“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.
At 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.
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 🙂
A few steps ahead and peep over the wall revealed the beautiful yellow shades of a Galapagos Land Iguana.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
As we left the beach, I saw this pelican which seemed extremely content!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 🙂
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!
For all the action I missed in the morning, we compensated with sighting of dozens of brilliant Flamingos on another part of the island.
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.
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.
The day ended with a relaxed stroll on the beach and watching a beautiful sunset.
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 🙂