Thursday, March 15, 2007

Galapagos days 4 and 5 – Sierra Negra Volcano and Puerto Ayora

We’re back on Puerto Ayora, having returned on the daily 16-passenger fiberglass boat from Isabela. We stopped at the Western oriented café near the dock for a welcome breakfast of whole-grain pancakes with tropical fruit and tea with milk.

Puerto Ayora, the closest thing the Galapagos has to a capital, seems like a center of civilization. It was a treat for us to return to our simple, but air-conditioned room, internet access, laundry service, much as we loved the beauty and isolation of Isabela.

Yesterday was a rough day for us. We’d both become completely fried by the equatorial sun during our 15-kilometer hike on Tuesday. So yesterday we were in pain with the back of our knees scalded bright red by the sun. It would have been nice to rest, but we couldn’t give up the opportunity to see the Sierra Negra volcano, which we’d heard we could ascend by horseback, so we went ahead and joined a tour.

I was surprised when a truck picked us up and the guide who was driving told us to get into the open air back, where two benches lined the flatbed. In our condition, we couldn’t sit out in the open sun for an hour each way, so we asked to cram into the front seat with the driver.

There are only three towns on Isabela, the main beach town of Puerto Villamil (pop. 2200), a farming community of 500 called San Tomas, and a tiny town that I never saw on any maps called Las Mercedtitas. The island is a vast plot of empty land – a fact we were able to appreciate when we climbed up to the observation tower yesterday and saw only ocean, volcanoes, mangroves, lava fields, and scrubby forests extending as far as the eye could see. On this trip, we were heading north to the area of San Tomas.

As we packed the cracked lava strewn earth, prickly cactuses rising from the hard rocky earth, I wondered how and what people farmed. After we’d gone a ways, trees covered with Spanish moss appeared, and then dense greenery, including the upside-down hanging angel trumpet flowers. Our guide explained that the winds blow from south to north. And for that reason, the soil is blown to the north, so that the southern parts remain dry and barren and the areas available for farming (pineapple, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, bananas) are in the north.

I somehow expected there wouldn’t be many people at this remote spot on an isolated island. But I was wrong. We pulled up with a bunch of other trucks filled tourists filling the backs. We gaggled together at the base of a hill, like a flock of chickens, and waited as we were assigned our horses.

The trip was pretty disappointing, as the guides herded us up to the crater, whipping our horses to speed us up. They wanted us to finish up and get on to their next, afternoon, tour. It didn’t matter if some of the horses (including mine) bucked in response to the whipping. They also cut out our planned hike to the Cerro Azul volcano.

But despite the poor guiding, the landscape was beautiful. We rode up green hills to arrive at a vast, black crater – the crater of the volcano Sierra Negra. It’s the second largest crater in the world, after Ngorogoro in Tanzania. I’m lucky to have seen both and what a difference. While Ngorogoro is crawling with giraffes, rhinos and flamingos, the Sierra Negra is pure black basalt, with visible fissues.

The last explosion, at the rim of the crater, happened on October 22nd, 2005. they guides saw small explosions, then bombs. Many of them came up to the crater to watch the pyrotechnics during the 15 day explosion.”

I asked the horse owner, Juan, a cowboy in a red, white, and blue bandanna, weathered skin and gold teeth, whether he was scared. “A little,” he said, “But we have a stronger curiosity. When it erupts we all come up and look.”

He said the eruption brought tourists night and day. “We pray to God for more eruptions so that we’ll have a lot of work,” he said.

On our way back to town, we stopped by the Tortoise Center to learn about the efforts the center is realizing to reproduce and repopulate Isabela Island with tortoises. On the island, each volcano has a different race of giant tortoise. Of the 12 species worldwide, five of them live on Isabela. But with time, they have become more and more rare.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, pirates killed thousands of tortoises for food. After Isabela was colonized in the late 1800s, the first inhabitants also ate tortoise meat and exported their oil to the mainland. As well, they introduced animals, such as pigs, cats, rats, burros and goats, that changed the natural environment. The population steadily decreased. The newborns, with their soft shell vulnerable to attack by cats and rats, had a hard time surviving. So the center opened, to keep newborns in pens, weigh and measure them every three months, and then put them out in the wild when they are able to resist attack.

That evening, the island held the Miss Isabela pageant, the first stage in the journey to become Miss Galapagos, then Miss Ecuador, then Miss Universe. As elsewhere in Latin America, being a beauty queen is a big deal.

There were only four contestants on this small island. But an entire parade was organized in their honor. A young woman who lived in a house next to our hotel was a participant (and the eventual winner). I watched her and her family decorate the back of a pick up truck with stuffed sea lions. Then she put on a banner and took her place.

Residents lined the street as the police led the parade. The four pick-ups came by, each carrying a contestant (they seemed to be 16 or 17 years old). After those initial glances, the entire town seemed to gather in the town hall for the pageant. This was a full-fledge production that took hours to set up, complete with vendors of cold bottled beer and roasted chicken and beef.

We watched the candidates parade out in a variety of skimpy clothing. We watched a young girl dressed in pink, perhaps ten years old, perform sexy dancers with a great confidence in her ability. And we watched the national costume show, in which each contestant came out in a costume she designed that represents Isabela Island. Each was more outlandish and outrageous than the next. Rosita, our neighbor and the eventual winner, came out last, carrying a fishing pole, and wearing a bikini while balancing a giant mackerel that curved from her hips to her head.

When it became clear the contest would last well into the night, we prepared to leave. When a balloon lit by fire was released in the wrong direction of wind, flew up to the center of the covered station, and began to burn, we hastened our exit. Getting trapped in a packed, burning stadium full of beauty pageant enthusiasts wasn’t something we wanted to experience. Luckily, we heard later, the fire went out before the stadium caught aflame. And the pageant went on.

No comments: