27.05.2016 - 27.05.2016
So. The Galápagos, then.
Big expectations from this place: the culmination of my time in South America. This without even considering how I had idolised the islands as a child while watching documentaries, right up to my (relatively youthful) adulthood, still watching nature documentaries.
And, as with most things about my trip, I had researched the place very poorly and planned it even less.
I wasn't aware, for instance, that, before flights to the island and your accommodation, you need a minimum of $120 to actually enter the Galápagos. $20 at Quito (or Quayaquil) airport and then $100 when on the Galápagos to actually enter the ecologically unique group of islands. Which might seem a lot until you hear the rumours that the price will likely soon rise to $200.
But, still. How often do you get a chance to visit the islands from your childhood dreams? Money was not going to stop me!
If the cost of getting to Galápagos doesn't put you off (really, don't let it) then prepare yourself for the commute. After landing at Baltra, a deserted island (it looks like a barren landscape from some western movie, and I assume acts as a natural quarantine zone for tourists), you have to get a bus from airport to dock (sometimes included by your airline, sometimes not) and hop on a quick ferry across to the north side of Santa Cruz. From there you need to get a taxi all the way to the south of Santa Cruz, which is roughly a 40-50 minute drive. Plenty of nice places to stay in Santa Cruz, but we were staying on Isla Isabella. That meant another ferry - but first you need to get a little water taxi from the dock, change to a larger boat, then sit and enjoy the ass-numbingly long 2 and a half hour boat ride.
What struck me as strange was the fact that people lived here! Okay, I expected a few people to live here. Scientists. Fishermen. The occasional British ex-pat who forgot to leave ten years ago. But the islands (other than Baltra) have towns and roads and shops and bars and ATMs and cinemas and people!
Again, had I researched the place even a little I would have known this. So it was a shock to see this bio-reserve with actual residents and human life, though not distractingly so. Once out of the towns it's easy to forget there's a town around the corner.
Which is because the Galápagos Islands are beautiful. Stunningly, jaw-droppingly beautiful. From the fauna to the flora to the sea to the sky. It's hard to find a spot (out of the towns, obviously) that aren't beautiful. Even in the towns you can expect to see iguanas just chilling obstinately in the middle of the path, or particularly cute sea lions lazing about on a bench or, again, on the path. Go for a a stroll and you'll be bombarded with birds, fancy a swim and you'll be surrounded by fish; maybe even turtles, sharks, and rays - and if you're super lucky, perhaps a sea lion will play around you in the water. It's a magical, colourful, life-affirming place.
The flamingos are particularly bright, as one might expect of flamingos. One of the main rules of the Galápagos that is repeated again and again is not to touch any wildlife or the plants and trees. Any spot you go to where you can view wildlife is specifically built around their natural habitat and as such you can't get very close to animals like the flamingos. Everything is designed around not encroaching on the wildlife's natural habitat - we are merely there to view, and from a distance if preferable.
We all hiked up to - and you'll have to pardon my lack of clarity as the national park guide was somewhat confused himself - either the world's largest active crater, or the world's second largest crater (well, caldera technically). Sierra Negra was it's name, and wow. It was a beast of a view. The crater (caldera) was over 10km across. The one that's bigger (but not active) in Tanzania has a crater (caldera) or 22km! Insane. The fog was just starting to lift when we arrived and revealed more and more of the vast distance. Walking around the lava fields was incredible, and sounded as though I was walking on hard glass or plate china.
We snorkelled a little way off from the main beach area and I was instantly in love. A sea lion was resting just under a bench and decided that was the moment he was going to have a little swim. He slipped into the water without the slightest sound or splash and danced under the waves, occasionally popping up to say hello. When I finally got in the water, my mask kept leaking because I couldn't keep the grin from my face. A giant turtle grazed along the bottom of the sea bed and kept coming up for air. The few of us in the water swam around her until the sun began to set. At which point we all ventured to the main beach, sat at a bar, failed at slack lining (the locals easily put me to shame, and Rashid nearly broke his balls), and swam in the Pacific, waves smashing over us, until the sun finally set.
The next day we left Isabella to return to Santa Cruz. It was a brutal 4am start to make sure we got to the docks in time for another 2 and a half hour boat ride. Thankfully, this allowed us a view of the most amazing sunrise you could hope to see. I even think my camera managed to capture its essence a little!
Santa Cruz has a wonderful little town on the seafront, and no end of places to eat and drink, arrange the various tours, or buy Galápagos-related merchandise.
Santa Cruz is also home to Tortuga Bay. Which is perhaps (there's no perhaps about it) the most beautiful beach I have ever seen. The sparsely attended "main" beach is long and, with the red-flag waves, a bit of a surfer's paradise. The different blues of the sky and sea were staggering and not always clear where the horizon split the two.
But it was the smaller beach, closed off from the rough tides by the volcanic rocks, that really knocked me flat. It was something like being in a film. Pure white sands, green mangroves around the bay like a horseshoe, and perfect turquoise water as calm as a millpond. Well, as calm as a millpond until we rented goggles and went out to find the rays and sharks. Must have seen dozens and dozens. White Tips (because their fins have a white tip!) lying on the bottom, swimming around, frustrating my efforts for a shark selfie. Sadly, being a national reserve, it closes at 6. If only we could have stayed on that most beautiful of beaches forever.
Santa Cruz is also home to the Darwin Museum. Now, anyone who read my post about Ushuaia will know I'm more than a little fanboyish about Darwin, but I wasn't super excited about the museum. I kind of assumed it would be a dark, little building with some dry info carved into a plaque under the bust of the main man.
Thankfully, I was wrong! I more than geeked out being in there. Pictures and exhibits and skeletons and information about the man himself, the history and influence of his famous theory, work the Charles Darwin Foundation does, and the animals all over and around the Galápagos. The only thing I found slightly strange was they didn't have a copy of his book (Origin of Species) available in the gift shop - I figured that would be a no brainer.
How could I come to the Galápagos and not scuba dive? I couldn't! Despite the slightly high cost, I did get taken to two dive sites, all the necessary equipment, full transportation, and snacks and lunch. Those who hadn't their PADI were given a discovery dive, and in between each of our dives there was plenty of time to snorkel - if the waters were a little warmer, that is!
Diving in the Galápagos was something else. I don't think I've seen quite as many fish in one place as there. I was literally surrounded by and swimming through schools of fish with no beginning or end. When I looked up, the sun broke through the surface and silhouetted the marine life. A completely different experience than of diving in Belize but no less wondrous.
And then, like that, our time together, my time in the Americas was coming to a close. When we met in Cusco all those weeks ago, we were fifteen strong. Sadly, Katie had to leave early (we miss you Katie!); Sara, Sarra, and Yas left next halfway through Sacha Yacu; Tom left us only a few days ago before the Galápagos. Our guides already gone having lost Stefan with Sara, Sarra, and Yas, and Frank going home as we flew towards the Galápagos. And now we were all saying farewell. A couple of us will be seeing each other in Quito, a few are still travelling, most are headed home. Myself? I am going to that most remote of islands, that most dangerous of lands, that almost mythical of fantastical places. It goes by many names but the Spanish simply call it..."Isla de Hombre" - stay tuned for what happens there!
It's hard to say goodbye and harder still when you wish you had more time. It doesn't get easier the longer you travel to say goodbye, but I was reminded of something recently: don't say goodbye, say farewell.
Goodbye means you will likely not see the person again. Farewell says you're headed on different paths and you'll see them again somewhere along the road.
You were all as much a part of these last two months as the locations and experiences. None of the things happened without you and you will forever be inextricably linked to my memories and laughter. I can only thank you all for what we shared and hope you enjoyed the road as much as me.
I hope I see you all again, I really do. So until then,
Left to right:
Frank, Sarra, Aaron, Tom, Georgie, Bryony, Sara, Alex, Eleanor, Sam, Emma, Yas, Rashid, Ellie, Katie, Me, Stefan
"Travel brings wisdom only to the wise; it renders the ignorant more ignorant than ever" - Joe Abercrombie
So I wonder, which am I?
(I know, I know: ignorant)