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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Gobsmacked in the Galapagos

Wow – the Galapagos Islands are every bit as awesome as we expected.  Red tape and entry  difficulties  aside (see for details) that is.  After being forced to go to Isla San Cristobal rather than our first choice of Isabella, we were finally granted a 20 day stay at a cost of US$715.  Thank goodness or we would’ve missed some great sights, like this- a regular morning visitor.


Our seven day passage from the Las Perlas islands off Panama to the Galapagos archipelago was, as David remarked, “as good as it gets”.  The winds were a little light, which was frustrating at times, but with flat seas we managed to keep Bandit sailing.  Highlight was crossing the equator.  As we were sailing along quite nicely at that stage we opted not to stop for a mid ocean dip but did toast Neptune.



Our final day at sea featured a lovely spinnaker run down the north west coast of San Cristobal island accompanied by schools of sea lions and playful dolphins.  We also had an inquisitive hammerhead shark come alongside.   At dusk were surrounded by black fins we initially thought were sharks but after seeing a few leap out of the water we soon realised they were massive manta rays.sharks



Once cleared in, which involved having fresh produce and rubbish examined, hull dived on and holding tank checked, we were free to explore.  The anchorage at Wreck Bay provided plenty of wildlife activity.  We had blue footed boobies diving all around, playful sea lions, turtles and even the odd shark swimming on by. 

up close



The Galapagos archipelago consists of 18 main islands, three smaller and only four are inhabited.  Thanks to Charles Darwin’s brief visit here in the early 1800s and subsequent release of Origin of Species with its theory of evolution, the islands have taken on a mythological status and Darwin himself is a romanticised hero. It is intriguing to see Darwin’s “evolved” animals in their natural state and what we found most startling – Darwin’s theories aside – is the way the animals are totally unafraid of humans.  Whether it’s a marina iguana, seal, shark or bird, they allow humans to get incredibly close and there is no fear shown – in fact they interact freely and even pose for photos.


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Tourism is strictly controlled in the Galapagos and therefore (we felt) at times a little contrived but San Cristobal is one island where you can indulge in several activities without a guide.  A strenuous hike took us to Los La Loberia where we swam with the giant turtles.   On the way we passed dozens of marine iguanas.  We also had loads of fun snorkelling with the sea lions at the nearby rocks.  They’d swim right up to us at speed giving us a huge fright then blow bubbles in our faces and twist and turn away – performing some amazing aquabatics as they did so before returning at lightning speed from a  different direction.


We took a taxi tour to the 896m Cerra San Joaquin, an extinct volcano with a freshwater crater lake where frigate birds wash the salt off their wings and then to the tortoise breeding centre where giant land tortoises roam in a natural environment.  Eggs are collected and hatched in incubators and the young tortoises cared for until they are released at five years old.  Hard to believe the early settlers, pirates and fishermen (and Darwin himself) ate these defenceless creatures by the tens of thousands.  Because they live for weeks without food they were stacked alive in ships’ holds.




What surprised us most about the Galapagos were the glorious beaches.  We’d expected black volcanic sand and there are lots of those but also dozens of beautiful white coral sand beaches.

In Darwin’s famous footsteps

We quickly realised that travelling independently in the Galapagos was nigh on impossible.  The land area is 97% national park and you need to be accompanied by a guide to enter - with a few exceptions.  Cruising yachts are restricted to three anchorages and you can’t just take the tender and go off snorkelling.  Keen to see the wildlife up close as Darwin had back in 1835 when he visited on the Beagle we took advice from fellow cruisers Tulu and booked a multi island tour.  The whole idea of doing this is to manage the resource and keep tourism at a sustainable level but we’re not so sure about that – at times some of the Galapagos felt as crowded as anywhere else!


We opted for a five day/four night trip that took in four islands – San Cristobal, Floreana, Isabela and Santa Cruz. At nights we stayed ashore which was a novelty for us, but for non cruisers staying on a boat probably gives a better perspective.  You get to wake up in  remote locations and see the animals in their natural habitats before the tourists descend.  Of course we are lucky enough to do this every day and San Cristobal has been magic for that.




Our tour was a great mix of land and sea activities with lots of snorkelling.  Call us spoilt but having done most of our snorkelling on our own having to cope with 10 others was trying at times.  Most of the group were experienced but there was the odd lifejacket wearing “splasher” amongst us.  However we did see all the wildlife we hoped to with the highlight being the white tip reef sharks on Isla Isabela.   They were completely nonchalant about us and only the odd curious one came out of the cave they were sleeping in.

shark cave

We did a fantastic day trip to Los Tuneles on the south west coast of Isabela to the blue footed boobie breeding colony.  Being breeding season it was intriguing to watch the males do a clownish dance involving flapping their wings, stamping their stunning blue feet and whistling a classic wolf whistle to any females within range.  Afterwards we snorkelled amongst the wonderful lava tunnels formations spotting sea horses, colourful reef fish and the ever playful sea lions and rays.  Best experience was getting incredibly close to the giant turtles – so close we had to consciously avoid them!


We also got to see the amazing frigate birds up close.  We often see them at sea – waiting to scavenge food from other sea birds – but as it was breeding season we got to see the male with his puffed up red chest furiously trying to attract a female.




On Floreana we did our thing for fellow tourists and checked the mail at the historic post-box.  This system harks back to whaling days when ships would leave mail in the post-box for other ships heading home.  Unfortunately there were no postcards with New Zealand in the address…..would have been great to take it the “original” way, by sailOn Santa Cruz we hiked to Tortuga Bay where baby black tip reef sharks swam around our legs in the shallow water.  On our final day we had a trip into the amazingly lush highlands to the lava tunnels  before being ferried back to San Cristobal.


We thoroughly enjoyed our trip which gave us a great insight into this archipelago. Our guide Andreas was knowledgeable and passionate about the Galapagos which made the experience even more special. Having done justice to these stunning islands with their bountiful wildlife we’re now about to head to the Marquesas. You can follow our progress on our at sea blog -

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Waiting, waiting, waiting in Panama

We’re getting better at being both patient and philosophical these days.   As I write this we’ve been stuck anchored off Panama City for two weeks…waiting for parts to arrive.  During our eight years of cruising we’ve had endless enforced delays.  We can cope with delays due to weather as they are inevitable and there’s usually a safety element involved but waiting for parts to turn up is immensely frustrating.  Not having a physical address presents all sorts of complications and we’ve chased parcels all around the Mediterranean and Caribbean.  And so it continues in the Pacific.


We ordered the parts in early February on express (3-5 day) delivery confident they would arrive well before our Panama Canal transit date of February 20, but that turned out to be way too optimistic.  Transit date came and went and still no parts.  Then just to frustrate us even further, the beginning of March was Carnival in Panama – the biggest celebration of the year when all businesses close and services come to a screeching halt for at least five days – some more.  So much for leaving.  It did mean we could attend the Pacific Puddle Jumpers party at Balboa Yacht Club and do yet more provisioning.


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The good thing about the cruising camaraderie is there is always a shoulder to cry on and, usually, someone with a far worse story.  Our Australian friends Peter and Carol on Jack Tar got the short straw this time.  They hit a submerged log during their canal transit and had to haul to replace their shaft seal.   They hadn’t planned on stopping here so Carol was well provisioned with a freezer full.  It’s water cooled so doesn’t work on the hard and finding freezer space in Panama City is difficult.  Our problems suddenly seemed insignificant.  So with Carnival on and post offices and courier companies closed there was nothing to do but join the locals and party.

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There was lots of flesh on display – we blame the hot climate for such skimpy attire, boy, do these Latin Americans love showing off!

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Carnival lasts for five days and nights and from what we could see, mostly involved young Latinos dancing, eating, drinking and having lots of fun.  As it’s stinking hot there were lots of water trucks spraying people with cold water.  One of the dance pits was a seething mass of hot bodies……and lots of beer cans, mud and plenty of security.  DSC_5380


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Party time over it was time to get on to the serious business of chasing up our parcels.  After making numerous enquiries and making several trips to the post office on the Panama City side, to no avail, we bit the bullet and took a bus to the aptly named Colon.  I say apt because if the world was named for body parts, Colon is about as low as you can go.  Colon is a hole.  The town itself is seedy, crime is endemic and it has absolutely nothing to recommend it. The Colon post office is in one of the worst areas so we were glad when the taxi dropped us right at the door where we had to dodge a pile of vomit. 


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The first woman we dealt with flicked through a sheet of receipts and shook her head – “nada”.  But the eagle eyed skipper had spotted our tracking number (he’d repeated it so many times he’d memorised it) and insisted she go through them again.  Sure enough it was ours.  The relief washed over us but picking up a parcel in these 3rd world countries is not straightforward.  We took the receipt to another window, paid 25c, had it stamped and then took it to another window where we had to show passport and boat papers and fill out endless paperwork.  The parcel was sitting just out of our reach – but we couldn’t touch it until customs arrived to search it and the customs lady was at lunch!!!  We waited for an hour before finally getting our hot little hands on the parcel.

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It was a relieved pair that taxied back to the bus station and got on the bus to Panama City.  Only one more parcel to go but we’ve been guaranteed that will be here on Saturday morning – so it’s Galapagos here we come!  I say that tongue firmly wedged in cheek as we’re used to things not going right!  We plan to head to the Las Perlas islands for a few days to wait for wind… can check our daily progress on