In the Highlands of Santa Cruz

Our campsite in the Highlands.
          Camping in the highlands of Santa Cruz was an adventure: we were told very little about what we were doing and what type of camping it was, only that we were to pack a daypack, overnight bag, and we were going to see tortoises. Therefore, us all being more intense outdoorsy types, we all expected that we would be hiking up to our campsite, setting up tents or something in the middle of the woods, and camping. Well, it turned out, we were at a lovely campsite with three cabins and two huge family tents that we took taxis to, and could drop off stuff before we went on our hike, which was really just walking down the dirt farming road down the mountain. Again, Dr. Meltzoff was in the last car to arrive, leaving all of us in standing around confused, trying to figure out what was going on until she got there (this has been a recurring theme).
The elderly tortoise hanging out at the campsite.
            Once she arrived, and we figured out who was sleeping where and took pictures of an older tortoise that was hanging around camp, we were introduced us to two of the three horses that our guide, René, who owns the place, has. Initially, we only interacted with two of the horses – two males, a larger beige one, who was about five, and a smaller brown one, who was about a year and a half old. All the horses had a white stripe down their face, and they were all siblings. The guys immediately took to the horses, and the beige horse was extremely interested in Tom, or more specifically, Tom’s rain coat. He kept sniffing, licking, and even nibbling at Tom’s coat, to the extent that Tom had to take it off and put aside to keep it from being destroyed. When René brought out a saddle, we all joked that Tom should be the one to ride the beige horse, because it took such a liking to him. It turns out, Tom is from rural southern Illinois, and actually knows how to ride a horse well, and was able to trot circles around us.
Tom and Rene with Tom's new horse friend.
While Tom was all set with his new horse friend, René mentioned towards the third horse, a female beige separate from the others, and wanted to know who was going to ride her. We all made huge, sidelong glances towards Marc – I think because he’s the only non-American, and adventurous besides, we automatically volunteer him for the more ambitious tasks – who then proceeded to lead the horse out of the brush for saddling. Initially when Marc climbed on, the horse started to buck nervously. René calmed her down, but, it turns out, after the rest of us started on the hike, she threw Marc off, and would only accept René as her rider. This made sense after it was explained that a little while ago, the horse had escaped, was found by people who abused her, and was only returned to René two week prior. The plan was to have everyone switch off and on both horses as we went along, but we were only able to do so with Tom’s horse.
The mudpool of tortoises we meditated around.
The entire hike was wet (because it was raining the whole time), and full of tortoises. The Galápagos Tortoises on Santa Cruz are the largest of all the species: we saw males as big as the garbage bins out put out on the curb. You can tell males and females apart in two ways: the males are larger and have bumpy shells, and the females are smaller and have smooth shells – worn down from being mounted while mating. At one point, we left the horses tethered to a tree, while we ventured down what was either a long forgotten trail through the underbrush, or a path René was making up as he went along with his machete. Then, at the direction of Dr. Meltzoff, we meditated around a big mud pool full of tortoises, which was… interesting. That night we had a huge tuna – roasted over the campfire – for dinner, and did some amazing stargazing. I saw more stars that I’ve seen in my entire life that night, and you could just almost see the milky way.
Anita Chapi, in the doorway of her home.
In the morning, we walked along the road for about an hour to René’s mother-in-law’s house. Anita Chapi is eighty years old, still farming and lugging her pineapples and plantains down to market every week, and was one of the first settlers on the island. She’s been there since 1959, and before that she lived in the Andes. She has six daughters and one son, all of whom still live on the island, most down in Puerto Ayora. She has twenty five grandchildren and six great grandchildren. She is one amazing woman, and we go to talk to her for an hour and a half, and sample some of her amazing pineapple. I know we could have stayed much longer, but we had a boat to catch to go to Isabela. After a little cab fiasco (one of the cabs drove off with a bag or two of ours, which was panic-inducing, but we got them back), we all gathered down at the port, loaded all our bags onto the boat, and we were off to Isabela!

Bienvendio a la Galápagos

It hardly seems possible that a week and a half ago I was frantically submitting REU applications and eating at the Pandan Room restaurant in Hackettstown. Really, it hardly seems possible that I’m studying abroad in the Galápagos Islands at this very moment, it is so fabulous. Yet here I am, sitting in this lovely breezeway on the second floor of IOI¸ on the island of Isabela, having the time of my life.
The room at La Casa Sol (top of the staircase)
Monday was a long day – a very, very long day. It started at 5AM to leave at six to drive to Laguardia for my 10AM flight. We anticipated quite a lot of traffic, it being a Monday morning, rush hour, and going through New York City, but ironically, there was no traffic to speak of. Security was a breeze (even if the layout of the airport wasn’t), so I was sitting at my gate for a good three hours before takeoff to Miami. Almost everyone in the program was on the same flight to Quito (save Marc, who’s Dutch, and took the later flight because he was flying in from Europe), so we all were delighted when there was something wrong with the plane, causing our flight to be delayed two hours while they found another one. The airport in Quito was a little confusing, but everything got through OK, and we set off to hour hostel for the night, La Casa Sol.
La Casa Sol is this adorable little hostel in Quito, with a lobby building in front, and a courtyard with all the rooms surrounding it. There were tiny little side offshoots, and probably about three buildings total made up the establishment. The lobby building includes a kitchen, dining room, souvenir shop, what appeared to be a small internet café, and a sitting area, complete with fireplace and library. I ended up rooming with Alex, in one of those offshoot rooms on the second floor, with our own staircase up to our room. I am really glad that, on my post-Galápagos with Elise and Amanda, when we’re in Quito, we’re going to be staying here. It was really a shame that such a lovely place served only as a pit-stop hotel.
The next morning, oh, the next morning was a mess. Breakfast was fine – delicious actually. In Ecuador, it seems, the standard breakfast is granola, fruit, and something that seems like a thin yogurt, with a side of eggs, juice, and bread or toast (with butter and jam). I could just have the granola part every day. I might switch to it, actually, when back in the US, if I can figure out how to make my yogurt that consistency. We loaded all our stuff into the two vans, and took off through the busy Quito morning traffic to the airport. What we didn’t realize until we got there was that we had somehow left Amanda, and Sarah Meltzoff, our professor and guide, at La Casa Sol. We all instinctively turned to Marc to lead us, mainly because he has the best Spanish (languages must come naturally to him – he’s fluent in three), and also because he has the most experience in international travel. Of course, he really didn’t have any idea what he was doing, because Galápagos flights have special rules, in addition to the Quito airport being confusing and a madhouse, but he could best understand what our drivers were saying to us.
First we had to go through a special inspection station, to make sure we weren’t bringing in any plant or animal material that might get onto the islands. That part was obvious. After that, we just sort of stood around confused until Dr. Meltzoff got there, and things didn’t really get any clearer. There was a lot of standing around and blocking lines while Dr. Meltzoff got all of our paperwork “clear,” and then we all slowly had our bags checked. Then there was a fiasco where the airline people at one desk were telling us to go to another desk for our boarding passes, but that was really just for overweight baggage people, and we should have gone to another desk, etc. etc. Let’s just say, when we all got through security and all we had to do was board the plane, we all cheered.
Ready to snorkel!
Left to right: Marc, Tom, Katie, Amanda.
We were all scattered throughout the back of the plane, though Elise and I both had aisle seats in the same row, so that was nice. The result of the aisle seat was that I couldn’t plaster my face to the window as we approached the islands, and had to be content with catching glimpses of the islands from three seats over at the right angle. When we were all off the plane and on the tarmac (the airport on Isla Baltra is pretty much a runway with a little open air building that resembles a picnic pavilion to serve as the terminal), we all let out a celebratory cry, doing a little happy dance as much as we could laden down with luggage. After passing through the park desk with our special paperwork, we grabbed our snorkel gear out of our bags, and set forth on a bus to the dock while our bags went ahead of us to the hotel in Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz.
Yes, all snorkels are like this.
The snorkeling was excellent, even if I was a little cold in just my dive skin (the water in the Galápagos comes up from Antarctica on the Humbolt current, so despite being on the equator, the water temperature is in the 60s). You know how everyone is always so enthralled with the terrestrial life of the Galapagos – the tortoises, iguanas, finches, etc? Well, the marine life of the archipelago blows it out of the water (no pun intended). On our first snorkel, there were comb jellyfish everywhere, the several species of the biggest parrotfish I’ve ever seen in my life, angelfish of all kinds everywhere, other species of fish besides that I can’t ID, a friendly sea lion, and a school of white-tip sharks, which is pretty rare, even for the Galápagos. The second snorkel was too deep with too strong of a current to see anything, though apparently that’s the spot to see schools of hammerheads. The third snorkel was just as spectacular as the first. I kept waiting to wake up from the amazing dream I was having.That night, after we checked into the hotel, we went to the local restaurant strip, where you could only find locals, tourists “in the know,” and, of course, our big, obvious group. We stuck out like a sore thumb, but we didn’t care. We were having the time of our lives.
The view from in the water on our first snorkel.
In the morning, we went on a hike up to a canyon just outside of town filled with seawater. The landscape of the Galápagos, especially the lowlands and the smaller, more desolate islands, is striking, especially when seen from the water. Across the landscape are dozens and dozens of tree and candelabra cacti, with the same sort of arid brush and thorns you expect out of a dessert. Below them lie lava rock and soil, and below that the sea. To see all that in the same picture, it’s confusing, and doesn’t not really compute the first several times you lay eyes on it. It’s something about seeing a cactus surrounded by a huge body of water that just doesn’t make sense. This expanse of cacti was what we were supposed to be seeing on our way up to this canyon, but we were all to busy watching our feet and trying not to trip over the lava rock all over the path.

The fabulous canyon swimming hole.
Eventually we reached the canyon: the walls are ten metres high above the waterline, and the water is supposed to extend thirty metres down, though it looked like much less due to a dense sulfur and salt layer that formed about ten metres down, which resembled white sand. The water was cool, but refreshing rather than uncomfortable. We swam around for a good hour – us, the other tourists and locals, and the parrotfish and blennies that occupied the pool. Almost all of us clamored up the wall to designated jumping ledges in order to throw ourselves in the water: on high one, one low one, with the high one being the only one anyone used once it was discovered we could get up there. I went off the high one, which was about two thirds of the way up the canyon wall. There’s nothing quite like jumping from eight metres up off a canyon wall into a deep, saltwater pool in the Galápagos.
A sea lion that played with us for the longest time.
            After our fun in the canyon, we went on another snorkel trip. These three snorkels were just as amazing as the previous day, this time with particularly playful sea lions, and the dynamic of a sea lion family – which, probably not surprisingly, resembles any sort of human situation involving a small child whining for a parent to do something with them, the parent eventually does it, and suddenly the child has lost interest. We also caught a marine iguana under the water eating algae, and exceptionally rare event that many that make it to the Galápagos never see. We snorkeled along the shallows with an abundance of sea lion pups and rays, and in a couple of large sea caves with astounding rock structures (Michelle, if you’re reading this, that’s for you). That night, we had Galápagos pizza – which is, sadly, better than any pizza you can get in Miami (Dear Miami, Pizza is an American food. You’re an American city. The Ecuadorian people in the middle of the Pacific Ocean can make better pizza. What’s wrong with this picture?) – and then, gelato. I, and many others, had the most amazing passionfruit gelato on the planet; I would not be surprised if the passionfruit were picked in the highlands that morning. It was a great ending to an amazing first two days.
And the next? Camping in the highlands.