March 20, 2011
Our last day in Puerto Villamil was the first day of the postponed island Fiesta. We did not discover this until we went into town to meet J.C. and get our zarpe from the Port Captain. Sadly this meant that we missed the inauguration of Phase II of the island’s recycling program but we did arrive in time to catch most of the parade. This was held along two blocks of one street. Participants got ready on one block then crossed the first intersection and walked down one side of the wide, hard-packed-sand road in front of the central park. They turned around at the next intersection and walked back on the other side giving a wave or salute to the dignitaries sitting on chairs at the edge of the park. The Naval band stood at the first intersection marching in place and somehow it all seemed very compact and sensible.
Before meeting J.C., Randall and I took our bikes to the long beach just west of town to take a closer look at the shorebirds there. However, having been delayed by the unexpected viewing of the parade and aware that a large storm cloud was rapidly approaching, we cut this effort short and returned to wait near the Port Captain’s office. It was a wise decision because it soon started to bucket down. Luckily the parade had ended by this time but the eco-friendly. tissue-paper bunting (decorative flags strung across the streets) dissolved into suspended strings of dripping, colored blobs and rainbow smears on the ground.
Once we, and Kailani, got our zarpes (and paid a mysterious series of other fees the receipt for which looked oddly like the list of fees we had paid when we arrived but J.C. had no suggestions other than to just pay them) we invited J.C. to lunch with us. He suggested a restaurant nearby and we filled some of the intervening time by escorting John to the health clinic. He was feeling somewhat better but was still pretty congested so J.C. had encouraged him to get some antibiotics to take on their passage. The visit with the attractive young doctor was free (part of the Ecuadorian National Health Service) and the fees for the prescriptions were reasonable so they felt that it was worthwhile.
When we sat down for lunch, Randall was keen to try some of the more exotic items listed on the menu but was disappointed to be told that today they were only serving the general lunch menu of chicken or fish. The reason for this soon became apparent when a squad of 30 young navy sailors marched up to the front of the restaurant and then proceeded to fill the place up. They were visiting from other islands for the Fiesta and by chance we had picked the same place for lunch. Inevitably it meant that our meal took quite a long time to be served but it was fairly entertaining especially when they all stood up, raised their glasses of bright red “jello-like” drink, and sang to celebrate the birthday of one of them.
The weather brightened up in the afternoon during which time Randall and I finished cleaning the hull and propeller. We said our farewells to Marina, Hillary, and John who planned to leave for the Marquesas as soon as John felt up to it. It was apparently not the next day (Thursday March 17th) because as we left the anchorage at 3:30 am we heard a very congested John croak Good-bye and suggest that they might wait around for another day or two.
Our passage from Isla Isabela to Santa Cruz was very uneventful with sunshine but little useful wind so we motored the whole way. We pulled into the bay at Puerto Ayora in the early afternoon and immediately understood why it had been described as crowded and rolly. There were many tour boats of various sizes including many that we had seen before. There were a three large sailing ships anchored out with the supply vessels and cruise ships and closer to shore there were about 15 charter or cruiser sailboats including Ocean’s Dream. The bay was open to the south so the swells from that direction rolled in unhindered. Some of the sailboats had put out stern anchors to keep themselves pointed into the swell, while the rest were free to rotate on a single anchor. It was important to distinguish which boats had two anchors and which do not because they would obviously behave very differently as the wind and current directions changed. Like Ocean’s Dream we decided to use just a single anchor unless the rolling became too uncomfortable and after a one aborted attempt when the anchor caught on rocks and did not hold, we finally got it well-set in sand. The boats did rotate with the wind and currents and even though there were some considerable swells at times we were usually facing them and the periods when we were rolling broadside were fairly brief. One of the boats with a stern anchor lost it, presumably because a water taxi or other small motor boat ran across their line so we decided to put up with a bit of roll and save an anchor.
For most of our time at Puerto Villamil our three boats (Ocean’s Dream, Kailani, and Tregoning) were the only cruisers there. A few other boats finally joined us including the first boat with a USA flag we had seen in more than seven weeks (since we left Las Brisas). At Puerto Ayora there were several USA boats along with the usual mix of French, British, German, Canadian, etc. Nobody from the Captain’s Office was available to see us (being a busy day with the tour boats) so Adrian told us that the agent that Bolivar had arranged for us would meet us the next day. Later we joined Adrian and Jackie in town and ate a good local meal at the “kioskos”, a series of lively, open-air restaurants that put tables in the middle of the street during the evenings.
In terms of the busy port, Puerto Ayora was much more like Puero Baquerizo than Villamil. There were many water taxis and crowded docks at which the inflatable launches for the tour boats picked-up and disgorged large numbers of passengers. All three towns, however, are quite different. Puerto Baquerizo is delightful and artistic. It is small enough that you are soon recognized by the water taxi drivers and waterfront store owners, and being the administrative capital of the islands there is a certain sense of dignity and relaxed efficiency. Tourism is welcomed and embraced as an honorable way to share the wonders of the wildlife, which are so proudly accepted as part of the town and its character. Puerto Villamil, with its sand and ground-lava roads and plethora of relatively new, open-air restaurants and tour-operators has a very close-knit, local feel but with the added slight edge of having not yet become quite familiar with the recent, rapid expansion into attracting and serving tourists. It feels like a place that is trying hard to retain its sleepy charm but is in a stage of transition. The wildlife is entertaining and protected but not yet quite held to the level of esteem and interaction seen on Isla San Cristobal.
As we anticipated, Puerto Ayora does not seem to have the romance of the other towns nor does it feel like a destination in itself. Everything seems much busier and tourists are seen as good for a few bucks as they pass through. With a population of 16,000 (1.5 times Baquerizo and 5 times Villamil), Puerto Ayora has the advantage of having many more facilities but for us was something of a rude reality-check of what life was like without as much of the Galapagos magic. Perhaps our perspective was biased because we were only staying for a week and had many practical things to accomplish. Maybe if one was staying for a while or if this were the first stop in the Islands it would seem more charming but for us the place was useful but not particularly attractive.
This did not mean that there were not some lovely vistas, interesting sites, good restaurants (and ice cream), and gorgeous art galleries. In fact at the east end of the town beyond the abundance of more typical tourist stores and restaurants, there were some stylish buildings with truly magnificent art and jewelry. These items were way beyond our price-range or storage capacity but beautiful to browse and indicative that some wealthy visitors must spend a bit of time on Isla Santa Cruz. One of quirkiest of these art stores, with bright blue outside walls and dazzling decorations made up of mosaics and mirrors, was owned by someone we hoped to meet.
Angus, a nephew in Randall’s extended family, has relatives in Puerto Ayora and at one point he had even hoped to join us there during our visit. That did not work out but he suggested that we meet Sarah (the artist and store owner) who could introduce us to other members of his family. He had sent her an email to introduce us but when we got to the store we learned that she was visiting Great Britain and would not be back until after we had planned to leave for Hawaii. It was a rather disappointing coincidence but as it turned out, our last week in the islands was pretty busy so we may not have had much time to meet other relatives anyway. Still, it was interesting to see Sarah’s store and we look forward hearing more stories about his visits there when we next see Angus.
On Friday morning we started with our list of chores, most of which we shared with Adrian and Jackie who were preparing for their passage to the Marquesas. We dropped off huge loads of laundry. We arranged with a water taxi driver to deliver 100 gallons of drinking water which was efficiently pumped out of his portable water-tank into Tregoning’s. We met with Irene, our agent, who was also a full-time college teacher so she tended to show up at the boat before classes around 7 am or we had to meet her after 3 pm. She took our papers to the Port Captain and paid our fees (much lower than at Puerto Villamil) for which we paid her back (J.C. did not apparently subscribe to this role of short-term money loaner). She also took us on Friday afternoon to the Immigration Office. We were a bit puzzled by this initially because we were not arriving from another country but it soon became apparent that we were there to get the exit stamps in our passports. Given that these were dated for that day (18th) but we did not plan to leave until the 23rd, this all seemed a bit odd, with six days when we were not theoretically approved to be in Ecuador. But we never had to show our passports again and it made one less thing to worry about when we left.
Irene helped us to get our propane tanks filled which was done within an hour that same afternoon. She also arranged for our spare diesel jugs to be filled and for another 15 gallons to be delivered for us to siphon out of a larger tank to top-up Tregoning’s main fuel tank. The cost of the propane and diesel was not cheap but neither was it outrageous and given her efforts and the simplicity for us, the costs seemed worthwhile. Irene’s English was slightly more limited than our Spanish but she was unremittingly cheerful and being a good teacher she would talk us through and mime a simple example if we were failing to understand something (such as how we would accomplish getting the propane tanks filled).
We availed ourselves of various internet cafes during our stay, trying to make sure that bills were paid and urgent messages noted before we were to spend a month without regular internet access (but there never seemed to be enough time to get fully caught up on emails, birthday e-cards, etc.) Of course, the other major objective was to complete our provisioning. It is difficult to decide when this is ever complete but we did our best. The town had two modestly sized supermarkets and numerous small grocery stores. By visiting each place a few times it was possible to find everything we needed. The bulk supplies we had got in Panama City were holding out well so we were really after perishable items such as dairy and bakery products. Fresh fruits and vegetables were in abundance at the big farmer’s market “Feria” that was held early on Saturday morning in a covered sports area. There was plenty of produce to choose from and on the whole the prices were reasonable and the quality acceptable. It took quite a while to hunt down items that looked as though they would last well in the boat but, as Randall’s aching arms would testify, by the time we carted it all back to the boat, we had got a good haul.
So from a practical standpoint, our stay in Puerto Ayora was efficient and productive. As we went about our business, it eventually dawned on us the other reason why this anchorage and town seemed different. There were no penguins and we saw very few sea lions around the boats or along the shore. Whether this was just a less attractive bay for the sea lions or whether the more built-up shoreline and constant boat traffic had driven them away we could not tell. One sea lion was a feature at the water-side fish market where the local fishers brought in their catch to clean and sell. This sea lion was not only tolerated around the catch but was used as the fish-trash disposal system, feeding on all the entrails cut out of the fish. It shared this role with a noisy crowd of pelicans but they kept their distance if the sea lion considered that they were being too greedy and gave them a threatening look. We wondered whether the same rather chubby sea lion was fed at the market every day or if there was competition for this enviable position.
One of the wildlife observations from the boat that was interesting was seeing flocks of noddies that fluttered and dipped over the water apparently following shoals of fish. We got used to seeing and hearing groups of medium-sized fish (tunny-size) splash around Tregoning as they were presumably also feeding on schools of smaller prey. Particularly in the mornings and evenings, the most unusual thing to see was pelicans diving down to scoop up water with small fish and while they were straining this through their oversized bills a brown noddy would land on the pelican’s head. In fact, noddies would compete with each other every time a pelican dived, fluttering around until they could land on the pelican but before it had finished feeding and could shake them off. Occasionally the noddies would lean forward to pick something out of the water so presumably their perch on the pelican was a good place to find some easy food but it made for a positively comical spectacle. It was a good lesson that even without the more charismatic sea lions and penguins, nature has plenty of things with which to surprise us, in even the most human-dominated of locations in the Galapagos Islands.