Clean air, crisp water, and the friendly, lazy animals above and in the ocean made this journey to the Galapagos Islands an once-in-a-lifetime experience. Then we were off to a jungle lodge in the Oriente, where smells, sounds, and the fresh, humid air calmed and excited us.
The Napo Wildlife Center is a high-end jungle lodge (high-end means less mosquitoes and clean sheets) found in the Napo River Valley. In order to get there, you need to fly to Coca City, take a motorized canoe for several hours down the Napo River, transfer to a dugout canoe (when the tribe sees an appropriate tree, a group of families cut down the tree together and build several canoes at one time directly in the jungle), and paddle for several hours down another side river.
Our lodge is on the Anagucocha Lake, which is a large lake filled with caimans (we went on a nighttime caiman watch one night) and a family of giant 8-foot otters. In order to get to any of the trails, we had to take the dugout canoe.
One day we visited the Quichua community of Anangu, where I was the fortunate person to receive a cleansing done by the local shaman (this fully energized me, but the shaman hit me for a while with some leaves and then blew into my hair for several minutes).
The special things about our jungle lodge (versus Sacha Lodge) included our lodge being smaller (10 huts), and therefore you don't have the crowds, and the fact that our lodge is half owned by the Quichua community, therefore half of all profits go to the tribe. This is wonderful for two reasons: first, it helps the tribe, but also, it helps prevent the oil companies from taking over the community. (There is a real problem in the rain forest with the oil companies, and you can see evidence of drilling throughout. Because this is upsetting so many locals and there are reports of violence, the workers in the oil companies get continuous security protection.) The other half of the profits goes to the NGO that approached the tribe and built the lodge.
The main attraction of the Napo Wildlife Center is the two parrot licks in the area. A parrot lick is a large natural mound of clay. The seeds that the parrots eat are poisonous, so the parrots seek these parrot licks to neutralize the poison. Therefore, on nice mornings, hundreds of parrots and parakeets flock to these licks. The Oriente is truly a rain forest. The trails were muddy, and we were always being rained on, but I loved it.
We took a scuba diving trip aboard The Aggressor I to the Galapagos Islands. See www.aggressor.com. The Galapagos Islands is the most beautiful place above and below the water that I have ever been to. The 10 other people on our trip and the nine-person crew were amazing, notwithstanding that I was the only Democrat. From Quayaquil, Ecuador, we flew on a very comfortable, safe jet (not even I was scared) into the very chill San Cristobal Island to be greeted by our fancy live-aboard boat and hundreds of sea lions on the rocks, in the water, and on other people's boats. The sea lions were so nonchalant, they couldn't care less whether we got within a foot of them - all they cared about was chilling in the sunshine (sounds good to me).
After we got organized in our little cabin, which fit me and Carl and nothing else, we took a short boat ride to Isla Cobos, which is right off San Cristobal. There we dived with the sea lions (the fur seals were napping during the day). Because there aren't a lot of tourists, the sea lions (as well as the birds, fish, turtles, and lizards that we saw throughout the trip) haven't yet become scared of humans, so they were playing with me by biting my fins and circling us. The water temperature wasn't nearly as cold as we had feared (The Humboldt Current is a cold current that runs through the islands, and the water temperature can get very chilly at times), so it was really, really fun.
The next day we headed off to Isla Seymour Norte, where we witnessed up close 23 white-tipped sharks doing a mating dance. What they do is swim in figure eights, so it was really quite beautiful and elegant watching them swim this way. We then went to the mainland, where we similarly saw blue-footed boobies and the frigate birds do their mating dances. The boobies actually dance with each other by "high stepping," a way of showing the blueness of their feet, and giving each other a little twig. The male frigates, on the other hand, puff out their red throat pouches that are close to the bird’s size, flap their wings, and call out to attract the ladies.
We spent the next 18 hours cruising to Wolf Island. While the water was warmer at Wolf, the currents that came from every direction were several knots and whipped us around quite a bit. The current whipping against my face felt as though I had been thrown out of an airplane. Every time I grabbed a rock, it seemed to break off and whip me into another rock. We even lost a diver for about an hour (the current took him out over 1 mile); luckily, the Aggressor fitted all of us with safety equipment before the dive -- we had a 6-foot flag, a siren, and a radio transmitter that beeped into the boat the location of the diver. It was with this radio transmitter that we eventually found our diver. In any event, during the dive we got to see hammerheads, a dolphin, spotted eagle rays, and many, many eels.
The next day we went to the Darwin Arch next to Darwin Island, which was named after Charles Darwin, and this was my favorite and most thrilling dive ever (until Puerto Coca below). As soon as I lowered and cleared my mask, I was greeted by around 30 hammerheads circling us from above, from our sides, and down below. There was a huge school of jacks that we swam right into, and again, there were many, many eels. The hammerheads are attracted to the arch because of a magnetic pull under the water.
While Darwin and Wolf Islands from above the water are just huge rocks (like everywhere in Galapagos, they were formed from a volcanic eruption underwater), they were covered with all sorts of birds, mostly red-footed boobies, frigate birds, and some gulls. Not only did the birds fly within a couple of feet over us on the boat, but a couple of the boobies even landed on the boat and hung out for a while with us. But most importantly, there wasn't another boat in sight in this area because all the tour boats and most of the dive boats stay in the southern main islands, and schools of dolphins followed us around during these days.
On the 21st, we went back to the main islands and dove at Cabo Marshall and Puerto Coca on Isabella Island. This was a tremendous and beautiful dive, and after Wolf and Darwin, all dives from now on were going to seem really easy. We again saw a school of hammerheads, a giant manta ray from afar, tons of stingrays, and turtles, all in pretty shallow water with great visibility.
But the best part of the day was when Carl and I went snorkeling instead of going on the third dive of the day. After playing with some sea lions, I went off on my own into a couple of hammerheads in very shallow water. Naturally, I got scared and rejoined Carl pretty quickly. The thermoclines were getting us pretty cold, so we returned my camera, and I was just about to hop the boat when a 15-foot manta ray came right up to the surface. I took off with the manta ray right below me. Mantas flap their wings in the most elegant and magical way that I have ever seen, and this almost rivals my swim with the whale sharks. I only stopped swimming with him because now Carl and the boat were pretty far away, and I got too scared to swim by myself.
After this swim, I thought it impossible for things to get better, but I was wrong, because the whole trip was so interesting. We took a dingy ride to Isabella Island, where we watched the flightless cormorant. These birds, because of evolution, lost the ability to fly. Instead, they developed large webbed feet, a sturdy lower body, and a long neck, all of which are well suited to diving for food and reaching into nooks for eels and other goodies. They then have to hold their little wings out to dry after each fishing trip. There are only 500 pairs of these birds in the world, all of which are in the Galapagos.
The next day we went to Cousin's Rock, Bartholome Island, where we saw some more white-tip sharks, sea lions, a scorpion fish, hundreds of barracuda, and yellow, orange, and brown seahorses, one of which was pregnant (male sea horses carry the babies). We then took a dingy to see the tiny and cute penguins. The Galapagos penguins are endemic to the Galapagos and the only penguin found north of the equator.
On the 23rd, I had my final dive of the trip, which was also my hundredth dive (hurray!). After this dive, I was so thankful we didn’t get those thermoclines we had earlier (chilly!).
We topped the trip off at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island. There we saw Lonesome George, the last surviving tortoise of Pinta Island. They think he’s around 80 years old.
The food was terrific on the boat. The only problem was that the second to last meal was a bad one and made several of us pretty sick for the last night (and then for my time in Quito).