Quito from the air was a sight for sore eyes after the brown fog of Lima – still a huge sprawling city but surrounded by green fields and hills. The city is quite clean and modern, and I luckily picked an excellent hostel called the Casa Sol in the traveller’s part of town. There are hundreds of places selling Galapagos tours, but I had a recommendation and headed for Safari Tours to book a trip.
The next day I visited the line of the Equator, just outside of the city. There is a large and ugly official monument, but the real Equator apparently lies next nearby, at a small outdoor museum called Inti Nan (Path of the Sun). A friendly guide showed me around and we did some fun experiments. I can now tell you, because I have seen it with my own eyes, that water goes down a plughole clockwise to the south of the equator, anticlockwise to the north, and STRAIGHT DOWN right on the Equator! Yep, it wasn’t a myth! Well, it blew me away …
I wandered the old city with the usual conglomeration of churches full to bursting with bleeding Christs. Quito seems to lack atmosphere, or is perhaps that I’m getting a bit tired, and have decided to make the Galapagos trip my last stop on this trip. The money is getting low also, and I have to survive in London until I get work …
When I landed at the little airport on the island of Baltra it was muggy and hot, a bright sun overhead – a short bus ride across volcanic rock and cactus fields took me to the shore and a small boat to ferry several of us across to the ‘Guantanamera’, home for the next eight days. Try getting the song out of your head and see how far you get … The boat was roomy, quite new and comfortable, though for half the trip I shared a tiny downstairs cabin – the second half I was in a much larger topside cabin.
At the mooring for a while, taking the opportunity to go for a first swim in the warm green waters. Eventually all had arrived, we had lunch, then off to our first stop, Barge Beach. A ‘wet landing’ (small boat to the beach) to a narrow white beach lapped by bright aqua water. Went for a walk, seeing bright red and orange Sally Lightfoot crabs (apparently named after a famous prostitute in pirate times who was light on her feet – yep, I’m sure that’s why sailors named crabs after her …), black marine iguanas and pelicans.
Another swim, off the beach, and a walk. Then back to the boat and on to a mangrove bay, where from the small boat we saw pelicans, gorgeous blue-footed boobies, a sea turtle poking its head up to breath, manta rays and a small shark under the water.
In the late afternoon we relaxed on the boat, lazing about on deckchairs on the roomy, covered upper deck. A bar on board sold beers for outrageous prices, but back at port halfway through the trip we remedied this situation by buying beers and a bottle of rum. Most importantly, there was a good friendly group on board – several English, two Italians, a German, French, three Israelis, a Swiss, an Ecuadorian. By the time a couple of days had passed we were all old friends. Our locally born guide was friendly and introduced us to the crew over a cocktail. Unfortunately he became more and more distracted by his upcoming holiday as the days went on, but halfway through the trip we got a far superior guide.
After a good dinner we watched pelicans dive for fish by the lights of the boat, and before heading to bed were briefed by our guide on the next days activities, as we were each evening that followed.
To my surprise I slept well despite the boat rocking on the ocean and the engine coming on early in the morning. I’ve always thought I wasn’t susceptible to seasickness and this trip has certainly proved it; I was sleeping like a baby even through really rough ocean crossings.
We were at the Placa Islands – South Placa specifically. Morning swim off the boat. On the shore of the small barren island we went for a walk and saw swallow-tailed gulls with red-rimmed eyes, tropic birds with long whip-like tails swooping around the cliffs, and impassive black marine iguanas.
To keep the Galapagos in its unspoiled condition tour groups always have to be with a guide and have to stay on a marked route. Surprisingly this doesn’t keep the wildlife avoiding the path, in fact they are so used to humans and so unafraid of them that many birds nest right next to it. Throughout the trip it was such a wonderful feeling to have animals not run away from you in fear as you approached; and also sad to reflect on how unusual this is, how we have taught every other living thing on the planet to fear us. It’s nice to be seen by nature as an ally and not an enemy for a change.
In the afternoon the boat made a long rough crossing south to Sante Fe island, where we anchored in a beautiful little harbour with clear aqua waters and a white beach dotted with basking sea lions. Everyone crowded to the rail to stare longingly at the water as we motored in. Apparently a tourist was killed here in a rare shark attack, but that didn’t deter anyone from that beautiful water. Besides, you would have seen him coming …
I was in the water like a shot, and before long, near the shore, found myself surrounded by darting, playful sea lions. It was unbelievable! They seemed particularly attracted to my blue flippers, and one even had a little nip of one. I swam around and under them, copying the way they hung upsidedown and did somersaults. No matter how I moved they never touched me, darting agiley away at the last possible second. Occasionally, one large wise older mum swam buy for a casual look.
Around the boat I swam with two manta rays and a couple of sea turtles, one of which came right up to the surface with me for a breath. Later, on the island, we walked past grumbling sea lions on the beach, galapagos doves, and through a bizarre cactus forest with yellow sante fe land iguanas. At night we started south. I climbed to the roof of the boat to stare at a clear sky full of stars.