Galapagos Islands (Ecuador )

Galápagos Islands (Day 1)
After an eventful drive to Quito airport, during which our host Elsa ditched her usual relaxed style of driving and busted a gut to get us there on time; we arrived late in the afternoon at a windy but sunny Seymour airport on the island of Baltra. The landing itself was not without incident, as, after what seemed like a routine approach, the pilot aborted at the last moment and we did an extra loop of Baltra before landing 2nd time around. We debated at length what had happened (giant tortoise on runway perhaps) but no explanation was forthcoming from the crew.

Safely down, we paid the US$100 each Galapagos national park entry fee…at this point we should mention that travel to the Galapagos Islands is not cheap, as the flight prices are generally start at US$400 p.p., in addition to the above park entrance fee, plus US$20 p.p. charge to enter each of the main islands.

There are many cruises (average 5 days) available but prices of these vary from high to very high. We had consulted a local friend of a friend who recommended we instead base ourselves in the 2 main islands, Santa Cruz and Isabella, and do an organised day trip (also expensive) from each of these, plus our own exploration on other days…sound advice as it turns out.

From the airport we were all shown to a bus, which took us a short distance across Baltra (also known as South Seymour) island, from where we all jumped on a small ferry to cross the 300m wide channel between Baltra and Santa Cruz. Then back on the bus for the 45 minute ride across to the South of the island and the main town in Galapagos (Puerto Ayero), where we arrived just as the sun was setting. We found our way to our hostel…popped next door for a bite to eat, went to the main strip to book a day tour for the following morning and got to bed reasonably early as we had a 6.30am pick up.

Day 2: Bartolome Isla

We got up early with a spring in our step raring to go and explore Bartalome Island. We got picked up at 6.30am, driven around Puerto Ayuro collecting 13 other guests from their hostels, then set off for a 45 minute bus ride to the northern tip of Santa Cruz, where our boat was waiting for us…incidentally, we noticed that Santa Cruz itself was cloudy, principally around the volcanic centre.

On arrival, we took a zodiac ride to our boat, spotting huge pelicans and seals swimming around on the way. We were a little hungry and glad to have breakfast waiting for us. We then set off for the 2 hour boat cruise.

On our way we spotted bottled nose dolphins , actually one dolphin decided to do a spectacular jump/twist out of the water, which sent most of the 10 people on board hurrying to the front to catch a glimpse. The weather at this point was still a little overcast but warm, which didn’t matter as the company onboard and scenery were excellent.

As we started approaching volcanic isla Bartolome, (which was named after naturalist and lifelong friend of Charles Darwins Sir Bartholomew James Sulivan, who was a lieutenant aboard HMS Beagle… and is one of the youngest islands in the Galapagos at only 5 million years old!) the beauty of the landscape was breathtaking. The land consists of an extinct volcano and a variety of red, orange, green and glistening black volcanic formations of rocks with gorgeous coves and the iconic Pinnacle rock protruding out of the ocean which was just marvellous. The weather luckily for us started clearing and the sun shone.

We anchored a few hundred metres off the island and jumped onboard a zodiac to get to Bartolome steps and walk way, which winds its way up 400 metres to the top for panoramic views. Just as we got off the zodiac, two seal lions swam over to the foot of the steps.

Our guide was at this point giving us important information about the island however it was difficult to concentrate with these incredible mammals swimming around. We also spotted two green turtles splashing around too.

The walk up the volcanic cone was hot and interesting. No wildlife lives on these islands due to the extreme heat and lack of vegetation, the only fauna and flora is a small lizard, which has adapted to its environment plus a small plants called Tiquilla’s. The Manganese rock that forms this island is extremely fragile. We got to hold some of the rocks and were really surprised with how light they were. Our guide, informed us that the island is constantly changing due to wind and rain erosion.

At the top of the volcanic cone, the majestic views captured us all.

We took photos and gazed at the incredible formations in front of us for around 15 minutes, then headed back to the boat. On our way to the zodiac, we had three sea lions sitting on the steps and only exit point. This didn’t faze our guide as he clapped a few times and they swam off.

Back onboard the ‘Galapagos shark 2’ we all got ourselves ready for some snorkelling. The boat moved round to a small sheltered bay, the water looked crystal clear, but a little deep. We were told to jump off and swim across to the coral near the shore and given boundaries for safety reasons. At this point Vanessa seemed a little concerned about sharks (the 40 odd hammerhead sharks that our guide scuba dived with the week before just across the water on a little island), this didn’t deter Jon going in. Off Jon went (aways first in!), followed by several others and eventually Vanessa.

The tropical marine life was in abundance, as well as large pelicans who loved speed diving into the water to catch fish. This was spectacular to watch and there were tons of them doing this, but then the real highlight for us was a raft of penguins swimming around us, diving in and just leisurely swimming near us with no fear whatsoever. This was insanely good fun!

After a few hours we decided to explore the tiny beach and observed a large cast of brightly orange coloured crabs manoeuvring around the volcanic rocks. We also got real up close and personal with the pelicans too. After a while we decided to head back in the water for another snorkel as there were more penguins swimming around. Once again we stayed in the water for a further 30 minutes then headed back to the boat and for a well deserved lunch.

They trip back was a little choppy but warm. We lay on the deck chatting, spotting flying fish, turtles and other interesting birds. We also cruised around Isla Daphne spotting marine lizards, sea lions, nasca boobies and blue footed boobies before heading back to the main Island Santa Cruz. After a couple of hours, we reached Santa Cruz, and caught our bus back to Puerto Ayero.

In summary, this day trip is definitely worthwhile. The views are unique to the Isla and the snorkelling was sensational with plenty of marine life. Some people in our group spotted octopus, sea lions and sting rays. The cost is $150 USD per person including all transport, breakfast and lunch. Unfortunately all tour operators charge the same price, a little pricey for backpackers but a very enjoyable day.

Day 3

Another early start, as the boat from Santa Cruz to Isabella left at 7am and we needed to be there 30 minutes early for checking of baggage…evidently Galápagos authorities take the movement of flora and fauna between the islands very seriously (which is a good thing). We took a small motorboat approx 200 metres to a slightly larger boat moored in the port and then set off towards Isabella, along with 14 other passengers. The journey took 2 hours and was pretty rough, although we suspect it could be worse. Vanessa did well to avoid being ill.

Disembarking in Peurto Villamil (Isabella’s main port) involved a similar boat transfer and payment of a $20 admission fee but immediately we stepped ashore, we were surrounded by giant iguanas and sea lions who were not at all phased by the presence of humans.

We had an hour or so to find our accomodation (Hostal Punta Arena…can’t recommend this place highly enough) before being picked up at 11am for our tour to Los Tuneles (the tunnels), which involved another 45 minute boat ride along the south coast of Isabella on a slightly smaller craft with 6 other passengers. Vanessa was not keen to go out again so soon but the weather had picked up slightly and the sea appeared less rough.

Arriving at the reef offshore of the tunnels,

the waves were evidently a problem for the captain who thought long and hard before riding one of the waves over the reef. Once in the sheltered cove we stopped for a bite to eat before venturing ashore to admire the amazing volcanic rock formations, the abundance of cacti, blue footed boobies, giant turtles and the odd sea lion.

Returning back aboard the captain needed to work hard to get the boat back out beyond the large waves breaking on the reef, in order to move the short distance to where we were to snorkel.

We all donned wetsuits, masks, snorkel and flippers and jumped into the water behind our guide. We were anxious not to miss anything and stayed very close to him throughout but need not have worried as almost immediately we bumped into a small group of giant turtles. We swam past an abundance of fish of all shapes and sizes, with giant turtles popping up all around us. Our guide instructed us to stay put whilst he swam into a submerged cave. Seconds later a shark approx 6ft in length swam out of the cave and past us. Once we had recovered from the shock, our guide offered to show us some sharks asleep in another tunnel/cave. We each voluntarily allowing ourselves to be pushed down a few metres and held in the mouth of the cave whilst our eyes adjusted and enabled us to see 2 more sleeping sharks of similar length.
Next we followed our guide towards an area where he pointed out a sea horse, which was closely followed by a shoal of gold tipped rays and another visit to a shark cave (this one more visible than previously).

After an amazingly rapid couple of hours snorkelling, it was time to head back to the boat for our trip back to Puerto Villamil. Thankfully the seas had died down since earlier in the day and we either talked or dozed for the return journey.

Day 4 – We had a relatively late start to the day (9am) and hired 2 basic mountain bikes from a local store for the day US$15 pp.

First stop was only 2km away at a giant tortoise sanctuary (full name: ‘Centro de crianza Arnaldo Tupiza Chamaidan’), reach via a flat dirt track. There we saw our first Galápagos giant turtles, ranging from tiny newborns to 1.5m long adults. If the amount of attempted mating going on is anything to go by, the future of these species is in safe hands!

This sanctuary can also be walked to from Puerto Vilamil in 15 minutes by way of a trail which passes a flamingo lake. We stopped there for a quick look.

Next we cycled west along a dirt/sand track on the south coast past beautiful sandy beaches with loads of Pelicans, until we reached a boom gate marking the start of the ‘Complejo de Humedales’; a five mile dirt trail culminating at the ‘Muro de las Lagrimas’ (wall of tears) and its nearby mirador (lookout). A helpful park guide advised us that the return trip would take approx 3 hours by bike, dependent on how many of the 10 short side trails we explored (we decided to do them all). He suggested we proceed to the far end of the trail first as this was mainly uphill and that we do any side trips on the return trip (which was good advice), and he stressed the importance of sticking to marked trails so as not to threaten the wildlife.

We set off uphill along the trail. After a warm 20 minutes or so, we spotted our first ever wild giant tortoise by the side of the road (curiously on the return journey approx an hour later he had managed to move no more than 2 metres).

At the far end of the trail we stopped and parked our bikes in the convenient bike racks located next to each of the side trails (cycling appears to be the favoured method of transport on Isabella) and walked a short distance to The Wall of Tears, which were placed there by Ecuadorian convicts prior to world war 2 as part of an ill conceived plan to start a penal colony on the island. We then took a sweaty 15 minute walk up to the mirador where we sat and ate lunch before heading back down to the bikes.

We then proceeded to cycle our way leisurely back along the trail, stopping at each of the marked side routes to explore. These consisted of various lakes/ponds, miradors, small tucked-away beaches, a lava-flow cave rock formation and a hidden mangrove tunnel, interspersed with giant iguanas, sea lions and Pelicans.

By mid-afternoon we had had our fill and headed back to Puerto Villamil where we returned the bikes. We had an hour or so left before sunset, so decided to rent out snorkelling gear and walk the short distance to Concha Perla Bay., which is a natural lagoon protected by a reef which is perfect far marine wildlife spotting. On the boardwalk and bench approaching it we had to negotiate past some sleeping sea lions.

Swimming out at the far side of the bay, we both received a shock when an adult sea lion swam at speed only a metre or so beneath us. At first glance a fast moving dark shape over 2 metres long can cause concern!

After a thoroughly enjoyable and tiring day, we headed back to our excellent hostal for dinner and a good night’s rest as we had an early start the next day.

Day 5

Woke up ridiculously early as we had to catch our boat at 6am back to Santa Cruz. We were all ready to set off on a 15 minute walk when luckily for us, the owner waved us into his open side mini bus and gave us a lift for free down to the harbour. It turned out that he was a captain of another boat heading to Santa Cruz.

The trip took 2 hrs exactly and was real choppy but it got us there safely. That’s all the matters.

On arrival we headed to our hostel we had book online the night before to drop off our stuff. Once there, we quickly got ready packing a small bag ready for the day’s adventures.

Les Grietas:

We walked back to the port and caught a small boat for US80 cents across the bay to the start of our walk to Les Grietas. We walked along a clear path for about 30 minutes passing several nice looking hostels, finch bay and little houses turned into kiosks.

“Las Grietas” is directly translated, “grieta” meaning crevasse or crack. Las Grietas is a place to swim and snorkel in cool ocean water between two tall cliffs, where the earth has opened up like a “crack” or “crevasse”.

We quickly got ourselves ready and jumped in with our snorkelling gear. The immensity of the depth of the crevasse was striking, especially as the visibility was excellent. We spotted several tropical fish and explored some of the underwater caves. The length of the first pool was 50metres. We swam to the end then Jon decided to explore a little further climbing over rocky murky water, discovering another pool of a similar size to the first, with a huge school of large fish.

We stayed for an hour or so exploring, then went for a walk along the top of the canyon to get a birds eye view of Las Grietas. It took around 10 minutes to walk along the top through bush but an obvious path. The view at the top unveiling the longer of the two pools was spectacular, especially with the sun shining down between the two cliffs.

We stopped at the end, to take in the views across the bay of Puerto Ayuro and to eat some lunch.

We then headed back to finch bay beach for a quick dip and then back in the boat to the port.

We then walked towards Tortuga bay. This was easy to locate via ‘mapsme’. The well constructed brick path through the forest was easy to follow and took around an hour. Once at the first beach we observed the red flags stating ‘no swimming ‘ and for good reason. This section of the beach is known for it’s waves and strong currents and therefore only suitable for confident surfers. We took off our shoes and strolled along the beach, spotting marine iguanas and large pelicans in trees. We stopped to record a birthday message for a good friend in Melbourne, then strolled around to the more sheltered bay, where it seemed everyone else was. The water looked a deep green and was very calm. The sun shone, therefore this called for a swim and a relaxing snooze on the beach. We hung around for an hour or so then headed back to Puerto Ayero via the same route.

We had an hour left before nightfall, so we dragged our weary legs to the famous ‘Charles Dawson research and education centre’ this was on the other side of town and took 20 minutes to walk to.

Vanessa unfortunately was exhausted from the heat, walking and all the early mornings, so she decided to rest at the cafe after visiting only a few areas, Jon carried on through the centre. This is more of an educational centre with plenty of informative reading material and less of an area to view wildlife (there are plenty of animals elsewhere in the islands), although there are several species of Galapagos Tortoises on show.

We walked back into town, hungry and almost out on our feet but happy with the day’s activities.

Day 6 – This was really only a traveling day back to Baltra (South Seymour) island, as we had an 11am flight back to Quito. Just as it had when we arrived, the sun was shining when we flew out.

Summary- The Galapagos Islands and their wildlife are fascinating. It is not cheap to get there or to take any of the organised tours but if you are in or near Equador, its well worth the spend for this unforgettable once in a lifetime experience.