Holy Galapagos Part 1: Pure Amazingnesswondermenttastic (wonder beyond words)

Note: This is a long post, and one of two, but the Galapagos were amazing and deserve it! Also, yes I am falling a bit behind at this point, I blame the lack of decent upload speeds and the past five days spent without internet in the jungle. More on that once I catch up. 

My jaw was dropped the entire two weeks we spent in Galapagos.

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Exhibit 1: Jaw dropping
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A land iguana eating a cactus. My favorite pic of the trip.

And I grew up in Alaska, so it takes a lot for nature to completely wow me. But the Galapagos is hands down the most interesting place I’ve ever been for experiencing wildlife and nature. I can’t recommend going here enough, and it is easy enough to do with a two week US vacation.

The Galapagos are a chain of young islands about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. There are 18 main islands, 3 small islands and 17 rocks and islets. The youngest islands are still in the process of formation. The chain is famous for Charles Darwin’s visit, and the basis for some of his discoveries relating to the theory of evolution. But they also have a sordid and fascinating past including penal colonies, and some rather interesting early characters, read more here and here.

Every day brought an new animal, most in abundance and endemic to the Galapagos. We saw a newborn sea lion pup, not yet able to see (a few days old) trying to find his way to his mom’s milk; hundreds of birds not yet able to fly, still being guarded in their nests; giant tortoises that weighed more than me and were more than 100 years old (they live to 150); multiple species caught in the act of reproducing (i.e. we saw bird and turtle sex, they weren’t shy); iguanas EVERYWHERE (or as Miles K calls them, dinasours); a lone Galapagos penguin; dolphins dancing off the bow of our boat; sharks resting within a few feet while snorkeling and diving; manta and spotted eagle rays; we got lost in a school of fish – the sea becoming a blackout; and dozens more unforgettable experiences. The animals aren’t afraid of people, and the islands have put in good controls to keep it this way. For example, you cannot visit most sites without a guide to oversee your interaction.

Here are just a few pics of the above, click to enlarge (minus dive pics below, and dolphins which I also didn’t have camera on hand when they swam by our boat). Full photo album coming with better internet.

There are two ways to see the Galapagos, via sea or land. Given that tourist boats in the Galapagos are either all diving or land/snorkeling, we figured we would get there a few days early and do some day dive trips.

I arrived in Quito, Ecuador a day earlier than Steven and started searching for boat options. Booking last minute from Ecuador (Quito, Guayaquil, or Puerto Ayoro in the Galapagos) comes with a large discount, but you have to be flexible, and can’t expect your first choice boat or route to be available. Luckily one of the boats I was recommended (thanks Facebookers for the help!) was available on a good route (the Northern route, which goes to many places inaccessible by land) leaving in about eight days. It would allow us to get to La Paz just in time to meet our cousin Ben. Once Steven arrived, we started the three day fun of international wire transfers, but eventually we got the cruise paid for and booked. Note that everywhere seems to have a surcharge for using credit cards, so if you are doing this trip and plan to book a boat, bring large sums of US cash. Ecuador uses the US Dollar, so it is easy.

Quito was fine, but after a day we were ready to move on, so we decided on a Saturday evening to book the next available flight in the morning. That left us with a full week to explore on land. We were a bit worried at how much time we set aside for a single location (two weeks), but it turned out to be perfect, and I could have been happy exploring for another week on the two other inhabited islands we didn’t make it to.

Our flight, like most mainland flights landed in Baltra, an island with about nothing on it. A bus, ferry, and another bus later, and we arrived at a hostel outside of Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galapagos (pop: 20,000). About 15 years ago, the Ecuadorian government wisely put a stop to immigration to the island, so now the only way it grows is through marriage and birth. This also means that the ship crews and guides are for the vast majority local.

Our first stop was the highly recommended Scuba Iguana to book some dives. Steven choosing advanced diving with the hammerheads at Gordon’s Rock, and me opting for Santa Fe on an easier dive. I had decent visibility and a good dive.

Steven indeed saw hammerheads and other big wildlife, more on his blog.

Unfortunately Scuba Iguana was booked up for the rest of the week (we read to book diving in advance, and found out the hard way it was true). So we found another operator for Wednesday and did Daphne Minor. The first dive was pure crap, both visibility and wildlife, but on the second dive we saw sharks, got lost in a school of fish, saw a giant manta, turtles, and sea lions. It was the most exciting dive I’ve ever done. On the dive boat we met Steve, a recent retiree from Utah who gave us some suggested we next spend a few days on Isabela and gave us some helpful recommendations.

Here are some of the diving pics:

Isabela is the youngest and largest island in the Galapagos, but only has 2,000 residents. Streets aren’t paved and everything is walkable. We spent substantial time in hammocks. One day we rented bikes and went to the Wall of Tears, learning the fascinating history of the island, where a former penal colony filled with convicts and political prisoners were mistreated until they overthrew the guards and attempted an escape. The hostel Steve from Utah recommended was booked (Hostel Janet) and looked great. We ran into the owner of a nearby Hostel in the street and ended up with a perfectly functional two bed/two bath hostel room, ideal for us, on the third floor with views. While it wasn’t the cleanest place, and suffered from some rust, it was a great price for the location and space and we had a good time enjoying the Hostel bar on the beach, Bar Beto. You don’t have to spend a lot to enjoy the Galapagos, this was our most expensive hotel – two bedroom for $45 US.  Isabela is the kind of place that you never really check in and we didn’t pay or leave a credit card until the day before we left. Such a welcome change from Colombia, where we were held hostage at checkout with each hotel checking our room before we were allowed to check out.

On Isabela, we snorkeled, visited the best tortoise breeding center in the islands, watched incredible sunsets, and relaxed. As much as I wanted to visit the cute beach bars, I was usually in bed by 9 pm, a cycle I couldn’t break while in the islands (and was correspondingly up around 5:30 or 6 am). I blame it on the awful coffee.

Here are a few pics summing up our time on Isabela:

We only made it to two of the four populated islands, and in hindsight there were a few more day tours we would have liked to have done (hiking up to volcanos, and other dives). If you are going on a boat trip, make sure to leave some time on land. Only one other couple on our boat spent time on land, it seemed like most flew in and out and only were on the boat. Without some time on land, and some diving, you’re missing half the attraction.

Next up: We’re on a Boat! Our 8 days on the Nemo II catamaran.

Know if you go:

Flights: Arrive via Quito or Guyaquil, there are no direct international flights. There is a $20 fee from the mainland, and a $100 national park fee on arrival. National currency is USD, so you can get dollars at the airport, but make sure to have cash on arrival for the fee. Flights are expensive, generally $500 RT from Ecuador. Our one way from Galapagos to La Paz were nearly $800. If you are tight on time, do every possible second in the Galapagos. Don’t leave extra time in the mainland.

Inter-island travel: There are economical “ferries” between the populated islands. However, note it isn’t a public ferry boat, it is a series of small private boats. Make sure you know what you are getting when you book. Our ride there involved a packed to the gills 22 person boat, with someone basically in my lap vomiting most the journey. We paid $30 for the pleasure. Given the return boat was at 6 am, and went to Puerto Ayora, meaning it would be followed by another hour to get to Baltra, I opted to add a new airline to my list and take the 9 person puddle jumper, so small a passenger sat in the co-pilot seat ($160, but plan on paying for extra luggage, additional $20 for my main bag). It was unfortunately cloudy much of the way, otherwise it would have been a good flight seeing trip. It was well worth it to avoid the 5 am wake up and vomit.

Land or Sea: More on this in the next post. Quick answer, both.

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