Las Islas Encantadas: The Bewitched Islands a.k.a Galapagos

“Getting to Galapagos is so difficult” – a sentiment echoed by many fellow-travelers we met on our much awaited visit to this archipelago 1000 kms west of the mainland of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean. Logistically and economically it is a challenging destination which perhaps helps with the ecological preservation of this unique natural World Heritage Site.

Our journey to this dream destination began with having to change plans – our originally booked flight out of Quito was cancelled and we were put on an earlier flight. So we had to come back a day earlier from Mindo and book an overnight stay at Quito. At 5 am on 3rd May, we queued up at the Quito airport for an entry permit / “visa” to the Galapagos Islands costing $20 per person. We had to get all our luggage scanned to ensure we weren’t carrying any organic material and then each one was sealed, a process that was repeated on entry and exit out of the two islands we visited.

Our flight with a hop at Guayaquil, the largest city of Ecuador, was to the Baltra island (Isla Baltra) in Galapagos, one of the 18 major islands and is solely dedicated for the airport. Only 3 airlines/alliances operate flights to Galapagos.

IMG_2379At the Baltra airport, we were greeted by warm weather, a welcome change from the chill of Quito, and a desert like environment.


As we entered the terminal building of the Aeropuerto Ecológico de Galápagos, the first things to catch the eye were the huge fans, two of them covering the entire “immigration” hall. These industrial fans with temperature and CO2 sensors to auto-operate them are part of the energy efficient design of this LEED certified airport.


We went through the “immigration” checks to verify our passports and entry permits and paid the Galapagos Islands entry fee of $100 per person. After collecting our baggage we boarded a bus that took us to the dock for a short ferry ride across to Isla Santa Cruz, the second largest island and the one with the largest population.


At the dock we were excited to see numerous birds, some of which we could not identify then, flying around and diving for fish. Pelicans flew by so close, it was breath-taking!


We unloaded a second time at Santa Cruz to take a taxi to Puerto Ayora, the town that was to be our base for the next few days to explore Galapagos.


45 minutes later we were at our hotel, finally! We freshened up and headed out to the Charles Darwin Research Station that was a 10-minute walk away from us.



Here we were delighted to spot Marine Iguanas for the very first time as well as the brightly coloured Sally Lightfoot crabs, some Darwin’s finches, a type of cuckoo later id’d as the Smooth-billed Ani and a striking songbird later id’d as the Galapagos Mockingbird.

Marine Iguana
The brightly coloured Sally Lightfoot Crab on the dark volcanic rocks is quite a sight!
Smooth Billed Ani – a type of cuckoo
Ground Finch – one of Darwin’s finches, endemic to Galapagos
Ground Finch – female
Galapagos Mockingbird

All this excitement even before we entered the core area of the research station that hosts Giant Tortoise and Land Iguana breeding centres. And then we came face-to-face with the gentle giants that gave Steven Spielberg his inspiration for the visage of E.T.! These creatures at once evoked reactions of E.T., Anaconda and Voldemort 🙂

Galapagos Giant Tortoise – the inspiration for the face of E.T.
The largest species of Tortoise, now Vulnerable – the Charles Darwin Research Station has a breeding centre where eggs are collected from islands for safe hatching and later release into natural habitat
A neck that can extend quite a bit to reach up for food, perfectly adapted to its environment and thriving on Galapagos islands until man struck here!

A few steps ahead and peep over the wall revealed the beautiful yellow shades of a Galapagos Land Iguana.

Land Iguana – a Vulnerable species, endemic to Galapagos

We noticed the unique tree-like cactus growing all around, and later read that it is called Opuntia echios, endemic to the Galapagos islands and a very important part of the ecosystem as a food source.

Opuntia echios – grows slowly in the volcanic rocky crust, provides food for iguanas, tortoises, finches

After a lot of time spent admiring these beauties, it was time to head back with Mika having learnt a bit about Charles Darwin and his Galapagos inspired Theory of Evolution.

Mika with a statue of Charles Darwin

Let me share a little perspective on Galapagos that we learnt while here. The first recorded visit by humans to these islands was in 1535 when a Spanish ship on its way to Peru was blown off-course. It is possible that the the islands were visited earlier by the Incas but no records exist. The islands were initially named Las Islas Encatadas by the sailors who reached here; while today this is popularly translated as the Enchanted Islands in the “charming” sense 0f the word, the sailors meant it as “bewitched” because of the islands suddenly appearing & disappearing in the fog. All life originally found here arrived either by the ocean or aerial route and hence the marked absence of any land mammals. All arrivals had to adapt to harsh conditions to survive and significantly, the same species adapted differently in different islands in isolation from each other. As observed by Charles Darwin, this archipelago seems to be nature’s laboratory of evolution by design!

The islands are of volcanic origin resulting from an intense “hotspot” beneath the ocean on the equator. There is constant activity which results in the formation of new islands and disappearance of older ones. In geological terms, the current islands are described as young meaning just over 2 million years old! Contrast this to human history terms .. we view the 5000 year old Egyptian civilisation as ancient!!

The climate of the Galapagos islands is determined entirely by ocean currents, the major one being the cold Humboldt Current which brings cold south polar water to the shores of these islands. No wonder then that the water here is so cold despite being on the equator! While this makes it difficult for people like us to get into the water to get a peek at the aquatic life, it is what makes the ocean extremely productive by pushing up nutrients from the ocean floor to upper layers where life-giving sunlight reaches.

The name Galapagos translates as per different accounts to either a type saddle or tortoise. Any which way, the name is derived from the Giant Saddleback Tortoises that roamed the islands in huge numbers when they were first visited by the Europeans.

On day 2 we headed off to the Tortuga (Tortoise) Bay in the hope of finding marine iguanas in the wild and an opportunity to spot some sea turtles and fish while snorkelling in the bay. It was a 2+ kilometre trail to walk from the entry point – worked well for us serving the dual purpose of getting some exercise and enjoying the place in peaceful solitude.  At the end of the cactus and then mangrove vegetation lined trail, was the vast blue expanse of the Pacific with waves breaking on the lava rocks at some places and rolling on to the white powdery sand at others.

Our first look at Blue-footed Boobies from a distance and without knowing what we were looking at!

As we walked across the beach to cover another kilometer to the bay, we saw a swarm of birds who were flying and diving from time to time. The dive was a vertical drop, like a rocket! We managed to capture some of the action. It was later we learnt that the diving rockets we saw were the clownish Blue-footed Boobies who we got to see and admire from very close quarters. Hordes of pelicans were “surfing” and flying, just having a wonderful morning!

A circling swarm of birds with some diving in at regular intervals
A Blue-footed Booby diving vertically to catch fish!
Brown Pelican

As we neared the bay, we spotted a Great Blue Heron standing still and to our huge excitement we saw our very first set of Marine Iguanas “in the wild” with a 2-metre radius circle drawn on the sand around them. It is a standard instruction everywhere in Galapagos to keep a 2-metre distance from all animals.

Great Blue Heron – seemed to be meditating
Marine Iguana basking in the morning sun – Tortuga Bay, Isla Santa Cruz

The Marine Iguana, endemic to the Galapagos, is the only sea-going lizard in the world. We were entertained by the occasional “sneezing” of some of them – a mechanism to excrete brine. The bay ahead was a good place to relax and build a sand castle with Mika, something not done in a long time. But the water was not clear at all for any luck with spotting anything while snorkelling. But our day was made with the mutiple “clusters” of marine iguanas we saw on the beach as well as witnessing some taking off to the water and some swimming up to the beach and move across to find their own spot under the sun.


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A Marine Iguana swims to the beach to sun itself

As we left the beach, I saw this pelican which seemed extremely content!

Sand, Sea, Self, Shadow, Sun - Satisfied!
Sand, Sea, Self, Shadow, Sun – Satisfied!

Standardisation of services is always useful for visitors – in Puerto Ayora all taxis are Toyota Hilux / Pickups with a standard charge of $1 for a ride anywhere within the town. So after the 3+ km walk back out of the trail to the beach, it was a $1 taxi ride back to our lovely accommodation for a refreshing shower before heading out to what became one of our favourite places in town – the harbour. One just needs to stand by the pier and watch to see a whole variety of animals – sea lions swimming or resting on the benches, pelicans and herons on boats, marine iguanas climbing up the walls and sea turtles, golden rays and baby sharks swimming past!

Animals have right of way and seating here!

The next few days saw us venturing out to the non-human inhabited North Seymour and Santa Fe islands. The former hosts colonies of the Magnificent Frigate birds and Blue-footed Boobies along with Land Iguanas that we got to see at just over an arm’s length. The latter provides great snorkelling spots where we got to swim with sea turtles, sting rays, baby sharks and watch a bunch of young sea-lions up close. We had just five people on the Santa Fe trip and our guide forecast correctly that it was a “lucky day”. He showed us a fantastic sight of hundreds, maybe a thousand fish forming a beautiful pattern on the ocean floor at one of the spots and in another (with truly freezing water) we saw the most amazingly colourful fish right out a NatGeo production!

A Magnificent Frigatebird family nesting in North Seymour island – the father takes the responsibility of safekeeping of the eggs and upbringing of the chicks, the mother helps with the feeding of the chicks
Male Magnificent Frigatebird with his scarlet throat pouch inflated like a balloon, common in the breeding season
Blue-footed Boobies seen on Santa Cruz northern harbour
A Blue-footed Booby family nesting in North Seymour island – what a lovely close-up view!
Blue-footed Booby taking care of its eggs – the male and female take turns to do this
The scrubby terrain of North Seymour island
The North Seymour shoreline
In the backdrop here is Mosquera island, a sand beach at sea level
A sea lion stretches itself neck after a swim on the North Seymour shore!
Our guide for Santa Fe - the smiling Camillo who made it a great experience for us
Our guide for Santa Fe – the smiling Camillo who made it a great experience for us

Isla Santa Cruz has sights to explore on land as well. The ones we visited were the beautiful Las Grietas, Los Gemelos and the giant tortoise reserve and lava tunnels at El Chato.

Las Grietas - a volcanic fracture where the cool ocean water mingles with rainwater to provide a deep blue "swimming pool" with the colourful parrot fish for company
Las Grietas – a volcanic fracture where the cool ocean water mingles with rainwater to provide a deep blue “swimming pool” with the colourful parrot fish for company

At Las Grietas, we opted for snorkelling looking at the depth of the water and lack of “landing” places in between the length but our little mermaid was off swimming by herself and disappeared to explore the next two pools beyond!

Los Gemelos are an interesting feature in the highlands of Santa Cruz where the vegetation is completely different from the lowlands due to higher precipitation. On two sides of the road are two large sinkholes (not craters) created when the earth surface became unsteady and collapsed due to the hot magma underneath. Over the millenia, a lush green forest has grown here.

Los Gemelos – large sinkholes where the surface sank due to the hot magma underneath, now covered with a lush Scalesia forest
Tree covered in moss, perfect Halloween prop!

The El Chato tortoise reserve is privately owned and a large property where giant tortoises roam freely. The property also has a series of lava tunnels that one can walk through like an underground tunnel.

El Chato Tortoise Reserve – where the gentle giants roam free
Unique road sign – probably the only place in the world
This 100+ years old giant munches on grass
This 100+ years old giant munches on grass
Lava Tunnels at El Chato, Santa Cruz island
Lava Tunnels

Six days later we left to go to the Isabella island, the largest in the archipelago and the youngest at about a million years of age formed by the merger of 6 volcanoes of which 5 are still active. The last eruption on this island was a year ago in May 2015. Isla Isabella was our base for the next 3 days to explore and admire the rich wildlife in and around it. It was a 2-hour boat journey in the middle of the Pacific, both unnerving and calming at the same time. Unnerving when we looked at the expanse of water with some large waves and not a speck of land in sight making the power boat look quite powerless. Calming to stare into infinity and feeling the harmony in the interconnection between everything around.

At both Santa Cruz and Isabella islands, the bigger boats dock a little away from the piers and water taxis (smaller boats) are used to transfer people & goods to the island. It is a very systematic execution with perfect coordination between the boatmen in handling everyone and the biggest pieces of luggage for a smooth operation. And standard rates for the water taxis with no haggling for luggage. A very pleasant experience overall.

As our water taxi approached the island, the boatman pointed out to a penguin standing on the rocks, it felt like a dream to be seeing this! One of the reasons for coming to Isabella was to see the Galapagos penguins that reside here.

Entry into the little village of Isabella, solar-powered street lights in the background

A walk to the bay later that day offered us sights of numerous sea lions and marine iguanas snoozing near and on the walkways, benches, anywhere they wished! And penguins swimming around looking like ducks in the water 🙂

Three sea lions snoozed peacefully with a larger adult on a bench nearby, completely unperturbed by the humans passing by within a couple of feet
The largest single congregation of Marine Iguanas we saw in Galapagos was on Isla Isabella
Penguins swimming near Isla Isabella dock

The next morning Manish & Mika decided to go snorkelling to Tintoreras just off Isabella; I opted to stay back and catch up on some writing as I am not too fond of being in the water and wanted to reserve my last bit of stamina for the next day’s snorkelling at Los Tuneles, the lava tunnels in the ocean. The under-rated Tintoreras turned out to be the most magical experience for Mika and Manish with close encounters with sea lions and penguins in the water and sighting scores of white tipped sharks from arm’s length while walking the Martian terrain. For the details of this day, you need to read Mihika’s blog on her experience!

Galapagos Penguins at Tintoreras, off Isla Isabella
White-tipped sharks resting in shallow pools at Tintoreras
A sea turtle raises its head out of the water!

For all the action I missed in the morning, we compensated with sighting of dozens of brilliant Flamingos on another part of the island.

American Flamingos in Isla Isabella


The next day was the big day with a 45-minute boat ride to Los Tuneles, with a short circle around Union Rock where we sighted Nazca Boobies, another species of boobies, this one with black feet.

Nazca Booby at Union Rock, off the coast of Isla Isabella
Nazca Boobies

The snorkelling at Los Tuneles was a long, exhausting and fully worthwhile experience for the ability to see and swim with seahorses, full-sized white tipped reef sharks, different types of rays including the beautiful Manta Ray, octopus and giant sea turtles.

A delicate seahorse
Swimming with the Rays!
White-tipped Reef Sharks rest here
Mika at the Los Tuneles under water!
Lobster on the head!!
Los Tuneles – the lava tunnels off Isla Isabella
A sea turtle swims by at Los Tuneles

The day ended with a relaxed stroll on the beach and watching a beautiful sunset.

A colourful sunset at Isla Isabella

As we ended what we thought was a once-in-a-lifetime stay at Galapagos, we were quite sure we would be coming back here some day ….

Hope you’ve enjoyed reading this. Posting this as we leave for the Amazon rainforests with no phones, internet for 3 days and generated electricity for only 3 hours each evening! Good luck to us 🙂

In the Middle of the World!

Our maiden visit to South America had a very pleasant start at the Miami International Airport in the very comfortable lounge of Avianca, the oldest operating airline in the Americas and the second oldest in the world after KLM. We were welcomed by a very friendly lady from Colombia with the warmth of the hospitality services we are accustomed to in India and usually miss on our travels to the West. Rested and refreshed we were on our way to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, transiting through Bogota, the Colombian capital and hub of Avianca.

Ecuador literally means the Equator in Spanish, the official language of the country. We landed in the middle of the world in the middle of the night and were pleasantly surprised and happy to see that all the immigration officials, barring one, were women! I do not recollect having seen a single female immigration official in any of the airports in India and now I wonder why?

As we were being driven to our hotel from the airport, it felt like we were headed to a hill station. I didn’t realise then that Quito, at an altitude of 2,850 metres above sea level, is the highest of all national capitals. The next morning we could see just how many hills and valleys there were in this city.IMG_20160429_102845IMG_2033

We stayed in old Quito, the historic centre characterised by cobbled streets, monuments and colonial style buildings, that became the first UNESCO World Heritage Site (along with Krakow). Our hotel was an old bungalow with a central courtyard, a common feature of traditional homes in many parts of India. The Presidential Palace of Quito features this too. I am sure you can guess which of the two courtyards below is our hotel’s and which is the Presidential Palace’s 🙂



We spent the day exploring the
monuments and sights starting with the central square, the Plaza de la Independencia more commonly known as Plaza Grande, that is flanked by the Presidential Palace and the Metropolitan Cathedral and the Archbishop’s palaceof Quito.

IMG_20160429_104312It was a bustling square with vendors selling a variety of fare – handmade shawls, hats, eatables and so on. An interesting feature were the shoe-shine boys on one end of the square.

The Presidential Palace
The Presidential Palace
Metropolitan Cathedral of Quito flanking the Plaza Grande
Metropolitan Cathedral of Quito flanking the Plaza Grande
View of the Plaza Grande from the Presidential Palace
A Shoeshine Boy at the Plaza Grande
A Shoeshine Boy at the Plaza Grande
A street food vendor

Next we headed for a guided tour of the Presidential Palace that was possible since the President was not in residence on the day. We had to handover our passports and go through expected security checks to enter the building that had no external signs of opulence.


We started with huge murals depicting the discovery and conquest of the Amazon by the Spanish and walked through lavish meeting and banquet halls before stepping into the radiant “Yellow Room”.


The Yellow Room

IMG_1981All gifts received by the various Ecuadorian presidents from different countries were on display. Samples here are from Peru and Saudi Arabia.

IMG_20160429_114643IMG_20160429_114406We then strolled out onto the cobbled street and headed to La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús (the Church of the Society of Jesus) known for its Baroque style architecture and ornate interiors with elaborate gold leaf decorations on its walls and high ceiling. The facade of the church bears no hint of the splendour inside.

Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús


The next highlight was Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco (Church and Monastery of St. Francis) featuring twin bell towers. Notice the storm clouds gathering above the bell towers!

Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco
Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco

As we walked through this pretty part of the city, we noticed how well the traffic was being managed through these narrow streets by very committed traffic-police, most of them being women! No wonder there are no traffic jams here.


We walked on to the La Ronda street which looked picturesque and right out of a European town with eateries lining the pedestrian-only cobbled street.IMG_20160429_132035As the street comes alive in the evenings, we decided to come back there for dinner.

And there were women constables patrolling the streets.

IMG_20160429_130257It was great to see so many women in law enforcement roles, more so because traditionally there has been a disparity in women’s status in terms of education and economic status.

In the evening we strolled around to take in the evening lights & atmosphere and stopped by a small eatery to taste our first Humitas, a traditional steamed corn snack. We saw many signs of “Cafe con Humitas” suggesting it was something like “Chai with Samosa” for the locals. Corn and plantains are a big part of the daily diet here. We returned to La Ronda and found a place with a guitarist playing & singing as a nice way to wrap up the day. Given the lack of an English menu, vegetarian food and English speaking folks around, it took some effort to choose what we wanted. Just when we sat back to enjoy the music, Manish realised the backpack he had placed next to him was missing! A frantic search around the place ensued and quite soon it was clear the bag had been taken. The usherer at the door thought a guy who just left the place had taken our bag mistaking it for his own and ran out to find him. We found another backpack neatly tucked away a little further from our table, but given the place & manner in which it was kept it became apparent that it was not a mistake at all by the person who had taken, rather stolen our bag. As we stood on the street quite shaken thinking about what happened and asked to restaurant to call the police, we recollected the contents of the bag. To our utter relief, the bag didn’t contain our passports and any valuables. Thanks to Manish’s research on safety during travel and his habit of preparing for the worst, he had our passports, cash and cards all on his person. We figured we had lost our rain jackets, a portable mobile charger & phone cable, some medicines & first-aid and a water bottle. The police arrived immediately and they called for an English speaking officer who also turned up pretty quickly. On hearing the details, they apologised for our bad experience, duly recorded our complaint and gave us a copy of the report. The restaurant turned in the backpack left by the thief who for sure would have cursed his bad luck at getting nothing of value in return for the loss of his own backpack! Not in the script as Manish said, but a briefly nerve-wracking experience to reinforce the absolute need for alertness in cities.

The next day dawned, we put the previous evening firmly behind us and headed right to the middle of the world – latitude 0°! Interestingly, before the advent of GPS, the location of the Equator near Quito had been wrongly marked and the official monument Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World City) is situated about 200 metres south of latitude 0°. So instead of IMG_2092this we headed to the Intiñan Museum that is closer to the right spot. Here we heard some interesting facts about the native tribes of the region, saw totems representing Inti (the Sun) from different countries, witnessed experiments demonstrating the Coriolis effect, tried our hand (successfully) at balancing an egg on the head of a nail and walked on the red line representing the Equator.

An ancient tribal ritual of creating a pendant from an enemy’s head!
A burial mound
Replica of a burial mound – the dead were placed in fetal position in a pot that denotes the womb – tribal belief of rebirth


Balancing acts, each one trying to centre ourselves!



The below pics of parent and child on the two hemispheres are symbolic of the differences that exist (and always will!) between generations, despite our attempts to be “cool” parents. We’ve decided to just “mind the gap” and Mika is happy we finally accept the “gap”!


The demonstration of the Coriolis effect helped us understand the difference in the directions of weather systems north and south of the Equator – hurricanes & tornadoes that hit North America move in an anti-clockwise direction while typhoons in South America have a clockwise circulation.

The tribal handmade crafts on display were a colourful visual treat and we also witnessed a demo of a tribal dance.

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From here we headed further up the Andes towards Mindo for a rendevous with the clouds in the cloud forest and an opportunity to see some of the hundreds of bird species that inhabit them. Needless to say, some of the bird species are in danger of extinction.

In our journey of about an hour & a quarter, we came across some scenes reminiscent of home – what car would you say is the one overtaking the cattle carrier?


In our Mindo hotel balcony we found ourselves at an arm’s distance from Hummingbirds of so many different types with their resplendent colourings shining in the sunlight that we remained excited, mesmerised and clicking away for a long time! It was unbelievable to see so many of these tiny birds feeding with their wings flapping rapidly at the feeder placed by the hotel staff. We got to see from close up the backward flight that we had heard and read about. And various kinds of colourful Tanagers were frequenting the guava tree next to our balcony, making us wonder at the colours and types of the birds residing in the forest where we would be heading to the next morning!

FeedingRufous-tailed Hummingbird feeder


Andean EmeraldRufous-tailed HummingbirdWhite-necked Jacobin - Female

Blue-grey TanagerLemon-rumped Tanager - Male

Palm Tanager

We strolled through the rather little main street in this quaint little town, more like a village actually. We loved the peaceful, laid-back atmosphere and had an enjoyable dinner of fresh handmade pizza at a local bakery. Mindo is not a typical family destination, it is a haven for backpackers and young travelers who are either nature lovers or adventure-seekers coming here for the thrills of rafting, tubing and canyoning.

It was an early start the next morning and a pleasant walk with our naturalist and guide Irman where he pointed out many Tanagers and small birds like Seedeaters quite early on. We were eager to see the bigger & brighter ones that are much harder to spot. We admired the streams and the view of the clouds touching the forest canopy on the way.


Hearing the calls of toucans, our guide ushered us on. The first ones we got to see were the Crimson-rumped Toucanets, a smaller variety of the Toucan family and then the big Pale-mandibled Toucan. What a majestic sight!

Crimson-rumped Toucanet2
Crimson-rumped Toucanet
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan

Then came a really beautiful call that got our guide all excited and soon enough we were rewarded with the sight of an amazing bird – the Masked Trogon, what a beauty & what a beautiful call!

Masked Trogon2
Masked Trogon

Another beauty that we saw a couple of was the Rufous Motmot.

Rufous Motmot
Rufous Motmot

We learnt that it is common practise for many of the residents to place food (bananas) in their backyards to feed birds. This attracts many colourful birds from the forest to come and feed, providing an easy opportunity to see them from close quarters. We did this at the end of our forest walk in one of the little farms and got to see the bright Red-headed Barbet, Toucan Barbet and Golden Tanager amongst many others.

Red-headed BarbetToucan BarbetGolden Tanager

Amazed by the stunning colours and beauty, we spent many more hours admiring our own clicks of these wonders of nature and watching the thunderstorm of the late afternoon with the rain continuing through the night.

Having experienced the stunning diversity of mainland Ecuador, we were all keen to head out to the islands of Galapagos to see Evolution in action! Though part of our Ecuadorian Odyssey, Galapagos demands a separate post for it has way too much to offer and is truly a world apart.

Thanks for reading and being a part of our journey!

Pa-hay-okee: The River of Grass a.k.a Everglades

The natives who inhabited South Florida for many centuries, the Calusa Indians, certainly understood and grasped the beauty of the blessing we now call Everglades. They called it “Pa-hay-okee” which means “grassy waters” / “river of grass”, a most apt description for this complex wetland and forest ecosystem dominated by expanses of sawgrass through the slow moving Shark River. So slow is the movement of water that it appears still and could be mistaken as stagnant water to the uninitiated.

Sawgrass stretches dotted by Cypress trees
Sawgrass stretches dotted by Cypress trees

The original inhabitants had a lifestyle based on estuarine fisheries rather than agriculture, which was in tune with the natural ecosystem, thus conserving it for centuries before the 20th century pressures of agriculture and urbanization hit. Only ~20% remains of the original expanse remains conserved in the Everglades National Park, now declared as an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site, and a Wetland of International Importance, one of only three locations in the world to be covered under all three conservation lists. We learnt from the rangers of the park how the damming & channeling of water of the Okeechobee lake following hurricanes and flooding in the late 1920s, resulted in cutting-off of the life blood of the Everglades (the slow moving fresh water from Central Florida), and the $8+ billion dollar plan now in place to reverse engineer and restore the natural flow of water to the extent possible.

We explored this beautiful area that hosts a myriad of habitats – mangrove forests, prairies, hardwood forests and pine forests – starting from its western fringes on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

IMG_1416A boat tour of the mangroves was a visual treat with both large expanses of water and narrow canals with the rich mangrove forests all around.



We looked at shell mounds built by the Calusas and learnt about their unique fishing technique using the tidal highs & lows to trap fish in the shallows created by the mounds! A brown pelican flew by as we watched.

Shell Mound

Brown Pelican

We got to see some more birds though it was midday – an egret, a double-crested cormorant and a beautiful pair of Osprey in their nest.


Double Crested Cormorant


The real treats were sightings of two endangered species – a sawfish (critically endangered) and a manatee (vulnerable). In the below pics we were able to capture the fins of the sawfish (you should be able to see 3) and the nostrils of the manatee as it surfaced for air.

Saw Fish


Satisfied, we headed onto explore of the Big Cypress National Preserve on the scenic Loop Road with fingers crossed to find some American alligators in the wild. Pretty soon Manish spotted the first one, right beside the gravel track! See the beautiful eye through the leaves?


Mika was thrilled, her wish was to see 10 alligators and her counter had started! Hovering around this fascinating creature, we soon realised there was a another alligator in the water with only its eyes visible. Over the next hour we found a dozen alligators (Manish has mastered the art of identifying spots to find them!), most of them snoozing in the shallow fresh water streams and some basking in the sun on rocks.


IMG_20160423_153928They appeared blissful in their beautiful environs. The water was so clear, we could see many different shades of red, yellow, brown and green. With cypress trees on both sides of the streams and their reflection in the water, it was a mesmerising scene!




We also spotted this majestic heron, later identified as a Little Blue Heron.

Little Blue Heron

As we drove on, the scenery changed with different colours on the two sides of the road – almost like fall & spring at the same time!


On our way out from the Loop Road to join the Tamiami Trail, we came across many houses of the Miccosukkee, a surviving tribe of natives, who came to inhabit the area when they were driven south by the European invaders.


As we headed towards Homestead, our base to explore the area, we were amidst the large farms and nurseries on land which may have once been part of the Everglades. Coming from Orlando, we found the place had a very different look and feel to it, almost as if we had left the US and entered Mexico or Cuba!

The next part of the Everglades we explored was the eastern side that begins with the Ernest Coe Visitor Center, named after the gentleman who worked had to have a national park setup to preserve the Everglades. There were four trails that we covered here, starting with the Anhinga Trail which derives its name from the American darter birds that are commonly found here.

IMG_1488There was more water than usual for this time of year we were told due to the higher than normal rainfall in Nov-Dec 2015 due to the El Nino effect. So the expected congregation of wildlife around waterholes wasn’t really there. We did not see any Anhingas unfortunately but got to see beautiful views, a lot of fish, IMG_1496quite a few turtles, an alligator, a cormorant, dragonflies, butterflies, a very bright coloured insect, a swamp-hen and a bird with bright red on its wings. This we learnt is the Red-winged Blackbird, also called locally as the “warrior of the Everglades” due its fearless nature in chasing away larger birds.

Redwinged Blackbird - Warrior of Everglades
Warrior of the Everglades – the Red-winged Blackbird







Purple Gallinule
Swamp Hen – the American Purple Gallinule

Next was the Gumbo Limbo trail, a hardwood hammock (a shady, closed canopy forest), that derives its name from the Gumbo Limbo tree, a native of the region. The tree which is extremely useful for its medicinal properties is comically referred to as the “tourist tree” because it’s bark is red and peeling, like the skin of sunburnt tourists!

Gumbo Limbo Tree
Gumbo Limbo Tree

This is a different habitat – no water here, it is at a slightly higher elevation than the adjacent Anhinga trail area though this is imperceptible. We learnt how very small changes in ground elevation result in different habitats each with its own types of flora and fauna in the Everglades. After the trails, we attended a ranger-led session on alligators and crocodiles and learnt how to differentiate between these two often confused reptiles. We learnt that the alligator is the only reptile in the animal kingdom that cares for its young starting with aiding the hatch and going on for 2-3 years! We also learnt that the Everglades is the only region in the world where the ranges of the American alligator (which lives in fresh water) and the American crocodile (which prefers brackish / salty water) overlap.

On our third trail we explored another hardwood hammock, the Mahogany Hammock and then headed to the Pa-hay-okee Outlook which provided us with a vantage viewing point for the defining expanse of sawgrass that gives the region its name.

All of the activities for the day got Mika interested in becoming a Junior Ranger of the Everglades and started her preparation to receive a badge and certificate by the time we completed our Everglades exploration!

The last part we covered on another day was the Shark Valley, in some senses the heart of the park, named so as it is a valley (again imperceptible) situated in the Shark river between the slightly elevated areas of the Big Cypress on the west and the hammocks on the east.



We took the tram tour on which we learnt interesting facts such as the origin of the river Shark’s name, the lone incident of a human injury by an alligator in an “accident” in the park’s entire history, as well as some disturbing facts of how humans are endangering the Everglades in more than one way. A very real danger for the flora and fauna of the region comes from “exotic” and invasive species that have been released / introduced into the national park by people. The biggest of these threats is the Burmese Python, which some people kept as an exotic pet and when any became unwanted, the easiest way to dispose them was to release them into the wild. While the Burmese Python is itself classified as a vulnerable species in its native habitat of South & South-eastern Asia, in the Everglades they have overrun the endemic species of the region. It is reported that over 90% of the mammals in the park – white-tailed deer, rabbits, opossums, raccoons, Florida panther – have disappeared over the past decade or two. A number of captured pythons have had these in their stomachs. Attempts to capture the pythons have met with very little success and it is estimated that over a 1000 remain in the park, continue to multiply and pose a threat to the native species.

Back to the interesting sightings we had on this two-and-a-half hour tour. Baby alligators to begin with – they have yellow stripes for camouflage to help with their survival to adulthood.

Congregation of baby alligators
Congregation of baby alligators – how many can you spot?

We came upon a Green Heron, a Great Egret, a Great Blue Heron, a Red-shouldered Hawk, Black Vultures and finally an Anhinga!!





Anhinga – American Darter

A soft-shelled turtle bearing the marks of a recent alligator encounter was spotted right next to the track.


But the best was saved for the last – an alligator (a mother as we figured later) with a kill of a smaller alligator and getting defensive of her food. We learnt that adult alligators are cannibals. While watching this rare sight, we observed 4 to 5 baby alligators that kept swimming and surfacing near the adult and that was how we figured the adult was a mother.




Thus ended our rendezvous with American alligators, creatures that we learnt are fairly shy and unlike the often believed notion of being human attackers, only ever consider humans as food when humans start feeding them! The park has warning signs all over that feeding animals in the park is illegal and carries a fine!

With all this learning and park activities done, Mika qualified as a Junior Park Ranger!

IMG_20160426_122524In between our Everglades exploration, we took a day to drive down to the Florida Keys to see the picturesque view of the Atlantic ocean all around on the Seven-Mile Bridge and stopped at Key Largo to visit the John Pennakemp Coral Reef State Park. Manish and Mika went snorkelling but I chickened out as the water was choppy & called for strong swimmers. I caught up with some of the local inhabitants meanwhile 🙂


IMG_20160425_124808Next destination was Miami and its famed South Beach.

Thanks for reading. We look forward to your feedback.

We are privileged to be posting this article on a rich ecosystem from the mega-diverse Ecuador, the most biologically-diverse country on the planet – the subject of another post!

Please do read Mika’s blogpost on Everglades –