One year ago today, Matt and I moved to Ecuador. It was a whirlwind: we traveled to the Galapagos Islands at the end of February 2015 for Matt’s job interview with the Tomas de Berlanga school, the school made him an offer and two weeks later we left Peru. After two weeks in the US getting together paperwork for our visas, we landed in Quito. A frustrating month of bureaucracy later, and we were on the Galapagos, ready to begin the next phase of our expat lives. One year later, we are back in Peru on vacation to visit some friends and see the sights we missed when we lived there. Who said you can never go back?
Truth be told, we preferred our life in Peru to our life in the Galapagos. As my friend Beth pointed out when we announced our move, we never even went on beach vacations but were moving to an island. We were captivated by the beauty and mystique of the Galapagos and forged ahead. We did not account for the isolation, intemperate climate, small town life and limited accessibility to well, everything. We thought we were prepared for these things (apart from the climate) after living in the the Andes of Peru, but island living is psychologically very different and the Galapagos are more remote than Cajamarca. Island living also seems to attract many interesting types of people and while we have made some excellent friends and met many smart and accomplished folks, there are a lot of quirky personalities that land on an island and never leave.
Despite its challenges, we have had amazing experiences in the past year. We’ve snorkeled with sharks (more times than I wanted, which would have been none), rays, penguins, turtles, eels and fish galore. We’ve seen blue footed and red footed boobies, albatrosses doing their mating dance, frigates, herons, tropicbirds, rare gulls, hawks, owls and Galapagos finches and mockingbirds. We have visited the giant tortoises in the highlands and hiked on lava fields and in lava craters. Daily we stroll past snoozing sea lions, seemingly prehistoric marine iguanas and bright red Sally Lightfoot crabs. We go to sleep with the sound of the surf as our lullaby.
We buy fresh seafood at the fish market and have learned the true meaning of “when your ship comes in” as we wait for the cargo ship to arrive to restock the grocery shelves. We coexist with geckos, teeny-tiny ants and spiders, and I kill huge cockroaches (almost) without a second thought. I will never get used to not flushing my toilet paper. We have become friendlier with strangers because sometimes all it takes to forge a connection is a Green Bay Packers shirt.
And our experiences are not limited to the islands. One day after our arrival in Quito we witnessed the Good Friday procession, which was a purple-clad sight to be seen. We experienced the equator twice – once by land and once by sea. We visited the Amazon jungle where the monkeys were my favorite although swimming in a lake full of caiman, anacondas, electric eels and piranhas makes a great story. We toured churches and museums in Quito, including the moving Guayasamin museum. We learned that land iguanas sleep in trees when we couldn’t find them the morning we went to Iguana Park in Guayquil and then thought to look up.
This year has not been the easiest, but it has brought new and unique experiences. Some day I will be sitting in a nursing home and the staff will be rolling their eyes and assuming I have lost it when I talk about when I lived on the Galapagos Islands.
Last week Matt and I were lucky to be on board the Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic Endeavour for a week-long cruise around the eastern Galapagos Islands. We found out late Thursday that we were approved for the trip and set off early Saturday morning to San Cristobal to meet up with the ship. The 2 1/2 boat ride was rough and despite dramamine and my handy pressure point wristbands, I learned a new meaning for walk of shame – walking off the boat with a puke bag in hand. Thankfully, I had prescription scopolamine patches left behind by some friends and slapped one on as soon as we got on board. We were ready to cruise!
We had only been on one cruise before – Alaska’s inside passage on a ginormous ship – and to say it was not my favorite vacation is an understatement. In addition to getting seasick, I did not enjoy the canned feeling of a sedentary voyage that catered to middle America tastes. What a difference this experience was! The fact that it was not a cruise but an “expedition” set the tone. Our schedule was packed with hikes, snorkeling trips, kayak outings and the like and led by naturalists who had a passion for the wildlife and setting. The passengers were primarily adventurous, active folks who were eager to learn about the Galapagos and see as much as possible. That said, we still had ample meals and time to relax. Sunset at the equator is 6 pm, so we were always back on board relatively early, particularly given that the ship doesn’t dock anywhere but instead uses zodiacs (hard bottomed rubber boats) to transport us between the ship and shore (or kayak or snorkeling spot). Getting between the ship and the zodiac is not always an easy feat in choppy waters. On the pier in San Cristobal some of our fellow passengers quickly set up a pool – $20 per person with the pot going to the first person unintentionally to go overboard during the transfer. Never one to pass up a gambling opportunity, we were in. Surprisingly, while there were some close calls, no one went overboard.
The magic of the Galapagos is its wildlife. While neither Matt nor I are birders, the birds proved to be fascinating on this trip. The first treat was seeing the waved albatross engaged in their mating dance on Española Island. This is not the normal mating season, and we saw some unusual animal activity on the trip, which our guides attributed to El Niño.
Albatross mate for life and each season lay one egg on open ground. Both partners incubate the egg and caring for it includes rolling it around. We didn’t see that spectacle, though I was hoping.
Next up were the Nazca Boobies. These are the largest of the 3 booby species found on the islands. The juveniles spend considerable time practicing to fly before they learn. They also are heavier than the adults (typical teens) and have to slim down before they can get airborn.
It is a bit hard to tell mating behavior versus fighting, but these two were having a turf war, much to the interest of their neighbors.
Not to be outdone, the Red Footed Boobies are pretty spectacular and should be called the Multicolored Beak – Red Footed Boobies.
Of course, the ubiquitous Blue Footed Boobies were also spotted.
We didn’t just bird watch. Matt’s favorite part of any trip is the snorkeling and we went on all 6 of the snorkeling excursions offered.
Unfortunately, on our second outing we got water in the camera. After trying to dry it out for a day we plugged it in to charge the battery and returned to our cabin a couple of hours later to find the cord melted into the camera. We were relieved we didn’t burn down the ship. We especially wished we had the camera for our snorkeling outing to Bartolomé. Often cited as the best of the islands, it did not disappoint. We saw just about every type of fish, coral, and sea creature (with the exception of sea turtles, penguins or sharks) that we have ever seen in the Galapagos and the structure around which we swam was fantastic. In the picture below, we snorkeled from the beach on the right to the end of the point with the peak.
We had a human-focused excursion to Post Office Bay on the island of Floreana where we continued a mail swapping tradition that dates back at least to 1793. The guides open the mail barrel and read out the addresses on the postcards inside. If one is close to your home, you take the postcard and deliver it in person. We took a few from the Milwaukee area although the recipients will have to wait until next year for their special delivery.
Back on the zodiac, a naturalist spotted some penguins so we zipped over to take a closer look.
Other adventures included searching for elusive land iguanas on Cerro Dragon on Santa Cruz (our home island – Matt actually went to school to give the tour for the passengers and I went home and did a load of laundry the first day we were there).
We saw the cruel side of nature: the kleptoparasitic frigatebirds that steal food from other birds by attacking them and shaking them by the tail and starving sea lion babies whose mothers likely were eaten by sharks.
We learned to look past natural camouflage.
And to enjoy the flamboyant.
There was something great to see every time we looked.
A trip to remember and a new appreciation for cruises!
A month ago, before our friend Jo returned to England, we went on a snorkeling day trip to Pinzón. While I enjoyed our bird watching trip to North Seymour island, Matt prefers snorkeling to bird watching and this trip was right up his alley because you cannot touch foot on Pinzón without a special permit. Instead this trip entailed 3 snorkeling stops around Pinzón and a visit to a beach on Santa Cruz. First step was taking a water taxi from the Puerto Ayora dock to the boat, the Contagious, which was no-frills compared to the boat from our prior trip. I was glad that I had popped dramamine before we set off as the seas were bumpy.
After about an hour and a half crashing through the waves, we arrived at our first snorkeling destination, a calm bay. Three penguins flopped into the water as we were disembarking but we never saw them afterwards. We jumped off the boat and started swimming. It was like we were in a fish tank. The water was crystal clear and everywhere we looked there were fish and more fish. While many fish were the same types we see at the beach near our house, they were much bigger in the deeper water.
Our guide (whose name escapes me) was a great guy who made sure we saw a lot. He swam with us and pointed out tons of things I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. He also stirred things up at times…
Next stop was in a deeper area with a stronger current. The fun continued.
I hate snakes. Eels are simply snakes of the water.
The show-off sea lion was more entertaining.
Then Jo called me over. I thought it was to see a sea turtle, which I had yet to see. I was wrong.
Despite my fear, I followed this guy for awhile. Then I decided not to press my luck and went back to viewing tamer animals.
At this stop, Matt and I also had a baby sea lion playfully swim back and forth between us. Happily, we did not see it get eaten by a shark.
Our third snorkeling stop was equally spectacular. As I still hadn’t seen any sea turtles, our guide came and got me when he spotted some. He linked his arm through mine and we swam off after them. Fantastic.
Then it was shark time once again. Our guide woke up the sharks for our viewing enjoyment. Who the heck wakes up sharks?!
Strangely, being in a group and with a guide made me feel safer. Maybe someone else would look tastier than I? Still, I could only watch them for so long. As we continued swimming there was suddenly this big shadow below me in the water. I instinctively glanced over my shoulder to see what large thing was above me just as a realized that I was seeing a HUGE manta ray beneath me. Matt said he reacted the same way. We agreed that its wings were 12-15 feet wide. It appeared to float away. Unbelievable.
On the way back to Santa Cruz, we swung by Daphne to check out the animals on shore. Highlights were the masked booby and fur sea lion.
A fantastic trip and one I recommend to any snorkeler. Thank you Jo Browne for the awesome photos! An underwater camera is on the shopping list for our trip to the US next year…
The two main draws for tourism in Paracas are the Ballestas Islands and Paracas National Reserve, and neither was a disappointment. The Ballestas Islands, dubbed the “poor man’s Galapagos,” are a group of rocky islands teeming with birds. Those with ornithophobia beware: the pelicans, terns, boobies, and cormorants are everywhere, swooping, gliding, diving, soaring, cawing, trilling, tweeting and pooping. Oh yes, pooping. We were forewarned to wear hats and while the trip ended with only a small splatter on Matt’s sleeve, others in our boat weren’t as lucky. Guano is a big cash crop for Peru and the islands have a guard to protect the poop.
In addition to the flying birds are Humboldt penguins and sea lions. As an added bonus, the boats pass the Paracas Candelabra, another gigantic sand figure, believed to date to around 200 BC.
The day after the Ballestras we toured the Paracas National Reserve. I really had no idea what the reserve was and assumed the tour was to see animals of some kind, but I was wrong (except for a few seabirds). Instead we saw amazing yellow and red sand beaches. Poor Paracas – when it was hit by the earthquake in 2007 its landmark, a rock formation called the Cathedral toppled into the ocean. The guide still points it out, but now it is just a couple of rocks jutting up from the ocean. In addition to guano, another Peruvian marine export is seaweed for cosmetics, and we saw men in wet suits exiting the ocean with bags of seaweed. We met Peter and Annie, a couple from London who now live in the Falklands, on the excursion and joined them for a few drinks at the upscale Doubletree after the tour. (Check out Peter’s blog at http://www.peterspenguinpost.blogspot.com.) All in all, a pleasant day!
Last stop on the Paracas Tour: Tambo Colorado