The Galapagos – San Cristobal

After our 930 nm passage it was wonderful to arrive in San Cristobal and recognise yachts we already knew from Colon and Panama City.

San Cristobal

We had arranged for our agent, Bolivar, to issue an autografo or cruising permit, which entitles us to visit 3 out of the 14 islands in the archipelago on our own yacht.

The following morning 3 officials and Bolivar turned up just before 0900, so the leisurely breakfast we were enjoying was adjourned until they had left.   As soon as we had done all the paperwork for the Port Captain, the quarantine official and for the National Park official, we were collected from Pipistrelle to accompany Bolivar to Immigration which was out of town and where we sat and waited while more forms were filled in. With the formalities completed, we were free to leave, do some brief provisioning, download loads of emails, and generally get our bearings in town.

We also started to plan for Janet’s arrival two days later, and how we would spend our time exploring these unique islands.

During the night we experienced just how tenacious the local population of sea lions can be.  A novelty at first because they look rather sweet swimming around the boat and basking on our swimming platform, it took less than twelve hours for the attraction to wear off.  First of all we had 4 sleeping in the cockpit, but they started arguing amongst themselves, no doubt about who had the most comfortable bed. Their barking woke us so Bob sprang into action and barked back at them waking other cruisers in the process!  More fenders were put out, but within an hour they were back.  We finished up with all our fenders on top of each other across the bathing platform, and then the boarding plank horizontally across the pushpit (stern of the boat).  That fixed it, repelling all boarders!

Cute at first!

A little history

This is fascinating, so we feel a few brief paragraphs might be of interest.    

The Galapagos archipelago is volcanic, and varies in age from about a million years old (San Cristobal) to 300,000 years old (Isabela).  The islands are also positioned over tectonic plates on the earth’s crust that are moving the whole time like a conveyor belt towards South America.  Isabela is directly over the hotspot of volcanic activity, and so some new islands appear, and as the islands get further away from the activity, they start sinking below the waves again.  The extinct volcanoes on Santa Cruz now have a thick layer of forest foliage within them. 

The islands are at the convergence of 4 streams of current, Humboldt, a cold current from the South; the Cromwell from the East – again cold; the North Equatorial and the Panama Flow.  The result is an extremely rich food supply, and the fish are consequently abundant.  Because the fish are plentiful, so is bird life.  Equally well penguins live here because the Humboldt and Cromwell currents are cold, even at the Equator.  It is believed that the current from Ecuador which we enjoyed on our passage to the Galapagos was responsible for bringing the tortoises, or a reptile similar to the tortoise, to the islands on mats of grass and reed.  These mats would be similar to the ones we saw and photographed in Cartagena.  A tortoise can last for up to a year with no food or water, so the idea is possible.  Land and marine iguanas arrived in the same way.  Birds arrived on the same currents of air that we enjoyed, with our downwind sailing.  Any animal arriving on the islands would have to be extremely tough and strong, so reptiles are more likely to have survived rather than other animals.

Marine iguanas sunbathing

Galapagos was discovered in 1535 by Fray Tomas de Berlango, the Bishop of Panama, who was becalmed on the way to Peru, and the currents swept his ship to the islands.  Having made landfall, the crew staggered ashore in search of water and food.  Water is scarce on low lying islands, but on those with high ground such as San Cristobal and Isabela, the moisture condenses on the trees and lichens, and drips to the ground, where it collects in small pools amongst the volcanic rocks.

And they found the giant tortoises, an abundant source of meat which they exploited.  Over the next 400 years it is a wonder that the tortoises survived as they were taken in huge numbers, stowed in the hulls of ships, simply because they could survive for so long without food or water.  On two islands tortoises are now extinct. On Santa Cruz, Lonesome George is the last surviving tortoise of his species.

Darwin arrived in 1835 on The Beagle, and was partly responsible for the conservation which now is the prime motive of the Ecuadorian government.  In 1946 a penal colony was created on Isabela, and the stories of human suffering are horrific.  Other islands were run as commercial enterprises, most unsuccessfully.  Plants such as bramble and guava were introduced, which decimated the indigenous Miconia that is only now making a comeback.  Goats are close to being eradicated from the islands; the cat and dog population is kept under control but wild boar and cattle are hunted and still very much in evidence.

But there are still considerable problems facing the islands.  Lack of fresh water, adequate sewage treatment are constant issues as is controlling the number of visitors, providing jobs and population control.  Inevitably health care and schooling are not as good as on mainland Ecuador because of inadequate resources.

San Cristobal

As we sailed south west along the north shore of the island, we were struck by how green the island is.  We are after all almost on the Equator!

It is an island of diversity, with the majority of the population in Puerto Baquerizo Morena, where we were anchored.  Here transport to the shore is by water taxi – 50c per person and once in town, the fresh fruit and vegetable market, bakery, laundry internet café and restaurants are all within easy walking distance.

Sea lion playground in town!

Once Janet had arrived and acclimatized for a day, we took a tour with Carlos, a very knowledgeable taxi driver, and stopped off on the way to Puerto Chino, a beach on the far side of the island at a small roadside tienda (shop) selling organic bananas – delicious.  We passed coffee farms, and fruits such as papaya are in abundance.

Banana Break – Heidi, Janet, Bob, Stephen & Carlos

But the focus of our visit was the giant tortoise reserve at Cerro Colorado.  Here 50 tortoises have been removed from the wild where they roam freely, and have been brought to the reserve to take part in a breeding programme.  They are kept here for 2-3 years, and then returned to the wild.  The baby giant tortoises are hatched and kept for 6 years, at which point they can fend for themselves and released.  They are fed three times a week so we were lucky to have chosen early Monday morning when they were enjoying succulent green stems.

Feeding time – note small numbered fella!

A much older relative

The beach at Puerto Chino is a nesting site for the blue footed booby, and we also watched the inevitable pelicans and frigate birds diving for food.  In the sea we saw a couple of rays, too far away to identify.

Blue footed boobies


The Beach

From there our guide took us to the foot of a hill and we walked up to a fresh water lake, El Junco, created in a dormant crater, at a height of 650 metres.  The water is six metres deep, and covers a considerable area.  Frigate birds congregate to wash their plumage of salt water, and we watched them washing their wings.  Normally they do not touch sea water, but steal their food from other sea birds, harrying them until they drop the fish, and the frigate catches it before it hits the sea again.  We were able to watch 3 male frigate birds, easily identifiable by their brilliant red bag under their beak.  The scenery at this spot was reminiscent of Scotland – strong breeze, cool, slightly overcast; good walking with magnificent views, and plants and birds we had not seen before.

El Junco

Endangered Miconia growing around lake

Male frigate bird

From a viewing point we could look down on the coastline and see the destruction caused by the tsunami that had hit the island a week before our arrival.  The green grass was blackened by the sea water that had swept inland.  Lunch was in a small restaurant in the port, as the one that was planned was closed.  Here we were joined by Colin, Liz, Zinnia and Cosmo from Pacific Bliss, who had been following us on a similar tour.

We were hoping to spend a day diving on Kicker Rock, renowned for its white tipped and hammerhead sharks.  Unfortunately the tsunami had created a lot of sediment in the water, and then we had a huge swell in the bay, making living and sleeping on board uncomfortable.  This created yet more sediment and so we abandoned the idea because the visibility would have been too poor and we didn’t want to wait around on the island for better conditions before sailing on to our next destination.

Before leaving we took a walk to the Interpretation Centre built in 1998 and looked at its interesting exhibitions explaining the origin of the islands, anthropological background and steps being taken to protect the unique environment.  From there we took a trail to a nearby surf beach, all of which can be visited without a guide.

It’s worth remembering that 97% of the Galapagos is designated National Park.   Each visitor pays a fee of $100.00 for the privilege of either using the trails on their own or with a guide.   The charge also includes entry to all the tortoise reserves and visitors’ centres.

Sunset over San Cristobal

If you are interested in this article, see also the following posts about Pipistrelle in The Galapagos:

Landfall and Arrival in The Galapagos 

The Galapagos – Isabela

The Galapagos – Santa Cruz

The Galapagos – Flora and Fauna

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