This morning we leave Quito under the always luminous equatorial sun, almost hiding behind its intense glow, a dramatically blue sky. We are heading north east of the city, along the Simon Bolivar Avenue, Quito’s Western Ring Road. The view towards the east shows us two of the Andean colossus, the Cayambe and Antisana Volcanoes, neatly presiding over the mountainous landscape, with their stunning cover of perpetual snows, as they rise well over 19.000 feet above sea-level. Going past city suburbs and colorful neighborhoods, we soon reach the point where the Ring Road yields with the legendary Pan-America Highway. From here, we start descending from Quito’s near 9.000 feet of elevation, to the fertile valley of Guayllabamba, a near sub-tropical patch, stuck between the Andean flanks. At the entrance to the village of Guayllabamba, we take a secondary road, winding uphill for a short distance, until we reach Quito’s Zoo, a little over thirty minutes from the city’s center.
At the Zoo’s gateway, the Director and Curator, a prominent Ecuadorian ornithologist, biologist, writer, photographer, painter and good-old friend, Juan-Manuel, greets us into the premises and accompanies us during the visit. The Zoo, inaugurated in 1999, stands over twelve acres of natural terrain and its administration is operated by the Quito Zoological Society. In spite of not really being within Quito’s urban limits, it is officially the City’s Zoo. The design of the installation is very natural and creates a perfect blend of comfort and non-caged captivity for its animal residents, as well as a pleasant experience for the visitors. Juan-Manuel explains to us that, in addition of caring for the more than 130 species of animals found at the Zoo; it features a Veterinary Center, a Research and Investigation Center, a small Cafeteria and picnic area plus a Volunteer’s Program to aid in the study and care of the varied creatures, some of them endangered species, which inhabit the Zoo.
The visit to the Zoo is like a pleasant walk through all of Ecuador’s diverse ecosystems, nicely recreated, both for the animals comfort and for the visitors’ enjoyment. The trails recreate the diverse habitats with their own flora: native trees, bushy bromeliads, rare orchids and the whole array of vegetation types, representing each one of the country’s natural areas. The enclosures are ample, natural and provide each animal or group of them with plenty of space to move around without stress. We thus embark on an imaginary walk through the Amazon rainforests, the wet tropical forests, the Andean highlands, the cloud forests, coastal wetlands and even bits of the Galapagos Islands. Along the way we can observe unique Amazonian ocelots and jaguars; the Andean puma; deer; two-toed sloths; varieties of monkeys; rare amphibians and reptiles and, of course, some specimens of the legendary Galapagos giant tortoises.
One of the highlights of the visit is one of Ecuador’s symbols of native fauna: the awesome spectacled bear, an endangered species, cared here with professionalism and love. Another icon of Ecuador, actually the nation’s bird symbol, the Andean condor, is also found here, where a breeding program has already produced young condors who will later return to populate the country’s high Andean peaks and roam its blue skies….. Juan-Manuel allows us a careful glimpse at the youngest newly born condor chick, hiding from the morning sun, under the watchful eyes of one of the majestic parent birds. A new exhibit of the Zoo is its “Land of Birds” Aviary, where the visitors can see, at very close range, without fences of cages, a host of avian fauna: beautiful macaws and parrots; startling toucans; wild ducks, mountain partridges and many more. The well displayed informative and interactive panels complement the educational spirit of the visit to the Zoo, to make it a two-hour magic experience in contact with Ecuador’s superb fauna and flora. As our host underlines once more the extraordinary biodiversity of Ecuador, emphasizing on the number of species per square mile; we bid farewell to Quito’s Zoo, an unforgettable experience, not to be missed.
Before heading back to downtown Quito, we look at Guayllabamba town’s famous stalls which display extremely colorful local fruits like the “chirimoyas”, avocados and citrus fruits, which whet our appetite and we decide to have lunch at a local restaurant where we enjoy Quito and possibly Ecuador’s best and most famous “locro de papas” (the traditional potato soup with cheese and avocados), one of the nation’s most famous ancestral dishes. It has been a relaxed an extremely pleasant tour, filled with learning experiences and much enjoyment for the heart and soul….
After having enjoyed a real feast of marine activity during the early morning while sailing the magic waters of the Bolivar Straight, between Isabela and Fernandina Islands, on the western extreme of the Galapagos Isles; we are now orderly disembarking in small parties of twelve persons each, to be ferried from the ship’s anchorage to the landing place, located slightly south of the geographic center of Isabela’s western coastline. The place we are headed to visit is Urbina Bay, a fab yet not very much visited location that, as we approach, looks more and more prehistoric to our human eyes…
Carlos, the boatman, skillfully maneuvers our Zodiac for a beach landing, while Vanessa, our Naturalist guide provides us with the first instructions. Soon we are disembarking on a dark grayish beach, evidently of pure volcanic origin. With water almost at knee-deep level, we make our way to the slightly tilted beach, carrying in our hands our walking shoes, day-packs and cameras. We are instructed to proceed to the far end of the beach, to sit down in the dark sand, make use of our beach towels to clean up and dry our feet and legs, and slip into our trekking shoes. The bay is narrow and crescent-shaped, flanked by pitch black lava rocks and a few salty bushes and coastal scrubs. The sky is deep blue with just a few scattered white clouds travelling north pushed by the southern winds. Some pelicans, frigate birds and blue-footed boobies busily fly across the bay to complete this nature painting…..
We begin our walk, following a flat trail clearly marked by the Galapagos National Park, to keep the visitors within a low-impact path… Vanessa, our lively and knowledgeable Naturalist Guide, begins by telling us that the place where we are standing was under the sea surface a little over sixty years ago… Thus, it is a marine uplift, occurred due to volcanic and seismic activity, in 1953… Awesome news already, which will come alive with some amazing discoveries further inland… As we march inland, the vegetation is abundant with low shrubs, brightly colored yellow “muyuyo” flowers and some prickly-pear cacti. We are on the lookout for land iguanas or, with luck, a giant tortoise or two. It is a lucky day: not far from the path’s start, we do encounter three good-sized land iguanas, their yellow color contrasting with the rusty brown and greenish-gray of the rest of their bodies… They idly watch us go by, comfortably tucked on a shady part, right by the trail, next to some cacti and what evidently are their nesting (and hiding) burrows. They stare at us with as much curiosity as we have for them, while cameras frantically click away.
Soon after, the second surprise arrives, a young giant tortoise, not very large in size, appears slowly walking towards the trail… Vanessa asks us to watch carefully the reptile’s carapace, clearly dome-shaped, a characteristic of those species which inhabit areas with abundant, low-growing vegetation. Accommodating enough, the remarkable creature allows for a new photo session, where many of us have the chance to get pictures just by the prehistoric-looking animal. Just another normal day in the enchanted world of the Galapagos Islands…. The lowlands’ dry forest teems with hundreds of chirping Darwin’s finches, icons of evolution, sporting their distinctly different shapes and sizes of beaks, well adapted to diverse types of food. As we continue along the trail, some rocky lava boulders begin challenging a bit our motion. We reach a sandy meadow where, yet one more stunning surprise awaits: large, semi-petrified coral heads, located a long distance away from the shore, stand there as silent testimony of the massive 1953 uplift which raised from the bottom of the ocean some of its marine life, now exposed to view on land… Equally petrified shells, tubular worms and other marine creatures which prove the underwater origin of the now terrestrial scenery complete the scene. It has been just one hour of incredible encounters and we are just two-thirds down the loop trail, admiring the fantastic features which seem to be just current characteristics on the awesome realms of the Galapagos Islands. The last part of this amazing day will be told on our next issue…….
The morning finds our beautiful and comfortable ship, the cozy Santa Cruz, cruising slowly the extremely calm waters of the Bolivar Channel which separates the islands of Isabela and Fernandina, on the Archipelago’s most pristine and westernmost end. After having had a bountiful buffet breakfast, I stand next to the bridge, just admiring the stunning beauty of Isabela Island’s immensity, with its five large volcanoes interconnected by large and dramatic lava fields. To the west, Fernandina Island also stands majestically, with its gigantic solo volcano dominating the scene. I cannot help but to think of myself being transported by an elegant time-tunnel, back into a prehistoric world, eons ago…..
Suddenly, a first show of the day is provided by the extraordinary nature of the islands, no wonder dubbed centuries ago as “the Enchanted”: hundreds, if not thousands of blue-footed boobies start “bombarding” de Ocean, sky-diving like kamikazes, their bodies elongated like perfect darts, dashing in forty five degree angles, straight into the water. We are watching a “feeding frenzy” of these sea-birds, chasing a massive school of fish travelling below the surface of the Channel’s waters, extremely rich in nutrients. Pelicans, brown noddy-terns and swallow-tailed gulls also join the frenzy, creating a visual impact on us humans, just beyond words….
Ramiro, Vanessa, Carlos and Lola, part of the ship Naturalist guides’ staff rush into the forward part of the deck, to explain to us, startled visitors, the ecological features and characteristics of the amazing scene we are watching, as they help us identify bird species and alert us to watch for possible new surprises. And they are right: just a few minutes later we can see a mass of white splashes dotting the dark blue waters, straight ahead of the ship, coming from the south. The Naturalists tell us a large school of dolphins is approaching our ship. Soon we are surrounded by more than a hundred bottle-nosed dolphins, possibly also attracted by the same large school of fish which the birds were after, while travelling the Channel. The dolphins compete in speed against our vessel, leaping and doing all kinds of acrobatic maneuvers which raise inevitable roars and cheers from the passengers, fascinated by this striking performance, just to begin the day….
Lola points out to the west and some of us can catch glimpses of a sailfish, cruising the Canal’s waters, just below the surface, with its tall, mast-shaped dorsal fin sticking out like a bizarre underwater creature. More to the north we can see the spouts of what must be at least two whales. The guides engage on a lively discussion, speculating which type of whales they may be, because they are a bit distant. Captain Eduardo slows down the ship’s engines and decides to make a long and wide, 360 degree loop, trying to get closer to the whales, to pamper us with yet one more highlight on this marine-rich morning starter… While the leviathans are a bit elusive or they just want to play hide-and-seek with us; we do get at least one short yet close view which enables all the naturalists to agree upon the species: the distinct lateral and diagonal blow of the spout is more than likely one of a sperm whale…..
With all the excitement going on in the water, we had forgotten we still have a morning outing on land to undertake. As the Captain is now carefully steering the ship to its anchorage, the deck officers organize the deploying of the vessel’s Zodiac dinghies; the lateral gangways and stairways and preparing everything so that, as soon as the vessel drops anchor and is securely positioned, we can start the disembarking procedure. Time to make sure we have our walking shoes, swimsuits, day-packs, cameras and all we need for the morning’s expedition which will take us to one of the less visited yet truly fantastic visitor sites: Urbina Bay, on the very center of western Isabela Island…. The rest of this day’s story will continue on the next issue….
October 8, 2011
Just before starting our descent from the highlands back to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, Jose gives to Paulina and me a try of the deliciously sweet oranges of San Cristobal, just growing by the hundreds on colorful trees, along the road. Almost by the sunset hour we visit the southern shore behind the port city, to watch the high waves, great for surfers, and a few sea lions basking on the lava rocks. Galapagos sunsets are unique and what we watch from the Hotel’s terrace, at one end of the picturesque town, is a magnificent sight of a flaming red disc, plunging into the blue sea, painting the sky and land with a rainbow of bright colors.
As we leisurely stroll along the attractive Waterfront Promenade of Puerto Baquerizo, we are startled and then amused by watching how sea lions make their way from the sea onto the Promenade and select their preferred wooden bench on the Park, as their comfortable bed for the night, a scene not to be forgotten, showing us the convivial harmony between man and these wild yet totally unafraid, (not at all domesticated), marine mammals. And I think, this is exactly what Galapagos is all about… unique, magic, serene… a place where sea lions freely choose a city park’s bench for the night while the human inhabitants and visitors pass by, enjoying the fresh and beautifully moonlit night.
Jose and his wife join Paulina and me for dinner at a popular local eatery by the shore, with al fresco seating. While we enjoy superb fresh fish, catch of the day, rice with shrimps and cold beers, conversation flows around the myriad of stories, past and present, from the fascinating human history of the islands and particularly of San Cristobal. As we walk back to the Hotel, the sea lions are already snoozing, respected, unbothered and in style, over the waterfront park’s benches. Meanwhile, a brightly yellow huge disc, a full moon, is positioned over Punta Carola and its lighthouse, at the eastern extreme of Wreck Bay, reflecting magic aces of light over the dark and totally calm waters of the beautiful Bay….
After a good night’s sleep, our breakfast, served on the terrace, overlooking the bay and a few feet away from the sea, is shared with dozens of Darwin’s finches who do not hesitate to hop over and across our table, picking up bread crumbs and an occasional bit of cheese. I give an amazed Paulina an improvised lesson on why and how are the different shapes and sizes of the finches’ beaks, fitted for different kinds of feeding habits and food sources (other than bread crumbs when tourists or local residents pamper them with easy meals).
Jose arrives to take us on his jeep to the entrance of the National Park’s Interpretation Center, passing by the pretty coralline Playa Mann’s sandy beach. We get off the vehicle for a walk on a natural trail, hopping over some boulders, to reach the secluded and spectacularly sparkling white sandy beach at Punta Carola. The beach is covered with sea lion families, large bulls noisily patrolling their territories; large female moms feeding their pups and young individuals frolicking on land and in the water…. The white beach is lined with a green frame of mangroves and lowland saline vegetation, the typical salt-bushes. As it begins to get warm, some of the sea lions look for shade under large manzanillo trees and mangroves lining the beach. Two sea turtles idly swim and seem to just placidly sway back and forth with the gentle waves that wash in and out of the beach. At the opposite end of the beach, Jose shows us the way to the new trail, a comfortable and well hidden wooden trail, leading to Cerro Tijeretas (Frigate Birds Hill). This is not the breeding season, so there are no males with brightly inflated red pouches, but an important colony of these large sea birds is found here, perched on the palo santo and other trees and bushes. As we climb higher, the view becomes more splendid and we can see the picturesque town of Puerto Baquerizo, somewhat “squeezed” between the beautiful crescent-shaped bay and the green hills behind. Chirping finches, mockingbirds and flycatchers capture our attention. A pair of Galapagos yellow warblers steal the show as they tree-hop courting, the male sporting a distinct rusty-red dot on its forehead. All of these pure nature episodes are taking place just minutes away from a human settlement… less than an hour later we are sitting at the airport ready to board a jetliner back to mainland Ecuador….. Such is the magic and uniqueness of the Enchanted Galapagos Islands….
September 23, 2011
Our modern Airbus jetliner swiftly pierces the clouds and unveils the starling view of turquoise and blue coves, dotted with sparkling sandy beaches along the northern coast of San Cristobal, the easternmost island of the famous Galapagos Archipelago. Soon I can recognize, from the air, the small “Lobos” (sea lions) Islet and farther out, just anchored like a giant aircraft carrier in mid-ocean, the superb silhouette of the imposing Kicker Rock. We make our final landing approach directly over the placid and crescent-shaped Wreck Bay, packed with mostly small tourism and fishing boats. As the plane touches down on the runway, and turns towards the small terminal’s platform, a pleasant sensation of uniqueness invades me as every time I arrive in Galapagos….
After complying with the National Park’s arrival procedures, Paulina and I exit the arrivals hall to meet a smiling Jose, our host and guide for this two day exploration of his island, San Cristobal. We will base ourselves on the still quaint and attractive town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, less bustling than the highly touristic Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. As we ride across town, five minutes away from the airport, we admire the pretty and picturesque Waterfront, nicely designed to frame the coastline which harbors the pretty azure bay.
After settling at the small but attractive and comfortable Hotel, with nice views of the bay and also of the green hills behind the city; Jose invites us to have a “galapagueño” lunch on a small and rustic restaurant, where a delicious warm “sancocho” soup, with an unbeatably tasty fish base and pieces of green plantain and corn greets us. For main course I choose a simple yet fabulously fresh grilled “albacore” fish, just seasoned with some herbs and accompanied by vegetables and the always present bowl of white rice. A freshly squeezed tangerine juice quenches our thirst, while we enjoy lively conversation.
Now we are headed to the highlands of San Cristobal, along a paved road. First we go past a rock quarry and then it is the lower vegetation zone with its “palo santo” trees and thorny scrubs vegetation. Less than thirty minutes from the main port city, we reach El Progreso, a historic town which, over a century ago, in the early 1900’s, was an emporium of large scale sugar cane production and the source of many legends and stories. The town nowadays is semi-abandoned but shows the remnants of the old constructions which, with some restoration investment, could become a great tourism attraction. We continue on, diverting from the main road, towards the western part of the highlands, where the vegetation becomes lush and green, just dotted with occasional pastures where some domestic cattle graze. We arrive at “La Soledad”, a quaint plateau with a small school, an ample courtyard and plenty of nature. Jose leads us across a nature trail, teeming with native flora as well as some introduced plants like the devastating “mora” (a variety of raspberry). Hundreds of Darwin’s finches ply the area and let us admire the astonishingly varied shapes and sizes of their beaks, a fact that also startled Charles Darwin on his 1835 visit. A curious Galapagos flycatcher perches on a tree branch and watches us as unusual creatures in his realm…. The trail leads to a natural observatory from where we can admire all the splendor of San Cristobal’s northern coast.
Now we climb the stone stairway leading to an abandoned church-shrine, fully made of lava rocks with a large rock cross carved on its façade. Peeking inside we discover a Holy Child image presiding from the rocks a solitary temple, while the wind blows with a howling sound. The stairway leads further to a smaller (and higher) shrine, surrounded by a terrace, which evidently was built as an observatory. The view from there is stunning: to the north, the coastline of San Cristobal with its white beaches and coves, Lobos Islet and the famous Kicker Rock with the blue Pacific Ocean as a magnificent background. To the south and west, we can see the rolling hills of San Cristobal’s highlands. It is a sunny (yet a bit windy) afternoon and the place is perfect for inspirational conversation, interrupted only by the singing of the finches and mockingbirds. Sadly we have to leave this placid and paradisiacal place and begin our descent back to Puerto Baquerizo. The story will continue on the next issue….