Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Galapagos--Final Thoughts

Did we really go to Galapagos two weeks ago? Cynthia especially had dreamed of this trip for so many years. And no matter how many photos you've seen of other people standing right next to the animals, it still almost seems incredible to realize we did exactly the same thing.

If Galapagos is on your bucket list, know that there are basically three different ways to visit the islands: a land-based stay on one island, island hopping, and a cruise. If your budget and schedule allow we definitely recommend the cruise option. Numerous species are endemic to a specific island, and cruise ships are the only way to reach the farthest, often uninhabited islands in the archipelago to observe them. Metropolitan Touring, owner of the Santa Cruz II ship that was our home in Galapagos, lists what they call the "Big 15" endemic species. We saw 12 of them on our western itinerary cruise.

Another recommendation for a trip of this nature is to s-t-r-e-t-c-h your pocketbook. In the case of a cruise, the nicer boats allow you a better level of food and accommodation. And most importantly, they employ the most qualified guides, which adds immeasurably to the depth of your experience.

Finally, Galapagos or not, whatever it is you want to do in this world, stop making excuses and delaying your joy. Get out there and do it! I urge you to live a life of no regrets--tomorrow is promised to no one.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Galapagos--Day Five

The last day of the cruise was predictably filled with activities. We had arrived at Isla Floreana, an outpost for pirates, whalers, and sealers back in the day. After observing sea lions lounging on the rocks

we took a short hike at Post Office Bay. For centuries it has been a tradition to leave letters in a barrel there and anyone going to the recipients’ location delivers them upon returning home.

We sent four postcards to friends and family in the States. Will be interesting to see if they are ever received.

After that passengers had a choice of hanging out on the beach, kayaking, or snorkeling.

We chose the last option and had a fab time, spotting lots of beautiful fish and a couple of turtles. We went back to the ship a bit early to rest before heading out again TWICE during the afternoon.

First excursion: more snorkeling for me and a glass bottom boat ride for Cynthia. Then back to the boat for a quick change of clothes and returning to observe sea turtle nesting areas and pink flamingos. We hiked to the beach

just in time to see a baby turtle hatch—and promptly be eaten by a frigate bird that swooped down and gobbled it up. Yikes!

Nearing sunset while returning to the pangas we saw the flamingos in a lagoon and rushed to an observation area for some quick final photos. Sadly mine didn't turn out but it was still a great way to end the cruise excursions.

We had a pleasant final evening exchanging contact info and saying goodbye to new friends. There was quite a show in the waters beside the boat where lots of BIG sharks and sea lions competed for flying fish. Dinner, drinks and what?!?---karaoke (I did a mean Pretty Woman), then time to pack before bed.

A farewell pic from Floreana.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Galapagos--Day Four

We woke up today amazed that this was only our third full day of the cruise. We’ve been kept so busy that it seemed like we’d been on the boat MUCH longer. That’s a good thing, and today was no different.

An early wake up and into the pangas by 8 to go into Puerto Ayora, the largest town (population 20,000) on Santa Cruz, the most populous island in Galapagos. First stop, the Charles Darwin Research Station.

The facility itself isn’t open to the public; we were there to visit the breeding grounds of the giant tortoises.

And we weren’t disappointed as a couple in one of the pens was going at it.

Our guide said mating can last up to three hours! Granted it’s not easy maneuvering with those massive shells involved, but, hey, maybe they just enjoy it!

We then had some free time to wander around town and purchase souvenirs before boarding a bus to visit a plantation producing artisanal coffee and sugar cane liquor. We stumbled upon a little fresh seafood stand serving both customers and critters!

I had signed up to ride a mountain bike to the plantation but we were both so hot and sweaty from the steamy weather that I changed my mind and rode the bus. Good call. Samples of coffee and the sugar cane products were for sale, and we got to raise a toast with the alcohol, which was 130 proof!

See where the beaker measures 65? That's the percentage of alcohol.

Oh, my!

Next we were driven to a buffet lunch at a hacienda in the highlands with a view of the Pacific.

After our meal and a bit of relaxing on to a long cave formed by the rapid flow of lava eons ago. Too dark for decent photos here.Then the highlight of the day—getting up close and personal with giant tortoises!

This was for us the iconic and quintessential Galapagos experience. We’d seen the photos of others doing it and now here we were taking our own pictures of these magnificent animals. It truly felt like we had been transported back into prehistoric times.

After crawling inside some empty shells and taking silly photos

we headed back to the ship. Being ashore all day without a break was exhausting, but after dinner there was a show with local musicians and dancers that we couldn’t miss. In fact we somehow got our second wind and found ourselves up dancing with lots of our fellow passengers.

Quite a day!

Friday, May 27, 2016

Galapagos--Day Three

And an early start today because of a very busy morning itinerary. First a steep, somewhat challenging vertical hike

to Darwin Lake, a super-salty crater lake on Isabela.

Great views and a cool surprise—a flightless cormorant family had built a nest right on the steps where we got off the panga!

After returning to the boat and changing clothes, we went back to Isabela to kayak along the shore. Very peaceful and fun. Several cormorants popped up next to our kayak, a Galapagos penguin was hanging out, and at one point a quite large stingray glided underneath us.

After nothing but perfect weather the sky got unexpectedly cloudy, and the crew decided the water was too choppy for the first afternoon excursion of more snorkeling. We chose to forego the hike scheduled afterwards in favor of sitting in the Jacuzzi and relaxing in our room with a bottle of wine.

The day ended with a sunset cocktail party and dinner.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Galapagos--Day Two

This day proceeded at a much more relaxing pace. For the morning activity we chose a short boat trip plus snorkeling at Isla Isabela, the largest island in Galapagos formed by the merging over time of five active volcanoes. “Over time” in this case is a relative term because Isabela and its small sister island Fernandina are by far the youngest in the archipelago.

During our boat ride near the rocky cliffs of the shoreline

we spotted lots of blue footed boobies along with Nazca boobies and frigate birds.

Then we plunged into the chilly water (68 degrees so we rented wet suits) to see what was going on beneath the surface. I took photos with a disposable underwater camera but haven't had them developed yet. Sorry. We saw beautiful fish, sea turtles, and playful seals that we were almost nose-to-nose with. A great experience.

After lunch there was time for a much needed siesta before a long hike on the lava surface of Fernandina.

Mangrove trees are well established there, making the vegetation much greener than any place we'd been so far. But the contrasting black terrain made it seem like walking on another planet.

Marine iguanas are so prevalent and blend so well with the lava that you have to watch where you’re stepping.

They’re often spotted in clusters and show absolutely no reaction to your presence.

Not so the bright red crabs on the rocks along the shore. Just like their relatives all over the globe, these critters are skittish but we still got some great photos.

Every so often a seal was lounging along the path,

and a Galapagos snake slid right across my shoe. YIKES!!

Brown pelicans and the most endemic species of the archipelago, the flightless cormorant were also in the mix.

Back to the boat for a beautiful sunset,

dinner, some stargazing, and early bedtime.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Galapagos--Day One

Wow, our Galapagos adventure was so amazing (and there are too many great photos) that it's impossible to try and condense the whole journey into one blog post. So let's go back to the beginning. After packing (guess whose is on the right)

we flew to Guayaquil to spend the night before heading to Galapagos the following morning. I highly recommend Hotel CityPlaza when your travels take you to that city. They pick you up at the airport, the rooms are huge,

rates are reasonable, and the hotel is located a short walk to the Malecon.

Next morning we went to the airport

got on the plane

and an hour and a half later we arrived on Baltra Island.

Buses took us to the water where we donned life jackets and boarded inflatable boats called pangas

that took us to the Santa Cruz II, our home for the next six exciting days.

After checking in and having lunch we were off to North Seymour Island for our first excursion. No surprise that you can walk right up to the animals--we've all seen the pics--but it was still kind of weird when you actually do it and they don’t even flinch.

We saw land iguanas,

lots of blue footed boobies,

frigate birds,

sea lions,

and brilliantly colored red crabs.

Quite an introduction to our adventure! Back on board we quickly unpacked, then off to a presentation of the next day's activities, a welcome cocktail with the captain and crew, and dinner. It was already evident that we were in for some "active" travel. In fact, the trip is called an "expedition," not a cruise. No spa days, hanging out at the pool, and afternoon trivia on this ship!

Bedtime came early in anticipation of more wonderful surprises.