SMUS Ecuador and the Galapagos Trip

tortoise

by Caryn Cooper, Grade 10

The 2014 SMUS Ecuador/Galapagos trip! Where to begin even writing about it? Begin at the beginning, you say? Very well…

In the beginning, 12 St. Michaels University School students, led by the (very brave) teachers Mr. Jackson and Ms. MacDonald, boarded a plane at the Victoria airport (YYJ). Their travels would take them for a short stopover in Mexico before landing in the city of Quito, Ecuador. After a few hours settling into a hotel – with all the crowded rooms, dropped bags, lost contacts and other mishaps that entailed – we set off for a tour of the Old Town of Quito. Beautiful cathedrals! Brightly coloured buildings! Parks! Palaces! Observatories! Pigeons! The Old Town of Quito is indeed unlike any other site in the world. In fact, it was the first place deemed a World Heritage Site (says the sign in the airport).

The following day, we left Quito on our way to the Otavalo region of Ecuador, home to the famous Otavalo market – and famous it deserves to be called. In addition to a chance to practice Spanish (quite shamefully rudimentary in some cases), we discovered that someone at this market could sell practically anything an Otavaleño or tourist would desire. Shawls, sandals, souvenirs, even – as found out by Kevin and Jacob – whole ripe pineapples perfect for a snack on the bus.

We visited two workshops and received two demonstrations. The first was a demonstration of traditional backstrap weaving, as well as how the wool was prepared. At the second workshop we were able to watch the creation of a set of pipes. Don’t worry – it’s illegal to make them out of human femurs now (though they still had an old one, not for sale). We visited the Cotopaxi National Park, and in addition to seeing the mountain in the moonlight, we got to see waterfalls, beautiful geography, and a wild horse.

It was a sharp contrast from Cotopaxi Park and its open highland geography to Baños, tucked beneath the active Tungurahua volcano in the Andes. Baños is famous for its hot springs – courtesy of the volcanic activity – and the legend of the Lady who allegedly saved several men from falling into the valley waters. Baños is surrounded by beautiful waterfalls – two of which we passed over in a cable car, and one of which we passed under in a cave. The locals were even kind enough to warn us of this waterfall, putting up a sign reading “Be prepared for a surprise! God exists!”

We flew out of Quito to get to the islands of the Galapagos, arriving in Puerto Banquerizo Moreno on the island of San Cristobal after a stop in Guayaquil. In San Cristobal, we visited the only lake on the island (rain-fed), the breeding center for the San Cristobal tortoises, and a beautiful beach frequented by turtles and sharks. After a panga (dinghy) ride to our boat, the Eden, we headed for Isla Lobos, where we saw lava lizards, turtles, frigates, lobos marinos (sea lions), and two blue-footed boobies doing their famous mating dance. The next day was spent on Santa Fe, where we spotted an elusive Galapagos snake as well as many hungry land iguanas.

From Santa Fe it was not a long boat ride to Santa Cruz and Puerto Ayora, where we visited the Darwin Center and got to see their captive tortoises, including Diego (nicknamed SuperDiego by our guide), savior of the Santa Fe tortoise population. We visited the pen of Solitary Jorge, Lonesome George, the last (and no longer the last, by and by) of the Pinta tortoises (Chelonoidis abingdoni). To see tortoises in the wild, we bussed up to the highlands, where we passed by the well-known twin pit craters on Santa Cruz. At a tortoise-friendly farm, the opportunity was seized to try on a giant tortoise shell, which was a surprisingly good fit for a human. We also stopped at South Plazas island, which is home to a beautiful prickly pear forest, many land iguanas, and a bachelor sea lion colony for the poor males without girlfriends.

Then off to Isabela, land of the penguins and flightless cormorants! After snorkelling in the halocline in a mangrove forest, an incredible start to the morning, we took a ride up Sierra Negra Volcano, which boasts the second largest caldera in the world (nine by ten kilometers), and not long dormant either, the last eruption being only a few years ago. We stopped at the tortoise breeding center in Villamil, and made an important discovery: while adult tortoises may be awesome, and young ones cute, tortoises that are only one month old are the best at evoking desires to bring it home and keep it please.

The snorkelling around Isabela is some of the best in the world, I would wager. Isabela waters are home to playful sea lions, hundreds of green sea turtles, seahorses, millions of tropical fish, sea urchins, hunting penguins, and even manta rays! The shores are well populated with marine iguanas, as we found out to a startling degree upon our visit to Fernandina. The youngest Galapagos island and also the most westerly, Fernandina is covered in relatively fresh black lava. What this meant for us? Hundreds of black marine iguanas on black lava are difficult to avoid stepping on, even when they are spaced out. We returned to Isabela to visit Tagus Cove, a major tourist attraction for the many boat names (some dating back centuries) painted on the rocks. The park forbids that now, but the history remains.

The next day we visited North Seymour, a very popular nesting site among frigate birds, both magnificent and great, as well as other species, like the blue-footed boobies. And when the too-short morning there was done, we left Baltra for the long trip home, our suitcases full of souvenirs (but unfortunately no pet sea lions) and our cameras full of photos.

Like reading about trips to far off lands? Just before Spring Break we recapped some of the best student writing from our Spring Break trips.

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