A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about snorkeling

San Pedro outdoors

sunny 86 °F

In between all of the eating and drinking (many beach bars!) we did manage to get outside on San Pedro. We did a lot of walking along the beach and through town, just taking in the sights and drinking Izzy's smoothies. We also signed up for a couple of snorkel trips. The first one was to a place called Mexican Rocks. Wish I could provide some pics, but (for the second time!) my GoPro waterproof case failed - despite extreme care in testing it before use and in inserting the camera on site. That's if for them as far as I am concerned.

Soooo.... well the water is a beautiful blue and the clarity was decent considering that very high winds had stirred up the sands. There is a barrier reef about a half mile offshore from the San Pedro beach which protects the island from swells and waves (but not hurricanes...) and the usual snorkeling/diving trips are on the island side of the reef. A good selection of local sealife was to be had.

On our second trip, we went to Shark Alley and Hol Chan. Hol Chan is a large marine preserve to the south of San Pedro of which Belizeans are understandably proud. Despite its large size as far as I can tell snorkel trips are restricted to one mooring area. It was extremely crowded when we were there, with at least a dozen tour boats moored to the seabed or to each other. The seeing and sealife were very good, but this is a trip that would be much better at a less crowded time of year. Trying to find a trip that went elsewhere in the Reserve (don't know if that is even legal) might be worth the effort as well. We booked this trip through Ecologic Divers

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but due to missing staff (the day after New Years - I wonder why??) we were sent to a different group. The good news is that the folks at Ecologic Divers were very diligent in helping make sure we got our trip, even to the point of bicycling down the beach to find us and direct us to the right destination.

Shark and Ray Alley is another very crowded diving site outside the Marine Reserve. The highlight here is to encounter sharks (nurse sharks) and rays. Unfortunately, some operators (not ours) chum the water to bring in the sharks and rays and clearly they are very well trained; a dozen or so sharks were writhing together to get at the bait. If you wish you can get quite close, even within touching distance. Moments after the bait was exhausted they disappeared again. There is not much else to see at this site so if the chumming frenzy is not your cup of tea, you might look elsewhere.

I have done quite a bit of snorkeling/free diving around the world, so maybe I am getting a bit jaded, but I found both trips to be too rushed and also quite crowded compared to other snorkeling spots (It was the holidays, of course). If I were going back I would seriously consider one of the multi-day snorkeling trips that are on offer. This requires a bit more planning - for example, should you break your hotel reservation into two pieces? We also were told that they couldn't confirm a trip until about 2 weeks before arrival which further complicated our plans.

Another alternative that we were eager to try was on the island of Caye Caulker (more about Caye Caulker in the next post). We ran across signs in San Pedro for a tour that included more exploration of the mangrove swamps near Caye Caulker but were never able to make contact with the proprietor, Captain Richard. He has a Facebook page but we couldn't get to him by phone. Probably the best was to reach him would be to go to Caye Caulker - his office is about 50 feet south of the ferry dock on the beach.

Our other 'outdoor' activity was to rent a golf cart for the afternoon and head out to the northern half of the island. As you head north through San Pedro you come to a small bridge with a pretty large toll ($2.50 US each way) that leads to the north. The road is partly paved and occasionally very rough, but there's no reason to hurry. Most of the way you have mangrove to the west and low bushes/palms to the east. The entire length that is relatively easily accessible by cart is lined with restaurants and resorts, some of which are very large. If you were planning to stay out in this area, you would be well advised to check on what options you might have to get into town.

We saw a few iguanas along the road

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and some shorebirds (egrets and cranes primarily) in the mangroves. It was an enjoyable outing and pretty much satisfied our need to cruise around in golf carts.

As we were jostling down the road we were very surprised to see what looked exactly like a hipster food truck facility, obviously brand new, along the west side of the road. The Truck Stop had some quite tasty food, a nice bar and ice cream place as well as a boardwalk that takes you out over the mangrove swamp where there are picnic tables. It also includes the requisite cornhole game spot. Makes for a very pleasant break in the trip. Here's a picture apparently taken during construction (credit to Ambergriscaye.com for the photo).

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By the way, we ate there non-ironically.

Posted by tdeits 07:46 Archived in Belize Tagged mexico rocks golf san belize snorkeling chan pedro shark carts caye ambergris alley hol Comments (0)

On to the Galapagos!

Santa Cruz Island

semi-overcast 77 °F

After a great time in Quito, I hopped a plane to the Galapagos. Pro tip number one. You have to pay a $20 cash fee before you board a flight to the Galapagos at a booth in one corner of the Quito airport. Also, my ticket agent insisted that I have a lock for my bag before she would check me in. I was able to find one at the gift shop in the airport for about $!0. I have no idea whether this is an airline requirement or what; of course, in the US you can lock your bag but only with a TSA approved lock; that is, one they can unlock. In Ecuador, apparently any lock is OK.

My flight had a stopover in Guayaquil. Pro tip number two!. I thought the flight attendants announced that you could get off the plane while waiting in Guayaquil. I was wrong! I wandered off and because the only passage that would allow me back on was blocked, I had to leave the secured area of the airport. One nice thing was that I got to view this beautiful wall of orchids and plants in the airport:

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It took some charm and patience, but I was able to talk my way back through security and reboard. Whew!

We landed at the Galapagos airport on Baltra Island, the main airport in the islands. I was excited to be in the Galapagos, as I am a great admirer of Charles Darwin and of course it is a legendary 'bucket list' place for many, myself included. What I was not prepared for was my emotional reaction. As we left the plane via a set of stairs, we proceeded down a breezeway. Looking up and to my left I saw two birds; Darwin finches. One was relatively light-colored with a slender bill, the other was darker with a heavier bill.

I was very moved by the mere sight of these two birds. Of course, they were the first wildlife I saw, but more than that, their differences in coloration and beak size perfectly illustrated the traits that led Darwin to intensively examine the birds of the Galapagos. Years of study later, he realized that while he thought he was studying a wide variety of birds; robins, meadowlarks, etc. he determined that they were all evolved finches! These observations formed a significant part of the foundation of his thinking on evolution and natural selection. This is one of those rare scientific insights that is immediately apparent to the non-specialist, and at the same time one that profoundly influenced science. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised at my reaction.

Back to pro tips. You need to be ready to pay $100 cash per person to enter the Galapagos at the airport, so be prepared; there is an ATM available, but I wouldn't count on that myself. The airport itself has been recently rebuilt using many energy and resource conservation principles. The airport improvements are part of a multi-decade program to restore the environment and the wildlife of the Galapagos, funded at least in part by this fee. I understand that about half the fee goes to island parks and restoration, about 25% to the towns of Galapagos, and the remainder to a variety of Ecuadorian organizations like the Navy.

Speaking of money, I will repeat from an earlier post. You will have a lot of trouble making purchases in Ecuador and the Galapagos unless you have LOTS of small bills with you. Finding someone who will take a cash machine $20 or even a $10 is a real challenge and credit cards are rarely accepted. I would recommend a couple hundred dollars in singles for a reasonable length stay. ATM's are abundant on Santa Cruz, by the way.

More practicalities. You get your luggage after a pretty entertaining time where you watch a sniffer dog climbing all over everyone's bags. The dog found something from our plane; that bag got hustled off. You then board a quite crowded bus for a 10 minute ride to a channel separating Baltra Island from the main island of Santa Cruz. The airport is probably on this island at least in part because during WWII the US and Ecuadorians build an air base on the island. Unfortunately, the development of the base led to the extinction on the island of a unique iguana species. Luckily, a reserve colony existed and is being used to repopulate the island, which is being restored to its natural state to the extent possible. As you travel on the bus, you will see the foundations of many buildings that were part of the air base.

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The airport bus takes you to a dock where you board a passenger ferry for a 10 minute ride across the channel from Baltra Island to Santa Cruz (you will need one of your dollars right here). There is usually a bus and several taxis waiting to take you onward. If your destination is the main town of Puerto Ayora, the bus will get you there for about $3. The taxi costs about $25 - as usual, ask first. Both get you there at about the same time, so take your choice.

Puerto Ayora is the main town on the south end of the island, about a 45 minute bus ride from the airport/channel. It's a small town but does have plenty of amenities, including a supermarket and many hotels, apartments and hostels. This is the main 'tourist street' along the water and one of its attractions, a small fish market with multispecies attendance.

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I had an AirBNB booking for a small apartment ($65/day). Good hotels run about $100, and hostels are in the $15-$20 range. My place was several blocks from the waterfront which was no problem, and was clean and comfortable. All agree that drinking tap water anywhere in the Galapagos is inadvisable. I continued my modestly reckless policy of avoiding using tap water to drink/brush my teeth, but still eating salads and accepting ice cubes in my occasional adult beverage. I survived with no ill effects, but YMMV!

There are dozens of shops selling day tours and longer excursions. I frequently saw signs out front offering 'last minute' trips of up to 8 days, often leaving the next day. I did not shop these tours, but it does suggest that if you want to take a chance you could find a room for the night in Puerto Ayora and spend the next day shopping for a bargain tour if that is your preference. I'm guessing it would be a good plan to research whether tours tend to leave on particular days (I saw several leaving on a Friday) and get there one day ahead?

My interest was in day snorkeling trips, so I carefully selected one of the tour agencies by the process of wandering past a bunch of them until I got bored. Actually, I picked mine because their walls were covered with pictures signed by happy and satisfied clients and it had 'Evolution' in the name. It was called Galapagos Evolution Dreams . (Their web page is completely content-free, but I have linked to it in case additional info is forthcoming). I went in and said 'sign me up for 3 tours over the next 5 days' and they made recommendations and did so. As it happens, all of the tours were very good and took me to a variety of sites around the Islands. The full day tours typically start between 7:30 and 9:00 in the morning and return by 3:00 or 4:00. Each tour has two or three snorkeling opportunities and one other stroll or something. The guides are all certified (I saw about 100 guides in training one day) and I thought they all worked hard to make the trips enjoyable. Water and a lunch are provided (ask if unsure) and they usually provide snorkel, mask, fins and a wetsuit at no extra charge. I brought my own gear as I have a prescription mask. You could snorkel without a spring-weight wetsuit, but the water is perhaps just a bit too cool for full comfort without it.

So, with my plans in place, I hit the supermarket for some breakfast goodies and got ready to get a look at the wild side of the Galapagos. Wet and wild critters here I come!

Posted by tdeits 13:17 Archived in Ecuador Tagged hotels tours santa cruz puerto snorkeling lodging guides galapagos airbnb baltra ayora Comments (0)

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