Seeing the world, one country at the time

Cruising Santa Cruz

Our last day with the Tip Top II crew was spent on Santa Cruz, also known as Indefatigable, the second largest inhabited island, and the most common base for visitors. It lies at the center of the archipelago, 1000 kilometers from Ecuador. Its first settlers were Norwegians in 1923 and from their inauspicious beginnings the island has grown into ten thousand strong. It has a lot to offer tourists and wildlife lovers alike. Being back in Puerto Ayora felt simultaneously like a waste of time and like a good ending for our trip. After all, we had three more days to kill in the city. We had slept overnight in Puerto Ayora’s harbor, so in the morning it was an easy transfer to the Charles Darwin Research Center (CDRC), where breeding, conservation and research is being conducted.

It was exceptionally hot as we walked by the numerous tortoise cages, where the creatures are reared from hatching to adulthood, when they can be released into the wild. Each cage features a different age. Due to poaching, these tortoises are endangered, so the CDRC is working on breeding and making their habitats safer for reintroduction. The little tortoises were adorable. I watched two tiny ones fall onto their backs and struggle to right themselves, and another use a second to climb a rock by trampling on his shell and head. This was survival of the fittest at its earliest manifestation.

Next was our visit with the center’s big star, Lonesome George. He is the last of his kind from Pinto Island and his species will probably die out with him, as he shows no interest in mating. Of all the females they have paired him with, he only took interest in one, and seemed to have difficulty staying awake when he actually got as far as mounting her, so no baby tortoise came of that. Well, tortoise mating is a tediously slow ritual, so I can see how it could put you to sleep. The scientists keep trying. After all, he’s a young 90 year-old. He has between ten and sixty more years to live.

We also visited with the adult giant tortoises. When I use the word giant, it is with good reason. It was feeding time and the women munched away on their greens, looking a little like cows, while the males took their siestas in separate areas. They would be frightening, if they weren’t so calm and slow. Looking at them you have the distinct impression that these are wise creatures that have seen the world and been with us since the dawn of time. Just like the iguanas, some of which we saw at the CDRC. These were bright yellow and orange land iguanas, up to a meter or about three feet long. Prior to this we had only seen the darker and more sinister-looking marine iguanas. Land iguanas are much more beautiful, but equally fascinating.

Our last lunch on the boat was highlighted with a birthday celebration for Jim, who turned 50. The cook had baked him a cake and he was so happy, it was great to share in the moment. As usual, he wore one of his many iguana t-shirts, and Barbara, who he spent a lot of time with, gave him a stuffed iguana as a present. Afterwards, the group went onshore to shop, while we found a cheap hotel for the rest of our stay, Hotel Del Lirio, and booked a tour for the next day. We already wanted to be back on a boat. We met the Tip Top group later to continue our day tour on the island.

Our afternoon was spent with our group in the highlands of the island, near the ancient volcano that created the island. We visited pit craters called “Los Gemelos” (the twins) that were magma chambers, which had since then imploded, leaving massive holes filled with rich vegetation. Looking down at the white rocks of calcium carbonate, we spot a lava tube that looks like lips across the way. It forms a hole straight through the rock. This tube, though tiny from our perspective, is big enough to walk upright in and soon we will get a close-up experience with similar lava tubes.

The area is green with Bromelids, a cousin of the pineapple, as well as Spanish moss, liverwort, lichen and ferns. Some of these plants are non-indigenous, but their seeds are dropped by migrating birds. Blackberry bushes, for example, are invasive and non-endemic, but grow all over the place because their seeds are spread by finches. There are also Quinine trees, which are not native, and will be removed despite their medicinal qualities. Whenever the rangers spot an invader, they eradicate it. That is how dedicated the biologists are to seeing this island returned to its original conditions.

The road we are driving and the area we are standing on as our guide JC lectures, lies over part of the empty magma chamber, which may eventually collapse. Driving along, the landscape is lush and verdant, void of the colorful flowers we see down by the water. It’s cooler up here in the highlands. We stop at Rancho Primicios, a private ranch once dedicated to coffee and fruit and now making tourist dollars from the tortoises and lava tubes that happen to be on the land, where it lies beside the Chato national reserve. The tortoises wander everywhere, lounging in mud pools, resting under trees, eating, and even mating. We watched fascinated as a male tried to mate, without any interest from the female. His grunts seemed to indicate some activity on his part at least, but she kept trying to drag herself away. It finally got too embarrassing to watch.

After our tour, the rancher offered us delicious fresh watermelon from the farm. Driving away we spotted tortoises along the road and in fields where cows were grazing. Since the ranch is next to El Chato reserve, they lay their eggs here. We arrived to the ranch’s lava tube and climbed down into the opening. It widened into a large tunnel made from molten lava and gases escaping from a volcano and it runs on forever underneath the ranch property. It was as perfect as tunnels get, with rounded, large, domed ceilings that were so smooth they seem manmade. It was wet and cool inside. Before the advent of major tourism, this lava tube had very practical uses. The owners kept food cooled inside and during droughts they collected freshwater from there, when the walls dripped.

We returned to dock to say our reluctant goodbyes. You rarely get such a good group together. We were happy to have had the afternoon with them and on top of that we could meet half the group for drinks later. We were both strangely sad and felt a little empty. Later, we looked for the boat from the pier and thought up ways we could go and hang out there with them. It bordered on obsessive. We took a water taxi out to a restaurant, which was closed and thought about seeing them instead. From our taxi we could look into the boat and see them at their daily briefing. It was odd. I felt like Charlie in front of the candy store window displays.

We went back to shore and met our group at Garapato restaurant. They are very funny people. Lars and I ate, while the rest drank. JC showed up there later with his girlfriend to spend our tip money. Dinner was good, but expensive. We separated shortly thereafter as we were all exhausted and were longing for our stationary beds. Lars passed out within seconds. Tomorrow our tour starts at 7:30. No rest for the weary!