Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sierra Negra Volcano, Swimming with Sharks

View of Sierra Negra Crater, Still Smoking

Oh what a day! Glorious and disastrous at the same time. It started with energy and enthusiasm when our alarm sounded at 6 AM. We had both slept eight hours, and felt well rested and ready for our expedition to Sierra Negra Volcano. We were much more awake when Rebecca spotted a large and active cockroach scrambling around the room. She started screaming and chasing it with her shoe. Finally, after several efforts, I managed to smash it to smithereens.

Morning on the Island

After a simple breakfast at the Hostal San Vicente, we piled into a small chiva for a forty five minute ride to the base of the volcano. We passed through farmer's fields of bananas and perhaps coffee, and grazing cows. Once we left Puerto Villamil, the clouds descended and we were enveloped in mist, and could not see further than a few feet. Little drops of water covered us once we arrived at the start of our hike.

Active Crater

I had understood that we would be riding horses all the way to the volcano, but since it had been raining furiously for days, we were told that the path was too dangerous for the horses and we were to walk to meet the horses further on. I wondered how it was that the route was too dangerous for horses but not for us, but I did not ask. It was not clear initially, but as we trudged along, the distance of our walk became five, six, eight and finally nine kilometres there and another nine kilometres back.

Views of Volcanoes

We kept our raincoats on and trudged through mud in our yellow rubber boots. There was no visibility in the mist as we walked along the edge of the crater, which is apparently the largest crater in the world after NgoroNgoro in Africa. Suddenly the fog lifted and we could see the smoking lava field on our left, clearly an active crater, ready to blow anytime. Its last eruption was in 2005. The mist returned in minutes, but I understood how dangerous it would be for the horses to mistep and end up in the hot cauldron. Of course, we could easily mistep too!!! The crater was enormous and continued for miles and miles. Our guide informed us that the black lava was full of iron which when oxidized turns orange, the yellow lava was sulfurous and the red lava was silicon-rich. The size and the clearly active status of the volcano was impressive.

Dario talked about endemic (only live in the Galapagos), native (brought by seeds) or introduced (by man) species of plants and animals. Our guide had the same wildlife guide I had and referred regularly to his guide to identify plants. There were a few birds flying around and mostly making all sorts of noises (songs). A medium ground finch came to visit us a few times when we stopped under a big tree. I was trying to pay attention to the finches because in all our other visits there have been so many other more interesting animals, finches have been ignored. Finches are different because of their different beaks, but it is not so easy to identify them, because their beaks are not so easy to see. There are cactus finches and ground finches, and they come in different sizes. So if they are large and on cactuses, they are large cactus finches and if they are small and on the ground they are small ground finches, and so on. Actually, they all look about the same to me. The male and female of some species are different colours. I cannot imagine why Darwin paid so much attention to these birds, but I am making an effort so see what he saw and understand how he came to his conclusions, so I have all sorts of photos of unimpressive looking birds which are probably finches.

Likely a Finch

Volcan Chico

The horse ride was too short and uneventful, but once we walked on the lava towards Volcan Chico, the terrain became formidable and difficult to traverse. We walked across lava fields of black and orange, toward a smaller volcano which was still steaming hot (volcan Chico). We were able to see the island of Fernandina in the distance, as well as Elizabeth Bay, and the other volcanoes on Isabela, such as Wolf and Alcedo and Ecuator. The views went on forever and I liked that I had another perspective on these places that I have visited from a boat, which is another view entirely from what I saw today.

Scrambling Over Lava Fields

The view was impressive, and the lava fields interesting. There were 'candelabra' cacti and prickly pear, along with several native and endemic plants. I saw one or two lava lizards, but few other animals.


Lava Lizard

The hike through the lava fields was tiring and Rebecca struggled (the hike was too long and too challenging, and it became sweltering once we entered the lava fields), and the walk back to the horses long and slogging. We once again rode the horses a short way, and walked back along the caldera, and in total, our volcano excursion lasted eight hours!!!

Chasing Butterflies

We were exhausted once back at the hotel, but still eager to go snorkeling. The plan was to snorkel with the sharks in Tintoreras, but either it was too late or there truly were no sharks, according to our guide. Instead, we snorkeled in the dark and saw little except for rays of several kinds, large and small, spotted and massive. It felt wonderful to be in the water, which was surprisingly warm and inviting. We drifted by a penguin colony mixed in with bluefooted boobies, and saw several frigate birds and pelicans. It was getting too dark to quickly, so we rushed back to the dock before nightfall.

Our friends did indeed visit Tintoreras, where the sharks rest at the bottom of a trough amongst the lava. Delphine, a sailor on a ship traveling around the world, described seeing the sharks and being terrified and fascinated at the same time. We have been told that the sea is so plentiful and the sharks so well fed that they do not attack humans, so we are safe swimming with them.


Galapagos 'Cotton'

Guava Flower?

Beautiful Fungi

Puerto Villamil is a charming place. I like wandering about at night. There are no streetlights, so we find our way via the lights from the insides of the houses. There are few sidewalks and the streets are dirt and sand, without drainage, so we have to try and avoid huge puddles from the recent rain. We walked in the dark from our hotel to the hostal for a simple dinner. I liked that the servers tried to accommodate Rebecca and her food restrictions, and I enjoyed our increasingly intimate group of tourists; a couple of retired history and English teachers from Germany who have just traveled through Columbia, a couple from Kalamazoo, who skipped out of their tour after a week on the Galapagos Legend and are staying a few extra days visiting island they missed on their cruise, a mother and daughter originally from Russia, and an Ecuadorian couple who run a school in Carapungo. We were all exhausted from our day on the volcano, and all but the Russians were catching a boat at 6:30 in the morning to return to Santa Cruz. I would rather stay another day on Isabela, and so would Rebecca. There is much more to see and do, and our itinerary included another day here to complete our visit. Que lastima!

What a remarkable day. We are too tired to think!

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