Giant tortoises, giant iguanas, giant costs and giant pain in the arse bureaucracy. Sadly, that about sums up our experience of the Galapagos, although it certainly wasn’t all bad and we don’t regret going there. I’m just not sure we’d go back again for another visit.
Visiting the Galapagos Islands had been on the top of my bucket list since way back when I studied Charles Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” at uni and read about these unique islands and their fauna and flora. Apparently it was the little innocuous finches and their different adaptations on each island that sowed the seed for the great man’s later theory of evolution. So it was just a little bit of a thrill to see one of these famous finches on one of our walks around Isla Isabela.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, because if you arrive by private yacht you have to go through the extraordinarly convoluted and costly process of checking in before you’re allowed to set foot on land.
Unless you get an ‘Autographo’ or cruising permit (which takes months to obtain and lots of dosh) you’re only allowed a one-island stay for a maximum of 20 days. Prior to leaving Panama we’d organized some of the necessary paperwork which included a hull cleaning certificate, a fumigation certificate and a holding tank certificate. You also have to use an agent to clear in, so we contacted the venerable JC in Isla Isabela (he’s the only agent on the island so I guess he’s pretty close to God) who gave us the run-down on costs for clearing in (nearly US$1000 in our case). We’d also been told we had to separate our garbage, dispose of any fruits and vegetables (onions and garlic were OK if they were peeled and refrigerated, same with potatoes) and be subjected to a medical examination on arrival. Boy oh boy – talk about a rigmarole!
Our planning left a bit to be desired – we arrived late on Friday evening and had to make our way into the anchorage in the dark, never a pleasant experience but particularly bad when there’s a huge swell running and reefs everywhere. Still, we made it in and fell into bed with relief.
The next morning we contacted JC and he told us to come into the dinghy dock so he could give us more information. No sooner had we tied up at the dock than he came running down the jetty waving his arms: “Go back to the boat, go back to the boat, the Port Captain’s here and you’ll be in big trouble if he sees you on land before you’ve checked in”. So we high-tailed it back to the boat like naughty schoolkids and waited for further instructions. It seems we couldn’t be checked in until Monday, but JC assured us that the doctor would be coming out to do the medical check at 4pm that afternoon, and after that we were OK to go ashore. Of course, Murphy deemed that at 3.30pm the heavens opened, so it became apparent that we weren’t going to see a doctor arriving any time soon. So there we were, in the Galapagos but quarantined on the boat until Monday, and not even the prospect of internet to while away the time! Argghh!
Even though we’d spent several hours cleaning our hulls in Las Perlas, by the time we got to the Galapagos we were horrified to see a mass of small barnacles clinging to the rear of our hulls, and a lot of slimy green growth along the waterline. Apparently if your hulls aren’t clean they make you go offshore 40NM to clean them before you’re allowed entry. We’d also heard that if you get caught cleaning your hull while anchored it would be immediate eviction. Hmmm….we had to find a covert way to get the worst of the barnacles off without drawing attention to ourselves – so as soon as the boat swung out of sight of the Port Captain’s office Bruce jumped in and surreptitiously scraped away the dastardly critters.
We waited oh so patiently (well, perhaps not) and finally at 3pm on Monday a water taxi arrived bearing what can only be described as the Galapagos Circus – JC our agent, a national parks official, a navy official, quarantine officer, customs officer, and someone else who’s only job seemed to be taking selfies of himself on our foredeck (and still no doctor). They all piled onto the boat and squeezed around our saloon table (I would have loved to have taken a photo but thought better of it). They were very pleasant and polite and mostly it involved lots of form filling and paper shuffling. Bizarrely, the parks officer wanted to look at both engine bays and check the oil and fuel filters. She was also very impressed that we had a watermaker on board but had no idea how it worked. After all the dire warnings about not having any growth on our hull, all she said was “I noticed you have some growth on your waterline, please leave it alone and don’t touch it while you’re here’ (oops!).
It would be nice to think all this was a reflection on how serious they are about protecting the environment, but sadly it’s a bit of a farce. For instance, there’s no pump-out facility for the holding tanks, so you’re supposed to go 40NM offshore to empty your tanks. In reality no-one does, and there are numerous large charter boats who you can bet your bottom dollar don’t comply with that regulation. The crew on the charter boats were regularly seen tipping garbage overboard, and even though we dutifully separated our garbage, it seems that it all gets collected in the one truck. Ashore, the town of Isabela has a large population of domestic dogs and cats which seemed bizarre in such an environmentally sensitive area.
Anyway, enough of the griping. There were plenty of good things about our visit, mostly the ability to get up close and personal with much of the wildlife (sometimes a little too close!). The sealions were everywhere, lounging on the dock and pathways.
As docile as they seemed, it didn’t pay to turn your back on them or get too close – one cruiser got bitten on the leg while we were there. They seemed particularly pleased that the local council had conveniently placed park benches everywhere for their exclusive use. And woe betide anyone that tried to shoo them off!
They were also very partial to climbing aboard dinghies and boats. We tried to erect a Sealion Defence System (SDS) with fenders and empty jerry cans on our back steps, but they just laughed at us.
On our first night Bruce woke up to what sounded like an old man with a terrible smoker’s cough, only to discover a sealy intruder had made it past the SDS and was on our cabin top! Armed with torch and broom Bruce encouraged him to leave, but not without leaving behind a pungent oily residue. Then there was the time one flopped across the hatch above our bed, depositing a deluge of stinky sealion water all over our bedding! They seemed to get bolder the longer we were there – one day when we were working on the foredeck I went back to the cockpit to get something, only to discover a very large sealion lounging on the seat. I half expected him to raise a flipper and request a cocktail! If they hadn’t smelt so bad or left so much mess it would have been quite entertaining….
The iguanas were also everywhere and extremely large, spending most of their days soaking up the sun on the walkways and not caring too much about all the humans walking around and over them.
Everything is so regulated that most sightseeing has to be done with an official guide. One exception was a visit to the Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre, a short walk out of town along a pretty boardwalk.
The Giant Tortoises on Isabela have become endangered since the islands became populated – feral goats have destroyed much of their habitat and years of being hunted for food had left their population perilously close to extinction. The breeding centre is certainly impressive and well-run, and the tortoises seem to have no problems reproducing!
Once large enough, the tortoises are released into the wild. Unfortunately the information centre was closed for renovation while we were there, so we could only glean small tidbits of information by tagging along with another guided tour.
We also did a day excursion to Los Tuneles, the lava tunnels and arches on the coast to the west of Isabela. It was quite an exhilarating (and bumpy) ride in the local tourist boat.
On the way we stopped for a snorkel at Cabo Rosa. Having been spoilt by snorkeling on our own, it was a bit weird to be herded in a group of ten other inexperienced snorkelers kicking up silt from the bottom and jostling for position to get a glimpse of seahorses through the murky water, some white tipped reef sharks and turtles. The turtles were awesome though….
Los Tuneles are extraordinary, formed by lava from the volcanoes and creating a wonderful landscape and haven for birds and marine life. There are 6 active volcanoes on Isabela (Wolf Volcano erupted one week after we left!) which explains the amazing landscape and geography. We had another snorkel here, the highlight being the opportunity to swim with the penguins.
The rest of our time on Isabela was spent walking the 1.5km into town to get internet access at our favourite café, the Booby Trap, and trying to scrounge for provisions.
There are numerous little supermarkets scattered around the town, so it became a matter of foraging for whatever we could get. The supply ship only arrives once every 3 weeks so the shelves were pretty empty. Geoff and I got up early one Saturday morning to go to the markets, but the offerings were pretty slim – we managed to bag ourselves some cucumber, cabbage and carrots, but no potatoes or onions anywhere. So then we organized a taxi to take us to one of the local farms. That in itself became a highlight of our stay – after leaving the bare volcanic landscape surrounding the town we wound our way up into the fertile slopes overlooking Isabela, where everything suddenly became lush and verdant.
At the farm we had an incredible hour or more traipsing through the orchards with Eric the farmer, as he picked fruit and veggies for us.
His English was non-existent and my Spanish is woeful, but we mostly managed to communicate Ok except for the bananas – I was trying to explain that we wanted a smaller hand of bananas, but instead what he gave us was a large hand of small bananas! I also asked if they had any eggs, and he duly beckoned me to follow him to a hollow in a tree where we found 6 eggs freshly laid. He added in a couple of duck eggs for good measure, treated us to some freshly cut watermelon and then we said our goodbyes, laden down with papaya, bananas, lemons, oranges, basil, mint, eggplant and capsicums. It doesn’t get any fresher than that, and sure beats shopping at Woolies!
We stayed a couple of extra days to wait for the arrival of ‘Rehua’, the Antares 44 catamaran that we’d first met in Bonaire and have travelled with on and off since then. They’d been staying at one of the other islands, Santa Cruz, but had permission to stop briefly at Isabela so it was a good opportunity to catch up and then sail in company on the next long haul across the Pacific – all 3000NM of it. It’s a bit daunting, but we’re prepared and have done all our rig and equipment checks so there’s nothing for it now but to pull up the anchor and get out there!