Galapagos – the start of a trip I’ve wanted to do forever – and even more since I saw David Attenborough’s Planet Earth and Life. One of the last places where mankind hasn’t left a harmful footprint. A place ruled by blue-footed birds and giant tortoises, where, it is said, the animals regard human visitors as nothing more than slightly annoying paparazzi, and never run or walk away when approached, having never perceived humans as a threat – thus getting up close to these animals (many of them endemic to the islands) is easy.
I managed to pay my hotel bill of just over $200 for 3 nights stay, and stuff 2 slices of toast down me and a cup of red hot tea that scalded my throat before a red jeep pulled up outside, and I was obliged to take my suitcase and leave the hotel and Quito itself, to make the journey of over 1000km to the Galapagos Islands.
During the journey I met Phil, an amiable chap from London who said he had spent the last 7 years working in Moscow as fashion editor for a glamour magazine and had since resigned and was now taking a trip around South America for a few months. Rather than begin with a game of travellers top trumps, as one so often does when travelling (“when I was in Syria….” = 5 points…. “Really….that happened to me in Brazil…” = 7 points etc), we began our conversation with a good chat about English football, before discussing the forthcoming trip pessimistically, which is something all Brits are good at. We also met a cool Norwegian girl, Gitte who was the last person to book and had just got it all sorted out in time. My fears over the people I’d be sharing a boat with for a week were diminishing by the minute. We all got on well as we waited at the airport in Quito to board the LAN flight to Isla Baltra off Santa Cruz via Guayacil. The flight to Guayacil took 35 minutes, and from there to Galapagos about an hour, the descent revealing a barren, isolated land. When we arrived at the airport, we had to pay $100 for the park fee (Galapagos is a bloody expensive place), then we met a guide for our boat, the Floreana. It was a bit like arriving in Spain on a tour package with Thompson, people everywhere were being herded onto different buses by reps, and it was all a bit chaotic.
We had to squeeze on a bus and proceed, standing, to the pier from which we got on different motor dinghies to take us to our boat, which sat some 500 metres offshore. The water was choppy, and I was sodden by the time we reached the Floreana. We were met by the captain himself, Captain Franco. Never have I seen a man so fitting of the word ‘captain’. He was broad, with a tanned, friendly face lined with the wrinkles of experience, and a grey neatly clipped moustache. He was bald on top, and the hair clinging onto life at the side of his head was dark grey and short. He wore his stomach hanging over his belt proudly. The twinkle in his eye promised old seadog tales to come, and his handshake demanded respect and you knew that you would laugh at his jokes rather than the other way around. He was also, amusingly, the spitting image of ex Portugal, Chelsea and Brazil manager Luis Felipe Scholari. Perhaps he’d had enough of managing Palmeiras, and fancied a career change. A middle-aged American couple, ‘nice as pie’ were also there, and it turned out this was their favourite boat, and they had already been on it a week. They are both science lecturers in the States, and have been coming to Galapagos for years, always on the Floreana, which was surely a good sign. They were evolutionary scientists, and had written a couple of books on evolution, using their fieldwork in the Galapagos to back up their theories.
The Floreana, then, promised much from the brochure in the Carpdm travel shop. Whoever photographs these boats is a master of angle and space, as the sleeping cabins had room for a bunk bed and enough room to swing a cockroach. I was left with the top bunk in my room, which, if I lay flat on my back, left around 30cm of space from the tip of my nose to the roof. I didn’t think I’d be spending too much time there. The rest of the boat was small but nice enough. A decent, friendly looking dining area with 4 tables each seating 4 people and a tiny bar in the corner. On the deck was a nice common area for standing or sitting and having a chat in the sun. Above that, was a covered area with around 10 deckchairs. Nice. First impressions were fine enough, though I was a little pissed off at having fallen for a photographers simple tricks, as were other people, but when lunch was served – a delicious dish of salad, vegetables and pasta, some of our fears went away, If we got on with others on the boat, all would be fine. We were there for the nature anyway, not for the boat.
At 2:15pm we boarded dinghies to get to another pier, from where we were due to be met by a bus at 2:30 to take us to El Chato Tortoise Reserve. The bus wasn’t there, however, so the guide, a young and inexperienced temp who had studied in Bournemouth and was only with us for that afternoon, tried to keep us interested by pointing out some red crabs that were lounging around on rocks. After 30 minutes of looking into their world in the mangroves, the bus still hadn’t come. The Captain himself came over on a motor dinghy to try and solve the problem, as our guide was unable to make these kind of important decisions. To me, it was simple. You should always have a Plan B. Their Plan B should have been to arrange taxis to take everyone there. The guide never explained the problem, just looked moody in her sunglasses. It was a poor start, and we were all very pissed off. Eventually, the bus came. It was 3:30. An hour late. The captain didn’t even berate the late bus driver. They shook hands, asked how each other was doing, and that was it. And then I remembered I was still in South America, albeit 100km from the mainland.
On the bus, the mic for the guide wasn’t working, so nothing was going right for the poor guide today. After 30 minutes down a straight road past forests of seemingly dead trees (which are in fact preserving their water by not sprouting leaves) we came to an area of green, with more vegetation and a variety of trees. We were at El Chato Tortoise Reserve and Rancho Permiso. This was my first chance to glimpse an endemic species in the Galapagos. The place didn’t disappoint. Giant tortoises, or Galapagos after which the islands were named, were everywhere, and as it had just finished raining, the earthy smells meant the males were feeling frisky, and we were fortunate enough to witness two tortoises mating. The male pounded the female from behind, their shells clashing together, and the male moaning with lust. Mating like this can last an hour or more. Usually, when observed, the creatures might stop. This chap, though, treated us like the crew of a porn movie he was starring in, and we seemed to spur him on, though his partner was more reserved, hiding shyly in her shell. We came across a pond full of huge shells, and throughout the walk encountered the prehistoric looking beasts, who can live to over 100 years old., according to the guide, or to several hundred years, according to the Lonely Planet. It was a good afternoon.
After this lovely, gentle introduction to the wildlife here, we went to the lava tubes, and walked through almost 1km of them. They were formed by the solidifying of the outside skin of a molten-lava flow. When the lava flow ceased, the molten lava inside the flow kept going, emptying out of the solidified skin and thus leaving tunnels. Amazing. The last stop of the afternoon was the twin craters called Los Gemelos, which are two enormous sinkholes, full of vegetation and birds. Heading back on the bus then, the general mood was optimistic, and the day had been redeemed.
Back on the boat, we got changed and had a delicious dinner of prawns with rice and vegetables. Delicious, really delicious. Chatted to a few other people, and then headed up to the top deck. Pretty soon I fell asleep up here, under the stars, lulled to stupor by the rocking of the boat. Wonderful.