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By this Author: ToonSarah

It's all about the view

Ecuador day eleven continued

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Bartolomé is the most visited and most photographed island in the Galapagos. It was one of the islands I had most wanted to include in our itinerary, as it is generally recognised as having the best views in the archipelago. This view from the top of its peak is the must-have shot.

This was the third island we visited on our Galápagos cruise on the Angelito. Despite being keen to include it on our itinerary, it proved not to be one of my very favourite islands, as a combination of a relative lack of wildlife with which to interact, and relatively dull weather which failed to bring out the perspectives of this striking landscape, meant that Bartolomé didn’t make my “top five” list after all. But that is not to say it isn’t well worth visiting – there are no bad destinations in the Galápagos!

Landing on Bartolomé

View from the landing place

Stepping ashore

The landing here is a dry one, and as you can see in the photo, we had someone to meet us as we set foot on the island! This is Geoff trying not to step on any stray flippers ;-) The stone steps are very even and easy to walk on – I think they must be fairly new.

Sea lion bones

If you look at what’s going on in the panga you can see our usual dry landing routine – the boat would pull in close to the landing spot, we would take off our life jackets and pass them to the back of the boat, and a crew member or Fabian would be on hand at the bow to help us out – one at a time, from alternate sides of the boat for balance, and using the recommended secure grip which is easy to do but hard to describe! This is the second panga arriving (I was on the first) and as soon as all of us were on shore we started the climb to the summit.

But as we did so there was something interesting to distract us beside the path. Another guide had arranged the bones of a long-dead Galápagos sea lion in a rough approximation of their arrangement in life. The bleached white bones looked rather striking on the dark ground, and it also gave us an opportunity to see the shape of the skull, the broad strong shoulder blades, and some of the bones of the flippers.

Once we’d had a good look and Fabian had explained some details of the skeleton, we set off.

The trail to the summit

Our group on the trail

Bartolomé consists of an extinct volcano and a variety of red, orange, green, and glistening black volcanic formations. It is the slope of this volcano that you climb to reach the viewpoint. The trail across the desolate landscape (rated as moderate) is on a boardwalk, which protects the fragile lava. Fabian mentioned that there is talk of introducing boardwalks on other islands for the same reason – maybe eventually all of them. I can see that this would certainly help with the conservation of these special landscapes, and would have other benefits too, making it harder for contrary visitors to wander off the permitted path, and also making the going underfoot a little easier for the less able walkers. But I can’t help feeling that a proliferation of raised wooden paths would detract considerably from the appearance of the islands and the experience of exploring them.

Anyway, back to Bartolomé. The boardwalk here alternates between some fairly even steps, some more shallow ones, and a few stretches without any steps at all, where you get a chance to catch your breath and admire the view. There are also a couple of points where you can detour to a viewpoint to the side of the path. There are 375 steps altogether and as I had been having a few problems with my knee I found it a little hard going, although not too bad if I took my time. The main challenge was trying to use my hiking pole to take the weight off my knee, as it kept wedging in the slats of the boardwalk! I could avoid this if I watched where I was placing it, but that meant missing the views and the striking scenery.

Looking back down the trail

The landscape around you as you climb is rather desolate, especially on a dull day such as when we visited. The black lava, crumbled on the lower slopes and piled into bizarre formations such as spatter and tuff cones and lava tubes higher up, is enlivened with plants of the few species that thrive in this environment. The most striking and prominent is the lava cactus, which is often the first plant to colonise landscapes scarred by volcanic eruptions. You will also see the pale leaves of the tiguilia dotted over the dark volcanic sand. Its leaves are covered with small grey hairs, which help prevent moisture evaporation and reflect sunlight.

Lava cactus and tigulia

Typical rock and lava formations

There are very few animals here. We did see some lava lizards enjoying the warmth of the rocks, or even of the boards, and of course there were birds overhead, but not the proliferation of wildlife we had become accustomed to already on the other islands. The main point of this visit is not the walk and the wildlife, it’s the destination at the end of the trail.

The classic Galápagos view


Bartolomé is 168 metres high, but the trail stops a little below this, at 115 metres. – although I am not sure if this is the height at the point where the boardwalk steps run out, or at the top of the stony slope that you can walk up to get a little higher.

We made it!

Whatever the exact height, from this point you can see Pinnacle Rock, Bartolomé’s “trademark”, immediately below you, and beyond it, nearby Santiago and the black lava flows at Sullivan Bay, beyond that Daphne Major and Minor, and in the channel between here and there, some other smaller islets and rocky outcrops. Further away Santa Cruz, Baltra, North Seymour and Rabida are all visible. The contrast of white sand beach, green scrub-land behind it, volcanic island and blue sea is dramatic and memorable. It looked great even on a dull day, and photos I have seen show that on a bright one it is spectacular. It’s not difficult to see why this is the most photographed spot in the Galápagos!

We spent some time here taking photos and relaxing after the climb. Fabian offered to do “couple photos” for each of us and also did some trick ones for some people, creating the illusion that they were leaning on Pinnacle Rock – very clever, but I prefer the straight-forward version. This is such a magnificent view it doesn’t need any gimmicks!

After a while though it was time to descend and return to the Angelito. There was more to do here for the second half of the afternoon, and a choice of activities .

View of Bartolomé from the Angelito

On the beach

After we returned to the Angelito Fabian offered us a choice of relaxing on board, snorkelling around Pinnacle Rock, swimming or spending time on the small beach. We chose the latter, along with two others of our group, and he came along with us, as tourists aren’t allowed here (or on most other visitor sites) other than in the company of a guide.

Snorkellers, swimmers and beach-goers all climbed into the pangas and headed for a wet landing on the beach. On the way we made a brief detour to explore the rocks around Pinnacle Rock. This is the very dramatic lava formation that features on so many photos of the Galápagos Islands. It was formed when magma expelled from the volcano reached the sea. The cold water reacted with the molten rock and caused it to explode. Particles splattered down in the shape of cone often known as a tuff cone or cinder cone, and fused together to create this huge rock which is in fact made up of many layers of these lava particles. You can get an idea of its size from my photo below - look carefully near the bottom right and you will see the other panga close to the rock.

Panga ride off Bartolomé

Pinnacle Rock with panga, and Galápagos penguin

The rock was used as a target for US airmen during World War II. More recently it has featured in the 2003 film, “Master and Commander.” I haven’t seen the film, but it was clear from Fabian’s comments about it that they took some liberties with the geography of the islands, making it seem as if certain places were on the same island when in fact they are not – but that’s so often the case with film-makers! He offered to play the DVD for us one evening on board but we never got around to it, so I plan to look out for it so I can see it some time.

From the panga we were able to see a few of the Galápagos penguins that make their nests here, having established a small breeding colony in a cave behind the rock. There were also some Sally Lightfoot crabs, although not in the large numbers we saw on some other islands.

Beach on Bartolomé

At the beach we waded ashore, and while some went off to snorkel or swim, we had an enjoyable and relaxing time spotting a number of bird species, including a Galápagos penguin that swam up and down, parallel to the beach, right opposite where we were sitting. Other sightings included a great blue heron, pelican, yellow warbler, and a booby diving repeatedly for fish in their distinctively direct fashion. There were also some sleepy Galápagos sea lions, although not as many as on some of the other beaches we visited.

Relaxing on the beach

Much of the time though we simply relaxed and chatted to Fabian and the others, and enjoyed the views of nearby Pinnacle Rock, before heading back to the Angelito for another great dinner and cosy evening on board.

Posted by ToonSarah 07:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged beaches animals islands volcanoes penguins galapagos ecuador sea_lions Comments (2)

Bird Island

Ecuador day twelve

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Genovesa: the furthest island

Yolande and Reto at Darwin Bay

Genovesa, also known by the English name of Tower, is unusual among Galápagos Islands in having not a volcanic cone. Instead most of the volcano is submerged and surrounds an ocean-filled caldera on the south west side of the island. Due to its remote location and lack of fresh water the island was less visited in the past and has remained unaltered by man; there are no introduced species on the island.

Our bunk beds

This was the fourth island we visited on our Galápagos cruise on the Angelito, and one of my favourites. The journey here is a long one, and consequently it remains less visited than some of the other Galápagos Islands. The small engines of some of the cheaper cruise boats cannot reach it in a comfortable amount of time, and the larger boats (over 40 passengers) are not able to enter the natural harbour formed by its caldera. But if you find an itinerary that includes this remote spot, go for it!

The downside of a visit to Genovesa is the long voyage needed to reach the island, as it lies at some distance from the centre of the archipelago. The Angelito sailed here overnight from Bartolomé, a journey of around seven hours, and the return trip to St James’ Bay, Santiago, was eight hours. The sea between the southerly islands and Genovesa is more open and exposed, and therefore can be rougher. We had been warned to expect this and to take seasickness precautions. I did take a pill before going to bed on both these nights, and whether because of this, or because it was not as choppy as it can get, had no problems at all – indeed, I rather enjoyed the rocking of the little boat when I woke in the night.

Genovesa is also one of just three main islands in the group that lie north of the Equator (the others being Marchana and Darwin, neither of which can be visited). Although we have crossed the equator many times, it has usually been in the air, so it was quite fun to think that we were doing so at sea level – but of course, being an overnight journey, none of us was awake and on deck to appreciate the moment!

We also missed our 6.00 AM arrival at Genovesa, which I would like to have seen as to moor here boats need to cross a shallow and narrow channel into the caldera in order to anchor at the base of the steep crater walls. The bay formed by this caldera is Darwin Bay. Both visitor sites are found here, and the one we went to first, in the morning, was a wet landing on the small beach that bears the same name.

Darwin Bay - you can clearly see the caldera's shape, and sea lions in the foreground

Darwin Bay trail


This 750m trail, rated as easy / moderate, starts on the beach and is at first sandy and later over rocky lava. Near the start, on the cliffs lining the beach, we saw swallow-tailed gulls nesting, some with chicks. We were surprised to see some graffiti on those cliffs, as the Galápagos Islands are so strictly protected. But Fabian explained that this is regarded as part of the human history of the islands, a record of earlier visitors here who didn’t have our modern-day awareness of the damage they were causing.

Swallow-tailed gull and opuntia

Mockingbird bauri

Another bird we saw on the beach was one of the six sub-species of Galápagos mockingbird, the bauri, which is endemic to Genovesa, as well as various Galápagos finches. There were also a few Galápagos sea lions, although not as many as on some of the other beaches we visited.

Booby feet

After taking our photos on the beach we headed away from it to walk among the red mangrove and palo santo trees, in every one of which (or so it seemed to me) several red-footed boobies were nesting, and (again, so it seemed) posing for our cameras. Many of them had soft fluffy white chicks, and they seemed to be among the least fearful of all the birds we saw in the Galápagos, and as gently curious about us as we were about them. I took so many photos as it seemed that in every tree there was a red-footed booby more engaging and even closer to me than in the previous one! They are also among the most photogenic of Galápagos birds, with their bright blue bills, pretty pink and turquoise colouring around the eye (“I like the eye-shadow”, was my Dad’s comment later when he saw my photos!), soft brown plumage and red feet. The latter are worth a close look – not only for their vivid colour but also for their amazing prehensile quality – look at my close-up to see how they grip the branch of the tree.

Red-footed boobies

Red-footed booby chick

Further along the trail between the mangrove trees it was great frigatebirds that proliferated, mainly juveniles with those comical ginger hair-dos, and fluffy chicks. I imagine that many of the adults were at sea looking for food for the young – great frigatebirds care for and feed their young for up to two years.

Great frigatebird chick

Juvenile great frigatebird

Behind the beach at Darwin Bay, the trail through the mangrove trees is interspersed with more open stretches beside a series of sheltered tide pools set into a rocky outcrop.

The tide pools

The trail winds in and out of the trees, and the stretches in this more open environment offer opportunities to see some different species. Among these we saw several yellow-crowned night herons, both juveniles and adults, stalking the rocks or tucked into the crevices in the low cliffs that surround them. Nesting on these outcrops were lots more swallow-tailed gulls. I enjoyed watching how affectionate the pairs seemed with each other.

Yellow-crowned night herons, juvenile on the left

An affectionate pair

There were also some marine iguanas here. These are the smallest marine iguanas in the archipelago, and the only reptile to live on Genovesa – there are no land iguanas or lava lizards here.

Marine iguana

Lunch on board

After we returned to the boat there was an opportunity for snorkelling in the caldera but I decided to spend some time relaxing on deck and catching up with my journal – not a bad decision as it turned out, as visibility was poor and those who went said that it was the least good of all the snorkelling sessions of our week on the Angelito. We also had our usual excellent lunch on board – even though we were spending all day at this one island, park rules prohibit taking any food or drink other than water ashore so picnicking is out of the question!

Prince Philip Steps

Our afternoon landing was at Prince Philip Steps (also known as El Barranco), where a steep but short climb leads to a trail across the cliffs. On the way there we took a panga ride along the cliffs that surround the caldera. We saw a lava heron poking around among the jagged rocks, and some Galápagos sea lions sleeping here, but the most exciting sight was of a small group of Galápagos fur seals who make their home here. This was our first clear sighting of these and a good chance to appreciate the differences between them and their cousins, the sea lions.

Galápagos fur seal

Arriving at the foot of the steps we made the usual transfer from panga to dry land – life-jackets off and passed to the stern, step off one at a time, from alternate sides of the boat to maintain balance, and move forwards quickly to let the next person off behind you. The slight challenge here was the last part of the operation. We were faced with the steep and uneven stairs cut into the rock, and although there was a (slightly wobbly) hand-rail to grasp, the large size of a couple of the steps meant that some of us took them a little slower than our usual pace.

Short-eared owl

Add to this the wish to stop and take photos as we climbed, and you will understand that Fabian had to chivvy us along at this point! Just the same, we were all soon at the top, 25 metres higher than the landing point, and ready to set out on the trail.

Prince Philip Steps take their name from the visit by Britain’s Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, in the 1960s. They are also known by the Spanish name of El Barranco. Once at the top of the steps you are at the start of a 2 km trail, rated as moderate. It passes at first through a palo santo forest typical of the arid zone of the Galápagos Islands.

One of the first things we saw, very near the top of the steps, was a short-eared owl. Even Fabian was surprised! He said he had been counting on being able to point some out near the end of the trail, but not at this spot.

But mainly here it was the Nazca boobies that most engaged my photographic efforts. While the red-footed boobies we had seen in the morning nest in the mangrove trees, the Nazca boobies prefer the ground. They have different breeding seasons on the different islands, but here on Genovesa it is August to November. Many of them had chicks of different ages, from scrawny new-borns to larger balls of fluff.

Nazca boobies with new-born chicks

Close-up of a chick

Other pairs were yet to produce their young, and were either guarding eggs (Nazca boobies lay two) or even still in the courtship stage, building their nests.

Nazca booby and eggs

I made a short video of one pair engaging in a rather lackadaisical courtship and of a very baby chick. You can see some finches in the background and hear Fabian speculating about the species, as we all did so often!

Fabian demonstrating the scent of "holy stick"

We also saw more red-footed boobies here, and Galápagos doves. Fabian pointed out how the spines of the opuntia cactus here have softened through evolution, thus allowing the Galápagos dove to reach the pads more easily and to pollinate the flowers. This is a result of the lack of bees on this remote island that would normally perform this function. He also broke a palo santo stick to demonstrate the scent that gives it its alternative names of Holy Stick or the Jerusalem Tree.

Palo Santo

Eventually the forest started to thin out and we emerged on to a more open plateau. This is a broad lava field that stretches towards the north shore of the island. Here we saw more Nazca boobies nesting, mainly still quite close to the trees. We followed the path through the scrubby vegetation towards the cliffs. Birds were swooping overhead – frigatebirds, swallow-tailed gulls and others. We also saw storm petrels. The petrels here, wedge-rumped storm petrels, are unique among petrels in flying so much during the day. They only return to their nests in the evening in an effort to avoid their predators.

Birds above the lava fields

Geoff and Sue on the trail

We were excited to see the birds' main predator, the short-eared owl, also flying past. Owls on the Galápagos Islands are not nocturnal so it is not unusual to see them in broad daylight like this, but for us it was amazing to watch them hunting in the middle of the afternoon! Fabian explained that with few competitors for prey and no real threats, they are free to hunt by daylight, unlike elsewhere in the world. However they do tend to feed nocturnally in areas where the Galápagos hawk is present - unsurprisingly!

Short-eared owl

He's spotted us!

The short eared owl is a medium sized owl averaging 34 – 43 cm in length. It has large eyes, a big head, short neck and broad wings. Its plumage is mottled tawny to brown with a barred tail and wings, and a streaked breast. Its beak is short, strong, hooked and black, and its eyes yellow. Those seen here in the Galápagos belong to an endemic subspecies, Asio flammeus galapagoensis.

We returned to the landing place at Prince Philip Steps by the same route and were back on board the Angelito in plenty of time for dinner, before casting off for the long journey back to the main group of islands and our next destination, Santiago …

Much of the wildlife mentioned above is described in more detail in my previous entries on the animals and bird life of the islands.

Posted by ToonSarah 07:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals birds islands galapagos ecuador Comments (6)

The black island

Ecuador day thirteen

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The Angelito in James Bay

After an all night voyage from Genovesa we were back among the main group of islands, moored off one of the larger ones, Santiago (also known as San Salvador). We had been here a few days ago, snorkelling in the waters of Sullivan Bay on its south-east coast and exploring the shoreline in our pangas. Now we were in James Bay on the north-west side of the island, and for the first time would be landing on its black volcanic sands.

Of all the uninhabited islands in the Galápagos, Santiago (or San Salvador or James) is the one most affected by man’s ability to destroy nature. A combination of early 20th century salt mining, a brief attempt at colonisation and the introduction of several species (goats, pigs, donkeys, rats, and mice) has meant that Santiago’s wildlife and vegetation has in the past been severely compromised. But that is no reason not to visit.

In recent years, a programme of eradication has removed the goats, pigs and donkeys; the Charles Darwin Centre’s breeding programme has revived the giant tortoise population; and the vegetation is gradually being restored. But even without this good news, Santiago would still be worth visiting, I think, for the drama of its relatively young (just over 100 years) lava flows – in fact, this was to prove (somewhat unexpectedly) to be one of my favourites among the islands we visited.

Near the landing place at Puerto Egas

At the southern end of James Bay lies Puerto Egas, our landing place. The landing here is a wet one, on to a volcanic black sand beach. One thing that struck me during our week in the Galápagos was the variety in the colour of the islands’ beaches – black here on Santiago, white on many others (e.g. Española, North Seymour and Sombrero Chino), yellow on Bartolomé, and even red on Rabida. Fabian explained that the dark colours, as here, soak up the sun’s heat and can become uncomfortable for the sea lions and other animals on a hot day, whereas the white beaches of many of the islands stay cool because they reflect the sun’s rays rather than absorbing them. When it is hot, therefore, you will see more sea lions on a white beach than on a black one.

However, we were here pretty early, at about 6.30 AM, and heat wasn’t a problem, so we were met as so often by a small welcoming committee of Galápagos sea lions. There were also a few blue-footed boobies on the low cliffs alongside the beach, some oyster-catchers and other sea birds.

We had brought snorkelling gear ashore, ready for a swim later, and we piled this up in a spot at the edge of the beach – no need to worry about leaving belongings here! Fabian pointed out the nearby manzanillo, also known as the "poison apple" tree. This is the only indigenous toxic plant in the islands. Touching the sap causes dermatitis, and eating the fruit can be lethal to humans, although giant tortoises can eat it and enjoy it. We were careful not to get too close!

Puerto Egas trail


We didn’t spend long on the beach and soon headed off on the trail. There are two possible trails here. One leads inland to the old salt mine workings, but we took the second, which leads along the coast to the area known for its dramatic rock formations and tide pools. This is a fairly easy two km walk, at first among opuntia (prickly pear) cacti. There were other more colourful plants too – the beach morning glory twined across the ground, and bright red splashes of altenanthera dotted the landscape, which here features brown layered tuff stone and black basalt volcanic rock that creates some weird and wonderful formations.

One of the most exciting sightings along this part of the trail was our first glimpse of a Galápagos hawk. We were to see more, and see them much more closely, later in the week, but for now this seemed pretty special!

Galápagos hawk

Scorpion on Fabian's sleeve

Another interesting sight was the scorpion that Fabian uncovered from beneath a small rock. He clearly knew exactly where to look as he only tried three rocks before finding one. And he “bravely” picked it up and put it on his sleeve so we could all get a close look and a photo or two! This is I believe the endemic Galápagos scorpion sub-species, which is despite its sting a favourite food of the lava lizards.

The lava rocks

After a while the trail brought us to an area of lava rock formations. This bizarre landscape of twisted black lava and hidden rock pools was one of my favourite sites in all the islands we visited.

The rocky shore of Santiago

Much of the lava here is in the formation known as “pahoehoe”. This has an undulating, or ropy surface, caused by the movement of very fluid lava under a congealing surface crust. Unlike the “a’a” lava found elsewhere on the islands (and indeed elsewhere in Santiago), which is loose and broken, pahoehoe makes for interesting photos and a relatively smooth walking surface. Here at Puerto Egas it has created a series of pools and grottoes spanned by volcanic bridges, just like a fantastical black garden.

Pahoehoe lava formations

This area is sometimes referred to as the “fur seal grottos” but we didn’t see any of these relatively elusive creatures here. But there was more than enough to keep us occupied for some time. In one of the pools three Galápagos sea lions were playfully enjoying the in-rushing sea water.

Sea lions in a pool

There were lots of marine iguanas posing for our cameras too. As well as still photos, I took some videos, and was really happy that on one of these I was able to capture their curious habit of snorting out excess sea-water ingested as they feed underwater. They do this to deal with the excess amount of salt taken in, which is filtered out of the water through large glands in their noses before being disposed of in this manner.

This was the first place where we observed this behaviour closely, and also the first where we saw quite so many of these fascinating (to me anyway) creatures. They congregate in great numbers in places on the islands, and are quite happy to pile on top of each other for warmth and security. Sitting on the jagged-edged rocks of this other-world landscape, eye-balling a marine iguana, must be one of the quintessential Galápagos experiences.


Marine iguanas

I also made a short video of a sea lion pup here, making his way over the rocks to the sea. There were lots of brightly-coloured Sally Lightfoot crabs standing out clearly against the dark rocks, as did a pretty (but too lively to photograph) yellow warbler. We also saw several oyster-catchers and other shore birds such as whimbrels and turnstones.

Sally lightfoot crabs on Santiago

I would happily have stayed here even longer than we did, but a snorkelling session needed to be fitted in before lunch, so we eventually tore ourselves away and headed back along the trail the way we had come.

Snorkelling in James Bay


Our snorkelling here was directly from the beach at Puerto Egas. We had brought all our gear when we landed first thing in the morning for our walk on the trail to the fur seal grottos, and worn swimwear under our shorts etc., so it didn’t take too long for us to pull on the wetsuits, flippers and masks/snorkels. Swimming from the beach meant we could all do our own thing and go at our own pace, though Fabian made some recommendations about good areas to check out. I headed for some rocks to the left of the beach, as did several others. On the way, I swam through a shoal of beautiful small silvery fish that sparkled in the sun that filtered down through the water.

When I reached the rocks, I found that they were green with algae and the sea floor strewn with rounded boulders, rather than the more jagged ones I had seen on the east coast in Sullivan Bay two days previously. Unfortunately, I swam here a little too slowly, or perhaps didn’t go close enough, to see some sea turtles that others in the group reported spotting there. But I was thrilled to get my first good look at a Galápagos sea lion underwater, as one female came right up to me and swam round me several times, although she didn’t stay to play as a group on Santa Fe did a few days later, and I was too excited to remember to take a photo of her! I also saw lots of fish around the rocks – damselfish, parrotfish, sea urchins and many that I couldn’t identify. It was a super end to our time on Santiago.

In James Bay

After snorkelling it was back to the Angelito. As soon as we were all on board she set off for our next island, Rabida …

Much of the wildlife mentioned above is described in more detail in my previous entries on the animals and bird life of the islands.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals birds islands snorkelling fish crabs iguanas galapagos seals ecuador Comments (4)

The red island

Ecuador day thirteen continued

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The Angelito moored off Rabida

Rabida lies immediately south of Santiago, and we came here directly from James Bay where we had spent the morning, arriving in time for an early lunch with a backdrop of this striking red island.

There is just one visitor site here and a visit here begins with a wet landing on the island’s only beach. We had seen white coral beaches, yellow sand and black lava ones, and now here on Rabida (also known as Jervis) we found ourselves on a dramatically red one, surrounded by equally red cliffs. The colour is the result of a lot of ferric oxide in the lava that has been emitted from the spatter cones that form much of the island.

As usual there was a welcoming committee of Galápagos sea lions, but I think maybe they too had just had lunch, as they were pretty sleepy and uninterested in the two-legged visitors disembarking from the pangas nearby! But they made great foreground interest for our first photos here. We also saw some shore birds such as oyster-catchers, and there were frigatebirds wheeling overhead

The red sands of Rabida

American oystercatcher, sea lion and pup

The red trail through the
palo santo trees

This was the one day when I chose to wear sandals for the wet landing, rather than wade ashore bare-footed and dry off on the beach before putting on socks and trainers. This was partly because Fabian had recommended sandals rather than his usual “tennis shoes” (I think the red sand here is a little grittier and less comfortable than the soft white sand in many other places), and partly because I had carried them all this way and I was determined to wear them at least once! But it proved to be a slight mistake – the grit of the beach continued for much of the path and found its way easily inside the sandals, and in addition, being unused to wearing them, I had forgotten to put suntan lotion on my feet and they reddened rather in the bright sun we had for part of our walk.

After spending a little time on the beach, photographing the sea lions against the strikingly coloured backdrop, we followed a path through the pale palo santo trees. The trail here is just one km in length, and is rated easy / moderate, as it involves a little bit of climbing but is generally easy going with a red gravel-type surface.

The redness of the soil and rocks here is due to the very porous lava, which has combined with rain, salt water and sea breeze to act as an oxidising agent. It makes for a great colour scheme, offsetting the dusty grey-green of the palo santo and opuntia that form the main vegetation. The former in particular looked stark and almost dead, as it was the dry season – in the wet they would be covered with green leaves. These are plants of the arid zone, and we saw another typical one of these, cordia lutea or yellow cordia, which added some bright colour to the landscape.

Cordea lutea & opuntia on Rabida

An aside on vegetation, which in the Galápagos is usually divided into three zones: coastal (mangroves of various kinds, saltbush, beach morning glory and Galápagos carpet weed or sesuvium); arid (assorted cacti, including opuntia, lava cactus and candelabra, palo santo, palo verde, poison apple or manzanillo, alternanthera); and humid, found only on the larger islands.

View from the cliffs

The path led us at first to a point on the cliffs immediately above the beach, from where we had a good view of the lagoon that lies just behind it, the red sands, the bay and the Angelito moored just off shore (the photo at the top of this page was taken at this spot).

The colours and the views are the main attraction here, as there are fewer wildlife species than on some other islands. This is due in part to the introduction in the 1970s of goats, which probably led to the extinction of several native creatures including geckos, land iguanas, and rice rats.

The goats were eradicated in 1971, reintroduced in 1975, and finally eradicated by 1977. Since then the island has remained goat-free, but there remains a problem with introduced Norway and Black Rats, which have negative impacts on both native vegetation and birds and reptiles. In January 2011 a rat eradication project was launched which hopes to clear Rabida of these and allow native plants and animals to thrive.

Despite this, there are the sea lions to be enjoyed, marine iguanas, and plenty of birds. On this part of the trail we saw several cactus and other Galápagos finches, pretty yellow warblers and a Galápagos dove.

From this high point the trail forms a loop, following the cliffs on the east side of the island. It led us next to another even more spectacular viewpoint on the cliffs where the contrasting colours of red rock, green opuntia , blue sky and turquoise sea made for great photo opportunities. In the distance was Santiago, where we had spent the morning (left-hand photo below).

The red cliffs of Rabida

Opuntia growing on the cliffs

There were various sea birds fishing off the cliffs, including brown noddies skimming the waves and a few blue-footed boobies with their characteristic bullet dive. But as before, for the most part of our time here the scenery was the greater draw, with its dramatic colour contrasts and texture too – craggy rocks, spiny opuntia, liquid ever-moving sea.

We had already spent some time here, admiring the views and taking photos, when someone spotted what we thought at first might be a dolphin or shark, but which on closer inspection by Fabian proved to be a huge manta ray in the sea directly beneath us. I had seen rays before (in an aquarium!) and loved the graceful way in which they move. But I had never before seen a manta ray, the largest of the species.

Manta ray and brown noddy


Manta rays can grow up to seven metres across, and when their triangular “wings” appear out of the water you might at first think a shark is swimming past, as we did, until you spot the large mass of its body just beneath the surface.

This one is likely to have been an oceanic manta ray, and as these can grow to seven metres wide, it is not surprising that he seemed really big even viewed from so high up on the cliffs above. He stayed for a long while, turning languidly in the waves. He was patrolling up and down the coast and I imagine looking for food there. Many rays are bottom feeders but others filter plankton from sea water passing through their mouths and out of their gills as they swim, and it seemed that “our” manta ray was probably doing this. We watched as he moved slowly along, from time to time lifting a giant “wing” above the surface. Watching this huge fish drift past below us here was a special experience and it was hard to tear ourselves away (not for the first time on this trip) but eventually he left, and so did we.

We followed the loop trail away from here and back down to the beach to visit the saltwater lagoon, which lies behind some of the mangrove trees that line the red sands. In the past this has been home to flamingos, but none were to be seen on our visit, and Fabian explained that it was likely that they’d been driven away by the groups of bachelor Galápagos sea lions who have chosen this spot as a place to chill out, undisturbed by the alpha male who throws his weight around on the beach. With each group of females presided over by a single male in this way, there are always plenty of bachelors who are unwelcome in the main colony and who need to find their own space. Maybe after some R & R here they will feel ready to fight for the right to rule a beach themselves.

The saltwater lagoon

Meanwhile I can see why they favour this peaceful spot. The lagoon is surrounded by more mangroves, a bright green line below the grey-green of the palo santo trees, and has enough water for a leisurely swim to cool off in the midday sun, while the sea is only a short distance away when they feel the need to do some serious fishing for food. All the same, it is a little disappointing for us as visitors that they have caused the flamingos to leave.

We had hoped to have time for swimming or snorkelling here, but time was getting on and the Angelito had to sail that afternoon for Santa Cruz, so we said goodbye to the red cliffs of Rabida and headed for our next island. As we left we were treated to an amazing sunset.




Tomorrow we were in for a change, visiting one of the few inhabited islands in the archipelago, Santa Cruz …

Much of the wildlife mentioned above is described in more detail in my previous entries on the animals and bird life of the islands.

Posted by ToonSarah 02:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals islands fish galapagos seals ecuador Comments (4)


Ecuador day fourteen

View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Santa Cruz

The harbour of Puerto Ayora

Santa Cruz, also known as Indefatigable, sits right in the centre of the archipelago. It has the largest human population of any of the islands, and is home to the largest town in the Galápagos, Puerto Ayora. Unlike the barren volcanic landscapes we had seen elsewhere, its interior is lush and green, with plantations growing all sorts of crops. After five days at sea without seeing a single human habitation, passing these cultivated hillsides, and even more so, walking the streets of the small town, seemed like a return to a different world.

We arrived here after an evening/night voyage from Rabida to the north, and the Angelito anchored in the busy harbour of Puerto Ayora around bedtime. The next morning, after breakfast, we were ferried ashore in the pangas, directly to the jetty of the Charles Darwin Research Centre.

Charles Darwin Research Centre

The Charles Darwin Research Centre was set up in 1960 in order to promote research, conservation, and education in the archipelago. As with all such places, the centre offers you a chance to get close to wildlife. However, after five days visiting the islands it was clear to us that, given how comfortable the animals and birds are around their human visitors, “getting close” is much less of a bonus here than elsewhere! But we did learn a lot about the giant tortoises.

Giant tortoises

Giant tortoise at the research centre

These are the animal that perhaps most symbolises these islands, and indeed gave them their name – Galápagos is derived from the Spanish for saddle, referring to the shape of the tortoise’s shell. And their huge size (they can weigh over 250 kilos, and their shells measure up to 150 cm) makes them the dominant species on the islands – dominant that is until man arrived.

These lumbering but strangely mesmerising beasts have captured people’s imagination through the centuries. They played a part in developing Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, when he heard the vice-governor of the Islands’ assertion that he could identify what island a tortoise was from simply by looking at him:

“The inhabitants...state that they can distinguish the tortoise from different islands; and that they differ not only in size, but in other characters. Captain Porter has described those from Charles and from the nearest island to it, namely Hood Island, as having their shells in front thick and turned up like a Spanish saddle, whilst the tortoises from James Island are rounder, blacker, and have a better taste when cooked.”

Giant tortoises are endemic to the Galápagos, with 15 subspecies having been recorded around the archipelago. Not only do we find a different subspecies on each island where the tortoises live, but on Isabella there is a different subspecies for each of the four volcanoes. To a tortoise these volcanoes might just as well be islands, as they are unable to travel the distances between them, being too slow to cross large areas devoid of suitable vegetation for their diet. My video, shot at the research centre, shows just how slow and lumbering their walking is.

But man very nearly wiped these animals from existence. When he arrived in the Galápagos there were hundreds of thousands of giant tortoises, but as the quote from Darwin above indicates, the tortoises were found to be a valuable source of meat for sailors who had been long at sea, and were hunted accordingly. They were also threatened by the arrival of alien animals introduced by man: pigs, goats, horses and cows whose existence in the islands threatened young tortoises. These ate the little vegetation that was available in the islands, and their hooves crushed tortoise eggs and the soft shells of the young ones.

Fortunately the danger was recognised, although not before several of the subspecies had been wiped out. In the 1970s the Charles Darwin Research Station established their tortoise-rearing project, collecting eggs from islands where the species had become endangered, and bringing them to the station where they are incubated and hatched. The young tortoises are raised until their shells become strong and they can withstand the threat of the introduced predators, and are then released back into the wild.

Touring the research centre

Group of male tortoises

Super Diego

To start our visit Fabian gave us a tour of the different pens used for the successful giant tortoise breeding programme for which the centre is best known. We saw a group of male tortoises in one, females in another, and elsewhere met “Super Diego”, considered to be the centre’s most sexually active male (and therefore very useful to the breeding programme!) The latter is a saddleback tortoise, and Fabian pointed out how his shell shape differs from that of his cousins, as described by Darwin. On the larger islands, such as here on Santa Cruz, the giant tortoises thrive in the highlands where there is plentiful ground vegetation. Here the domed shell is the norm. But on some of the smaller islands, where most vegetation is above ground and harder to reach, the tortoises have evolved to have this cut-away area of their shell, behind their heads, which enables them to stretch upwards to reach food. Fabian also told us that Stephen Spielberg had been inspired by seeing the tortoises on a visit to the centre to come up with the image of ET – look, you can see him, can’t you?

One inhabitant we did not see however was Lonesome George, arguably at one time the most famous tortoise in the world. Sadly he had died a few months before our visit, in June 2012. George was thought to be the sole surviving member of the Pinta subspecies (chelonoidis abingdonii), and scientists had tried for many years to persuade him to breed, with no success – hence the nickname of Lonesome (although Fabian maintained that his failure to find success with the ladies was down to his own cantankerous nature!) Around the time of our visit however it was reported that scientists have identified at least 17 tortoises that appear to be closely related to George’s subspecies, and that they might even have found one purebred Pinta tortoise. Maybe George was not totally lonesome after all! Meanwhile his pen has been left as it was and a plaque placed beside it in memory of one who undoubtedly did a lot to draw people’s attention to the importance of preserving as much of the wildlife of these special islands (and indeed of the world) as possible.

After seeing the adult tortoises, and a few land iguanas (although the centre’s breeding programme for these had now ceased, having achieved its aims), we went on to visit the rearing house, where hatchlings are cared for, and the adaptation centre, where young tortoises are gradually accustomed to the conditions they will find on release to their home islands, which happens at about four years of age. Nearly 2,000 young tortoises have been released so far!

Young tortoises

Numbered for tracking after release

Cactus finch

Here our tour with Fabian ended and we all went our separate ways, free to explore on our own for the rest of the morning. Chris and I walked back through the grounds, stopping to look at the various plants – the centre also maintains a native plant garden of species endemic to the Santa Cruz arid and coastal zones. We watched a cactus finch at close quarters in one of the opuntia trees and then had a brief look inside the Van Straelen Exhibition Centre which has displays about the Galápagos Islands and the work of the Research Station. The centre also runs slide shows that describe the history of the islands and the current conservation efforts.

Display in the Van Straelen Centre

We only spent a short time here as we were getting so much information from Fabian on all our island visits that we didn’t feel the need to read everything here in detail, and to be honest I felt that the presentation was a little dull and static compared with modern interpretation techniques employed elsewhere. Besides, we were more interested in spending time outside exploring for ourselves. But if you’ve just arrived in the Galápagos and would like an introduction to the ecology, geology and other aspects of this special part of the world, you could do worse than study these displays.

Near here we met up with another from our group, Ian, and decided to walk with him into Puerto Ayora, a stroll of about a mile.

Puerto Ayora

Avenida Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora

Puerto Ayora is situated on Academy Bay, on the south coast of Santa Cruz, and is the most populous town in the Galápagos Islands, with over 12,000 inhabitants. When we walked into town from the Charles Darwin Research Centre it was the first time for five days that we had walked on pavements, or been among more than twenty other people! But you could hardly call this a large town – it just felt that way after our recent experiences. From a visitor’s perspective it consists mainly of a single long street running parallel to the sea, lined with small shops, bars and restaurants, and a few hotels. The Research Station is a short walk to the east, and the harbour is at the west end of town.

If you are on a Galápagos cruise a visit here provides an opportunity to shop for souvenirs, pick up emails, and maybe to eat and drink on dry land for a change. If you don’t want to cruise the islands but would prefer a land-based holiday, there are a number of hotels here to suit most budgets, and day trips can be arranged to the nearer islands.

Around the town

'Follow George'

'Lonesome no more'

As I mentioned above, the famous giant tortoise known as Lonesome George had died a few months before our visit, in June 2012. But in town we saw his image everywhere – on t-shirts, postcards and souvenirs, as decoration and graffiti, and more. It will be a long while before George is forgotten, it seems.

Of course, another character who has played a major role in shaping our perceptions of these islands is Charles Darwin, and we spotted him around town too! The main street is named after him (Avenida Charles Darwin), as is the research centre, and a bust of the famous naturalist sits on the roundabout at the eastern end of the main street, along with a colourful arch which also depicts some of the archipelago’s most iconic species.

The inscription below the bust describes his work as a natural historian that made him famous worldwide, his journey on the Beagle, and the part played by the Galápagos Islands in shaping his “Theory on the Evolution of the Species”.

Bust of Darwin and entrance to the research centre named after him

The fish market


In the centre of town we were drawn to the activity around the fish market. This is really little more than a few stone counters set by the side of the road in the middle of town, backed by the harbour. The fish can come directly from boat to counter to shopping bag. As a tourist you’re maybe unlikely to be shopping for fish, but just the same, this is a spot worth visiting.

The activity here (gutting and preparing fish) is a magnet for local wildlife, such as pelicans and sea lions, and they are as comfortable around humans in this populated area as they are on the more remote islands. So this is a great place to get some rather different photos of the animals and to record their interactions with the locals.

At the fish market


After spending some time here we were ready for a coffee break. A couple of our travelling companions, Sue and Geoff, had already spent a few days in Puerto Ayora prior to the cruise and particularly recommended the coffee at Il Giardino. So after our visit to the Charles Darwin Research Centre, and a walk through the town, we headed here with them and Ian to sample what was on offer. Despite the good coffee always on tap on the Angelito, and plentiful meals and snacks, it made a pleasant change to sit here, to peruse a menu and to make our choices.

Il Giardino

I opted for an affogato – that wonderful Italian combination of strong hot espresso and cold vanilla ice cream. Chris had a very good cappuccino, while some of the others sampled the cakes on offer (the apple pie was especially praised). Others from our group were enjoying ice creams at a nearby table, but with so much to eat every day on the Angelito, I decided to forego any other treats!

The restaurant also has snacks and full meals, which seem to get good reviews too. It’s not the cheapest place to eat in Puerto Ayora, but it offers an attractive environment, a very central location, good service (from our admittedly limited experience) and lots of choice.

'I love boobies'

Once we’d finished our coffees, and settled the bill, the five of us went our separate ways, and Chris and I decided to end the morning with a bit of souvenir shopping. If you want a souvenir of your time in the Galápagos Islands, Puerto Ayora is a pretty good place to search, as it has everything from the really excellent to the truly tacky! The main street, Avenida Charles Darwin, is lined with shops, all of them targeting the tourist (whether staying on town or, like us, stopping off here while on a cruise). We explored quite a few, though our wanderings were slightly hampered by the fact that the western end of Charles Darwin was undergoing major construction work (laying new pipes and/or cables) and was only passable on narrow walkways. We also had to pause at one point as dynamite was being used to clear a new area for work – the Ecuadoreans seem to like dynamite, judging by our experience of road-works on the mainland!


Anyway, we negotiated the holes in the road successfully and checked out many of the shops. T-shirts seemed to be a favourite purchase, many with the same slogan – “I love Boobies”. I guess it’s amusing, but not when you see it for the hundredth time!

More interesting for us were the couple of rather smart galleries, though I was rather surprised and concerned to note that one appeared to be selling jewellery made from coral beads (if they were only artificial they were charging far too much) so refused to consider buying anything there.

Our little albatross

We had more success in a nice little shop called Endemik, near the western end of town. One of the favourite Ecuadorean crafts is carving tagua nuts, which give the appearance of ivory, into various native animals, and I bought a lovely pelican to hang in our kitchen where we display many of our smaller holiday mementos. In a nearby gallery, Cactus, we got a small ceramic bowl to take as a gift to our friends in Quito, Betty and Marcelo, whom we planned to see again on our return to the city.

Our shopping done, it was time to return to the Angelito for lunch so we headed to the main pier in town, where the pangas were waiting to ferry us back.

Santa Cruz Highlands

Our first giant tortoise
'in the wild'

After lunch we were ferried back to the pier and from there boarded a small bus, driven by one of the Angelito’s owners, for our journey into the highlands. It was great to have this unexpected opportunity to pass on our appreciation of the boat and crew to one of the owners. Until recently one of them apparently skippered the boat for every cruise, but they are getting on in age now and have wisely decided to employ a captain, so we hadn’t anticipated meeting either of them.

'Playing tortoise'

The bus drove through the outskirts of Puerto Ayora, giving us a brief glimpse of everyday life in this most remote of towns. As we left the town the road started to climb and we could soon see for ourselves how the vegetation of the arid and humid zones differed. The higher we went the more lush the greens, and we saw lots of pockets of cultivation – coffee, maize and fruit-bearing trees such as banana and papaya. There were cattle in some fields, and white cattle egrets.

We arrived at our destination, a reserve where the giant tortoises are protected and allowed to live in peace in the wild – but not before already seeing a few in nearby fields and passing one right on the road! At the reserve there was a small demonstration area, where Fabian gave us a talk about these amazing creatures. There was an empty shell there, from a long-deceased tortoise, and some of us took the chance to climb inside and “play tortoise” – a silly, fun exercise, but one that gave us a good sense of just how huge these animals are.

From here we went for a walk through part of the reserve. We saw quite a few tortoises on our route, including one enjoying a mud bath and several munching on grass and leaves. One came straight towards a small group of us, and we had to step aside and let him pass – he was clearly the boss and nothing was going to stop him reaching his destination. Sharing a narrow path with one of these enormous reptiles really does give you a sense of their size and strength!


Meeting the tortoises

We also saw a variety of birds on our walk – a smooth-billed ani, white-cheeked pintail duck and yellow warbler among others. The reserve has a small but densely stocked souvenir shop which we checked out after our walk – Chris and I just bought a postcard but some of the others got a t-shirt or hat, at what seemed to me to be reasonable prices. There is also a little café / bar, where we got a drink each and sat chatting with the others from our party. Four of the group had left that morning, and a new passenger had joined us, so it was a good opportunity to get to know Eli from Israel and welcome him to our happy band!

But soon it was time to leave as we wanted to visit some lava tubes on our way back to the boat.

Lava tunnel

A short drive from the giant tortoise reserve we visited one of a number of lava tunnels that can be found in the highlands of Santa Cruz. These tunnels or tubes are formed when the exterior portion of a pahoehoe lava flow cools and hardens while the hotter interior lava continues to flow. Eventually the lava flow diminishes and there is not enough lava left to fill the tube, which is left hollow as a result. We had seen very small tubes on Santiago, but here on Santa Cruz some of them are large enough to enter.

Entrance to the tunnel

This particular one is accessed down a short flight of rocky steps, with a slightly rickety handrail. These lead you to the tunnel’s entrance, which is actually in the middle of it, as it has in the past collapsed at this point leaving one half exposed and easy to walk into, and the other half more or less buried in rubble. More steps took us down to the bottom of the tunnel, which at this point was fairly smooth and easy to walk on. It even had electric lighting! If you didn’t know otherwise you would think that this were a man-made tunnel, maybe dug as part of a mine or underground transport system. But no – this was all created by the power of volcanic activity.

After about 100 metres of walking we came to a point where the tunnel roof has crumbled in places and made the going a little harder. Eventually that roof becomes so low that it is necessary to crawl. We had the option at this point of continuing with Fabian or returning to the minibus. About five or six of us, me included, chose the latter – there was no way with a dodgy knee that I felt like crawling on stony ground! But Chris and some of the others opted to finish the walk through the tunnel, though he later told me that apart from the satisfaction of having done it I hadn’t missed much. In the event they had not so much crawled, as the ground was not only stony but also wet in places, but rather had gone on hands and feet, their backs almost scraping the roof!

Inside the lava tunnel

Meanwhile I and my companions took a leisurely walk back through the tunnel, stopping to take more photos as we did so. Once we were in the minibus we drove the sort distance to meet the others, who had already emerged from the tunnel and were waiting by the side of the road. I confess I was relieved to see them, as it had occurred to me that if the tunnel had collapsed in the past it could do so again! But there had been no mishaps, and we all settled down in the minibus to return to Puerto Ayora and to the Angelito.

After dinner we were offered the option to cross back to the town to spend an evening enjoying the bright lights of Puerto Ayora, but most of us opted to stay on board and spent our usual cosy evening in the lounge with a few beers and our by now habitual karaoke session!

Those who did go ashore had to be back on board very promptly, as we had another long overnight voyage ahead of us, to far-flung Espanola …

Much of the wildlife mentioned above is described in more detail in my previous entries on the animals and bird life of the islands.

Posted by ToonSarah 03:55 Archived in Ecuador Tagged animals tortoises galapagos ecuador Comments (4)

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