Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Trip to the Galápagos: Day 1

Before I could leave for the Galapagos I had to spend the night in Guayaquil, so immediately after the last final exam finished I caught the 3 o'clock bus to the largest city in Ecuador. The only problem was that I accidentally took the route that goes through Canar instead of Cajas, so it took an extra hour. By the time I got to Guayaquil it was around 8 p.m. and I waited in the bus terminal for my friends Craig and Carrie to meet me. We got dinner there and then went back to Craig's house where I was invited to spend the night.

The heat of Guayaquil was already hitting me hard, and by the time we arrived to his house after the 10 minute walk, I was drenched in sweat that wouldn't stop pouring down. We sat and talked with his host family, some very nice people, for most of the night and then walked Carrie home, who lives 10 minutes away. It was hard getting to sleep that night because it was so humid, and I continued to just sweat in the bed, not even using a blanket. My flight was scheduled for 9 a.m., but right before my alarm went off at 6:15 I got a text from my friend Kristine saying that the flight was changed and we'd be leaving at 11 instead. I got to sleep a couple extra hours and went to the airport ready to go but still tired.

At the airport I met up with a Chilean friend I made on the coast a couple weekends before named Nicole. She and her friend Veronica wanted to go to the Galapagos with someone, so they planned a trip for the same time to have someone else to go with. Once I got on the airplane I was surprised to find that for some reason I was in First Class. Besides the extra leg room, bigger seats, and faster meal service, there wasn't much of a difference, but it was still amusing to see my other friends, Kristine, her friend from home Cara, and Andrew stuck in the back of coach with a group of kids kicking their seats. The flight from Guayaquil took exactly 1 hour and 4 minutes, and once we landed in Baltra, a former U.S. Military base during World War II, we gained an hour. Right before we landed the flight attendants sprayed some lemon scented disinfectant all over the plane to avoid bringing in any unwanted bacteria.

At the terminal, which is just meant for one plane at a time, we could feel the heat as we walked on the tarmac to the check in station. Back in Guayaquil we were forced to pay $10 for a Galapagos ID card, but it was really just a way for them to get $10 out of you. There were two lines in Baltra, those for Ecuadorians and those for tourists. The Ecuadorians pay $6 to enter the park and tourists pay $100, although other South American can pay $50. With our Ecuadorian residence cards we were able to pay $6, and as we stood in the local line a man tapped me on the shoulder and said he thought I was in the wrong line. I showed him my card and he excused himself as we laughed it off.

Once everything was squared away we took a bus to the edge of the island and got on to a 3 minute ferry to Santa Cruz, the island where we were staying. The hotel had arranged a pickup, and a guide was waiting for us. The ride from the ferry station to the other end of the island at Puerto Ayoro, where most of the inhabitants of the Galapagos live, takes 40 minutes down a nicely paved and mostly straight road. Everything else around is open nature. In that 40 minutes alone the topography changes from arid and desert-like to lush rain forest to beach.

Down at Hotel Ninfa, we were given some time to rest up before heading to the Charles Darwin Research Station. There we saw our first tortoises on an overcast and extremely humid day. The tortoises were enormous and slow moving, yet when they wanted to they could flee faster than we thought was possible. As the sweat poured down my face uncontrollably, we walked on to the pen of Lonesome George, the last subspecies of his kind. Park staff have been trying to get Lonesome George to mate for several years, yet so far it has been unsuccessful. Because it was later in the day and thus hotter, George was hiding under some brush and we couldn't see him. He usually only comes out in the morning.

We also learned that the Galapagos Islands gets its name from an old Spanish word "Galapago," which was the name of a type of saddle. Both the island shapes and the shapes of the tortoise shells look like the saddle, and so the Spaniards who discovered the islands named it accordingly.

In addition to tortoises, we saw many types of lizards and iguanas, pelicans, and other animals with no fear of humans. They would come right up to us if we let them, and though we couldn't touch them, there was a feeling that we easily could have. Andrew and I had a bet going on how many times the guide would say "Charles Darwin." I said over 25 and he said under 20, and it wound up being just 12 times, so I bought him a beer later on. As the sweat continued to fall down we left for a drink just as it started to rain hard for about 30 minutes, cooling things down a bit.

We headed back to the hotel for dinner at 6:30 and went out for a drink that night, but rested up for a big day ahead of us.

Above: Lonesome George's pen, a tortoise up close, camouflaged iguanas, a tortoise stretching

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