Galapagos Islands holiday report

by on 11th October, 2013

Heading to Galapagos Islands

The second part of a brilliant and in-depth blog from Andean Trails’ travellers Jane and Greg Windsor, who spent four fantastic weeks in glorious Ecuador.

We are in the Galapagos Islands today, with Quito featured last week and Amazon and horse riding to follow, with photos on Facebook too:


Jane and Greg write:

“The Galapagos islands are situated about 1,000km west of mainland Ecuador on the equator and as we flew across the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean we felt extremely excited and were full of anticipation knowing that we were going to a unique, remote and remarkable place in the world which has featured in so many books, documentaries, films and in history, and a dream destination for us to visit ‘one day’.

It was now about to become a reality and we could only hope that it would live up to our expectations.

Staying in the Galapagos is like being on a daily wildlife show from the time you open your eyes until the time you go to bed …. on land, in the sky and in the sea. Each island is unique with its own landscape, climate, vegetation and teeming with animals, marine and bird life. The islands provided the foundation and evidence that shaped and supported Darwin’s theory of evolution.

We swerved around wild giant tortoises on our mountain bikes as they ambled across the tracks, necks outstretched to greet us; tumbled underwater with playful, inquisitive young sea lions; watched tiny penguins darting around and shooting through balls of fish, chasing small breakaway groups in crystal clear water; sought out white tip reef sharks hiding in lava tunnels; watched marine iguanas swimming elegantly amongst the mangroves with their heads held high and sunning themselves by draping over the black volcanic rock, heaps of them piled on top of each other as they played ‘I’m the King of the Castle’.


Sea lions

In the Lobos Channel, we experienced one of our most special moments of all time with our close-up encounter with baby sea lions who mimicked our every move with ease and fun – each twist, turn, butterfly stroke, dive and dolphin leg kick. We did not want to get too close and interfere with the marine wildlife but the sea lions did not listen to our briefing on the boat and would dart up to our masks at high speed, press their noses against them, look straight into our eyes and then disappear as quickly as they came.

They were like playful, sociable underwater puppies frolicking in and out of the water, playing ‘chase’, picking up shells from the bottom of the ocean, grasping the rope tied to the boat’s life ring with their teeth and towing it. They would also tease us by swimming up from an unanticipated direction, touch us and then swim off. This incredible experience will remain as an everlasting, magical memory.

Sea lion swimming Punta Espinosa Galapagos

Sea lion swimming Punta Espinosa Galapagos


Kicker Rock

Leon Dormido is made up of several magnificent rocks (also known as Kicker Rock) which stand tall in the ocean, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, except that it also forms part of the Galapagos archipelago of volcanic islands. It is a snorkelling haven and we were lucky to experience clear visibility as we snorkelled along the steep rock face and through several channels between the rocks.

We encountered many giant sea turtles; hammerhead sharks; sea cucumbers; sea urchins; spotted rays flapping their wings slowly and gracefully; schools of colourful fish; Galapagos sharks parading up and down the wall for opportunistic afternoon tea in the deep dark blue, disturbed a few large sea lions which were sleeping peacefully on their backs with their flippers in the air; and several, loose bait balls of smaller fish. Bright scarlet red and ink black crabs adorned the rocks as they scurried up and down the tide mark over and around the numerous barnacles.


Galapagos tortoises

We are privileged to have seen the Galapagos giant tortoises as some were on the verge of extinction several years ago. They now spend the first four years of their lives in a training ‘garage’ as part of a breeding programme before they are released to the wild. They are vulnerable little creatures before they are large enough in size and their outer shell is hard enough to withstand attack from their many predators in the big wide world. The neck, pattern and shape of the carapace helps to distinguish the species and/or gender.

The tortoises look like they have come from a different era, living up to their reptilian ancestry with facial expressions which would not win a beauty contest. They have powerful jaws which rip through the vegetation and their table manners do not show any etiquette. The tiny, baby, quirky-looking tortoises have white numbers painted on their shells and they look and act like fairground bumper cars.


Bird life in the Galapagos

Different types of Galapagos mockingbirds are in abundance on the various islands and distinct differences exist from one island to another between the birds. We saw them on all the islands, living close-by and in harmony with the various species of tortoises. Galapagos mockingbirds are not mimics like other mockingbirds, instead they are more aggressive towards other birds and often seen running rather than flying, which has led them to being compared to road-runners.

We witnessed this as we watched them around the tortoises. We soon learned that as long as we placed ‘Galapagos’ and the name of the island in front of whatever species we were currently looking at then we had probably correctly identified the species and could make out that we were ‘experts’ in all the islands’ flora and fauna.

High up in the mountains on San Cristobal, we visited craters formed by volcanic air pockets which had collapsed. The mountains have their own micro climate, often with misty, fine rain. We climbed onto our bikes and rode 400 metres downhill along corrugated, bone shaking, rutted, off road tracks to the Primicias ranch where wild tortoises roam in the bush, eating, hiding and bathing in green, stagnant, slimy water. We also visited lava tunnels by crawling through the entrance and wondered at the powerful force of these creations of nature. As we exited the caves, a cute, tiny owl peered down at us from his perch, sleepy and slightly grumpy at being disturbed.


Red Footed Booby Genovesa Galapagos

Red Footed Booby Genovesa Galapagos


Manta rays

We spotted hundreds of four metre wide manta rays as they displayed to each other by raising their wing tips, flying through the water and breaching; observed effortlessly gliding giant turtles and swam with one as it turned its head sideways and gazed at us with those gentle, soulful eyes; spotted large red splashes of colour as fork tailed frigate birds blew up their party balloon throat sacks to attract their mates; and we watched shearwaters as they skimmed just above the swell; and then watched as the surface of the dark, glassy sea turned into a boiling pot of frenzied activity as small fish were chased upwards from underneath and then fell prey to a flock of shearwaters diving for breakfast.

We quietly ambled up to blue footed boobies as they performed their dancing ritual where they were apparently trying out a new John Travolta move by nodding their heads, shaking their shoulders and repeatedly lifting one then the other webbed foot in the air. Greg could learn a move or two from them!


Travelling around

Travelling between islands by public boat was an adventure and continuation of the wildlife tour. We saw hundreds of dolphins somersaulting, surfing and leaping over the waves, turtles and sea lions popping up their heads to say hello. Crossings were typically 80 km in 2-3 hours so that at times we could only see the tops of volcanoes. The transfers made us feel isolated, insignificant and a mere drop in the ocean. They reminded us that we were in the vast Pacific Ocean. We arrived at a new island by passing over a shallow reef and then being transferred to low, wobbly, small water taxis which chugged to shore.

As we arrived back at San Cristobal island, a sea lion was sitting on the skipper’s seat of a local speed boat and its passengers were its friends and family, all of them looking and smelling like they had eaten too many fish. On land, sea lions took up residence on children’s slides, on the delightfully located wooden benches under shelters looking out to sea on the front promenade, or at the fishermen’s table where the fishermen gutted and prepared fish for selling. One of the wiser and more experienced sea lions stood up on its hind feet, laid its head on the bench top waiting for tasty scraps, closing its eyes with contentment while an entourage of pelicans formed a ‘hokey kokey’ party ring behind, waddling forwards and then backwards as the men tried to shoo the birds away.


Anthropological footprints

We were reminded of the remoteness and harsh landscape of a part of Isabella island through different eyes by visiting the penal colony, the ‘Wall of Tears’ which was originally a US radar base in World War II, converted to a prison by Ecuadorian prisoners themselves. In a mass breakout, escaping prisoners were shot and out of 300 prisoners, 100 died.

En route back from the wall, shocking pink flamingos with black wings flew over us like flying broom handles, giant tortoises wandered lazily across the road, many endemic species of flora were pointed out to us including four different types of mangrove (black, yellow, red and berry) which formed a natural passageway which wound its way down to the beach, and the celebrated Galapagos finches all brought us back to the incredible beauty and unique features of the vegetation and wildlife which drew Darwin to the islands.


Iguanas and volcanoes

Los Tintoreras islets provided us with another marine and wildlife extravaganza. Iguana land-based nursery school was extremely busy with thousands being trained in the first principles of survival – using black (albeit spikey and sharp) volcanic rock in order to warm up and how being in a big crowd is safer. In the sea surrounding the islets, numerous white tip reef sharks formed a procession as they patrolled up and down the waterways, waiting patiently for dinner.

One day, we walked up the Sierra Negra volcano, which has a crater which is approximately 7km wide, and then onto Chico which is an active volcano and last erupted in 2005 and before that in 1979. We passed through a lush, bountiful region where tropical fruits and vegetables grow in abundance. As we moved towards the crater rim, the vegetation changed to smaller trees, then shrubs and grasses and then to a desolate lunar landscape where only a few cactuses grow.

There is a marked change in colour of the harsh rock from red to black showing the newer and older lava flows respectively. The rock is gnarly with fumaroles (which would have emitted steam and gases), lava tunnels and fissures (fractures or cracks in rock providing a vent through which lava erupts, usually without any explosive activity). It was sobering to be on an active volcano, staring into its black holes and actually witnessing the evidence of the immensity and power of nature.


Marine iguana profile Galapagos

Marine iguana, Galapagos


The inhabited islands of the Galapagos

We visited three islands in the Galapagos: San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabella. San Cristobal is sleepy, quaint and tranquil and Isabella had the same attributes but is less inhabited and felt more remote. We loved both of them, although Isabella had a more magical feel about it, an idyllic island with a few hints of paradise, or, maybe we had just settled into relaxed holiday mode as we had amazing but different experiences on both. Accommodation on San Cristobal and Isabella islands was very special – tiny boutique hotels overlooking the bay or right on the beach. We were treated like a king and queen, being given the most gorgeous rooms, always with a wonderful sea view from which we could hear the waves and watch the stunning sunsets over the ocean.

One evening we watched pelicans spectacularly dive bombing for supper with wings folded and then bobbing to the surface with mouths full. They would take off and fly a circuit, slowly climbing until they could dive again, always approaching from the same direction.


Charles Darwin Station

Santa Cruz is the main island and is busier, more developed and developing. This has resulted in a more bustling and more ‘happening’ town with more up-market accommodation, more shops, more tourists and nightly street food markets which attracts the locals. Here, a visit to the Charles Darwin Station is fascinating and informative. It is also sad as, like everywhere we go, it reminds us of the impact humans have on this earth.

The activities and sights were not as special as on the other islands, although kayaking out through the reef and then through to a natural lagoon was exciting. We were able to do this because we are experienced paddlers whilst others in the group remained close to shore and hugged the mangroves. On this trip we saw a lonely, injured, footless seal lion which looked like it had been attacked by a shark.


Lava tunnels

Back on Isabella island, the Tunnels of Cape Rose was our last destination. We crossed the treacherous reef, timing our entrance between big breakers and arriving in a lagoon with a labyrinth of lava tunnels and sparkling clear waterways. Some of the tunnels were fully submerged while others formed bridges for us to cross.

There were also intact tunnels above the surface. In the midst of the hot, dry lava, looking down into the water, we watched in awe of nature as, in one moment, a white tip reef shark, giant turtle and sea lion all swam quietly by, seemingly living in harmony. We headed to another bay where we again snorkelled and saw what now seemed like the norm: spotted eagle rays, sharks, turtles, sea lions and penguins.

A last minute dash to a lake gave us a final striking sight of pink flamingos with their reflection perfectly formed doubling the impact. Instead of seeing them in flight, this time they were perched on one leg with their necks folded backwards and forwards in a contortionist fashion and their heads tucked into their salmon pink feathers. Every so often one would unravel its neck, bend down and feed, somehow maintaining its balance.

We returned to Santa Cruz and caught a ‘ute’ taxi and then a ferry to the very small island of Baltra which is a stone’s throw from Santa Cruz and where the ‘biggest’ airport is located. We sadly made our way to the plane and bid farewell to the Galapagos Islands, feeling lucky to have had such a memorable, fun time.

We’ll be serialising more from Jane and Greg in the coming weeks.

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