Three adventure in Galapagos.

they do look like daggers don’t they?

Amsterdam.

Our main bags were checked right through to Quito so we just needed to dump our hand luggage at the airport hotel before taking a taxi into Amsterdam. Since we only had one day here, we had pre arranged a canal tour. It was a beautiful day and the transport nexus which is Amsterdam buzzed. Trams, cars, buses, boats and bicycles all cooperated in a way which, excepting all of Scandinavia, is probably only possible here. And nowhere more so than on the canal. We thought it must be a public holiday but actually, it was just that it was sunny, and the people of Amsterdam take the day off on such occasions. They also take to the canal in a variety of crafts most of which were booze boats. After the two hour tour, during which Di slept, we took lunch at a canal side hotel terrace restaurant and watched the World sail by. It might just have been the sun but everyone looked either young, glamorous or interesting, or all three. The overriding atmosphere was cheerful. After lunch and socks for Di’s sore feet, we wandered around the old city marvelling at the architecture, the people and the fact that it seems to work as a city despite the variety of transport options available to the metropolitan Amsterdammer.

If our experience is anything to go by tourists are most likely to be taken out by a speeding cyclist than anything else. So, other than the prospect of a narrow tyre tread bruise, it is really safe. We rounded the corner into the red light streets, had to really, but there is nothing that can be done to make transactions of this nature seem normal. The ‘girls’ stood there behind shopfronts like mannequins, only the occasional eye or arm movement betrayed the idea that every shop in this strip must sell underwear. Each one could be your Mother, Sister, Aunt or, if he is transexual, Uncle though probably not your wife or husband. We scurried past encouraging Emmie to follow without capturing the moment and we were happy to exit into the square. After a few drinks, it was back to the hotel and lights out. Up early tomorrow for the long flight to Quito.

Quito.

The flight to Quito was comfortable. KLM were celebrating the new seats which had been recently fitted and with movies and the usual goose like force feeding, the twelve hours or so passed easily. By the time we were collected at the airport and transferred to the JW Marriot, there was only time for dinner and bed. The next day was to be our only day in Quito so Di had organised a guide called Lincoln to show us round.

In the morning after the customary three course breakfast, Lincoln arrived on time. Short by European standards, though taller than most indigenous indians, Lincoln was unmistakably South American. We were in his hands for the day so we bundled into his SUV and he headed North out of Quito towards the equator.

At 2850m Quito is the highest capital city in the World, nestling as it does between the two long ridges that make up the Andes, it is a linear city. The landscape is spectacular. The snow capped volcanic mountains are most often thoughtfully obscured by clouds and the valley by mist since, to meet Man and Nature together like this full on would be overwhelming.

During the twenty kilometer drive to the middle of the World we passed cafes with rudimentary spit type ovens out front. We had heard that the local delicacy was guinea pigs and yep, it’s true. To our squeamish European sensibilities, this amounted to evil incarnate. What kind of voodoo was this cooking by the side of the road? Who could skin and eat a pet shop product? Lincoln could and had done so often and, it turns out, Emmie would given the chance to try. It tastes like game meat apparently. Drive on driver.

We stopped at an amazing view point overlooking a caldera which instead of trapping its water upon collapse it had spewed into the Pacific. So the fertile flat land surrounded by mountains had been developed into a subsistence farming community. We retraced the road a little, stopped to take photographs of the smouldering guinea pigs, before arriving at the Equator museum.

Here, amongst other things, you can balance an egg on the head of a nail and watch water go down the plug hole clockwise and counter-clockwise just by stepping either side of the line.

Now that we know how to measure it, I can tell you that the equator is 40,075 kilometers round the waist. Had this been possible in Columbus’s time our holiday may not have been possible. But a significant error of calculation stopped our famous explorer short, and the resulting Spanish interest in these new lands gave birth to a Continent. To their surprise, the Spanish didn’t find the noble native here, rather they stumbled upon not one but two highly sophisticated Empires. This posed a problem for the Spaniards since they now needed a just reason for each conquest. Cue the crusades of the Americas. If the question was, “ how can we legitimately waltz in here and take everything”, the answer was “Christianity”. So Cortez nailed the Aztecs in what is now modern Mexico and Pizarro did for the Incas whose Empire sprawled well beyond what is now Peru including into Equador.

Quito was an important city in the Incan times, probably the second city of the Empire ( like Glasgow ) but the Northern tribes were not happy before Pizarro arrived and the Empire was already ripe for civil war. So to this day the people of Equador feel like the Spanish liberated them from the yolk of Peru. The border dispute has only recently been settled ending a long period of conflict though when Lincoln describes the deal, it feels like the Peruvians won out so it probably still festers.

Guinea pig was off the lunch menu, as far as we knew, at our restaurant which sat under the statue of the Winged Madonna perched atop El Panecillo, overlooking the old town of Quito. This 41 meter tall aluminium beauty was inspired by a much smaller 18th century statue nicknamed “the dancer” and when you look at it, you can see that she might just be swaying a little. Michael Jackson, she is not. We had driven up El Panecillo, so called since it resembles a small loaf, as it is not considered safe for tourists to walk. Our next and last stop was to be the old town which, in parts, is also considered unsafe for tourists to walk alone. Lincoln explained that much had been done to resolve the difficulties and for the whole of the afternoon into the evening, we felt very safe.

The old town is built on the classic Spanish model centered around the most important square and hence buildings. So here is the presidential palace and religious establishments and residences of the rich colonials. The further away from the centre you were, the poorer you were. The opposite of Detroit. Inside one of the churches we saw the original sculpture of the Winged Madonna and later at the more modern Basilica, we would see gargoyles modelled on the emblems of Equador which included the animals of the Galapagos. But first to La Ronda to find out how chocolate is made and hat shopping. Chocolate is good for you and Panama hats are actually made in Equador.

Back to the hotel for a light snack. Tomorrow, Galapagos!

Day 1 Galapagos.

Though we had done our research for this holiday, we remained part savvy, part stupid. We knew our flight from Quito to the Galapagos was to stop at Guayaquil before completing it’s journey. But we didn’t really know much thereafter. We envisaged a small twin prop precariously steered by Indiana Jones rolling down onto a dirt runway to pick up some provisions at a tented village before heaving back into the sky for a 1000 km low level flight across the pacific, splash landing near the land that time forgot. We’d exit the plane onto inflatables and paddle to the Silver Galapagos. Actually, Guayaquil although Equador’s second city, is more populous than Quito at some two plus million souls and the flight was a kind of red eye for Ecuadorian commuters. The aircraft was modern as were the airports at both Guayaquil and Baltra, Galapagos. There are many flights to Galapagos each day. We had assumed only one. And, wait for it, Galapagos is inhabited. By humans! We passed through airport controls, boarded buses for the three minute ride to the port and took the zodiac to the mother ship which was anchored in the bay.

Once on board, the Silversea experience starts and so lunch, drinks, mandatory briefing, lifeboat drill, sail away drinks, next day briefing/meet the expedition team and dinner.

Day 2 Bartholome.

The previous night’s briefing split the group. I was up for the 327 steps up the hill hike and Di and Em, worried about vertigo, elected to choose the zodiac cruise around the big jaggy rock thing. The cruise reportedly was enjoyable and it was the first sign that we had a wildlife photographer in our midst. Emmie’s pictures were amazing. Meantime, I arrived at the jetty landing point for a dry landing. We were met by a Galapagos seal positioned as if he was about to dispense tickets. Our guide moved him on and we passed by distracted by the hundreds of red crabs contesting the rocks for the best spot. As we started up the hill, a lava heron appeared walking like a serious, little man with his hands behind his back.

The volcanic landscape was striking and we got to hold large rocks which weighed very little. Then off in the distance Dolphins passed rising and falling, four fifths of their number below the water at anytime. So that if you see three break the surface, the pod is likely to have 15 dolphins. The view at the top was amazing and just as I arrived at the beacon, Di and Em were rounding the jaggy rock so I managed to photograph their zodiac.

Back down the hill Penguins were darting about at the jetty and a pelican had settled by the dead bones of a cousin. All the time, overhead, the frigate birds circled and soared, their prehistoric silhouette against the volcanic landscape induced a sense of Jurassic park. Our zodiac cruised easily back to the Silver Galapagos and the three amigos were reunited in time for the beach landing.

The little sickle of golden sand where we beached our zodiac for a wet landing was brimming with activity. Two frigate birds dive bombed a couple who had walked to the end of the beach causing some alarm. All the time, the blue footed Boobies whistled around fishing. We had all watched David Attenborough’s Galapagos and loved a shot where he is doing a piece to camera and, all of a sudden, a Boobie drops like a stone and dives under water completely disappearing. We thought he must have waited ages to capture such a moment but to our delight it was happening all around us. They form a kind of arrow with their wings as they dive bomb through the turquoise water looking for fish.

And judging by the millions of fish around our ankles they wouldn’t go hungry. We were here to snorkel so off we went around the rocks in pursuit of turtles, penguins, sea lions and the whole spectrum of beautiful little fish which always populates such areas. I say we went off around the rocks but actually Emma went off around the rocks. It had been a number of years since I had donned snorkel and mask. The last time I was attacked by a disposable camera, which attached itself to my wrist and bounced off my head. I panicked thinking it a fish! So I went slowly to acclimatise. My breathing settled sufficiently for me to breast stroke my way along the rocks a little and eventually hooked up with Di, who was doing better than me but obviously less well than our daughter, the ‘little fish’. Nonetheless, this was an OK start although it did serve to remind me how nervous it made me.

The next step was deep water snorkelling. The mere label made my World cave in, crushing my lungs and inducing claustrophobic palpitations. Was I ready for it? My head said maybe, my legs disagreed. Emma came back and reported loads of fish and a range of different starfish. So no big stuff but we had time. Back on the beach, we collected our gear and climbed into the zodiac, happy.

Lunch, as it would be every day, took place at the grill on deck 5. The eating space was outside, though shaded and the menu was varied, simple food. Tucked up against the servery, sat behind a little knackered Casio, Alfredo, the ship’s musician, played popular tunes to a pre recorded rumba backing track. Back home, this kind of thing would make my ears bleed but here it just sort of worked.

We had met Francisco, the Maitre d’, at dinner the previous evening and now he skipped around the lunch tables making sure all was well. He was Portugese but had exiled himself to Venezuala and then Equador which is how he qualified to work on the boat. After lunch, I joined Luciano’s lecture on birds. Luciano is a glaciologist with a passion for birds and it was nice to see him on the Silver Galapagos since he had been one of the specialists on our Arctic cruise. Killer fact from the lecture. A bird’s pectoral muscles can account for 20% of its body weight so adapted are they for flight. The godwit is a migratory bird who flies from New Zealand to Alaska via China and back to New Zealand via Hawaii. 17 days non stop flight and we still don’t know exactly how they do it….seems they have an kind of in built Google Earth which uses the difference between true North and Magnetic North to chart their way.

Santiago.

The three back together again, we embarked the zodiacs for a tour of Santiago Island. We got up close and personal with Boobies and a mating pair of gulls. Normally birds get it over and done with in seconds. These guys were at it so long they attracted the attention of a lava heron who, with his strange, rounded shoulder body language, looked every bit the pervert. I felt we should look away. Ah the Victorians! Sea birds are usually not sexually dimorphic unlike the exotic birds of paradise, for example, where the male is usually more flamboyant than the female….see also ‘Humans’. So unlike their flashy cousins, seabirds share parenting. Male Boobies are modern men. If they could, they’d help with the dishes.

During the cruise we saw Galapagos seals, golden rays and penguins in addition to a host of birds. Then back to the ship for the briefing at 19.00 hrs followed by lunch in the restaurant, excellent food. Tomorrow would be our first deep snorkel and Dries, our expedition leader, made it sound quite scary, discouraging anyone from going into the zodiac if they might freak out and either fail to get in or quickly want to escape the waters. As I fell into both categories, it was back to our cabin to sleep perchance to…..have nightmares involving drowning surrounded by sharks with go pros recording, for their sick entertainment, my bulging eyes and gurgling, final exhalations. Nighty night!

Day 3 Isabela, Punta Vicente Roca.

Predictably, I had had a disturbed night. By breakfast I was gutless, which is a problem since it is customary to have three courses. Though I hadn’t dreamt of drowning I knew I would, so snorkelling was off for me. It was just the use of the word “deep” which got me and Dries was so, well heavy during the previous night’s briefing. I recovered my composure enough to hoover up breakfast which by now had been embellished by the introduction of waffles, syrup, cream and raspberry coulee.

The zodiac cruise which followed breakfast served to stiffen my upper lip since the route, along an amazing volcanic rock face complete with caves, was to be the deep snorkelling site. I figured that drowning was unlikely since we would be very close to shore at all times. So I only had to worry about large, shadowy objects from the deep hungry for Human flesh recently, and quite deliciously, stuffed with waffle. However, the sun was out and the waters were so clear that you could see the bottom at five or six meters. I was in. Deep snorkelling, here I come. I relaxed and, during the remainder of the morning cruise, the three of us marvelled at turtles, penguins, sea lions, cormorants and Boobies.

We were in zodiac group 2 and due to strict rotation rules, we were the first group out for deep snorkelling. Di was beautifully colour coded in her rash vest and shorts, Em was fluorescent everything and I had adopted a clashing mixture of zebra shorts and grey/blue rash vest. I figured nothing would want to eat this! Emmie rolled backwards off the zodiac splashing into the water like a proper diver while Di and I adopted the less well known technique of sliding off the rubber fender, slowly down, until we broke the surface with a shiver. Our descent was as if someone had thrown a raw steak onto a tiled wall.

Once in, mask on and snorkel swallowed, off we went. Em had fins on and given my strategy of not resembling anything edible ( Seals have fins too. Duh!), I didn’t. So keeping up was a problem. But I felt comfort in company so I breast stroked the length of the rock face keeping close to those in the vanguard. Given my Maldivian experience I wasn’t having the underwater camera, so that was delegated to Em, leaving me free to enjoy the whole experience.

We swam with sea lions, turtles, penguins, cormorants and a whole host of colourful fish. I surfaced at one point immediately beside a pelican which was bobbing on the surface resting between fish gulps. There was also a white tipped shark but he didn’t stick around long enough for me to reconsider the whole adventure. At the end of our hour long, one way, fish tank swim, we were met by the zodiac which had been conveniently, make that necessarily, fitted with a ladder. It was over. It was electric. Time for lunch.

Fernandina, Punta Espinoza.

On the strength of some insider information from Xavi, one of the guides, we elected to join the short walk on Fernandina. The long walk covered the volcanic terrain at the expense of some time with the wildlife so it was an easy decision.

It was supposed to be a dry landing onto, preferably, a little jetty or, if not possible due to tides, directly onto rocks. Our zodiac came to a halt and stood off the rocks to watch the lead boat struggle to get in. The guides reported that they had never seen the tide this high ( in over twenty years) and as waves burst against the rocks, the lead boat managed to disembark its group. Just. Franklin, one of the guides, scouted for a different place to bring the other boats in more safely but there really wasn’t anywhere.

Our zodiac group included an elderly couple, originally from Denmark but now settled in California. They are a lovely pair, clearly in love with each other and determined to be independent despite, in his case, being a little wobbly. He had taken one of the walking sticks available at the steps down from the ship to the zodiac and presently was standing on the prow of the zodiac which was being wedged against the rocks, nose in. The guide shoreside was leaning out a supportive hand while the other on the boat attempted to steady him forward. As I nudged up along the zodiac edge, the whole time the waves rocking the boat against the rocks, he was motionless like Buster Keaton standing on a New York high rise steel beam, his rotating arms the only defence against falling backwards. Just as I was considering the option of catching him, and probably wave assisted, his momentum shifted from reverse to forward and, all of a sudden, he was on the rocks. Still upright and now, with the help of the guide, moving away from the edge. My turn, no prat falls please.

We were here on the promise of a multitude of seagoing iguanas but we got so much more. The iguanas were here in numbers, blowing off salt through their noses rending them even less pleasant than their growly looking exterior would infer. There were so many it was impossible to comply with the two meter rule which is designed to manage humans to within a safe distance from the wildlife. You could easily step on these uglies. This wasn’t to be good year for them though. Due to the higher than normal tides, their eggs had been inundated with salt water and so ruined. There were many spoiled eggs dotted around the shingle beach.

We turned to see a small sea lion pup on the beach waiting for its Mum to return. It posed beautifully for Emmie and she took three hundred photos of it. The rest of the seals were a little distance away and they were happy to move around close to us, mostly ignoring our interest.

The terrain was dominated by lively water all around a narrow strip of beach. I stopped to look outward for a moment and the effect was exhilarating. The zodiac drivers were having some time out fun, sprinting back and forth along the near horizon with the main boat and angry skies serving as a static backdrop. All the time the noise of the water was deafening and, it seemed, waves were breaking everywhere. Spray everywhere. I felt I was sharing the inside of a glass of water with two alka seltzers.

Just then Di captured a small flightless cormorant inspecting an Italian guest with great interest. It then proceeded to tug at Lucci’s rucksack straps and Di caught the precise moment on camera. Both were delighted when Di shared her photos with them. All too soon it was back on the zodiacs for home.

This evening we’d have dinner at the grill deck. It was hot rock. A preparation method which involved partial cooking of steak, or fish, or whatever before the dish is brought to the table for the diner to finish the job on the hot rock which forms the middle section of the special plate. Early to bed, tomorrow was a big day.

Day 4 Isabela, Caleta Tagus.

We had been edged out of the limited numbers for Kayaking, so our names safely down for the next day, we elected to go on the zodiac cruise rather than the up hill hike to a lake. The zodiac cruise served up the usual fare with some particularly great sightings of frigate birds. But we were really looking froward to our second deep snorkel later in the morning.

Off we went again, this time the conditions overhead, though quite good, were darker and the route felt a little less sheltered. Nonetheless, confident I wouldn’t be eaten in my zebra shorts, I slid with Di slowly down the zodiac edge. By this time Emma was pounding her fins way up front. Di and I decided to stick together this time and, apart from a really annoying American woman who seemed hell bent on ramming Di, we had a brilliant time.

There were more turtles than you could shake a stick at ( even though this would be frowned upon in Galapagos ) and the seals darted and played with us showing off their considerable prowess underwater. We both stopped to watch a cormorant dive down fishing. It cut through a shoal of pretty, coloured fish which split into a thousand shards as if in slow motion. Even the humans, deep diving to get a better view, looked beautiful, mermaid like. Not the American though, she was a bitch. I wanted to introduce her to a new form of water sport introduced a few years back by her fellow countrymen in a little resort called Guantanamo.

After lunch we were back on the zodiac for a cruise around the mangroves. It was late afternoon when we pulled gently towards the mangrove swamp having traversed quite choppy seas. The sun was throwing shadows enhancing the form of the landscape and deepening the turquoise, blue and green colours which surrounded us. Now, engine off, we were quietly floating around these salt tolerant trees. A sea lion was nestled sleeping on low level branches. Golden and eagle rays glided effortlessly passed several times. Green sea turtles slowly cruised around lifting their strange little, cartoon like heads every so often and, it seems, ducking back under just before our camera shutters opened. Penguins swam around a pelican who was eating his fill.

We stayed for a long time, and would have stayed longer, but it was late so we headed back to the Silver Galapagos. En route with the sun setting in a mostly cloudless sky, we paused at a rocky outcrop which, like a galapagos zoo, was home to penguins, sea lions, cormorants and the little red crabs. Magical trip, what’s for dinner?

Day 5 Floreana, Post office bay.

Emmie had her first “long lie” of the trip joining us at the tail end of breakfast at 08.00. Di and I were first out for the kayaking. We set out with Marie Helena as our guide and our zodiac driver was called Joseph. The zodiac drivers wear neck buffs pulled right up over their ears and faces giving off a kind of Somali pirate look. They do this because the sun is so brutal and this is the best way to protect their skin. So off we went, at speed, tracking the shoreline about a mile off and towing five kayaks behind.

I looked up ahead and idly noted to Di that there were some large waves in the distance and, before you could say ‘Robinson Crusoe ‘, we were among them. Immediately it was obvious to us we shouldn’t be here and that was before we turned to look at the fear etched on Marie Helena’s face. Even Joseph’s buff looked afraid. He swung the boat around, in response to Marie Helena’s shouted command, and raced an eight foot tall wave as it rip curled over us. We emerged the tube, as I think surfers call it, before it splashed down upon us. But the next wave, possibly the seventh, was rapidly approaching. We couldn’t outrun this one. So Joseph turned the zodiac into it and we all crossed our fingers.

The boat, full of us, a family of four Nicaraguans now living in New York and another brother and sister unit, rose up to the vertical as the wave passed under. We halted in mid air for a heart stopping second and we knew it was simple physics what came next. We were dropped, stone like and smashed into the trough behind the wave so hard that the momentum, which had just now brought us to our feet, was reversed and we we were thrown onto the floor. I may have swore, I’m not sure but, as we scrabbled to get back on our bums, Joseph sprinted for the exit and we were safe.

I thought we were going to abort since the kayaks were all upturned and full of water but, Oh no, we were just going to go round the problem. Which we did and we arrived safely at the Baroness lookout, a very nice bay with rocks either side.The seas were still stormy behind us and Joseph took some time to empty the kayaks of water before each pair were to get in.

Marie Helena explained the limits of our excursion and expressly excluded the rocks which seemed wise. I admitted that Di and I were not experienced kayakers. So I offered to the mother of the group of four that she and her small son might want to go before us. That way they’d have more time in the water. She was modest about her experience but as she had done it three times more than us ( i.e. three times ) she accepted graciously. I almost immediately regretted our generosity as she and her son drifted dangerously out to sea and towards the rocks, her husband yelling at her to dig in and she replying in the affirmative. Marie Helena, once again worried, was just about to instruct Joseph to go get when at last their kayak swung round and she narrowly missed the rocks.

Our turn! Contrary to her excellent previous advice we were uploaded right next to the opposite side of the rocks from the mother and son incident. The zodiac, given all the delays, had drifted close to the rocks and, presumably, Marie Helena, in all the excitement, hadn’t noticed. We envisaged two good strokes then crash, a one way ticket to Davy Jones’ locker. In the end we missed the rocks and, after much well coordinated paddling, got ourselves to the shallows where a family of sea lions were resting.

The next twenty or so minutes were magical. Innocent, little sea lions darted and played around and under our kayak. They stopped, popped up periscope like and surveyed us. One came close enough to touch Di’s hand which had inadvertently moved towards it. So much for the two meter rule! Another climbed out of the water and checked out my elbow before having a chew at my paddle. This is what we call kayaking. Sign us up for the next tour and Emmie can come too.

We hooked up with Em back at the ship and bubbled about our experiences under the heading of “Near death and puppy love in the Galapagos”. We all three then got in the next zodiac for the Post Office Bay.

The success of the Spanish in South America in the sixteenth century paved the way for other Europeans to follow. So the Portuguese, Dutch, British and North Americans were all active in the area by the late eighteenth century. When I say active I mean busy wiping out the whale population. Anyway, the island, with its fresh water, supplies of tortoise meat and sheltered beaches, was an excellent stopping off point for sailors. One such sailor established a system of free post which is kept going to this day. We retrieved from the barrel post box some post cards left by hopeful previous visitors who live near us and soon we will post them. We also left cards so we can see if they are delivered.

Floreana, Champion Islet.

After lunch it was time for our last deep water snorkel. This time it was all about seals. There is no doubt it was choppy when we arrived by zodiac at the deep snorkel site. But, undeterred, we unloaded three zodiacs of mostly elderly humans into the water which was seething close to the rocks and exhibiting a significant swell elsewhere.

This time there wasn’t much breast stroking involved as we really just needed to tread water and the seals came out to play with us. It was lovely but the motion of the swell and the sheer number of snorkelers made it slightly unpleasant for the novice. So Di and I elected to climb back onto the boat a little early while Em stayed in the water marvelling at more than thirty sea lions all playing around her. That was fine but we had all seen the large, bull sea lion earlier and by now he was becoming agitated as evidenced by his bark, which probably wasn’t worse than his bite. Em thought it was alright, but only just. Safely back on the ship we could look forward to. a wet landing and sunset with flamingos.

Floreana, Punta Cormorant.

A wet landing for me meant bright blue and fluorescent yellow soled shoes. So, dressed once again unusually, I joined Di and Emma, who had both chosen a more sober look, for the trip to see the flamingos. And after a short walk, there they were. More than thirty of them up to their ankles in salty water just grazing gracefully. There is something very tropical about flamingos. Like palm trees. Unmistakably exotic and tropical. Had it not been for the approaching sunset we could have watched them all night and Em could have explored the limits of her flash memory card.

But we wanted to enjoy the sun set from the beach and so we paddled up to our knees in water traversing the beach and took in the daily wonder as the centre of our Universe goes to sleep. In this part of the World, it would be exactly twelve hours, give or take before the sky would glow over the opposite horizon. Zodiacs please, we can’t take anymore beauty, it’s too much.

Day 6 San Cristobal, Galapaguera.

After the customary breakfast, which was early today to accommodate the planned tour, we set off on the zodiacs to San Cristobal island, the port town of which is very nice. We would see the town, Baquerizo Moreno, later but for now it was straight onto a clapped out old bus for a forty minute drive to the highlands to see our first giant tortoise in the semi wild.

It was a walk around facility combining tourism with the real need to assist the tortoises to recover their numbers. There were tortoises galore each having a face which you couldn’t describe as handsome. Yet, it is hard to take your eyes off them. They are fascinating creatures who can live to almost two hundred years as Harriet, the famous tortoise collected by Charles Darwin himself during his visit in 1835, testifies. She died in Australia in 2006 at the estimated age of 175 years. Less famously, Awaita who it is said, was born in 1751 and died in 2006 lived to well over two hundred years old. Back to the bus and down to the town for some souvenir shopping then to the boat for lunch.

The previous evening we were happy to have secured a second trip in the kayaks. This time Emma would come and we hoped for a similar outing minus the wave storm thing. So we loaded into the zodiac, hitched up the kayaks and off we went tracking an interesting rock face before sneaking through a tunnel thus shortcutting the waves crashing up against the end of the outcrop. We arrived in slightly choppy waters but felt OK until it became clear that we were to kayak back the way we had come only without the shortcut.

We became clear about this when Lucci shouted that we were going the wrong way as we headed for the calm waters at the shoreline. It was then we noticed Em, having joined Doug, an American guy she had befriended, in the kayak, was stroking for the surf. And Em was in the back which puts her notionally in charge. OMG! From our perspective the waves seemed to rise behind them way over their heads and the seas looked stormy. Hang on we’re coming! But just at this moment our previous excellent rowing coordination left us ( I say ‘us’ generously ) and we anxiously tacked left and right towards the meeting point. With each slow yard came the rise and fall of the sea and it was raining. Since I was in the back, and therefore notionally in charge, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to report that Di mutinied.

We just wanted it to end. Meanwhile Em and Doug were going great guns. She wouldn’t say she enjoyed it but they had coped much better than us. Back to the ship for a warm cup of tea and constructive feedback discussion.

We decided over dinner to skip the next morning’s trip ashore to see tortoises and instead elected to have a morning relaxing and reading our books. We would take the afternoon trip to the Darwin research centre and explore Puerto Ayora.

Day 7 Santa Cruz, Puerto Ayora.

The zodiacs took us as usual to the port and, after a short bus trip through town which looked very nice, we arrived at the Darwin research centre.

Cue the melancholy strains of a cowboy on his acoustic guitar. This is the tale of lonesome George, El Solitario. George was the last of his kind left roaming Pinto, his island home. His ancestors had given themselves up to 17th Century Pirates and privateers in need of fresh meat during the long journey home. Tortoises, for that was what George was, had the misfortune to survive without food and water for months on end and so, they were an excellent source of fresh food for sailors who hunted them in their thousands for that purpose. They hunted them until they thought there was none left. But there were some who survived though their numbers were such that existence was fragile. Then man brought goats and rats onto Pinto and this twin scourge dealt a fatal blow to the tortoise population. The goats hovered their vegetation and the rats ate their eggs and their young. George must have kept his head down and so he roamed Pinto, the last of his kind. No one knows for sure how long George was lonesome but he was probably about 60 years old when passing fishermen reported a rock with legs moving around on Pinto. It was a further year before George was found and relocated to Santa Cruz to a place where kind Humans were protecting tortoises from all over Galapagos. George freaked out with all the company and became sad, lonesome George until someone worked out that George had only known loneliness and anything else was a problem. So they built him a special place where he could hang out alone and the kind humans introduced him to a couple of girls. They were hopeful that George would do the wild thing and regenerate his species but George preferred his own company and nothing happened. He had gotten used to his solitude and since that had been all he had known until well beyond sexual maturity, George just wasn’t into girls. Some time later, alerted by the groans distinctive of tortoises mating, the nice humans rushed to George’s enclosure excited by the prospect of Romantic George only to find George had mounted a rock. George preferred to do it himself. So Lonesome George, El Solitario, lived out his life, the last of his kind until he died a couple of years ago aged 130 or so. He wasn’t the biggest tortoise, he wasn’t the oldest tortoise. George was the loneliest!

At the Darwin centre which employs hundreds of research scientists, in addition to the tortoises, we also saw the galapagos land iguana and the cactus finch, a small bird which nests in, you guessed, cactus trees.

With nothing much else to see we headed to the town on foot for souvenir shopping. We spotted some really nice ornaments depicting the animals of Galapagos in a style similar to Gaudi. I think we would have bought the Boobie version except I was in charge of money and had left my credit cards back on the ship. So Em bought some beach stuff and we headed back, empty handed, to the ship for the farewell toast and dinner.

That is if we could get back. The sea was so rough that we needed to crawl out of the port and, as we approached the Silver Galapagos, the onboard team judged it unsafe for us to approach the steps. The previous night, our zodiac had run out of fuel just as we got to the ship and we had to be towed alongside. Now we were standing off waiting for the ship to manoeuvre as far as we could tell. Another zodiac approached from the town carrying mostly staff and so this less valuable cargo could be risked! They all got off with a fair bit of bouncing up and down and then their zodiac was used as a breakwater to let us come in. In the end we got onto the steps without incident.

Which is more than can be said for the passengers of Tip Top 2. The sixteen passenger tourist boat ran aground on rocks just off Tortuga Bay, Santa Cruz that morning before sunrise. The guests we think avoided the sea and were rescued minus belongings by our zodiac guys. Happens more often than we thought apparently.

Goodbye Silversea.

Our return trip to Quito was uneventful except that at the airport they had the exact same Boobie that we had seen and liked at Puerto Ayora. As we waited in line to check our bags, Di bought the Boobie. Di now found out that it could be partially disassembled using a screwdriver, as the shopkeeper proceeded to separate the wings from the body and the body from the stand. Carefully wrapped the Boobie would travel with us as hand luggage. Back at the hotel we had dinner in a nice restaurant and then off to bed early. It was to be a 05.30 start in the morning.

Panama

Arrival into Panama was smooth. Though it’s the only airport I have gone through where they finger print both hands as part of passport control. It felt like being admitted to prison. We were met by a slightly strange Swedish driver who drove us to the hotel. He had spent the last few weeks with the CIA as part of the Summit of the Americas. The U.S. brought ‘The Beast’. Its 8 inch thick doors weigh the same as a Boeing 737 cabin door so you don’t want to get your fingers trapped in one of these mothers. The Beast was accompanied by thirty or so large SUV cars. There were 33 other, probably equally paranoid, Presidents attending, so Panama was closed for three days. Those nice Cubans came too. Was this strange Scandinavian an imposter? We were told to expect a short swarthy looking guy in a Panama hat! Panama has the knack of unsettling you from the get go.

We took the elevator to the 15th floor reception at Trump and checked in. The rooms were nice enough though Emmie’s wasn’t ready so she got free breakfast for the week. It was an all you can eat lunch at the hotel. So we ate all we could eat then rolled up the 12 further stories to bed for siesta. Hung out at the hotel in the evening for fear of being followed by the Scandinavian and had drinks in the bar. A sad looking party of mostly guys on an adjacent 15th floor balcony fired off fireworks into the night sky….well, at us really.

Our guide arrived early the next morning. So we made him wait in true colonial style as we finished the all you can eat breakfast. Actually we intended to be on time but, as none of us had a watch, we relied on the breakfast waiter who did have a watch but who clearly couldn’t tell the time. Our guide was nonplussed though he got over it quickly. Unusual, I thought, in a region where grudges are darkly nursed until they can be settled fatally. We went to the Canal lake and took a boat to see monkeys, hawks, crocodiles before going to the Miraflores locks.

The Panama Canal is amazing. Started by The French at the end of the 19th Century and finished by the Americans in 1914, it cost the lives of thousands to construct. Earlier we had passed a memorial graveyard dedicated to the French workers who died here. It was more like a first world war graveyard in Northern France given the number of small white crosses planted in neat order there. Initially conceived as a flat canal by both the French and the Americans, the Continental Divide changed their minds and so they decided to lift massive ships some 85 feet in the air and drop them again at the other side.

For a ship sailing from New York to San Francisco, the 77km shortcut saves roughly 7800 miles and that’s worth a lot of money. So after the Americans returned the canal to the Panamanians in 1989 it became a major commercial asset. No longer prioritised by Military movement the canal company could encourage cargo and cruise vessels to pass through. It is now being extended to take wider and longer ships. The project is due for completion next year well ahead of the Chinese sponsored plans to build a second canal across the isthmus through Nicaragua. This project started at the end of last year and some say it will never be finished.

We watched the ships go through, took in the museum and decided against the film as we were getting hungry now. Alex, our guide, a short, swarthy looking guy took us to what he thought was an appropriate lunch spot. By now we were clear that Alex had a rich and poor issue and so this man of the people took us to a push tray restaurant called Nikos ( I think). “Horrific” is possibly the word most used on trip advisor to describe this establishment.

You pick three accompaniments from various slop dishes before bracing yourself for the main course. I avoided the putrefied whole fish ( sort of thing you’d expect to find at the penultimate stage of a cat food manufacturing process) in favour of the chilli con carne simply because it didn’t have a face. The cheesecake looked bought in. So I scooped that onto my tray before being cornered by Alex into trying the local juice…..a kind of smoothy made from the skin of pineapple and rice. It wasn’t important to remember what it was called since I would never order it again.

After eating lunch, which by the way was $37 for all four of us including drinks, funny how food poisoning is always affordable, we returned to the car park to find we were blocked front and back. Luckily the driver of the car in front appeared and, though not intending to leave, and only after being asked, moved his car and we were liberated.

We left for Ancon hill where we saw toucans and sloths and great views of the old town and the canal. Then it was back in the car for a drive along the causeway to see nice restaurants and the marina. We all thought this would be a good place to return for dinner that evening. We thought wrong.

After the causeway, we toured the old town and, since time was pressing, we stayed in the car telling Alex we would come back under our own steam sometime later. This was a sincere thought since some parts of the old town looked very nice. We didn’t expect to return as soon as we did nor did we expect what it would be like when we did.

Alex drove us back to the hotel for siesta before we got ready for dinner at the causeway. Our taxi driver who resembled Mr. T, didn’t speak any English really and our Spanish is sub conversational. So off we went, me in the front, struck dumb, and Emmie and Di in the back chatting, on our 10 minute taxi drive to the nice marina area. 45 minutes later, still in bumper to bumper traffic, and frankly every other part of a car to any item of street furniture you could mention, we decided to change destination to the old town which, loosed by adrenalin, my Spanish had determined, from Mr T, was nearby.

Prior to this we had attempted to ascertain if it would be easier to just go back to the hotel. This after the three of us had independently thought our driver was about to rush up a three lane road with traffic approaching so as to escape the wedge he had gotten himself into between two buses in front, three cars to the side and a massive horn blowing fourteen wheeler to our side rear. If we three thought it , he was going to do it. But just in time the buses moved and we squeezed cartoon like into the impossibly small jaws of the traffic queue ahead.

So it was with blue and white and red lights flashing everywhere and the queue going nowhere we diverted to the old town. Our approach was via the high rise bombed by the Americans when they flushed out Noriega in ‘89 leaving neighbourhoods which are unsafe even for regular Panamanians. At least the traffic was moving. Until, that is, we approached a roadblock with armed police. The young policeman slid his machine gun out of the way as he asked our driver for ID. He instructed the driver to roll down all the windows while he and his colleagues peered inside at us. This must be the tourist friendly police we had read so much about. The ones who had liberated the old town from the drug related cross fire so we could all walk about safely and dine in the admittedly nicely restored restaurants. The effect was more Palestine than Panama.

As our driver pulled away and curb crawled along the narrow, dark streets pointing out three restaurants which he would recommend and which Emma pointed out were all closed, we became more and more despondent. No, make that scared. He pulled up at a dead end decorated with dodgy young men hanging about looking dangerous. Mr T pointed to a corner eatery which at least was open, as evidenced by the neon frozen yoghurt sign in the door. By now the rear seat was so silent I judged that retreat was the best option. “Vamos Al hotel”. So $ 30 dollars poorer and still hungry we returned to Trump for a snack in the bar.

After that I periodically looked from our high rise windows to see what the traffic was doing. During the day when we wanted to be relaxing by the pool, it was OK but as evening fell, all you could see was red tail lights. By then we had concluded that the canal extension works hoarding temporarily ruined the causeway as a destination and the old town was sufficiently dodgy that we shouldn’t return.

It seems when the Panamanians say it is safe to walk around the old town, what they mean is that you are unlikely to be killed. We wanted so much more from our Al fresco dining experience. The absence of death as a result of drug gang crossfire was a good thing but we wanted stars, dim lights, singing waiters and promenading beautiful people to watch. So with the exception of the day we took the perpetual bus to the mall, we withdrew our liberty and stayed at the hotel. It was nice and we sorted our pictures and topped up our tans.

Homeward.

When the music stopped I was left holding the Boobie. We had been warned that the security staff at Panama airport were rude and aggressive. So you can imagine my horror when, as I struggled to reassemble my belongings, having passed through the body checker, I noticed the security guard was wresting the foam protection from the Boobie wings. Worse still, he seemed to be brandishing two colourful daggers at me saying something in Spanish. Something like, “no chance matey”. He kept stabbing the palm of his hand with the Boobie wings so as to demonstrate how lethal they could be. He didn’t draw any blood and, to be honest, they wouldn’t have been lethal. But they did look very dagger like and in today’s day and age, that was enough. So, with a good deal of sympathy for his position, I tried to argue that it was “ un ornamente de Galapagos, muy caro”. He wasn’t the negotiation type and other than asking me how much I had paid for the Boobie for his amusement, we were referred to his boss.

Em and Di had passed through the other lane by now and so Di and the Boss took up the discussion with the translation help of a fellow passenger. Once Di had explained to him that there was simply no way she would travel without her Boobie, a solution was found. My carry on luggage newly stuffed with the Boobie, was handed over to the KLM desk staff who were going to check it in for us thus saving Di the long route of clearing customs and immigration, going to the check in desk again and then clearing immigration again and then security, again!

The flight is shorter going east, we’d be home soon. Our memories would stay with us.

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