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Other photos of the Galapagos
Baltra Island; Darwin Research Station & Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island; Espanola, Santa Maria, Santa Cruz,
Baltra, Rabida, Fernandina, San Salvador, Isabela, Santa Cruz
The dark shape darted straight at our snorkel masks, veering away at the last possible moment. Here it came again. And again...turning, swerving and passing us just out of reach. A sleek young sea lion was playing with us! To our utter delight, 500 years of human contact haven't been long enough for the creatures of the Galapagos Islands to evolve a fear of humans.
Marine iguanas captured Joan's heart. These ugly, Godzilla-like creatures are a prime example of outstanding evolutionary accomplishment. Thousands of years ago, green iguanas who lived in fresh water rivers in South American jungles inadvertently floated on logs or tangles of vegetation 600 miles from the mainland to the Galapagos. Finding nothing to eat on the barren volcanic lava of those early islands, in a spectacular bit of adaptation they learned to dive as deeply as 40 feet into salt water and graze on algae along the ocean floor. Over time, they turned black like the lava rocks they live on, to absorb and retain heat after their cold ocean immersion. They have dragon-backs, long toes and extrude salt by sneezing it out their nostrils - and onto their spiky heads, where it forms a weird helmet of salt crystals. (A less admirable aspect of marine iguana behavior: the males do not court the females, but rape them. This must be accomplished quickly, so the males have two penises - one on either side of their long tails.)
Over the millenia, the various creatures that washed up on the shores of the Galapagos had to fit themselves into any available biological niche. Green iguanas that arrived too late to find room in the algae beds along the shore hauled themselves several miles up to the hot, dry inland areas - where they evolved into three-foot yellowish land dragons that live on prickly cactus fruit. To escape the heat, they tunnel as much as 18 feet into the ground. (This guy was so curious about the camera that he kept crawling right at Lou, who had to keep backing up to get enough distance for a photo. Nice shirt cuffs, but he needs a nail job.)
Lou's favorite Galapagos experience was swimming with several giant green Pacific sea turtles that flapped gracefully along just below him as he snorkeled. He swam with them for several minutes, watching them munch on algae along the rocky cliffs. These turtles can reach 200 pounds and live as long as 150 years. The females swim around the Pacific Ocean until they reach sexual maturity at 52 years (!), then copulate for up to six hours (!!) The female is larger than the male, as she must swim with him on her back during this long copulation - after which she is often willing to find another male and go at it for six more hours (!!!) (Any account of evolution necessarily includes a lot of sex. Even the cactus look phallic. Our apologies.)
BOOBIES & OTHER BIRDS
The blue-footed boobies did their charming mating dance right next to us. Necks stretched sky-ward and wings spread, they lift one bright blue foot after another in a stately dance. After mating, the female creates a "virtual" nest on bare ground by shitting guano in a precise circular pattern and the pair takes turns shielding the eggs from the hot sun.
The legendary albatross is exciting to all who have read Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. With a wingspan of seven to eight feet, they are the largest birds in the Galapagos. The albatross spend April to December in the Galapagos for breeding and raising their chicks - we watched parents taking turns incubating an egg near a trail we were on - and live the rest of the year at the South Pole. The fastest long-distance flier of all birds, they can go 8,000 miles in just five days!
Hernan told us that the Galapagos hawk could read fine newsprint at a distance of 1500 feet - IF he could read. Frigate birds steal their meals from other birds - they were named after pirates' armed frigate ships. The males establish a territory and puff up their red pouch to attract a female. The females in this photo are checking out a male - trying to decide if he's worth the trouble or not. They don't appear to be very impressed.
The flightless cormorants are partway through an evolutionary process from air to sea. Like ordinary cormorants they still have wings (sort of), but like penguins they've given up flying to become superb swimmers. We couldn't help smiling as we watched them flapping to dry their pathetic feathered appendages.
We snorkeled over a sleeping shark (Hernan calls them "vegetarian" sharks because they don't bother humans), and from our panga watched an incredible school of 60-70 golden manta rays flapping gracefully just beneath the surface of a glassy lagoon. AND we saw a red-lipped batfish. (What more could anyone ask?)
Finally, we visited James Island (below) where the Russell Crowe film Master and Commander was shot, crossed the Equator (but didn't see any line) and happily disembarked after a fine cruise through these "enchanted isles."
From the Galapagos we flew back to Quito, then headed into the jungles of Ecuador: AMAZONIA
DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS
In contrast, the Coral lived up to its brochure promises. A classic white motor yacht, it holds 20 passengers, eight crew and two guides. (We had only one guide, since the boat wasn't full.) We were comfortable on this well-appointed, teak-paneled, air-conditioned vessel, ate well, enjoyed the other passengers, went to the best islands, saw everything we wanted to see and had an excellent guide. The best boats carry Naturalist III guides, who must have a university degree in marine biology and speak several languages. Having a really good naturalist to explain the Galapagos is 80% of the reason to pay for a first class boat. Our guide was a professional scuba diver who spoke four languages fluently (Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and English) and was both charming and very knowledgeable about the creatures, plant life and geology we encountered. The rest of the crew of eight (captain, bar/dining room steward, panga drivers, engine room guys and cabin steward) were friendly, competent - and spoke almost no English. We had fun trying our fractured Spanish on them, which they good-naturedly pretended to understand.
LENGTH OF CRUISE: Take the full 8-day cruise (actually 7 nights) rather than a 3- or 4-day cruise. It doesn't make sense to spend big bucks going all the way down to Ecuador, then paying for a flight to the Galapagos and the park entry fee of $100, only to stop short of taking the full cruise. This is one of those "trips of a lifetime." Go for it!
PACKAGE TOURS: We didn't take the all-inclusive tour (transportation, hotel before and after in Quito) but traveled independently - booking the Coral through efficient and friendly Adventure Life, which (incongruously) is located in Missoula, Montana. www.adventure-life.com/galapagos/yachts/corals.html Because we were traveling in low season (May 1-June 15), we paid a reduce rate and the airfare from Quito to the Galapagos was also less expensive. Our cabin (#9) was one of the smaller cabins; it had comfortable bunk beds, a built-in dresser and a small private bathroom with hot shower. The cabin was big enough to hold our backpacks and still leave room for one of us to get dressed - sufficient space because we weren't there much. You also can book a complete tour package on the Coral or several other first-class ships through Adventure Life.
If you are 50 or over, you can take an eight-day tour on the Coral with Eldertreks, which is not connected with Elder Hostel, but a friendly, well-run Canadian company specializing in small group adventure tours for older travelers: www.eldertreks.com
SIDE EXCURSION: Some package tours to the Galapagos offer an optional add-on tour to Peru’s famed Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. If you have the time and money, be sure to do this. The ruins are easily reached by train from Cusco and are accessible to almost all, regardless of fitness level. The more energetic can make a four-day trek to the ruins (30 days advance registration required.) Whether going by train or on foot, independent travelers can arrange tours through Cusco-based Enigma: www.enigmaperu.com/english
HOTEL: Most tours of the Galapagos leave from Quito, Ecuador. Cafe Cultura is a charming, secure mid-range hotel in this city. www.cafecultura.com A less expensive option is clean, comfortable Casa Helbling: www.casahelbling.de Both hotels have English speaking staff.
SAFETY: The Galapagos Islands of Ecuador have to be one of the world's safest places to visit. The only potential difficulty is getting to the Galapagos, since it involves going through Quito, Ecuador where the high level of poverty has raised the level of crime. While travelers should be alert for potential pickpockets and bag-snatchers and use caution in big cities such as Quito at night (i.e., take radio taxis rather than walk), most tourists don’t have problems. By reserving a Quito hotel room in advance and arranging for the hotel to send someone to meet you at the airport, you can minimize potential difficulties. If you go to the Galapagos on a package tour, a guide will meet you when you arrive in Quito airport. See SAFETY
WHEN TO GO: The weather was a pleasant surprise - the temperature was mostly in the mid-70s when we were there in early May. While the Galapagos can be visited at any time, high and low seasons affect both prices and comfort. High season is November 1-April 30 and June 15-September 14. December through April can be very hot and there is a possibility of heavy showers, but the water will be warm for snorkeling and the sky clear for photos. During low seasons (May 1-June 15) and September 15-October 31), prices are lower, the water colder, the sky is often overcast and it may drizzle – and the temperatures are better for walking around on the shade-less islands.
WHAT TO PACK: Sunscreen (30 SPF or higher), hat, sunglasses, swimsuit, waterproof sandals, shorts, t-shirts, waterproof parka, long-sleeved shirt or two, long pants, (both shirt and pants preferably should be quick-dry, such as ExOfficio or Royal Robbins), journal and pen, a book, playing cards, a knapsack for going ashore, camera, lots of film if you don't have a digital camera (the boat carries film, but it's expensive), perhaps a disposable underwater camera, water bottle, and US dollars (the official Ecuadorian currency!) to pay tips to the guide and crew at the end of the tour. Tips are discretionary, but typically total $15-20 per day, per person, for guide and crew. Major credit cards can be used aboard to pay bar bills and rent wet suits and snorkel gear. (No need to rent wet suits ahead of time in Puerto Ayora, as we did, unless you prefer full-length suits to the short wetsuits available aboard ship.)
GUIDEBOOKS: Ecuador (Footprint Handbooks); Ecuador (Lonely Planet)
TRAVELER'S GUIDE: This travel writer's site lists mistakes to avoid in planning a trip to the Galapagos. www.hillmanwonders.com/galapagos/index.htm#_vtop
Joan and Lou Rose firstname.lastname@example.org