Friday, July 27, 2012

San Cristobal Island, Galapagos

The Galapagos archipelago is made up of 13 major islands, and about 46 other smaller islands and islets.  What makes this place so interesting, is that there are so many species of animal that can only be found here.  Whats more, what drove Darwin to embrace the idea of adaptation and natural selection, is that even the same type of animal has different adaptations depending upon the island upon which it is found. 

Because of this, my next few entries will be about specific islands so that I can clearly represent each area and what makes it special.  This first entry is all about my first location--San Cristobal Island, the attractions there and the creatures I encountered. 

The maleqon is essentially the boardwalk in the capital town of Puerto Baqueriez Moreno.  This is where I took most of my previous photos of the sea lions.  Here you find los lobos very much at home in what humans have created there--lounging on benches, chilling in the playground, and walking down the sidewalk.  It's a great first exposure to San Cristobal.  I have found the afternoons (3-6pm) to be the best time for viewing, since it's not too hot and the sea lions are a bit more active.

Punta Carola
Walking about 20 minutes to the southwest along the coast, you will come to Punta Carola.  This is a small beach, with interesting shell-based sand.  It is another hang-out for los lobos.  My best luck here was early one morning, when I came upon lots of nursing lobos, a marine iguana, and the Great Blue Heron.  I have also seen a number of surfers catching waves here.

Cerro Tijeretas
If you didn't know the hiking trail was there, it would be easy to miss.  Just at the back of Punta Carola beach is a small wooden sign, with a carved hiker and arrow.  Following this trail, you eventually come to a lovely walking path, made from slices of the volcanic rock that comprises the islands.  Following this path for about 20-30 minutes, depending of course on how much you stop to take photos, you come to a number of sites.

The first is a look out onto an inlet clearly frequented by sea birds.  You'll be able to tell by all the white splashes on the rocks in the photos.  I came here twice.  The first time was in the evening, just before sunset.  I was with one of my hosts, and almost missed the blue footed booby perched on the rocks.  It was the keen eyes of my host that caught sight of it and pointed it out to me. 

The second time, I went midday, and it was clearly not the ideal time.  Not a single bird.  The sun is quite hot here, even in the winter, so I would imagine most birds had found some shade by then.

Continuing further on, you will find a lookout with a sculpture dedicated to the work of Charles Darwin.  From this location, you have a fabulous view into the cove below, which is a popular snorkeling spot.  I did not swim here, but from the rocks on the shore I saw a lot of fish, sea lions, and even a sea turtle.

Continuing even further, and hiking up a fair bit, you begin to climb Cerro Las Tijeretas, Frigatebird Hill.  (Tijeretas as they are called here, got their name from the scissor-like action of their tail feathers in flight, named after the spanish word for scissors: tijeras).  The hill got its name from the large number of frigate birds that roost on its cliffs.  As I hiked up last Saturday, it was probably around noon, the sun was strong, and it was hot.  I came upon a small look out, and walked out to find these two tijeretas perched on an overhanging tree. 

This view caught me off guard for a number of reasons.  First of all, I am unused to seeing these birds sitting!  All through Belize, Mexico, and here in the Galapagos, it is commonplace to see these gorgeous birds soaring high and riding updrafts.  To see them sitting, and up close, just seemed so strange.  They are rather clumsy on the ground.

Secondly, they rest in the most uncomfortable-looking position!  They are perched on the branch as any bird would, but they hang their necks over so that their heads hang under their bodies.  It looks very peculiar.  Though I tried my best to be quiet and not disturb them, I inevitably did, and one eventually flew away as I prepared my art materials to draw the pair.  Eventually, after about 45 minutes, the one that remained became comfortable enough with my presence that he went back to sleep, but he remained alert long enough for me to finish a drawing of him.

To the left of the pair was a larger and more distant tree that was home to a large group of resting tijeretas.  I snapped what shots I could before my camera battery ran out, and I was cooked to a crisp.  I packed up my things, and headed back to town.

Laguna El Junco
On Sunday, I had the chance to head to the opposite side of the island, where we explored one of the sights in the highlands.  Here, in the middle of a volcanic crater, now covered with the indigenous ferns, is a freshwater-fed lake.  As my host explained to me, these fresh water lakes are important to the sea birds because they come here to bathe.  The fresh water will rinse out the salt from their feathers.

We spent about half an hour here, and I had the chance to watch the bathing behavior of about 20 frigates.  What fascinates me about these birds is that they never actually swim or float in the water.  Instead, they soar above the lake for a while, in their characteristic circular soaring pattern. 

When there is a pause in the wind, they coast downward, skimming the surface of the water, or occasionally flapping their wings a bit as they dunk their rear into the water.  Once they have done this, they tip their wings upward and lift as quickly as they dove. 

They fly upward, until they reach their comfortable height.  Then I noticed somethign peculiar.  They engage in somewhat of a free fall.  You can tell a bit in this photo how they seem to let their whole body go limp, all the feather ruffling about as a flag in the wind.  I imagine this is their method to cast the water through their feathers and out.

Once they have had this short free fall, they again regain tension in their bodies and return to coasting.  This pattern repeats over and over, for what must be hours.  It was really quite amazing to watch.  BUT very challenging to photograph!  In the 30 minutes we were there, I took over 100 photos, in the end only keeping about 20, since so many were blurry, or empty shots of water.  It was hard to capture.

After the Laguna, my host took us to one the the tortoise sanctuaries in the islands.  Here they have a large enclosure that is safe for the land tortoises to roam free.  Additionally, they have a smaller enclosure where they look after young tortoises.

We had luck when we first walked through the pathways, seeing this smaller-sized tortoise (probably 18" across) after walking for just 10 minutes.  He took note of our presence, but as I'm sure you can imagine with tortoises, there were no major movements.

We continued on through the walkways, seeing no other critters.  It wasn't until we left the official walkway upon leaving the park that we had real luck.  Walking along the outside wall, we came upon a group of 4 enormous tortoises.  3 were 3' across, one of which was at the end of this pool drinking, and the other 2 were fully submerged in the cool, gooey mud at the other edge of the pool.

 It took a while before we noticed the fourth, and by far the largest.  He was farther back, munching on some of the foliage. 

He must have been almost 4' across.  Watching this one, more than any of the others, I was able to imagine what dinosaurs must have been like.  He was just so remarkable.  His movements were so exact, but in such a calculated, unrushed manner.  I noted the intricate scales on his legs, the folds of skin on his neck, and the way he chewed with his mouth open. 

We watched these guys go about their business for almost an hour.  I was filled with the sound of their labored breathing, the sloshing of the mud, and the scraping sound of shell on shell.  I walked away feeling small again, just like that day with the Tiburones Ballenas.

Puerto Chino
We ended our adventurous weekend with a walk down to Puerto Chino, a small, but lovely beach at the northeastern coast of the island.  This small inlet was filled with happy sunbathers, surfers and families.  It was a lovely spot, but my attention was immediately drawn to the rocky overhangs to the side of the beach. 

My eye was first drawn to this pelican. 

Though she is in a resting pose, you can tell by her eyes that she is vigilant.  She never took her eyes off of me.  It took a moment before I saw why.

It turned out that this overhang was a nesting spot for about 4 pairs of pelicans.  Altogether, I saw about 5 young, varying in ages from a few days to a couple weeks, according to my host.   In the hour that I observed (and shot about 200 photos), I saw the parents come and go, bringing food for their young.  I watched as the young mimicked their parents, preening, and flapping, preparing their muscles for adulthood.   It was quite remarkable. 

Even though these little guys are really awkward looking, their really quite special.

According to my host, there are still 3 major sites on San Cristobal that I need to visit before I leave the archipelago.  Puerto Choa is apparently a lovely beach where you can catch some sun right along with sea lions, La Loberia is a site replete with lobos and iguanas, and Kicker Rock, or as it is known here: Leon Dormido (Sleeping Lion) is known for diving and common appearances of sharks.

I should have enough time after my tour to return and finish off what I missed, so if time and money are on my side, there will be a San Cristobal #2 forthcoming!  If not, I feel pleased with all that I had the chance to see in just one week.

(Just one last little caveat.  This post took 4 days, and about 10 hours.  The internet here is tough for uploading, so images take forever.  I will probably either not post for a while, or post only short posts for the time being.  This was a tough one.)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Getting to the Galapagos

Every now and then, interspersed between photography and narratives, I like to post helpful information for other would-be travelers.  This post is for anyone who is thinking of visiting the Galapagos in the future.  Since I have only been here for a week, I know this is not a comprehensive tutorial, but I hope that it will be helpful, and give you an idea of what to expect in getting to the islands. 

Mixed in with a general how-to narrative, I will also mark specific tips of importance (*NOTE), so if you are a skimmer, read those.

The first hurdle in getting to the Galapagos Islands is flying in.  Most international flights land in Quito, and then you must find a connecting flight to the islands.  There are airports on 2 of the islands: Santa Cruz and San Cristobal.  Depending on which island you want to get to, it may be easier to fly to Guayaquil instead of Quito.  There are only 3 airlines that fly to the islands: AeroGal, Tame, and LAN.   Not all airlines have flights every day, and flights usually depart early in the morning.

*NOTE:  Though 3 airlines service the islands, only LAN has the capability to sell tickets online before you arrive.

It is also the most expensive.  Because of all this, it is often easier to just fly in, and buy a ticket in person, as I did.  This method does, however, require you to be flexible with time.  You may not get the exact date or time you want, but it does give you options between the three companies.  It worked perfectly for me, as I landed in Quito at 6pm and bought a flight for the next morning, staying at a hotel right next to the airport.  Upon arrival, only Tame had flights available for the dates I wanted.  The other companies required I stay longer in Quito first, or departed earlier from the islands than I had hoped.

*NOTE: you will have to buy a return flight.  In order to enter the Galapagos, they will check that you have plans to depart.

Once you have a flight, make sure you arrive at the airport at least 2 hours early.  Even though it is a domestic flight, there are many precautions taken to protect the island, and you will need at least 1.5 hours before boarding.

*NOTE: When you first arrive at the airport, do not go right to the airline window.  You must first complete 2 additional steps from the normal flight procedure.

Before they will give you your boarding pass, you must first pass through a series of preparations.  First, you will be asked to pay $10 for a tourist card.  This process is surprisingly long considering the simplicity of the form.  It took about 45 minutes before I was at the window myself.  They will start the form for you, and then you must complete the rest to hand in upon arrival in the islands.

After you have your tourist card, your bag will be screened for safety to enter the Galapagos.  They will be looking for seeds, fruits, plants, and other organic material that could have damaging effects upon the environment.  Once scanned, your bag will receive a tag verifying its approval.

Once these two steps are complete, go to the ticket window.  They will ask to see your tourist card, passport, flight information, and verification of baggage check. Then you check in as usual.

Entering the Country
The next unorthodox step, is that just before landing on the islands, the flight crew will open all of the overhead bins, and spray insecticide--also to prevent invasive epidemics.

Once you have landed, head to immigration, where they will collect your tourist card.  Here also, you will pay a $100 park fee, since the entire archipelago is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At this point, almost all precautions are done.

*NOTE: They will give you back a tourist card stub.  Hang onto this, because they will collect it when you leave. 

The last step is another bag check.  Workers will unload all of the baggage and form it in rows.  A canine crew will then come in, filing up and down the rows until they are satisfied that nothing unsavory is being shuttled in.  Once you have finished this step, you are free to go.

To Tour or Not to Tour
At this point, it's choose-your-own-adventure.  Much like my previous post about Mexican beaches and the do-it-yourself vs. resort holidays, your experience here could be just as different.  The vast majority of visitors to the island, come in packaged tours ranging from 3-8 days in length.  As you probably have guessed by now, I am not the tour type.  I've just never been able to travel in a pack.  I always had my own drummer, right mom and dad?

So, of course, with that spirit, I made my way to the islands without a tour.  If I had done a tour, I would have probably been met at the the airport by one of those happy signs with a company name on it, where henceforth, all preparations would have already been made, and I could kick back and enjoy the ride.


That's not what I did. 

So now I am on this marvelous adventure solo, and while I would probably do it the same all over again, I want to share this with you:

*NOTE: due to the great restrictions placed on travelers to protect the environment here, there are many places on the islands where foreigners are forbidden to go without a guide. 

While there is still a lot to do without a tour, you may be disappointed if there are things you cannot do without joining a group.  So, starting on Sunday, I will be joining a group.  I had the chance to see a lot of incredible things on San Cristobal (which is my next post), and I have a few days before the tour to explore the island of Santa Cruz, but there is a lot more that I want to see, and I just would not be able to see it unless I take one of these boat tours.  So, Jess will be a pack animal for once.  We'll see how that goes!  More later!