Ecuador Day 3: Arrival to the Galápagos Islands and Santa Cruz

Palabra del día: volcán

We awake early and arrive to the meeting area before our bus does. Our group excitedly mills around the lobby of the hotel until our guide joins us. He has come only to make sure we will arrive at the airport, as he has an exam to take this morning. On our way to the airport, the morning is clear, and we see the peaks of the volcanoes which surround Quito: Pinchincha, Cotopaxi, and Antisana.

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Once we get to the airport, we attempt to find the replacement guide who has our tickets. We wind up calling our emergency phone number, only to find out that the replacement can’t make it, so there is a replacement for the replacement. Well, at least he’s friendly. We spend a short while in the airport before boarding a bus which takes us to the tarmac and our flight.

After a layover in Guayaquil, the flight lands on a hot, windy tarmac with one other plane. We must walk down the marked pavement and along a covered path into the airport. The airport is sustainably built, with open wooden slats to allow the breeze in, and the walls are movable and lightweight. The desk agent takes our national park entry fee (expensive at $100 per person) and stamps our passports before allowing us through. The airport personnel later join us on the bus from the airport to the ferry; there is only one daily flight arrival time, so the airport closes after we step out. We meet our guide for the week, Nicolas, and step onto the back of the bus.

It is a ten minute drive from the airport to the ferry, where our luggage is loaded alongside thousands of chicks and a few crates of fruits imported from the mainland. It is here we are able to touch the turquoise waters of the islands for the first time. We ricochet from ferry to bus once we arrive on Santa Cruz, travelling for several kilometers before stopping at Los Gemellos, a pair of collapsed lava tunnels.

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We see our first Darwin finch and spend several minutes taking a dozen pictures of it, not believing our guide when he says most people will ignore them by the end of the trip. We cross the road to visit the other crater, where the bottom is impassably covered in blackberry bushes.

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It isn’t until we are driving on the road between them that Nicolas begins discussing the further erosion of the two craters and how they will eventually meet as one crater. Very reassuring.

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We stop for lunch at the Manzanillo Ranch, an area in the highlands which used to be a cattle ranch. When he did the math and found out that he could make more money with tourism, the owner sold his cattle and started charging tourists to find tortoises on his land. Sure enough, a quarter of a mile from the ranch facilities, a giant tortoise is blocking the road. It is so massive that it blocks entirely half the road, and the bus can’t get around it. We are at an impasse with the behemoth, so we step off the bus and walk the rest of the way. When we arrive, fresh lemonade is waiting for us. We wander around the restaurant area finding finches, mockingbirds, and tortoises.

Actually a smaller tortoise we saw on the road later...

After lunch, we walk the trails, avoiding the large buses that arrive carrying more people. We are successful in both our tortoise hunt and in avoiding the other groups. We hop back onto the bus and continue the rest of the trip to a town on the south end of the island called Puerto Ayora.

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Once we arrive in Puerto Ayora, we leave our luggage in the capable hands of our guide before having some free time to explore the town. The crew of the ship we will be traveling on, the Samba, only have the evening to spend time with their families before we disembark together.

The Other Half and I walk the pier, keeping a half-eye on the intertidal zones for our first looks at the bright orange-red Sally Lightfoot crabs, brown pelicans, a few great blue herons, and a lone diving blue-footed booby. We make a run into the supermarket to grab some extra sunblock and two ice creams. We make a second stop to wipe my khakis clean after the ice cream opens into a slushy mess which promptly falls off the popsicle stick and slides down my front in a less than pleasing smear.

When we return to the pier, the Other Half saunters down at a languid pace, stopping to watch other travelers jump into and out of small speedboats and inflatable zodiacs. I skip from side-to-side at a dizzying speed trying to see what kind of fish lurk under the pylons. The Other Half is surprised when I am actually successful in my mission: I see both a green sea turtle surfacing and a small black-tipped reef shark patrolling the far edge of the pier. The other people and children on the pier are suitably unimpressed by my find. When we lose sight of the shark, we pause to make bets on which of the two-masted sailboats on the horizon are ours.

Just before sunset, we meet back up with our tour group at one of the inflatable boats. We clamber aboard, the feeling of excitement and adventure tingling in everyone’s toes. Or maybe it is just some water in the bottom of the zodiac. We speedily arrive at our ship, bumping over small waves, and climb aboard to meet the crew.

We sit in the small dining area talking about our backgrounds with our new companions. The people on the ship with us are from five different countries, and despite our varied interests, our group has already clicked. It is going to be a good trip.

Room assignments are completed before dinner, and we discover that we are going to be on the upper deck. The Other Half, not having stayed on a boat before, let alone one of this small size, tentatively climbs up the ladder behind me. I am already in the room, opening the windows and contemplating when I can further explore the decks.

The Samba is a small ship, only 78 feet in length, and carries 14 passengers along with 6 dedicated crew and a naturalist guide. Though the dimensions seem cozy, there is plenty of room to both stretch our legs and find isolation if needed. There is no pool and no shuffleboard deck as there are on larger cruise ships in other areas, and we are forewarned that we would be too tired to use those facilities if they existed. Instead, we are up before dawn and don’t finish exploring until sunset, with dinner and lectures on the natural history of the Galapagos in the evenings.

We sit down to our first dinner, a family-style meal served at 1900 every evening. We taste red snapper, salad, potatoes, carrots, and, for dessert, tiramisu. After only a few bites, we realize two things: (1) the Other Half and I actually do like fish, despite the odor usually turning us away, and (2) our chef is brilliant. We discuss our itinerary for the next day with Nicolas before disbanding for the night.

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