Travel & Photography Trip: Galapagos Islands, Ecuador;
Doug & Ellen; February 2015

Ellen's Journal

February 18 - Quito

We left for the airport about 10:45 last night for a 1:30 am flight to Miami. The flight went off without a hitch so we were able to get some breakfast before our flight to Quito. Just as we were boarding, a storm passed over the airport and all activity was suspended until it moved on. The delay lasted only about 15 minutes and it looked like we would be able to take off on time. However, there had to be an inspection and a problem with the cargo door was discovered. Between having the door fixed and filling out the paperwork, we took off two hours later than scheduled.

We arrived about 4:00 pm (EST). The customs process at the Quito airport was quick and easy. We got a cab - you go to a counter, tell them where you want to go, pay there, they call for a driver who comes in and get your bags.

The drive into Quito was fast and furious - roundabouts, lots of merging with no apparent rules, curves, long winding descents and then ascents. There were flowering shrubs and pots of flowers everywhere.

Hostal de la Rabida is on a side street. The driver rang a bell at the gate and we were buzzed in and greeted by Carlos who took our bags and checked us in. We were given a letter outlining the amenities and procedures. As we were checking in, a couple came to the desk and asked for a cab. Carlos called a cab and told us it was not advisable to walk in Quito at night.

Our room, #2, is small but delightful, king sized bed, nightstands, wardrobe and a small bathroom (no toilet paper in the toilet) and a patio bordered by an enormous rhododendron and pots of geraniums. It is cool, becoming cloudy and dusk is upon us. The city noises burst off and on - sirens, cars, horns, and a dove flitting through the leaves of the tree.

February 19 - Quito

We both slept well and woke up to rain. According to Gloria, in reception, the last couple of days were beautiful. She told us that, unlike in the North, they don't forecast here and you never know what to expect weather-wise.

Giovanni, our guide for the day, picked us up about 8:30. The driver's name is Carlos. Giovanni is 50 years old and has worked as a guide for a long time, first on his own and now with Adventure Life, the company we booked our trip with. He gave us a lot of information about the city and country throughout our 5 hours with him.

Ecuador is currently a socialist country. President Rafael Correa, has a year left to his tenure (two 4-year terms) and is planning to extend his presidency as Hugo Chavez did in Venezuela. Under his administration, the new Quito airport was built and the roads in the rural areas were improved. Giovanni told us corruption has decreased. An internet search on Correa revealed he is a bit heavy-handed in terms of accepting freedom of expression.

Our first stop was the Museo de Sito Intinan which is at latitude 00 00' 00" ... on the equator!. Our guide there, Yvette, demonstrated how the centrifugal force of the Earth's rotation is negated at the equator, but is in play on either side and is more noticeable the further away from the equator you go. She demonstrated how water falls straight down on the equator, but swirls clockwise south of it and counterclockwise north of it. We stood on the red line designating the equator and closed our eyes with arms out and tried to not tip to one side or the other. Neither Doug nor I could balance an egg on a nail, though there were some people who had more patience and were able to do it. The museum also features displays of indigenous Ecuadoran cultures. The grounds had many beautiful plants, flowering shrubs and lots of birds flitting around.

Our next stop was the Basilica, or Rock Church, built in the 1800s, which resembles Notre Dame. It is massive and ornate and was built of volcanic rock from Pinchincha, the volcano which overlooks Quito.

Our next stop was the Old Town area and Grand Plaza, where we visited another church and took a brief walk around. We went up El Panecillo, but unfortunately the cloud cover obscured the view. We were able to get a sense of how the city looks and the surrounding area. The statue of the Winged Virgin dominates the hill.

Our last stop was the Mariscal Craft Market which has rows and rows of booths filled with souvenir items, jewelry, leather goods, Panama hats and more. Bargaining is the norm. If you show an interest in an item, the shopkeeper will tell you the cost and then lower it if you do not buy.

Giovanni and Carlos dropped us off about 1:30 and we took it easy, snacking in our room and later walking in the neighborhood.

February 20

We woke up at 4:15 to get ready for our 5:00 pick-up by Adventure Life. As it was too early for breakfast, the hotel staff boiled some eggs to take with us. Giovanni and Carlos arrived on schedule and took us to the airport and guided us through the lines, waving us off as we stood in line to get to our gate. The airport has a separate section just for travelers to Galapagos.

There was a short plane ride to Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city which is on the coast, where some passengers got off and others got on. After about 40 minutes we were in the air and headed to the islands. The approach to Baltra and the airport was exciting as we could see many members of the archipelago from the air. The terrain was very gray and dry with very little green. The cacti looked quite parched. The islands are experiencing a drought.

After retrieving our bags and paying the park fee, we met our guide, Angelika, and the rest of the passengers and were brought to the Tip Top III by dinghy. We went to our cabin, small and compact, but comfortable, unpacked and then went up on deck where many of us gathered and began to get to know each other. We are a diverse group in age, nationality and experience. There are 4 others from the States (one couple and two single women), two couples from Ottowa, a couple from Scotland, a couple from Switzerland, and a couple from Australia. Doug and I are the oldest with a few others close to our age. The youngest are in their upper 20s.

Lunch is served at 12:00 daily and, afterwards, there is a siesta time. So about 2:30 we boarded the dinghies and were brought to Las Baches Beach on Santa Cruz. Angelika has lived in the islands for over thirty years and is quite knowledgeable. We walked for about an hour as she pointed out the birds and animals. We saw Sally Lightfoot crabs, named after a dancer because they walk on the tips of their claws. They are quite colorful - red with blue. The darker they are, the younger they are. Newborns are black, blending into the lava which protects them from predators. A large flock of blue-footed boobies were swarming and dive bombing off shore in a feeding frenzy. Other sightings included brown pelicans, frigatebirds, Noddy terns, and marine iguanas.

The terns land on the heads of the pelicans and snatch small fish from the water as it drains from the pelican's pouch. We also saw a Franklin gull do the same which was a surprise to Angelika. We watched as a whimbrel chased and caught a small crab. We stopped at a small lagoon in which a lone flamingo was feeding. We had seen six flying overhead. The beach is filled with deep indentations, the nests of green sea turtles. Many of them were marked with poles placed by scientists who are monitoring them. It was interesting to see the frigatebirds cruising over the nest sites, in anticipation, perhaps. Angelika explained that the birds are able to detect sand movement when the turtles begin to hatch and so they fly low over the nests disturbing the sand and eventually uncovering the hatchlings.

When we returned to the beach we had an opportunity to explore a bit on our own. Doug and I walked down the beach and ended up at a lagoon where the other 5 flamingoes were feeding. We also saw lava gulls, black-necked stilts, white-cheeked pintails, sanderlings and a whimbrel.

We returned to the boat and had time to shower, relax and reflect before our nightly briefing. Angelika gave us an overview of the geology and volcanism of the islands and told us what to expect for the week. The itinerary is not the one we signed up for! We had chosen to explore the older islands which have less lava and more vegetation and therefore, we reasoned, wouldn't be as hot given that I do not do well in the heat. We also learned that while snorkeling would be an almost daily activity, there would only be two opportunities for kayaking. This, again, was not what Adventure Life told us. It came as a shock, but there is nothing we can do about it now. (As it turned out we would not have kayaked anyway since what they call kayaks are just molded plastic rafts that do not sit in the water. In the waves and currents around the islands, we would not have felt safe! Also, heat was not a problem due to the constant breezes that occur)

After dinner, we discovered that we are moored too close to other boats and therefore, there is too much light to view the night sky. Hopefully, this won't be the case every night.

February 21

We will be having breakfast at 6:30 every day and will depart for shore at 7:30. This morning we headed to Santiago (having moved from Santa Cruz during the night) and Sullivan Bay where we took about a 2 hour hike on the lava. Angelika explained the volcanism of the island. The last eruption here was about 120 years ago. Most of the lava is pahoehoe, which is smooth and ropy. Small white lines indicate where cracks are beginning to form. In some of the larger cracks, there is a plant growing. However, because of the drought, these are stringy and sere. We saw areas of collapse as well as areas of smooth lava which indicate greater heat. There are a kind of tree, members of the aster family, that grow to look like broccoli stalks, sort of.

We were treated to lava lizards, a warbler, Galapagos flycatchers, a lava heron, blue-footed boobies dive bombing fish, a finch, a Galapagos mocking bird, and a Galapagos hawk, soaring overhead.

Everyone went snorkeling, except me. I sat on the beach and took in the view and saw a Galapagos shark swimming close to the shore. Doug snorkeled for the first time and swam with a penguin!

After lunch and siesta, we took a dinghy ride along the lava cliffs to view the Galapagos penguins as they walked on the lava and swam in the waves, which sometimes knocked them down. We saw a blue-footed booby sitting on a rock, preening, as we rounded Pinnacle Rock, getting our first close up view of the blue feet. We landed at the beach and again had the opportunity to snorkel. I had brought my umbrella along and was comfortable and shaded, watching the waves and the clouds in this magical place.

After about half an hour, we returned to the boat, changed out of wet clothes, and were taken to Bartolome Island to walk the path, which is a combination of boardwalk and stairs, to the top which gave us ionic views so associated with these islands. Angelika told more about the features of the volcanoes and the lava. It was a lovely end to the day.

We traveled overnight to just north of the equator and moored off of Genovesa. Sleep will be a challenge as the noise of the anchor raising and lowering is a bit jarring!

February 22

The dinghies brought us to Prince Phillip's Steps on Genovesa. Angelika had been here three weeks ago and said it had been dry and grey. Apparently, there had been some rain because there is a great deal of greenery ... trees leafed out, grasses, seedlings and some flowers.

At the top of the stairs, we were greeted by a red-footed booby - red feet and blue beak - sitting on a pillar and posing for us. All around, there were red-footed and masked (Nazca) boobies, docile, beautiful and close enough for eye contact. The masked boobies have intense yellow eyes. We also got to view a couple of fluffy, white-downed red-footed young on their nests, as well as some courting couples. The masked booby male whistles while the female honks.

There were frigatebirds of all ages in shrubs and flying. One great frigate (green iridescence on his back; the magnificent's iridescence is purple) with an inflated pouch, an indication to females that he is available, was waiting patiently. It takes about 20 minutes to inflate and the bird will sit until a female joins him or until he becomes hungry. At that point he will partially deflate and go in search of food which could be stolen from others or flying fish caught as they jump out of the water.

Doug and I were the only ones to see a pair of finches in a tree building a nest. (Angelika identified them from the photos as large ground finches). A pair of mockingbirds treated us to a courtship dance. She sat on the ground, feathers fluffed, and he danced around her. He mounted her briefly. We weren't sure if that was foreplay or completion!

As we approached the more barren landscape, out of the foliage, there was a short-eared owl in the distance. There are no hawks on Genovesa, so the owls are diurnal. Angelika said there is often an owl sitting out there, waiting for a storm petrel to emerge from a crack in the lava where they nest. A bit further on we got a closer look at another owl which was seeking shelter from the sun in a larger crack.

Several of the trees were flowering - tiny, fragrant blossoms. One yellow, ground-spreading plant was a puncture weed which produces the hardest nuts, food for the finches with the heftiest beaks. The shore pansy has lots of green leaves and a broad, round blossom reminding me of a morning glory. There were several unidentified flowers, not surprising as the attraction in the islands is the animal life and I seemed to be the only one focused on the flora.

Off shore, behind where we saw the owl, storm petrels were swarming along with frigatebirds, filling the sky with dark, moving spots. From the dinghy, on our return to the boat, we were able to view sea lions and fur seals lounged on the rocks. Several red-billed tropic birds were visible as well.

After a deep water snorkeling excursion, lunch and siesta, we were taken to Darwin Bay, also on Genovesa. It was a wet landing in a rising tide. We had an opportunity to swim and then we took a walk along the cliff over very rocky terrain. We passed sea lions with pups, masked and red-footed boobies, several red-footed young, all fluffy and downy. There were many swallow-tail gulls which have large eyes outlined in read against a black head. One pair showed us how they mate. We also saw mockingbirds, Galapagos doves which are quite colorful, and large ground finches. The prickly pear cacti are huge and have more compact blossoms than their smaller relatives in Colorado.

Our time on Genovesa was magical. To be in such close proximity of wild creatures who are totally undisturbed by own presence was a privilege. An the sounds - the clacks, honks, squawks, whistles, squeaks and chatters!

Genovesa is a large round island with a huge, water-filled caldera. From the air, the island looks like the letter C because one part has eroded away, making it an incomplete circle. The caldera is quite deep (it hasn't been measured) and there are only a few spots where it is shallow enough for boats to drop anchor.

February 23

After a relatively late breakfast at 7:15, we went to another part of Santiago, James Bay (Puerto Egas), a black sand beach. We walked along a trail through some trees, grasses, cacti and shrubs with blue-footed boobies flying off the cliffs and ground finches and mockingbirds flitting around. The trail led to lava cliffs which reminded me of the sandstone landscapes of the southwest as well as the coastal lava cliffs in Hawaii.

There were many pools, both deep and shallow, hollowed out by the pounding surf. Marine iguanas and fur seals inhabited these depressions. One deep depression was like a blowhole, filling up with water, swirling and foaming with the receding waves. Black rock against the blue of the sky and water - beautiful and dramatic!

We saw some stilts and ruddy turnstone. Galapagos flycatchers flitted around us. This species likes to pluck strands of hair from humans' heads to use in their nest building. One landed on my head, tickling as it briefly walked around.

Back on the beach, we wandered a bit to the furthest point we were allowed to walk. There were two arches in the lava, one of which had formed only in the last year. The forces of nature which create this beauty are apparent everywhere.

Doug went snorkeling and observed some white-tipped sharks and sea lions cavorting in a little trough. I sat in the shade of a manzanilla or poison apple, which is a member of the spurge family, and are poisonous to all except tortoises which adore them. Angelika advised us not to touch any part of the tree!

We saw 2 Galapagos hawks - one flying overhead as we approached the beach and the other (or perhaps the same one) as we explored the area near the arches.

After lunch, I decided to stay on board while everyone went to Espumilla Beach, a red sand beach, on Santiago. Everyone said I didn't miss much. Doug saw an Ani and they walked through a mangrove forest, saw a goat skeleton, and went swimming. I read and watched the waves and clouds. The silence was broken when the alarm went off and the crew started running around. I was a bit panicked as we had had a drill in the event of an emergency when we first got on board. I didn't know what was happening. Should I go get my life vest or what? Francisco came to my rescue and told me it was "preparation" and motioned me to remain. Then he ran upstairs and the alarm ceased. After all the activity, the captain came down and apologized. Apparently he didn't realize there was anyone on board and he staged a drill for the crew. They really got into action testing equipment. It was good to know they are ready in the event of an emergency.

Every night after dinner, we have gone up to the top deck to marvel at the night sky. There are so many stars! Orion is visible as is the Milky Way, but we have been unable to identify other constellations. Angelika told us that at about 10:00 we would be able to see both the Big Dipper and the Southern Cross, but I doubt we'll be up that late!

February 24

We were in the dinghies by 7:15 this morning for a ride along the cliffs of North Isabela, the finger area and the broken caldera. We went along the flank of Volcano Ecuador, at Punta Vicente Roca. We saw penguins, flightless cormorants, many marine iguanas sunning themselves on rocks, one on top of another, lava gulls, brown pelicans, great frigatebirds, blue-footed boobies, masked (Nazca) boobies, storm petrels, shearwaters, a few green turtles, and sea lions.

The volcanoes were crowned with clouds, the walls high and varied, the erosional forces we observe at home so evident here. At times, it was akin to floating in the Grand Canyon, until we neared the cliffs and the crashing waves and cascading water broke the spell. At one point we entered a cave carved in the island, dark and mysterious, not unlike what you might find in Canyonlands in Utah.

After lunch and a siesta, we went to Punta Espinoza on Fernandina for a wonderful hike. As we alighted from the dinghies, we had to walk through a gauntlet of marine iguanas draped across one another and the path. We had to tiptoe into bare spots because these creatures seemed totally unaware that we were there. The odor was quite strong!

We walked through a small thicket onto lava flats and made our way to pools where sea lion cubs were cavorting. They were being watched over by a male and eventually a female showed up. Marine iguanas occupied the same pools, though on the fringes. Small lava lizards crawl over the rocks and their larger cousins. Across from the pools, there is a nesting area for the iguanas. Indentations were visible where eggs had been laid as well as many females actively carving out their nests.

Further on, we came to a small group of flightless cormorants and more iguanas. Angelika said that in an El Nino year, the population of iguanas and penguins will drop due to the lack of nutrients in the water which is diluted by all the rain. They will rebound as the area dries out.

As we walked along the path, we spotted a Galapagos hawk in the distance on a shrub. It flew and we continued on. As we rounded a curve in the trail, we again saw the hawk, standing sentinel, for a bit farther on were 2 others, the mother and her mottled young, eating an iguana. We were literally within two meters of the male and slightly more from the other two. Truly a close encounter of the amazing kind!

Other sightings included a mockingbird, a small ground finch, some oyster catchers, yearling iguanas, a partial whale skeleton (moved inland by the naturalists), and a couple of complete iguana skeletons. We watched as two cormorants built a nest on the bare rock by laying some seaweed down. Life and death in the natural world.

Perhaps one of the most amazing sights was to see many iguanas lined up on the rocks facing the sun. As temperatures rise, they face the sun and raise their heads and torso in the reptile version of the cobra pose, thereby casting a shadow on their backs and tails, regulating their body temperatures. Rita nailed it when she declared that they looked like a cult performing a ritual!

February 25

We were on Isabela a little after 7 this morning, landing at Urbina Bay, at the base of Alcedo Volcano. About 100 yards from where we dropped our towels and gear, we saw our first Giant Tortoise. It was a young one, only about 30 years old according to Angelika. We saw about 15 tortoises along the trail, of all ages and sizes. The shell plates have rings, much like trees, which help to determine age. Angelika, however, estimates by size.

Soon, we began seeing land iguanas which are bigger than their marine cousins, and are a golden orange color with longer snouts. The first two we encountered were male with a female behind, sticking out of a burrow.

The path was along the area of the island that experienced a tectonic uplift in 1954. We saw evidence of this along the trail by the presence of barnacles and tubeworms in abundance on the rocks. There was also an area with a great deal of coral, including a huge brain coral which was being eroded and broken over time.

There were mockingbirds and finches flitting around and lots of wasps. Fortunately no one was stung, but I was having flashbacks of the dry forest in Costa Rica when I was stung 35 times!

Today was the first day that the heat was a problem, mostly because we had gone into the interior where the ocean breezes didn't reach. We had to climb over various sections of aa lava as we made our way back to the beach. One section required using our hands to maneuver over the maze of rocks.

Penguins, blue-footed boobies, a great blue heron and a night heron were at the beach as we swam and cooled off. One penguin swam around us over and over as if checking us out but was actually looking for food. We watched a pelican dive for food over and over ... very efficient! The dive bombing boobies put on a show, often in tandem and in perfect synchronicity.

Our afternoon outing was an hour and a half dinghy ride at Elizabeth Bay which is a series of lava islands colonized by red and white mangroves. As we approached, Santiago and Fernando turned off the motors and paddles among the islands on calm water, reminiscent of the canals in Costa Rica. We watched turtles and penguins swim, sea lions lounging on horizontal mangrove trunks, pelicans, and a mangrove heron. One pair of penguins return to the same spot to nest every year. It was slow and gentle, magical and unexpected.

The mangroves are amazing organisms, able to survive in salt water, sending shoots down across and around, creating a thick tangle of impressive and impenetrable thickets. Red mangroves have long cylindrical seeds with the ability to germinate while still attached to the parent tree. When they separate from the parent, they drop and float vertically until they find purchase on a crack in the rock and start growing. We saw many such shoots. White mangroves are also viviparous. Like black mangroves, they produce above ground root extensions which help them to breathe.

As we began to head back to the boat, it began to rain lightly, the only rain of the trip. The sky was gray and the waves lively. We were all chilled and once back on the boat changed into long pants and sweaters. Who would have predicted we'd be cold while visiting the equator!

We were able to view the sunset without boats or islands in the way for the first time. How quickly the sun sets here!

We had a rough passage around the bottom of Isabela this evening. Two currents ... the Humboldt and the Cromwell ... come together. More than half of the passengers were seasick, including me! The boat rocked and rolled for several hours and the waves slammed into the hull until we finally anchored after midnight.

February 26

Before heading back into civilization, we took a short walk on a trail through a lava field were we saw white-tipped sharks resting in a trough created by a lava wall. We walked to a nesting site where we saw lots of female iguanas fighting for nesting sites. They open their mouth and pant and hiss at each other. It is quite comical.

Then we went into Puerto Villamil, a small town of about 2,000 inhabitants and bustling with tourists. It was quite the culture shock as we got out of the dinghies onto the dock! We got into vans which took us 26 kilometers up to the trail that we hiked to the top of Volcano Sierra Negra. There is much construction going on…cinder block buildings, road work, and activity everywhere.

The trail, steep in parts, took us through lush grasses and flowers, all quite small. There are few pollinators in the islands so many of the plants are self-pollinating or are pollinated by the wind. After about 40 minutes we were at the top, staring into a huge caldera. The last eruption was in 2005 across from where we stood. The vans were waiting for us when we descended and took us back to town where we got back in the dinghies and returned to the boat for lunch.

We went back to Puerto Villamil in the afternoon. We got on a "goat", which is an open truck with benches and were brought to some lagoons where flamingos, stilts and other water fowl can be routinely seen. Two of the flamingoes were white, indicating that they were young and had not her water fowl can be routinely seen. Two of the flamingoes were young and still white since they get their beautiful pink color from that they eat.

We were then delivered to the National Park's tortoise breeding and rearing center. Here there are separate walled in areas for tortoises of various ages. We arrived just in time to observe a pair mating. There is much grunting from the male and turning by the female with the male on top of her. We saw young tortoises and newborns, only 1 month old! The sex of the hatchling is determined by the temperature under which the eggs are gestated, the male slightly warmer than the female. They are able to develop more females for release into the wild.

We walked back into town along a trail which took us past the lagoon again, 1,000 steps (according to Angelika) through vegetation most of the way. We went to a bar on the beach where we had drinks, watched the waves, and enjoyed each other's company for our last afternoon together.

Back on the boat, we packed, had a farewell toast with the crew, had our last dinner together and retired early, fearing that we would have another rough night moving to Santa Cruz. To everyone's relief, it turned out to be a calm crossing.

February 27

We were up early, had our bags packed and on the dinghies by 7:15. We arrived in Puerto Ayora and boarded a bus which would take us across the island. As a group, we opted out of visiting the Charles Darwin research Center where they rear tortoises for we felt it would be a repeat of the breeding station we visited yesterday.

We made two stops as we rode up and over the island through dry, then lush vegetation and back into dry. The first stop was at huge lava tubes and the second was at two collapses or sinkholes. At the top are scelesia forests which are members of the sunflower family. Though they look like trees, they are merely large sunflowers! The thick stems are moss covered, giving an eerie presence to the forest.

Once we reached the port, we got on a ferry which brought us to Baltra where we transferred to a bus which took us to the airport. All of us were on the flight to Guayaquil, except for Mike and Rita who were staying in Puerto Ayora for a few days, so we had more time to mingle with each other.

Most of our group got off in Guayaquil and the rest went on to Quito. We were met there by Giovanni and Carlos who brought us to The Rincon de Puembo where we will spend the night and leave from early in the morning for our flight back to Miami after our long-awaited and thoroughly fantastic adventure in the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador.

Galapagos Trip Home Quito to Galapagos Santa Cruz (Las Bachas Beach) Santiago & Bartolome Genovese (Prince Phillips Steps) Genovesa (Darwin Bay) Santiago (James Bay, Espumilla Beach & BuccaneerCove) Isabela (Punta Vicente Roca) Fernandina Isabela (Urbina Elizabeth Bays) Isabela (Tintoreras, Volcan Sierra Negra, Tortoise Breeding Center) Santa Cruz(Highlands), Boat, People, Crew