San Cristobal… Capital of Galapagos

Brasilia, Canberra, San Cristobal… All designated capitals of their respective countries/areas but actually it’s somewhat of an anomaly and everyone knows it. This becomes very clear on Galapagos, where the vast majority of the population live on Isla Santa Cruz however most of the Government apparatus lives on and, therefore funding flows to Isla San Cristobal instead. Barely 4000 people  residents here compared to nearly 20,000 on Santa Cruz and yet the gleaming new hospital has been built on this island, somewhat of a bone of contention with Santa Cruz, which San Cristobalenos like to dub somewhat sniffily “Little Guayaquil”.

The swordfish in San Cristobal

Big’Ole Government building

Hey, geopolitics aside it was my week off and therefore the ideal juncture to see what I was missing on the other island with my teaching colleague Lisa. 

We set off bright and early from Puerto Ayora into the midst of by far the worst sea crossing I’ve had here or indeed anywhere else on earth. Barely out of the harbour and we were getting battered by monster waves as we skirted around the Southeastern coastline of Santa Cruz towards San Cristobal. Out into the open water and things got considerably worse, with 15-20ft swells making forward progress difficult. When the sea conditions are good the speedboat captains go full throttle however when you virtually stop you know that things are getting bad. These are powerful, but not big, boats.

On the basis of previous journeys I’d donned my standard wear of t-shirt and shorts, and had taken my preferred spot on the open stern of the boat, however as the waves increased and we headed into a sudden but torrential tropical storm this looked like a very bad decision indeed. Damp quickly became soaking wet as the rain poured into gaps in the canvas cover and the boat was drenched by waves breaking over us. 

Lisa had not taken the conditions well and was being violently sick in the corner whilst I was desperately trying to hold onto a trolley of medical supplies which was rolling around the open deck and looking likely to head overboard- Much like the chap in our area who nearly fell in twice. The listing on the boat became worse and worse, so that at one point we were over to starboard at a good 45 degrees, not really moving forward either but thankfully righted ourselves again. By this point everyone was wearing lifejackets.

After 2 and a quarter hours of this utter terror it started to calm somewhat, and 20 minutes later we reached the sweet relief of San Cristobal’s harbour, with the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno in sight.

Any thoughts of me having over-exaggerated the roughness of this crossing evaporated when I spoke to the captain on the dock and he admitted that “Yeah, the crossing was really bad”. And roughty-toughty seafaring Ecuadorians never admit that kind of stuff. So yep, it was a rough one. Anyhoo…

Our school co-ordinator knows everyone on the islands. With Plan A of staying at the Uni campus having been vetoed, she instead recommended we stay at La Casa De Laura, a guesthouse towards the end of town which turned out to be a great choice. As Lisa and I were drying out/thanking respective deities for our continued survival on the quayside a taxi driver wandered up and said “Sam, Lisa?” Yep, it’s a small enough place that we got met from the boat. Happy days!

The Malecón, San Cristobal’s dock

Casa De Laura is very well-recommended. It’s set in a lovely quiet location (To be honest, most of the island is pretty tranquil!) and within lovely gardens (I really must be getting old, I properly notice gardens these days…), and the rooms are spotless, with en-suite bathrooms, for $20 per person/per night. So much so that I ended up staying on an extra night than planned for the relaxation aspect. The eponymous Laura is a great host, really friendly and with a well-rehearsed sightseeing patter which she explains with the use of a map. And indeed ridiculously detailed directions which involve restating the position of Casa De Laura hundreds of times.

Once the seasickness had started to fade we walked back into town, and checked out the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. After the constant commerce and life of Puerto Ayora it was a really welcome change of pace, with mainly local shops and relaxed empty streets.

The Malecon

Sculptures

A lot of money has been spent on the pubic areas here, much to the chagrin of Santa Crucenos… tourist life at least is centred around the pier and seafront, and it’s a lovely place to just wander. Before long of course, you become aware of San Cristobal’s huge sealion population. First from the utter stench wafting up from the town beach then their loud, gargling war cries as they call their pups, face off with other sealions, and generally act up. A bit like a small town with problem street drinkers!

Bull sealion guarding his beach

One of the closest sights to the town is La Loberia, as the name would suggest it’s got a high sealion population, but other than that is a beautiful beach and generally a good snorkelling spot. I’d strongly suggest just getting a taxi there, we walked (Me also stupidly carrying a surfboard) and it’s a looooong way. You take the airport road and then head out towards the coast. It’s a pretty stiff distance and also completely exposed to the sun. But hey, the Loberia is well worth it…

We didn’t venture into the water- Not only was the tide wrong so it was really shallow and rocky but it wasn’t the warmest of days and if there’s no sun to dry you out afterwards, you freeze! (Of course this is all entirely relative after 14 months of chasing the summer around the world and I promise I’ll reset my expectations with a cold UK trip soon!)

Dinner in town- There aren’t the range of dining options that you find in Puerto Ayora but actually the ones that are there are pretty decent. Keith, our colleague from San Cristobal, showed us around a few of them for lunches and it’s very similar fare to home, lots of rice, plantain and the like, and set lunches for $5. A real gem I found was Mockingbird restaurant on the main street opposite the burger place. Simply amazing lunches for the standard price.

On both nights we stayed however, Midori Sushi Pub was our choice of venue. Occupying a prime position on the Malecon it serves up genuinely decent sushi, as well as fish burgers and a really tasty, huge green salad with sesame-dipped seared local tuna. It’s not mega expensive too. They also have a branch in Puerto Ayora, but sadly without the salads.

Feasting tortoise sculpture in the middle of town

The next day we were up bright and early for a tour of the Parte Alta: The highlands of San Cristobal. These trips are really simple to organise, you just ask a friendly taxi driver. The cost is $50-$60 for the car, and it takes around 5 hours. We thought we had been thoroughly clever bartering down the price by $10 but actually in hindsight it just reduces the time you have available…

Our taxi driver also worked as a guide, and gave us an interesting commentary of all the sights. San Cristobal is blessed with a reliable fresh water source in the form of lakes in the highlands, and this was where we headed first.

You can hit lucky or very unlucky with the weather here- As you might guess by the presence of wind turbines, there is a serious amount of breeze up on the top, blowing unhindered across the island, and hence either bringing in, or shooing away, troublesome rain clouds. Above the lake we saw frigate birds dive-bombing the water, but never landing- They use the lake to wash the salt from their feathers, but cannot land as they’d find themselves unable to get back up into the sky. Apparently!

Our next stop was the island’s tortoise breeding centre… Again, lots of dusty tortoises in pens. I won’t subject you to more tortoise photos. I wonder if there will ever be a time when they can close the centres? Our guide gave us an interesting insight into the sheer numbers of giant tortoises who perished upon the arrival of the early pirates/settlers/conquistadors who used the islands as a base to restock their ships. Tortoises were taken as meat, since they discovered that they could be stacked upside down and survive a year without food or water, providing a fresh meat source for the sailors. It is said that in just 200 years of the Spanish fleet docking here that they alone took 200,000 from the islands. A mere drop in the ocean when compared with the legions of ships who came here…

Onwards to Puerto Chino. Absolutely my favourite beach on the archipelago, with flour-fine white sands and frigate birds perching on the rocks above. An incredible place!

Definitely pay the extra for more waiting time here. It didn’t feel like quite enough time for such a cool place, although a thoroughly enjoyable hour of soaking up the sun and trying unsuccessfully to surf. The currents here are extremely strong and not to be mucked around with… Having experienced a pretty savage rip I elected to just play in the whitewater instead!

As a postscript, you are allowed to camp here. I don’t know the exact procedure but I would imagine that you can book it at the National Park offices in town. I couldn’t imagine a more idyllic place to spend the night.

Grounded ship in town (I think intentionally!)

Back into town. Time to check out Playa Mann and the excellent Centro d’Interpretacion beside the USFQ University buildings. Playa Mann is effectively the town’s beach, just a few hundred metres from the end of the Malecon. Instant white hot jealousy burned inside of us as we saw the location of the University- Right opposite this fantastic little beach! Both Lisa and I considered applying for transfers at this exact moment.

The museum is nothing short of excellent, and I learned a huge amount about the life and history of the islands. It takes you through a journey from the early pirate visitors, and the more recent, peaceful settlers, with lots of artefacts and well-written bilingual explanations. 100% worthy of a visit.

Playa Mann, looking towards the Malecon

Playa Mann’s a small, but nonetheless very pretty beach, with plenty of life throughout the day. As sunset approaches, it gets increasingly colonised by the barking hordes of sealions. They aren’t really much of a threat, but can’t see very well out of the water so did tend to just blunder over people’s towels/legs etc when trying to find basking points. I watched an amusing tug of war between a German tourist and a sealion on her towel. “ArfArfArf”, as the sealions say.

Chilling

The only slight fly in the ointment is the sealion poo which gets liberally scattered around. It’s not the most pleasant of substances. Just watch where you’re walking! Overall though, when you’ve just grabbed an ice cold beer from the beach bar and you’re sitting back looking at a sunset like this, it’s fair to conclude that life is pretty sweet.

The next day Keith showed us one of his favourite spots on the island, Playa Baquerizo. It’s a difficult spot to get to, the trail starts at the National Park visitor centre easily enough, but before long you’re picking your way along an uncertain, lava rock strewn “trail”. There are some marker posts but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re with someone who knows where they are going. A good hour of clambering over rocks however was more than rewarded by the view at the end- A pristine white sand beach with only a sealion family for company.

The snorkelling here was ace too, only made slightly disconcerting by the waves of seaweed underneath the surface which meant you couldn’t really see with any great certainty what was beneath. Back safely on the beach we shared a “Fucking hell!” moment though as a pretty sizeable shark suddenly pounced on a fish, bang centre where we had been a few minutes before. The sharks aren’t meant to be deadly here, although there are plenty of stories of surfers who have been bitten…

Back to town then. After a quick lunch Lisa headed back to Santa Cruz and I headed back to Playa Mann to recommence beer and relaxation duties.

The next day I again hit the trail from the NP visitor centre, however this time headed to Las Tijeretas, much closer than Playa Baquerizo and a reputedly excellent snorkelling spot. 

 

It definitely is somewhere you need to see. But especially at this time of year it’s seriously cold, definitely by far the coldest spot on the islands. Without exaggerating, an instant ice cream headache when you jump in kinda cold… But despite this, probably the most interesting snorkelling spot I went to in my whole time on the islands. Loads of fish, and loads of caves/nooks and crannies for sea life to hide. If you were equipped with a wetsuit and therefore able to spend a bit longer there’s a large bay to explore. Great place, well recommended!

 

Unlucky boats on the Malecon

And so, after a final wander around the beach in town it was nearly time to board the boat back to Santa Cruz. A final San Cristobal breakfast, in very traditional style… bolon with meat and egg. The ball is plantain mashed with cheese. A bit boring on its own, but when mixed with meat stew and a bit of hot sauce, it really hits the spot.

So, time to hit the boat. With intense trepidation and already equipped with hoody, waterproof jacket and life vest donned we hit the open seas…

…As flat as a pancake. Probably my best inter-island journey ever. Full throttle across the glassy sea to Santa Cruz in a little over one and a half hours. What was all the fuss about?

Departure Gate

My days on the islands are numbered… Stay tuned for a final hoorah on Islas Bartolome and Santiago, and some reflections on the joys of life in Ecuador!

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