Friday, May 6, 2016

Tortoise Sex in the Galapagos

The Galapagos was one of those places that wasn’t on my initial itinerary – mainly because of time and money.  But the time opened up and the money… well, it wasn’t great.  Most tourists go on boat tours and it costs thousands of dollars.  I opted for an on-land camping option with significant savings.  Even then, it was pricey.  The reason:  there are lots of fees to help maintain the islands as a National Park and their distance from the mainland means shipping items adds much additional expense.  But it was totally worth it.

The Galapagitos – a diminutive name for the people there – don’t seem to like the mainland so much.  Ecuador takes a lot of the tourist revenue as their own and doesn’t put enough back into the islands.  Ecuador also uses political maneuvering (and sometimes force) to keep the islands in line.  Nevertheless, the islands are still part of Ecuador for historical reasons and because they’d fail economically if they declared independence.  With only around 25,000 inhabitants, there isn’t much of an economy.  And while many tourists come to see the stunning natural beauty and unique wildlife, the revenue stream just isn’t big enough to sustain the whole of the islands.

I joined a tour group in Quito and flew to Baltra – the island with the main airport.  Before arrival, we were treated to the world’s most ridiculous entry video – where Muppet versions of a park ranger and a terrible American tourist discussed the rules of the national park.  It was both hilarious and painful at the same time.  Upon landing, we made our way from Baltra Island to visit three of the four other inhabited islands, taking a speedboat between them.

A few highlights of my time in the Galapagos:

Floreana Island:
With a population of just 122, Floreana is by far the least populated of the four populated islands.  There aren’t really any restaurants – you generally eat where you stay.  We swam and watched sunset at a black sand beach, went snorkelling (but didn’t see much aside from two sea turtles, a sting ray, and a lone penguin on a rock), walked through a small part of the Floreana Highlands, and visited the Asilo de la Paz tortoise reserve where we witnessed two sets of tortoises fucking!  Wooooo!  Another neat tradition is the post box on the pier.  Before there was standard mail service to this remote island, people would leave mail in a box near the pier and those who were leaving or passing by would take the mail and hand deliver it to its destination.  Only tourists continue this tradition today, but I grabbed a postcard with a Tacoma, Washington address on it and may hand deliver it when I’m in Seattle in July.

Isabela Island:
Formed by six volcanos that merged into one big land mass, Isabela is by far the largest of the Galapagos Islands by land and third largest by population, with only around 2,200 residents.  En route, our boat passed by the small Tortuga Island – just south of Isabela – to check out various bird and iguana nesting sites.  Upon arrival, we hiked up the crater of Volcan Sierra Negra – the largest of the Galapagos volcanos with a caldera that is nearly ten kilometres across and filled with lava rocks.  Elsewhere on the island, I visited two flamingo ponds and took a day trip which involved a boat tour with various wildlife sightings (including penguins and sea lions EVERYWHERE), a short walk on Islote Tintoreras (to see iguanas, a pretty beach, and sharks close-up in a shallow channel along the walkway), and snorkelling.  The snorkelling was definitely a highlight.  I saw so many fish in the entire palette of colours, sea turtles, and a shit ton of sharks (moderately terrifying at first, but they didn’t seem to notice us or care that we were there).  A playful sea lion also came around and swam amongst the group.  Just like on Floreana, our group visited a giant tortoise breeding center to see some more hardcore tortoise on tortoise action.  In town, the only real sight to see was the local church.  I don’t like churches because the Catholic Church is so terrible, but this one had Jesus with a bunch of palm trees, a giant tortoise walking up to the altar, and stained glass windows featuring local species such as the Galapagos penguin and blue-footed booby (hehe!)

Santa Cruz Island:
Santa Cruz is the second largest by area and most populous of the islands with around 12,000 people.  Aside from transiting to and from the airport on neighbouring Baltra Island, we also visited a lava tunnel, a fish market (with sea lions and birds desperately awaiting scraps), a gorgeous beach where we had a full day to swim (or roast, whichever your skin tone allows), and yet another tortoise breeding center – the one at the Charles Darwin Research Station.  In town, lights around the main pier made for great night-time viewing of sting rays and juvenile sharks.

Tourists flock to the Galapagos to see the wildlife – made famous by Charles Darwin’s analysis of the evolution of the local species.  Birds win the award for most species sighted.  We saw blue herons, flamingos, Galapagos mockingbirds, yellow warblers, tropical birds, pelicans, and more.  The frigate bird was one of the most interesting.  The males have a giant red heart-shaped sack under their necks that they inflate like a balloon during mating season.  The Nazca booby and the blue-footed booby are two common species, with the latter being one of the most famous species on the islands.  The blue-footed booby has – as you can guess – blue feet!  This makes it gorgeous and super unique.  The name “booby” also makes it an easy gimmick for shitty souvenir shops.  Everywhere we went, there were t-shirts and coffee mugs that said “I love boobies” with a picture of the blue-footed booby printed next to it.

This is even more immature than me.

My absolute favourite bird – quite obviously – was the Galapagos penguin.  I didn’t get to see any while snorkelling but I saw quite a few above ground chillin’ on the rocks.  I was always taught that penguins only live in the southern hemisphere, but that is a lie.  Fun fact:  Did you know that Isabela Island has the only penguins in the world that live north of the equator?  Penguins live all around the island and the equator runs right through it so all of your teachers in school were sitting on massive thrones of lies.

Some of the most famous inhabitants of the islands are the giant tortoises, of which there are a shit-ton of subspecies – pretty much one for each volcano in the archipelago.  Some look like normal tortoises but others have flat shells (an adaptation for helping them navigate through low-roofed lava tunnels) or pinched shells.  They all had one thing in common:  they were horny.  While not traditionally mating season, changing weather patterns are confusing the giant tortoises into thinking it’s time to get it on.  Oh yes.  Tortoise sex, baby!

We saw crabs.  We saw lava lizards.  We saw land iguanas.  We saw marine iguanas – both on land and swimming in the ocean.  There were plenty of sea turtles that we saw while snorkelling, as well as sting rays and both black tip and white tip sharks.  I only freaked out a little when I saw the dozen or so sharks while snorkelling.  Also super fun was the pod of dolphins swimming alongside our boat going between Isabella and Santa Cruz Islands.

The funniest of the animals, however, was the sea lion.  The sea lions were everywhere.  They were on boats.  They were on beaches.  They were swimming with us in the water.  They were shopping at the fish market.  They were chilling on piers.  Bust most of them were sleeping on benches.  Sea lions fucking love benches.  I think half of my sea lion pictures involve sea lions on benches.  Sea lions are the old men of the marine mammal world.

Food on the Galapagos is… not great.  Our included meals were generally chicken or fish with rice, lentils, and salad.  At restaurants, the service was often excruciatingly slow and the food usually fairly expensive.  One restaurant managed to sling together some chicken on a tortilla and call it a quesadilla despite not including any cheese.  I successfully argued with the lady in Spanish and got our money back.  Gold star!  That was a rare place – they actually had chicken.  There was a chicken shortage when I was there and most places took it off the menu.  The only legitimately good restaurant for both food and service was the Galapagos Deli in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island.  It was too legit to quit.

After nearly a week in the Galapagos, it was time to head back to the mainland.  I added on a few extra days in Ecuador to explore the capital city, Quito.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in the Galapagos, follow this link:

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