Galapagos

Having the chance to visit the Galapagos islands is said to be a once in a lifetime experience.  I know my bank balance will be thanking me if I don’t go back again anytime soon! It is hard to avoid the fact that the 10-day boat trip we booked in the Galapagos islands took a significant chunk of our travel funds.  And this is even after the trip was discounted due to it being low season.   We had planned for this expense, but there was still part of us that struggled to part with the money.  A rational part that was enforcing a straight budget and trying to keep us from having to beg on the streets of Mexico by the end of our trip.  Due to this, I was both excited and nervous on the flights from Quito to Baltra Island in the Galapagos.  I was particularly worried that the weather would be terrible and the seas too rough and that our money could have been put to better use.

The skies were cloudy on the journey over, however patches of blue seas slowly started to emerge between the clouds as we descended.  One thing was immediately clear to us, as we got off the plane and nearly got toppled by the wind, there was going to be some rough seas.  On the positive side, the wind had made quick work of the clouds and it was bright sunshine for the rest of the day.  The brilliant blue water and rocky landscape were straight from a wildlife documentary, already easing some of my fear that this trip was not worth the money.

A rubber ducky (panga in local vernacular) arrived and took us to The Daphne, our home for the next 8 days.  While the boat wasn’t huge, the amenities were much better than I expected to find on a boat – large beds, air conditioning, and a massive sun deck on top.  We also only had 4 other tourists joining us, another perk of low season.

Once we settled into our room, we were called back to the lounge area to meet the crew and go through a safety briefing.  Jacinto, our main guide, ran us through the route we would be taking.  We were to head north-west and then down the western side of Isla Isabela before making our way back to the southern end of Isla Santa Cruz.  With plenty of stops on the way of course.  This was the newer side of the Galapagos with younger islands and more volcanic activity.

After a delicious lunch, our cook proved to be an absolute whiz in his tiny kitchen, we went for our first hike and snorkelling trip at Las Bachas. From the get-go and right through our whole trip the scenery was breathtaking.  We were lucky enough not to encounter many other tour groups.  The environment was pristine in a way I had never seen before.  Since this was our first snorkel I decided to initially try without a wetsuit.  I think I make it to my knees and decided that my money was well spent on a wetsuit, the water was freezing.  Compared to our snorkelling later in the trip, there was not too much to be seen on our first day.  We were still stoked to swim with a green sea turtle and so many fish close up.

Our first transit proved to be both short and smooth.  A quick 3 hour trip before anchoring in a protected bay overnight.  We awoke to a grey morning at Isla North Seymour where, after a quick breakfast, we went ashore to see the nesting frigate birds and blue-footed boobies.  This was our first real chance to get up close and personal with the birdlife.  It was amazing to get so close without scaring animals away.  Lizards running by your feet, nesting birds mere feet away.   This is what I had been hoping for.  We were also lucky to see some baby sea lions in the rockpools, apparently their mothers leave them here to go feed.  However, the loud barks of the male sea lion patrolling the beach warned us not to get too close to the pups.

Over lunch we transited to Isla Bartolome, a rocky, newly formed island with an extinct volcanic crater at its pinnacle.  We snorkelled off a sandy Isthmus between the volcano and the main island in the afternoon.  We were lucky to have great visibility again as well as an abundance of fish life.  The wetsuits did help, but the cold did eventually find its way to your core.  Our guide supported us by yelling “Cold is in your mind!” from the comfort of the panga.  He proved to have an excellent sense of humour when it came to our discomfort.  To be fair he did brave the waters on several occasions in only board shorts and a rashie, an impressive feat when the rest of us were in wetsuits.

After our snorkel we hiked the 350 or so steps to the volcano crater for a spectacular view and photo opportunity.  This island, like many to follow, were too recently formed for more than cactus and lava lizards to live there.  We were fortunate enough to get our first glimpse of the Galapagos penguins on the panga ride back to the boat thanks to our sharp-sighted guide.  The pair of penguins on the rocks were happy to abide by our presence as we snapped photos and marvelled at the existence of penguins in the tropics.

The following morning was spent exploring the tidal pools of Pueto Egas.  The black sand beaches played host to a large array of wildlife including crabs, sea lions, bird life, and more.  There were two notable events that occurred at Puerto Egas; We got to sit within feet of a fearless Galapagos Hawk perched on a branch, and I slipped on algae while jumping around the rockpool and coated my backside in slime.  A fun morning all round.

Before lunch only a small group braved the snorkelling on the overcast, bleak day.  We were glad that we made the decision to brave the water as the sea life on display was superb.  A young sea lion played with us and followed us for the whole snorkel.  We also witnessed, much to our surprise, two sizable blacktip reef sharks burst through a ball of baitfish on the edge of the reef and swim within meters of us before disappearing into the reef.  The same school of baitfish that Cass was swimming in. The sharks gave her a good scare. Only afterwards we realised how lucky we were as our guide told us that sharks of that size only tend to come out at night.

The afternoon cleared beautifully and we enjoyed a sunny stroll up the idyllic Espumilla beach.  On our stroll back down the beach we witness 3 turtles in the surf, quite close to shore, engaged in an intimate activity.  Unfortunately, the female seemed to be struggling with the attention and the combined weight of her two suitors.  She managed to free herself and escape into the open water.  Once back on the boat we cruised by Buccaneers Bay to observe some remarkable rock formations before our long but smooth transit from Isla Santiago to Isla Isabela.

The next day saw us hiking another volcano to observe Darwin’s lagoon as well as citing numerous Galapagos Hawks.  These birds were again very inquisitive and came in very close to observe us with interest.  Once back at the boat, the whole group ventured out for another snorkel in the narrow but long bay.  There was a decent drop off which brought in a few deeper water species, a nice change from the shallow reef snorkels of the trip so far.

We were treated in the afternoon to a veritable bonanza of wildlife at Punta Espinosa at Isla Fernandina.  Both the snorkel and following island landing were filled with marine iguanas, sea lions, and turtles.  I never thought I would be sick of sea turtles but there were literally hundreds of them!  On our way back to the boat our guide spotted a close by fishing boat and made a slight detour to purchase some just caught seafood.  Our chef immediately whipped together a superb octopus, lobster, prawn, and fish ceviche.  I think I ended up consuming 3 peoples serves worth of delicious ceviche as most of our tour group did not enjoy it.  We both could have eaten it for days.

The next day was spent exploring the largest, and one of the newest islands in the archipelago; Isla Isabela.  We initially decided to forgo the wet and cold method of getting into the water to view the sea life, instead opting for a wildlife spotting ride in a panga.  The panga took us through a narrow channel into a protected mangrove estuary which was home to baby sea lions, rays, eagles, and many turtles.  The clear, shallow waters of the estuary provided us with excellent visibility.  On the panga ride back through the bay to the boat we were also lucky enough to encounter a large group of the penguins in the water.  They seemed to be up for a performance for the cameras and swam back and forwards eyeing us for about 10 minutes not even a metre from the boat.

A quick change at the boat and it was back into the ocean again for one of the coldest dives of our trip.  The only reason our guide convinced us to brave the icy waters was due to the chance of spotting seahorses.  Visibility wasn’t great but luckily our guide joined us and managed to spot several illusive seahorses clinging onto seaweed.  Despite only being 5-10cm long they were one of the most amazing creatures to see in the wild.  Definitely worth braving the cold for.

That afternoon we began our long transit around the south-west corner of Isla Isabela, open to the full force of the southern oceans.  At this time of year the trade winds were blowing up from the south and our captain had warned us that it was likely to be rough.  Initially, the rocking was quite mild and we were able to enjoy some whale watching from the top deck.  As the rocking started to increase most of us headed off to our cabins to pop a few seasickness tablets and ride it out.  The rocking continued to become more and more apparent until you were unable to lay on a bed without rolling and any unsecured goods were being flung around the boat.  I normally have no issue with sea sickness, however I was forced to seek fresh air on the top deck to clear my head and ward off the creeping feeling of nausea. Cass on the other hand, had taken the full arsenal of seasickness medications we had brought over and still didn’t fare well during the transit.

The south coast of Isla Isabella was an incredible sight while hanging onto the rails for dear life.  Massive swells crashing against a 30-meter-high cliff face that seemed to stretch endlessly into the distance. A menacing volcano wreathed in clouds rose above the cliffs.  I did have to admit that I thought the boat was going under on several occasions and hoped that I drowned fast rather than having to brave the inclement conditions for too long.

About 5 hours into the trip we had the slight reprieve of pulling into a sheltered bay for dinner.  For once there wasn’t much fighting over the choice meal options, in fact I think only 2 of us ate.  The others could only look at the food out of the corner of their eyes with a slight green hue to their complexions.  Our captain was kind enough to tell us that the rocking we had experience was actually quite mild for this time of year… I would hate to weather a proper storm on such a small boat.  We saw out another 3 hours of rocking before we finally made port in the calm waters of Puerto Villamil.

A much more sprightly group emerged after a good nights sleep on calm waters.  We found that the port actually included a small town, the first signs of civilisation we had seen in a long time!  On the way to shore we took a quick detour to see some white tipped reef sharks corralled into small canals between the rock pools to rest.  Once on the mainland we took a bus up into the hinterland to hike the Sierra Negra volcano crater.  Walking on dry land felt extremely weird after being on a rocking boat for so many days.  My sense of rocking did not subside for many days after leaving the boat!  The hike was enjoyable but unfortunately the volcano crater was full of low clouds and the outlook at the end of the hike provided little more than a view into the mist.

After lunch back on the boat, we went through town to see the islands giant tortoise rehabilitation centre.  Our guide was able to provide us plenty of information about these majestic creatures as we toured the centre.  Tortoises of all sizes were kept here, including some particularly large and spectacular older individuals.  Many of the tortoises are bred here to be re-released into the wild and boost population numbers.  Apparently, this program has been quite successful.  The wild tortoises have such low survival to maturity rates and need a bit of a helping hand.

After a short walk back through marshland and some flamingo spotting, we were treated to drinks at a local beach bar.  The outlook with the sun setting was nothing short of spectacular.  I was lucky to be on a tour.  If I happened upon this sleepy seaside town without a destination in mind I could have wasted away several years of my life here.  The locals played in the surf and on the sand without a care in the world.  Island time was in full effect.  Eventually, our guide lured us away from the bar and back to the boat for our last night of sailing back to Isla Santa Cruz.

We were treated to one last hike in the morning, spotting land iguanas, and a snorkel before the 4-hour transit to our final port and the main town on Isla Santa Cruz.  I was lucky enough to finally spot a lone albatross on wing across the seas on this last transit.  I think most of my Galapagos animal bucket list had now been ticked off.  We enjoyed a decadent final meal to farewell our crew and tour group.

The next morning brought a pre-dawn start to be off the boat and onto the island with our bags in tow to one last stop before our flight.  Each year giant tortoises migrate up into the hinterlands to survive dry season, then they head back again to the coastal flats in the wet.  Some of the local farmers, rather than toiling tirelessly to protect their crops from tortoises, have embraced this migration as a touristy opportunity and opened their farms as a chance to see the tortoises in the wild.  We were spoiled for choice as we squelched through the farmland in gumboots, there were tortoises everywhere.  Even literally lying on top of each other in the shallow ponds the farmer had built to attract them.

After this final, and very fitting, farewell to the wildlife of the Galapagos we boarded a small bus and made our way back to the airport. Several hours later we were back, a world away, to the mountains of Quito.  Both the ocean and its incredible wildlife seemed far far away.  However, the lingering sensation of the rocking of the boat reminded us of the journey we had just been on.

Looking back, even considering all the other amazing experiences we could have afforded, I have no regrets splurging and spending our money exploring the outer reaches of the Galapagos Archipelago. Every time I have played an Attenborough documentary since I get a wry smile on my face and think “I was there”.  Totally worth every cent.

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