The Galapagos Islands are famous for their number of endemic species and are a series of volcanic islands that straddle either side of the equator. I guess this is why even after applying sunscreen, I burned the first few layers off my epidermis when I fell asleep for 30 minutes on a boat one day.
Ignorantly defined by its discoverer the Spanish Bishop Tomas de Berlanga in 1535 as “worthless” and by Darwin as “bleak” the Galapagos, located 1246 km from Guayaquil, Ecuador, is anything but. It was vast and desert-like, its bays peppered with white yachts contrasting against the turquoise blue waters; waters you could see through to the manta ray fluttering by or watch a sea lion pup corkscrewing its way back to its mom. The sea lions nap on park benches not unlike homeless folks back home and the hand-sized crabs are a vibrant orange and contrast excellently against the black lava rock.
This was a big trip financially and time-wise for Dave and I but we’re glad we did. First, I will say it wasn’t at all what either of us had more or less envisioned, which was perhaps a more remote feeling and far less touristy development. There certainly are no multi-level hotels but Santa Cruz definitely caters to tourists and has many high-priced restaurants and more-than-they’re-worth hotels. Once we got past all this, it truly was a unique experience. We’d left our bikes safely back in Guayaquil with a friend of my cousin’s and were all set for 5 days in the Galapagos.
Our first day involved our flight (for those interested, it was $849 USD round-trip for both of us from Guayaquil) but we got into Santa Cruz with plenty of time to hit the pavement trying to find a budget hotel (we stayed four nights at Hotel Espana for $35 USD per night). Once we were settled in, we walked to the Charles Darwin Research Station about 20 minutes east of town and enjoyed seeing plenty of marine iguanas, which blend well into the black lava rock lining the beaches, and watched locals surfing. That evening I had one of the best ceviches on the trip. I try to eat this dish whenever I can. It’s raw seafood placed in a citrus dressing whose acid ‘cooks’ the seafood so it doesn’t kill you. Unless it’s done wrong, of course.
We also walked around to several tour operators inquiring about last minute deals to neighbouring islands. There are a few ways to ‘do’ the Galapagos, one of which is to book a cruise well in advance of, say, 8 days, which will usually cost well over $3500 USD. Or you can get yourself to Santa Cruz and book day trips with last-minute deals. This is what we did and the whole 5-day trip was under $1000 USD each, flight, hotels, food and tours included. That said, there were some ‘undesirable’ moments like the many hours we spent feeling sea sick each day, or the time one of our boat captains took on an 8 foot wave with too much gusto and we were all airborne in our seats until the boat came crashing down, injuring one passenger’s back. For the most part though we had 3 great days island-hopping.
Our second day was to Santa Fe, a 45 min boat ride from Santa Cruz, where both Dave and I experienced snorkelling for the first time ever. I absolutely loved the clear, warm waters and seeing the many colourful fish flitting about me. Dave, not really a water guy, made me laugh several times with his fearfulness of sticking his head underwater and trusting the snorkel to help him breathe. His heavy breathing made more cacophonous through the tunnel of the snorkel had me almost drowning in laughter. (Although I’d never tell him I was laughing at him ;)). We also had a great ceviche lunch, an excellent crew and a fairly decent guide. This day we saw blue-footed boobies, sea lions, tropical fish, a sea turtle and many marine iguanas.
The third day we took a 45 min bus ride back toward the airport then got onto a boat destined for Seymour Norte, an small island about 20 minutes away, where we saw tons of birds: the frigate bird being the most impressive with its red chest that swells like a balloon when it’s attempting to attract the females to its nest. More blue-footed boobies and many land iguanas, orangey and larger than the marine iguanas. We had an excellent guide this day full of love and respect for life on the islands. After our walk around Seymour Norte, we were dropped off on a remote beach for swimming and exploring.
Our fourth day to Isla Isabella was our longest and most trying but also very interesting. It involved a 2 hour (4 hours return) ‘ferry’ ride from Santa Cruz. The ferry was just a speed boat carrying our group of about 20 on crappy seats across the vast space of water between the two islands. This was when Dave and I felt our most seasick and also when the boat driver hurt that poor woman’s back by taking on the wave. Luckily that was going back, so the woman had the day to enjoy herself before what was likely to be a long and expensive recovery. Our female guide pissed me off right away when she trampled all over some plants and flowers absentmindedly while talking and then a few hours later, laughed when a member of the group accidentally stepped all over some eggs an iguana had just worked hard to frantically cover when it saw us approaching. It disturbed me to no end that this was a Galapagos guide! This day we saw flamingos, sea turtles, white tip sharks (!), penguins, dolphins, manta rays and many iguanas. The highlight was a small hike on an island covered in lava rock and then a snorkel with a sea turtle well over 100 years old.
On the fifth day, Dave and I flew back to Guayaquil where our friend Lula picked us up. Lula and her daughter Flavia were our hosts for the week, keeping our bikes and gear safe and sound, dropping us off and picking us up at the airport, feeding us a feast of foods at family BBQ’s, introducing us to family members and taking us on city tours. We really enjoyed getting to know all of them and I thank my cousin Kari for hooking us up with these great people. Lula and her husband along with their daughter Flavia, will emigrate to Ottawa, Canada in August. We wish them the best of luck.
If you have the chance to visit the Galapagos islands, don’t think about it, go. And not because it’s a ‘trendy’ travel experience. Go because there are so few places left in the world that are truly as unique and so well protected (for the most part) that the marine and land life are so unconcerned by humans you can get close enough to take some of these photos.