Santa Cruz Island is Wonder-full Start to Galapagos Adventure

tortoisesFor a place that seems so remote, so exotic, so far from the reaches of the everyday and which affords such a unique opportunity to see rare and endangered animals, the Galapagos is surprisingly easy to reach – not at all like Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” All that it takes to have this “once in a lifetime,” “bucket list,” wonderful experience, is making the decision to go.

“Nature’s Greatest Laboratory,” the Galapagos is where you see natural selection and evolution unfold before you in real time. The Galapagos is also the poster child for the importance of tourism to provide the economic resources to protect the environment and culture, but also the critical need to rein in tourism and development. In effect, the Galapagos is the model for what responsible, sustainable tourism can mean to preservation, conservation of these precious places.

The Galapagos became a national park (Ecuador’s first) in 1959, the same year that the Charles Darwin Research Station was founded and 100 years after Darwin published his seminal “On the Origin of the Species”-  introducing the concepts of natural selection and evolution which he developed as a young naturalist who joined the voyage of the Beagle. The park began operations in 1968. In 1979, UNESCO declared the Galápagos Islands Natural Heritage for Humanity, making the Park Service responsible for conservation and protecting the islands.

Karen has been writing about the origin of “soft adventure” travel since Lars Eric Lindblad basically invented it and more than anyone else, opened Galapagos to the world in the 1970s. At the same time, Lindblad crusaded for insuring the protection of the Galapagos – lobbying to limit on the numbers of visitors, the size of ships, which are in force today (his son, Sven Lindblad now continues that legacy with his own company, Lindblad Expeditions, and specially designed expeditionary ships in partnership with National Geographic.).

Finally, we have the opportunity to see the Galapagos and its responsible tourism preservation strategies first hand.

The best way to experience the Galapagos is by ship (you feel a little like Darwin) and we book a four-day/three-night cruise on the 100-passenger MV Galapagos Legend, a gorgeous ship that affords all the luxury amenities, which is operated by Go Galapagos (gogalapagos.com). The operator has four itineraries and we choose the “East” which seems to afford the least time sailing (in this time of year, we were concerned about rockier seas) and the most time exploring islands, hiking, snorkeling and seeing a good portion of the wildlife that Galapagos is most famous for.

We cleverly organize our trip to arrive in the Galapagos a couple of days before the cruise, on Santa Cruz, easily accessed from the Baltra International Airport where we will meet up for the cruise.

We fly in separately from Quito and Guayaquil into Baltra International Airport on a tiny island that became a US naval base during World War II. Just walking from the plane at Baltra Airport into the terminal, Karen is met by a “welcoming committee” of a golden iguana Along with most of the other air travelers, we get on buses to the ferry ($5 fare), and the short ferry ride ($1 fare) to Santa Cruz, one of four inhabited islands, where we have the most splendid introduction to the Galapagos. 

It’s almost an hour’s drive from the ferry to get to Puerto Ayora on the island’s southern tip along the longest paved road in the Galapagos, and you already see the variety of geology and ecosystems which support such diversity of animal life and vegetation. The taxi driver pulls over so Karen can see giant tortoises wandering in a pasture, mixed in with cows.

Ecuador has the highest biodiversity per square kilometer in the world, spread out among a wide variety of environments such as the rainforest to the east and the dry forests to the south. Indeed, within minutes of landing, we already see many of the animals and birds that the Galapagos is famous for.

Santa Cruz has a long history of human settlement and agriculture, which has left the landscape permanently altered by invasive species. 

Karen’s taxi stops at Playa Garrapatero, a long beautiful white powder sand beach with clear waters (and no kiosks so bring your own food!) where David and Laini, Eric and Sarah are already encamped – Eric and Sarah on the last legs of their six-month odyssey.Laini organized a stay in a fantastic AirBnB, Encantadas Guest House, walking distance to everything in Puerto Ayora, and steps away from the entrance to the boardwalk that leads to the fabulous beach at Tortuga Bay.

Puerto Ayora is absolutely charming and fun – unbelievably wonderful restaurants and delightful (and tastefully upscale) shops. (Calle Charles Binford is a bustling street of seafood restaurants where you order that day’s catch the length of your arm, some of them still moving, for a $10 complete dinner; elsewhere you can also get a three-course lunch for $5, such as at Laguna Beach, one of our favorite stops; also La Pausa, which Karen insists is the best cerviche ever!). 

One of the fun places to stop is the fish market on the pier where the fishermen bring in their catches, eagerly awaited by a gaggle of pelicans and a sea lion or two that hang out daily, waiting patiently for their share of scraps.

There also are any number of tour companies offering day-trips to the various islands, scuba diving, bike rentals.

We walk along the rocky shore and are dazzled to see the marine iguanas, red crabs, sea lions and pelicans. 

Visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station/Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center is a must to learn about the conservation efforts of the islands’ giant tortoises. Established in 1959, the center has a new guided tour – including infrastructure to support it. The tour is fantastic, introducing you to the concepts – which you can see in real life – of natural selection and evolution which Darwin developed on his five-year voyage (1831-1836) around the world on the Beagle; he studied and documented flora and fauna, particularly noting the specialization of species living in the isolation of the Galapagos islands. 

The dramatic climax of the tour comes when you enter a special darkened room to see a mummified Lonesome George, the last of his species, the Pinta tortoise. Lonesome George died in 2012 at the age estimated to be around 100 years old. (Lonesome George was named for comedian George Gobel because of a character the comedian played). His body was sent to a taxidermist at the Museum of Natural History in New York City to be mummified, and is now both a cautionary tale of extinction and an iconic symbol of the conservation efforts in the Galapagos.

The Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center, a long-term program run jointly by the Galapagos National Park Directorate and the Charles Darwin Foundation, began in 1965 to save the giant tortoise population on Pinzón. It was quickly expanded to include other populations, in particular that of Española where only 14 individuals remained. As of 2008, more than 4,000 young tortoises from eight different populations have been repatriated to their native island, with 1,500 going back to Española. At the Tortoise Center, we observe a variety of tortoises, including hatchlings, juveniles and full-grown individuals.

There would have been 350,000 tortoises in the 15th Century – the pirates and explorers who found their way here used tortoises and sea turtles for food and fresh water; by 1959, when the Darwin Research Center was founded, there were only 16,000 great tortoises left. The efforts of this center, and three others located in the Galapagos have resulted in the population rebounding to 50,000.

Among the fascinating facts: the conservationists impact whether a tortoise egg will hatch as male or female by controlling the incubator temperature – a higher temperature produces a female.  The eggs are brought here to hatch because they would not survive in the wild due to the introduced animals – rats, cats, dogs – and are kept here for four to six years until their shells are firm enough to give them a defense against predators, and then are returned to their native island.Charles Darwin Research Station, Av. Charles Darwin s/n, Puerto Ayora, Galapagos,  www.darwinfoundation.org/en/, $10 fee; allocate two hours.

We pick up some sandwiches at Galapagos Deli and then go off to what is easily the most wonderful day on any beach Karen has ever had, on Tortuga Bay – soft powdery white sand, the most exquisite blue-aqua-green waters, white waves, black lava rock, and a quiet cove ideal for snorkeling.

But first, we walk about 45 minutes down a mile-long paved path through a gorgeous lush forest (cactus trees!), before you get to this most stunning beach. The long beach which is open to the ocean, has strong undercurrents and is not great for swimming. But then we come to a small cove at the end which offers superb calm waters for snorkeling with colorful parrot fish and black marine iguanas (the Galapagos is the only place in the world where you see these marine iguana). Just passed this cove and around a thicket of mangrove trees we find a second beach, “Tortuga Laguna,” that is more protected, where the water is calm and families gather along the more narrow strip of sand.

We round out this exquisite stay on Santa Cruz by arranging with our taxi driver on our way to meet our Go Galapagos cruise group at Baltra Airport to stop at the El Chato Ranch – Giant Tortoise Reserve in the Highlands (a rainforest), where we get to see where great tortoises are protected and also get to walk through two lava tubes.(The boots they give you to wear through the mud is appreciated, $10 admission, General Rodriguez Lara 629 Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz 200350, Ecuador, +593 98 864 4178, www.ranchoelchato.com/).

At the driver’s suggestion, we also make a quick stop at Los Gemelos (Twin Craters) – two giant pit craters which were caused by the collapse of empty magma chambers, located just off the road. 

Two days is really not enough time in Santa Cruz to take advantage of all it offers – you can easily spend a week. On our list for when we return: Las Grietas (The Crevices), a strip of water through two rock formations where we hear the snorkeling is fantastic; El Mirador is a partially collapsed lava tube; Dragon Hill, created by the Charles Darwin Foundation and the Galapagos National Park to restore the population of land iguanas; Playa de los Perros, a short beach on Academy Bay where you can watch sharks. 

Some important tips: You pay $20 airport fee at Quito or Guayaquil for the flight to the Galapagos, $100 in cash to the Galapagos National Park (US dollars are used for currency in Ecuador) upon arrival. 

We get to Baltra airport and meet up with the guides and fellow passengers for our cruise aboard the Galapagos Legend (www.gogalapagos.com). 

An excellent source of information is the Galapagos Conservancy, a US-based nonprofit (www.galapagos.org/about_galapagos/the-islands/)

See more photos: goingplacesfarandnear.com/santa-cruz-island-is-wonder-ful-start-to-galapagos-adventure/

_________________________________

© 2022 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com

Next Post

Virginia Swimming & Diving |

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – The Virginia men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams open the 2022-23 season with a home dual meet against Florida on Friday and Saturday at the Aquatic and Fitness Center. MEET SCHEDULEDiving will begin with the three-meter board on Friday (Oct. 21) at 5 p.m. at the […]