12/24/15 – Tortoises

Lee and I wake weary at 5:40am. I race to put in contacts, put on my swimming suit, and cover with sunscreen. We panga out to Punta Cormorante while the sun rises. Mornings are mercifully warm.

At a brackish inland lagoon, we spot 30 pink and white flamingos, reflecting necks burrowed in the water for shrimp. Along with pigeons, flamingos are the only birds that can lactate. We watch a male blue-footed booby dance on the beach rocks for his uninterested mate. A second male flies in late to the party and is asked to leave. I snap many photos of their turquoise feet.

Back on the boat, I pull on my wetsuit for one last snorkel mission. So far, we dove into the water about 10 times on this trip, much more than we expected. From the pangas, I scoot into the water like a trained frogman. This Dudek may have grudgingly learned how to snorkel.

We circumnavigate a circular cactus-tipped ring of lava rocks called The Devil’s Crown. I swim through epic schools of silver, blue, and yellow fish. Julio dives down to perturb a resting reef shark that joins two other angry sharks. I am less afraid than earlier in the week. A sea lion skims the bottom. A turtle swims lazily, much more graceful than me. I am not a creature of water. So much before breakfast.

After breakfast, the yacht motors on to the main island’s main city of Puerto Ayora. As it is Christmas Eve and most of the crew has family in town, the boat shall anchor for the night in the harbor. Usually, tourists spend this last afternoon at the Charles Darwin Center, but most of the Center has closed for renovation. For $15 more per person, Julio kindly arranges a bus to take us to highlands to visit a tortoise farm.

The tour bus putters out of the dilapidated town (why does developing construction always look so ramshackle?) through the low fog into the verdant hills that resemble a cross between pasture and jungle. We spot frequent rocks that look quite like giant tortoises.

Julio parks our bus at the tortoise farm. We exchange our shoes for rubber boots for tramping on muddy paths. The giant tortoises carelessly graze everywhere, scattered like lawn furniture, like rocky cows munching shrubs, grass, and the delectable verdure.

Approached too suddenly, a tortoise will hide his head and feet. We learn how to sneak behind these giants for closer photo opportunities. I watch carefully one beast dismember a small bush. Are these the oldest animals in the world?

The farm also features subterranean lava tubes, some well lit with fluorescent bulbs, others dark and scary. In the depth of one dark lava tube, land sickness overwhelms me. We drink Ecuadorian coffee back at the visitor center.

Julio gives us an hour late-afternoon shore leave in Puerto Ayora. I may have once found delightful tourist beach towns, but now T-shirt shops and cocktail bars bore me. I’m quite landsick. Ray buys a calendar and postcards. Lee picks up two stuff-animal boobies. We drink frozen cocktails. Everyone from the boat passes our bar window.

Christmas Eve dinner is extravagant on the boat: roast turkey, a pig (!), fruitcake, broccoli, and cake. Food runs out faster with 16 ravenous passengers. The crew back in their dress whites wish us farewell. We each tip Julio and the crew generously.

More shore leave is planned for Christmas Eve. Although I rather drink a bottle of wine on the top deck, I am overruled. All of us panga back to Puerto Ayora in search of a bar. The Argentines find a sushi restaurant that will seat all 13 of us for half-priced happy-hour drinks. It is quite stuffy and loud. I grow quickly bored. I should have stayed home.

Back on board ship, Chuck does open a great bottle of Chilean pinot noir, smuggled in from his previous conference in Santiago. Laughing on the top deck in the full moon while discussing travel, I get the Christmas Eve I wanted. And to all, a very good night!