Charles Darwin Research Station
Charles Darwin Research Station is situated in the outskirts of Puerto Ayora, at the east end of Avenida Charles Darwin. It was established in 1964 and it is the headquarters of the Charles Darwin Foundation. Here more than 100 scientists, students and volunteers are working with research and conservation projects to protect the Galapagos ecosystem and endangered species.
At Charles Darwin Research Station there is a museum and information centre where you can learn much about the wildlife and ecology of the Galapagos Islands. There is a breeding centre and a house where baby-tortoises are incubated. The young tortoises are taken care of until they are old enough to be taken to their home islands and natural habitat. In the Galapagos Islands there are 11 different subspecies of the Giant Tortoise, and at Charles Darwin Research Station you can see several of them. The most famous tortoise here is Lonesome George. He is the only surviving Tortoise of the subspecies from Isla Pinta. Many attempts have been made to mate him with closely related females, but without success.
There are several enclosures with adult Giant Tortoises and in one of them you can go down to come close to the tortoises. There are also enclosures with Land Iguanas.
I visited Charles Darwin Research Station on the first day of the Cruise with M/S Cachalote (2011), so we got a very good guided walk around the area. However, it is easy to visit on your own. It is only a 15 minutes walk from central Puerto Ayora and around the Research Station there are several trails and information boards. It is free to visit.
Update June 2012: Lonesome George died on the 24th of June 2012. He was found dead in the morning by his caretaker and it is believed that he died because his heart stopped and because of old age. Lonesome George was between 90 -107 years.
In July 2013 I visited Charles Darwin Research Station a second time when I made another cruise with Cachalote (different Itinerary).
I also visited Charles Darwin Research Station on my own in July 2014. By that time they had built a new souvenir store. Unfortunately it was closed a couple of days after my visit and I heard it remained closed for several months. I hope it has got the permission to open up again, as the profits from it is funding many of the center's projects.
- National/State Park
When I had passed on bicycle on the main road I had seen a sign for Rancho Fortiz and decided to have a look after I had been to Los Gemelos. I wanted to find out if it was a place where you could see tortoises and if I could have something to eat there. If there was nothing there I would at least have got the opportunity to explore a little bit more of Santa Cruz. Rancho Fortiz is not situated far from the main road.
When I came there, there was a GAP Adventure group there eating. Once again I was lucky to get food because others had order and there were still food left over. They had eaten a buffet and there were still plenty of food for me to fill a large plate. There was chicken, meat, sausages, pasta, rice, salad and bread. For dessert there was fruits and sponge cake, and to drink coca-cola, water and coffee. The coffee tasted good. For meal and drinks I paid $20 (August 2014).
When I arrived to Rancho Fortiz I was soaking wet because it was raining. I was at once given a big towel to dry myself. That was very nice. At Rancho Fortiz there was one turtle below the house, but they don’t have paths to walk around on to look for more tortoises. It seems to be a place that hosts parties and other events, like weddings and birthday parties. There is also a swimming pool at Rancho Fortiz.
Punta Carrión is a snorkeling/diving site on the north/north eastern side of Isla Santa Cruz. Day tours to Plaza Sur often stop here for snorkeling on their way back to the Itabaca Canal and that is what we did when I was on one of those day tours.
Where we started snorkeling it was quite deep and there was not much to see. I swam closer to the rocks, but there I got stung in the face twice. It turned out there were some jellyfish there and we had to swim further out. This was the area where there was a chance to see rays, sharks and turtles, but unfortunately we didn’t see any swimming. However, under some rocks where it started to be shallower we saw parts of a few sharks. In this part we saw more colourful fish like damsel fish, sergeant major, parrot fish surgeon fish, striped salaams and more. Everybody else started to enter the boat and I saw a sea lion. Around this place I wanted to continue snorkeling and I was not cold as I had a long wet suit, but we were continuing so I had to leave the water too.
- National/State Park
- Diving and Snorkeling
With around 15 000 inhabitants Puerto Ayora is the largest town in the Galapagos Islands, and it is also the tourism centre. There are many hotels in all categories here, but they are more expensive compared to the mainland. Especially along Avenida Charles Darwin you will find hotels, as well as restaurants and souvenir shops. There are also some ATMs and Internet cafés. In Puerto Ayora there are many travel agencies organising day tours to nearby islands or to sites on Isla Santa Cruz. Besides going on tours, or a cruise, there are several places of interest nearby that you can visit on your own, like Charles Darwin Reseach Station, Las Grietas and Tortuga Bay. You can also rent bikes and go surfing, kayaking or diving (and yes, there is a decompression camber in Puerto Ayora).
Puerto Ayora is situated on the south side of Isla Santa Cruz, at Academy Bay, a protected bay where you will find the harbour full of cruise boats and fishing boats. Walking near the sea you might see Brown Pelicans, Sea Lions, the colourful Sally Lightfoot Crabs and Marine Iguanas. Amazing to see in a town of Puerto Ayora’s size.
December - May is the warm and wet season in Puerto Ayora. It is often clear, but with rain showers, and the temperature is around 24 - 31°C. Between June - November it is colder, around 17 - 24°C, and the sky is often overcast, but there is little rain.
Puerto Ayora was founded by a small group of Norwegians who settled here in the 1920s. They established a fish cannery and they built a wharf in the bay. The town is named after an Ecuadorian president, Isidro Ayora.
2011: I visited Puerto Ayora on the first day of the cruise with M/S Cachalote (before we had even been to the boat). We had a late lunch at a restaurant in town and visited Charles Darwin Research Station. After the cruise, before going back to the mainland, I stayed in Puerto Ayora for two nights and had time to visit Las Grietas and Tortuga Bay. If I had stayed longer I would have rented a bike to visit places further away from town.
2013: I visited Puerto Ayora again and spent several days here before and after a second cruise. This time I rented a bike three times to make day trips out of Puerto Ayora, I went on a boat trip to Floreana and also visted Las Grietas, Tortuga Bay and Charles Darwin Research Station again.
2014: This year I visited Puerto Ayora for eleven days in total. I made daytrips with bicycle four times, and three days I went on daytrips by boat to other islands. And of course I visited Las Grietas, Tortuga Bay and Charles Darwin Research Station again.
- National/State Park
The Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) is common in Galapagos Islands, but it is a migrant bird that prefers breading in the colder northern climates of North America, Europe and Asia. In the Galapagos it can often be found along sandy beaches, by lagoons and tidal pools.
The Whimbrel is a large wader with a long curved bill. The females have a longer bill than the males. The legs and neck are long and the plumage is grey-brown with a paler underpart than upperpart.
Whimbrels eat small crustaceans and marine worms they pick up from the muddy surface they walk over, and they eat small fish and insects.
The Whimbrel in the two first photos was seen at a small lagoon along the trail at Cerro Dragon, Isla Santa Cruz, and the Whimbrel in photo 3 and 4 was walking around at the shore by the pier in Puerto Ayora. The Whimbrel in photo 5 was bathing in the shallow lagoon behind the beach at El Garrapatero.
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Three daytrips with bicycle
When I visited Puerto Ayora and Isla Santa Cruz in 2013 I rented a bike three times and made daytrips out of Puerto Ayora. One day I cycled to Media Luna and walked to Puntodo, another day I cycled to Los Gemelos andRancho Primicias, and another day I cycled to El Garrapatero.
I rented the bikes from two different agencies on the street Islas Plazas. The good thing is that they open already at 7am so you can leave early if you want to. In June/July 2013 the cost to rent a bike was $10 for half a day and $15 for a full day.
The bike I rented the first day had very worn tires which were not good when going uphill on the dirt roads, as the back wheel spun. The break for the back wheel was not good either. The next two days I rented from another agency and the man there brought more bikes to his agency for me to try. Those bikes were much better.
A bicycle road was being constructed along the main road across the island, but it was far from completed when I visited.
To Media Luna and Puntudo
Follow the road from Puerto Ayora, uphill towards Bellavista. You can take this road all the way up to Bellavista and turn right there, but it is nicer to turn right onto a dirt road, about 20 minutes from Puerto Ayora. This dirt road will also take you to Bellavista. In Bellavista you shall continue straight when coming from the dirt road (with the school on your right side). Continue uphill until Media Luna. Park the bicycle there and continue to Puntudo by foot.
To Los Gemelos and Rancho Pimicias
This is a long bicycle ride. It took me around 1h and 50min to reach Los Gemelos. The road was going uphill almost all the way, but I only walked for a short while. After visiting Los Gemelos I cycled down to the village Santa Rosa where I bought some snacks in a store. I continued to Rancho Primicias, but because the signs were not very clear I came to Rancho Chato 2 instead. A man was just on his way to walk to Pimicias and I could walk with him along a path. It was very close that way, but if I had gone back along the road it would have been another 4km. After leaving Rancho Primicias I passed a lava tunnel where I stopped to visit.
To El Garrapatero
I took the same road to Bellavista (the dirt road) as I had done when cycling to Media Luna, but instead of continuing straight in Bellavista I now tuned right at the school and followed the road to El Garrapatero. To Bellavista it is mostly uphill, from Bellavista it is a lot of uphill and downhill, and in the end a lot of downhill. It took around 1h 50minutes to cycle to El Garrapatero. I arrived early and there was no one else at the beach, not even the park ranger had arrived to his office. On the way back I stopped to visit a long lava tunnel in Bellavista.
- Budget Travel
Puntudo is an old volcanic cone, a spatter cone, situated north of Bellavista, in the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz. On a clear day you will have great views in all direction of the island from here. Nearby is Cerro Crocker (860m), the highest point on Isla Santa Cruz. You should not go to Puntudo or Cerro Crocker alone if it is foggy, as it is easy to get lost, and people have been lost for days.
The vegetation around Puntudo and Cerro Crocker consists of endemic scalesias and Miconia robinsoniana, and different ferns. The miconia gets a reddish colour during the garúa season. Unfortunately the area has problems with introduced species like guava and quinine trees (cinchona) which has spread from the agricultural zone.
To go here I rented a bike in Puerto Ayora ($10 for half a day and $15 for a full day). Unfortunately the bike had very worn tires and going uphill on the dirt roads the wheel spun. Also the rear break was bad which made it difficult going downhill on the dirt roads. Luckily I got a better bike the other two days that I rented a bike.
Follow the road from Puerto Ayora, uphill towards Bellavista. You can take this road all the way up to Bellavista and turn right there, but it is nicer to turn right onto a dirt road, about 20 minutes from Puerto Ayora. This dirt road will also take you to Bellavista. In Bellavista you shall continue straight when coming from the dirt road (with the school on your right side and the church on your left). Continue uphill until Media Luna (about 5km from Bellavista). Park the bicycle there and continue to Puntudo by foot. From the beginning it is easy to follow the right trail, but then you will come to a cross and there are no signs. The right path goes to Cerro Crocker (it did not look much of a path but was quite overgrown), the left path goes to Puntudo and if you continue straight I don’t know, maybe you will be lost.
The whole trip from Puerto Ayora, to Puntudo and back, took around 4.5 hours.
- National/State Park
- Hiking and Walking
Los Tuneles de Bellavista (Tunel del Amor)
The lava tunnel in Bellavista is the second largest lava tunnel in South America and it is 2250 metres long. Somewhere in the middle it has collapsed and that is where you find the entrance to the part you can visit. It is around one kilometer to walk through the tunnel. The lava tunnel is also called Tunel del Amor.
I stopped here when I was on my way back from El Garrapatero. Because I had cycled for a while I bought a fresh orange juice ($1) to drink before visiting the tunnel. Admission to the tunnel was $3.50 (July 2013). I hadn’t brought my own torch, but there were torches available to lend. You can visit on your own or with a guide and I chose to visit alone. I was told how to get to the entrance and how to come back from the exit, and then I set off. It was not far to walk.
Inside the lava tunnel it was completely dark. I could see that there was an electrical wire along the wall but there were no lights on when I visited. At some parts the floor was quite even, but at other parts there were rocks you had to climb over. I couldn’t help thinking that more rocks might fall down (when I came back I asked about this and was told it was perfectly safe, all rocks on the floor had fallen long time ago). When I was near the exit the electrical light in the tunnel suddenly went on.From the exit there is a short walk back to the house where I started.
I asked about the electrical light and they were surprised it wasn’t on when I visited. Maybe there had been a power cut. I was told that if tourists want to, they turn off the light. I must say that it absolutely felt more adventures to walk there alone in the dark, only with the light from the torch, than it would have been with lots of electrical light on.
There are several large lava tunnels on Isla Santa Cruz. They were formed when the cooler surface of a lava flow hardened, while the inner lava flow continued to move. Eventually the lava stopped to flow leaving empty tubes, sometimes several kilometers long. The walls are quite smooth and often with a white colour. The white colour comes from mineral deposits.
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- Budget Travel
Lava Tunnel near Rancho Primicias
Not far from Rancho Primicias there is a large lava tunnel, so before cycling back to Puerto Ayora I made a stop and walked to the end of the tunnel. Outside a few workers were constructing a staircase and inside the tunnel I met two other persons, otherwise it was empty. There is electrical light along the tunnel and afterwards I must say that it was good that there wasn’t a power failure, because I didn’t have a torch with me.
There are several large lava tunnels on Isla Santa Cruz. They were formed when the cooler surface of a lava flow hardened, while the inner lava flow continued to move. Eventually the lava stopped to flow leaving empty tubes, sometimes several kilometers long. The walls are quite smooth and often with a white colour. The white colour comes from mineral deposites.
The admission to Rancho Primicias, $3 (July 2013), also included the visit to the lava tunnel.
Santa Cruz Highlands, Hacienda Mariposa
The vegetation in the highlands is very different to the coast. It is wetter, with green pastures and forests. There are many places of interest to visit in the Santa Cruz Highlands, like the Lava Tunnels, Los Gemelos, Cerro Crocker and El Chato Tortoise Reserve.
The only place In Santa Cruz Highlands that I visited in 2011 was Hacienda Mariposa, a cattle farm owned by Steve Divine. It is situated between Bellavista and Santa Rosa, near El Chato Tortoise Reserve. In the green pastures of Hacienda Mariposa you can see Giant Tortoises in the wild. It is only during the dry season that the tortoises are present though, because during the wet season, when it is breeding season, the tortoises move the arid zone.
It was on the first day of the cruise with M/S Cachalote, before we even went to the boat, that we visited the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz and Hacienda Mariposa.
Before we started our walk around the farm to look for tortoises we heard that there was a Barn Owl in a small shed by the house. We were allowed to go inside one at a time if we were very quiet, and we were not allowed to take photos using flash. In a corner on the floor, under a chair, there was a chick, all covered in white down. It made a loud hissing sound “shrreee”. While we went inside the shed one by one, one of the women in the group had gone to the bathroom. She was all excited when she came back and told us there had been an owl in the bathroom too. Welcome to the Galapagos!
We went for a short walk to look for Giant Tortoises and luckily we saw one, a juvenile, as it wasn’t that big. Then we went back to the farm and got some juice to drink and took photos of the shell from a very big tortoise. Besides the Barn Owl and its chick we saw Cattle Egrets, Smooth-billed Anis, a Yellow Warbler and a Darwin Finch during our visit. I don’t know which Darwin Finch it was as it was the first one I saw, the photo is very dark and I have only written Darwin Finch in my notebook. When we left the farm we saw a Short-eared Owl sitting on a pole next to the road. That was good luck! Now we had seen both species of owls that occur on the Galapagos Islands even before we had got to the boat.
- National/State Park
Cerro Dragón (Dragon Hill)
After breakfast on the 6th day of the cruise with Cachalote (2011) we visited Cerro Dragon on Isla Santa Cruz. The sun was shining and it was a lovely day. As we approached the landing point with the panga we saw some Blue-footed Boobies standing on the rocks. It was a dry landing, and then we walked the short path to the beach, a lovely white sandy beach. Among the lava rocks on the beach there were several tidal pools where we saw Yellow-tailed Damsel fish, Lizardfish, Mullets and small hermit crabs.
From the beach there is a 1.6km long trail going past two saline lagoons and then up on a small hill with good views, before it turns and goes back to the beach. There is a big chance that you will see several kinds of birds by the lagoons. We saw a Black-necked Stilt, a Whimbrel White-cheeked Pintails and Semi Palmated Plovers, but also Marine Iguanas.
Along the path up the hill we saw several Land Iguanas. In the 1970s-1980s all Land Iguanas at Cerro Dragón were moved to the nearby Venice Islet. This was made to protect them from introduced animals like dogs, cats and goats. Since then many efforts have been done to remove the introduced animals and now there is at least no dogs in the area, so the Land Iguanas have been returned to their natural habitat.
The trail passes through different vegetation zones. Close to the beach and lagoons you will see Salt Bushes, Leather Leaf and Carpet-weed. Further along the trail you will be surrounded by Palo Santo trees and Opuntia Cacti. We also saw Galapagos Cotton. In the Galapagos Cotton bushes we saw Flightless Grasshoppers.
- National/State Park
Black Turtle Cove (Caleta Tortuga Negra)
Before going to the airport on the last day of the cruise with Cachalote (2011) we visited Black Turtle Cove very early in the morning, even before breakfast. The sun was just rising and the light was beautiful . It was a very calm and peaceful morning.
Black Turtle Cove is a shallow inlet surrounded by mangrove vegetation, situated on the north coast of Isla Santa Cruz. There is no landing site and it is only visited with a panga (dinghy). When we arrived into the cove we saw lots of Cattle Egrets sitting in the mangroves and as we came closer they all took off. It was a lovely thing to see. The Cattle Egrets come down from the highlands to spend the night at Black Turtle Cove, where it is warmer during the night than in the highlands. We also saw many pelicans and smaller birds following the pelicans in case it would drop a fish they could catch. In the water there were turtles, Golden Rays and also a few White-tipped Reef Sharks. The sharks were resting on the bottom and a bit difficult to see, but to my surprise you could see them better with sunglasses on.
Galapagos Giant Tortoise
The Galapagos Giant Tortoise
The Galapagos Giant Tortoise (Geochelone elephantopus) is endemic to the Galapagos Islands. There are eleven different subspecies, but there have been at least 14.
Some tortoises can be very big, up to 150cm in length and with a weigh of 250kg, but it is not until they are around 40 years that they are fully grown. I didn’t see a tortoise of that size during my visit (many years ago though, on Prison Island, just off the Zanzibar coast, I saw a huge tortoise which I remember to be larger than the ones I saw on Galapagos Islands). It is not known how old the Galapagos Giant Tortoise can be, but many live till they are 150-160 years old.
The shape of the tortoise shell have evolved depending on the habitat where they live. There are two major types of shape to the shell, a saddleback shape or a dome shape, but there are also intermediate forms. The tortoises with a saddleback shaped shell are adopted to life in the more arid and hotter areas, where vegetation is sparse. They have longer necks and legs as they must be able to reach vegetation higher up. The dome shaped tortoises can be found in the highlands where there it is cooler and wetter and plenty of ground vegetation can be found.
The Galapagos Giant Tortoise reach sexual maturity at an age of 20-25 years. They mate throughout the year, but mostly during the warm and wet season. Usually the tortoises don’t travel long distances, but when it is time for the female to lay her eggs she will travel for many kilometres to reach more sandy and dry ground near the coast.
The tortoises are herbivores, which means they only eat plants, for example cactus pads, poison apple, guava and different grasses. They can live without drinking and eating for a very long time.
It is estimated that there were around 250 000 tortoises in the Galapagos Islands at the time the islands were discovered. The number soon declined as they were hunted for by sailors who took them aboard their ships. As the tortoises can live very long without food and water the sailors could get fresh meat during their long journeys. Another threat came from the introduced animals which dig up nestings, eat the hatchlings or compete for food. In the 1970s the number of tortoises were only around 3000. Luckily there are many ongoing conservation projects in the Galapagos Islands, many introduced animals are hunted and numbers are decreasing, and there are a few Tortoise breeding centres in the Galapagos Islands where tortoises are brought up until they are big enough to be placed in their natural habitat. There are now around 20 000 tortoises in the Galapagos Islands.
2011: On the first day of the cruise with M/S Cachalote, even before we went to the boat, we made a visit at a farm (Hacienda Mariposa) in the highlands of Isla Santa Cruz. On the land around the farm Giant Tortoises can be seen and we went out looking for them. We only saw one, and it was a juvenile (photo 4).
2013: This year I visited both Rancho Primicias (by bicycle) and Rancho Chato 2 (the first day of a second cruise) and at both those two places there were lots of Giant Tortoises.
- National/State Park
There are 13 species of Darwin Finches in Galapagos Islands, and they are all endemic. The Finches are famous because the role they played in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution . When Charles Darwin visited Galapagos Islands in 1835 during his voyage with the Beagle he didn’t pay much attention to the finches, but more to the Mockingbirds which he noticed differences in, between the islands. He collected finches but didn’t record from which islands. It was not until he came home and talked to an ornithologist and others who had collected finches during the visit that he understood the significance of them.
All 13 Darwin Finches in Galapagos Islands have evolved from a species of finch found on the South American Pacific coast. When they came to Galapagos Islands they adopted to different habitats and food available there. The beaks have evolved to be suitable to the food they eat. To be able to specialize in feeding is good when food is scarce and there is more competition for what is available.
Interesting to know is that the Woodpecker Finch can use thorns or twigs as tools when they search for larva or other insects in small crevices. Ground Finches eat skin parasites from Tortoises, Land Iguanas and Marine Iguanas, and the Sharp-beaked Ground Finch on Wolf and Darwin is also called Vampire Finch as they feed on blood they peck from Nazca Boobies.
The Darwin Finches have a length of 10 - 16cm. Their plumage is mottled grey, brown, black or olive coloured. Some species are not difficult to distinguish, while others are more difficult to identify. Not only are some species looking alike, but there are variations within a species and there are also hybrids.
The Darwin Finches in the photos were seen in at Hacienda Mariposa, along the path to Tortuga Bay (photo 2 and 3), at Los Gemelos and at Rancho Primicias.
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The Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) is an introduced bird to the Galapagos Islands. It occurs in the highlands of Floreana, Isla Santa Cruz, Santiago and Isla Isabela and it can often be seen in open and semi-open landscapes.
The Smooth-billed Ani belongs to the cuckoo family. It is around 35cm long and it has a black plumage and a big black bill. The tail is long and gets broader towards the end.
It was not until the 1960s that the Smooth-billed Ani was introduced to Galapagos Islands. As they are not very good flyers of long distances over water they were probably introduced by humans. It is believed the Smooth-billed Anis were brought to the islands because they remove parasites and ticks from livestock. As they are introduced birds they compete for resources with the endemic and native birds.
The Smooth-billed Ani also feed on larger insects and Lava Lizards.
The same nest is used by several pairs and they share incubation and feeding. The nest is built in trees.
Photo 1: A Smoothe-billed Ani is standing on a tortoise at Rancho Chato 2
Photo 2 and 3: The Smooth-billed Anis were seen at Hacienda Mariposa.
Photo 4: A Smooth-billed Ani is in the shallow water of a pool at Rancho Primicias.
Photo 5: This Smooth-billed Ani has been run over and was lying on the road.
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