Friday, April 19, 2013

First Impressions of Isabela, Galapagos

Isabela has a very different feel to it than San Cristobal or Santa Cruz. It is challenging. It is wild. It is inconvenient. It is special. It feels remote. It grows on you. Isabela is the biggest island of the Galapagos, but the differences lie in the smaller details of the cruising life. The anchorage is surprisingly small and surrounded by rocks and reefs. The amount of cruising boats is surprisingly big. The combination of the two calls for tight quarters and close neighbors. The swell rolls in frequently and the best spots are in the front, which means re-anchoring is a common occurrence, and – for the first time in five and a half years of cruising – we see a new phenomenon: cruisers are anxiously waiting for a boat to leave, inquiring about the time of departure, sometimes moving in closely on little scope, to then quickly scoop up the newly available, and better, spot, without considering anyone else. I shall call this the “bird of prey” symptom…
The holding is good in white sand, the tides are substantial and the water ranges from murky blue-grey to turquoise blue. Its temperature is doable and the wildlife is amazing. Sea lions playfully stroll by (in lesser numbers than San Cristobal), Blue-footed boobies dive in unison (a sight to behold, every time, it is amazing how they all hit the water at exactly the same moment!) and groups up to five, pelicans curiously fly or paddle by, resting on everybody´s bow, frigate birds soar high above or bug other birds while fishing, and penguins brighten our day with their presence; swimming, diving, cruising under water and popping back up elsewhere. Funny little creatures! The weather is close to perfect: blue, sunny skies, a little breeze and pleasantly cool nights. We could use some rain to collect water, though. With this being the rainy season (with one decent rainfall in San Cristobal, four weeks ago), I´d hate to see what the dry season looks like!

While in San Cristobal and Santa Cruz going to shore means a quick and easy ride and then entering a well-taken care of town with plenty of stores and conveniences, it works a bit differently in Isabela. Once in the dinghy, there is a tricky “high tide” path to the Embarcadero and a trickier “low tide” path that is longer. You have to navigate reefs, moored boats, breaking waves and shallows and deal with the sun in your eyes and reflecting on the water. Once close to the “parking area”, there are more reefs, sea lions, lines and stern anchors of fishing boats and local vessels to avoid. You have to take the tides into consideration, put a stern anchor out and hope nobody trips it. And that you can leave and get back into your dinghy without getting wet. Once the dingy is settled to your satisfaction, a process that can take from five to twenty minutes, you are still a mile or so removed from town. A hot walk on the asphalt road or a “short cut” over the beach brings you into Villamil, a town of scattered houses, little stores, tour agencies, and restaurants, with little traffic and a relaxed atmosphere.  Further along the bay, the blah beach turns into a beautiful and vast expanse of white sand.

Sven had a few days’ vacation left, when Irie arrived in our third and last Galapagosian island. We immediately set to work exploring the area with a visit to town and one of the salt ponds – was that one flamingo in the distance? – taking in the scene. In the afternoon, we snorkeled at the Concha y Perla site, where a bunch of loud local kids ruined the experience a bit. Nevertheless, we did see a couple of sea turtles and had a refreshing swim, before we observed the sea lions on a small beach.

The following day, we had a taxi drop us off at Muro de las Lagrimas – the Wall of Tears – a wall of big stones, built by prisoners of a penal colony some years ago. The view from the top of the wall was worthwhile and when walking back on a different path, we met a few wild tortoises. We had decided to walk the eight kilometers back to town and stop at all the different sights along the way. We climbed a hill for an amazing view of Isabela, saw different ponds, watched more giant tortoises, entered a small lava tunnel, and observed swimming and sun bathing marine iguanas. Despite the heat, it was a very pleasant and interesting excursion, completed with a tasty lunch and a cold drink at a beach restaurant.

The next thing on the agenda was an organized trip to Las Tintoreras. We had to wait for more than an hour and a half, before the tour boat picked us up. “Forced relaxation”, I will call times like that. We were dropped off at an island next to the anchorage and a guide gave information while we walked a path through black lava and colonies of marine iguanas. The highlight was a tunnel in the rocks, filled with sea water, where white-tipped reef sharks hung out, bred and slept. The second part of the trip was a snorkeling moment in a pretty rough bay, where more marine turtles were observed as well as interesting school of fish and a small spotted eagle ray. That night, Sven treated us to cocktails on the beach and a tasty local meal in town.

The morning of Sven´s departure, we walked back into town and followed a well-built board walk over ponds and through the brush until we reached the local tortoise breeding center. The exhibition and wildlife pens were interesting and informative. The animals had just been fed and that caused some funny noises and frenzy activity. Who thought these ancient looking creatures could be so active? In the afternoon, Sven was dropped off at the ferry dock for his trip back to Santa Cruz, and Mark and I disappeared back to our floating home for a few more weeks of Isabela time! We said “bye bye” to our tourist attitude and “hello” to our back-to-the-boat-business mode…

Giant tortoise in the wild, near the Wall of Tears

Sun bathing marine iguana along Villamil´s long beach

Staring into the "shark tunnel" of Tintoreras

Feeding frenzy with the juvenile tortoises at the breeding center

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