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Boobies, Iguanas, Giant Turtles and the Macarena

My June 2009 Galapagos Adventure with AA Partner, Ecoventura
By Dan Austin

It’s always easy to talk me into a tropical trip. When I got a call last March asking if I would be interested in joining a group of travelers to the Galápagos in June, it was a slam-dunk YES! Add the fact that it was going to be a special teen/parent trip arranged by our friend Doris Welsh of Ecoventura and would include five graduating high school seniors, and it was virtually a no-brainer. I’d been stressing about putting together an epic celebratory trip for my own 18 year old “soon to be graduate” son, Andy. This was the perfect solution. The fact that it would also have several teen girls along sold Andy in a heartbeat.

So that’s how it started. That’s how it seems to always start…with a simple call and an invitation. When you work with true professionals and experts (in this case Ecoventura), it’s really that easy. On most of the trips I take, however, I find myself having to do a lot of the planning (the majority of time I spend out of the office has to do with new trip development). It’s always an adventure, but the results are not usually predictable. This trip was a welcomed exception! Doris expertly handled every little detail – right down to the flights and hotels pre- and post-trip in Ecuador – and the result was awesome.

Andy and I left rainy Montana early on a Saturday morning, first to Minneapolis and then onto Miami. It was in Miami where we would catch up with the rest of the group for the flights to Ecuador and onto the Galápagos, 600 miles off the mainland coast.

A nice dinner at the airport, chance to catch up with a few old friends and past travelers and meet a few new ones and then it was all aboard Aerogal Airlines for our flight to Guayaquil, Ecuador. I have said it over and over again: the most reassuring thing any international traveler will ever see is that welcome sign being held high above the crowd at a busy airport by your smiling guide. This was no exception; it was late and I personally had no idea where we were going. A few short minutes later we were escorted to a van waiting curbside and whisked away to a welcome good night’s sleep at the impressive five star Hotel Oro Verde. Located in the heart of the commercial and banking district, the Hotel Oro Verde is the only member hotel of The Leading Hotels of the World in Ecuador and it deserves every star!

Sunday After a very pleasant breakfast buffet it was back in the shuttle van to the airport and again that very warm and welcome smile as our guide took care of every single detail and made sure our luggage was on the same plane as all of us. A little bit of time to kill was comfortably spent in the VIP Lounge, again arranged by Ecoventura. Then it was onboard an Aerogal flight to San Cristobal and the start of our adventure (OK the true start of our adventure). Quick note: Don’t be surprised when Aerogal officials come on board and spray down all the luggage compartments with insecticide to eliminate any unwanted flying visitors to the islands. It’s a way to keep the islands pristine and protected.

Upon arrival to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on SAN CRISTOBAL Island, our crew is there waiting at the airport to escort us to our anchored yacht – our home for the next seven nights. Ivan, our Naturalist Guide, was overrun with endless energy and enthusiasm and made everyone comfortable from the first hello. Once on board we had a simple welcome briefing, buffet lunch and safety drill, then we set sail for Playa Ochoa where we had our first wet landing. Quick note: You get to be a “landing” expert in rather short order…wet landing, dry landing, sort of wet landing, etc…it all comes down to wearing the right shoes.

Here, we test our snorkeling equipment and at the same time swim with a small colony of playful sea lions. Andy was in heaven! Those little pups came right up to within three inches of his mask, probably as fascinated by us as we were of them.

At sunset, we cruised around Kicker Rock (Leon Dormido), a vertical tuff cone formation that abruptly juts up almost 500 feet straight out of the ocean. On the cliffs, we spotted blue-footed boobies, masked boobies and magnificent frigate birds. Later that evening, the guides held a briefing followed by the Captain’s welcome party and toast.

Now remember this turned out to be a ship with just 20 guests (and 11 crew)…all experienced travelers and adventurers. But more important to the kids, there were 10 adults and 10 teens all between 17-19 years old. The kids bonded in a matter of minutes (actually before we ever left the airport) and it was obvious that the week ahead was going to be a fun time. Evenings up on the sun deck were filled with jokes, card games, laughter, iPods and star gazing. Occasionally even the adults were brave enough to let their hair down and join in.

Monday We spend the entire day on TOWER (Genovesa) Island, considered to be one of the most spectacular in Galápagos for varied bird species. This morning, we had a dry landing at Prince Philip’s Steps. At the guide’s suggestion, we split up. One boat went ashore with all the kids plus Ivan (dang I wanted to hang with that group). The other boat went ashore with the adults and naturalist guide Mauricio. Red-footed boobies nest here in Palo Santo trees and Nazca (formerly masked) boobies nest literally alongside the trail. In an open lava field, we found storm petrels in large numbers. We were told we would be lucky if we spotted the elusive short-eared owl; well our group spotted four of them! Back on board it was siesta time…something I got quite good at…

That afternoon, we had wet-landing on Darwin Bay, a coral sand beach where swallow-tailed and lava gulls gathered near the tide pools. We entered a forest of Optuntia cactus and mangroves where colonies of great frigate birds nest. The male frigates inflate their red-throated pouches to attract females as they fly overhead. It seemed to be working. The trail then lead through a rich inter tidal zone where we found a wide diversity of wildlife. After the walk, we swam and snorkeled from the beach with sea lions once again. The water temperature (74 degrees F) was perfect. Here the kids found their first white-tipped reef shark, much to the pleasure of the boys! We weighed anchor early to motor to the distant western islands during which we had the nightly briefing on tomorrow’s activities, followed by another superb dinner.

Tuesday This morning, after some whale sightings, we had a semi-wet landing at Punta Espinoza, FERNANDINA, the youngest and most pristine Island in Galápagos. Recent lava flows formed by an active volcano stretch their way around the rugged coast. Hundreds (maybe thousands) of marine iguanas, the largest colony in Galápagos, basked in the sun along the salt-sprayed shoreline. We observed sea lion harems with resident bulls carefully guarding their territory with loud barks. The strangest bird we saw was the Flightless Cormorant nesting on the point, and overhead a Galápagos Hawk was seen with a hopeless iguana in its talons. After lunch back on board, we crossed the Bolivar Chanel to nearby ISABELA, the largest island in the archipelago.

In the afternoon, after some diving off the sun deck into the water by all the young at heart (yes, I dove the 35’ not to be seen as a wuss) we had a dry landing at Tagus Cove, where we divided again into two small groups for inland exploration. During the walk, we discovered a salt-water lagoon, then climbed higher for a scenic overlook with a spectacular view of the ocean. Everywhere we looked were lava fields and volcanic formations and our guide pointed out some giant tortoise poop (harbinger of things to come).

We then boarded our Zodiacs for a nature cruise along the cliffs. Graffiti dating back to the 1800′s could be seen written on the rocks. We spotted endemic Galápagos penguins, all kinds of boobies, pelicans and other seabirds.

We pulled up the anchor and headed north to our next anchorage. Not 10 minutes into the passage someone yelled “DOLPHINS!” A sight more powerful than words will ever describe, we watched and clicked cameras in a trance as a pod of 50 Common Dolphins streaked and leapt what looked like 8 feet into the air – alone, in pairs and in multiples of threes and fours. All I can say is, “WOW!”

After the show we had our briefing and dinner the kids then disappeared to the rooftop deck and a sky full of stars. I tried again in vain to tackle a book I brought (the best sleeping pill I’ve ever found).

Wednesday This morning, we had a wet landing at Puerto Egas, SANTIAGO (James Island). We strolled along the shoreline looking for octopus, starfish and other sea life caught in the tide pools. Perfectly orchestrated to fall during low tide, we watched marine iguanas as they fed on exposed green algae. Ivan and Mauricio pointed out great blue herons, lava herons, American oystercatchers and yellow-crowned night herons. Our walk ended at the grottos, deep pools of clear water where we encountered fur sea lions (once on the verge of extinction), as well as sea turtles enjoying the warm pools. Before returning to the yacht, we had another snorkeling opportunity with loads of tropical, neon-colored fish. During lunch, the yacht motored to the other side of the Island.

Located off the Southern tip of Santiago, SOMBRERO CHINO or Chinese Hat owes its name to its unique shape. Here we split into two groups; snorkeler and hikers. I went hiking. After a wet beach landing amid ever-present sea lions, the trail gave way to a primeval landscape of volcanic rubble including cracked lava formations and lava tubes. The lava tubes are fragile and we were told to be careful and stay on the trail. We found more marine iguanas and at least one pair of oystercatchers. Hot and ready for a swim we splashed in the water until the Zodiac returned to pick us up. Aboard we immediately saw it was to be a very special night.

Balloons and a ‘Happy Birthday” banner adorned the dining room. It turned out to be one of our fellow guests, Christine’s, birthday! Lucky us! Ivan our “beloved guide” disappeared only to return as “Ivan – The Internationally-Known Ecuadorian Singing Sensation.” He and two members of the crew entertained the birthday girl with numerous songs. I think the Macarena is the same in any language. Dave started a Congo Line that quickly circled the boat. Even Captain Peter got into the act with a less than in tune love song. After the “dinner show” we fell off to dreamland.

Thursday On BARTOLOME island, it seemed like we were walking on the moon. This young Island is inhospitable to most plants and animals but what it lacks in life it more than makes up in surreal scenery. After a dry landing, we climbed (was it 438 steps?) up a wooden staircase leading to the summit of a once active volcano. Along the way, our guides pointed out lava bombs, spatter cones and cinder cones. From the top platform, we gazed out across the island panorama and the iconic view of “Pinnacle Rock”, an eroded tuff cone (did you see Russell Crowe’s Master & Commander?).

Returning to the ship we grabbed our snorkel gear and hit the rocks below the “Pinnacle” to splash around with a ton of schooling fish, a huge shark and Galápagos Penguins. Some others saw sea turtles and a few rays.

That afternoon, we had a dry landing at North Seymour, a small geological uplift. We followed a trail in the scorching sun that led us to swallow-tailed gulls, blue-footed boobies and the endemic land iguanas. We visited the largest colony of magnificent frigate birds found in Galápagos. Then it was time to relax back at the yacht. The kids watched a movie after dinner as I called for an early bedtime.

Friday This morning we found ourselves anchored outside of the largest town in the Galápagos, Puerto Ayora (population 20,000). We went ashore and boarded a bus for a short ride to the highlands of SANTA CRUZ Island. The scenery gradually changed as we wound our way through all seven vegetation zones found in the Galápagos. Here, we visited a giant tortoise reserve at a private farm in the highlands. What a thrill to encounter giant tortoises in their natural habitat! One of the boys crawled into a tortoise shell at the discovery center and posed for too many pictures. Later we visit Los Gemelos, Spanish for “The Twins”, a pair of large pit craters where we spotted the bright red male vermilion flycatcher. On the road back to town we stopped at “the tunnels” and walked (and at one point – crawled) through the largest lava tube found in Galápagos.

After lunch on board, we disembarked again and visited the Charles Darwin Research Station. We saw tortoise corals and the breeding center with new hatchlings and miniature tortoises not yet ready to be repatriated. One of our group HAD to see Lonesome George, the last surviving member of the Pinta Island subspecies. So we didn’t leave until he appeared. Then we were on our own for shopping and dinner in town. Andy and I immediately hit the Internet Café followed by row after row of shops with all the usual Yankee tourist stuff. I did pick up some t-shirts and a block of the best dark chocolate I’ve ever had! Dinner at “The Rock” was a nice change from the usual yacht fare (not that I’m complaining).

Saturday This morning we had a dry landing at Punta Suarez, ESPANOLA, where we had the usual bevy of sea lions noisily greet us as we landed on their beach. Here we saw the magnificent (and huge) waved albatross (found only on Espanola) perform their wild mating ritual. Andy made a short video to show his girlfriend. Amid all the rocks, sea spray and noise colonies of blue-footed boobies engaged in “sky-pointing” to show off for potential mates. Nazca boobies cared for their fuzzy little young. And red-billed tropicbirds zoomed around under the cliffs.

Ivan was quick to point out a Galápagos Hawk and a strange specie of marine iguana identified with traces of red and green colorings. Colorful sally light-foot crabs crawled along the shoreline near to the famous “blow hole.” This is the scene most people envision when they decide to visit Galápagos. During lunch, we motored to the other side of the Island.

On our last afternoon in Galápagos, we had a wet landing on Gardner Bay, ESPANOLA (Hood Island). It was the most beautiful beach we had seen – perfect for a little yoga, sunning and splashing in the waves. The kids (at my urging) built a human pyramid that quickly fell apart into a mess of arms and legs. Swimming with sea lions from the beach was a hit. Back on board, we enjoyed the Captain’s farewell cocktail followed by dinner of shrimp and turkey. Then it was time for our final briefing. Everyone was a bit sad that our adventure was coming to a close.

Sunday This morning, we dropped anchor in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, SAN CRISTOBAL where it all began 8 days ago. We visited the new Interpretation Center opened in 1999. Here, amid some very nicely done exhibits, we gained a more complete understanding of the natural and human history of the Islands. As usual, man’s impact was not something to be proud of. Thank goodness people eventually had the foresight to stop the illegal hunting and fishing and habitat destruction in time to save and preserve most of this natural gem.

After some more last minute shopping, we headed to the airport for our flight back to the mainland. Upon arrival in Guayaquil, we transferred to the Hotel Oro Verde for an overnight.

Monday We awoke to a buffet breakfast at the hotel. We then transferred to the airport for our flight back to Miami and the “too real” world.

Arriving in Miami at 5:30 pm, clearing customs and getting our bags didn’t leave enough time to catch a flight back to Montana so a few of us make the trip downtown to enjoy one last meal together, we found a great Cuban restaurant and even managed to fill Andy up! The airport motel was forgetful.

Tuesday Up at dawn we headed back to the airport and made our way back to Montana.

Now there were a few things I learned along the way on this trip. Yes, I learned about the Blue Footed Boobies and the mating rituals of the Albatross, but that’s not it. I really learned that kids and technology go hand in hand. Since our trip this group of kids has been trading pictures and stories nonstop on Facebook. The communities of Twitter, Facebook and My Space really facilitate a connected bunch of new friends. The old days of waiting to have your pictures developed and then pasting them in an album are long gone (thank goodness). It’s now instant in a blink of an eye and you can even add captions, slide show effects and music. They are immediately live on the Internet for all to see, all over the world!

Isn’t technology grand? Our gang of new friends are now staying in touch and reliving all those great memories spent on board the “Eric”. And they didn’t even mind us parents going along to keep an eye on things.

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