We had been looking forward to this trip for what feels like a lifetime. Even before we moved to Ecuador, my husband was fascinated with the islands off the coast made famous by Charles Darwin’s research on the theory of evolution. Known for it’s diverse and unique landscape and wildlife, it’s the kind of place where you can swim with everything from warm water penguins to sharks.
We boarded a plane from Quito and two hours later arrived at Baltra. An airplane. A bus. A boat. And one taxi later, we arrived at our hotel on Santa Cruz. The most populated island in the archipelago. Already we had seen a few sea lions sunning themselves on the dock. A sight that I had expected based on what I already knew. But one that thrilled me all the same. Stretched out across the wooden planks. Barely taking note of the cameras snapping away in their sweet faces.
As the sun began to set, we made our way through the bustling city of Puerto Aroyo, the capital and most heavily developed area. Restaurants with inviting open air porches and kitschy souvenir shops filled the streets closest to the dock. Rental shops for all your ocean needs. And of course, agencies selling tours and day trips to the surrounding sights. Last minute deal signs hanging outside every window creating a sense of urgency that lost its luster with each passing message board.
We rented a small life jacket for our son. Priced out a couple of excursions. Hit up the local park. And headed to dinner at the strip of seafood stands known as Los Kioskos. Fresh catches of every kind laid out on trays in front of steaming grills. We ate there several times over the course of our stay. The food was good. Not great. With each order, I think we were hoping to find the hidden gem that expertly prepared the beautiful product the way we wanted it to be. Priced anywhere from $5 lunch specials, to $10 entrees and up, my favorite meal was the lobster and the red scorpion fish, or brujo. The lobster was grilled with butter, while the brujo was fried. Crispy on the outside contrasting nicely with the buttery white flesh. Lots of shrimp. Octopus. Savory broths filled with a little bit of everything. When in doubt or too tired to make a decision otherwise, it was a convenient choice with lots of options.
We began our first full day at Las Grietas, a deep fissure in the earth filled with emerald green water and an abundance of fish. We boarded a water taxi from the main dock that dropped us off on the other side of the harbor for a dollar per person. Past a shallow beach filled with tide pools and through a path of prickly trees and pools of green, we finally reached our destination after about a thirty minute hike in the scorching sun. With sweat pouring off our faces, the thought of squeezing myself into a wetsuit was less than appealing. Though I was glad I did.
The mood was ominous. Whether it was the sharp cliffs that surrounded the narrow passage casting shadows on the surface. Or the deep abyss that met my mask as I peered down into the water below. I felt a little flutter in my chest. I’m not the strongest swimmer and it was a little scary. Deep and unknown. Like I could fall into nothing and never return. But I trudged on. If my 3-year-old could do it. So could I. With each subsequent pool – three in total – there were more fish to see. We awkwardly maneuvered ourselves over slippery rocks that separated the bodies of water, and were rewarded with colorful schools darting nowhere in particular but fast. After an hour or so, with tour groups arriving en mass, we departed.
After all, we still had the walk back.
A relaxing afternoon at the beach with more snorkeling rounded out the day. And of course, more seafood for dinner.
And onto the next.
After an exhilarating day in the water, we were ready for a little land. Taking things slowly for our son, who is still finding his fins. We headed off to the Darwin Research Center. Home to a giant tortoise breeding center and loads of information about the islands, it was here we had our first marine iguana experience. What would later become old hat, had us all open-mouth speechless, as we spotted a family sunning themselves on a walkway to the beach. I whispered to my son to be careful as he tiptoed through the maze of tails and feet, while I quickly grabbed for my camera. His face beaming with joy as he pointed to the ground in disbelief. We continued along the path, amazed at each cluster of creatures, unbothered by our presence. Our fascination. Our silent, but palatable excitement that filled the air.
I felt giddy.
Like I had stumbled upon some sort of secret existence where man and beast are one. Living in peace. And I couldn’t help but think a thought that crossed my mind so many times on this trip.
We lived in a world that maintained and supported this level of respect for life. For sustainability and conservation.
What would that be like.
Or is it too late?
That afternoon, we rented bikes and headed back to the center. Visiting the second of two beaches on the property. This one filled not with dark piles of scales and claws, but with beach blankets and bathing suits. A quiet cove perfect for swimming. The tide was gentle and the fish plentiful. We salted our snorkels up one last time as the sun went down before toweling off and heading to a tasty pizza dinner at the Galapagos Deli. Meeting up with some friends of friends on their recommendation, this was by far our best meal on the island. So good that we returned back twice for their delicious chicken sandwiches and honey ice cream.
Before we even took off, I felt a little apprehensive. The plan was to take a taxi up to Los Gemelos, two volcanic sinkholes about 20 km from Puerto Ayora. It felt a little far, but friends assured us that coming back was mostly downhill and an easy ride.
Which it was for the most part, but I’ll get into that later.
We arrived at our first stop which was comprised of two trails on either side of the road that offered up views of the sinkholes, now filled with lush greenery. Both walks were short, taking us about twenty minutes in total. Just enough time to soak up some shade and take a few photos to remember that we’d been there.
And then, we were off.
Winding down the road down on hills that were just a little too steep for my liking. I hovered my fingers above the brake, pressing just hard enough to maintain a comfortable speed, while not so hard to risk falling.
Dead owl, I heard my husband call out.
But my attention was elsewhere.
We hit a small town and were informed that we had passed our next stop by about a kilometer. I was grateful it wasn’t more, even though backtracking would mean some serious leg strength. I felt a bit of relief when we finally saw the sign for the El Chato Tortoise Reserve. We were on the right track.
With the path turning to dirt and the hills even more treacherous, I found my groove. At times, letting loose and feeling that child-like fearlessness I know I used to once have. Like the speed was actually fun, and not some precursor to a horrific accident that would leave me bruised and bloodied.
We hit a fork in the road. Two signs that said the exact same thing, pointing in opposite directions. As we pondered what each could possibly mean, a taxi pulled up and explained the difference. To the right, the lava tunnels were smaller and shorter. So to the left we went.
A few minutes in and you’ll hit a park ranger booth. He directed us to turn left at the arrow and take the road to the end for the lava tunnels. We arrived at a clearing that led to the entrance. It was one of those blink and you’ll miss it kind of things, the path obscured by branches and leaves giving way to that all to familiar feeling of, we might be lost. Which thankfully, we weren’t.
After locking up the bikes, we entered the tunnel down narrow steps into a damp cavern dripping from every pore. Huge rocks that had slid down from the ceiling lining the sides and floor forming a pointy pathway through the dimly lit corridor. Up and down across slippery slabs, and one pregnant belly slide through a shallow passage and we were out. A couple kilometers down the road from our bikes. And ready for El Chato.
Back and down we went, heading straight at the same arrow where we had gone left at before. The trail ends at the reserve which is filled. Filled. With giant tortoises. Roaming free across the land, it’s an incredible chance to see these creatures in their natural habitat. Unrestrained. Whether buried deep in the mud to keep cool. Or positioned directly in the sun, a withered neck stretched straight up into the sky. There’s something really special about animals of this size and age. The way they move. The way they sound. And mostly, the way they look. Ancient and wise with years and experience boasting one of the longest life spans on earth. Well over a hundred years with the oldest being recorded at 152. An integral part of the ecosystem, what I loved most was learning about how their slow roll throughout the island has attributed to seed dispersal, impacting germination through the undigested bits and bobs in their droppings.
Nature is so cool.
From there the ride up was tough. Hot sun beating down. Inclines far too steep to ride. I trudged along the side of my bike, hoping around every bend to catch sight of a taxi. Which never happened. We did, however, reach the end. Or rather, the beginning of our trek back to town. Paved and now operating under a relative scale of difficulty, the long haul felt fairly easy. Keep an eye out for the right turn back to town. One we almost missed since we had been in a car on the way up. And keep going until you find an ice cold glass of water and some carbs.
A hearty dinner at Midori ended our time on Santa Cruz. Next stop – Isabela.