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…