Ecuador Day 10: Isla Seymour Norte and Puerto Ayora

Palabra del día: naranja de agría

Our last wake-up call while aboard the Samba again comes at 5:45am.  North Seymour Island has a dock made slippery by the waves which occasionally wash over it, but we clamber excitedly up the slope anyway, eager to see the nesting bird colonies which inhabit the island.

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Many frigatebirds fly overhead, male pouches inflated and wagging in the wind through which they fly. We see many males with juveniles, their bright red pouches diluted into a pale nectarine blush. Though the females are responsible for the brunt of rearing chicks, the males assist for the first several weeks of the chick’s life.

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As we walk along the trail, we notice more and more bachelors attempting to attract females. Both great and magnificent frigatebirds nest here, as well as our real target for the day: the blue-footed boobies.

We step around some of the introduced land iguanas which have overtaken their new home on our journey. They are large on this island, and with no natural predators, they show no fear.

Near the beach, we hear the telltale reed-whistle chorus of boobies, and we pause to watch a male try to court a female. Her mate notices and chases him off before re-affirming their relationship with a short dance. First they nod and bow, then they lift each foot to show the girls how fit to breed they are via the blue-ness of their feet. After this, they perform a motion called ‘sky-pointing,’ when they lift their head, wings, and tail to the sky while nasally intoning their call.

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The beach itself is where something special happens. The lava lizards we have been seeing have learned to pick flies off the sea lions. We see this adaptation in action on a sleeping sea lion who is startled awake by his unknown assailant. Next to him, a young three-week old pup calls for its mother as it searches the rocky shoreline. Like the birds, the sea lions are courting in the waters nearby.

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After the walk, we return to the ship for our last breakfast. We have scrambled eggs with our usual spread and give the crew our last goodbyes before we disembark for the last time, landing on the ferry wharf at Isla Baltra. Here we meet our new guide, Maria, who assists us in getting across the ferry and back to Santa Cruz, where we board our newest form of transport, a bus.

Our first stop is Trapiche Sugar Cane plantation, a farm built with loving care by a family who came from the mainland when there were incentives to colonize the islands in the 1960s. The sound of water on tin accompanies our footsteps to a covered area where several old coffee processing implements are arranged around a table. While the others in the group, including the Other Half, are watching a presentation about coffee and sugar cane processing, I ask the older owner about his farm.

He takes me on a short tour, explaining what plants he is growing and why. Many of his trees, and some of his sugar cane stands, are over 40 years old. They are the original plants he and his family brought over from the mainland. He has many coffee plants, as well as a cacao, an avocado, a local sour orange  with a taste similar to a sweet lime (naranja de agría), papaya, and banana. He also explains the flowers he has planted to improve the property, specifically picking lush, vibrant samples that visitors will find attractive. I learn more about how the land is worked in the Galapagos from our short conversation than I would have from watching the usual presentation.

The group is then invited to visit their still. While the rest of the farm is lush and vibrant, this area is cleared out and has old metal barrels carefully arranged around a smoking trough. We have found the still. While the setup is ingenious, it leaves us wondering how the process is adequately overseen to prevent the formation of dangerous wood alcohol, or methanol.

Our guide has a simple answer which is less than reassuring: “Well, no one’s gone blind yet.”

With that in mind, we are invited to continue to lunch at an hacienda down the road. The area is gorgeous, though a power outage in the area makes it much more enticing to sit near the open veranda. We have chicken thigh, juice, lentil soup, bread, plantain chips, roasted yucca, vegetables, and carrots in mustard sauce. It is all too much food for many of us to finish.

We continue from the highlands to our hotel in Puerto Ayora, where most of our group will be staying an extra day. Unfortunately, our guide again gives less-than-adequate reassurances about the water quality of the island. I speak with the hotel management, who confirms that drinking water is provided for, well, drinking and brushing teeth, while non-potable water is used for showers. I remark that it is the same in Mexico and shower anyway, to no ill effects.

After relishing the cool water, the Other Half and I find a laundry service down the street before we walk down to the pier to shop for keepsakes for our family and a postcard for our scrapbook. We are delighted that ice cream in Ecuador is so easily available and well within our daily budget (because let’s be honest, have I ever been able to resist ice cream?). We meet up with another couple for a delicious dinner where I have the only hamburger of our trip that is not topped by a questionable meat patty. Afterward, we watch the fish market, where I find what will soon become a running joke between the Other Half and me:

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This sea lion, as well as several dozen of his closest juvenile pelican friends, show up at the fish market when the boats start arriving at sunrise. Fishermen clamor at the dock to get their daily catch in, while the market workers spray off their concrete work surfaces and bleach them. This is great; it’s a sign of clean food handling. Until the fish actually start getting cleaned. At this point, the skins are disposed of by giving them to the sea lion and pelicans. Except whenever the workers turn their back, the sea lion tries to steal their fish. We watch as he grabs a fish, then gets smacked with the flat of a worker’s knife blade for his trouble. He routinely gets swatted away from his position in what is apparently a familiar dance between him and this particular worker.

Except the worker never cleans his blade or his counter. He goes back to work cleaning tuna, rockfish, and more. We begin a running joke about ‘tuna so fresh that it’s been licked by a sea lion today.’ It comes back to haunt me the next night when I try the tuna steak medium-rare at a ‘trusted’ restaurant, and I realize that food that has potentially been licked by wildlife may lead to food poisoning within a short period.

Ick.

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