted each one to their respective feeding niches, a perfect example of evolution, a fact which fascinated Darwin on his historic visit to the islands..
We reach the summit of the sloping hill, aided by the man-made stairway, and there unfolds before our eyes, the magnificence of El Junco, a geological mystery in itself, the sole fresh water body on the archipelago, filling a rocky crater. The sight is impressive, the surrounding vegetation unique and the lake shines with a metallic-blue color under the morning sun…. Darwin’s finches chirp nosily while mockingbirds to their share and us, human visitors, click our cameras. Above us, an unusual sight, not commonly seen in the rest of the islands, a beautiful white and black osprey (a fish-eating, falcon-type of land bird), hovers over the lake…. A new surprise is still to come…out of nowhere, far from the coastline and the sea, two male frigate birds appear and start making acrobatic sky dives to the lake’s surface. We learn from Jose that this is a technique used by these sea birds, to cleanse their feathers from the salinity they collect on their sea-bound life. And that is how things go in Galapagos, unique situations, a living laboratory of nature and magic moments for the visitors…. The story will continue next week, with a second part…..
Mid-morning sun rays filter through the thin layer of clouds cascading over the southern part of Sierra Negra’s rim. The visual effect is a blend of mysterious, magic and downright splendid.. We stand there, absolutely fascinated by the awesome view in front of our eyes: the world’s second largest volcanic caldera and one of the five superb shield volcanoes which form the largest of the Galapagos Islands, Isabella… After the initial awe shock, then it is time for frantic picture taking, to capture all the magnificence of the rim, the caldera, the fauna and flora… Ramiro and Vanessa, our Naturalist Guides, patiently wait for our emotions and picture taking to be done, to begin telling us a new set of fantastic information about the geology of the place, its ecosystems and the unique animal and plant life that inhabits the volcano’s interior and exterior.
Now we start walking over a marked, narrow, dirt trail, along the eastern side of Sierra Negra’s rim, heading north, and keeping our eyes and senses wide awake and open to look at some unique plants, like the endemic Scalessias; check out some Darwin’s finches flying around the shrubbery and trying to find, unsuccessfully, the reclusive and rare Galapagos rail…. To our left, the west… Beyond the other extreme of Sierra Negra’s rim we can see the summit of Fernandina, the westernmost of all the islands. We keep on admiring the immensity of the caldera down below, flat and mysterious, wondering if there are still active vents which could erupt anytime…. As we continue our hike we find a mid-sized and relatively young Galapagos Giant Tortoise, of the unique species which inhabits only Sierra Negra volcano… The carapace is elongated, flattish and neither dome-shaped nor saddle-back shaped… an intermediate variety…. The tortoise (he/she….??), we can’t quite tell because of the size (we could by observing the tail on larger adult individuals), looks at us with some caution and slowly drifts towards the bushes east of the trail… The pre-historic looking reptile swiftly withdraws the neck and face inside the front part of its carapace and hisses rather loudly when one of the group members gets a bit too close, trying to take a picture….
As we approach the northern third of the rim, looking east and downhill, we suddenly find a complex of parasitic volcanic cones, mainly the “spatter cone” types, some of them fairly large and impressive with their barren surroundings covered by fresh lava flows, clearly denouncing the occurrence of recent eruptions. We turn right and start descending towards the area, aiming to reach, as (safely) close as possible, the famous Volcan Chico (“Small Volcano”), a parasite cone on the eastern flanks of Sierra Negra, which has produced several eruptions on the last decades. Now we descend over volcanic gravel over an irregular terrain full of lava flows… one can imagine the force and fury of nature when these awesome events take place…
Finally we reach Volcan Chico… the smallish yet threatening-looking crater wide open and covered with layers of rusty yellow materials: high concentrations of sulfur… thin clouds of steaming vapor emerge from the crater and there is an intense smell of rotten eggs…. It is the sulfurous materials again… We are cautioned by the guides to be careful as the irregular terrain could lead to a nasty fall over the rocky materials… The place is impressive, some sort of rare beauty triggers on us the emotion of being close the earth’s womb…. A strange mix of spiritual and fearful feelings, a touch of proximity with an inferno….. Altogether, a fantastic experience….
After the correspondent photo session, capturing the dramatic views of the place, we make our way back to the crater rim and find a beautiful meadow, right under a large “pega-pega” tree… The midday sunshine is barely tempered by some scattered cloudiness. We sit down to relax, while our ship’s staff, who had climbed after us, is there to set up campaign tables and serve us a great outdoor snack, complete with salads, sandwiches, desert and refreshments…. A touch of class on the summit of a remote Galapagos volcano, includes the offer of cold white wine brought up inside a cooler…. The Enchanted Islands are full of surprises and magic moments and this expedition was certainly a superb sample of that…..
Tuesday morning. The Reception area aboard Metropolitan Touring’s Galapagos flagship, the M/V Santa Cruz is crowded with tourists from the United States, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Brazil and Ecuador. We are all eager to disembark for one more day of discovery in the fascinating Galapagos Islands, and this morning’s outing promises new and exciting emotions…..
The group of the Dolphins is first to disembark and there we go, Anita, Daniel and myself with a dozen other travelers from three continents. Vanessa is our naturalist guide. She is a native islander and loves her work and her splendid birthplace.. Marco, the first officer, oversees from the top of the gangway the disembarkation process. Each one of us is provided with orange colored life vests. The friendly crew exudes happiness and exchanges amiable phrases with each one of the explorers, as they help us getting safely into the black Zodiacs, waiting alongside the ship. We must embark and disembark totally “free-handed”. The crew brings down our day packs and other objects aboard the landing craft, locally called “pangas” and we set off towards the small yet beautifully strange island of Bartolome (or Batholomew, as originally baptized by 17th century British corsairs)…
The sun, still climbing from the eastern horizon, somehow blurs with its brightness the volcanic landscape in front of us. We reach the rocky shoreline and Carlos skillfully docks the “panga” along a small and simple lava and cement jetty. With the aid of the crew and Vanessa we land and rapidly move away from the little dock, to allow the rest to make their way on shore…
As we start walking on a progressively steeper gradient, there is no question as to why the scenery of this island is called the “moonscape”… To our right, vast fields of grayish volcanic ash, only dotted with a bizarre matt plant, the endemic “tikilia”, provide us with a living testimony of how volcanic materials begin to be colonized by plants, adapted to the harshest conditions…
We climb slowly while Vanessa teaches us a magisterial lesson of geology… Actually the island of Bartolome is a true open textbook of geology and volcanism. The views in front of our eyes get more and more dramatic… Ash fields, spatter (explosion ) cones, tuff (compacted ash) cones and all lengths and widths of “lava tubes” capture our attention. As we get higher, we seem to have been transported to the surface of the moon…Yes, this splendid sunny morning we are not on earth, we are walking on the moon, on a piece of moon, magically brought to the remotest corner of our planet, on the Enchanted Galapagos Islands of Ecuador…..
As we reach the summit, we find, in front of our eyes, the most popular of Galapagos postcards… but this one is not on paper, this is the real thing… the yellowish crescent-shaped beach in the center of the island and, to the southwestern end, the superbly majestic Pinnacle Rock… To the east, the entire island is littered with all kinds of volcanic cones, a true moonscape… It is all like a dream come true, we cheer and shout, the cameras click frantically, capturing the spectacular sight, one never to be forgotten, one that symbolizes the uniqueness of these fantastic islands….. And we are just half way through the morning… there is more to come….