Saturday, May 2, 2009

Galapa-gosh!

Oops. Dropped the ball a bit there, sorry. Its now been 3 weeks since my last confession, and I apologise to Ed who has been stuck in his office prison cell waiting (a little impatiently, it has to be said) for me to write some more. He did get a phone call though, so he can blummin' well button his lip..

You know when you are looking forward to something and it gets built up to be this really, really good thing, and you get more and more excited about it, and then it happens, and its all a little disappointing after all that? (you know what I'm talking about, girls). The Galapagos is nothing like that. I have been watching documentaries and nature shows and reading books about the Galapagos Islands for as long as I can remember, and have always wanted to visit but never thought I would, even on this trip. Lets face it after all, had I still been travelling with Rich, we would have driven straight past and up to Colombia, thus missing the best chance yet to go.

However, making the decision to go, and for 12 days at that, was one of the best choices for me in the last 10 months. The Islands lived up to the hype, they were everything that nice Mr Attenborough said they would be, and even though I almost had to mug other tourists to pay for everything due to the rather over inflated costs, it was worth every penny. Almost. But I'll explain that a bit more later.

So, there I was at the airport, having just paid $100 cash for my National Park entry ticket, waiting for my bags to be delivered to baggage claim on a trolley à la Nelson airport, when a girl comes over and asks me for $100 to pay her Nat Park fee as she didn't have enough cash, they didn't take visa and there was no cash machine in the airport.

"Oh ho", I thought. "The rip-off artists are getting bolder by the minute, I must have "sucker" tattooed on my forehead or something. Like I'd fall for that!" But hey, she was cute, and if she was ripping me off, at least she asked first, rather than just stealing, so I handed it over, and that's how I met Polly. We shared a cab to Puerto Ayuro where she paid me back from a cash machine (eventually - but not her fault), and we started making plans for the next week. Polly had a heap of info she'd been given by a guy she'd met and was sort of dating in Ecuador, so knew all the best places to eat, visit, drink at, and get internet access etc, so was very handy to hang out with.

I had booked a boat trip for the following Friday, so that gave me a week to explore. Day 1 involved a walk to Bahia Tortuga (Turtle Bay for the un-Spanish out there) for a bit of a snorkel, and as luck would have it, my "waterproof to 10m" digital camera decided to go on the fritz the first time I took it in the water. It still took pictures, but the screen on the back stopped working, so I had to guess a bit as to what it was I was actually taking pictures of. Perfect for a week on the Galapagos, obviously. Fortunately my wee video camera also took stills, though of a much poorer quality, so most of the photos on flicker are from that.

The beach was stunning , the water warm, and the marine iguanas and sally light-foot crabs there to be tripped over. Unfortunately, what I didn't know was that the smaller, murkier bay was actually a nursery area for sharks and visited by turtles (hence the name, Einstein), but I didn't actually snorkel there, and very possibly missed out on seeing hammerheads and other things, but there you go. Oh, and I got sunburned a bit. Still, Englishman abroad in a hot country, goes without saying really.

In the pip emma, visited the tortoise farm where they are breeding the giant tortoises for re-introduction programmes. Met Lonesome George, the only one of his kind left, and a few others, so that was cool. Apparently the tortoises have different shaped shells depending on their particular species, as well as long or short necks etc. All very interesting and part of what influenced the evolution of most of the endemic plant species on the islands with regard to height above ground and whether they have spikes or not. All very clever.

Sunday dawned hot and sweaty as was the norm, but I was up with Darwin's finches and off to the island Santa Maria (aka Floreanna) for some diving. An hour and a half each way got us there, we collected a couple of other divers at the island, and had a couple of dives (although neither, rather disappointingly at the Devil's Crown - a partly submerged volcano mouth appaerently very good for sharks). The diving was good, but very different to the other diving I'd done in the Phillipines. Less colour, less coral, fewer flashy fish, but far more in the way of bizarre underwater structures caused by the lava flow, and more big fish. If I'm honest, I was a little disappointed with the diving, but that soon changed.

Next morning I had a wee stroll to Las Grietas, a short, narrow canyon about 10m down to the water, and 12m to the botton of that. The water was crystal clear and a mix of fresh and salty, and given the humidity and heat was the nicest place to swim on the island. In the afternoon, I was off to Isabela Island.

Now, the clever buggers in head office have worked this out very well. In order to share the tourist dollar about a bit, the boats to Isabela leave daily at 2pm and arrive at 4pm, thus meaning you have to stay at least one night. Added to this, the return boat leaves Isabela daily at 6am, meaning you pretty much have to stay a second night if you want to do anything at all while you are there.

I opted for the tour of Sierra Negro (the biggest live volcanic crater in the world, and the 2nd biggest if you include extinct volcanoes) and Volcan Chico (smaller but relatively recently erupted) by horse of all things, followed by some snorkelling at Las Tintoneras (sp?), a group of small islands in the bay. The volcanoes were impressive, as was the amount of discomfort I felt at sitting on a horse for so long. Can somebody please explain to me what you are supposed to do to make trotting comfortable? I feel like I've tried everything and still look like a rag doll on a bucking bronco! Its one of the curuellest things a boy can do to hismarble pouch.

The snorkelling was cool, with sealions to play with, and rays and sharks to look at - something I was getting used to after much of the same experienced from diving.

Next morning was bright and early back to Santa Cruz, where I was able to stow away on another boat off diving to North Seymour Island and Bartolome. Bit further this time, up to 3 hours away, so by the time I got back that night at about half 7, I'd spend about 8 hours of the day riding about on boats, and a couple swimming about under them.

The First dive at North Seymour was very poor, with visibility down to 2m or so thanks to lots of green gunk in the water. Currents or something stirring everything up. The second dive at Bartolome (not much more than a big rock in the sea) was spectacular. A series of volcanic terraces under the sea took us down, then we followed the wall round the rock, which was pretty much like an underwater skyscraper, inhabited by all sorts of critters. Sealions came to investigate and play, and with scuba gear I was able to play back, rather than hurry to the surface gasping for breath, as I tend to do with a snorkel.

Next day was....diving again! I was really getting into it again by now, having got used to what I could expect to see, and learned to appreciate it for what it was rather than comparing it to a tropical coral reef, which it wasn't even trying to be (could that be a thinly veiled life-lesson? hmmm.....) Today was 3 dives, but while I had hoped to go to Gordon's Rocks where the Hammerheads hang out in numbers, we were going back to North Seymour - the site of yesterday's disappointing dive. This was due to the divers, unfortunately. Originally, we were all going to be realtively experienced and up to the challenge of the strong currents at Gordon's that attract the sharks. But the others (person's unknown) cancelled, and the replacements were all rookies, so the dive company took us somewhere safer. As it turned out, this was better than I could have hoped for. The poor visibility from the day before had cleared up, and we had 3 fantastic dives at 3 different locations around North Seymour, including seeing a group of 5 manta rays that drifted past like ghosts. No hammerheads though, despite the guides claim that he saw one within seconds of descending. All lies to keep the punters enthusiastic, if you ask me.

Finally Friday rolled round, and it was time for the tour on the boat. Four days and 3 nights of high seas adventure. Or so I thought...

Ok, so the boat was fine, the crew friendly and good at their jobs (we didn't sink anyway), and the guide seemed to know his stuff, but for $750 I was expecting 4 days and 3 nights. I can't really dispute the 3 nights, I definitely spent 3 nights on the boat, but the days were less clear cut, with day 1 starting at about half 12, and day 4 being all over by 9.15 am.

We visited a bunch of islands and saw all sorts of land iguanas, wild giant tortoises (easy to track - you follow the flattened grass until you meet a big slow moving rock. Not too good at escaping, those tortoises), frigate birds and boobies (stop it. You're better than that), but I felt slightly conned I have to say. I'd have preferred to have visited the places myself on day trips and spent the difference on a couple more dives. Would have been cheaper, but they don't tell you how easy it is to do your own thing when you ask them. Funny that...

Feeling a little let down after the first fantastic week, I stumbled about on San Cristóbal until I bumped into Sanghita from Belgium, who'd been on SC for a while and knew the best beaches to go to, and places to eat at, so for my final 18 hours on the Islands at least I wsa entertained and full.

So, aside from the "mid-range cruise", the Galapagos lived up to the hype, and I feel fairly sure I will get back there one day, if only to dive Gordon's Rocks and see the hammerheads.

So now, I'm back in Trujillo in Peru and about to head to Lima to pack the bike. Wish me luck, this could be the biggest challenge of the trip so far!

1 comment:

ed said...

Ahhhhh, now that's what I've been waiting for! Unlike me, you clearly know enough about finches and slow moving rocks, not to mention boobies, to properly appreciate Mr Darwin's playground. Very entertaining read - thank you. Must get back to counting paperclips now.