After that, I started another vacation within my break, as I was to embark on the most incredible boat trip to the Galapagos Islands.
This boat trip was all about who I was with on the boat and what I was about to see and in both cases. And I was not disappointed. The crew was superb, the passengers were so much fun, the landscape was amazing, the animals surprising.
The Galapagos Islands do inspire you to think differently about the world. It looks unreal and I felt like I was on a different planet. What was truly special was that the animals that call the islands home acted as if humans were nothing more than slightly annoying paparazzi. Most of the islands are devoid of vegetation and human presence is surprisingly kept to a minimum.
Only five of the twenty four islands are inhabited. About half the residents live in Puerto Ayora, on Isla Santa Cruz in the middle of the archipelago. The Galapagos Archipelago, 1000km of the coast of Ecuador, was discovered by accident in 1535 by the first bishop of Panama who drifted off while sailing from Panama to Peru. It is possible that the people were aware of the existence of the islands before 1535 but there are no definite records of this and the islands didn't appear on a world map until 1570 when they were identified as the "islands of the tortoises".
For more than three centuries after their discovery, the Galapagos were used as a base for buccaneers, sealers and whalers. The islands provided a good source of food in the forms of the tortoises which could survive over a year on the boat and thus provided fresh meat for the sailors long after they had left the islands.
The Galapagos most famous visitor was Charles Darwin who spent weeks on the islands, making notes and collecting specimens that provided important evidence for his theory of evolution. Ecuador officially claimed the Galapagos Archipelago in 1832, some islands were declared wildlife sanctuary in 1934 and 97% of the archipelago became a national park in 1959, the remaining 3% being for the towns. Tourism did not start until the late 60's and has not stopped growing since then but in a very well preserved way. Nobody is allowed in the designated protective reserve area without a guide, which obliges you to book a tour but keeps it secluded and wild.
The islands were formed roughly five million years ago by underwater volcanoes erupting and rising above the ocean's surface. The region is volcanically active today, the most recent eruption occurred in 2005 on Isabela Island.
As far as the flora and fauna is concerned, most plants and animal species arrived in the Galapagos from somewhere else after journeys of thousands kilometres on wind, air, and sea currents. Of course, some of them have been brought later but settlers and others visiting the islands, that is why just before landing, the stewards sprayed the entire plane cabin with chemical stuff (making hard to breathe for a second) in order to avoid insects or bacteria to come into the islands. Finding no competition, the few species that survived the sea crossing came to dominate the island ecosystem and evolved to fill every available ecological niche.
To only name a few of the birds,
the most comical one, despite its name is the Booby bird. The most common one is the blue footed booby that lives at sea but breed on land. They are so funny to watch because of their amazingly blue feet. Another interesting bird was the Frigatebird which can reach a wingspan of over two metres. It is mostly identified when the courting males inflate their balloon-sized flap skin under their bill. Also the penguins are astounding.
Snorkeling with them is the best way to appreciate their skill underwater to compare with heir clumsiness on land. I also saw more wonderful birds such as pelicans, albatrosses, great herons, colourful flamingos but also endemic birds like the flightless cormorants, the Galapagos hawks, doves, mockingbirds and of course the Darwin's finches.
As far as land is concerned, nowhere else on earth do tortoises, the most ancient prehistoric looking reptile, reach the sizes they do in the Galapagos.
They hang out in the fields nonchalant, the way our cows hang out in fields. There are also some sea turtles such as the leatherback and the hawkbill and they are mostly seen while snorkelling, which means you get to swim with them. There are also man species of lizards but the most commonly spotted are the marine iguanas, land iguanas and lava lizards. All of them being very colourful, they are a pleasure for the eyes. The marine iguanas have otherwise blackish skin and feed by grazing seaweed underwater,
so once again you can see them while you snorkel. Speaking of colourful, the Sally Lightfoot crab is a delight to see it when they adorn the rocks where they scavenge anything and everything edible washed up on the tide.
As for the sea, the most curious ones are the sea lions which you can find absolutely everywhere. Most of the time basking on beaches, but you can also swim with them as they are as curious about us as we are about them and sometimes,
you have to walk around them when they stretch out on the landing steps or waiting benches... normally provided for tourists. Sharks and dolphins are seen everyday, either while swimming or snorkelling. Dolphins mostly surfing the bow waves of the boat while cruising. You can also view them jumping out of the water and turning their whole body around in a gracious way as if you were watching a documentary on TV or a well prepared spectacle at an aquarium.
Dolphins can also be spotted at night when they cause the ocean to glow by stirring up thousands of tiny phosphorescent organisms that light up when disturbed. The rays have the same pattern as well except that when they make giant leaps out of the water. They normally end up on their back and when they are giant manta rays, it is a spectacular show. As for the sharks, I have to say, it makes your heart beat to jump off the boat to go for a dip and glimpse at a shark swimming right underneath you, when you are already in the air with no other alternative than ending up in the water with them. There are different species of sharks and some of them are pretty big and dangerous...
mainly at night when they go hunting. So the midnight swim we did for new year's eve may not have been the smartest idea, but it still was memorable!
Apart from that, the boat trip was something. The engine had a lot of trouble. Sparks were coming out after a difficult start and an incredible, unbearable smell that was engulfing the boat all day and all night. Let's not mention the noise.
The captain was a complete asshole and the guide had the energy of a sloth and absolutely no sign of enthusiasm whatsoever, but all those little things made the trip even more interesting and today get to laugh at some of the incidents that happened on that boat. That really complemented the trip.
While in Quito, I stayed at the best hostal I have been in so far. It was called the Belmont hotel and was taken care of by an extremely hospitable family. Even the very young son was so helpful and polite and sweet. It was a real pleasure to stay there and be with them. On the 24th of December, they invited me for a typical Ecuadorian Christmas dinner and I had one of the best meals I have had for quite sometime. It was not anything fancy but it was typical and it was nice to be with them for Christmas. I got them some presents and they were psyched to open them. Especially the little one, I could tell by the look on his face. He was so cute.