Isla Santa Cruz, Galápagos: Lush highlands & pristine beaches

February 2016

Our 0700 departure from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno was erased when 90 minutes out of the harbor Neil recalled that we had failed to retrieve our propane tank. Damn! We’d been motoring to hard-charge our batteries and make water after five days at anchor, so we made a swift about-face.

The sea offered a consolation prize for our forgetfulness. Not five minutes after we’d turned, a series of enormous manta rays leapt from the ocean, baring their silver bellies and upturned wings and leaving our jaws dangling.#Isla San Cristobal to Isla Santa Cruz_mapOnly about 40 nautical miles separate Isla San Cristóbal and Isla Santa Cruz, but losing three hours to retrieve our propane tank almost certainly thwarted our hope of daytime arrival. We did our best to cover miles under canvas. We hoisted full sail and coasted leisurely along at an acceptable-to-us three knots. We weren’t in a race and had accepted that we’d likely arrive after dark. Flogging sails make for grouchy crew, however, and as the winds eased further our canvas fell limp. We furled our mainsail and 125% genoa and readied ourselves to launch our oversized asymmetrical spinnaker we call “Gypsy.”

From the bow, Neil strips her of her sock as I winch the sheet. The mammoth iceberg of a chute bursts to life, and I catch my breath. Neil looks aft, and I search his face for clues about how the sail should be trimmed. Spinnaker sailing is still new to me. A satisfactory expression says to me he likes her shape; a furrowed brow tells me to winch the sheet tighter. A few more cranks, and we’re flying.

Imagine a gargantuan kite towing a little boat on a glassy sea. Sailing beneath a spinnaker is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

The day’s end crept nearer and our speed dwindled. Less than two knots. Hope of arriving under sail by just after dust began looking more and more like an arrival after midnight. Cranking the iron sail (i.e., firing up the engine) would guarantee our anchor would be set in just over two hours; we doused the sail.#Passage to Isla Santa Cruz_Running out of daylight

In spite of a just-past-full-but-waning moon, the anchorage is black. Orange light glimmers from the shoreline, and the mast lights behind us look like a ribbon of north stars dangling above Puerto Ayora. I wonder when we’ll spy the Southern Cross.

Don’t believe everything you hear
Admittedly, we’d been a bit biased against Isla Santa Cruz before we arrived. We’d heard the island was “too touristy” and that Puerto Ayora wasn’t necessarily worth a visit. After a few days there, we couldn’t disagree more. Some of our favorite Galápagos memories were made there. The waterfront is a mishmash of tour operators and souvenir shops and galleries. The scent of a small but bustling fish market wafts along the harbor, and sea lions and brown pelicans beg for scraps amongst ankles of paying customers.#Isla Santa Cruz_Puerto Ayora_Begging for scrapsSmall cafés are tucked along cobbled streets, where affluence and poverty exist side-by-side in vibrant buildings and decaying shacks. A colorfully manicured cemetery is a stone’s throw from a beautiful vista of the boats in the anchorage, and statues of Darwin pay homage to the man whose ideas changed the world. Nearby Charles Darwin Research Centre is home to a couple species of giant tortoises and a few curry-colored land iguanas, though the center had a more zoo-like feel than the open range of La Galapaguera on Isla Cristóbal. Lava lizards, one of the few creatures that has taken up residence on all of the archipelago’s islands, scamper about, tipping their toes toward the sky to cool their feet. In the waning heat of the afternoon, a cement court near the pier springs to life with laughter of a hundred locals as they gab and play sports. We found the place rather charming!

Galápagos’ very best beach
We spent a day enjoying the hubbub of town and then shifted our focus to those corners of the island less encumbered by human development. We made the mistake of trekking to the spectacular Playa Brava beach in the heat of the day. Five kilometers along a rolling path doesn’t seem too far unless you walk it beneath a brutal equatorial sun in the heat of the day. #Isla Santa Cruz_Playa Brava_Neil on the pathSweat dripped down our faces and our skin was blotched by the swelter. Breaks beneath the shade of leatherleaf trees, palo santos, and giant prickly pear cactus offered meager reprieve, and by the time we reached the beach, we wondered if we were toying with heat stroke! But hot sand as fine as flour stung our weary feet, and the cool wash of the sea reinvigorated us.We agreed that the beach was one of the most beautiful any of us had ever seen, its sultry sand stretching on and on. Imps of darkness, as Darwin dubbed marine iguanas, crawled resolutely toward the sea, and Sally Lightfoot crabs leapt between the lava rock outcroppings that dotted the shore. Brown pelicans wiled amid the surf, and semi-palmated plovers and whimbrels combed the beach. It was a kind of beautiful that stings your eyes with its brilliance and leaves you blinking furiously to take in more of the magnificence of the scene.

Scuba at Isla Mosquera and North Seymour
Our next days’ adventures would take us from above the surf to below for diving with Scuba Iguana, a dive company we strongly recommend! Our first day of diving would see us loaded in pickup trucks to Puerto Balta, where we took a short boat ride for two dives to Islas Mosquera and North Seymour, where Galápagos sharks and white tip reef sharks lurked along the sand and parrotfish and a bevy of other colorful beauties darted amid the rocks. Although hammerheads frequent this area, we only saw them above the water, their sharp fins coursing meters from the boat.

Our second day of diving really put day 1 to shame. A 45-minute speedboat ride, during which we had dolphins give chase and deliver an acrobatic show in our wake, brought us to a craggy group of volcanic outcroppings off Isla Floreana. Imagine underwater visibility along a wall that stretches far into the deep, where corals and tropical fish and sharks and [best of all] sea lions roam. Imagine watching the sea lions dart to-and-fro before you, up toward the halo of light penetrating the water column and down into the dark mysteriousness below. Videos communicate better than words about some things, though, so you’ll have to check out our upcoming video…

After bearing witness to an underwater proposal between two of our Canadian dive mates, we ended the dive with a kiss ourselves. Romantically, Neil nearly knocked my regulator out of my mouth, and I suffered a moment of panic as I sputtered, coughed, and spit saltwater out of my reg.

A highlands high
In the company of David, a Kiwi friend we made during our dives, we flagged down Ramiro, who drives one of the countless white trucks that shuttle taxi tourists around the island. Bright-eyed, friendly, and with vast knowledge of the islands, he was a top-notch guide! Within 45 minutes, we had left behind the blazing-hot oasis of the coastal zone and had ascended to the lush, cool escape of the highlands. Our first stop was Los Gemelos, the twins, a set of enormous pit craters now overgrown with scalesia trees, mosses, and ferns. The sky was beautifully overcast and a cool humidity kissed our skin. Monarch butterflies, hawkmoths, and the Galapágos’ only bee, the carpenter bee, fluttered nonchalantly above blossoms and treetops.#Isla Santa Cruz_Los Gemelos_Neil#Isla Santa Cruz_Highland butterflies#Isla Santa Cruz_Rancho Primicias_All for a laughDeeper in the highlands was Rancho Primicias, a coffee plantation. The clouds were looking more ominous by the minute and our bodies, now accustomed to 100°F heat could feel the chill of a couple hours at 80°F. As delectable as we three find a midafternoon coffee, we were drawn to the plantation by something else: giant tortoises that roam wild and free.

The five of us tugged on galoshes as the sky opened up to bathe the hills in a torrent of rain. We sought refuge in a gazebo, where the carapaces of several tortoises who had died on the farm were kept. Happy to amuse his clientele (and himself), Ramiro encouraged Neil and I to climb into two of the massive shells and then proceeded to direct Neil to emulate the tortoise mating posture. I flushed red and Neil could hardly manage the enormous carapace amid his fit of laughter. There are some moments in life when the ridiculousness of a given moment cannot be overstated. We felt like idiots and were having a grand time of it!

When the rain abated to a drizzle, we set out to explore. Dozens of tortoises roamed the grounds freely, unencumbered by walls or pens; free to gorge themselves on the bounty of the rich volcanic soil. Ramiro instructed us to sneak up behind the tortoises for photo opportunities that would not disturb them. They are not exactly agile enough to peak around their unwieldly shells after all!#Isla Santa Cruz_Rancho Primicias_Tortoises in the rainWe’d learned during our visit to La Galapaguera on Isla San Cristóbal that unhappy tortoises will not procreate and soon had our suspicions that Rancho Primicias is a very happy place confirmed. We caught two gentle giants in the midst of the act. Others luxuriated in mud baths or marched as if on a mission to who knows where. After satiating our urge for exploration, we returned to the open-air café where, a steamy coffee in hand, we watched a small flock of medium ground finches dance along the window sill before flitting toward the forest.

Our final stop was a half-mile long lava tube. Ramiro dropped us off at one end of the pit and promised he would not abandon us on the other side. We walked down a flight of plank stairs into the dank underworld where a feeble string of light bulbs illuminated a dank cylindrical cavern. Lava tubes are formed when molten lava spews from a volcano and rushes across the land. As the outer crust cools, the boiling lava within continues to surge forth, eventually emptying the space within and leaving a hollow tube that looks like it was created by a frighteningly large earthworm. The tube we visited was 15- to 20-feet in diameter in some places. Toward the end of the main chamber, however, the opening narrowed to slit that required us to all but Army crawl to continue onward.#Isla Santa Cruz_Highlands_Lava tubeTrue to his word, Ramiro loaded his muddy entourage into his truck on the other side. We convinced him to stop in Bellavista on our return trip to Puerto Ayora, where we bought him lunch at a roadside eatery and capped off a truly wonderful day.#Isla Santa Cruz_Rancho Primicias_Ramiro + the gangLori’s last days
Subsequent days were spent tackling boat projects and to-dos, and trying to squeeze in a few final excursions and gorge ourselves on $1 empanadas. Neil spent an entire day hunched over the wind generator, which had gone kaput [again] on our passage. We wrote a few postcards, spent too much money trying to upload a couple videos at an internet café, and Lori hopped aboard a speedboat to travel to Isla Isabela for a day excursion. We completed a massive vegetable provision at the local public market in preparation for our upcoming passage to Rapa Nui and enjoyed an impressive meal on the Charles Binford corridor (thank you, Karen!), where automobiles are replaced by plastic tables and chairs after the sun goes down and local fare heaps upon plates.#Santa Cruz_Dinner on Whippet GoodOne evening, beneath an amber sunset, we walked to Las Grietas, a brackish lagoon at the base of a ravine near town. Las Grietas is a volcanic fracture looks like it was chopped into the crust of the earth by a hatchet held by the hands of the Gods. Giant prickly pear cacti cast reflections across the streams that ran beneath bridges along the path and fiddler crabs excavated mudflats in the shallows.#Isla Santa Cruz_Path to Las Grietas #Isla Santa Cruz_Fiddler crabA month to the day after Lori’s plane landed in Costa Rica and she made the long drive to meet us in Golfito, she boarded another bird, this time bound for Machu Pichu in Peru. Her intrepid travels were not over just yet! Tears welled up in both our eyes, and the three of us hugged goodbye. We’d achieved something very special together, and we all knew it. What we didn’t know is when we would see each other again.

Thank you for making so many memories with us, Lori (aka “Napitain”). You’re a damn good crewmate. Whenever you want to return, our aft cabin will be waiting for you!#Isla Santa Cruz_Scoot over

9 thoughts on “Isla Santa Cruz, Galápagos: Lush highlands & pristine beaches

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