Ecuador - Galapagos Islands
Arriving in Quito we made it a priority to find a reputable travel agency and book our trip to the Galapagos Islands so that we could organize the rest of our time in Ecuador around that.
We grabbed a last-minute fare on the Samba, a boat we’d had very positive recommendations for. For those keen on knowing the details: we paid $1600 each for the 8 day/7 night cruise. Some of our fellow travellers actually flew to the Galapagos and booked there directly for $1250. List price for advance reservations from home was $2500. Air fare from Quito to the Galapagos Islansd is in addition to this: $400 each.
There are three classes of cruise boats in the Galapagos: Tourist, First
Class and Luxury. The differences between these come down to four things:
the qualifications and English capability of the guide; the size of the
cabins (bunks or full-sized beds); speed of the boat in getting from island
to island; and variety of food service (full buffet with many options
vs set menu).
So on Tuesday morning, February 1st off we went. The first flight, Quito to Guayaquil, was very quick – just 35 minutes. Even so, the plane had to climb 38,000 feet to get up and over the Andes Mountains – what a thrill to see these sparkling below us.
Coming in to Guayaquil we flew over the Rio Guayas, overflowing its banks and flooding the rich agricultural lands stretched out below us. There was just a 30 minute delay while passengers unloaded and boarded. Then we were off to the legendary Las Islas Encantadas – the enchanted isles.
Over an axis that stretches 320 km from east to west, there are 19 islands and 42 islets or surfacing rocks. The most easterly of these is 1100 km from Ecuador. The islands are completely oceanic, formed by volcanoes. They have never been joined to the mainland by a land bridge, thus there is no evidence of land mammals.
Despite their location right on the equator, the Galapagos have a semi-tropical, rather than an equatorial climate. This is due to the confluence of ocean currents that cool the waters of the Galapagos. We certainly noticed those currents as the Samba moved about the different islands. One day we’d be snorkelling in warm tropical waters, the next day we’d be shocked by the cold. Fortunately, wet suits were included.
The flight to Baltra on the island of Santa Cruz takes about two hours. First task is paying the park fee of $100, next is meeting our guide, Juan.
Born and raised in the islands, Juan brought enormous passion to his job of guiding us. Even on the very last day, on the way to the airport already, he stopped the bus to show us “just one more thing you MUST see.” He’s a very educated fellow with degrees in ecology and biology, a perfect command of English and a charming personality. He wasn’t too hard to look at either, tall and tanned with an unruly shock of black curly hair and flashing white teeth (see photo near top). He is married to a Swiss Ecuadorian and they have two little girls.
After hanging around the airport long enough to collect our fellow travellers we bussed over to the Samba – just 5 minutes away. There are 13 passengers including us, five crew plus Juan (ship’s captain, two mates, chef and steward).
After a great lunch and orientation we set out for Las Bachas on Santa Cruz Island where Captain Jose anchors and we make our first wet landing. This means setting out in the zodiac, passengers seated on the sides. When we get near the beach the dinghy driver rams it as far up the sand as he can while we all throw our legs over the side and into the sea. With any luck we only get the bottom of our shorts wet.
The first walk along the sparkling white sand of Las Bachas is memorable. Shiny black volcanic intrusions give the great blue herons a picturesque place to perch. Marine iguanas watch us carefully, not spooked but they slip into the water just the same if we get too close. They live on the edge of the ocean, eating only algae.
We saw big green turtles mating – a female can mate with 2-4 different males who compete for the chance to inject their semen into her semen sac where it all gets mixed together. She releases it into her egg sac when she feels she has enough. The eggs take about 20 days to ripen then she comes up on the beach, digs a whole and lays her eggs. They take 90-120 days to hatch.
Walking back to the zodiac we come on a large female digging her nest high up on the beach. We also watched coral flamingos mincing through a lovely lagoon, sieving crustaceans through their beaks.
Back to the boat and the first of many hot showers. I was surprised by the roominess of the 70-foot Samba’s cabins. Not a lot of floor space, naturally, but enough. Along with a double lower bunk and an upper, lots of hooks for hanging things, drawers for stowing clothes and a full ensuite bathroom.
Dinner was the first of many great meals: chicken rolled around ham and cheese, mashed potatoes, coleslaw, broccoli, beans and carrots. Custard for dessert.
In the evening we met the crew, toasted each other, lounged on the forward deck and admired the stars, thick in the black night sky. Pelicans roosted on the boat and dinghies, jumping over to scoop fish out of the water. Have to admit, it was an idyllic start.
Our fellow passengers are an agreeable lot, hailing from Paris, Munich, London, Auckland, Holland, Hamburg, Zurich and Bern. Knackered by the long day, we went to bed early and happy.
During the night the boat carried us to the northern island of Genovesa, the “Tower,” where we will visit Darwin Bay. Juan woke us at 5 am so we can observe the wildlife while it is still cool and they are active.
We were served a “light breakfast”: fried eggs, granola and milk, fruit plate, toast with cheese and ham, yogurt as well as mango juice. I can hardly wait to see what a “full” breakfast looks like.
Had to limit the liquids though because we are off on a 3-hour walk and humans are not allowed to leave anything on the island. They are serious about that. If we are overcome with a need, Juan will recall a zodiac to take us back to the Samba before he’ll allow us to use the island as a toilet. Right. I can just see myself being chauffeured back to the boat to pee. I’ll skip the coffee, thank you.
The beaches of Genovesa were full of blue-footed boobies and frigate birds. We saw them courting, making nests and feeding their young. When they fish they hold the catch in their crop where it digests. When they return to feed the chick, they regurgitate it back out. We saw one bird regurgitating a squid. Still too rubbery, the chick could not swallow it so back it went into the crop to cook for a few extra hours.
We saw them courting and preening and chasing each other. We saw two young sea lions playing like children in a little nursery pool. When his playmate got tired of him he tried to engage us in play. We saw another baby sea lion nursing off his mom.
All of this was at very close distances. Neither the birds nor the sea lions react with any fear towards humans.
We’d landed at 6 am and by 9 am it was already getting a lot hotter. The birds were now actually comatose, standing with their heads tucked under their wings, sleeping, finding shade in the foliage. This is when the passengers from the following “luxury” boat arrived to see the wildlife. I guess when you pay $5000 for a cruise they don’t wake you too early.
We returned to the boat for a pick-me-up of juice, fruit, nuts and cookies.
Then we were off in the zodiacs again to snorkel, still on Genovesa. This was a lovely experience. The sea was so gentle that we were able to snorkel right along the rock wall of the island without having to expend any energy to keep ourselves off the wall. We were swimming with little penguins and thousands of colourful saltwater fish. It was like being in an aquarium. We were snorkelling off the dinghies, wearing wet suits to protect us from both the sun and the cold.
The Galapagos Marine Reserve was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001. Some of the fish I was to see over the next week included: Hammerhead shark; Sting rays; Halfbeaks; Dolphin fish “dorado” with their blue top, yellow underbelly and flat snub nose; the flat, dish-like Butterfly fishes; Angel fish – black with bright yellow and white markings; Blackspot porgy – silver with bright yellow-orange strips and a black spot behind eye; Damsel fish with yellow tails, white tails and some with coral tops; Panamic Sergeant Major – white with 5 black stripes’; Hawkfish with zebra like markings; Rainbow Wrasse – beautifully coloured black/yellow/purple/blue/pink; Parrotfish; the black/yellow/while Moorish; Surgeonfish – black with gold rimming strips, white tail; and my favourite, the Guineafowl puffer. I was lucky enough to see it in its golden phase, but it is also black with white spots like a guinea fowl.
I am sure I saw many more; these were just the ones that were easy to identify and remember.
In the late afternoon Juan led the group on another island. On this walk we were fortunate to see a Red-billed Tropic Bird flying back and forth to its nest on Genovesa. This sparkling white bird has a long trailing white tail and has to nest high in the rocks where it can jump off into flight because its wings are not strong enough to get off the ground from a dead start.
We learned so much about birds and fish and turtles and tortoises I cannot begin to recount it all and no doubt, without the live examples in front of you, like we had, the lecture would be boring.
A favourite for me was the frigate bird, which are common on the Galapagos. The male is black with a bright red gular pouch on his front that he inflates like a big red balloon when he is courting, which seemed to be always.
Because of their permanent residence on the Galapagos, the wildlife here is not driven by the migratory imperatives of birds which must mate, nest, incubate and get their fledglings ready for lengthy migrations. In the Galapagos, a frigate bird cycle, for example, would be incubation for 50 days then 170 days of feeding by mom and dad, then another 90 days of assistance from mom.
Another bird that people are keen to see on the Galapagos is the Blue-footed Booby. Brown on top with a white rump and a black tail, the Booby is not that interesting a bird, except for those blue feet. And they are VERY blue. There is a Red-footed Booby as well as a Maked Booby with yellow feet. Three-quarters of the world’s population of Blue-footed Boobies are in the Galapagos, so yes, we saw a LOT of them.
This morning we were enjoying a leisurely 7 am breakfast anchored off Marchena Island when Juan suddenly exploded into the room, “Dolphins! Into your suits! We’ll be in the water in 3 minutes! Get moving!”
So we hustled into our suits and into our wet suits, into the snorkel gear and into the dinghies. There were dozens and dozens of dolphins in the bay, swimming and leaping. They were so close at times we could touch them.
Eventually the dolphins took off for other waters. As long as we were wet we decided to stay in the water and had a wonderful morning snorkelling. I even spotted an eagle ray this morning. These are black with small white spots – a new fish for me.
Lunch was prawns, potatoes, beans, salad, with strawberries and cream for dessert.
In the afternoon we had the choice of exploring Playa Negra (on Marchena) by foot or snorkelling in the lava pools. I chose to walk the beach and it was a nice experience. At one point I was sitting quietly on a log and a baby sea lion came pulled out of the surf and just sat there, several feet away, looking at me. Later a juvenile Galapagos hawk came and sat beside me. First 30 feet away, then 20, then 10, then right beside me, cocking his head quizzically as he tried to figure me out. To be honest, looking at his hooked beak and sharp talons; I was starting to get nervous. Maybe he was wondering if I was worth a nibble?
Back at the boat, dinner was roast chicken, shredded beets, salad, potato cakes, cauliflower and other mixed veg, with spice cake drizzled with raspberry sauce.
The boat has an easy, happy atmosphere. The crew are always laughing and kidding each other. The boat is owned by Juan and his mother. The crew is changed over every 15 days and they are encouraged to choose a family member to come on the cruise too when there is room.
Today we have motored to Isabel Island, the largest of the islands. The morning is an exploration by foot, the afternoon another great snorkel. The highlight today was the big turtles, swimming among us. We’ve been instructed to act like a turtle ourselves, just floating and being amongst them. They can startle. I saw one take off like a bat out of hell when a snorkeler surprised it.
Some little sea lions also swam amongst us today, weaving curiously in and out of us snorkelers. When we stopped to sit on the beach one of the little fellows tried to engage us in play.
We were supposed to go for a panga ride along the cliffs but it was raining much too hard to see so we spent the afternoon motoring to the next stop, on Fernandina. To fill the time we saw an interesting movie called Creation, starring Paul Bettany as Charles Darwin, Jennifer Connelly as Emma and Martha West as his daughter.
Darwin’s historic visit to the islands occurred when he was only 26 years old, a British naturalist on the HMS Beagle. It was 1835 when they dropped anchor in San Cristóbal and he was so profoundly affected by his discoveries among the endemic species of the Galapagos. It would be 24 years before he published The Origin of the Species.
It is a good movie, offering sincere insight into Darwin’s struggle with the alienation he felt inevitable once he published Origin of the Species, believing it could cast the world into chaos when men lost the organizational aspect of religion – that they would abandon the civility as well, that kept society organized, not to mention the comfort and hope that faith gave them.
Fortunately he was not correct in that. Civility remained, even after publication. Some of us have even found a place in which we can embrace evolution and natural selection in companionship with creation.
This morning the idea of breakfast is nauseating. It just amazes me the size of the breakfasts here – scrambled eggs, toast, cheese, ham, salami, jam, several kinds of cereal, yogurt, always huge platters of assorted fruits. And even more amazing is the capacity of people for eating it …refilling their plates several times.
While the group go off for a long land walk on Fernandina I read, finishing Margaret Wittmer’s Floreana. This is the well written account of her family’s settlement on the island of Floreana which they came to in1932 from Germany.
In the afternoon we went for a snorkel – bitingly cold when I first slipped in, it was the balm I needed to refresh me. In the late afternoon we went for a walk around an island. We saw one tortoise, a small one. In Spanish there is only one word, tortuga. The language does not differentiate between tortoises which are land-based and turtles which swim in the water. Physiologically, turtles have flippers and tortoises have legs.
We are looking forward to seeing many more tortoises. During the 1900s they were all but exterminated. They were hunted down for their oil and because they could be held alive in the hold of a ship for months and months, requiring no food or water.
A captive breeding program is steadily returning the tortoises to their old haunts.
On today’s island walk we also saw several land iguanas – big yellow beasts that can grow to one meter in length.
We had really hoped to wake up to a beautiful morning for a change. Except for the first night we have not had a clear night; it’s been steady cloud and rain. We have not been able to spend the evenings out on deck and people are getting quite glum about it. This is the high season for cruising in the Galapagos – the time when the seas are calm and the water is warm. The rain storms are supposed to be tropical events – cloud over in late afternoon, rain torrents for 30 minutes then clear up again. Right.
On our walk last evening we got thoroughly drenched. There are now so many clothes hung out on the upper deck there is no room for more …but they all just hang there getting wetter in the rain. I am in danger of running out of clothes because every time we make a wet landing it is very wet.
When we head out this morning for a panga ride I put on my bathing suit and wet suit. It was a good decision because after several hours of cruising around the mangrove swamps everyone else has another set of wet clothes but I am ready to just roll off the zodiac into the water.
Our snorkel was through submerged lava fields and down into lagoon calderas. In the first crater there were so many big turtles swimming gracefully around. It was magical, to be moving through the water with these creatures, many much older than I am.
The waters were sometimes murky but there were so many different kinds of fish ducking in and out of the rock faces created by the lava flows. At times I was swimming in the middle of vast schools of fish, dozens of them on every side of me.
The lava flows created lagoons and passage ways, caves and alleys. It would have been easy to be lost without Juan guiding us. The zodiacs had dropped us off at one place then scooted around to another to retrieve us so it was necessary to come out at the right place. This was not a good place for beginner snorkelers – some of the passage ways between the submerged craters were quite rough in terms of current. We were working very hard against the current. My feet were rubbed raw from rubbing against fins that are a bit too big for me.
The lava flows are also home to the world's only marine iguanas. The horrible looking creatures are fortunately vegetarian. There are so many of them, everywhere you look that if they were carnivorous I think I'd be leery of walking around on the islands.
Today was devoted to tortoises. The Tintoreras Tortoise Breeding Center on Isabela Island is a facility devoted to breeding the giant land tortoises that once roamed freely over the volcanic islands. There are actually different species for different geographical areas and the program is careful to preserve these distinctions with separate pens for them all. From what we observed, the tortoises are cooperating in the program with great enthusiasm.
We saw great tortoises that are probably 50-60 years old, still actively breeding. I mean actively …they were on top of each other groaning away as they tried to make it all fit and work. With tortoises this is not all that easy.
And we saw the result, little one-year olds, five-year-olds etc. Once they are deemed capable of living independently and big enough to avoid predation, they are released onto the islands.
In the afternoon we drove 45 minutes up into the highlands of Isabela for a hike up the Sierra Negra volcano. The islands are a series of volcanoes, some old and quiet, others still active. The calderas of the older ones are lush with foliage and in some cases very easy to access. Others involved strenuous hikes.
Today dawned with its usual early start. We had breakfast at 6 and were in the zodiacs by 7. They took us to the bus that was to take us across the island. It was raining. Along the way we stopped at a private farm that has allocated considerable acreage for the tortoises to roam. It was really lovely country in the highlands of Santa Cruz – rolling green hills with big trees dripping moss. We even went down into a cave under the ground to see a little owl. Then back out to see more tortoises. We easily saw about 10 in our 45 minute walk, most of them were quite big and several were very big – at least 60 years old.
The giant tortoises only exist in two places in the world – the Aldabra Island in Seychelles and the Galapagos Islands. My notes say that females grow to 50 kg, with males up to 250 kg. Seems like a big difference so perhaps I’ve gotten it wrong. They have a very long lifespan, not even achieving sexual maturity until 20-30 years of age.
They can be startled and if you go too close too quickly they will move away, looking over their shoulder but they were very tolerant of our presence. At the end of the walk we went up to the farm and had a lovely coffee on the veranda.
We were a little bit nervous about making our plane because it was already 9 am and we were supposed to check in by 9:40. We had landed in Puerto Ayora and travelled across the island of Santa Cruz to the highlands. Now we still had to descend back across the other half of the island to the shoreline again and catch a barge to Baltra where the airport is located.
Juan seemed quite casual about this and assured us everything would be fine so we trust him.
Along the way to the north shore he stopped the bus at a caldera. It was very impressive. It was completely round and collapsed inward with foliage growing over all the sides. It was quite beautiful.
Finally, about 9:20 we come to the barge. Juan tells us everything will be okay because he has called ahead. So the way the barge works is that it has a flat roof and pulls up to the dock. The roof is even with the dock so all the luggage gets placed on the roof. Then we go down below for the trip across.
Another bus is waiting there and ten minutes later we arrive at the airport.
It is the same open-air, tropical structure we arrived at. All looking quite informal but there does seem to be a system. Juan rushes our bags over to the Aerogal counter and checks us in.
Our fellow passengers are on a later flight but as it happens; our flight is delayed by two hours so they lift off earlier.
It is insanely hot and sweaty with hundreds of bodies packed into the
boarding area. Finally we get our chance to walk across the tarmac and
board the Airbus for the 2 hour flight to Guayaquil. From there we’ll
fly directly to Cuenca and start our land journey north through Ecuador.