VISITING SAN CRISTÓBAL, GALAPAGOS: Humans & Wildlife Sharing Space
Text: Andreea Lotak; Photos: Justin & Andreea Lotak · 10 min read
It had been six days of open ocean when one early morning we woke up with land in sight. From the misty air and foggy, rugged landscape of what looked like a barren island, it was easier to think we had reached some mysterious lands up north rather than at the Equator. Once we sailed past the majestic silhouette of the Leon Dormido rocks, it was less than an hour that we’d make our entrance in the bay of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San Cristobal.
Finally being on land after making the passage from Panama felt like a blessing. Once the water taxi dropped us at the dock, we quickly discovered what we were already imagining - that this wasn’t just any land. In front of us on the rocks were several marine iguanas, sea lions and Sally Lightfoot crabs saluting the sunset alongside busy locals and tourists getting ready to board zodiacs and water taxis to join the live-aboard cruises. This combination of wildlife and humans living side-by-side was going to be a permanent feature of the islands in every town we visited.
Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is the administrative capital of the archipelago, with some 6,000 inhabitants and a growing sense of conservation pride and consciousness for sustainable tourism as the main economic drive. We spent a couple of days here before continuing to the island of Santa Cruz and, out of all places in the archipelago, it’s probably the one with the most options for inexpensive or free activities. Within a short walking distance from downtown along the Malecon (the main street along the coast), one gets to a small beach where a sea lion colony was making loud calls in the early evening, returning to find their young pups after a long day of fishing. That was the first promise of the amazing things to come on these islands.
On the afternoon of our first full day we jumped into a taxi that took us up north through the highlands on the other side of the island to the Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado with a stop at Laguna El Junco. The latter is a freshwater lake formed inside of a volcanic crater, from where one can have a 360° view of the entire island, with crystal blue waters of the ocean in the distance past the lush canopy of the highlands. There is no entrance fee to get up there and walk around unique brush vegetation while the clouds rush by.
Laguna El Junco/The El Junco Lake perched on the heights of San Cristóbal
CONSERVATION HIGHLIGHT: GALAPAGUERA DE CERRO COLORADO
Upon getting to our next stop, the Galapaguera, we were greeted right from the start by two male giant tortoises aggressively fencing each other off in what seemed like a territorial dispute developing at a slow pace. There was no entrance fee here either, just a notebook where one could register and leave their words of appreciation for what this place does. This Galapaguera is part of the national park’s efforts of repopulating the island with its endemic and emblematic species. In the past giant tortoises have experienced many abuses with the arrival of a new kind of visitors - humans. Charles Darwin, when visiting the island in September 1835, left a note in his journal about these gentle giants: “It is said that formerly single vessels have taken away as many as seven hundred, and that the ship's company of a frigate some years since brought down in one day two hundred tortoises to the beach”. Tortoises served as a fresh source of meat, their shells as a curiosity, and their eggs as food for invasive species brought by humans to the islands. From the roughly 15 tortoise subspecies originally identified in the Galapagos, four went extinct including the Pinta island species of which the iconic Lonesome George, who died in 2012, was the last specimen.
The Galapaguera of Cerro Colorado is a breeding center that many tortoises are now calling home. It’s a 12 ha space in the drier habitat of the northern side of the island, where all conditions were created for the San Cristobal giant tortoises to breed and roam free. Once the female places the eggs in a nest and covers them in dirt, leaves and feces, they are then left to chance and nature. Since the species is so vulnerable in the wilderness and almost every animal brought here by humans was damaging the eggs, these type of breeding centers were created on the islands of San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabela. The Galapaguera de Cerro Colorado has had a great success rate, starting from 22 individuals brought here in 2000 and growing to more than 192 today. The juveniles born here in controlled environments are assisted until they are ready to be released, whether on private lands where conditions are deemed acceptable by the park and with agreement from landowners, or within the public lands of the national park. The rangers working at the breeding center were very helpful and willing to offer information, though mostly in Spanish. However, there are bilingual information signs along the trail and at the facilities so that everyone visiting can learn about the efforts of the center and the biodiversity one can find here.
A male giant San Cristóbal tortoise
Toward the end of the day our extremely friendly and knowledgeable taxi driver dropped us at a beach called La Loberia, the largest sea lion colony easily accessible on the island. The cost of this half-day drive was $45 USD shared among 3 people. Following the trail on the beach alongside volcanic rocks where marine iguanas were basking in the fading sunlight, we got to a sea lion paradise. These curious animals were busy performing acrobatic moves in the crashing waves, while a giant male was carefully protecting his harem of females from younger contenders. We witnessed a chase and the defeat of such a youngster who was tempted to try his luck against the alpha male, while pups were making their never-ending loud calls to get their mothers’ attentions. It was almost weird seeing this scene without hearing the voice of David Attenborough engagingly explaining how each pup must await its mother's return from the sea for an opportunity to fill its belly. Lots of shore birds were flying around in search of fish while the daylight was quickly turning a soft purple. In the background, beyond the jumping sea lions, some surfers were also trying their luck with riding the waves. At sunset everyone started heading back. A short taxi drive to downtown from La Loberia costs around $4. Alternatively, a 30-minute walk will get you there as well.
Entering the beach of La Lobería in the beautiful sunset light, where we would soon encounter a good-size colony of Galápagos sea lions displaying their courtship behavior, territorial quarrels, and amazing acrobatics in the waves.
CERRO TIJERETAS/FRIGATEBIRD HILL & THE INTERPRETATION CENTER
At the end of our journey in the Galapagos we spent another day in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, exploring in depth the Interpretation Center where one can learn more about the species found in the archipelago as well as about the complicated human story on the islands up to the present time. Behind the center is the trailhead to what can be a full day of hiking. A boardwalk winds its way up to the top of the hill locally known as the Frigatebirds Hill/Cerro Tijeretas because it’s the site of a small colony of these amazing birds. After an approximately 45 minute walk alongside thorny brush vegetation, cacti and small trees with warblers and finches, we made our way up the hill to an amazing view of the uninhabited side of the island which represents roughly 97% of its territory.
From this place one can continue on a longer hike down to a pristine beach with good snorkeling or take the trails that lead to other amazing vistas and a rather peculiar statue of a young Charles Darwin. Since our time was limited because we had to catch the flight from the San Cristobal airport to make our way down south to Chile, we had to return to the hostel within three hours. But these rather easy and cost-free hikes on the boardwalks beyond the Interpretation Center are highly recommended for a day when you can take your time and observe in detail the diversity of life surrounding you, from little curious finches to funny lava lizards displaying their best push-up moves to deter those tempted to step into their territory.
Aside from the activities we chose to do while on San Cristobal, there are many other options of rather expensive day trips to dive sides, among which Leon Dormido/Kicker Rock is the most popular, as well as to other islands (around $150 pp on average). This is also a good destination for finding a last-minute deal to jump on a multiple-day liveaboard cruise around the archipelago or to get a “ferry” ride (more like a type of speedboat) to connect with the other three inhabited islands: Santa Cruz, Isabela and Floreana.
San Cristobal and particularly the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno was our entrance gate to the Galapagos: a first glimpse into these well-known, but somehow still surrounded by an aura of mystery, “islands of evolution”. It had less of a touristy feel than Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, but was taking steps in the same direction. The cobbled streets of the town with pretty houses, strange thorny trees and beautiful flowers that were likely brought here by humans had lots of charm. The turquoise waters of the bay were mesmerizing. The proximity to wildlife everywhere one walked was something as unique as the islands themselves. And what we noticed from the perspective of our passion for conservation was the growing local awareness of protecting the natural heritage of this place. Messages of pride in the uniqueness of what residents had to preserve were everywhere. On every bench in town it was written “Conservemos lo nuestro”/“Let’s conserve what’s ours”. There were signs reminding locals and visitors that there is only one Galapagos and it needs protection. Inside the Interpretation Center, two walls were lined up with quotes from people living here and being fully conscious of the natural heritage with whom they share the island and their determination to keep all of this as pristine as possible. The peculiarity of Galapagos’s biodiversity is the archaipelago’s greatest treasure. But beyond the economic drive, there seems to be a genuine passion among the people residing on the islands to care for their ecosystems. The effectiveness of these efforts and the complexity of this story are explored more in depth in this blog post, but we wanted to end this narrative with the acknowledgment that this glimpse of consciousness gave us hope that maybe the islands aren’t as doomed because of tourism and human habitation as some say, and that this giant living laboratory might be a key to understand how humans can live alongside wildlife to the benefit of both.