Tag Archives: lindblad endeavour at santa cruz island

Galapagos Tortoises in the Santa Cruz Highlands

Santa Cruz Highlands Tortoise Fence-2
Highlands fences must be high enough for tortoises to crawl under

Photographing giant tortoises in the wild

by Linda O’Keefe

After our visit to the Los Gemelos craters, it’s back on the bus for what I hope is an exciting afternoon with giant Galapagos tortoises in the wild. Our Lindblad Endeavour naturalist for the afternoon, Walter Perez, doesn’t share my confidence as he continually cautions us “all we can guarantee you’ll see is lava rock and plenty of it.” Still, I’m optimistic we’ll find some giant tortoises without many problems.

Walter advises us how to track one of the huge tortoises in its natural environment: to walk quietly through the forest, listening closely for sounds made by an 800 lb., five-foot long reptiles as it flattens the underbrush in search for food.  Fortunately, our search turns out to be incredibly easy.

After our bus turns onto a small winding dirt road and we head toward two small farm buildings in the distance, Walter excitedly points ahead of us. “Look there’s one–and there’s another! Oh boy, I can’t believe this!”  Ahead of us, on both side of the road, are what look like large, clumps of rock moving through tall grass just 10 or 15 yards from us.

Santa Cruz Highlands Tortoise fence-1  Galapagos Giant Tortoise Lindblad National Geographic Endeavour

We quickly clamber out of the bus. Walter divides us into two groups, one to view the tortoises along the long road and the other to descend the hill behind the farm house.  Tim decides to stay with the first group where he knows he can photograph tortoises. I decide to venture off with those going down the hill with Walter.

The slope is surprisingly steep but I glance in the distance to spot what look giant, gray pith helmets scattered across a field. The closer I get, the more I realize the enormity of these creatures. Santa Cruz Island with its humid, grass-rich highlands is home to the largest of all Galapagos Tortoises.

Galapagos Giant Tortoise Lindblad National Geographic EndeavourTortoise walks along the edge of pond.

These have a domed shell and short neck unlike the tortoises in the dry lowlands with a saddleback shell and longer neck. When Charles Darwin visited the island the vice-governor told him he could tell which island a tortoise inhabited by looking at it. Darwin was astonished by this statement but as he traveled from island to island he realized the shell patterns did vary from location to location. Those distinguishing features were one of the many facets that compelled Darwin toward his theory of natural selection and adaptation.

As impressed as I am with their size, the huge tortoises are not impressed with us at all.  In fact, they seem truly oblivious to our presence, continuing to eat, drink and simply wander around. Their movements are slow and deliberate and their legs, feet and toes are enormous, resembling tree trunks with huge toenails.  Each toenail is approximately the size of my fist. One tortoise walking through the field reminds me of an alligator back home in Florida as it “high walks” one leg at a time over the ground.

Galapagos Giant Tortoise Lindblad National Geographic EndeavourThese feet are big!

As the tortoises shift to drink at a small pond covered with pink tiny flowers, I expect to see them drink with a cat-like behavior, lapping up the water. Instead, they barely open their lips as they gently suck in the water.  The tortoises share their water hole with a several white-cheeked pintail ducks. We photographers are thrilled by the juxtaposition of the tiny ducks with the giant tortoises. We have an amazingly harmonious portrait of nature not often seen in the wild.

Galapagos Giant Tortoise Lindblad National Geographic Endeavour
Tortoise sips water with grass still in its mouth

We have only a 45-minute window to photograph the tortoises and much too soon it’s time to return to the bus. My group lingers longer than we should, trying to get that last perfect shot. I could stay here for the rest of the day watching these magnificent creatures loll about but the time crunch is sounding.

As we walk up the hill, Walter comments, “You don’t know how lucky you are!” I leave with mixed feelings: lucky to have witnessed so many tortoises with perfect sunlight but also a little sad to know I probably will never have this kind of opportunity again.

Lindblad Endeavour Galapagos Blog Links

The Galapagos Experience                              Endeavour Dining
Galapagos Adventure Upcoming                  Sustainable Dining Policy
How Darwin Saved The Galapagos               Saturday Dining Menus
Galapagos Photo Tips                                        Sunday Dining Menus
What To Pack For Cruise                                  Monday Dining Menus
Getting to Guayaquil                                          Tuesday Dining Menus
Las Bachas Shore Landing                               Wednesday Dining Menus
North Seymour Shore Landing                       Thursday Dining Menus
Fernandina & Isabela Islands                         Friday Finale Menus
Urbina Bay Shore Landing                                Endeavour Recipes
Life Aboard The Endeavour
More About Life On Board
Puerto Egas Shore Landing
Endeavour’s Floating SPA
Meeting One of World’s Rarest Animals
Puerto Ayoro Walking Tour
Santa Cruz Highlands Tour
Hunting Tortoises in the Santa Cruz Highlands
San Cristobal, Endeavour’s final stop

Lindblad Endeavour Santa Cruz Highlands Tour

Santa Cruz lunch sugar cane-2

A triple header shore lunch

Before we set out to find Galapagos tortoises in the Santa Cruz highlands, the Lindblad Endeavour has an extended lunch break planned that is surprisingly varied. One stop I did not anticipate: a visit to a still–what we Southern boys would call a moonshine still–and the option to sample its product.

Here’s how it happened. From Puerto Ayora, we drive for 30 minutes into the highlands and stop at an old sugar estate called El Trapiche, Spanish for sugar mill. A local Galapaguenos family still works the property, with an older gentleman and a younger man turning the sugar cane press when we arrive. A donkey, on the other hand, is tethered to a fence off to the side taking what is probably a rare opportunity to relax.

galapagos santa cruz  el trapiche sugar mill-1  galapagos santa cruz  el trapiche sugar mill-2
El Trapiche sugar mill donkey; old fashioned sugar mill press

We are all invited to take a turn at the press and several fellow passengers step forward for what is fun for a few turns but would be a long harsh day for real. The long green sugar cane leaves roll through the press with the sugar juice spilling into a pail for processing into large cubes of natural brown sugar sold in the sugar mill gift shop. As we will discover, some of that cane juice will be used for making hootch, English word for cheap whiskey. That was not for sale.

On the way to a shed to sample some of the sugar products we’re offered a brief demonstration of how coffee beans–also grown here–are pounded with a huge mortar and pestle. That may seem a strange thing to do with coffee beans but some connoisseurs consider pounding the coffee beans superior to grinding them since the powder from the pounded beans retains all the volatile oils, which give coffee its flavor. Heat–apparently produced through grinding–dissipates the volatile oils. (And that is the end of today’s informative lecture.)

Galapagos Santa Cruz El Trapiche sugar mill electric sugar press-1  Galapagos Santa Cruz El Trapiche sugar mill still on fire-3 El Trapiche electric sugar mill press; the spurts flames after a douse of moonshine

From the coffee grinding demo we enter a small shed and find a still operating. Obviously distilling your own drinking alcohol isn’t illegal here–as it wasn’t in the U.S. for most of its history–and the elderly gentleman is more than willing to waste his alcohol by throwing it on the still and having it blaze briefly for us to take photos.

Then with some slices of cheese we dip into a bowl of sweet molasses, a by-product of processing sugar cane. Fittingly, the word molasses comes from a Portuguese word for “honey.” This stuff is delicious. Then, an Endeavour guide I’ve rarely seen quickly points out several small bottles of moonshine that he invites us to sample. I’m one of the few interested. I went to graduate school in North Carolina where moonshine and grape juice was a favorite drink. This elixir has to be sampled straight without a mixer. Quite good. And, thankfully, not as potent as I feared.

galapagos santa cruz altair restaurant-1  galapagos santa cruz altair restaurant pool-2
The Altair Restaurant in the Santa Cruz highlands;  pool at the restaurant

From the sugar mill, we go to a restaurant named Altair and dine on freshly grilled chicken and, if anyone was interested, take a swim just outside the restaurant. Or relax in one of the too few hammocks behind the pool.

The final stop of our triple-header lunch break is at a place called Los Gemelos, the twins, which are two huge craters formed by the collapse of a magma chamber. The craters, on opposite sides of the Puerto Ayora-Baltra road, are quite impressive. They look more like meteor impact craters than the results of some random ground collapse.

galapagos santa cruz los gemelos crater-1  galapagos santa cruz  scalesia cloud forest-1
One of the Los Gemelos craters; a tree in the cloud forest around Los Gemelos

The walk from crater to crater leads us through a cloud forest called a scalesia forest filled with epiphytes, ferns and orchids. This endangered ecosystem also supposedly is rich with birdlife such as Darwin’s finches including the woodpecker finch and the rare vermillion flycatcher.

Unfortunately, with the sun out for the first time all day, the forest and the branches are beautifully lighted. Maybe all that sun is bothering the birds because none of us–including our guides–can sight a single bird anywhere. The guides tell us this is unusual.

I can live with that. I just hope the sun will stay out for our next stop where we hope to find giant tortoises in the wild. No wild creature can be relied on to appear where or when you expect it.

Lindblad Endeavour Galapagos Blog Links

The Galapagos Experience                                             Endeavour Dining
Galapagos Adventure Upcoming                                 Sustainable Dining Policy
How Darwin Saved The Galapagos                              Saturday Dining Menus
Galapagos Photo Tips                                                       Sunday Dining Menus
What To Pack For Cruise                                                 Monday Dining Menus
Getting to Guayaquil                                                         Tuesday Dining Menus
Las Bachas Shore Landing                                              Wednesday Dining Menus
North Seymour Shore Landing                                     Thursday Dining Menus
Fernandina & Isabela Islands                                       Friday Finale Menus
Urbina Bay Shore Landing                                              Endeavour Recipes
Life Aboard The Endeavour
More About Life On Board
Puerto Egas Shore Landing
Endeavour’s Floating SPA
Meeting One of World’s Rarest Animals
Puerto Ayoro Walking Tour
Santa Cruz Highlands Tour
Hunting Tortoises in the Santa Cruz Highlands
San Cristobal, Endeavour’s final stop