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Our in-depth look at Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, part two

The other week I introduced you to Ruthie Stein, Friendly Planet Travel’s Group Department Manager, who recently returned from a trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. When I last left you, Ruthie had just finished telling you about the two days she spent exploring Quito, Ecuador.

I’ll turn the typing back over to Ruthie to give you the inside scoop on the island of Santa Cruz.


Arriving via ferry on Santa Cruz

I departed Quito, Ecuador for the Galapagos Islands on a plane that landed in Baltra, a small island in the Galapagos. It really only consists of an airport, so from here you can take ferries to your desired island. My first stop was Santa Cruz, the second largest island in the Galapagos after Isabela.

When I got off the boat in Santa Cruz, the sun was shining and the temperature was in the mid 80s, and it stayed pretty much at this temperature during the remainder of my time there.

The first thing that became evident when I got off the boat was the respect the locals and the tourism industry have for the fragile ecosystem of the Galapagos. I can attest to the fact that I did not see one piece of trash on Santa Cruz, or any of the islands for that matter.

Inside the Red Mangrove Aventura Lodge

I checked into my room at the Red Mangrove Aventura Lodge, which was gorgeous and is true to the photos Friendly Planet has on their website. What’s special about the Red Mangrove hotels is that they are eco-friendly and are designed to blend into the natural surroundings.

They do such a good job at this that if they didn’t have a blue walkway to get from one part of the lodge to the other, I might have found myself out in the mangrove!

To further prove how well it’s integrated, marine iguanas were sunning themselves everywhere on the hotel’s deck. And the staff had no intentions of asking them to leave — we were on their turf.

Marine iguanas sunning themselves on the hotel’s deck

The iguanas weren’t alone either. Further down the deck, two sea lions made themselves right at home. When another sea lion approached, the one would bark until the other retreated. Those sea lions weren’t budging.

Seeing these animals was just the tip of the iceberg. I saw dolphins, sharks, Galapagos penguins, blue-footed boobies, storks, flamingos, pelicans, finches, and more. But the animals I got to know the best on Santa Cruz were the giant Galapagos tortoises when I visited the Charles Darwin Research Station.

The Charles Darwin Foundation has its Research Station on Santa Cruz. Here there is a 600-acre private reserve where giant Galapagos tortoises freely roam, graze, and sleep. But what makes this even more unique are the great lengths the Foundation takes to protect the breeding of these indigenous animals.

A seal taking a snooze on the dock

Hundreds of years ago when missionaries, explorers, etc., came to the Galapagos, they brought invasive species with them. These species included rats, pigs, dogs, cats, and others. They began decimating the tortoises and their habitat.

Since the Galapagos Islands are the only place where giant tortoises are indigenous, the Charles Darwin Research Station and Galapagos National Park teamed up almost 50 years ago to establish a breeding and rearing program to rebuild the giant Galapagos tortoise population.

Now every tortoise on the Galapagos Islands is fitted with a chip so the Station can monitor them. The chip not only aids in the protection of the species, it also facilitates the hatching of eggs.

When the Station is alerted to the fact that a mature female tortoise has made a nest, the location will be monitored and the eggs will be removed to prevent the nest from being invaded by predators. The eggs are carefully taken from the nest and brought back to the Station, so they can hatch in a safe environment.

Pink flamingos taking a dip

Once the eggs hatch, the little tortoises are reared in small areas that are similar to their natural habitat until they’re about two years old. During this time they’re slowly introduced to the natural terrain, which includes the volcanic rock that the Galapagos Islands are made from.

When they reach the two year mark, they’re transitioned to a larger area until they’re about four or five years old. As they grow during this time, they’re introduced to more difficult terrain and a wider variety of vegetation on which they feed.

At seven or eight years old they are released into the natural habitat of the islands. The computer chip will allow them to be monitored for the rest of their lives and to ensure the continuation of the species.

Today, about 364 giant Galapagos tortoises reside on Santa Cruz. When I was finished learning about this fascinating process, I got to meet some of the tortoises. I was able to stand near the tortoises, but no one is allowed to touch them. We were told, if they approach you, just remain still.

Giant Galapagos tortoises at the Darwin Research Station

One lady standing close to me sat down on a rock. A very friendly, inquisitive tortoise, probably about 500 pounds, walked right up to her. It was huge! These creatures are just magnificent. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to make their acquaintance.

After my time at the reserve, I walked back to the hotel close by. Another fascinating detail about Santa Cruz is there is really only one major paved road.

In fact, there are very few paved roads anywhere on the Galapagos Islands. I believe the reason there are so few tarmac roads is because they want to maintain the natural beauty of the Islands and not disturb the ecosystem.

Some areas of the Galapagos Islands don’t have any roads at all, so the locals and visitors negotiate the land via heavy-duty trucks called chivas. Much of my traveling on the Islands was done by foot, or via chiva through rough terrain, along mud-packed trails and over volcanic rock.

Now that I’ve visited the Galapagos, I believe we must all be totally committed to the conservation of all ecosystems, natural and urban habitats, and the well-being of all people. We must support and contribute to the preservation of the environment, scientific investigation, education, and the promotion of environmental awareness among the local communities and guests on the islands. This can only be achieved by our direct participation in the operation of sustainable tourism.

I’ll tell you more in my next blog post what it’s like getting around the islands of Floreana and Isabela and the volcano I scaled.

About Peggy

Peggy Goldman is a specialty tour operator and travel expert, who owns and operates Friendly Planet Travel, a full-service company that specializes in tour packages to exotic worldwide destinations at affordable prices.   More about Peggy

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