Tom & Cathy's South America Trip


April 9 - South Plaza Island

At the Baltra airport, we got to wait in the VIP lounge while they processed our passports and $100 cash Galapagos entry fees. This gave us a chance to reduce our clothing layers for the hot weather. Next we took a bus ride on a bumpy dirt road with the front and back bus doors wide open for ventilation; clearly the Galapagos islands are not overburdened with lawyers.

panga departing from the Mary Anne
panga departing from the Mary Anne

Sea lions were lounging in the shade of the dock while we boarded the pangas that shuttled us out to our ship, the SS Mary Anne. While we ate lunch and unpacked, the ship navigated to our first stop through pouring rain.

Our shoes were neatly stored in the designated containers at the stern, which were apparently left open during the rain, so our shoes started out soaked. As we left the ship in the pangas, it started raining again and Jonathan called the ride off and turned us around back for the ship. It immediately stopped raining, so we turned around again, decided to persevere regardless of the rain and go for the landing in the rain on South Plaza, reportedly our only opportunity to see land iguanas. The rain quickly cleared and our photo tour began.

Landing on the unpopulated islands is strictly controlled. Our ship's itinerary is set by the authorities, so we can only make our landings at the scheduled times and locations. We can only land when accompanied by a certified naturalist, must remain on the marked paths, and must stay together as a group. Straying off the path is not allowed, as we might destroy vegetation or disturb nesting animals.

One big benefit of this strict control is that the animals don't get the sort of harassment they would from uncontrolled mobs of tourists. As a result, the animals are pretty much unfazed by the presence of people. Even though we aren't allowed off the trails, nothing keeps the animals off of the trails. As we made our first landing, we had to move carefully around sea lions scattered around the landing area and trail. Swallow-tailed Gulls and Sally Lightfoot crabs were also distracting us from Jonathan's instructions to ignore the stuff we would see everywhere and focus on finding the much more unusual land iguanas.

Swallow-tailed Gulls
Swallow-tailed Gulls
Sally Lightfoot crab
Sally Lightfoot crab

We did find land iguanas, including one that was camped out in the middle of the trail. We packed in around it, taking hundreds of photos. Eventually he was rousted by all of the attention and abruptly walked over onto Jonathan's bare foot and gave him a cool lizard glare for bringing the paparazzi onto the island.

our group photograping a land iguana
our group photograping a land iguana
land iguana having a chat with Jonathan
land iguana having a chat with Jonathan

April 10 - Española Island

Like most mornings on the ship, we arrived at our destination before dawn, which means we had a 5:30 wake-up to load onto the pangas for a 6:00 departure. This put us landing around dawn, which is a good time for taking photos.

sea lion up close
sea lion up close

There were two kinds of landings, wet and dry. A dry landing is when there's some sort of dock or convenient rocks where we could get out of the panga and onto dry land. A wet landing was anything else, usually the panga ran up onto a beach and we jumped out into knee-deep water.

We had a pre-dawn wet landing on a white sand beach on the island of Española to see the sea lions that populate the beach. We walked the beach barefooted in the warm sun enjoying hundreds of sea lions who were mostly just lazing in the sun, nursing their pups, periodically frolicking in the water, and occasionally wandering over to sniff the bipeds.

sea lions covering the beach on Española Island
sea lions covering the beach on Española Island
sea lion checking out Tom
sea lion checking out Tom

After breakfast, we rode the pangas to an area just off Española Islet for snorkeling. The water was warm, clear and calm, great fun. Cathy took pictures with the underwater camera.

sea turtles mating
sea turtles mating

Next up was lunch, and then cruising around the island to Punta Suarez, during which we started our afternoon siesta tradition.

Our afternoon excursion to Punta Suarez got off to a good start! Before we even landed, we were treated to a wildlife spectacle: two turtles mating in the open water.

On the island, we had a nice long stay in an albatross nesting area where we also saw blue-footed boobies, Nazca boobies, crabs, marine iguanas, and oystercatchers.

albatross
albatross
oystercatchers
oystercatchers
Nazca booby
Nazca booby

Our return to the landing point was late, and by then the jetty was overrun with sea lions, not to mention having small waves breaking over it. So, we walked to the beach around the corner and did a wet launch, climbing into the panga from knee-deep water (after carefully passing our camera bags on board).

Our Galapagos cruise also featured an Adobe Photoshop workshop taught by photographer and Photoshop expert Ben Willmore. After dinner each night, we met for about an hour and a half and Ben shared his Photoshop expertise with us.

Ben started at the very beginning to get people who had never used Photoshop up and running with important tools for photographers, starting with Bridge and Camera Raw. There were plenty of good techniques even for experienced Photoshop users.

Ben also introduced us to the concept of high dynamic range (HDR) photography in which you take multiple exposures and combine them together to create images with full detail even when the lighting range is too broad to capture in a single photograph. If you've ever taken a photo of people with a bright background (like a sunset) and found either the sunset totally washed out or the people as dark silhouettes (or both!) then HDR photography may be of interest to you. The result can either be a much better approximation to what your eye sees, or it can be an artistic interpretation of the scene that looks more like a painting than a photograph.

April 11 - Santa Cruz Island

giant Galapagos tortoise
giant Galapagos tortoise

Arriving at the populated island of Santa Cruz, we took a bus ride to the highlands for a morning hike through mud and muck to see giant tortoises. The joke was on us: we saw more tortoises within 50 feet of the bus than we did hiking through the mud. Both of us ended up with blisters on our feet that made wearing shoes varying degrees of uncomfortable for the rest of the Galapagos tour.


tortoise happily wallowing in the muddy trail
tortoise happily wallowing in the muddy trail
our group gingerly traversing the same area after the tortoise got bored and left
our group gingerly traversing the same area after the tortoise got bored and left

That afternoon, we headed back to Santa Cruz to walk through town of Puerto Ayora to the Charles Darwin Research Station, where we learned about their giant tortoise breeding program, saw hatchlings of various ages, and a few adults that had been removed from the islands and kept as pets before being recovered. We also met Lonesome George, the last known giant tortoise from Pinta Island, and the end of his species.

April 12 - North Seymour Island, Sombrero Chino

Another pre-dawn wake-up for an early trip to shore. This morning's island was North Seymour, where we saw two species of frigatebirds nesting. The males advertise for mates with their huge red gula sacks inflated.

male great frigatebird showing off his inflated gula
male great frigatebird showing off his inflated gula
male frigatebird delivering nesting material to the female
male frigatebird delivering nesting material to the female

Blue-footed boobies were also nesting, tending to their chicks and doing their blue-footed dance. We were also treated to an unexpected sighting of a land iguana. After breakfast, Cathy took a nap; she had the start of a cold and was feeling a bit run-down.

blue-footed booby
blue-footed booby
blue-footed booby dancing
blue-footed booby dancing

In the afternoon, we took a panga ride along the rocky coast of Sombrero Chino and were treated to penguins strutting their cute little stuff on the rocky shore as well as swimming around the pangas.

Galapagos penguin and Sally Lightfoot crabs
Galapagos penguin and Sally Lightfoot crabs
Galapagos penguin
Galapagos penguin
white tip reef shark
white tip reef shark

Later that afternoon, Cathy took some time off while Tom joined the group to return to the same spot to snorkel. He saw a variety of fish, starfish, a ray, four sea lions and a shark. There were reports of a lone penguin in the water, but Tom didn't see it. It was odd to have one of the snorkelers yell "shark!" and point to where it was, then everyone started swimming in toward it. It was a white tip reef shark about six feet long.

April 13 - Isabela & Fernandina Islands

marine iguana
marine iguana

It took all night to navigate around the islands to Isabela Island, including crossing the equator twice, so we had a leisurely 7:00 wake-up for a 7:30 breakfast and an 8:30 panga tour. Tagus Cove showed us crabs, marine iguanas, penguins, sea lions, and flightless cormorants. Jonathan heard goat sounds from the island, thought to be free of introduced goats, so he jumped out of the panga onto a shear rock wall which he scaled barefooted to try to get a glimpse of the goats. He didn't see them, but will alert the park authorities to send out a team to remove them from the island. One strategy is to send in a (sterilized) male goat with a GPS transmitter and let him find the goats and thus reveal their location.

Upon returning from the panga ride, we grabbed snorkel gear and headed back out for snorkeling off of a black sand beach. The water was a bit murky, but Tom got some good photos including a chocolate chip starfish.

During lunch and the early afternoon, we cruised to Fernandina. Our afternoon excursion was to Punta Espinosa for a short walk across lava. Along the way, we were fortunate to get a close-up view of a Galapagos hawk resting on a tree branch. We enjoyed camping out in the warmth of the setting sun along with a handful of flightless cormorants, many Sally lightfoot crabs, and thousands of marine iguanas. Cathy earned Ken's gratitude by loaning him her spare battery after his turned out not to be fully charged.

Galapagos hawk
Galapagos hawk
flightless Cormorant
flightless Cormorant

April 14 - Santiago & Rabida Islands

With another all-night navigation and leisurely wake-up call, we actually got up a bit early to try to catch up on laundry as our chance to get things dried before our departure dwindled.

At 8:30 we departed for Puerto Egas on Santiago Island to see marine iguanas, blue-footed boobies, a lava heron, oystercatchers, Sally Lightfoot crabs, and the ever-present sea lions.

There was an opportunity for a late-morning snorkel, but we skipped it and it turned out to be rough conditions, so it was called off. We also skipped the afternoon snorkel.

Our final excursion of the day was to the red sand beach on Rabida island. There we saw a few sea lions, a variety of birds and ended with the ship silhouetted against a lovely sunset.

Cathy and Tom on Rabida Island
Cathy and Tom on Rabida Island
Mary Anne and a pelican at sunset
Mary Anne and a pelican at sunset

April 15 - Santiago & Bartolomé Islands

This 6:00 am departure took us to the fresh 100-year-old lava flow at Sullivan Bay on the other side of Santiago Island. The eerie moon-like landscape showed a variety of interesting lava flow patterns with just the tiniest bit of plant life starting to invade the desolate lava. Ben Willmore took a great group photo with his fish eye lens.

lava flow on Santiago Island
lava flow on Santiago Island
Ben's picture of our group on Santiago Island
our group on Santiago Island
photo ©2008 Ben Willmore

Later in the morning, Tom went on the excursion to snorkel from the beach on Sullivan Bay while Cathy stayed back with a stomach bug. The snorkelers got to swim with a lone penguin out fishing and swimming circles around the bipeds.

For the evening excursion, Tom joined most of the group for a hike up to the 358-foot summit of Bartolomé for a sweeping sunset panorama view of the area. A bit of rain intruded on the walk, but yielded a vibrant 180-degree rainbow with a faint double.

Galapagos penguin
Galapagos penguin
Bartolomé
Bartolomé

There was an elaborate farewell dinner on board the yacht this evening, with an even larger than usual variety of creative and tasty dishes.

April 16 - Mosquera Island (Galapagos) & Quito

The last day of the tour started with another 6 am excursion to Mosquera for more sea lion photography. Tom considered going, but bailed when he saw it was raining -- it's no fun wearing or packing wet clothes. Those who braved the weather told us it cleared up and was a fun final outing.

We took a last panga ride to shore and found sea lions filling the shaded benches at the bus stop next to the dock.

Cathy was feeling pretty terrible, so the wait in the hot, humid airport wasn't especially fun. We did finally track down some Gatorade, which helped. The flight back to Quito, again via Guayaquil, and transfer back to the hotel was uneventful. We relaxed until the group dinner at a nice French restaurant that occupied a house previously owned by Jonathan's wife's grandmother. Joanna and Jonathan both said some nice words to wrap up the fun and interesting group adventure.

April 17 - Quito

We had an afternoon flight from Quito to Lima, so we had the morning to prepare for the Peru segment of our trip. We had nearly finished our supply of cold meds and band-aids, so Tom took off on an expedition to find a pharmacy. The concierge showed Tom where the nearest pharmacy was on a map. It looked close, so Tom asked if it was within walking distance. The concierge looked troubled, took his pen and scribbled lines over the road from the hotel to the pharmacy and explained "you don't want to walk there, they will steal you." It wasn't clear if "steal" meant "rob" or "kidnap," but either way it didn't sound like fun. Tom got directions to another nearby pharmacy with a safe walking route and headed out to walk there.

The walk to the pharmacy was interesting. Traffic was heavy and hectic, the roads and sidewalks often in poor repair. Pedestrians have to pay attention because vehicles give them no margin for error. Tom was a bit surprised when a car drove up on the side walk in front of him to park in front of one of the stores.

At the pharmacy, Tom browsed through the cold meds looking for Sudafed. Pseudoephedrine is the best decongestant you can get, but it's a semi-controlled substance in the US because it's used to manufacture crystal meth. A pharmacist offered his help, but didn't speak English, perfectly complementing Tom's lack of Spanish. Tom did manage to communicate the basic idea of what he wanted, and the pharmacist showed him a medicine that contained pseudoephedria (presumably the Spanish spelling of the same med), but it was one of the multi-symptom meds that had other stuff in it that often gives Cathy a migraine. So Tom stretched his minuscule command of the Spanish language and asked for "pseudoephedria, no mas." The pharmacist shook his head and looked unhappy. It seems they know about crystal meth in Ecuador, too. But, he did manage to score some waterproof band-aids.

The walking experience was fun, once, so Tom hailed a cab to go to the second pharmacy. This time he spoke to a man behind the counter, got straight to a medicine with pseudoephedrine, but again a multi-symptom thing. When he asked to look at it, the pharmacist handed him a blister pack instead of the whole box. Presumably, they sell meds by the pill. Again, the friendly pharmacist turned cold when Tom asked for "pseudoephedria, no mas." Another cab ride back to the hotel brought cab fare to a grand total of $3. No wonder the taxi cab union was protesting.

After the pharmacy adventure, we finished packing, then met Jack and Katie from the Galapagos tour for a last lunch in Quito. We went to the "Magic Bean," a restaurant with a good vegetarian selection recommended by Jonathan, our Galapagos naturalist who knows the American who runs the restaurant. Tom ordered a caipirinha then realized it contained ice when it showed up. What's a trip without a little risk? (If you worry about the quality of the local water, you have to avoid anything with ice. Jonathan told us the water in Quito was safe, at least at nice places.) We liked the food and had a good visit with Jack and Katie.

Our transfer agent, Monica, met us at the hotel at 2:30 and took us to the airport. The airport experience was pretty smooth and easy and the flight to Lima was uneventful.


We included just a few of our photos above. Please see our gallery of Galapagos photos for the rest of our favorite photos from our trip.

©2008 Tom and Cathy Saxton. All rights reserved.



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