It’s crazy how quickly time goes when you think in terms of months, but on a day-to-day basis it seems like forever. It’s my final week off in the Galápagos, ahead of my final 5 weeks of lessons. Don’t know how that happened…
With this in mind, I’m trying to clear up my ‘to do’ list before leaving the islands. Top of the list was the final inhabited island which I hadn’t visited: Isla Floreana. Well, inhabited is a relative term, there are only 200 people living here and other than that it’s just the sealions and iguanas for company.
Floreana was the first settled island on the archipelago, on account of its freshwater spring in the highlands. It has a fascinating history of murder and mystery, from the early pirate settlers, through the arrival of the Wittmer family, still present and running Hotel Wittmer overlooking the beach. A countess with two husbands then ended up briefly settling however this ended in a murder.
Now, to serve the 200 inhabitants there is a small school, a post office and a health centre. Yep, that’s about it. No shop, just a couple of restaurants. As you land, you realise that Floreana’s settlement, Puerto Velasca Ibarra, really isn’t on the scale of any other place here. Just a dock, a quarantine building and a couple of sealions…
I’d been warned by Dani whom I’d met in Santa Cruz that lodging and food options were pretty sparse, therefore I had prepared for both eventualities by lugging my tent and also a good supply of food along for the trip. Indeed, of the few guest houses that I did see most said that they weren’t open. Eek… Luckily though I found a place slightly further up the Main Street which possessed both rooms and restaurant, at a fairly decent price of $25/night.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, despite the pleasant surroundings the female owner was, in common with many hoteliers around here, as mean as a rattlesnake and insisted on not only speaking Spanish at me (perfectly justifiable, and I do speak it after all), but very fast Galapagueno which is something which they seem to delight in. (Rapid-fire Galapagueno, I struggle with…)
(As a postscript I’d recommend trying the Hotel Wittmer instead… Contrary to appearances it’s also only $25 a night and in a better location by the sea. Historic underpinnings included although I can’t comment on relative mean-ness of the staff!)
So, after dumping my bags and the owner’s slightly less mean son kindly heating up my lunch, I set out for a bit of a wander of the town’s delights. I passed the intriguing island school, and a couple of other bars and restaurants which didn’t seem to have ever opened, let alone being open now. The bulk of tourism to Floreana is on cruises and day excursions, which benefit the local economy not one iota…
After some exploration of the outer reaches of the not-very-big village I ended up back at the dock, and the famous Post Office box. This is a replica of the original one in Post Office Bay (Which sadly you can only get to by sea). Part of the rich seafaring heritage of the islands, this is the place where pirates used to exchange news from home, given the range of destinations they ended up travelling to.
Now, it’s a place for postcards to get hand-delivered to every other corner of the globe by fellow travellers. A lovely tradition which I was really eager to take part in. Sadly the only UK ones were addressed to Bedfordshire (pretty far away) and Aberdeen (Couldn’t get any further away) however there was also a postcard addressed to a woman on the Upper East Side of New York, where I’m going in a couple of months, so I popped it in my rucksack to deliver it personally. As with the Tom Hanks film Castaway, hopefully she is going to be devastatingly attractive in a girl next door kinda way, and also open to the possibility of a new life. And have a dog, and a ranch. Just like Castaway. Wilsoooooon!
Naturally I wanted to get my own billet-Doux delivered, so I duly purchased a postcard from the post office. Or tried to. The lady commented that she thought they were $1 or $1.25, but didn’t know which. What she certainly couldn’t do was change a $5 bill! It did warm my heart considerably though that she simply said “pop back with the money later”. #Islandlife
After a ridiculously satisfying siesta it was time for more sightseeing. One of the main attractions of this island is the Parte Alta (Or to don its more flowery name, Asilo de la Paz) where you can find some of the really cool island history such as the pirate caves… It’s easy enough to get to from the village, either by a pricey $50 truck, or far more sensibly via Chivas (open-backed truck buses, also affectionately known as chicken buses) which run at 6am and 3pm each day. $1 each way.
As luck would have it, the afternoon Chiva was full of crusty elderly tourists from the cruise boat which had pulled in that morning. So, it was back to the drawing board. As I was standing outside the guest house an open-backed truck pulled up and asked if I wanted to go to the Parte Alta… Sure! I hopped in, rearranged the pile of pallets in the back into a more comfortable seating arrangement and we set off. Soon afterwards we also picked up a cool Brazilian couple, Mel and Andres, who joined me on my pallet sofa.
The first stop on the well waymarked trail around the Parte Alta was the tortoise pens. Another great Galápagos success story, the endemic breed on Floreana had actually died out, however an intense conservation effort based primarily around a super-stud tortoise called Diego, has resulted in their reintroduction here!
I only really took these photos since Mel and Andres bullied me into it. I tried to explain that I’ve been here for quite a while now, and have approximately 6,000 tortoise images however they were having none of it!
Moving on, we found the lush region around the island’s water source. A focus of attention for the first settlers here, this also formed the area of caves where the Wittmer family settled whilst building their family home back in the 1940’s, and which earlier had been inhabited by the pirate visitors to these islands. The signs of human habitation and carvings in the soft stone are evident throughout.
Above the caves is a complex of gorges worn into the stone, known as the labyrinths.
Once back on the road, we were seriously early for our 4.30 rendezvous with our truck friends, so decided to start walking back for a while. Stumbling across some incredible orange trees…
Sadly despite a good haul of oranges, and both Andres and I injuring ourselves in the collection process, they were not remotely sweet. Our truck friends later archly informed us that we’d gone to the wrong tree… And the other one was far better of course.
Back in town, it seemed that the area around the port had briefly come to life since the cruise excursion party had arrived back in town. This meant the utter joy of a Magnum ice cream from the little shop which didn’t open at any other point during my entire stay. $3, not bad considering the monumental journey from the mainland… 4 days on the cargo ship to San Cristobal, a further day to Santa Cruz and then at least a couple more days here. I presume they had a freezer on board!
After then there was little to do but await the sunset and wander a little bit around most of the things I’d seen earlier. I was limited to dining at Guesthouse Mean, further confirming this impression by barking at me that I couldn’t just eat when I wanted, it would be at 7.00 or 7.15 and it would be meat. I felt a flood of nostalgia for the English seaside and the traditional horrible little B+Bs run by people like this. In fact my mind drifts back to a particularly awful one in Paignton which regarded a shot glass full of orange juice as a real treat in the morning. Indeed, a priority far higher than sorting the smell of death rooms. I didn’t go back.
The next day I was up bright and early to make the most of my remaining time on the island before the 3pm boat back to civilisation. As it happened, this was probably a slight mistake. There really wasn’t much to fill the gaping maw of time… I’d hoped to walk to Post Office Bay, an apparently stunning beach on the far coast of the island. Opinions varied as to whether this was either possible or permissible, since all of the island is National Park land and you can’t just go wandering. I found what looked to be a service road running from the National Park offices in a broadly similar direction but got caught by the rangers sitting outside and informed that no, this was not a trail.
Instead, I decided to try to make it to La Loberia close to the dock, basically the only real ‘attraction’ on Floreana I hadn’t yet seen. En route I passed the Lava Lodge where Mel and Andres were staying, and they popped out to have a chat. This place looked seriously lovely, small beach huts on a section of pristine coast overlooking the bay and Loberia. In practice I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. The huts inside just looked like scout huts with bunk beds, and according to Mel and Andres the staff were similarly grumpy and unwelcoming. Something I could tolerate for $25 a night however for the $160 a night they apparently paid, far less so. This did though include breakfast. And indeed scorpions in the room since this is right in the heart of their habitat. NOPE!
La Loberia is inhabited by a few sealions. Certainly not to the extent of San Cristobal but aside from that it’s a really lovely corner of a very nice island.
It’s possible to walk right around to the end of the headland, along a path bordered by some of the funkiest red vegetation I’ve seen on the islands. I was very keen to spot a scorpion, although on balance not ‘encountering’ one was probably the best option… The path meanders along the shoreline with a series of fascinating rock pools and the usual lazy marine iguana inhabitants, this then brings you to the end beach which is guarded by a particularly feisty bull sealion, who enthusiastically chased off a smaller lobo whilst we watched, therefore venturing further was abandoned to avoid disturbing, or rather being disturbed by the wildlife!
So, that was me done with Floreana, just enough time to head back to El Gruño guesthouse, grab my bag and grudgingly buy lunch from them. Naturally, the final bill bore little relation to the prices they’d quoted me for lunch and dinner, but it was within a dollar or two so I couldn’t be arsed arguing, just pressed the bill into the palm of the least unpleasant family member and trudged back to the dock.
I’m definitely glad I saw Floreana, it was an island that I wanted to tick off before leaving Galapagos, and indeed the only inhabited island I hadn’t seen, but to be honest I think Isabela and San Cristobal offer so much more in terms of sightseeing, amenities and, to be honest, any sort of welcome so Floreana’s definitely one for a day trip or just skipping altogether.
I think the island in tourist terms is a victim of circumstance. The majority of tourists, I mean the VAST majority of tourists will only visit it on a day trip, which has minimal benefit to the island. They jump off the boat, jump in a taxi, see the sights and jump back on a boat, maybe with a lunch included on the island but otherwise no interaction with the locals. Therefore locals just see tourists as a cash cow to be tolerated, and therefore adventure travellers like me, even nearly fluent Spanish speaking ones, receive an Arctic welcome. So then we write rude things in our blogs and everyone just skips the island.
Meh, I think island life is just a strange existence. Even on Santa Cruz where I live with 19,000 other people it sometimes feels like the coastlines are closing in on me. I can’t imagine life on an island where there are 200 people, and possibly the furthest you’ve ever been is “The big city” of Puerto Ayora. I guess you’d be pretty self sufficient and, as the name implies, a wee bit insular.
Moving on. Stay posted for the last of my Galapagos adventures including a writeup of my time in San Cristobal and also a visit to the far flung islands of Santiago and Bartolome…
In total my night on the island and two meals cost me $100 including boats from Santa Cruz. Since the day trips run at $100 including lunch but obviously not accommodation it’s probably worth spending a night just to get away from it all. Despite the slightly frosty welcome it is a beautiful island, and my friend Dani had a reportedly much better time at another guesthouse there… Maybe I just struck unlucky. The consensus however with regards to Post Office Bay is that you really can only do it via a separate tour, there’s no obvious path, you’re not allowed to walk there and having seen it from the return boat it’s a bloody long way from the town. Injure yourself on the way and you’re stuffed. Just my two’pennorth. If you’ve managed to walk there, let me know!