Day 9, July 31, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island

We woke up to our final breakfast on beautiful Santa Cruz Island, home of our guide, Lulu. Puerto Ayora is the largest town in the Galapagos and Santa Cruz Island is the most populated island with a variety of vegetative zones, including lush tropical vegetation which we didn’t see on the other islands which were much drier. After setting our luggage out to be taken to the airport, we said our goodbyes to the crew and boarded our bus to the Charles Darwin Research Station, passing through this quaint town with art everywhere featuring Galapagos species, including this waved albatross near the landing dock.

We walked about a quarter mile up the entrance road to the boardwalk paths leading to the interpretive exhibits.

The station, within the National Park, is part of the Charles Darwin Foundation, an international non-profit organization dedicated to scientific research with an international team of research scientists studying the biology of the Galapagos. “Our mission is to provide science that will help to conserve the environment and biodiversity of the archipelago and that enables decision-makers to work towards a truly sustainable Galapagos. We are doing this within the context of dynamic changes in the commercial, political, and social landscapes of the Galapagos Islands. It is perhaps fitting that in this bastion of evolution, the Charles Darwin Foundation continually evolves as a matter of adaptation.”(Dr. Dennis Geist, President of the CDF)

We noticed the opuntia cactus were exceptionally large here with trunks that actually looked like tree trunks, compared to the smaller ones we saw on other islands. Insect traps to control invasive were hanging from several of the opuntia trees. We walked past a large map of the Galapagos and Lulu stopped and guided us in retracing our amazing journey (link to the video here). The boardwalk covered, open air interpretive exhibits on the formation of the Galapagos Islands; Galapagos species; natural selection and evolution, Charles Darwin, invasive species control, and conservation and species restoration projects were excellent and very informative- anyone with a love for and appreciation of biology could spend an entire day here, just going through the exhibits. It was an excellent biology refresher for many of us. Lulu guided us through a quick visit and provided additional commentary, including how she used to volunteer at the Darwin Center when she was a young student. Many school groups do service learning here.

,The outdoor and indoor exhibits highlighting the seminal work on natural selection and evolution of Charles Darwin, or “Chuckie D” as Lulu would affectionately refer to him, was especially interesting and reminded me of the advertisement for the 1835 coffee shop on the island I saw when we went through the airport! There was also an amazing mosaic portrait of Darwin done entirely with photos taken of the iconic Galapagos species.

The Fausto Llerena Tortoise Breeding Center at the Darwin Station was started in 1965 to save the Galapagos Giant tortoise population. The Center was named after the Galapagos’s oldest serving park ranger and his over 40 years of service to Galapagos conservation efforts.

Up until 2012, the last surviving “saddleback”tortoise of the Pinta Island subspecies lived here. His name was Lonesome George (I saw him in 1997 when I went to the Galapagos). Sadly Lonesome George did not breed successfully and his subspecies died out when he passed away in 2012. Fausto Llerena was his caretaker and had a special bond with Lonesome George. When Lonesome George died, he was heartbroken and retired soon after that. One of the exhibits highlights the special bond and conservation work of Fausto Llerena. Lonesome George, the iconic tortoise of the Galapagos, is now preserved and kept in a special climate and light controlled, glass enclosed exhibit which we viewed. His DNA has also been preserved.

Juvenile tortoises are raised here until they are 4-5 years old and can be released to survive in the wild. An excellent exhibit detailed the step by step process of raising tortoises in captivity for release into the wild.

We saw a range of tortoises of different subspecies ranging from tiny hatchlings to large adult breeding tortoises. Baby tortoises hatch after four to eight months in the egg. They are extremely small and vulnerable when they first hatch. Subspecies are separated and identified by the island they are from and will be returned to.

There were several other excellent indoor exhibits and the store where we bought T-shirts and other Darwin Center high quality gifts where a portion of each purchase goes to support the Darwin Center.

As we left the Darwin Center to meet our bus down the road, we passed an art exhibit made from plastic trash collected on the beaches- a stark reminder that even the pristine Galapagos cannot escape the horrible problem of plastic trash in the ocean. A reminder to all of us to do all you can to cut back on plastic use, especially water bottles and single use disposable plastics.

Keeping with our tight schedule to return to the airport for our flight to the mainland, we boarded our bus for a drive to the ferry terminal which would take us across to the island of Baltra where the airport is located. The hour drive cut across the island of Santa Cruz where we passed beautiful farms, lush vegetation, and even saw a couple giant tortoises along the road. Arriving at the ferry station, we entered the terminal with other visitors catching the ferry to get to the airport. As our luggage was loaded atop the ferry, we were glad to have Lulu with us to navigate this last leg of our journey as it was a bit chaotic!

We made it to the airport with about 45 minutes to spare before our flight. After sadly saying goodbye to our beloved and amazing guide, Lulu, we passed through inspection and did some last minute Galapagos gift shopping. After our quick flight to the mainland, we were greeted by our other wonderful guide, Fernando, who took us back to the Unipark Hotel for our PCR Covid tests, required to fly back to the U.S. We assembled in one of the salons where Fernando arranged for the lab to set up a testing station for us. We each received a deep nasal cavity swab (ugh- practically up to the eyeballs!) and were assured we would get our results back in time for the first departures that evening. With time to spare before dinner, we had time on our own to further explore Guayaquil, do some last minute gift shopping, walk across the street to the Iguana Park once more to see the iguanas, or buy coffee at the Juan Valdez Coffee Shop (Joyce and I met a delightful barista!). The coolest gift was the chess set Abby bought with chess pieces carved as Galapagos animals.

We had a lovely group dinner (fresh fish and vegetarian options) at the hotel and Roxane, definitely the most stylish traveler in our group, wore a hand- beaded necklace she went back to buy from an artisan on the Malecon. Before dessert was served, Fernando presented us with printed copies of our Covid test results. While we explored Guayaquil, he went and got our results and printed them out for us so we wouldn’t have to worry about getting them on our phones. Truly he went above and beyond and we are so thankful for his help in taking care of us!

We all said our goodbyes with the Giglio’s first to depart, followed by a group that had the 1:00 AM departure to Miami. The rest of us departed the next morning through Guayaquil’s modern and efficient airport – all of us with memories of our bucket list trip of a lifetime!

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