We had already seen so much in the Galapagos, but we still had 2 full days left! On one of the days we decided we would just explore more of Santa Cruz, because there was still a lot to see in town. Las Grietas was one of our top destinations for the trip, so we decided to head there first.
Las Grietas is a water filled canyon near Puerto Ayora that offered great swimming and beautiful views of fish in the crystal clear turquoise water. The trip over there was an adventure in and of itself. We had to take a water taxi to the other side of Puerto Ayora and then cut through a few residential areas. Here we saw a more luxurious side of the Galapagos. These large houses and private beaches were no doubt reserved for wealthy tourists who wanted to see a new country without leaving any of their comforts behind. This type of vacation isn’t a good fit for me (or my bank account) and I am very glad that we had the opportunity to see these places first hand, rather than watching them from an armchair out on a deck.
After walking through these areas, we came across something I had never seen before. There were salt flats just outside of Las Grietas where people were harvesting square tiles of salt from the dried up earth. This was really cool to see, and it took me a little while to figure out what it was exactly. It was a small operation, only a couple of acres, but definitely enough to produce a good amount of salt for the island. After passing through this, we began the final trek along a scorched path through the desert. This was a really cool part of the island because the dirt was a bright orange color, which contrasted with the green cacti to produce a cool desert scene. As soon as we got to Las Grietas, the first thing we noticed was the color of the water. It was unlike anything I had seen before. The water from the ocean floods this canyon to produce a bright turquoise pool swimming with life. As soon as you jump in here, your view will be filled with schools of tiny fish. As you dive down and swim deeper into the canyon, you will notice all sorts of other colorful fish swimming among the rocks and crevasses. It may appear as if the water is shallow, but it is actually quite deep. Once you start diving down, you feel like you are in the ocean. Because Las Grietas is fed by the ocean it is tidal, so everything can change depending on what time of day you go. I was able to swim all the way to the end and back, a feat that not many people attempted. There are a few rock walls that emerge at different parts of the journey that may seem difficult to pass, but there is usually a way to crawl over them.
Later that day, we headed to Las Nimfas, a small preserve located right in Puerto Ayora. There was a beautiful blue lagoon surrounded by mangroves and inside was an abundance of wildlife. There are mostly fish and birds here, but there is the occasional sighting of a sea lion at Las Nimfas. This definitely isn’t enough to be the main activity of the day, but if you are looking for a nice walk to do in the afternoon that’s not too sunny, this is a great spot.
Later that evening we saw a few cool spots in town like the fish market and the ceramic garden. The fish market is where they prepare a lot of the fish during the day. The reason why this is a popular destination is it draws a lot of attention from the local animals! There are sea lions and pelicans that come over to feed on some of the scraps the fishers throw away. The ceramic garden is an art garden showcasing local art made from ceramics. Here you can find a beautiful mural of some of the endemic species. I have to admit, my expectations were pretty low when I walked in here but I was blown away by how amazing the art is. After walking through the garden, we reached a small little inlet where we could watch the sunset and a little sea turtle poking his head out of the water.
After wandering past a few restaurants on Charles Binford street, one of the main drags for restaurants in Puerto Ayora, we went to bed and prepared for our most exciting journey yet; Isla Seymour Norte. In the morning we took a bus to the north part of the island and boarded a boat that would take us to Seymour Norte, and Island north of Baltra and Santa Cruz. Seymour Norte is home to major nesting colonies of blue footed boobies, frigate birds and many others. Because of the great experience I had on the last boat ride we took, I decided to head up to the top to get a good vantage point of all the wildlife. It was only a short while before I saw a mating pair of sea turtles, something I had never seen before! Minutes later we saw another pair. These two turtles were bound together forming a little ball shape just floating in the water. It was so funny to see! There were also a ton of sharks in this area, and this time we were close enough to see their whole bodies, not just the fins. Here it was easy to distinguish the hammerheads from the Galapagos sharks.
We took a small little skiff to the island and began to follow the tour guide around, seeing various nesting birds. We noticed a juvenile blue-footed booby just sitting on the sand. We thought it was so silly that this bird was just sitting on the ground, 8 feet away from us with no intention of moving. Our guide told us that he is waiting for his parents to come back from a day of fishing. Later we saw an adult blue-footed booby, and because it was everyone’s first time seeing this famous bird, a crowd of about 10 people formed around it to get a perfect picture. The bird didn’t seem to care at all, maybe he even liked the attention!
With the blue-footed booby checked off the list, there was one last thing we came to see. Although frigate birds are very common throughout the world, what isn’t common is to see the males with a fully inflated pouch. When the males are trying to attract mates, and only when they are trying to attract mates, they inflate their bright red pouch. When inflated, the pouch can be about the size of a basketball and it is truly an unusual phenomenon in the bird world. There were still no signs of these bright red basketballs until suddenly I saw one in the distance! We made our way over, took a few pics, but we must have frighten them because before we knew it, we were being attacked by a group of frigates! They never pecked us but a few of the males began to swoop down just a couple of feet from my face. Haven’t these guys heard of the 6 foot rule!?
This seemed like a good opportunity to get back onto our boat and head to our next destination, which would soon become a clear highlight of the trip. We docked just outside of a small sandy island off the coast of Isla de Baltra and got on a dinghy. We were told that we were going to see a colony of sea lions that were friendly to people. This was a bit of an understatement. These guys loved people! As soon as we were in view of the shore, a group of sea lions came out to greet us. I kid you not, they were trying to climb into the boat to play with us, that’s how friendly they were. Once we got to the beach, we put our snorkels on and started to swim with them. What was odd to me was that these sea lions seemed to understand the rules of the game. They would chase us and nip at our flippers but as soon as I stood up out of the water, they new the game was over. This was more than just them responding to stimuli, this was a clear game between two species who had a mutual respect for one another. I had so much fun being a part of their games. One of the most fascinating experiences I had was when I found a leaf and I pushed it out to one of the sea lions. I then watched for about 10 minutes as the sea lion tossed it to herself, catching it in her mouth and throwing it again. It was very clear that these animals enjoyed their lives here, and I think that is such a precious thing.
Back at the shore, things were getting pretty chaotic. The structure of this small group of sea lions was one male or “beach master” would have a harem of females to mate with. The male would stay on the beach to protect the family from other males that would attempt to come onto the beach. The females would be out in the water finding food or entertaining the new guests and the babies would hang out in the tide pools safe from danger. This was like a family sitcom, and some of the pups would frequently misbehave and have their moms chase them up the beach. The male sea lion would spend the entire day barking up and down the beach, presumably saying “I’m the boss, I’m the boss, I’m the boss”. It was so silly to see all of this play out. I would sometimes sit in the tidepools next to the pups and watch the drama. At one point, another male came to the beach and the beach master didn’t like that one bit. It became very clear that everything up until this point was just play fighting, because the two of them began to fight for real and beat their tails in the water so furiously that it sounded like a motorboat. The male soon emerged victorious, and the challenger swam off hoping to colonize some other beach that wasn’t so heavily guarded. I was so grateful for the opportunity to see all of this. I learned so much and had so much fun playing with the sea lions and watching the pups taking little naps in the tide pools. Unfortunately, all things must come to an end, and we were soon taken back to the boat where we would have our lunch and share our experiences of the trip and of travel in general.
This lunch together and the boat ride home were a great way to reflect on everything we’ve seen on this trip. We got to see marine iguanas, flamingos, turtles, manta rays, sharks, frigate birds, penguins, blue footed boobies, giant tortoises, sea lions and so much more. This island is really such a magical place, and I really hope it stays that way forever. On the way home, we flew through Guayaquil, and had a long layover awaiting our flight out of Ecuador. After a few changes in flight plans, we were a little frustrated, but it was hard to be upset knowing what a magical trip we had. On the airport PA system I heard “Will Klingner, please report to gate D.” “Maybe you got an upgrade” my girlfriend said, hopefully. I was excited about this, so I headed over to the desk and spoke with the man there. “I was told to speak with you, but I’m not quite sure why” I said. “Yes. The police said they want to look into your bag” he said. My heart dropped, and in that moment all became clear. “The tea!” I said, panicking a bit. The tea that I had bought just a few days ago was illegal in the U.S and that was exactly where we were going! My girlfriend tried to calm me down, assuring me it could just be a random security check. I breathed a sigh of relief, and started to head where the man at the desk had prompted me to go. He had told me to walk all the way to the end of the airport and take the last door on the left. The only door I saw had a big label on it saying “Narcotics Trafficking”. Oh boy, it would take a lot to talk my way out of this one I thought. I walked down the stairs, trying to ignore the scary signs I saw like “beware of the dogs”. This was truly a frightening place, in the basement of the airport, surrounded by security officers and large machines. One of the officers said that two separate people would be inspecting my bag, to ensure the search was thorough. A man began to open up my luggage, patting it down in search of any secret compartments or false bottoms. He then took out some of my sunblock and began to smell it (talk about thorough). After carefully examining each part of my luggage content, including the tea, he found nothing of concern. And after the second inspection, I was free to go. It seemed as though the law enforcement in Ecuador did not care about the tea, so I was clean.
On the plane ride to Miami, I reflected, not just on the trip, but on the past couple of hours. “That was a close one!” I thought. Never again will I attempt something like this. Smuggling coca tea from South America to Miami is as close to Pablo Escobar as I ever want to be. Other than this little debacle, the whole trip was incredible. With a lot of trips, you expect to see so much and you end up only getting to see a fraction of what you wanted to but on this trip I easily got to see twice as much as I ever thought possible. Not only did we get to see every animal on our list, but we also got to experience the city of Quito, which may not have been possible without our change in flight plans. I am so glad that things worked out the way they did. It became clear that the real travel began once our initial plans fell through. There is an important lesson here, and one I definitely won’t forget.