January 28, 2017 – Just a little more time for the sun and good food….

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We had contemplated sunrise on Tortuga Bay, getting in when it opened at 6am, but it was too much for us both and we decided to relax. My granola and yogurt were on their last leg and they had served me well throughout the visit. Kathy had her coffee made and sat on the balcony enjoying it. I really wanted one more chance to see Tortuga Bay and the marine iguanas, so took off at around 7:45 for the two kilometer walk along the trail to the beach. It was another gorgeous day and the sun shown brightly down blocked only by the shade of the giant cactus trees along the trail. The sound of the ocean once again announces the approaching the beach and walking out onto Playa Brava the marine iguanas are all marching in procession from left to right along the beach and a few in the waves.

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Marine iguanas all moving as one

Marine iguanas all moving as one

Tortuga Bay

Tortuga Bay

It is a sight to behold, these prehistoric creatures all walking along in unison as if one creature. I decided not to go to the lagoon again, but to spend some time around the rocks to the left where the iguanas were marching from. After a short time several visitors went into the water and given the chance for one last swim I didn’t have to think for long. The waves were mellow and the current, often strong here, was nowhere to be had so it was a pleasure to swim here with the iguanas on this short stretch of beach. It was hard to leave, but I had told Kathy two hours and I didn’t want to worry here again as I had the other day.

A resting Godzilla

A resting Godzilla

Feeding on the rocks

Feeding on the rocks

Swimming in the surf

Swimming in the surf

Once home, we headed to town to return her wetsuit that we had never needed by were glad we had just in case. While out we decided to stop and get a small lunch since we’d be heading to the airport shortly and flying to Quito. We stopped at a small restaurant that advertised a bowl of fish soup for $4.50 and decided to share it for lunch along with the side of rice that came with it. It was tuna with vegetables in a delicious broth that was so fresh like everything else here. It was our final meal on the island and it was another good one. Of course, there was one last piece of unfinished business before leaving town, and that was to share another scoop of homemade ice cream at our favorite deli.

Iguana rock

Iguana rock

Swimming iguana

Swimming iguana

Feeding on the rocks

Feeding on the rocks

It was home to pack and wait for Marco to pick us up and bring us to the ferry at Itabaca Channel. We said our goodbyes to Marco and loaded on the ferry to cross. On the other side, who was there, but Aura, the owner of the home we stayed in, as she was also flying to Quito on the same flight. We were able to chat and tell her how much we appreciated the house and her hospitality. Everyone here in Ecuador, from Quito to the Galapagos, has been wonderful and patient. Kathy is able to speak some Spanish, enough to get around, while I know only a few words here and there. The Ecuadorians, though, were never frustrated when trying to get something across and were always pleasant no matter what. It was an amazing country to visit and one that I’d recommend to anyone looking for adventure and culture and, most importantly, warmth of the people here who among the nicest I’ve met anywhere.

January 27, 2017 – A most amazing adventure to Bartolome Island….

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It is our last full day in the islands and we’re planning to make the most of it. We had to be at the municipal pier and park at 5:50 am (yes, before sunrise!) to meet our tour so we were up pretty early. The itinerary said they served breakfast so I didn’t eat, but Kathy made sure to get her coffee before we left. We arrived first and next our captain while others straggled slowly in. Luis, our guide, checked our names on his list and informed us that the tour was only half full which meant that our boat, which could accommodate 16 guests comfortably, would be spacious for the eight of us going. I had some doubts about the trip, though, when we all loaded into a mini van that would normally hold a maximum of eight passengers in the US and we were loading in ten with the help of jump seats in all the rows. Soon we would be using the maximum number when we stopped on the way to pick up two additional passengers in the little town of Bellavista on the way to the channel. Any doubts I had about the day, though, would soon be swept away as this turned out to be our very best day in the Galapagos.

Kathy in the bow seat

Kathy in the bow seat

A nesting pair of Nazca (masked) Boobies

A nesting pair of Nazca (masked) Boobies

As we arrived at Itabaca Channel yet again (the third day in a row for me and we’d be here again tomorrow when we head to the airport) we waited for the zodiac to meet us and shuttle us out to the boat. We would be sailing on the Adriana, a reasonable new catamaran that was a gorgeous boat with plenty of amenities. There was a seat on each bow of the twin hulls so that you could dangle your legs in the air as you traveled and I think Kathy found them two seconds after we were underway. It would be a good hour and 45 minutes for us to reach Bartolome, so we had plenty of time to relax and check out the sights. And yes, breakfast, which consisted of scrambled eggs and toast, a slice of cheese and lunch meat, would be served very shortly. There was room for all of us around the main table in the galley. Had there been sixteen of us it would have been a bit more cramped so we were grateful for the slow season, though I’m sure the crew would have rather had more of us to leave tips in the end.

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We kept our eyes peeled for any signs of deep sea creatures and about half way there, I spotted tiny black dots and splashes on surface some distance to our port side. I shouted to Luis, who happened to be captaining the ship at that moment and he swung around heading directly towards the commotion. As we got closer, it became clear that we had found a pod of bottle-nose dolphins swimming and playing. Kathy was already in one of the bow seats and as we came upon the pod they all began to swim with us, jumping out of the water and showing off for us. It was really a sight, but best of all, Kathy had the biggest of smiles on her face as it seemed the dolphins were putting on a show for her alone and the rest of us were merely observers to some wonderful ballet. They swam with us for what seemed like forever, but I’m sure it wasn’t, and we were eventually on our way back on course for Bartolome. Though the memory of those dolphins will remain with all of us for a long time, I know a small piece of Kathy’s heart will remain with them in the Galapagos forever.

We arrived to the south side of Bartolome where I had been diving the day before and as we motored around the island and in between it and Santiago Island, it was readily clear that this archipelago had been born of fire and was still in the process growing. Where we were was entirely modeled by lava flows and some type of volcanic activity or another. The landscape was clearly unearthly and more suited to another planet or the moon. One could only imagine that this is what it would be like to be on Mars, though the beautiful azure ocean brought us back to reality and the fact that we were still on good old terra firma. The Pinnacle, as it is called, is perhaps the single most photographed landmark in the Galapagos, and therefore, Bartolome Island is also once of the most popular places to visit. They limit the number of boats that can visit each day, though, not only to preserve the remoteness of the location, but also to reduce the amount of wear and tear on the Island for even though it appears to be mercilessly tough, it an incredibly fragile ecosystem that must be continually protected.

Our zodiac and the Pinnacle in the background

Our zodiac and the Pinnacle in the background

Bartolome Island

Bartolome Island

Bartolome Island

Bartolome Island

Bartolome Island

Bartolome Island

Climbing Bartolome and looking back to San Salvador Island

Climbing Bartolome and looking back to San Salvador Island

We loaded into the zodiac to go ashore and climb to the highest point on the island, which is approximately 90 meters, and which commands an incredible panorama looking across to Santiago and all the smaller islands dotting up and down its coast. As we climbed along the wooden path to the top, Luis pointed out all the many small volcanic cones on Bartolome and larger ones across the way on San Salvador. The view from the top is amazing and you could see so many of the islands that make up this unique and incredible archipelago. Very little lives on this island due to its inhospitable nature and those that do must have a very hearty aptitude. It is truly a moonscape. Catching the zodiac to head back to the Adriana you realize immediately what a rare opportunity it is to visit such a place and what it must have been like over 150 years ago when Darwin and the Beagle came upon it. It is also clear how important it is to preserve and protect these islands, for even though they have been so greatly effected by man and industry, they are still one of our closest links to our past and what makes us who we are today.

Volcanic Bartolome Island

Volcanic Bartolome Island

Looking across to San Salvador Island

Looking across to San Salvador Island

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The isthmus of Bartolome looking across to San Salvador

The isthmus of Bartolome looking across to San Salvador

Once all were aboard the Adriana, it was time for a swim and almost everyone was up for snorkeling. We had our own gear and Luis and the crew outfitted the others with masks, snorkels and fins. We took the zodiac around to the south side of the island and all got into the water for what we discovered were absolutely perfect conditions. The visibility was great, the temperature was perfect (no wetsuits needed) and there were loads and loads of fish. We very quickly found two sharks resting on the sandy bottom and later a stingray also resting along the bottom. There were starfish of all colors including bright, nearly iridescent blue ones. The most exciting experience for me, though, was finding two Galapagos penguins who were initially sitting on a rock and then decided to jump in a join us. They dropped into the water and swam away, but then came back as if to give us a second look. One of them sat perhaps a foot or two away from my face just checking me out and seemed to be as enthralled with me as I was with it. It was a photo opportunity par excellence, but I couldn’t help just sitting there wondering what he or she was thinking of me and so I took some moments just to soak it all in. This is the only place in the world that one can snorkel with penguins in the wild and I will remember it always.

Two sharks resting beneath us

Two sharks resting beneath us

A school of goldrim and razor surgeonfish with a king angelfish and an orangeside triggerfish

A school of goldrim and razor surgeonfish with a king angelfish and an orangeside triggerfish

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Our Galapagos penguins before jumping in the drink

Our Galapagos penguins before jumping in the drink

A swimming penguin

A swimming penguin

An inquisitive penguin

An inquisitive penguin

Close up and personal

Up close and personal

We snorkeled for perhaps an hour when it was time to get back into the zodiac which had been trailing us and had already picked up everyone other than Kathy, me and Luis. Two others jumped back in to join us at the end of the swim as an early current in the opposite direction had worried them, but we were taking everything in and not even that could force us out of the water. A huge bull sea lion sat floating in front of us along the edge, but had no interest in our presence and decided to remain mostly motionless as it bobbed with the swells. Hoisting up into the zodiac was a real chore and definitely required some serious assistance, at least for me. Our zodiac was larger for sixteen people and, as such, the pontoons were a bit taller than one could navigate on their own. With a count of one, two, three and a very firm hoist from one of the crew I was lifted into the boat and grabbing on to anything to pull myself the rest of the way in. Unfortunately for those already on board, I could also feel my swimsuit riding a bit low on my waist and I am told that my backside below my tan line nearly blinded everyone. So much for a little vanity. Nothing seemed to matter, though, as this had been perhaps the most perfect hour of snorkeling I’ve every had and I know that Kathy felt the same way. We both could have spent several more hours there as there was an endless amount sea life and something new around every corner. That will have to wait for our next trip.

A gorgeous starfish

A gorgeous Panamic cushion starfish

Our blue starfish

Our blue Pyramid starfish

King angelfish

King angelfish

A resting sea lion

A resting sea lion

Once back on board, we remained tied to our buoy in the little bay sitting in front of the Pinnacle, relaxing after our swim and preparing for lunch. We all decided to eat outside on the rear deck as there was more than enough room for the eight of us and how could we sit inside and miss these views. Lunch was chicken, rice, salad and vegetables and was delicious. We had cut up cantaloupe for dessert. It would be over two hours back to Santa Cruz due to the strong currents in the opposite direction, but that was fine as Kathy and I sat on the foredeck with the wind in our faces. We spent most of the time on the return sitting in the two bow seats as no one else on board was interested and it was a shame for them to go to waste. The wind and the waves were spectacular and the sensation is very difficult to describe.

An underwater selfie

An underwater selfie

The Adriana

The Adriana

We returned to Itabaca Channel and then to Puerto Ayora after dropping off the pair in Bellavista who we had picked up in the morning. We were dropped off at our house and gave our farewells to the other travelers and to Luis. We had had an absolutely perfect day in the Galapagos and wanted to relish in it for as long as possible. We chose to walk around a bit and eventually gravitated back to the kiosks for dinner as we were both relishing another grilled whole fish and, this time, also wanted to get some of the wonderful ceviche here. And, oh yes, we just couldn’t pass up another chance at the grilled corn. Half way through our dinner, two of our boat mates from the day came wandering through after overhearing us describe the food here, so they sat down next to us and also ordered the grilled whole fish. Such is the life in Puerto Ayora, where you bump into everyone at dinner time or during the day as it is such a small place. It is very comfortable and familiar. There was no way we could fit in anything more so ice cream was not in the cards tonight. Marco would be picking us up at 12:30 tomorrow afternoon to go the airport for it would be our last morning here as our vacation was coming to an end.

January 26, 2017 – Two incredible dives with the Manta Rays…

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Today was the day I would see whether my diving skills were still keen. It had been at least eight years since I last dove, but I was pretty certain I wouldn’t have any problem remembering the basics. Jeff and I had gotten our certifications in 1971 (!) and though diving hasn’t been a regular activity for me over the years, it’s been frequent enough to have kept me reasonably current. Daniel and I had gotten an advanced certification which in Mexico back in 2003 and we dove together in Croatia off Dubrovnik. I had a quick breakfast and was off to the dive shop which was across town and about a twenty minute walk.

Our dive site on the south side of Bartolome

Our dive site on the south side of Bartolome

Spotting a sea lion

Spotting a sea lion

Check in time was 7:45am and walking across town I got to see everyone getting ready for the new day. Children leaving their homes and walking to school, shop keepers opening up and the first catches of the morning coming in at the fish market with the friendly see lion waiting for scraps that the feet of the fisherman cleaning their catch. It was another beautiful day on the island and I couldn’t wait to get on the boat. I met up with my fellow divers for the day and we proceeded to have a briefing on our two dives for the day. We would be diving on the south side of Bartolome Island for the first one and then on to Cousins Rock for the second. There were eight of us in total with experience and I was in the middle, though given the long lapse since my last dive, I was really the novice of the group. Experience ranged from a few dives up to over a 1000 dives for one gentleman from the UK who was diving with his wife. We loaded into taxis (small pickup trucks with room for five) along with our gear and headed off to Itabaca Channel to meet up with our dive boat. I was with a couple from Belgium and a young man from Brooklyn who I ended up diving with.

All is well

All is well

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A school of king angelfish

A school of king angelfish

A dive boat is perhaps the quintessential opposite of a day cruise boat in that it’s really designed for a single purpose and that’s not to spend too much time above the surface. The boat was full of gear and as soon as we were all loaded, we departed for Bartolome, a little over an hour away. Our boat consisted of two benches on both sides that we sat on with our tanks beneath our feet and along the back of the boat with our wetsuits. During the trip, Quike, our dive master sat with each of us in pairs to go over more of the details of the dive such as our first meeting place, depths, underwater topography, underwater signs and what to expect with currents, though that could quickly change once we were on our way. Before arriving to our dive site, we all started putting on our wetsuits, not always an easy task in a moving boat as the suits are tight and require lots of tugging and pulling.

Fellow divers

Fellow divers

A stingray

A stingray

A spotted puffer fish

A spotted puffer fish

Eagle Ray

Eagle Ray

A green sea turtle

A green sea turtle

I was in the second group of four going off so it was stand down until the first group had all their gear on and checked. The crew did everything for us such as helping us into our BC vests, but each of us is ultimately responsible for making sure our tanks are full and turned on and that our regulators work properly. Once all of this was complete, we rolled off the side of the boat and were on our way. The visibility though not perfect, was very good and we quickly descended to a shelf at about 15 m. Once there, we regrouped and began to explore the area around Bartolome. There were huge schools of fish everywhere, but in very short order we spotted the things that some only dream of seeing underwater. Huge green sea turtles passing by, sharks, huge schools of fish, and then, literally out of the blue, came the one thing we had all wanted to see but didn’t think we would as we had been told it wasn’t the right season. A huge manta ray, the biggest of them all and the size of a small truck came slowly by us and then an entire school of manta rays came sailing by. It was like watching a slow motion ballet as they gracefully cruised beside us as we all sat in awe. The first manta set the tone for the rest of the dive as we saw many more of the behemoths throughout the day. They were just spectacular!

Manta ray

A huge manta ray

Manta ray up close and personal

Manta ray up close and personal

Manta ray

Mobula (Devil) rays

Manta ray

Mobula (devil) ray

School of manta rays

School of mobula (devil) rays

School of manta rays

School of mobula (devil) rays

The currents around the islands can be quite tricky at times and there’s no way one would attempt diving here without an experienced dive master who knows the area well. We were hanging on for dear life at times as the current blew everything by us and to loose your grip meant you be sent careening downstream and away from our group. Luckily, there were lots of handholds to grab without damaging anything as you must be very careful not to grab any coral which could cause damage.

Quike Moran, dive master

Quike Moran, dive master

I’ve always had a problem with my air utilization when diving which causes me to run low on air before most others do. Daniel has always been a master at this and would frequently still have air when the dive master was running low. I had told Quike this before we began the dive and luckily, these dive masters all carry their spare regulator (known as your “octopus”) with an extra long hose so when I was running low, he gave me his octopus and I just trailed a bit behind him using his air. We did this until the next person ran a bit low and then I went back on my own tank so the other diver could use the Quike’s octopus. This worked well so that we all were ready to ascend together expect for the two more experience divers who had conserved their air. Just after we began our ascent, which takes some time to do safety stops along the way, a small group of hammerhead sharks came by so we missed them. Luckily, I had seen a number of them the day before off of North Seymour when on our boat so I didn’t feel too bad about it. After all, we had seen the manta rays and that was spectacular.

Galapagos penguins on Bartolome Island

Galapagos penguins on Bartolome Island

Our dive boat and fellow divers

Our dive boat and fellow divers

After we were all back on board, the crew brought out snacks of cantaloupe, pears and Oreo cookies for us to snack on as we were heading to the site for our second dive. We’d have to be on board for at least an hour between dives which was the minimum time given the depth we’d been to the time underwater. We passed along the edge of Bartolome and spotted a small group of Galapagos penguins, the northernmost penguin who survives here along the equator because of the cold currents that come through the Galapagos year-round.

Resting a moment

Resting a moment

Stingray

Stingray

As we reached Cousins Rock and had been above the surface for the mandatory interval, we once again got our gear together and dove down deep. We again saw several manta rays along with beautiful eagle spotted rays in a huge school. They were all lovely and so graceful as we watched them pass along by us. The dive was again spectacular and we had seen more than I could have imagined we would see in a single day. The experience reminded me what I like so much about scuba diving and I’m already looking forward to the next time I will have the opportunity to dive again. We began our trip back to Itabaca Channel and along the way had our lunch – not nearly as luxurious as the day before, but it tasted amazing after the great experience we had had. Everyone was on a high after having seen so many manta rays in one day and everyone agreed that this was one of their top dives ever. Considering that included a diver with 1000+ dives is saying quite a bit.

By the time we arrived back to the dive shop, it was well after 5pm and we had been told we’d be back around 4pm. Kathy would be waiting at home for me and I knew she’d be a bit worried about the time, but I had no way of contacting her. When I finally arrived home after walking back across town, she told me she had called the shop to see where we were and was told we had just gotten back. She still had some time to worry, though, and I was sad about that.

Once again, we relaxed before heading out for dinner which gave me time to clean up from my day and for Kathy to tell me about hers. She had gone to Los Grietas which is a swimming spot near Finch Bay and where you swim in a crack between the rocks. It is also brackish water as there is some fresh water coming in there. I was hoping that the snorkeling would be good for her, but unfortunately it wasn’t. She came back after swimming and went out to Tortuga Bay on her own before coming home early to meet me, even though I was very late.

Dinner was once again on our favorite street, but we decided to order plates of seafood rather than the whole fish. I had a delicious fish in shrimp sauce which meant that they put six huge shrimp on top a big portion of very delicately breaded fish that was incredibly tasty. Kathy had “pulpo diablo” or octopus cooked in a spicy diablo sauce. Oh yes, before dinner, we shared a grilled corn on the cob. Now this isn’t just any old corn on the cob, but rather a very special strain of corn with very large kernels that they grill and then serve with a garlic aioli sauce that is to die for. If I could have brought some home I would have in a second, but I don’t get along well with the drug/food sniffing dogs that work for the customs agents at the baggage carousels. While eating our dinner, four of my fellow divers came walking buy and took our recommendation to sit down where we were eating and order some similar dishes. We checked on them again after we were finished and they were all quite happy with their food, albeit they had ordered a ton of it. Somehow, though, I think they were going to do just fine with it.

Service with a smile - our waiter for two of our nights on Calle Kiosk

Service with a smile – our waiter for two of our nights on Calle Kiosk

“Calle Kiosk” seemed to be the place to be as we bumped into someone familiar every time we were there. There was a gentleman that got on the bus with us at the airport when we arrived who had stood out to both Kathy and I because of his very unique look – he had reminded me of so many wise men of the past, perhaps Einstein or Schweitzer, or someone of a similar ilk. Kathy had commented that she would have loved to paint him. I think we spoke a few words to each other, but when we sat down last night at our table on the street, he was across from us at another kiosk and we immediately took note and gave each other a nod. After his dinner he was sitting for a few minutes and then came walking over to us to introduce himself so we offered him a seat. His name was Mohammad and he was Iranian, an electrical engineer and had studied at Berkeley just a few years before we had been in college. He was now traveling the world and told us of the many interesting places he had been. We could have listened to him all night and I wanted to have dinner with him, but unfortunately for us, he was leaving for Isabella Island the next day. I’m certain that he found new friends there to share his stories with. He was the type of person who you felt you really wanted to know.

We were heading out well before sunrise the next morning for a day cruise to Bartolome with the hopes of some good snorkeling and hiking. It would be our last full day in the Galapagos so we wanted to make the most of it.

January 25, 2017 – It’s off to North Seymour Island and the Blue-Footed Boobies…

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Today was our first adventure to another island in the Galapagos Archipelago and we had decided to visit North Seymour which is famous for its large birds and land iguanas among other wildlife. We were meeting our tour right around the corner from our house and were supposed to be there a few minutes before eight. The maximum for the tour was 20, but there were only 14 of us on this trip, so the bus that was to take us to the channel between Santa Cruz and Baltra to meet out boat was only slightly more than half full. Along the way we picked up several other passengers who were staying at hotels outside of Puerto Ayora.

Our guide, Diego, telling us about the birds

Our guide, Diego, telling us about the birds

A gull resting on North Seymour

A swallow-tailed gull resting on North Seymour

The Itabaca Channel crossing (a mere stone’s throw when comparing to things like the English Channel) is always a hustle bustle as it is necessary to pass through here to get to the airport on Baltra Island. Had it not been for the US military having an air base here during WWII to protect the Panama Canal there probably wouldn’t be an airport here at all. We shuttled out to our boat, the Santa Fe II on a zodiac that picked us up at the dock and brought us out to the anchored vessel. The Santa Fe was a beautiful boat and well-equipped with a nice main cabin and upper deck with seating for everyone. Diego, our guide, briefed everyone on the safety features such as the “real” life vests that would keep us afloat for ever and the two life rafts with more than enough occupancy for all of us. Somehow, being shipwrecked on one of these islands for a few days didn’t seem like too bad of a deal, but it was not to be.

Two Blue-Footed Boobies dancing

Two Blue-Footed Boobies dancing

A male Blue-Footed Booby doing his strut

A male Blue-Footed Booby doing his strut

The trip to North Seymour Island was about 45 minutes as it’s just north of Baltra Island. The landing there was a dry landing, meaning you didn’t get your feet wet as the zodiac was able to pull right up to the rocks and let us off. It took two trips to get everyone ashore and Diego brought us all together to begin our tour of the island. North Seymour is known for Frigate birds and the Blue-Footed Boobies that nest here. There were Frigates everywhere and only a few of the Boobies to be found, but the Frigates were very impressive. The males have huge red throats that they balloon out when seeking a mate and the bigger the pouch the more likely it is for a female to be enticed. We found one baby in a nest right next to the trail and it didn’t seem to be bothered by us. We also spotted a number of dead Frigates, many of who died while still perched in their bushes, clearly attesting to the harsh environment here and the energy expended in seeking a mate.

The red neck pouch of the Frigate Bird

The red neck pouch of the Frigate Bird

The Frigate Bird chick and its parents

The Frigate Bird chick and its parents

A Frigate Bird chick in its nest

A Frigate Bird chick in its nest

Along the trail we also found a number of land iguanas, cousin to the marine species and equally as large. They don’t compete for food or space at all so they leave each other well enough alone to co-exist here on the island. We also found a number of sea lions including a mother with her baby nursing and another tiny pup that Diego said was probably only 7 weeks old. There was also a small shallow tidal pool with a number of young sea lions playing tag with each other.

A Land Iguana on North Seymour

A Land Iguana on North Seymour

A seven-week-old baby sea lion

A seven-week-old baby sea lion

A mother and nursing baby

A mother and nursing baby

A resting Blue-Footed Booby

A resting Blue-Footed Booby

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Waves breaking off North Seymour Island

As we finished our tour of North Seymour and said goodbye to the birds and other wildlife there we loaded again into the zodiac for our trip back to the Santa Fe II. What was supposed to be a dry landing, though, became semi-dry as a wave came up and swamped our landing area just as we were boarding. I had sandals on, but most of the others had running shoes that were now soaked for the day. We had a bit of delay in leaving North Seymour, though, as our anchor became stuck in the rocky bottom and took a good bit of finagling to release it, initially using the onboard winch and finally using the zodiac to tug on it in all directions before it released. There was a huge round of applause for the ship’s mate in the zodiac as we were now able to get on our way for our afternoon swim.

Our Wet Landing on the beach

Our Wet Landing on the beach

A solitary tree off the beach on Isla Santa Cruz

A solitary tree off the beach on Isla Santa Cruz

Lunch was served on our way to the beach on Isla Santa Cruz that would take us perhaps another 45 minutes to get to. Lunch was delicious considering we were on a boat – tuna, salad and vegetables, all cooked on the boat. It was a relaxing ride while we ate which is something I couldn’t have fathomed for me in the past as I had always gotten sea sick until just a couple of years ago. I remember never being able to eat when diving and getting nauseated just putting together my dive gear. It’s so pleasant now to be able to enjoy the day without worry. We eventually arrived at our destination which was a beach on the northwest coast of Santa Cruz, but the surf was too rough for us to snorkel. We again loaded into the zodiac for a “wet” landing this time on a very steep beach so it required a bit of timing to get in.

Some of the native crabs

Some of the native crabs

A basking marine iguana

A basking marine iguana

Once both boat loads were there and the zodiac safely back in the water, we walked along the beach and the rocks to a small estuary where there were several greater flamingos. They were more orange than what I’m used to in Tanzania which I’m sure is due to their diet here. There aren’t many flamingos in the Galapagos and the main flocks are on other islands. After this, we both went swimming in the surf with our group and those from another boat. The bottom was completely shells which was a bit rough on the feet, but the water was well worth it. We were on the last load of the zodiac and as we were about to get in, a big wave hit the boat crashing over the bow and it was everyone for themselves for the moment. The boat was half full of water which was fine since we were already wet from our swim. A quick outdoor shower to rinse off the salt and we were soon on our way back to Itabaca Channel and then back to Puerto Ayora.

Flamingos in the estuary

Flamingos in the estuary

As I was diving the following day, we were planning to head back to the Scuba Iguana shop to get fitted into my wetsuit and check out my other equipment. The shop was great and the people that work there were very low key, but clearly very attentive to detail which was very reassuring. After Scuba Iguana, we walked over to the Charles Darwin Research Station, where the giant tortoises are raised until they are old enough to fend for themselves. They have many breeding tortoises who live there in very large enclosures. Since it was quite hot outside, we took the opportunity to watch the three minute film twice, including one in Spanish, since it was so cool in the visitor center.

Trying on my wetsuit for the following day

Trying on my wetsuit for the following day

On our way home, we stopped in town for a snack and a drink. I had a beer and Kathy had a margarita which turned into two after the waiter told it was practically a two-for-one happy hour. It was still way too early for dinner so we walked back home to relax a bit in the house and perhaps catch a nice sunset along the way.

The scene on the "kiosk street" as the locals call it

The scene on the “kiosk street” as the locals call it

We had had such good luck the night before eating on the street, we had planned to do it again and, this time, check out the whole grilled fish. I had spied a good spot the night before, meaning that a number of customers seemed to flock there and were ordering the fish. We asked to split a fish, which came wrapped in foil and was grilled in oil and spices along with some tomatoes on top. This came with two plates on the side of beans, rice, salad and fried plantains. The meal, which was more than enough for Kathy and I, was a mere $20 and rivaled anything I’ve ever had before as far as taste and quality. Fresh was an understatement.

On our way home, we stopped at the Galapagos Deli to get some homemade ice cream that we had spied the day before. It was home after that as I had a big day of scuba diving the next day and Kathy had plans to take a water taxi to Finch Bay and the German’s Beach as it is called since the Germans first settle that area.

January 24, 2017 – Exploring Isla Santa Cruz and the Giant Tortoises

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Since we are on the equator, something I’m quite used to in Tanzania, the sun rises and sets pretty much at the same time throughout the year. Here, you can tell time by the sunrise and sundown, something that must have been quite useful to our fellow man in the days before the invention of gears and dials. It’s actually quite a reassuring occurrence and one that you become accustomed during your time here. So it was awake with the sun and preparing for a day in paradise with the first stop being Tortuga Bay.

Tortuga Bay

Tortuga Bay

A very short walk from Encantada Blue (our home away from home) begins the path to a well-known beach adjacent to Puerto Ayora. After registering at the little kiosk before we begin our short hike, we head off on the brick path that travels through the volcanic landscape with lots of different cactus, many of which are quite large and tall. Small lizards sunbathing on the small ledges that border the trail scurry away as we pass sometimes trying to out run us as we forge ahead to the beach. The trail winds up and down the small hills and we eventually hear the ocean waves in the distance well before we arrive. And eventually we see the blue water and waves in the distance, like an explorer spotting land, with the beautiful white sand coming into view and, to my delight, there sits a marine iguana right at the water’s edge as if waiting patiently for our arrival.

A Marine Iguana crossing the sand

A Marine Iguana crossing the sand

Sun bathing

Sun bathing

Tortuga Bay is a wonderfully picturesque, white sand beach in the shape of a scimitar that is about 1 km in length. There are volcanic outcroppings that border it on each side and all the beach are marine iguanas marching in one direction, most of them on the sand, but several swimming in the shallows in the same direction. They are like dinosaurs, survivors of a time long ago, who have managed to survive and thrive in the present. These are the only marine iguanas in existence and they reside only here in the Galapagos, as do many of the species on the islands.

Swimming is quicker, but colder

Swimming is quicker, but colder

Our perfect spot along the mangrove bay

Our perfect spot along the mangrove bay

Some native fish among the mangrove roots

Some native fish among the mangrove roots

We walked beyond Tortuga Beach to a small bay that is surrounded and protected by mangroves to allow swimming without worrying about the currents. We found a nice shady spot below a tree to set our gear down and relax for few minutes before setting out to see how the snorkeling would be. Far out beyond the lagoon there were larger waves breaking, but they were reduced to mere swells by the time they reached this beach. Families and other groups were enjoying the swimming here and Kathy and I set out to try the snorkeling only to find that the visibility under water left much to be desired. We were still able to see schools of fish, sea slugs on the bottom and a glimpse of a sea snake in the vegetation, but overall, it was a bit disappointing. The water was so refreshing, though, and the weather so amazing, that we were still quite happy and enjoyed the outing. Given the poor snorkeling conditions we gave Marco, our friendly taxi driver, a call to see if he was free to take us up to the ranches where the giant tortoises roamed free. He was free a bit later, so we set up a time to meet and he would take us on a tour of the highlands.

The mangrove bay

The mangrove bay

We trekked back along the same path and under the blazing sun to exit the park and after cleaning up decided to grab a sandwich for lunch at the Galapagos Deli. We found that they make their own bread which was incredibly delicious! Marco arrive a few minutes late, island time as Kathy calls it, and off we went to see the giant tortoises. There are several private ranches that you can visit where these amazing creatures roam free in the Santa Cruz highlands. What once was a decimated population that had dwindled down to ten adults in the wild due to pressure from introduced, non-native rats who ate the eggs and killed the young is now a thriving population of approximately 4000 wild individuals. This is all due to an active breeding program where eggs are fertilized in a research station and babies are raised until they can survive on their own when they are introduced into the wild. The tortoises are incredible animals that can live to well over 150 years and are docile, lumbering creatures whose only protection is to retreat into their shells when challenged. Their survival and now thriving population is a testament to the hard work of the Darwin Foundation which has spearheaded this program along with the government.

A Galapagos giant a bit wary

A Galapagos giant a bit wary

Another giant

Another giant

After saying goodbye to the tortoises, Marco took us to some lava tunnels that were nearby. These are long tunnels that are formed by flowing lava that cools first on the outside and then the molten lava in the center continues to flow and empties out like a straw. The tunnel we visited was 400 m in length and, for the most part, very wide as we walked along with the lighting of light bulbs hung from wiring zig zagging along above our heads. The floor was often strewn with large rocks obviously fallen from the ceiling and the footing was slippery from the fine mud silt covering the floor. At one point, though, the ceiling descended to a mere three feet that required us to crawl through on our elbows. It is truly an interesting geologic formation and one that is obviously restricted to very active volcanic regions like the Galapagos.

The lava tunnels

The lava tunnels

Kathy in the lava tunnels

Kathy in the lava tunnels

A very low ceiling to navigate

A very low ceiling to navigate

We returned home from our tour with Marco around 5:30 and decided to relax at home before doing some walking around town and then heading to dinner. Two blocks from our house is a street that is lined with a dozen or so separate restaurants that are like individual kiosks selling various versions of primarily seafood that is so plentiful here. Each evening, the street is blocked off on both ends and each restaurant sets up tables in the street and then puts out their fresh fish for you to choose from. You can also order from a menu of many local Ecuadorian delicacies, but the fresh fish wrapped in foil and cooked on the grill is the real attraction here. As you walk down the block looking at the various food for sale, “hawkers” greet you with their menus in hand for you to sit at their tables. Since Marco had given us the names of two of the vendors that are his favorites, we felt compelled to eat at one them. The entire block is filled with tables and people, both locals and tourists with a sense of adventure, enjoying their evening meal. It is an amazing scene.

Los Gemelos - one of two huge sinkholes on Isla Santa Cruz

Los Gemelos – one of two huge sinkholes on Isla Santa Cruz

After dinner, we stopped by the Galapagos Deli once more as I had spotted that they had homemade ice cream for sale earlier when we there for lunch. A delicious cup of mango and banana ice cream finished off the evening before our several minute walk back home. We were heading out in the morning to North Seymour Island and another adventure.

January 23, 2017 – Off to the Galapagos…

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Though our time in Quito was short, it was easy to see that this is a wonderful and vibrant city and one that I would come back to visit in a heartbeat. I am sure that other South American cities sitting high in the Andes are also worthy of exploring, but Quito will now have a special place in my memory as being the first and hopefully not the last. As we descended south out of the city on the windy two-lane road that serves as the main artery for those not willing to pay the toll for the huge multi-lane highway and tunnel leaving the city (clearly our taxi driver) we look back up at the steep slope towards Quito sitting high in its long valley between majestic peaks. The many high-rise apartment buildings sit seemingly perilously on the precipice with their amazing views south towards Cotopaxi, yet clearly vulnerable to earthquakes and mudslides. It is clear that this city, with its centuries of tradition, lives on the edge, both literally and figuratively. I will do my best to return and explore again.

Isla Baltra in the foreground and Isla Santa Cruz with its distant highlands

Isla Baltra in the foreground and Isla Santa Cruz with its distant highlands

The airport at Quito serves as one of two gateways to the Galapagos (Guayaquil, on the coast, being the other) and as you enter it is clear that our destination is on many a bucket list. As we begin the process of embarking, everything must go through a scanner and our bags are secured when they hand them back to you so nothing is left up to chance and nothing can be brought to the islands that shouldn’t be there. The flight out of Quito is spectacular as it ascends over the Andes on its way to the coast in a very short time and then it’s all Pacific Ocean until we begin the descent to our destination. The islands are like incredible jewels laid randomly on a dark blue fabric. Luckily, the flight begins to bank in my direction and continues to slowly spiral dropping altitude directly over the island of Santa Cruz, where we’ll be staying, and Baltra, an adjacent smaller island with its airport. The views are amazing and I’m certain I can see schools of dolphin or at least something large, though perhaps they are only whitecaps playing games with my eyes.

A sleeping sea lion on the municipal dock at night

A sleeping sea lion on the municipal dock at night

After going through the Galapagos Park entrance (a bit complicated since we somehow didn’t pay our “emigration” fee of $20 from Quito – not quite sure how that makes sense given they’re the same country) where we had to pay another $100 as the park fee, we found our bags. We had carried them on all the way to Quito, but the “luggage police” finally caught up with us there and we had to relinquish as the woman seemed quite stern and posed a formidable adversary given that neither of us spoke fluent Spanish. Thankfully, there were no issues and we soon found our taxi driver, Marco, who would bring us to Puerto Ayora, the port town on Santa Cruz and everyone’s destination who can’t afford to stay at the Royal Palm (for movie stars only according to Marco) and are planning to do a land based tour. The two ways to see the Galapagos are on a cruise where you visit a number of islands and sleep and eat aboard boat, or the land based tour, where you typically stay on one island and take day cruises to some of the other islands that are close by. The benefit of the cruise is that you sail between islands at night and don’t waste any daylight having to travel between the islands. The downside is that they are very costly. Kathy and I had planned for the less costly option and planned to do a land based tour in Puerto Ayora while visiting the islands of Bartolome and North Seymour. I had also planned to do one day of scuba diving while here as I didn’t want to miss that experience given where we were.

The harbor at Puerto Ayora

The harbor at Puerto Ayora

We found an amazing place to stay on AirBnB called Encantada Blue. This little two-story house has upstairs and downstairs apartments for rent and sits adjacent to the trail to Tortuga Beach, a very popular and beautifully beach just outside of town. Aura, who owns Encantada and works as a naturalist on one of the cruise boats met us to show us around. It has everything we need and will serve well as our base while here in Puerto Ayora and as we explore the Galapagos and the island of Santa Cruz.

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The fish market, Puerto Ayora, Isla Santa Cruz

After cleaning up we went on to explore town and to arrange for our day cruises and my diving. It takes literally 20 minutes or less to walk across town which we managed to do several times while making our travel arrangements. The main drag that follows the curve of the port in town is called Avenida Charles Darwin and runs past the municipal pier, where one picks up water taxis to cross the harbor to finch bay, and the fish market, where fisherman bring in their freshly caught fish to sell to people waiting in line. Brown pelicans surround the market along with a lone sea lion sitting at everyone’s feet waiting for a tasty snack. It was a true island sight.

Two three-foot sharks patrolling under the pier at night

Two three-foot sharks patrolling under the pier at night

After we had taken care of all of our business including a stop at the grocery store for supplies, we headed out for dinner. We had recommendations from Aura and our friend, Diego, in Quito, and both had highly recommended Lo y Lo, a local’s seafood restaurant serving Ecuadorian cuisine. I had a special dish of fish in a spicy sauce also using coconut milk and Kathy had an amazing octopus (pulpo in Spanish) dish. We sat outside on the street and totally enjoyed our incredible meal in the warm island sea air while making plans to the following day which was our only full free day on the island. It was a mere two block walk back to home and we slept with thoughts of Tortuga Beach where we’d be heading in the morning.

Dining a Lo y Lo on the street

Dining a Lo y Lo on the street

January 22, 2017 – Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve

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We had decided to head out of town early for our second day in Quito and Diego had suggested either visiting a nearby rainforest or crater lake, both of which offered some good hiking. Since we were heading to the Galapagos, with all its volcanic landscape, we decided to opt for something a bit different and chose the rainforest.

Cotopaxi from our hotel

Cotopaxi from our hotel

A Close-up of Cotopaxi

A Close-up of Cotopaxi

After a small breakfast of granola, yoghurt and coffee, Diego met us at the hotel and we were on our way heading north through Quito. Our hotel was on the south end of town and Quito is a sprawling city that extends some 40 kilometers in a north-south direction. It is nestled between the tall mountains of the Andes being bordered on both sides by mountains at least twelve to fifteen-thousand feet high and some of the taller ones that exceed fifteen-thousand are snow capped. As we woke up this morning and looked out our window, it turned out to be a beautifully clear and sunny day which was a blessing as the original forecast had been for rain both days. Best of all, Cotopaxi, the nearly twenty-thousand foot-high volcano that has been spewing smoke for the last year or so, was clearly visible to the south of town.

A scenic view of Pululahua Biobotanical Reserve

A scenic view of Pululahua Biobotanical Reserve

Another scenic view

Another scenic view

It was a Sunday morning and so the traffic was light as we drove north through Quito and it was a bright sunny day. Though we were under an equatorial sun, the temperature wasn’t very high as we’re at nine-thousand feet. Still, you could feel the warmth of the radiant heat and between the sun and the altitude, you have to make sure you don’t burn. We learned this on our climb up Kilimanjaro over a year ago. What we didn’t realize today was that our drive was going to take us through some of the most amazing scenery as we traversed the Pululahua Geobotanic Reserve on our way to our destination. The road was very windy and hugged the mountain sides as we continually ascended and descended the terrain on way deeper into the mountains. The views were tremendous and the lush vegetation was as dense as one can imagine aside from the haphazard cultivated fields on the slopes of the mountains that were somehow were managed to be maintained. Here and there, one would see a small dwelling associated with the fields, but how the inhabitants managed to get to and from them was a mystery to me.

A family out in Nanegalito

A family out in Nanegalito

A view in Nanegalito

A view in Nanegalito

We eventually came to the small village of Nanegalito and as it was a Sunday morning, lots of local residents were out walking in town and visiting the small shops. We stopped for a bit as Diego needed to call into work for some troubleshooting, but this gave us time to explore a little and take in the local scenery. The town was surrounded by taller peaks and again in the distance we could see a few snow covered ones that announced their awesome heights.

A view from the trail in Bellavista

A view from the trail in Bellavista

Back on the road again, Diego turned off the main route shortly after leaving Nanegalito and we were now ascending a small dirt road traveling higher and higher up into hillsides thickly covered with vegetation, all the time looking across magnificent vistas with deep ravines and very steep slopes. Along the way we saw hikers, each with binoculars who were clearly bird watching, giving us some inkling as to the true nature of the region we were now in. We eventually came upon our destination, Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve Resort. This is totally eco friendly place with buildings erected partially out of local bamboo and a number of unique rooms all with different views of this rain forest in the clouds. As we exited the car and walked up to the office, we immediately noticed there were numerous hummingbird feeders and, more importantly, dozens and dozens of hummingbirds all flying around to the different feeders. And there were perhaps a dozen different species each paying attention only to their own brethren as if the others were totally foreign to them despite looking so similar to us.

Jeff and Kathy along the trail in the forest

Jeff and Kathy along the trail in the forest

A Bird of Paradise

A Bird of Paradise

We decided to take a short hike before lunch on one of the many trails that traversed this rain forest in the clouds and along the way, Jeff, who has a penchant for orchids, began searching for these unique plants that are native to this region. There were streams and small waterfalls along the trail which was often quite wet and slippery, but we continued upward until we reached the road we came in on and where we had seen the bird watching hikers earlier. As I was checking our coordinates on my gps, I found that we were almost smack on the equator, off by only slightly more than one minute of latitude. We descended another trail based on our maps that had been supplied and slowly made our way now descending the slippery trail, all the while making sure we didn’t get lost. At one point, Diego, Kathy and I stood looking at our map to determine we were on the right trail back to the lodge when Jeff walked up to the three of us and asked if we were going to follow the bright yellow sign pointing back to the lodge that was right behind the three of us and which we had completely missed. It was an incredibly comical moment and only goes to show that being observant to your surroundings is as important as how to read a map.

Jeff climbing steps on the trail

Jeff climbing steps on the trail

A large hanging succulent

A large hanging succulent

We made it back safely to the lodge and all sat down for lunch in the circular restaurant that overlooked the rain forest. We had a wonderful homemade soup and local fist with salad that was all delicious as was the tiramisu that was served for dessert. We walked around the lodge a bit more as I took some more hummingbird photos and then we all loaded back in the car for the trip back to Quito. This destination was one of the most breathtaking places that I have been and that includes my African travels. If you are a bird watcher, I can’t imagine a better place.

A view from the trail

A view from the trail

Hummingbirds on a feeder

Hummingbirds on a feeder

One of the many hummingbirds feeding

One of the many hummingbirds feeding

The drive back was equally as beautiful, though I will have to admit that I dozed for a bit after our wonderful hike and lovely lunch. As we excited the thickly covered mountains of the reserve and dropped back into the valley with Quito in the distance, we came upon Mitad del Mundo, or Middle of the World, where a monument exists celebrating the location where a French explorer calculated the equator to be in 1736. He was actually about 240 m off in his calculations, but regardless, there is a yellow stripe representing the equator so you can walk with one foot in each hemisphere. We made a brief stop here and went to the top of the monument for the view.

Mitad del Mundo from atop the monument

Mitad del Mundo from atop the monument

As we drove back into town, there was unfortunately cloud cover in the distance covering up Cotopaxi, but at least we had seen it in the morning. It is approximately the same height as Kilimanjaro, but exists on a continent with many twenty-thousand plus foot high mountains where Kili is the highest on its continent. We said our farewells to Diego, who was an incredible host to us, and decided to relax before heading out to dinner. Tonight was an Ecuadorian sushi restaurant which may sound a bit funny, but given he fresh seafood around here, it was another amazing culinary experience. Tomorrow we awaken early to get to the airport for our trip to the Galapagos and the next part of our wonderful journey.