Galapagos – San Cristobal

October 2, 2016

Our afternoon ferry trip to San Cristobal was not off to a good start.  We arrived at the port, thirty minutes before the 2 PM departure, only to find that our names were not on the passenger list.  We had bought our tickets the night before for $100, but either the booking company had not called in and confirmed our reservations, or the boat company had forgotten to write our names on the docket.  Either way, it seemed that every last ferry headed to San Cristobal was already booked.  We stood around, watching full boats depart, and other people get added to passenger lists ahead of us. Harbor police were appraised of our situation and calls were made to the tour company to confirm our purchase (which I had a receipt for). With strict occupancy loads for passenger ferries it looked like we might be stranded, but at the final minute, they fit the four of us into the last three spaces allocated for a boat, agreeing that our kids could count as one person!

Although I was annoyed by these clerical errors, and definitely not interested in spending another unplanned night in Puerto Ayora, the slow pace of the Galapagos had rubbed off on me, and I was surprisingly zen about the experience. Either way, we’d make the best of the situation. Perhaps, it was just the Dramamine kicking in and mellowing me out.

We arrived to the San Cristobal pier, which involves another boat transfer from the ferry to a smaller water taxi, which made no sense, but gave the locals an opportunity to make another dollar off of each arrival. The ramp to the dock was blocked by a sea-lion, also becoming a standard encounter, and we were forced to wait as it bobbed and dragged itself up to the top. The beaches around Puerto Baquerizo Moreno’s marina were filled with lazy sea lions, lolling in the sand and nursing their pups, taking over park benches, and claiming this periphery as their own private domain.

After hunting for our final accommodation on the islands ($50) and eating dinner, we watched the US beat Paraguay and Colombia lose to Costs Rica in the Copa Games. Fans are fanatic, as to be expected in South America, with groups of watchers huddled in any shop or bar with a t.v., and spilling into the ‘dead’ streets.

Our first full day on San Cristobal, and we decided to avoid boats. We wanted to explore more of the island’s land and beach highlights. Instead of taking a tour, we ended up hiring a “taxi” driver (recognized by their white, flat-bed trucks, and slow circling of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno’s small handful of main streets), to drive us where ever we wanted to go, over a four-hour period. First, we took a quick detour to Junco Lagoon, a water filled crater in a hill, that was a popular place to watch frigate birds gather.

Next, we visited another tortoise reserve – La Galapaguera, which proved to be my favorite of all three islands. What I especially appreciated was the natural and expansive, semi-wild landscape that the tortoises could roam freely in from the age of four to one hundred fifty years old, without being separated in pens and smaller exhibits.  Stella and Gabriel got to get up close and fed banana leaves to these mammoth animals.

Our final stop, that we did not allocate nearly enough time for, was the gorgeous China beach, with its powdery white sands, gentle cove of turquoise waters, black lava rocks, and friendly sea lions. Although the ocean is quite cold in the Galapagos, the outside temperature was very hot, making forays into the water a welcome relief.

Back in town by lunch, we decided to spend the second half of the day exploring on foot. We walked along the town’s water’s edge and then visited an Interpretation Center explaining the history and significance of the islands. From there, we followed a brick path through a thickly-vegetated park area of shrubs and palo santo trees to Frigate Bird hill and its views of Las Tijeretas bay. This was an excellent place for snorkeling – a small bay, with no beach, surrounded by rocks and steep hillsides. It was here that we watched the most playful sea-lions, who seemed to genuinely enjoy showing off for the humans, and a lot of fish (including a mermaid!). I think we would have spent the rest of the day swimming there, until sunset, if the water wasn’t so damn cold. Instead, we continued our exploration of this little peninsula and its mangrove-sheltered Playa del Amor with its community of stinky sea-lion, some quite aggressive in regards to preferred spots on the beach.

That evening we comparison shopped for the best water tour to take on our final full day.  I wanted a trip that would allow us some opportunity to be on land, and exposed to different topographies, while Dan wanted to see the best snorkeling sites, Gabriel wanted to go fishing and Stella wanted playful beach time. The 360 degrees tour fit the bill, but did not fit our budget. After trying to negotiate a lower last-minute price through several tour companies, we finally found a vendor that also owned the boat, and gave us a chance at an awesome discount. This reduced price was completely dependent on whether they would be able to fill the boat to a certain capacity; so, we first had to commit to a nominal deposit and then check back, right before closing, to see if enough people had signed up, allowing our family to pay a lower price. A little strange, considering we’d request a refund if the price was too high. However, luck was on our side, and a trip that would have normally cost $640, was reduced to $400.

It was a fantastic day.  Although a little overcast at first, giving the ocean an ominous feel, we soon pulled into another crystal clear cove, Playa Rosa, which was akin to China Beach, but completely isolated due to its lack of access.  We hiked through a nearby field of cacti and lava rock to a green lagoon and its resting white-tipped sharks.  Into the water we went, swimming side by side or above these sleek creatures which were longer than my own body. A surefire way to get your heart beating. There were more beaches of bleached and broken coral to explore, with fish and turtle filled bays.

Back in the boat, we continued our counter-clockwise journey around the island, passing volcanic tuffs and moonscapes on our way to the Northern peninsula and the dramatic Punta Pitt. Huge cliffs composed of different geological streaks, and home to red (Nazca) and blue-footed boobies loomed ahead of us. Colonies of seals sunned on shores, drying in the low tide. We shared this area of ocean with a few big luxury cruise ships, and their zodiac boats taking intrepid passengers to those difficult to reach places. Rocky islands, littered with guano and home to hundreds of cawing birds, jutted out of deep waters.

Here, our captain declared, was the best place to fish, as we spotted bubbling boils and swarms of birds circling for spoils. It was the most exciting fishing I have ever witnessed, because the wait for a bite was short, and the fish were enormous. Our captain first caught a wahoo as tall as Stella, allowing a young Australian man to experience its awesome strength, as he battled with pulling the fish in.  He had a waist harness with the fishing rod, barely keeping his balance in the bobbing boat, letting out some slack on the line, only to try to pull him back with the reel. Man against fish. From here, the captain took over, not needing a harness and relying on the pure strength of his core and arm muscles. At one point, he was standing on the bow with his rod bent into a tight arc, looking as if he could be dragged into the ocean with the slightest misstep. We watched the incredible hard work and skill required to pull in a massive, sparkling yellow tail tuna, that was so heavy that Dan and the other men struggled to hold it in their laps.

After lunch, we passed more jagged cliffs and landed on another beach, where sea turtles lay their eggs. This was our final rest before heading to the headlining destination – Kicker Rock (Leon Dormido). This volcanic rock, which resembles the shape of a sleeping lion, thrusts straight out of the deep water, high and vertical, creating a steep underwater wall, covered in some parts by fantastical purple and orange coral. This tuff cone, which has been eroded by time and the ocean’s force, is split in two, creating a tunnel-like corridor.  There is no place to land, so we disembarked from the boat by jumping directly into the deep and dark, swelling ocean, and nervously followed our guide to and along the rocky perimeter, and into the water tunnels. The water currents rose and fell, pushing and pulling us further along, as we goggled at a GIANT passing sea-lion, many schools of large and medium fish (including puffer), big sea turtles and graceful manta rays.  As if this cliff side snorkeling wasn’t heart-thumping enough, our guide would occasionally scream, “Shark!, Shark!, Shark!”, putting all of us into a temporary panic, when he was only trying to get us to come closer for a better look.

The tour ended and we all felt very satisfied and appreciative of the dramatic places that we got to see and experience in person. The captain of our boat ended up giving us the whole wahoo as a parting gift, and our group of travelers all met up again for a fish dinner and celebratory beers.

Seeing what we did of the Galapagos was wonderful. I feel very thankful that we followed this dream through, and got a glimpse into this very special place. There is nowhere else like it.

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