Updated on February 14th, 2020
“Are you interested in jaw-dropping landscapes, unique wildlife interactions, evolutionary biology, ecology, or just life on earth? If your answer is an emphatic “Yes” to any of these questions, then you must not miss The Galápagos Islands!”
North, West & Central Galápagos Islands (Santa Cruz, Isabela, Genovesa, Bartolomé, Santiago, Fernandina, Rábida & Baltra Islands)
It’s the Galápagos Islands – need I say more? The islands that are synonymous with Charles Darwin & his theory of Natural Selection? Islands which contain many species of wildlife that are not found anywhere else in the world? Wildlife that treats you like you’re not there or are curious enough to come & investigate? Where few people really get to experience this unique ecosystem? I think that’s enough reasons for now!
“My expectation was wildlife in abundance & I wasn’t disappointed. I was hoping for close encounters with our planets beautiful creatures & I was definitely rewarded! How many people can say they have been run over by a penguin? Snorkelled with so many turtles they lost count? Swum with the only seagoing lizards in the world…& been spat at by them?”
What I wasn’t expecting was such an otherworldly landscape of volcanic islands which, even without the wildlife, is fascinating to explore. I had a list of experiences I was aiming for & managed to tick them all off on my 8 days aboard the Yolita, sailing with G Adventures. You can learn more about my decision making process & how I chose this tour in my previous post (How To Choose A Tour Of The Galápagos Islands) as well as check out more about my time in Ecuador. In addition, for more information on any of the wildlife species, you can follow this LINK. But for now, back to the beautiful Galápagos!
What do you need to know?
Although my tour was advertised as 10 days, day 1 was arrival & a welcome meeting in the evening & the final day was basically fly out. In essence, this was 8 days (7 nights) on the boat, starting & finishing in Quito. I will, therefore, deal with the trip as an 8-day tour. And it was the most mind-blowing & unique 8 days I have ever spent in my life!
Day 1 – Santa Cruz Island
After arriving on Baltra Island by plane from Quito, we were met by our guide Adriana & introduced to our boat, the lovely Yolita! To read more about life on the boat & what to expect, see my previous post How To Choose A Tour Of The Galápagos Islands.
Developing A Crab Fetish
Our first excursion was to Bachas Beach on Santa Cruz Island where I instantly spotted the crabs. The Sally Lightfoot Crabs are orange on top with blue faces & underbelly. They were agile as they scampered over the rocks at the shore. As a result, the crabs hooked me.
“They were beautiful, fascinating & I couldn’t stop taking photos. These crabs are everywhere on Galápagos but my fascination & need to get a better photo never wavered!”
Bachas Beach is named after a couple of US army barges which were abandoned in World War II & ended up on the shore. We walked to see the remnants of one as it poked out of the sand. In addition, the lagoon treated us to 4 flamingos & a marine iguana. Our first stop & these islands were already delivering for me!
The First Of Many Turtle Encounters
After our short walk, we tried snorkelling. It wasn’t very clear but I still managed to spy my first turtle & a reef shark. I went back to the boat satisfied & excited about what the week would bring.
Our boat moved location during the sunset as Frigate Birds flew overhead. Once it was dark we noticed we had a stowaway in the form of an eagle-eyed Pelican, making itself comfortable at the back of the boat. In conclusion, the excitement started to mount for Day 2 when we would be visiting “Bird Island”.
Day 2 – Genovesa Island
By morning we were moored in Darwin Bay on our most northern stop in the islands, Isla Genovesa. This is known as “Bird Island” due to the sheer volume of Frigate Birds, Boobies & Gulls which call the island home.
“When I went to survey the view from the top deck, an overhead welcoming committee splattered me with poo. I was always told that this was good luck. We were in for a great day!”
As we landed in the panga (dinghies used to transport us from the Yolita to the islands), we were greeted on the beach by a female Sea Lion as she laid on the sand nursing her baby. She was completely oblivious to our presence, as our cameras went crazy around her.
Discovering The Power Of Playing Hard To Get!
Slowly we moved off to see more of what this bird lover’s paradise had to offer & were treated to a huge colony of Red-Footed Boobies, the largest collection in the world. They were everywhere, building nests & tending to their cute (but ugly), fluffy youngsters. Alongside them were the Nazca Boobies, their less flamboyantly coloured cousins.
A short walk further there was a whole colony of the fascinating Frigate Birds. The males were resplendent with their red inflated gullets. The sacks take 30 minutes to inflate & when a female flies over, all hell breaks loose as they compete to have the biggest, reddest chest. They draw attention using noises & opening & vibrating their wings!
“I loved watching the female frigates just surveying the view beneath them as the males tried to catch her eye. The ladies seemed to relish really playing hard to get!”
Close Encounters With Sharks
After we had our fill of all the birds, our next excursion was a snorkel off the Panga. It wasn’t the most exciting or pleasant snorkelling experience. The best wildlife was near the rocks, but the current meant this was the most dangerous place to be. Visibility wasn’t brilliant either. However, if we were lucky, this was one of the few places on our trip to view the Hammerhead Sharks. I was ever hopeful & stuck close to Adriana who I felt was my best bet at good fortune (a tactic I continued for the remainder of the trip!).
“I was rewarded when I heard a whistle blow & a lot of splashing as we all made our moves. The unmissable sight came out of the gloom of a Hammerhead below me & as I watched it move, more came into view. There were actually 4 in total! I was thrilled & returned to the boat with video evidence of my sighting.”
Prince Philip’s Steps
For our afternoon activity, we stayed on Genovesa Island for another walk. We approached the Prince Philip’s Steps via a panga ride along the cliff’s edge & were treated to sightings of more sea lions & our first Galápagos Fur Seals (confusingly also actually sea lions!). Up the steps was another bird colony comprising of Red-Footed & Nazca Boobies & the occasional Frigate Bird.
Along the walk it was important to stick to the path as all around were inquisitive fluffy baby boobies & the odd pile of sticks on the ground. We discovered that these were actually the Nazca Booby nests.
“Whereas their Red-Footed counterparts build their nests carefully in the trees for protection, it turns out the Nazcas take a different approach. These casual cousins just throw a few sticks in a pile & then decide “That’ll Do!”. I decided if I was a bird I’d be a Nazca Booby!”
The mission for our walk, apart from the mind-blowing birdlife surrounding us, was the hope of spotting the rare Short-Eared Owl. Unfortunately, today was not our day for the owl but I left Genovesa feeling fully satisfied & in awe of the diversity of the feathered friends which call this island home.
Day 3 – Bartolomé Island
Today we were up early. This morning was less about the wildlife & more focussed on observing the spectacular landscapes created by the power of these volcanic islands. Before we left the boat, we spotted big Galápagos sharks ominously circled us. The relief was palpable that we weren’t here to snorkel!
Bartolomé Island features rock that is bare & raw as it’s one of the “newer” islands. There was little vegetation, no birds & the only wildlife were the Lava Lizards which were everywhere.
“The lizards communicate through push-ups. Each species has a different synchronised set of movements which makes them unable to be understood between species. Just fascinating!”
Worth The Climb
We left the boat at 6am to avoid the heat as we climbed the 374 steps to the viewpoint at the top. Our prize was a spectacular view of Pinnacle Rock (an eroded Toba cone) which rises from the shore like a witches hat. Across the small stretch of water was Santiago Island made from a black lava flow which characterises the rest of the landscape. Peppered with more small triangular peaks.
Snorkelling Pinnacle Rock
After our short, but awe-inspiring climb, we headed back for breakfast before our snorkelling excursion around Pinnacle Rock. Wow! I honestly felt that after all the snorkelling & diving I have done (including the Great Barrier Reef), this was the best I have ever experienced. Clear waters & fish of all colours of the rainbow. To top it off, I spotted some penguins & was thrilled to be able to snorkel so close as they stood nonchalant to it all on the rocks. Others saw Reef Sharks but this time, I missed out.
In the afternoon we headed to Santiago Island & went for a walk on the thick, black, fascinating lava field. The ground appeared to have been laid down yesterday.
Sitting Inside The Earth
Some lava clearly flowed very thickly, some looked like it had just frozen in time while it was still very liquid. Other areas looked like coiled rope. In some places the movement of the earth had cracked the surface, making big crevices across the land.
“Where the rock was exposed, it had oxidated making flashes of orange & red across the huge black expanse. This was the newer rock, only 10,000 years old!”
Then we came across a hole, literally! I climbed in to pose for some photos. Sitting in the earth, I could feel the heat emanating from the hot ground surrounding me. It was yet another surreal & unique experience.
Snorkelling With Sting Rays
After the walk, I donned my faithful snorkel & mask again & was off. This time the prize included Sting Rays & a Lobster staring out at me from his tiny underwater cave. That evening, as we moved on to our next location, the dolphins joined us to perform around the boat. Another perfect day was at an end.
Day 4 – East Isabela Island
When The Sea Lions Take Over
When we woke, we found the Yolita had moored in the busiest spot so far – Port Villamil. We headed for shore & passed a boat which had literally been taken over by sea lions. There were 3 who had clearly jumped from the water (an impressive feat in itself) to find shelter in an old vessel.
“On land, they were everywhere, side by side with marine iguanas. Taking shade under the tree, laying relaxing on the benches & then one crossed the road, using the zebra crossing. Galápagos was getting more surreal by the day!”
Sierra Negra Volcano
Our transport on the island was the local bus with open sides, known as the Chiva. It took us to our hike for the morning, along a dirt road up to view the caldera of Sierra Negra. The volcano is active & last erupted in 2005. We walked along with the lush green tropical forest surrounding us, to the edge of the crater. Looking down into the bare brown lava in the centre of the caldera was a stark contrast. The crater is 10km long & 7km wide & we could see the smoking fumaroles on the other side, making the landscape even more ominous.
Meeting The Giant Tortoises
The afternoon was spent back in the port where we headed for the breeding centre for the Galápagos Giant Tortoises (Centro de Crianza de Tortugas).
“The tortoises can live to 150 years old. The males are bigger & can grow up to a staggering 400lbs in weight.”
The population has suffered through the activity of predators (either humans directly or the result of animals introduced by humans which are destroying their habitat). Here, they breed these giants to reintroduce & boost the population. It takes 10 years for a tortoise to grow large enough to be released, once it is no longer vulnerable to predation.
Diego, Saviour Of The Species
My favourite story of the day was that of Diego, the Giant Tortoise brought over from San Diego Zoo. The population of his species had plummeted to just 14. He went to work, producing 1000 babies & their total number now exceeds 2000. Diego single-handedly saved his species!
We followed this with a stroll along the boardwalk which led us back to the beach, via a lagoon with some magnificent flamingoes. Then, with the sun setting & a full moon rising we headed back to the boat on the pangas. The sea lions were still very much in residence on the boat as we passed. Another unusual day in paradise was at an end.
Day 5 – West Isabela Island
The west coast of Isabela Island is less visited as it’s only on the itinerary for the longer boat tours. Once we got there, we were one of only 3 boats remaining on the route. We climbed onto the pangas for a 2-hour ride to see what the mangroves had to offer.
A Morning In The Mangroves
Once we were there, it was a quiet, slow tour, turning off the engines & drifting with just an oar to direct us. Turtles, a sea lion relaxing in a tree (?!) & groups of baby rays were all there to greet us. Then we saw a sea lion in the water, & as it raised its head to get a better grip on its prey, we realised it was eating a snake.
“To cool off we swam off the boat for the first time, I assume the crew allowed this because the Galápagos sharks were no longer present!”
Over lunch we moved again, treated to a display of dolphins along the way. This time they leapt out of the water as if at a marine park, entertaining us as we sailed on to the afternoons’ activity.
Urbina Bay – An Afternoon With The Turtles
The snorkelling for the afternoon was not the clearest but we were told that this was a great place to spot turtles. My mask was fogged up but it was still spectacular! There were so many turtles & they were totally unfazed by our presence. It was a special opportunity to just be able to float above them.
“Occasionally I was forced to do my best to back peddle when I felt I was getting too close. At times one of the turtles just appeared right at my side. Just magical!”
The day finished with a walk into the island, with the aim of seeing some land iguanas & giant tortoises in the wild. Again, we were lucky, with a couple of female tortoises who had come to the lower ground to lay their eggs. We saw a land iguana in a burrow, sheltering in a hole in the ground. Then we were rewarded with a fat, ugly, golden creature, out in a clearing. This one wasn’t going anywhere & we took time to appreciate the moment.
Day 6 – West Isabela Island
Our final stop on Isabela was Tagus Cove & our first activity of the day was a walk to Darwin Lake. From the panga, we could see the unexpected sight of graffiti up the cliffs which jarred against everything I had seen & heard over my time on the islands. The writing was etched by sailors scratching the names of their vessels & the date on the rock. The trick was to try & get yours the highest. The oldest is from 1836. This puts a whole other perspective on it.
What A View!
The walk was beautiful & a real treat again for the bird fans in the group, with sights of several species of finch & mockingbirds. The crater lake is filled with salt water, percolated through the rock from the sea with twice the salinity.
“Isabela Island is the largest of the archipelago & basically created from 5 active volcanoes, brought together by the lava produced from them. The viewpoint from beyond Darwin Lake is the best vantage point to see this, along with both sides of the island.”
The panga ride afterwards took us along the cliffs for some sightings of the fascinating Blue-Footed Boobies & another animal unique to these islands, the Flightless Cormorants. The wings on these large birds are so tiny that they can’t fly. It’s easy to see why their numbers are reducing until you see them swim & dive. They are magnificent in the water.
Being Run Over By A Penguin
Our final activity in Tagus Cove was a snorkel off the panga & it really did take my breath away. First, there was my sighting of the small group of penguins in the water ahead of me. I swam towards them, Go Pro at the ready & waited for them to swim away or dive so I could capture the moment for posterity. Instead, they swam towards me. Before I knew it, one was on top of me & I swear it pecked my camera. I was stunned! They finished by diving around & under me, before doing what seemed like an underwater dance together & then disappearing off into the ocean. Wow!
And Then There Was The Iguana…& The Sea Lion…& The Cormorant…
After a busy morning, the battery on my Go Pro was running low but I couldn’t stop myself persisting in filming every time I saw a turtle or another colourful fish. I thought the icing on the cake was when one of the group spotted a marine iguana. The iguana was feeding on the rocks, in a cove which was being washed by the waves. I was in awe as the water swept me over this fascinating creature, the waves taking me one way & then the other. Wow… again!
My battery died but I was happy, after all, how could this experience get any better? I had a warm glow inside, interrupted as a sea lion swam straight past me before it seemed to do a double take, then circle back around.
“It stopped & seemed to playfully observe me for a second before it went on its way. As I stared, watching this magnificent creature disappear from view, a cormorant dived into the water just next to me. I had no words!”
Adriana warned us that the snorkel this afternoon was for strong swimmers only. The reward for those who chose to go was the chance to snorkel with marine iguanas. These are unique among reptiles as the only lizard in the world which swims & can stay & feed under water. I had witnessed one that morning & was keen to see more.
I took up the challenge. As we approached our drop off point, we saw the heads of iguana poking out of the water. Once we had seen one, we spotted them everywhere. This was going to be amazing!
Snorkelling with Marine Iguanas
This place took my breath away. My excitement at seeing a turtle while snorkelling just kept multiplying as there was 1, 2, then 3 or 4 together. So close & so clear! We observed marine iguanas feeding underwater, then followed them as they swam towards the rocks, looking so alien in this marine environment.
“I was floating next to rock when I had a moment of refocusing. The rock started to move & I realised that it was covered (& I mean covered), in marine iguanas. It felt like I had gone under water & come up in Jurassic Park!”
Again, what looked like grey rock turned out to be marine iguanas, piled on top of each other, barely moving except to occasionally spit! The trick was to try & take photos without getting close enough to be spat on.
Basically, as these beasts can stay underwater, they have a high concentration of salt in their diet which they filter out of their nose. Hence the spitting & salt crystals which form around their nostrils! They lie on the rocks & each other to absorb the warmth.
The rain started & got heavier as we explored further around the beach while watching our step for prehistoric creatures underfoot. Sea lions, Sally Lightfoot crabs & pelicans were all living in harmony here with thousands of marine iguanas. It was a fascinating place & despite being soaked to the skin we were all still reluctant to leave.
Our final day in paradise started with a panga ride along the coast to admire the rock formations of Buccaneer Cove. From the water emerged the rock equivalents of a Praying Monk, an Elephant (if you used a bit of imagination!) & Darwin’s Cake (layers of different coloured rock).
Missing Eagle Rays, Sharks & Sea Lions
We followed this with a snorkel along the cliffs. Others in my group saw Spotted Eagle Rays & Sharks. I just saw lots of fish. It was magical though to snorkel around the point of the rock with the sun creating silhouettes of the marine life swimming towards me. We finished the excursion in a cave. This was again special. Look one way & it was hard to see anything in the dark. In the other direction, the outlines of the fish & my fellow snorkellers gave the impression of an underwater wonderland!
Finally, & for a little bit of fitness, it was suggested we give the panga a miss & swim back to the boat. I took up the challenge & just as I was about to climb on board, felt a sting. When I checked, there was nothing. The next morning as I felt an itch, I saw red spots in lines across my leg. A jellyfish had stung me. I may have missed all the good wildlife but at least I had come back with a souvenir!
Rábida Island has a bright, red sand beach. And when I say red, I mean red! A short walk along the beach was punctuated by watching a young sea lion come out of the water, cover himself & slump in the red sand. At one end, we were treated to a diving & fishing display from a few pelicans & cormorants.
Despite seeing sea lions regularly it remained my goal to snorkel with one when I actually had a battery in my Go Pro! Our last snorkelling excursion could not have been more perfect. It started with a sea lion, playing in the shallows. I quickly put on my gear & headed its way.
“I’m sure it was highly entertaining watching me attempt to snorkel with the sea lion in water no deeper than 2 ½ feet!”
As my fellow group members could see everything above the water they were shouting at me “It’s there!” as I aimlessly searched with my face in the water. Apparently, it kept going past about 6 inches away from me but I was always looking in the wrong direction! I caught a glimpse, enough to tick off my goal. I was happy.
The rest of the snorkelling was so clear, atmospheric & beautiful, despite so many special experiences I think it was my favourite. For instance, we swam along the rockface & looking above the water & I could see cactus growing from the bright red rock, which had marine iguanas resting in situ. Looking below the waterline & the red rock was the perfect backdrop for the colourful aquatic life.
Reluctantly, I headed back to the beach, only to find the sea lions had returned & were feeling playful. This gave me another chance to catch them underwater. Then, one headed for the beach, straight into the small crowd of onlookers to make himself comfortable. It was a very special end to a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Day 8 – Daphne Major Islet
Our final activity on this epic journey was to circumnavigate this tiny island for our last glimpses of boobies & sea lions. Frigate birds swooped around the peak of land as the sun rose behind it. Then it was our last journey back to fly out of Baltra Island. Reflecting on an amazing week, I felt once again blessed. Few people get the chance to witness this magical place. In a way, that’s what makes it so perfect.
In conclusion, are you interested in jaw-dropping landscapes, unique wildlife interactions, evolutionary biology, ecology, or just life on earth? If your answer is an emphatic “Yes” to any of these questions, then you must not miss The Galápagos Islands!
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