Sunday, October 12, 2014

Arriving in the Galapagos

We had an early start.

Biki was scheduled to pick us up at 6:45.  I was still jet-lagged and woke at 5am. Finished packing and went down to have breakfast at 6am.

View from my hotel room on first light
After packing three large luggages and two carry ons in to Biki’s small car, we left toward the airport. Outside the sun came out with nice clouds to punctuate its light. It seemed that Quito decided to show us that it can also be sunny.

The city was pretty empty, and the drive to the airport went smoothly. As we drove down from Quito we went into a fog bank, but then got out of it when we got to the airport.

At the airport we had to pay 10$ galapagos fee and screen our all our belonging. I am not sure what exactly they were looking for, but after we got signed document, we could go out back into the terminal and check in. 

Somewhat to our surprise we learned that our flight from Quito has an intermediate stop in Guayaquil. We took off and got some nice view of the complex Quito geography. 

Landing in Guayaquil we saw the broad river that the city is sitting on. The land was flat below us with many side channels and islands. It seems stark contrast to the Andes we just came from. After we landed, the passengers to Galapagos were asked to stay put. We thought this will be nice time, but they announced that the plane is fueling and thus, we need to stay in our seats without using electronic devices. This did not stop the various airline workers that came onto the plane to clean it to use walkie-talkie. We speculated that landing in Guayaquil was really about refueling, as fuel cost at the Galapagos must be much higher, and we guess that the cost in the mountains is also higher.

After take off we had a slightly longer leg, and started our descent toward Galapagos. The air crew went through the cabin and sprayed the luggage bins with insecticide.  Opening the window I saw a shoreline that separated a cloud-covered island from the open ocean. It turns out that was San Cristobal. As we got lower we got to the corner of Santa Cruz, the big island next to the airport. We passed over Baltra. The old foundations of buildings from the 2nd world war were visible from the air. Other than that the island looked like a flat desert. We passed it and then did a turn and started landing. We passed over few small islands on this turn

View from the plane of Daphne Major, Santa Cruz island is in the background

During landing we could see that there are more details. The flat landscape was dotted with pear cactus, a Galapagos plant that looks like the common israeli cactus growing on a trunk above the ground.

Example of local pear cactus trees

The airport here is really small. As we deplaned and walked from the plan to the terminal, the passengers for the return flight started going the opposite direction on a parallel path. Inside the terminal, we the foreigners had to pay special fee of 100$. Unloading of luggage took a while, and then we had to queue to screen them again, and to get ok to pass the import control. The emphasis is stopping potential foreign species entering the Galapgos.

Outside was a smallish arrival hall. There were two people with signs, but none of them for us. We thought that maybe the person in charge of our pickup was running late. The locals and then backpackers got on a bus that would take them to the ferry to Santa Cruz. We were left with our luggage waiting outside.

After 10 more minutes we tried to call the contact number, and did not manage to get an answer. We tried to make contact with the Israeli tour operator and his representative in Quito (who is in charge of making the reservations). We kept losing cellular communications and had to maneuver to find a spot with reliable signal. In the mean time the two souvenir shops in the arrival halls closed, and then the people in the arrival terminal started leaving. It seemed that we were the last flight of the day, and that the airport was starting to close down.

By now were the only ones there except for various airport employees that were waiting for their transportation. We learned that the boat people did not find us and decided to go on without us. In the mean time we found a small kiosk where we bought some water, as we didn’t drink since the flight. We were told to get transportation to the ferry and there we will be picked up. We asked the Kiosk person if he can call us transportation, and were promised someone will come in 20-30 minutes.

In the mean time I tried to photograph the local finches. They seemed like birds we have in Israel, but closer inspection showed that they have very different beak.

First encounter with Darwin's finches

By now the terminal was totally closed. Our promised pickup did not show up. The last employees were leaving and getting on small vans, that seemed to be employee transportation. One of them stopped and asked if we know that after they leave there will not be any transportation. He claimed to know the owner of our boat and called him on his cell (for some reason he had reasonable signal). He arranged for one of the vans to return and do another trip to take us to the ferry. 

On the way out of the airport, a large land iguana was standing on the edge of the road. Sadly, it slinked away before I got out the camera. When we got to the ferry dock, another was standing next to the road. However, there was our dinghy (panga in the local terminology) waiting. So we loaded the luggage and left the photo-op behind :-(

The driver of the panga did not know English, but we managed to coordinate loading of our luggage in a way that kept the balance. He told us to sit out front and wear life jackets. And off we go. Looking in the direction he was heading I didn’t see any ship. I tried to ask where it was, and he made signs that it was further away. 

We started getting sprayed by the waves. The panga was a small zodiac with an outboard engine. Our driver took off the rain-poncho he was wearing and we tried to cover the luggage with it. We continued, leaving the channel behind and going parallel Santa Cruz shore. By now we were both quite wet, and we were getting into waves, not huge, but ones that gave us a solid spray every bump. After some time, when we were far off from our starting point, but couldn't see our target on the horizon, the boat man got out a cell phone from his pocket. Apparently he called the ship to get help since we were too heavy. He then fished a zip bag to save his phone from the water. I gave him my phone for keeping. We continued going. I tried to enjoy and watch the birds that flew overhead.

After few minutes another panga showed up. Our driver told us to move to the new panga. We took our camera bags and left the rest of the luggage with him. The new boatman introduced himself as Eliot and seemed to know some English. Now that we were off the first panga, the boatman put full gas and took off. We went in at a slower pace, apparently to save the two of us further bath by the spray. When we got to ship, our bags were already up on the deck. The first boatman was bringing another person from the nearby beach. He introduced himself as David, the tour’s nature guide. He suggested we switch to bathing suits and come to the beach, where the rest of the group was.

We quickly switched to bathing suits and went on the panga. Ilan took his camera bag, and I decide not to risk it. We got to beach and practiced “wet landing” on the beach. David told us to join him to see some birds. We walked down the beach and reached a path to a small brackish pool about 20-30m inland. The pool was surrounded by mangroves. In the pool there were two large flamingos going about searching for food. As were standing there a third one flow by and landed in the pool. It turns out that flamingo sighting is not common, and so we started with a good omen for the trip. Next to the pool stood a large heron watching the flamingos without moving.

On the pool’s edge were few of our group. We started talking with them, and learned that they were on course in ecology run by Boston University. There was an older guy who was the teacher, and several young undergraduates. They were spotting the different birds that came by.

After 10-15 minutes I decided to go back to the beach to enjoy a quick swim. On the way I passed a couple of rocks that were swarming with “Lightfooted Sally” a type of crab that has striking bright colors. On a closer look I could see the smaller crabs that were black and were hard to distinguish against the black rocks. David told me that when they grow in size they slowly, in a series of moltings, move from black to dark red, and then to bright red and yellow. 

The swim in the water was refreshing. And although I was expecting the water to be cold, it was not too cold. 

The two pangas came to pick us up, and we all returned to the ship. By now our bags were in the cabin, and we had to unpack and try to fit them all in the space below the bed. In the end, we gave two of the bags to the crew to store somewhere else on the boat since we didn't have enough space for the luggage.

By now the sun was setting, and I went upstairs to enjoy the view.

At 18:20 we were called for briefing. David gave us an overview of the plan for the next day. After that we had a "welcome cocktail" and he introduced the crew. The crew included the captain, two mates (who we met on the pangas), an engineer, the barman (who was in charge of the inside of the ship), and the cook. 

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