March 10, 2011
We had been pleased with our tour of Las Tintoreras so it was with great enthusiasm that we looked forward to the longer boat trip to Los Tuneles set for Friday (March 11th) and the hike to Volcan Chico that was planned for Monday. In the meantime, Randall and I decided to complete our mission to visit the Wall of Tears so we loaded our bikes in the dinghy on Thursday morning and approached ‘The Hospital Ship’. Marina was still feeling rather feeble so John was happy join us on a bike that he had not used before. It had much larger wheels than our little bikes plus a multitude of gears, and it also turned out that John used to be an avid triathalon competitor. So we were thankful when he was happy to chat a lot while we trundled along slowly and made many stops to peer at birds or plants.
The correct road to The Wall ran just above the beach at the west end of Puerto Villamil, separating from the road that we had followed previously just after a sign-posted and well-used “iguana crossing” and a new, sleek looking hotel of the same name. There were all sorts of migrant shore birds on the long sandy beach including whimbrels, ruddy turnstones, semipalmated plovers, sanderlings, and royal terns. There were no gulls that morning but I had previously noticed a couple of lava gulls on the beach in town. I had also seen one or two of these dark grey, endemic gulls on Isla San Cristóbal and it appeared that these were fortunate sightings as they are one of the world’s rarest sea birds with only about 800 individuals estimated to be scattered around The Galapagos.
Inland of the beach and sandy road were a few marshy ponds and a cemetery. The latter, like others we saw in the islands, was characterized by large white, above-ground tombs. Many had ornately carved epitaphs or statues and quite a few had what looked like glass-fronted cabinets in which flowers and other brightly colored decorations were protected.
Beyond the beach the road changed from beach sand to black lava gravel and the inland ponds (some of which had signposts and boardwalks) were hidden amongst large chunks of volcanic rock. Around these ponds were some green shrubs lush in the wet season but most of the vegetation was, rather incongruously, species adapted to arid conditions such as several species of cacti. In one area there were many tall examples of the endemic candelabra catus, a species whose shape lives up to the descriptive name.
As we approached our destination, the road showed more of an incline and while John and his multitude of gears rode on without apparent effort, my inability to shift from top gear forced me to leap off and push in a few steep spots where the road surface was rather loose. We were impressed to see a bike rack at the end of the road and for peace of mind we compulsively locked our bikes even though the chances of theft there had to be almost nil.
Six mile (10km) west of the town, the area had been a World War II station for the US soldiers protecting the Panama Canal. There were few remains of the building except for a chimney and a basketball court. However, in 1946 when the US troops left, the Ecuadorian government had decided to take over the buildings for use as a penal colony to which 300 prisoners and 30 guards were sent. The camp was notorious for its harsh conditions and in an effort to keep the prisoners occupied they were forced to collect lava rocks and build a huge wall. It was not obvious that the wall served much of a protective or retaining function but it was very tall and wide with huge, heavy-looking stones piled on each other without any supporting structures or cement. It is said that the prisoners would be forced to build the wall in one place, then dismantle it and rebuild it elsewhere. As if such obvious make-work would not be disheartening enough, the punishments were so severe that the local saying was that “The strong cry and the weak die”.
As the name implied, it was a depressing place and it was hard to imagine that whenever it was closed the inmates would have returned to the mainland having been very much rehabilitated. We cheered ourselves up by eating lunch in the nice shaded picnic area.
We admired the Park sign that warned that the adjacent area was closed to visitors as it was set aside for locals to hunt feral, introduced animals listed as pigs, donkeys, cows, cats, and rats. It was not hard to work out which of those species were the more popular targets. When Adrian and Jackie had been there, they met a man with a horse carrying a large animal carcass (pig or cow) so it appeared that this gradual invasive species removal program was still active.
The Wall was built perpendicular to a small hill (presumably an old volcanic cone) and a trail with stairs led up from the end of the wall to a lookout point. It took a bit of persuading to get Randall and John to climb up but we all agreed that the view was worth the effort. To the east beyond the long beach were Las Tintoreras, the anchorage, and Puerto Villamil. Inland, the large dome of the shield Volcan Negra rose before us with the agricultural area around San Tomás flanking the middle slopes Lower down we could see the scar of black a’a’ lava, which we had visited on our previous bike ride, slashing across the green landscape. To the west the land swept away from us towards the cone of Volcano Cerro Azul and it was somehow intriguing to think that the only people in that long vista might be the occasional researcher or hunter.
We also briefly stopped at a densely occupied iguana nesting site and at a large lava tunnel. Varying in size from something that can easily be stepped over to a tunnel along which one can walk, such tunnels are formed when the outside layer of a stream of molten lava hardens but the rest stays fluid until it has all flowed away. This tunnel was very large and went down from the shore under the sea. There was standing water on the floor but it would have been possible to walk in far enough to hear the waves above it at high tide. We were there at low tide and by that time in the afternoon no one had the inclination to get their shoes wet.
Still, we had thoroughly enjoyed our expedition and once we returned to town we cooled ourselves down with the inevitable ice cream (me) or beer (the guys). As we sat and enjoyed these we noticed that the town was being spruced-up with weeds being pulled from the sides of the sandy roads and a water truck spraying water to keep the dust down. Jackie had found brochures explaining what was in store so we looked forward to enjoying the annual town fiesta in celebration of the Municipal de Isabela becoming a canton of The Galapagos 38 years ago. The proceedings started on Friday and lasted until Wednesday evening so there was much to look forward to.
There would be the formal introduction of the second phase of the island’s recycling program (currently there were excellent bins for bottles and cans) so we wondered what would be recycled next. In addition there would be: parades; the selection of the Queen of Isabela (the contest including day-wear, swimsuit, and evening gown presentations by the candidates); contests for the best meal, best-dressed donkey, and horse; volleyball and soccer tournaments; a rodeo; races for athletes, donkeys, and horses (not together) along the dirt streets; concerts, fireworks, and at the end a grand dance which we thought would make an excellent finale for our visit. So we returned to our boats that evening, needing to rest before our trip to Los Tuneles and the much anticipated start of the Fiesta.
As we set off back to town, we visited another viewpoint Cerro Orchilla, named after a lichen that was exploited for many years due to the dye that could be produced from it. At the top of a long flight of stairs there was a lovely wooden viewing platform that Randall and John fantasized about developing into a small snack bar and cabin. The area was called I amused myself trying to get a good photo of a cooperative lava lizard that appeared to be claiming pre-existing squatters’ rights to the platform. There are seven species of endemic lava lizard in The Galapagos. The species I was staring at occurs on several islands and the other six species are confined to one island each, including one that we must have seen on Isla San Cristóbal. They are fiercely territorial so Randall and John would not only have had the National Park to convince if they wanted to move onto the site.