We left our hotel in Quito and boarded the first plane on Aerogal to Quayaquil, a short 30-minute flight through the Andes (unexpectedly beautiful!). Although Air Galapagos is not perhaps as organized as Tame Airlines, we did arrive safely in the Galapagos Islands on San Cristobal after a 1.5-hour flight from Quayaquil. We descended over the ocean, past a few islands, and landed on a very short runway. We entered the airport, paid our $100 per person park fee, and met our guide, Samuel Quiroz, who gathered our bags and ushered us to a waiting bus for the short ride to the dock. Guides are assigned by the National Park Service, so we felt very fortunate to be with Samuel, who definitely knew what he was doing. Within an hour we were sitting on our yacht, the lovely Coral II. And so our adventures began.
After a delicious meal onboard, we headed for the shore and explored Puerta Baqueriza Moreno, a small town with a museum, T-shirt shops, and even Internet café. We were eager to return to the ship, however, and settle into our cabins. The ship rocked us gently to sleep, and with the help of Dramamine, I had no sea sickness at all. Around 3 in the morning, we heard the engines hum and the ship set sail for our first stop, Espanola Island (see journal for in-depth description). On Espanola, we saw our first sea lions and mockingbirds. We also saw our first booby, the famed blue-footed booby. I would never have thought anything living on land could be that color, but they certainly are blue!
Our guide, Samuel, was very knowledgeable and seemed to be deeply passionate about the Galapagos. He also took very good care of the entire group and helped the passengers who had less-than-sure footing on some of the rougher terrain. It is so rare in life that you meet someone who loves their work so profoundly and is able to share their passion with you eloquently, but Samuel was just this kind of person. We were fortunate to have him as our guide, and hopefully he will remain a lifelong friend.
After our morning on the island, we went snorkeling and I discovered a new passion. I have never felt as graceful as I did in my wetsuit (the water is cold because of Antarctic currents!) and fins. I think I could have snorkeled for hours! We snorkeled nearly every day, sometimes twice. If you go, be sure to invest in the wetsuits, as I can’t imagine snorkeling without them!
From Espanola, we went to Santa Cruz and the town of Puerto Ayora, one of a few populated islands in the Galapagos, where we saw tortoises and land iguana breeding areas and had a wonderful dinner at Narwal restaurant in the highlands (see my journal on Santa Cruz for more details about this day!). On day 4 we found ourselves on Floreana. It seemed that with each island, we were greeted with something even more beautiful and barren, yet teeming with life. (If you haven’t read Beak of the Finch, I highly recommend it for a great and easy to read description of how science has been tracking evolution. And it’s all about the Galapagos!) On Floreana we saw a flamingo lagoon and chased humpback whales in our zodiac boats as we returned to this ship in the morning. In the afternoon, we climbed the Baroness’s window to look out over the whole island, which was covered in white trees, dormant because of the drought. The landscape was eerie but beautiful.
Day 5 started a little shaky as the rough waters had many of us opting out of a whale-watching trip as the Coral II headed for Isabella island (the sea horse-shaped island). Luckily the captain changed our plans and we headed for Puerta Villamil for another day with tortoises and a trip up to the highlands on an open-air truck through a cloud forest. The land near the ocean was covered in lava, and each house in the outskirts of town seemed to be tucked in between lava flows. I’ve never seen anything like it. We persuaded our affable guide to let us hike up to the Sierra Negra Caldera, which erupted 3 weeks later! (We were sorry to miss the fun!)
Day 6 began with a trip up the western coast of Isabella and stopped by a secret spot to snorkel with sea turtles. I could tell you the name of the cove (which is not on the map), but I promised I wouldn’t…
See my journal entry for a few more details and some incredible pictures about our sea turtle snorkel. After the snorkel, we took the zodiacs through a mangrove bay and saw nearly as many sea turtles as we had just seen in the cove. We also saw one of the four types of mangroves. From Isabella, we scooted over to Fernadina island, where we saw the biggest marine iguana alive (or so we imagined). You could easily picture dinosaurs roaming the earth after seeing that thing. We also saw and fell in love with the flightless cormorants performing the sweetest mating rituals. It's amazing what seaweed can do for a relationship. And we climbed over some old lava flows and looked at lava cacti. It was yet another achingly beautiful island.
Late that afternoon, we crossed the equator and enjoyed drinks and appetizers on the deck with the captain. I also got the chance to steer the yacht, which was fun. Day 7 saw us arriving at Tower Island, after a 12-hour night journey north up around Isabella’s tip and then to the east to Genovesa Island, or Tower. We climbed Prince Phillip’s step to find red-footed boobies standing on the most barren rocky terrain we had seen yet. We also saw a short-eared owl and some nesting frigate birds. Later that day we saw some nesting swallow-tailed gulls and a lava gull.
We were suddenly sad to realize this incredible journey has only a few more stops. Day 8 took us to Santiago Island, where we saw fur seals, the Galapagos hawk, and lava grottos with bridges connecting parts of the beach over the ocean. The end of the day we headed for Rabida island, a beautiful red-sand beach where there weren’t many animals, but we climbed to the top for a breathtaking view of the surrounding seas and a sunken caldera.
On Day 9, we climbed 365 steps on Bartoleme Island for another amazing view. We went for a snorkel and saw stingrays, penguins, and dozens of cardinal fish in crystal-clear water. In the afternoon we saw inflated frigate birds trying to attract the attention of females who were not interested.
Finally, we reached day 10, which was essentially our departure day. We started the day at Kicker Rock, and our captain showed us his prowess by steering the yacht between the rocks as the sun rose. I could only imagine how explorers must have felt when they stumbled across these rocks in the middle of the ocean. So beautiful and inviting, and yet completely resistant to human inhabitation. They called these the enchanted isles, because the ocean currents are so strong, the boats sometimes shift with the currents, and the islands seem to move. We found them to be enchanted for entirely different reasons. We were within inches of birds and animals that were largely oblivious to our presence. The water was clean, the air was clear, and we were far, far away from the harried lives we lead back in the US. I found myself relaxing deeply and savoring every minute of each day. I don’t know how or why we were so fortunate to be able to travel to this place, but I sincerely hope I can return one day. In the meantime, we will support the efforts of the naturalists and non-profit groups working to preserve the tranquility of this natural wonder.