Monday, July 13, 2009

Paradise Lost - Isla San Cristobal to Guayaquil

Monday, July 13th - Paradise Lost - Isla San Cristobal to Guayaquil

During the night I hear soft rain on the tin roof of our harbor side bungalow. I'm sure that it has rained most nights on our Galapagos cruise, but our cabin was on the bottom level and the noises of the ship masked the weather above. Although I wake before dawn, I cat nap and enjoy the luxury of a leisurely morning without a scheduled wet or dry landing. We leave John sleeping and Art and I walk the short distance into town. Sea lions grunt as we pass them along the beach and the red crabs are already scurrying upon the harbors black lava retaining wall. We choose a local open-air cafe, order our cafe con leche and huevo rancheros and wait for an extremely long time before our breakfast is served. We are on island time and I try not to be impatient as I gaze along the sleepy malacon and watch the boats rock in the harbor. Eventually, fueled with cafe con leche, we return to our bungalow to pack, wake John and return to our "slow food" cafe so that John can eat breakfast.

The airport is just a few minutes from town, but the check in process is inefficient and we wait over two hours for our plane to depart. An ambulance waits on the runway and our plane will transport an accident victim to Quito and we watch and wonder what might have happened to this unfortunate man. Our two-hour flight to Guayaquil is non eventful. We land just before 4:00 P.M and take a $5.00 taxi ride to the Grand Hotel Guayaquil in the center of the city. The Grand Hotel is not very grand; but they do have our reservations and give us vouchers for welcome drinks at the Turtle Bar and for breakfast the next morning. The obligatory bellhop delivers our bags our room and we immediately leave the hotel to explore the city in the short time remaining. Our first stop is the park directly behind our hotel where John and I remembered seeing iguana's on our previous visit five years ago. The small square has a wrought iron gated perimeter, the 4 gates wide open on this lovely warm afternoon. Climbing the abundant trees and basking on the warm walkways are dozens of iguanas. The smaller ones hang from the trees, but alpha males sprawl beside the park benches and tolerate the attention of humans. Many are incredibly beautiful, with moss green heads, morphing into golden bodies. The ample folds of skin around their necks have intricate scale patterns and John and I admire, pet and photograph these remarkable creatures. After a week of not being allowed to touch the iguanas, we enjoy this close up encounter. Some of the older iguanas are war veterans of this environment; one missing a foot and many missing parts of their tails. The traffic whizzes around all four sides of the park, but survival instinct and the wrought iron gates keep most of the iguanas in their designated area. Mucky cement feeding dishes are positioned throughout the park and we watch one iguana wade through a disgusting dish of mashed fruits and vegetables. Art is impatient to walk to the malacon, so John and I tear ourselves away from our lizard friends and leave the park. As the light turns green we hear a loud crack, almost like a gunshot. We twirl, startled, and see an iguana sprawled behind us on the sidewalk and I fear that a car has hit him; John mutters, that guy is "buckled." Turning back, we realize that this veteran male has not been hit by a car, but has fallen from the tree some 40 feet above us. He lies stunned, but miraculously sorts out his legs and tails and ambles off the sidewalk, squeezing through the bars of the wrought iron fence and disappearing into the foliage within the park. I wonder and worry how often this must happen, if he was pushed by another alpha iguana, or simply slipped.

We walk through the business district, past classical government buildings with ornate glass arcades. and monuments commemorating Ecuadorian independence. The afternoon light is lovely as we climb the steps up to the modern malacon; a raised expanse of concrete and stainless steel, curving along the waterfront. An impressive three mast sailing ship is permanently stationed here, a training vessel for the Ecuadorian navy. We walk along the malacon for some time, stopping to gaze at the wide and muddy river. Organic debris is trapped beneath the pylons to the pedestrian bridges and I imagine gargantuan, natural rafts composed of organic matter, transporting a pair of iguanas to one of the Galapagos islands and the evolutionary process that ultimately unfolded. Having just witness the resilience of the sky diving iguana, I find these theorized, incredible journeys all the more plausible. We leave the malacon and cross back into the city, finding ourselves in a labyrinth of tiny shops and street vendors. I clutch one strap of my back pack tightly as we wind single file through the crowded alleyways. Hawkers call out to us every few steps, holding out name brand copies of Nike, D & G. Pirated DVD's are crammed into tiny stalls and a slinky young woman, in too tight jeans and a haggard face does her best to lure Art into a side alley. He sidesteps her multiple times, but she is persistent and we veer off the main corridor and find ourselves surrounded by a sea of shoes, stretching as far as we can see. Every few steps, one of these merchants points to my sensible sandals, dismayed at my lack of style and asks hopefully if I would like a more fashionable pair. We leave the bazaar and head back towards our hotel. It is nearly 7:00 P.M. and many shops are closing for the night, shuttered tight with roll down steel doorways and grates.

Back at the hotel, we redeem our welcome drinks at the uninspired Turtle Bar. John and I wish for a memorable last dinner in Ecuador, but we feel restricted to the hotels restaurant; the armed guards at the door, an indication that we may not wish to wander the streets at night in search of local fare. The ambiance of the 1822 restaurant is encouraging, but the permeating smell of chlorine, wafting in from the pool, and the lack of other patrons should have forewarned us. Nevertheless, we order a creamed seafood and cognac appetizer, which is entirely too fishy; two other entrees and a salad. All but my shrimp salad is mediocre and we are disappointed with our last hurrah.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The End of the Road

Sunday, July 12th. The End of the Road

We have our usual 7:00 A.M. wake up call and gather mid deck for our final breakfast together. There is a flurry of last minute e-mail exchange and the flash of cameras before we leave our floating home and are dropped at the San Cristobal dock. Our family will spend one night in San Cristobal and there is some confusion as to how our suitcases should be tagged since we are the only ones not flying out today. Alexis is curt with us; I believe because we are not well-behaved sheep following his departure schedule and after the perfunctory goodbyes, we leave to find our hotel. Our early morning stroll through this small sleepy town is pleasant but when we arrive at the supposed site of Hotel Galapagos, it no longer exists. Happily, our suitcases are dropped off, simultaneously to our arrival and with the help of the driver, we find that we are booked at Hostel Galapagos, not Hotel Galapagos. A short taxi drive delivers us and our luggage to the correct hotel, but they have no record of our reservation so, we simply pay the $70.00, resigned to simply sort things out when we get home. We are given two adjacent harbor side bungalows. The rooms are very simple but open onto a stone patio, with steps down to the sand and rock sea wall beyond. It's a very short walk into town and we find our group having coffee at an outdoor cafe. John immediately joins in and plays a final round of cards while Art and I peruse the nearby tourist shops. After the glitch with the hotel, we decide to accompany our group to the airport and reconfirm our flight out for tomorrow. Alexis helps us at the counter and he is as relieved as we are that our tickets are in order.

I've choreographed most of the trip and today is Art's day to plan the agenda. He wants to rent bicycles and explore the island and I am looking forward to the ride. Renting the bicycles is easy and at the suggestion of the bike rental office, we hire a taxi to drive us up to the hillside town of El Progresso. We will ride to Junco from there, which we anticipate to be mostly downhill. Perhaps we misunderstand the drop off point, but the ride turns out to be a seemingly endless uphill climb. We ride and push our bicycles along a deserted highland road. Mist hangs heavy in the air, and the ribbon of roughly paved road ahead is shrouded in a cloud, giving me the hopeful illusion that a town must be just around the next curve. We continue uphill for two hours. Art continually checks back on us, concerned that John is hungry and that I am tiring. I am determined to remain in good spirits, and I am intrigued by the sense of the unknown; but eventually, we all begin to wonder if we will ever arrive at civilization. We come to the turn off to the Junco Lagoon, the only freshwater lagoon on any of the Galapagos Islands. The two taxis that passed us an hour earlier wait for their passengers to return from their hike up to the lagoon. Although we have come this far, we don't climb the mountain to the lagoon since we have no way to secure our bicycles and even Art is getting tired. In broken Spanish, Art asks the drivers how far it is to the next town. It is just 8 more kilometers and all down hill, so we decide to continue and return in a taxi. John speeds on ahead and when we catch up to him, some 30 minutes later we find him sitting in a village cafe, sipping on a coca cola and eating an empanada. He looks completely comfortable in this local restaurant; his feet up on a white plastic chair, watching Ecuadorian T.V. Art and I collapse into adjoining plastic chairs and order the chicken and rice which a local woman spoons from a large kettle simmering on her stove. The empanadas are heavenly; deep-fried, stuffed with a mild cheese and dusted with sugar. We are completely content, knowing that this destination could have never been choreographed. Chickens scurry across the road between the restaurant and a local tin roofed sports stadium. It's Sunday afternoon and the locals are playing a game of volleyball, their clothes and shoes stained red from the surrounding dirt. A group of woman sits at the only other table, friends and family of the two women cooking in the house. The village consists of little more than the stadium and this neighborhood restaurant. We watch the road for over an hour, hoping for a taxi, but the only ones that have passed have been packed full of people in the extended cabs as well as in the beds of the pickup trucks. (Most of the taxis on the island are pick up trucks with an extended cabs.) Eventually, we ask one of the women to call us a taxi but after considerable trying, she gestures that she gets no answer. The grey mist turns to rain, the volley ball game ends and the few spectators are leaving. The lone car in the village drives off and not a single car or taxi passes through. It is well after 3:00 P.M. on a Sunday afternoon and I'm now very worried that we will not be able to get back to the port and our hotel. John has a forlorn look and even Art is beginning to worry. It would be nearly impossible to ride the 8 kilometers back uphill in the drizzle and pending dark. We decide that Art may need to take a spot in the back of a community taxi, go into town and return for us later, a plan that doesn't thrill me. 30 minutes later, another woman, who has been busy on her cell phone, finally communicates to us that she has reached a taxi and that it will be here in a few minutes. We are relieved and grateful when an empty taxi pick arrives. We load our bicycles in the bed of the truck, pile inside along with a young girl and her brother and drive back along the misty road. It is 4:30 when we arrive at the harbor and return our bicycles and we joke that the misguided directions were a ploy of the bicycle shop to extend our rental hours.

The town is quiet on this Sunday night, but a few restaurants are open for the straggling tourists still on the island. We choose a simple restaurant at the far side of the malacon; an exercise in slow food and slow service; but we have no schedule and I reflect on the adventures of the day and the simple magic of this island evening.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Wave Riding Turtles

Saturday, July 11th - Wave Riding Turtles

This is our final day of our Galapagos cruise and our morning excursion is to Isla Espanola to see a different species of marine iguanas, nesting blue-footed boobies and albatross. Piles of large red and black marine iguanas lounge on the rocks near the landing site. They will become more colorful as mating season approaches, their legs turning a mossy green and the reds becoming more pronounced. We have arrived early to avoid conflict with other groups from a larger ship anchored off shore and I have plenty of quality time to spend with the iguanas. I take dozens of photos, each iguana seemingly more photogenic than the last. Most of the iguanas’ congregate together in piles, conserving their body heat and soaking in the morning sun but there are a few solitary iguanas, sitting perched atop rocks; Godzilla like figure heads, gazing out to sea. I am continually intrigued and delighted by these prehistoric creatures. The trail is rocky, uneven and slippery. We walk carefully along windswept cliffs splashed white with guano. It begins to rain making the desolate island all the more dramatic. Forceful surf rises up through a blowhole in the cliff below us; the water churning a frothy green, a stark contrast against the black and guano splashed cliffs. We come upon a windswept plateau with pairs of courting and nesting albatross. Their courting ritual is comical. They click their beaks together as if fencing flap their wings and return to beak clicking. We watch three albatross interact. Two are beak clicking, and a third one, saunters in sideways towards the courting pair. The dominant male rises up, squawking and infuriated and chases his competitor away. There are nesting blue-footed boobies and nesting albatross. Some birds sit on eggs while others preen snow-white fledglings. Some of the birds build nests adjacent to the trail and none of the birds are disturbed by our presence. We complete our island circle, returning to the "Land Before Time" where the marine iguanas congregate. I linger here as long as allowed, saying goodbye to my fantastic friends.

After lunch we have our final snorkeling adventure off a snow white sand beach crescent. There is a large outcropping rock some distance from shore and all of us swim out to circle the edifice. We haven't encountered much challenging surf, but it gives me security to know that one of our zodiacs is waiting on the far side of the outcrop, should any of us run into trouble. The surf surges somewhat as I circle the far side of the jagged outcrop but it's easy enough to maneuver and I swim towards John who is motioning to me excitedly. Taking his snorkel out of his mouth, he tells me that there is a white tipped reef shark below. I watch as John and Richard dive down to take a closer look. Disturbing the sharks’ afternoon nap, I see it swim off to find a more peaceful resting area. There are three sharks in this deeper sheltered area, each about six feet in length and apparently not a threat to us. Through most of our snorkeling adventures, my mask is in the water to observe the underwater wonderland below, but I periodically look up to orient myself in relationship to the other swimmers. When I next look up, I see that John has gathered another crowd and holds an inflated porcupine fish above the water. John submerges the fish and it struggles to deflate itself and swim back down to find a protected shelter on the sandy bottom. The puffer fish of the Galapagos will breathe a sigh of relief when John has left the islands. As we complete our circle of the rock, we see numerous needle fish, nearly translucent and swimming horizontally in the water. We've snorkeled almost and hour and motion to John that we should swim to shore. Having expended much more energy than I have, he is ready and we swim slowly back to the white sand crescent beach. Playful sea lion pups are swimming in the shallows as we wade from the water. The teen agers lounge on the sand, soaking up the afternoon sun and Art and I walk down the beach towards a rocky point. The fine white sand is like powder beneath my bare feet and sea lions and their pups bask on the sand, undisturbed by our presence. Art points to a shadow in the surf and tells me it is a sea turtle. I tell him it is a rock, but he persists in his sea turtle fantasy. A bit further on the rock rises to the surface, having morphed into an actual sea turtle and soon we see dozens of turtles in the waves. They are catching the waves and are back lit in the late afternoon sun; dark silhouettes of turtles, rising and falling with the surf. It's a magical and almost unbelievable sight and although I have my camera with me, the moment I begin to video this scene, my memory card flashes full. So, my patient readers, you will just need to believe me and imagine this remarkable turtle sighting. We find out later that this end of the beach is a turtle nesting area.

It's our final evening on the cruise and as usual, Alexis calls a 6:00 P.M. meeting to brief us on tomorrows schedule. Alexis has been taking photos of our group all week and has compiled a DVD of our trip. He lowers the blinds, puts on the DVD, and gives one to every family. After the showing, Art sees the blaze of the sunset through the lowered curtains and interrupts, suggesting that we all go topside to watch our final Galapagos sunset. Everyone abandons the meeting and I imagine that Alex was not pleased. His gift of the DVD was a nice one, but he was also setting the mood before handing out the surveys and tip envelops. The suggested tip amount is nearly twice, what the printed trip booklet recommends and we are somewhat confused. The final dinner of shrimp scampi and pork medallions is good, but not memorable; some of the other meals were better. It's been a wonderful week, but I'm ready to abandon ship. .

Friday, July 10, 2009

Isla Santa Cruz - Lonesome George

Friday, July 10th. Isla Santa Cruz - Lonesome George.

We take the zodiacs into the port of Santa Cruz and are met by a small tour bus to drive our group up to the highlands of the island where we will see the giant tortoises in their natural habitat. The town has grown considerable since I was here five years ago and several three-story hotels have sprung up on the waterfront, blocking the view of the harbor. It's early morning, but the many cafes are opening their shutters in preparation for the tourists that will flock to the town. As we drive out of town and into the highlands, the vegetation becomes lush and green. The morning is overcast and misty and we pass simple cinderblock houses and farms; the paint faded and worn and the red soil permeated everything around. Banana trees and trumpet flowers grow in abundance, their drooping, ivory colored, bell shaped flowers heavy with rain. Our first brief stop is to a lava tube and our group descends the slippery rock stairs into darkness, punctuated only by the occasional flash of some ones camera. As we exit, Alexis finds the light and the immense tunnel is illuminated. The tube is 15' in diameter and extends for as far as we can see, but parts of it have collapsed and we retrace our steps back to the waiting bus. The bus turns down a hard packed dirt road and several people exclaim when they spot a giant tortoise in the farmland; an immense bump in the grassy fields. The tortoises are wild here and the local ranchers have a symbiotic relationship with them. Each day, multiple tour buses arrive with groups that traipse through their fields to get a close up look at these prehistoric creatures. This rancher has built an open visitors center and supplies rubber boots to the tourists in hopes that at the end of the visit, a drink, an ice cream or a postcard may be sold. We don our rubber boots and walk out along muddy paths into the fields. Several giants are at rest in the tall grass, their worn shells, glistening with moisture. Although we must stay a respectable distance from the tortoises, it’s not too challenging to take up close and personal photographs. Further, into the fields we come upon a swampy pond with three semi-submerged tortoises taking their morning mud baths. I have seen Franz Lanting's photograph of the giant tortoises in a pond, mist gently shrouding their shapes. I presume it was taken in this same spot, but at dawn with the mist rising. I know that it takes much planning and patience to capture an exquisite photograph at the optimum time of day. We have plenty of time to spend with the tortoises but when we drive away in the bus, we are blocked by a lone tortoise dead center in the red dirt road. The bus stops and Alexis gets out and prods the tortoise underneath his tail until irritated, he moves slowly to the side of the road and we can pass.

Our afternoon visit is to the Darwin Research Center. This excursion is somewhat boring to me, but we meet lone George, the last surviving tortoise of his species and listen to Alexis drone on about his perceived breeding conspiracy theory. The pens of baby tortoises are very cute and John and I wonder what the penalty would be for tortoise napping. We later lean that we have an alternative and can purchase a giant tortoise for a mere $100,000. We walk from the Darwin center through town, stopping at numerous tourist gift shops in search of the perfect Galapagos souvenir, which apparently does not exist. In my many travels, it's always disappointing, how limited the selection of good designs are. The Galapagos themed jewelry available is crude and uninspired and I fantasize about having a stylish jewelry shop here. We find an internet cafe, call home, and are relieved to know that all is fine at home.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Just Another Day in Paradise. - Bartolome Island

Thursday, July 9th. Just Another Day in Paradise. - Bartolome Island

We have a 6:00 A.M. wake up call so that we can be on Isle Bartolome before sunrise. Shortly after 7:00 A.M., we make a dry landing on the island, but the morning is heavily overcast and the sun has already risen. Nevertheless, the hike to the top of the mountain is enjoyable and the classic view of Bartolome Bay, with "Shark Tooth" rock jutting skyward, is beautiful. We have our snorkeling gear with us and following our hike, we snorkel from beach. It's another exceptional snorkeling experience and we swim slowly around the outcropping rocks to a sheltered area abundant with colorful fish. Many hundreds of disc shaped steely blue-grey fish with brilliant yellow tails, school together. They hang suspended in the clear water, undulating with the current. A variety of colorful parrot fish, solitary swimmers, two to three feet long, munches on the coral, their crunching sound amplified underwater. I am alone in a sheltered cove when a dozen 18" penguins torpedo past me. They startle and delight me but are gone in an instant. John's gills are now fully developed and I watch him dive repeatedly; ferreting out more unusual fish 15 feet below the surface. Richard has taken a liking to John and they have been exploring the reefs together, two sets of flippers simultaneously disappearing below the surface. Richard is Tara's and Nicolai’s father, an extremely lithe and fit man in his mid to late 40's and this informal buddy system eases some of my concerns for John's safety.

Just before lunch, we motor to La Baltra Island for refueling. The plan is to have lunch during the refueling process, but we arrive later than expected at the dock. We are not allowed on deck during this process, so linger at the dining tables, watching. Later in the afternoon, we have a dry landing on north Isla Seymour. Once again we are greeted by marine iguanas, but the highlight of this island are the land iguanas, There are several thousand on this island and it isn't long before we spot our first golden beauty. They are large and meaty; their skin, variegated colors of burnt umber, yellow and gold. The jeweled scales atop their heads are nubby, like kernels of corn on a dried husk in rich harvest colors. We spot these solitary lizards, poised atop rocks or sheltered underneath the bare branches of scrubby bushes. They sit aloof; head regally raised, gazing straight ahead, their thick front muscular legs supporting their weighty chest and thick neck. For the most part, they are not disturbed by our presence, but when one tires of our attention, it quickly lumbers off on thick legs, its tail undulating back and forth in the classic lizard walk. There are blue-footed boobies and frigate birds on this island as well. The mating season for the frigate birds is later here and we are privileged to see many male frigates, their throat sacs inflated a brilliant red, striving to attract a female.

Art and I arrive at dinner a few minutes late and find ourselves sitting alone at the captains table. I am relieved that the captain does not make an appearance since I'm not sure that he has a second tale to tell his guests. Most of our group watches Master and Commander after dinner, an appropriate choice since much of the movie takes place in the Galapagos. We dock in Puerto Ayora for the night and spend a peaceful night gently rocking in port.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Isla Santiago - Blue Grotto

Wednesday, July 8th, Isla Santiago - Blue Grotto

The intensity of the past two days has been overwhelming. The diversity and abundance of species boggles my mind. This morning's excursion is to Isla Santiago where we see a different species of marine iguana; slightly smaller and with a reddish colorings. The topography of the island is striking and black lava beds slant into the ocean. The ripple patterns in the lava are beautiful and wave and wind action has worn away layers of tuff and carved deep grottoes into the rock. We peer down into the cave like grottoes; the bottom of the pools an intoxicating turquoise, and see fur sea lions basking on exposed rock ledges. We walk across the natural bridges spanning the grottoes and wish that we could snorkel in these amazing pools. Apparently it used to be allowed, but the fur sea lions moved to different basking spots, so the grottoes are now for the exclusive use of the sea lions and sea turtles.

During lunch, the boat motors to and anchors off shore of Chinese Hat; a small island, aptly named for its shape. The pangas drop us at the inner, sheltered cove and we snorkel slowly back, along the rocky shoreline. I am delighted when a marine iguana swims past, and follow him briefly until he clambers from the water to bask on the rocks above. A 5 foot white tipped shark rests on the sandy bottom; difficult to discern until John swims downward, disturbing it's rest and it swims away. Colorful wrasse and humorous blennies frequent this tidal zone. The blennies hide in protected holes and crevices, poking their heads out, their bulbous eyes ever watchful, ready to withdraw at the first sign of danger. John spots black and white spotted puffer fish wedged in a rocky crevice and Art and I witness as he grabs it's tail and tickles it's belly. Startled, it inflates and swims off with indignity to find a new crevice in which to hide. The visibility is superb and John continually dives down to peer under ledges and into crevices; A large lobster stares back at him from under a rocky ledge and John grasps it by it's feelers and try’s to dislodge it. The lobster resists and John gives up the challenge. I already see subtle evolutionary changes in John; gill slits are beginning to develop and I notice webbing forming between his toes and fingers; most remarkable!

Tonight is our obligatory dinner with the captain. All of the other passengers have already had the privilege of dining with him. Last night, the three hearing impaired women were his dinner companions and Kath signed rapidly through the whole affair. Her hands were so busy that she had little time to eat. The three of us, plus Laura, (Kath's daughter,) now sit at the large table and wait for the captain to arrive. He is a man in his mid 40's with just one story that he tells to all of his guests. Years ago, when he was in the coast guard, he spotted a "ghost ship," without its lights. It was an illegal fishing vessel, but ultimately, there were many tons of cocaine stashed below the frozen, illegal tuna. Apparently, this event made his career and he tells the story, night after night to all who grace his table. I am grateful that he has an interesting tale to tell and we are not forced to simply make small talk. Therefore, we enjoy his embellished tale, the good food and the wine that accompanies the captains table.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Land Before Time - Fernandina Island

Tuesday, July 7th - Land Before Time - Fernandina Island

We make a dry landing on Fernandina Island, disembarking onto wet lava rocks, slippery with seaweed and the morning tide. Hundreds of marine iguanas are there to greet us and John and I are mesmerized by their presence. We were on Fernandina Island 5 years ago, and know what to expect, but the presence of hundreds of these aquatic lizards is amazing. These are the biggest of the marine iguanas, black and meaty, some nearly 4 feet long. Several lone iguanas graze on the velvety green seaweed exposed by the low tied. They turn their heads sideways, scraping at the close-cropped seaweed with the sides of their mouths. Barnacle like protrusions grow from the tops of their heads and raggedy grey and black spines adorn their backbone. The iguanas sneeze frequently, expelling the excess salt from their nostrils and through a third hole at the top of their heads. Iguanas are swimming off the rocks, heads held high, their spiny tails undulating back and forth, propelling them forward. They submerge to graze on the silky beds of seaweed below the water's surface and clamber awkwardly up onto the rocks to bask in the morning light. We walk slowly and carefully towards shore, mindful of the treacherously slippery footing beneath our feet. Piles of marine iguanas bask on dry rocks near shore, seemingly in affectionate groupings, but more likely, just sharing body heat. Each grouping of iguanas is more fascinating than the last and John and I lag behind, observing and taking endless photographs. The terrain is breathtakingly stark. Slabs of black lava, the flow patterns frozen in time and sculpted by the wave action slant down to the ocean's edge. Shallow, sand filled, turquoise blue tide pools are contrasting jewels in the black lava landscape and brilliant red crabs scurry along the rocks, darting into holes and crevices when we get too close. As much as the crabs are vermilion splashes of contrasting color, the marine iguanas are camouflaged; black against black. More than once, I nearly step on a sleeping beauty, flattened upon the rock absorbing the suns heat from above and the radiant heat emitted from the rocks. The iguanas allow us to get within inches of them, to admire every crusty scale, sharp claw and ragged spine. For myself, these are the most miraculous and beautiful creatures on the planet and would our guide allow, I would curl up with a pile of iguanas and spend a delicious hour basking in the sand with these gentle, near prehistoric creatures.

Art carries the tripod and the gigi-pixil contraption and sets up and takes several panoramic shots during the mornings excursion. I see him from afar, tripod balanced on the lava, bending over the equipment, trying to capture the remarkable beauty of this place. An adjacent lagoon is host to a myriad of water birds and a lone eagle ray glides in the shallows, it's wing tips breaking the surface of the water. Mangroves stand spider like, sentries of the shore and two large semi submerged rocks morph into aquatic turtles. Magic is present. We retrace our path back to our landing spot. The zodiacs are waiting but John and I lag behind, not yet ready to leave this enchanted island.

During lunch, we sail to Isla Isabella for deep water snorkeling along the cliffs. Our pangas take us from our boat to the sheer wall of rock where this part of the island meets the ocean. My initial plunge into the water takes my breath away, but the cold water entering my wet suit is soon forgotten when I spot a green sea turtle just below me. The turtle is undisturbed by my presence and grazes placidly on the algae growing along the cliff' walls. Sunlight streams down illuminating her carapaces a velvety green and she moves in slow motion, undulating with the ebb and flow of the current. Huge sea star jewels cling to the rocky wall; chocolate brown with brilliant orange knobbles catching the sunlight. Tiny brilliant red and purple wrasses take shelter in pockets and crevices along the rock wall and we see other sea turtles grazing, their strong armored flippers propelling them gracefully. They wear an eternal placid smile and stories of wise old turtles flash through my mind. We snorkel with the sea turtles for over an hour and later, John tells me that he caught a ride on one. He tells us that the turtles had different personalities; that some were shy but that one in particular, allowed him to swim underneath it, seemingly enjoying his company, and then allowed him to hold onto it's shell and glide along with it. Touching the animals is absolutely forbidden, but I am unable to scold John. The magic of the hour-spent swimming with the turtles is something that I will remember always and John is fortunate to have made a closer connection. Earlier on, during our snorkel, John catches my attention and I swim towards him. He has circled back away from the group and points to a ledge several feet above the waters edge. Two flightless cormorants are beginning their mating dance. These silly birds have dis-evolved and have tiny useless wings that they hold away from their body to dry in the afternoon sun. They are sidestepping and cooing and soon the two birds plunge into the water, just a few feet away from us. They perform a most incredulous and undulating mating dance; craning their necks gracefully around the other's and after two or three graceful twirls in the water, the male points his beak straight into the air, propelling himself vertically and emitting a breathy whistle. The cormorants continue in this fashion for several minutes and we watch, fascinated and amused. I surmise that they will continue this ritual for some time and although I wish to watch the finale, the sea turtles lure me away.

We motor back to the boat to shower and change but return in the zodiacs for a final, late afternoon cruise, further along the vertical cliff. The magic of the day continues when we see the small Galapagos penguins roosting on slanted slabs of rock, thick with white guano, dipping into the ocean. There are less than a dozen birds and half are rather scruffy looking, in the midst of molting. They stand with their backs towards us, absorbing the heat of the late afternoon sun. The molting penguins do not swim, but two or three of the other penguins, side step down the slanted rock and shoot like a miniature torpedoes, into the water below.

Monday, July 06, 2009

For the Birds; Boobies and Beyond - Geneovessa Island

Monday, July 6th - For the Birds; Boobies and Beyond - Geneovessa Island.

The general wake up call is at 7:00 A.M. and I lie in bed a few minutes, listening to the faraway clatter of the staff setting out our breakfast. Strong coffee and an ample breakfast buffet await. During the night, we have sailed to Darwin Bay on Isla Geneovessa and we board the pangas at 8:30 for our morning excursion to the island. It is a wet landing on white coral sand and red-footed boobies, nazca boobies and frigate birds are all there to greet us. We split into two groups of 10, the three of us following Delores along the sandy trail. There is little green on the island, most of the bushes and small trees are barren of leaves; their twiggy branches silvery in the cool morning light. Mating season is over and many of the birds are nesting with show white fledglings in their nest. A cloud of white down is an ethereal halo around the blue beaked baby boobies. The boobies build nests in the scraggly trees along side of the trail and have no fear of the two-footed visitors. The comical boobies seem to enjoy the attention from the tourists, turning their heads to offer their best profile and proudly preening their babies in our presence. The birds seem to make eye contact with us and we watch adult boobies, feathering their nests with twigs; seemingly asking our opinion concerning where to place a twig in an existing nest, or if we approve of their proposed nesting site? We enter into a thicket of leafless trees, popping out into a clearing populated with hundreds of frigate birds. A single male sits atop a barren branch, the pouch beneath his neck fully inflated and cherry red; hopeful of attracting a mate. He seems to have arrived at the dance too late. Dozens of frigate birds are already nesting, but they build platform nests and although we see many fluffy white fledglings, we also see nests with broken eggs below. These are the great green frigate birds and their black plumage is an iridescent green in the sunlight. The birds squabble over the privilege of sitting on a nest and the clusters of frigate birds with their hooked craggy beaks, are reminiscent of crotchety old men. The fluffy white frigate fledglings already have the black hooked beak and face that only a mother or father could love. This island is also a nesting ground for nazca boobies and swallow tail gulls and all seem to be living together harmoniously, completely undisturbed by the strange two footed species with a rotating black Cyclops eye that frequents the trails in clusters of ten.

Upon returning to the ship, we are greeted by Hugo, standing formally with a tray of hot cheese hors d’oeuvres and pouring fresh juice for all of us thirsty birdwatchers. Lunch is served at 12:30 P.M; a bowl of hot soup followed by a hot buffet, accompanied by several delicious side salads.

Our afternoon excursion is to the Prince Phillips steps; a dry landing at the bottom of a short cliff with rocky steps carved up to the top of the cliff. The contrasting colors of the orange and black rock against the azure water are striking. We take a short hike to the far side of the island where hundreds of frigate birds catch thermal wind currents, circling above the cliffs, protecting their nesting ground from predators. Their flight activity is intense; their angular black silhouettes darting across the grey sky. This wind swept section of the island is quite barren except for a low, creeping ground cover and a few hearty lava cacti.

Back on board, we are again greeted by Hugo with another selection of hors d’oeuvres and fresh juices. Many of us gather topside to enjoy the warmth of the fading afternoon sunlight, a drink and the spectacular view. Art and I recline on two of the thick blue foam chaises and John, having quickly made friends, sits across from us, playing cards with the other teen agers. We sink into the magic of this perfect hour.

There is a 6:00 P.M. briefing on tomorrow's activity schedule and our ship has begun to rock and roll. This evening we will cruise 16-hour cruise to Fernandina Island and we are warned of rough seas ahead. I am determined not to be sea sick, but several of the passengers have already succumbed and I notice that Art is looking slightly green. Earlier today, the kitchen took orders for dinner, and I know that garlic shrimp will be served tonight, which, in spite of the rough seas, still sounds good to me. Half of the passengers are missing for dinner, but John and I enjoy big and juicy shrimp. Art sits with us, nibbles a few bites and returns to the cabin. It is a rough night at sea but I sleep well and have intense dreams of being at sea and the ship free falling from the crests of the waves into the troughs.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Unfolding of a Darwinian Adventure

Sunday, July 5th, The Unfolding of a Darwinian Adventure.-Quito to San Cristobal, Galapagos.

Our wake up call is at 5:30 A.M. I'm always the first in the bathroom, followed by Art and then John. We did most of our repacking last night so the morning is not stressful. We eat a light breakfast in the hotel and Antonio picks us up promptly at 7:00 A.M. I have allowed too much time for check in and Art and John let me know that they would have enjoyed an extra half hour in bed, but we are all in good spirits and board our AeroGal flight to San Cristobal Island precisely on time. We will be on the ship the Eric and the three of us are wearing sticky plastic Eric buttons. We discretely look at other passengers buttons to see who our future traveling companions might be, but it isn't until we land in Guayaquil and disembark so that the plane can be refueled, that we find others wearing Eric buttons. The first family that we meet is from Maryland; a couple with two daughters; 15 and 17. They are traveling with two other women and a 15 or 16 year old girl. All three of them are hearing impaired and are rapidly signing to each other. It looks as if an extra dimension has been added to our Galapagos adventure and I hope to learn some basic signing on this trip. We re board our plane after the refueling for the second leg of our flight. Before landing, the flight crew opens the overhead baggage area and sprays either a bug spray or disinfectant into each compartment. The compartments are quickly closed for the remainder of the flight, apparently so that the spray can do it's job. It is 11:15 when we land on San Cristobal and we are the first ones of our group to disembark. When we reach the bottom of the stairs descending from the plane, our hands are sprayed with a mild disinfectant and we notice that all the airport staff are wearing protective masks. We have prepaid the $100 per person entrance fee to the Galapagos and our entry cards are quickly stamped but we are required to wipe our hands with a provided, alcohol towelette and our carry on luggage is inspected. I surmise that these precautions are for the health of the airport staff, not for the protection of the wild life. Upon exiting the open air terminal, we are met by our two guides, Alexis and Delores. In spite of the stringent health precautions, there is a sense of informality and serenity at this airport. John and I look for lizards outside the terminal and immediacy spot three small green striped lava lizards doing push ups on sunny pink lava boulders,

When the rest of our group is through customs, we are herded onto a waiting bus for a short ride through town to the San Cristobal dock. Playful sea lions lounge on the walkway leading down to one of the landings. We don our life vests, climb into one of two waiting zodiacs and motor out to our waiting yacht, the Eric. We are helped aboard and ushered into the spacious, mid deck, lounge area. The 20 of us sink onto a u- shaped lounge seating area and await further instructions. The Eric is solar and wind powered and basic safety and conservation issues are explained to us. We are assigned cabins and descend one level to the Iguana deck; to cabin number 10. It is a triple and although not large, certainly adequate for the three of us. We spend the next hour unpacking and getting settled in our new nest. There are two bunks against one wall and John chooses the upper birth with portholes overlooking the surface of the water. I have the single birth on the other wall. There is a long shelf above my bed where we stow our empty suitcases, having placed our belongings in drawers underneath the lower beds and utilized the closet. Our efficient bathroom has plenty of shelving and a spacious shower. I'm anxious to get under way, but the boat remains anchored in the harbor and a considerable time elapses as we wait for the expected siren to practice the required emergency drill. Eventually we are informed that the P.A. system has shorted out and we practice the drill on the top deck, sans the siren and then set sail.

Our first excursion is to a sandy cove not far from the town of San Cristobal. We pre-ordered wet suits in our sizes, but when we try them on, the sizes are all wrong. We sort through the rack of wet suits at the aft of the boat until we are more or less suited up. We have brought our own masks and snorkels, but use the fins provided by the boat and stuff all of our gear into the provided mesh bags. It's just a short ride in the zodiacs to the sandy cove but there are already several boats anchored there and we must share the beach and the snorkeling area with close to 60 other visitors. Dozens of Galapagos sea lions lounge on the white sand beach, undisturbed by our presence. One nursing female scolds her two pups as they nuzzle her belly in search of a tit. The pups are hungry and persistent, but mom must be tender and she complains loudly when they nurse. Other sea lions bask in the afternoon sun; eyes mostly closed and a dusting of golden sand sticking to their chocolate colored skin. I awkwardly follow others of our group into the water, walking backwards wearing my fins and struggling to adjust my mask and snorkel. I feel the sudden flow of cold water into my wetsuit, inhale and put my mask into the water. The sandy bottom has been stirred up and the visibility is awful. I see little except for the floating orange filaments of sea lion excrement but I continue swimming towards the rocks in hopes of better visibility and an abundance of fish. I spot a few large parrot fish and the smaller fish gleam in the afternoon sunlight, but there is considerable surge and after a few minutes, I swim to shore to spend time with the sea lions and explore the area on foot.
When I turn my attentions inland, I see half of a rainbow suspended over the extra-terrestrial landscape beyond. The pangas return us to the ship; we rinse out our wet suits, take short showers and at 6:00 P.M. we meet in the lounge for a briefing of tomorrows schedule. We are ceremoniously served an overly sweet and very green welcome drink and are introduced to the crew of 11. Dinner is immediately following; a lovely white fish accompanied by many salads; nearly half the passengers are vegetarians.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Hacienda Pinsaqui Otavalo market

Saturday, July 4th - 9:00 A.M. breakfast at the Hacienda. Bus into town. Fabulous Otavalo market on Saturdays. Lunch at chicken place. I'm still sick. Get stomach antibiotics at pharmacy. Antonio picks us up at 3:00 P.M. Drive back to Quito through fabulous dramatic highland landscape. Arrive in Quito just before 6:00 P.M. Frantically figure out morning flight to Galapagos. Call my father and get manicures and pedicures.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Pappallacta to Otavalo

Friday, July 3 - Antonio picks us up at 10:00 A.M. Drive to Otavalo. Arrive at Hacienda Pinsaqui at 2:30. Fabulous old hacienda with gardens. Our room lovely, with fire place. Take bus into Otavalo and wander the town. Late lunch of burritos and chicken wings. I'm still sick...ache, diarrhea, stomach pains. When we arrive back at the hotel, our fire has been lit. Welcome drink at Hacienda, Ecuadorian musicians. Dinner in lovely formal dining room with fireplace. Return to the room to find hot water bottles in our beds. Fall asleep to the fire. I'm still sick.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Pappallacta Hot Springs

Thursday, July 2 - Antonio picks us up at 8:00 A.M. Drive to Pappallacta Hot Springs. Arrive at 11:00 A.M. Soak in public pools. 2:30 P.M. massages. Dinner at the hotel. Cold. I'm still sick.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Quito Old Town

Wednesday, July 1 - Day in Quito. Old Town, Baroque Jesuit Church. Climbed the Basilica. I get sick. Laundry day. Dinner at Cannibal Shrimp.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

La Selva Jungle Lodge, Night in Quito

Tuesday, June 30 - Departure - La Selva Jungle Lodge, Night in Quito. Dinner at the Magic Bean.

Monday, June 29, 2009

La Selva Lodge

Monday, June 29 - La Selva Lodge

John very sick. Hike through the forest. Walking stick bug. Poison dart frog. Leaf frog.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Observation Tower and Black Water Lagoon.

Sunday, June 28 - The Observation Tower and Black Water Lagoon.

John has had a sore throat for several days and this morning he can barely swallow. I’ve been treating him with a spray Echinacea and Rebecca suggests gargling with salt water. Art hasn't slept well and chooses to stay at the lodge this morning. John and I join our group for the hike to the observation tower leaving a little before 7:00 A,M, We don our rubber boots and follow Aldolpho and Paulo into the jungle. last nights rain has made the trail slippery and the animals are all awake foraging for their breakfast. The observation tower is not far from the lodge; a stairway scaffolding built around an immense kapok tree. Paulo tells us that the tower was rebuilt just 6 months ago and we begin climbing the Robinson Crusoe like structure, 120 feet high. The upper platform is at level with the top of the jungle canopy and is adequate to hold the 7 of us. The view is breathtaking in more ways than one, and I survey the engineering of the tower and the width of the kapok tree, trying not to think about the kapoks shallow root system. We hear and see from a distance, troupes of squirrel and tamarind monkeys. Aldolpho and Paulo spot activity with their binoculars and quickly sets up the spotting scope for us all to take a closer look. The antics of the monkeys are delightful as they scamper along the upper canopy branches moving from one tree to another foraging for food. We see toucans, varieties of parrots and iridescent birds in all shapes and colors. A pair of green parrots flies past and a woodpecker strikes his morning cadence. We learn that there are flock leaders and witness the gathering of a wide variety of birds. Paulo explains that flocking is a survival strategy; that there is safety in numbers. We stay in the tower for an hour and a half and when the activity slows, descend the wooden stairs and hike further into the jungle to a black water lagoon. Two long paddle canoes are moored at a simple wooden dock. Paulo helps the five of us step down into the canoe. He takes the lead seat and Adolpho paddles from the rear. Before pushing out into the lagoon, he instructs us to be silent and just watch and listen. The magic of the lagoon leaves me speechless as we glide past floating islands of water hyacinths into a narrow inlet. We move through a canopy of palms and mangrove trees, the roots of the mangroves dripping with moss and standing spider like in the reflective back water. Although we don't see them, there are electric eel and caiman in this lagoon and the eel can be dangerous, inflicting a stunning shock which would render the swimmer unconscious and lead to drowning. Every shift of our weight tips the canoe, the surface of the water is just two inches down from the rim of our boat, and I wonder how often a canoe has capsized? This lagoon is part of a flooded forest ecosystem, underwater 7 months of the year and the still, black, reflective water extends into the mangroves as far as my eyes can discern. Coming to the end of an inlet, Aldolpho aptly turns the canoe around and soon, Paulo motions Aldolpho to cease paddling and points to an insect nest above us. He breaks the silence to tell us that this is a nest of marching termites and that on the count of three we must all shout loudly in unison. We shout and he holds up his hand indicating silence again. Moments later, we hear a synchronized thrumming coming from the hive. It is the sound of thousands of the termites, thrusting their thoraxes against the inside of the hive. The sound increases in intensity, just as if the termites were marching, thus the common name of these insects. It is a unified response to danger, a warning sound telling the intruder that they should leave before the termites emerge to confront their aggressor. I am in full agreement and we glide back into the open waters of the lagoon, lush with the water hyacinth islands, Rorschach reflections in the mirrored water. Up ahead is a family of river otters cavorting at the edge of a floating island. I struggle to focus my camera, but the encounter is fleeting and 30 seconds later, they submerge, swimming off to an undisturbed part of the lagoon. We disembark at the rustic wooden dock and return to camp, stopping frequently to admire the miracle of a red bellied poison dart frog, or a copy cat species that has similar markings, but lacks the poison. . .

Our excursion has been long and eventful and it is nearly noon when we reach the lodge. Art regrets that he did not accompany us; all of the guests left on a morning excursion and the morning alone was a long one.

The afternoon excursion is to the lodges butterfly farm and my preconceived vision lacks luster. We meet Paulo at 4:00 P.M. and walk one of the bamboo boardwalks to a large enclosed green house just down from the string of bungalows. Inside the larger green house is a smaller glassed in structure and around the entire enclosed perimeter are dozens of 6' high x 8' wide plastic covered caterpillar enclosures. Paulo strips away the Velcro front plastic from all of these and we circulate slowly, admiring each of the remarkable caterpillar species and learning what sort of butterfly or moth they will eventually morph into. The caterpillars are extra-terrestrial jewels; some as long as 6" some with markings and protrusions that mimic two heads so that a predator might mistake the back end as a treat and ultimately leave the caterpillar intact to continue into it's cocoon stage. I imagine that the costume designers of Star Wars took inspiration from the Amazonian caterpillars and I lag behind our group, attempting to take close up photos of the most unusual ones. Prior to this excursion, we were advised not to put insect repellent on so that we could touch the caterpillars and butterflies. The caterpillars are meaty and velvety soft in spite of their many protrusions. A final enclosure holds hundreds of cocoons, pinned gently to wooden rack. The cocoons are tiny jewels, many iridescent, and I marvel at what remarkable earrings these would make. Whoever tends the farm, groups the cocoons by species and most are exported to zoos and research centers around the world. The time sensitive cargo is shipped express and theoretically arrives at the ultimate destination still in the cocoon stage. The butterfly will emerge from the cocoon at the end destination to the delight of many.

The three girls and their grandparents leave in the morning and one of the girls wants to take home one of my rainforest charms. We agree to meet after dinner in the lounge, but the grandparents usher the girls away to pack and we have a nighttime canoe excursion on the lake. It's magical to glide silently upon the lake at night. Bats are the highlight of this excursion and we see large bats swooping down upon the lake to snatch an insect or small fish. Paulo catches their movement in the beam of his strong flashlight and scans the trees and foliage at the edge of the lake for movement. A branch protrudes from the water near the shore and a covey of long nosed bats take flight, startled by the light. One tiny lone bat is left clinging to the branch and Paulo tells us that it is a baby, too young for flight. It is obviously frightened and I hope that the mother will return shortly and comfort it.

Back at the lodge, I quickly connect with the young girl who chooses the tree frog charm. John, the 3 girls and the Danish boy have a last game of rummy tile. It's good to see John comfortable in most any situation and the animated group enjoy each other's company until the grandparents whisk their charges off to bed. John's sore throat is getting worse and I wish for antibiotics. Paulo mentioned that the lodge might have some. If John isn't better by morning, I will actively pursue this.