Puerto Ayora, January 1st 12:01 AM
I awoke to a loud bang. I sprang out of bed and ran out the door to see what was going on. I saw hundreds of people running in the streets, fireworks flying around and open flames all throughout the city. “Are we under attack?” I yelled, not fully awake yet.
My girlfriend reminded me that this was just the New Years Festivities where the people of Ecuador burned life sized mannequins as a way to welcome the new year. You can see how seeing flames in the shape of people around the city streets could be a startling way to wake up. Once I calmed down, I was able to head back to sleep. We had a busy day planned tomorrow, we would explore the entire Island of Santa Cruz.
First thing in the morning, we started on our journey to Tortuga bay, apparently one of the best beaches on the island. It is also the best place to see the marine Iguanas. Just a quick little side note, before I came to the Galapagos, I was wondering whether or not I would get to see a marine Iguana, or at least I thought I would have to go out of my way to see them. They are everywhere here! You pretty much have to watch where you step there are so many of them. You can find them right by the waters edge, basking in the warmth of the sun. They usually come in groups as well. There are a few roaming gangs of marine iguanas in Puerto Ayora and there can be as many as 17 in one group. Although they prefer hard rocky surfaces, in Tortuga bay you can find them just walking along the beach! It’s a little out of place to see these guys walking around in the sand, but when you do you just want to take so many pictures of them. Just don't get too close! The general rule in the Galapagos is that you have to be about 6 feet away from the animals. If you get any closer than that, they get disturbed and they start to move away from you.
The walk to the beach was along this beautiful brick path, surrounded by cacti and dry shrubs. This was a reminder that we were basically in a desert. When people think of the Galapagos they think lush and tropical, but it is actually quite dry. Even the path over to the beach was filled with wildlife. A few lava lizards scampered across the warm brick path as we walked by. A few finches also stopped by to say hello. It was so cool to see these birds fly over to a cactus flower and pry it apart with their beaks. As you may know, these birds were the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. When he was in the Galapagos, he studied these birds and determined that each species of finch had a different shaped beak to eat different types of food. Some had strong powerful beaks for crushing seeds, others had narrow beaks for reaching into small places. These cactus finches just happened to have the perfect beak for feeding on seeds in the cactus as well as the fruit that grows on it. It was so cool to watch these guys in action. I think it's the things that most people overlook that end up being the most incredible.
As soon as we got to the beach, I was struck with the blinding light. I had forgotten to bring sunglasses on this trip and bright sun reflecting off the white sand and ocean almost blinded me. It was pretty much just white as far as the eye could see, or at least that's what it looked like to me. I noticed a few small black figures in the distance. Sure enough, the marine iguanas were out to play! A few of them were walking down the beach, a few were sun bathing on the rocks and some of them were swimming in the water! It's a pretty weird site to see a small figure iguana out in the waves and then watch it get closer and closer to you until it eventually walks out onto the beach. They almost look like miniature Godzillas, and it would be quite a creepy site if it weren’t so adorable. We hung out here for about an hour, watching the iguanas and swimming in the tide pools. They say that the water here is too dangerous to swim so we didn’t, except for a quick little dip in the waves. At the end of the beach, there is a shallow inlet where a lot of kids and snorkelers were hanging out. We swam here for a little while, but being that the water was so shallow, it was very warm and didn’t offer much of a refuge from the sun. To the side of the bay was a small cactus forest filled with fruiting cacti and finches. Walking through here was when it really hit me that I was in a different part of the world. I had already been exposed to so much that I never thought I would experience. There were some amazing views here, and it was only just the beginning. I knew so much was waiting to be explored on this Island. After saying goodbye to our new reptilian friends, we headed back into town to prepare for our next adventure.
We rented a cab for the day so we could get around the island quickly. For those of you wondering about the infrastructure on this Island, yes there are cabs here. Once you get into Puerto Ayora, it feels like a pretty regular town. There are restaurants, a grocery store or two and a few internet cafes. There is really not much in the way of hot water on the island, but after taking cold showers for a full year, I was used to it. There is one cab company, and this is the best way to travel long distances around Santa Cruz. You can also rent bikes, but that is a better move if you are on Isabela.
We took the cab to El Chato Tortoise reserve. This is the one spot on the Island where pretty much all the tortoises come through. There are a few hundred here, and for just $3 you can go on a mini safari and see however many you want! Just like with all of the other animals, you have to stay 5-6 feet away from them, but that is definitely close enough to admire them. These animals are huge. I’ve seen a few tortoises before, but none like this. These are the largest tortoises in the world, and if you really want to see how big they are, they keep 2 shells by the front of the reserve. You could pretty much fit two people inside the shell, it’s like the size of a dog house. We had so much fun seeing these guys in their natural habitats. Grazing, bathing and even fighting! Two males squared off against one another and began hissing. They started moving towards one another, but in all honesty, I got bored before I could see the end of the fight. Even at their fastest, tortoises move at a glacial pace, and I couldn’t really justify investing an hour of our day into watching the conclusion. We must’ve seen at least 30 tortoises here, and my girlfriend got a picture so good it could be in a magazine!
Our next destination was the Lava tubes. Another fun fact about the Galapagos islands is that the entire landmass is perforated like Swiss cheese. There are miles of underground tunnels that are formed when the hot magma mixed with the cold seawater and rapidly cooled. Although many of these tunnels are not accessible from the surface, we knew of at least one that was. We descended down this vertical staircase into the earth, and began to walk through the cool damp tunnel, not knowing full well where it would lead. Our ride was waiting for us at the other side, so if we couldn’t make it through the tunnel, we had no way of getting home! It wasn’t quite as scary as it sounds. The tunnel was well lit and although there were some rock scrambles, it was all very manageable. Then we hit a wall, literally. There was a wall in our way and we had seen a few people turning back saying that they reached the end. “End?” I wondered. How could there be an end of the tunnel if our guy said he would meet us on the other side. There must be a way past this I thought to myself. Then I noticed it! There was a thin blue mat laying on the floor of the cave, right underneath the wall. It was not actually a wall, in fact it was a very narrow passage way that you had lay down and army crawl through. I threw my backpack to the otherside of the passageway and crawled through. Eventually we made it to the other side of the tunnel where our driver was waiting for us. He took us all around the island. We saw tortoises and Lava tubes and even a few of the islands famous craters. There were some amazing views on this trip and we really felt like we had seen a lot of the island. It was a good thing too because tomorrow we would be exploring a new island; Isabela.