On bended knee, we pose behind one of Mother Nature's wonders, both in humble recognition of a species that can more than double our
lifespan and to give perspective to its mighty size. The surprisingly loud breathing of this giant tortoise and the resounding snap as he rips off mouthfuls of grass are the only sounds that break the silence, until our guide Gustava softly says, "Sixteen species or subspecies of giant
tortoises have been documented in the Galapagos of which four are extinct; some subspecies can grow to 1.5m (5ft) and weigh in at 250kg (550lbs)." My husband Rick and I are "wowed" seeing twenty of these wondrous creatures in their natural habitat at
Tortoise Reserve, near the town of Santa Rosa, on the central Galapagos Island of Santa Cruz.
The Galapagos archipelago is composed of 13 major islands and many smaller ones with some of the greatest biodiversity in the world - nature's glory and mystery intermingled. The archipelago was uninhabited when discovered by the Spanish in 1535. They found the wildlife fearless; a trait that curiously remains to this day. My thoughts are of Charles Darwin coming here in 1835, leading to his evolution theory, and how he will forever remain the island's most famous visitor.
From the tortoises we move on to the lava tubes, which Gustava explains, "were formed as a major
lava flow was ceasing; the outside layer solidifying while the molten lava inside kept going."
We are to go through this 400m long tube on our own, while Gustava drives to the exit to wait for us. At the entrance he says, "There's a section so narrow you must crawl through. Do you still want to go?" We assure him our grey hair and wrinkles will not deter us.
Another of nature's masterpieces unfolds as we tread over the black earth floor of the dimly lit cavernous tube; its sides a kaleidoscope of greys, wan yellows and salmon pinks, some glistening with moisture. Damp cool air fills our lungs.
"Oh, oh, look ahead!" Rick's voice echoes. The path morphs into jagged chunks of lava rock...and the "narrow" passage Gustava warned us about. I send Rick through first, figuring if he doesn't get stuck, then I'm okay. At tortoise speed he makes it; at one point he is flat on his stomach inching along. My turn - I drag my body through. More rough rock to maneuver before the floor levels again and the tube expands in circumference. At the exit steps we find a grinning Gustava peering downward, no doubt relieved a rescue mission won't be necessary.
"A day to remember!" I say as we drive back to Puerto Ayora, the largest town on Santa Cruz and in all of the Galapagos with 12,000 citizens.
Wonders of the Galapagos
On our own the next morning, we walk to Tortuga Bahia (Turtle Bay), the name coined for the Green Pacific Turtles who lay their eggs here. Marine iguanas are everywhere! Predominantly black in colour, many are camouflaged as they sun themselves on the inkiness of lava rocks. Others swirl in the ebb and flow of turquoise waves. We walk gingerly around the ones lying on the sand since they are not about to be inconvenienced by having to move.
Later that day we pay a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station, which for over 50 years has looked for scientific solutions to conserve the islands. Here we get to see golden and rusty brown coloured land iguanas munching on their favourite food - the fruit of the prickly pear cactus (as opposed to their sea cousins who dine on algae). The station is a breeding centre for tortoises. In June 2012 their star tortoise went to meet his maker -
Lonesome George died at over 100-years-of-age. He was the last of the Pinta Island tortoises, (Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii) - their extinction due to vegetation being devastated with the introduction of goats to the island. George was brought to the centre in 1912, and although attempts to mate him with similar species were successful, the resulting eggs were not viable.
The next morning we rise with the gulls for our boat excursion to Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos Islands. At the dock our group follows Milton, our guide, to a good-sized vessel. Within two hours we land on the island's southeast shores to mingle with the seals lounging around on the sand, boardwalks and anywhere else they can perch. Then we are off to cruise the shore's rocky ledges in a smaller boat to meet blue footed boobies, sea lions and penguins.
We disembark for a short walk on fields of black jagged AA lava, splotched with green moss and white lichen. Milton tells us this is how all the islands of the Galapagos were formed, this being the rudimentary lava that erupts from the ocean floor. "There are six volcanoes on Isabela, five of which are active, making the island an evolving landscape." In this desolate terrain the marine iguana reigns, coming onto the rocks to raise their reptilian temperatures. It will take eons for this rock to become soil to support the other forms of flora and fauna. Our group continues on to a small lagoon where pink flamingos strut and to a narrow channel where white tipped reef sharks swim.
It is back to Puerto Ayora where the many restaurants and shops bustle with activity, and there's a most entertaining fish market on the wharf where gulls, pelicans, and seals hone in on a metal table as experts ready the sea harvest for cooking pots.
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Our journey over the past several days could not have been more amazing or fitting with the Galapagos creed - to wander, wonder and learn.
Giant Galapagos Tortoise on the run
Marine Iguana at Tortuga Bay
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Irene Butler is an award winning travel writer and author of "Trekking the Globe with Mostly Gentle Footsteps" on Kindle. Her articles have appeared in national and international publications. From their home base in Kelowna BC, she and her photographer husband Rick explore the world for more than six months of every year.
If you go
To get to the Galapagos Islands, fly from Ecuador's mainland cities of Quito or Guayaquil to Isla Baltra or Isla San Cristobal. There is a $100 park entrance fee when you land in Galapagos.
The Baltra airport is about two hours by public transport to Puerto Ayora, the main settlement of the Galapagos, on the central island of Santa Cruz, from which day trips to other islands can be arranged. Isla San Cristobal has towns with good facilities, and also offers day-trip options. If your choice is a (more expensive) cruise to see the Galapagos Islands, passengers are picked up from both airports.