The Galapagos Experience – Santa Cruz

Trip Start Jul 30, 2010
Trip End May 29, 2011

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Flag of Ecuador  , Galápagos,
Monday, February 14, 2011

"The natural history of these islands is eminently curious, and well deserves attention"
Charles Darwin, 1845

Given how closely associated the Galapagos Islands are with Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution it may surprise some to discover he only spent about 5 weeks on the islands. That's just a couple weeks more than Claire and I would have, so our expectations for formulating our own ground-breaking theories were suitably modest.

There are 3 main ways of 'doing' the Galapagos Islands. There's the expensive boat-based tour; there's the expensive hotel based tour and then there's the cheap-ish volunteer based approach. As this was another 'Real Gap’ organised volunteer programme it fell firmly into the 3rd camp.

AeroGal, the crap airline that we flew from Manta with proved to be another frustrating experience. When we reached the shitty little airport in Manta we discovered that they’d changed the flight again and then only when checking our boarding passes and seeing that a new flight number was printed. No boarding time. And with no display boards we had no idea what time the flight was. On asking a member of staff the response was "". After getting on the plane we (and everybody else on the plane) then discovered the plane was going via Guayaquil, delaying us by 90 mins with no way of contacting the people picking us up in Quito. As no one left the plane or boarded the plane in Guayaquil it was a total waste of time and fuel. South American airlines (Lan Chile, Lan Peru and AeroGal) are a law unto themselves and given how unreliable and expensive they are you can start to see why people prefer buses for long journeys. Nice planes, shame about the service but I digress...back to the Galapagos...

In Quito we were given a very thorough briefing, firstly by a biologist about the environment on the Galapagos which was then followed by the project co-ordinator who walked us thru’ our itinerary for the next 3 weeks.
Our week on Santa Cruz started with a Tame flight to Santa Cruz. And for the first time in South America the plane took off and landed when it was supposed to. We flew in Baltra airport which is on a small island on the northern end of Isla Santa Cruz. After we had crossed the canal separating the two islands we were picked up our guide. Not the guide we were advised of but a reasonable guide nonetheless.

Driving across the island to the south and Puerto Ayora (where we were staying) we stopped off at Los Gemelos (the twins) to see two huge holes in the earth; formed when the magma underground had flowed away and the roof had collapsed. The two holes were now overgrown and full with bird-life – as you would expect probably after a million years. Then we visited the Primicias Range, which was a private reserve where the Giant Tortoises were wandering around freely. The older males were huge creatures that hissed whenever someone walked close by. Records hadn’t been kept for long enough to know how old these things could live for by the estimates were over 150 years. 

We had lunch in town and then went for a walk around the harbour. After lunch we were taken to our hotel.  I say hotel but it was more like a castle, a small castle, a castlette if you like, but a ramshackle, run-down little castle with towers and turrets and a court yard. Apparently built in the 1920’s it wasn’t in any of the guide books (and didn’t deserve to be) and was run by a guy called Mario, a helpful, laid-back, chain-smoking host. The plumbing was also from the 1920’s as it took about 15mins for warm-ish water to reach the shower. 

Santa Cruz itself is the largest town on the islands with a population of about 18,000. Everything seems to be on two main roads:  Ave Baltra, which at the tourist end is full of cafes and pharmacies and at the non-tourist end mobile phone shops and more pharmacies. I have never seen so many pharmacies in one place; it must be the town’s 2nd largest area of employment after tourism.  The second main road is Ave. Charles Darwin which consists of more cafes, souvenir shops and, of course, farmacias. I should, as a matter of habit, briefly mention cabs in Santa Cruz. All the cabs are 4x4 pick-ups. Mostly pretty new and all double-cabin. Most journeys cost $1 so god knows how they pay for themselves. The Galapagos is the rich cousin in the Ecuadorian family.

Anyway, the next day of our volunteer programme also involved no volunteering. Rather than doing any work we did a walk to an inland lake and then a snorkel tour around Santa Cruz and out to Santa Fe. And a pretty good first snorkelling trip it was as well as we saw rays, sting rays, all sorts of fish (many that we’d seen in the Perhentians) and best of all a Green turtle. A little further one we stopped again, this time to go snorkelling with sea-lions. Or at least that was the idea. The sea-lions weren’t that interested and after a few curious swim-bys they lost interest and went back to the rocky out-crop to sun-bathe. 
 After lunch we visited the Charles Darwin Research Station (on Ave. Charles Darwin). There we saw the legendary ‘Lonesome George’, the last surviving member of the Isla Pinta sub-species. Since 1972 researchers have been trying to get him to mate with another close subspecies without any luck. Fun, for George at least, yes; luck, no.

Obviously the fun couldn’t last forever and on our third day we transferred to the volunteer site to start ‘work’. At this point we were a man down as one of the volunteers, Mike, had injured his back and had to drop out of the work. After 5 days in the Borneo rainforest we left with some very dirty and very smelly clothes, but that was nothing to how filthy my clothes were after one day in the Santa Cruz highlands.

At the project site we were split into 2 groups. Rick, Kim (two of the vols) and I were tasked with digging 60 holes to plant native Scalesia trees and 29 holes for coffee plants –the aim being to demonstrate that farmers can make money from the land, from the coffee beans, without digging up the native plant species, which provide the necessary shade for cash crop. All well and good until it started to pour down and as we hadn’t any waterproofs we were quickly drenched and completely covered in mud as we slipped and slide around trying to dig holes. All the time we were watched over by a grumpy looking wild tortoise; annoyed that his peace and quiet had been disturbed by us.

 After lunch Rick and I were assigned to fun task of sieving and filtering dirt, an exercise that just made us even muddier and made Claire run for cover when I approached her. Compared to me she was spotless having spent the day in the potting area, out of the rain. After a cold shower and a vegetarian dinner - not my choice I hasten to add – we sat down with the leaders of the project who told us more about the aim of the centre, what they do with the EU funding they get. It was a good first day, hard physical work, but good and in addition to being caked in mud – always fun – we saw tortoises, yellow warblers, finches and vermillion flycatchers.

The next day I ended just as muddy. The first day’s clothes had nearly dried from the washing when Rick and I started the task of planting Scalesia saplings and coffee plants in the holes we’d dug. This was bloody hard work as the sun was blazing down and we were traipsing up and down the hills collecting the plants. This pretty much took the whole day. And to think I’d volunteered for this!

The final morning of volunteer work was more like what I wanted. A beach-clean on the stunning, already clean, sandy stretch of El Garrapatero beach.  As we drove down from the centre in the highlands to the beach the cloudy weather cleared as we strolled on to a beautiful beach with bright blue sky with a just few wisps of cloud. The beach-clean took all of 20 mins as there was so little to pick up and after that we went for a swim. A nice way to finish this first volunteer stint off.

Our last full day on Santa Cruz started off wet. It had rained heavily over night and because the castlette had mossie nets rather than glass windows the rain had entered everyone’s room getting luggage wet. The breakfast room was also flooded but this didn’t make much difference as our host had been out partying the night before and had forgotten to get any provisions in. So without breakfast we headed off for a tour of the nearby island of Santa Fe. It was basically a glorified, and expensive, snorkel tour but it was just as good as the tour we’d taken a few days earlier. During the course of the day we saw Galapagos Hawks, Sea-Lions – and this time got to swim with them as they were curious about us, sting rays, Green Turtles (from the beach this time) and best of all a couple of White-Tipped Sharks.

Not a bad way to end the first weeks in the Galapagos.
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Andy Howell on

So that's where all my taxes are going.... supporting Mr Rudderham's skin care regime in South America... Excellent Blog again.. very envious..

Simon Sandford-Taylor on

Another great blog, like Andy I am envious as I look out at the bleak welsh countryside.

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