“The tortoise is very fond of water, drinking large quantities, and wallowing in the mud…When the tortoise arrives at the spring, quite regardless of any spectator, he buries his head in the water above his eyes, and greedily swallows great mouthfuls, at a rate of about ten a minute.”
~Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle
It felt like I was back in school getting ready for a much-anticipated class field trip. For the first time since we had arrived in the Galápagos, all 90 passengers were leaving the Flora for the same place at the same time. An air of excitement swirled about the crowded Discovery Lounge as we waited for our zodiac number to be called. We were heading to the highlands of Santa Cruz Island to see the Galápagos’ most famous residents: the giant tortoises.
The zodiacs dropped us off at a landing on Santa Cruz where we boarded buses for the 45-minute journey. A naturalist provided commentary as we rode past banana and papaya trees, coffee farms and thick green forests. The landscape was filled with canopies of daisy trees – also known as Scalesia plants – a vegetation that is endemic to the Galápagos.
But First – A Tree Planting
Before we reached the tortoise destination, our bus pulled over near the edge of a forest, where rows of chairs and tall rubber boots were laid out. Celebrity donates trees to the Galápagos as a way of giving back to the islands, and guests on this excursion are invited to lend a hand. We changed into our boots, picked up our plants and spades and followed a path into the forest. Holes had been dug earlier, assuring proper placement and ease of planting, a welcome gesture given our tight timeframe.
Rancho El Manzanillo
Back on the bus, we continued a few more miles before reaching Rancho El Manzanillo, a family-run farm and tortoise reserve that would be our host for the tour. Colorful displays about Galápagos wildlife greeted us as we were directed to a covered outdoor boot room, where once again, we exchanged our shoes for tall rubber boots before heading into the forest.
We had barely stepped onto the reserve when our naturalist pointed out a tortoise a few yards away. This was a male, she told us, and looked to be almost one hundred years old. He seemed to have his eye on a nearby female, who was completely covered by her shell.
We walked deeper into the reserve, past a manmade pond and a natural lake. Tortoises seemed to appear at every turn, sometimes looking like characters right out of Jurassic Park. Our naturalist explained that there are between 2,000 and 3,000 tortoises on Santa Cruz Island and that the females migrate to the lowlands to prepare nests and lay their eggs.
After the tour, we returned to the ranch for lunch and a cultural dance performance by local students. Manzanillo also runs a small gift shop, which was the first chance we’d had in the Galápagos to pick up souvenirs. It was a wonderful way to end our trip to the highlands and a great finish to our last day in the Galápagos.
And as we were heading to the bus, this fellow wandered out of the reserve to say goodbye.