My Life in Motion

Archive for the category “South America”

Musings of a Volunteer

I had wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Scotland, I was enthralled with the multitude of BBC nature documentaries on the television and David Attenborough has been a regular on my television screen for most of my life. As an adult, I have been able to combine my love of travel with the ability to spend more quality time in a place by donating my time and my skills where I can. I spent 3 months volunteering in South Africa when I graduated, and to this day, that trip still remains one of my life’s most defining times. Prior to moving to New Zealand, I spent a month volunteering in the beautiful pacific island of Rarotonga, the biggest of the Cook Islands, and this year, despite a lot of difficulties with visas, I finally got to live my dream by heading to Santa Cruz, the most inhabited island in the Galapagos, to volunteer for a month.

Volunteering is an excellent chance to meet, integrate and work with people from different countries and cultures, and with everyone’s dates varying, the collection of fellow volunteers is an ever changing melting pot. There were 5 other volunteers for varying time lengths during my month stay there, and everyone was from somewhere different. Not only out of work, but in the working environment, it was interesting to learn new things from different people’s experiences. But in particular, I enjoy learning more about the local culture and politics than is usually possible as a tourist and am often fascinated by what makes the local town or government or community tick.


There are some talks amongst the people of Galapagos about trying to become independent from the country of Ecuador. I’m sure other islands or provinces in other countries can relate: their hard-earned money goes to a government far far away and in return they get only a relatively small percentage of investment and funding. Also decisions about their economy, their health and their education are made by people far far away, and it has led to many people in the Galapagos feeling short-changed. Whilst I was there, there was both a rally and a demonstration about some of these matters. One of the big things that I learned, is that when tourists book and pay for their Galapagos tours whilst abroad, through travel agents, that money goes into the financial pockets of mainland Ecuador. However, when tours are paid for whilst already in the islands, that money goes directly into the local economy. As the majority of tours are booked before reaching the islands, the majority of income generated from Galapagos tourism isn’t actually going to the people of Galapagos directly, instead it goes first to mainland Ecuador and then divvied up. Had I known this, and had I known how relatively easy it is to book a tour whilst in the islands, I may have booked my trip differently.

Another thing that surprised me was the level of construction taking place on the island. There is little fresh water in the archipelago, so drinking water is shipped in bottled. There is one de-salination plant in the whole archipelago, and this means that there is a shortage of fresh water. Each building is supplied water for only a few hours a day, which then needs to be stored in large tanks and rationed. The islands are very strict with recycling materials, but everything that is collected needs to be shipped back to the mainland. Despite all this and more, new buildings are going up left, right and centre. On one particular occasion, I spoke to an Ecuadorian man who pointed out that the new hotel next to where we sat was being built too close to the sea, and was not taking into consideration the higher tides and storms that can hit the region on occasion. It was a story I had heard before in Fiji when, privy to some local knowledge, we learned that a foreign investor was building a large reception hall on the opposite side of an island to what the locals recommended. The locals were fully aware of potential for storm damage on the southern side, but the foreign investor ignored them. Back in the Galapagos, it seemed that enthusiasm for the all-important sea view was over-riding local common sense. Both the local population is on the increase as well as tourism numbers, meaning more accommodation and support buildings and new streets are needed. With the exception of Floreana, all the other 3 inhabited islands’ towns have grown in size greatly in the last few decades. Two of the islands I visited also bare the scars from quarries that have been dug into what is supposed to be one of Earth’s untouched wonders.


These effects lead on to some conservation issues which I had my eyes opened to whilst I was there. Advertised as one of the few places on earth that is relatively untouched, and containing such unique wildlife, since the days of human habitation, there has been a lot of irreparable damage. Aside from the earlier explorers eating the tortoises and sending several species extinct, they introduced mammals both accidentally and deliberately which not only challenged some species survival directly but also introduced disease. Currently there is a pox virus rampaging through some of the endemic bird species. Road kill is also an all-too-common occurrence. With the increase in people, there is an increase in vehicles and roads, and this has led to iguanas and birds especially, being hit and killed on impact. One of the buses I was on, hit and killed a native bird whilst we were on our way to go on a boat trip to see some of the native birds. The irony was discomforting. But I was equally surprised by the attitudes of some of the locals. Many are so reliant on tourism for money, but as a vet volunteering at a free veterinary clinic, I was surprised by how many people didn’t want to neuter their cats and dogs who were just left to wander the streets, and in the case of the cats, were hunting the native species. They didn’t seem to consider, or appreciate, or care, that these introduced species had a huge impact on the native species, which are what the tourists come to see. Ticks were a common problem, and these ticks carried diseases which were also a common problem. But some people relied on breeding dogs to sell the pups as an added source of income. It is a conundrum. Thankfully though, with such public awareness to the wonders of this archipelago, there is no shortage of research work being undertaken there, and new discoveries continue to be made. There are also some of the islands which are off-limits to tourists and some parts of the national park are out-of-bounds unless accompanied by a park guide. With so much at stake, I for one am interested to see what will happen to one of the Earth’s gems in my lifetime. Unfortunately, I don’t think it will be resoundingly positive.


Life in Slow Motion, Part 3

It was my friend’s last day, and we awoke from our exceedingly late night with plans to chill out in Puerto Ayora. From the pier we jumped on a panga (water taxi) to cross to Angermeyer Point, an upmarket part of the island which has no road access. There is a well-marked path to Las Grietas, one of the island’s recommended tourist spots. On route, we passed a lagoon where a great egret and heron were perched, then we skirted past the already busy Playa Aleman and on past a salt lagoon. At the top of the canyon, we first followed the path along the cliff top which gave us a view down into the canyon as well as back towards Puerto Ayora and out to sea. Retracing our steps, we then took the short branch down the steps to Las Grietas. A canyon in the rocks has trapped a deep saltwater basin with no apparent connection to the sea. There are a chain of pools to explore which are divided by previous rock falls which need to be scrambled over with no dignity at all. The entrance though was swarming with paper wasps, large creatures that don’t leave you alone. It meant getting in the water fast, and once in, it was incredible. Whilst not containing a lot of sea life, they are surprisingly deep, so it is worth snorkelling purely for that reason alone. The final chamber does have a shoal of a reasonably sized fish, and whilst it’s not a good snorkel in terms of seeing marine life, I was really glad I had done it. Unfortunately my friend got stung by one of the wasps whilst we were negotiating one of the rock barriers, and with them flying around everywhere at the exit, we didn’t hang around long before leaving. Playa Aleman was busy with locals and tourists, but it was a great spot to relax and sunbathe the afternoon away, before catching a panga back to Puerto Ayora.


Suddenly, it was my final week and it hit me that I was going to have to leave. Outside of work I was intent on seeing and doing everything that I could. Who knows if I’ll ever be back? I spent a few evenings playing tourist, wandering around the many tourist shops looking for memorable souvenirs, and on one of my lunch breaks, I made a last (and all too brief) return to Tortuga Bay, my absolute favourite part of Santa Cruz. It was in the blistering heat of the middle of the day, and I had to power walk to make it there and back in time as well as be able to take some photos. Every time I’d been before I had not had a camera, and I just wanted to see it one last time. Normally an hour walk, I got there in 40mins, and then had nearly an hour to wander between Tortuga Bay and Playa Mansa, the sheltered beach through the mangroves. There were lots of marine iguanas on the spit of land that demarcates the divide between the two beaches, and even a couple negotiating the surf. Even though it was a week day, both beaches were busy, and I tried to soak it all up before I had to leave to get back to work. I was unbelievably sad leaving, having wanted to just kick back and enjoy it, but now I was just a few days away from leaving the islands behind.


My last day volunteering came and went and before I knew it, I had only a weekend before the start of my long journey home. I’d decided to head back to San Cristobal, the island that I started on, to try and snorkel with sea lions again. It had by now been over a month since my last visit there, and it was strange how unfamiliar it seemed at times. Getting up early to catch the boat, I was pleased to look at the sea and see utter calmness, the sure sign of a smooth ride. And for the first 45 mins it was, whilst we were in the shadow of Santa Fe. But when we hit open, unprotected water, the crests started and we became airborne again. For over an hour I had to grip onto whatever I could as we slammed onto the ocean surface from a free-fall again, and I fought hard to keep relaxed to prevent the shockwave damaging my spine. But inevitably my back had had enough, and about half an hour away from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, a shooting pain shot up my neck. It was jarring and repetitive, and my heart sank at the thought of having a flare up of my chronic back issues on a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

I arrived to sunshine and went in search of somewhere to stay. It was third time lucky before I got a room, and despite a slight Spanish misunderstanding, I got a really good deal without even knowing it. Following some refreshments near the waterfront, I followed the waterfront round past sleeping sea lions and Playa Mann, and up towards the interpretation centre and out the other side. I took the direct path up to Cerro Tijeretas (Frigate Hill), and caught my breath for a while before deciding to follow the track onwards to the north. Very quickly it became obvious that not many people came this way as it was rough going and quite overgrown. I had only jandals (flip-flops) on my feet, and despite finding it uncomfortable, I pressed on down the far side of the hill and on across the lava landscape. On the way down I nearly stood on a Galapagos snake which thankfully disappeared into the bush before my foot hit the ground. I followed the track for about 40mins for little reward. The going was rough, and in places the path was not obvious or involved rock hopping. There was little to see and I never reached the promised beach at the end of it. Sweating in the heat of the day, I turned back and headed straight for Darwin Bay.


Darwin Bay is the place where Charles Darwin first set foot on the Galapagos in 1835, and the water is crystal clear. Notably though the sea was also very cold and despite the sun shining directly on it, I had to keep moving to generate some heat, snorkelling with an increasingly foggy mask clouding my view. It was an awesome spot to snorkel. There were fish everywhere in varying sizes and colours; I watched a marine turtle feed for a while; and a sea lion swam up to me then past me. I saw something floating on the water and realised there was a large chunk of blubber on the surface. I’d seen this once before near a dead whale, but I didn’t want to get too near as rotten blubber usually stinks, and I couldn’t see where it came from. Nothing was feeding on it, and it moved on the surface with the wind and the tide.


After a while, I found some sea lions playing. They weren’t really interested in me, so they didn’t come particularly close but they circled and dived in front of me, and then suddenly one of them grabbed the tail of a marine iguana that was swimming to the surface. It would grab the tail then let it go before grabbing it again just to release it again. It did this repeatedly until the iguana finally got itself out the water and up on a rock. I’d heard about this behaviour before. The sea lions don’t eat the iguana, they just seem to like to play with it like a toy. I’m sure the iguana didn’t like it, but I felt lucky to witness such behaviour. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the last good snorkel I would have on the trip. I sat on the shore for a long time just soaking up the view and watching the sea lions leaping out of the water, whilst another one slept next to me on the rocks.


Eventually I headed up towards the large statue of Charles Darwin that overlooks the bay. From here the path follows the coastline round and down to Punta Carola beach. I hadn’t walked this section before, and from the viewpoint I could see sea lions fishing below me and had an uninterrupted sea view. It was just stunning. Further round there was an old armament from the war, and finally I came out at Punta Carola and nearly stumbled over some sea lions that were right at the end of the path. I loved this beach. There were sea lions everywhere, and they were noisy but it was amazing to sit and watch them going about their lives. Early on I got in the water to snorkel with them, but the swell here meant I could barely see my hand in front of my face, and I couldn’t see them coming. I gave up and went back to the beach to relax.


I spent several hours drifting between sleeping and watching the nearby goings on. At one point I was woken with a start to something tickling my bare foot and sat up quickly to find a sea lion staring at me from past my feet. It must have sniffed me and touched me with its whiskers. It ambled past me as if nothing was the matter. Later on a group of tourists and a guide appeared. They were noisy and insisted on posing for photo after photo with every single sea lion they could find. There was a group of sleeping sea lions in a bush not far from me and that was where most of the tourists were standing. I tried to fall asleep again to block them all out when suddenly I got covered in sand. Again I sat up with a start to discover that one of the sea lions had run away from the group of tourists towards me. It looked as surprised as me with my sudden movement and then hobbled past me just inches from my head, kicking up sand as it went. I was immensely glad when the group finally left and peace and quiet returned.


I had nowhere else to be, so watched the sun set over the beach, during which time a mother and juvenile sea lion ignored the 2m rule that is advertised across the islands, by coming right up to where I was lying, sniffed my stuff then promptly lay down for a suckle. It was an amazing experience and I waited there as long as I could until the light level was dropping too low.


I walked back to town in the darkness where local girls were performing dances on the promenade. It was a lovely atmosphere and the evening was warm and welcoming. I had a lovely dinner before doing some last minute souvenir shopping in the local stores, and finally it was time for my second last night in the islands. I crashed out when my head hit the pillow only to be woken ridiculously early by the irritating chirrup of a cricket or locust nearby. The night before, the shops had been over-run with locusts, and the shopkeepers were killing them as quick as they saw them. At 4am, I couldn’t locate it, but I had to put the fan on just to drown the sound out in order to get back to sleep.

It was my last full day in the islands and I woke with a sore back, no doubt the result of the previous day’s boat trip. It was really windy and the sea was choppy, and I started worrying about the return leg and what further damage it might do to my spine. I tried to shake off the feeling and make the most of my last day, so I headed first to a local cafe and enjoyed some delicious fresh fruits and granola. It was a grey day, and following the same well-travelled route I followed the shoreline and headed back to the Interpretation centre. We had visited here as part of my tour on my first day in the islands, but we had skipped sections and our guide had summarised sections, so now I wanted to read it all for myself. It is a really good place to learn about the geological history of the islands and the human history from its first discovery. Human habitation has a lot to answer for with regards to species eradication and introduction of pests and diseases. One of the most sobering sections was the future predictions for the island group, and the things I read there as well as things I had been privy to witness and learn about during my volunteering stint has left me sad for what may occur in these most wonderful islands. I can only hope that positive steps for conservation outweigh the negative steps being made to promote tourism.


The last hours on the island were spent on Playa Mann. I again tried to snorkel but again the visibility was poor, and with a heavy heart, I drew my snorkelling excursions to a close. With fewer sea lions than Punta Carola, it was possible to get a bit more space to yourself here but there was still plenty of sea lions rolling around in the shallows to keep me entertained. I was daydreaming when someone broke my reverie and I ended up chatting for a while with an Ecuadorian man who was there on a research trip. It was interesting to get his opinion and views on what was going on in the country and the islands, as well as a fantastic opportunity to speak Spanish. I came to realise that whilst my speech hadn’t improved much, my understanding of the language was much better and I found myself a lot more aware of what was being said to me, which was quietly satisfying. I didn’t always know how to reply, but at least I knew what was being said. We walked together back to the pier, from where he was heading to the far side of town to go surfing. By now though, it was time for me to bid San Cristobal adios for the final time. There was the usual organised chaos waiting to board the boat, and on the steps at the side of the pier, a group of sea lions were piled up for a sleep. They were the last sea lions I would see on this trip, and I boarded the boat satisfied yet sad.


Despite the apparently choppy sea, the return leg was surprisingly smooth, and to top it off, we slowed down on the way to watch some bottlenose dolphins cavorting around the boat. Back on Santa Cruz, I had my final dinner with one of the volunteers, and then it was time to check my luggage for the last time and try and get to sleep. When I woke the next morning it was torrential rain, the worst rain I’d seen the whole trip which was perfect timing given that I had to wander the streets to hail a taxi. Thankfully it only took about 5 mins to find one, and it drove me to the bus station on the edge of town, where there was only a short wait till the bus left for the port on the north side of town. It was packed, full of both locals and tourists, and most of us got off and piled straight on the cross channel ferry. In fact all the transport ran so smoothly that I ended up catching the bus on Baltra straight away which got me to the airport with 4 hours to spare. I couldn’t even check in yet. There was nowhere to sit apart from a couple of stools in a corner, and I sat here daydreaming for as long as I could. I was hungry but there was nowhere to eat, and nowhere to leave my bag, so I was forced to ride it out. Finally after getting my boarding card, I walked through to the boarding area to discover a food court that I could have accessed pre-check in. I was gutted, because by then I had no time to order a cooked meal and eat it, so I was forced to go through to my departure gate and buy the only food I could find: potato chips and cookies.

But now it was over. I boarded the plane and took my window seat, and after 5 incredible weeks, I watched as first Baltra then Santa Cruz disappeared below us, and I settled in to the flight to Guayaquil that signalled being homeward bound. There really is nowhere on Earth like the Galapagos Islands: a magical place full of wildlife and adventure. I will probably never return, but having managed 10 out of the 17 islands, I think I did good. I definitely have my favourite islands, but it’s hard to fault a place where the wildlife appears to be literally everywhere. I only hope the magic continues for generations to come.

Life in Slow Motion, Part 2

I was grateful to have as much time as I did, because I was able to explore so much of the Galapagos islands. Each island offered something different to see and explore, and there were so many opportunities for wildlife spotting it was nearly impossible to keep a smile off my face.

Another day trip took me from Puerto Ayora to the island of Santa Fe almost directly south. It wasn’t the sunniest of days on Santa Cruz, but thankfully on reaching Santa Fe, the cloud finally broke and we ended up in sunshine for most of the trip. On the far side of the island is a beautiful lagoon where we anchored and a dinghy took us to shore: a beach which was littered with sea lions basking. I don’t think it is possible to get enough of seeing sea lions as they noisily shuffle around the beach, and plonk down next to each other, or roll around in the surf. We watched them for a while before heading inland on an easy trek in search of land iguanas. We found a few sunning themselves on rocks underneath cacti trees where they wait patiently for the fruit and flowers to fall. We gained enough altitude to have a beautiful view over the lagoon and out to the waves crashing on the coast. Like a lot of the archipelago, it was stunning and it was unique.


There was a dead sea lion on the small beach reached at the end of the walk. I’m as fascinated with dead things as I am with the living so I gave it a good close-up inspection. Our guide pointed out the shark bites on its side before we left it to nature to make use of such a good meal. Back out at the boat, we were dropped off at the lagoon entrance for snorkelling where the water was deep but still relatively sheltered. Almost straight away we saw two eagle rays swimming towards us, and the depth meant there were large shoals of fish below us, bunched together in giant balls. We swam to the wall of the lagoon and followed it for some distance until we found some sea lions who promptly jumped in the water and played with us briefly, blowing bubbles and swimming loops in front of us. We turned round to keep going and saw a shark swim past. We were ferried across to the far side of the lagoon where we got back in the water where there were some marine turtles resting. One swam past and away from us and the others were resting next to a rock on the lagoon floor.


We had a 3 hour slow sail back up to the port on the north of Santa Cruz, and following another delicious lunch, I sat up top and sunbathed watching the large frigate birds circle above us. They joined us close to Santa Fe and thermalled above us the whole way, only leaving the boat when we moored at the end. A couple of them landed on the bridge briefly resting before taking off again. Up close these birds are huge. Known as the pirates of the sky, they steal food from the other sea birds rather than catch it themselves. With no webbed feet they can’t land on the water, and their feathers can’t get wet either or the weight will drown them or affect their flight. Despite these downfalls, they seem to be thriving with two species of frigate birds very prevalent in the region. Anchoring in the Itabaca channel, it was a short dinghy ride back to the port and then the long bus ride back to Puerto Ayora and my ‘home’ where a new volunteer had arrived.


My favourite of the day trips involved an early start for another long bus ride north to the Itabaca Channel. Joining the same crew as an earlier trip, we set off north-west on a long crossing to the island of Bartolome. Following breakfast on board, we passed the rock island of Daphne Major where some seabirds were nesting, and for the first time I saw some Nazca boobies, a similar species to the blue-footed boobies. The water was extremely calm so I climbed the side of the boat to reach the bow, and sat there almost the whole way scanning the horizon for life. I was secretly hopeful for spotting whales, but instead, I was treated to several sightings of various sea creatures. First, something large flapped out and slapped the water right by my side. It looked like the wing of a very large ray, probably a manta ray. Then to my complete surprise, a manta ray jumped out of the water and somersaulted before splashing into the depth again. It happened so fast I nearly didn’t believe it, but I later found out that they are known to do this to shed parasites from their skin. In the far distance, I saw a splash which was big enough to have been a whale breaching, although I never saw what caused it. Shortly after, what looked like a large shark fin was seen, and later again something that may have been a sunfish. By the time we reached Bartolome I was already wearing a huge grin and excited for the rest of the day.


Bartolome is a relatively small island that sits in front of the large island of Santiago. Both are very volcanic looking, and Bartolome especially is near barren, with only a smattering of hardy cacti growing in rock crevices. Santiago in the distant past was multiple smaller islands close together that became joined up by a later eruption. From the top of Bartolome, the hills of the former islands stick up smartly above the flat ‘fresh’ lava that joined them all. On the far side of Bartolome we anchored in view of Pinnacle rock, a large pointy rock that sits at an angle like the leaning tower of Pisa. We were ferried ashore where a heron was sunning itself, and then it was a steep climb up the beautiful but stark volcanic rock to several view points. The lava had hardened in flows, making for some visually stunning striations, and there were remnants of some fumaroles on the side of the main peak. The higher we got, the more stunning the vista, and eventually we reached the point to overlook Pinnacle rock and the nearby bay, one of the archipelago’s most photographed views. I personally love volcanic landscapes, and to me the barrenness was simply stunning.


On the way back down we saw a track in the sand for a snake, although we never saw the creature itself, and on boarding the boat we took the short ride over to a sheltered bay on Santiago. I was exceedingly keen to go snorkelling because just a week prior my friend had been here and swum with lots of penguins. I was keen to be in the water with them, and headed straight in on arrival ahead of everyone else in my group. The reward for my impatience was almost immediately coming across a marine turtle in the crystal clear water. There was nobody else around, and it seemed totally unfazed by me, going about its business whilst I watched. There is something so special about those moments that you have to yourself with nature, and I floated for some time watching it until it swam away. Following the rock wall at the edge of the bay, the water became deeper and larger shoals of fish were plentiful. By this point there was another group of snorkellers from another tour group who were intent on barreling into anyone else who got in their way. Even in the Galapagos, it can feel overcrowded. I did my best to keep my distance, hugging the rock wall until eventually a nearby boat signalled for me to go no deeper, and I turned and headed back to land. There was not a penguin in sight and I came to the realisation that swimming with penguins was likely going to elude me. In the shallows a hogfish repeatedly charged me when I tried to swim to shore. I’m not sure exactly what it would have done, but it was a reasonable sized fish and I didn’t want a bite.


From the beach, I took a quick walk to the flat of the local lava field, walking barefoot on the lava and seeing it stretch for miles ahead. Nobody else came to see it, but there was little time to explore before we had to leave. On the dinghy to our boat, we found a penguin drying itself on the rocks, and although I didn’t know it yet, it would be the last penguin I would see on the trip. From Santiago, the spray was too much to sit on the bow of the boat, so I sat up top where it was easy to spot the multitude of manta rays in the ocean. They are huge creatures, and I lost count of how many we came across swimming near the surface. In between, there was also plenty of marine turtles popping up to breathe, and again I enjoyed the crossing as much as the islands themselves. A red-billed tropicbird lazed on the ocean near Daphne Major, and suddenly the captain cried out that he’d seen a whale. We were all up on our feet scanning the horizon, seeing nothing until as we approached the entrance to the shipping lane into the Itabaca channel, we all saw the distintive dorsal fins that signalled orca, and two orca broke the surface to breathe. I was lucky enough to see a massive pod of orca in the north pacific off the west coast of Canada when I was 19, but my memories are becoming more vague and blurred and I’ve been desperate to see them again in recent years. They only came up in sight for 2 breaths, and whilst it was such a brief viewing, I was absolutely stoked.


My final day trip was to the very popular island of North Seymour. It is the most commonly visited non-inhabited island by tourists, and with good reason: it is the nearest and most accessible breeding colony of blue-footed boobies and frigate birds. By now I knew the drive to the Itabaca channel well, and from here it was a relatively short boat ride to the island which sits just north of Baltra island to the north of Santa Cruz. Immediately we were overwhelmed with birds flying above our heads, and the path from the boat was partially blocked with 3 dozing sea lions. As much as I loved Bartolome, it was hard to beat being surrounded by hungry chicks and adults doing mating displays. There is a set path to stick to round the colony but there were plenty of blue-footed booby chicks to see and we were entertained with the whistle of the adult males as they tried to attract a female. We saw the famous blue-footed booby dance and even an actual mating. They are gorgeous.


Further round we were treated to juvenile frigate birds of varying ages perched on the low-lying trees waiting for a feed. The males were grouped together with their inflated red throat pouches desperately trying to lure in a female. There were two different species of frigate birds nesting there and no matter which direction you looked there was something worth seeing. There was even some land iguanas towards the back of the colony, and I was reluctant to leave at the end of the tour. I would have happily walked round again and again.


But lunch and another snorkel called us, so we boarded the boat again and headed south. The food on all of the trips had been utterly delicious and plentiful, and that day was no exception. In no time at all though, we reached Playa Bachas on the north coast of Santa Cruz where we landed. The water was very murky and quite cold making for a less than enjoyable snorkel, but having such poor visibility meant that on 3 occasions I almost swam directly into 3 huge marine turtles that were eating algae off the rocks. I couldn’t see them coming and then all of a sudden they were right in front of me, about to be barreled down by my breaststroke. Each time I had to suddenly back track to give them space and avoid touching them, but it was an exceedingly close encounter every time. The cold eventually took over and I exited to an overcast afternoon sky. Just behind the beach, a single flamingo fed in a small lagoon, and with time to spare, I wandered along the length of the beach watching an iguana running across the sand, and looking at crabs in the rock pools. It was another satisfying day, and it was rounded off with dinner out and then dancing at Bongo Bar to see off my friend who was leaving soon. For me, my remaining days were also reducing fast…

Life in Slow Motion

It wasn’t quite the start that I’d planned. With a month of volunteering ahead of me, I hadn’t expected to find myself prostrate on the couch light-headed and dizzy on my arrival. The place was deserted and I drifted in and out of consciousness. It had been a rough night, and I’d thought I was going to have to have a doctor called. I’ve been hospitalised before from severe food poisoning and in the darkness of my misery during the night, I was recognising the warning signs that had led me down that slippery slope in the past. But after leaving the hotel behind and with each passing hour on that couch, I realised that thankfully I was over the worst of it. I wanted desperately to replenish my lost salts and sugars, and slowly trudged to the supermarket that evening when one of the other volunteers got home. It was a slow and draining process, topped off with nearly fainting in the shop. Not quite the best first impression I’ve ever given. But despite the torture of the night before being the most ill I’ve ever felt in my whole life (I’ll save on the gory details!), it was thankfully a short-lived illness, and within 48hrs I was feeling good, if a little hesitant about what food I put in my mouth.

Weekdays were all about routine. The workload was variable, and initially it was quite humid making for a rather sticky time to begin with. There were 2 other volunteers for the first half of my stay and we got on like a house on fire. The first week I was there, we got to sample some of Puerto Ayora’s night life. Although it is the busiest town in the archipelago, there’s only a handful of places to choose from for late nights, and despite having felt like I’ve grown out of the clubbing days, it was too tempting to sample the spot in town: Bongo Bar. Wednesday nights are salsa nights and the locals were showing off their salsa moves whilst I, never having done the dance, decided to utilise my well practised Zumba moves. It was the source of some amusement, but I think I faked it well. One of the staff members treated us to a fire dance on the balcony before we headed home tired yet satisfied.


The weekends were our own, and whilst the other two volunteers headed to San Cristobal, I headed back to Isabela, my favourite island in the whole archipelago. The public boats were different from the one I had travelled on prior, and we were packed in like sardines such that I ended up with both my shoulders being used as pillows by a local woman on either side. Just a week on from my previous visit, and Isabela felt different. There were barely any penguins or blue-footed boobies – a stark contrast to the week before. My trip coincided with the beginning of the change in season denoted by a shift in sea currents from the warmer Panama current to the colder and nutrient rich Humboldt current. But the locals were full of murmurings about El Niño, a phenomenon where the warmer currents hold on, denying the normal flourish of food and decimating some of the local species. The last El Niño a few years prior had reportedly caused an 80% reduction in the number of Galapagos penguins, a decrease from which they were yet to fully recover. On land though, and the sun shone brilliantly over the gorgeous sands and the sea lions still happily floated around the pier, lazily watching the tourists who crowded around to take their photo.


I had a leisurely and lovely stroll through Puerto Villamil and out the far side and along the beach to my peaceful seaside hostel. It was only a stone’s throw to the start of a boardwalk which skirts through lagoons, vegetation, and lava fields on its way to the tortoise breeding centre that I had visited last time. The start of the walk was littered with marine iguanas sunbathing, and through the red-coloured water, a large iguana lazily swam across to shore. The first lagoon had several ducks and stilts around it, and then every lagoon after that had flamingos. It was hard-going in the sweltering heat but totally worth it. I saw flamingos fighting, flamingos flying and some other birds I hadn’t seen up close before, and the lava fields were littered with large cacti plants. Rather than go back to the breeding centre again, I walked past it and continued on up the road back to the quarry where again there were flamingos, before turning back and enjoying it all again on the return leg.


Following a beautiful lunch from a little kiosk shop, I found my way to a beach that I hadn’t even noticed last time. On the seaward side of the row of restaurants that line the main street in town, is a lovely white sandy beach where herons, pelicans and shore birds hung out. From here I could see thick clouds hanging over the highlands, but whilst they always threatened, they never quite made it over my way. I lazily walked along the beach to grab my snorkel gear and headed to Concha Perla, the sheltered lagoon near the pier where I’d gone with my group the week before. This time though it was packed with locals and it was very noisy. As a result, there was not a penguin in sight, but once I got away from the crowds in the cold water, I stumbled across a massive stingray resting on the bottom and then hung around the rock channels watching shrimp and shoals of colourful fish.


I woke the next morning to discover that the clouds had finally blanketed the whole island. It was overcast and windy but that wasn’t going to get in the way of my exploration. 5km out of town lies the Wall of Tears, a remnant of an old penal colony, that I had biked out to last time. I’d noticed on route that there were lots of little side trails off the main path, so on this day, that was my goal: to explore every inch of access on the trail. There was 1km of beach to walk along to reach the head of the trail, and above me, groups of large frigate birds and the smaller blue-footed boobies would appear over my head. Pelicans skimmed the tidal zone, and then on the first branch of the trail, I stumbled across a large colony of marine iguanas that were draped across the path. They literally will flop down anywhere, and often on top of each other, and there were so many that they blocked the path in two spots. Skirting round them, I found myself face to face with a striated heron in the bushes.


Other trails took me to lagoons, or beaches where more marine iguanas lazed and nested. I found myself back at the lava tunnel which was part-filled with sea water and thus had its own marine ecosystem there, which included an octopus. Another trail led me through a tunnel made of trees to a peaceful mangrove lagoon where a sea lion played, and on the main track itself, the so-called Camino de las Tortugas, I came across 5 wild giant tortoises simply out for a meander. They seemed unfazed by the regular passing of people, and 1 even tried to race me along the track for a bit.


I didn’t go as far as the Wall, but instead stopped at a viewpoint which offered a beautiful vista over the coastline and back towards Puerto Villamil. Passing the tortoises on the way back, there were yet more marine iguanas that had appeared on the main track near the beach, and I was thrilled with the constant wildlife exposure that Isabela offered. Snorkelling again at Concha Perla, I saw another stingray and a giant parrotfish, before heading out for dinner and getting caught in a downpour.


I awoke in the night to discover a cockroach on my pillow in front of me, its antenna taunting me. I suspect it had tickled me in my sleep. After checking out, I passed the time reading a book on the beach until the incoming tide nearly caught me off guard. I moved nearer town and sat under a palm tree, where another tourist seemed awfully concerned about my safety should a coconut decide to fall off. Eventually I headed to Concha Perla to discover that the tide was strangely very high, and the sea had flooded it, submerging the lava walls that demarcated the normally protected snorkel area, and flowing deep into the mangroves. I hung out at the pier with the sea lions and marine iguanas until it was time to get back on the boat to return to Santa Cruz.


In my 32 years of living and my many adventures, I’ve been on a lot of boat trips on several oceans and seas and in varying sizes of boats, but that trip from Isabela to Santa Cruz was the roughest trip I’ve ever done. Just 5 mins out from shore we hit the open ocean and the captain pushed down the throttle and we literally became airborne. The speedboats in the Galapagos have only a padded bench seat lining each side of the boat which faces internally. There are no individual seats, no armrests, and no seats facing the direction of travel. There is nothing to hold on to, and with several weak-stomached passengers needing the back of the boat, I found myself near the front which has the most movement on the sea. As we ploughed through the water, I could feel the boat rise up on the crest, and going at such speed the boat would take off over the top and free-fall for a second or two before slamming down on the trough that followed. The seconds of free-fall were enough to leave your stomach in the air, and it felt like hitting concrete as the force repeatedly shot through my spine again and again and again. I wasn’t worried about my stomach, but with chronic back problems, I was terrified of the damage that could be inflicted. I tried to reposition myself in an effort to save my back from taking the brunt, but packed in as we were, it was rather difficult. In the end, my lower shoulder was thrown against a bar on the wall of the boat so many times, that by the evening it was swollen. For over an hour of the nearly 2.5 hr boat ride, I played a game in my head to guess how long the free fall would last, unable to sleep due to the constant jolting and shimmying. On the few occasions that the captain slowed the speed down, I knew with dread that it signalled the ensuing drop would be a big one, that even he knew maintaining speed was a risk to capsize the boat. I held dear to the thought that these captains were very experienced in these conditions, but I’m not ashamed to say there was a very brief spell near the start when I was actually terrified. Reaching Puerto Ayora, I transferred onto a panga (water taxi) for the short ride to shore, but the waves were rolling in high, and at the last minute, our driver naively turned side on to the wave which breached the boat and drenched several of us. I headed home dripping wet, confusingly coming back to emptiness. In the darkness of the night, the other two returned home having had quite a dramatic boat trip of their own from San Cristobal. What should have been a 2hr trip for them, had turned into a 5hr calamity, and we all found ourselves with a story to tell.


Puerto Ayora offered lots of choice for food. The main street of Avenida Charles Darwin was full of tourist-orientated restaurants and the side streets offered a half-way house between local dining and tourist fare. I was introduced to a cafe called Deli hidden down a back street which had some of the best ice cream on the island, and we all became such regulars here after work, that one of the staff became quite amused by us. They did great food too, and we ate out here a few times. Another regular was Il Giardino on the main strip which had a reputation for their desserts, and a couple of other places on this street were frequented too. But one of the volunteers and myself were keen to go more local. I had already eaten twice at the street kiosks and enjoyed the food but paid the ultimate price with food poisoning on the second visit. One lunch we went to a little restaurant down a side street which was run by a lovely woman who made ceviche, a dish of raw seafood cured in citrus juice. It was absolutely delicious, and well worth the wait of having it completely prepared from scratch. Her kids entertained us with their nosiness whilst she put together squid, octopus, shrimps, and pieces of white fish amongst a salad. Shared between the two of us it was a huge portion and fantastic value for money. On another occasion we had breakfast at a local open-air food court style venue. We stuffed ourselves on bolon, an Ecuadorian dish made from plantain that was served with stew, rice and eggs. Kind of like a dumpling, they are pretty big and the whole dish is very filling. We ate it that day knowing we weren’t going to get lunch, and it didn’t disappoint, satiating us well into the afternoon. Another favourite was heading to the market a few streets away from where we were staying for some lovely warm morocho, a drink made with corn and milk, and sweetened with sugar and cinnamon. With a strong emphasis on seafood, rice and plantain, the Ecuadorian cuisine was certainly one to tuck into and enjoy.


My second weekend volunteering, I stayed on Santa Cruz. One of the volunteers left us early on the Saturday morning, following a night at Bongo Bar for more salsa dancing. Myself and my remaining friend visited the large fruit and veg market a few blocks away, which occurs every Saturday morning in a large open-sided shed towards the back of town. There was fresh fruit and veg for rows, and near the front, large fish and octopus were chopped up for sale, and towards the back, local food was served and a local band played music to entertain the crowds. There were a few tourists, but mainly it was locals and it felt so far away from the very commercialised and touristic front streets by the waterfront.


Following breakfast we took the long walk to the stunning Tortuga Bay to the west of town. I’d visited here previously with my tour group to go kayaking, but this time we had no plans and no time limit so it was fantastic to just relax and enjoy the sun, the sea and the sand. I tried snorkelling here but the water was so green it limited visibility and there were few fish in the main stretch by the beach. Flanked by mangroves though, it was well known that rays and sharks hung about on the edges. After spending most of the day sleeping on the sand, we hired a kayak and went exploring. We came across a large stingray on one bank, a marine turtle came up to breath near us when we were out towards the breakline, and eventually we found a cluster of white-tipped reef sharks very close to shore, resting in the roots of the mangroves. We didn’t have long back on the beach before the patrol whistled the time to leave. The beach is closed to access after 5pm as it is within the National Park, and with a long walk back to the gate, the guards were keen to get people moving.

I had an early start the following morning, being picked up at the front door and driven across the island to the port on the north shore at the Itabaca channel. When we arrived, there was a massive flock of blue-footed boobies dive-bombing into the channel for fish, and our dinghy negotiated through them to take us to our boat for the day. The destination was Isla Plaza Sur, South Plaza island, a small land mass to the east of Santa Cruz. It was a peaceful and relaxing slow cruise down the varied coast of Santa Cruz, and we spotted two marine turtles catching a breath on route. On arrival at Plaza Sur, we were greeted by some exceedingly loud sea lions cavorting in the waves, and near the arrival steps, a gull chick waited to be fed.


Plaza has hybrid iguanas, the result of marine iguanas mating with the land iguanas. They are not fertile, and as a result, the population will eventually die out, but there were plenty of them out and about sunning themselves, a mix of black and yellow markings making them less camouflaged than each parent counterpart. The path took us up to a clifftop from where we could watch large flocks of Galapagos shearwaters, a cousin of the puffin, flit about and skim the waves. They were so fast it made it difficult to photograph, but amongst them, our guide pointed out a red-billed tropicbird, a beautiful seabird with a rather fancy tail. Along the clifftop path, we were able to peak into a nest hole which contained one of their chicks who looked out at us with crazy eyes. At the far end, some sea lions lay at the top of the cliff, and we wondered how they had gotten so high up. But just as we started to head away, one of them started to head down to sea and we were able to watch him negotiate the rocks until he hopped into the sea with an incoming wave. We passed more iguanas on the way back to the boat, including the skeleton of one who looked like it had died asleep on the rock, still in the classic iguana pose as if it was still trying to catch some sun rays.



During a delicious lunch on the boat, we slowly headed back to the Itabaca channel where we stopped near a sheltered bay to go snorkelling. Amongst some beautiful shoals of fish that hovered around the various lava rock channels, there were several white-tipped reef sharks. Mainly they were sleeping, but with plenty of time to swim and explore, on a couple of occasions I was caught off guard by one suddenly swimming past me. Averaging 1.5m in length, they are a relatively docile shark (although I feel it is always prudent to give any shark respect), and during the day they tend to spend most of their time resting, choosing to hunt mainly at night. I saw the most sharks on this snorkelling trip as well as a stingray and tons of colourful fish.


We returned to town early enough for me to head to Laguna de Las Ninfas, an unusual feature near Puerto Ayora where a fresh-water pond mixes via a stream with the incoming seawater nearer town. The water was a brilliant green colour, and a short and easy walk takes you around the pond through the bushes and to the far side. It was a great place to spot herons and mockingbirds, and it was so peaceful considering it was just a couple of streets away from the town.


By this stage, I had seen so much already, but I still had several weeks on the islands ahead of me…


Island Hopping

It was the trip that I thought was never going to happen. It was supposed to be simple enough. The flights, though expensive and drawn out, were easy enough to book, as was the tour I’d signed up for at the beginning of the trip. But when all I’d wanted to do was help out and do some voluntary work, the Ecuadorian Government seemed intent on making things especially difficult for me. First, there was only 1 visa. Simple enough, and organised on my behalf. Then suddenly the rules changed and a second visa was demanded, and this proved very complicated to get, especially when nowhere in my home country of New Zealand could issue it, and it was insisted that it had to be applied for in person. But after making some enquiries, and nervous at letting it out my sight, I packaged up my most prized possession, and sent my passport to Australia, unsure if it would return to me in time for my trip to Bangkok earlier in the year, and whether it would contain the much needed visa. It took 6 months of phone calls, emails and waiting to finally be in possession of both the visas I needed, only for 1 week prior to my leaving for Ecuador, to be told that I no longer needed the visa that had been so difficult to obtain. And so it was, that I found myself no longer looking forward to the trip, having been so frustrated with the build up.

Following a day of soaking up Ecuador’s Capital city, Quito, and an early morning rise to head to the airport, we flew south to Guayaquil where we sat on the runway for what felt like forever, before taking off again and finally heading west over the Pacific Ocean. There was little to see for most of the trip, but finally some land appeared in a break in the cloud and we touched down at San Cristobal airport, not far from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, our first stop. There were giant bugs in the terminal building whilst we waited to go through passport control, and out the other side we were picked up by our guide and taken to our hotel. Finally, my Galapagos adventure was beginning.


After lunch in a local restaurant where we were introduced to the Ecuadorian habit of adding popcorn to soup, we walked as a group along the waterfront, past sleeping sea lions, basking marine iguanas and a plethora of crabs. To my excitement, I saw my first ever marine turtle. Within such a short time, we were all so giddy and excited with the wildlife spotting. On the outskirts of town is an Interpretation Centre which is free to enter, and gives a really good overview of the geographical history of the islands and also a human history of the islands. Soberingly, at the end, it also highlights the potential future concerns for the islands, as a result of increased tourism, population and construction.


From the centre, we drove to the opposite side of town and out to Playa Loberia for the first of many snorkelling trips. We stumbled upon some large marine iguanas on route to the beach, and then the beach itself was littered with loud and smelly sea lions. It was interesting to see that there were security guards in place, ensuring that people respected the 2m rule that is widely publicised on arrival, to prevent people disturbing the wildlife. Unfortunately, this turned out to be one of the few places it was enforced, as so many tourists (including myself ashamedly on one occasion) get overexcited and eager for the (sadly) all-important ‘selfie’. Even after dark, it was easy to spot the wildlife as the sea lions hauled themselves ashore, and often found their way to one of the many park benches that littered the promenade in town. It made for an amusing wander to and from dinner to see these large creatures sleeping under the street lights.


The following morning was the part of the trip I was dreading. Having grown up in a country where swimming is limited to a pool, I don’t have a lot of confidence with swimming amongst waves or out at sea. In fact, I have a moderate fear of drowning in the open ocean, so when the itinerary included a trip out to sea to snorkel in deep water, I was quietly terrified. Our group had been split up due to numbers so 3 of us headed off on an earlier boat up the west coast of Santa Cruz where we saw our first blue-footed boobies, to Kicker Rock, one of the archipelago’s most well-known landmarks. Steep-rising cliffs jutted out of the water, and the choppy sea rocked us as we prepared to get in the water. I love snorkelling, but I can feel uneasy at the best of times if I’m out of my depth, and here I was expected to jump in the water with only the depth of the sea below me. I failed miserably to get in on my first attempt and ended up banging my elbow when I eventually swung in, and straight away I had a mild panic attack. I started swallowing salt water and couldn’t clear my snorkel to breath properly. One of the boat crew who spoke no English tried to calm me down and encouraged me to breath slowly and then stick my head under water to have a look below. I did and this only upset me more as there was nothing but darkness below me. My instinct was to swim fast back to the boat and get the hell out of there, but with the help of my companions and the crew, I forced myself to calm down and stay in.


Between the rocks is a channel well known for hammerhead sharks and turtles. Also the walls of the rocks below the surface offer a hold for many algae, lichen and other organisms which in turn attracts fish. This was our promised reward for doing something crazy. Unfortunately, the sky was slightly overcast, and the water rather murky, which limited the visibility quite dramatically. Despite this, I had a private moment with a marine turtle which appeared briefly out of the gloom, swam below me, and disappeared again. There were large shoals of fish visible at depth too, and as we rounded the far side of the rock structures, the sun broke through and illuminated the underwater life. Nobody saw any sharks, but we all managed to swim into an expansive swarm of miniscule jellyfish. Stung from head to foot, the little zaps were like little static shocks, and eventually we all got out the water because they were driving us crazy. In the end I was proud of myself. The visibility had been a little disappointing but I had made myself stay in the water and I had kept myself sane after the initial panic. That was a big achievement for me.


But the trip didn’t end there. On our way to a beach spot we came across a humpback whale mother and calf. Estimated to be a few weeks old, the mother lounged at the water’s surface while the calf lazily swam around her. We must have spent an hour with them, which as a cetacean fanatic was incredible, but at the same time, I felt slightly irked by the captain constantly circling them with the engine on. It will always be a conundrum: letting people see wildlife in their own environment whilst not getting too close nor disturbing them. The whales didn’t seem bothered but we literally spent the hour going in an arc around them, and when finally we did stop it was for the totally wrong reason: two of the crew jumped in the water to go and swim with them. I was not impressed. In many countries this would be illegal, and I was not sure what the legality was in the Galapagos but given the 2m rule signs everywhere else, I doubted it would have been encouraged. The mother whale herself said it all, as she made it very clear that enough was enough. Taking an extreme back arch, she slapped her tail below the surface and sent a shock wave behind her, as she barrelled away from us. The calf followed suit, delighting the other passengers by breaching several times. When the two crew got out the water, they were grinning from ear to ear, and one proclaimed it as a bucket list item checked off. She had been right behind the tail and was lucky she didn’t get knocked out.


Following a delicious lunch, and some time on a nearby beach which in the sunshine looked so tropical, we headed back towards Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and happened upon a pod of bottlenose dolphins who joined us for a while frolicking by our side and bow. It was scorching by the time we reached the town. We had the afternoon to ourselves, so myself and one of my companions took a walk around the coast to Punta Carola, a beach full of sea lions and marine iguanas, before heading up the hill to Cerro Tijeretas (Frigate Hill) which overlooks Darwin Bay, the spot where Charles Darwin first set foot on the islands. Below us, people snorkelled in the pristine bay and we could see a turtle come up for air and some sea lions frolicking around the people. Standing above it all is a large statue of a young Charles Darwin, and a short coastal walk leaves from here. Heading back into town, we bumped into some friends and grabbed a cocktail at a local bar, before venturing to a local restaurant for some Ecuadorian cuisine, followed by a walk along the promenade to see the sleeping sea lions at the beach.


We left early the next day for an interesting 3 hour boat ride west to Floreana island, the smallest of the four inhabited islands. Under the cover of a large speedboat, there wasn’t much to look at, so I attempted to sleep the journey away, but it was a bit rough for some people in the group who did their best to grit their teeth and get through it. It must have felt forever for them, and even at the other end, we had to jump on a panga (water taxi) to get to the pier. There was a good swell by this point, and it took a few attempts for our panga driver to time it right so we could get off. Again, there were marine iguanas, sea lions and crabs everywhere, and we watched them being lazy whilst we waited for everyone to be ready.


Puerto Velazco Ibarra is very different from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. With just a few streets making up the town, it was quiet and subdued and it felt like we were the only tourists there. We were staying in little lodges by the sea, and from our patio we could see multiple turtles in the surf. There were insects and lizards everywhere and it was hot and humid outside. We got a ride in a Chiva (truck) up into the highlands where we took a walk through the vegetation whilst learning about the history of the island. Floreana is an island steeped in human history with a good bit of mystery and intrigue to add, thanks to the mysterious disappearance of some previous inhabitants. We came across some caves and a rock carved like a face before having our first encounter with the famous Galapagos tortoise. Thanks to early settlers, there are no native Floreana tortoises left in existence, but an enclosure contains some introduced San Cristobal tortoises which we could wander amongst as they went about their business of generally doing nothing or munching on the vegetation.


Back in town, a few of us waited for sunset at the pier surrounded by iguanas and sea lions. We added our postcards to the self-mailing mail box, and swung in hammocks at the restaurant before dinner time. At the restaurant we were introduced to the delicious snack that are chifles, a salted snack made from plantains, that I found myself munching on for the rest of my trip. Back in the lodge we tried and failed to get the lodge cool enough for a good night’s sleep. But the morning heralded a beautiful day – calm sea, blue skies and another boat trip. Leaving the iguanas and sea lions behind we endured another 2 hour ride on the same speedboat, heading west to Isabela, the largest and one of the youngest islands in the group. There were lots of sea birds as we passed the neighbouring Tortuga island, and as we motored into the sheltered port of Puerto Villamil, we were surrounded by blue-footed boobies, large frigate birds, and to everyone’s delight: penguins.


For me, it was impossible not to fall in love with Isabela. The water around the pier was crystal clear and full of wildlife, and there was a serene calmness about the place that just sucked you in and chilled you out. That afternoon, we headed out to Las Tintoreras, a group of islets not far off shore that were made up of ‘aa’ lava, a type of rocky lava that juts up sharply in spikes. On route, we passed hundreds of the beautiful blue-footed boobies, saw the pirates of the sky, the frigate bird, soaring above us, and watched penguins sunning themselves on the rocks whilst a juvenile heron spread its wings on its nest. The lava had created some marine channels which white-tipped reef sharks liked to rest in, and we saw one from the shore, as well as being surrounded by lava lizards, and marine iguanas. We were even lucky enough to spot a night heron amongst the bushes.


But what beat all of this was the snorkelling. We started off in the deeper water, before heading into the more sheltered and shallower water around the islets. I was excited to see several marine turtles up close, including a couple who ignored the 2m rule and swam right up to me and past me right in front of my face. There were tropical fish everywhere, and the highlight for me, and indeed all of my snorkelling trips, was the inquisitive sea lions. Like puppies, they are playful and inquisitive, and love interacting in the water. They would blow bubbles and spin, and swim towards you before changing direction at lightening speed at the last minute. The rest of my group had swam ahead and I found myself alone with 3 juveniles who seemed as keen to play with me as they were with each other. It was utterly magical, and I stayed for a long time enjoying the moment before eventually my guide called on me to catch up. Even with multiple snorkelling trips after this, that day remained my favourite snorkel of the entire trip.

The main street of Isabela is sandy and low-key with a scattering of restaurants and bars. A few of us headed to a pizza diner where we were amused by our waiter who somewhat endearingly managed to cock-up our order multiple times, before we spent our evening relaxing in the hammocks in the garden of our hotel. The neighbourhood dog joined us for a while and seemed to love the attention. Somewhere nearby there were roosters who proceeded to crow from an early hour and wake us up far too early. We had a day of exploring ahead of us, and we headed first to the tortoise breeding centre out of town, where there were hundreds of tortoises of varying ages. With introduced predators on the islands, those tortoises younger than 25 years were at risk of being killed, so eggs are now routinely collected and the youngsters are reared in captivity until they are big enough to fend for themselves. By the age of 25, they are usually of a size when they can be released. It was a chance to get up close with the tortoises and see some very small ones that were only a few weeks old. The small ones were very active and capable of moving quite fast, but the older ones were very sedentary in comparison.


Just past the breeding centre, an old quarry was home to a few flamingos which we were able to see on our way to the highlands. It was misty, damp and muddy for our 1hr hike up Cerro Negro, an active volcano. We followed the ridge line a little way which gave time for the mist to lift and we were lucky enough to see the full extent of the crater rim, and the black crater within. The last eruption had been 10 years prior and we could see the site from where it had occurred. Just a couple of months prior to my trip, one of Isabela’s other volcanoes, Wolf, erupted, a reminder of the archipelago’s origins.


After lunch near an orchard, we gathered our rental bikes and set off along the beautiful expanse of Isabela’s main beach and headed west to the entrance to the National Park and the start of the track to the Wall of Tears. Human habitation on this island had begun as a penal colony, and the prisoners had been forced to build a large wall of lava rocks, which now remains the only remnant of the prison. I don’t think a single one of us had a decent bike, and through flat tyres and poorly functioning gears, we laboured our way along the 4km winding track before coming across two wild giant tortoises. Up till now, every tortoise we had seen was in an enclosure of some kind, but finally these were ones in the wild. I’m ashamed to say that I broke the 2m rule to get a photo of one, and was told off by my guide when he spotted it. Leaving our bikes at the end of the track, we walked to the large wall, and headed around and up past it to reach a viewpoint. It was rather overcast which limited the view but we were surrounded by vegetation and birdsong, and finally got to see the Galapagos Mockingbird, a particularly beautiful-sounding bird. Heading back to civilisation, a few of us stopped at a lava tunnel by the sea, before it was time for more food and relaxation.


Concha Perla is a small lagoon near the pier that offers protected snorkelling and we headed here the next morning before leaving Isabela behind. The reward was a very large stingray, getting close up to a penguin on a nearby rock, and tons of colourful fish and starfish. With the Panama current switching to the Humboldt current, the water temperature was dropping, and being further west in the realm of the penguin, it was noticeably colder in the water. For the first time, I started feeling cold, and after spending a good time exploring the lagoon and the surrounding lava channels, I had to get out. From here, we had a 2.5hr boat trip east to the most populated island, Santa Cruz, my base for the next month. It was a bumpy ride and one of the engines failed on the way, but everyone felt relatively good, and we turned up to the busy port of Puerto Ayora hungry. I wasn’t the only one who was excited to see our restaurant had a barista and several of us enjoyed our first decent coffee in several days.

Our hotel was near the waterfront and we walked from here to the Charles Darwin Research centre which lies just outside of town. Quite compact, it houses a small collection of giant tortoises of various species as well as a couple of land iguanas, a rather yellow version of their black cousins, the marine iguanas. We had plenty of time to ourselves to explore the overly commercial town who’s front street is an array of tourist shops, restaurants, travel agents and the local fish market which drew a crowd of birds and people. It was so very different from the other islands, and with little wildlife near town, I was missing the peace of Isabela already. But at least we had options. Keeping away from the tourist restaurants, we headed to a back street which was lined by food kiosks where we settled amongst a mix of locals and tourists to enjoy some delicious Ecuadorian street food.


Finally it was our last morning as a group. From town we took the hour-long walk to my favourite spot on Santa Cruz: Tortuga Bay. Walking through vegetation swarming with paper wasps, it feels like forever before the path breaks out at a beautiful surf beach. Past blue bottle jellyfish that lined the long sandy beach, we headed to the far end and through some mangroves to come out at a beautiful sheltered lagoon where we went kayaking. Hugging the mangroves first down one side and back along the other we saw rays, a white-tipped reef shark and a marine iguana swimming in the sea, the first time any of us had actually seen one in the water. Although slightly overcast, we enjoyed a bit of relaxation on the beach before heading slowly back to town.

In the afternoon, we drove out to Rancho Manzanilla, one of a few ranches in the highlands offering up close encounters with semi-wild tortoises. On the long drive there, we came across the largest giant tortoise that I saw on the whole trip. It was just sitting at the side of the road and we stopped to take photos before negotiating the gravel road around it. There had been rain recently and we needed to wear welly boots to negotiate the muddy grounds, but it was a nice wander around amongst the vegetation and there were many tortoises of various sizes hanging out around mud pools and bushes. In the main building, we had fun trying on tortoise shells for size. Climbing inside them, they were surprisingly heavy and it was a struggle to try and stand up with one on my back.


From the ranch, we stopped at a large lava tunnel on the drive back to town. Caused by the external lava cooling quicker than the deeper lava, it was like a large cave that we could climb down into and walk along for a short distance. It was another reminder of the island group’s volcanic origins. As it was our last night together, most of us went to a nearby hotel for some cocktails before heading back to the street of kiosks to sample something different. It was a lovely night, and despite them all leaving me behind the next morning, I promised to get up early with them to say my goodbyes. It was not to be though. For the third time in my life, I was struck down with the most horrendous food poisoning which robbed me of any sleep and made me feel absolutely miserable. Feeling guilty for disturbing my roommate in the night, I was finally able to separate myself from the bathroom and crawl back into bed at 6.30am when she was getting up. I was touched to have some of my companions for the past week come by to say adios before leaving, and I found myself alone in the hotel waiting till the last possible minute before check-out. Struggling down 2 flights of stairs with my luggage feeling weak and dehydrated, I negotiated a taxi and set off for the rest of my Galapagos adventure

From the Andes to the Coast

I remember feeling breathless after just a couple of steps into the hotel lobby. Those first few days at Lake Titicaca in Peru a few years ago, took some getting used to, and that was what I was thinking about as I arrived at Quito, Ecuador’s capital at an altitude of 2850m (9350ft). Fully expecting to feel the air stolen from my lungs, I didn’t have grand plans of filling my 1 day in Quito with too much action. But I stepped off the plane and out the airport to normality, and I breathed in the fresh air without a hint of a problem.

I had nearly 6 weeks of Spanish immersion in front of me, and I was determined to make the most of it. From the moment I boarded the LAN flight from New Zealand, I spoke only Spanish, and was quietly impressed with myself chatting to my taxi driver as he took me to my hotel for the night. Quito’s airport is relatively new and as yet it doesn’t have an airport hotel. Arriving at 11pm at night, with the city up to an hour’s drive away, I just wanted somewhere to put my head, so I had booked into the nearest hotel I could find, which was in the nearby village. Down a cobbled back street and hidden behind a high wall, the driver could have been taking me anywhere. Arranging a ride for the next morning, he left me behind and I got shown to my room which was right under the flight path on approach to the runway. Thankfully I was too tired to be bothered and I was out like a light.

The next morning I was up early to get into the city and make the most of the 1 day I had there. I was met by the same taxi driver as the night before and we chatted as much as my Spanish would allow on the 45 min drive to my next hotel. He told me about his family, and I told him about my work, and with patience and a bit of repetition, we managed a reasonable conversation. He got a bit lost as he reached the edge of the city but I didn’t mind because he was the first real Ecuadorian I had met and he was lovely.

I fell in love with Quito in an instant. It was that sudden. Driving down into a gully and seeing the buildings tower over us from the opposite hilltop, I was taken aback with just how undulating the place was. Full of hills itself, it is also surrounded by peaks and I was eager to get out and explore. It was a steep walk down from the hotel to La Mariscal, an area full of bars and restaurants and tourists. It was also the nearest stop for the city’s hop-on/hop-off bus tour which was going to be my mode of transport for the day. Like many large and long-standing cities, Quito is a mix of old and new, and it is a seemingly haphazard sprawl of highrises, parks, religious buildings and colonial buildings with hills jutting up behind it all.


My first port of call was Plaza Grande in the Old Town, or Centro Historico. The day was hot and sunny but I was determined to pound the streets of the region to soak up the atmosphere. Being a Saturday, there were as many locals as tourists, mainly hombres or caballeros chewing the cud with their amigos on the park bench. I slightly recoiled when one called me a gringa as I passed, unsure if it was meant as an insult or just a passing remark. Comment aside, I never felt threatened or uneasy wandering around Quito, and I followed a recommended walking route round the surrounding streets admiring domineering and religious buildings and museums before pounding up the steep street to the gorgeous Basilica del Voto Nacional. We had passed it on the bus on the way to the Old Town, and no matter which angle you see it from, it is stunning. I was desperate for water by this point, and having finally obtained some, I despaired at being a weakling and not being able to open the bottle. I geared myself up to asking a stranger in Spanish to help me out before finally prising it open. It was much needed, for not only is the chapel itself beautiful, the real reason to visit is to climb the many stairs up the towers. First one side, and then across the roof to the towers at the other end, the changing viewpoint of the surrounding city is more than worth the $2 entry fee, but for some people, the steep ladders may be a physical and mental challenge.


With the bus passing by each stop hourly, I had some time to kill, so continued on foot to Parque La Almeda which was packed full of people relaxing with their family and friends, and had a quaint little lake at the far end. I was hungry but all the stalls were surrounded by crowds of people or didn’t look appetising so I pressed on and after a nice stroll, I headed back to the Basilica to jump back on the bus. From there we wound through the streets and up the hill to El Panecillo, a viewpoint with a giant sculpture of the Virgin who looked over the city. Visible from most of the city, she was huge up close. Round the corner, a collection of food stalls served various local foods and the city sprawled out below and to the side and up the neighbouring hillside. In fact, Quito appeared to disappear into the distance in every perceivable direction, but with a population of over 2.6 million people, it isn’t even the most populous city in Ecuador, with Guayaquil taking that crown.


Handily, the bus sits here for about half an hour to give time to soak up the view before moving on, and back down the hill, we motored through some tight streets and back through the Old Town before turning and hugging the western edge of the city below a large mountain, before cutting back into the city in the New Town and looping to Parque La Carolina where I jumped off. Surrounded by malls and American food chains, it was a totally different side to the city, but the park itself was well used by the locals with families having picnics, and people playing sports on the various sport fields. Two thirds of the way down, a lake was filled with people pedalling boats, and next door was the compact Botanical Gardens which I opted to go for a wander round.


By now well into the afternoon, I caught the last circuit of the tour bus to take me back to La Mariscal where I enjoyed a relatively expensive meal at a tourist bar before heading back to my hotel to meet up with the people that I was heading to the Galapagos Islands with. We headed back to La Mariscal in the darkness for a meal in another tourist restaurant before we headed off the next morning before sunrise for our early morning flight. By the time we reached Quito airport, the sunshine was spilling over the surrounding mountains, and the domineering structure of Cotopaxi volcano stood out against the blue sky with its white cap. Just a week later, Cotopaxi erupted.


On the banks of the expansive Rio Guayas, Guayaquil sits at just 4m above sea level and felt very different to Quito. An obligatory stop-over on my way home from the Galapagos Islands, I had just the evening to explore the country’s most populated city. The airport is within easy reach of the city centre, so having checked in at my airport hotel, I was quick to jump in a taxi and head to the Malecon, a large, developed promenade that snakes along the bank of the river. With play areas, restaurants, shops, a cinema and much more, there was plenty to do here. I’d read about a bus tour of the city, and with time to kill till the night time tour, I plodded my way along and back most of the length of the malecon. By this point on my trip, I was keen to avoid tourist restaurants, and found the best place I could for local food, the last Ecuadorian meal I would have. Certainly, the staff seemed surprised when I walked in and spoke Spanish, and generally, despite Guayaquil being the main point to get to the Galapagos Islands, it seemed a lot less sure what to do with tourists. Granted, I didn’t venture far on foot outwith the malecon, but there was just a very different vibe to the place than I’d experienced with Quito, and I just couldn’t warm to the city very much.


When finally the time came for the bus tour, my feeling was increased even more. The open top bus blasted loud and irritating music for the entire 1.5hr route. Repeatedly we had to duck low branches to avoid being knocked out by a tree, but most importantly, what was supposed to be a tour of the city’s sights, felt like an irritating drive round ‘Nowheresville’. I had been told about a few places worthy of a visit which I assumed the bus would go near, but instead it felt like we were being shown every mall and car showroom the city had. It even included the airport as a tourist site, and after just 20 mins I was desperate to get off. Finally, we found our way back to the malecon, and I happily disembarked and went in search of a taxi.


With so many places I could explore within reach of Quito, I would happily head back to Ecuador’s capital in a heartbeat, but Guayaquil was just not the city for me.

Wildlife of the Galapagos Islands

I am fully aware of how lucky I am. I have been able to travel many times, and in different countries have had, with just a few exceptions, such thrilling experiences with the local flora and fauna. But in my opinion, there is nowhere in the world that can come close to the experience I have recently had in the Galapagos Islands. Magical. Surreal. Fantastic. Whatever adjective I choose, it cannot adequately sum up how the place makes me feel. After 5 weeks visiting 10 of the 17 islands (and the seas in between!), I saw so much wildlife that I just had to share some of my excitement.

MAMMALS (English)/MAMIFEROS (Spanish)

Sea Lion/Lobo Marino


Humpback Whale/Jorobada


Bottle-nosed Dolphins/Delfin Mular

Bottle-nosed dolphins


Killer Whale/Orca

Orca (fin tips just visible)



Galapagos Giant Tortoise/Galapago


Pacific Green Turtle/Tortuga Marino del Pacifico

Marine Turtle


Marine Iguana/Iguana Marina


Galapagos Land Iguana/Iguana Terrestre de Galapagos


Hybrid Iguana


Lava Lizard/Lagartija de Lava

Lava lizard

Lava LizardLava Lizard






Blue-footed Booby/Piquero Patas Azules


Nazca Booby/Piquero de Nazca

Nazca Booby

Magnificent Frigatebird/Fragata Real

Magnificent Frigatebird (Female & Juvenile)


Great Frigatebird/Fragata Comun


Galapagos Penguin/Pinguino de las Galapagos

Galapagos Penguin


Greater Flamingo/Flamenco


Lava Gull/Gaviota de Lava

Lava Gull


Red-billed Tropic Bird/Ave Tropical

Red-billed Tropic Bird


Swallow-tailed Gull/Gaviota de Cola Bifurcada


Brown Noddy Tern/Gaviotin Cabeza Blanca

Brown Noddy Tern


Smooth-billed Ani/Garrapatero Comun


Galapagos Shearwater/Pufino de Galapagos



Storm Petrel/Golondrina de Mar

Frigatebird (large) with Storm Petrel (small)


Semipalmated Plover/Chorlitejo





Sanderling/Playero Comun



Wandering Tattler/Errante

Wandering Tattler


Ruddy Turnstone/Vuelve Piedras



Great Blue Heron/Garza Morena

Great Blue Heron


Cattle Egret/Garza del Ganado Bueyera

Cattle Egret


Great Egret/Garza Blanca

Great Egret


Brown Pelican/Pelicano Cafe

Brown Pelican (Juvenile)Grey Heron (Adult)



Small Ground FinchLarge Ground Finch