We had arrived at Aguas Calientes the day before after a three hour hike. Its SO touristy! Restaurant- massage- massage- souvenir shop- restaurant- fancy hotel- massage- restaurant! It’s the town at the base of Machu Picchu, where the trains go. If 3 000 people visit the ruins each day, that means that 3 000 new people arrive in Aguas Calientes every single day. We ate at a basic restaurant with the group that night, and we were so happy that it wasn’t soup, rice, dry chicken and beans! We got to order our meal, so I got spaghetti bolognesa. Our guide Aurelio explained to us the plan for the next day. We were to meet him inside the ruins at 6:00 AM Inka time (6:00 AM sharp, because the Inkas were always on time).
There are two ways to get up: bus and walking. The busses start leaving at 5:30 AM and take 15 minutes to get up, and walking up takes about an hour, so starting at 5:00. Since our family planned to hike up Machu Picchu mountain (It goes waayyyy up from the ruins) and also the Ausangate trek when we got back, we decided to bus up. Inka Jungle Trek day #4
My dad was in line for the bus at 4:50 AM. The busses did start leaving at 5:30, and we were on the 4th bus up at about 5:32. Since it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, they’re only supposed to let in 2 500 people per day, but apparently they let in more than that.
The ride up was so amazing! I felt like I was in themovie Avatar, because it was so misty and I couldn’t really see the bottoms of the mountains. When we got to the top, there was already a lineup to get in. Kate and Steve from the Galapagos cruise warned us that the only bathrooms are outside the gates, and if we went out and back in we had to line up again. After a pee and water bottle filling and purification, we were ready.
We found Aurelio, and soon our group was complete. He gave us a brief tour of Machu Picchu, showing us things we wouldn’t have noticed.
Some Machu Picchu history: Archeologists estimate that it was built in 1430 by the Inka people. It was so sacred to them, as soon as the Spanish arrived to conquer Cusco in 1532, the Inkas abandoned Machu Picchu so that the Spanish wouldn’t discover (and destroy) it. They never found it.
Fast- forward to 1911: Hiram Bingham, an American professor, heard legends of a Lost Inka City. He searched the area, and spoke with a local farmer about it, who directed him to the general area. He climbed part way up and found another farmer who said “Maybe up there”. The farmer sent his son to guide Bingham, and Bingham was so amazed at what he saw! Even though the city was all overgrown, he knew that he was in a very special place. National Geographic started burning away the vegetation in 1912.
Tourism didn’t really get going until they put a train through the valley in the 1940s.
I think that the Inka people are really amazing and smart! Our biggest question was “How did they cut the rocks so perfectly so that they fit together like a puzzle?” Aurelio told us that they would stick wet pieces of wood in the cracks and let the wood expand so the rock breaks… but that doesn’t really answer the question! I guess we don’t know much about the Inka people, they are a real mystery! I would love to learn more about them now.
At about 8:30 AM, we did a feedback page for the Inka Jungle tour, then said goodbye to our group. There are two mountains you can climb from Machu Picchu: Machu Picchu (1 hour 30 minutes up) and Wayna Picchu (45 minutes up). Wayna Picchu is the more popular one, because there’s a temple at the top. There is a limit of 400 people per day on it, and you can only spend 5 minutes at the top because of the crowds. So we chose to climb Machu Picchu instead.
On the way up, we found the picture spot!
The hike up was hot and tiring, but we saw some great views of the face and the ruins. It was so steep! An hour and a half of extremely steep stairs! For fun, we said “hello” in weird accents to everybody we went past and tried not to laugh.
We ate lunch at the top, the we walked all the way down and back through the ruins and by then there were a lot more people! We heard about a short 15 minute hike to an Inka Bridge, on a cliff, so away we went.
Back in 1912 the party uncovering Machu Picchu knew that Inkas did everything in “3s”. There was the entrance from below, and the “Sun Gate” from above. So they guessed that there must be a 3rd entrance somewhere and started looking. That’s how they found the “bridge” entrance.
Machu Picchu is a really special and mysterious place, and the Inkas are an amazing ancient civilization that worked very hard to build things. Something that surprised us was that their empire only lasted 100 years (1430- 1532)! How did they build all that? Up in that mountain? I also think that it really sucks how the Spanish came and slaughtered them. Similar to the Europeans colonising Canada, I guess. But Machu Picchu is a really beautiful place, and I understand why it was sacred in the Inka culture.
We left and decided to walk down to Aguas Calientes. It was a long way! It took us an hour to walk down; walking up would have been exhausting! When we got back to town, we grabbed our stuff from the hostel and got to the train station in time for our 4:30 PM train to Ollantaytambo.
After almost two hours on the train, we got a bus from Ollantaytambo to Cusco. The ride took 2 hours. This day ended with us getting our other bags from our Cusco hostel, learning that they were full, finding another hostel and going to bed. What a fun but exhausting day! Kaia
Friday, November 28th, 2014 It’s been about a week since we arrived in Fiji. We’ve done so much with Rhonda, Henry and Ben, on Tavewa island in the Yasawa archipelago. We’ve been handline fishing, snorkeling, swimming and eating lots of coconuts and mangos. A few days ago, Ben, Kaia and I, with the help of Henry, built a raft out of logs, bamboo, half surfboards, and vines to tie them all together. We’re planning on going fishing on it sometime. Our grandma was visiting us for the past week, and flew out yesterday. Her cruise will stop near our island next Tuesday, so we’ll get to say a final goodbye to her before she flies back to Canada.
500 years ago, most of the Andes mountains, running along the Pacific coast of South America from Colombia all the way to Chile, were controlled by a powerful empire known as the Inkas. These people lived high up in the mountains, had a highly organized society, and were extremely skilled builders and farmers. The empire was the biggest “nation” in the world at the time (1430 to 1530 AD, when the Spanish arrived). It was well over 2 000km long, and contained 7 million people. They built many towns out of stone, and trails to get from one end of the empire to the other. At the centre of all this was Cuzco, in southern Peru. The town has now grown to populate 700 000 people, but in the downtown area, many of the walking streets are still lined with Inka stone walls. Though Cuzco was the capitol of the empire, “The Inka”, the emperor, lived high up in a royal estate called Machu Picchu. I won’t go into detail about Inka culture, because Kaia will write a separate blog about the Machu Picchu itself, so I’ll get right to the point. Now, Machu Picchu is a major tourist attraction and an important part of the economy of Peru. To get there, you fly into Cuzco, and most people take a bus and train to Aguas Calientes, at the bottom of the mountain. But there are many ways to get there on foot, too.
There are 3 real treks, all of them taking between 3 and 6 days. There’s the Inka trail, the really popular one that goes straight to Machu Picchu along the old royal path that The Inka used to take. There’s the Lares trek, which goes through some other ruins before arriving in Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu. And, there’s the Salkantay trek, which goes over a high pass, then descends into Aguas Calientes. We were planning on doing either the Lares or the Salkantay trek, but we found out about a trek about 2 and a half hours away from Cuzco called Ausangate, which doesn’t go to Machu Picchu, but goes around a mountain, and includes climbing over a pass 5200m above sea level, and lasts 4 days. We decided to do this trek after visiting Machu Picchu, so didn’t do a big trek to get to the ruins. Instead, we did the Inka Jungle “trek”, which does involve hiking, but also bike riding, whitewater rafting and ziplining! We talked to a few travel agents in Cuzco, looking for the best price for the tour. There are so many travel agents there! Every time you look down a street, you see about 10 signs saying “Machu Picchu tours”. We eventually booked with a company called Marcelo Expeditions.
On November 5th, we got up early to meet our guide Aurelio, who brought us to the minibus. The first part of the tour involved a 3 hour drive up to 4300m, where they’d give us bikes and we’d ride 60km downhill on a switch backing road. On our drive up, we met our tour mates. A couple from England, a group of 3 from Argentina, 2 young women from Holland, a young couple from Switzerland and 2 more women from Argentina. And, we met the other guide, Jesus (pronounced Heysoos), who did the interpretation for the Spanish speakers in our group.
The downhill ride was awesome. The road was all paved so we could go fast, and the view of the valley we were riding into was amazing. A bit foggy at first, but once we got below the clouds, the weather was nice.
We rode down for about 3 hours and 2 vertical km until we arrived at a little village. Our bikes got put back on a trailer and we drove half an hour to the town of Santa Maria and had lunch. Chicken, rice and soup. That was where we slept the first night of our tour. But our day was far from over. After lunch, we went whitewater rafting! It was Kaia’s and my first time. The guides gave us a quick briefing about the different orders. “Paddle”, “Stop”, Paddle backwards”, and most important, “Get down!”, and we’d need to brace ourselves for a big wave. Most of the time we were floating along the river, but every few minutes, we’d go through a rapid, hit a huge wave and get drenched.
After every rapid, we’d slap our paddles together and yell “sexy llamas!”. Something tells me that safety laws are not very strict in Peru. Here’s why:
-We were rafting in thunder and lightning
– In certain places, the guide would tell us to stand up in the raft while going through a rapid!
-At one point, when we were floating down a calm section before a rapid, the guide said: “Who wants to jump in now? Hold on to the raft while you’re swimming and make sure you get back in it before the rapid.” So we did. I don’t think that’s something you can do while rafting in Canada!
We got out after 2 hours of rafting. A pretty action packed day! We drove back to the town for dinner. Chicken, rice and soup again!
The next day was the long hiking day. We needed to get from Santa Maria to Santa Teresa, 18km away. We left after breakfast (not chicken, rice and soup). The first part was on gravel road, but we soon got onto a trail going through coffee plantations and coca leaf farms, the main ingredient for cocaine! Aurelio explained to us that the farmers are supposed to sell their leaves to the Peruvian government, who used to sell them to the Coca-Cola company, but they stopped using coca leaves in Coke a while ago, so there’s lower demand for the leaves. The Peruvian government is trying to buy the leaves from the farmers for a much lower price now, but the farmers find that they can make a lot more money selling them to the drug dealers!
In the morning, we’d stop every hour or so at a house where we could refill our water bottles and buy snacks. At the first house, there was a monkey with a rope around him tied to a post, and we were told to not go within the length of the rope, or he’d jump onto us. He jumped onto one of the Argentinian women’s backpack!
At the next stop, Aurelio told us about beliefs of the Inkas. The number 3 was very important to them. There are 3 worlds: The underworld, the middle world, and the upper world. The world of the dead people, our world and the world of the gods. There is an animal that represents each world: The snake, the puma and the condor. So they’d hold up 3 coca leaves, pray to the gods, then chew the leaves, which are 0.5% hallucinogen. They don’t get you high, but make you feel relaxed and make you feel not hungry for a while.
Aurelio and Jesus also painted our faces in Inka designs with an orange paint that comes from the inside of some fruit.
And, there was a marmoset there too (a marmoset is like a monkey). This guy was friendlier than the monkey at the last stop, and we could have him jump on our shoulders if we wanted!
After that, we all got dressed up in traditional clothes. Most people had colourful hats, shawls ands skirts, but Rob, the man from England, and I had these big thick cape things and weird masks we could hardly see out of!
There was also a young capybara there, and we could hold that too.
We hiked for a while after that until we got to the lunch spot. This lunch was better than chicken rice and soup. It was chips with guacamole, then spaghetti.
After lunch, my dad and I went for a walk around the area. We found a house with a little pond behind it. In the pond, there were so many ducklings! There must have been at least 40 of them, and they all started to follow me!
We brought Kaia to it, and found a kitten there too!
The hike after lunch was along a path dropping of a huge cliff on one side. The stone steps were built hundreds of years ago by the Inkas.
We hiked down into the valley until we got to a bridge across the river.
We hiked for another half hour, then had to cross back over the river, but this time, we had to use a form of local transport. It was like a zipline, but a bit different. 3 people could sit in a little cart at a time, and zip across the river.
It was only about a 5 minute walk after that to get to some hot springs. They were big, clean and didn’t smell like sulfur at all, which is apparently rare to find in Peru. It felt so good after a long day of hiking to swim and relax.
We then had the choice to either walk another 45 minutes into the town of Santa Teresa, or go in the minibus. It was getting dark, so everyone chose the minibus. We got to our hostel, had dinner, which I think was chicken, rice and soup again, then went to bed.
The next morning was the most exciting of the tour. Ziplining! When we got there, we got our equipment, then had to hike up, and up, and up until we were high above the valley. We had our little safety talk up there, then off we went!
The first 2 lines went across a smaller valley, but the 3rd line went across the big one. It was so high, more than 200m above the ground. The 4th, 5th and 6th lines descended lower than the 3rd down into the valley. Plus, the 6th one was superman style (spread eagled, facing down) and on the 4th one, we could ride upside down!
Out of the 4 times we’ve been ziplining on this trip, twice in Costa Rica, once in Ecuador, and here, I think this time was my favourite!
We then drove 20 minutes to a place called Hydroelectrica, where we had lunch. Chicken, rice and soup! But they ran out of chicken so my dad got to have beef. From there, we walked for 3 hours along the train tracks that all the tourists that don’t trek use to get to Aguas Calientes. It was in a big valley with mountains rising on both sides, and a guide told us that Machu Picchu was on the other side of one of the mountains we could see.
We got into Aguas Calientes at about 5pm. It is a crazy place. 3000 new tourists come through it every day. There are so many tourist shops, bars and restaurants. We had dinner at a restaurant that had a menu, for the first time on the tour, so we could have something that wasn’t chicken, rice and soup! We went to bed early, because the next morning, we had to wake up at 4am to get up to Machu Picchu before the big crowds arrived. Our tour was already going fantastic, and we hadn’t even got to the most important part of it yet!
Our wonderful Galapagos experience had come to an end and it was time to get back to reality: planning our own itinerary, making or buying meals, and deciding where we would sleep each night. We flew back to Guyaquil on the mainland and immediately took a cab to the bus station where we caught a bus to Cuenca (about 3.5hrs away). Cuenca is an attractive, colonial city which happened to be celebrating a triple-whammy of festivities that weekend: Hallowe’en, the anniversary of the city and area’s independence, and Dia de los muertos. Somehow, we always seem to arrive during festivities (or are South Americans just constantly celebrating something?) Needless to say, accommodation was at a bit of a premium, but we found a hostel/cafe called “el cafecito” that was central, clean, friendly, and fairly comfortable (except for the rock-hard mattress on the double bed! Within minutes, I was inflating my thermarest to put on top of it.) Of course, el cafecito was also located beside an old church. With bells. That started ringing at random intervals starting at about at 5am!
Cuenca is an artsy place with markets, bookstores, and a lively music scene. We attended a free guitar concert the night we were there and saw a display of traditional, handmade guitars. The craftsman was there as well. The concert was a one-man show with guest appearances by an interpretive dancer and a singer. The music was pretty mellow, and we were sitting on the steps since the small venue was full, so when it wrapped up after an hour, it was just right! Cam and Kaia went to check out the entertainment at the central square, and I took Jake back to the hostel. We had seen online that the forecast in Peterborough for that evening (Hallowe’en night) was for near-freezing temperatures, rain, and possibly snow! So we missed the dressing up and trick-or-treating, but not the cold feet and soggy costumes! There were many parties happening in Cuenca that night (thank goodness for earplugs!) and next morning… church bells… 5am.
Cam spent most of the day blogging, processing photos, and backing up data. The kids and I visited a museum of anthropology and went to a bookstore that had a good English-language section. E-books are fine as long as you can keep your devices charged up and wrestle them out of the hands of your electronics-addicted family members, so I am still partial to the paper kind! So we each picked up a book in preparation for long bus rides ahead. First up, that very night: a 9-hour overnight bus ride down to Piura, Peru, which included a 2am stop to cross the border. At that point, I night have welcomed some church bells as I was feeling a bit groggy! Crossing borders seems to involve A LOT of repetitive paperwork (I have memorized all of our passport numbers because they have to be written multiple times on these forms!) First you have to fill out forms to exit Ecuador, and then, almost identical ones to enter Peru. I have never written my home address so many times! However, the border crossing went much more smoothly than we’d anticipated based on some blogs we’d read that described buses driving out of sight once the passengers got off, and people having to run back and forth through no-man’s land in the middle of the night to get/deliver the proper paperwork. Now, in a welcome example of efficiency, the ‘exit’ and ‘enter’ booths are conveniently right next to each other in the same building. So, our entire busload of zombie-like passengers obediently filled out forms, lined up and got our passports stamped. Most of us looked even worse than our passport photos and I think it was really starting to look like “the day of the dead” !
Then, back on the bus for more troubled sleep, or, in Cam’s case, sleeplessness. We looked out the windows as the sun rose and asked ourselves, “Are we back in Africa?” Dirt roads, 3-wheeled motorized tuktuks, and corrugated steel rooves were everywhere! The town of Piura didn’t look like much and we were in a rush to get down to Cusco. For Cam, one uncomfortably sleepless night on a bus told him that we couldn’t spend the next 2 or 3 days/nights doing the same thing. You see, we had a flight booked from La Paz, Bolivia, on Nov. 19th, and that left us only about 18 days to get to Cusco, visit Machu Picchu, try hiking in the high Andes, get down to Bolivia and do some things there. And Cusco was still at least 24hours away by road. So we went to the airport in Piura to check out if there was any truth to the rumours of “dirt cheap domestic flights” that some people boast about on the internet. Of course, it happened to be Sunday at this point, and a holiday (Day of the Dead), so the airline ticket counters weren’t open! However, where there are Gringos ready and willing to spend hundreds of dollars, there is a local entrepreneur ready to help them do so! We were directed to some guy standing around the airport who made several phone calls for us and then took us to a travel agency right near the airport. The “cheap flights” didn’t exactly pan out but we got a pretty good fare to take us all the way to Cusco via Lima. Only hitch: we’d arrive at the Lima airport at 10pm and our connecting flight left at 4am. Aaargh! Another night without a bed! Anyway, we booked it, and then Cam really needed to sleep so we jumped in a taxi and went to a really cheap (and disgusting) hostel/rooming house where we got a couple of rooms for the day for the equivalent of $10.
Jake and I went out in search of food and walked through empty streets. Eventually, we saw some action a long way down a side street so we walked towards it. Turns out, everyone was at the cemetery! Of course — it was Nov 2nd — the Day of the Dead! There was a carnival-like atmosphere outside the gates of the cemetery, with food, drinks, candy, decorations, and candles being sold. The heat and dryness were oppressive, but it was quite an experience to walk through a south american cemetery on that particular day! There were so many families there and the graves were all decorated. Instead of just having graves underground, there are tall structures (4-5 graves high and dozens long) where coffins can be placed behind a stone or cement facade. Its kind of hard to explain, but sorry, I did not take photos as that would have felt very inappropriate!
We took Cam and Kaia back via the cemetery before catching a couple of tuktuks for the short drive to the airport.
So the flights were fine, but the night on the floor of the Lima airport sucked. We rolled out our thermarests in a “quiet” part of the airport, but… it happened to be where they were waxing the floors that night and had to move all the furniture!
Next stop: Cusco, the capital of the Incan Empire. I’ve just recently learned that the Incan Empire only lasted for about 100 years — from the mid-1400s until the arrival of the Spanish in 1532. I’m still having trouble accepting that fact because it seemed like the Incas were so powerful, influential, and managed to build so much great stuff!
The Spanish built many of their homes and churches using Incan foundations, and when an earthquake struck, guess what? The Spanish part collapsed and the Incan “lego” walls stood strong!
We spent most of our time in Cusco being harassed by people trying to sell us stuff, and talking to different tour operators about options for visiting Machu Picchu and hikes in the mountains (Jake, Kaia, and Cam will be writing about those adventures.)
This entry is being typed en route to Fiji from L.A. Mom just joined us in L.A. With the help of a couple of good sleeping pills, I got a little sleep during the 3 flights yesterday; the kids did not fare so well. I’m taking advantage of some down time with a little table in front of me to write the final Galapagos blog entry. My 2nd round of sleeping pills will kick in shortly … ————————– 3 days later … We’ve been in Fiji for 3 days now – we’re staying with friends Rhonda, Henry & Ben on one of the outer islands (Henry is from here). Absolutely beautiful. Fantastic snorkeling yesterday. Great fishing today. Tenting seaside has been idyllic. Very hot but so far we’ve had cooling breezes. Internet connectivity a challenge here hence the dearth of communication … but we’ll be busy writing in the days to come …
The Galapagos are remarkable for many reasons. Jake talked about the amazing “underworld”. Kaia talked about the wonderful marine iguanas and sea lions. I wrote earlier about the boobies and other lovely birds. And Yvonne talked about the story of species decimation and subsequent recovery efforts. Perhaps what is most obviously remarkable about the Galapagos is the geologic story they tell. They are a living lab of volcanism, that is so easily explored on a cruise such as ours.
To understand these islands, you have to understand the concept of plate tectonics over a “hot spot”. A hot spot is a place in the earth’s mantle that has magma welling up to the crust (through convection). Scientists don’t really understand what creates these hot spots deep in the earth’s core, but the upwelling lava ultimately breaks through the crust and creates volcanoes. Add to this the reality of plate tectonics – whereby the crust is moving over the magma below – and you get a string of volcanoes as the plate moves over the hotspot. The most famous of such a string is the archipelago of the Hawaiian Islands. The island over the hot spot is usually the largest and is “active” (eg. the newest island Hawaii is furthest west) while the oldest island has moved past the hot spot and is now inactive and heavily eroded.
This is exactly what is going on in the Galapagos. The plate that the islands are sitting on is moving east, just as the Hawaiian islands are. So not suprisingly, the eastern islands of San Cristobal and Floreanna are nearly flat and highly eroded, while the western islands of Isabela and Fernandina have high, active volcanoes. In fact they recently discovered (underwater) “sea mounts” off the east side of the islands (see map below). These mounts were Galapagos Islands 4 million years ago before they were eroded away. They also filled in a missing piece of the evolution story for scientists. The oldest present day island is about 5 million years. But evolutionary scientists felt like 5 million years was not enough to explain the adaptive changes of present day wildlife species. But adding in the 4 million years of these previous islands (now sea mounts) apparently completes the evolutionary story.
I’ll start the photo story on the island of Santiago which lies in the middle of the grouping. We went ashore on lava that looked like it had cooled just days or years ago. In fact it was just a little more than 100 years old.
It was remarkable to walk on this lava – the patterns were fantastic. You very easily could imagine that a liquid had cooled.
That afternoon we climbed to the top of Bartholome Island.
Bartholome too was an old volcano. But in this case, you could clearly see the small “parasitic” cones where small fissures allowed magma to form cones around the main cone.
ok … just woke up. 3 more hours to Fiji ..
China Hat was a volcanic “plug” surrounded with slopes of lava. The main attraction here was a sea lion nursery (that Kaia showed photos of). However I was enthralled with the power of the surf crashing onto the lava shores.
Here’s a photo I included in an earlier blog post, showing the tunnels left behind when a volcano subsided and the lava retreated from its lava tube.
In the last few days we moved west to the newest (and most active) islands of Isabela and Fernandina. Isabela has no less than 6 volcanoes on it (its “plate” was moving a little north-south as it also moved east, hence the pattern of volcanoes (see map at start of this entry). These volcanoes are at about 1400m, and have massive craters in them. Even though they haven’t spewed lava in the past 30 years, they are still active; a large crater lake disappeared from volcanic activity about 20 years ago. We went ashore on Isabella and climbed up past a crater lake just inside the island that was part salt and part fresh.
Fernandina is the youngest island, and fully erupted in 2010. Victor was leading a tour at Genovesa Island at the time and received permission to change his itinerary to take his clients to see the eruption. Now THAT would have been pretty cool!
One of our favorite shore visits was on the smaller island if Rabida, known as the “red island”. I believe it is mostly a high iron content that led to this colouration.
I’ll finish out the blog with some photos that capture a bit of what it’s like to live aboard a Galapagos cruise boat.
We parted company with our crew and cruise companions upon arriving back at Baltra Island. The cruise had surpassed any of our expectations. Unfortunately expensive – few folks (well … OK … 60,000/yr) are as fortunate as us to be able to experience this. But probably just as well for those lovely creatures.
Wow … the Galapagos. Next entry we’ll be back on mainland. Until then ….
I’m sitting in a coffee shop in La Paz Bolivia. Tomorrow we start the marathon of flights to Fiji at 4 AM, so we head to the airport tonight. La Paz – Bogota. Bogota – Houston. Houston – Los Angeles. 5 hours in Los Angeles then 12 hours overnight to Fiji. I can tell you envy this amazing flight itinerary… But Fiji will be really nice. And we meet our Grandma in LA and she will stay in Fiji with us for a week. We will be relaxed there so stay tuned for lots of updates! In this entry I’ll talk about two animals in the Galapagos: sea lions and marine iguanas.
These animals originally came from California, but they were isolated for so long that they evolved into a new species. The Galapagos sea lions are still very similar to their Californian cousins, they even still have the same Latin name. What’s the difference between a sea lion and a seal? Our guide Victor explained that sea lions have external ears, and seals don’t.
I think that sea lions are like the puppies of the ocean. The story of their life: play in the waves for a while, eat some fish (there are more fish than they could ever eat), then sleep on the beach! Sounds good to me. The babies especially are very curious. When I tried to get a picture with one on the beach, respecting the 2 meter rule, the little guy came up to me and tried to touch me! Victor told me not to let him, because mothers and babies only recognize each other by smell, so my smell can’t touch him.
Now for the fun part… underwater pictures! Even the big males got playful one day. I cannot describe the feeling of sea lions surrounding you and doing flips around you in the water… maybe magical works. Keep in mind that these pictures are not zoomed in, they are taken with GoPro.
Here are a few very short videos of these guys playing in the water:
Yes, you read that right, marine iguanas! These guys don’t have quite as easy a life as the sea lions. Since there is no food for them on land, they have evolved to eat algae off the rocks, metres below the surface! In the morning, they have to warm up their blood in the sun, because they are coldblooded. Then, they take the plunge! They can hold their breath for up to nine minutes! By the time they come up for air, they must get out of the water fast, or their muscles will tense up in the cold Galapagos water. It’s difficult for them to get in and out of the water, because the waves thrash them around. But the hardest part is that baby sea lions enjoy playing with them. Not killing or hurting, just playing. Just what the Marine Iguana needs when its muscles are tensing up and it’s so tired.
They ingest so much salt water while underwater, that they have a special gland in their head to take out the salt from their body. Then, they sneeze it all out!
The Galapagos Islands are renowned for their unusual birds. The Islands’ birds have evolved independently of mainland species, and have evolved to adapt to the unusual geographic conditions. And like other land and water species, most of these birds have no predators, so they are indifferent to human and other animal proximity. Scientists are not positive how the evolutionary ancestors of these birds first arrived on the islands. Perhaps blown way off course from the mainland. Perhaps floated for weeks on debris washed out in flooding mainland rivers.
The first stop on our cruise was Genovesa Island which is the furthest to the NE in the grouping. First views when coming up on deck after sleeping during the sailing was that of red-footed boobies dive bombing into the water beak-first for fish … in droves – hundreds at a time. Our first shore excursion was all about birds. Birds were EVERYWHERE! Sitting on the ground, sitting in bushes, sitting on rocks. They would not even flinch as we walked by.
Genovesa Island is also home to thousands of Nasca boobies. These fishing birds are perhaps less dramatic looking, except for the chicks that appear as big cotton balls.
Mixed amongst the boobies were Galapagos lava gulls and night herons – all equally indifferent to us gawkers.
After snorkeling in the afternoon, we went by zodiac across the bay (Genovesa Island is a volcanic crater – the crater forms the bay, with an opening to the sea) and scampered up some stairs built into the cliff to explore more bird habitat.
Even more boobies here. You literally had to walk around them, and had to be careful not to back up onto one. We walked from the inner part of the crater to the outside on the open ocean where we saw a Galapagos short-eared owls were hunting Galapagos petrels (you might notice a trend here …. we realized it is pretty easy to name/identify the birds – just put “Galapagos” in front of whatever … because they are all endemic here)
Other days took us to other islands that hosted other birds. “Darwin’s Finches” are well known. Darwin collected specimens when on the islands in 1835, and while sailing back to England he noted how identical looking brown finches from different islands had markedly different beaks. Similarly with mockingbirds from different isles. This is one of the things that got him thinking about the concept of “adaptation” and evolution. Each island had different vegetation and seeds, so beaks were specialized.
Frigate birds also have a significant presence in the Galapagos, but are found elsewhere too. These birds catch fish, but are unable to swim or take off after being in the water (they die if they end up in the water). Sailors of years gone by always welcomed the sight of frigate birds because it meant they were getting close to land (the birds have to stay reasonable close to shore). We saw frigate birds on land, but were most impressed with their inclination to fly with our boat when we were under way. They would fly about 3 ft off the side of the ship … sometimes 5 or 6 at a time … and were so close that we could actually have touched them if we’d have tried. It reminds me of dolphins liking to swim just off the bow of a moving boat.
Galapagos hawks were the top land predators. We’d see them circling around above when we went ashore. They eat mostly lava lizards, snakes and especially marine iguanas.
On our second last day we visited Punta Espinosa on Fernadina Island where we encountered the flightless cormorant. These guys made their way to the Galapagos Islands via flight, but food was so readily available in the water (fish!) that they have evolved to become swimmers, not flyers. Their wings are now tiny, and useless, though they still like to dry them in the wind like cormorants elsewhere with “real” wings.
“A hell on earth”. “A place where God threw rocks at the Earth”. These were among the first recorded descriptions of the Galapagos Islands. That was back in 1535 by the Panamanian bishop who, on his way to Peru, was plagued by boat trouble and got carried by the current 1000km to the unknown islands. It is easy to understand his negative first impression. Barely any plants grow on the volcanic rock, there is hardly any fresh water, and many of the animals that are able to survive there look like monsters. The bishop and his men suffered terribly but did manage to fix their boat and eventually made it to their destination. This, according to our wonderful guide, Victor Hugo Mendia, was the first of many disastrous events that were to affect the Galapagos Islands. Once the islands were on the map, people started coming and inadvertently upsetting a fragile ecological balance. Of course, the islands have been there for millennia, being created over a volcanic hotspot and slowly moving on a tectonic conveyor belt, but there are no native people to the islands and no clear information of whether any humans had ever set foot there before the Panamanian bishop and his crew.
Whalers started coming to find the giants of the sea. Pirates and sailors followed and began visiting the islands in search of water and fresh meat. They found little water, but delighted in catching animals that had absolutely no fear of humans. I was really struck by this lack of fear as we visited Genovesa, the first island on our tour. Victor had told us that a strict national park rule is that visitors must stay 2m away from any wildlife. However, staying 2m away from one bird meant I would be within 2m of another. They simply did not care that we were walking past them!
Pirates enjoyed the relative safety of the Galapagos Islands since the Spaniards believed them to be haunted. They were able to mount their attacks on the Spanish fleet moving up and down the coast of South America.
The sailors harvested thousands of giant tortoises to fill their ship-board pantries. Tortoises are immobile when flipped on their backs, require no refrigeration, and can live for up to a year with no food or water (which may explain how they ended up on the islands in the first place — being washed away on floating debris after a violent storm, and floating along at the mercy of the currents, much like the bishop). Turtle soup became a common form of fresh meat on board ships. Unfortunately, some populations of giant tortoise were wiped out due to over-harvesting, and the sailors introduced new species to the islands such as goats (purposely — to create another form of fresh meat that could be picked up en route), and rats (inadvertently). These animals, as well as feral cats, pigs, and dogs, have wreaked havoc on the delicate balance of life on the islands. Goats have practically wiped out the vegetation that tortoises depend on, and rats, dogs and pigs destroy the nests or eat hatchlings. It was becoming a very serious problem. The Galapagos National Park decided to take action through an ambitious eradication program some years ago. They set out to exterminate all the goats on the unpopulated islands and did this in an interesting way that Victor described to us: a handful of female goats were rounded up, sterilized, injected with hormones to make them especially attractive to the males, embedded with a chip that was trackable by GPS, and then had their horns spray-painted fluorescent pink. These females (the “Judas goats”) were re-released onto their island, where they promptly attracted hordes of males. From helicopters, snipers shot every single goat around them, but always spared the one one with the pink horns. She continued to attract more males, which were duly killed until, on a few islands, the goat population has been completely eradicated. Tortoise populations are stabilizing, growing, and beginning to expand their territory. A success story for the park. It is much more difficult to eradicate introduced plant species or insects such as ants.
We were impressed by the level of control that the Galapagos National Park exerts over its tens of thousands of visitors. No one can enter the park without a certified guide and each guide can only be in charge of a maximum of 16 people. We could only go ashore at a few very specific locations on each island, and could not step off the trail. No bathroom breaks allowed on land! As I mentioned earlier, we were supposed to stay 2m away from the animals, although this was hard to do since the animals, especially the young sea lions, were curious observers of us humans.
The most famous person to ever visit the islands was Justin Bieber. Just kidding — it was, of course, Charles Darwin! He arrived 300 years after the Panamanian bishop and had a somewhat similar first impression. We saw several of the varieties of finches, each with its own unique beak shape, that inspired Darwin to come up with the theory of evolution. One type, known as the “vampire finch”, actually sucks blood from the blue-footed boobies to meet its need for hydration when water is scarce! We didn’t witness that particular event but Victor told us that it doesn’t seem to bother the boobies at all.
So, since being discovered almost 500 years ago, the Galapagos Islands have gone from hellish to haunted to enchanted to endangered. Now, the Ecuadorian government is working hard to enlist the help of scientists, residents, tourists and tour operators to return the islands to a healthy balance. A mammoth and worthwhile task.