Day Eight: Galapagos Tortoises in Santa Cruz

| February 6, 2011 | 6 Comments
This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series Exploring the Galapagos

December 26: Santa Cruz. Dry landing at Puerto Ayora. Visit to Rancho Primicias. Just one of many spots in the highlands of Santa Cruz Island where you can observe free-ranging giant tortoises in their natural habitat.

I love Kurt Vonnegut. So it’s no surprise that I loved his humorous and ironic take on the human race in his book Galápagos—seen as it is through the eyes and minds of the survivors of a doomed cruise to the Galapagos Islands. It served as a great read while Kathryn and I were travelling the islands themselves. In his book, Vonnegut argues that the ultimate effect of humanity’s endless drive toward technology, from weaponry to gene splicing, will be that nature will win in the long run by doing away with the root-source of the problem—humanity’s large brain. Apart from providing an interesting description of the Galápagos Islands, Darwin’s original getaway, the book delves into the psychotic nature of human behavior—be it fiat money systems, evil minded power grabs, and destruction of the entire species. Fans of traditional storytelling beware. This book goes in every direction at once—no loose threads are left, but not every thread is tied in the same knot at the end. If you’d like to read it, pick up a copy here. Ultimately, Vonnegut’s point was that our brains were an evolutionary mistake that will doom the world.

White people discovered the Galápagos Islands in 1535 when a Spanish ship came upon them after being blown off course by a storm… [T]he Spaniards found…a sailor’s nightmare where the bits of land were mockeries, without safe anchorages or shade or sweet water or dangling fruit, or human beings of any kind… They did not claim the islands for Spain, any more than they would have claimed hell for Spain. And for three full centuries after …, no other nation wished to own [the archipelago]. But then, in 1832, one of the smallest and poorest countries on the planet, which was Ecuador, asked the peoples of the world to share this opinion with them: that the islands were part of Ecuador. No one objected… It was as though Ecuador, in a spasm of imperialistic dementia, had annexed to its territory a passing cloud of asteroids. But then young Charles Darwin, only three years later, began to persuade people that the often freakish plants and animals which had found ways to survive on the islands, made them extremely valuable… — (Kurt Vonnegut, 1985, Galápagos, pp. 17–18)

With echoes of Vonnegut’s narrator ringing in my ears, we disembarked the Millenium one last time to explore Santa Cruz, which offers excellent opportunities for viewing wild Galapagos Tortoises. We passed through Puerto Ayora and continued north until we came to Rancho Primicias, a private farm consisting of  ~370 acres that have been “turned back” to share with the Galápagos Giant Tortoises on the island. Here we wandered the grounds  and observed the giant tortoises in the wild. As we walked through the ranch’s forest, we listened carefully for the sound of shrubs being slowly crushed as the tortoises were making their way through the brush to enjoy a meal.


santa cruz galapagos tortiose head Day Eight: Galapagos Tortoises in Santa Cruz

Galapagos Tortoise on Santa Cruz Island.

It recalled Vonnegut’s book again as we traipsed around Rancho Primicias and  wondered to what degree we were as modern day travellers affecting the future of evolutionary progress. And if evolution were to play out again—this time without human intervention, how would the island have been different? The human presence on Santa Cruz is regulated. All ranches and farms, we were told, must set aside a certain percentage of the land as a preserve. As a result, of the Galapagos’ total landmass just 3% of it is developed by humans—and of that 3%, a good portion is still preserved for wildlife.


santa cruz galapagos tortiose guide Day Eight: Galapagos Tortoises in Santa Cruz

Our guide takeus us through Rancho Primicias.

Tortoises that evolved Santa Cruz or nearby Isabela have benefited from the lush plant life and have grown to be the largest of their species—they had plenty of food and did not need to travel great distances. Santa Cruz’s tortoises are easily identified by their larger size, domed shells (making it easier to push brush out of the way) and by their shorter legs and neck. They move  from the lowlands to the highlands and back again, looking for shade, water, and nesting places. The ranch is also an ideal place to see some of the other wildlife on offer, like the Galapagos mockingbird.


santa cruz galapagos tortiose Day Eight: Galapagos Tortoises in Santa Cruz

Tortoises cooling in a pool.

The tortoise breeding programs at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz has been very successful. On Santa Crux you can see these newly free tortoises ranging in age from 5 years to 25 years roaming free.


santa cruz galapagos tortiose water Day Eight: Galapagos Tortoises in Santa Cruz

Staying cool in the pool.

After spending a couple of hours roaming the grounds, we collect our bags and head off to the airport. We’re going to miss these islands—Galapagos is a rare destination wherein you become accustomed to being surprised every day. Nowhere in our travels has compared with the joy of observing animals in the wild here—or the sense of wonder and privilege felt while spending time in such close proximity with animals who don’t run or fly away when humans approach. This last day among the tortoises of Santa Cruz merely reinforced our feelings that these islands are truly a unique treasure of the earth. They are not to be missed—go experience them for yourself!

Disclosure: At Two Go Round-The-World, we value the conversation that exists between us and our readers—and the trust on which that relationship is based. Here we’re committed to creating an environment informed by that trust. In the interests of full disclosure, we travelled with Gap Adventures, with whom Daniel works. That being said, his opinions should not be construed as representing those of his employer. For more information on disclosures and relationships, please check our ‘About Us‘ page.

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About the Author ()

For nearly ten years now, Daniel of Two Go Round-The-World has explored how travel captures our imagination and engages our deepest emotions. One half of the duo that maintains the widely read Two Go Round-The-World blog, Daniel treats his subjects not only as works of art but also as symbols of the cultural and political forces that inspire them. His latest book, The Physics of Flocking, gathers his favourite writing featured over the past two years on Two Go Round-The-World in columns like 'Looking Back' and 'The Whole Picture'—along with new reflections.

Comments (6)

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  1. Rebecca says:

    Turtles are such cool creatures!

  2. Zablon says:

    i love tortoises, there is something about them

  3. Kirk says:

    Great to see that the breeding plans are working. How big do the Tortoises get? I know they are still young since 5-20 years old for tortoises is not that old the probably still have a lot of growing left.

  4. Nomadic Matt says:

    I just came back from the Gap Galapagos tour and it was awesome. I just wanted to share that!

  5. Heriberto Craddock says:

    Greetings! Very useful advice in this particular post! It’s the little changes that make the largest changes. Thanks for sharing!

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