Wednesday, 15th October
I got up early today with the excitement of our pending trip to the Galapagos Islands. Being up early and having done most of my packing the night before I went for a wander to find a coffee in Guayaquil. We are staying very close to the airport, you can literally see it from the street our hotel, ‘DC Suites’ is on so there was no time pressure in getting to our plane. I walked to the area around the shopping mall I went to yesterday and found a coffee place. We haven’t really seen much of Guayaquil but from all accounts it isn’t a place where people linger. It’s mainly a jumping off point to the Galapagos Islands. Our main priority was staying somewhere close to the airport as we were there for only one night and if we return through Guayaquil we’ll maybe see some more of it then.
We were due at the airport at 10am and at about twenty minutes to, Christian from ‘DC Suites’, gave us a ride in his beaten up Volvo. Before checking in we had to pay a US$10 transit tax for travel to the islands and then have our bags scanned by the quarantine services. There are strict regulations about what you can take to the islands to perverse their biologically qualities. No fruit or nuts, that kind of thing. We were then greeted by a representative from our cruise ship, the MV Santa Cruz, and after checking in, made our way through to departures. Within the hour we were in the air for the two hour flight. It was quite a feeling flying over the islands and landing on Baltra Island. This is a place that you never quite imagine you are going to visit, being so remote. We have made an exception in our budget to make this trip, I don’t think we could’ve forgiven ourselves had we come to Ecuador without having gone there. Once at Baltra airport we had to pay a $100 fee each for entry to the national park and after getting our bags (they were given the once over by a sniffer dog first) met another representative from our boat who corralled everyone together and bussed us to a nearby dock from where we got into a ‘zodiac’ (inflatable with outboard motor) boat for the short journey to our waiting ship. The MV Santa Cruz can hold up to 90 passengers and there are around 75 on board for our trip. It’s a great ship to spend a week, we have our own cabin with ensuite bathroom (including hot water), get fed three meals a day (breakfast and lunch is an all you can eat buffet and dinner is a sit down three course meal), our activities and excursions are organised and we have seven naturalists on board, one for each group. Whilst we waited for our luggage to turn up in our rooms, we had a full briefing from the Hotel Manager (Christian) and the Expedition Leader (Romero) who explained everything we needed to know and raised the excitement levels of what we night do and see here. When choosing the cruise we were never 100% sure we had made the right choice as with these things there are so many options but when we saw our surroundings, our cabin and the briefings (and the lunch!) we were 100% sure we were where we wanted to be and on the right ship. It wasn’t any more than other cruises in cost, we just got a good price at the last minute and were happy with the size of the passenger list, something that some people aren’t (they want a more ‘intimate’ experience). We, on the other hand, didn’t want to be stuck with 15 people we might not like for a week on a small boat. Out of 90 passengers we could find people we liked and if not there are plenty of places to hide in the boat.
After lunch (an amazing buffet, they have vegetables here!) which we shared with a lovely German couple (Daniel and Ina), we had our first activity. They call this an expedition, not a cruise , as everything is focussed on the nature and environment around us. So, our first expedition was to the island of North Seymour. Our group of 12 is called ‘Albatross’ and our guide, Freddy, took us to shore in a zodiac boat. We are the youngest by some way in our group but we quite like that. In hostels, you are surrounded by people in their 20’s and 30’s so it is nice to have a wide age range on this boat. I think the cost and luxuriousness has attracted a slightly older crowd but there are still people our age here. Family, young couples and retirees seems to be the drill.
North Seymour Island is a small island which is full of wildlife, close to Baltra where we landed. Freddy took us for a walk around the island and we saw so much wildlife that, due to the care taken not to disturb them, are not at all inhibited by humans but see us as just another animal and not a threat. This walk was stunning and gave us the opportunity to come close to:
- Blue-footed boobies
- Marine iguanas
- Sea lions (males, females and pups; it’s birthing season)
- Lava lizards
- Land iguanas
- Frigatebirds (both the greater and magnificent)
The island is very dry, we are in between the dry and wet seasons here and the cross over of the two seasons provides the best of both worlds with what we might see with regards to the wildlife. We were obsiouvsly thrilled to hear this. The island is sandy and rocky on the shore but as you walk inland there is red volcanic rock and dry sandy coloured grass covering the ground with the odd tree and cactus providing the only green you can see. I don’t think any description I can give will do this place justice so you will have to check out the photos. I have created one for each expedition we went on, as not only that they can be very different places but because I took so many photos that if I did just one gallery it would be too large to load.
We headed back to our ship as the sun went down over the horizon and just in time for happy hour. There is a lounge and bar on the boat where we had a ‘Pisco Sour’ each and then, unfortunately, the alarm sounded for a drill. To comply with safety regulations, we have to do a drill so we know what to do in the event of an emergency. We grabbed our life jackets from our room and made our way up to the upper deck where we gathered for a roll-call and de-briefing. After this we went back to the bar where our drinks were waiting for us. We then had a briefing of tomorrow’s events by our naturalist (not naturist, although it’s the same word in German apparently) and then a welcome cocktail and an introduction to the captain and his crew. This is so different to our other travelling experiences, we have really hit the jackpot here. It’s going to be hard to go back to hostels from here. Dinner, we shared with our new German friends, was a three course feast and when we were done we retired to our cabin to find a chocolate by our bed. What service! A cracking first day and I can’t believe how lucky we are to be doing this for six days. Everyone should get the chance to do this.
Thursday, 16th October
Our wake up call at 7am got us out of bed and after showering we made our way towards the dining room for breakfast which was a buffet style and so much food on offer. After all the food I ate yetersday I wasn’t in good form to sample everything but it did all look good. Kirsty’s fear of not being able to eat anything has been well and truly aligned by the service. She had gluten-free options and the buffet style breakfast and lunch ensure that she won’t go hungry. After breakfast we had some time to ourselves (a rarity) before we got our snorkel gear and wet suits for todays expedition. Overnight, the captain had taken us around to the island of Isabela and moored at Punta Vicente Roca. Here, we had the option of either doing a long boat ride in a zodiac or doing a shorter ride then some snorkelling. We opted for the latter. We jumped aboard our zodiac and our guide for the day, Benjamin, took us around and showed us the amazing geology of the place, being volcanic, and also the wildlife. We were again amazed by the range of wildlife and how easy everything is to spot. Such a change from Costa Rica where everything is hard to see. After about an hour in the boat we put on our snorkel gear and jumped into the ocean. It is quite cold here but the wetsuit keeps us warm enough, just. When in the boat we had seen so many sea turtles and sea lions in the water that we couldn’t wait to get in and weren’t disappointed when we did so. We saw sea turtes everywhere, they tell you to keep your distance but to be honest it’s quite hard when they are all around you. We also saw a penguin dashing through the water, as did a sea lion, plenty of fish, starfish and on the rocks by the water marine iguanas, crabs, more sea lions and a solitary penguin. An amazing experience, especially seeing the sea turtles, about a metre across in size, swimming within an arm length of you. Also, seeing a penguin and sea lion swimming underwater just like a David Attenborough documentary was equally as stunning. I hope my photos do it justice but I doubt it, it was truly an amazing experience.
We were back on the boat in time to have a quick shower before lunch, which was another buffet feast with a starring dish of Ceviche (a Peruvian dish of raw fish ‘cooked’ in the citric acid of lemon juice). We then had until 3pm for ourselves. We just sat in the lounge and took it easy before the afternoon’s hike on another island, Fernandina. When we were off, we boarded a zodiac again and took the short ride (five minutes) to the island of Fernandina and jumped ashore at Punta Espinoza. This is also known as Iguana Island and it clear why straight away how it got it’s name. The island is teeming with large marine iguanas basking in the sun. Along with the marine iguanas there are sea lions, flightless cormorants, herons and crabs. We walked around the island with Freddy giving us information about how the island was formed, pointing out recent lava flows and the nature around us. I think we were all surprised by just how many iguanas there were here. You have to step over and around them to make your way around the island path. They are strict here about where you can walk with marked out paths to ensure that certain areas remain undisturbed. On this island in particular there is an important marine iguana breeding ground where eggs are laid which needs to be protected. There are also plenty of sea lions here which, as with the iguanas don’t always get our of your way and you have to make concessions for the odd sea lion lying in your path. We were told to keep two metres from the animals at all times which means if they approach you, you have to retreat to maintain the distance. It was another great trip seeing such amazing wildlife at such close distances. There were quite a few recent sea lion pups playing around on the island waiting for their mothers as they went off hunting and some lying with their mothers side by side being nursed. An amazing sight. The visit lasted about two hours then we were back aboard the Santa Cruz for a happy hour cocktail (Pisco Sour again) which we had with our group, the ‘Albatrosses’, Daniel and Ina. We then had our briefing for tomorrow followed by dinner and bed. It was a packed day and we went to bed keen on getting a decent sleep before tomorrow which would be just as busy.
Friday, 17th October
Today we had more snorkelling and hiking on the agenda but beforehand we tackled the breakfast buffet as usual, restraining ourselves to eat only the healthy options this morning. We didn’t move that much in the night (the boat, not us), starting the day close to where we finished up the day before so we had an unbroken sleep in the night but still you wake feeling a bit groggy on a boat. That was soon alleviated with a coffee and bowl of granola. We started the day’s activities at 8:15am and took a zodiac boat to where Charles Darwin first set foot on the Galapagos archipelago, Isabella Island at a point called Tagus Cove. Before we landed though we had a boat ride around the area looking out for penguins (the second smallest in the world after the ones we have seen near Melbourne) and the usual boobies, sea lions and cormorants. At one point a sea lion decided to follow our boat breaking water every now and again. The penguins were funny, waddling along on the rocks and plopping ungracefully into the water as if someone was pushing them from behind. They may be good swimmers but their diving technique leaves something to be desired. Once we hit shore we clambered onto dry land and walked up a track that took us to several viewpoints overlooking Darwin Lake, which sits in a crater, and back towards the ocean. There wasn’t much wildlife here besides some ground finches, a yellow warbler and a sea lion sleeping in a cave but it was amazing to be where Darwin first set foot on these islands and the scenery was picturesque. Whilst waiting for our ride back to the Santa Cruz boat we saw some graffiti, some more recent than others. There was some there dating as far back as 1836 from the carvings we could see in the rocks. This was a popular spot with whalers and fisherman before it was made into a National Park and some of them left their calling cards or others to see.
The second activity was snorkelling, so after a zodiac ride back to the boat we had five minutes to change before we were back on a zodiac again, this time heading for water where we could jump in a snorkel around. The water was a bit warmer than yesterday which made for a pleasant change and we saw some different wildlife. There were sea turtles there feeding on algae clinging to the rocks and we also saw penguins swimming underwater which was quite amazing and many fish (my fish identification skills aren’t up to much). After around half an hour of snorkelling we headed back to the boat once more to shower off and get ready for lunch, another buffet. You always go into a buffet thinking you’re not going to eat much given the previous days experience but that soon goes to pot when you see the food on offer. We ate with Daniel and Ina and another couple we met from the USA, Gilbert and Nadine. Afterwards we had a briefing about tomorrows activities and then some time to relax on the sun deck. It sounds like we don’t have much time to ourselves here but then we are here to see everything around us and it’s great they pack so much into each day. It takes all the thinking out of having to plan what you do yourself.
In the afternoon we went back to Isabela Island from the ship but this time to Urbina Bay where we did some snorkelling from the beach. It was a little murky but we did see some sea turtles and fish amongst other sea life and at one point, Kirsty says I was swimming with a sea lion, unbeknownst to me. After clambering out in our fins and wetsuit (think James Bond emerging from the ocean) and drying off, we went for a walk around the island and a saw some land iguanas (bigger than marine iguanas and a yellow/brown colour) and had our first sighting of a giant tortoise. It was huge, as the name suggests, and was slowly walking along a path before it veered off into the undergrowth. They are such curiously looking creatures, in their sheer size and anatomy. We saw plenty more land iguanas as we walked on and completed the loop, ending up back at the beach we landed on. There were also the famous finches here from which Darwin made his observations along with mocking birds and yellow warblers, perhaps the most colourful of the birds we have seen on the islands. Once back on board the MV Santa Cruz, we had our usual Pisco Sour cocktail in the happy hour followed by dinner and some chats in the lounge before bed, exhausted again from another packed day.
Saturday, 18th October
We got our wake-up call as usual at 7am and made our way to breakfast for 7:30am. Overnight the captain had taken us around to Santa Cruz Island where we would spend the day. Santa Cruz is the most populated of the islands in the Galapagos archipelago and has an established town, Puerto Ayora, where most of the guides on our ship are from. To qualify as a guide, or naturalist, on the Galapagos Islands you must have been born on the islands. In this way it keeps the passion there but also creates an industry for locals. Tourism is the main industry here, without it the town would not survive successfully. After breakfast we caught the zodiac boats to the dock at Puerto Ayroa and after landing, caught a bus to the Charles Darwin Research Station. This tour is so well coordinated and organised that everything works so seamlessly. You just go where you are told, which we are really enjoying after ‘thinking’ for ourselves for too long now. Puerto Ayroa is a nice little town with plenty of gift shops, cafes and restaurants. This is where we will stay for a couple of nights at the end of our cruise before heading back to mainland Ecuador. The Charles Darwin Research Station is a scientific centre which researches into Giant Tortoises and has breeding programs to help their populations on some of the islands. Santa Cruz island itself is home to many thousands of giant tortoises which roam the island freely. We spent an hour or so at the centre then walked back through the town, stopping at various gift shops along the way, back to where would catch the bus again, this time to a sugar cane farm (no longer working). On the way though we stopped off at a town where we picked up some bikes (not Kirsty) and rode the final 4km along the road through the drizzle to the farm. The farm was interesting and we saw how sugar cane is farmed and processed into raw sugar (panela) followed by rum, which we of course sampled. This was a short stop and once we dried off from the drizzly bike ride and warmed up with a cup of locally grown coffee, with local sugar and some local rum, we hopped on the bus again to lunch.
Lunch was again an amazing buffet spread located at a Ranch. The weather was very drizzly (we are up in the highlands) and not that appealing to spend much time in so after lunch, and no sun-lounging, we set off again to a place where we could see giant tortoises in the wild. This was amazing, these creatures are huge and so slow that seeing them is not difficult. We walked around the property and saw many many tortoises of various sizes and ages. Males and females, from about ten years up to over one hundred years. They are prehistoric looking creatures and so unique in the way they move, feed and generally live their life. Quite different to any other animal we have seen on this trip.
Once we had seen enough tortoises for a lifetime (well, for this trip anyway) we made a short bus journey to a massive lava tunnel, one to the largest in South America, which we walked a part of the way through then back out again, learning about their formation and history on the islands. They are formed when lava flows from an active hot-spot volcanic site down a valley to the sea. The lava fills up a valley and the lava at the top of the flow hardens, forming a ‘tube’ of molten lava which at some point runs out and the hollow tube is created which we can now walk through. This was the final activity of the day and we caught the bus yet again, but this time back to the dock where we caught a zodiac boat back to the ship. We were all shattered by now, being not particularly an active day but the culmination of several busy days all together. Back onboard, we headed straight for the lounge bar and had ourselves a drink courtesy of Barbara and Michael, then a shower, followed by another cocktail (what has become our traditional daily, evening, pre-dinner, Pisco Sour). Dinner followed and was delicious as usual with Carlos the dining room ‘manager’ looking after Kirsty and her intolerances. We have been having the fish options for dinner lately, feeling like we ought to being on board a boat. Not only that but it is delicious too. Tonight we had some post-diner entertainment in the form of a local band from Santa Cruz playing some traditional Ecuadorian, Galapagos, music with some local dancers. I managed to avoid being dragged up the dance floor by going to check on our drying shoes at an opportune time (coincidence, I might add, not running away) but Kirsty stretched her sea-legs on the dance floor. On the way to bed we went up the top deck and from there watched a brown pelican fishing. When it finally caught a fish (with us cheering it on) it seemed to struggle to swallow it, biting off more than it could chew (or swallow), literally.
Sunday, 19th October
Today was our last full day of activities and excursions. We started the day as usual with our wake-up call followed by the buffet breakfast. I find I am eating less and less as we go on, having started the cruise piling the food onto my plate but now find that I cannot keep up the pace. It’s a shame as the food is so good I want to eat it all but just find I am not that hungry. We have eaten more on this cruise than we have at any other point in our trip, without a doubt. Kirsty decided to stay onboard and read this morning as we are both feeling quite worn out. I didn’t want to miss out on anything though so I took the zodiac with some others (quite a few stayed on board this morning) to Floreana Island, which we were moored off, and landed at Post Office Bay. This is so named due to the presence of a post barrel which has been used for the past 200 hundred years or so. The idea was, in the early days that post would be left here by visiting sailors and those leaving to locations to which mail was addressed would take it with them to deliver. The tradition still lives on today but with postcards. You first of all listen to the multitude of addresses being read out, and if there’s one near to where you live you can take it with you to hand deliver it (absolutely no stamps allowed). You then get the chance to drop in your own postcards for delivery by someone else. Unfortunately there were no postcards that I could hand deliver but I hope somebody else in the future can deliver mine. I will be intrigued to see how long they take and if they arrive at all. We then hopped back into the zodiacs and went for a boat trip to another point on the island (Baroness Point) which is a viewpoint overlooking some of the island. On the way we saw some flamingoes flying in formation, sting rays in the water and some sea lions on the beach, some of which were very young and there was at least one new-born. Some frigatebirds were fighting over the placenta. There were some that stayed on the beach for snorkelling and in picking up those that stayed, we saw a sea turtle that had crawled up onto the beach. This was very unusual for the daytime as they would only normally crawl up onto the beach to lay eggs during the night and spend the rest of their days in the ocean. However, this turtle was either very tired from migrating and needed the rest, or it had come here to die. We like to think the former.
We had a few hours free in the middle of the day during which time there was a lecture on the human history of the Galapagos Islands and the colonisation of the various islands. I was interested to learnt that there are around 35,000 people living on the islands today. Many more than I had imagined. After the lecture we had another buffet lunch, our last of the trip (weep). The afternoon saw another round of snorkelling. I had decided to skip the morning snorkelling as it was off the beach and therefore most likely in murky water but the afternoon session was excellent. We caught a zodiac boat to a point known as Champion Islet which is a rock formation in the middle of the ocean, off Floreana Island. Here there are many fish feeding and we were lucky to have some sea lions swimming with us, getting very close. An adult and a youngster gliding through the water. Back on board and after a quick shower we had our last excursion of the cruise. We went back to Floreana Island but this time landed at Punta Comorant. Near to here there is brackish lake (salt water) in which flamingos usually feed. There weren’t the numbers I was expecting but we did see one flamingo from a distance. I was pleased I brought my binoculars as otherwise it would’ve just been a pink dot on the horizon. We then went for a walk past the lake to another bay where we strolled along the beach spotting sea turtles and sea lions in the surf as the sun went down. A low-key end to the activity side of the cruise but I think we are all feeling fatigued so perhaps a fitting end I think.
Our final evening on board started with a cocktail on the sun deck followed by a briefing of how to leave the ship for the next day and then dinner. All the food has been excellent on this cruise, I don’t know how we are going to go back to the backpacker life. We have been very lucky with those we have shared this experience with also, meeting some great people we can now call friends and truly hope to stay in touch with and see again sometime. With an early start tomorrow we had to pack this evening so we didn’t stay up too late. I think everyone is exhausted anyway and keen to make the most of the breakfast buffet in the morning.
Monday, 20th October
We had to get up earlier than usual today as we were leaving the boat and our luggage had to be out in front of our cabin by the time we went to breakfast, 7:15am. Having packed the night before though we were prepared for this and were one of the first at the breakfast tables so we could have a leisurely start to the day and enjoy the last of our luxury without having to rush. With breakfast done we all went through the the lounge where the expedition team had put together a slideshow presentation of photos taken on the islands. They sent out photographers regularly on the excursions and we all had our photos taken more than once so there were plenty of pics. Once this was done they were ready for us to disembark and we did so by our excursion groups. We were the last to leave and said farewell to the captain on our way out.
We were staying on in the Galapagos Islands, on Santa Cruz Island, and after picking up our bags from the airport after being transferred from the boat to the mainland, and saying our goodbyes to our new friends, we caught a shuttle bus to where we could catch a ferry to Santa Cruz from Baltra (the two islands our very close, maybe 200m from each other). Daniel and Ina were also staying on also (although on San Cristobal, an island further to the south) so we made the journey together. Once on Santa Cruz we caught a bus that took around an hour to Puerto Ayora, down the south of Santa Cruz. We would base ourselves here for the next two nights and our remaining time on the Galapgaos Islands. We have done so much over the past six days on the cruise that we are happy to just linger around this town and relax, looking forward to sleeping in tomorrow. Daniel and Ina headed on to San Cristobal, we hope to see them again when we head over to Europe at the end of our trip. For now though, we stayed on, just the two of us, in Peurto Ayroa, Santa Cruz, in a nice waterfront hotel called ‘Hotel Estrella Del Mar’ with our room looking out over the blue ocean and the sounds of the ocean and sea lions close by. Daniel and Ina looked after our bags at a cafe (‘La Garrapata’) whilst we found this hotel then we said goodbye.
We didn’t do much the rest of the day, feeling a bit of a low after all the highs of the cruise. We were in desperate need of a laundry though so after finding one and getting that was out of the way we went back to our hotel to lounge around and enjoy our room with a view. For dinner we went to a restaurant (‘Il Giardino’) around the corner and had some locally caught fish with rice and a cocktail. We have started something of a habit with a drink before dinner which we will have to break. It’s not good for the budget.
Tuesday, 21st October
Our first full on dry land began earlier than expected, with the sun waking us up around 6am. This was earlier than we woke up on the boat, but then there are back to the feeble excuse for curtains which basically just keep your privacy and don’t block any light out. I went and got a coffee from a local cafe made from local beans. Everything on the islands is local due to the importation regulations, everything consumed has to be grown or farmed on the islands. We hung out at our hotel, listening to the ocean, reading and blogging, eating cornflakes in our room. We are back to budget breakfasts and a long way from the luxury buffet breakfast onboard the MV Santa Cruz. There is a bay nearby, Tortuga Bay, which we decided to walk to feeling like stretching our legs a little. It turned out to be a much longer walk than we had anticipated, around two and half hour there and back, including a long walk along the beach, but it was well worth it. The bay here is stunning and we saw the familiar marine iguanas along the way. There are two beaches, one with waves crashing and another in a bay with no waves. This is one people come to for swimming and snorkelling. We were happy to just sit on the beach and look out at the ocean though, having done enough over the past week to satisfy our ocean urges.
We walked back to the town and had a rest at our hotel before heading out for a late lunch at a cafe around the corner. The choice and quality of eateries here is excellent and we are keen to make the most of it before we head to other towns and countries, unsure of what we will get. After our late lunch we headed back to our hotel to enjoy a bottle of wine we had taken on the cruise but not drunk and some store-bought beers on the balcony overlooking the ocean before getting ready for dinner. We went to a place recommended by Daniel and Ina, ‘Isla Grill’, and it was a great recommendation. Kirsty had a massive lobster tail and I had tuna and prawns. We were getting our fill of seafood and cocktails on the islands before we head back to the mainland.
Our new ’Santa Cruz’ friends:
- Daniel and Ina
- Barbara and Michael
- Dulcey and Skip
- Beth and Jim
- Randy and Ginger
- Gilbert and Nadine
- Cynthia and Annette
Animals we saw, amongst others I’m sure, include:
- Blue-footed boobies
- Marine iguanas
- Sea lions (males, females and pups)
- Lava lizards
- Land iguanas
- Frigatebirds (both the greater and magnificent)
- Flightless cormorants
- Darwin finches (numerous)
- Green Sea turtles
- Nazca boobies
- Sallyfoot light crabs
- Giant hawkfish
- Razor Surgeonfish
- Bluechin Parrotfish
- Mexican Hogfish
- King Angel Fish
- Bigeye Trevally
- Swallow-tailed Gull
- Chocolate Chip Sea Star
- Panamic Cushion Star
- Lava Gull
- Bumphead Parrotfish
- Great Blue Heron
- Striated Heron
- Yellow Warbler
- Giant Damselfish
and…… of course the GIANT TORTOISE