Although we had originally planned to volunteer right up until we had to leave for our cruise, due to unfavorable ferry schedules and our long weekends off at Jatun Sacha, we decided it made more sense to leave the reserve the Saturday before the Wednesday our cruise left (so, ok, we're also at fault for the fact that we volunteered less than we expected to). Thus presented with three or four unplanned days, we decided to head to Isabela, the largest island in the Galapagos, and one we had heard great things about, but wouldn't be visiting on our cruise.
Isabela is a beautiful place, with a charming small town: most streets are sand, and the island doesn't even have an ATM. We really enjoyed the slow pace of life and the less touristy vibe, with no lack of natural splendor to enjoy. Here we quickly checked two sought-after animals off our imaginary Galapagos species checklist: the Galapagos penguin and the flamingo. The former are very cute and very impressive swimmers, and the latter are very dignified, statuesque birds, if a bit awkwardly-put-together.
Our favorite activity on the island was just a short water-taxi ride from the main port, where there is a group of small rocks and tidal islands called Las Tintoreras, a part of the national park. Here we spent half a day snorkeling and hiking. The snorkeling was something of a revelation for me: partly thanks to the good suggestion from a member of our previous snorkeling trip to shave my moustache, and partly because the tour outfitter had better than mediocre gear, I was able to get my mask to seal properly on my face, and had an irritation-free 45 minutes of snorkeling. We saw about about 8 giant sea turtles, marine iguanas swimming in the water, a marbled ray (not to be confused with a marbled rye), three kinds of sea urchins, two kinds of starfish, and innumerable tropical fish. After the quick dip, we took another short ride on which we saw many shorebirds, and the adorable Galapagos penguin. Finally, we took a short walk around a path where we saw a deposit of lichen-covered aa lava (apparently so called by the Hawaiians because it's sharp and makes you go "ah-ah" when you walk on it), many marine iguanas (they nest on these islands, but it wasn't the right time of year), and several white-tipped sharks which swim into a shallow crevice for the warm water, and can thus be seen from land during low tide.
Our other excursion on the island was a 6-km bike ride to the muro de las lagrimas, or the "wall of tears", a 9-m high, 6-m wide, and 190-m long stone wall which was apparently built by convicts on the island, both to hold them in, and simply to give them something to do. On the walk back (yes, I said walk, as my five-dollar rental bike decided to derail and get the chain hopelessly stuck between the wheel's hub and gearbox (yes, the bike decided to derail; I'm sure I had nothing to do with it)), we stopped at a few beaches, a lookout point, an endemic cactus patch, a mangrove forest with a brackish lagoon where a handful of curious and playful sea lions paid us a visit, and a lava tunnel. Lava tunnels (which we would see again, and in larger form on the island of Santa Cruz on the day before our cruise began) are an interesting geological occurrence, which are the result of a past river of lava. As the river flows, the lava exposed to the air cools and hardens more rapidly than the center of the flow, so when the flow eventually ceases, it leaves a hollow shell that can be several meters across, and several hundred meters long.
The last notable thing about Isabela was that we were joined by some friends from Jatun Sacha, who decided to stay at the same hostel as us. On our last of three nights on the island, we decided to make a homecooked meal for the group. We've really missed having a kitchen and cooking for ourselves (and have even missed doing dishes just a little bit), so we're glad we took the opportunity.
With all that done, we were on to the next and final part of our Galapagos adventure: a cruise which advertised itself as five days, but with only one short activity the first day and last days (on the last day we were at the airport by 8:30am), we feel that it was more accurately described as a four-night cruise. Our new camera decided to break about one hour after we boarded the cruise, so our photos from the cruise were taken with Claudia's old iPhone and are not of very good quality. Serious first world problems, I know. The cruise started on the island of Santa Cruz and took us to the following islands: Floreana, Española, Isla Lobos, Santa Fé, and North Seymour. I won't bore you with the day-by-day recap, but here are some highlights:
- Our guide, Juan, was great. We got a briefing every night after dinner with the next day's activities: "Maybe, maybe, maybe, we see the land iguana. We definitely see many beautiful turistas."
- The Darwin Center on Santa Cruz island, where we learned about the Darwin Foundation's many conservation efforts, and saw possibly the most famous of the Galapagos tortoises: "Lonesome George" ("Solitario Jorge"!), a 90-some year old Pinta Island tortoise who is suspected of being the last of his subspecies. Many efforts have been made to mate him with females of the most closely-related subspecies, but so far he hasn't been interested. Good thing he'll probably live another 60 years!
- Many sea lions. Our favorites were the ones that frolicked with us while snorkeling (they especially liked to nip at our flippers), and the newborn we saw on Isla Lobos, not more than a few hours old, right next to its mother and still attached to its placenta.
- Too many birds to count: blue-footed and masked boobies, great- and magnificent frigate birds, lava gulls, albatrosses, Galapagos hawks. We got extremely close views of nearly all of them, many not much more than an arm's length away, often in their nests, and sometimes sitting on eggs or their young. We saw entire families of albatrosses and boobies-- sometimes the parents were even kissing with their beaks right in front of us. Even in this vulnerable position, most of them seemed to pay us little mind.
- Seeing the animals interact with each other was a real treat. For instance, we saw sea lions chasing marine iguanas for fun, sea lions bickering with pelicans (who are actually quite intimidating when they want to be!), and Galapagos hawks swooping down to snatch lizards for lunch.
- Post Office Bay on Floreana Island. In a tradition dating back to the 18th century, there is a barrel just inland from a beach where visitors can leave postcards for friends and family for hand delivery. The barrel is open, and when you arrive, tradition says that you should look through the cards within, take any that are destined for near where you live, and hand-deliver them. Because of our extended absence and uncertain travel plans, we were unable to take any, but some of our lucky readers can expect such a hand-delivered message (if the system works as advertised).