Our departure this morning was a comedy of manners. Our Galapagos cruise included being picked up from Pablo’s home and taken to the airport, but somehow in confirming the arrangements with the company yesterday Patricio, Pablo’s assistant, had decided that was an unreliable arrangement, cancelled the cab and asked Roddy to take us to the airport instead. So at 7am Roddy backed us out of the drive under the rather hurt gaze of the man with the smart minibus who had been sent to pick us up and hadn’t been cancelled at all. So we unloaded our bags, reloaded them in the new cab, apologised to both Roddy and the new cab driver, and got going for the airport.
Quito airport was the model of efficiency. The queues were orderly, the check-in staff courteous and helpful, security was secure, but allowed you to keep your shoes on and didn’t make you feel like you were somehow getting in their way (a la just about every airport in America) . In short it was the antithesis of the stereotype “South American Airport”. But the flight itself, well that was something. After several years experience of the best that 21st century commercial aviation has to offer, Aerogal was a bit of a shock. It really was from a different age. An age where you could still get on a brand new plane for one thing, and a plane where the seats had plenty of legroom and free widescreen entertainment, an age where the cabin crew were immaculately turned out and delivered free hot food and drinks, an age where the the planes took off and landed on time. It was, in short, unbelievably good and a quality of air travel that is but a misty memory in the US and Europe.
We had a brief stop in Guayacil, which from the air was a gleaming patchwork of rice paddies with tiny farmhouses perched on little islands. As we loaded more passengers the crew sprayed some kind of disinfectant into the air. They are very concerned about not introducing contaminants into the Galapagos and all our luggage had to be screened before we checked it in in Quito.
Ninety minutes after taking off again, the islands appeared in the Pacific, low and tawny in the deep blue of the ocean. The little airport at Baltra (once part of a US Air Force base) was muggy and crowded but our driver was there with a placard for us and ushered us onto a bus for the short ride to the ferry which takes you to the main island of Santa Cruz. The drive was broken only by a large Iguana that didn’t want to get off the road and had to be shoo-ed off. It hissed at the driver before sauntering into the scrub. There was little to see along the road to the ferry; deserty scrub and the occasional ruin of an old building. The Galapagos weren’t even pristine when Darwin got to them of course. Pirates had been using them to hole up and take on provisions in the 16th century and then whalers discovered them and killed perhaps a hundred thousand giant tortoises. Farmers came to clear the native plants and grow bananas and other crops. The middle of the main island is still privately owned by farmers and is full of non-native species, even as the park service tries to restore the rest of the chain of islands by removing non-native species as far as they can, and particular the rats and goats which have destroyed so much habitat. On one island alone they have culled something like 200,000 goats. On the drive from the ferry to Puerto Ayora – the main town on Santa Cruz, there was still an other worldliness to the landscape. V-tailed frigate birds soared around above us, and we passed stands of curious angular trees.
Rosy at the Galapagos Suites was every bit as friendly as her emails and her little hotel was everything the rave reviews on TripAdvisor had suggested, complete with a hammock strung up across a corner of our balcony.Puerto Ayora has the feel of a low key Caribbean town, mostly low-rise plain buildings and one-room storefronts packed with t-shirts and flip flops, dusty streets humming in the sunshine. We walked out to the Charles Darwin Research Station which looks into the best way to preserve the Galapagos and its species. Its best known for its tortoise breeding program and they have learned how to dig out the eggs and transfer them to incubators, such that 98% of the eggs they move now hatch. We saw them taking some of the baby giants out of boxes, painting numbers on them and etching a groove in their shells. The island-specific species are returned to their native islands once they are a bit older. The Station is also the permanent home of Lonesome George, the last of his sub-species and perhaps two hundred years old. No-one has found a way to date these giants accurately yet. He was asleep, with his long neck stretched out in front of his impossible shell. It was like watching a dinosaur and elsewhere at the Station, on a walking trail we were surprised by a few more giants with their elephant feet, grumpy expressions and watery eyes. Some may have been spared by whalers a hundred and fifty years ago as being too small to eat. They are lumbering time travelers, plodding their way through the decades.
Back in the town, we explored a bit and had supper overlooking the harbour. As night fell snatches of salsa music and laughter drifted up from the street below and dogs set up a barking relay. How do people live with dogs like that? When disturbed by, I don’t know, someone sneezing in a different part of the town, they will bark for five minutes straight, and then another one will become aware that there is a rock in the yard and start barking at that. Hello earplugs.