- The Galápagos Islands are made of 13 large volcanic islands and over 40 small islands, islets and rocks scattered across 45,000 square kilometers (17,375 square miles) of the South Pacific, 960 kilometers (597 miles) from the Ecuadorian mainland.
- Charles Darwin arrived in the Galápagos in 1835 on the HMS Beagle, and in 1859, he published On the Origin of Species.
- Four of the islands are inhabited: Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal, Isabela and Floreana.
- Since 1959, more than 7,600 square kilometers (2,934 square miles) of the Galápagos have been protected as a national park. Tourists are restricted to the colonized areas and the more than 70 designated visitor sites spread across the islands (with an additional 75 water-based sites).
- The Islands’ history of pirates, whalers, and early settlers has brought certain animal populations to the brink of extinction.
I strained to see past the two people blocking the plane’s window. In the distance, the blue expanse of the South Pacific was spotted with tiny mounds of brilliant green – my first glimpse of the chain of islands that make up the Galápagos. I was there less than 24-hours before changing my flight to prolong my stay, and tears blurred the view when I left. The Galápagos are truly a welcoming and magical place.
When my flight landed on Baltra Island on November 17, 2014, I was not surrounded by the lush green I was expecting. As Charles Darwin opined, early visitors to the islands were not impressed by the barren wastelands: “Nothing could be less inviting,” he wrote, “the country is comparable to what one might imagine the cultivated parts of the Infernal regions to be.”
Not an inaccurate description.
As everyone completed their paperwork and retrieved their bags, we headed back outside and shoved our luggage into the compartments underneath the waiting buses which transported us to the ferries that would take us on to Santa Cruz.
On the bus, I chatted with a marine biologist working on Isabela who made me rethink all my plans, for the hundredth time, and a tall Brit named Gavin who planned to stay at the same Hostel where I had reservations.
Gav and I shared a cab from the ferry dock on the northern tip of Santa Cruz to the hostel in Puerto Ayora on the southern portion of the island. The vegetation changed from barren to lush as we bumped down the main road that bisects the island from north to south. It was paved…in parts. I was grinning and straining to look out the windows as I tried to spot any of the amazing animals I expected to see on every inch of the islands. I felt like an excited child, frantically scanning the surroundings for any signs of animal life.
Him: What is that?
Me: *Loud gasp!!!*
Him: House cat.
Then we saw a horse. And a chicken. Then a cow. Then Gav said he should have stayed in England.
Then we saw, in a field to our right, two boulders…with necks: giant tortoises. They were amazing, and it was just the beginning.
Puerto Ayora and Santa Cruz
I stayed at the Galápagos Best Home Stay hostel in Puerto Ayora for the first part of my trip. (More about accommodations in a later post.) Suffice it to say: it was lovely.
My first mission was to book a few last-minute day tours. I had decided against a cruise for a variety of reasons: mostly the cost and the fact that I couldn’t find a cruise that hit the places I most wanted to see during the time I had on the islands. For many, an organized cruise may be a better way to see more of the islands, and after my experience with day tours, I’m thinking it may also be a better way to get a trained guide who speaks your language. You will certainly find several people who agree with this. If I had to do it over again, I may have booked a cruise (sailing at night means more time at each destination) with a few extra days on Santa Cruz…or a few extra weeks.
Gav had the same idea, so we walked down to Avenida Charles Darwin, the main street in Puerto Ayora. It’s lined with tourist shops and restaurants. The side streets are littered with small shops advertizing every type of tour imaginable. Despite this, it was surprisingly difficult to find anyone who acted as thought they actually wanted to sell us tours. Some shops were empty. Some shops said back in 10…but weren’t. One guy told us there were no cruises available to anywhere. None. Another operator was more concerned with having conversations with his children and determining the nature of the relationship between Gav and I than he was in selling us anything. The person we eventually booked with took the time to explain a variety of options for myself and for Gav, who was staying on the islands for a longer period.
For those looking to book last minute tours, know that it is possible, but it is not a quick process. Most shops have a map on their desk under a piece of glass. They use a dry erase marker to show you the possible routes and stops. Once any decision is made, they make several phone calls, that may or may not be answered or returned, to determine whether there is space available on the tour. It’s quite the process. We both booked tours with Stalin at Galápagos Mockingbird Tours.
Let’s say that despite the better sales pitch, I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend them. It was completely disorganized to the point where we arrived on an island for a tour and NO ONE KNEW WHO WE WERE OR WHY WE WERE THERE. This happened more than once. We requested English-speaking guides, and we got them…for the first day…and that one other time…for part of the day.
We had a wonderful time, saw amazing animals and unmatched vistas, and the people were kind. We did not let the disorganization ruin our time on the islands. In the end, it was minor. More on the specifics of the tours in later posts.
the fish market
On Avenida Charles Darwin, a busy fish market sells mounds of fresh seafood. It attracts quite a crowd, some there for the fish and others to watch and take pictures of the animals dashing around, hoping for a dropped morsel.
We stopped to photograph the giant lobster on display and stayed to watch the intricate dance between the sea lions, pelicans, and the men and women trying to clean the fish.
I think a few sea lions lost whiskers. Their faces were so close to the knives. Absolutely fearless. Or greedy.
Bahía Tortuga (Tortuga Bay) is a MUST see if you’re spending any time on Santa Cruz. It’s a 40-minute walk west on Charles Binford, which transitions to a dirt road leading to a cliff. At the top of the cliff (stairs!!!), there is a national park guardhouse. Sign in there, and take the paved trail to the beach. They sell water and Coqueiros ice cream (more on that below) at the guardhouse, but not on the beach. Grab one for the walk out, or after the walk back, or both.
Important: when you make it to the guardhouse, do not think you are close to the beach at this point. You are not. Follow the beautiful, cobblestone trail that twists and turns through heavy vegetation and cactus trees (my name for them). Enjoy it. Watch for lizards and Darwin Finches zipping across the path.
As we walked closer to the bay, we could hear the waves, and eventually, the view opened up and a beautiful white-sand beach was laid out before us.
The current is strong here, so swimming may not be the best idea. There is some surfing, but I can’t attest to the quality of the waves. Continue down to the western portion of the bay, beyond the rocky outcrop of lava, where there is a peaceful lagoon surrounded by mangroves.
There are no crashing waves on this part of the bay. It’s completely silent and completely breathtaking.
Besides the absolute beauty of Bahía Tortuga, another huge draw are the marine iguanas that are found only on the Galápagos Islands.
Charles Darwin described them as “hideous-looking” and “most disgusting, clumsy lizards.” Not cool, Charles.
Marine iguanas sneeze frequently to expel salt from glands near their noses. The salt often lands on their heads, giving them a distinctive white wig.
The dark iguanas contrast strongly with the white sand and move slowly, if at all, when you approach them, making for great photo ops. Several were sleeping in the sun with their legs flopped out behind them, as if they were just walking along and just could not iguana any more.
Each island of the Galápagos is home to marine iguanas of unique size, shape and color. We took countless pictures of the first few iguanas we saw, not knowing just how many we would see further along the bay.
The silence of the bay is punctuated by groups of pelicans diving for fish. A group of three repeatedly dove in one after the other, like synchronized divers (I was so mesmerized, I didn’t think of capturing it on video.) Darwin finches fluttered close by and were very curious. Note: the finches are smart and seem to associate the sound of plastic bags with food. Crumpling a bag is a good way to bring them closer for a better photo.
Please, honor the Galápagos: don’t feed the birds or the other animals, and respect the 2 meter rule (6 feet) to avoid disturbing the animals. Respect their space and their freedom.
charles darwin research station
The Charles Darwin Research Station is a biological research station operated by the Charles Darwin Foundation. It’s located on Puerto Ayora, with satellite offices on Isabela and San Cristóbal islands.
The most well-known of the Station’s conservation efforts is the captive breeding program for giant tortoises. There were a few tortoises in outside enclosures, but I was there during the hottest part of the day, and they were mostly hiding in the shade. The Galápagos yellow land iguana was less camera shy.
This iguana is also a threatened species. The Station’s captive breeding program has successfully reintroduced the species to Baltra and a number of other areas.
On encountering the land iguana, Charles Darwin described them as “ugly animals, of a yellowish orange beneath, and of a brownish-red colour above: from their low facial angle they have a singularly stupid appearance.” He really had something against iguanas.
WHERE TO NOSH
I normally don’t include a “where to eat” section as it’s not a big focus of my travels, but in this case, it would be a disservice not to. No question, the best place to eat in Puerto Ayora is in the middle of the road…avenue, actually: Avenida Charles Binford. During the day, it’s a forgotten side street that runs parallel to Avenida Charles Darwin, but at night, the street is filled with closely-packed tables and chairs, and the kiosks on both sides come alive. The food is limitless, but the real delight is the generous selection of freshly caught fish and lobster. I have never had more delicious food. I ate there almost every night with different people I met along the way.
And for desert, assuming you’re not stuffed beyond capacity, you must try Los Coqueiros. I didn’t sample many different flavors, because I couldn’t get past the coconut. If it was an option, I had to choose it. I may have had one final one for breakfast the day I left. It was that delicious, and the only thing I could eat when I was sick that didn’t cause nausea. (Avoid the naranjilla. It is decidedly not delicious.)
To round out this post, a bonus video: a few seconds of a marine iguana walking on the beach. They’re much faster in water.
So, do you love the iguanas as much as I do, or are you on Charles’s side?
Check out my other posts on the Galápagos Islands: