Ecuador Day 3: Dragon Hill

We were flying to the Galapagos today. The pick up from the hotel was arranged by Adventure Life and scheduled for 6:05am. So we had to wake up really early. I woke up at 5:30am and by 6am we were downstairs with our luggage. We waited for a while and when there was still no sight of the pickup at 6:30am, KKH got the hotel reception to call our Ecuador Coordinator who then called the driver. Turned out that the flight was from Quito –> Guayaquil –> Galapagos and we were given the pickup time for Quito. The correct pickup time for Guayaquil should be after 7am instead.

So we had time to eat breakfast after all. Today I took a chocolate bun, some fried rice, pancake, ham, bacon and a fried banana. My favorite was the chocolate bun because chocolate for breakfast is always great. I only wished there was more chocolate because I firmly believe that there is no such thing as too much chocolate.

The pickup arrived just after we finished breakfast. We were driven to the airport where we were greeted by the staff from Klein Tours. They helped to check in our luggage and gave us our boarding passes. Then we were through the gate and soon onto the airplane. We were taking an Aerogal flight (short for Aerolineas Galapagos) to Galapagos. It was a short flight, around two hours or so. Halfway through the flight, the air stewards opened the hand luggage compartment and sprayed all the hand luggage, probably to kill any insects that had hitched a ride on board.

We landed at Baltra Airport on Baltra Island. It was a small airport consisting of several one storey buildings. There were no visitor sites on Baltra Island. It functioned primarily as an entry point for visiting the Galapagos Islands.

All of us had to walk on a wet blue mat after we got off the plane. I later learned that the mat contained a liquid with was supposed to kill off any seeds that were stuck to the bottom of our shoes. We paid USD 100 each at the customs for the national park entry fee. We were greeted by someone from the yacht after we passed through the customs. There was no need to collect our luggage as they had been had been tagged with a distinctive yellow tag by the Klein Tours staff at Guayaquil airport. This way the crew from the yacht could recognize which luggage belonged to their passengers and collect them from the airport. We would see our luggage after we boarded the yacht, when they were delivered to our cabins. I thought it was a very nice service. It sure saved me the hassle of waiting for my luggage to be unloaded from the plane and carrying it onto the yacht.

All of us who were joining the cruise got onto a bus which brought us to the pier. I thought it was a beautiful sight. Blue skies and blue sea, looking so clean and unpolluted.

Even while waiting at the pier for the dinghy to arrive, we were able to see some wildlife. There were black marine iguanas basking on the black rocks and a pelican was preening its feathers. There were also some sea lions sleeping under the pier, hiding from the hot sun.

Soon the dinghy arrived and all of us got into it. The dinghy brought us to the yacht, Coral I, where we would be staying for the next few days. The yacht had four floors. The bottom contained ten cabins. Above it was the main deck which had a lounge, dining room and two more cabins. It was also where we get off and on the yacht. Above it were six more cabins. Our cabin was on this deck – Cabin 18. The topmost deck was where all the lounge chairs were. Coral I could have a maximum of 36 passengers. Including us new arrivals, there were 29 passengers on the yacht.

First, all of us newcomers gathered in the lounge for a briefing. We were told not to flush used toilet papers down the toilet bowl and to dispose of them in the covered bin in the bathroom instead. We had to separate our trash into plastic, batteries and paper. Drinking water was provided at specific taps and we were advised not to drink from the taps in our bathrooms. We were also briefed on the rules that we have to observe when we were on the islands. It was quite strict. We have to stay with the guide, we cannot stray from the trail, we cannot collect things from the islands, we cannot leave rubbish on the islands, we have to wash our shoes and make sure we did not carry any materials (plant, seeds, sand etc) from one island to another. I was quite glad when I heard about the strict rules because it meant that the islands will be well taken care of and hopefully preserved for later generations. Lastly, all of us were taught how to put on the life jackets found in our cabin closet.

I thought the cabin looked nice and cozy. All of us left our hiking shoes at the disembarking area and we were told that we could walk around the boat barefooted if we wanted to. KKH and I did. It was a nice feeling to be able to walk around barefoot. It made the yacht felt really like home. We could not lock the cabin doors when we were out because the cabin boy needed to go and clean up our cabin. I noticed that the bin for used toilet paper was emptied each time we were out, either during meal times or hikes.

There were some passengers who were already on the boat. They arrived on Sunday and would be leaving the coming Sunday. The rest of the passengers who arrived with us were staying for four nights so they would be leaving the coming Sunday too. KKH and I arrived on a Wednesday and we were the only ones who would be leaving the next Wednesday. So that means that come Sunday, we would meet a whole new batch of fellow travellers.

We had lunch in the dining room. KKH and I sat with a father and daughter from New York. It was buffet style so we just took what we wanted. The selection wasn’t very big but the food was good. There were usually three types of salad/appetizers, two meat dishes, two or three vegetables and two desserts. Sometimes each of us would be given a bowl of soup too. It was pretty international kind of cooking so I didn’t take any photos. I learnt a few days later that the bread served on the boat was baked daily. So since then, I always made sure to eat at least a piece of bread a day so the efforts of the baker would not go to waste.

It was free time after lunch while the boat traveled to Santa Cruz. The top deck seemed to be everybody’s favorite place to laze around. Most of the lounge chairs were taken.

Female frigate bird

As we travelled towards Santa Cruz, we saw some birds following the boat. There were as many as eight birds at one time. They seldom flap their wings and just appeared to glide effortlessly in the wind. Sometimes one of them would fly close to the boat, at eye level with the passengers standing by the railing.

Male frigate birds

We were told that these were frigate birds. The males were the ones with red pouches at the throat while the females had a white chest. They could not dive underwater like some birds as they do not have oil on their wings. So they had to snatch food from the surface of the water or snatch food from other birds. A fellow passenger jokingly called them “the pirates among the birds”.

At 4 pm, we disembarked to go to Dragon Hill, which was on the northwest corner of Santa Cruz. It was a dry landing. The hike would take around two hours and was rated moderate. We left in two dinghies with a guide in each dinghy. Once we landed, we followed the guide from our dinghy and walked off. The group from the other dinghy walked off in the opposite direction but we met up again halfway along the trail.

The guide leading my group was called Hernan. He spoke English well and was passionate about protecting the wildlife. During the cruise, I heard him spoke a few times about how amazing and what a privilege it was to be so close to the animals. He also spoke a few times about the cruelty of the early sailors and people who visited the islands.

We started off by walking along the beach before we moved inland through the dense undergrowth.

One of the first things we saw were Sally Lightfoot crabs. It was hard to miss them as they were bright red and clinging onto the black rocks.

We also saw some iguanas resting in the vegetation near the beach. It was evening so I guess they had already finished feeding and were settling in for the night.

There was one that was already sleeping. Aww, so cute.

Hernan found a hermit crab and gathered all of us for a look. It was hiding in its shell but when Hernan breathed on it, it came out of the shell. KKH and I thought that it could be due to the warmth from Hernan’s breath or the carbon dioxide. Hernan explained that the hermit crabs are scavengers and would search the beach for dead and decaying animals. The hermit crab had no shell of its own and had to search for abandoned shells as they grew bigger. Hernan explained that this was why we should not collect shells from the beach as we could be depriving a hermit crab of a home. At this moment, the hermit crab decided to give Hernan’s thumb a nip, causing him to drop it. I don’t think the hermit crab was hurt as it landed on soft, sandy ground.

We moved further inland. The trail was narrow and overgrowth. We had to walk in a single file and be careful of thorny branches that grew over the trail. We had watched where we put our feet as the ground was uneven. Hernan said that in the early days, the land was barren and there were not many rules about touring the Galapagos Islands. Most of the plants that we were seeing now were brought to the islands by tourists who had seeds stuck to the underside of their shoes. This was why the rules were stricter now and there was the blue mat at the airport to kill off the seeds.

Hernan showed us a seed pod which sounded like a rattle when we shook it.

Along the way, we saw several yellow land iguanas in the bushes. The land iguanas were bigger than their marine cousins. Then we came upon a huge male crawling in the middle of the trail and heading in our direction. Hernan told us to keep quiet and stood still so as not to frighten it. He also asked all of us to stand to one side of the trail so that the land iguana could pass. It crawled past Hernan slowly and then it stopped and stared at the red shoes of one of the passengers as if mesmerized.

It stayed there for a long time. So in the end, we had to one by one shuffle sideways around it as quietly as possible. For half of us, it was our first close encounter with the Galapagos wildlife. A lot of us went “That was so cool!” once we were far away enough from the land iguana to talk.

We saw a forest of holy stick trees. They were given that name because they produced a very nice smelling oil which was used to make incense. The trees were bare now because it was wintertime for them. Hernan explained that even though it did not feel like winter for us, the trees were used to a much higher temperature and humidity so this was like winter for them. Wow, the temperature was already like 28°C or 29°C, I could not imagine how much higher it had to be before the trees thought it was summer. Hernan poked one of the trees gently with a toothpick and immediately we saw oil flowing out. He let all of us dab some on our fingertips and smelled it. It had a very nice smell, like those perfumed incense. As the trees were full of oil, they were very flammable and this was why nobody was allowed to smoke on the islands.

As we walked on, we came to some brackish pools of water.

A lone flamingo was looking for food in one of the pools. We were told that the flamingos on the Galapagos Islands were descended from the Caribbean flamingos.

After the hike, we returned back to the yacht. One of the crew was waiting with a hose to wash our shoes once we got off the dinghy. There was still some time before dinner so KKH and I sat in our cabin. I loved the thought that the sea was right in front of the door. For the rest of the cruise, sometimes I would just sit by the door and looked out at the sea. We kept our cabin door opened as much as possible and only closed it when we were out or sleeping.

It was 6:30 pm and the sun was setting. My first sunset on sea!

There was a welcome cocktail for us newcomers before dinner. Each of us were given a red tinted drink which unfortunately tasted like cough syrup. KKH and I had tasted a similar cocktail before as we found the taste familiar but we could not recall the name. We sat with an elderly couple from Australia during dinner. They had been on the cruise since Sunday so they shared with us some of the things that we were going to see. After dinner, we gathered in the lounge for a briefing on the hikes for tomorrow.

KKH and I went to bed at around 10pm. We would have to wake up early tomorrow.

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