Monthly Archives: April 2014
The view from the dinghy
Oh my…what is that…I can actually taste genuine Galapagos dirt in my mouth. One third crushed magma, two thirds fine dust and sand. It’s about a two kilometer hot dusty hike into Puerto Villamil from the dinghy dock and every time a taxi truck, motor-scooter, or even a bicycle passes a cloud of Galapagos’s finest billows up into our lungs as we shamble our way into town. There’s no avoiding it. As far as I’ve seen there’s only one paved road in all of Isabela. Every business we stumble past on the uneven dirt road sells jugos (juices), soda, a fine product called Pilsener, pinguinos (ice cream), and tours of the Island. They may call themselves a bar, or dive shop, or restaurant but they all pretty much sell the same stuff. Most have a Zona Wifi sign tacked up somewhere but truth in advertising is not a Galapagos strong suit. There’s not much “fi” in the “Wi” so getting these posts to you are a major accomplishment.
Lately we’ve been hanging at Rosada, the pink bar, all the way at the end of town which is filled with backpackers playing beach volleyball and doing tricks on a balance strap, and sometimes there’s even a bonfire and music. We’re told that the whole Island’s internet comes and goes, so don’t blame them. Dos mas cervesas, por favor.
We’d heard about a thing called the Wall of Tears so we grabbed a taxi which is actually a pickup truck, but first this requires running the gauntlet of sleeping sea lions and marine iguanas lying about the pier sunning themselves.
Luckily we found a taxi out front just pulling up and we piled in. It was great to get out of town with friends from Tehani-Li on a road that circled around the bay just off the beach. Apparently Equadoran prisoners were sent to Isabela and forced to lift one hundred-something pound basalt blocks and fit them onto the wall until they could no longer do it; what happened next you don’t want to know. The practice lasted for just ten years and served no purpose other than punishment. You don’t want to mess with these folks.
Someone had the bright idea that it might be fun to walk all the way home because we could visit some interesting sights along the way. We sailors can’t resist climbing things. When your life is spent at sea level anything that gains a little altitude with a view is fine by us.
Let’s just say that it was a long hot walk but happily, as we entered town, we knew that the pink Rosada bar with intramural beach volleyball would be just getting into full swing. Dos cervesas, por favor.
Later that night as we were having a restorative nightcap on Escape Velocity the stars were out in an amazing profusion. From out of the darkness, but close abeam, we heard a whispered,”my friend! my friend!” We turned on a cockpit light and revealed two guys in a yellow panga not six feet off EV with two twenty gallon blue plastic tanks. I never heard a thing. It seems they’d heard that the catamaran out in the anchorage needed forty gallons of diesel and here it is. Why yes, we could use a little fuel, we’d been denied fuel due to Galapagos’s end of month fuel shortage, better known as hoarding. It turns out that there are three kinds of fuel in the Galapagos; If you’re a native you can buy government subsidized fuel for one dollar something per US gallon. A yacht in transit, possessing a skipper with the patience of Job can apply for a one day permission slip from the Capitan de Puerto for fuel in the range of four dollars something per US gallon, and probably get laughed out of the office like I did. Or you can hire an agent and beg for six dollar per US gallon on the boat. Ok…there are four types of fuel in the Galapagos. You could casually mention to a random taxi driver that you’d like a little fuel for your catamaran. Five dollars per US gallon but you’ll end up doing the transaction in the dark…in Spanish…in cash.
You’d think reaching the Galapagos would be reason enough to stop, savor, and celebrate the achievement of a major goal. And it is, but just as every ending is a new beginning, as soon as you meet another crew…oh let’s say happy hour on the beach at the very pink Casa Rosada bar where seated next to you could easily be a marine iguana, the topic immediately becomes “the passage.”
There’s just a handful of yachts here in Puerto Villamil, Islas Isabela, Galapagos, but all of us are facing the same thing. Three weeks of open ocean passage-making to reach the icon of all Pacific Paradises, the Marquesas, the longest passage of our circumnavigation, so the nervous undertone…the buzz, if you will, is understandable. It’s all about managing currents, winds, the ITCZ, what about storms, fuel, provisions, and who is following the rumbline, or maybe some exotic hybrid course. It kind of hangs over what should be a just-plain-fun location.
Just yesterday Marce and I, along with the crew from Tehani-Li, piled into Catnip and headed out into the anchorage only to find a long line of combers, surf, kicked-up by the reefs in the middle of the anchorage due to the big Pacific swell and it takes a lot of swell to do that. Never saw that before. It would be a rocky restless night.
Ok…I admit it, apparently I get spoiled fast. First dozens of dolphins turnout, dancing in our bow wave to welcome us to the Galapagos. Next up, entering Admiralty Bay, it was the spectacular leaping, dancing, and spinning rays getting really big air, however just as I finished my skippers anchoring chores I happened to glance over the side and there, ominously, swimming just a meter or two off of Escape Velocity was the shimmering shape of a large shark. This had a dampening effect on crew, with any thought of a celebratory swim.
The ominous omen didn’t take long to reveal itself in the guise of our diesel generator. It was wash day aboard EV and that means the genny has to fire up to power the washer/dryer because it doesn’t seem to like our DC/AC inverter. Things started out alright but in a few minutes the breakers popped off and wouldn’t reset. What followed was a synopsis of all things electric that mysteriously stop working aboard EV. Days spent in frustration with the kind and patient guidance of fellow Manta owners emailing tips and suggestions, however the generator is located down in the forward hull and you just can’t find a more uncomfortable place to try to work on a boat, and I did it for three days straight. Tom on Dancing Bear stopped by to pronounce the final kibosh on the generator, just before we left for Islas Isabela, but this gave us a very late start. Our agent tried to help by sending out a mechanic the night before but he only spoke Spanish and understood even less English. What a fiasco-lesson learned.
So…as I say, late starts make for late arrivals, so the math to destination started very early and it was not looking good for a daylight passage through the reefs, shoals, and rocks into Puerto Villamil. We had very little wind but all of it on the nose so when we hit adverse currents and our speed dropped we increased our one engine cruise speed 300 rpm which helped a little but when the sun started to drop from the sky behind a cloud bank we fired up our second engine and added another 200 rpm because we were losing this race. If only we had some wind from a decent direction. Yeah that’s what we need, Dr. breeze. What’s it doing blowing from the WSW anyhow?
Finally, with a combination of an improving current, cutting a corner or two, and lots of BP’s best we flew into, let’s agree to call it, a post dusk Puerto Villamil. We must have looked like Krammer bursting into Jerry’s apartment. Marce chose a great spot and the anchor splashed down bathed under our foredeck lights.
No sharks in evidence.
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We tried our write-our-destination-on-a-slip-of-paper-and-show-it-to-a-taxi-driver trick again and got Alex, who was friendly enough but spoke no English. Our fault, we know, for not learning even rudimentary Spanish before we came to Latin America, but there it is. In retrospect we should have kept trying for an English-speaking driver but Alex seemed nice enough and the price was right so we hopped in and took off for an inland reserve where giant tortoises roam free. So far we’d seen them only in protected places where you can’t really get very close. Here, we walked a lovely forest path and came across the prehistoric-looking giants all along the way, and bigger ones than we’d seen up ’til now. Alex estimated the largest one at about 150 years old. When I walked too close to that one he hissed at me and withdrew his head and limbs in the tortoise version of “get off my lawn!”
Others were more accepting of our presence, especially since a group of young women ahead of us had picked up fruits off the ground and were feeding them to the tortoises, who were perfectly happy not to have to drag that heavy shell around and go looking for lunch. That made them much more entertaining to watch, and they didn’t seem to mind the women all taking turns posing for photos as they pretended to touch the shells.
It was thrilling to be so close to these rare and endangered creatures and we appreciated how protective even our taxi driver felt toward them.
A short drive away we visited Las Tuneles de Lava, the lava tunnels. They were formed when the outer layer of a lava flow cooled and hardened as the lava continued to flow inside. Alex explained that the tunnel will start out with a smooth and easy path, then turn very rocky, and at a point about 3/4 of the way through will get very narrow and we’ll have to crawl through a small opening to get to the last section and the exit.
He told us this by way of saying if we didn’t think we could crawl through the narrow part we could turn around and come back the way we came and he’d meet us here. If we thought we could crawl through he’d meet us on the other side. I was initially skeptical and had him describe again for me just how small the opening was.
“We can do it,” Jack said, and despite a latent but untested claustrophobia I agreed. After all, I’ve had a shoulder MRI in the nasty tube with the loud noise. How bad could this be?
The tunnel was just as Alex described, an easy path at first that grew rockier and narrower as we went. It’s amazing and beautiful and because it was formed by lava flow it’s completely different from the caves we’re familiar with in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky, formed by underground rivers and mineral deposits.
We got to the squeezy part and I was relieved to see that while we would have to crawl through, it wasn’t a coffin-like tube but rather a low ledge we had to go under for a couple of meters. No problem. We did get a little muddy and here’s me with my school clothes on, I thought.
Jack and I noted how refreshing it is to be able to visit these sites alone and without the constant babysitting, guard rails and warning signs that you find in any place like this in America.
Our final stop was Los Gemelos. These are sinkholes, also formed by lava flow when tunnels like the ones we were just in collapsed to form deep craters. They are now thick with vegetation and otherworldly. Our photos can’t capture how deep the craters are or how lovely the trees and plants smelled. After being in hot dry landscapes for a couple of weeks this was a cool change.
Alex told us to take our time walking around the two sinkholes and we did. As we returned to the starting point on the first trail a large tour group marched up to the nearest overlook and gathered around their guide who pointed out a few species of trees and plants and birds, then marched them to the other sinkhole for a similar quick summary.
“Now we’ll go have lunch,” the guide said, and they piled into the bus. We admire anyone anywhere who travels at whatever level, but watching how little time those tourists had at such a unique place makes us grateful to be on our own and able to linger for as long as we want.
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Santa Cruz mission
We started our exploration of Isla Santa Cruz with a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station, and here’s where for the first time we felt the Ecuadoran Parks Service failed a little. The complex is huge with lots of buildings spread out over a wide area, some actual research labs and some interpretive centers. Or so we read. There are precious few signs and when I asked at the welcome center for a map the ranger looked puzzled and said no, there’s no map and he pointed down the road and told us to make a left and we’d see the tortoises.
We followed a tour group for a while but they stopped in the middle of nothing for a long treatise on something in German so we kept walking. We did eventfully find the tortoise nursery and it was very similar to the one we saw on San Cristobal with Jorge. They raise the young ones in a protected environment away from introduced predator species — cats, pigs, other domesticated animals — until their shells are hard enough to ward off most attacks, usually at the age of 3-5 years. Then they can be relocated into the wild with a pretty high probability of survival.
We’d read there was also a compound where you can see the land iguanas but we never found it. We did follow a few unmarked paths and discovered a few research labs and some gift shops but in general they need some signage for us self-guided folks. I guess they figure most people are from the tour boats with naturalists to guide them.
The next day we took a long and beautiful walk to Tortuga Bay, a long white sandy beach that all our guide materials much recommended. We had to sign in at the park office, then out again when we left. From there it was a 2.5 kilometer walk over a paved and walled path that reminded us of the Great a Wall of China. The landscape is otherworldly.
I was sitting on deck putting my shoes on and minding my own business when something big and heavy dropped into the water right beside me with a loud kerPLONK!
What on earth was that?! I thought, and wondered if something fell off the boat. I leaned over the lifelines just in time to see a blue-footed booby pop up as if spring loaded, swallowing a fish. He flew off, flapping his wings in an even cadence as he circled the area until suddenly with a maneuver Jack tells me is a wingover, he plummeted like a missile straight down with the same kerPLONK! that I heard beside the boat.
Now that we know what we’re looking at we’ve spent a good deal of time watching the boobies fish, mostly in pairs, making their way through the anchorage. They’re not the best flyers, but that dive and pop-up are incredible. It never gets old.
There’s a common practice in the brotherhood of long-distance sailors that no one needs to teach you. When a boat enters or leaves an anchorage crews on the other boats wave in welcome or farewell. If you don’t know the people a casual wave will do, but when they are friends, even very new friends, it’s not unusual to line up on deck and give a hearty bon voyage. We may or may not see some of these folks again but for a few days or weeks we share a time and place and when one of us moves on we like to mark the occasion.
The view from the back porch
Bright lights, big city
It’s just past 6 am and the sun is up and so is the moon. It’s always so beautiful to see them both at once. Yesterday, as promised by the cruising guides, a slew of tour boats entered the harbor and jockeyed for position in the small space available. Two of them, one beside us and one in front of us, anchored and reanchored a few times trying to stay clear of the yachts but not very successfully. We were a little concerned about one but after we did a mental calculation of how we’d swing with the tide we figured we’d be ok.
We did a reconnaissance lap around town on Wednesday to get the lay of the land. It’s much bigger than the last town we were in, on San Cristobal, and much more touristy but in a good way. Cute shops full of the usual souvenirs but also more upscale shops with beautiful jewelry and baskets and ceramics made by local craftsmen. The hotels are also more upscale and almost all the restaurants have menus in English as well as Spanish.
It’s still the Galapagos, though, and the wildlife is pretty much a part of every day life.
We continue to be impressed with the art and architecture here in the archipelago, especially after so much time in the Caribbean where building is haphazard at best and trash is everywhere. Here, there’s style to even the most rudimentary of structures and we find art everywhere we go. It’s a delight.
We happened on this ceramic garden that appears to be someone’s back yard but with a welcome sign at the entrance arch. We could have spent hours discovering every imaginative detail of the place. It’s not a bad way to spend your free time, we thought, and we remembered a house not far from ours in Pittsburgh where the owners attempted a similar mosaic facade but with much less skill and success.