Having missed the opportunity to go to the Galapagos 3 years ago when I was in Peru with my brothers, I was determined to make it a part of our trip this time. Christine and I arrived in Santa Cruz Island without previously booking a cruise, hoping we would find some last minute deals once on the island. However, after spending the first day and a half visiting almost every tour operator in Puerto Ayora, we came to the sad realization that prices were not going to be as low as we would have liked since it was already the beginning of high season in the Galapagos. To make things more complicated there were only a few tours that worked with our schedule for the islands we wanted to see...so we finally settled on a 3 day tour of Isabela Island, after which we would start our 5 day cruise of the northern islands (Santa Cruz Genovesa, and Santiago), and a separate Highlands Day Tour of Santa Cruz on the last day.
Isabela Island Tour
Our 3 day tour (which really was only 1.5 days) started off with a rather rough 2 hour ride through very choppy waters in a speed boat from Santa Cruz. A good number of people among the 20 passengers looked as if they were gonna 'toss their cookies' (one of Christine's favorite phrases) any second. It didn't help that the speed boat decided to beak down 20 mins from the harbor. After the captain managed to fix the malfunctioning propellers, we arrived at Puerto Villamil and our tour guide greeted us and transported us to our hotel. We dropped off our bags and then headed to the lone attraction of the day - a marsh with flamingos (this was clearly a filler sight).
The day started with a 5 hr round-trip hike to Volcan Sierra Negra, one of the most active volcanoes in the Galapagos. Its last eruption was in October 2005. The caldera of the volcano has a maximum diameter of almost 10km. Throughout the entire course of the hike, it was really interesting to see how the geology and climate of the volcano can change. The beginning of the hike started inland where the landscape was covered in thick fog. Lush, green vegetation covered the land where many species of birds can be observed. As we hiked towards the peak, the fog began to disappear. When we hiked passed the caldera and towards the coastal side of the volcano, it became completely sunny. The land here was very barren with the exception of some cacti and other shrubbery.
Afterwards, we headed to Las Tintoreras. Here we saw tons of marine iguanas basking in the sun and many white tip reef sharks resting in a shallow channel, as well as sea lions and sea turtles.
The last activity of the day was a boat tour around the bay and some snorkelling time. We saw several Galapagos penguins, which is the only species of penguins that lives in the northern hemisphere, swim by. Countless sea lions rested on the beach, while a number of the famed blue-footed boobies circled the air above before dive bombing down into the water in search of a quick meal. After observing much wildlife on land and in the air, it was time to check out the wildlife in the water. Even though the hot season was beginning, the water was still a bit chilly, especially without a wet suit. After jumping in, the abundance of wildlife quickly made us forget how cold the water was. As I hovered and snorkelled around aimlessly, out of the corner of my eye a green sea turtle calmly swam by, foraging seaweed and algae from one spot to another. I quickly tried to get Christine's attention, but as I waved her over, I unintentionally splashed the water and the turtle swam away. Whoops. Unfortunately, after taking several underwater pictures, our underwater camera broke.
Activity of the day - 6am speed boat ride back to Santa Cruz. The ride back was pretty uneventful (waters were slightly less choppy this time), but did offer nice views of the sunrise...and that concludes our tour of Isabela Island (see, it really was only a 1.5 day tour in reality haha).
Boat Cruise on the Aida Maria
Since the tour began at the airport, as soon as we arrived back on Santa Cruz Island we made our way back to Baltra to meet the rest of the tour group. After what seemed like hours of waiting, we finally gathered everyone and boarded the Aida Maria - our home for the next 5 days!
After lunch we had our first snorkel opportunity at Bachus Beach on Santa Cruz. We did a quick walk around the beach and discovered turtle tracks indicating that it was nesting season. We also saw brown pelicans, flamingos, iguanas and sea turtles. Once in the water, we were searching for sea turtles and sea lions but no luck this time. Regardless, we still saw plenty of tropical fishes and sting rays nestled in the sand at the bottom of the ocean.
We had dinner back on the boat and was passed out by 9pm haha.
We spent the entire day on and around Genovesa Island, which is a shield volcano. Because a section of the caldera wall collapsed, the island is now shaped like a horseshoe. In the morning we rode the pangas to Darwin Bay and then did a short walk around the island to see all the different types of birds, including red-footed boobies, nasca boobies, frigates, swallow-tailed gulls, and, of course, several species of finches. It was pretty amazing as the birds were virtually unaffected by us walking around. We noticed a number of bird carcasses, and our guide explained that it was probably due to attacks from the frigates. Frigates, the lazy bad asses on the island, are not equipped well to catch their own fish. But being the bullies they are, they tend to circle the air above and when they spot a booby or gull making a catch, they attack and attempt to steal their meal. In many cases, the smaller birds succumb to their injuries. Afterwards, we went snorkelling around Darwin's Bay and had our first encounter with a sea lion (however brief haha). We were snorkelling and all of a sudden a dark blob brushes by, and that was the last we saw of it. Some people said they saw sharks but no such luck for us. In all honesty, I was a little disappointed at this point. As amazing as the tropical fishes were, my main goal was to snorkel with a shark.
In the afternoon we hiked up Prince Phillip's Steps in hopes of seeing the earless owl. However, the earless owl was nowhere to be seen, but we did end up seeing some more nesting boobies and finches. A number of us joked that the guide challenged us with this task in order to kill time for the rest of the afternoon hahaha.
Early this morning we boarded the pangas and maneuvered around Sullivan's Bay in search of Penguins. We spotted several of them chilling out along the rocks. After the ride, we disembarked onto Bartolome Island and climbed the 300 odd steps to the top for a view of the famous Pinnacle Rock. We lucked out and the clouds cleared by the time we reached the top. Following the climb we went back to Sullivan's Bay on Santiago Island for some snorkelling. We had the best visibility so far and we really wanted to see penguins. We followed the guide and snorkelled around in search of penguins. Disappointment sets in again as all we saw were tropical fishes. Christine got cold so she went back to shore first, while I further searched for the elusive penguin. Later when I got back on shore, Christine told me that she actually saw penguins. Two penguins were just cruising in the shallow water along the beach shore and she was able to run along side them on the beach. She wasn't actually in the water with them, but she was still pretty stoked about it...oh well, that was as close as we got to a penguin all day. After lunch we went back on Santiago Island for our lava walk. The last major eruption on Santiago was probably in the early 1900s. The lava here is called the pahoehoe, which is a Hawaiian term for ropey lava. Once back on the boat, we headed towards Daphine Island. Along the way, we spotted about a gazillion sea turtles and flying sting rays!
Today we visited Black Turtle's Cove on the pangas and saw tons of sea turtles gettin it on. Literally, tons! While a pair is still mating, another male typically will swim around in hopes of an opportunity at the dismounted female. We also saw many white tip reef sharks and sting rays. Afterwards, we had our last snorkelling opportunity. Seeing as how we didnt really see any other sealife besides fishes in our previous snorkelling, we didn't expect much. However, this turned out to be the best snorkelling yet, as Christine and I both got to see (no, not only see, but swim alongside) sea lions. We were literally inches from them! And save the best for last, we crossed paths with a white tipped reef shark. Man, it was pretty bad ass. We were just snorkelling around, and BAM, out of nowhere we come face to face with the shark. It was just cruising along, and we got to swim right behind it, uncaged. We tried to tailgate the shark for as long as we could, but then we realized we probably should back off a little bit. I mean, even though it was only about 3 feet in length, it's still the top predator in the water. After lunch we hiked up to Dragons Hill on Santa Cruz Island to see the land iguanas. The sun was scorching hot by afternoon, and we were only able to spot about three of them (which was ok for us, since we were still pretty pumped from the shark encounter haha).
We boarded the boat one last time to make our way back to Puerto Ayora...and then came the boat ride from hell ....for Christine. This was the last night, and the worst night for Christine. The water was exceptionally rough, and it did not settle well with Christine (even with the motion sickness pills). She ended up tossing her cookies twice - once off the side of the boat, and the other in the cabin. Half the group didn't make it to dinner that night. I can usually handle motion pretty well, but I didn't have much of an appetite (and I always have an appetite for all-you-can-eat-buffets!).
Finally we made it through the night and it was time to leave the boat and head back to dry land. Half the tour got dropped off to see the Darwin Center, while the other half stayed on for an additional 3 days. In the Darwin Center, we got to see the famed giant tortoises, including the pen where Lonesome George used to live. Lonesome George was the last male tortoise subspecies from Pinta Island. Attempts to breed it with two females from another subspecies were unsuccessful. We spent only an hour here because we had to meet our tour operator to begin our Highlands Tour.
This tour turned out to be somewhat sketchy. We met our Tour Operator at 8am, and only had about 2.5 hrs (for three sights) for the tour before we had to check in at the airport (which was an hour away). Before booking, we repeatedly asked the Operator if there would be enough time for the tour, and of course, he guaranteed that there would be more than enough time. Since we really wanted to see the giant tortoises in their natural habitat, we decided to believe him. The three sights included the Lava Tunnels, Los Gemelos Pit Craters, and seeing the Giant Tortoises. We only got to spend about 10-15 mins at each sight, which was pretty disappointing, but at the same time, we kind of anticipated it. How else were we going to fit 3 sights in 2.5 hrs, plus an hour drive to the airport?
So...was it worth the splurge?
Hell yeah!! We knew that the Galapagos would put a huge dent into our budget, but we both thought that it was definitely worth it!!