Farewell Galapagos

Returning to Santa Cruz from slightly remote Isabela Island felt strangely familiar – a bit like we were coming ‘home’. It was similar to the feeling I had back in 1990-92 when returning from travel in South East Asia to my home in Kyoto and Nishinomiya, Japan, where I could read the signs and easily navigate the trains. It made me think about where home is for us now. We’ve officially unregistered from Berlin, and the last time we lived in the US was four years ago. So, in a way, the address I entered somewhat tongue-in-cheek in my new Leuchturm journal was accurate: “The World” .

And where will home be in the future? We both love Berlin and the friends we’ve made there, and I think the international schools there are terrific. Germany is also on the side of the angels in its approach to the Syrian refugee crisis. Raw documentary footage I’ve seen of Syrian children who’ve lost parents in the war is shattering – their need for help far outweighs our perceived need to keep ‘others’ out.

But Elise and I have also talked about spending a year in Paris. Or maybe we’ve yet to discover our future home? a village in New Zealand or in Vietnam? or perhaps a palm-fringed harbor in the South Pacific? I have a running joke with my niece, Rach (who happens to be both gorgeous and fiercely intelligent). Any time I come up with an idea such as ‘move to Germany’ or ‘travel the world for a year’, she announces that she doesn’t believe that it’ll happen. Even after we’d moved to Berlin, and I asked “Do you believe me now?”, she wrote: “Nope”. Oh the joy of looking forward to many more exotic locations and Nopes from Rach!

In any case, back on Santa Cruz, we fell into ‘old’ habits – we had breakfast at our favorite cafe, popped into the same shops, had an $8 lobster lunch at our favorite restaurant, took a water taxi to a beach we’d visited before and then explored a nearby salt marsh (Elise’s science lesson for the day).

We followed the trail through Opuntia cacti to Las Grietas, a swimming nook in a deep rock crevice. Fearless locals are known to climb the nearly vertical rock walls to plunge into the water below. During our visit, however, we saw only normal folks who were yelping at the chilly water and slipping on the rocks at ground level. My camera gave me a welcome excuse to stay on the platform, but Elise carefully made her way over the rocks and was rewarded with an invigorating swim.

For dinner, we returned to our favorite restaurant for the last time. Our waiter recognized us immediately and, smiling from ear to ear, offered us a great deal on a soup and grilled fish dinner.

The Galapagos are a very special place, and one day I hope we’ll return to explore Floreana and the other smaller islands.

Elise’s drawing of Isabella Island

Elise drew her (part-wolf) alter ego, Sunny, and her sister Ashlyn on Isabela Island, where they mountain biked along the coast, touched a giant tortoise, went body boarding and snorkeling with colorful fish and tortoises, and saw the Wall of Tears (gray volcanic rocks in the upper right). Also depicted are sea lions, volcanic rocks, and Opuntia cacti on the beach, a water taxi in the harbor, and the tiny bird with whom Elise shared an apple.

Isabela Island, Galapagos

This place feels much more remote than Santa Cruz – even slightly abandoned, which is a welcome thing.

With its squarish, concrete structures (many half-finished) and radio towers, however, Puerto Villamol is not especially charming at first glance. The roads around the town square are dirt while the park is paved. Go figure. Just a block or two away there are barren lots strewn with cinderblocks and plastic tubs, which reminded me of deep West VA, except instead of dirt, the ground is covered in black volcanic gravel like a rustic parking lot. Opposite a flamingo pond is what appears to be a 1950’s style power plant.

But the island holds many lovely surprises, such as Concha de Perla, a wooden walkway where sea lions snooze (you have to step over them!) through a mangrove swamp to a bay which is home to marine iguanas and giant tortoises.

There is also a long stretch of beach with turquoise green water, the softest sand ever, and pleasant beach cafes.

The restaurants that looked run-of-the-mill by day light up at night from the glow of lanterns. The seafood is also excellent. We took advantage of ubiquitous $8 set menu options and sampled the grilled fish, lobster, and fish soup and (apart from a mushy seafood spaghetti) enjoyed every bite.

Elise adores pools, and I wanted to give her a special experience during our final days in the Galapagos, so I booked a stay at The Wooden House (3x our normal budget) based on the photos of its big pool. But while the rooms were lovely and Zen-like, the pool ended up being teensy tiny (trick photography).

After one night we switched to another hotel with spacious rooms, gleaming floors, and hammocks on a breezy top-floor terrace. Having essentially won back some of our budget, I looked into guided tours. The options depicted in faded photos at the travel agencies, however, left a lot to be desired. There were tours of the Tuneles, Volcanes, and Tintoreras, but travelers we met said the volcano tour was not worth it, and it was much better to see the other sites yourself. So we rented snorkels ($6 for 2 of us for the afternoon) and swam in the bay with marine iguanas, giant tortoises, and many colorful fish (my favorite was a black fish with electric blue eyes and a yellow mouth), and then rode mountain bikes to see flamingos and tortoises at a conservation center where Elise was allowed by an enthusiastic guide to touch a highly interactive tortoise! It was amazing looking into this 100+ year old creature’s eyes, who shrunk back into his/her shell any time we gestured too wildly.

We then rode a 5k path along gorgeous coastline which eventually turned inland.

There were various scenic lookout points marked with large signs for “Green Ponds”, “Round Pool”, “Hidden Pool” etc (was like shopping for sights at a supermarket), as well as a high platform with 360 degree views of the island.

Elise decided to forego the climb in favor of having a snack, which she shared with two little birds. As a gearhead, I was absurdly pleased to be able to offer her one of our tiny, ultralight camping chairs for the first time.

From the lookout platform, there was sea as far as the eye could see in one direction, and uninhabited, scrub-covered land in the other that disappeared into a wall of fog. I felt the desolation of the place and had a flicker of melancholy.

The path ended at the towering 100m long Wall of Tears, which was built by convicts under abusive conditions at the time of the island’s penal colony (1946-59). The wall appeared to be made entirely of volcanic rocks and was in the middle of nowhere, separating nothing. It provided us with the opportunity to discuss human rights and capital punishment. Without prompting, Elise told me that she believes that even convicts should not be abused since they are already paying for their crimes by being locked up, and that we do not have the right to kill other human beings – even murderers. (Brava Elise! I am less certain about how society should punish child molesters/murderers).

But our visit to the island wasn’t all about heavy discussion. The next day, Elise tried body boarding for the first time. The surf was great and she managed to ride a few waves all the way to the shore. Since this is the precursor to surfing, her surfboarding cousin Nele will be proud!

As we sped away from Isabella, the shape of the island revealed itself. The day we’d arrived, there was heavy fog obscuring the coastline. Elise thought she’d caught a glimpse of mountains behind the clouds, but wasn’t sure. Indeed, we saw a giant, gently sloping volcano as we sped away, one of six that form Isabela’s seahorse shape. There were also smaller islands that came into view – strange, unfamiliar shapes that formed no pattern in my mind. How do the children growing up on Isabela view those same shapes? What stories do they have to describe them?

During the two-hour ride, I held Elise tightly on my lap because she felt a bit of seasickness. I was unable to write or listen to my university courses or read my Kindle as I usually do during commutes, so I spent the time thinking about what we’d experienced. I was pleased that Elise had had a number of firsts – snorkeling, body boarding, mountain biking – and that the island had offered a few terrific science lessons – tortoise breeding and conservation, the function of mangroves and coral, how life can take root on a barren volcanic rock in the middle of the ocean, daily rhythms of sea lions and iguanas, and how heritable traits may give offspring an advantage in a particular ecological niche (eg tortoises on the Galapagos developed especially long necks to be able to eat cacti). Elise had also learned a bit about history (European colonization), ethics, sociology (none of the merchants on the islands undercut the competition, and they refused to let newcomers invest in the island without first living there for two years), and even economics (given scarcity and the cost of transporting goods, prices were higher on the island). All good stuff.

I also reflected on the fact that I felt completely comfortable being tossed about by the waves – even though it sometimes felt like a roller coaster ride. I suffer from claustrophobia (made worse when confined spaces are crowded) and misophonia (eating noises, inane TV, etc), but not at all from motion sickness or aquaphobia, acrophobia, aviophobia (alektorophobia, consecotaleophobia, or arachibutyrophobia, lol), or anything else really, so with a wide view of the silvery sea and the roar of the waves drowning out any other sound, I found that I was extremely content and relaxed right up through our arrival back in Santa Cruz.

But now…my imagination is all fired up by the prospect of visiting the floating islands of Lake Titicaca, Peru!

Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos

We finally made it to the Galapagos! We arrived at the airport on tiny Baltra island, took the ferry to the main island, Santa Cruz, and then the 40 min bus south to Puerto Ayora ($2! vs $25 taxi). Right away we saw some of the animals for which the Galapagos are famous – a blue-footed booby and manta ray in the harbor, marine iguanas sunning themselves on the sidewalks, a sea lion feasting on a fish in the mangroves, and pelicans hanging out at the fish market.

Later, we saw geckos and little birds at Casa de Lago, a charming cafe, where fruit salad, omelets and pancakes are served at rustic tables to jazz music. We took the time every morning to write in our beloved Leuchturm journals.

We also saw the tortoises at the Charles Darwin Research Station – little babies munching loudly on bright green stalks and giant, slow-moving adults.

The best surprise for Elise, however, was when a playful sea lion joined us while we were swimming in the bay at Las Grietas!

For me, the highlight was walking the long and winding trail through twisted scrub brush and towering cacti to Tortuga Bay, which has one of the most splendid beaches in South America. The current is quite strong, so I held Elise’s hand tightly while we let the warm waves wash over us again and again.

On our last day, we bought ferryboat tickets to Isabela Island and took our time strolling the main drag and peeking into shops. Elise loved the animal figurines and got a tiny tortoise and ceramic sea lion. I liked the t-shirts that made use of negative space to show manta rays and other marine life. Elise also tried (cooked) shrimp ceviche for the first time and liked it. We’re thinking of creating a cookbook with one special dish from each country we visit. Ceviche is now a contender, as is fish and yucca soup.

Elise drew her impressions of Santa Cruz with her character, Sunny (who’s part wolf), at our favorite cafe with floral vines, the darling little bird who begged at our table, a soft serve ice cream, palm tree, a sea lion and tortoise, and giant orange sunset.

On our last evening on the island, we joined the locals and tourists at the bustling strip of seafood restaurants with outdoor tables and had a filling plate of grilled fish and rice with sopa con queso (cheese soup). It was all rather pleasant, but after four days on Santa Cruz I felt a very strong urge to get away to a quieter, less developed place.