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Friday, 31 December 2010

A Land Based Tour in the Galapagos

pelicans galapagos

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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Galapagos picturesThe 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 Galapagos picturesnot 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.

Galapagos picturesThere 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.

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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.

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Galapagos photosWe 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.

 

 

 

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Galapagos photosBack 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.

 

 

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The return trip was much rougher, but the captain did a good job getting us back. After the bus ride back I went to Familiar William’s for dinner where I tried their fish with coconut sauce – it was much tastier than the one I’d had the previous night, though the surroundings and atmosphere were lacking – as they just set up the tables right in the middle of the street (which is blocked off at night), but it is cheaper, faster and better.


Galapagos photosThe next day I had a filling continental breakfast of fruit, yogurt, granola, toast and coffee at my hotel. I packed up my stuff for my afternoon ferry to San Cristobal and then headed over to Tortuga Bay for a few hours. A nice trail leads through native vegetation for about 40 minutes and then I reached the gorgeous long white sand beach with lots of marine iguanas to look at. They especially like the area near the mangroves between the first beach and a second beach which sits in a protected cove – the only advised place for swimming because the currents are so strong at the first one that it is just used by surfers. The marine iguanas look like such prehistoric creatures with their wrinkled skin and their big dinosaur-like tails. At the second beach I saw several large brown pelicans and a huge stingray.

 

 

 

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I could have easily spent all day there, but I had to get back for my 2 p.m. boat (which didn’t end up leaving until almost 3). I was happy I didn’t have lunch because the sea was very rough and all the ferries are speedboats that hit pretty hard after each big wave, so two people got sick on out boat, and several others looked like they were going to. I took homeopathic pills to avoid seasickness which I think really helped me. Finally we arrived at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno after two long hours.


When I got there I took a taxi to my hotel, Casa Iguana Mar Y Sol, a very nice guesthouse owned by an American, Patricia and built by an Ecuadorian, Luis. They run the place together and one of them is always around to see that things Galapagos photosgo smoothly. It was artistically built with hand-carved doors and windows and handmade furniture as well. Patricia showed me to my room and told me about the area. I started by walking down the boardwalk alongside the harbor in the center of town which had a multitude of seals lounging on the beach and draped over the rocks. At night you can hear seals barking instead of dogs barking; it is quite unique!


Galapagos photosI liked the town much better than Puerto Ayora, as it is smaller, cleaner, and much closer to nature so more interesting. You can have your coffee, drinks, or meal overlooking a beach teeming with sea lions and watch their fascinating interactions.


I had dinner at La Playa on Patricia’s suggestion – it was excellent. I ordered the Galapagos prawns (which is actually lobster) in coconut sauce. The place was packed with people even on a Thursday night.


Galapagos photosThe next day I went on an excursion to Kicker Rock. The speedboat took us first to seal island where we snorkeled with seals in the clear azure water. The babies were so playful that they were jumping in the air and diving between us. We also saw lots of puffer fish and blue-footed boobies.

 

 

 

Galapagos photosAfter about forty-five minutes we went to Kicker Rock where the water was much darker, colder, and rougher. There is a channel to swim through between two huge monoliths where there are almost always Galapagos sharks, and just so we weren’t disappointed there were five of them together in the middle. I was a bit intimidated, especially when I looked down and there was one swimming directly underneath me. There was more snorkeling along the cliffs and people could head back to the boat whenever they wished, but no one lasted too long this time because of the cold (or maybe the sharks).


We headed to a small, uninhabited island with a sandy beach to explore and go sea kayaking. We ate boxed lunches of chicken, rice, and salad on the boat (as conservation doesn’t allow picnicking on the island itself) and took turns using the kayak around the bay and the mangroves. I saw several large sea tortoises that kept poking their heads up to breathe and tried to follow them. There were also seals and lots of interesting birds including frigates and yellow warblers. We got back to town around 3 pm and I headed back to my hotel to shower and change. Patricia offered me some tea and we talked about her experience living there and running the hotel. It feels like you’re staying in someone’s home more than a hotel, but at the same time it is the nicest (and probably friendliest) place in town.


I went to Miramar for dinner and ordered the pasta with fish and brandy cream sauce. They sent out an appetizer which was a nice surprise – seafood in pastry Galapagos photosshells, and the dessert (tiramisu) was on the house as well, but that was advertised. The food was good, but the best part was the location – it overlooks a beach filled with sea lions, so you can watch them the whole time.

 

 

 

Galapagos photosAfter Luis’ homemade pancakes and coffee I joined a tour to the highlands that a couple at my hotel was going on. We went to the tortoise breeding center where there were lots of giant tortoises to look at and their babies as well and our guide explained their behavior and how their sex is determined by the temperature the egg is incubated at, so they are keeping many more at a higher temperature to have more females so the species reproduces faster.

 

Next we headed down to a beautiful beach for a swim. There were seals, pelicans, and on a rocky outcrop nearby, blue-footed boobies that let me get very close – they are so cute with their electric-blue feet.

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Afterwards we went to a ranch for a huge lunch of fruit, chicken, rice and vegetables. Then we hiked up to the lagoon in the crater of an old volcano where the frigates come to wash the salt water off their feathers. Finally, we went to a viewpoint over the town and small islands and got on mountain bikes and coasted back to our hotel, as the trip was mostly downhill. It was 5 p.m. when we got in Galapagos photosand I quickly made my way up to the San Cristobal interpretation center that closes at 6 p.m. It has a beautiful pathway through the native fauna of the area and goes to lookouts over two beaches. I went down to one, which like most beaches here was covered with sea lions. The walkways are all new and it is very nicely done; I wish I’d had more time to explore it.


Getting back at dusk I had a glass of wine kindly offered by Patricia and some interesting conversation with her and the other guests. I went to the Miconia Hotel’s restaurant for dinner which was very good. They have a salad bar with lots of choices that they offer before their meals and my fish was very tasty, but be sure to bring cash as they charge 22% extra for credit cards.


If I’d stayed another day on San Cristobal I probably would have gone to Punta Pitt, a place all the way at the far end of the island where you can see the red footed booby which is very rare and most people who come to the Galapagos never see it. It is a very long boat trip though and a guide told me that it’s only worth it if you can get out and do a hike around the area as opposed to just seeing them from the boat. San Cristobal is also famous for surfing and I met a couple of surfers who’d been there a month.


Galapagos photosI had an early start because the ferry to Santa Cruz leaves at 7 am. It was much less rough on the way back, probably because of the currents. So if you can arrange to fly into one island and out of the other I’d start on San Cristobal and fly out of Santa Cruz/Baltra (unless you’re flying Lan, like I was, where they only fly in and out of Baltra). I spent the whole rest of the morning in Hotel Sol y Mar’s bar seats – this is one of Puerto Aroya’s few restaurants with seats directly on the water, as almost all just look over the main street. It was the perfect place to spend several hours with my bag in tow and I saw a blue heron, pelicans, and many iguanas while I waited.


 

 

Galapagos photosI caught the 2 p.m. ferry to Puerto Villamil on Isabela, a gorgeous island without any paved roads and beautiful beaches. I checked in at Hotel Albemarle which has the best location in town on a perfect crescent beach full of palm trees. My room had a balcony with a perfect view over the turquoise water and the pure white sand. It was nicely decorated and had a huge bathroom with double sinks and a rain shower. There is also a small pool, a restaurant, hammocks, wireless and a computer for guests’ use.

 


 

 

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The walk around town didn’t take long, but the beach goes on for miles, and there is almost no one on it! I thought this must be paradise!

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I arranged a volcano tour for the next morning and then walked around the beaches until sunset. For dinner I tried Lo Encanto de Pepe where I had a fairly good grilled fish meal. I slept soundly with the sound of waves crashing on the shore.

I had an early breakfast at the hotel of fruit, muesli, yogurt, toast and coffee and Galapagos photosthen was picked up to go on an excursion to the Sierra Negra volcano. We drove half an hour until the end of the road and then embarked on the four-hour hike. After about forty minutes we reached the caldera, a huge expanse that last erupted in 2005. Then we hiked to Volcan Chico, which has a beautiful vista between the sea surrounding us and the volcano.

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Our guide told us about the volcanic activity on the islands and how Isabela and Fernandina are two of the most volcanically active islands on earth. Fernandina is so active that it keeps expanding and may at some point become attached to Isabela, after all Isabela started out as five separate volcanoes that eventually joined into the largest island of the Galapagos. Along the way we saw a Galapagos short eared owl (in daytime!), a vermillion flycatcher, lizards, yellow warblers, and interesting plants such as Galapagos cotton. We took a break for lunch before descending, but by then it was quite hot.

 

 

Galapagos photosIt was a relief to get back to my hotel and jump into the sea to cool down. It was just me and a stingray, but there must have been a large school of fish that swam into the area because all of the sudden there were many blue footed boobies swarming over my head and diving down all around me. Also seals, pelicans and frigates came and joined in. There must have been a hundred birds circling around as I got out of the water to watch. After the feeding frenzy the blue-footed boobies stayed perched on the rocks and ten pelicans were floating on the shore – it was like Las Tintoreras (a popular day-trip area nearby) had come to me!


Galapagos photosIn late afternoon I went to the lagoon right in town to watch the flamingos; there were only three of them, but they were so elegant and graceful. For dinner I went to Los Delfins where a soup, grilled fish with rice, juice and dessert cost just $7.


 

 

 

Galapagos photosIn the morning I went on a day trip to Los Tuneles. Myself and some others from my hotel had hired a fishing boat to take us out there. It is a forty-five minute boat ride out and is an area incredibly rich with sea life. It is an area of large and small tunnels and archways created from volcanic rock. The soft parts have been worn away by the sea, creating many calm caverns which are ideal for fish, sea turtles, and sharks, among others.


Our noisy, smelly boat somehow maneuvered through the formations and then Galapagos photos we got out and walked around some of them, watching the huge sea tortoises and eagle rays float by in the clear water below us. As this area was protected, we went to a different area to go snorkeling (though if you ask me, our snorkeling would have been much less disruptive than the boat we were in). The fishing boat captain was our guide and knew the area well, although he didn’t speak English. We saw white-tipped sharks, barracuda, puffer fish, eagle rays, a huge manta ray, tortoises, lots of colorful fish, and best of all, sea horses! It was incredible. I wished I had brought an underwater camera.


Galapagos photos Along the rocks we also saw Galapagos penguins (they’re so cute!) and more blue-footed boobies. Although the boat was very basic with a fuming motor that didn’t seem like it was going to make it, and didn’t come with the usual tour amenities of lunch, snorkeling gear, and an English-speaking guide, Los Tuneles is a spectacular place to explore and I’m surprised that you don’t see it on many tourist itineraries.


When we returned I stayed down at the dock area to go snorkeling at Concha de Perla, a natural ‘pool’ near the docks with lots of fish and sea lions. It is a short walk through the mangroves to get to the quiet, sheltered spot, and you may run into sea lions right on the walkway.

I then walked back to town, had a quick lunch, and went to my hotel to shower and change before looking for a new place to stay with my new friends whom I’d met on the boat. I’d decided I wanted to spend another night on Isabela and my hotel was already completely booked, and they were in the same position. In fact, many people who come to Isabela want to extend their stay, but this is more challenging than it sounds as there are no ATM’s on the island, so you can only extend your stay by as much time as whatever cash you have will last, and since most places only take cash, credit cards won’t save you (Hotel Albermarle is one of the few places that does take credit cards, but if it's already booked you’re out of luck). So we looked at some of the cheap hotels in town that charge about $20 a night and decided on one that in retrospect I wouldn’t recommend, Hotel Volcano.


The next day three new friends and I rented bikes and rode to the tortoise sanctuary and then to the wall of tears, a large stone wall built by prisoners. It is at Galapagos photos the end of a long tourist trail perfect for mountain biking that has many viewpoints, mangrove forests and secluded beaches like Playita, where we ended up swimming. We stopped at most of these different points along the way, some teeming with marine iguanas, another where you hike up to a high point, arriving at a 360 degree panorama. There is definitely enough to do to keep you going all day, but it was very hot, so swimming in the beautiful water was the best part.

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Afterwards we tried to find a place open for lunch, but were out of luck as it was 3:30 and everything was closed, so we grabbed some snacks and decided to have an early dinner which was difficult as there was a power outage and most of the restaurants didn’t open for dinner, so we went back to Lo Encanto de Pepe – the only place open and ate by candlelight.


We then went to a beach bar right across from our new hotel which was great as they had hammocks and someone playing guitar and the sound of the waves crashing on the shore. The blackout didn’t matter here as candles set the perfect mood. When we went back to our hotel the power was still out and they gave me a candle to go upstairs. Unfortunately, I saw two cockroaches and that pretty much ruined my sleep for the night; when the lights came back on I left them on all night so the roaches wouldn’t come in my room. I had to leave at 5:30 am anyways for my 6 am ferry. It’s still dark at 5:30 and I can’t see why all the boats leave so early and all at the same time. Why not have a late afternoon departure as well to create some more options?


There are many other things to do on Isabela as well – diving is very popular and so is the tour of Las Tintoreras – an area of low rocks near the harbor where you can see sea lions and blue-footed boobies and go snorkeling – its 2-3 hours and costs $20. You could also spend at least one day lounging on the beautiful beaches.


I arrived in Puerto Ayora at 8:30 am and went to Casa de Lago for breakfast – a large, varied breakfast with a pancake, an omelet, fruit with yogurt and granola, coffee and fresh juice. Then I was off to find a place to stay for this last night. I looked at a couple of places and decided on one of the popular budget choices, Hotel Espana – it has very small and simple rooms, but they are clean and without any bugs which was my main criteria for this last night where I had another very early morning departure.


Galapagos photos I did some souvenir shopping and then went to Tortuga Bay for the rest of the day – it was cooler than the time I went the previous week, but I lay on the beach and relaxed and took more time looking at all the birds and lizards on the walk down. There was one mockingbird that walked, jumped, and flew right next to me for about five minutes while singing; I was amazed at how unafraid so many of the birds were. It was very cloudy and kept threatening to rain but never did until evening and then only some light sprinkling. Since it was the beginning of December, this was the very end of the dry season and the start of the rainy season, but the benefit of the wet season here is the currents bring warmer water and the parched earth is reinvented with flowers.

For dinner I went to The Rock and had their ‘Lonesome George’ fish that was good and a pina colada. They draw people in with their ‘2 for 1 cocktails’ sign out front, but then only honor it for rum and cokes or caipirinhas. Anyways, the place had a nice atmosphere though it was mainly filled with foreigners (the locals have already figured out their false advertising). Early the next morning I took a taxi across the island to the ferry crossing to Baltra for my return flight.


There are many more day trips that could be done from Santa Cruz – there is Floreana which you can visit every day and is as little as $65 for the full day tour including transport, lunch, and gear. Then there are North Seymour ($90) and Plazas ($90) which go a couple times a week. North Seymour is the place to go for the blue footed booby, especially during mating season when they do the cutest mating dance; it is also famous for diving. Plazas is better for marine iguanas and unique fauna. Then there are highland tours where you see the tortoises in the wild ($35), bay tours on glass bottomed boats ($30), and you can hire a taxi ($25) to take you to Garrapata Beach with its translucent water and salt lagoon with flamingos.


If you decide on an independent itinerary, I’d advise you to leave at least a little flexibility in your schedule – perhaps a couple unplanned days at the end, so you can spend a little longer on whichever island you’re most drawn to and re-adjust your schedule to deal with any flight delays. My flight from New York on Lan was delayed 10 hours which meant I missed my flight to the Galapagos, had to stay in Guayaquil and didn’t get a flight until the following day, as they only leave once a day. Also, this meant I could no longer fit North Seymour into my schedule, though it would have fit in perfectly if I had arrived when I was supposed to, so I was very disappointed about that. If you do decide on a cruise you should plan to arrive at least a day before, as if you miss your flight there is no way the boat will come back to get you.


As for costs, day trips are very reasonably priced from $20-120 (with most being around $50) and those are per person, so if you happen to be traveling alone like I was you don’t need to pay some exorbitant single supplement like you would on a cruise. Nice hotel rooms like the ones I stayed at the first 8 nights will run about $100-150 a night (with budget options in the $20-30 price range). Most ferry rides are $25, taxi’s in town are $1, food costs are less than the US, but more than mainland Ecuador as almost everything needs to be imported.


So, for example, if you have two people and took the exact trip I did you’d pay $515 each for the 10 nights in hotels, $315 each for day tours/activities, and $115 each for ferries and transportation for a grand total of $945 each. If you were able to get the flight deal I got that would price an amazing trip at under $1500 pp from NY. By comparison an 8-night cruise (without flights) on a mid-range boat averages $2-3,000 per person (for double occupancy) and if you were to look at the high end options (or single occupancy) they would be off the charts ($4-7,000). The advantage of cruises is that much of the travel is done at night while you’re asleep, so first thing in the morning you’ll be at your first site to explore. Of course, if you suffer from seasickness then that would be a tough week for you.


Even land based tours can be very expensive if you buy them as a package, GAP Adventures which focuses on students and mid-range tours charges $2,699pp for a 10-day (9-night) ‘adventure’, or $1,999pp for its ‘Galapagos on a Shoestring’ package which is similar except you stay in ‘basic’ lodging and tents. You take the same ferries I took and go on the same (but far fewer) tours, and no meals are included, so I have no idea what the huge markup is. You’re better off arranging it yourself or through a travel agent who doesn’t charge a premium. Add the $100 Galapagos National Park fee and the $10 tourist card to whichever option you choose.


The Galapagos is one of the most incredible, unique, authentic places anywhere. If you love seeing interesting species that are not afraid of humans this is the place for you. Though development has been way too fast on Santa Cruz, the other islands (especially Isabela) have an untouched quality even though they have many hotels and restaurants. The uninhabited islands are pristine and some have wooden pathways built as to not disturb the vegetation. In most places the guides have done a good job telling people not to feed or disturb the animals, so they act naturally and their habits haven’t changed. There are exceptions to this, though the only one that I saw was at Tortuga Bay where I pulled out some crackers on the beach and was inundated with Darwin’s finches who have obviously been fed by humans, but this is one of the few places where you can go without a guide, as to go to all the uninhabited islands you’ll need a naturalist guide.

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All in all, my trip was fabulous – the Galapagos are truly a unique paradise. I wish I stayed longer and made it to a few more of the uninhabited islands, but when I return I surely will.



©Christina Kay Bolton


Details:

Hotels:

Galapagos Suites, Santa Cruz: http://www.galapagossuites.com/, $100-175

Casa Iguana Mar y Sol, San Cristobal: http://www.sancristobalbb.com/, $100-250

Hotel Albemarle, Isabela: http://www.hotelalbemarle.com/, $100-250

National Park:

http://www.galapagospark.org/

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Chip Albright is a self-described modern day explorer from a small town in rural Ohio. Inspired by a passion for the environment and a desire to see the world, Chip left his studies at Hocking College early to travel through Europe, the Middle East, Northern Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and eventually South and North America. He's funded his travels with a variety of different jobs -- from farming, to waiting tables, to working on a prawn boat off the coast of Western Australia for eight months-- whatever it took to get to his next destination, and he has no plans on stopping anytime soon.

 

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