6/5/2015, 8:00 am
Traveling to the Galapagos has for as long as I can remember been on my bucket list of places to visit before I died, along with the Egyptian pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Coliseum in Rome, the Amazon river in Brazil or Ecuador and Machu Picchu in Peru. Well, just a few days have passed since we departed the Galapagos and I have a moment to reflect and determine whether my expectations were met.
While we were getting ready to leave, so many asked: “Are you excited?” as if the journey we were embarking on was to be full of fun. ‘Fun’ was not a big player in my immediate expectations. Surely I anticipated great moments, but the word ‘fun’ is loaded. The dictionary definition of fun is, “something that is amusing or enjoyable, an enjoyable experience or person, an amusing time, the feeling of being amused or entertained.” When I think of ‘fun,’ I think of roller coasters, Disneyland, going to see an anticipated movie accompanied with popcorn, birthday parties, singing onstage at the Dorothy Chandler opening night…and well, you get the idea. From where I stood, I saw a lot of work and discomfort ahead, and thus I was not particularly excited. I did not perceive having a lot of immediate ‘fun.’
Surely there have been great moments since we left February 10th as we sailed south down California and into Mexico. And there are many moments spent in the Galapagos that I consider fun, like when the four of us were snorkeling at Los Túneles (The Tunnels) and I witnessed Trent cozying up to two enormous sea turtles eating algae for lunch (the very turtles Trent had studied in his Galapagos report!). The turtles were bigger than any one of us! The joy and feeling of awe were inspiring.
Almost equal to the sea turtles was the adventure in getting to their feeding ground: the exhilarating boat ride to the snorkeling area, jumping over swells at high speed, saltwater spray everywhere, the captain not seeming to care if his craft were in harm’s way. Thankfully all passengers were wearing life jackets, hanging on for their lives. LOL!! Once we arrived near Los Túneles’s shoreline, the traverse became especially technical. We got to experience how the captain surfed our small vessel on enormous swells, navigating at the last second through openings of snarly lava reefs that we couldn’t see before he turned. His skill at maneuvering around the innumerable hazards lurking just under the water convinced me of the necessity to hire expensive yet experienced guides. I can appreciate all the accidents that have been avoided by requiring visitors to the Galapagos to hire professionals. Interestingly, the Galapagos islands are zoned for specific uses. Los Túneles’s falls within the “Fishing” jurisdiction. All boats that arrive filled with tourists are officially fishing boats with some fishing equipment and manned by fishermen.
The moment we turned into the tropical lagoon, the energy of the pounding waves diminished and we were left to putt along a near placid wonderland of tunnels and magical bridges, winding through Disneyesque dreamscapes.
We first walked along the crags and bridges enjoying the sights of clear waters and turtles swimming below and hoping to catch up close a blue-footed boobie. As fate would allow, we approached within a foot a nesting blue-footed boobie who gawked at us as we gawked at him.
Quoting Bryce who studied them: “This is Cool!” Later, while snorkeling Los Túneles, along with the many large turtles, we got up close to 8-inch sea horses attached to sea grass, and approached penguins sunning themselves within hands reach.
We were guided into underwater caves where sharks were sleeping. We swam with large stingrays and innumerable tropical fish only inches away. It was spectacular!
Fun? Yes, that was fun, a natural Disneyland but with real hazards, which made it more exciting. For example, the current was sometimes strong and it was easy to get separated from the group. Knowing sharks slept nearby was incentive to stay close. Sometimes the water was cloudy and dark; you couldn’t always see what was ahead, sharp-edged lava rock encircled us. Yet we all made it back to the boat, happy, unscathed, and energized, our heads full of unforgettable images.
Another memorable day, we hired a guide to take us hiking up to the top of Sierra Negra Volcano and into the black lava fields of three separate events starting in the sixties and the latest one being in 2005, to meander safely around the powerful remnants of explosive yet presently dormant cones and craters of Volcan Chico. It was fascinating, learning from our guide the various dates of activity and how long it takes for plant life to take hold. It was also noteworthy learning how the oxidation of the iron-rich lava turns the black stone reddish brown over time.
We got up close to the heated sulfur cones magnificently colored in yellows, fluorescent reds and pinks like fancy tropical fish.
We saw lava tubes, cinder cones, vents, got to see and handle Pele’s tears, and we took pictures surfing a lava-wave and advancing down a lava-fall. Neat!
On a side note, all the guides were covered head-to-foot with protective clothing, hats, long sleeves and pants, including scarves over their necks and faces presumably due to the reflective radiation rising from the black lava. It was scorching when the sun peaked through the clouds. Since the four of us weren’t dressed properly, we were fortunate that most of the day was overcast, except the hour we overlooked the Sierra Negra crater. The momentarily clear sky allowed us to gaze down at the second largest active caldera in the world: 10 kilometers wide. The last eruption there was in 2005. Due to that eruption, half the green vegetation in the interior of the caldera was engulfed by barren black rock. We almost didn’t go on this excursion, time and money considering, but we were so glad we did.
Just getting in and out of town from the boat was an adventure. Riding our folding bikes through a frontier town, exploring the unknown, was fun. Puerto Villamel’s streets are black lava gravel covered in a foot of white sand. When it rained, as it did the first five days of our arrival, the streets became completely flooded in about 8” of murky water. Yet because the sidewalks were constructed tall, about 18”-24” above street level, pedestrians and cyclists could still make their way through town. Learning when and where to shop for food proved to be great exercise as the markets were mostly located across town and open early mornings and evenings. If we didn’t make it off the boat early enough, we had to return to town later to shop between 3:30-6:30. My Spanish was meager at best, so finding everything we needed, including dish soap, tested my communication and shopping skills. Transporting the heavy bags home required endurance. At least two times, we rode from one side of town to the other, in the dark, on sand with large grocery bags hanging off our arms because we didn’t have our bike cart. The challenge of shopping was actually rather ‘fun.’
‘Fun’ is relative. Eric and I like to promote the idea to Bryce and Trent: “Do as I do!” Get out into the world, live actively, learn deeply, explore widely. While journeying, exciting things can happen. Yet much of the time, in the moment, my excitement is more often than not subdued because exploring from Kandu requires great thoughtfulness, unlike at Disneyland where everything is safe, safety nets abound, and I know much of what to expect. Out on the great blue and/or reaching new land sites, things are always unfamiliar, different, and potentially dangerous. Existing safety nets, if there are any nets to be found, generally have holes, large ones.
I have more stories to relate about our time in the Galapagos (look for future posts). Suffice it to say; aside from the concerns about our safety, my bucket list expectations of the Galapagos were surpassed. Just as we were becoming accustomed to our Galapagos lifestyle, friends and associations, knowing how to get things done, it was time leave . . .
by Leslie Dennis Rigney