I love traveling in South America, and the Galapagos had always been a ‘someday I’ll get there’ sort-of dream destination for me, an enchanted archipelago where unique species dive into azure waters on volcanic islands. When I saw a one-day sale for a flight from New York to the Galapagos roundtrip for $525 I bought it instantly (before they changed their minds). I would have ten glorious days and nights to fill with adventures. I researched all the various options: cruises, tours, or going it alone, and decided on the last one primarily for a more affordable and comfortable option than the typical budget choice of poor quality cruises on questionable boats. I planned to go wildlife-spotting on day trips to uninhabited islands and explore the inhabited ones on a quest for how much it’s possible to see while being based on land.
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The Galapagos are 600 miles (1,000 km) off the coast of Ecuador, so the flight from the mainland is about 1 hour and 45 minutes. The landing was picturesque as the plane dove through the clouds that hung low over the islands and passed little volcanic outcrops and then arrived at the wide expanse of Baltra, a flat island home to the airport and little else. Buses bring passengers to the dock where boats wait to take them across to Santa Cruz Island, the most populated island in the Galapagos, and its main city, Puerto Ayora. I checked into my hotel: Galapagos Suites, a nicely-designed, family-run place just a few blocks from the harbor with meticulously clean rooms. My room had cathedral ceilings and skylights in the bathroom.
I started exploring with a walk down to Ave Charles Darwin, the main street loaded with restaurants, cafes, and tour operators and booked my tour for the following day. Then I stopped for a tamale and headed to the Charles Darwin Institute and its tortoise breeding center where the famous Lonesome George resides along with his two female friends of another giant tortoise species. He is, sadly, the last of his species and efforts to breed him with other closely related species have not worked. So when he dies we all lose a lot – luckily giant tortoises can live for a very long time (up to 200 years), so hopefully that will not be anytime soon.
At the tortoise breeding center I saw the tiny turtles that are in various stages of development and other gigantic tortoises that you can get quite close to. The interpretation center also has a number of informative displays about the various challenges faced by conservation in the Galapagos.
One of the primary issues is that a number of invasive species have been brought in by humans that have changed the natural (and ideal) habitat of indigenous animals and plants. The pictures on display almost look like the opposite of most environmental displays showing the progression of deforestation – in this case the hillsides started out in their more barren state with low-growing native plants – a habitat which the tortoises thrive in, but in the recent pictures it is taken over by the many invasive plants and non-native trees that settlers brought with them. It has created a thick underbrush that makes it more difficult for the tortoises to get around, so conservation here is more about removing plants that have grown like weeds because they have no natural predators to keep them in check.
There is also a small sandy beach at the institute where I waded in the water and watched the birds before heading back to town. There are many colorful shops to stop in along the walk back and a big crowd gathers each afternoon at the dock when the fishermen set up to sell their daily catch; huge pelicans wait to be thrown fish scraps as tourists snap photos. For dinner, I went to La Garrapata where I had fish that was very overcooked, but the service and outdoor dining area was nice and they had free wireless.
The next day a bus picked me up at my hotel at 5:45 a.m. for the day trip to Bartolome Island, one of the most-photographed landscapes of the Galapagos. After an hour long drive back to the channel between Santa Cruz and Baltra Islands where many boats are docked, we reached the Narel Yacht which was a nice, clean boat with a small upper deck where all ten of us managed to squeeze in. After about half an hour we had a much needed breakfast along the way. Sailing was very smooth while we were sheltered by Santa Cruz, but the waves became much bigger as we approached the open ocean. A large frigate bird flew right with us for the last twenty minutes over the top of our boat.
When we arrived at Bartolome we had a hike up to one of the most beautiful views anywhere – looking out over Bartolome’s crescent-shaped north and south beaches and across to Santiago Island as Pinnacle Rock and the turquoise water completed the picture.
We saw lots of red crabs and lava lizards and, luckily, a Galapagos hawk that perched on a rail just feet from us. As we were returning to the boat to change, we were surrounded by a pod of dolphins; it was magical. Next there was a choice between a short snorkeling excursion near the rocks or swimming from the beach which is what I did. At the beach there were many female and baby sea lions. The people who went snorkeling raved about the multitude of fish they saw.
Back on the boat we had a good lunch of chicken, asparagus, rice, vegetables and salad with watermelon for desert; pretty good for a meal cooked in a tiny ship’s galley. Afterwards some of us went to the lava fields on Santiago Island. The shiny black lava is in all kinds of interesting formations – some looking like avante-garde art.