The wonders of the Galapagos are widely covered in books and magazines and I am running out of time. Burt and I are headed into the Northern Jaguar Reserve tomorrow. I will be incommunicado for another two to three weeks. I can’t keep up. So here is a summary:
Naturalist Journeys runs a well organized, fortifying trip full of exciting wildlife and fun activities. You can check them out. Our tour had two daily walks, a daily scuba and about three sea kayaking adventures. No activity was too long or too draining. My favorite activity was snorkeling. What a surprise. I have had some bad snorkeling experiences and this was mesmerizing and fun. There was time for us to play some tunes and sing with our friends. The boat was well kept by a stellar crew. The naturalists were knowledgeable and generous. I encourage you to go while you can. It is a very active trip and it’s fun to do while strong and energetic. I have lots more photos on Facebook. If I have time I’ll put them up here.
Our fifteen hour cruise through rough waters took us to Genovesa Island. Genovesa Island is shaped like partially eclipsed sun. The island is the tip of a defunct volcano barely peaking above sea level with a water filled crater. The Letty and four other ships were at anchor when we awoke. Access to sites in the Galapagos National Park are strictly regulated. Each ship was assigned this destination over a year ago. Throughout the day the 100 or so people scattered throughout the vessels would take their turns visiting the island and its surrounding waters. Our agenda included two walks, a snorkel, and a sea kayak. First up was a dry boat landing at the Prince Phillip steps for a morning walk.
The names of the archipelago features were originally in English when the first map of the area was made by the buccaneer Ambrose Crowley. In 1684 Crowley honored his fellow pirates and British royalty or noblemen. These names were in use at the time of Charles Darwin’s renowned voyage on the HMS Beagle and so became authoritative as the Beagle produced navigational charts of their expedition. Eventually Ecuador took possession of the islands and chose to rename most prominent locales in honor of the 1492 expedition of Christopher Columbus. Genovesa Island is in honor of Genoa, Columbus’s home town. Prince Philip steps are in honor of Isabela’s husband, the Columbus expedition’s patron.
Prince Philip has a mighty memorable feature names after him. The walls of the crater are very steep lava. There’s hardly a break and one small beach. We’d be making a wet landing at the beach that afternoon but this morning our panga driver pushed the nose of the our shuttle up against the cliff and one by one we disembarked onto a narrow break in the cliff. Steep, irregular steps led up to the bird filled island body. Our line of eager visitors was immediately held up by a nesting swallowtail gull. There was no way to pass without violating the 6 foot rule. Welcome to the Galapagos. The wildlife has no fear. Our guide pushed ahead and lead us past. The gull did not flinch. A thousand people must pass every week.
Up on top we had our first in depth interpretive tour. The highlight was a Galapagos Mockingbird killing a giant centipede. Our group stopped and watched the mockingbird whip the centipede over and over again on the rocks. Satisfied the centipede was no longer a threat the bird ate the centipede’s brain and only its brain and flew away. The centipede’s legs were still moving. Our guides and Howard had never seen this behavior and has never seen a centipede of this size in the islands. Day one and we were already making history.
Next up was a heap of red-footed boobies in all stages of the reproductive cycle. We saw nesting, hatchlings, juveniles all at the same time. Our guide said it was unusual for the red-footed booby to have a mishmash of breeding at one time. The guide speculated climate change was triggering profound changes in currents and food and bird habits.
The swallowtail gulls were all around, too. These birds are the only nocturnal gulls in the world. Their eyes are rimmed in bright red trim that resembles plastic. Nobody knows for sure what the eye makeup does. At night we could see their ghostly shapes following our ship and diving for churned up squid or jellyfish.
After the walk we returned to the ship for lunch. Our afternoon was filled with another walk at Darwin Beach and a kayak and snorkel. More glorious wildlife above and below the seas and too much food. Food was always plentiful and delicious. There’s no snacking on the islands which initially caused me concern. I like to eat on a walk. The return from excursions was always met with fruit, snacks, and juice so I had no need to worry. My friend Pat told me it would be okay and she was right.
That afternoon we headed out to sea for another big overnight crossing.
The good ship Letty was our vessel for the week. She’s about 30 years old but biannual dry dock upgrades have kept her in fine shape. I wish I could go in for a remodel every two years. Burt and I were bunked below deck in a room with three beds. The extra bed made for spacious storage. We had our guitar and mandolin and the usual necessities to stow and the bed made it much easier. Also, it’s generally considered more comfortable to sleep apart in rough seas. There’s nobody else rolling around in your bed. Elbows and knees fly about erratically when trying to exit the bed for a midnight pee. Not a very romantic situation.
The first excursion was to La Loberia on Isla San Cristobal. Here was a harem of sea lions lolling about and a ‘beach master’ bull male guarding his ladies. The beach master was lumbering in and out of the shallows and down the shore break bellowing and grunting. He swung his head back and forth and if his flippers could reach he would have been beating his chest. The beach masters are mature males working hard to prevent competitors from accessing the females. Beach masters work so hard chasing off suitors they only last in charge a short while until they collapse from exhaustion and hunger. Every few weeks they are dethroned and a new beach master takes over until he too is drained of all virility. This sounds entertaining for the ladies in more ways than one.
While the menfolk do what men do, the females are feeding and caring for the youngsters. We saw many nursing babes and juveniles snoozing in the waning sun. Well fed sea lions rolled around and did yoga poses and slept while we gaped and took photos. It was as if we were invisible. Our guides kept us a whole 6′ away. Years of conditioning made it hard to let an animal of this size this close. In a magnificent roll reversal I was more cautious of the sea lions than they were of me. I mean to tell you, those things have some serious teeth and despite the lack of legs they do move fast.
San Cristobal Island is one of teh oldest in the archipelago. At La Loberia the lava boulders are well worn and rounded because it is the oldest lava and the beach faces the harshest waves. Over the milleniums the rocks have been softened. Other places we were to see were full of jagged and scary rocks of new lava. Also, there are two types of lava: aa and pahoehoe. Aa lava is jagged from the time it erupts. Pahoehoe means robes and it is a softer, more sinuous lava. Pahoehoe rocks start out smoother. Our guides explained all this during our walk to the beach.
We returned to our ship where I had an octopus dinner. Burt had beef. The cruise’s food was good and surprising. The menus are very diverse. Lunches are more traditional with a base of beans and rice but dinner was influenced by world cuisine. That night was a 15 hour open ocean cruise north to Genovesa. I took a dramamine and woke up 12 hours later. I highly recommend dramamine if your are prone to motion sickness. I nearly threw up trying to brush my teeth. Once I took my pill and hit the hay I had not a care in the world.
Morning found us anchored in a sea filled volcanic crater. Coolio.
I’m too tired to get into the blow by blow trip details. The Galapagos are famous for the friendly wildlife and amazing scenery. They are a volcanic archipelago bathed in cold sea currents. If you don’t know the name of some species of plant or animal stick the word Galapagos or Lava in front of it and you might be right. Lava gull, lava lizard, Galapagos mockingbird, Galapagos prickly pear….Our journey covered more than 500 nautical miles and 5 islands in 8 days. Naturalist Journeys hosts Howard and Carol gave 4 lectures covering the natural history, human history, evolution, and environmental threats. Our local guides were phenomenally well informed, energetic, and kind. Burt and I snorkeled in 8 locations. We saw more than 40 new species of birds and animals. I think you should check it out.
Two weeks ago Burt and I landed in Ecuador and had a memorable adventure. An adventure full of fun and action and family and friends. Here’s how it went.
The Gypsy Carpenters flew out of El Paso which is three hours from Portal, AZ. Our trailer and dogs and cat were stowed safely with friends in Portal. The cat is apparently happier with her friend Dodi than with us and the canines. Our flight was at mid-day and on the spur of the moment we drove to El Paso the evening before. After a few frustrating u-turns on the endless highways surrounding the El Paso airport we found a La Quinta with an authentic taco joint next door. Live music and tacos pastur for dinner. The La Quinta took us in and kept our car for free with a free shuttle to the airport. What a deal. The next morning we slept in, ate the complimentary breakfast and took to the skies.
There’s not much to say about air travel beyond how uncomfortable it is for everyone involved. Twelve hours later we landed in Quito. Burt and I have both been to Ecuador several times but the most recent trip was ten years ago. A lot has changed in Ecuador in ten years. We stepped out of our airplane expecting a third world style-runway exit with lots of intimidating barriers and screaming taxistas. Instead we landed in a modern day airport. It was clean and cavernous and well lit. Everything was orderly. What happened? President Rafael Correa happened is what I hear. A country wide investment in infrastructure has made the place anew. The Pan American highway was once a two lane pot hole riddled byway. Kind cute. Now it is a super highway. Six lanes of well-engineered roadway all the way to Columbia. Welcome, tourists.
At 11:00 PM we were shuffled through customs efficiently and with smiles. My ink splattered declaration was not a problem. My crossed-out name not an issue. Quite the opposite of our entry into Miami yesterday where I accidentally pushed a wrong button at the mandatory automatic kiosk and got us swept into the X line of suspicious people. Four in the morning and nobody was smiling. I was told I wouldn’t make that mistake again by the grumpy inspector. The taxis were lined up and regulated. We paid the standard ten US dollars to be ferried to our Air B and B host in Tababela. Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar as its currency. Another reason to travel there.
We spent a day resting and acclimating to the high elevation. Chester’s B and B was a cozy spot with a comfortable bed in a town where nothing was happening. Worked for us. Most of our tour companions were on a pre-Galapagos side trip to see the condors and were staying in Puembo at the Puembo Birding Gardens. Naturalist Journeys uses the Puembo Birding Gardens as its Quito base camp. The inn is in beautiful location and has many fantastic birds, a friendly hostess, and fine dining. I figure my heart wasn’t up to the elevation where condors soar so we just hung out and played music and read for a day in seclusion.
The next morning we were up early and taken to the airport by our hosts. At the airport we united with our group and began the intricate journey to the Galapagos Islands. There were 18 guests and 2 hosts on this trip. Carol Simon and Howard Topoff were our hosts. In February Burt and I will be hosts and have guests of our own. Our twenty person group was met by the Ecoventuras team and shuttled through the detailed Galapagos luggage inspection and baggage check and sent off to our boarding gate to wait for our nearly three hour flight to the islands. The Galapagos are a unique place full of native plants and animals. The luggage inspection is to make sure we are not carrying anything that might harm the natural environment. No seeds, unpackaged food, plants, or dirt are allowed. I cleaned Burt’s and my shoes before the trip. (Shocking, I know.)
Our group was comprised of a bunch of scientific types with connections to Portal, Arizona. All of us knew someone on the trip. Burt and I knew Carol and Howard, of course, but we also had longtime Helena friends Ed and Rosemary on board. Our flight made a stop at the coastal city of Guayaquil and we picked up two more of our participants and then it was off the the archipelago.
The Galapagos are more than 600 miles from shore in the Pacific Ocean. The airplane makes quick work of what used to be a many day sea voyage. Flying is convenient but it also minimized the vast distance and made it easy to forget how far from the rest of the world we were. Our plane landed on San Cristobal Island around 3 in the afternoon. After another inspection we met our week’s guides, Fabricio and Franklin, and headed right out our ship for a late lunch and a boat safety meeting. After eating and considering a midnight sinking we headed back to land and took our first nature walk to La Loberia. Sea Lions are called Lobos Marinos and La Loberia was the place of many sea lions. They weren’t kidding. More next post.
Burt and I are leading a trip to the Galapagos Islands in early February 2018. We are thrilled to be hosting this fun extravaganza of nature and music for Naturalist Journeys. Are you interested in seeing this exciting, animal filled wonderland and enjoying fresh tunes in the evening? Come sing and dance with us! You can check out similar itineraries at this LINK. Our trip isn’t posted publicly because this particular offering is currently only open to our friends and fans. Let me know if you want the specific details and I will send them to you. Space is limited.
Our truck is out of the repair shop. There’s still a hope that the transmission is fine and a change of lubrication will fix the problem. Time will tell. In between trips to Animas to drop off and pick up the truck we’ve been hiking, birding, tennis playing, spider watching, and visiting friends. Portal Irish Music Week starts in three days. Ack. I think I’ve got everybody situated and carpooled here. Every year I wonder if there will be some big over sight. Somebody stranded at an airport. A missed plane. Sickness. Family emergency. I should stop thinking about what could go wrong. I’m going to give myself an anxiety attack. So far so good. Here’s hoping this year is just as smooth.
Our good friend Peg Abbott of Naturalist Journeys invited me to tag along on a guided birding trip as record keeper this week. I got to go out for two half days and we covered a lot of terrain and microclimates. The first day was rainy and gray. The second was a bluebird day, crisp and shining. The team, mostly Peg, spotted or heard 80 species. Burt came out the second day and we snagged a trogon. We were walking about 20 yards apart and we both saw the same bird. They are hard to spot this time of year and it was nice we could verify for each other. Sadly the clients did not see it. Bill and Susan were from North Carolina. Susan is career EPA and we became fast friends. She even encouraged me to return to public service. Who knows? Maybe I will someday.
Our hiking club trip took us up to the spine of the Chiricahuas. The main group went out for over 12 miles. I declined that opportunity but we walked around Fly Peak with blog follower and regular commentator Pat. I’ve posted an anonymous photo of Pat below.
This visit to Portal hatched a plan to join our friends on a tour of the Galapagos Islands. I’ve always wanted to go but the price is daunting. Burt was less interested but I swayed him with a photo of a blue-footed booby. This trip is guided by our buddies Carol and Howard and filled with other Portal friends. It was too hard too resist. And we spent so little money this past year that I realized after 7 years of working part-time and living very modestly we can actually afford to splurge on something amazing. Burt and I have traveled many places and done many once-in-a-lifetime type trips that I find the phrase once-in-a-lifetime a hackneyed expression but I think this Galapagos opportunity with our very knowledgeable friends really is a special chance. Life is short and we must grab it by the short hairs. None of us is getting younger. Besides, I have to feed the blog. So look out for a very special blog post about the Galapagos in November of 2017.