The taxi driver arrives in due time to take us for a morning tour into the Galapagos highlands to the ranch El Chato where we hope to get a glimpse of the giant tortoises. Our local host from the White House Galapagos hotel has established contact with an acquaintance, a taxi driver, who will be able to take five passengers in his spacious vehicle to the highlands of Santa Cruz. It has not been easy to find a taxi for five since the rule is that taxis in the Galapagos Islands only take four passengers!
It turns out that the public taxi for five passengers is a white pickup truck, pretty similar to all other white pickup taxis on the island. Maybe it is a tiny bit wider than some others, but we are not really sure. At first sight, it seems to be a tight squeeze with the four of us in the rear seat, but when we try it, it is actually not that inconvenient after all.
I sit in front on the passenger seat next to the driver who also acts as our tour guide. This is the typical way to get a budget-friendly tour in the Galapagos Islands, of course provided that you speak some Spanish. You are not dependent on or obliged to take an organised tour – but can perfectly do in on your own! The total fare for the half-day tour is only $40 (excluding the entrance fee to the ranch El Chato which is only a few dollars), which is way below what the professional tour operators charge in Galapagos. Another significant advantage is that we get our own private tour and guide!
It is not difficult to get to see the giant Galapagos tortoises on your own on Santa Cruz. The farmers will often let you walk around on their land to look out for the animals, charging just a small amount for it. Other options to get to the ranches in the highlands (than by taxi) are to rent a bike or hike all the way. For a slightly less demanding tour into the Galapagos highlands, there are also daily local buses to Santa Rosa, but from there you will need to hike the rest of the way.
Our driver appears to be both amiable and talkative. He soon realises that we are eager to get information, and he willingly answers all our questions and explains about the crops, the animals and life in general.
The villages Bellavista and Santa Rosa were established in the humid highlands where the farmers, besides raising cattle, set up plantations. We are taught that around the two villages the inhabitants still grow a variety of fruits and vegetables like pineapple, papaya, bananas, coconuts, sugar canes, coffee, avocado, oranges, lemons and mandarins. Most of these are today on a small-scale basis, though. Along the way he points out which farmers grow coffee and where to find a small pineapple plantation etc.
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First stop in the highlands is at the twin craters, Los Gemelos, which are actually not real craters caused by impact, but so-called sink holes created from empty, volcanic magma chambers having collapsed over time. Our driver waits for us in the car while we go for a walk along the edge of the huge craters with a breathtakingly beautiful scenery.
We walk cautiously at appropriate distance from the rim, continuing into the adjacent lush scalesia forest. The adventurous jungle or cloud forest is a different biome than the vegetation down at Puerto Ayora. Mosses grow on the trees, and orchids as well as kaleidoscopic birds can with a bit of luck be spotted, among others the vermillion flycatcher. Scalesia is endemic to the Galapagos Islands. However, the scalesia forest is severely endangered. The forest consists of 15 species and 6 subspecies, and each of the species has adapted to the different vegetation zones on the various islands they grow.
Like the natural adaption of the Darwin finches in the animal world, the scalesia species have in the plant world adapted to the surroundings at the specific locations where they grow. This means that the scalesia trees here on Santa Cruz around los Gemelos are absolutely unique. Once the scalesia forest covered a great part of Santa Cruz Island, but human settlements have throughout the years left the island with invasive species. With time these have eliminated the scalesia trees nearly all over the island. This happened in particular from the beginning of the 20th centurity when people from the outside, Americans and Europeans, came to the island to settle in the fertile areas.
Only in the region around and inside the craters of Los Gemelos has the scalesia forest been able to survive in the Galapagos Islands – apart from in a few locations far away from civilisation. This is why a programme with the purpose of eliminating the invasive species has been initiated. The hope is that it will leave room for the scalesia forest to outcompete other species and expand again on Santa Cruz.
We now continue our tour through Santa Rosa and take a longer dirt road leading to a couple of ranches, among others the ranch El Chato. The driver draws our attention to the first tortoise in the grass at the roadside. Captivated, we watch the giant animal graze in the wilderness, and yet another one! They are herbivores and feed on cacti, flowers, grasses, leaves and fruit.
Our local friend explains that the giant tortoises in particular thrive on juicy guava fruits, and that is precisely why there is such a large number of them here in the Galapagos highlands around the farms like El Chato. They may weigh up to two hundred kilograms (nearly up to 500 pounds). Considering the heavy weight, it is not strange that the solid giants move around slowly on their sturdy legs, as well as lie down a considerable amount of time during the day. According to our driver there may at present be around 4,000 wild, giant tortoises in the highlands of Santa Cruz.
As the naturalist Charles Darwin discovered on his voyage on the HMS Beagle from 1831 to 1836, one of the noticeable things was, that each of the 13 larger islands of Galapagos had slightly different variations of tortoises. Sadly enough sailors exploited the plentiful giant tortoises in the years to come. They went onshore and captured vast numbers of them to get a stock of fresh food on board, taking advantage of the ability of the tortoises to survive for a long time without food or water.
Today only a fraction of the giants are left on the islands, and that is why the work at the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora plays an important role. It ensures with a breeding programme the biodiversity and conservation of the species and has succeeded in bringing the number of Galapagos tortoises back up. All stages from unhatched eggs, baby tortoises to full-grown giants can be found there, and they are all, eventually, released back to the islands.
Our taxi driver greets everyone we pass on the way. Seemingly, he knows a lot of people living and working in the village communities. The number of inhabitants on Santa Cruz Island is only about 20,000, and therefore the locals have ties to people everywhere on the island. Our companion even has a prompt cup of coffee with an acquaintance, he comes across, while we spend time exploring the area around the ranch.
Finally we find ourselves walking around on the premises of the ranch, El Chato, which our guy takes us to. Here the giant tortoises roam around in their natural habitat. Soon after passing by the stairs, leading down to a local lava tube, we spot the first awesome creature, all by itself in the midst of grass and other vegetation. The giant animal more than meets our expectations! It is huge! Fascinated we follow its drowsy and sluggish movements and study the patterns of its beautiful shell. As required we do, though, keep at a certain distance in order not to disturb. When seeing that it takes a few steps forward, burdened by its weight, we get a better understanding of why these giant tortoises do not move a lot around. It glances at us with lazy eyes.
In the beginning we are thrilled to pieces and marvel every time we locate one of these prehistoric-looking animals around El Chato. We can hardly believe that they are walking around just beside us and even being as numerous as they are. Some snooze at the path, and we actually have to make a detour into the vegetation to get around a tortoise lying in the middle of the trail.
Our friend explains that sometimes the locals need to remove one of the giants from the road. Because of the heavy weight, it requires more than one man to do so! With a smile he emphasises that only the Galapagos residents are allowed to do it. Visitors are absolutely not!
Still keeping at proper distance, we get a glimpse of another absolutely giant tortoise hiding behind some bushes a little bit further away. All of a sudden it raises its slender and long neck and delivers a hissing sound as if it senses danger.
Continuing through the forest, we find a group of tortoises resting in a muddy pond, seemingly finding it refreshing. Truly amazed and fascinated by the loads of giant animals we get to see here around El Chato, we all agree that this is definitely the highlight of the day!
While visiting the Galapagos Islands in 1835 Charles Darwin made some remarkable observations. He noticed that the shells of the giant tortoises varied depending on location in the Galapagos Islands.
In arid zones the shape of the shells apparently adapted to the specific food resources available there, whereas in lush areas with other feeding possibilities the shape seemed to be different. On Pinta Island he observed that the shells were saddle-shaped. This enabled the tortoises to eat cacti in an environment with few food resources available. At the same time he suggested that this shape, allowing the tortoise to raise its head, was convenient to fight with other individuals over the scarce food resources.
As an explanation of the different variations of the species around the archipelago, he suggested that species could change over time. His theory was that species had arrived to the islands at some point in time and then developed further, adapting to the local environment. This, later, together with his numerous other observations and studies, led to his theory of evolution by natural selection.
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‘A Taxi Driver is our Tour Guide to the Galapagos Giant Tortoises’
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