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The International Writers Magazine: Travel

Steeped on Santa Cruz
February 28, 2008

Life was good. I was recently reunited with my girlfriend, Amanda, who I hadn’t seen in over 5 months, and we were in a place that many people only get to visit in their dreams. Additionally, the two of us were staying in a town that was the benefactor of fresh bay breezes, providing this Pacific port with enjoyable weather almost year round. The forecast couldn’t have looked better. Or, so we thought.

Much to our disappointment, it was actually cat-and-dog weather on Santa Cruz. The mid-afternoon clouds were pitch-dark, angrily dumping rain over Puerto Ayora; the largest city (over 10,000 residents) in the Galápagos Islands. Thankfully, Amanda, and I found shelter just as the downpour started.

As streams fell within arm’s reach, the two of us huddled under the short-reaching roof of a white, cement hut in the heart of the Charles Darwin Research Center. At first, we tried to wait out the downpour. After about 10 minutes, however, my fair-skinned girlfriend and I nixed that idea because the skies didn’t look very promising. Therefore, the two of us decided to brave the storm.

Focusing on the lush, yet muddy path directly in front of us, Amanda and I lunged forward, trying to keep our sandals out of the large brown puddles that riddled the pathway. We raced uphill, rushing in unison under a black umbrella made for one. Our charge was strong until my light-haired companion and I were slowed down by a pack of…baby turtles. Amanda and I had discovered the tortoise breeding and rearing center.

Inside their caged home, dozens of softball-sized reptiles lollygagged between cement sidewalks and grainy ground while donning yellow digits on their shells. We learned that the numbers on their coverings were a way of tracking the endangered youngsters until they were old enough to move out and fend for themselves. The two of us watched the tiny turtles poke around till a noisy group of retired gringos abruptly budged in front of us. Annoyed, Amanda and I continued down the torrential trail.

My blue-eyed girlfriend and I soon came upon a planked walkway, which led to a small observation deck. Checking out the platform’s view, we stepped up to the wooden railing and saw a large, rocky area full of bright green bushes and trees. A cement watering hole, not much bigger than a plastic kiddy pool, was also dug into the center of the stony refuge. Suddenly, a tank of a tortoise emerged from the foliage and slowly entered the tiny concrete basin.

Intrigued by the turtle’s build, I glanced at the other two large shells that occupied the living space and they looked nothing like their wading roommate. The reptile in the pool was taller and thicker than his longer-necked company. Then, without warning, a stocky Ecuadorian man wearing a red raincoat over his khaki shorts appeared at my side. He was the tour guide for the 15 fast-approaching gringos who obstructed our view earlier.
"We’re in luck today-there’s George. A lot of times, he doesn’t come out," the man said.
I put it together at last. The tortoise soaking his feet was Lonesome George, the research center’s most famous resident, who was transported to Santa Cruz at the beginning of the 1970s. In fact, George was the last tortoise found on Pinta Island, making "Lonesome" the only one of his species still alive. Furthermore, Amanda and I read a nearby plaque that said his two shelled companions were females, brought from Isabela Island because they were considered George’s closest genetic match. Nevertheless, Lonesome George refused to breed with his temptresses.

Scared of Giant Tortoise
Realizing that he was the last Pinta standing, Amanda and I traded duties between holding the umbrella and snapping several pictures of the lonely fellow. When we were finally fulfilled with our celebrity sighting, the two of us plugged along to the next part of the visitors site.

Ironically, just past George’s domain was a much bigger living quarters full of humongous females. As we descended onto the designated walking trail, my girlfriend and I immediately stumbled upon a gargantuan tortoise chewing leaves from one of the various trees that dominated the grounds. The mammoth reptile looked enormous next to my 5-foot, 2-inch companion. Standing tongue-tied, we took turns posing beside the tremendous turtle. A little spooked by her close proximity to the oversized creature, Amanda subsequently climbed out of the wooded tortoise pit while I stayed on the drizzling path. After I quickly weaved my way around boulders, leafy branches and a handful of snacking, mud-covered tortoises similar to the first, I left the verdant hole as well.

Rather humorously, the showers transformed into sprinkles by the time Amanda and I headed for the Darwin Center’s exit. As we paced towards Puerto Ayora, the two of us noticed a sign for a beach. Darting off the beaten path, Amanda and I followed a narrow dirt trail through some thick brush and wandered onto a tiny beach surrounded by rough black rocks. Although it was littered with trash and jagged, the sandy area did offer an excellent view of Academy Bay (the normally active arm of the sea that cuts into Puerto Ayora). And right away, I realized how dead the port seemed. The storm had put it to bed for awhile.

Sopping and spent, I gazed at the town’s cloudy, silent cove to see a wide selection of white boats, resting up for the next tour. I then glanced over to the city and was captured by the brightly painted homes and businesses that lined the harbor. Despite the drab skies above, the Puerto Ayora’s vibrant colors still jumped out. The overcast, yet striking scene was quite fascinating.

"Hey Ty," Amanda called from behind me. "It stopped raining. You can put the umbrella away."
Snapped out of my daze, I extended my hand to feel no drops whatsoever.
Although it got off to a stormy start, the afternoon turned out to be rather bright.
© Tyrel Nelson August 2008

Tyrel Nelson

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