Recent days had seen many early starts, so having to be ready for 5.30am for the day trip to Bartolome island wasn't a problem, and as my eyes had been bulging with excitement all night long, solely on the prospect of seeing the cold water Galapagos penguin, something of an oddity in these waters, so far north of the traditional penguin stomping grounds.
It's amazing how dead Santa Cruz is at such an early hour, only a few local fisherman down by the dock. Even the police manning the 'rigorous' stop points on the only road through the island were nowhere to be seen. Halfway through this cross-island journey a stop at The Royal Palm Hotel was made, nestled in a seclusive area of the highland environment. One night here in the most basic and cheapest room costs a whooping $380, slightly more than the $25 a night that my girlfriend and I are paying between us for our room in Puerto Ayora. The most expensive room is over $1000 and members of the local community reported this was where the First Lady had the pleasure of staying during her brief visit to the islands a few days earlier, probably at the expense of many an American taxpayer. Her visit, with the high levels of security I'm sure affected many an innocent bystander. I can't really picture the First Lady eating cerviche, kicking off her high heels and swapping wildlife stories to the swigging and clanking of beer bottles with other hotel guests, or snorkeling on the islands many beaches with other energetic, camera loaded Gringos.
A young couple, no older than me (an ancient 25 years of age!), joined us from this hotel. Either they were on their honeymoon, or extremely intellectual with jobs on Wall Street. I'm still at the age where i can't understand why people are willing to pay such ludicrous sums of money on accommodation. Three nights in a more basic hotel instead of such a luxurious one would save enough money to pay for a ten day safari in Africa! Maybe I'm too much of an idealist, or a skinflint! With the Santa Cruz having so much to offer and with the Royal Palm being so secluded and isolated from any of the other urban areas, I doubt you get a true feel of the island from a stay here.
Three hours after leaving Santa Cruz, our tour boat was pulling up to Bartolome Island, a tiny outcrop of rock separated by a tiny slither of water from its neighbour, the much larger Isla Santiago, with its extinct, sparsely vegetated volcanoes dominating the skyline. Although no longer inhabited (the last settlers left at the beginning of the previous century), Santiago is most famous for the work of the army and national park service in eradicating it's 100,000 goat population, who destroyed the ecosystem and the islands Galapagos tortoise species. If you think domesticated animals caused a problem, you should look very carefully at what humans are doing.
The difference between the environment here and in Santa Cruz is phenomenal. While Santa Cruz takes in more of the tropical landscape that our minds easily relate to, Bartolome on the other hand, looks more like a lunar landscape from the moon due to the almost non-existent vegetation. The five species of plant that survive here, including a colourful cactus and Tiquila hardly do anything to cover the ashy soil and porous volcanic rocks, lava flows from millions of years ago still more than evident.
The island of Bartolome is best known for one of the most photographed and vivid images of the Galapagos Islands, Pinnacle Rock, a dagger shaped rock plunging into the water, a remnant of an old tuff cone volcano. There are more than enough photo opportunities of Pinnacle Rock, but a walk to the summit of the island, a modest 114 metres and taking 20 minutes gives the best views. The landscape here is haunting, especially looking in the opposite direction to Pinnacle Rock where the lunar landscape can best be seen, with large splatter cones and the island of Daphne Major glistening on the horizon.
After scaling the heights of Bartolome, it was time for a quick bite to eat before a spot of snorkeling and the hope of coming face to face with the Galapagos penguin. Food aboard the boats was on the whole very good and always consisted of freshly caught fish. While tucking into my succulent piece of snapper, a woman of 300 pounds, sweating profusely from the mornings hike, engaged us in a story of a couple she had travelled to the Galapagos with and how they wouldn't have even touched the food, not reaching their meticulously high standards. Considering the cramped cooking conditions, the food was of an excellent standard. That night back in Puerto Ayora I saw the lady and her friends in the main Gringo hang-out, Hernan's Restaurant, tucking into a plate of burger and chips. It seemed every night I walked past this restaurant they were sat at the same table eating the same quality food. Why would they complain about such a healthy meal of fresh fish and salad when their dream dish can be bought from any fast food outlet back home?
After eating I decided against lying on the beach and torturing my body to the harsh rays of the equatorial sun and went for a spot of snorkeling, some of the best I have experienced, even compared to the coral reefs around East Africa. After having my head stuck under the water watching the large schools of fish floating past underneath and letting the strong sea currents work their magic, I found myself being pushed against the sharp island rocks underneath the dominating Pinnacle Rock.
Getting a good hold of a nearby stone to try and stop any damage taking place to my gorgeous body of perfection I lifted my head out of the water and would you believe it, virtually at eye level and within touching distance was a lone Galapagos penguin drying out in the sun. To say I was startled would be a little bit of an understatement. Along with my girlfriend I stayed there for a good fifteen minutes just frolicking in the water, hoping for him to come and join me, but alas it wasn't to be. The penguin showed no sign of fear and I think if I had stayed there longer it's curiosity would have won over, but with time running out it was time to return to shore where our panga (small inflatable boat) was waiting for us. This task was easier said than done as the currents continuously dragged my body over the rocks beneath the cool waters. By the time I finally made it back to the beach, the underside of my body was covered in long red scratch marks, as if a red-hot randy housewife had managed to get to grips with me. It was certainly worth the effort!
Before returning back to Santa Cruz, our boat made a lap of the whole island to show what else the island had to offer us in terms of wildlife, including another out of bounds beach due to the nesting turtles. Around the other side of Pinnacle Rock, no more than 250 metres further from where the penguin was spotted are seas patrolled by sharks and rays. Not really ideal conditions for swimmers and snorkelers alike. As we made our way over the rough seas back to Santa Cruz, tiredness got the better of me and I spent most of the time spent in a chair at the back of the boat, drooped over, fast asleep, like a man 60 years my elder, with a nice puddle of saliva forming between my legs for all to see. Knowing I would possibly see these people again every day on the streets of Puerto Ayora I should have been more embarrassed than I was.