Santa Cruz Island is not all beaches and marine life. There is also the middle of the island, the “Parte Alta” or Highlands, that is lush and green. Here you find the giant tortoises*.
The Galapagos giant tortoises have had a rough history. After enjoying island life for many years, they were rendered close to extinction (and some species are believed to be extinct) due to their use as a food source by pirates, whalers and sailors and the introduction of animal species that feast on the eggs, compete for food or damage the tortoises’ natural habitat. Human habitation on the islands also contributed to the tortoises’ demise. The tortoises are now legally protected and thanks to conservation efforts, including eradicating some introduced animal species and captive breeding and raising, their numbers have increased. It is not unusual to see them on the side of the road in the Highlands. Shortly after we arrived, a school parent was driving us in the Highlands when I mentioned that I wanted to see a tortoise in the wild. He obliged me by spotting this one.
Of course, then we had to oblige by trekking through the mud to see it up close!
To increase your chance to see more of them and to get a little closer (but not closer than 6 feet – the law in Galapagos for any animal) it is better to visit a tortoise reserve. The reserves are nothing more than private land on which the tortoises like to hang out. They cannot be held captive and come and go as they please. For females, this includes making an annual trek to the beach to lay their eggs.
In the past year I have gone to three tortoise reserves: Rancho El Manzanillo, El Chato and Rancho Primicias. All are essentially the same. You take a cab from town and then pay $3 to wander around and look at whatever tortoises are hanging about. El Chato and Primicias have the added bonus of lava tunnels on the property that you can walk through. I first went to El Manzanillo with a visiting tourist, Diana, whom I met on a snorkeling tour. Diana was traveling alone so we palled around for a few days. The day we went to the Highlands was rainy and by the end we were soaked and muddy.
In addition to El Manzanillo, we also stopped at the Los Tuneles de Amor for a walk through an 800 meter/875 yard lava tunnel (also muddy but too dark for good photos) and hiked into a crater at Cerro Mesa. I set us on such a brisk hiking pace that the owners didn’t believe we went all the way to the crater’s bottom!
My next tortoise reserve visit was with Carl and Sheri to El Chato. This property has a number of short lava tunnels. Sheri and I walked through one of them and then left Carl to do the rest on his own. Above ground, we saw several tortoises.
Last week Matt made his first visit to a tortoise reserve with our friends Jill, Claude, Jamie, Sonia and Kathy. We started our Rancho Primicias adventure at the challenging lava tunnel and were rewarded by this guy at the entrance.
After shimmying our way though a tight squeeze, it got even tougher when we had to crawl!
We remarked as we made our way through the tunnel that it would never fly in the US due to liability concerns. The way was dark, slippery, rocky and treacherous at times, but we had a ball and were happy to be out of the scorching sun.
After the tunnel, we went in search of giant tortoises and were not disappointed.
General silliness ensued after the hike.
A visit to the Highlands is worth it when you are on the island. It is nice to get away from the beach and see a different environment and the tortoises are amazing. Some we saw were around 170 years old and one weighed about 500 pounds. Even Matt, who was a reluctant visitor to the reserve, thought it was a good time.
Thanks to Diana, Jill, Jamie and Sheri for their photos. Matt too, of course, but I always am using his photos!
*Thanks to Jill, I finally learned that a turtle swims and lives in water at least part of the time and a tortoise lives on land.