Isla San Cristóbal, Galápagos: Land of sea lions & saddlebacks

February 2016

Officially cleared into the Galápagos and with a couple hours to kill before we could return to our freshly fumigated boat, we walked the waterfront in search of a proper watering hole, where we could savor an Ecuadoran beer and enjoy a view of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Together, the three of us had completed our first proper bluewater passage, and the lingering adrenaline from our equator festivities the evening prior and the excitement over having our feet on solid ground after nearly a week at sea staved off our sleep deprivation for the better part of the afternoon.#San Cristobal_Pto Baq Moreno1#San Cristobal_Striated heronWe happened to arrive during the week in which the Galápagos celebrates its birthday, and despite being tired, the draw of thumping bass from ashore was too enticing. We hadn’t sailed so far to sleep through cultural affairs! Although music was bellowing from the streets and across the water, we gringos arrived hours before the party really started, even after squeezing in a nap! We passed the time sampling meat on a stick from half a dozen vendors and then around 10 o’clock picked our way through the gathering crowd to watch a whirring, squealing windmill of fireworks threaten to catapult into the hoard of onlookers, while sexy dance moves and lyrics belted from a woman in a sequin jumpsuit on an oversized stage, whose petite frame belied her powerful vocal chords.#San Cristobal_HB GalapagosAdmittedly, the only images we’d ever seen of Galápagos prior to arriving there were bizarre animal faces, and after days of being cocooned by the ocean and nearly a month since we’d seen a proper city, the bustling port and boisterous party was a bit of a shock to our senses. We collapsed in our bunks, wondering what morning would bring.

Midnight anchorage drama
Despite our hope to reach the Galápagos before the cruising high season in March, our arrival happened to coincide with the arrival of the World Arc Rally, and its 32 participating sailboats. We had beat the general rush (we counted just three cruising boats beyond the Arc vessels), but the anchorage was a zoo. Skills and preferences for anchoring vary dramatically among three dozen boats. Some boats were swinging on a single anchor; others had a stern anchor out, too. The same was true of local fishing and tourist vessels, and the situation was complicated further as some were also on mooring buoys. Such a mishmash of anchoring strategies in an already overcrowded port can make for disaster as the boats cannot swing in unison and are vulnerable to swinging into one another. Our breakfast conversation recounted the scene that had unfolded upon our return to the anchorage the night prior. The anchorage was flooded with deck lights and spotlights that illuminated the hulls over several boats who were dragging on their anchors. We were pleased that our strategic placement of The Red Thread kept her well away from the mayhem!#San Cristobal_FreeloaderBy midmorning, each day the equatorial sun was scorching the earth and temperatures soared into the 90s. A lengthy boardwalk stretches around the harbor, with plank bridges arcing over lava rocks and paved verandas looking over the water. Along the shore, sea lions, Isla San Cristóbal’s most numerous resident, were everywhere. They lounged on the beaches, made beds of benches, and sought shade beneath trees along the malecon. Groans and grunts, farts and belches, and stench of the blubbery fishmongers hung heavily in the sweaty air.#San Cristobal_Sea lions1#San Cristobal_Sea lions + JessieWe wandered side streets, investigating options for how to spend our time on Isla San Cristóbal. We’d hoped to dive or snorkel at Leon Dormido (aka Kicker Rock), where hammerheads are reportedly abundant, but due to logistical challenges (i.e., an open panga showing up without a dive master, tanks, or boarding ladder), our first attempt to schedule a dive was thwarted. We felt a bit better when a candid dive master informed us later in the week that severe tidal shifts associated with full moon had caused lackluster visibility anyway.#San Cristobal_Sea lions2Celebrations of Galápagos birthday continued during the day, and we got a laugh out of watching our first adults-only egg toss. Later, we walked the cacti-lined path to the Interpretive Centre, a handsome building showcasing a wealth of information about the archipelago’s interesting history. From the severe over-harvesting of the giant tortoises to failures of early colonization attempts to havoc wreaked as a result of species introduced by humans (i.e cats, dogs, goats, insects), the exhibit was a bit sobering.#San Cristoba_Interpretive Ctr_NeilWe were stunned to learn that at least 100,000 tortoises are believed to have been harvested by American whalers alone, surely a fraction of the overall total! Passing ships on long voyages would capture the enormous reptiles and stack them alive in the hold of their ship, where they could stay alive without food or water for nearly a year. There, the tortoises awaited their turn to be hauled from the dismal pit and plopped onto dinner platters. Apparently giant tortoise is rather delicious, and because the animals can survive so long with no sustenance, they became a source of fresh meat for 19th-century seafarers. In addition to their meat, a sac at the base of tortoises’ neck is filled with as much as two gallons of sweet water, a potentially life-saving cocktail in the event water supplies were depleted and not replenished by rainfall.#San Cristoba_Lava lizard#San Cristobal_Jessie1Seashells, sea lions, and sexy poses
After learning a bit more about the Galápagos and Isla San Cristóbal in particular, we were eager to explore. We climbed into the back of a taxi truck, and for $2 hitched a ride to Loberia, the sea lion beach. From the drop-off point, we walked a couple kilometers down a sand path, passing tide pools, volcanic rubble, and black mangroves and bitterbush, beneath which marine iguanas sought refuge from the sun. The beach was lovely. It was modest in size, but the sand was a marvelous montage of tiny pearlescent shells and millions of rose- and plum-colored fragments that once adorned the bodies of pencil-spined sea urchins.#San Cristobal_Playa Loberia_Marine iguana1 #San Cristobal_Playa Loberia_N+J1#San Cristobal_Playa Loberia_Lovely shellsWe snorkeled with sea lion pups whose mothers had temporarily abandoned them for a fishing expedition. For all the awkwardness and disinterest in humans that sea lions display on land, they are curious and elegant swimmers. Several sets of dark puppy-dog eyes darted two and fro, playing in the shallow water. One captured a small fish and entertained itself by tormenting its would-be meal, allowing the little fish to escape, only to give chase and snatch it up again and again. It was a precious experience to be so close to the sea lions and remarkable because that species of sea lion—like so many in the Galápagos—is found nowhere else on the planet.#San Cristobal_Playa Loberia_Drowsy pup#San Cristobal_Playa Loberia_J+LA mama sea lion returned, bumbling her way up the beach on her rear flippers, an ability that distinguishes sea lions from seals, as her pup grunted and bawled and tried to keep up. Just feet from Neil, mama sprawled herself belly-up on the sand, and her wailing pup and set to nursing, his whining quieted. We weren’t the only beachgoers who were thrilled to have the animals join us on the beach. One woman decided this was a prime opportunity for a sexy photo. Imagine the scene: a beautiful woman saunters next to a sea lion and her suckling pup, lays herself upon the sand, stretches her bronzed arms above her head, arches her back in a most seductive manner, draws a knee toward the sky, and cocks her face slightly to the side, closing her eyes. Neil hardly wasted a moment mimicking her pose from his spot on the sand. Camera ready, I captured the absurdness of the whole thing. Humans are perhaps the strangest creatures on these islands!#San Cristobal_Playa Loberia_Babe watchThe Galapaguera
In the center of the Isla San Cristóbal is the Galapaguera, a tortoise reserve, and our first chance to see the archipelago’s most famous inhabitants! We hired a taxi driver to chauffeur us the 40-minute drive from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. As we stepped through the gate, we were greeted by a leathery-faced, serious-looking bloke crouched beneath a tree.#San Cristobal_Galapaguera_N+J#San Cristobal_Galapaguera_Grand old faceIt is believed that there were once 14 (or possibly even 15) species of giant tortoise roaming the Galápagos; 10 species exist today. With the exception of Isla Isabela, where whopping five species of giant tortoise have evolved to survive in the diverse topography of the island, most islands have (or in some cases “had”) but one species. The taxonomy of the tortoises is debated by scientists, but they can be broadly distinguished as having either a saddleback or dome-shaped carapace. Foraging requirements are believed to have been instrumental in the tortoises’ anatomical evolution, with saddlebacks developing vaulted carapace to enable them to stretch their necks high in search of food and dome-shaped tortoises scavenging successfully at ground-level.  It is believed that San Cristóbal was once home to two saddleback species, one that inhabited the southern portion of the island (now extinct thanks to overzealous whalers) and another in the north.

A rugged, sprawling plot of land in which adult tortoises roam about freely, the Galapaguera was constructed to simulate the tortoises’ natural habitat in the northern part of the island, such that those hatched in captivity may be integrated into the wild when they are old enough to be less vulnerable to predation. At the far end of the reserve, a series of pens held the youngest tortoises, each with numbers painted on their backs for purposes of growth tracking. Even yearlings are tinier than a dinner plate and vulnerable to being preyed upon by other animals, such as rats and feral cats.

We spent two hours wandering the looping dirt trail that winds through the Galapaguera, our eyes peeled as we squatted in search of tortoises beneath trees and between bushes. With the exception of an Ecuadoran family, we had the place to ourselves. It was a wonderful place, and the ranger on duty was a delight to speak with about the tortoises, clearly a line of work about which he is passionate.

Puerto Chino charm
After roaming the Galapaguera, we asked the driver to take us to what was to be one of our favorite beaches. A kilometer down a handsomely paved path built between tangles of tall desert bramble and giant prickly pear cacti, we reached Puerto Chino beach. Volcanic bluffs cradled an expanse of pristine white sand overlooking an inviting oceanic pool of aquamarine. We staked our claim to a plot of powdery sand in the middle of the beach. Neil immediately donned his snorkel gear, while Lori and I cracked a beer and took in the view.

Puerto Chino beach is one of those idyllic places that you see in your imagination but are surprised to actually discover. Eventually, Neil’s calls to join him for a snorkel in the beautiful turquoise waters won us over. Near the lava rock bluffs we swam with more sea lions and an array of brightly colored tropical fish, as we let the swell and currents drift us along.#San Cristobal_Puerto Chino_TrioWe spent five days in San Cristóbal and would’ve had no shortage of sites to see had we tarried longer (e.g., Leon Dormido, Punta Pitt). The next stop in our Galápagos hop, the most bustling in the archipelago, called to us: Isla Santa Cruz.

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7 thoughts on “Isla San Cristóbal, Galápagos: Land of sea lions & saddlebacks

  1. These posts totally make me want to leave NOW! I just cannot wait to get there. The photos are lovely, so crisp and clear. What camera are you using? I’m trying to decide if I want to buy a new one before we leave.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am using a Canon 70D, which I LOVE. We bought ours the May before we left (2014), and it was among our better investments (right up there with our Honda 2000i generator)! Canons are my favorite, and the 70D is the series just above the Rebel models. It is slighter more robustly built. The camera has held up very well in this salty environment. I sharpen up the photos with Photoshop Elements. ~Jessie

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  2. Pingback: Isla Santa Cruz, Galápagos: Lush highlands and pristine beaches | s/v The Red Thread

  3. Pingback: VIDEO: The Galápagos -Part 1: Isla San Cristóbal | s/v The Red Thread

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