Galapagos May 2019

Half the world away…

Strictly 90 degrees around the world, the journey to Santa Cruz took the best part of two days. We left London Friday night, stayed over in Amsterdam then flew to Guayaquil via a short stop in Quito. After a night in the Holiday Inn at the airport in Guayaguil, we took our final flight to Baltra. We arrived in Guayaguil airport early to get our permits and have the bag checks but there were no queues.

Day 1 – Santa Cruz Sunday Blues

We arrived in Baltra and joined the various queues for the permits and checks. Much amused by the canine security team who had to give all  the luggage a thorough walk-over and sniff before it can be collected. Bought return bus tickets to save on later queues.

The bus takes you to a ferry terminal for a short crossing. It was well worth the $25 for a taxi to meet us arranged by our hotel to cut down the journey time – still around 45 mins.

Once we checked in at the Hotel La Isla Santa Cruz, we went in search of a day trip to North Seymour from the agents near the main harbour. However, we did detour to the fish market just at the end of our road to see sea lions, frigate birds, pelicans, iguanas and various other birds all within a few minutes. We had lunch at Galapagos Deli which does really good juices and sandwiches.

Finding our day trip for the following Saturday was a pain as we only had today to do this and it was a Sunday. Many agencies closed.  Many others on our “avoid “ list composed from TA reviews. We got told not possible/possible but silly price in the first few. None of them seemed to consult a computer for this but instead either texted or called their relative/friend/colleague while we waited. Persistence paid off and in the end we booked North Seymour for $190pp cash, $100 cheaper than the best offered by agents via the internet from home.

We went to the Almar bar in the Red Mangrove hotel for a sunset cocktail watching the sea lions swim and dive into the water along with marine iguanas. The hotel has a special decking for the animals to enjoy and they make the most of the luxury.

After dinner , we went down to the harbour to see the sharks, manta rays and sea lions swimming under the lights. The evening show,  Galapagos style.

Day 2 – On to Isabela

Given that the inter-island boats are either 7am or 3pm we opted for the latter. This gave us time to watch the fish sellers and their sealion friends at the nearby one-stall  market.

The inter-island boats are called ferries but are more like large basic speedboats. We arrived at the queue early to get seats at the back and were glad of them as the interior is very hot and stuffy. We took the Dramamine recommended on TA about an hour before. We also gave some to a German tourist who really suffered during the crossing.

Isabela is a very low key place. Roads of sand or gravel. Very  basic shops and restaurants. Palm trees, coconuts, blue sea and white sand.

The Hotel Albermarle is right on the beach and we had a ground floor sea view room. The what to do in the event of a  tsunami warning sign on the back of the door was not as reassuring as might be expected but I suppose it is useful information. We booked our trips at the Pahoehoe agency and had dinner at the Booby Trap restaurant, a short walk along the white sandy beach. We also managed to meet up with a friendly young British couple we had made contact with via TA and we had drinks with them on our hotel roof terrace and swapped travellers’ tales.

Day 3 – Adventure meets Misadventure

An early start,  this time for our kayaking trip whilst the tide was out to maximise the viewing opportunities.  Pahhoehoe  agency was very busy but in the end it transpired that we had a private tour. Near the kayaks were lots of young and old sea lions using the benches to rest.

We paddled around the various small islands/rocky outcrops surrounding the harbour and saw numerous animals. The first were three sea turtles – huge creatures grazing along the bottom and occasionally popping a head up. Then sealions, penguins, blue footed boobies, a couple of diamond rays and lots of fish. The highlight for me was the first experience of getting into and out of a kayak to snorkel and then watching the boobies dive into the sea like co-ordinated bullets to catch fish.

Once back on shore we decided to go to Concha De La Perla next to the harbour for some snorkelling practice. We saw another huge sea and various fish and then decided to head along the far mangrove trees which turned out to be a huge mistake. It started off OK with the usual fish and then we saw a shark in a ravine in the water. I felt the current starting to pull me but ignored this and called Una over. Before we knew it we were being sucked out of the small bay by a very strong current which we had no chance of swimming against. We managed to grab the rope across the bay with a big stop sign on it – yeah thanks. I tried to help Una pull herself back along the rope but she found the current too strong and we had to shout for help. Luckily several people heard us and swam over to help pull us along the rope. Then at the end we had to pull ourselves along the mangrove roots to where the current was less strong. Many thanks to the people who helped rescue us.

After that nerve-wracking experience we got a taxi back, had a coconut at the local bar next to the hotel and went out for a walk to the lagoon. We stopped at Iguana Crossing for lunch and then visited the tortoise breeding centre via the lakeside boardwalk passing several  bright red flamingos.

Dinner  at the popular Coco Surf restaurant after enjoying our own imported gin on the Albermarle’s rooftop terrace that nobody else seemed to use.  We also enjoyed hanging out with all the marine iguanas which live in the rocks opposite the hotel.

Day 4 – On and In the water

Los Tuneles boat trip arranged via Pahoehoe.

There was a reasonable amount of swell as we headed up the coast passing our first semi-stop of the day which was a wild white capped rock mid-ocean with numerous Nazca boobies atop.

We then continued to  the snorkelling on the edge of a mangrove forest. Our guide was really excited  about nearly invisible seahorses but we did see many  large sea turtles – one estimated to be nearly 200 years old. Huge! The crew were very good at helping weaker and nervous swimmers.

After being stung a few times and also with the start of cramp from the cold water, I headed back to the boat. I think to get the best from this trip you needed a wet suit and to be confident at snorkelling.  The rest continued around to see white tipped sharks etc. Lunch was a simple warm rice and piece of chicken with a salad and drinks.

Next, off to the tunnels and the approach was quite fun as the captain had to race the engines to keep ahead of some pretty large breaking waves. The area is very spectacular with volcanic arches under an amazingly clear water. Sadly no snorkelling is allowed here. This is a key blue footed booby breeding ground and we had a short walk through the cactus strewn lava laden landscape. We were able to get right beside the blue footed boobies and they hardly seemed to notice us.

The exit out of the tunnels area was quite exciting as the boat  again had to plough through pretty large waves, avoiding the white caps. An enjoyable trip though be aware of the quite long. cold snorkel and if you get seasick take some pills.

Day 5 – Bikes and beaches

One of the absolute joys of doing a land-based Galapagos trip was the ability to decide what we want to do and when.  Plus being able to skip the watery pursuits for a day and hire bicycles to explore at our own pace.

The Wall of Tears trail is well signposted. We brought swimming gear and loads of water. It was hot and hard work in places, but well worth doing even if you do not make it to the hills and viewpoints of the end. We hired bikes from one of the many places in town and they were $3 per hour.

It’s worth stopping at all of the signposted  beaches and viewing points along the way. We saw turtles near the beach opposite Poza Redonda and from Playa del Amor a booby hatchery. We also saw about 50 boobies dive bombing the surf for fish. A bonanza  of iguanas more or less on every beach.

The best stop was El Estero lagoon for a dip in the cool waters amongst the mangroves. We shared it with a local family who reassured us that the water was not deep and there were no currents.  A young sealion commandeered our bench and I had to move our clothes from underneath her with a few hisses.

Shortly after this you come across the avenue of tortoises. We saw about 5 medium size ones on the path.

We got most of the way to Mirador Orchilia before deciding to turn back being tired, hot and quite a way through our water supplies.

That evening, another advantage of a land-trip was a long sunset walk along the beach for drinks. Although every mojito we had on Isabela was watery and weak. We had ours this time at the pink hostel with the large iguana mural and dozens of the actual marine iguanas climbing up the side wall for a last fix of daytime heat.

Dinner at the Booby Trap.

Day 6  – Return to Santa Cruz

A gentle day waiting for the ferry back to Santa Cruz. We walked down to La Concha bay again and had a look at the various animals (humans included).

Lunch at Endemic turtle – simple fish (tuna) and beef burgers with chips. Comfort food. Then off to the chaos of the docks with about 6 inter-island boats all departing at the same time.

We had to catch-up on our washing so we found a laundry near the La Isla hotel which cost $1 per kg of clothes.

Drinks at Santa Cruz Brewery which had 3 cocktails for $12. The G&T was drowned in tonic but at least they all had some kick. Dinner at Midori in town was the best so far in Galapagos. The tuna experience which was 4 courses of Tuna done different ways.

Day 7 – Animal Magic

We’d booked the North Seymour trip a week ago after much footwork around town. Our transport arrived on time and we had the boat we’d actually been told –the Espanola 1. The 20 of us easily fitted over the two decks – one air conditioned.

After a leisurely cruise to North Seymour we had what is known as a dry landing onto the island. It’s pretty amazing. There are hundreds if not thousands of frigate birds and we were lucky enough to be there during the breeding season and saw a number of mating displays. The male frigate birds have an enormous red sack which they vibrate to attract as many females as possible.

We also saw the orange Land Iguana a number of times as well as boobies with eggs and one set of chicks. We also witnessed an attempted courtship ritual but it obviously wasn’t good enough for the female who flew off pursued by the male hoping for a second chance.

We moved onto Mosqueras island which was about 100m in diameter with a fantastic white sand beach one side and and green rougher side on the other. The colour of the sand, sea and sky were amazing. After a wet landing we donned snorkelling gear and swam amongst a big shoal of fish and about 10 very frisky sealions.

The sealions thought this was great sport and proceeded to do circles around, over and under us. Occasionally they would nip or run into peoples’ go -pro cameras. They particularly liked my green and black fins and as I tried to escape the water 6 of them came after me nipping at the fins.

A very unique experience.

Lunch on the boat was tuna ( a very common meal on the islands it seems), rice and vegetables. Quite good with a view across the sea as we headed back.

Drinks at the brewery again – who can pass up 3 cocktails for $12 along with a flight of beer tastings? Another fine, filling meal at Midori afterwards followed by our usual trip down to our friends, the sharks in the harbour. We bumped into two sets of travellers we’d met a number of times previously over the evening.

Day 8 – Slow time with the tortoises

Given we had a few hours to kill we decided to walk to the Darwin centre just as it opened. The walk was hot with various educational areas describing as is often the case on the islands. Upsetting history about  how tortoises were used and abused over time. The populations are expanding with the breeding programmes and repopulation continues. We were particularly impressed by 200 year old Diego who is still actively doing his part to make new tortoises and was doing so very noisly in his enclosure. Una noted that the proceedings did not look very consensual.

On the way back we stopped at Coffee 1835, the best on the island then lunch at Giordini near the hotel.

We allowed 3.5 hrs to get to the airport and 3 would have been enough. Low key airport but much cheaper trinkets than in town. I guess the last chance to extract cash from the tourist.

The Galapagos are somewhere we would like to return to and might even consider a cruise to get to see more parts of the islands. However, land based is a perfectly good alternative and you get to set your own pace and agenda. We hate being herded or paying for excursions which are actually free. The locals are kind and friendly – both the human and animal kind. There’s a lot to see.

Fly to Quito and overnight in town at La Casona de la Ronda. Dinner at Casa de las Geranios down the road from the hotel. Lots of security around paid for by local companies. Waiter at restaurant checked we were OK getting back (all 10 metres).

Lessons learnt:

    • You can book most trips on the ground but expect to try a number of agents to find the price and package you want
    • The local agents use different networks of boat owners so there is generally something available
    • Be clear and repeat the dates you want and the trip
    • Isabela is a pretty basic beach resort with very little infrastructure ie unspoilt
    • Camera lenses. I used the 24-105 and the 100-400 the most. Any boat trip or tour really needs the longer lens and possibly some extra length would have been useful
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