Tuesday morning at Santa Cruz Island—the second largest in the archipelago—we discovered that the Galapagos isn’t all about sea lions, sea birds, iguanas and sea turtles when we boarded the Zodiacs to land at the Galapagos National Park Service dock and the nearby town of Puerto Ayora, the actual economic hub of the Galapagos, with its myriad shops, restaurants and hotels, all run by its 18,000 inhabitants.
The first stop, however, is the Charles Darwin Research Station, which is also the headquarters of the Galapagos National Park Service. Here, we got a look into the conservation efforts and most notably, the most significant and successful programs in the ecological restoration of the islands—the giant tortoise breeding program. Here, too, is the home of Lonesome George, the world-famous perennial bachelor turtle whose chastity has caused the extinction of his breed, making him the last of his kind.
The entire breeding program is amazing—a kind of learn as you go, first-of-its-kind scientific effort to ensure the conservation of the giant tortoise that’s turned out to be a highly successful program, enabling the center to incubate, raise and release hundreds of these once-endangered animals into the wild. Unlike the sea turtle, these giant tortoises are land mammals and there are dozens of them in various stages of conservation procedures within the center.
Next we headed off into the town of Puerto Ayora with its 1.5-mile-long main street lined with the aforementioned shops, restaurants and hotels. It’s a pleasant little town with reasonable prices for a tourism center, with its focal point as the main plaza facing a bay filled with small expedition ships, the largest vessel being a medium-sized freighter. The freighter was there mainly to haul in supplies for the islanders and take out their recyclable material for return to Ecuador—a testament to the Galapagos National Park Service’s commitment to sustainable tourism and responsible conservation.
Next we headed off on buses for a 30-minute trip to the Highlands, a verdant landscape of lush, green vegetation and trees, with some of the passengers electing to get off en-route and take mountain bikes up to our first stop, a sugar cane farm where we saw and enjoyed the process of making local liquor from the sugar cane. The fiery brew came in handy for the mountain bikers who were drenched from a squall that had come up while they were biking to the farm.
And from there, we continued to a highland restaurant called Altair, centered in the midst of lush foliage boasting a large, covered patio and ringed by a small connecting hotel that obviously caters to a backpack crowd more than the traditional tourist. The meal was delicious with perfectly barbecued chicken, the traditional beans and fresh, homemade bread. Interestingly enough, in a brief chat with the owner, he admitted he didn’t pursue these kinds of gatherings too often—too much work, he said. Now there’s the kind of island mentality to which we can all aspire.
After lunch, we headed into the highlands once again where we visited a place called Las Gemelos, home to a pair of huge pit craters, surrounded by a forest of scalesia trees where we took a short trek through hauntingly beautiful surroundings featuring ferns, orchids and small birds flitting about, like the Darwin finch, woodpecker finch and more. Then, on a trek through the property of a Galapagos native located in the annual giant tortoise migratory route, we spotted a goodly number of giant tortoises as they plodded along, munching happily on the vegetation, clearly happy with the gigantic meal that was spread out in front of them for miles.
Finally it was time to head back to town for a little leisurely shopping and people watching before our return to the Endeavour for a late dinner, followed by a robust and enthusiastic dance and music presentation by the local dancers and musicians.
Next morning, we awoke at a different point on Santa Cruz where we visited Cerro Dragon, which translates to Dragon Hill—and with good reason. This is the home of the huge and colorful Galapagos land iguanas nearly wiped out by feral dogs 50 years ago. Today, however, it’s easy to see they’re back and well, thanks to still another captive and semi-captive breeding program run by the conservation program folks within the park service.