Galapagos

August 13, 2014

An Abbreviated Guide to Seasonal Galapagos Wildlife

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A blue-footed booby performs his ritual mating dance on North Seymour

If you’ve heard of the Galapagos Islands, you probably know they’re famous for their spectacular wildlife, as unique as it is abundant. This staunchly protected archipelago was Charles Darwin’s ecological playground – the place where he made discoveries that led to our modern understanding of evolution and natural selection.

So, in terms of wildlife, which months are best for seeing which animals? There’s no bad time to visit the Galapagos, but here’s a quick breakdown of some key seasonal wildlife trends:

January:
Green sea turtles begin laying eggs on the beaches of the Galapagos, land birds start their nesting process, Isabela Island’s land iguanas begin their reproductive cycles, and adult marine iguanas become brightly colored.

February:
Flamingos start nesting on Floreana Island, marine iguanas nest on Santa Cruz, and nesting season for Galapagos doves is at its peak.

March:
Marine iguanas nest on Fernandina, the waved albatross begins to arrive on Española, and the snorkeling is excellent – waters are warm, and tropical fish can be observed right next Galapagos penguins.

April:
Española sees a massive influx of waved albatrosses, and they start their courtship. Giant tortoise hatching season ends, green sea turtles and land iguanas begin to hatch, and visibility is high for snorkeling around the islands.

May:
North Seymour’s blue-footed boobies begin courting, sea turtles are still hatching at Gardner Bay, Punta Cormorant, and Puerto Egas, and most of Española’s waved albatrosses start laying their eggs.

June:
Santa Cruz Island’s famous giant tortoises migrate from the lush highlands to the drier, warmer lowlands in search of nesting sites, and nesting season begins. The frigate birds of North Seymour start to puff up their red neck pouches in order to attract mates.

July:
Blue-footed boobies, flightless cormorants, and other birds around the Galapagos perform courtship rituals and breeding/nesting activities.

August:
Galapagos hawks court, Nazca boobies nest on Genovesa, and migrant shorebirds arrive on the island, where they’ll stay until March. The giant tortoises of Santa Cruz return to the temperate highlands, and sea lion pupping (birthing) season begins.

September:
Galapagos penguins are very active on Bartolomé, sea birds are active at their nesting sites, and sea lions throughout the islands are abundant, playful, and competitive.

October:
Lava herons start nesting, Galapagos fur seals (actually a type of sea lion) begin mating, and blue-footed boobies raise their chicks.

November:
Sea lion pupping season continues, and the adorable pups swim playfully next to snorkelers.

December:
Giant tortoise eggs begin to hatch, and green sea turtles begin mating. With the start of the rainy season, the Galapagos Islands become beautiful and green, as the plants in dry zones produce leaves. The first young waved albatrosses fledge, and the weather in the islands is ideal.



August 4, 2014

A Few Handy Galapagos & Ecuador Tips

130The cornerstone of many a traveler’s bucket list, the Galapagos Islands archipelago provides a once-in-a-lifetime experience for any nature or wildlife enthusiast. And the gorgeous, culturally rich, and vastly underrated Andean highlands of mainland Ecuador deliver family adventure memories unparalleled by any other place on earth.

A trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos is much different from anything else most people have done before, and travelers may find themselves wondering how and what to pack for such a journey.

Firstly, forget fashion – dress on a family adventure to Ecuador and the Galapagos is casual, and functionality is key. You may want to pack one or two nicer outfits for dinners, such as a dress or skirt for women and khakis for men. Otherwise, bring comfortable, lightweight, and fast-drying clothing with fabrics designed to wick away moisture. While days can be warm and sunny, nights tend to be cooler, so it’s imperative to dress in layers and to always have some dry clothes available – camping or outdoors stores like L.L. Bean, Patagonia, EMS, and REI tend to carry some great stuff for this. Footwear is awkward and bulky to pack, so you’ll want to avoid bringing too many pairs, but count on one pair of boots/shoes getting wet or muddy during the day and have a dry pair available for the evening. Some essential items to bring along include: an assortment of plastic and zip-lock bags to keep gear clean, dry, and sorted; plenty of sunscreen; a wide-brimmed hat; plenty of socks and underwear; bathing suit; comfortable, sturdy walking or hiking shoes; a fleece or light jacket; and water shoes or similar shoes that will be safe and effective for wet landings in the Galapagos. Also, you’ll certainly want a camera for all the spectacular wildlife and scenery you’re sure to come upon!

In addition to smart packing, another useful way to prepare is to get at least a basic grasp of some common Spanish words and phrases:

Buenos días = Good morning (said before noon)
Buenas tardes = Good afternoon (said after noon)
Buenas noches = good night (said after 5 or so)
= Yes
No = No
Hola = Hello
Hasta luego = See you later (literally “until later”)
¿Cómo está usted? = How are you?
Por favor = Please
Gracias = Thank you
De nada = You’re welcome
¿Habla usted español? = Do you speak Spanish?
¿De dónde es usted? = Where are you from?
Los Estados Unidos = the United States
¿Qué hora es? = What time is it?
¿Dónde está el/la…? = Where is the… ?
¿Cuánto cuesta esto? = How much does this cost?
Muy caro = Very expensive

If people speak too rapidly for comprehension, try saying, “Más despacio, por favor,” which means “Slower, please.”

There are many more helpful tips to help you get the most out of a family adventure to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands – just call and ask (800-262-6255). And remember, space is limited, so book soon!



July 16, 2014

New UNESCO World Heritage Sites and a Bit About Selection

South China Karst

South China Karst

After a recent 10-day meeting of the World Heritage Committee, a number of sites have been updated or newly added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. We’re proud to say that many of these sites are found within countries we have the pleasure of visiting on our family adventures – but before we get into which ones those are, you may be wondering what goes into the process of selecting a site for such an illustrious honor.

According to UNESCO, “To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria.” These criteria range from naturally occurring phenomena to sites of vital cultural significance and shining beacons of human ingenuity. The decision process is not taken lightly; every site on the list has very rightfully earned its place, whether for “exceptional natural beauty” or “conservation of biological diversity,” cultural/historical significance or for being a quintessential example of human creativity.

At this recent meeting, an extension was added to China’s “South China Karst” World Heritage Site, praised for its unique and breathtaking karst formations, “including tower karst, pinnacle karst and cone karst formations, along with other spectacular characteristics such as natural bridges, gorges and large cave systems.”

Among the cultural sites newly added to the distinguished list: the “Andean Road System” that runs through Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru; the “Grand Canal” in China; the “Precolumbian Chiefdom Settlements with Stone Spheres of the Diquís” in Costa Rica; and two sites in Turkey – “Pergamon and its Multi-Layered Cultural Landscape” and “Bursa and Cumalikizik: the Birth of the Ottoman Empire.”



December 5, 2013

Family Reunions – Five Ways to Make it Work

Together in Peru

Together in Peru

The holidays have always been a time for families to come together, and more than ever families are meeting up in a new location, to share new experiences as well as each others’ company.  Whether it’s holiday time, a hard earned graduation, a milestone anniversary or birthday or just an excuse to get away, a family reunion can be a legacy trip of a lifetime. So how do you ensure your time and financial investment don’t go to waste?

1) Plan ahead! If your family is flexible and has an excellent sense of humor, a regrettable last minute decision to ‘wing-it’ may give you material to laugh about for years to come.  But if you prefer to not spend your vacation troubleshooting and negotiating every day, you’ll take your time and start planning for next year. The perfect villa, the right hotels, the ideal guide – those things don’t wait for late planners.

2) Support, Support, Support . Leave yourself unfettered to nonstop planning. Whether your familiy is 6 people or 26, knowing someone else is managing tasty on-time meals, arranging safe and reliable transportation, and showing you the best things to do – this is the gift of freedom to enjoy every minute with your family without a care in the world.

3) Use local expertise on the ground. Don’t try to guess how long it takes to get somewhere or what activity will be best when, or how to find the special secrets of your destination. Make use of a local guide experienced in family, and committed to showing you the way while managing every detail in advance. An unexpected plus: a terrific guide makes everything more fun!

4) Make every day count. Instead of unscheduled days wandering aimlessly while bored kids glue themselves to their video games, try experiencing new things together.  One terrific group outing to start each day gives you a framework, and something to talk about forever. Your afternoons can be more restorative or more active, depending on each person’s desire – hang by the pool, playing board games – or head out shopping or hiking. Then everyone unites again over a wonderful dinner, to reflect on the day. Plenty of together time, plenty of flexibility!

5) Consider a thread of special meaning to weave throughout your vacation. For some it’s a community project, or starting a family journal together. It might mean creating a treasure hunt (we can do this!), or a quest to check off your list of flora and fauna. With the help of your reunion planners and guide these things can be simple for you to include, and inspiring for your family to do together.

During this 2013 holiday season start dreaming of what can blossom for you and your loved ones in 2014. Maybe it is hiking at Machu Picchu, zip lining in Costa Rica, or snorkeling in the Galapagos.Imagine the flora, fauna and music of Brazil, the souks and mountains in Morocco, or breathtaking wildlife in Tanzania… Whatever your dream, enjoy it with your family!



August 30, 2013

Another Miraculous Day in the Galapagos

A male blue-footed booby performs his mating dance

Following a 6:45 wakeup call and a 7:00 breakfast, my third day in the Galapagos started with a 10-minute panga ride to Cerro Dragón, Santa Cruz Island’s “Dragon Hill.” After a dry landing, we set out on a two-hour walk through dry, rocky trails bordered by cacti and trees oozing a delightfully fragrant sap that actually works as natural insect repellent.

This area of Santa Cruz gets the name “Dragon Hill” from the Galapagos land iguanas that make their home here, and they are definitely a sight to see. The land iguanas are enormous and very prehistoric looking – quite representative of the unique wildlife and cycle of evolution in the Galapagos.

Depending on age and gender, these dinosaur-esque reptiles are different shades and combinations of yellow, orange, brown, and red.

The Galapagos land iguanas lounged on desert-like hills and in the shade provided by cacti and other plants, and some could be seen attempting (clumsily) to climb trees and get at higher vegetation to eat – a behavior our guide told us has been a recent adaptation born out of necessity that they’re still working on. During our walk around Cerro Dragón, we also came upon lagoons inhabited by flamingos picking around for foods like shrimp and algae, high in the keratin that’s responsible for the bright pink/orange color of their feathers.

We returned to the ship to relax, and I opted to tag along for an optional deep water snorkeling excursion. We took the pangas out into open water along the lava rocks at the edge of the island and jumped straight over the side. This excursion was recommended only for reasonably strong swimmers, as the water was somewhat choppy, but the encounter I had here ended up being the highlight of my time in the Galapagos. Two adult sea lions and a pup were lounging on a rocky ledge hanging over the water, and decided to hop in and go for a swim. All three sea lions then approached the other snorkelers and I and started playing with us. They would come up to within a foot or two of me, then dart away and circle around myself and each other. Having only really had the chance to see them rest lazily onshore, I was stunned by the incredible speed and agility with which they were capable of moving all that bodily mass underwater. This is what I came to the Galapagos for.

Later, the group took the pangas out to North Seymour Island for a two-hour walking tour. As was completely expected by this point, this island was another totally new experience, and it was dominated largely by birdlife. There were plenty of sea lions around, chilling on the brownish-red dirt paths, but the real show was put on by the frigate birds and blue-footed boobies.

All around us, they put on elaborate social displays to attract mates and looked after their eggs. Male frigate birds had the giant red air sacks on their chests inflated in hopes of catching the attention of a female flying by. My guide explained that the female’s decision isn’t actually based on the pouch itself; it’s based on the location and quality of the male’s nest, and the red pouch acts as a beacon to indicate his presence and to provide the female with a chance to come down and check out the nest. After she does this, the male flies away in search of a stick to bring back as an offering. If the female approves of the stick, she agrees to mate with him, and if not, she keeps looking, and he keeps trying. Love stinks.

However, the most remarkable thing about the visit to North Seymour was the display put on by the blue-footed boobies. Myself and the other people in my group were standing a foot away from mothers looking after their eggs, and they were so comfortable with our presence that they weren’t even suspicious of us in a situation as delicate as this. Equally close to us were male boobies doing their elaborate mating dances, ruffling their feathers, hopping around and letting out loud, competitive bellows. If I haven’t made this clear yet, the Galapagos Islands archipelago is a enchanting place.



August 29, 2013

Unreal Wildlife & Volcanic Terrain

My second day in the Galapagos began with a romantic Latin pop song, very gradually increasing in volume as it came over the ship’s speakers.  Just as I slipped peacefully out of my sleep and acknowledged that the music wasn’t simply a soundtrack to my dream, the ship coordinator softly informed the passengers that this was our 6:45 wakeup call, and breakfast would be ready in 15 minutes.

After a nice buffet breakfast in the main dining area, we prepared for the 10-minute panga (a small, motorized boat) ride to Puerto Egas on the island of Santiago. It didn’t take long to notice that this island was drastically different from anything I had seen on Santa Cruz. We spent about an hour and a half walking along a shoreline characterized by volcanic black sand, lagoons, and lava rocks, all harboring a magical array of birds, mammals, reptiles and crabs.

Sea lions lounged on the rocks and the sand. Galapagos marine iguanas rested on top of each other and made their way into the water, while brightly-colored Sally Lightfoot crabs scurried all around them. Fur seals (according to our expert naturalist guide, actually a type of sea lion, as opposed to true seals) kept each other company on rocky ledges overlooking pools of sparklingly blue water. Blue-footed boobies and American oystercatchers scanned the surface of the water for tasty sea life, yellow warblers and Darwin’s prized finches hopped around nimbly, and a mockingbird actually flew out of a nearby tree and landed on top of the backpack of a man in my group.

The scene was astounding, and unlike anything I had ever seen before. At this point, I was still utterly amazed at the fact that I could stand a foot away from any animal here and evoke no reaction of fear of defensiveness whatsoever.

After our guided walk, we descended upon a peaceful little beach and spent about an hour snorkeling. I saw vibrant schools of tropical fish, and legitimately almost crashed straight into two massive sea turtles by accident as they swam contently and occasionally breached the surface. Another optional snorkeling excursion a bit later in the waters around the famous Pinnacle Rock presented us with an ocean floor populated by starfish far bigger than I knew existed.

With the day’s snorkeling behind us, we made our way to the island of Bartolomé. As I was quickly coming to expect, this island was starkly distinct from the ones before. Its relatively recent formation is resoundingly evident, with fascinating, Mars-like terrain stretching vastly and only very new pioneer plants growing out of the volcanic ash covering the hillsides. Natural, black and gray rock structures stick out dramatically and beautifully all over the place, and the groove marks left by lava flows cut through the compacted ash.

We trudged up about 400 steps to the island’s scenic lookout point, and the heaving and panting was more than worth it. The iconic Galapagos view provided was absolutely stunning, with glassy blue waters surrounding the piece of the island that juts out, with Pinnacle Rock looming proudly on the right side, and the much larger island of Santiago in the background.

The group returned to the ship, and an unforgettable day was capped off with a delectable churrasco-style barbecue buffet and some stargazing on the top deck.



August 23, 2013

Fearless Tortoises and Endless Craters

Santa Cruz is only one of the 14 islands in the Galapagos archipelago, but this island alone harbors an incredible diversity of landscapes and ecosystems. A drive up into the highlands of Santa Cruz to see the giant tortoises that make their home here was my first activity, and it absolutely set the tone for my unbelievable Galapagos adventure.

Our pangas pulled into the rocky shore, and we stepped out amid cacti and bone-dry, gnarled shrubs baking in the sun. Here, we boarded a bus and started the drive up into the highlands. I can’t begin to describe how quickly and dramatically the landscape began to change; the forested mountain terrain grew lusher and lusher as we reached higher elevations, and it soon looked like we had reached a completely different island than the one we had only recently disembarked at.

Within ten minutes, the air coming in through the open windows was substantially cooler. The dry plant life of sea level gave way to lush, tropical vegetation. We made our way up through misty mountains, passing secluded houses with roosters and banana and guava trees in the front yards, and started to come upon small farms and grazing cattle. The place was like a one-stop microcosm of all the beautiful green places in the world, where jungle meets farmland and tropical meets comfortably temperate.

After the half-hour bus ride, we set off on a leisurely walk through the giant tortoise habitat. These gentle creatures were roaming slowly all around us, some as old as 100 and quite enormous. They spend the first part of their lives trying to make their way up into these highlands, so we were really exploring the tortoises’ land of milk and honey. The most striking thing about these tortoises (even more evident in the iguanas, sea lions and birds of the Galapagos) is their total lack of any kind of fear of humans.

Unlike anywhere else on earth, you can stand a foot away from an animal in the Galápagos Islands and it won’t show the slightest bit of apprehension, because they have been so perfectly protected that they don’t associate the human form with any kind of threat. We’re not their natural predators, and tireless efforts have gone into making sure these islands represent only the natural circle of life and evolution, so they’re perfectly content ignoring our presence and going about their business.

On the way back down from the highlands, we stopped off at the site of “Los Gemelos,” or “The Twins,” which are two vast collapsed volcanic craters. We stepped off the bus and started walking down a path surrounded by lush moss and scalesia trees (found only in the Galapagos) when, all of the sudden, the earth opened up. The path dropped off into a deep sea of rich vegetation, bordered by a sheer rock face stretching all the way around. The mist made its way across the crater and sent shivers down my spine and I thought to myself: “This is just day one.



August 16, 2013

I wish I wasn’t in the Aisle Seat…

Flying to the Galapagos Islands

That’s a thought I never expected to cross my mind, but I realized a few days ago that to be two seats away from the window on a flight into the Galapagos Islands feels like a tragedy. Before I left for this trip to Ecuador, my highly general expectations associated wildlife with the Galapagos, and scenery and culture with the Andean Highlands – it didn’t take long for me to learn that the striking landscapes of the Galapagos are most definitely not to be overlooked as a huge part of what makes this natural paradise so extraordinary.

As we flew over the islands, it looked like someone had combined Mars and the US Southwest and plopped the result into the middle of the Pacific. Still, looking down on these arid, craggy, cacti-dotted masses of hardened lava on a deep blue backdrop, I had no idea just how unique this undisturbed ecological sanctuary would prove to be.

Once the flight touched down, it was evident that this place was going to waste NO time establishing itself as a destination like no other. After a 5-minute shuttle from the airport to the dock I was about to embark from, the sea lions of the Galapagos greeted me with a nice initiation to the next few days of my life. I hadn’t even boarded the small boat (called a “panga”) that would take me to the ship I would be staying on when I almost tripped over a sea lion lounging – carefree as could be – on the dock. A few moments later, a few more sea lions hanging out on the rocks beneath the dock started up a symphony of playful barks. Not a bad how-do-you-do from the most well-preserved ecosystem on earth…



October 23, 2012

Galapagos Islands: Fun Facts

Blue Footed Boobies!

I admit, before I went to the Galapagos myself there was a lot that wasn’t clear to me about these islands. But there are so many interesting things to know! Maybe if you start now you’ll absorb more while you’re there. Amaze your friends with these Fun Facts:

The Galapagos Islands are a volcanic archipelago belonging to Ecuador, set 550 miles west of its mainland.

The islands are considered one of the most active volcanic areas in the world. Recent eruptions include Cero Azul on Isabela in 2008, and on Fernandina in 2009.

There are 13 main islands larger than 1 square KM; 3 small islands; and 107 rocks and islets.

Only five of the islands are inhabited; Baltra, Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, Isabela, and Floreana.

Isabella (the largest island) and Fernandina (the youngest, at 1 million years) are still forming.

Espanola is the oldest island – 3.5 million years!

Floreana was one of the first islands to be inhabited, and since the 18th century whalers have dropped their letters off at its ‘post office ‘- a wooden barrel!

Isabela is the only Galapagos island the equator runs through, and it is the only island where penguins can be found in their natural habitat in the Northern Hemisphere.

The Humboldt Current brings cold water to the Galapagos; June – November the water can be 22C / 72F. December – May the water warms up to about 25C / 77F (brr!)

A REALLY interesting book about life in the Galapagos is My Father’s Island by Johanna Angermeyer. The Angermeyer Inn is still family run today on the island of Santa Cruz.



October 5, 2012

What’s Happening for the Holidays (v. 2012)

Paddle into the Underworld in Belize

Traveling over the holidays is a popular trend. Some families do it as a personal celebration; some do it to get away from the rush at home. But ALL families love seeing how other countries celebrate in their own way. Here are a few ideas:

Did you know that if you go to Baja over Christmas you may be invited to our guide’s home to help decorate the Christmas tree, Mexican style. Then afterward, how about hunting for scorpions with a black light? Pretty cool, yes? Or travel on our December 26 trip, and have the opportunity to celebrate New Year’s Eve with a bash at the famous Hotel California – we have a few tickets we’ll include with your adventure!

On December 24th the largest and best Christmas pagent in all of Ecuador takes place in Cuenca. If you join our Galapagos Islands and Inca Ruins December 22 you’ll have the chance to partake of the Pase del Niño festival, an all day event filled with music, floats, and costumes. Or try the Galapagos MultiSport Adventure December 25, and enjoy a miraculous New Year’s Eve stargazing from your campsite on the beach.

Belize will be celebrating an event we just might not ever see again. December 21 represents the end of the Maya calendar, and the end of the 13th B’ak’tun, the Maya’s linear long count cycle of 394 years. Though recently Maya calendars have been found that continue on in time, no one disputes this is expected to be a great time of change and transformation, and the festivities will be plentiful throught out the month. Arrive just in time for ‘the end’ on our adventure December 21, or come later (December 27) and celebrate New Year’s Eve on the beach. Either way, it’s a Mayan adventure from beginning to end.

Peru, Costa Rica, Panama – all of the South and Central American countires have deep traditons surrounding Christmas and the New Year, and each country tells the story in their own way. There can be special markets, festivals, fireworks. No matter your own traditions and holidays, why not learn how others do it?

Really you should be planning for December 2013 – so if you haven’t figured it out yet for THIS year it’s time to make a plan!