GALÁPAGOS (Week 15)

Traveling to the Galápagos Islands was something that, before this semester, I never believed I’d have the opportunity to do.  You learn about the Galápagos in every biology class ever, but rarely think that someday you’ll get to visit this place!  Week 15 was the week in which I joined the rank of the few people that have the chance to explore these stunning islands, and I’m incredibly thankful and in awe.

We were on the islands Thursday through Sunday.  Each day felt like it was out of a dream-life (a sweaty, sunburnt, beautiful dream-life), so I’m going to give a brief (ish) rundown of the adventures of each day.

Thursday:

Took a plane from Quito to Guayaquil and then from Guayaquil to Isla Baltra, arriving around noon.  The airport at Isla Baltra was the first ecological airport in the world.  Upon arrival, you have to wash your shoes to prevent any invasive species from entering the island and claim everything from an apple to a pack of Ritz crackers.  The ecosystem of the Galápagos is fragile and unique, and for that reason a lot of precautions are taken to preserve the islands.  From there, we took a short bus ride to the docks, where we hopped on a SOLAR POWERED (!!!!) boat to Isla Santa Cruz.  Then, another bus ride to the southern beach town of Puerto Ayora.  On our way to Puerto Ayora, we took some cool stops.  First, we took a short walk to Los Gemelos- two large sinkholes in the middle of the island that are so similar and close to one another that they are called “twins.”  Then we hiked around a small forest where we saw many giant tortoises in the wild.    It was amazing to be so close to these huge creatures, and this was just a preview of all of the up-close animal encounters we would have throughout the weekend!  After a delicious lunch of fresh fish and fresh-squeezed juice, we continued our journey to Puerto Ayora.

Our hotel was such a pleasant surprise- a few blocks from el malecón (the main street right next to the water), it had a basketball court, pool, and nice rooms with balcony views.  We met our guides Patricio and Humberto (Pato y Berto) who took us to the Charles Darwin Research Center, where we saw giant tortoises in all phases of life at the Centro de Crianza de Tortugas and some land iguanas.  After this, we went for a swim at a beach near the Research Center.  The water in the Galápagos is bluer than anything I’ve ever seen and got prettier with each beach we visited during our trip.  My friend Laura and I decided to swim further away from the beach, and as we were swimming, all of the sudden we saw a giant sea turtle in the water no more than 5 feet from us.  It was absolutely incredible.  After our ocean swim, we headed back for a swim in the pool at our hotel, where we had chicken fights and played Marco Polo.  I’m #blessed to have friends who also embrace the pool games of our childhoods.

We ate dinner (fresh fish and fresh juice- the specialty of the Galápagos) downtown in cute Puerto Ayora and then our guide Pato had a “fantastica, maravillosa sorpresa” for us.  He took us down to the pier, where we got to observe sharks and seals swimming in the water below us.  Then, a trip to get some ice cream before crashing for the night.

Friday

Early start because we had to catch a boat to our next island: San Cristobal.  Similar to the airport, the Galápagos are strict (for good reason) about transfer of things to other islands.  Apples got confiscated and I had to scrub my tennis shoes clean of any sand and mud on the docks before boarding.  It was a 2 hour boat ride through open waters, so I took a dramamine that knocked me out for about 7 hours (oops).  My friend Sarah described my eyes as being “zombie-like, focused on absolutely nothing.”  I was pretty wrecked until after lunch when I finally started to feel normal/awake again.  Humberto took us out on a boat trip after lunch to Islas Lobos, where we did a short hike around the island to observe the famous blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, and sea lions.  Then we went snorkeling around the island, where we got super close to sea lions (en español: lobos marinos).  A mother and child swam right under me, three played in the water right by me, and we saw countless more!  Then we boated to Playa Ochoa, a pristine beach with soft sand and turquoise water connected to a laguna with water that felt like a hot tub.  We had a lot of fun letting the crazy tides take us wherever they wanted.

Returning to the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, we had some hangout time.  Our hotel had a rooftop terrace with hammocks and cool views, so a group of us had a good life chat up there until dinner (fish, duh!).  I so appreciate the ability that this group has to have deep conversations and the open-mindedness to understand everyone’s point of view.  It’s a really beautiful thing to have so many different people come together and bond so well.

After dinner, some friends and I were wandering around when we found a Semana Santa procession and decided to follow it a ways up a hill and out of el malecón.   People carried giant torches, crosses, and Jesus figurines as they walked around the town and occasionally stopped to listen to the priest talk over a speaker or to sing.  It was really cool to see this because Semana Santa is such a big deal in Latin America and I was a little bummed to miss some of the famous festivities in Quito!

Saturday

I think Saturday was my favorite day in the Galápagos!  We split into 2 groups so we could take smaller boats- my group had a guide named Raul plus two assistants, David and Stalín, who were all pretty cool.  This day we did a fairly new tour called the 360 degree tour, because we spent the day boating around the entire island of San Cristobal (from 7am to 5pm with some pit stops).  We started off boating out to León Dormido, which is an tiny islote of sharp cliffs.  Raul took us snorkeling and I honestly can’t even begin to find the words to explain how cool it was.  We swam through schools of baby jellyfish (ouch!), saw a giant sea turtle, came within mere feet of curious lobos marinos, and then entered the chasm between two cliffs.  In this narrow chasm, we swam within just a few feet of sharks.  I never imagined that snorkeling with sharks would be something I would do, but here I am.  At one point, there were 5 of them swimming below us.  Honestly it was pretty awesome but I won’t lie and say I wasn’t a little scared (even though our guide assured us that they were vegetarian sharks).  Also, a fun fact: jellyfish in Spanish is “Agua Mala” which literally translated means “bad water” and I think that’s the funniest thing ever.

Then we boated to another secluded, pristine beach for a descansa of swimming, exploring, a brief dance party, and sunbathing.  I swear every beach we stopped at got even more beautiful.  We continued our boating tour with bird watching on the northern tip of the island before heading out to deeper waters to fish.  When I first heard that we were going fishing, I thought it was amazing- fishing in the Galápagos?!  However, then Stalín told us the coolest thing he’d ever caught was “nada”, they slowed the boat way down, the waves got huge, and most of us started feeling a quite seasick.  Luckily, our guide Raul knew what we needed and eventually brought the boat to a beautiful cove to eat a delicious lunch of rice, chicken, ensalada, and french fries before directing us to the most beautiful beach of the trip.  The sand was the softest thing in the world- it felt like flour- and the waters were such a bright turquoise that I can’t even begin to describe it well.  The water was so warm and we spent time swimming around, laughing at one another, and feeling SO relieved as the seasick feelings went away.

Raul then took us on a short hike around a small laguna and back to the boat, where we traveled to a larger laguna connected to the ocean for our final snorkeling destination.  This one was also incredible.  The laguna was shallow and clear, so everything we saw was extremely close to us.  From the moment we dove in, we saw giant sea turtles right by us.  Raul took us all over the laguna and we saw tons of sea turtles, a sting ray, and a few sharks.  One of the sharks was longer than me, and probably only 5 feet below me.  I don’t know if  I ever need to snorkel with sharks again in my life, but it was cool while it lasted.  I would totally be down to snorkel with more sea turtles and lobos marinos though!  On the remainder of the trip around the island, we really befriended David and Stalín and made bets on how many minutes it would take us to reach the docks.  All in all, such an amazing day.  The snorkeling was absolutely surreal and the beaches were stunning.

Humberto took us out for pizza to ‘celebrate’ (read: mourn) our last night on the islands.  After this, we went down to the boardwalk, where virtually hundreds of lobos marinos sleep on the beach every single night.  These animals are so graceful and beautiful in the water.  On land?  They’re actually a little bit gross.  They lie together in a huge pile that spreads across the entire beach and make noises that can only be described as someone dry heaving.  The babies try to find their mothers and crawl all over the other lobos marinos.  It’s slightly horrifying but totally fascinating and impossible to stop watching.

We ended an almost perfect day with souvenir shopping and chocolate cake.  Chévere.

Sunday

Strangest Easter of my life (weird lack of church, chocolate, and eggs), but a good one nonetheless.  After breakfast we went to the Interpretation Center, which was an interactive museum that provided a lot of the geological, biological, ecological, and human history of the islands.  Then we got to visit IES and Universidad San Francisco de Quito’s Galapagos campus, which is right on the beach and beautiful.  To all my young friends: if you are doing anything biology/environmental science/sustainability related and want to study abroad somewhere super cool, I would check this program out or keep it in mind!!

We then had some time to shop and hang out in el malecón.  I took a little walk with my friends Caylee and Sarah and enjoyed exploring a little bit as we soaked in our last hour on the Galapagos.  Then Humberto took us to the airport, where we ended up being on the same plane as the ballots for the voting recount that is happening right now, which felt super official.  Made it back to Quito in time for dinner.

Final Thoughts:

Literally still in awe that I got to spend the long weekend on the Galápagos.  This is a place that I’ve learned about in countless classes from middle school through college and has been so important in the science community.  I’ll never forget the pristine beaches, the sparkling water, the friendly beach towns, and the unique animals.  Creation is a beautiful thing, we live on a beautiful earth, yet we as humans are the most destructive things on the planet.  I truly believe that we have a responsibility to take steps in our everyday lives to care for our world and to preserve our last few natural gems, like the Amazon and the Galápagos.  Traveling to these places makes it easier to understand the importance of reducing one’s personal ecological footprint, but I hope that you’ll use my pictures and stories as inspiration to take steps towards a more sustainable lifestyle as well!  Human beings are infinitely different in so many ways, but one things brings us together in unity: we all share this planet and we all are responsible to keep it beautiful.

 

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