Day 1: Tortoises in highlands of Santa Cruz Island
The Galapagos Islands, 1000 kilometers west of mainland Ecuador, are famous for their giant tortoises, colonies of Blue-footed Boobies, and many endemic birds and wildlife species. The isolation of these islands has led to the most famous studies on evolution in history.
We land at Baltra Airport at noon Monday, walking out to a sunny strip of cement surrounded by cactus. A warm breeze ripples through the grasses. Not far away, small yachts bob through the tranquil turquoise waters. We board a bus and head on to Puerto Ayora, on the opposite side of nearby Isla Santa Cruz. Puerto Ayora is the largest town on the Galapagos, accounting for roughly half of the island’s population of 30,000. Many people are surprised the the islands have such a large population, which is fueled by agriculture, fishing, and of course tourism.
After settling into our hotel and enjoying a fish lunch along the dock, we head to the island’s highlands with our guide Mauricio. First we walk through a lush Scalesia forest. Scalesia, an endemic Galapagos tree closely related to the sunflower, is home to many of Darwin’s finches. Next we visit a giant tortoise reserve, where huge tortoises nonchalantly graze on the lawn and wallow through mud pits mere meters away from us.
The last picture there is Christopher watching the giant tortoises bathing. We tasted some Galapagos-native coffee and then returned to Puerto Ayora, where a sunset and fish-and-rice dinner (what else would we eat?) capped off the day on a great note. After dinner we visited the bustling fish market. Here’s me in an old tortoise shell:
Day 2: Relaxing day on Bartalome
Early Tuesday we board Española II and head to Isla Bartolome, a beautiful islet whose photo appears in almost every Galapagos postcard, calendar, or tour agency website. On the two hour voyage to the island, turtles splash alongside the boat while albatrosses shearwaters glide past the bow.
Upon arriving to the island, a stubborn sea lion refusesd to move from the dock. Finally he drags himself into the calm green waters, only to get right the way of our second shuttle boat of passengers.
The view from atop the island’s volcano awes us, as does the snorkeling in the cove below. Before we jump in, two galapagos sharks swim by. In the calm, clear waters we float with turtles, play with sea lions, and swim with school upon school of curious fish.
Dinner back in Puerto Ayora is a delicious, freshly-caught lobster. The busy open-air restaurant is right next to the dock, where giant fish and squirming, Chihuahua- sized langostas (lobsters) are constantly being brought and sold.
Day 3: Tortuga Bay, most beautiful beach in Ecuador
In the morning, we walk two miles to beautiful Tortuga Bay. As with 97% of the Galapagos Islands, this is protected within the national park. The bay is emerald, the rocks are covered in giant cactus trees, and the shore is dotted with tangles of enchanting manglares – mangrove trees. We spend hours here swimming in the calm waters.
In the afternoon we snorkel in the bay of Puerto Ayora. Even so close to town, turtles, birds, exotic fish, and sea lions abound.
Day 4: A night camping on Isabella
Isabella Island is the Galapagos’s biggest and newest island, characterized by barren volcanic craters, forests of cacti, and rocky coastlines. The harbor is amazing – Galapagos Penguins eagerly follow schools of tiny fish right below the dock, turtles float below us as we swim, and sting rays flap past us through the waters. As with every island, iguanas lounge in the path, making it hard to walk anywhere.
A bit inland, we visit a tortoise conservation center below heading towards the hills to Campo Duro, where we camp for the night.
Day 5: Sierra Negra Volcano
We spend five hours hiking at Sierra Negra volcano. It is the second largest caldera in the world behind Yellowstone. There is little wildlife up here but many birds. A stunningly red Vermillion Flycatcher hops out of the fog onto a barren limb, a rare Galapagos Martin chirps overhead, and a Yellow Warbler sings from the trees.
We say goodbye to the sealions and penguins and head back to Santa Cruz, watching the sun set along the way.
Day 6: The last of six islands: Floreana
Our last full day is spent on Floreana Island, the southernmost in the archipelago. We see tortoises, learn about the history of pirates on the islands, and snorkel off a black sand beach. Back on Santa Cruz, we play a game of pickup basketball with some neighborhood kids. As it gets later, we watch the sun set over the port. We see golden rays, black-tipped sharks, and fish swimming under the dock’s lights after dark. A small heron lands feet from us with a mini sword fish in his beak. He drops it, watches it wriggle on the tiles, and then picks it up again. Finally he slaps the fish against the ground, breaking off the razor sword, and swallows the fish whole.
Alden, Christopher, and I wake up early for the sunrise, then hurry to Tortuga Bay, where we enjoy our last hour on the pristine beaches of the Galapagos. Back in town, we pack our bags and visit the Darwin Station, a tortoise captive breeding center and museum. Sadly, before we know it we’re on our way back to Quito. The day before our arrival in the Galapagos marked my half way point for my study abroad in Ecuador, but as this trip proved, a lot of adventures still lay ahead!