Tuesday, 1 November 2005

Nov. 2005 - The Islands of Galapagos

Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Arias, our faithful taxi-driver, drove us safely the 2½ hours to Caracas International Airport on November 9th. Along the way we stopped for a traditional coconut drink, particularly refreshing as the nuts are cooled in a big freezer. The evening plane from Caracas via Bogota got us into Guayaquil, Ecuador’s biggest city, in the middle of the night. Here we were met by our tour leaders, John Woram, the brains behind the first ever historical tour of the islands ("History, Mystery and More"), and Judy Muggia, our cheerful, bustling tour operator. They escorted us to the Hotel UniPark in the middle of town where we met most of the other participants of the tour, twelve equally tired Americans that had flown in from Miami.
Next morning, after an excellent breakfast, a short walk across the road from the hotel immediately gave us a taste of a more exotic wild-life, with big iguanas sitting on the trees and bushes in the little Parque Seminario. Here were also tame squirrels fed by the locals.A day tour of Guayaquil proved to be a real surprise. What we imagined would be a big, poor, dirty Latin-American city proved to have a beautifully clean water-front, gracious buildings and groups of cleaners mopping the streets! Apparently the mayor of the city has since 1992 made a huge effort to get the place cleaned up, and beggars and street vendors moved into designated areas. (Not that the poverty can have disappeared, no doubt there are areas that visitors don’t usually see.) We spent a historical morning guided by Dr Octavio LaTorre from Quito. He is a retired, distinguished history professor with 20 books published, including one on the human history of Galapagos (“The Curse of the Giant Tortoise”). With him we visited the naval museum and the gun-boat Calderon, the pride of the Ecuadorian Navy, and heard glowing accounts of how she saved Ecuador from Peruvian invasion in 1941. After lunch on the terrace of the Guayaquil Yacht Club, gazing out over the tranquil estuary of the river Guaya, we spent a few hours in a historical/zoological park. Here some of the old city buildings had been restored, and there was a big selection of wild-life from tapirs and sloths to exotic birds. During this time we got acquainted with our twelve fellow passengers, all American, and mostly with some interest in the history of Galapagos. Apart form the leader John, who has a life-long fascination in anything to do with Galapagos, edits a comprehensive web-site (www.galapagos.to) and has recently written a book about the human history of the islands (“Charles Darwin Slept Here”), there was Matt James, a professor of geology from Sonoma State University doing research on an expedition by the California Academy of Sciences a hundred years ago, librarian Tom Tyler with a special interest in the history of whaling, the retired air-force officer Fred Laing who was there to look for the grave of a young officer killed in a duel in 1813 (!) and of course Stein, with his interest in the Norwegian immigration in the 1920’s and 30’s. Indeed an interesting and enthusiastic bunch of people.


The Galapagos Islands are about 600 nautical miles (1000 km) off the coast of Ecuador, or a one and a half hours’ comfortable plane ride to the small island of Baltra and an airstrip built by the Americans during World War II. There we were taken to our cruise ship Tip Top II, a motor-vessel with 16 passenger berths; not one of the most luxurious ships, but very adequate for our needs. Here our guide to the islands, Juan Carlos Avila, introduced himself and the crew to us. He is a young Ecuadorian from the islands, very enthusiastic and full of knowledge about the islands and the wild-life. We soon departed to the north coast of the neighbouring island of Santa Cruz to get our first taste of these weird and wonderful islands. A dinghy trip took us into inlets among the mangroves, where we could see large sea-turtles (who obliged us by mating!), sharks and schools of yellow rays, then a walk to an inland lagoon to gaze in awe at flock of pink flamingos busy sifting water for tiny crustations, not in the least disturbed by our presence. As we watched from the beach a black marine iguana swam past us. This is the amazing thing about Galapagos, the animals have not learned to fear humans, and one can wander at leisure among them and study their habits. Their lack of fear comes from their long and isolated evolution with few natural enemies, not because humans have treated them particularly well. On the contrary, humans have in the last 200 years helped themselves to the wild-life with little thought of the consequences, and almost wiped out the giant tortoise population that has given the name to the islands. (Galapagos is derived from the Spanish word for saddle, as some species of the giant tortoises have saddle-shaped shells.)

“Bird Island” revisited.

A night sail to Isla Genovesa (Tower Island) was pretty rough, and most of the group experienced a sleepless night, some vomiting miserably. Stein and I had a cabin beside the engines, and we dosed fitfully bumping along with the engines roaring behind us. We wondered if we should have paid more for an upper cabin, but in the morning found that those who did had slept even worse, being thrown about in the heaving of the ship! These trials were soon forgotten in the excitement of seeing Genovesa. For Stein and I this was a nostalgic return, as we had first sailed there in Red Admiral in 1979 with our children Elisabeth and Martin (then 5 and 4 years old) – an amazing experience for all of us. This flat island lies around an ancient volcanic crater where the sea has broken through in one place, creating a circular lagoon. Like most of the island group, the landscape is very dry and barren with stick-like vegetation, cacti and black lava rocks. But this is the island to see birds, and here are most of the peculiar species that Galapagos can display, including red-footed boobies, blue-footed boobies, nazda (masked) boobies, petrels, frigate birds, tropic birds, lava gulls, swallow-tailed gulls, mocking birds, pigeons, hawks, warblers and finches. They sit in the bushes, nest in the cliffs, walk on the ground and fly overhead in amazing numbers. In this delicate environment, tourism has to be carefully controlled, so no longer can private boats sail in and anchor; everybody has to go on tours registered by the National Park, keep to a limited number of marked paths, and be led by an officially trained guide. A guide can take no more than 16 persons at a time. You may think that to be so controlled reduces the total experience, but this is not so; the birds and animals are so prolific, you find them even in the paths! Also an afternoon snorkelling trip along the cliffs was in fact a better experience with a guide than we could possibly have had on our own. Juan Carlos’ knowledge of life below the water more than matched his knowledge of that on land.

Turtle-ride in Santiago.

Another night sail, this time not so rough, took us to Isla Santiago (James Island), where we started with a snorkelling trip. Despite being almost at the equator, this proved to be a cold experience, thanks to the Humbolt Current bringing water straight from the Antarctic. We would have been very thankful for a wet-suit, which only one of our group had brought along. The temperature is well below 20 degrees centigrade, but the snorkelling is so amazing that even I (Diana) who hate cold water, went in for about half an hour at a time. As soon as you get in, the sea-lions appear, and if you dive down, they come whizzing around you, obviously pleased to have a new play-mate. A passing turtle also came right up to me, and although one is not supposed to touch the animals, I couldn’t help putting my hands on its back, and it obligingly swam along with me hanging on. Most of the fish in Galapagos are also quite different from those we know well from the Caribbean reefs. They may have similar shapes, but with special colour patterns and often distinctly different behaviour.

Isla Floreana.

Our third island visit was to Isla Floreana (Charles Island), a more historical part of the trip. Here is the famous Post Office Bay where a barrel has served as a primitive, self-service mail box for nearly 300 years. Just behind are the remains of the first Norwegian settlement in 1925. This is also where some Germans settled around 1930; the Wittmer family whose descendents are still on the island (the boat we were on is owned by Rolf Wittmer), the eccentric Dr Friedrich Ritter, who is remembered for having had his teeth pulled out and a false set of steel ones made, and a colourful, psychopathic baroness who was probably murdered by one of her lovers!
There was not much left from the Norwegians, but we hope the National Park will recognize their place in the human history of Floreana and mark it with appropriate signs. But at least a huge cave, actually an underground lava tube discovered by Rolf Sønderskov in 1925, is now a tourist attraction.
The post-office barrel, although several times replaced, is still functioning; passing tourists and sailors can leave post to be picked up by others going the right way. We took a couple of letters for Europe and left a post-card to ourselves which we received about a month later – posted in Norway! On the west side of the island, one of the Wittmer children, Ingeborg Floreanita, now a woman in her sixties, has built a hotel and museum, with photos of her parents and other early settlers (including Norwegians). Here there is a little town, one of the four in the islands, but even with people around, sea-lions, marine iguanas and red Sally Lightfoot crabs lie around the jetty and rocks in the harbour. There is supposed to be an immigration stop even for Ecuadorians to settle in Galapagos now, but even so the population of the islands is rising alarmingly fast. This leads to a lot of illegal fishing and more problems in protecting the vulnerable environment.

The waved albatross.

The most southerly island of Isla Espanola (Hood Island) is particularly interesting because it is the only mating ground of the Galapagos waved albatross. We were a little late for the main mating season, but there were still a few pairs doing their ritual, which to us looks very comical. Two or three large birds face each other, jerk their long necks up and down, and make loud clicking noises with their beaks, finishing off with some hollow hoots in the air!
There were also many sea-lions on the beaches here, with young pups still suckling. One small and still wet pup was just new-born, with the after-birth lying beside him in the sand and mocking-birds hopping around cleaning up the mess. At the beach we enjoyed watching a little group of youngsters playing in a pool among the rocks, an older immature female keeping a watchful eye on them. In the water along most of the beaches populated by sea-lions or fur seals were large males constantly patrolling and barking to keep sharks and male rivals away – altogether not so different from human behaviour!
We were lucky to have such a good guide, and were quite happy to trail along after Juan Carlos, listen to his interesting commentaries, and asking him all sorts of questions which he could usually answer.
During these ten days we got to know all our group quite well, and enjoyed their company. Some of the ladies were among the most enthusiastic snorkellers we have ever met, especially Denise Silveira. We will fondly remember Fred for his large store of jokes, and Paul Simon for his unending supply of sweets, limericks and amusing comments!

Our last two days were spent on the two more populated islands, first San Cristobal. Here another Norwegian family settled in the 1930’s, and in 1979 we had met Snefrid and Kari Guldberg in their cattle ranch in the fertile, wetter highlands. They were now gone. Only Kari had children with Manuel A. Cobos, an Ecuadorian factory manager. We visited the remains of the Cobos sugar factory, but heard that Kari’s children were now either settled in California, or had become too fond of the bottle, so we didn’t meet them. But at the local museum known as the Interpretation Centre we found a good account of the human history of the islands, with some large reproductions of pictures Stein had lent them many years ago.

Maria and Thorbaldo Kastdalen

When the Norwegians came to Isla de Santa Cruz in 1926 they found one inhabitant, an old Mexican. This island now has the largest town, Puerto Ayero. It is where most of the tour operators and guides are located, and where the famous Charles Darwin Centre was founded in 1959. The island population has increased from 1 to 15.000 inhabitants in 80 years and Puerto Ayora is a prosperous, attractive town with asphalt streets and lots of small hotels; quite changed from the simple, ramshackle village with sand streets that we remembered from 1979. The small harbour of Academy Bay is now jammed with tourist boats and local fishing crafts. Most tourists take an organised tour either on a small motor-vessel like ours, or on a larger, luxurious cruise-ship with up to 100 berths. But it is quite possible just to come in by plane, stay in a bed- and breakfast place and arrange a trip in one of the offices along the sea-front. Many back-packers do this, and no doubt get a good deal.
The most successful settlers among the Norwegians on this island were the Kastdalen family, who arrived from Rjukan in 1935, at a time when only a handful of people lived here, mostly Norwegians and Germans. The original couple and their son are now dead, but the two grand-children Thorbaldo and Maria are alive and well, speak Norwegian, and are proud of their heritage. Maria has kept Miramar, her grand-parents first home as a museum. Here you can find old Norwegian farm and kitchen utensils, pictures including King Haakon, ornaments and furniture, all arranged just as they were in the thirties. By chance a Norwegian television team (from NRK led by Sverre Tom Radøy) were there at the same time as us, so it was a treat for them to find this old piece of Norway and inhabitants who spoke fluent Norwegian!
Maria and Thorbaldo both have children, so the Kastdalen name will carry on…

Our tour leaders had arranged that Stein should hold a talk here about the Norwegian immigrations. A projector was rigged up, and seats arranged in the garden of the Hotel Fernandina where we stayed the last two nights. This proved to be very popular, and as well as the Norwegians, quite a few scientists and old ex-Europeans who live on the island came to hear about people whom they had known in the old days. Another coincidence was that the Norwegian Knut Stampa was visiting the island. He was born here in 1945 when his father, Kristian Stampa, was a successful fisherman and farmer.
Those interested in more about Galapagos should go to John Woram’s impressive web-site at www.galapagos.to. Here you can even find the English translation of Stein’s book (still being polished; all the illustrations are not yet included) go to the section of Books, then under authors find Hoff, Stein (www.galapagos.to/TEXTS/HOFF-0.HTM ).

All good things come to an end, and the next morning it was back to the air-port and our plane to the mainland. Our organisers had decided on a really comfortable last night, and we checked into the Hotel Hilton Colon in Guayaquil, a newly-built, luxurious affair, where we lay in the warm swimming pool, under the stars and floodlit palm-trees and thought life wasn’t too bad! A last dinner together, this time with silver covers over the dinner plates, and we said goodbye to our new friends, as we had to leave very early the next morning for our plane back to Caracas.
So that was Galapagos revisited. I had wondered how changed it would be after 26 years. I am happy to say that the wild-life is just as fantastic as I had remembered. The towns have become bigger, but are much more attractive, and there are many more tourists. The National Park does a great job in trying to regulate the tourism and protect the environment, and in some islands they have managed to get rid of the feral animals (those introduced by humans like dogs, rats, cats, donkeys and goats). The landscape and animals of Galapagos are unlike anywhere else in the world, and we think these islands are an absolute must to visit for those who like to experience animals at close quarters in their natural environment. One way is to participate in the next "History, Mystery and More"- tour to be organized in April 2006. Again go to www.galapagos.to and click the announcement in the top righ corner of John Woram's web-site. You will not regret it - bon voyage!

Caracas: Look to Guayaquil!

On the way home, we spent 24 hours in Caracas, to give it another chance. Unfortunately, I have to say that we still agree it is largely a dirty, unattractive and unsafe city. Even close to the historical centre are areas of appalling squalor. They indeed have something to learn from Guayaquil! Even so, the people are mostly very friendly, and we had a great meal in a restaurant with live Latin American music, overlooking a park of bustling, Sunday-afternoon activities. Also we thought the birth-place museum of Simon Bolivar well presented and interesting. So there are always bright spots, and as reported before, the underground Metro is modern, cheap and fast - and well guarded. And with no tagging! (Something positive to be said for machine-gun carrying guards!)
That’s our adventures over for a while. Late November saw us back to winter Norway, to work, family and friends; that is not so bad either! In late February we return to Higuerote and Puerto Carenero, and from there sail for Bonaire and Curacao. Please keep us company in the future and give us an occasional feed-back either in our comments section, or in our Guestbook. And have a Happy New Year!
08 Jan 2006 by Stein & Diana

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