Cruising the Galapagos

Kicker Rock

Kicker Rock

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.

Hmmm

Hmmm

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.

Bartolomé Vista

Bartolomé Vista

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.

 

 

Cruel Side of Nature

Heartbreak

We learned to look past natural camouflage.

And to enjoy the flamboyant.

Flamingo Bay

Flamingo Bay

There was something great to see every time we looked.

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A trip to remember and a new appreciation for cruises!

Weekend Escape to Isabela Island

Two Tuesdays ago Matt called me with exciting news: he was going to be off school the following Monday, providing his first day off since we arrived here. Originally, his school was required to march in a parade on August 10, in commemoration of Quito Independence Day, but on Tuesday the local government cancelled the parade due to road construction. Subsequently, on Thursday, there was some confusion when the parade was reinstated, but on Friday schools were again deemed exempt. A good thing as we had already paid for our non-refundable hotel on Isabela Island.

Apart from our day trips, this was our first opportunity to explore a new island. From Santa Cruz, the two best options for a weekend getaway are San Cristobal or Isabela. We chose Isabela because the túneles (tunnels) snorkeling trip is supposed to be one of the best of the islands and I miss hiking after living in Cajamarca and Isabela has a volcano hiking trip I wanted to do. Both islands are a 2 -2 1/2 hour ferry ride away. “Ferry” is a term used loosely here:

Destiny ferry

Destiny ferry

Yep, that was the boat we and 20 other people were going to crash through waves in during a 2 hour ride just at the time that the weather cooled off a bit and the seas got a little rougher. Lucky us. I prepared with my usual dramamine, acupressure sea bands and soothing music and decided an empty stomach was the way to go. We got to the pier about 6:20 am on Saturday, went through the inspection line to ensure we were not bringing anything organically harmful to another island and caught a water taxi (a blatant, 50¢ shake down, increased to $1 on Isabela) to our ferry and settled in for the ride.

Departure Gate

Departure Gate

And what a ride it was. Tellingly, they hand out barf bags when you embark. Happily, neither Matt nor I used them, and I decided that pounding through waves is actually easier (not easy, mind you) on my stomach than swaying in the waves, but the ride was bone jarring. Not as bone jarring as what was about to come a few days later on our snorkeling trip, but rough on the back. We had a few pukers on board and I realized that an added incentive to not puking was that after you did so, you got to hold your bag of vomit for the rest of the trip.

As we pulled into Isabela we were treated to penguins zooming alongside the boat. That cheered up everyone after the trying ride.

We dropped off our bags at our hotel, the Red Mangrove Isabela Lodge, and walked into town for some breakfast and to shop for tours. The town is loaded with travel agencies all selling the same 3 or 4 tours. We compared prices at 3 of them and then lined up the volcano hike ($35 per person) for Sunday and the Túneles ($85 per person) for Monday morning before our departure back to Isabela. I had read that to dine at the nicer hotels for dinner you need to make a reservation and order your food in advance, so we headed over to the lovely Iguana Crossing hotel to make a dinner reservation. And guess what: we did, indeed, see 4 iguanas crossing the road right at the edge of the hotel property.

We enjoyed the rest of the day hanging out on the hotel patio and snorkeling at the fabulous Concha de Perla. Located near the pier, you head down a wooden walkway through the mangroves to reach the calm bay. On our walk there, 2 young sea lions were napping on the walkway. What a conundrum! In the Galapagos people are required to stay 6 feet away from the animals. We decided the 6 feet rule had exceptions and gingerly walked over the sea lions. Concha de Perla was crowded but well worth the visit. The water was serene and clear and one can easily swim alongside the reef and admire the coral, anemones and striking red-studded starfish.

It was a good thing we relaxed because we were up early for our 7:15 pick up for our Sierra Negra volcano hike. Confusion ensued when a cabbie picked us up, took us to pick up our box lunch only to realize a few blocks later that we weren’t his passengers. We had even showed him our tickets to confirm we were his passengers. He drove us back to the hotel where eventually another cabbie picked us up and took us to get a different box lunch before driving us up to the highlands of the island. Matt and I agreed that the first box lunch looked better than the second.

While we were told that the tour was 16 km, or 10 miles, no one really pointed out that 10 miles up a volcano is a relatively challenging hike. We were fine because we are accustomed to walking, had proper footwear and after hiking at high altitude in Cajamarca, a hike at 3,000 feet isn’t difficult, but others in our group struggled. The first part was through a lush, verdant area. The mist was heavy and the path, muddy.

We got to the rim of the Sierra Negra crater, the second largest in the world, and couldn’t see a thing. The entire crater was covered in fog. We continued hiking along the rim and then left the verdant area and passed through an in-between scrubby area before eventually arriving in a arid area covered by volcanic rock.

Except under this gorgeous tree – it was wet and misty there.

Rainy Respite

Rainy Respite

We hit the volcano field. I had no idea that volcanic rock could be so interesting. Seriously. The colors and patterns were just incredible. Because Sierra Negra is an active volcano, there were many furnaces, which were warm to the touch. We crossed several areas of lava from different eruptions and eventually reached a lookout point where we could see the Isabela coast and Fernandina island.

Well, we could see it momentarily before the fog blew in. We ate lunch at the peak and then began the return to the trailhead via the same path.

Fog Blowing In

Fog Blowing In

Matt, a Portuguese woman, Maria, and I hightailed it in front of the rest of the group. Our guide told us to keep glancing at the crater as we walked alongside it in case the fog lifted, but it never did. Matt and I were feeling pretty proud of our fast pace until we realized that we were in hiking boots and Maria, who was probably a few years older than us, was keeping up with us in Tevas. In any event, the 3 of us beat the rest of the group back to the beginning and were thankful that there was a cab waiting to take us back to town. We were soaked, muddy and ready to relax for the rest of the afternoon and evening.

The next morning was another early start with the same cabbie confusion. Eventually, the right guy came to get us. Our boat was the Capricorn and we went to the boat’s offices to get our wetsuits and snorkeling gear (Matt and I bring our own snorkel and masks but use the fins the tour companies provide. Wetsuits are on the list for our April visit to the US.). There were 8 other passengers: our new Portuguese friend Maria (who also ended up on the same ferry later in the day), an Italian woman with a French guy, an Ecuadorian family with 2 young children and a high-school aged Colombian boy. We got to the Capricorn and set off. Oh. My. God. Crashing through the waves doesn’t even begin to describe the experience. We were slamming through the waves and there were times the boat was airborne. I was happy that our captain was a cheerful fellow because I figured he didn’t have a death wish. At one point, an enormous  wave was coming toward the side of the boat. I think it was big enough to break over us because suddenly our captain turned on a dime and gunned the engine to mount the wave after which we zoomed down the other side. The ocean was our roller coaster.

After 45 minutes of this excitement (and one puker, not us), we approached another boat bobbing in the waves. We stopped and held too. The captains were waiting for the seas to calm enough to continue the journey to the tunnels. They never did and eventually we gave up and went to what was intended to be the second snorkeling stop of the trip, with the assurance that we would try to go the tunnels later.

Once in the water it became apparent that only 3 of us knew how to swim. The other 7 passengers ended up clutching their life vests, which were the huge, old-fashioned kind that would certainly keep you afloat but that you couldn’t swim in, or the round life saver. Our head guide had to tow several of the 7 in a line. The younger guide would swim around scouting for stuff to see and then the head guy would tow the crowd over. Because you are supposed to stick with your group, the non-swimmers made the trip a bit less fun for us. We were missing wildlife! I finally starting swimming along with the scout guide who would point out things along the way. In fact, I was the first passenger initially in the water and he immediately took me to see a huge sea turtle. He had me swim down to it and took a picture but unfortunately didn’t send us that one. All the same, it was an incredible trip because our guides made sure we saw tons of sea creatures.

It was the first time we saw seahorses. They were tricky to see as they are not always in their curled shape so sometimes they just look like a bumpy stick.

After a long time in the water, we boarded the boat. The captain assessed the situation and determined that it wasn’t safe to go to the tunnels, so we headed back to Isabela. It worked out fine because we had 3 hours on shore before we had to board the ferry. The ferry ride was even rougher on the way home than on the way to Isabela, but, once again, we were not the pukers on board. They pulled a bait and switch on us and we ended up crammed in a different boat that I did not think was as nice as the Destiny. But we made it home. Isabela was a great trip and is on our list to visit again despite the ferry ride.

The Wait Is Over – Galapagos, Here We Come!

I started writing this post before Matt secured his job as director of the Tomás de Berlanga school on Isla Santa Cruz in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. When I saw it in the archives it brought back all of the uncertainty we were feeling at the time, which continues in a reduced form to the present time as we hang out in Quito waiting for our visas to be processed, with our belongings somewhere in Lima, waiting to be shipped to us.

The waiting is the hardest part. Okay, that probably isn’t true for Matt. For me, it’s the hardest part: wondering where we will be moving, where Matt will find a job. For Matt, the hard part is the endless interviewing, selling himself multiple times a week and sometimes multiple times a day.

For our time at Davy School and in Peru is coming to an end. Unfortunately, within a few months of our arrival in Cajamarca in July 2013 the mine that funded that school announced it was cutting its support by 50% in 2014 and 2015 and then exiting the school business altogether by 2016. Matt’s expat salary, and those of the other expats, was an obvious place to cut costs. While the school would honor the contracts, the sooner we all left, the better. Matt’s contract is up July 2015, so this provided ample time to find a job.

I realize that many, many people have been involuntarily without work, but it was a first for both Matt and me. I also realize that he has had several months of lead time to start looking for a job, which is a luxury most people don’t have. But we don’t have a home. We sold everything when we decided to embark on the this expat life. We live in Peru because Matt’s job is here, but as soon as his job ends, his work visa is revoked and we need to leave. Where will we go?

So in August Matt began applying for jobs that were opening in January (Davy would be thrilled to release him from his contract) or July. Our geographical parameters were broad: South and Central America, most of Southeast Asia, Europe, Taiwan and Hong Kong. For political, safety and assorted reasons, the Middle East, Africa and Mainland China were off our list, as was Venezuela. And so the interviewing began. We didn’t keep track, but Matt made it to the “semi-finals” for several schools. It was exhausting for both of us. With every round of interviews we speculated endlessly. This one was the place, the location of our dreams. We would research weather, apartments, safety, etc. in an effort to convince ourselves that it was meant to be. Then, once we reached a comfort level and got enthusiastic over the possibility, Matt wouldn’t get the job. And on we would move to another part of the world.

But then, it happened. In February Matt received a tentative offer for a school in the Galapagos Islands and an invitation for both of us to visit. So we went. Matt was instantly sold; I was not. I don’t know what I was expecting, but Puerto Ayora wasn’t it at first glance. It was, well, sort of Peruvian, but very expensive. Not the resort island I had expected.

The next day I walked to this beach. And fell in love.

The beaches aren’t the only highlight of the Galapagos. The Darwin Research Station is pretty amazing too.

The highlight of our initial visit to The Station, as it is called, was the Giant Tortoise fight. One tortoise appeared to be the aggressor and would saunter over to the other tortoises, stick its head out and then sort of bite one of the others. The other one would sloowly back away and then the first one would lie down for awhile before starting over. It may not sound like a Tyson-Holyfield bout, but let me tell you, it was pretty darn entertaining!

Another favorite spot was Las Grietas, which translates not very well as”The Cracks”, a deep chasm of volcanic rock with unbelievably blue, cool, fresh water. The trip requires a water taxi to “the other side” of the island and a nice walk to Las Grietas, but it is well worth it despite the crowds. Apparently there is a hole somewhere in the cliff and you can dive down into another pool. We plan to try it with our new snorkeling equipment.

So in the end, we are both delighted to be moving to Puerto Ayora, Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador. And the adventure continues…

Paradise

Paradise