The Galapagos Islands welcomed us with sunny blue skies and warm temperatures on Tuesday afternoon. The easy two hour flight was followed by a tedious and inefficient debarkation process that took almost as long as the flight! It began before we landed when the flight attendants went through the cabin opening the overhead luggage racks and spraying insecticide throughout the cabin. We were assured this was harmless to our health – but really, what else are they going to say? I held my breath as they passed me to avoid breathing in the intoxicating fumes.
Once on land, we all lined up to receive a piece of paper that permitted us to be on the islands after our personal information was typed into a computer (very slowly I might add). We then went to the next agent who took our $100 national park entrance fee. And then we had our personal bags inspected. We waited for our luggage which had been removed from the plane and was now being sniffed by dogs. All these precautions are necessary to ensure nothing is introduced into this special ecosystem. Once our bags were deemed safe, we lined up yet again to have someone inspect each piece of luggage against our baggage ticket to ensure each person had the correct piece of luggage. One person handled this process for the entire plane load of people – it took a while! We then went onto a shuttle that took us to a water taxi that took us to a bus. The bus brought us into Puerto Ayora in about a half an hour. Throughout this process we marvelled at the color of the water – the purest aquamarine I have ever seen. Not surprisingly, since these islands are volcanic, the landscape was quite barren with volcanic rock everywhere.
Puerto Ayora is located on the southern shore of Santa Cruz Island and is the most populated town in the Galapagos with a population of more than 10,000 inhabitants. The town is home to a bank, several ATM’s, schools, hotels, restaurants, clothing stores, hardware stores, grocery stores, marine stores, tourist shops and night clubs. The Charles Darwin Research Centre is situated here as well – more about this in a future post after we visit it. Puerto Ayora emergency medical facilities include a new hospital opened in 2006 and the island’s only hyperbaric chamber – a comforting thought since we are planning to do some diving here.
In a true spirit of adventure we arrived in Puerto Ayora without any reservations whatsoever. First order of business was to find a place to stay which proved to be quite an easy task since we are still in low season. We settled on Hotel Espana, a fairly large hostel with spacious, clean and comfortable rooms at economy rates ($25 per night per room).
After settling in and having some lunch, we made the rounds of the many tour agencies in town to see what last minute deals were available. We had two weeks to plan out and we were completely flexible. Did we want to do a land based trip with day trips to the various islands? Or visit the islands by a cruise boat? Would that be a 4-night, 5-night or 8-night cruise? Luxury or economy? So many decisions. Unfortunately we did not have internet connection at our hotel at this time as they had problems with their router (which Chris subsequently resolved – my hero) so we were limited with the information we received from these agencies. By the middle of the next morning we had our itinerary figured out, the highlights of which were an 8-night luxury cruise (yes we blew the budget again) and getting our advanced diving certification which involved 5 dives. We would have time in between to do a couple of day trips to islands we don’t see on our cruise as well as to do some things on our own.
The path took us through a cactii forest featuring the giant cactii, the only species of opuntia cactus in the world that grows like a tree. This cactus is able to hold copious amounts of water and grow directly on volcanic rock. The opuntia forest is home to the cactus finch which pollinates its flowers, feeds on its nectar and builds nests within its protective branches. We saw these little birds flitting about everywhere and were surprised at how close they came to us.
We walked along the white, powder fine sand, dipping our toes into the clearest water I have ever seen. The first beach has a strong under current and swimming is not permitted; however it is an idyllic spot for surfing and sure enough, as we were leaving the beach at around 4:00, the surfers began to arrive.
Beyond the main beach is a small lagoon which is ideal for swimming. The water was calm, clear, and refreshing.
The marine iguana, a species unique to the Galapagos, intrigued us. Their habitat is sub-tidal and inter-tidal where they find their food: green and red algae. Above the tidal line, they bathe in the sun and rest in order to have energy to find appropriate locations to build their nests and lay their eggs. We saw them walking along the beach (quite oblivious to us), swimming in the ocean, and sun bathing on the lava rocks.
The group of iguanas below were sunbathing along a walking path. We had to walk around them to get by – they didn’t seem to mind at all although they were spitting a lot. We found out later they do this to get rid of the salt in their mouths.
As we strolled along this gorgeous expanse of paradise, we began to realize how special these islands are and how fortunate we were to be visiting them. This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us.