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My Galapagos Adventure – Day Five

September 12, 2014 Luxury Cruises Galapagos, Travel to Ecuador No Comments

No More Gilligan’s Island

IMG_0055Today we wake up not to silence and isolation.  No more do we feel happily lost at sea on a deserted island, free from the internet and telephone. Quite the opposite. We are at Academy Bay, the harbor at Puerto Ayora, the busiest city in Galapagos with a population of about 9000 people, out of a total of about 33,000 living in all of Galapagos.  Let me put that in perspective for a moment: the stadium at the University of Michigan holds 109,901 excited screaming fans – almost four times the population in the entire quiet Galapagos archipelago. In 2014, 30,000 people finished and 33,000 people started the Pittsburgh marathon.

That said, Puerto Ayora is a bustling and growing business center with many restaurants and shops. For many who started their trip in Baltra and went directly to Isabela and Fernandina, it’s the opportunity for wifi that is the draw.  Finally, you can check your emails, read the news and do all those other “important” things you went on vacation to get away from. If you have your own mobile hotspot, you won’t have to wait until you disembark, but can get online while you are still on board.

For others, the brief visit is a chance to soak up some local culture. Indeed, learning about the communities on your journey is one of the core principles of ecotourism, which I will talk about more at the end of this post. So, after you check your email and after you visit the touristy t-shirt stores, there are some things that you must take advantage of. There are a few lovely art galleries here that specialize in Ecuadorian handicrafts. This is a place to buy an amazing memory of your trip.  I saw a beautiful sterling silver pendant with a tortoise and a sea horse that would be a perfect memento of your trip and not overpriced. Personally, on one of my trips,  I fell in love with a blue footed booby sculpture about three feet high, which I made into the base of a table that is in my living room.

IMG_0050Because there is time, definitely go to the local fish market. There you will find the fresh catch of the day. Giant lobsters in November and December if the Park Service has determined that they exist in sufficient numbers to catchAnd definitely get out on the side streets, the places tourist don’t generally get to see. You will see houses with walls made of lava bricks. These are the older houses because now, as you might imagine, mining for lava bricks no longer is permitted.  You will see that some people live with almost nothing and others live on more modern structures, practically next door to one another.

 

 

Wahoo, rice and potatos.If you’re brave enough to eat some of the local cuisine, do it. When ever will you have this chance again? In Ecuador more than 200 types of potatoes are grown and potato soup is a delicious staple. More ambitious gastronomy includes pig stomach … I have to admit having no experience with that particular delicacy, but the potato soup is yummy. When we eat lobster, beef or chicken for dinner, the crew want nothing of it, preferring the dishes they grew up on.

Definitely leave yourself enough time to sit at the town center harbor for a while. This is where you’ll see the locals of all ages congregating. Maybe, like me, you’ll see a pick-up basketball game and old men commiserating. Of course, the sea lions may not leave you completely alone, but there’s nothing wrong with that!

Throughout your trip you will be in quiet solitary environments. So much so that you may lose sight of the fact that the islands very much belong not only to our planet, but specifically to the people who live and make their livelihoods here. So look at this couple hours in the city not only as a time to buy your “I Love Boobies” t-shirt, but also as an opportunity to taste the local culture.

Speaking strictly for myself, on this occasion, other than a two sentence email home to assure everyone I was as happy as I could possibly be, I steered clear of the stores.  Instead I headed for the fish market for a little local color.  Here’s what I saw:

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This darling child came right up to me and asked me to take her photograph.  I only wished I had something to give to her in return. I did show her the beautiful picture on the digital camera, but otherwise she gave me far more than I could ever reciprocate. That face ….

May 2 San Cristobal IMG_1274 (2)The highlight of your Puerto Ayora stop is Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS).  And our visit there is the real point of the morning. In fact, the Galapagos National Park Service mandates that all visitors have the opportunity to visit this facility which serves as a model for how organizations and individuals can contribute to stabilizing animal populations and even save them from extinction.  This visit is when we really learn about and understand the incredible undertaking that it is to maintain these islands as a national park and animal sanctuary while allowing tourists to “intrude” and enjoy the natural wonders. Even for those of us with a pretty good background in environmental preservation, Harry’s explanations are intriguing and his love and dedication to the islands shines through.  This, of course, is exactly what we need in a guide – someone who can instill in us his own dedication and commitment to conservation.

Charles Darwin Research Station

Charles Darwin Research Station

Charles Darwin Research Station

Charles Darwin Research Station

CDRC is where the study of the endemic giant Galapagos tortoise population is centered. It once was the home to world-famous Lonesome George, who was the last surviving tortoise from Pinta Island. In fact, there once were 15 species of turtles in the Galapagos but since George’s death, only 12 remain. George was the main attraction here for many years and the concerted and diversified (read “creative”) efforts to mate him with females so as to continue his species, were nothing short of colossal.  They tried tortoise pornography even – seriously, they put a television in his corral and had him watch other tortoises mating! All to no avail, however. He was pretty much disinterested.

That’s where our new star of the show comes in. This guy,  Super Diego, is the polar opposite of George with the ladies and a true tortoise Casanova. He’s already the father of more than 2000 offspring and still going strong. One might say he’s the force of nature bringing the Galapagos tortoise population back from the endangered 50,000 to its previous strength of 500,000. And, of course, Diego is not the only attraction. It’s really his babies, and those of others at the CDRS, that bring the “oohs” and “aaws.” Capture them with your camera from as tiny as one-day old to age 4 when they will be released to the wild. This is the epicenter of preservation.

After our city tour and the CDRS, we went back to the boat for another delicious and healthy lunch.  We didn’t get much of a respite between our morning and afternoon activities though.  Before long, we continued with a bus trip to the highlands of Santa Cruz Island. No more Gilligan’s Island – it’s civilization all the way.

Orchids in Wild Santa Cruz

Orchids in Wild Santa Cruz

Though a bit strange to be in a vehicle, it’s not a bad thing at all and the highlands are fascinating. You see the vegetation change from dry to lush – so lush that orchids grow wild around the twin craters, two enormous sink holes. You also see wild tortoises left and right, everywhere you look along the route. This is a sure sign that the rejuvenation efforts, to which the CDRS is dedicated, are working.

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_0016 (2)We returned from our day to sparkling clean cabins waiting for us.  So, a few words about the cabins. They are, as I said on the first day of my trip, spacious and comfortable.  Ask for a king bed, it’s yours.  Want twins, done.  The sofa is a great place to read or relax or go through your photos.  It’s where I downloaded to my iPad every day. There’s ample closet space.  The bathrooms are perfect and fully equipped with amenities – even two lush terry bathrobes.  The towels, believe it or not, are very important to your accommodations.  They are high quality and large. More importantly, every single day, they are the center of a work of “towel art” created by your cabin steward, in this case the aforementioned Dr. Trixie.  Here are a few adorable examples, and here I will not regale you with more.  But we had swans and tortoises and birds and octopus.  Often with eyes made of chocolate candies – art and gastronomy in one! (The second two photos are from my Cormorant trip in a great cabin with two single beds – see it’s equally beautiful and spacious.)

 This  “extra” attention to detail is what we received every day on our journey.

 

towel animal Towel Puppie IMG_1613 (2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another part of the cruise experience is the dedication to environmental preservation evident in many exceptional details about how the boats in Galapagos operate.  All water is filtered through on board sanitation processes.  All appliances are energy efficient.  You are not given new water bottles every day – just one at the beginning of the week and you are asked to fill it from purified water.  (Here’s a little tip – being your own refillable bottle, ideally one that you can use with a strap wrapped around your waist.  That way when you are on your hikes, you won’t have to open your backpack every time you’re ready for a sip of water.) Imagine if every tourist on every boat had a new water bottle each morning and afternoon – the landfill would be full in no time at all.  What goes on behind the scenes is really quite interesting. Let me give you two examples of how strictly enforced these standards are.  One day when I was feeling a little queasy, I asked for a ginger ale.  “Not available” I was told. It is prohibited in Galapagos because it does not come in returnable bottles. Likewise, those lobsters that I talked about before – available only two months a year, if at all.  Every year, the Marine Reserve assesses the lobster population and determines whether it is strong and vital enough to allow lobster trawling.  If so, you get lobster in November and December.  If not, you’re out of luck.

But, perhaps most important is to remember that the Galapagos ARE a set of remote islands, a national park and far from any source of food, industry, manufacturing or commodity.  That means that with very few exceptions (like amazingly good coffee, which is grown on the islands) absolutely everything must be imported by boat or plane.  This makes things in Galapagos extremely expensive. Example: a four-pack of sunscreen that I purchased in the U.S. for about $13 at Costco, one tube of went for more than $30 in Galapagos – not because they were trying to gouge tourists but because it’s so expensive to import.  Pineapples are $10 or more.  You can’t get a little travel hairdryer through Amazon for $9.00; the going rate is more like $20 or even more.  Here’s another aside – when you are ready to leave Galapagos, if you have anything that you don’t need anymore – like unused sunscreen – you might consider innocuously leaving it in your cabin because the crew will be really grateful.  In fact, every time I’ve been there, I’ve taken my oldest workout shoes as my walking shoes.  I leave them in the cabin and they disappear like magic. It’s an unexpected, but truly appreciated, benefit for the crew.

Alright – ready for Thursday, back to the environment, but also this is a day that existing passengers may be leaving and new passengers may be arriving.  If you are staying, I’ll give you a few tips on how to keep yourself productive and happy while the change over occurs.

To learn more about the Galapagos Islands and for help planning your cruise, go to Haugan Cruise Lines or call 1-800-769-0869. Personnel are equipped to help answer all of your questions and get your started on a glorious, once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

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