I teach a class on the Ecology of the Galapagos, which culminates in a visit to the Islands. Here’s a brief synopsis of this year’s trip to Ecuador. Generally, photos of people are on Facebook, while those of wildlife are on Picasa and linked below.
We flew from St. Louis to Atlanta, then Atlanta to Quito. There were no problems, except one student’s bag did not show up. We spent the night at Hotel Vieja Cuba, which was very quaint.
We took a bus to Mindo, and hiked around Bella Vista Cloud Forest Reserve . We saw many plants and birds. We normally see lots of hummingbirds in this area, but this time we also saw some other types of birds. We had a lunch of grilled trout. I talked to the owner about research possibilities. He said they did have some good populations of spider wasps. Our guide, Vinicio, was full of lore about the plants and wildlife. He demonstrated the Dragon’s Blood tree, which oozes blood-like sap when wounded. The sap is used as a folk remedy, and the students became determined to purchase some. We took the bus to the ziplining place, but had to cross two streams to get there. First, we drove across a low-water crossing. Second, we drove over an iron bridge only slightly wider than the bus itself. There were 13 ziplines, with 2.3 miles of cable. It was thrilling and scary at the same time. I took photos of all the students. We could go singly or sometimes in tandem with a guide. In tandem, we could do the “Superman” position or the “Mariposa” (butterfly). At the end, some students went as a threesome in the “Train” formation. When we left we had to cross that narrow bridge again. It was raining and the river was raging. From this side, the approach was a hard right-angle turn. The bus didn’t align with the bridge, and the rear tire rode up on the rail. This was very disconcerting to some students. Eventually, the driver got it straightened out and we got out of there and back to Quito. We had dinner at Mama Clorinda’s, which features native Ecuadorian fare. We had some traditional meals, such as cuy (guinea pig). I had seco de chivo (lamb stew). It was delicious. We also tried some drinks, such as canelazo, which is like hot cider. I think this night marks the beginning of what would become one of our themes: eating our way through Ecuador. We walked back to the hotel, talked for awhile and went to bed. It was a bit cold, and the hotel had no HVAC that I could detect. It’s probably not needed in Quito, where the temperature variation is not great. I compensated with extra blankets. The lost student bag was retrieved from the airport on this night.
We got an early breakfast at the hotel and bussed it to the airport. We landed in San Cristobal, an island (and airport) that I had not been to in the past. We had a bit of a hitch when I could not find our luggage tickets. Eventually, they turned up in my passport pouch, where I had looked about five times. We met our guide, Jose, who seemed a bit taciturn at first. This would change. We checked in and had lunch at the Hotel Cactus in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. We met Damon, who booked our tour with Andean Discovery. We were scheduled to go kayaking that afternoon, but high winds and waves made him suggest that we take a short hike instead. I countered that our students were pretty set on kayaking. So kayaking it was, in Bahia Naufragia (Wreck Bay). I kayak a lot on our Missouri waters, but never under conditions like these. We had to launch in the surf and try to get between waves. One pair was flipped spectacularly on a wave, but I missed that. Many more flipped while we were paddling about the bay. Not many of my photos turned out here because I had water droplets on the lens of my underwater camera. Coming back in, we had to land the kayaks between the waves. Some did it perfectly like Patrick and me, others surfed a wave coming in, others were wiped out by waves. Many enjoyed swimming in the waves afterward; the water was remarkably warm. The beach was a sea lion rookery, and provided the students with their first close looks at the large mammals. We had an awesome dinner of grilled fish at a waterfront restaurant. The town reminded me of Puerto Ayora, only a bit smaller. Our guide, who was born on this island, seemed to know everyone around. I had my first Pilsener of the trip with dinner. Some students went to the Rock Iguana, a nightclub across the street from our hotel.
We took a boat around northwest San Cristobal and went snorkeling at Isla Lobos (Sea Lion Island). It was a mostly sandy substrate, where I saw more sand dollars than I had ever before in my life. How many more were hidden just beneath the surface of the sand? There were some anemones, as well, and in places a high density of 1-cm diameter burrows. The occupants seemed to be right at the surface of the sand until I got close, then they popped down out of sight. It’s possible they were garden eels. I’d have loved to see them out. Some sea lions were swimming with us, which was a bit disconcerting, though they are not dangerous. In the rocky areas, we saw many fish, plus green, white, crowned and the ubiquitous pencil urchins. We stopped at a beach where we found many invertebrates in the line of detritus washed up on the beach, including polychaete worms, sea cucumbers, sea hares, limpets, sponges, and a bazillion shells. It was a fun review with my three students who had just had invertebrate zoology. We ate hot chicken and rice on board, followed by fresh pineapple and watermelon. We went to another beach, where we found live hermit crabs and many of their burrows at the high tide mark. My students found a pile of dead chitons, some bird and turtle bones, and more shells. They found a tide pool where some fish were trapped. More interesting were the big polychaete worm and the aquatic hermit crabs.
We took the boat to Kicker Rock, AKA Leon Dormido, a huge rock formation just too small to be a proper island. It has a channel running through it, and that’s where we snorkeled. As soon as we got in the water we could see a big school of bonito maybe 30 feet below. That was followed shortly by Jose announcing the presence of a hammerhead shark beneath us. This sight was rather disturbing to some of of our party. It swam right below me, though the photos don’t do it justice. As we swam into the channel, a continuous array
of Galapagos sharks and black-tipped reef sharks swam below us. Somehow I ended up in front of the group, and I noticed that the sharks were initially near the surface coming straight at us, and only dove below us when they got close. I found this behavior scary, and moved back closer to the group. Because the channel is shaded by tall spires of rock, it’s very dark in there, making photography difficult. Chris is my hero; he swam down to get close to a shark for a better pic. There were also a lot of sea turtles. We came out the other side, where the students reported much colder water. I was glad to be wearing a wetsuit, not only for that, but because one of the students had been stung by a jelly. Fortunately, the effects were minor. Incidentally, I had never seen any of these species of sharks before, but this milestone seemed rather unimportant at the time. Jose, like many guides, has very diplomatic ways of speaking. One of his expressions, which he uses when something is very bad, and you shouldn’t do it, is “maybe it’s not so good.” During the snorkeling with sharks at Kicker Rock, the group was very tightly bunched up. When someone kicked him in the head with a fin, he said, “If you make me bleed, maybe it’s not so good.”
We boated back to the port, packed up and were trucked to the highlands, where we enjoyed a short, but very steep hike up to camp. At the top of a peak, we had great views of the bay, Kicker Rock, and much of the island of San Cristobal. We planted some Scalesia trees. These are the ones evolved from a
daisy-like flower (Asteraceae). This restoration project was a good
service learning activity for us. We saw nearby an actual, wild
Galapagos tortoise (another first for me). We had a dinner prepared by the camp crew of mushroom spaghetti over chicken. I think it was the only time I could not eat all my food. We sat around the campfire and told jokes, many of them very off-color. Given our recent experience, I told several shark jokes, including this one:
Two great white sharks were swimming in the ocean, when they spied
survivors of a sunken ship. “Follow me, son.” the father shark said to
the son shark. And they swam to the mass of people. “Do exactly what I
do son! First we swim around them a few times with just the tip of our
fin showing.” And they did! “
Well done, son! Now we swim a few more times with all of our fins showing.” And they did!
“Now we eat everybody.” And they did!
When they were both gorged, the son asked his father: “Dad…..Why
didn’t we just eat them all at first? Why did we swim around them so
many times first?”
His wise father replied, “Because they taste better with the shit scared out of them!”
Most of us had failed to bring flashlights (mine was back in the hotel room), which made navigating to our tents in the dark rather challenging. It was a rather cold night, and if I could have seen, I would have shut the tent more completely. During the night, nesting Galapagos storm petrels made quite a racket, but I kind of liked it. Patrick slept in a hammock, rolled up like a cocoon.
After breakfast we packed up and hiked down, where I again noted the use of a rammed earth tire trail, which is a great way to prevent soil erosion. At this point I should mention that we did all our hiking (and hanging around camp) during this portion of the tour in rubber boots. Though uncomfortable, it prevents the transfer of mud (and seeds) between islands. We loaded up in the trucks again and rode back to the hotel. We repacked, trucked down to the dock and loaded up into El Neptuno for a 2.5 h boat ride to Floreana. The water was rough, but only one of us got truly seasick. Most of the students just slept. In spite of taking a Dramamine, I stayed awake the whole time. I snapped a few photos of a marine iguana before we loaded into the bus for the highlands. The males are particularly colorful on Floreana. We saw the usual caves and tortoises (third time around for me), and had lunch at the same little cafe where we’d had it three years before, and learned to put popcorn in our soup. We snorkeled near the beach. It wasn’t the best for fish, though I did see a really cool eel, and there were many sea turtles. Also some small barracuda. We hiked back to the dock. I took advantage of my early arrival to take yet more iguana photos. We got on the boat once again for a 1.5 h ride to San Cristobal. We stopped at Tortuga Island, where there were many male frigate birds displaying their gular sacs. On arriving at Puerto Villamil, we had a bus take us to the Hotel Tero Real, which was very quaint.
We had dinner at a restaurant just a couple of blocks away. I had grilled lobster. I don’t think I’ve had lobster in at least 10 years, and this was cheap. And good. Many of the students went out that night and probably stayed out too late.
After an early breakfast, six of us opted to hike up the volcano. First, we stopped at a lagoon where we saw flamingos, white-cheeked pintails, black-necked stilts and gallinules. We took a bus up to the trailhead, where we noted a bunch of saddled horses standing about. None of them were for us. We hoofed it on our own hooves. The trail was initially very steep, but that part was not too long. Shortly, we were at the rim of Sierra Negra Volcan, a huge caldera, and remnant of one of the major volcanoes that form Isabela, the largest island in the Galapagos. The rim is about 300 m high, and the inside is a level field of extremely rough volcanic rock. It looks big enough to fit the City of Quincy inside it, but the perspective makes it hard to judge. Jose pointed out the point where a parasite crater on the rim had erupted in 2005, spilling fresh lava into the caldera. This rock was much blacker than the rest, and held no vegetation. One segment of trail was surrounded by ferns, while another large portion was hemmed in by guava trees. The fruits were good eating, but they’re a terribly invasive, exotic species. We continued on to the huge Jaboncillo tree, where we ate our box lunches. All the horses have to stop before that, for reasons that became obvious shortly. We hiked down a trail which suddenly transitioned to pure volcanic rock. A trail of sorts had been made, but very rough, and in many places consisted of solid rock, with occasional white blotches of paint to mark the trail. This stuff was very hard on the feet, but made for a most surrealistic landscape. In places, there were small fumaroles where you could put your hand in a hole in a rock and feel the hot, steamy air coming out. There were also some small lava tubes. Near the end of the trail we arrived at Volcan Chico, which is considerably smaller, but still also periodically active. There was a sulfur deposit in one spot, and several “small” craters around. By “small” I mean if you fell in one, you’d die. From the edge of the volcano, we could see most of the island to the north, including all but one of the other volcanoes. We could also see some of the other islands that I’ve never visited, like Fernandina, Santiago, and some lesser ones. The way back was harder, as the volcanic rock segment was now uphill. I was fairly done in by the time we got back to the bus. At least we had seen a Galapagos hawk and a vermilion flycatcher on the way. We got showers and had pizza for dinner. Some of us took a walk on the beach, which was interesting at night. The fine sand felt good on bare feet, but the stick that poked a hole in my foot didn’t.
The students that didn’t go on the hike went with Megan to go snorkeling, see birds, and hang out on the beach. Some rented surf boards, but didn’t have much success without lessons.
We loaded up into three pangas (small boats with sun canopies) and headed west along the coast. We stopped at a rock formation on the way to photograph Nazca boobies. A short distance from there, we saw our first manta rays, cruising and feeding near the surface. We continued on to Los Tuneles, a spectacular labyrinth of lava formations, mostly collapsed lava tubes. We spotted our first penguins here, swimming and hanging out on rocks. Our boatmen navigated through the narrow waterways and landed us on a rock formation, where we got out and hiked around. The rocks shelter the area from waves, so the water is very clear. From the surface we could see spotted eagle rays, white-tipped reef sharks, puffers, butterfly fish, and others. Sea turtles came swimming by one after another, seemingly without end. A mating pair of sea turtles drifted down until they were right in front of us. There was the mated pair, plus four or five males trying to horn in on the action, sometimes by biting at the female. She bit back! The boat captain had a special hand signal for turtle, and another for “happy turtle.”
We moved a short distance away and began snorkeling. Some were put off by cold water, but those with wetsuits were unaffected. I swam through a couple of lava tubes, which was fun, but was more interested in the wildlife. I swam up to within a few feet of a penguin, which was not bothered by my presence at all. I photographed it with my underwater camera. I was enjoying the colorful damsels and wrasses when I suddenly came out into a huge mixed school of yellow-tailed surgeonfishes and sergeant majors. The surgeons were the biggest I’ve seen. I followed these for awhile. I explored some different areas, seeing many baby puffers, some parrotfish, and others. Eli pointed out a sole, which was a new one for me. I noticed most people were in the boat and began working my way back. After I got in and had my wetsuit mostly off, I learned that we were not out of time; most of them were just too cold. If there is a next time, I’ll spend more time snorkeling at this place. It was about my favorite event of the whole trip, though I did get a slight sunburn on the top of my head. We ate lunch (more yummy chicken and rice), and motored a short distance to a somewhat similar area. We began snorkeling, and I quickly saw a lobster, or at least its legs, under a rock. The wrasses were harassing the heck out of it. I continued and saw something brightly colored that turned out to be an octopus. It quickly ducked under a rock. Shortly, the boat captain caught one and held it on his hand for all to see. After that, he spotted a sea horse in the mangroves, and we all got a chance to see/photograph it. I cruised around some more, but the area was very silty. I saw silver mojarras, grunts, puffers, anemones, and gangs of Cortez rainbow wrasses. As we motored back to port, I got some better views of the manta rays — one turned over right next to the boat — but sadly no decent photos. Some students in another boat claim to have seen an orca. One of the boats had a motor quit. All were equipped with dual 75 hp Yamaha outboards, which, as I recall, are notoriously bad motors. We took those students into our panga. We saw another colony of penguins, maybe six in all, before landing at Las Tintoreras, where we walked a short trail. White-tipped reef sharks, for which the islet is named, spend the day loafing in a shallow channel through the rocks. There were a lot of marine iguanas here as well, and a breeding ground, though it was not the season for egg laying. We went back to the hotel. I showered, rested a bit, then walked back to the dock to see Concha de Perla, a snorkeling lagoon, and take photos. I walked around town with a few others and got another blackberry ice cream. I think I got almost everyone addicted to these helados de mora. Later we had dinner at a restaurant with a variety of choices. I had grilled shrimp. Later I had an ice cream sandwich. See what I mean about eating our way through Ecuador?
After an early breakfast, we packed up and boated 1.5 h to Santa Cruz. I spied more manta rays, and Patrick says he saw a flying fish. At Puerto Ayora, where I have stayed before, we checked in to the Hotel Espana, which was by far the best hotel of the trip. We went to the Darwin Research Station. This time Lonesome George was awake! I also got some good shots of cactus finches. I’m beginning to be able to tell the species apart. Jose was a big help with that. We got another blackberry ice cream. We had lunch, then went shopping. I had told the students to save their money until they got to Puerto Ayora, which has the most shops of anywhere. I was right. We walked around until my feet hurt, but I got all the gifts that I wanted, many from my favorite, the “Israel” store. We found an herbalist store that had Dragon’s Blood, and the students bought them out. We had dinner at a restaurant, and I had seafood spaghetti. Many had the octopus (pulpo) and rice. We got Erin a birthday cake, as she turned 20. There was wi-fi at the hotel, and I caught up on email and stuff.
We ate breakfast at the hotel and got on the bus. We stopped briefly at one of the pit craters at Los Gemelos on our way to the airport. Actually, we had to take a ferry across the isthmus of Itabaca to Baltra, then another bus to the airport. There, we said goodbye to Jose, whom all had grown to love, and to the Galapagos. We were fortunate to get a direct flight to Quito, where we met another guide, Luisa, and got on another bus. We went around Quito to see various sights, like La Virgen del Panecillo and Itchimbia (the Crystal Palace). Luisa said that we could go inside the Virgin, which earned a few guffaws from the men in the back of the bus. We stopped at a shopping mall that was a cylindrical building and the stores were set up in a spiral. I got a last blackberry ice cream there. A couple of blocks away, we went through an artesanal market, which had a lot of the same kind of things that we had seen in Puerto Ayora. We had dinner at the Magic Bean, where I had a filet mignon. I hadn’t had one in probably 30 years. It was so inexpensive, I couldn’t resist. I also had a blackberry milk shake. We walked around the Mariscal district for awhile, then caught the bus to the airport again. There we went through several checkpoints, only to learn that our Atlanta to St. Louis flight had been canceled. There had been snow in Atlanta. After waiting around awhile, they scheduled us for a 5:30 pm flight out of Atlanta. Our original flight had been for 8:40 am, which would mean all day waiting around in Atlanta. Awesome. Megan had her bags searched (they always choose one out of our group), but they found no contraband. We took the redeye from Quito to Atlanta. I watched at least one movie and tried to sleep.
At Atlanta we dealt with customs, security, and surly airport workers. Our gate was on the other side of this huge airport. When we got to said gate, I asked if there was an earlier flight to St. Louis. There was one at 7:25 am with some openings, but it was already 7. We would have to run to another gate in another terminal, and some students were in the bathroom. Megan left with the first wave, and I waited for those in the bathroom. It was a miracle; we all made the earlier flight, didn’t have to wait around Atlanta all day, and got home sooner than expected. The perfect end to the perfect trip.