[Puerto Villamil, Isla Isabela, Islas Galápagos, Ecuador
S 00 degrees 57.92’ / W 090 degrees 57.73’]
We arrived at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (or Wreck Bay) on Isla San Cristobal in the Galápagos Islands at 1400 Z (0800 local) October 13, 2006 after five and a half days at sea and 588 miles. Interestingly and unusual for us, we traveled this entire trip in visual contact with another vessel, Isla Encanto, who had left Bahía de Caraquez along with Carina. Three other vessels also left at the same time but were heading for ports other than the Galápagos. During the last two days of our passage we were constantly busy trying to keep Carina moving accurately along our rhumbline but at a slower pace than she seemed to be determined to maintain. This was to avoid approaching the dangerous shores of Isla San Cristobal during nighttime as our radar is not functioning. Coming around the southwest end of the island, seas were confused and choppy and winds were light, so after dawn we dropped sail and finished the last few miles under power, motoring around the island's extensive reefs and into the Wreck Bay, anchoring along its less populated northeastern shore.
The sea at Wreck Bay is turquoise blue and the surrounding lava and scrub landscape dry-season barren and grey. Ashore, hundreds of bright political campaign flags fluttered, in the steady southerly winds, from almost every roof and from many of the moored boats. (Presidential and local elections were imminent and flag makers must have been making quite a killing.) Lounging sea lions, from newborn pups with dewy eyes to bulls weight hundreds of pounds, occupy almost every boat low enough for them to slip aboard and most of the beachfront. Sea turtles, many a few feet long, bobbed past occasionally poking their broad heads above the surface to take a look around. Large aging cargo ships which seemed to list either to port or starboard disgorged cargo sometimes for days—lumber, sacks of rice, crates of produce and even small trucks—onto small barges that were loaded to within inches of sinking. These were then pushed by pangas around the bay to various muelles (docks). A steady stream of bright yellow "taxi aquaticos", with canvas roofs and handrails welded to their front decks, race about moving people and cargo. Also coming and going at all hours of the day and night are excursion boats, essentially mini cruise ships, that use fast, monster-sized inflatable dinghies, as they move dozens of identically PFD-clad passengers to and from the ship onto the beautifully designed new passenger muelle of cement and finely varnished exotic wood. The malecón of the town is undergoing a dramatic facelift with sinuous walkways and plazas paved in finely cut lava rock, though much of the waterfront is still hidden behind crude corrugated tin construction barriers spray-painted with "no pase". Though booming, this little town of approximately 8000 moves at an island pace; siesta begins sometime between 11:30 and 12:30 and may stretch on to 1600, during which time no Parque Nacionale hats or "I love boobies" t-shirts are available for sale, even if a cruise boat is in port. Instead almuerzo (multi-course working man's lunch) is enjoyed and savored by the locals while overpriced a la carte lunches are served in the few tourist restaurants.
On our first day in port, we traveled to town and check in with Immigration and the Port Captain, standard procedure when visiting a new port. With the "official business" out of the way, we were free to explore the island. Fernando, a local tourist operator, arranged for us a half day inland tour of the island. We were somewhat disappointed when we were simply shown to a truck taxi and sent off without a professional guide. Still, we traveled inland with our driver, sober laconic Leonardo, to elevation and through the historic El Progresso area. Here, during the turn of the 19th century, the infamous and cruel despot Manuel J. Cobos operated a sugar mill with imported labor that he abused and sometimes murdered until he was assassinated by machete by one of his workers in 1904. From there we visited a new and beautiful Galápaguera Semi-Natural facility or giant tortoise rescue and breeding center. A number of wild tortoises had been brought here to breed in order to augment the island's population that occupies only a small area of the northern part of the island and where there is significant environmental change threatening the remaining population. (Giant tortoises, for which the islands were named, are essentially at risk on all of the present or formally occupied islands due to habitat destruction from introduced species, including man.) This galapaguera site, enclosed by lava walls, includes walking paths, man-made ponds in which tortoises bathe, and expansive areas of scrub vegetation—endemic Scalesia, plus romerillo, matazarno, cat's claw and manzanillo (or poison apple) that provide the tortoises with food for their vegetarian diets.
As we were leaving the galápaguera, the filtered sun began to fade and an episode of garúa or misty rain, for which this season is named, began to fall. This dampened significantly our visit to the Junco lagoon, a caldera filled with fresh water, where we were hoping to spy a number of rare birds amongst its reed-lined shores. Walking from the road up the path to the lagoon involved much slipping and sliding on grease-slippery, ochre-red volcanic soil. Coming back down was even more exciting! From here we traveled back to town and out to a park area whose approach isn't exactly pristine. First we passed the island's airport and then we worked our way around a huge, hideous rock and gravel pit of bright red lava rock. When these reminders of man's impact were behind us, we were awed as we approached La Loberia; the surf hitting the beaches and black lava was enormous, green and often dotted with surfing sea lions who enjoy the sport of riding waves. Here we also saw for the first time, ancient looking marine iguanas, the oldest and largest of these black/brown prehistoric monsters were four feet long! Our tour ended with a late lunch on the modest porch of one of Fernando's family's homes, where open doors of homes all faced each other and shared appliances, discarded bicycles and bits of furniture sat outside in the space between the houses.
Another day, we walked to the then-empty ultra-modern Interpretive Center that nestles pleasingly into the lava moonscape on the edge of town. Alone, we wandered amongst the exhibits and learned about the history, geology and biology of these amazing islands. Developed in conjunction with this center are beautiful trails that wander past Punta Carola with its lighthouse, through the dry scrub trees struggling to produce leaves, and leading eventually to a perfectly formed and protected bay sitting under Cerro Tijeretas (or Frigatebird Hill). Here a much larger-than-life statue of Charles Darwin, surrounded by bronze animals, including a Darwin finch perched on his shoulder, commemorates his first landing at the Galápagos Islands in this bay. Here also we had been promised lovely protected snorkeling waters and a sea lion colony eager to swim with snorkeling gringos. The day we visited we found few playful sea lions but amazing schools of bright fish and one basketball sized octopus. Sitting on a rock in the bay, Jose, a handsome and shy young man with a long dark ponytail played mesmerizing tunes on his flute. Jose had only lived in the Galápagos for two months after being allowed to immigrate here since his mother had been born in the islands. He was enjoying the peace and solitude as opposed to his former Quito city life existence.
Eager to get to the remote and boat-only accessible areas of the island, we visited one day at the Cámara de Turismo (chamber of tourism) where after struggling to explain our needs to the receptionist, we were directed to Lauren, a bright and bubbly freckle-faced American intern. Lauren was a wonderful find who knew all of the opportunities we might have to explore, even those that were not necessarily widely marketed. Through Lauren we met Manuel, a third generation islander and second generation captain who owns a number of boats, including the then-four-week old speedboat called Sharksky (pronounced Shark Sky). Manuel and Lauren were anxious to help us to develop a custom tour along the north shore of the island, however, we needed at least eight people to make the trip affordable and with few tourists around and even fewer sailboats, this seemed unlikely. Providence fell upon us though and just the day before our planned departure, a boat called Chance Encounter with friend Bruce and family Jan and Bill arrived, eager to participate. Our group supplemented one arranged by Lauren—two young couples who teach English on the island and a volunteer nurse from Switzerland—and suddenly we had ten paying guests, an official park guide, captain, mate and even Lauren herself as an enthusiastic biologist and Spanish interpreter.
Sharksky came alongside at 0600 the following morning and we thundered off into the cloudy cool day at over thirty knots (!) along the north side of the island, and though Sharksky was equipped with a GPS chart plotter, Manuel seemed to have the charts etched into his genes. Later, inching his way in through rocks and surge, Manuel anchored his bow and gently backed up to a crushed coral beach lousy with sea turtle tracks and their shore-side nests. Here we picked up a trail which meandered towards Pan de Azucar (Sugarloaf), the remotest area of the island and the last remaining bastion of wild giant tortoises on San Cristobal and the habitat that supports a population of approximately 2500 animals. We saw quite a few wild tortoises but only solitary creatures moving slowly through the dry brush. These animals seemed perplexed to encounter a group of trekkers slowly turning pink in the hot equatorial sun. When we gently touched them on their shells they hissed softly and withdrew their heads. Along this hike we also saw mockingbirds and finches, both so tame they would almost let you touch them. At times it seemed they may perch on an arm or on someone's hat.
After our three hour hike we met up again with Sharksky and sped off to Punta Pitt and Islote Pitt, where we snorkeled amongst green turtles, sharks, sea lions and clouds of colorful tropical fish. Islote Pitt is a remote speck of rock rising only 50 feet in the air. Here we saw all three species of boobies present in the Galápagos: red footed, blue footed and masked (Nazca) including a rare white variation of a red footed booby. We also spied tropicbirds with their graceful long tail feathers, endemic swallowtail and lava gulls, and both types of frigate bird species: the great frigate and the magnificent frigate. Here we witnessed survival of the fittest first hand as a monstrous frigate attacked a tropicbird, stunning it briefly and forcing it to drop its fish quarry. Speeding back along the coast to our next stop, Sharksky suddenly veered sharply right and slowed to avoid hitting some mating sea turtles. As we watched the turtles, we also noticed BIG hammerhead sharks calmly feeding on the surface, a rare phenomena we were told. Next we actually passed through a narrow grotto in Cerro Bruja (Wizard Hill) with only (what seemed like) a tea cup's worth of water between us and the cliff! To top that, we backed into a narrow "cove" surrounded by walls hundreds of feet above us that was like being in a surging floating cathedral.
After lunch aboard we were allowed a leisurely stroll down a sea lion, iguana, crab and oystercatcher filled beach in Bahía Stephens with a view of the spectacular split rock outcropping called Leon Dormido (Sleeping Lion). Leon Dormido, also called Kicker Rock, was our next destination and where we were promised a glimpse of endemic (unique to the Galápagos) Galápagos Sharks. From some angles this rock formation that rises out of the sky many hundreds of feet looks like a solid block of granite but as you get closer its fifty foot wide schism of sheer cliffs filled with surging seawater becomes apparent. Unexpectedly, Manuel maneuvered Sharksky backwards into the gap between the rocks. We were invited to jump overboard into the chilly water and drift 200 yards with the current and view Galapagos sharks below us. (This is not as daring as it might appear as this species of sharks are vegetarians.) Manuel pulled his boat ahead of us and we clambered aboard after our drift and settled into watching this amazing rock formation. Again we roared off into the fading sun and stopped this time at Isla Lobos, so named because the island is carpeted in Galápagos sea lions (that evolved from California sea lions). Here, one male that could've weighed 1000 lbs, was bleeding from a tail wound that he had probably gotten from a scrap with another sea lion. Almost ugly because he was so big, he had clearly passed on some attractive genes as the scores females and pups who surrounded him were beautiful. Tiptoeing over sharp lava rocks to get ashore while avoiding this family group, we circled this small island before a rainbow suddenly appeared in the intense setting sun highlighting our view of a swimming iguana! A perfect ending to a fabulous day!
Manuel is not only a competent young man but a generous one. Learning the following day that our friends Rick and Liliana of the vessel Inshallah were without an engine and without sufficient wind to sail to San Cristobal and who were drifting with the significant currents, Manuel immediately offered to tow them to port at no cost. Philip protested, saying this would be costly in fuel but Manuel insisted and said "I like to help people". True to his word, Manuel showed up at Carina with Sharksky one hour later and Philip jumped aboard with a chart and Inshallah's lat/long position. After a quick exchange by radio with Inshallah, Sharksky roared toward the north.. Twenty minutes later, they arrived at the sailboat where Rick and Liliana were hurriedly dropping their sails and readying a 300 foot, 3/4 inch nylon towing line. Onboard Sharksky, Manuel and Philip tied their lines to form a towing bridle. "Have you ever towed a vessel before, Manuel"? "No", he said grinning a "how hard can it be?" look on his face. Manuel slowly backed Sharksky towards Inshallah's bow until Philip was able to catch the tow line and secured it to the bridle. Slowly, Manuel eased Sharksky forward until the slack in the line was taken up and continued to accelerate until both Sharksky and Inshallah were zipping along at 8 knots. An hour later Inshallah was safely anchored in Wreck Bay just behind Carina.
The following day after visiting the bustling Saturday public market on San Cristobal, we pointed Carina's bow west once again on a course that would take us overnight 90 miles between the islands for a planned arrival at Isla Isabela the following morning. Beating to weather again with large seas, we flew through a black night of intensely dark squall clouds under reduced sail. Again, we were going faster than average and were working very hard to keep Carina down to our desired speed. Isla Isabela's port is called Puerto Villamil, after Jose Villamil, the first governor of the newly proclaimed Ecuadorian province of the Galápagos in 1832. Villamil tried to colonize the island of Floreana with pardoned ex-convicts in a community called Asilo de Paz (Refuge of Peace) but this experiment lasted only five years, which was inclusive of the period of time when the Beagle visited the islands bearing Charles Darwin.
In overcast skies, we approached Isla Isabela just as dawn was breaking. A break in the clouds allowed a ray of sun to shine on one of the islands many volcano calderas and turned the mountain side a bright red; a good omen we thought. Isla Isabela, the largest of the Galápagos islands at 82 miles long and 52 miles wide at its widest point, is remote and sparsely populated. It has six volcanoes, five of which are active and each of which contain a unique species of giant tortoise with twelve subspecies! (Volcan Sierra Negra's caldera is either the largest or the second largest in the world (almost seven miles across); this volcano was erupting this time last year and hot steam continues to escape from its northern rim and caldera floor.) It is also home to comic but adorable Galápagos penguins, a unique species that evolved from Chile's Magellan penguins and the only penguins on earth that live at the equator. Finally, this is one of the few places in the Galápagos you will find shy but spectacular flamingos.
Puerto Villamil, sitting at the SE corner of the island, is a tiny, shallow but active port that sits behind extensive volcanic reefs and islets of lava called the Islas Tintoreras (Dyer's Islands). Marine navigation around Isla Isabela requires diligent attention as wave swept reefs give way to extensive shallows that quickly become foul with rocks; there is little room for errors. Friends who preceded us here were generous with their help and assurances on the radio as we made our approach in six to eight foot swell that crashed against offshore reefs to our lee shooting waves and spray high in the air. Still, small cruise ships and cargo vessels come and go a few times a week and tuck in uncomfortably close to us while off loading passengers and cargo. The small settlement, founded in 1897 by Don Antonio Gil of Guayaquilof, sports sandy streets and attractive lots that are bordered by raised planters made of slabs of lava rock . His descendents still live here—we participated in a horseback riding tour up to and around the Sierra Negra caldera, organized by none other than Señor Antonio Gil.
This excursion involved a bouncing ride in the back of a pickup truck coughing exhaust smoke through the barren landscape of cactus and lava, then up through lush farmland watered by garúa mist, finally to Santo Tomas, a small agricultural settlement on Sierra Negra at the edge of the Galápagos park. Here we met a cabellero named Angel and a group of "rustic" caballos. Matching his mounts and riders carefully, Angel and our group were soon moving steadily uphill, while Joseph, our cheerful, smiling and joking young guide, was busily swatting our horses' rumps with a switch to try to get them to perk up a bit. Since there were at least three neophytes in our midst, the fact the horses summarily ignored Joseph, seemed a relief. Arriving at the caldera edge at 1200 meters above sea level, we could look across the blackened sea of still hot lava and turn around and view a panoramic view of the entire southern part of the island and its offshore reefs. Our tour continued to a point safely distant but overlooking the active section of the caldera and, at a distance, the remote and spectacular Elizabeth Bay on the west side of the island where flightless cormorants nest. These birds are only found in the Galápagos.
Another excursion arranged by Antonio Gil, was a panga trip to isolated and weird lava formations that form grottos and tunnels in and along side the sea at Cabo Rosa, about 25 miles west of Puerto Villamil. Before leaving San Cristobal, knowing that we would like to make this trip and knowing that the panga ride could be wild, we asked Manuel (of Sharksky) who he would hire for this adventure. Without hesitating but with a small smile, he said "Cuarto de Hora" (meaning quarter to the hour) and then apologized and said this was the man's knickname and the only name he knew him by. Sure enough, when we told Antonio that his friend Manuel had recommended Cuarto de Hora and asked if he could arrange this, he said, "No problema". Two mornings later, Cuarto de Hora (whose real name is Dario) showed up at each of our sailboats with his ocean-going panga, Isabela, . After a quick salida (exit) call for permission from the Capitania, we were zipping along westbound through eight foot swell that sometimes threw the entire boat into the air! Good thing we were going snorkeling because we were wet long before we reached Cabo Rosa. After about an hour's ride, with three other pangas hot on our heels, we suddenly stopped and idled about a quarter mile off rocks that were being pummeled with eight to ten foot waves generating an amazing shade of green in the water as well as a constant roar. The other pangas also stopped and watched us intensely . Everyone got quiet while Dario studied the waves and quite suddenly and without warning we were going full bore surfing waves, swerving port then starboard, around black lava rocks that would suddenly appear in the surf, until we shot through a gap and into a large area of tranquil pools surrounded by raised lava dotted with cactus and dwarfed mangroves for as far as we could see. Exhilarated, we spontaneously cheered and clapped for the brilliant skill of our panguero; it felt great to be a passenger in the panga that the others chose to follow! Dario just smiled broadly. As if rewarded for our risk, giant sea turtles immediately appeared in our placid pool as we waited for the other boats to transit the passage safely.
Slowly, we motored around the weird formations and through tight gaps, spying boobies and penguins above water and turtles and bright fish below the surface. Finally, Dario inched us up to and bumped a lava formation to which we tied our panga, donned our wetsuits and splashed into the water to explore by snorkeling. An hour or more of moving through intricate passageway (and getting lost a few times) we all returned to the panga, thrilled and chilled. Moving over to join the other pangas, we were invited to "caminando" (go walking) on the formations and were quickly crossing lava bridges and wandering far and wide amongst the cactus. It was while walking we saw the largest sea turtle in memory, moving like a dancer in slow motion through the clear water below us. This ancient being's carapace was at least six feet long! It was if we were all made nearly speechless because we just kept saying, "wow".
Puerto Villamil, while hosting few tourists, has impressive park trails. One trail, on the Islas Tintoreras, is reached only by boat which you must anchor offshore (we do this using a stern anchor and block with a line that leads from our stern through the block that is attached to the anchor and to shore, allowing us to pull our dinghy out into deep water after we disembark). The trail leads around the largest of the islands through lava formations littered with hundreds of fat marine iguanas sunning themselves on the black lava, many of which are piled on top of each other. The main attraction to this trail though, other than its stark beauty, is a natural lava canal about 100 yards long and about six feet deep. In this are perhaps thirty white tipped reef sharks moving slowly about. The day we visited, we had a youthful sea lion showing off for us who would slap his flippers on the surface then dive and chase the sharks, nipping at their tails! This guy was hysterical; he'd get the sharks moving around and then come up and surface and look us right in the eye as if to say, "did you see that?".
Another trail leads from a Cruce de Iguanas (Iguana Crossing) on the beach road along raised walkways to the Centro de Crianza (Breeding Center) for giant tortoises, while still another leads from the end of the town's pristine white sand beach 5 km to the remote Wall of Tears. This Muro de las Lágrimas structure is in a remote and unpopulated part of the island and is much larger and much more powerful than we expected. Approximately 400 feet long and forty feet high, it was constructed by prison laborers. The wall serves no purpose whatsoever; its only reason for being was to demoralize the prisoners as they constructed, in the hot and unforgiving equatorial sun, something so completely useless There were no other people on the day we visited and, even though it was a bright sunny day, the wall's presence seemed oppressive. Wind sighed along the rocks, perhaps sounding like the last gasps of the many men who perished during its construction. It is truly a monument of man's inhumanity to his fellow man. The prison that supplied the prison laborers was only operational for 15 years and was closed and purposely burned to the ground in 1959 when the Galápagos National Park was created, leaving only this grim reminder of the island's history.
We have a few more trails to walk, waters to explore and sights to see (and maybe a few more visits to our favorite spot, the lava outcropping close to our anchorage where 30 of our closest penguin friends roost) but we hope to be underway by next weekend for our 1100 mile passage to Panama City. We want to leave the Galápagos in plenty of time so that we reach Panama before the seasons change and before the passage becomes yet another beat to weather.
Sus amigos del velero Carina,
Leslie and Philip with Jake the cat
Isla Isabela, Galápagos Archipelago, Ecuador
November 5, 2006