Break time: A detour to the Galapagos

After more than seven weeks on the bicycle and a couple of days exploring Quito, it was time for a break. I was feeling perpetually tired and my legs were definitely getting sluggish. Over the course of my trip, I’d heard from numerous backpackers how wonderful the Galapagos was and that even though it’s expensive, it’s worth it. With the attitude of, “When will you be this close again?” I decided to go for it and booked a flight a week out.

The Galapagos are a special place, and I don’t think I need to explain why. I’ve watched enough BBC nature documentaries to be interested, know enough about Charles Darwin, and the stories I heard of lazing on beaches next to sea lions and snorkeling with turtles seemed pretty idyllic. I pictured a tropical island paradise where humans and animals co-existed peacefully. I found that, except the “tropical paradise” part, mainly due to less than ideal weather – it was actually cooler and cloudier there than in the Andes. But I digress.

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Sea lions and sun bathers at Playa Mann on  San Cristobal on a rare sunny day.

I booked my ticket only a week out through TAME airlines website. Somehow, despite selecting Canada as my nationality on their website, I only got charged the much cheaper Ecuadorean price ($275 USD vs $450 for foreigners). I fully expected to get dinged more at the airport but I used the self check-in and got on the plane without any issues. So far so good.

We flew to the islands over an endless layer of clouds, making a quick pit stop in Guayaquil along the way. As we reached the islands, the clouds parted a little and the Galapagos came into view. Volcanic tufts poked out of the ocean and the larger islands spread out in the distance. We landed on Baltra and I paid the $100 park fee at customs. Then I got on a bus across the island and marveled at its bleak landscape that was little more than dirt, rocks and cacti. It wasn’t what I expected – much more desert than tropics. There was a short ferry ride to Santa Cruz, then another bus trip to Puerto Ayora – the biggest town in the Galapagos, where tour agents and restaurants line every block and everyone is there to serve you. The landscape was more barren than expected, with cacti poking up among the leafless-trees. The road stretched out straight ahead into the somewhat more lush highlands of the island, where we passed small farms and tiny villages.

I checked into the Hostal Gardner and went for lunch. Everything in the Galapagos costs double what it does on the mainland, so a dorm bed was $20 and lunch was $5 instead of the usual $10 and $2.50 respectively. I was pretty zonked after having a poor sleep the night before so the rest of my day consisted of seeing if I could find a really cheap last-minute cruise (I couldn’t), gawking at the iguanas and sea lions lazing by the dock, then lazing in a hammock back at the hostel. That evening I met a few people at the hostel and we made plans to explore some of the free sites the next day.

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The lifeless trees on Santa Cruz island.
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Sea lions lazing on the waterfront.
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Pelicans wait for a snack at the Puerto Ayora fish market.

Tortuga Bay was our first destination the next morning. I went with Ulli, a fairly serious German, and Elodie, a bubbly French girl, on the 2.5 kilometre walk to the beach. A long, curving, white sand beach, Tortuga Bay really is beautiful, though the gray skies and cool air made going for a swim not so inviting (I did jump in regardless). You’d think the Galapagos would be a tropical paradise, what with it being right on the equator, but the Humboldt Current brings up cold water from the Antarctic, keeping temperatures around 20 C and the waters fairly cold; snorkeling tours include a wetsuit rental in the price. The real highlight of the beach was watching iguanas bask on the rocks and sand, and birds swoop through the sky hunting for fish. Most iguanas barely moved, but others would amble about slowly, bopping their heads as they went along.

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The path to Tortuga Bay.
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Birds looking for food in the sand. The way they scurried along on their tiny legs was fun to watch.
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Cacti by the beach.
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Marine iguana were splayed out all over the place. Eventually, you’d hardly even look twice at them, except to not trip over them. Occasionally you’d catch one wandering off into the ocean.
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This bird kindly held its pose for me for a long time.
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Elodie and Ulli.

That afternoon we took a quick water taxi and a short walk to Las Greitas – a narrow canyon that’s a popular snorkeling site. The fish weren’t that plentiful, but the walk past a salt lake and into the canyon was worthwhile.

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The salt lake.
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Las Greitas.
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Frigate birds soaring over the Galapagos.

The next day was spent taking on a boat tour to Isla Daphne – a hulking rock poking out of the ocean north of Santa Cruz covered in crabs, birds and bird poop. There’s numerous day tour options from Santa Cruz, but when I went to book one, the most popular ones were all booked. I was keen to take one, but I didn’t book until late, and I didn’t have many options. Still, they all sounded similar – you go to a nearby island, see some wildlife and then visit two snorkeling spots where they say you’ll see sea lions, sharks, rays, fish and all sorts of other underwater creatures.

I have mixed feelings about the tour – I had one incredibly moment, but for $100, I don’t know if I got full value, and that moment I later enjoyed for free elsewhere in the Galapagos. We circled around Daphne and watched the birds fly around, then boated to a small rock outcropping for a bit of snorkeling. About half the people on my boat could barely swim, and fluttered around in life jackets while holding onto a life ring. They missed out, because it was only by diving deep under the water that you could see the white-tipped sharks that were resting under the rocks.

The real highlight was when I approached the rocks and a sea lion slipped into the water and gracefully swam around me for a few seconds. Those creatures that look so lazy and awkward on land are so majestic in the water, with the way they twist and turn effortlessly. Not long after, I got to watch two sea lions play in the water before they flopped back onto the rocks.

The final stop for the day was a white sand beach, where I did some more snorkeling and saw a turtle, but it swam away quickly. If there was one other plus of the trip, it’s that it was sunny on our side of the island, whereas I heard it rained that day in Puerto Ayora, on the south side of Santa Cruz.

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Isla Daphne Mejor.
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A blue-footed booby on Isla Daphne. These birds are one of the highlights of the Galapagos, and I got to see a few up close a few days later.
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Wet suits are essential for snorkeling, despite the warm appearance of the crystal clear water.

I was off to Isla Isabela the next day in the hopes of seeing penguins. Everyone on Santa Cruz said that was the only place to see them, but of course when I got to Isabela, I was told that all the penguins had migrated to some far off spot on the west side of the island, and there was only one seen close to town. I woke up that morning with a sore stomach, and it wasn’t helped by the rocky boat ride to Isabela. I had a free tour included with my ticket, but I started to feel feverish as we walked along a boardwalk that snaked through lagoons filled with ducks, flamingos and other birds. We went to the tortoise breeding centre, then had lunch, at which point I skipped the rest of the tour and went to my hostel to crash. A few hours later, I roused myself out of bed and walked to Concha Perla, a popular snorkeling spot, where I got chased by an angry sea lion, then watched a beautiful sunset from a nearby beach.

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Ducks in the lagoons on Isla Isabela.
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One thing about the Galapagos – many of the animals are kind of hilarious.
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At the giant tortoise breeding centre.
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Giant tortoises are great to watch as they move in super-slow motion.
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I wasn’t the only chased by the angry sea lion. They’re surprisingly fast for a bunch of blubber on flippers.
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Concha Perla – another spot where you can snorkel with sea lions.
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Sunset on Isabela. I reached this beach just before the sun dipped beyond the horizon.

The real reason for going to Isabela was the Los Tuneles tour, which was universally raved about by everyone I met that had done it. Our group of 10 hopped in the boat at 8 a.m. and we rocketed off down the shoreline to the designated snorkeling spot. We squeezed into our wet suits and jumped into the cold water. For the first few moments I didn’t see anything, but then I spotted one turtle, and another, and a shark, and a I swam over a giant sting ray that was laying still on the ocean floor. I saw more turtles than I could count and dove under to watch some resting sharks. An eagle ray swam past and our guide somehow located a giant sea horse among the mangroves along the shoreline. It was without doubt the greatest snorkeling experience I’ve ever had – but it might not even have been the highlight of the day.

Our next stop was Los Tuneles itself, a set of lava deposits that formed a series of natural bridges over the ocean. Our boat maneuvered its way through the rocks in crystal clear waters. We could see turtles and sea lions swimming in the water, and the comical blue-footed boobies resting above. And, yes, we saw not one, but two penguins. One was way off in the distance, but the other we got up close to before it dove under water. What they were doing here while all their friends were elsewhere is not known. We stopped to go for a walk on the lava and gathered around a pair of blue-footed boobies that happily posed for photos. I think I enjoyed that part of the tour more than the snorkeling.

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Los Tuneles
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Los Tuneles
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Blue-footed boobies.
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A blue-footed booby.

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An elusive penguin.

Despite being sick and having bad stomach pain, I really liked the vibe on Isla Isabela. It’s the most expensive island, but also the quietest and most relaxed. The roads were sandy and there was far fewer agencies hawking tours. In hindsight, I wish I had spent an extra day here instead of doing the tour to Isla Daphne, Unfortunately, I had already booked my ticket off the island, so that afternoon I caught the ferry back to Santa Cruz and returned to Hostal Gardner, where my stomach finally cleared itself of its backup. The next morning I went to the Charles Darwin centre, and then I caught another ferry to San Cristobal, where my flight back to the mainland was leaving from. By this point my stomach was finally feeling better, and the boat ride was far more tolerable even though it was even bouncier than usual.

I loved San Cristobal, probably because the next day I woke up and it was warm and sunny out for the first time in the Galapagos. I went to the amazing local bakery and stocked up on treats, then went for a walk out to Las Tijeretas, which is a big cliff overlooking a turquoise bay,  and Playa Baquerizo, a secluded beach an hour walk from town. There, I got to laze about with a few other people and dozens of sea lions and iguanas. I did some snorkeling, but one angry sea lion didn’t seem to like me crowding his turf and kept chasing me out of the water. Still, I did see some turtles and a ray during my forays into the water. I most enjoyed watching the sea lions and their cubs flop around the beach and in and out of the water. This is the type of experience that makes the Galapagos.

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That afternoon I went back to town for lunch, then plopped myself on the local beach that was also filled with sea lions – including one that came stumbling out of the mangroves, and plopped down right next to me before going for a swim. I did some more snorkeling, following schools of fish and watching the sea lions play around me. I left the beach feeling pretty happy with my last full day in the Galapagos.

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A sea lion gets up close.
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The delicious bakery that kept my stomach full on San Cristobal.
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A sea lion lazes by a statue of a fisherman.

My last morning was a repeat of the previous day, but with less sun. I balanced out my tan on Playa Punta Carola, then had lunch and walked to the airport for my flight back to the mainland.

What do I make of the Galapagos? There are some truly great experiences you can have there, but I think the weather hurt my overall impression of the place. Most days it was cool and grey, which made jumping in the cold waters very uninviting. It’s also very expensive compared to the mainland – about double the price – but there are a lot of free activities you can do. All told, I spent less than $1,000 on my eight days there, including my flight (which I luckily got at the local rate), park fee, ferries, two boat tours, food and accommodation. Really, that’s not bad for a week-long trip to one of the most unique places in the world. You could could easily spend a lot more if you did a cruise or more day trips or went to better restaurants. You could also spend less by doing only one or no day trips and only seeing two islands instead of three.

I wouldn’t say it’s the highlight of my trip like others told me, but a few of the experiences will stay with me forever.

3 thoughts on “Break time: A detour to the Galapagos

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