Winter in the Tropics
The exiting tourists at the San Cristbal airport sport sunburns. The snorkelers have burned backsides, the sandal-wearers have burned feet, and nearly everyone, from young scuba divers to retiree cruise patrons, shows evidence of being touched by the tropical sun. The incoming travelers looked pretty pale in comparison. It’s winter in the tropics, except the word “winter” has no meaning here.
San Cristobal Island hosts one of two airports in the Galapagos Islands, at Puerto Baquerizo. The other is at Baltra Island, near Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. There are four settlements in the Galapagos, supported by a bit of farming, some fishing and a flourishing tourist industry.
My group of 17 birdwatchers and naturalists were among the last to take advantage of a whirlwind one-week tour of all of the major islands before the Ecuadorian government’s new rules take effect. We counted 14 tour boats in one port and more at two of the major ports each day, while following several around in carefully sequenced visits to selected landing areas. The government’s new rules are going to spread out the tourist traffic over a larger area, reducing the daily pressure on many of the favorite sightseeing spots.
Creatures allow tourists to walk right up to them. Something has happened not only to the endemic species of lizards, iguanas, sea lions and birds that makes them hardly notice that hundreds of tourists are walking right by them, or over them, daily; the same thing happens with migratory birds. Yellow-crowned night herons, which would flush if I approached within 50 yards in Wyoming, just hang with you in the Galapagos. You hardly need a telephoto lens. I don’t think it’s the water; nearly all water everywhere is seawater.
There’s something about being serenaded by the songs of the yellow warblers while snorkeling with sea turtles, penguins, rays and tropical fish. And yes I burned several parts of my Wyoming-white anatomy.
Why go to the Galapagos Islands? It’s 70 to 80 degrees in January, excepting occasionally hotter temperatures on some of the bare lava islands. Isn’t that enough reason?
Birders want to go there because even though there are not hundreds of species to be seen, there are many which can be seen only there. The Galapagos Penguin and the Flightless Cormorant are two examples.
Divers and snorkelers go to experience clean clear water filled with sea turtles, sharks, rays, fish and underwater scenery. One can fly to one of the ports and hire dive boats on a day rate and stay in the hotels, or one can book a slot on a diving boat for a tour of the islands.
Others go for the views, the sea breeze, the incredible abundance of unusual wildlife (giant tortoises, marine iguanas, nesting colonies of seabirds), the lava formations, natural history lectures and a pampered shipboard lifestyle.
Our spotless boat, operated by Ecoventura, was crewed by nine multi-talented people, catering to 17 guests. The meals offered a welcome selection of high-protein, low-carb entrees with plenty of fruits and vegetables available. Sounds virtuous. The wine with dinner was free and the beer was cheap; so much for virtue. Everything on the boat was flawless and professional.
All sorties from the boat were by Zodiac rafts. Safety was obsessive job No. 1 with these folks, much more so than other boats we observed.
The only complaint I had was that we were often rushed. Government regulations allow each boat only a certain amount of onshore time at many landings, particularly those places where a lot of birds were nesting. Leisurely photography was interrupted by the guides, who were pleasant always but often insistent. This will change with the new regulations, which will require the tour boats to take two weeks to do a tour which we did in a week.
We had two naturalist guides, both native Ecuadorians, who had studied up on everything; history, botany, evolution, ecology, courtship and breeding behaviors. They knew their stuff. I confess I wandered off frequently in search of photo opportunities; I took about 2,700 photos during one day birding on the mainland and seven days in the islands.
Ecuador uses U.S. currency; they seem to especially like the Sacajawea dollars. Some of the tourist-oriented shops in the towns offered kitsch but many had some nice local and Ecuadorian art work which is worth having.
The volcanic geology is worth the trip. The whole big deal with these islands is that they were never connected to any of the continents, which distinguishes them from islands like Madagascar and Tasmania. These islands are of purely volcanic origin, lying 600 miles west of Ecuador and not close to anywhere else. Some islands are old enough to have enough weathering to have soil adequate for agriculture, whereas many are just too raw for much more than cactus. In many places there is good sand, in some there is black sand, and in some there are coral beaches created by decay of coral reefs which were uplifted by volcanic action and destroyed. Walking among the coral bits is, I am told, equivalent to several expensive spa sessions in terms of manicuring one’s feet.
Lava tubes abound, created by lava flows melting their way through existing lava beds as the magma rushed to the sea. There are places where the crashing surf pushes water hundreds of feet through these tubes and crevices, creating spectacular blowholes and sinkholes. On Santa Cruz Island one can walk for hundreds of yards through a monster lava tube, only to greet monster tortoises upon emerging.
Towering lava cliffs afford abundant opportunities for nesting seabirds. All is not Peaceable Kingdom here; the Galapagos Hawks strafe the cliff nests seeking to panic gulls and tropic birds into flight, leaving nests vulnerable.
More photographs are coming with the next installment.
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