Background and Logistics
A bucket list destination for many, the Galapagos Islands are a small archipelago located in the Pacific Ocean, about a six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador. Although for most people, the major draw of the islands are the close-encounter interactions with the animals, many of which can’t be found anywhere else on earth and are exceptionally playful due to lack of natural predators, the history behind the islands is equally fascinating.
Originally stumbled upon by the Spanish in YEAR HERE, the islands’ were named for the giant tortoises that they found. Unfortunately, during this Age of Exploration (exploitation?), many sea-faring vessels took these beautiful giant creatures for food, depleting much of the natural species. This practice was still in existence when Darwin arrived in 1835, with him and his crew participating. Eventually, in middle of the 19th century, Ecuador claimed the Galapagos for themselves, utilizing it as a penal colony until as recently as 1959.
Like many travelers to the islands, I knew, nor cared little about the history of the Galapagos before I arrived. I was more interested in whether or not I would be able to swim with marine iguanas, sea turtles, and sea lions, than who occupied what island when. Thankfully, I was fortunate to meet and learn from actual people who live on the islands- yes there are people there- rather than just cruising through, snapping pictures of wildlife.
With the Galapagos on many peoples wish list of travel, it is not surprising that I have recieved more inquires about the logistics of this trip than most others. So here’s the rundown. Although most people traditionally visit the islands on a live aboard cruise for anywhere from 4-8 days, there is another, arguable cheaper option for those of us whose stomachs can’t necessarily withhold that many days and nights on the water.
Recently, land-based options have become increasingly popular, allowing you to explore the water and wildlife during the day, but sleep in a hotel on one of the inhabited islands at night. Like most travel decisions, there are advantages and disadvantages to the land-based option. First, and I believe this is the most significant advantage, staying on the inhabited islands allows you to interact with and learn from the local people who actually live there. It also ensures that most of the money you are spending (if not all) goes back into the pockets of actual Galapagos’ residents, where on many (not all) of the cruise ships, the money goes either back to a large international travel company or mainland Ecuadorians. The other advantage of the land-based option is it allows you the freedom to customize your itinerary to include the activities and sites you want to do. When you choose a cruise ship (or yacht), you will be confined not only to the boat, but also the designated itinerary for the dates you are traveling. That said, there are many advantages of seeing the island by boat also, which include being able to see more (because you are sailing while you’re eating or sleeping), and being able to visit some of the more remote islands. Additionally, there is some controversy over whether or not land-based (or island-hopping, as it is often called) itineraries are environmentally sustainable. As more visitors find they can visit the Galapagos this way because it is affordable, and there is (to this date) no limit on the amount of visitors, there has been a push for more development (hotels, restaurants, etc.) on some of the islands, particularly Santa Cruz. With more people staying on the islands, there are more supplies that need to be shipped in. Still, others argue that the land-based option is equally damaging to the environment as traveling on a boat which also requires goods to be shipped in.
Whichever way you decide to go, it is important to choose an eco-friendly company (or companies) for all your adventures and to be conscious of plastic and waste while visiting the islands. After much research, I choose a locally owned, sustainable tourism company called Galapagos Alternative to help customize my desired itinerary. This was a perfect option because it allowed us to travel independently, but we also had people on the ground in the Galapagos who could help us with any issues, and who arranged all our accommodations, transport, and day-tours. On days we didn’t have scheduled tours, we were free to explore on our own. And, while all of the day tours we took were amazing, keep in mind there are many activities you can do for free that are equally amazing. The company also runs fully-packaged tours where you can have a guide with you at all times if you so desire. Either way, Galapagos Alternative provided an affordable option to visit these majestic islands, and I highly recommend the company.
Why the Galapagos?
Really, the question should be “why not?” One of the reasons the Galapagos are so mythical and majestic is the amount of wildlife that can be seen nowhere else in the world. For example the Galapagos sea lions, fur seals, and marine iguanas are of different species than those found in other parts of the world (Iguanas can’t swim anywhere else). Animals that are only found in the Galapagos are called “endemic”, and were definitely a highlight of our trip. The Galapagos sea lion in particular made my heart skip a beat more than a few times:) And swimming with sea turtles was the highlight of most days.
Although it had seemed like a good idea when we booked it, departing the day after Christmas was a bit chaotic with my famiy visiting for the holidays. Still, there are few things I love more than rolling my luggage through departures at JFK when its all decked out with seasonal cheer. After a long flight and a short connection in Panama, we finally arrived in Quito around 10pm. We spent the night at the Wyndham Airport hotel because we had to be up early the next morning for our flight to the Galapagos. Most flights leave early in the morning. Upon flying to the Galapagos, we had to pay a fee of $20 and fill out a special customs card before they checked our luggage individually to make sure there were no plastic bags, produce, etc. All of this had to be completed before we could even check-in to the flight.
San Cristobal Island
After about a 3 hour flight (with a stopover in Guayaquil), we arrived on the small inhabited island of San Cristobal in Puerto Baqeurizo Moreno- the capital of the Galapagos. We paid the $100 National Park entrance fee, shuffled through a baggage security check again, and then were met outside by our Galapagos Alternative representative on the island, Juan Carlos. Super friendly with shaggy black curly hair, a resemblance to Pauly Shore, Juan Carlos’ laid-back, surfer vibe immediately made us feel welcomed and excited to explore. Upon request, he took us to a local bakery where we grabbed some fresh pastries and bread for a to-go lunch, before we arrived at Casa Playa Mann, our hotel on the island. About a five minute walk from the main town, this adorable hotel had a friendly and welcoming staff with a fun, island-themed décor.
Another great thing about travelling to the Galapagos (and perhaps all of Ecuador as well), is that each hotel is required to have a water tank so that guests can refill their bottles, rather than using and discarding plastic bottles each day.
With only two nights scheduled for San Cristobal, we were determined to see and do as much as possible, with the unspoken understanding that we could rest when we returned to the states. A laughable thought in retrospect.
After dropping our bags in the room and a quick briefing from Juan Carlos, we opted to hire a taxi for the day to drive us up into the highlands to visit La Galapaguera, to get our first glimpse of the island’s famous giant tortoises. On the way up into the highlands, we drove through a small village before stopping off at Laguana El Junco; a massive fresh water lake that was formed in a collapsed caldera. On a clear day, one can see far and wide an array of birds including Darwin finches and frigates. The optimum word being “clear day”. Although it was beautiful and sunny only moments before when we were near the shore, as we ascended into the highlands, the weather drastically changed. Due to the intense cloud cover, we did not get to see the immense bird-life our driver Henry had hoped would be on display. We did however, hear and get little glimpses into the wildlife as they soared around the cratered-lake. The “hike” itself was rather easy, with a quick ascent up wooden-plank stairs and few muddy trails around the edge of the crater. Having come from a cold and dry New York winter, the humid, fresh air was a welcome surprise to arouse my senses to the fact that we were indeed, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
About 20 minutes later, we arrived at La Galapaguera; a tortoise breeding center. Each of the inhabited islands has a tortoise breeding center with the goal of conserving, and in some cases, rehabilitating the different species of tortoises that are endemic to the Galapagos Islands. As recently as the 19th century, sea-farers would stop off at the islands to store up on tortoises which were used as a source of food, due to their ability to go months without eating. Darwin himself, aboard the Beagle is said to have participated in this decimation of species. It was not until the second half of the twentieth century when conservation efforts began to save the different species of tortoises that were endemic to the island.
Upon entering the center, we were greeted at the front entrance by two giant tortoises, a male and female, just chilling and grazing on the grass. Now, I have seen some amazing things in my life, heck even just in this past year, but the first glimpse one gets of a giant tortoise is hard to describe in words. With a huge smile plastered across my face, I quickly transformed into the paparazzi.
We spent about one hour walking through the rocky trail, spotting tortoises behind rocks and trees before we came across the small black shells of the babies. When animals that are not endemic to the islands (think dogs, goats, pigs, and rats) were introduced, the eggs of tortoises and sea turtles were no longer safe. The breeding center thus tries to protect them, keeping them fenced in. Eventually, the eggs become babies, which become little tortoises, which are then allowed to roam freely throughout the preserve. Eventually, when the staff thinks the tortoises are big and secure enough to survive, they are released back into the wild.
On our way back to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, Henry asked us if we wanted to stop in the small village of El Progresso. Here there is a giant tree house (and boat in a tree) that one can sleep in if they so desire. You can also pay $2 to visit the property, walk the swinging bridge up into the tree, and just hang out if you want. With the goal of getting back into the port with enough time to visit La Loberia, we opted for a quick stop to explore the tree house.
With a few hours of daylight still left, Henry drove us just outside of town to La Loberia- a rocky beach known for its large sea lion colony. We gave Henry a designated time to come back for us, and headed along the sandy trail until we spotted ahead of us an expansive, beautiful beach covered with sea lions!
Equipped with our swimsuits and snorkeling masks, we were eager to hop in the legendary waters of the Galapagos and hopefully get some up-close time with these adorable creatures. We noticed however, that everyone seemed to be sporting wet-suits, a preparation we did not consider. We asked a few people as they were coming out of the water if it was really that cold to warrant wet suits, to which almost every reply went something along the lines of “you’d be crazy not to!”. We set up camp on the sand, and I volunteered to test out the water with my toes, to see what the fuss was all about. Perhaps its because we are from New York, or perhaps because I have what I believe to be a North-Atlantic soul, but all the fuss about wetsuits seemed entirely unnecessary and we were soon in the water searching for sea lions. Unfortunately, we soon realized that with dusk upon us, the sea lions were done hunting for the day; preferring to rest on the sandy beach instead. This didn’t bother us one bit as we were still able to get close to them and watch them play with each other.
Visiting in December/January is the perfect time to visit if you want to see the adorable sea lion pups. It is important to take care not to touch them however. In fact, it is standard procedure in the Galapagos to remain at least 6 feet away from any wildlife. The sea-lions themselves did not always get this memo.
Also, while they are clearly cute and adorable, and often times the females and pups are curious and playful, we were warned to be careful of the males, as they are often over-protective and have been known to attack humans. In fact, the only incidents of animal attacks in the Galapagos are from sea lions-not sharks.
In addition to adorable sea-lions, La Loberia treated us to the best sunset we would see the entirety of the trip.
On our second day in San Cristobal, we were scheduled for the “360 Tour”- an all day boat tour that circumnavigates San Cristobal Island, including a short stop at Leon Dormido (aka Kicker Rock). Greeted at the hotel by Juan Carlos, we made our way to a dive shop in town which provided us with snorkeling gear and wetsuits before embarking onto the boat. With storms moving in and out, the sea was a bit on the rough side and I wasn’t confident this mid-sized fishing boat would prevent my imminent sea-sickness, so I popped a non-drowsy Dramamine and hoped for the best.
For our first stop, the boat anchored near Rosa Blanca; a gorgeous white sand beach outlined with tiny hills of lava rocks and turquoise pools. As is the case when visiting many sections of the islands, this particular stop required a wet landing. After wading through stunning blue water, we climbed up over the sandy dunes of the beach and found ourselves on a little trail that winded through the hills of lava rocks. All throughout the area, there were crystal clear tidal pools where you could actually spot sea turtles swimming.
Eventually our guide brought us to what was seemingly the largest of these pools, instructing us to strap on our fins, sit, and slide down the rocks to begin snorkeling. It was here where we first experienced the amazing and tranquil experience of swimming side by side with a giant sea turtle.
After we spotted the turtle, Michelle broke off from the guide and discovered a school of reef sharks swimming around, likely ruining what we later realized was the “surprise” our guide had promised. The only other time I have ever seen so many reef sharks at once was while snorkeling in Belize when our guide threw fish food over the boats side to attract them. To stumble across so many of them naturally is just one of the many highlights of visiting the Galapagos. See video below:
After about an hour of swimming with turtles and sharks we headed back to the boat where we came across what I believe to be a Galapagos fur seal lounging on the rocks. It is hard to tell the difference between a sea-lion and fur seal, but the heavy coat led me to believe it is the latter.
Once back on the boat, we continued to circumnavigate San Cristobal island before stopping in the middle of the water, giving our guides a chance to catch “tomorrow’s lunch”. As this day was dubbed as an “artisanal fishing tour”, bouncing up and down in huge swells was unfortunately (for me) part of the experience. Time to pop another Dramamine.
With everyone showing signs of getting a little queasy, we finally continued on to another beautiful white sand beach where the boat anchored and we had a delicious lunch of fresh fish, rice, and fruit before jumping into the water and spending some relaxing time on the beach.
About an hour later we splashed our way back through the water to re-embark on the boat for what is one of the highlights of the Galapagos; Kicker Rock. Officially named Leon Dormido, Kicker Rock is notorious for diving and snorkeling among hammerhead sharks, and was the primary reason I wanted to spend two nights on San Cristobal in the first place. With the threat of a storm brewing overhead however, the ocean was cold and choppy with very low visibility. Fortunately, for a split second I did get a glimpse of a hammerhead shark that swam right below my legs, though I wasn’t quick enough to get the photo.
Satisfied with having seen a hammerhead, and shivering from the cold, I kicked my way back to the boat. We were back in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno by 5pm. When the boat returned, Juan Carlos stood on the dock waiting for us with a sad (stoned?) look on his face. He asked if he could join us for dinner to which we happily obliged. Over some beers and yummy empanadas, Juan Carlos confided in us that his girlfriend had flown back to the states the day before we arrived with no clear date on when she would return. His apparent loneliness did not prevent him however from being punctual. The next morning at 600am sharp, he stood at our hotel gate, ready to take us to the airport for our puddle jumper flight to Isabela Island.
Arriving in Isabela early morning, we were greeted by Emily, another Galapagos Alternative representative. Oozing enthusiasm and positivity, Emily assured us the gray rainy skies would not deter our plans for the island. Unconvinced, we smiled as we piled into her car for a short gaunt around Puerto Villamil. With only 3% of the Galapagos Islands inhabited by people, most live in Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz, with a population of just over 30,000 people. For perspective, the tiny, yet charming town of Puerto Villamil on Isabela has only 2,000 people, with the rest of the island completely uninhabited. The largest and second youngest of the islands, Isabela is often touted as visitors’ favorite. Truth to form, by our fourth day on the island, we too did not want to leave.
To prepare us for our booked snorkeling tours and also for some free time exploring the island on our own, Emily took us to Isabela Bike and Surf; a small shop and tour agency owned by her and her husband. As a French-Canadian, Emily, like all residents who were not actually born in the Galapagos, is only allowed to live there because she is married to one. With the recent onset of land-based tourism, an onslaught of foreigners and mainland Ecuadorians were moving to the islands to try and secure land, build hotels, restaurants, etc. The limitation on who is allowed to live there is just one measure the government has taken to prevent over-development and the detrimental effects of mass tourism. Some would argue this incremental change came too late, which seems particularly true on the island of Santa Cruz. But for the time being, we were thoroughly enjoying our extended period of time on the remote and sparsely populated Isabela.
Our first order of business was to walk about 15 minutes west of Puerto Villamil towards the Centro De Crianza; another tortoise breeding center. We were told to look for the sign marked “Iguana Crossing” and then bear left onto a boardwalk that winds through a giant mangrove, alongside lagoons with iguanas and pink flamingos.
Similar to the tortoise sanctuaries on the other islands, the goal is to protect and nurture baby tortoises until they are large enough to survive in the wild. Judging from what we saw that day, they have been very successful in their mission.
That afternoon we were scheduled for the well known, popular Las Tintoreras tour, named after the bay famous for its white-tipped sharks. After being taken to the port in an open-aired truck, we boarded a small water-taxi style boat which took us out into the bay. Of course, as soon as the boat began to move the skies above us opened-up and it started to rain. I cared little about this however, as soon as I saw my first Galapagos penguin perched as cute as can be on a nearby rock.
A few minutes later we saw another one scoot by in the water.
We also got our first real glimpse of the blue-footed boobies hanging around the bay.
Finally, it was time to snorkel. With a packed boat and not a lot of movable space, we opted not to awkwardly struggle with our wetsuits and brave the crisp waters with swimsuits only. It was C.O.L.D!! Still, when I saw a beautiful sea turtle swim by, my mind forgot all about the cold. Drifting off from the rest of the group, I found myself swimming alone with this majestic beauty until another member of our group came over and crashed my party. Annoyed for a split-second, I looked over and was happy to realize it was Michelle.
Continuing to swim on our own away from the group, we came across a playful sea-lion that teased us a bit before swimming off.
As if all of this wildlife wasn’t enough, as we swam back towards the boat, we encountered a spotted eagle ray.
Back in Puerto Villamil, we quickly ran back to the hotel to drop off our big cameras and bags before making our way back towards the port. Just left of the walkway to the boats there is a trail that stretches about five minutes through a mangrove that leads to Concha Perla. A small protected lagoon that connects with the larger bay, Concha Perla is open to the public and all one has to do to enjoy this underwater wonderland on their own is to bring their own snorkeling gear. Walking along the boardwalk that leads to the lagoon we often encountered numerous marine iguanas and sea-lions, some of whom were resting for the day and had no intention of getting out of your way.
Everyday we visited Concha Perla we were greeted by this small family of sea lions; a male, female, and pup.
Although they are adorable, we took great care not to get too close to the pups, even though they were always playful and would often come up to you and want to play. While in San Cristobal, Juan Carlos warned us that if you touch a baby sea lion, your scent or any scent you may be carrying (i.e. sunscreen, etc.) will be left on them. If this happens, the mother can longer recognize her baby and will abandon it, leading most likely to death as they cannot swim and hunt for fish alone when they are this young. A warning we took great care to adhere to.
After amusing ourselves with iguanas and the sea-lions guardians of the lagoon, we slowly dipped our fins into the cool blue water of Concha Perla, which translates to White Pearl. Dipping my head underwater, I had an initial thought that it was neat to sea schools of tiger fish swimming along some rocks. As I swam a little further out I noticed the lagoon became deeper, filled with coral in certain spots along the rocky coast. It was here where I encountered the first of many sea turtles we would spot on our own; no fee, no guide, no tour.
We didn’t have much time in Concha Perla as the sun was already dipping into the sky by the time we had arrived. Located on the equator, the daylight hours in the Galapagos do not change throughout the year; nor does the weather for the most part. That said, the water temperature does change when the Humboldt Current brings cold water during the summer months making it necessary to wear a full wetsuit. Visiting in late December we were able to get away without a wetsuit if we wanted, but were comfortable with a half, especially if we were spending long amounts of time in the water.
Our first full day in Isabella was an amazing one. We started the morning with a half-day tour called Los Tuneles; a series of lava tunnels under water. Crossing the same bay as yesterday, our captain was exceptionally skilled at weaving in and out of the lava tunnels to get us up close and personal to the wildlife.
With about 8 people on the small fishing boat, plus our guide and captain, we first departed onto the lava rocks to explore the blue-footed boobies while they were nesting. Although we had seen them from the boat previously, in San Cristobal, this was our first opportunity to see them up close. As with all animals in the Galapagos, they are not fearful of humans and do not fly away when humans get close.
As we walked around, we had to be careful not to step on lava lizards, which camouflage themselves so well they look as if they are part of the rock.
We also could see turtles swimming in the waters down below us.
After exploring by foot, it was time to explore the teeming wildlife that exists under the water. In a small group we followed our guide as he glided by little underwater crevices, seemingly knowing where to find everything. First, we saw a beautiful greenback sea turtle glide along with us for a while, before coming across another spotted eagle ray. Both animals were completely unfazed by our presence and continued to go about their daily business.
As the tour continued, we came across more beautiful turtles and other sea-life before we were led to the shark caves.
We had been warned by Juan Carlos back in San Cristobal about this portion of the tour, yet we still weren’t exactly sure what it entailed. Apparently, within the lava tunnels underwater there are small, cave-like areas where large amounts of reef-sharks reside.
One by one, our guide had each of us swim over to him and where he would push you down under the water into the cave, after a warning of course, so you could get up close to the sharks. One of the most breathtaking experiences of my entire trip was having one of these sharks brightly smile into my eyes before getting sick of me and taking off into the comfort of his cave.
Just when we thought this snorkeling trip could not get any better, our guide led us in the direction of another area where he said we were able to see sea horses. Although they may not be as big or popular as swimming with turtle or sharks, being able to find sea horses is extremely rare. Yet, here we were diving down to get an up close look at these tiny creatures. Careful not to crush them with our fins, we floated and swam, exploring the underwater flora, looking for little tiny specks of golden brown below.
After our brilliant time in the water, we were back on board our little fishing boat, where the crew provided us with some snacks, tea, and a sandwich before we headed back to Puerto Villalil. With the sun peeking its way out, we wanted to get back out exploring as quick as possible. After being dropped at the dive store in town, we made our way back to the hotel to repack our bags and change, then rented bikes to explore the national park that lies a few minutes outside of the town. A wide path runs alongside a sweeping, expansive beautiful beach for about 2 miles before you enter the park’s check-in booth. Here, you register before continuing by bike (or foot) to explore little lagoons, mangroves, and at the end, the famous Wall of Tears; a wall built by prisoners when the island was a penal colony.
Before the Galapagos became a premier tourist destination, it was used by Ecuador as a place to send prisoners; as recently as 1959. In fact, most people who currently live here know exactly which families can trace their roots to the criminals and which ones came from the prison guards, creating a small class-based hierarchy within this little community.
In addition to numerous trailheads for exploration, the bike (foot) path ascends up a long, slight incline towards an area dubbed as “Tortuga Crossing”. Apparently, this is a good place to see the giant tortoises in the wild; an experience we had not yet had. Although they were tough to spot at first, we did notice a few deep within the rocks and some bathing in small pools of water along the side of the trail. Content seeing the tortoises, we opted not to continue up the hill to see the infamous Wall of Tears, and instead decided to pop in and out of some of the side trails as we headed back. First we explored a small mangrove that led to the ocean where we came across some more iguanas hanging on the sand, and pelicans fishing for food. Although this was enjoyable, the sun had decided it had had enough and the skies mulled over with clouds again before they completely opened up. Riding our bikes back in the rain was not the most fun scenario, but I would be hard-pressed to call it a low point, as everything is truly amazing in the Galapagos. It also didn’t prevent us from grabbing our wetsuits back at the hotel and making our way down to Concha Perla for a second time. Concha Perla was quickly becoming our favorite part of Isabela, if not the entire Galapagos. It wasn’t long before we strolled past our sea-lion friends and hopped back into the water where we saw a giant diamond sting ray, more turtles, and even some sharks.
After about an hour in the water, we headed back to the hotel, freshened up, then into the town to have a yummy dinner at Endemic Tortuga. The restaurant, which sits on a dirt road off the main square, was highly recommended by Emily. We had gone the night before but there were no tables, so the waiter asked an older couple if they would mind if we shared the table with them. Turns out they were from New York also, and had just arrived in the Galapagos that evening. After a few drinks, they departed and we made note that in order to eat in any of the decent restaurants on the island, you needed a reservation. Fortunately, we had one this evening. Although they have decent pizzas and such (and I’m from New York), the seafood here is truly out of this world. In fact, I was surprised at how good the food in the Galapagos was; an added bonus of exploring these mythical islands.
The following morning we were picked up early and driven about 40 minutes north into the highlands for our hike up Sierra Negra; one of the island’s many volcanoes. For once we were more than happy to have cloud cover, and even a little drizzle. Normally, this elevated, open trail sitting right on the equator allows the sun to brutally burn visitors if they don’t take care to wear sunscreen and protective clothing and hats.
After about 3 kilometers, we arrived at the caldera; a giant crater that’s created by the cone of a volcano collapsing; the 2nd biggest in the world.
Continuing along a well-paved, lava path, we stopped for lunch at a look out point where little Darwin finches eyed every crumb that mistakenly fell from our bags. As if auditioning for Hitchcock, these little birds surrounded us with such intensity, I was relieved when lunch was over and we were back on the trail hiking towards Volcano Chico.
As the trail continued to elevate, it slowly transformed into rocky outcrops of red and black lava fields, with the occasional cactus for good measure. With Isabela island being the second youngest of these volcanic islands, and the most active, I was keenly aware that there had been an eruption here as recently as 2018 and we were walking on active land.
Along with the faint smell of sulfur, the end of the hike brought with it more amazing views.
On the way back, the rain and fog kicked into high gear, so we hurried the 8km back to the bus, which after a 40 minute drive dropped us off right at our hotel. Although we could have spent the afternoon resting up for what was shaping up to be an amazing New Years Eve, we quickly changed out of our hiking clothes, grabbed our wetsuits and headed back to Concha Perla for more amazing sea life.
That evening, Emily had called to reserve us a table at Coco, a small boutique restaurant with only about 6 outside tables just off of the main square. Highly recommended by everyone we spoke to, and rated as the number one restaurant in all of the Galapagos, we were super excited to have a highly coveted table with front row seats to the New Years festivities. Unfortunately, we did not consider that 630pm was way too early to start the night, so we had to pace ourselves after our yummy meal of local seafood, plantains, and locally crafted beer.
During dinner, we were greeted by a group of young men, poorly dressed as women with one of them wearing a mask that looked like he was the leader of Anonymous and carrying a boom box. Before we knew it, the masked man put down the boombox and a remix version of “Baby Shark” came on while the cross-dressers broke out choreographed dance moves for our entertainment. It wasn’t exactly the dance moves or ridiculousness of this entire scene that had me entertained, but the pure joy and fun these guys were having. I could not stop smiling and laughing, which is evident in the one picture I was actually able to take.
After dinner we walked around the small village of Puerto Villamil to see the Viejos that everyone had been preparing for the weeks leading up to New Years (more on that in a bit). As we walked down one block we saw another group of young men, kids really, dressed as flamboyant women, using balloons to accentuate their curves so to speak. “What was happening?” After a little research, we found out that these crossed-dress men were called “el Viudas” or widows. They represent the crying widows of the men burning in flames and are a typical component of many Ecuadorian New Years celebrations. If you’re asking yourself “who are the men burning in flames?”, read on.
All throughout the streets of Puerto Villamil, there were elaborate scenes of giant doll-like figures that were being prepared to be burned at midnight. These “Viejos” are meant to symbolize the previous year. Burning them at midnight is seen as a way to burn away the past as you prepare to embrace the New Year.
Although many of these were lighthearted and fun, many were political, such as the one symbolizing a group of young boys who were accused and put on trial for selling tortoises that had gone missing from the sanctuary. Apparently, many of the locals thought they were innocent, and thus created this Viejo as way to criticize the police and the trial.
Or the one representing the oil spill in San Cristobal that took place a few days before we had arrived. This particularly Viejo was actually created and built by Emily’s husband.
There were many others that seemed to criticize the growing number of tourists on the islands, as well as conflicts between the government and indigenous communities, which perhaps impressed me the most. Located about a block away from “downtown”, when we approached this particular Viejo, a young boy around 8 years old, dressed in slacks and a button down with tie, hair slicked to the side, proudly rushed to the back of the recreated scene and turned on a button that was hooked up to a smoke machine. Purely for our benefit, he watched proudly as we examined the intricate Viejo him and his father had created. Not to seem too engaged in our enthusiasm for their creative work, the young boy also began “flossing” while Michelle communicated to the Dad this was the best one we had scene so far.
As the night progressed, we made our way back to the main square where a bunch of make-shift vendor tents had been set up, all selling some variation of rum, mojitos, pina coladas, and beer. At the far end of the street was a giant stage where performers and speakers rotated throughout the night, including stand-up comedians and the town’s mayor. This was all the big lead up to the big finale of burning the Viejos at midnight.
After exploring some of the festivities, we found ourselves back at one of the first vendors we had patronized a few hours earlier and ordered two beers. Each of the stalls had one or two tables set up in front of them, and the teenage kids working the booth insisted we take a seat so they could serve us a small bowl of popcorn with our drinks. We spent about an hour here, people watching and trying to figure out what exactly was going on most of the night.
After a dramatic countdown at midnight, it was time to burn the Viejos. One by one, these elaborate creations became engulfed in giant flames, as people celebrated and danced around them.
We rushed from one to another to try to witness it all, then grabbed another beer and joined others who were dancing by the stage. We lasted until around 1am before it was finally time to call it quits. A respectable outing considering we had not really slept-in in days. The party continued without us, well into the early morning hours.
New Years Day, our last day on Isabela Island, had finally arrived. Originally, in my pre-trip planning, I had hoped to use this day to travel to Santa Cruz, our final destination for the trip. With everyone celebrating until the wee hours of the morning, almost everything was closed on January 1st, making it, in my mind, a perfect opportunity for a travel day. We were told however, that even the inter-island boats might not run efficiently, and were advised to spend the extra day on Isabela, with no tours or activities scheduled; a rest day if you will. Although we had agreed to not set alarms and take advantage of the fact that we had no place to be and could leisurely explore the island at our own pace, my circadian rhythm had me up by 8am, just in time to catch our scheduled breakfast in Hotel Iguana.
Every morning for the last three days, we would get our gear and clothing together and head downstairs where the cook would prepare us a simple breakfast consisting of an egg, bread, and fruit. On this morning, our final morning in the hotel, the manager who we had had so many conversations with over the last few days, came over and hugged us, declaring “Feliz Ano! to my long-time guests”. Although we were a little iffy about Isabela in the beginning, by day four the Hotel Iguana had become a second home.
The weather was not cooperating with our plan of taking it easy and hanging on the beach. With a steady drizzle and cloudy skies, we walked about 3 blocks into town to see if it still was possible to catch a boat to Santa Cruz. Almost all the tour agencies were closed and the few that were open said the only ferry left was departing at 2pm and fully booked, but to try back tomorrow. We continued into town when we came across a small white house with the music still blasting and sounds of people partying inside. I turned to Michelle and said “I can’t believe those people are still partying!”. She turned her head to look at the white structure across the street and replied “Um, ….that is the police station”. Ecuadorians certainly know how to keep the fun in law enforcement. We laughed and walked further down the road to the St Francis Church. As the patron saint of animals, it is not surprising that most of the catholic churches in the Galapagos are of the Franciscan order.
Pulling on the doors, we realized the entrance to the church was closed. Just at that moment an older man yelled to us from across the street. I became excited thinking he was offering to come and open the church for us, but Michelle explained that he was actually inviting us to join him for a drink at an open-aired bar that was still open in the town square. With not much else going on in town I nudged Michelle to walk over to him to just “see what’s going on”. The man was drinking with another, ,much younger man, with another one, sitting upright in a chair completely passed out. The young man joked that his friend was a Viejo and they forgot to burn him the previous night. Declining a beer, we laughed and wished them both a Feliz Ano. The old man kissed us each on the cheek returning the salutation, and we were on our merry way.
With the weather still a gloomy overcast, we headed to the main beach in town, before heading back to the hotel to grab our snorkeling gear for one last swim in Concha Perla.
After a 15 minute walk back to the port, the sun started to peak out, prompting us to find a lady on the beach who was offering kayak tours out into Las Tintoreras Bay. We hoped to get on her morning tour, then come back and snorkel a bit before dinner. With her morning tour completely booked, she saved us a spot on her afternoon tour, and we killed the time exploring the pelicans, marine iguanas, and sea-lions playing on the local beach, followed by a swim in the nearby Concha Perla. Unlike our previous time in the water, on this particular afternoon the wildlife too seemed to be suffering from a New Years hangover, as we barely saw any.
After a hectic rush that involved hiring a pick-up driver to take us back into town to drop off our snorkel gear and grab a snack from one of the few stores that were open, we arrived back at the kayak shack just in time for our kayak tour. Joining a few other travelers, we began paddling out into the bay, where we spotted some more of the cute and adorable Galapagos penguins and blue-footed boobies hanging out on the lava rocks.
Eventually we came to the spot where we were to snorkel. We disembarked our kayaks, swimming around the cold water for about an hour. Although we were told the water had been visible in the morning, and our time in this same bay a few days earlier had revealed to us much wildlife, this afternoon yielded no such luck. Murky and cold, I was relieved when it was finally time to hop back onto our kayaks and paddle back. Now I’ve been kayaking and snorkeling all over the world, but the last time I did them together was in Hawaii over 14 years ago. Needless to say, the ease of “hopping” back onto the kayak from the water required a bit more effort than when I was 28, and was much more entertaining.
With the kayak tour behind us, we had a few hours left of daylight before our time in Isabela would come to an end. Back to Concha Perla.
After swimming around the lagoon for about 40 minutes, exhausted and cold by this point, I resigned myself to the fact that we had already had 3 amazing snorkels in the lagoon, and perhaps we should just call it a day. Plus, there was a creepy heron that was seemingly watching every move we made in the lagoon.
Just as I was ready to leave, I heard Michelle yelling and waving me over to where she was wading up and down. She had discovered a shark resting at the bottom of the deep section of the lagoon. I joined her underwater as we watched in wonder as this little guy shook his fin-thing for us heading into a nearby underwater cave.
Content with the shark-spotting, we both agreed that was a great way to end our time in Concha Perla and began swimming back to the dock when we noticed the family of sea-lions who had been on the dock everyday we had gone swimming was waddling their way towards the water for an early evening hunt. Beyond excited for our friends to join us in the water, Michelle and I quickly ducked our heads under and waited for their decent. With the world’s biggest smiles plastered across our faces, we watched as one by one, they gracefully glided past us, taking off like cannons into the murky waters beyond.
When we came back up from the water, there was a young polish couple on the dock who directed us to a turtle they had just spotted back in the lagoon. With the entire place to ourselves, we swam back to see the turtle, and the grand finale of Concha Perla continued.
With big smiles on our faces, we emerged from our swim with the turtle, and then suddenly Michelle noticed a marine iguana swimming his way towards us. Though we had seen numerous marine iguanas since we arrived on the islands, we had yet to actually see one fully immersed in the water.
Yes! With that we felt as if we could contently leave Concha Perla and started to swim back towards the dock. The second I placed my face underwater however, Concha Perla had one last surprise, as spotted eagle ray.
After a day where the wildlife seemed a bit shy and we didn’t see much, Concha Perla didn’t disappoint, providing us with the most magical farewell ever.
The following morning we were up by 5am in order to catch our sunrise boat to Santa Cruz. Emily greeted us at the hotel and gave us tips on how to snag the back seats on the boat, as I was nervous about getting sea sick. Taking a water taxi to the ship, I joined a Hungarian family in the back, while Michelle found herself on the wrong side of the ship, getting soaked once the waves began.
Arriving in Puerto Ayora after around 2 and 1/2 hours, we were greeted by Susanna; our final Galapagos Alternative representative and the person who had helped me plan the entire trip. It was nice to finally meet the person I had been in contact with since last December. Once we departed the boat and exchanged greetings, Susanna invited us to join her for breakfast at a café across from the port. Over a Bolon de Verde, a yummy mashed plantain rolled into a ball and filled with cheese, Susanna went over our options for exploring the island on our own, suggesting the popular Las Grietas swimming hole as a good option for the afternoon. After breakfast, we were driven to Hotel La Fiesta, a cutely decorated hotel a short walk from the main drag.
With the main airport located a short 40 minutes away and withthe most tour agencies and day tour options, Santa Cruz is a lively little city that resembles many other tourist hubs across the world. In addition to the increase in land-based tourists visiting the islands, most travelers opting to visit the island on live-aboard boats often embark on their cruises from Santa Cruz and thus visit the port as well. After spending four days in the sleepy village of Puerto Villamil, the hustle and bustle of Santa Cruz, with over 35,000 people living here, equired a bit of an adjustment on our part.
Once we were settled into the hotel, we walked back towards where the ferry had dropped us off in the morning and grabbed a short water taxi across Academy bay, which led to a lovely little walking trail along which you can find some of the more luxury hotels of Santa Cruz. After about a 15 minute walk we came across Playa de los Alemanes or German Beach. We continued on for another 20 minutes or so before entering Las Grietas, a giant swimming hole nestled within a giant red rock canyon. The site is accessible without a tour guide but does require you to sign in before entering the water, so they can limit the number of swimmers to 40 at a time. We climbed down the stairs, found a dry spot for our bags and clothes on the nearby rocks, and slithered our way into the water. Cool and clear, the water was refreshing and somewhat reminded me of swimming between tetonic plates in Iceland. But with more people than wildlife, we didn’t stay long, and ventured back to Play de Los Alemanes for a little rest.
With still a few hours of daylight, we decided we had enough time to try and check out Tortuga Bay to determine if it was worth spending our final morning there in two days. To get to Tortuga Bay, one has to walk about 45 minutes through a paved boardwalk to Play Brava, a stunning, white-sand beach that seems to go on for miles. Although the beach is beautiful, the red flags everywhere confirmed the warnings we were given to avoid swimming here as the current can be brutal. A 10 minute walk past the beach there is short, rocky iguana path, and then the actual Tortuga Bay, an idyllic spot for relaxing and swimming. In a bit of time crunch with the beach closing at 5pm, we rented a kayak for an hour and paddled out into the middle of the bay where you can see little heads popping up out of the water. As you may have guessed, Tortuga Bay is named such as it is home to a number of turtles who migrate here to breed. With so many turtles breeding underwater, it is tempting to jump in with your snorkel and check out the…um, action. Yet, most of the time the water is so not clear and the visibility is so low that you can’t really see much, as was the case this afternoon. Climbing back onto the Kayak, we would have to be content with seeing their little heads pop-up for air.
Even though we weren’t able to see Turtles underwater, the fact that the possibility still existed, if the water was clear, meant we would definitely be coming back in a few days.
The following day we were picked up early and driven about an hour through the highlands to another port on the North side of Santa Cruz. Here, we took a short “panga” ride to a beautiful yacht sitting out in the bay; our ride for the day. We were booked on an all day tour to visit North Seymour Island, an uninhabited island north of Santa Cruz and Baltra islands. With a group of about 12 people, including ourselves, we set sail on what was hands-down the nicest day we had since we arrived in the Galapagos. With the sun shining and blue skies all around us, we set up camp on the upper deck, taking in the breathtaking views with smiles on our faces.
After about an hour on the water, we were directed back into the panga boat which motored us up to a rocky pathway onto North Seymour. After a short climb we were on a sand path that circumnavigated around the island when we encountered a large harem of sea-lions playing in rock pools. A sea-lion family often consists of one male, a few females, and their children, hence the term “harem”. Here, we were able to witness up close the baby sea lions learning how to swim in the rock pools, untethered by the iguanas and sally-foot crabs looking on.
When our guide felt as if we had taken enough photos we continued on the path, when someone spotted dolphins far off in the water. Our guide let us try and take pictures and video, mostly unsuccessfully, and then causally mentioned that if we had time when we got back to the boat we could possibly see them. Reluctantly, we left our view of the dolphins off in the distance and continued along the trail.
North Seymour Island is famous for its expansive bird life as it one of the only places you can spot blue-footed boobies and frigate birds nesting.
Along the side of the trail, we first encountered the nesting site for blue-footed boobies. We saw a mama protecting her eggs from the heat, as well as a few, how shall I say, “teenagers” stuck in their awkward stage.
A little further along the trail, we came across “Pepe”, a large land iguana that our guide informed us just hangs out under the same cactus tree year after year, providing some action for the female iguanas in the area.
We spotted some more land iguanas along the way, before coming upon the frigate nesting area.
There are two different types of frigates on the Galapagos Islands, the “Magnificent” and the “Common”. Our first spotting was of a female Magnificent frigate bird, which differs from the male in that it has a white underbelly.
We also saw the common frigate bird close by.
The highlight of the bird-watching however, was definitely coming across the male Magnificent frigates, with their red pouched bellies. During mating season, the male puffs out his red chest in an effort to attract females. This balloon-like gesture is unlike anything I have ever seen, so it was with great excitement when we finally saw one or two of the male frigates doing this. The ones that were mating were a bit far away in the trees however, so it was hard to get a decent picture of them. Still, even seeing the non-mating frigate so up close was a pretty amazing experience.
With more bird pictures than I could have ever imagined I would take in my entire life, we made our way back to the panga boat which transported us back to our beautiful yacht where the crew was preparing lunch for us. Before lunch was served, the boat took off in the direction of Daphne Island where we had spotted the dolphins earlier. Before we knew it, there were what seemed like hundreds of dolphins swimming along side the hull of the boat, bringing pure joy and delight to all aboard.
A simple meal of rice, vegetables, and fresh fish was perhaps the best food we had in all of the Galapagos, and the views weren’t bad either.
After lunch the boat sailed off towards Bachas Beach located on the northern coast of Santa Cruz. Originally occupied by the United States Army during World War II, Bachas Beach is only attainable by boat. The beach is actually names after the World War II barges that washed up here, one of which is still visible when the tide is low.
The beach is also a nesting spot for female sea turtles. When hiking across the dunes we came across some turtle tracks left from the morning.
After quick briefing of the island, we were told we had about 1 hour to swim, snorkel, or relax on the beach before we had to catch the panga back to the yacht. Since arriving in Santa Cruz, we had yet to experience the amazing snorkeling we had had on Isabela Island, so we were happy to get ourselves back in the water. Plus, unlike Isabela and Tortuga Bay, the coastal water here was warm and clear. Although we didn’t get to see any turtles or sharks, we did get to swim with some beautiful sea-life, including different variations of parrot fish.
On the ride back, we enjoyed a beer on the front hull of the yacht, before being transported back across the Ithabaca Channel to the north side of Santa Cruz. Back in Puerto Ayora, we enjoyed our last night in the Galapagos, ranking all the amazing wildlife experiences over pizza and beer.
Our final day in the Galapagos was a bonus day, really. Our flight out of the islands back to mainland Ecuador was originally supposed to leave around 10am, then it was moved to 12pm, and now it had been moved to 5pm. Although we had hoped to visit Cotopaxi National Park outside of Quito on our remaining day and a half in Ecuador, the change in our departure made that impossible. It did however, mean we had an extra half day on Santa Cruz before having to catch our flight back to Quito.
We awoke early enough to grab breakfast at the hotel and hike to Tortuga Bay one last time. Although we thought we might be able to grab a boat there instead, to allow us more time to explore, it seemed as if they were pretty unreliable, and we didn’t want to chance it with having to a catch a flight later on. So we hoofed it an hour through the national park until we reached Playa Grande and Tortuga Bay. With the sun peaking its way out finally, we were hopeful to see some sea turtles in the water before we left. The plan was to rent kayaks from the makeshift stand at the end of the beach, bring nothing but our snorkeling gear, and get one last glimpse of the amazing sea turtles that reside here. Unfortunately when we finally made it to the kayak stand, there was no one there. It wasn’t until around 10am when a shirtless young man with long black curly hair arrived to “open” the shack. Much the same as the woman from two days earlier, he explained to us, using a hand drawn map, that the shark and stingrays usually hung out along the sides of the bay near the mangroves, and that the turtles could be seen in the middle. We first paddled to the side of the bay where we spotted some sharks and stingrays underneath the kayak.
As we paddled our way out to the center, little turtle heads began popping up in all different directions. With the sun shining brighter than our previous outing we were hopeful that we may be able to see the turtles if we jumped in with our snorkels. Actually, Michelle was hopeful; I wasn’t, but I was content just loungin on the kayak, taking it all in while she searched for turtles. Within a few minutes of her jumping in however, she saw two turtles and a shark. I wanted in! Of course once I jumped in, they were no where to be found. Just when I was about to give up, I popped my head under one last time and saw a giant female swimming right by me. Nothing can really describe the pure joy of swimming with sea turtles, so this final little surprise was the perfect way to say goodbye to Tortuga Bay before heading back to the hotel in time to catch our taxi into the highlands.
On our way to the airport, Galapagos Alternative arranged for our driver to take us into the highlands to visit El Chato Ranch; one of the few places in the Galapagos where you can see tortoise in the wild. About a 20 minute drive outside Puerto Ayora, the ranch has tortoises roaming freely throughout, as well as a lava tunnel on the premise. We squeezed in both before the airport.
With the human world seemingly in disarray, spending a little over a week in the peace and tranquility of this magnificent animal kingdom was a perfect way to unplug from the chaos of home and ring in the new decade.