Monday, October 15, 2012

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador: Puerto Ayora, Charles Darwin Research Station; Twin Craters, Tortoise Farm, Santa Cruz Island

Last night we arrived in Santa Cruz at about 7:00pm and stayed in port but slept on the yacht. We had a late dinner on board because of the choppiness of the water and then headed into town. It’s a small town (population of about 10,000) but good for the size of Galapagos I suppose. Omar said that there are many restrictions on who can live and work in the islands. Prior to 1998 (I think), anyone could come and work here. Then the government changed that and only people either born here or married to someone from here can come and live here. If you marry someone from here, you have to wait for 5 years to gain permanent residency, even if you are a mainland Ecuadorian. Up to 2005, people could come and work here for up to 3 months at a time so many Ecuadorians would come and work for 3 months, return to the mainland for a month and then come back for another 3 months and keep doing that. They live to work here because the wages are about 35% more than it is on the mainland but the cost of living is also very expensive because almost everything has to be brought in.

In 2005, the government changed the regulations about working and anyone wanting to come here and work can only do so for up to 3 months each year. You are not allowed to come and go as before. The islands are experiencing some growing pains as well. Many young people are having babies and cannot afford to take care of the babies for a number of reasons. They often have not completed their education so they are not qualified for the jobs that would be available to them. The whole area depends on tourism. It costs each tourist USD$100 to get into Galapagos because it’s a national park. That’s about USD$20 million dollars each year spent on just getting in. Some of the money goes to the Darwin Research Station and some goes to the park for the upkeep but the bulk of the money goes to the government who then determines how much money the park gets based on a sort of business plan that the park has to submit. Factor in the cost of hotel rooms per night on the mainland (about $50-150 per night), flights from the mainland (about USD $500 return), the cost of the boat tours (an 8 day tour that we are doing can cost anywhere from USD $1,400 to $3,000) and the additional money you might spend on tips for the crew and guides, souvenirs and other incidentals and there is a lot of money going into the Ecuadorian economy just from these tours. Personally I think that more of the money collected as park fees should stay on the islands to preserve the habitats but I am not the one making such decisions. Did I mention that this is another UNESCO heritage site? It is, and they have strict rules about what can and cannot be done.
This morning Sue, Emma, Elka, Bridget, Dave, Linden and Sandra left the tour. They did the 5 day trip and the rest of us are doing the 8 day trip so we’ll be getting some new people at lunch. It’s funny how you can put a group of total strangers together for a few days and within a short time, we feel and act like a family. It is totally the opposite of Survivor (the tv show which I really dislike after watching about 10 minutes of a few episodes) where everyone is out to protect themselves and they will stab each other in the back to get ahead. I suppose a tv show about a group of 16 people who look out for and help each other and generally get along with each other would not garner any ratings. A collaborative rather than competitive team is much more to my liking. We exchanged email addresses, gave each other hugs and wished them a happy journey.
Some of the group will be going home and others will be continuing on to other South American destinations for a few to several months so some who left will be meeting at a later date with some who are still here to continue the travels. Wayne who is still here is spending a total of 7 months in South America and he will also be visiting Guyana so I will give him some contacts and places to go/see. Of course Kaieteur and Orinduik Falls will be on the list but there must be more to see than those. Any suggestions from anyone reading this would be helpful.
We had breakfast this morning after the other group left and it was somewhat quiet – not somber, just quiet because we were missing them at the breakfast table. For breakfast there were scrambled eggs, bread, sausages, fruit, corn flakes, yogurt, strawberry juice and tea/coffee. Since October 2, I have had eggs for breakfast every day except for one when we were in Aguas Calientes, Peru where they served cheese and bread (and ham for those who eat it). I am not sure that I’ll want to see another egg for quite some time after I return home but right now, I am not complaining. They could be serving ham and then I’d be complaining. We boarded the panga at about 8:30am to go to the Darwin Research Station.    
Charles Darwin Research Station
The research centre is not a building so much as a number of areas where they breed land tortoises and a growing area for plants that are native to the islands. The centre is trying to get rid of “introduced” plants (meaning that the plants are not indigenous to the islands but were brought here for food (e.g. goats, pigs, blackberries, bananas), for decorative reasons (e.g. plants and flowers) or because they arrived here by boats stopping over (e.g. donkeys, rats). The centre grows plants and gives them away to the locals so that they would replace them with the “introduced” plants that they have in their yards. They also collect tortoise eggs, incubate them, and raise the tortoises until they are about 5 years old and then puts them back in their natural habitat. They had to do this because the numbers were decreasing so drastically that something needed to be done. We also saw some yellow iguanas. I think I must have seen every colour of iguana as there is on the colour spectrum just on these islands.

We walked back to the town which was about a 10 minute walk and waited at the pier for the panga but we could not use the seat because it was otherwise occupied by a guest who we were not allowed to disturb.
At 12:00 we boarded the yacht with 7 new passengers who will be with us till Thursday. We had another delicious lunch of fish and all the other side dishes. Lupo is an incredibly talented chef to prepare 3 meals each day plus snacks for 16 people in a kitchen that’s no more than about 8 feet x 8 feet. And Lenin is quite skilled at managing the bar and making sure that we’ve all had enough to eat. Then he cleans up and has coffee and tea ready for whenever we want some.
Twin craters
We left the yacht at 2:00pm for a tour of the twin craters. These are thought to have been formed by volcanoes that collapsed over time. The islands are sinking and moving South East at a rate of about 5cm each year so over time this may account for the collapse but I don’t know if anyone knows this for certain. This area has some interesting vegetation – large indigenous trees, many of which are covered in a moss that has a symbiotic relationship with the trees because in the rainy season, they collect moisture and when it’s dry, they (the moss) provides moisture for the trees. While we were walking back to the bus, we saw a rare bird that was called a Vermilion Fly Catcher. You have never seen a group of grown people tiptoeing around some vegetation to catch a glimpse of a rare bird and if we were very lucky, we might even get a picture if the bird stayed still long enough. You have no idea how I wished I had a sophisticated camera with high powered lens that I could have had a great picture. Instead I’ll post the one I got and hope that it doesn’t look like a red blur in some green vegetation.

Tortoise farm
Then off we went to a private farm that is full of tortoises living in the wild. And were there ever many!

And you should see the size of tortoise excrement! That's my foot beside it for comparison.
I put my shoes beside it for comparison. It made me think of the size of the elephant dung we saw in Botswana (see August 2006 Okavanga Delta, Botswana post). While everyone was busy getting their pictures taken in front of the giant tortoises, I was looking at a little lagoon covered in some tiny pink flowers and the cutest little yellow warbler swooped down for a drink of water. He fluttered back and forth and suddenly he looked down and saw his reflection in the water and started to chirp as if he just discovered something exciting. I grabbed for my camera really quickly and managed to capture a couple of pictures. I was very satisfied with myself that while everyone was taking turtle pictures, I found a rare gem and I didn’t have to share it with anyone else. I think Wayne may also have gotten a couple of pictures of the bird too but all the group was not chasing this picture. 

Soon after that, we went to have a coffee at the farm owner’s little stand where he gives away a cup of coffee for anyone who wants some. Omar calls it Galapagos coffee but I think it’s Nescafe renamed Galapagos coffee. Then it was a one-of-a-kind picture-perfect tortoise picture moment with the rarest tortoise I have ever seen! You know how sometimes you hear that you have a twin somewhere in the world? Well, I swear, this tortoise looked exactly like Wayne. See for yourself! Wayne, if you’re reading this, you’ll have to agree that the likeness is uncanny!
Then it was back to the yacht for dinner and tiramisu for dessert. Yummy! We sail at 10:30 tonight and we do this for 8 hours. I hope that none of the new passengers get sick. This is the longest sailing night yet but after tonight, the ports will be shorter distances. Apparently the boat will be rocking from side to side at the same time that it will be rocking back and forth. We’ll see what that experience is like. I sleep with the cabin door slightly ajar but it might be good to close it tonight. I am not such a good swimmer and rolling off the bed and into the ocean at night may not be such a cool thing. Good night.

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