Santa Cruz – Galapagos Islands

Day 3: Santa Cruz Island – Charles Darwin research station and the Highlands

We had another short sail at night from Santa Fe to Santa Cruz island. Santa Cruz has the largest town of all the inhabited Galapagos islands and is where all of the crew from our boat lived. It is also famously known for the Galapagos Giant Tortoises! Four of the other passengers left the boat that morning which meant there was only one other lady, Helen, apart from Dave and I. She had already done the tour on Santa Cruz Island so she went off on her own leaving Dave and I to have our own private tour for the day with Fabian, our guide!

We headed to the Charles Darwin Research Station which focuses on conservation by breeding and re-introducing Giant Tortoises back in to the wild. Giant tortoises are the largest terrestrial reptiles on earth weighing up to 250kg and are only found in two places in the world; the Galapagos and on Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean (who knew that?! – we had to google it later – it’s a tiny island in the Seychelles). Only 10% of the Galapagos Giant Tortoise population remains due to pirates and whalers eating them in the 1700s and because of both introduced plants and animals that threatened the species. At the time we went in December 2017, the centre had 983 tortoises, ranging from babies all the way to 100 year old adults! The adults were ones that can’t be reintroduced in to the wild, perhaps because they had been kept as pets or in zoos previously. The majority of tortoises at the centre are young ones. Up to the age of 4, the tortoises are very vulnerable so they are kept until they are large enough to be safe out in the wild; they need to reach 23cm before they are released. One of the most interesting things we learnt was that tortoises don’t have X/Y chromosomes but rather you can determine the gender of the tortoise based on the temperature in which the egg is incubated! 28 degrees breeds males and 29.5 degrees breeds females! Since 1970, the Darwin station has released 5,456 tortoises on to the various Galapagos islands.

Up close, they were more fantastic than I could have ever imagined. They just looked so prehistoric and I still can’t get over their sheer size! We of course, went to see the world famous (now stuffed) tortoise called Lonesome George. He was the last remaining tortoise of his specie from the island in the north of the Galapagos archipelago called Pinta. His kind was previously declared extinct however he was discovered in the 1970s by locals. There was a great effort to find him a mate to breed with but alas, he was the last of his kind and he died in 2012. The other famous tortoise that we saw, alive this time, was Diego. He came from San Diego zoo in the US to save his species from extinction. He is over 100 years old and apparently has fathered an estimated 800 of the endangered tortoises from Española island. The research station was really educational and we even got our passports stamped there with the tortoise logo (obviously my favourite page in my passport now).

We had a bit of free time on Santa Cruz island before heading back to the boat for lunch. We wandered down the main street called Charles Darwin street and perused the many souvenir shops (I succumbed to a tea-towel with a map of the archipelago). We also stopped by the famous fish market where sea lions, pelicans, frigate birds and herons surround the fisherman in wait of a morsel! It was such a bizarre and comedic sight, I could have stayed and taken photographs there all day. It was my goal in Paracas, Peru to take a photograph of a pelican with it’s mouth open and I finally got one that I love!  Lastly, we went to see the Santa Cruz Hollywood-style sign by the pier. Whilst we were there we spotted our first marine iguana actually swimming in the water! We were shocked by how quickly and effortlessly it moved, we almost had to jog along the pier to keep up with the pace to watch. On the pier, we also met Miguicho, an incredible man on a mission – who was also in a viral video.  He turned his life around from being an alcoholic and a sailor who was shipwrecked for 77 days to someone who has collected over 822,500 cigarette butts! He turned some of them in to art sculptures to raise awareness about water contamination. He showed us videos of Galapagos albatrosses in particular who eat the ends. It made me even more thankful that I’ve finally managed to quit smoking (it’s been over 3 months now!) but also even more guilty for how much I owe the planet for any time that there wasn’t a bin and I stubbed out the cigarette on the floor.

We came back on board and had a private lunch for 2! Then we headed back out to Santa Cruz’s Highlands. We first went to Los Gemelos (the twins) which are two huge volcanic craters. On the walk around Los Gemelos is the Scalesia forest, apparently made famous by a David Attenborough documentary. There are 15 species of Scalesia endemic to the Galapagos islands; what is so interesting about this plant is that it is a type of dandelion that we have at home, however, here, it grows to be trees; some species even reach 15 metres! Unfortunately, it was quite misty and foggy, very common given the location at the very centre of the island and at higher altitude, so we couldn’t really see the full effect of the crater in too much detail.

Our last excursion of the day was to see the Santa Cruz Giant Tortoises in the wild! Technically, they are part of a farm, though they are free to roam wherever and to leave the area if they wanted to. It was even better seeing the tortoises here than it was in the Charles Darwin research station. It was just madness to see these enormous gentle giants just milling around. The best part was a small pond/water hole where there were FIFTEEN wild tortoises, we will treasure the photo of us together with that backdrop! Lastly in the farm/wild area, there are lava tunnels that you can walk through. Lava tunnels are formed by the outer skin of molten lava solidifying whilst the liquid magma continues to flow through. When the lava flow stopped, the molten lava inside kept going, eventually leaving behind a cavity of empty lava tubes. Very cool to say we’ve walked through a 60 metre lava tube.

As we waited by the pier for our zodiac, we saw a Galapagos shark swimming past! He was only about 60cm but still very cool! In the evening, a new batch of people arrived bringing our total up to 9. We were really surprised that it was such a young cohort; everyone was aged between 23-30. We had another small world moment when one of the new people was the twin of someone Dave played rugby with at university!

Thanks for reading and join us next time for day 4 of the Galapagos cruise!

Sophie & Dave

San Cristobal & Isla Lobos – Galapagos Islands


The first day of our 8 day sailing adventure around the Galapagos islands. We booked our tour with Happy Gringos travel agency in Quito last minute with a 40% discount. There are a myriad of boats to choose from ranging from basic to luxury, 14 to 100 passengers, routes sailing around the East or West of the archipelago and a couple of days to a couple of weeks. We chose the mid-range Eden yacht, a 78ft boat accommodating 16 passengers, with an 8 day route taking us West across the archipelago. The route was the selling point for us as we got to visit such a variety of islands and in turn, the unique wildlife found there.

Here was our route:

Sailing route around the Galapagos

Day 1: San Cristobal Island & Isla Lobos

We got up at 4am in Quito in order to make it to the airport for our early flight to San Cristobal. We went through the airport smoothly paying our $20 transit fee and then $100 Galapagos park entrance fee on the other side. We arrived at 10:00am and had anticipated having to wait around until at least midday for other passengers on the next flight from Quito however we were pleasantly surprised when our guide Fabian showed up to collect us. We waited by the pier for the little zodiac boat to take us to the yacht in the marina and we saw our first sea lion completely unfazed by us sunbathing at the dock. The boat we chose was the Eden Yacht that holds 16 passengers, 7 crew and the Galapagos guide. We soon discovered however, that there were only 5 other passengers! We were shown to our cabin and we were a little disheartened to find bunk beds and our room being on the top deck. We had specifically requested a twin cabin on the lower deck so as to avoid sea sickness as we were both still scarred from the boats we had to take in Fiji! After unpacking, turns out there was a mix up and we did have a twin room lower down. We were so relieved as the motion is so much less down there, neither of us had to be on a bunk with no railing and we had so much more space to store our clothes/bags. We were happy campers as we met the rest of the people on board and settled down to lunch.

After a short 40 minute sail, we anchored by Isla Lobos. Lobos in Spanish is sea lion! Sea lions are easy to distinguish from seals as they have cute little ears. We got in to our wet suits ready for our first Galapagos experience of snorkelling. When we thought about going to the Galapagos, we never considered we would be wearing wetsuits throughout but the water temperature was cold, ranging between 18-21 degrees. That didn’t matter though because it was absolutely incredible and we got to swim with loads of sea lions! They were so playful, pirouetting in the water and blowing bubbles around us. We could not believe how close they were coming to us. It was such a magical experience. Out of nowhere, two giant sea turtles appeared too! Whilst we snorkelled, Frigate birds circled us over head and Sally Light foot crabs scattered along the rocks where we saw our first Blue footed Booby. We climbed back in to the little zodiac boat and as we drove back to the Yacht, we saw the crew trying to usher a sea lion off the back of our boat!

After an hour we had a quick change on the boat before heading back out to explore the island on foot. As we pulled up in the little dinghy, we couldn’t actually use the island’s steps as sea lions were sleeping there so we jumped along the side. As the island is made of volcanic rock, the surface was extremely uneven so we concentrated a lot on not rolling our ankles. We saw so many sea lions, quite a lot with their pups! We even saw one that our guide estimated was only 4 weeks old! The guide estimated that there were 250 just in the short stretch of rock and sand we were on! We also saw our first land iguanas, much darker in colour than the ones we’d seen in Guayaquil. Again we were lucky enough to spot a really small iguana who was only about 10 months old! All around the island, we saw Frigate birds floating in wind pockets in the sky barely moving at all. We also saw many of them nesting in tree branches. We saw many more females (white and black) than males who have a red neck. We were SO lucky to see one male Frigate bird doing the iconic puffed out red neck as a mating ritual. December is towards the very end of the mating season thus this was such a rare sight. Unfortunately it was a bit too far for a good photograph but we did see it with the naked eye. We got to see a few Blue footed boobies up close and personal too! The males are the ones that nurture the chicks and we saw one with a 3 week old chick! Apparently they did an experiment on the main land giving one bird the same Galapagos fish diet and the other bird a different diet. Only the Galapagos fish diet turned the feet blue, though it is also a sign of maturity as only the adults have the blue feet. The young are just fluff balls and honestly look like cuddly toys! As we walked along the island back towards our boat to head back for dinner, I turned to Dave and said that this might possibly be the best day of my life.

Join us next time for day 2 of the cruise!

Sophie & Dave




Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary


If you’ve read our Chiang Mai blog or seen our Thailand Video, you’ll know we spent a day at the Elephant Nature Park (ENP). We decided that we would spend a week volunteering at the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary (CWS) which is the sister project of ENP. After our time visiting the temples of Siem Reap we were picked up and driven 2 hours north to the wildlife sanctuary in the Anlong Veng district. We were a small group with only three other volunteers for the week; Hilary, a hilarious American with the most contagious laugh you’ve ever heard, Courtney, a lovely, bubbly Canadian with the least grace (in the best possible way – like every time a fly came near her she’d go for a full on slap in the face) and Kim, an Australian with a heart of gold. We honestly lucked out so much with these three as they made our time so much better. We also had a volunteer co-ordinator, Chan, who we spent most of our time with. She was one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met with so much enthusiasm and kindness to share. Though her story is personal and not for me to share, take my word for it that despite her hardships, she turned in to the kindest, most hard-working woman on the planet. She’s also the only person at the sanctuary who speaks fluent Khmer and English so we relied a lot on her for translations, as did everyone! She did a language class with us one evening which I loved! There were also a few members of staff that we got on well with. Especially Holly, she is a long-term volunteer, medic, micro-farmer and backpacker extraordinaire. She was captivating and told stories where you often found yourself scooping your jaw off the floor, (Eg the time she accidentally got married to a man in a tribe in Papua New Guinea, the same trip that she got blood poisoning and malaria but wasn’t able to go to a hospital?!).

The Cambodian wildlife sanctuary is home to 4 beautiful elephants who were all rescued from the logging trade. Each elephant had been abused as a baby and subjected to a tortuous process called the Phajaan, or “the crush” in order to be tamed. During this process, elephants are repeatedly beaten while all four legs are chained so they are unable to move. Sleep deprivation, starvation and thirst are also used to break the elephants’ spirit and make them more responsive to their mahouts commands. Throughout the process, a mahout will stay with with the elephant to ensure that they do not commit suicide by standing on their own trunks. What is equally disturbing is that often, once the young elephant has been poached, the remaining herd will be slaughtered. The same thing happens to elephants used for tourist rides, shows, elephant paintings and more, so don’t be part of the abuse!

Our favourite elephant was Kham-lin who is completely blind (likely by her Mahout so that she was totally reliant on him during her logging life), but she is such a gentle giant. The sanctuary also has monkeys often rescued from road-side stalls. They had one new recent addition when we arrived, a baby Macaque monkey only a month or two old. Some of my favourite animal photos I’ve ever taken are of this little one (see below)! It is also home to rescued bats, birds and rabbits. There is also a pack of 7 dogs, all of whom we loved. Everyone’s favourite was a dorky Alsatian mix called Alfie who was just the sweetest dog ever. We also liked Mark, (best dog name ever?) who had a sticky out snaggle tooth and there was also a three-legged dog called Muay who’d had his leg caught in a poacher’s trap last year. We’d never seen an actual functioning pack so it was really interesting to watch their behaviour and see who the leader was etc. There were also a myriad of other jungle friends we came to meet, mostly when we weren’t expecting it in the toilets or showers, like frogs, geckos and lizards. Fortunately I’m obsessed with reptiles and often took my camera on expeditions to the bathrooms during the week. I even saw a massive Tokay gecko, with vibrant blue and orange colourings. Even he was a bit too disconcerting for me to shower with, so I opted for the next cubicle. We were pleasantly surprised to find we had our own hut when we arrived, well just us 2 humans and lots of other animals. We found the biggest furry spider we’d ever seen. Everyone else was accustomed to seeing spiders like this but Dave and I from our little British bubble were mind-blown. Dave also had a gecko poo on his back as he was shirtless which amused me greatly, until I went to pick up my camera and realised the gecko had also shat on that. One evening, I went to bed early whilst Dave stayed in the communal bit. As I was trying to sleep, I could hear almost like footsteps on the beams and actual crunching sounds. Usually we ignored all the jungle sounds but this time I fumbled around to put my glasses on just in time to see 2 huge Torcay geckos fighting over a massive insect. As I went to get my camera, one crawled out of the hut but I still got a grainy flash photo of one gecko with the beetle in his mouth half chewed!

As with any organisation, non-profit or not, there will always be people/aspects of a project that you don’t agree with, but first let me say, overall it is a fantastic place that betters the quality of life for many animals. The main problem we had was a lack of communication from the person who should have been informing us. As much as we were there to see these incredible animals, we also came to learn about them. We did learn things throughout the week, but in drips and drabs through other passionate staff who we were just lucky to have had the chance to interact with. For example, by fluke, on the first day we were there, we met Ryan who is laying the ground work for a new sanctuary in Myanmar. He was fascinating and took the time to explain why a couple of the elephants still had ropes tied around their legs – they are still adjusting to their new life and though the rope isn’t actually tied to anything, it enables the mahouts to restrain them in a rare case of an emergency until they are accustomed to their new home. It is important that the elephants only roam within the sanctuary, as they are still at risk from poachers if they venture further afield. In a casual conversation with Holly on our penultimate day at the sanctuary, we found out that the long term objective of the sanctuary is to pioneer the first place in the world where rescued elephants are left to roam in a designated area without mahouts and with just optional feeding stations. This is the sort of key information we thought we should have been told at the start. We’d have liked a bit more clarity about both the short and long term objectives of the sanctuary but clearly, even if they didn’t tell us, they are doing great things!

The first day we were there was actually a momentous occasion for the sanctuary, they had just completed the new nighttime enclosure for the elephants. After blessing us as the new volunteers, we followed the local Buddhist village elder round the enclosure as he blessed that too. All this talk of ropes and enclosures might be making you raise your eyebrows but the main thing to remember is where these animals have come from. I feel like I had quite a strong preconception about what the word “sanctuary” meant. Perhaps I was just really naive and didn’t full understand the complexity of the situation. In the end, I liked to think of it as a hospice for the elephants. Most of the elephants are old and deserve a loving, free as possible, last bit of their lives.

In the evenings we sometimes watched documentaries made about the sanctuary. It was interesting to hear more about the rate of deforestation in Cambodia, one of the highest in the world. Apparently, between 1990 and 2005, Cambodia lost 19.3% of it’s forests. Of course we hear about the horrors of deforestation and the importance of conservation in the UK, but it often can feel like a foreign concept. When we were at the sanctuary, in a jungle, I think it became more real. Seeing so many animals use these trees as their home and a source of food made it so troubling to think of their loss of habitat. Especially outside the boundary of the 25,000 acre sanctuary, tree stumps just littered the landscape.

We had quite a few different volunteer tasks throughout the week, I’ll start with the only bad part to get that out of the way. The worst part was when we went to visit the local school. The problem was with the inefficiency of communication from the Sanctuary staff. My biggest fear of signing up to ‘be a volunteer’ was that I would be a hindrance rather than help. I remember vividly my friend from school who went to “help build” a school in India with zero construction knowledge and he said the locals had to re-do the work they had done during the day at night. Anyway, with the week’s tasks so far, it was all fine, scooping elephant poo does not require a specialist set of skills so I was happy to get stuck in to that. All was fine, up until the school. The first alarm bells were when we went to the school and there were no kids because it was a public holiday. We were instantly skeptical, how close could they actually be to the local community if they didn’t know this? We came back the next day, the school was a shack with 2 rooms crammed full of children. The school has no toilets which is very concerning. We hope that this will be a priority area for the sanctuary to help with. Especially as the girls are getting older, some are already 14, so what are they expected to do at school if they get their periods?! There were 2 classes, the youngsters who Kim, Courtney and Hilary went with and the older class of 10-14 year olds that Dave and I went to. Our task was to teach the kids English for an hour. I am no teacher nor parent, my experience with kids only consists of babysitting, tutoring kids in French and playing with my cousins. The only teaching material we were given was a few very basic clothing, animal and numbers flash cards. Going in, we had no idea of their ability level.  We actually didn’t even know their ages when we went in, we deduced this by getting them to come and write their ages on the blackboard in English. We started with the alphabet which we soon discovered they knew back to front. We went through the flashcards and the kids knew them off by heart before we’d barely lifted the card up. Of course I appreciate repetition is key, but this was a joke. I dreaded to think how many times these kids had to do this over and over to appease these ignorant Westerners. We changed tac and tried to do maths instead. Again, we had no idea with their level, so we started with basic 2+3. Every sum we started to make harder, and by the end, we realised they could do 24×3+7-13 at the same speed as Dave (a bloody chartered accountant) and produce the number in English. As we left the classroom, I was already so upset thinking about how much I had wasted these intelligent kids’ time that I didn’t want to be in any of the photographs or take any. When we got back to the sanctuary, I was already crying in frustration. With the help of Dave, I vented to the main staff member, probably slightly incoherently. Turns out the main objective is to teach the children about conservation and deforestation. Erm, definitely hadn’t been told that! I was mostly livid because we hadn’t been briefed at all on the children’s ability and I felt that I had taken away from their precious time for education. The silver lining of it all is Holly, who I mentioned before. She made us feel like what we were saying was not falling on deaf ears and promised to help change it. Even when we left the sanctuary, she went to Siem Reap too and bought new, more advanced teaching material. We went for dinner with the other volunteers and Holly when we were back in Siem Reap and she was telling us about all the stuff she’d bought. It was interesting to hear that even the children’s books had images of monkeys in chains or humans inflicting harm on tigers. What a battle they are up against to change the mindset of a population where animal abuse is normalised in children’s books! I have since seen on Facebook that Holly has done paintings of elephants with the kids and they even got to come and visit the sanctuary which hadn’t happened before! I’m so pleased that positive change came of it.

Now on to other volunteer tasks. Every morning after breakfast, we’d march out, armed with pitch forks, rakes, shovels and wheelbarrows, ready to scoop a LOT of elephant poo. It’s actually not as bad as you’d think and the stench varied day to day. Another more pleasant daily chore was food prep for the elephants. The elephants basically ate all day anyway, picking from their surroundings, but they also got bonus feeding times. Kham-Lin the blind elephant only has 2 teeth so she got her own special rice ball mixture. We’d chop palm sugar, tamarind and cucumbers, peel hundreds of bananas and then mush them together with rice and pellets. She would then be hand-fed compact balls. She was very fussy and if the banana ratio wasn’t high enough, she wasn’t interested in eating it. The other three elephants ate sugar cane and occasionally bananas. It’s absolute madness watching an elephant chomp straight through sugar cane with ease when us mere humans wrestle with machetes to chop it up! We also tried sugar cane for the first time and its delicious, albeit hard to eat. On a couple of occasions, we went out on the back of a tractor to collect sugar cane. Now when I say tractor, it is not a convenstional tractor, but the crazy Asian tractors. Sort of like a lawn mower on sticks with a trailer attached to the back? You’ll see it in our video, it’s hard to describe. Anyway, we all thought it was great fun bouncing around in the back. Cutting down sugar cane with a machete is surprisingly do-able. The problem was that there were so many red ants that were furiously biting whatever flesh we had exposed. At home with Dave, I’m usually not trusted to even cut carrots in the kitchen, and I suddenly realised that I was frantically jumping around, smacking various limbs whilst simultaneously wielding a machete – I decided I should just sit it out for a bit haha. A few other tasks we did in the week were seed planting, cleaning 3 geese/duck/bird ponds and cleaning up the sanctuary of left over building materials.

Though it wasn’t really a task, the highlight of everyones time were the jungle walks with the elephants (and most of the dogs joined too). There is something so awe-inspiring to watch these massive creatures amble through the jungle with ease. We got to observe them in a bit more of their natural habitat. There was a dam that they wallowed in and one even went completely under water and then sprung out, still eating sugar cane. It was also so interesting walking with Chan as she told us all the little fruits and leaves we could pick and eat. There was a second walk at the end of the week, unfortunately for me, I didn’t go on that one because the elephant food cart had ran over and crushed my little toe the day before and I couldn’t get my trainers on. I still had a lovely time because I got to sit with Holly and the baby Macaque monkey and then jumped in the pick up truck with the workers to meet everyone for lunch in the jungle. Dave said his favourite part of the walk was when they all had to crouch and crawl though a little clearing and the elephant came behind and casually lifted up a log with its trunk and threw it behind her in time for the next elephant to catch it and do the same! He said the sheer power of the trunk was just mesmerising to watch.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our time at the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary. I would definitely recommend volunteering for the week if you get the chance! It’s $400 per person, but that includes your accommodation, three buffet meals, transport to and from the sanctuary and any profit goes towards the sanctuary. Definitely a worthy cause!

Here are some handy links if you’d like more info:

Sophie & Dave

Don’t forget to watch our volunteering video as well!