Monday, January 27, 2014

Our Holiday Evolves

Lava fields of Volcan Chico on
Isabella Island
Created by volcanoes, the tiny young islands of the Galapagos were born of fire. Eruptions on top of eruptions built these islands one at a time from several hundred thousand years ago, and still forming, to millions of years ago. Initially dark, lifeless and isolated (1,000 km from Ecuador), species still managed to find their way here. Some flew, or were blown across by winds, others swam or became trapped on vegetation or other material and found their way across raft like. Slowly life found its way over; most died, some survived, adapted and evolved to fit the islands' unique environments. This is why many species in the Galapagos cannot be found anywhere else in the world, and even differ between the many differently aged islands.
Seals on North Seymour Island

Giant Tortoise on Isabella Island
In 1835 Charles Darwin arrived on the islands to collect biological samples and document the geological environment. Despite his religious education (he had studied for holy orders) Darwin realised the significance of the distribution and variety of species and developed his theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. Today 97.5% of these islands are a protected national park and 70,000 square km of surrounding ocean are a marine reserve thanks to the Ecuadorian government. This was a long standing bucket list item of mine from way back, for its historical and scientific significance as well as the vast number of species you can see here in one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet.

Puerto Ayora

Seal relaxing in Puerto Ayora
We based ourselves in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, which is a fairly central island and has the most developed town for tourists. It is a bubbling energy filled town with lots of atmosphere and opportunities for things to do. We came without a plan, avoiding the cruise ships because, well, they were bloody expensive and deciding to wing it and find day trips. This turned out well because in 14 days we spent only a third of what an 8 day cruise would have cost. And staying on the island allowed us to be immersed in the atmosphere of the town and gave us a lot of flexibility.

Cooking the fish fresh from the boat
and cleaned behind them.

Eating the just caught grub.
Every night after our day trip to another island or other activity would be spent wandering the town and soaking in the activities and sights. These included nearly nightly volleyball games near the pier, where they were clearly playing for sheep stations, or at other times it was used as a skate park by the locals and occasionally by Elizabeth riding cardboard down a concrete wall at the insistence of some cheeky children. You could watch your dinner coming in by boat, cleaned right on the dock, cooked and on your plate while the pelicans and seals fought over the left overs. Or stroll along the jetty coming across the occasional sleeping seal and watching the underwater ballet in the clear waters which included sharks, seals, small fish and the occasional ray, right from the dock.

Swimming with seals
Blue Footed Boobie
The town and all the animals, birds and fish were amazingly non threatening and safe. In the water snorkeling, sharks ignored you, seals swam around you, crabs ran away from you and sea turtles swam with you. Similarly the birds let you come so close binoculars were redundant, iguanas would just look at you and giant tortoises would quietly stretch out their long necks and chew another mouthful of leaves. But don't touch; we are mere observers here and the islands have strict rules about going off the tracks and touching the animals.

Bartolomei and Santiago Islands
Lava Tunnels on Santa Cruz
Frigate Bird

The day trips were fabulous and I can merely give a brief taster here and show some pictures; it needs to be experienced. Bartolomei Island with the picture postcard view after the small trek up its volcano overlooking Santiago Island. North Seymour for the birds, so many birds, from the Blue Footed Boobie to the Frigate bird with its bright red 'balloon' out front as well as the many iguanas and seals. Sante Fe Island for the snorkelling with sharks and the 10 minute swim with a sea turtle and much more. The memories will linger far longer than the experience.

Candelabra Cactus on the lava fields
Then there was Isabella Island...and my continuing battle to see a live volcano, and their success at avoiding me. We specifically went there to trek up the Sierra Negra Volcano, which is one of the few active ones and had a small eruption in 2005. Even though the weather had been fantastic, hot and humid since we arrived, today the sky decided to cloud over and rain, and rain and rain. By the time we got to the crater we were soaked through (having come to Isabella unprepared for rain). We kept going and saw the amazing lava fields, felt the heat coming out of holes in the ground and witnessed the amazing colours that the lava came in. But the shy volcano kept its innermost secrets hidden. The search continues...

Beautiful colours on the lava rock
Pink Flamingo

Pier at Puerto Ayora

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