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 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
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!
Numbered for tracking after release
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.
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
'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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.