The security and fees to gain access to the Galápagos Islands were intensive and expensive. Bag searches, sniffer dogs, and a $160 permit upon landing were required to move beyond the no-mans land of the plane, sweltering tarmac, and cramped security check-point. Already aware of the required hoop jumping to gain access to one of the most famous and infamous island chains in the world, Martin and I eagerly complied with the various Ecuadorian agents.
A quick and expensive flight (locals pay less) from Guayaquil took us to the most eastern island of San Cristobal. In just over two hours we had gone from the hot concrete jungle of a sketchy port city to an island paradise. The smells were better, the breeze cooler, and the pace slower.
From the airport, a short “taxi” ride in the back of a pick up truck took us to the water front of the town. Hotels, restaurants, travel agencies, and gift shops graced the majority of the commercial area. Without arranging anything prior to arrival, we went out to look for accommodations. Hotel searching in the sweltering afternoon heat sped up the decision-making process and after locking down an air-conditioned room nearby, Martin and I strolled through the sleeping-seal-littered waterfront to round out a relatively easy travel day.
The next day we headed out on a speed boat for a snorkel tour. The first stop was Cerro Brujo on the other side of San Cristobal. The glittering light blue water and near blinding white sandy beaches looked like something off of a computer desktop. You know those images; the perfect paradise where you wished you could go or were rather in. Well this was one of them. Combine that with tip-toeing around half a dozen seals basking in the sun and you have some happy travelers.
The snorkeling was a let down because of the surf kicking up the sediment, but I didn’t mind because the beauty was above the water in this particular case. A fish lunch on the boat was then followed by further snorkeling at León Dormido/Kicker Rock. An impressively towering rock structure made out of lava ash, Kicker Rock sits about 2 km off shore from San Cristobal. The water was chillier but the visibility a little better. Sea turtles and schools of fish were our unofficial guides as we swam through the massive split between the rocks. We were joined briefly by a Galápagos shark before it swam off into the abyss.
The next day consisted of a visit to the Interpretation Center for an informative exhibit on the history of the islands. This was followed by a taxi ride into to the highlands to visit the giant tortoises at La Galapaguera del Colorado. This breeding site is one of several on the various islands and absolutely worth the visit.
A queasy and bumpy speedboat ride to the island of Santa Cruz gave us easier access to the island of Floreana. This sparsely populated (about 150 people) but first inhabited island has an enchanting and dark history. A stop over for pirates and whalers for water, tortoises for food, and hiding places from the authorities, this island gained its notoriety in more ways than one. The book and Hollywood movie The Galápagos Affair: When Satan Came to Eden is based on the lives of some of the first settlers of Floreana and the difficult existence that they experienced. Paradise, love, deception, and death were all symptoms on this isolated patch of lava rock.
Although brief, our time on Floreana consisted of a hike to the highlands to a tortoise sanctuary. These fascinating creatures can live to 200 years old and can go without food for months on end–thus a favorite for sailors to bring on board for food for their long voyages.
Next was a visit to some nearby caves where pirates once slept and where the islands first baby was brought into this world.
Rounding out the day on Floreana was snorkeling at a black sand beach. Despite poor visibility and a leaky mask, I still managed to see massive sea turtles and a penguin gracefully move beneath the surface.
A couple of hours west on a speed boat sits the island of Isabella. The biggest in the Galápagos chain, the island boasts an array of volcanoes and tourist activities. Our first stop was Sierra Negra Volcano. I short truck ride to the highlands followed by a few hours hiking took us to the rim of one of the biggest craters in the world–10 km or 6 miles in diameter. The last eruption was in 2005 and it is said that the massive crater was filled with a glowing lake of lava. Now hardened, gasses can be seen escaping through cracks in the distance.
Hiking down from the rim took Martin and I to a massive lava field and two other smaller volcanoes. At times I felt like I was taking a stroll on Mars as the foreign red landscape mesmerized its visitors. Hardened lava tunnels remained while some holes in the ground emitted a surprising amount of steam. Land iguanas, the yellow relative of the marine iguanas, were spotted at times, although the sparse landscape did not inspire much hope for life to exist.
Our last day on Isabella was also one of my favorites on my Galápagos trip. Leaving early, we boarded a speed boat and bounced our way around the southern end of Isabella to the fragmented lava tunnels that meet the ocean.
Timing the waves for safer passage, the captain surfed the boat in and slowly weaved us through the potentially treacherous narrow waterways created by the hardened lava. These waterways also created a natural barrier from the incoming waves and turbulent waters became tranquil and clear snorkeling spots.
Sunbathing penguins, seals and blue footed boobies welcomed us in their typical nonchalant attitude. In the water we saw schools of clown fish, seals, sea horses, turtles and a plethora of coral covering the lava rock. Passing through several underwater tunnels allowed us to see dormant sharks resting in the quiet waters. Simply put, it was wonderful.
We were allowed to disembark from the boat to walk up on the lava tunnels to get a different view on the surroundings. The crystal clear water gave us an enchanting view of the ocean life, including the giant turtles, going about their business unperturbed.
A speed boat ride back to bustling Santa Cruz gave us our last day on the Galápagos Islands. A long walk to Tortuga Bay was a perfect way to close out an incredible experience in one of the most storied places on this planet.
The Galápagos Islands are not convenient to get to nor is it a cheap venture. For some, perhaps it is not worth it, but I promise you that you will not find a place like it anywhere. Sure, certain elements may be similar to other islands you have visited, such as the beaches or the volcanoes, but the total experience of the Galápagos cannot be replicated. It is one of a kind.
Your Options for Experiencing the Islands
Without getting into too much detail (I’m not a travel agent), you basically have three options for getting around the islands and experiencing what they have to offer: day trips, cruises, or a combination of the two.
I chose day trips because it is generally a little cheaper and you can choose where you want to spend your money. You are responsible for getting from island to island by speed boats or flying. One drawback is that not all islands and spots can be reached by day trips but I am happy nonetheless with what I got to see.
Cruises are a great option, especially if you can get a last minute deal. But do not just plan on that as they are not always available. You have options from budget cruises all the way to luxurious. Be careful with some of the budget options as I have heard of dodgy agents that will try get you on a poorly functioning boat, only to then tell you it is not working and since you are already on the boat, they do not have to refund you.
The last option is a combination of day trips and a cruise. To me this is ideal because you get the best of both worlds. Some cruises can go for as short as just a few days and so this can give you the option of doing both.
Ultimately, I spent more money in 10 days on the Galápagos Islands than I have averaged per month on the rest of my South American adventure. And it was absolutely worth it. The captivating wonders of the islands enticed me since I was a boy and it was a privilege to experience a taste. The Galápagos have a storied history. For centuries, the islands were visited by pirates, whalers, explorers, philosophers, and naturalists who came for its resources and isolation. This wildlife paradise has been exploited, studied, and now hopefully preserved for those willing to make the trip and spend some coin.
Caught in a strange paradox, these history changing islands must clearly be protected for a variety of reasons. Yet the economic potential, especially for tourism, is pushing the bounds of its sustainability. For everyone’s sake, I hope the tides of negative change can be kept at bay.
The adventure continues in Chapter 9: Peruvian Desert Riders
Start this journey from the beginning: Introduction