Thursday, July 16, 2009

Las Islas Encantadas

After devouring our dinner on Friday night and seeking out some well-deserved ice cream, the group returned to the hotel for On Assignment meetings. While Photography students held a critique of selected photographs, the Wildlife and Conservation group met to discuss some of the problems facing the Galapagos Archipelago, including invasive species and global warming. Exhausted from our day of boating, walking, body surfing, and beach bumming, we went to bed after our meetings.

Waking up early on Saturday, we headed to the Charles Darwin Research Station to visit Lonesome George, the last remaining tortoise from Isla Pinta. While touring the grounds, we also saw the Galapagos Land Iguana, as well as l tortoises from islands other than Pinta. We not only learned about the invasive species threatening the remaining populations of tortoises, but also about how a tortoise’s shell can reveal from which island it originated. (Quiz your kids when they get back!)

After a nice lunch across the street from the fish market, where we were able to see numerous pelicans, frigate birds, and Sally light-foot crabs, we embarked on our last boat ride of the trip. Just a half hour from Santa Cruz’s Puerto Ayora, we made a quick stop along the coast of Santa Fe, an uninhabited island, for some shallow snorkeling. We then continued on to San Cristobal, the oldest island in the archipelago and our final destination.

Landing in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, the capital of Galapagos, the students were astounded by the quantity of lobos marinos (sea lions) sprawled along the beaches and Malecon (boardwalk). Having the largest sea lion population of the four inhabited islands, San Cristobal even has a beach named after the friendly mammals: La Loberia.

Following our arrival, we went to our hotel to unpack and then explored some of the town before dinner. As has become custom after a meal (be it breakfast, lunch or dinner!), the students quickly scurried off to find the nearest heladeria (ice cream shop) and spent some more time watching the mesmerizing sea lions along the beach.

Sunday morning we visited the Centro de Interpretacion, where we learned about the history of the archipelago, including Isabela´s dark side and Floreana´s famous mail system. Though the center had detailed historical tales to read, our visit was made all the more special as Pablo was able to put a personal touch on many of the stories.

We passed the afternoon on Playa Mann, where everyone relaxed, went swimming and met some of the local Galapaguenos. After a stop at Sula Sula for another round of ice cream cones, part of the group strolled along the Malecon and slowly made their way back to the hotel, while the others walked to Punta Carola, where they snorkeled and spotted at least six green sea turtles.

Monday was spent snorkeling along the coast of San Cristobal. Our first stop was Isla Lobos, a small, shallow islet famous for its inquisitive colony of sea lions, many which did not hesitate to tag along with our group. We then boated to Leon Dormido, a volcanic-rock formation divided by a narrow channel. Snorkeling through the channel, we investigated the flat, vertical wall, which was teeming with various species of fish and coral. Looking down, the students realized that we were finally swimming with sharks! Though we did not come across any hammerhead sharks, we spotted numerous Galapagos sharks swimming along the bottom of the channel. Snorkeling around the outer edge of the rock formation, we saw at least 9 green sea turtles before returning to our boat.

From Leon Dormido, we boated to Puerto Grande, where we walked along the beach and were quizzed on what types of mangroves were present. At Pablo´s request, we all sat down for a moment of silence, listening to the waves and enjoying the calm breeze. We then had lunch on our boat, after which the students went for a swim and happened across puffer fish feeding on a shark carcass. Life in Galapagos is never dull! After a dance-party dinner (Michael Jackson´s greatest hits were playing on the t.v.), the students meandered along the Malecon, taking in their last hours of Galapagos.

Tuesday morning some of the group headed to Tijeretas, a nice cove past Punta Carola, for some sunrise photography. Returning in time for breakfast, they joined the rest of us as we packed up our bags and spent our final two hours on the Malecon- either eating ice cream, last-minute shopping, or watching Pablo dance salsa. With a final goodbye, we boarded our plane to Quito and were back on the mainland before we knew it.

This morning we took the teleférico up the side of one of Quito´s surrounding mountains. With relatively clear skies, we had an incredible view of Quito and three of the near-by, snow-capped volcanoes, including Cotopaxi. Though the increased altitude did not sit well with everyone, the view was worth it.

This afternoon the students are finishing up their On Assignment projects, which will be presented this evening. Tomorrow morning we say a final goodbye to Ecuador and return to the U.S.- possibly teary eyed, but with some fantastic memories!

Alex & Jes

Students with National Geographic Expert Greg Marshall at the Mitad del Mundo: the equator.

The front yard of our Hacienda near Volcan Cotopaxi, in the páramo.

Students who braved a ten mile hike up the rim of a volcano
onto a lava field in Isabela, Galapagos islands.

On San Cristobal in the Galapagos Islands

On San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands

The group, with leaders Alex and Jes in the foreground, boarding a boat
en route to Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands.