Welcome to the GAIAS blog!

This blog was created in December 2011 to help future students get an "inside look" into what it's like to study in this unique place.

On the Home Page you'll find all the blog posts in the order they were saved. Scroll around to see what previous students had to say about their experiences here! Some posts were written specifically for this blog while others are pulled from blogs that students had already been keeping. You can also see posts on specific topics by viewing the labels on the left hand columns.

Also check out the different tabs for more information on studying here!


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Santa Cruz – Take III

A post from Kimberly Hoover
Monday afternoon we made the familiar landing in the bay of Puerto Ayora in Santa Cruz. We had spent the morning finishing up our final exam for Hugo and packing for the four-day stay on the island. We checked into a hotel right on the water with an ocean view from the balconies right outside each of our rooms.
The next morning, we walked down the road to the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS), to the swanky digs of Lonesome George. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this viejo, George is the last remaining Pinta tortoise of the archipelago and is kept at the CDRS in the breeding center. George was stumbled upon in 1972, when scientists had embarked on a hunting trip with the intention of eradicating all feral goats from the islands. Researchers are hoping George will continue to settle for mating with females of a similar (yet different) species in attempt to bring back a very specialized variety of land tortoise. At the Station we listened to a couple lectures and got to explore the small library tucked away in the corner of the Station. I found a stack of “free books” (Jeri: I seem to have a knack of smelling out free boxes, books, etc. This skill might be because of you?). I came away with a Spanish dictionary printed by the University of Chicago in 1977. A Corn Flakes box, duct tape, and typewriter are the tools that give this book a Frankenstein appearance as well as a restored front cover, which had probably been lost at the hands of numerous Spanish speaking novices passing through the Station. I fell in love with the book even though there are multiple pages attempting escape from the boundaries of the pliable monster jacket.
We had the rest of the afternoon free to do as we please. My friends scampered off to las grietas to test their luck at jumping from the cliffs. I spent the afternoon at a café that I had intended on visiting during both of my previous trips to this island. I finally made it, ordered a cookie and americano, and settled in with As the Sun Also Rises. I returned to this comfortable position thrice more throughout the week and finally finished the book. I’m now hungry for more Hemingway so if you have some of his works just hanging around your place, I’d love to borrow them when I get home.
Breakfast at 0630 started the day preparing for our day trip to the island Floreana. A two-hour boat ride across the choppy ocean got us there in one piece. Arriving in the bay, we were greeted by a school of dolphins! I’ve never seen dolphins before so their animated jumping about had my stomach in thrills. After all of the excitement, our large group funneled into three different chivas (open air buses) and headed for the highlands. Up here we encountered stone faces, a spring that provides the 100 person community in the lowlands with water, and more land tortoises. From the highlands, I rode on the top of the chiva with some of my comrades. Comfort was compromised by sitting up top but the view of the hills and the ocean was worth it. We were a tired group by the time we had lunch, but we had yet to visit Playa Negra. The black sand was blazing under our bare feet and added to our motivation to get in the water. We snorkeled around a bit and hung out in the sunshine. A little penguin visited us on the beach and many jumped back in the water to go swim around with him.
On Thursday, the fourth day of our adventure, our aquatic friends from the marine track of GAIAS went scuba diving at Gordon Rocks and came home with quite the whale of a tale… I mean, shark tale. My dear friends saw handfuls.. no, FISTfuls of hammerhead sharks. While the highlands of Santa Cruz didn’t present any hammerheaded fish, they did provide a relaxing day of exploring in the Scalesia forest. We hiked up one of the highest peaks (not really a peak but a hill) and saw a beautiful view of Puerto Ayora. We hiked down and went to visit los Gemelos, two gigantic holes in the ground that resulted from… a gas bubble from the underlying magma. Our guide explained it like this: “You know when you microwave a marshmallow, or milk?” (Me: No, my mother would never let me.) “When it bubbles up from the heat or take it out from the microwave” (Me: I hope she’s wearing pot holders…) “the bubble falls. That is how these holes were made. The magma is the heat source underground which caused the ground to bubble up, and then fall.” (Me: I would have never thought of that when a marshmallow was blowing up in the microwave. Mom would be so mad….)
Here, in Santa Cruz, is the largest forest of Scalesia trees in the entire archipelago (and since the trees are endemic, the world!). We wandered around, our prof in awe of the abundance of his favorite Galápagos plant, and stopped at a popular restaurant in the highlands where there were also land tortoises… more tortoises. I say that like I’m bored of them but I’m not. I absolutely love the ol’ geezers.
I’ve been rushing through this entire post just so I could get to my favorite part: Thanksgiving dinner. Of course, being on Santa Cruz Island of the Galápagos didn’t quench my thirst for the traditional Thanksgiving celebration. But let me tell you, I had one hell of an alternative. A small group of us went to Café del Mar and sat at a long table. We held hands and went around the table saying what we were thankful for. I want to say that this is not a tradition in my family. I don’t know why but we probably haven’t done this since I was a little, little girl. Nothing brings me closer to people than sharing this kind of emotional experience. After a few laughs and a few tears later, we were digging into the food, silently thankful that we got also garlic bread. I try to express to these people how thankful I am to have met them but I don’t think any words, no matter how big or how powerful they may seem, could adequately reflect how much I love them. Maybe recounting Thanksgiving combined with the ever-present and approaching departure from the islands is making me sentimental as I write this post. But in all seriousness, I have grown so much in the past three and a half months and I owe that growth to these people I’ve been spending almost every day with. They have contributed to a very welcoming atmosphere here on the island and I have discovered an immense amount about myself. To those GAIAS estudiantes reading this, thank you… you have been a very special gift para mi 
I don’t know if you believe in magic buuuut Friday definitely had that fantastical air about it. Our group headed to Tortuga Bay, a beach with sand as fine as baking flour. We played in the waves, ran around in the sand, and threw mud at each other. After all of that, all I’ve got to show for it is a sunburnt nose. We headed back to San Cristóbal that afternoon and I got home around 1700.

Darwin’s cotton, Cacti, and soccer – oh my! Plants of the Galapagos and my first soccer game.

“Look deep, deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” – Albert Einstein

The past few weeks I have been busy in my class learning all about the incredible plants of the Galapagos. The class is really interesting! Our professor, Hugo, is from Chile. He is so knowledgeable of all the native, endemic, and introduced plant species of the islands, and loves sharing his knowledge with us. The class is cut short a bit, because we are going to Santa Cruz next week. We will still be learning about the plants while we are there, but he didn’t want us to have to take any tests there, so we have our final this Monday! It is going by so fast, but I guess it has been similar to all of the other fast-passed classes on the island. So far we have gone on three field trips.

Our first was a biking trip to the highlands. We were dropped off at El Junco (the lake in the highlands) in taxis and rode down the hill into town on bikes the University rented. Along the way Hugo would stop us and tell us all about the plant species on the sides of the road. We got to see (touch and smell) all the species we had been learning about in class – from the endemic Miconia, to the introduced Mora (blackberry) that is taking over the land. It was a great way to spend our class time, and I think we all really learned a lot (including how to stop while going down-hill on a bike with breaks that don’t work too well).

Our second field trip wasn’t as thrilling (but probably more safe, because it didn’t involve bikes with faulty breaks). After our course midterm, we walked to Frigate bird trial from the University. It is only a 30-minute walk from the university to the end of the trail, and we stopped along the way to talk about each of the plants. By the end of the walk we were all able to identify at least 8 of the endemic plant species we saw. This area, because it is more arid, has the most endemic plants in all the regions of the islands – and it was very apparent, because very few of the species we saw were listed as being introduced.

Our third field trip was to Hacienda Tranquila (in the highlands again, the same place as the wedding!). This week in class we are focusing on conservation of native species and the elimination of introduced plants. At the Hacienda we helped the volunteers cut down the invasive Mora. We all used machetes, which was really fun! We had to go through and chop down the Mora growing in the area, so that they would not out compete the native species for resources. It was similar to what I did at El Junco Lake a few weeks ago with the Ecology Club students. We got to pick and eat delicious oranges in our break, and there was a beautiful view of the island from above.

Last weekend I also completed one of my goals while in South America – I went to a soccer game! It was really great, because after leaving Quito I didn’t think I would have the opportunity to go to a game – but luckily one came to me! We heard that the team Barcelona, from Guayaquil, would be coming to the island to play a game against Emelec, another team from Guayaquil. So Sunday morning we went to the stadium on the island to buy tickets – and then we went to the Jersey store to make sure we fit in while we were in the stands! Most of us bought jerseys for Barcelona, but a few decided to join the other side and get the blue Emelec jerseys. It was quite the experience at the game, when all of the locals were asking us to join their cheering sections. Sadly the game was only the “B” teams – because the usual players were busy playing for the national team. It was still really great to see, and Barcelona won – so my section of the stands was very happy! It was definitely an experience I will remember – but I guess most of my experiences on this island fall into the “I will remember that” category.
I am looking forward to our trip to Santa Cruz next week. We are going to see more native plant species, and we are scheduled to meet Lonesome George, the giant land tortoise! It will be a unique Thanksgiving – and it will definitely be the first time I have ever gone snorkeling on turkey-day!

Until next time,

Night Dive and elusive namesakes

A post from Scott Hammer

Since our professor had to go diving Friday with some bigwig donors of the university (rough life, I know) we couldn’t have class.  Think we were going to be out-done by our professor? No way.  We took this opportunity to go night diving Thursday night, and what a great decision that was.  As we got onto the boat and moved away from the dock around 7pm, the number of stars kept multiplying and multiplying until I couldn’t see and farther.  Once the lights in the sky became commonplace, the ocean lit up (but not from starlight).  Plankton has a unique property of bioluminescence and, as the boat hit them and moved them around, they lit up like fireflies underwater.  After donning all of our gear plus a flashlight, we took the backwards plunge off the boat into the dark depths.  Even though I was a bit uneasy at the idea of only being able to see what was in my flashlight at any given time, there were enough people (10) with our group that there was plenty of light during our dive.  The ocean is a different world at night.  We saw lobsters, new types and more abundant urchins, and hundreds of sea cucumbers (all of which we had not seen during the day).  My dive partner, Katy, also spotted a huge stone scorpion fish and we saw 3 different types of puffers (including my favorite, of course, the bullseye puffer).  We also confirmed the theory that rays are attracted to light as a huge diamond stingray played with our group for a few minutes as we shined our flashlights from different directions.  My favorite part, however, was shielding the light for a second and waving my hand through the water – inciting the plankton and surrounding myself in a field of bioluminescence.  Capped off by seeing some lobos hunting underwater, my first night dive will definitely not be my last.

Saturday, we set off for another day of diving at Leon Dormido with hopes of the ever-elusive Tiburon Martillo (Hammerhead shark).  Although the hammerhead increased its lead on me to 3-0, Leon Dormido is such an incredible place to dive that I almost didn't notice (almost...).  At one point I could see 13 Galapagos sharks at the same time and two of them came within a few feet of me, casually swimming with so much more efficiency than us bulky humans that it was hard not to be jealous.  An octopus, some turtles, a school of tuna, and being engulfed in a bait ball were some of the highlights of another great day of diving.  We are off to Santa Cruz tomorrow for our last week of this class and we are trying to work out how to dive over there, but we shall see.

Island Hopping Part 2

A post from Corinne Dorais

Day 3: Monday, October 31

Monday morning we caught a lancha to Isabela Island. Before leaving each island to travel to another, everybody (locals as well as tourists) must go through a checkpoint. At the checkpoint an officer opens all of your bags and looks through them to make sure you are not carrying anything organic (or any animals!) between islands. After passing inspection, each bag receives a tag that identifies what island it came from and where it is going. When you get off the lancha at the end of the trip, another inspection agent collects the tags. The inspection checkpoints are an attempt to minimize the introduction of non-native species. Animal and plant species from the mainland have destroyed ecosystems on several of the islands. Also, species that are native to one island may not be native to another and can have the same damaging effects as introduced species from the mainland.

We got to Isabela around noon. After checking into our new hostel and having a quick lunch, we walked to the small harbor and boarded small flat-bottomed boats. The boats took us a short distance off the coast of Isabela to an islet known as Tintoreras. Tintoreras (named for the sharks that rest in the nearby shallow waters) looked like another planet. A small gravel path had been cleared but other than that the islet was composed entirely of jagged volcanic rocks. At times we were forced to leave the path and scramble across the rocks because Tintoreras was covered in marine iguanas (many of whom enjoyed sunning themselves in the middle of the path.) Marine iguanas are a gray/black color and blend in well with the dark rocks, but even with their camouflage we must have seen hundreds, if not thousands.

After exploring Tintoreras by foot, we jumped in the water to snorkel in the shallow bay nearby. There we saw rays and fish as well as several sea turtles. One swam up right below me and I followed it for several meters before it sped away (they can be very fast in the water!) It was so close I could have reached down and touched its shell.

That afternoon we also saw our first Galapagos penguins! They stood very still with their wings held away from their bodies. Our guide explained they did this as a way of cooling themselves.

Day 4: Tuesday, November 1

Big, rolling waves arrived to Isabela the day before we did. They were a lot of fun on the beach and surfers took advantage of every break near town, but they didn’t make it easy to travel by boat. They were so big and powerful that we were not able to enter the lava tunnels we planned to visit Tuesday morning. These tunnels opened into the sea and could only be reached by boat, but the entrance was narrow and only a few captains were willing to risk entering, even on a calm day. Instead of the lava tunnels, we anchored in a shallow area that bordered the shore. We walked along the lava that seemed to rest on top of the water and watched tintoreras swim lazily beneath our feet. Though it looked solid from where we were standing, there were many tunnels under that lava that the sharks used to travel from pool to pool. We saw an octopus and lots of crabs hiding in the crevices and shallow tide pools. After half an hour of walking around on land, we hopped in the water to snorkel around the shallow pools and under the lava bridges. In addition to the resting tintoreras and many fish, our guide found a tiny seahorse! It clung to a thin mangrove root by its tail and didn’t move, but it was still incredible to see one in the wild.

After lunch, we snorkeled near the harbor and had a relaxing afternoon of playing cards and exploring the town.

Day 5: Wednesday, November 2

Immediately following breakfast, we piled into the open-air bus and drove about 45 minutes into the highlands to the base of Volcán Sierra Negra, one of Isabela’s five volcanoes. The garúa (a fog that often covers the islands this time of year) was so thick that we could not see Volcán Chico (one of the craters of Volcán Sierra Negra) even when we were hiking along the rim of the crater.  The sun broke through as we were hiking across the lava fields. Again, it felt like another planet. There was very little vegetation and black lava surrounded us everywhere we looked. Craters dotted the landscape. It was easy to see that the field we walked on had once been liquid lava. After several miles we turned around to hike back the way we came. When we reached Volcán Chico again the garúa had cleared and we were shocked to see that the crater was gigantic. Our guide told us it is the second largest volcanic crater by diameter in the world and the largest that is still active (it last erupted in 2005.)
We stopped at an hacienda in the highlands for lunch. After eating we explored the farm, which had beautiful gardens and several large enclosures where giant tortoises roamed. We wandered through banana trees that were mixed in with mandarins and pineapples and the owners let us each pick some fruit to take back to the hotel with us.

Day 6: Thursday, November 3

Our last full day of the trip we drove to Muro de las Lágrimas (Wall of Tears) and walked back into town, stopping at other sites along the way. During WWII, the United States had several military bases set up on the Galapagos Islands. On Isabela there were three detachments maintaining radio stations as part of a surveillance system in the Central Pacific designed to protect the Panama Canal from attack. When the US base was shut down, the infrastructure the military had built remained. In 1946, the government of Ecuador established a penal colony on Isabela using the houses left behind by the US army to house prisoners and guards. To keep the prisoners busy, the guards had them build a wall out of lava rocks. Conditions were harsh and prisoners were brutally punished, leading to the name “Wall of Tears.”

That afternoon we went to a private property in the highlands. There was a giant hole in the ground that looked like it went down at least a hundred feet. The owner asked if any of us would like to descend into the hole and a group of us jumped at the chance. We saw a pile of helmets and assumed we would be putting on harnesses and clipping in to a safety system, but soon realized that we would be making our own harnesses out of pieces of rope! After (very carefully!) tying the rope into a harness, we walked around to a steep tunnel that led into the hole. There was a rope ladder that had been laid on the ground to form “stairs” and lengths of rope we held on to as we began to descend. Soon we reached the bottom-or rather what we had thought was the bottom when we had been standing at the top.  From our new vantage point it was clear that the hole was actually a cavern that had no end in sight. The steep walls quickly turned vertical and we took turns climbing down a rope and ladder system further into the cavern. Each person in front of me quickly disappeared into blackness and it was almost impossible to hear the voices of those who had already reached the bottom. The climb took quite a while. It was damp, especially once I was deep enough that only a few rays of sunshine filtered down, and the ropes where muddy and slippery. Eventually I reached the bottom of the cavern-only to find once again that it kept going deeper into the Earth. We, however, did not go any further. At this point we were almost 500 feet underground. It was incredible to see the walls of the cavern, which were almost entirely volcanic rock.

After the cavern, we drove a short distance to Cueva de Sucre (Sucre’s Cave.) The cave was actually a huge system of lava tunnels, some so long that park officials have never found the end. We each wore a headlamp and stayed close to our guide as it was very easy to get turned around and lost. At one point we turned off all our lights and stood in the darkness. It was so dark I couldn’t even see my own hands.
When we got back to town, a few friends and I went to a bonfire on the beach by one of the hotels to enjoy our last night of the trip. It was the perfect end to the perfect trip!

Another post soon!


Camping and a Dessert Party

A post from Sarah Ziomek

We spent this past week in Santa Cruz for class, so I will write all about that, but first here is a short post on some fun things we did before.

On Saturday before we left, we went camping at Puerto Chino.  It is a very nice and small sandy beach about a half hour away by taxi.  We had to get a permit from the national park to camp (it was a huge pain – I went to the park offices 4 times….things are so much more difficult for people who follow the rules).  We bought food, rented surfboards, grabbed the blankets off our beds, and met up at 2 pm to take taxis to the beach.  Taxis here are all white pickup trucks.  The taxis dropped us off, and we told them to pick us up at 8 the next morning (there is no cell reception out there).  We set up camp then went to play in the waves and surf.  Our beach doesn’t really have good waves to play in, plus there are a lot of rocks underneath the water.  Puerto Chino is all sandy underwater, so it is one of the few places on the island to surf.    I tried surfing.  it is pretty difficult!  I got up on my knees a few times, but since the waves there break really close to shore, there wasn’t much time to get all the way up.

Afterwards there was some garúa (the misty rain), so we all stood around the table under the trees eating our PB&Js and apples.  Then we all sat in the sand and talked.  By this time (a little after 5:30 pm), the sun was going down.  After what felt like a really long time, we looked at the time and saw it was not even 7 pm!  Our friends in town were just heading to dinner, but it felt like it was so late!
We then played sardines on the beach.  It was a lot of fun because it was super dark and there was no moon.  Even with flashlights, you could hardly see, and the waves covered the sounds of people running.  There were lots of rocks to hide behind, so it was a lot of fun.  We talked some more and then went to bed around 8:30 pm.  So early but it felt like it was past midnight!

We all woke up at 5:30 and climbed up a rocky hill to watch the sunrise.  It was so beautiful!
When I got home, the power was out, so I couldn’t take a shower or charge my computer to study for my final exam.  Most of the electricity on the island is generated by 3 wind turbines on the island.  Occasionally there are electricity shortages.  Three hours later we got power, so I showered and got ready for a party at the university.  It was for all the students and their host families.  Each family was asked to bring a dessert.  Jazmin (my host mom) brought a delicious chocolate cake.  It was a fun afternoon.

my host family!!!

Fun on the Island

A post from Tina Shantz

Woohoo! I have enough internet (albeit very slow) to post again!

The week went by very quickly filled with hw, relaxing on the beach, LOTS of swimming, and the like. It was also week two of my salsa class which I was taking 3x/week for 2 weeks. That's been very fun and I've actually managed to hold my own when dancing. Of course, it's somewhat easier since the guys have to lead :)

Action shot of me showing off my salsa skills with our instructor Oscar
On Wednesday I headed up to El Progresso (the highlands) to make some homemade pizza and do a little volunteering at the Hacienda where Amy works.

Our creation -- sooo delicious!! We were all craving pizza!

Christina and I with our machetes at the Hacienda -- we didn't really get to use them but it was fun to carry them around! Amy and other volunteers use them chop down mora (blackberry) so they were actually quite sharp. 

We spent a while cleaning up around the school after pizza and then hiked up to a view point to look at the ocean - that dot way out on the right hand side is Leon Dormido where we went snorkeling!
 Sarah picking oranges with style!
Then on Friday we had another service event! Jacquie leads an after-school project in the highlands at the library. They've been working really hard to put together an event that included a play in Spanish, games, face painting, and more! Starburst and Pixie Stix did make a brief debut along with some new clowns. Together we twisted 275+ balloon animals for some VERY excited kids!

 We also made some sweet balloon hats! This is Devin and I - Devin is an undergrad student and was volunteering at the library with Jacquie! 

That night Sara and I were invited to have dinner with Shelby's host Mom Dorys. Sara and I are both tutoring and we start each session by having both our tutees (Dorys and Jose Luis) come together for some fun games and warmups. She made a delicious dinner complete with an amazing quinoa cake dessert that was surprisingly really really good!
On Saturday there were international sailboats that were coming into the harbor from a sailing competition. GAIAS students made some signs to welcome them and we were told to come to the dock around 6:15am so we could get on the boats. 

However, when we arrived there was not much going on. We sat around until about 7:30am - then we were informed that the boat drivers that were going to take up to the sailboats were not coming. Ecuador won a MAJOR soccer game on Friday night against Venezula that ensured their place in the World Cup. This pretty much meant the entire island, including the boat drivers, were chuchaqui (or hungover) and we were out of luck. 

No matter! Saturday was still a day of partying to welcome the sailors and there was lots going on starting around 9:30am. After a quick trip home for breakfast we all came back to enjoy the day! 
(Everyone who saw this picture asks why I wasn't closer - I realize I may look far away in the picture but it felt a LOT closer when the sea lion looked back and barked to make sure I knew this was her bench!)

At 10am they starting serving the "Galapagos's biggest cheviche". For a while we were hearing "world's biggest" but that honor stays with a cheviche that over 7tons of fish. 

World's biggest or not it was still absolutely delicious with lots and lots of fish! 

The music starting going and lots and lots of people were out and about! Then we found out that, to our surprise, a bartending school needed to practice making mixed drinks. This meant that there were 4 stands set up (rum, tequila, whiskey, and beer) that were tossing drinks from 10:30-2pm for free! You walked up, sampled what they had out, told them what you like, and poof - a free drink! It was too early to have much to drink but it was fine to try different creations.
On Saturday afternoon we went up to the highlands to the Hacienda again. We were there for the "festival of the sun" - however the sun didn't really feel like making an appearance. It poured and was chilly instead but still lots of fun. We watched some of our GAIAS friends play soccer against a local team and enjoyed listening to music and walking around.
That night we celebrated Amy's birthday (which is actually today) with desserts and dancing! 

While we were hanging out on the malecon around 8:30pm a school of rays appeared! They are attracted to the lights that are near the dock (the lights are blue/green why the picture looks green). They spent several minutes just swimming around the dock as we watched - VERY neat!
Sunday was spent working on hw, doing laundry, shopping for lunch food, and snorkeling for about an hour. 
Overall a really great week! Today started class, "Political Ecology", which will be from 9-12pm everyday. I'm still working on my service work at GAIAS as well as tutoring (which takes quite a bit of prep work). I think I'm going to be pretty busy for the next three weeks!!

Santa Cruz

A post from Samantha Juda

We spent the last week in Santa Cruz. It was a mixture of field trips for class, and vacation. On Tuesday we went to the Charles Darwin Research Station, where we listened to a view lectures and then “saw” Lonesome George. He is the last tortoise of his species, and there is no one for him to mate with. I say that we “saw” him, because it was pretty far away from the viewing station, and hidden behind a lot of plants, as you can see in the picture. But it was still great to meet him. We had Tuesday afternoon free so I went to Tortuga Bay with Mary, Brice, and Sarah. The book we are reading for class talked about the bay, and how beautiful it is. It is definitely worth the 45 minute walk! It is a long sandy beach with some of the finest sand I have ever felt. The waves are a beautiful blue, and you can see cacti in the distance. There are also many Marine Iguanas (my favorites) walking around in the sand, leaving their unique trails of footprints and tail lines. We relaxed by a little cove where the water is basically still, because we were told that the water by the waves has a lot of rip tides and can be very dangerous.

On Wednesday we went to Floreana Island. It is about a two-hour boat trip from Santa Cruz. Annie and I sat on the top of the boat with two other girls. I saw some birds along the way, but nothing can compare to the sights we saw as we arrived to the island - hundreds of dolphins jumping out and around the boat, greeting us as we pulled into the port. There must have been over 150. We watched in awe - and I couldn’t even stop to take out my camera, I was too amazed. After we pulled onto shore I took a few pictures of the jumping dolphins from a distance, but didn’t get any good enough to capture the amazing view we just had.

Floreana is a small island with only 100 residents. We took a bus up to the highlands where we saw the caves that the German settlers lived in with the arrived on the island. The island has a crazy history - with a Baroness moving there with her two lovers, and people mysteriously dying. In the afternoon we went snorkeling at a black sand beach before we headed back to Santa Cruz. That night we were walking around and hanging out with Annie’s “Primo” (who is from Santa Cruz but we met him on San Cristobal while he was studying English at the university). He was walking at his parents shop in the artisan market and introduced us to some of the other workers. They were sitting around playing music, and we joined in. One man was playing the guitar and singing, another was playing a donkey jaw, and the third was shaking Goat nails. Primo was drumming on a box. It was awesome! I went and got my ukulele and joined them, too. The guitarist borrowed my ukulele and started playing on it too - he didn’t even know what it was, and kept asking why it only had four strings. He played a beautiful song, that I couldn’t completely enjoy because I was worried that he would break the instrument from strumming too hard - luckily my uke survived, and we have a video of the song to enjoy!

Thursday - Thanksgiving - we went on a field trip to the highlands. We hiked on a trail to see the endemic Miconia plants. Our professor is so funny, and put moss on his face, pretending to be Darwin. After the hike we went to a hacienda to eat lunch and see some giant tortoises - at least with these we could stand really close, unlike Lonesome George. We took a ton of pictures with them, and then left to go into a lava tunnel. After we walked through the lava tunnel (nothing like the cave we climbed down on Isabela) we went to the Scalesia forest to see the trees we have been learning about in class. On our way back into town we stopped at the Recycling center for a quick tour. It was crazy how similar it was there to the place I went in Santa Clara to take pictures for my Photo Final last quarter. I took pictures at the center, that are so similar to the ones I took in the Spring! After we got back to the hotel GAIAS gave us cake and ice cream for Thanksgiving! They also had the local students make us Thanksgiving cards, which were really cute. A bunch of us decided to go to this restaurant where we could buy pie’s (we wanted to go there early to make sure they didn’t run out). I ate some Key Lime Pie, and THEN we went to get dinner - a delicious meal of Pizza! There is no way we could have found a typical thanksgiving meal while on Santa Cruz, so we decided that it would be best to eat what we have all been missing most. It was so perfect. We walked into the restaurant and it was busy with people who were watching the big soccer game - and what would be a thanksgiving in South America without a soccer game?! It was great!

Friday we went to Tortuga Bay as a group and played soccer in the sand and then played in the waves. After we spent hours on the beach it was time for us to take the two hour (bumpy) boat ride back to San Cristobal.

What a great week! Monday we will start our final class… and our last three weeks on the island. I don’t want to leave!

Field Trip #2

A post from Corinne Dorais

Sorry I haven’t updated–internet has been out on the island!

I took a field trip with my class last week. We were all a little nervous given that our last field trip was to the dump. The dump was interesting, but this trip was a lot more fun. We left campus around 8:30 in the morning and drove all of 45 seconds before reaching our first stop. We went to a café in town called Mockingbird. They serve organic coffee grown here on San Cristobal. We each sipped a cup of hot coffee while watching a short video about the harvesting and processing of the coffee.
From Mockingbird, we drove up into the highlands to visit Hacienda Tranquila. Hacienda Tranquila is a really cool organization. They work a lot with the community to promote sustainable farming practices and education about endemic plants. I also volunteer at the hacienda sometimes, so I’ll write more about that later.

From the hacienda, we drove to the coffee plantation where we ate raw coffee beans and saw all the equipment used to process the coffee. We weren’t there during a harvest time, so there wasn’t anything being processed but we spoke with one of the managers and he walked us through all the steps.
From the plantation we drove to El Junco. El Junco is a lake (one of the only freshwater lakes in the Galapagos.) It formed when rain collected in the caldera of the volcano (no longer active) that formed the island. As it used to be the top of the volcano, it is the highest place on the island. We hiked up to the top and had a beautiful panoramic view of the island.

Following El Junco we went to the Galapaguera (after a quick stop for lunch.) The Galapaguera is a breeding station for the giant tortoises that are endemic to San Cristobal. One of the guides from the National Park explained there are 11 species of giant tortoises in the world, 10 of which are from the Galapagos. Of those 10 species, 9 can be found in the wild. The only species that cannot be found in the wild is _______(can’t remember). That’s because there is only one individual left of that species (Lonesome George.) When he dies, the species will be extinct. He is currently in captivity on Santa Cruz island.

After the Galapaguera, we visited Porto Chino, a beautiful beach. The water there was even warmer than here in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and there was a nice wave break. There were so many sea turtles there that we bumped into a few while we were swimming. Porto Chino is one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen here.

By the time we finished swimming at Porto Chino, it was past 5:00 and we needed to return to town. As we were driving down from the highlands we saw a gorgeous sunset over Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. It was a pretty amazing day.

I leave in a few hours for a trip to several of the other islands. I won’t have access to my computer or the internet while I’m gone, but hopefully the internet will be fixed when we return! If so, I’ll update the blog and pictures next weekend. Talk to you in a week!

Salsa y Los Chicos

A post from Corinne Dorais 

Every single day I have to remind myself that I’m really here. It’s so incredible.

This past week flew by. I had a decent amount of homework (for here) and having deadlines to meet always seems to make time pass more quickly.

On Monday I started salsa lessons! It cost me $25 for 6 hours of class and it’s been more than worth it. I’ve had three classes so far and finish the other three next week. Unsurprisingly, my utter lack of rhythm does not make me the best dancer but it’s so much fun that I don’t care! There’s live salsa music tonight at a bar called Iguana Rock (seemingly the most popular bar in town and where we have our salsa classes.) There’s also a Happy Hour at one of the hotels on the boardwalk. One of the guys from GAIAS is playing guitar so we’re all going to go support him (and happy hour) and then go practice our new salsa skills!

Salsa wasn’t the only new activity I started this week. Yesterday was my first day volunteering at an after school program in the highlands. El Progreso, the only other town on the island, is about a 15 minute taxi ride inland. It’s an even smaller community than Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and doesn’t benefit nearly as much from tourism. Families tend to be poorer farmers and the kids in the community don’t have access to the after school programs offered here in town. There’s also far less to do in El Progreso. So when I heard they needed help at a small after school program at the library, I immediately signed up.

The library is a one room building on the edge of town. There are five shelves of books, but it doesn’t much resemble any libraries I’ve seen before. The kids are absolutely adorable. As soon as I met them, I knew I was hooked. They range in age from 2-12 and know very little English, though they all learn a few words in school. They were a little shy upon meeting me, but it took all of 10 minutes before they were grabbing my hand, hugging me, and sharing their stories. There’s a tiny bit of a language barrier, but my Spanish is getting much better. And kids are so forgiving that I don’t worry as much about making mistakes, which also helps.

I went back today and they were so excited; I don’t think they entirely believed me when I told them I’d be back. We were playing charades (you had to guess the word in both Spanish and English!) and I noticed one of the 5 year olds, Kayla sitting off in the corner quietly flipping through a picture book. When I sat down next to her she shut her book and pushed it away. At first I thought she needed a bit more time to get used to strangers, but then she shyly slid a new book towards me. I asked if she wanted to read it together; she nodded, gave a small smile, and slid the tiniest bit closer.
By the time we finished Little Red Riding Hood she was curled into my side, fighting to keep her job as page turner as more of the kids joined us. When we finished Sleeping Beauty, she was in my lap. I’ve only been there two days, but already I know I’ll be sad to leave those kids in December.
I just got back from dinner. So far I’ve had seven dinners with my host family; we’ve eaten out for four of them. Can you tell my host mom is out of town? My host dad is great. I’m pretty sure he’s worried I don’t have any friends because I do homework during the week, don’t go to the bar on Tuesday nights, and have returned home before 3:00am. He continues to tell me I don’t have a curfew; come back whenever I want as long as I have fun! Two friends and I made lunch at the house one day this week and he was so excited to see I actually do have friends. He’s promised to come dance with me tonight at Iguana Rock and he’s already forced his nephew into coming to dance with me too. Poor guy has no idea what he just got signed up for!

Other than salsa and volunteering, I’m just settling into island life and realizing more and more that I must be one of the luckiest people in the world.

Time to head out for the night! More pictures (and videos!) soon.


The Far Side

A post from Erick Dowell

Montones de Arena
We’re in our final class (chuta). This means these are the last 3 weeks in paradise and the last learning experience on the enchanted isles is quickly passing us by. The class is Human Ecology and Maritime Communities (eww) it’s a very social science class for a very natural science me. But I have to admit for the amount of times I check out and go to facebook world or more often do a crucigrama or a sporcle quiz, I have been enjoying a lot of it. We’ve been talking a lot of philosophies and how it effects how we relate to our environment, especially the sea. There is obviously a focus on the Galapagos, and our professor (a pretty important person in Ecuador and a genius) is getting us to do an artisanal fishing trip to see the real effects of this activity and decide whether it’s a better alternative to fishing. He also just announced he’s going to get the Governor of the Galapagos to come to speak to us (yeh, he’s legit).

As always in the Ecuador though, unexpected things always pop up (recuerda SOPRESA!?). One of our previous professors, Judith, returned to continue her research and her work on the epidemic that is affecting the Sea Lion populations here on San Cristobal. She also asked us if we wanted to assist in a entire island census over the weekend. It involved being boated to remote beaches to stay overnight and count sea lions on the “dark side of the island” as my friend, David, said. All that were going (a group of GAIAS students and a group of local students) gathered late one night to learn all the regulations and the general plan for the next day. We each got assigned to different areas and all of us hoped for the coolest locations (BTW: Cerro Brujo & Punta Pitt are the coolest for your future reference). The people who helped here in the port with the sea lions got placed (rightfully so) in the coolest spots. I was lucky enough to get assigned to Montones de Arena (yeh, I didn’t really have any idea either). We then got randomly assigned partners. They assigned me with Junior, a local student, who likes sideways-cocked, flat-billed baseball cap and New York emblazoned shirts (match made in heaven). 

The next day all of us going skipped class bought food and pondered on the adventures we were about to have. We arrived at the old pier on the side of town with all our tents and bags ready to be boated off, even Rico (the ice cream cart driver) came to say, “chao” to us. After traveling along the east side of the island we passed Puerto Chino and a waterfall that drops dramatically to the sea. We soon reached “Mounds of Sand” and Junior and I were the first to be dropped off at our remote site. You could immediately see that we were in the middle of nowhere. One direction showed the endless Pacific and the other a desert landscaped topped with dead volcanoes. Behind the rocky shores were huge dunes of sand covered with you normal beachy brush. If you ignored the volcanic rocks and the cerulean blue waters it looks like a Carolina beach back home. Junior and I fought the wind to set up camp, rested, and went on an epic search to find our sea lions. After about 2 hours of trekking on a dramatically changing shoreline (the softest, untouched sands I’ve ever felt, basalt that looked like pillows, and fields grass waving into the distance) we found no lobos. DONDE ESTAN??? Our whole reason for being (there at least) was gone. We found some lobo bones and skat at the furthest beaches. We also found bastante marine iguanas. So we returned to camp saying that we would come here in the morning just to see if any sea lions showed up from the sea. During our down time I found out that Junior was super talkative and we covered ever possible topic I think, from marriage to American culture (due to lacking in a few key vocabulary words he might now think the US is just like American Pie, whoops), but eventually ocean breezes and shooting stars plying through the Milky Way put us both to sleep.

El Amanecer
                We awoke a las 4 and hiked to our spot. Cero lobos………………UN LOBO!!!!!............no mas lobos……..DOS LOBOS!! In the twilight as dawn approached, every rock looked like a lobo sleeping or doing their morning yoga routine, but in the end we spotted 2, a measly two indicating that the colony must have moved or died out. We walked back along an already made path strewn with horse dung, dog tracks, and a row of goat skulls (to be quite honest this made me fear for nightly visitors). We paused to watch one of the most beautiful sunrises that I’ve ever seen. 
    It wasn’t that bright, incoming rain(?) clouds hung low so it just blazed the color of a red hot poker in between a jeweled Pacific and cotton candy sky. It seems that the boat that was supposed to pick us up was late in retuning, so our little excursion lasted till 3ish in the afternoon leaving me with a gnarly sunburn and the beach a whole lot cleaner since we passed our time listening to Junior’s Ecuajams and picking up the mucha basura. Eventually though we spotted Jorge (a park ranger/veterinarian/ I have no idea) tearing towards us on the zodiac. What a great adventure!

  After reviewing our times apart and sleeping a lot a group of us went diving at Punta Pitt (the northernmost part of San Cristobal Island). It is supposed to be more tropical because of the Panamic current and there are also supposed to be WHALE SHARKS!! We had an hour and a half boat ride passing the iconic Leon Dormido and Cerro Brujo. 
Yours Truly
Moorish Idol
     We were soon there jumping into some wonderfully warm water. Scott (probably one of the best dive partners ever-the other is David) was my partner this time and we kept a sharp look out for whale sharks, but not soo much that we missed the Moorish Idol that nonchalantly cruised by. Gil, from Finding Nemo, that’s who it was and that was one of my favorite diving moments, having Scott and I jointly freaking out after seeing this beautiful character. After we calmed we had fallen behind the group, but this gave us the opportunity to have a Dave Master point out the field of garden eels, an eagle ray, and various tropical trigger fish. Scott tried to show me some bite marks on coral, but I guess I missed the memo on bitten coral hand signal cause I was super confused. Scott had I think his second best experience underwater (after seeing hammerheads) we he got surrounded by his favorite fish, the bullseye puffer. 

Scott and his aquatic love
A Galapagos Puffer and some Tortugas later we were back on the surface. We passed our surface time with a quick snorkel around the rock where we could see more Idols, trigger fish, a school of mullet, and I saw a bacalao (this one is a grouper not a cod and is endangered probs cause they taste so darn good). If we got bored with that we could easily just turn upside down a watch the red-footed boobies fly above our heads. Our next dive was at the ol’ Leon Dormido. I’m not bored o it yet but it’s cool that I am now familiar with the underwater topography of a certain place. This time though the currents were crazy and just spent my time trying to stay at depth (gauge was broke). It all turned out alright and we got to warm up to some jumping mantas in the distance and a quick relaxing stop at Puerto Grande. 
Cerro Brujo
Galapagos Puffer

 We’re all both dreading and preparing for the end here, and I’m no different. Now I only have a fishing trip, a 10 page paper, and a final between me and the completion of the semester (only 10 days). It’s about 12 till I’m back in the states and with casi demasiado good memories and my only CD of Christmas music (This Warm December by Jack Johnson and friends-thanks Marissa!) I might just make it there.
Adios to Puerto Grande

Iguanas, sea lions, and boobies, OH MY!

A post from Tina Shantz

Island Hopping – Part One: Santa Cruz 

So back on October 28th we turned in our summer papers, presented our class presentations and turned in our research papers all by 12pm. Then it was time for a much needed vacation!! At 1:30pm everyone piled onto two boats to head to Santa Cruz.

Shot of GAIAS as we headed away from San Cristobal!

Unfortunately the water was quite rough and the boat was overcrowded. They had to pull down the tarp covering meaning it was quite hot leading many of us to feel pretty queasy (and a couple to even get sick) on the 1.5hr ride over. However, we got to Santa Cruz and the sun came out! Beautiful!
Santa Cruz is the most populated island which was immediately apparent by the abundance of tourist shops and variety of restaurants (there’s even MULTIPLE pizza places!!!!). We headed to our hotel which was really nice. Amy, Jacquie, Christina, Alexis (a marine bio student), and I shared a room. Since it was my birthday we decided to go in search of some dessert and drinks before dinner (why not right?!). We found an incredible dessert place which had awesome apple pi and ice cream waffles which we enjoyed with some caipirinhas (a Brazilian drink that is sort of like a mojito, only with lime). From there we headed to dinner which was so delicious and they even did a special birthday surprise for me – a HUGE piece of cake and all the waiters singing “feliz cumpleaños”! They even smashed my face in the cake, a traditional way to celebrate birthdays J It was a great 25th birthday!

Cake in the face!!

The next two days (Sat. and Sun.) we spent on Santa Cruz. We are going back in a couple weeks so we didn’t spent as much time there. On Sat we traveled to Seymour Island via a pretty sweet yacht. We saw some amazing wildlife including the frigate birds with their huge red chests, inflated because they were preparing to mate. We also saw blue footed boobies and a sea lion who had just given birth!

Mom, baby (with after birth), and a curious bird

Frigate bird with inflated red chest

Blue footed boobies!!

Later in the day we went to a wonderful beach where we spent a couple hours playing the water and enjoying the sand. Unfortunately, there were blue-bottle jelly fish in the water which gave a handful of people some pretty good stings. This is also where I took my underwater camera underwater (go figure) and it broke L Sad day. Therefore, the rest of the pictures for the trip are from various other cameras including Jacquie’s.

That night there were Halloween celebrations all over the island. I really love Halloween so I was excited to hear a group of students were dressing up to go out! We all put on whatever clothing we had to make costumes. A group of us went as “80s girls” with crazy side ponytails and outrageous brightly colored outfits. There were also sports players, trolls, models, and other crazy outfits. We must have looked pretty crazy around town. We went to several discotechs (dance clubs) looking for the best deals and had some fun dancing! A group of us headed back early because we knew we had a big day tomorrow but I know some folks stayed out til the wee hours of the morning.

The best 80s costumes we could come up with!!

Sunday was also an excellent day. First we headed out on a VERY choppy boat ride to go snorkeling. There were nine of us in my group so it was small which was nice. It was really cold but we all jumped in and were rewarded with amazing snorkeling - full of great fish! I started swimming to a slightly deeper area to check out a large school of fish that were swimming really quickly. I dove down to check them out and when I looked out all of sudden SHARK! It was a big guy just lurking about 20ft away. It totally caught us all by surprise but was really cool to see!

Then we were back in the boat to go check out more sharks and iguanas (however, for this view of the sharks we stayed on dry land!). The iguanas were all over the lava rocks - we saw dozens. They aren't dangerous so you can get up real close to them. It felt a little like being in jurassic park - creepy!
A HUGE iguana!

Our last stop of the morning was a river that was partially salt water and partially fresh water cut between two high cliffs. This was the place we went cliff jumping (one of my favorite parts of the trip!!). We climbed up to the top, about 45ft up, and looked down. It was definitely intimidating to see how far down it was but the way the cliffs were there was really little danger of hitting any rocks. They told us to jump like a pencil and so off we went! Jac jumped before me. Unfortunately she started absolutely perfect but by the time she got to the water she had accidentally started to tip backwards causing her landing to be on her back and leaving her with some amazing bruises (but no serious problems). I jumped without any issues - it was the craziest feeling to be in the air for long enough to realize that I was still falling!! It was really freaky the first time but after that I went back and jumped again! Super great adrenaline rush!

Not the best pic but you can get a sense of the heigh even though you can't see the water!

After this we had a break for lunch and then we went to visit a neat lava tunnel which was pretty cool. Finally, we ended at a beach to relax but unfortunately it was pretty chilly. Corinne, Elysse, Travis, and I went in the water but ultimately we left early because both those on land and those in the water were chilly. The night was fairly uneventful although we did do a little shopping and lots of chatting as we got ready to head to Isabella the next day!!