Once I had my luggage checked-in – after the most simple run through the x-ray machine ever – it was onward to the AeroGal VIP Lounge with the fellow cruise-mates, which included an American-Ecuadorian-Belgian couple with two children and a lady that would be known as Switzerland for the duration of the trip. We all found each other and got know each other quite well during our time spent in the lounge snacking for more than two hours because our plane had a mechanical error. A light was not working. We all learned that we would have to wait for it to be replaced or wait for the next plane to arrive before we could take-off.
Eventually the lounge attendant called our flight number to say we could head out to the plane. After a five minute bus ride – the fastest of my life – to the plane we all climbed aboard and fastened our seat-belts ready to get to the Galapagos. The group feared the worst, especially my friend and me. We figured that with the time lost due to the plane delay that we would have missed the first adventure on San Cristobal island. In roughly 2 hours (excluding the Guayaquil stop) we landed safely on a desolate runway.
Looking out from my window seat, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities of the land to my home-state’s geography. It looked like the Sonoran desert of Arizona. Browns and beiges with spots of green here or there. Eventually I came to learn that the Galapagos Islands don’t receive any rainfall at all. The islands have no fresh-water rivers, streams or lakes – despite the lagoons that are fed by the ocean water – which gives them this arid appearance.
We were divided as tourists or nationals before paying the park entrance fee and getting our passports stamped. A tractor made several trips back-and-forth hauling the plane’s luggage to an area where it was sniffed for drugs by a dog. Once the people had organized all the luggage, the stampede of people began searching for their suitcases. The tour manager met us on the other side of baggage check and led us to the bus, which took us to the dock. As we pulled our suitcases behind us, we were stopped by a man who introduced himself as George, our tour guide.
He said that the other group, which had been on the catamaran for a few days already, were leaving at that moment for the turtle breeding station. We had a choice to make. Either go with the luggage and board the boat to enjoy a nice lunch, or hop on the bus immediately and visit the breeding station. My butt was on a seat within seconds as the bus pulled away and started heading through the city. We passed by a festival gathering that was being held to celebrate the Dia de los Muertos. Families gather and cook all day long, visiting the cemetery nearby where their loved ones are buried.
Continuing along, the bus twisted and turned on the dirt road, making numerous attempts to avoid the potholes in the ground. Some were successfully bypassed, others were met with a big bump. The Cerro Colorado Galapagos Breeding Station was located right off the dirt road, a sharp turn hidden behind lush vegetation and any eyes.
We walked to a room where the guide explained the history of turtles and turned out facts one after the other. I learned that:
- In the Galapagos, there are 11 species of giant tortoises.
- Another 3 species existed but are now extinct Each island has its own species.
- All species are believed to have evolved from one common ancestor that arrived thousands of years ago to the islands.
- Tortoises can walk up to four miles a day, one to two miles for babies.
Tour guide George, who said he is endemic because he was born in the Galapagos, took us through the natural environment on a rocky trail with the hope of spotting a giant tortoise. The station breeds and protects the tortoises from the many introduced species that attack them, especially the babies. Between 90 to 95 percent of tortoises survive without predators, whereas 80 to 85 percent of babies survive with predators. Their shell is soft and vulnerable until the age of three or four to invasive species such as rats and cats.
The main factors threatening the giant tortoise population are introduced animals and habitat destruction. At the breeding station, I learned that tortoises are bred and then begin their reproductive cycle from December to May and then their eggs are incubated from June to November. They are fed until the age of five by park rangers before being repatriated to their natural habitat. The program started in 2005 and the group of tortoises from that year had only one survivor. She has a white number one painted on her shell and is known as Genesis. Since then, much more success has been seen. The baby tortoises are growing in their pens until they can be reintroduced into their natural environments.
Seeing that it was late in the afternoon, most of the tortoises were not out in the open for us to spot. There was one soaking in the pond, which allows them to cool off and get rid of insects. Another was sitting behind a mesh of tree branches but that was all we could see. The afternoon was much more of an educational experience than wildlife, which was enlightening.
I went to the Galapagos Islands to see all the wildlife, but I also went to learn just like Darwin did years and years ago. Being reminded that I also have to listen as much as I am looking around at the nature and animals on the first day of the tour was extremely beneficial. Afterward, our tour bus took us back to the dock as the sun was setting behind one of the mountainous hills, closing the first hectic and busy day to an amazing adventure that was only beginning.