I wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands for as long as I can remember. We were looking for a destination for our one-year wedding anniversary which was November 2005. The timing was just right when I got a brochure in the mail about cruises. We had a Mayan Riviera wedding in 2004, but the area was destroyed by hurricanes in early 2005, so it was not an option to return soon. We took advantage of some late-booking incentives for us to book our trip through Lindblad Expeditions for the last week in November 2005.
If you aren’t familiar with the Galapagos, it is a series of islands (consisting of about 13 main islands, plus many others), formed by volcanic activity. It is known for it’s unique animal life and beautiful scenery. The islands I have outlined below are in the order that we visited them.
To visit the Galapagos islands, you have to be with a National Park guide. There is a ratio of guide-to-visitor (1 guide for less than 15 people or so), and you have to stay near your guide. You also have to stay on the trails, which are very clearly marked. You also cannot touch anything, although if an animal comes up to you, it can touch you. The park guides can be reported if someone is breaking rules under their care, and their license will be revoked (they lose their job). If you are planning a vacation in the Galapagos Islands, do your research about what company to go with so that you can make the most of your trip.
~ ~ Getting to the Galapagos ~ ~
You generally fly into Ecuador before flying to the Galapagos. We flew into Guayaquil on American Airlines, and then flew on TAME, the airline of Ecuador, run by the military. There are two flights a day to the Galapagos.
We actually had a meal on the plane, and it was interesting to see the food options. Again, this was in 2005, so I am sure things have changed over the years!
We flew into the island Baltra, which is noticeably barren. Later on our trip, our naturalists pointed out that a lot of us had probably been surprised at how barren it looked. (I agreed.) The airport was constructed during WWII by the U.S. military (to protect the Panama Canal from enemy attack), and now it is an Ecuadorian naval base. The airport is very small, and after passing through customs, we took a very short bus ride (about 5 minutes) to the port. It was a thrill to see sea lions draped on the pier area- a very enjoyable greeting!
Like most cruise ships, we were greeted by our Zodiacs (or “pangas”), which took us in groups to our boat (the M.S. Islander).
~ ~ Bartolome ~ ~
Bartolome was the first island that we visited. It is a small volcano, which has a staircase (“summit trail”) leading up to the top that was constructed by the Park service to try to minimize erosion. There are about 370 steps, which required some exertion, but it wasn’t too bad (better than walking on volcanic dirt/rocks). At the top is the famous view of the Pinnacle rock, arguably the most photographed and recognized landmark in the Galapagos.
Bartolome is pretty barren, as it is in the rain shadow of another island, so there isn’t much vegetation. We mostly saw some lava lizards, a few cacti, and the Galapagos bonsai. Right where you get on the island, there are so many birds. We saw tons of diving boobies, pelicans, and penguins.
And of course, sea lions.
In the afternoon, we swam off the beach around Pinnacle Rock. Sea lions greeted us as we arrived at the beach in our pangas, and all afternoon, a large male played with the visitors. There were penguins in the water around the point.
~ ~ Santa Cruz – Cerro Dragon~ ~
After getting on the boat in Baltra, we took a short cruise to the northwest end of Santa Cruz, to Cerro Dragon or the Islet of Venecia. We took a Zodiac trip around the shoreline, which was rocky in spots but also consisted of mangroves. I remember seeing huge rays, lava herons, iguanas, and other birds – my first taste of the Galapagos.
~ ~ Santiago ~ ~
We went to Puerto Egas, on the western end of Santiago. You can see the remains of some old structures, none of which are inhabited. They are simply remnants from when there was an attempt at salt-mining operations. We took a path that led through the inside of the island, and returning along the shoreline. There was a lot of scrubby brush, and we saw a variety of birds.
Returning along the shore, we saw a sampling of sea lions, marine iguanas, and more. This island was overrun with goats – at one point, over 100,000 – and it caused incredible destruction on the island.
~ ~ Santa Cruz ~ ~
Our boat anchored in Academy Bay outside of Puerto Ayora, which is the biggest town in the Galapagos, with a population of about 15,000. This is the second largest island, and the town is located on the southern end.
Our tour operator had buses waiting for us to take us to the highlands of Santa Cruz, to a tortoise preserve. We hiked about an hour in from the trailhead to see the tortoises. Along the way, we saw a variety of birds. The trail opened into a muddy field where there were several tortoises. The tortoises were “shy” – they did not move around and we were told to move slowly around them. They often pulled their heads into their shells but would look out again. To take photos with the tortoises, we were told to slowly move up behind the tortoises, outside of their peripheral vision. Makes for some wonderful photos!
On the way out of the preserve, there was a tortoise in the road that our guide had to get out and move (it was fairly small). We headed up the road to a lava tunnel that stretched ¼ mile. Most people in our group ended up backing out, but it was not very difficult, nor was it claustrophobic.
The tunnel opened up to an open-air restaurant of Miguel Angel Arias. The views from the highlands are gorgeous, as this is a high humidity area and covered in lush vegetation (as opposed to many of the other islands that were clearly reflecting the effects of the dry season). There is also a lot of farming in this area, so you see lots of farm animals as well as cattle egrets (white birds scattered in the agricultural fields).
~ ~ Santa Cruz – Puerto Ayora ~ ~
In the afternoon on Santa Cruz, we visited Puerto Ayora. This is definitely a tourist town, and we walked around to do some tourist shopping. There are plenty of shops and this is definitely one of the places to stock up on souvenirs. We bought lots of t-shirts, and there are several jewelry shops (I bought probably a dozen pair of silver earrings in the form of various Galapagos wildlife for Christmas gifts).
This is also the location of the Charles Darwin Research Station. We skipped this because we were tight on time and wanted to see the town, but it is where Lonesome George is housed. Some of our group went, said they couldn’t really see Lonesome George (as he was on the far end of the exhibit), but saw some interesting things, and also picked up some nice souvenirs (t-shirts, etc.). In retrospect, although we were told it wasn’t great, I wish we had gone.
~ ~ North Seymour ~ ~
We took a trail on the southern shore, which was very rocky and basically consisted of boulder-hopping. There are an amazing amount of birds nesting on this island. This island is a nesting site for birds like blue-footed boobies, magnificent frigate birds, and swallow-tail gulls.
There was a very noticeable amount of guano (bird poop) on this island – it seemed like just about every surface was covered! There were birds flying everywhere and you could hear so many vocalizations.
~ ~ Isabela ~ ~
On our third day, we crossed the Equator at night and anchored off Volcan Ecuador, a shield volcano. The ocean areas around here are rich with marine life due to the Equatorial counter current (or the “Cromwell Current”). We kept our eyes open all morning, but unfortunately did not see anything (dolphins, etc.). Our first trip to the islands was to Punta Vicenta Roca in the Zodiacs. There was a large cave-like structure along the coast, and we followed the shore in the Zodiacs. We saw lots of sea turtles, as well as birds on the rocks. A little further out, one group on the Zodiacs saw a mola mola – a giant sunfish. Our two Zodiacs followed the enormous fin that would pop out of the water, and one of the guides jumped out with an underwater video camera. He got some great footage of the Mola Mola, which is an amazing creature.
Later, we snorkeled off the Zodiacs closer to the shore. There were lots of sea turtles, grazing on vegetation.
This was also the only place I had a chance to see a marine iguana swimming in the water. This is a rarity, as they are one of the shyer animals (at least while in the water).
The iguana had been on the rocks and was knocked into the water by a wave, so although he was in a hurry to get back on the rocks, it was cool to swim in the water with one!
~ ~ Fernandina ~ ~
We took a short hike on Fernandina, which historically erupts every few years- one of the most active volcanoes in the world. It is also considered the most pristine and youngest island in the Galapagos.
There were so many marine iguanas here, piled up in groups.
We walked on the pahoehoe lava, which are “ropey”-looking and have spots of cacti growing up through cracks.
Our Anniversary on Fernandina!
~ ~ Southern Isabela – Sierra Negra Volcano~ ~
On the island of Isabela is Sierra Negra – a volcano which recently erupted in October 2005. We embarked on the island at Puerto Villamil, the second largest town in the Galapagos, at a population of 1,600. There were trucks waiting for us with benches in the back, and we took a ride up to the trailhead. From here, we hiked almost 8 miles round trip to the rim of the volcano. The trail is continuously ascending, and is very dusty. We went in dry weather, but had it been rainy, the trail would have been really muddy. Along the trail are several viewpoints, and guava trees line the trail. There is not much wildlife along the trail, I think we may have seen a bird or two and that was it. When we got to the top, we were still quite far from the eruption site, but you could see where it was still smoking.
The caldera is absolutely enormous, with nothing in it (no water or vegetation), and the vegetation around it had been scorched by the heat of the volcano. By the time I reached the top of the volcano, I pretty much looked like a coal miner. I wasn’t that thrilled with the time spent getting closer to the eruption site, and I would recommend spending time only to get to the rim (we probably spent an hour hiking along the rim, and it just wasn’t worth it). Other groups took horses, which was also really dusty, and not always for the faint at heart, as the horses scurry along the edges of the rim!
~ ~ Southern Isabela – Puerto Villamil~ ~
After hiking to the edge of Sierra Negra, we showered and changed on the boat, as we were absolutely covered in volcanic dust. We then went back to Puerto Villamil to explore the town.
There is not a whole lot to explore here, as the town is extremely small. There were just a few shops, which were very small. One of the shops we went into, there were women sewing stuffed animals by hand. The town seemed pretty poor, and consists of sandy streets and just a few streets worth of buildings.
We met up with our group to go to a Charles Darwin Research Station tortoise rearing station. There are several large enclosures with tortoises of different ages. There are a few very large tortoises, and then other enclosures with quite a few smaller tortoises, including some “hutch”-like structures with baby tortoises. It is good news that this is a highly successful breeding program, especially when you consider that the tortoises were on the brink of extinction.
We took a short trail to the wetlands area, where there is a boardwalk trail. The wetlands are very salty, with either a crusty-layer of salt over the water, or dried areas of thick salt. We saw several species of birds, including flamingoes.
~ ~ Floreana ~ ~
Our first stop on Floreana was at the famous Post Office Barrel.
The barrel is just a stone’s throw from the shore. This is a very famous spot where mail was swapped, back into whaling days. Our guides grabbed the postcards out of the barrel and started reading the cities they were addressed to. If you were headed that way, you would take the postcard. (They are not stamped). I left several postcards, and sure enough, it took one week for a postcard to get to Vermont, and another just over a week to get to New York! Just as we were told, this process was faster and cheaper than the postal service! Make sure to bring some addresses with you, and buy some postcards along the way so that you can mail them!
Then we headed to Champion Islet for snorkeling off the Zodiacs.
We saw a variety of sea life, including rays, starfish, and playful sea lions.
Our boat took us to Punta Cormorant – despite the name, there are no cormorants here. We took a nature walk across the island to a beach, famous for nesting sea turtles. The beach was very picturesque, and there were a lot of tourists here. About halfway through the trail, there is a large salt pond where several flamingoes reside.
~ ~ Española ~ ~
Our last full day, we spent at Española (or “Hood Island”), the south-easternmost island, also the oldest. In the morning, my husband went deep-water snorkeling at the islet of Tortuga.
He said it was the coldest of all the snorkeling we had done, but he saw quite a bit of marine life- schools of fish, puffers, diamond rays, and more.
I spent my time on the beach at Gardner Bay while he snorkeled. This was a very enjoyable morning for me, as there were lots of sea lions on the beach (including many babies). The babies were so cute – I watched for a while as they played on the beach, coming up to a sand castle some little girls were building and climbing on it. Later, after I had walked up the beach and back down, one of the babies came up to me, sniffed my leg, and sat on my feet!
I took lots of photos of them, despite having already taken a week’s worth of sea lion photos! This was one of my favorite moments in the whole Galapagos trip.
This island also had many mockingbirds. The mockingbirds on the Galapagos islands are fresh-water obsessed, and chase after tourists for fresh water (they know we bring bottled water!). They flocked to my pack, but also to where they thought water might be, “stalking” other people’s backpacks.
There was one that sat on my husband’s camera bag while it was open, looking through all the compartments, likely thinking that all the shiny lenses and equipment were hiding water somewhere. The mockingbirds will sit there and scream at you for water, and also follow you around – it’s bizarre! It was such an amazing experience, especially for my last morning on the islands.
In the afternoon, we explored the westernmost point of the island, at Punta Suarez. There is quite a variety of wildlife here, and we saw plenty of blue-footed as well as Nazca boobies, and plenty of Waved Albatross. The albatross is a huge bird, and it is interesting to watch them fly as they catch the updrafts around the cliffs. I got some amazing shots of some baby albatross, boobies sitting on eggs, and some really brightly colored marine iguanas (in shades of red). There is also a “blowhole” on this island where the tide and swells meet to shoot a blast of mist in the air from a spot in the rocks.
~ ~ Disembarking ~ ~
We had our rooms cleared out Sunday morning, spent some time on board, and then loaded the Zodiacs. We took a bus back to the airport, where we did some last-minute tourist-shopping (there are lots of vendors at the airport). We boarded TAME and flew to Guayaquil. Some people unloaded, while others (including us) stayed on the plane for 1/2 hour to continue our flight to Quito. If you have a chance to visit either of these cities, it is a neat experience.
~ ~ Thoughts & Tips ~ ~
I have several things I found to be highlights of the trip, although I can’t say I had a favorite island. One of my favorite things was interacting with sea lions – snorkeling with them, and having baby sea lions come up to me. Another was swimming with sea turtles, rays, and marine iguanas. My husband’s favorite things were the snorkeling and the panga rides, especially the snorkeling at the islet of Tortuga. We both loved seeing the giant tortoises, and wish we could have spent more time there (we only stopped for about 10 minutes after hiking in). It was also awesome to see the Pinnicle point on Bartolome.
Were there low points of the trip? Among the tours, I would have passed on the lengthy Sierra Negra hike. I would so much have preferred to hike to just the rim, rather than continuing up the rim to see the eruption site better. It just wasn’t exciting, as it simply consisted of a small area that was smoking. The dust from the trail/island got all over us and my socks and clothes are stained, as well as my sneakers (same for everyone else who went).
Also, the town of Puerto Villamil was not very impressive, but I was glad to have the chance to see it. Just don’t save your shopping for it!
The water temperatures in the Galapagos are fairly cool. The warmest time of year is December to May. We went in late November and I was surprised that we had water temperatures from 68-73 degrees F. (I thought the temperatures would be lower). The water was definitely chilly and I wore the wetsuits the boat provided us on each snorkel, as did everyone else.
Our tour operator had a great schedule for us, with plenty of options. However, we didn’t want to miss a minute, and took every option, which usually meant “optional 6am outings”. We were usually in bed right after dinner, and often took naps. Try to rest up when you can!
Be sure to pick a good tour operator, and in general, plan on spending a lot of money. In 2005, cabins on our boat ranged in price from $3,650 and $6,280, per person for a 10-day trip – which really comes out to be about a week on the boat (once you factor in traveling time). Consider that costs have gone way up over the years, and do your research.
There were some pretty awful boats out there that we passed along the way. I hear that the Celebrity Expeditions is likely the biggest, nicest cruise boat in the Galapagos, but we preferred a smaller boat, with a longer trip and more time on shore. I suggest picking your most important factors, and go from there (i.e. size of boat, luxury, how many days in the Galapagos, boats that offer dives, etc.). We thought we wanted a large boat with about 40 passengers, and from there, we had a very quick decision.
~ ~ Packing List ~ ~
The most obvious thing to bring would be sunscreen, and be sure that it is reef safe. (See my post about that here). We brought some pretty high SPF’s – in the 40’s. We used a lot of it, slathering it on every day. I also recommend one of those sunscreen sticks. I bought a very high SPF Coppertone stick, and used it quite religiously. It was a little greasy, but it was great for putting on my ears (especially the tops) and face. It had great coverage especially for things like snorkeling. Our boat provided wetsuits – or “shorties” (short wetsuits). This helped keep me warmer in the water, but just about as importantly, I didn’t have to worry about sunburns on my back, shoulders, neck, etc. I don’t think it is really possible to bring one (too heavy, too bulky) but find out if your boat provides them.
Plan on taking lots of photos. This means lots of film, or lots of memory cards. Bring some underwater cameras. We had a regular digital camera with an underwater housing. Either way, we took lots of underwater shots. The sea lions swim pretty fast and are really playful, and it’s easy to go through a lot of shots trying to catch one in action!
Dramamine and ginger. Heading around the equator, we had some rough seas. Our 48-passenger boat was rocking quite a bit. I don’t get seasick, but after a few days of strong rocking (think, walking in zig-zag lines down the hallways), I needed some dramamine. Ginger pills are also supposed to be useful, and can help for after you don’t feel well.
Aloe – for when you’ve had too much sun. Maybe also a lotion – my skin was getting crispy after a week on the equator. (Something like a little jar of body butter from the body shop?)
Immodium, Pepto-B, etc. – not really for the Galapagos. You’re supposed to stay away from any non-bottled water in Ecuador (e.g. Quito, Guayaquil), but regardless, you never know when something doesn’t agree with you, and you don’t need it to ruin your trip.
I always recommending bringing your own snorkel and mask, if possible. There was no way I was bringing my fins, but bringing your own mask guarantees that it will fit your face well and that you’ll have an enjoyable snorkeling experience. Personally, I find spit works as well as the anti-fog solution, but if you feel you need it, bring it. Remember, if you get a brand new snorkel mask, you need to scrub the inside of the lens with something like toothpaste to remove the coating that comes from the factory.
Bring a variety of clothes – swimwear, shorts, tank tops, jeans/pants for at night and in cooler weather, some kind of pullover/windbreaker/sweater, etc. I also brought sandals and trailrunning shoes. We had wet landings (get out of the Zodiac into water) where I pulled off my sandals, and dry landings (right onto land) where I wore my shoes. Good water shoes are a must (we are a fan of these Neosport water shoes, which have thick soles).
There are a variety of activities on the islands that call for various gear. And don’t forget a hat to protect from the sun and wind!
Check out my other Safety Tips for Traveling Abroad.
~ ~ Overall ~ ~
My trip to the Galapagos Islands was downright amazing. I loved every moment and it was an amazing experience. I think everyone on our trip had a great time, ranging from couples to people of all ages. This was a trip of a lifetime and it was definitely incredible.