Friday 26 August 2016

Travel review: Galapagos Islands and Finch Bay Eco Hotel Part 2

Part 2 of my travel review of the Galapagos islands, where we were based out of the Finch Bay Eco hotel in Santa Cruz.

Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz

Thinking that the sightseeing might be quite tiring (it was) we had decided to leave ourselves one day free to chill out in the hotel. Unfortunately there was never much sun at the hotel (though when we walked around other islands it was blazing hot – it all depends on which island you’re on) so I didn’t go in the pool but we enjoyed ourselves reading and just lazing around.

We took the water taxi into Puerto Ayora at lunchtime, thinking we would wander around the shops and find somewhere different to eat (I’m not used to eating in the same hotel all the time, and it was expensive but a lot more convenient). What I didn’t realise is that most of the shops closed between 12 and 2! We did do a little bit of souvenir shopping and had a nice lunch at a place next to the harbour called Café Hernan. There was a big menu with a lot of choice including a large selection of pizzas and even a ‘create your own’ pizza section – so my husband had a margherita and I created a prawn and tuna pizza which was delicious and really hit the spot. It was a lot cheaper than eating in our hotel restaurant as well!

That evening we were still so full from lunch that we didn’t want a big dinner, and there wasn’t really anything on the bar snack menu my husband would eat – the one thing this hotel is missing is a mini bar or a place to get snacks!

Santa Fe
After our day of relaxing in the hotel and exploring Puerto Ayora, I was a bit nervous about the boat trip to Santa Fe but the seasickness tablets seemed to work. We left straight from the hotel dock on the Sea Lion and sailed for two hours –it was a bit choppy but not too bad – and we did a wet landing onto a beach.
As we approached the beach in the panga I could see what looked like a lot of large, smooth rocks along the shoreline… as we got closer, I realised they were sealions! There were so many and they were right along the beach where we were stopping; we hopped over the side of the panga (barefoot, carrying our shoes) and waded through a foot or so of water to get to the sandy beach.


There, some of the sealions turned in our direction, decided we weren’t particularly interesting and went back to sunbathing, while a few bounded merrily in our direction. They tell you to stay 6 feet away from the wildlife in the Galapagos  but they don’t tell that to the wildlife! So these friendly, curious sealions frolicked among us in the waves, stole someone’s trainer and started to play with it, and generally seemed quite happy to see us. It was amazing being in such close proximity to the animals!
When we could finally tear ourselves away, we walked along a short track to another part of the beach where we saw some iguanas, a species that can only be found on Santa Fe, then went back via the beach to the panga.
We went snorkelling, off the panga again, but I knew what to expect and this time had a mask that didn’t leak, so I really enjoyed myself. We snorkelled along the rocks around the island and were joined by a few sea lions who were swimming backwards and forwards between us, it was brilliant!
I came up at one point to clear my mask and saw the panga, which had been quite close by, speed off towards another group of swimmers – I wondered briefly if they had forgotten about us and were leaving then realised the swimmers were just getting into the boat. The panga then came over to us and I figured we were done snorkelling and had to go back, so I went to get in. They tell you every time to take your fins off before climbing up the steps and every time I struggled, which happened again; they didn’t seem to have any sense of urgency and my husband was still in the water behind me so I was shocked when I got into the panga and was asked if I had seen the shark – what shark? Apparently the guide had spotted a bull shark swimming right past him – they are known to be very aggressive and responsible for most shark attacks on humans, so he made everyone get out of the water. I’m glad he hadn’t panicked us but wished he had told us we needed to hurry up as I was taking such a long time to get my fins off, I probably risked coming back from my honeymoon a widow! I don’t think we were ever in any real danger but bull sharks are not seen every day and it’s really not a good idea to be in the water when one is nearby!
I quickly put the close encounter out of my mind as they were serving lunch on board; we had chicken and spaghetti and I managed to sit on the top deck enjoying the two hour sail back without feeling sea sick, though I was so tired that I had a nap when we got back to the hotel! Once again we decided to opt for convenience and eat dinner in our hotel, I tried the beef steak with chimmichurri, which was really good.

Santa Cruz – Charles Darwin Research Station and El Manzanillo tortoises
The island that we were staying on is home to the Charles Darwin Research Station, which I really wanted to go to – Charles Darwin went to my Cambridge college and there’s a big statue of him in part of the gardens, and it’s pretty cool to think I am sort of following in his footsteps.

There isn’t actually much to see at the Research Station in terms of the work that is being done in the Galapagos – there were a few signs and videos to watch, and a surprisingly small museum and gift shop. The first thing you see in the museum is the giant skeleton of a Bryde’s whale, which our guide Fabien pointed out to us. Then we noticed a small photo of the young man, a research ship captain I think, who had discovered the dead whale about 20 years ago – and realised it was Fabien himself!

The biggest attraction for most tourists at the Research Station is the giant tortoises. They have a breeding programme and are trying to bring a particular breed of tortoise back from the brink of extinction. The most famous of these, Lonesome George, died in 2012 at the grand old age of over 100 (so it is believed). He was the last Pinta Island giant tortoise, a species that is now extinct.
Diego now rules the roost as the most famous inhabitant; he is a 130 ish-year-old Espanola toirtoise, who was found in San Diego zoo in the 1970s and returned to the Galapagos islands. He is estimated to have fathered about 1,700 children, so not much chance of that species dying out!

There are a few enclosures with different giant tortoises and they are really interesting to watch close-up, though we did also get to see them in the wild later.
We went there on a guided tour from our hotel and Fabian was very good but it’s worth knowing that you can visit the Research Station without a guide as there is plenty of information and it’s walking distance from the town centre of Puerto Ayora.

But even if we’d found this place ourselves, I don’t think we’d have found our way to the El Manzanillo ranch, where Fabian took us afterwards. We drove into the highlands of the island and turned along a bumpy track, which took us up to a ranch. Along the way we saw what is apparently the only ‘tortoise crossing’ sign in the world (to add to my collection of ones I’ve seen for deer, cows and ducks!) and a couple of giant tortoises ambling along by the side of the road!
The ranch was once for breeding cattle but they have now given over a lot of their land to giant tortoises (a different breed to the ones at the Charles Darwin Research Station, which I don’t think are endangered) who are able to roam free. You can walk around the woods – but I wouldn’t do this without a guide as we’d have gotten lost I think! We saw several giant tortoises and got some great photos, then went back to the ranch for lunch.

We were served plantain chips and iced tea, followed by vegetable soup, then a choice of chicken or fish – I had yellowfin tuna with potatoes and vegetables, which was lovely. Dessert was chocolate cake or tres leches (three milk) cake which was so moist it was actually wet from the milk that’s soaked in. Finally we had tea and coffee, and were finished by 1.30 – when I’d booked I thought this was supposed to be a whole day trip not a half day, but the fact that it was only the two of us rather than a group probably sped things up. For the amount we paid though I was a bit disappointed it was only a half day effectively.

Having gotten quite comfortable hopping on and off the water taxi we decided to go into Puerto Ayora for dinner. We walked up to the fish market and saw some pelicans and other birds trying to steal bits of fish, and a sea lion sleeping on a bench nearby.

For a change we both fancied Italian for dinner so chose La Dolce Italia. Service was very slow – we ordered drinks and then food, and when our main courses came 20 minutes later we still hadn’t received our drinks. I told the waiter but we had finished eating our food before the drinks came! My husband had pizza and I had lasagne, which was very nice but a fairly small portion. We had wanted dessert but didn’t fancy another long wait for service – and getting the bill took ages too!
Puerto Ayora definitely livens up a bit at night – there were people playing volleyball (or basketball, I can’t remember now) on the harbour and we enjoyed wandering around eating an ice cream from Café Hernan after dinner.
Coming back in the water taxi in the dark was great as the dock is lit up and you can see lots of small (harmless) sharks – no more than two feet long or smaller – swimming around in the water! We also saw a large sea turtle one day right by the docks and after that every time we were waiting for a boat I was scanning the water for marine life!

Arriving back at the Finch Bay we found the point at which you exit the water taxi was lit up but we did then need the torch on our phones to walk back to the hotel.

Bartolome and Pinnacle Rock
Our furthest boat trip was about two and a half hours to Bartolome island – this was partly why we spent 7 nights at Finch Bay as it was the only way to cover all the islands they offer trips to. Bartolome and Pinnacle Rock are perhaps better known from the movie Master and Commander – for one view in particular. The main attraction for me though was the penguins!
On the way, the sea was a bit choppier but I was taking seasickness tablets so I was OK. About half way, we were treated to a fantastic display from a group of dolphins swimming alongside the boat who decided to leap into the air and show off!
Bartolome is a very barren volcanic island with very little wildlife on land, but in this case you go for the view. It’s a steep climb to the top, but there is a wooden walkway (partly sloping, partly steps) with a handrail in place. The heat did make it a difficult climb but we were soon at the top admiring the amazing view. If you’ve seen the Russell Crowe film Master and Commander you will recognise it!
We returned to the panga and circled Pinnacle Rock, where the penguins can sometimes be found – these are the only penguins to live north of the equator. I was expecting quite a lot so was surprised to be told there were only six nesting pairs (apparently most of them live in Isabella, an island that was too far for us to go to from Santa Cruz) – luckily we did get to see five or six penguins hopping around on the rocks! I had read (or thought I’d read) that we would be able to snorkel with penguins but they weren’t keen to join us in the water.

Even so, we had what was probably my favourite snorkelling experience – so many fish of different sizes and colours, and at one point I came up out of the water to check my direction and when I looked back down, I was literally in the middle of a huge school of fish! The best part was that our guide spotted a few giant sea turtles – I was never quick enough to swim over to where he was, but at one point an absolutely huge one swam right past me, I’ve never seen anything like it! My husband also swam over a huge one sleeping on the ocean floor, which he was able to film with his underwater Go Pro camera.
I managed to cut my arm on a rock underwater, and didn’t even notice until someone pointed it out when I was back in the boat (I still have a 2-inch scar a month later) – it may explain why I saw another one of the small harmless sharks we had seen previously, but our guide was surprised there had been one around here. I was just glad this hadn’t happened the day before when the bull shark had been spotted or I might have been shark food!
They had alcohol wipes on the boat to clean up my cut but it occurred to me that if you do hurt yourself on one of the uninhabited islands, you are miles from anywhere – and we were told there was only one rescue helicopter in the islands and it was currently waiting repairs! Having said that, if you are careful there’s no reason to think anything will happen.

We didn’t get back to the hotel until 5.30pm – we’d left at 7am so this was our longest day trip by far and quite nice that we’d done it last. We had dinner in the hotel restaurant – we’d built up quite an appetite so both had the burger again, and my husband wanted the chocolate volcano for the third time – and this time they gave it to us on the house because it was our last night. I tried the lemon and lime tiramisu which was nice but pretty cold and solid in the middle, like it had just come out of the freezer.
The next morning we checked out after breakfast and returned to the airport the way we had come, flying back to Quito where we would spend one last night before returning to the UK via Miami. Visiting the Galapagos islands was an amazing experience and an incredible privilege, something that will remain with me forever and mean that whenever I go to a zoo or aquariums and see sea lions, sea turtles, penguins and iguanas, I will remember the time when they weren’t behind glass or a wall and I could walk freely among them as Charles Darwin once did.

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