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  • Day50

    Galapagos - Isla San Cristobal

    February 22 in Ecuador ⋅ ⛅ 86 °F

    Our plane from Quayaquil was uneventful and as we approached the Galapagos after almost 2 hours, we crossed a lush island and I wondered why, since our first stop, Isla Cristobal, is the eastern-most of the 13 or so Galapagos islands. Then we banked left and crossed over the unmistakeable Kicker Rock, or known locally as Leon Dormida, the sleeping Lion. We were just turning around to land in the other direction at the south end of the island. Lucky for me to have had a window seat. We'd heard great things about the snorkeling tour to Kicker Rock and we couldn't wait. The chance to see Hammerhead sharks was enticing.

    There are 4 inhabited islands here, and most people live on 3. Before I did a deep research dive, I had no idea that so many people lived on the islands and that there is SO much lodging available. Even though it's Carnival week, we're not having a problem with that or finding tours. Lots of Ecuadorians visit here this week for the vacation of a lifetime. The easiest thing to do, and this is what most people do, is book a tour with an agency online or in Quito or Banos, or another touristy city in Ecuador. You'll pay twice as much for half the time here if you do it that way.

    We're doing our trip in the reverse of many travelers, just because we found a cheap one-way flight to this isand. As it turns out, we may have done a great thing, because we can see so much on this island and we might not want to pay more on the other island to see the same wildlife. We booked a room for 2 nights with AC and breakfast included for about $65. Hostels are much cheaper and of course you can pay a lot more. But Ivan and Trudi at Hotel Cattleya are great hosts. Ivan met us at the airport and we grabbed a $2 taxi to the hotel, just 1 Km away. We could have walked, but the heat is brutal here during mid-day. And contrary to what some blogs say, the arrival was easy. Foreigners pay $20 in Guayaquil for one permit, and then at arrival, they pay $100 more just to land here. Ecuadorians pay about $10 I think. Since we got out of the back of the plane quickly (they use 2 exits on the tarmac with ladders), we got to the lines quickly and were soon on our way.

    Since we're DIY, we walked around the small town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno to research tours and snorkeling spots. We have a mask and snorkel and just ordered some fins via Amazon when in New Orleans. They're a little smaller and fit easily in a bag.

    There are a few thousand inhabitants here. One of the problems with studying this area is that each island has 2 names (Ecuadorian and old British/pirate) and then there are the cities on each. It can get confusing. Right now, we're in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on Isla San Cristóbal. The island used to be called Chatham and you'll still see both names on some maps.

    The city was pretty dead except for the numerous sea lions everywhere. And the iguanas. The main beach in the center is fenced off and it's their beach. But many get into the city and take over the sidewalks, steps, malecon, and also ships in the harbor. It's fun. They're loud and are always moving around and playing in pools, especially the pups. They sound like a drunken college student dry-heaving after a night of partying. We found out later that early afternoon is siesta time and many businesses and restaurants close for a few hours at the hottest part of the day. It got much more festive later after the sun set. 88 degrees on the equator feels like well over 100F.

    Our first 2 meals here were pretty bad and we were adjusting to sticker shock of being on a touristy island. Prices are about double than those on the mainland and service is not so great. But the next day we found better restaurants and snorkeled at La Loberia, a nearby beach. And we went to the very informational Galapagos Interpretation Center. Behind it were paved trails to another snorkeling spot and viewing tower on Frigate Bird Hill. I saw an Eagle Ray, a type of Manta, and a Sea Turtle, but not much else.

    Frigate birds are everywhere. They're called kleptoparasites because they rob other seabirds for food sometimes.They're large and have a distinctive split tail and can fly for weeks without landing because they ride thermals. On land the males have a large red neck that balloons out during mating season. Those make for great pictures.

    We spent most of a day just exploring the island and looking for a tour to Kicker Rock. We finally found a tour with a sailboat the next day and spent the evening enjoying the nearby beach of Playa Mann. Our hosts are great and provide a big breakfast.

    We left at 6:30 to catch our sailboat. We were already fitted with our gear. You need a wetsuit here because the water can get pretty cold while the exterior temps are in the upper 80's. Since we're on the equator, you'll burn pretty quickly without protection. We didn't use the sails on the way out, but there was a lot of room since only 2 other couples booked the tour: a Dutch couple traveling for a few weeks and an Ecuadorian couple from Quito. We went along the west side of Isla Cristobal for a couple of hours and did a circle of the rocky outcrop. It juts straight up and has a split in the middle where small boats can get through. It's special because strong ocean currents from different directions push currents full of wild things here. We snorkelled for an hour and a half and went into the split, which was amazing. We saw sea turtles, white tip reef sharks, black tip reef sharks, a Galpagos shark, a pufferfish, sea lions, a tuna, and lots of smaller fish.

    But the highlights of the tour were 2 things that are fairly rare in other parts of the world. We swam for a minute or two with a school of Eagle Rays, a type of Manta. They're so grafeful and beautiful! I counted 6. And then finally at the end of the trip, we saw a school of Hammerhead Sharks. They stay down about 12 meters and it's hard to see that deep unless you're in the right light on a sunny day. We had that, and thank god. I missed the first one that everyone else saw earlier, but when we saw the school, I dived down a bit for a better look and counted about 6 or so, but there were more. I just had to surface for air.

    Back in town, we finally found a good restaurant with good service and ate there 4 times! No more messing around. The seafood is fresh and good, but not everyone seems to know how to cook it. And we enjoyed the menus del dias, which are cheap set meals for about $5 with juice. The best part of those is the first course of a hearty soup. Few Jewish grandmothers can make as good of a chicken soup as the ones we've had. So it's nice to know that there is good food out there and we just had a bit of bad luck. Eating hot soup in the midday heat seems counter-intuitive, but soup at lunch is a standard here.

    The next day, we booked a taxi to take us on a land tour. Taxis here are all big, white, newish pickup trucks. They're really nice and not too expensive. They have set prices for everything and an island tour to 3 spots was $60 and the driver waits for you on the 4 hour tour. We went to El Junco Lagoon on the highest part of the island. It's a freshwater lake in a caldera that is misty and has unique plant life, the Miconia. The frigate birds come here to wash the saltwater off their wings, but we didn't see any. We did the hike around it and then skedaddled as a group of Ecuadorian junior high kids showed up.

    Next was a Tortoise center called the Galapaguera. They've moved some tortoises here from the natural habitat on the north side of the island to protect them. There's a breeding center there too. We finally saw lots of these huge guys. They're pretty amazing. If you get too close, they sound like dragons. After taking lots of pics and vids, we had a rare experience of seeing Galapagos Tortoises mate. It was interesting to say the least. We were like "how the hell did this species survive with that akward armor?" But they found a way. And it was nowhere near as brutal as the Orangutans we saw mating in Borneo.

    The last stop was at a pristine beach on the east end of the island where you could chill and swim with sea lions. We had already booked a ferry ride to the next island of Santa Cruz for the next day. It's the main island because the airport is at the tip of another small island to the north. It was built by the US military after Pearl Harbor to help protect the canal in Panama. And that's why so many people go to Santa Cruz and book trips from there.

    See all photos and vids here
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