Tortoise Time in the Galapagos

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post may contain Affiliate Links.

Time on land and in the water plus a small ship to call home equals the perfect combination for exploring the Galapagos Islands. Today, it’s tortoise time on Isla Santa Cruz!

Ready, Set, Go Galapagos

We started our tortoise tour by visiting the Charles Darwin Research Station in Puerto Ayora, arriving early before the crowds. It was the final day of the land portion of our Galapagos adventure.


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The Charles Darwin Research Station is the perfect place to learn about giant tortoises.

Giant tortoises have long been the focus of attention in Galapagos. These prehistoric wonders were once viewed as nothing more than a source of food and fuel.

Tortoises can last for up to a year without food or water. As a result, hundreds of thousands of tortoises were taken by sailors as fresh food for long trips. Tortoise oil was also burned in lamps. The fragile population of giant tortoise also suffered due to predation by rats brought in on ships.

Because of all of this unwanted attention, four tortoise species are now extinct in the Galapagos.

Smaller than a leaf! Baby tortoise at the Charles Darwin Research Centre (Photo: Brad Kopp)

One of the goals of the Charles Darwin Research Station is to provide a rearing facility for endangered species.

Pens of young tortoises from several months to several years old give us our first glimpses of one of the keystone species of the Galapagos Islands’ unique fauna.

Hard to believe these little guys will grow into adults weighing upwards of 215 kilograms (475 pounds).

Click, click, click – too many photos, but these tortoise tots are so darn cute!

Cute as a button, this teeny tiny tortoise is! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

A Tortoise by Any Other Name

The buzz at the research station was all about Lonesome George. He is finally home again. Well, at least the preserved version of Lonesome George is home again.

It all started in 1971 when Lonesome George was found. This Pinta Island giant tortoise was the last of his kind. Each island has a distinct species of giant tortoise. George was it on Pinta Island. He became the poster-boy for giant tortoises throughout the Galapagos.

In 1972, George was brought to the rearing centre in Puerta Ayora for protection. It was hoped that researchers would also be able to find a mate for the lonely fellow to preserve his genetic heritage.

No such luck.

Lonesome George died in 2012 without reproducing. His body was sent to the United States for preservation. His remains recently came back to the Galapagos and are now on display in a specially-lit, climate-controlled room.

Lonesome George – on display. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Way to go, Diego!

Personally, I think George is overshadowed by Diego.

He is an endangered giant tortoise from Isla Española.

By 1960, only 14 adult tortoises remained on Española – 12 females and 2 males. Researchers took them into captivity to start a rearing program.

Diego was a captive Española tortoise brought back from the San Diego Zoo in 1975. As a result, he became the third male for the tiny group teetering on extinction.

Now over 100 years old, Diego has fathered an estimated 800 offspring. Way to go, Diego!

Living Large and Free

Meeting up with rest of our boat gang in the afternoon, we headed up to the highlands and El Chato Ranch. El Chato is a private ecological reserve where giant tortoises have free reign.

Giant tortoise strolling the path at El Chato on Isla Santa Cruz (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The reserve is actually a working farm. Tortoises come and go as they please. Tourists flock to the ranch to see these giants munching on fallen guava fruit and grazing next to livestock. It can be difficult to stay the required 2 metres (6 feet) away when these giants cut a straight path through the crowd!

Guava face! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Giant tortoises migrate seasonally from highlands to lowlands. You can follow their movements at www.movebank.org.

Far too soon, our tortoise time is done for the day. The Monserrat is calling our names.

‘Til next time, tortoises!
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Next up: All Aboard for Lizard Land in the Galapagos

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Gearing Up for the Galapagos Islands: Finally!

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post contains Affiliate Links.

Thirty years ago I dreamed of going to the Galapagos Islands to snorkel with sea lions, walk past nesting blue-footed boobies and trip alongside giant tortoises.

You know what?

Dreams do come true.

Making a Plan and Checking It Twice

Boat or land tour?

That was the first big hurdle we had to cross when we finally decided the time had come to walk in Charles Darwin’s footsteps.

One of Darwin’s finches – it’s all in the bill! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

There were pros and cons to each. Boat tours are expensive. Sea sickness is a concern.

Land tours are limited in scope. They require extra travel time between islands.

After hours poring over guidebooks, scouring the internet and checking potential trip options with TripAdvisor – we decided a cruise was the way to go. Not ultra-budget, not luxury – somewhere cruising comfortably in the lower middle.

But which boat?

Which islands?

How many days?

The budget was set. We had a month of travel through Ecuador and Peru. We couldn’t afford more than a small sample of the Galapagos.

After days of deliberation and countless hours on the computer, we settled on G Adventures 7-day (Quito to Quito) Land and Sea option.

Galapagos – Ready or Not!

We met our G Adventure representative in Quito, at the Hilton – no less! We reviewed the trip itinerary and learned that everyone else was already travelling on an extended tour, so we would join them in the Galapagos.

Our room was overlooking the green expanse of Parque El Ejido. We could see the Basilica in the distance. Sorting through a month’s worth of gear, we downsized to one bag, storing the extra bag with the hotel before crashing for a few hours.

The 4:00 a.m. breakfast and 4:30 a.m. departure would come far too soon.

On the morning flight, we saw signs of heavy rains and flooding of lowlands near Ecuador’s west coast from the plane window.

Flooded lowlands near Guayaquil (Photo: Brad Kopp)

A quick refuelling stop in Guayaquil, a short hop across a thousand or so kilometres of Pacific Ocean and we were wheels down on Baltra – a tiny island that was once a USA military base.

Boat ride from Baltra to Santa Cruz (Photo: Brad Kopp)

A short 10-minute bus ride to the dock, another short 10-minute boat ride, and into the van with our G Adventure guide for the 45-minute drive up over the highlands and down into Puerto Ayora.

The fog and drizzle lifts.

Floral scents fill the air.

Deep green, grassy fields hide ancient tortoises.

Lava Lizard (Photo: Brad Kopp)

After 30 years of waiting, we are finally here. Feet firmly planted in the land of Charles Darwin. We spent the afternoon hiking to the powder-fine white sands of Playa Brava – mockingbirds, lava lizards and finches!

Lava Heron on the hunt! (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Another short walk past sunning marine iguanas to kayaks waiting in Tortuga Bay, paddling past red mangroves to view dozens of mating green sea turtles, young black-tipped reef sharks, and squawking lava herons.

The land and sea are alive.

I revel in its wildness.

And I can’t seem to get this smile off my face; some things are worth waiting for!

If you have been (or are you planning to go) to the Galapagos, what tips do you have for selecting the perfect adventure to fit your budget?

Next up: Tortoise Time in the Galapagos

Exploring Northern Spain: The Painted Caves of Cantabria

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

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Cave paintings – they are history, art and exploration all rolled into one sweet package. How could we come to northern Spain and not check out some of their painted caves?

First up, the star of northern Spain’s painted caves – Altamira.

Cave painting of Northern Spain

 

The Cave of Altamira

Altamira has an intriguing history – in addition to the prehistoric paintings dating back some 14,000 years.

This painted cave is 30 kilometres (19 miles) west of Santander on the northern coast of Spain, in the province of Cantabria. A roof collapse blocked the entrance 13,000 years ago, sealing off the paintings inside. In 1868, a hunter stumbled across the treasure. Eight years later, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola saw the cave for the first time.

An amateur archaeologist, Sanz de Sautuola returned to excavate the entrance to the cave. During one of his visits, his daughter Maria found paintings of bison on the ceiling of a side chamber.

Nobody believed that the paintings were paleolithic art. After 20 years of controversy about their status, the authentic nature of the Altamira paintings was recognized in 1902. Archaeologists discovered engraved animal bones in subsequent digs. One of these carved bones dated to 14,480 years ago.

Maria’s chamber contains most of the paintings. There are red hematite and black charcoal bison images, horses, and a doe – which at 2.5 metres (8.2 feet) is the biggest painting in the collection. Altamira was finally designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 – more than 100 years after its discovery.

After Altamira, everything is decadence.” – Picasso stating his belief that in Altamira, art had reached maturity.

Neo-Cave

On one hand, a visit to Altamira is exciting. On the other, it is a mixed bag. The original painted cave closed in 2001 to protect the art. Understandable. Altamira Museum’s Neo-Cave is a replica of the 270-metre (885 feet) long cave and its paintings.

We purchased our entrance tickets and at the same time were given a spot on a cave tour. Touring the museum during the wait, we had time to learn more about the painting process and techniques.

Cave painting
Example of a charcoal outline. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The image is complete. (Photo: Brad Kopp)
The reconstructed Altamira cave is a carefully crafted exhibition. Every detail of the cave paintings is faithfully replicated. But the fact that it is climate-controlled, it has no loose stones or pointed outcrops or low ceiling dips to avoid, and that there are not even faint sounds of dripping water makes it all seem a bit soulless. Even though it’s perfect, it’s kind of like looking at a good forgery of a masterpiece.

Beyond Altamira

Seventeen painted caves now make up the UNESCO designated Paleolithic Cave Art of the Cantabrian Coast. These include caves in Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country.

There are seven painted caves in the province of Cantabria: Chufín, El Castillo, Las Monedas, El Pendo, Cullalvera, Covalanas and Hornos de la Peña. Because many of the sites are only open Tuesdays to Sundays, timing is key. We lucked out with visits to El Castillo and Las Monedas – both part of the Monte Castillo cave complex near Puente Viesgo.

Monte El Castillo is riddled with caves; only four of them have paintings. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Cueva El Castillo

King of the castle, archaeological excavations date the use of this cave back 150,000 years. Cuevo El Castillo was re-discovered in 1903.

The tour starts in the museum and walks under the protective roof to the rubble left from the archaeological digs before entering the cave. A real cave! And there are more than 275 different example of Paleolithic art in its dark recesses. Now this is what I was looking forward to experiencing.

Puntas – or dots – are a common art form in the cave. There are over 300 dots between the entrance and the end of the cave paintings. Why were they put there? It seems like a obvious question. Sadly, there is no obvious answer.

In addition to the dots, there are paintings of horses, bison, does, aurochs, stags, goats and a mammoth. Dozens of 40,000-year-old handprints mark the inner walls of the cave. Who left them here? What do they symbolize?

My mind is abuzz with thoughts and images and questions – oh, so many questions.

Protected painted cave entrance
Painted caves are protected on Monte El Castillo; entrance by guided tour only. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Cueva Las Monedas

In 1952 Cueva Las Monedas’ existence came into the light, along with its 12,000-year-old artwork. The cave itself is the longest cave in Monte El Castillo – stretching 800 metres (more than 2600 feet) from the entrance.

The paintings themselves are interesting, but it’s the story of the 23 Spanish coins dating back to the 16th century that really sparks the imagination.

When were the coins left in Cueva Las Monedas? Who left them? And why?

Maybe I’ll never find the answers to all the questions these painted caves bring about. Then again, if it means taking another trip back to northern Spain to continue the quest, I could live with that!

When You Go:

We stayed at the Hotel Villa Arce just outside of Puente Viesgo. In good weather, it has a view of Monte El Castillo.

Be sure to book ahead of time as painted caves are popular tours.

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Exploring Northern Spain: Fuente De

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Disclosure: This post contains Affiliate Links.

Zipping up close to 700 metres (2300 feet) without breaking a sweat sounds like heaven. Indeed, the cable car at Fuente Dé is a little slice of bliss. Exploring the hiking trails of Picos de Europa in Northern Spain just got a whole lot easier!

Picos de Europa

The Southeastern Side of Picos de Europa

There are places that make your heart sing. Picos de Europa is one of those places. From Arenas de Cabrales, we moved southeast to Potes to continue our exploration of Picos from Fuente Dé.

Fuente Dé
Trail marker in field at the base of the cable car in Fuente Dé
It is an easy half hour drive from Potes up to Fuente Dé. The rugged stone wall at the end of the valley draws eyes away from the cable car – or teléforico – passing overhead.

We couldn’t help snapping a few pics before heading over to the terminal for the ride up into the still partially snow-covered alpine. The cable car has been hauling people up the mountainside since the 1960s.

 

Hiking around Fuente Dé

Mere minutes after boarding, we are standing at the cable car summit. Packs on backs, light hikers laced tight on eager feet and we’re off.

Within 20 minutes there are no crowds and only a few other people working their way through lingering patches of snow.

Spring hiking in Picos de Europa. (Photo: Megan Kopp)
We took route PR24 in a clockwise direction. The trail climbs up to a pass before heading down the other side to a red-roofed refugio (closed until summer).

Refugio in Picos de Europa
Looking back at the pass above the cable car summit. (Photo: Brad Kopp)
From the refugio, we took a short detour up onto a rise in search of the elusive chamois.

Scanning for chamois. (Photo: Megan Kopp)
And wouldn’t you know it, we saw one!

Asturian chamois
A rare Asturian chamois sighting! (Photo: Brad Kopp)
We climbed back up to the route, past Hotel Áliva (again, closed for the season) and down towards an old church.

Hiking in Picos de Europa
The hills are alive with the sound of music! (Photo: Brad Kopp)
The Virgen de la Salud Puerto de Aliva stands out in the meadows like a beacon to all who wander nearby.

Church in Picos de Europa
Worship in the mountains. (Photos: Brad Kopp)

Heading Down from the Alpine

From here the trail joins up with a gravel road for a short distance as it descends back down toward Espinama.

Hiking Picos de Europa
Heading back down towards Fuente De from the alpine meadows above the cable car summit. (Photo: Brad Kopp)
We pass an historic fountain before descending into a thick oak forest. Towards the end of the hike, the trail surface became a bit of a mud bog in early May.

Hiking Picos
Valley bottom trail not quite as pleasant as the alpine! (Photo: Megan Kopp)
The sight of the cable car at Fuente Dé looked even sweeter than it did on our initial approach. What a hike!

Trail PR 24 – over and out.

If You Go:

  • The cable car at Fuente Dé cost 11 Euros each on our visit.
  • The circular route following PR 24 – including countless detours and an extended picnic time – took us 6 ½ hours. Total distance was 16.8 kilometres (10.4 miles).

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Ireland’s Hill of Tara

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

For the life of me, I don’t know where I first heard about Ireland’s Hill of Tara.

It could have been mentioned in a book or covered in a documentary. All I know is that while visiting Dublin, I wanted to learn more.

What better place to start than a museum dedicated to the country’s archaeology and history?

Ireland’s National Museum of Archaeology & History

Treasures from Ireland’s Neolithic era to modern-day artifacts are well preserved in this carefully crafted collection. I wasn’t overly interested in bog mummies or weaponry from the Viking era.

I went straight for the sparkle – the Tara Brooch.

The Tara Brooch. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

The Tara Brooch is not old – in the sense of Ireland’s Neolithic past – but this 8th century, ring-shaped, cloak fastener is undeniably captivating.

Made of cast and gilded silver, the early medieval brooch has fine, filigreed gold panels and is studded with amber, enamel and coloured glass. It includes animal and abstract motifs.

I never realized that the Tara Brooch didn’t come from the Hill of Tara, located northwest of Dublin. It actually came from a place near the seashore at Bettystown in County Meath. Apparently a dealer attributed its source as being Tara in order to increase its value.

The brooch was a loss leader. Tara itself was the actual gem.

After spending time pouring over the display about the site, I knew we’d have to experience Tara for ourselves.

On the Path of Greatness

It’s a graveyard – true. But the Hill of Tara in County Meath is much more than just that. This famous passage-tomb burial site was used for more than 1500 years.

It is where Ireland’s kings claimed their power.

It is said that this was where St. Patrick announced the arrival of Christianity in Ireland.

It is where Daniel O’Connell – the “Liberator” – rallied upwards of three-quarters of a million protestors in 1843 to seek freedom from Britain.

Tara of the Kings

The Hill of Tara looks non-assuming at first glance. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Teamhair na Rig, or Tara of the Kings, includes a series of graves, tombs and temples.

It is a spiritual sanctuary.

The oldest visible monument is the passage tomb of Drumha na nGiall – the Mound of the Hostages. It dates back to the third millennium BC.

Christian graveyard and church at the base of the hill. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

According to the informational pamphlet I picked up at the visitor centre, Tara’s power declined by the 6th century AD.

Paganism gave way to Christianity, “…and the title of ‘king of Tara’ became a symbolic prize for ambitious kings seeking to become the most powerful ruler on the island.”

Many historical and mythical figures are associated with Tara. The site was central to the creation of an Irish identity.

Today as you walk the grassy mounds, surveying the countryside, the passion and politics of this low-lying hill and its man-made monuments are palpable.

If You Go:

The site is open from mid-May to mid-September, 10 am to 6 pm daily. Tara is located 12 km south of Navan, off the N3.

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Falling in Love With Guanajuato, Mexico

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

It was love at first sight as the taxi emerged from the maze of underground tunnels which spilled out onto the streets of Guanajuato, Mexico.

In the twilight glow, the colours softened to warm buttery yellows, burnt oranges and tranquil blues. This is what we came to see.

A Gilded Beauty

UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988, Guanajuato has an outstanding collection of Baroque and neoclassical buildings that date back to the 17th century. Founded in the early 16th century, Guanajuato became the world leader in silver production in the 18th century.

At first light the next morning we started walking, up and down the impossibly narrow and infinitely charming maze of streets, stopping at every turn for yet another photograph. Eventually, we ended up in the heart of the city, staring in awe at the Templo de San Diego.

Basilica of Our Lady of Guanajuato - front view. (Photo: B. Kopp)
Templo de San Diego – front view. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Templo de San Diego

Built between 1671 and 1696, this imposing Baroque monument is shaped like a Latin cross. A large sacristry was added on the hill side of the sprawling building. The right hand bell tower, added in the 18th century, is in the Mexican Churrigueresque style.

For a bird’s eye view of the church and an overview of the city, we take the footpath that begins near the funicular at the back of the church. Even in bright midday sun, the scene is a kaleidoscope of colours and shapes. What’s not to love about this colourful colonial city?

Basilica of Our Lady of Guanajuato - top view. (Photo: B. Kopp)
Templo de San Diego – top view. (Photo: B. Kopp)

If You Go:

We stayed at El Meson de los Poetas which, like most buildings in town, is built on a narrow lot that snakes up the hillside. We recommend the Octavio Paz suite for the views, however if you don’t like stairs, avoid rooms numbered in the 400s!

The bus ride from Guadalajara to Guanajuato takes about 4 hours.

For further information about Guanajuato, visit the Mexican Tourist Board website.

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Baja’s Cave Paintings: An Overview

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

When friends suggested a mule-supported camping trip to explore the over 2000-year-old rock art in the isolated, sparsely populated region of Baja’s Sierra de San Francisco, we had just one question.

When?

We didn’t ask how long it would take to travel there.

We didn’t know the laughs hiring a Spanish-speaking guide would bring when forced to rely on our own limited Spanish language skills.

We didn’t think about the reality of being perched on a mule while descending a rocky, narrow path into the depths of a desert canyon.

We just knew that visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site was going to be an adventure.

Rock Paintings of Sierra de San Francisco

In the neighbourhood of 400 painted rock shelters and caves can be found in the heart of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

They include recognizable images – or pictographs – of humans, animals such as mountain lions, bighorn sheep, whales, turtles, fish, and birds, bows and arrows, and countless abstract forms.

Long panels sometimes hold hundreds of pictographs, layered one on top of another.

The well-preserved paintings linger on cave walls and roofs, boldly expressed in red, yellow, black and white.

All of these elements illustrate the relationship of humans to their environment.

Images in Cueva Pintada (Painted Cave). Photo: Brad Kopp

Discovery

Before the arrival of the Spanish, this territory belonged to the Guachimis – also referred to as the Cochimi.

Little is known of the early hunter-gatherers who expressed their thoughts through art on these walls.

The existence of these paintings remained unknown to the outside world until a Jesuit missionary, Francisco Javier Clavijero, reported the paintings to Rome in 1789.

Dutch and French scholars studied the art in late 1800s.

Numerous 20th century investigations were carried out by professional archaeologists, anthropologists, and amateurs alike.

American writers Stanley Gardner (creator of the Perry Mason detective stories) and Harry Crosby (author of The Cave Paintings of Baja California: Discovering the Great Murals of an Unknown People) explored the region – Gardner in the mid-1940s and Crosby from the 1970s.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site

The rock art in Sierra de San Francisco dates from around 100 B.C. to A.D. 1300.

In 1993, over 182,000 hectares of land in this mountainous region in the heart of Baja was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, helping to protect this fragile treasure.

Entrance to INAH office in San Ignacio, Baja. Photo: Brad Kopp

If You Go

Self-organized trips can be arranged in San Ignacio, where the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH) has a small museum and office. There are also organized tour companies such as Sea Kayak Adventures, Inc.

Read More: Cueva Pintada and Cueva de las Flechas

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