South America 2019 -Part Two-Galapagos Island

Part Two – The Galapagos Islands – UNESCO Heritage Site

  • Situated in the Pacific Ocean – 1000km from the Ecuadorian coast of South America,
  • Approx. 30,000 people live on the islands which make up the Galapagos Marine Reserve.
  • In 1959, approx. 97% of the emerged surface was declared a National Park.

Leaving Quito, we fly to Seymour Ecological Airport, where all travellers pass through an inspection point to ensure no foreign plants or animal matter are introduced to the island.  A guide was to meet us and drive us to the harbour.  When we arrived, we had to wait for our bags to be inspected and headed outside the terminal. There was a multitude of buses waiting and guides hustling everyone aboard.  We met up with a couple of guys from London whom we found out were going on the same catamaran we were on. We had our tickets and headed for the bus that looked like ours. He took our tickets and hoarded us on the bus. We took off on a bumpy, lengthy drive to the water’s edge. They then hurried us all onto a ferry, hurtling all our bags onto the roof. This all looked a bit dodgy, but everyone seemed to be going with the flow. The ferry boat was very crowded, and it stopped when we were about halfway across the waterway.

Someone passed by everyone asking for a couple of dollars to keep going. It was at this point that we were getting a little worried. We had no cash, so our newly acquainted friends kindly paid for us. The boat continued and pulled up at a jetty, where everyone alighted. No signs and no instruction came our way. Most of the travellers headed off to a bus waiting nearby. We were sure this was not where we should be. Everyone up untill now spoke no English, but we approached a female guide who indicated we were in the wrong place. She would fix it for us and told us to wait on the dock and not go with anyone else.  So, we waited, and we waited. We could not get any reception on our phones, so after discussing together, we approached what looked like a security person mingling with a few suspicious-looking gentlemen around a simple timber structure. He spoke very little English but said he would try to call someone. I am not sure how long we waited, but eventually, a second ferry arrived and shuttled us on board. Again, halfway across, they stopped to collect more money. I am guessing they would toss us in the water if we did not pay.  Arriving at the dock again, they indicated a bus would take us back to the airport. The only problem was we had no ticket for the bus to return, so we had to pay again.  At long last, we unloaded back at the airport and were approached by a guy holding a sign with the name of our catamaran on it. He had been waiting there the whole time.  We breathed a heavyy sigh of relief and eagerly jumped onto the correct bus this time.

A short bus drive to the waters’ edge, and we could see our catamaran “The Archipell” safely anchored, waiting for us to board. We were happily greeted by the other guests (two other couples) who had been patiently waiting for the lost party to arrive. The boat was extremely comfortable and beautifully outfitted, and a friendly and experienced crew was looking after us.  That afternoon we settled into our room, chatted with the other guests, and waited for the chef to prepare our dinner. The weather was superb, and the ocean was serene.  A few drinks, an excellent meal and a few more drinks before we settled down to a peaceful sleep to the rhythm of the sea lapping on the sides of the hull.

While we were sound asleep, the crew were in full force travelling and preparing for our first destination.  After a great breakfast, we were allocated our respective inflatable dinghy and started on our journey along the eastern arm of the caldera of Genovesa Island, shouldering the massive 80ft high walls. Landing on a natural platform of rock, we are led up the  Prince Phillip Steps, a steep climb to reach the plateau of the crater. We could see and hear the birds overhead, but nothing prepared us for the experience of standing on the surface of  natural and unspoilt land.

The birds and animals that inhabit were in abundance. I had been hoping to get just a glimpse of something rare but ended up overwhelmed by the sheer number of birds we could see in a matter of minutes. Our first sightings were that of the silky black feathers of the male Frigate bird contrasted by his vibrant red pouch. The sheer size of these birds soaring through the air is magnificent. Then, sitting and watching the intricate antics the male and female exhibit while mating is quite captivating.  Cameras clicked feverishly, thinking this may be our only opportunity. We crept behind the guard, ensuring we stayed on the crude track to avoid disturbing anything. Amazingly we came across a pair of blue-footed Boobies courting each other on the trail. Their ritual is unique; the male lifting his blue webbed feet up and down, waiting for a response, arching, and spreading their wings high over the back, they dance for the female’s attention. They are oblivious of the mere humans standing nearby, this is their turf, and they are not to be disturbed.

We were mesmerised and could have stood there for hours. With more to see, we moved on. Glancing to my right, I saw what looked like a colourful statue of an Iguana. It was within a few feet, maybe two feet long, with a sizeable scaley body. The colour was multiple browns, gold, and yellow. No scurrying away as we stooped to photograph; he just stood, looked at us, and waited for us to move on. This was his land, and we were passing through. Everywhere we looked, there was something to catch your eye. More  Nazca Boobies, red, blue, and grey footed, some mating, and many were resting and watching. We came across more Frigates, iguanas and lizards and then, as the area opened a little more, we saw the Cormorants, little Finches, and a few colourful insects. A rough sandy beach stretched between the scrub and the rocks, with the sea spray from the ocean heralding the rocky surface. To our surprise, there was a small colony of fur Seals idling away the day, lazing in the sun and playing in the ocean. More birds, too many to name flew overhead as we started our return journey.

Heading back to the steps to our waiting dinghy was full of thoughts of what we had been privileged to see. The crew were ready and waiting. A light lunch was devoured, and the prospect of seeing all the wonders of the sea below was ahead. Our boat was heading to Darwin Bay. First, the adventurous would be kayaking in the calm and pristine waters surrounding us. I forego this exercise as I did not think I could manage to get in and out of the kayaks. Ken braved it, and with the guides close behind, they all took off briskly, gliding through the water with ease. We waited and watched as they faded from sight. Eventually, returning at what I felt was a much slower pace. Watching their manoeuvre as they pulled closer to the boat, we saw some exhausted and sore bodies. The next challenge, at least for me, was to try my hand at snorkelling. I have never done this before, but I was determined to give it a go. Once again, the guides were so patient and helpful that it was no time before I had it mastered and was transcended to another place. It is stunning to observe a whole world where there appears to be no sense of time passing.  My only regret, there were no photos to be able to show the absolute beauty and intrigue of what is just beneath the surface. We all returned to the boat to settle down with a glass of wine, a beautiful sunset, a nourishing three-course meal and a well-earned sleep—what a way to finish our day.  If we had to go home right then, we would have been happy, but this was day one with two more full days to come.

Day two – A Day to learn and explore

Bartolome Island, named after Sir Bartholomew James Sullivan, a friend of Charles Darwin, is one of the archipelago’s most visited islands. We landed across a small bay opposite what is known as Pinnacle Rock, a small volcanic cone. Ahead is a 600-metre trail to the summit, some 114 metres up a wooden staircase. Looking up is pretty daunting; however, as you move up the stairway, accompanied by a knowledgeable guide, you are given a running commentary of the plant life, the lizards, and geological wonders along the way. It helps keep you preoccupied and a little more capable of moving onward and upward. I am grateful there was no pressure to hurry and much encouragement to keep going. Reaching the summit is worth the effort. The feeling of accomplishment is substantial, and the view is phenomenal. Looking back down to a panorama of the entire archipelago is a site to behold. The isolation, untouched beauty and the bright blue the ocean gently lapping the rugged volcanic rock is very easy on the eyes.  The walk back down was a lot easier but still lengthy, so we were all ready for some refreshments. We returned to the catamaran for another array of delicious snacks and beverages.

 Sullivan Bay on Santiago Island was our next stop. It is the youngest of the islands. Geologically it is a volcano islet born out of fire. When stepping on what appears to be a lifeless stretch of rock, one imagines stepping onto the surface of the moon. It looks barren and eerie. The lava flow formations are varied and can look like twisted ropes or giant seashells with swirls on their back. There were broken rocks that resembled petrified wood with circular rings covering the surface. Walking on the surface is safe but tricky as we noticed where the rocks were severed like in an earthquake, and one could see a range of colours deep in the crevices.  There are huge hidden holes, and jagged areas butting up against smooth flowing waterfalls of rock.  We were wrong in thinking it was a lifeless area as it was alive with various plant life and cactus peering out from among the shiny lava. An occasional lizard would scurry past. We came across a beautiful piece of white driftwood sitting on the black rock, a photographer’s paradise.

 We then headed to the beach area for a refreshing swim and a wander along the shore. If you are lucky, you will see the Galapagos giant tortoise heading out from the ocean to their hiding place in the shrubs. Unfortunately, we missed them, but we did see the tracks in the sand on their morning escape to the water’s edge. We also saw a couple of cute lava lizards sun-baking on the rocks. We watched a mother-and-child penguin playing in the water close to the shore.  For the next hour, we passed the time by photographing various crabs, frolicking, fighting, building, and resting all over the sand and rocks. Stunning to watch the varying colours of bright reds, vivid orange and mixed burgundy and purple running quickly in and out of the rocks. They range in size from thumbnails to ones larger than the width of your hand. It is captivating to watch the complex behaviour of each one. 

That afternoon we stayed on the boat and mingled with the other seven couples. Four of us were leaving the next day, so a slap-up dinner was being prepared for us all. While relaxing on the deck with a much-needed beer, we watched overhead as several  Albatross showed us the way, dipping and swerving perfectly with the boat’s movements.

On our last morning, the boat took us to Isla Santa Cruz. We sadly said our goodbyes to those lucky enough to stay longer and headed for our tour bus, which would take us to The Van Straelen Exhibition Centre. Here we visited the breeding and rearing centre for young and adult Galapagos giant tortoises in captivity. The centre provides opportunities to observe 11 subspecies of tortoises up close. In the rearing centre, hatchlings are nurtured and, when possible, released, around four years old,  back onto their home islands. Those that cannot be released will find their home at the centre with the adult tortoises. We were able to visit Lonesome George, estimated at 100 to 150 years old.  Our time here was over, and the bus took us back to the dinghy, where we made our last boat trip back to the Seymour Ecological Airport. Our luggage had been sent ahead, and our guides once again looked after our transfers, tickets, and flights.  We had nothing to do but marvel over the last four days.  I would love to say this was the highlight of our trip, but I would be mistaken as we still had so much more to see. What I will say is go if you can. There are several ways to stay and see the Galapagos Islands, and I can safely say whichever you choose would be worth it. It is an extraordinary experience.

I hope you have enjoyed our trip so far. Next we visit Peru-Lima, The Incas and Machu Picchu

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