Tag: Ecuador

An Ecologist’s Dream: Exploring Puerto Ayora

(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

Santa Cruz is the first island that we called home in the Galapagos.  From the moment that I arrived there, the island astounded me.  The drive from Baltra to Puerto Ayora itself was a tour of the various ecosystems of the island.  From the ferry dock to the city, we drove up in elevation from the shore, and then back down as we reached the beachside city. In doing this, the road took us through the green coastal zone, through the arid zone of the lowlands.  We would get to know this particular assemblage of plants and animals fairly well, as these are the plants that line the beaches and cities.  The arid zone is characterized by tall, bush shrubs, and cactus trees, which to my Arizona-born sensibilities look like prickly pear cacti trying to be trees. After the arid zone we pass up through the transition zone, where the shrubs of the arid areas give way to denser growths of thin trees which are often draped with vines.  In the middle of the island, the drive takes you up into the scalesia forests and then back down.  The scalesia forests get the vast majority of the rain that the mountains of the islands attract, and as such, they are vibrant, green places. The trees here are massive, and the climate in the forest is quite cool compared to the warmer low lands.  As we drew closer to Puerto Ayora, the forest began to give way to patches of agricultural activity, and small settlements.  (c) AB RaschkeAgain, as a resident of Arizona, I thought that the architecture of these towns, as well as the larger cities on the islands was very similar to the architecture of Northern Mexico.  Open air restaurants are common, many houses and stores have bright colored, personal touches added to them, and many buildings seem to be in a near constant state of construction.

            On Santa Cruz, much of what we saw was around Pueto Ayora, and for the traveller on a budget, this is a great place to explore. A walk down the village’s main street, Charles Darwin Avenue, is not only great for shopping and food, but the road runs along the coast, provides some wonderful views.  Decorative buildings line the street which is characterized by wavy red and yellow brickwork.  This road also passes by the fish market of Puerto Ayora, where sea lions and pelicans gather along with people for the chance at some fresh fish.  (c) AB RaschkeAt the western end of the road, where the docks are, taxis are easy to come by, and tourists mingle with natives.  There is a big volleyball court, and park amenities, which fill up towards sunset.  Once night sets in, the pier is lit up from the water, and sea life can easily be seen.  There is also a big supermarket at the western end of the road, which we took advantage of more than once to help cut our food costs.

            Many of the streets fanning off from Avenue de Charles Darwin (the main street in Puerto Ayora) lack clear signage, and navigating through the city can get somewhat confusing.  However, the town is safe, and we spent much of our time seeing the city on foot.  When all else failed (or the heat got to us) we would flag down a taxi and catch a lift downtown or back to our lodging. 

            In terms of attractions around the city, Centro de Crianza de Tortugas Gigantes, Las Grietas, and Tortuga bay were the big ones.  All are free to visit (although getting to the trailhead for Las Grietas requires you to take a watertaxi which is about $0.80 one way), they require you to sign in, and you may visit only during the day, as each trail closes around 5pm.

          DSCF3587  El Centro de Crianza de Tortugas is the first thing that we visited while on Santa Cruz.  As its name suggests, this area is one of the breeding centers for giant tortoises (and the former home of Lonesome George). We went in the morning, during the park’s feeding time, and due to this fact we were able to see many of the animals in the park active. 

(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

There are tortoises of all different ages available for observation along the trail, and land iguanas as well (which we saw no where else).  The trails here also provided great views of the arid environment that is home to the awesome cactus trees, which are integral to the survival of several different tortoise breeds.  Taking a few quiet moments along the trail, we also had the chance to see several different species of birds.

            The Las Grietas trailhead is across the bay from most of Puerto Ayora, but a short watertaxi ride over to the other side reveals several isolated and beautiful residences and hotels.  The trail to Las Grietas begins on some narrow pathways that run between the outer walls of these buildings, and while not exactly a nature lover’s idea of an appealing trailhead, I found the little offshoot of the city to be rather nice. 

(c)AB Raschke

(c)AB Raschke

After passing through most of the buildings, the trail became rocky and passed along several lagunas.  It also snaked by a small, white sand beach called Playa de Punta Estrada, and through the Salinas.  The landscape here is characterized by volcanic rock, and brackish water that is almost otherworldly in its earthy colors and silty texture.  The rocky trail passed through the water here at several points, but it was easy to stay dry, as the volcanic rock that made the trail rises out of the water. 


(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

Las Grietas itself is something like a giant crack in the rock of the island.  This crack connects the cool, calm pool of Las Grietas to the ocean, and makes for a great place to swim.  The pool is also deep enough in places for people to jump from the rocks into the water, but I would check with the park employee posted at the pool before jumping.  It does tend to get busy at the bottom of the tail, as people stake out places for their belongings among the massive boulders that form the access point to the water.   Several blogs that I read suggested coming here in the morning to find some solitude here, and as we found ourselves amid a crowd once we reached the end of the trail, I think that this is very good advice.


(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

Finally, there is Tortuga Bay.  This is one of the longer hikes on the island, and I would suggest planning ahead for the journey.  My friend and I did the hike later in the day, and we didn’t really end up having time to enjoy the beach at the end of the trail.  We started from downtown, and following the maps posted there, took a few backstreets to find the trailhead which is nestled back in the neighborhood away from the main street.  The trail itself is smooth brick, and thus, fairly easy to travel.  It also passes through the shrub forest, so there is some shade along the way.  At the end, a beautiful white sand beach awaits, complete (at the time we were there) with a small gathering of sun tanned surfers. 
(c) AB Raschke

(c) AB Raschke

An Ecologist’s Dream: Getting to the Galapagos

In the winter of 2012, a friend and I returned from a trip to Washington DC, and decided that we were thirsty for more adventure. “Let’s go to the Galapagos!” My friend suggested. Of course, as a budding ecologist, the idea of going to the Galapagos felt like a dream. A place of near mythic historical importance, and home to innumerable species found nowhere else in the world. All that being said, my initial reaction to such a suggestion was, “We can’t go there.”

We’re too young. Too poor. Too inexperienced… my list of excuses went on. My friend and I let the idea drop for a while. Then, in a few stolen moments in my office, I discovered a blog about seeing the Galapagos while on a budget. Suddenly, I realized that it wasn’t impossible to visit this place. There were those who had gone before, set on exploring on their own. I found myself feeling determined to make it there. I sent the blog entry to my friend, and planning began.

We bought our plane tickets in February, and our trip was in early May. For most of the time inbetween, we settled for reserving our hotels and doing a little background research on the islands themselves. In retrospect, I believe that our trip would have gone much smoother had we done more research and planning in that interim period. Our trip to the Galapagos was wonderful, the place is so utterly unique that I felt like I was on a different planet at times, and the people there are more kind and welcoming than I could have imagined. All that being said, I have never been on a more stressful and nerve-wracking trip in all my life.

For one, we discovered mere weeks before we left that Guayaquil, a city in Ecuador where we had an over night layover on the way to the Galapagos, and a eight hours layover on the way out, was one of the most dangerous cities in the country. There have been efforts to improve things in recent years, but people (especially white tourists who are believed to be rich) still get kidnapped, robbed and beaten if they get into the wrong taxi there. Being out at night in most parts of the city is also a serious risk for visitors, and both of our layovers where in the evening. (c)AB RaschkeUnfortunately, despite our research, we were not able to figure out a safe way to see any of the city on either of our layovers. We did learn, however, that many hotels in the airport area offer shuttles for those visitors who are worried about taxi travel. We took shuttles both times we were in Guayaquil, and both of the places that we stayed were very accommodating and felt very safe.

Furthermore, many of the things that we were hoping to do while in the Galapagos had very little easily accessible information on the internet. We were uncertain about interisland travel, about where and when we could get our boat tickets. We began reaching out whenever we could, but by then, there just wasn’t enough time for us to get comfortable with what we were about to do.

However, the time came, and we both boarded our respective planes to meet in Miami, and from there, leave for Ecuador together. We spent one night in Miami, and one night in Quayaquil before we reached the Galapagos. As previously mentioned, travelers planning on passing through Guayaquil should do some background reading on the city in order to keep safe, and be able to plan possible excursions during longer layovers.

There are two primary airports in the Galapagos, one on Baltra (a small island to the north of Santa Cruz) and one on San Cristobal. It is possible to fly into one airport and out of another, which I believe would have been a good option for us, had our trip been longer. Planes fly out of both Quito and Guayaquil for the Galapagos.

I don’t know the specifics of the Quito airport, since I didn’t experience it, but I’m sure there are key similarities between the process of flying out of Guayaquil and Quito. First, flights to the Galapagos are considered national flights, since the Galapagos is a part of Ecuador. Once in the national terminal of the Guayaquil airport, look for a yellow sign indicating Galapagos inspection and customs (unfortunately I can’t remember exactly what the sign said). Here you will have your bags inspected for the first time, and then you will pay $10 per person for transit papers for the Galapagos. Do not try to check in before doing this, as the airlines will not let you do so until your paper work is in order, and you risk having to wait in multiple lines if they are forced to turn you away.

Once checked in, security is no big deal, and the national gate area is comfortably small. Be aware that as of May 2013, there were no comprehensive information boards about flights, and gates were announced shortly before planes arrived. Many announcements were in Spanish only, and one needs to pay attention in order not to miss the flight out.

(c) AB RaschkeIf landing in Baltra, the following description will be helpful. The Baltra airport is small, but the Galapagos has its own customs that travelers must pass through. Here, you must present your passport, transit papers, and a $100 CASH entrance fee. After paying, you will be given the stub of your transit papers, and this should be saved for passage off of the islands. Your bags will be inspected one more time before you leave the airport building.

Once outside, you will be ushered into a bus (which is free) and this will take you across the island to a ferry crossing. Then, with the crowd of people from your flight, you will move from the bus to a ferry boat. They WILL collect a fee for this ferry. I believe it was $0.80-$1.00. Being prepared for this makes the journey a little smoother. Once you are on Santa Cruz, you will find yourself in a large parking lot filled with white pick up trucks and buses.(c) AB Raschke The white pick ups are Galapagos taxis which will cost about $18 to take to town, and the buses cost $1.80. In either case, the ride from the ferry into Puerto Ayora takes about 45 minutes to an hour depending on your mode of travel. Of course, a taxi can take you right to your accommodations, but if you don’t speak a lot of Spanish it is prudent to have the address of where you want to go prepared to show to your driver. For the bus, there will be several stops made in the city, but you will most likely want to wait to get off until it gets into the main square of Puerto Ayora. This is right along the coast, overlooks a volleyball court, and is conveniently surrounded by taxis and places that sell boat passage to Isabela and San Cristobol.

From here, you will most likely want to take a taxi to your place of stay. We had no problems getting around on foot once we knew the lay of the town, but getting to your accommodations for the first time will be near impossible on your own as most of the streets lack street signs, and thorough maps of Puerto Ayora are hard to come by outside of the Galapagos. Taxi rides in town are $1.(c) AB Raschke

For those who plan on taking boat trips to the other islands, buying tickets a day in advance is highly recommended, because the speed boats are pretty small and they do fill up. These tickets can be bought from establishments in the main square, and some accommodations will help you buy tickets if you are uncertain. The ones we purchased were $30 each way, but some places appear to charge $35 as well. There is a set schedule for the boats leaving the islands, and those travelling should arrive 30 minutes prior to departure. You will need to check in with the company taking you across, and your bags will be inspected once again before you can leave. Also, you will board the speed boats via water taxis which charge $0.60, so once again, be prepared to pay.

Finally, be aware that there is a $30.00 tax to leave Ecuador, and this will need to be paid before you check in for your flight out of the country.

Getting Around on the Galapagos

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