Monthly Archives: June 2016

Making the best of it

Hopefully looking for a whale on Playa Estacion

Hopefully looking for a whale on Playa Estacion

We are struggling mightily against, if not major disappointment, at least melancholy here on Isla Santa Cruz. We’ve been combing the beaches here looking for something to compare to the humpback whale that washed up this week back home in New Hampshire, but so far not much luck.

I mean, marine iguanas are pretty cool. Can’t really see them anyplace else in the world. Blunt noses for eating aglae. Can stay under water for a long time. But you’d have to pile up a few thousand of them to get anywhere near the size of the whale on Rye Beach.

We persevere.

Check out this guy.

Check out this guy.

Going to the beach is not a bad option in the Galapagos. I don’t care what the tourists from Florida say, the water is a very comfortable temperature. Beach parking is not an issue (though we did have to take a water taxi as part of today’s jaunt to Finch Bay). You can walk right in and snorkel and it’s like you’re in the aquarium at the doctor’s office, there’s so many pretty fish.

It doesn’t smell like dead whale.

Well, we can’t do much about it, anyway. We’ve got another island to visit, and then the glorious heights of Quito to experience before we see Rye Beach again. The whale probably won’t be there when we get back, anyway.

Waiting for the water taxi

Waiting for the water taxi

At least we can distract ourselves by focusing on the tasks at hand, which were: yesterday, recovering from Monday’s dive trip; and today, securing passage for the next leg of our trip, six days on Isabela Island. Of my original anxieties about this, only a few remain. Jen managed to find what appears to be a good spot for us to stay in Puerto Villamil. We found a launch that had space remaining for tomorrow afternoon. Many of our clothes that were wet the day before yesterday have dried by now (it’s a humid here and I’ve had to set up the portable clothes line in our little yard so our drying clothes can catch some sun). Hopefully today’s wet bathing suits we get relatively dry before we have to leave tomorrow.

One lingering concern: money. There is no ATM on Isabel Island. That means all the money we’re going to spend there we have to bring there. Luckily, Jen was able to pay for the room online, and I was able to get round-trip tickets on the boat. Still, we have tour money and food money to account for.  Even here on Santa Cruz we’re limited in the amount of funds we can withdraw and the amount of transactions we can make each day. I think we’ve managed to store up enough, but it’s meant multiple trips to the money machine. At least we know we won’t be sleeping on the street or stranded without a return ticket.

Goofing around at the house

Goofing around at the house


Lava rock.– the only kind of rock here

With those things taken care of, we were able to relax a little the past few days. We’ve gotten relatively late starts, in the 10 to 11 a.m. range for leaving the house and we’ve been low-key in our adventuring. Playa Estacion, yesterday’s main destination, is a rocky beach only a few minutes from our house. It was a great place to swim and play in the sand. It also gave us our first opportunity to see marine iguanas swimming around. I think the snorkeling would have been great, except we didn’t make it into town to rent gear. Dinner last night was street food,  empenadas and an embolado, which proved very inexpensive, but pretty popular among the troops.

For today’s trip to FInch Bay, we went prepared with masks and snorkels, but the water was pretty cloudy unless you went very close to the rocks. Zoe tried to follow a sea lion around for a while but mostly we sat in the sand and read our family book, The Prisioner’s Dilemma (We’re very close to the end!). Then we continued along a path through the cactus forest to Las Greitas, the swimming hole we visited as part of our bay tour last week. This time we found it almost completely empty and extremely satisfying. We were able to explore the area further, jump off some rocks and even swim through a meter-long tunnel connecting one pool to another.

Zoe has the first pool in Las Grietas to herself.

Zoe has the first pool in Las Grietas to herself.

At both beaches and at Las Grietas there was a very pleasant mix of foreign tourists (mostly from the US) and Ecuadorans. This is a very popular destination for Ecuador’s residents, possibly because they don’t have to pay the $100 entrance fee that everyone else who comes to the islands has to pay. Also, it’s a short flight from Guyaquil and Quito. Today, while the ladies were exploring at Las Grietas, I talked with several families, some from Ecuador and some from the US, as they were getting ready to take the plunge. (I was keeping an eye on our bags, some of which were stuffed with money for our stint on Isabella.) They all thought the water was too cold. Clearly they haven’t been swimming at any beaches in New England.

Lanie hops off the rock wall.

Lanie hops off the rock wall.

Tonight, we rest a bit more and tomorrow we have time to pack (we declined to take the 7 a.m. launch, selecting instead the one that leaves at 2 p.m.) and maybe read another chapter or two of our book. Perhaps during our boat ride tomorrow we’ll get to see a humpback whale, too.

We’ll let you know.

Snorkeling trip to Pinzon Island

An octopus hiding under a rock

An octopus hiding under a rock

Our snorkeling trip to Pinzon Island was an amazing experience, but also a very cold one. It was a good thing that our guides urged us to rent wet suits before embarking on our tour. To get to the first snorkeling spot, near Pinzon Island, we had to take an hour and a half long boat ride. When I first caught sight of the mountain-like island, it appeared to have layers of clouds around its summit, like you can sometimes see in pictures of Mount Fuji, even though the elevation wasn’t that high.

P1020668The first snorkeling site was in a shallow, sandy bay. When I first jumped into the water, it felt shockingly cold. We followed our guide into the cove. He showed us a spot where five or six sharks were resting among mangrove roots. Soon, we also saw a small sea turtle eating from the bottom of the bay. Our group spread out in the water, all looking at different fish and animals. My favorite part of the whole tour was when four sea lions came into the water to swim with us. They were so playful, and twisted and dove around us.

The water in the second site was deeper and colder. The ocean floor was a landscape of huge boulders which made interesting and mysterious caves, hills, and drop-offs. Huge schools of sardines darted through the water in perfect synchrony, the light from above catching a few and making them flash silver from a sea of swirling gray. Our guide told us that penguins sometimes visited the area, but we didn’t have the luck to see one, although we did see a sea lion diving for fish.

P1020679Before snorkeling for a third time, we rode in the boat around Daphne Island to look at the different birds that perched on the cliffs. The third area had lots of colorful fish. We also saw sharks and two huge rays resting on the ocean floor. On the way back to Santa Cruz Island, our guides cast their fishing poles and trailed them behind the boat, but they didn’t catch anything.



Here’s a close-up of a sea lion on Pinzon Island. Can you spot it in the featured photo at the top of this post?

See what it’s like

What’s it like to swim with sea lions? Check out this video that Jen shot today on our big day trip to Pinzon Island. The sea lions were particularly interactive.

Nadia takes to the sea.

Nadia takes to the sea.

We also saw tortoises and white tipped sharks, but, alas, no penguins. There were plenty of fish — huge schools of sardines, large, colorful parrotfish, and plenty of others I can’t name but looked really cool. Zoe even found an octopus crammed into a crack in the rocks.

Aside from Pinzon Island, we visited a beach on the north shore of Santa Cruz (which is where Zoe saw the octopus) and snorkeled around something called Drowned Rock, just off Daphne Major Island.

On the homeward leg with Daphne Minor in the background

On the homeward leg with Daphne Minor in the background

Possibly the two best photo opportunities of the day went unrecorded: once because I didn’t have the camera and a sea lion nibbled at a resting shark until the shark got angry and swam off (with the sea lion following, swimming in loops around the shark); and once because I did have the camera but was sitting in the boat with Lanie while Zoe, Jen and Nadia were snorkeling with sharks and rays. Oh, well.

The Pansonic Lumix DMC TS25underwater camera did its job once again, though not without causing some stress. After it’s been submerged for a while the screen stops working and we’re never sure if it’s taking pictures until we get back and plug it into the computer. It did that in Belize, we remembered; but still after seeing so much cool stuff, we wanted to be able to share.
Here are some of the many pictures we took:

Sleepy sharks waiting for a sea lion to come nibble them

Sleepy sharks waiting for a sea lion to come nibble them

One of us swimming above a sea turtle

One of us swimming above a sea turtle

Zoe dives into a school of sardines.

Zoe dives into a school of sardines.

Lunch on the boat was yellowtail tuna caught during yesterday's tour. (Most of us were excited about it.)

Lunch on the boat was yellowfin tuna caught during yesterday’s tour. (Most of us were excited about it.)

Fab, our guide tried to catch something for tomorrows's tour...but it got away. If he had landed something good, he was going to give us a little as sashimi.

Fab, our guide, tried to catch something for tomorrows’s tour…but it got away. If he had landed something good, he was going to give us a little as sashimi.

Ups & downs

There are lots of different day tours one can take here, going to many different locations and run by many different tour operators.  It’s hard to figure out what to do.  We decided to start small, with a half-day tour of Tortuga Bay right here on Santa Cruz island.  The itinerary sounded almost too good to be true — first a stop at La Loberia, a small island offshore, to snorkel with sea lions.  Other snorkeling stops to see white-tipped sharks and sea turtles.  A trip to Las Grietas, a deep green pool set between two cliffs.  And there were a few other things thrown in as well.  All this for $25 per person!  (Half price for last-minute booking).

P1020559Turns out, it was maybe a little too good to be true.  Or, to be fair, we probably just had some bad luck.  First off, we met our captain and his accompanying naturalist on the pier — he pointed us to a particular dock and said he’d bring the boat around.  We sat down to wait…and wait…and wait.  When over 20 minutes had passed since our tour was due to have begun, and we began to think they were in a bar somewhere drinking away our $125, the naturalist reappeared to apologize for the delay.  Apparently there was a “little problem” with the boat.  (A short while later the captain showed up, and told us there was a “little problem” with paperwork.  He must have thought that sounded less alarming.)

Eventually we were underway, with a different boat and a different captain.  Daniel, our naturalist, tried to get us back on track but it was clear that the boat problem had created some confusion.  He’d start to tell us where we were headed, then the captain would grunt something in Spanish, then he’d go to confer with him, then come back and tell us something else.

Zoe dives to the depths in Las Grietas.

Zoe dives to the depths in Las Grietas.

Once we finally arrived somewhere, though, it was spectacular.  We walked a short way past a salt flat with pink water (from the same kind of shrimp that flamingos eat) and eventually arrived at Las Grietas.  It was a beautiful spot, with blue-green water surrounded by 20-foot-high cliffs that the locals sometimes jump off of.  When we put on our snorkels and set off, we were all astonished at how deep it was.  Turquoise light seemed to radiate from the bottom far below.

Eventually we headed back to the boat and the confusion resumed.  We passed by a spot where a lot of people were snorkeling — and then jumped into the ocean further on along the coast, where there was initially not much to be seen.  (I should add here one surprising fact about the Galapagos.  Despite the fact that it’s on the equator, the ocean is not all that warm.  Now it’s not cold by New Hampshire standards, by any means, but it’ll definitely have you chilled fairly quickly.  The air is not all the hot at this time of the year either.)  The kids were freezing, the guide was attempting to herd us down the coast while dealing with the only other passengers — a young Ecuadorean couple who, despite having signed up for a snorkeling trip, did not seem to have much desire or aptitude for snorkeling.  In the end, though, we managed to find a couple of huge sea turtles and a couple of sea lions, so we were prepared to say it was worth it.  (See Bob’s post for photos.)


Playa de los Perros

After that, looking at our shivering forms as well as the waning afternoon sun, Daniel decided we were done snorkeling for the day.  He took us on a beautiful hike on the Playa de los Perros where we saw the Galapagos in its semi-natural state.  (The Ecuadoreans, apparently also not fans of walking, stayed on the boat.)

The trip description had said we were going to La Loberia, and by God, Daniel was apparently determined to take us there.  So we had a long, choppy boat ride out to the island.  The wind had picked up and the seas were high, slamming against the rocks.  Clearly no one was going snorkeling, even if we hadn’t all been half-frozen.  The brochure had also promised a “glass-bottom boat”, and Daniel dutifully pulled up the flooring to reveal a narrow depression with a couple of windows.  He half-heartedly started trying to talk about sea urchins, but eventually trailed off as it became increasingly clear we couldn’t see anything in the turbulent water.  The captain, who seemed to be extremely protective of the glass bottom, quickly sealed it up again (nearly capsizing the boat in the process, as he left the wheel unattended in the large waves) and we headed back.

In the end, for $25 we certainly got our money’s worth, even if this was a case of reality not quite living up to expectations.  And, in  the interests of righting the cosmic balance, we had the opposite experience yesterday.


Los Gemelos

We had decided to do a “highlands” tour, exploring three attractions on the interior of the island — El Chato tortoise reserve, the lava tubes, and Los Gemelos — two massive sinkholes that were created by the collapse of earlier lava tubes.  Rather than pay $45 per person for an official tour, we opted to pay a taxi driver $45 total to chauffeur us for three hours.  (We’re back to our old Central American habit of having Lanie ride on my lap so we can all fit in one cab.)

In the lava tube

In the lava tube

We didn’t realize we were getting a private guide as well.  At El Chato (see Lanie’s previous post for more details and photos), our taxi driver hopped out of the car with us and led us into the reserve — then began speaking knowledgeably about the biology of the turtles, the surrounding plants, and the workings of the conservation program.  (Granted, this was all in Spanish.  Fortunately Bob has found taxi drivers to be the absolute best people to practice his Spanish on, and was able to translate for the rest of us.)  He also took several photos.  We had similar experiences when walking through the lava tubes (caves carved out by molten lava flows) and when walking along the craters of Los Gemelos.

So, you win some and you lose some.  We’ll hope that tomorrow’s full-day (and rather pricy) snorkeling trip comes down on the plus side.

In the presence of giants

IMG_0122When we went to the tortoise reserve we saw a whole lot of tortoises. They were all really big. There were also a lot of guava trees and our guide told us that the tortoises eat the guava and they also eat grass.

The tortoises are free to leave or stay in the preserve. They will go in mud pools to cool off. They didn’t move much. They were really really big and they just pretty much sat there. We saw a few walking. We saw one of them trying to bite another one.

IMG_0137There was one really big tortoise and our guide told us he was 120 years old. We were supposed to stay seven feet away from the tortoises but they put their head in their shells if we got too close.

The giant tortoise species got to Galapagos by floating on rafts of driftwood and leaves. Sailors found them there. The sailors also brought goats and dropped them off on the islands. There was nothing on the islands to eat the goats (except the sailors), and after a while there were so many goats that they ate all the tortoises’ food. The sailors also brought rats, which eat the tortoises’s eggs.

IMG_0128Then people started a big program to kill the goats by shooting them. They also have programs to help protect the eggs. They keep the baby tortoises in special breeding places so the rats won’t eat them, and when they’re older they let them go.

The biggest tortoise we saw was so big it would be hard to jump over one. I enjoyed seeing the tortoises and how they acted and moved. I like to watch them eat. They were funny. They chewed very slowly.


Editor’s note:  The trip to the tortoise preserve was part of our tour of the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz.  We also got to walk through a lava tunnel and visited “Los Gemeni,” which are two giant holes in the ground where lava tubes collapsed many years ago.

We also dined in the Kiosk section of town.  After 6 pm, they block off traffic and put tables in the street.  There were lots of people out tonight dining and watching the Copa America final.

Curb your enthusiasm


Even the little birds here are important. Darwin learned a lot from the beaks of finches.

You might have noticed that our blog posts from this trip have been pretty boring so far. Why is this? We’re in one of the most interesting places in the world. How come we’re making it seem so bleh?

It is because, dear readers, we all had to fill out forms and check the box and sign the line next to the part that said we would not make any money from the pictures we take on Galapagos. Now we must take pains to bore-down our accounts of this place so you don’t start throwing money at us in thanks for how interesting our blog is. Curse the day we checked that box!

Today we had pancakes in the morning. I washed the dishes…I can’t do this. We have to tell you about some interesting things.

We got up early in the morning because we’re two time zones (only two, isn’t that interesting?) behind East Coast time. Also we went to bed very early because we were tremendously tired last night from two full travel days. (Also, it gets dark early here — before 7 pm. It must be in the western part of the time zone. Also interesting, I think.)

Lanie, when the zipline is not locked up

Lanie, when the zipline is not locked up

We walked into town — our place is about a ten-minute walk to the main tourist strip On our path is a cool park with a playground. Lanie was very disappointed this morning because the cool zip line hadn’t been unlocked for the day (it apparently gets padlocked each night).

We booked a tour at a place that offered a two-for-one promotion. The lady at the desk just spoke Spanish. I always feel we get a better deal that way. It may be because I can’t understand they way I’m getting ripped off.

Then we walked out of town to a special place where there are two beaches: one long one that is beautiful but dangerous to swim in and one shorter one that is rather like the lagoon on Gilligan’s Island. Calm and not very deep. That one they let us swim in. To get there we had to walk a few kilometers on a cobblestone path through a forest of cactus trees. That’s right, trees. Many were four or five meters tall and had trunks like trees that you could touch without getting pricked. They had bark like regular trees. I’d better tone it down. This is getting too interesting.

This is what downtown looks like (the tortoise is only a statue).

This is what downtown looks like (the tortoise is only a statue).

After swimming we had to walk back along the long beach and back through the cactus forest and back into town and I had to take a taxi to our place so I could pick up the Dramamine and the girls’ fleece jackets. Nothing interesting about that. Only I got halfway into town before I realized Jen had the keys to the house. So I had to walk back out to the rest of the family and get the keys. Then I had to take another taxi to the house while the ladies went into town to get a little lunch. The lunch was pizza, albeit in interesting varieties, they told me. All the taxis in this town are white Toyota pickup trucks, almost the least interesting vehicles on the road anywhere. The town is pretty big, not the remote outpost one would expect on the Galapagos Islands. It’s got several pizza places.

All the rushing about in taxis worked out in the end (except I couldn’t find the Dramamine) and I made it back into town in time to catch the boat on the dock. On this trip I have learned a new Spanish word, muelle, which means dock. Our tour of the bay was very interesting, so I won’t tell you too much about it, except to say that the lack of Dramamine turned out to be not much of an issue. I will post some pictures if you promise not to pay us.


Diving deep in a local swimming hole


Walking along the beautiful, dangerous beach


It’s a cactus AND a tree.


This bird has blue feet.


Green sea turtle as seen from underwater


Sea lion, also as seen from underwater — photo by Zoe


This rock looks like it’s made out of marine iguanas.


This sea lion is named Marianna.


Lastly, if you’ve managed to make it this far into this rather bland blog post, we’ll share with you a happy little accident.  Someone touched a switch on our fancy new camera and we found a new mode.  It’s cool, but rather memory-intensive, so we probably won’t use it a lot.  This took a good six hours to upload to youtube and it eats a lot of precious hard drive space.  Still, it’s kind of like a behind-the-scenes reel of how our Day 2 pictures were made.

At last

Early departure from the Hotel Air Suites

Early departure from the Hotel Air Suites

We’ve finally made it, after what seemed to be endless legs of travel. It was another early morning for us, with an 8am flight. After spending several hours attempting, with mixed success, to get some sleep at our hotel in Guayaquil, we were up again at six.


It wasn’t the easiest day on the pocketbook, either. When we arrived at the airport, we were directed into a long line to purchase (for $20 each) some kind of “tourist card” needed to enter the Galapagos. Upon arriving in the Galapagos (after a pleasant and uneventful flight that left and arrived on time), we had to pay $100 each for a national park entry fee. Then it was $10 per person for bus IMG_0026tickets and $1 per person for a ferry ride, and of course the fee for the taxi that brought us across the island to Puerto Ayora, the main town here. (The airport here is in the middle of nowhere, on an island that doesn’t seem to contain anything else. The bus is necessary to drive you across the island, and the ferry to get to the larger island of Santa Cruz. Then you’re still in the middle of nowhere until you drive the 40km or so to the other side of Isla Santa Cruz.)

Yesterday was a pretty low-key day. We got settled in the apartment we’ve rented for the next six nights, and strolled into town to look around. There’s plenty to look at, including a beautiful and incredibly detailed mosaic garden, gorgeous blue-green seas, and — of course — exotic animals everywhere.

IMG_0037Our favorite viewing spot was the open fish market, located directly on the docks where the boats come in. People stand there all day cleaning and selling fish, and this has not escaped the notice of the local wildlife. Sea lions lounge around, resting on the pavement or begging for scraps. Pelicans and frigate birds dart in and out, attempting to snatch a choice morsel from under the watchful eye of the fish cleaner. Colorful sally lightfoot crabs scuttle underfoot, while iguanas rest in the sunshine.


A wall full of sally lightfoot crabs

IMG_0034IMG_0030IMG_0032Walking around, ice cream, grocery shopping, dinner, and very early to bed — that was about enough for today. Oh, and the nearby playground which features a pretty impressive zip line. The older girls roll their eyes when Lanie wants to stop there, but none of them ever wants to leave.


World Travellers

About two hours ago our plane slipped over an imaginary line and we were suddenly in a new hemisphere!  The Southern Hemisphere! Not long after that we touched ground in a new continent!  South America!  The last America we needed to complete the set.

Here we are, most of us asleep, in Guyaquil, the largest city in Ecuador.

Boats lining up off the Panama coast. Could they be looking for the canal?

Boats lining up off the Panama coast. Could they be looking for the canal? (Photo by Nadia)

I’ll spare most of the details about the travel except to say that neither of our planes left on time, but we were never in any danger of missing our connection.  In fact,  we had enough time in the Panama City airport to pick up some dinner — Carl’s Jr. burgers for Zoe and Lanie, Quizno’s for me and Jen, and Subway for Nadia — though she would have ordered something at the Dunkin’ Donuts if we hadn’t been watching her very closely.

That’s Panama City, Panama, by the way.  Not the one in Florida.

Zoe in the land of quality chocolate, after about 9 hours of flying time

Zoe, and her flute, in the land of quality chocolate, after about 9 hours of flying time

We can’t say too much about Guayaquil except that its airport was beautiful and very efficient.

It would not surprise me to find out there were two Dunkin’ Donuts in the Guyaquil airport.  We’re going back tomorrow morning at about 6:30. I’ll have to keep an eye out.

Where to next?

Yes, blog readers, we’re moving along again.  Even though Jen has not yet wrapped up the second book of our Central America trip (she finished the volume on Nicaragua and it’s awesome, but the sequel covering Costa Rica and Belize is not yet in the can), she’s also been pulling together our next adventure.  She’s been multi tasking.

Jen at the computer, editing or planning. It’s always one or the other.

First she had to pick a destination.  Then she had to get time off from work.  Then she had to get new destination because the first one was too expensive to get to.  Then she had to shoehorn the trip between a dance recital and a violin camp.  Finally, we’re able to go.

In the meantime, here’s what some of the rest of us have been up to.  Follows these youtube links to see:


Zoe’s silent movie solo —


Lane playing the expression session (with me accompanying —



Second place ribbon for Nadia and Sebastian

Also, Nadia’s been in a few horse shows.  And there’s been track meets, concerts, soccer games and dance recitals.  I’ve  been working in the schools and can once again see the beginning of summer vacation as a reason to celebrate.

Now that school’s over, we’re ready to go.