Over the course of seven days, we took in eight of the Galapagos Islands, each of which had something special for us to see that wouldn’t be seen elsewhere on the Islands. All in all we went to:
- Day 1 – Monday 6th June, Baltra and Bachas Beach on Santa Cruz
- Day 2 – Tuesday 7th June, Isabella Island (AM Titorera Lagoon, PM Tortoise Breeding Centre)
- Day 3 – Wednesday 8th June, Floreana Island (AM Cormorant Point and Devil’s Crown, PM Post Office Bay)
- Day 4 – Thursday 9th June, Espanola Island (AM Punta Suarez, PM Gardner Bay)
- Day 5 – Friday 10th June, Santa Cruz (AM Highlands, PM Darwin Centre)
- Day 6 – Saturday 11th June, San Cristobal (AM Punta Putt, PM Cerro Brujo)
- Day 7 – Sunday 12th June, Santa Fe and South Plaza
I have to say that the sea lions were definitely my favourite animal of the trip, which we saw nearly everywhere, but were so funny to watch. We got to swim with them twice, the first time with around seven pups who were all very playful. We also learnt that sea lions have external ears and use their front flippers to swim whereas seals don’t have external ears and use their rear flippers to swim. I know most get far more excited by the sea turtles, and we were lucky enough to swim with those too, but they couldn’t beat the sea lions for me.
We saw giant tortoises both in a breeding centre and in the wild. I was surprised at how many different species there are, and our guide explained that even recently researchers determined that what was once thought as once species is actually two. Care is taken to keep the species of giant tortoise separate in the breeding centres, with some islands only having centres for their own species. The tortoises are kept in the centres for 25-30 years, which is the time it takes for them to reach sexual maturity and produce young in captivity before being released. By this time they are also large enough to see off any possible predators.
The Galapagos Islands are also known for the iguanas that arrived, possibly by floating on vegetation, all the way from the Amazon. The iguanas separated into land and marine species, with some further species differentiation occurring after that. The land iguanas largely eat cactus, that grows not just as the plants we’re used to seeing, but also as large trees which can be up to 100 years old.
The marine iguanas evolved to eat seaweed as a result of land-based vegetation being in short supply. We saw two species, one of which is typically black, and another that is green and red. Because of the salt that they consume, the marine iguanas also evolved to expel the salt through their nostrils.
Once you’ve stopped making childish jokes, it’s time to see the boobies. Although we saw some blue footed boobies beginning to court and nest on Isla de la Plata, it was here in the Galapagos on San Cristobal that we got to see them with chicks. Nesting pairs usually have two or three eggs, but only one chick typically survives, and it’s often the first to hatch as it will have had a couple of days of feeding before one of its siblings hatch.
We saw three species of boobie, the rather common blue footed boobie, the Nazca or mask boobie which was largely isolated to one island that we visited, and the very rare red footed boobie. Although we were lucky enough to find the latter, I didn’t manage to get a photo where you could actually see the red feet. It still isn’t known how or why the blue and red footed boobies evolved these feet colourings.
On Española we saw the colony of albatross, a bird that can have a wing-span of up to two meters. Because of their size, albatross usually require a cliff to jump off in order to achieve flight, although some of the more experienced adults can sometimes take off by running along the ground. The courtship dance of the albatross is really something to watch, and although I didn’t capture it on video, I did manage to photograph several parts of the dance that they do.
Of course, the bird watching wasn’t limited to just the more well known birds. I can’t remember everything we saw, although I do know the names of everything I managed to photograph including the yellow warbler, blue-grey heron, nightwatch heron, mocking bird, frigate, flamingo, swallow tail gull and Galapagos hawk. It was possible to get quite close to many of these birds. Indeed, the mocking bird is quite happy to hop around you and even on you.
The animals I didn’t manage to get many photographs of myself are those that were underwater. Luckily, one of the guys in our group took photos with his GoPro and then sent them to us. We snorkelled nearly every day and saw many species of fish, the majority of which I can’t name. Like many of the birds, the fish seemed quite happy with us swimming with them. Having spotted a few rays near to shore, which I say doesn’t count, on the last day we finally saw some stingrays and one eagle ray in deeper water. We only saw sharks on one day, and that was when they were sleeping in a narrow rock pool.
I can’t really put in to words how amazing visiting the Galapagos Islands have been. Before we arrived, I’d said to Andy that I didn’t feel that we’d experienced anything particularly “magical” as one imagines to happen whilst travelling. Sure, we have seen some spectacular sights, and I’m not complaining about that in the slightest. However, the Galapagos were on a different level. The boat might have had beds that bit too short which left me grimacing in the morning, but the wildlife never failed to put a smile on my face. If you can save up the not inconsiderable funds it takes to visit, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this as part of a trip to South America.
How we did it
We booked the boat trip on a catamaran with the Andean Travel Company via the online travel agent galapagosislands.com. The agent offered to book our flights too, but we found that it was cheaper to do this directly. We flew to Baltra Island with Avianca where we were picked up by our tour guide and taken to Nemo I, our boat for the week. At the end of the week, we were taken back to the airport. So, all in all, it was easy to do in terms of connections.
We booked the trip months before leaving as we expected the Galapagos to be difficult to get on to due to the likely number of tourists. However, I don’t think our expectation held true. Many people booked onto the same boat a day or two before we departed. So, there’s clearly options available at the last minute.
As for costs, well, the Galapagos can’t be done cheaply, it’s just not possible. We spent USD 2,400 each on the eight day boat trip, and a further USD 400 on flights from Guayaquil to Baltra Island, and Baltra back to Quito. I suspect booking flights early is good for getting the price down, but perhaps booking the boat trip last minute gives the advantage of being able to bargain on price. As it was, we decided not to ask other guests what they paid on the basis that we might find ourselves with buyer’s remorse if we compared prices.
I’ve included the official routes of Nemo I in the pictures above. The key thing to know is that the routes and their timing are organised centrally by the Island’s administration in order to spread out the footfall. So, if you have particular islands in mind, it’s probably worth checking the route of the boat you’ll be on.
Whilst we absolutely enjoyed the Galapagos, we both agreed we’d probably have been OK departing with part of our group after the first five days. I think we were fortunate that the first five days took in pretty much all the wildlife we were likely to see. On the final three days, the main addition was snorkelling and seeing both stingrays and eagle rays whilst in the water. Obviously, it can’t be guaranteed that you’ll see every animal, but we saw sea lions just about everywhere, turtles on a few occasions, plenty of blue footed boobies, and both land and marine iguanas in multiple locations. Also, whilst the boat is fairly spacious, the beds aren’t quite big enough for all those over about 180cm, although that does also depend which bunk you’re in. So, it became increasingly difficult to sleep which in some ways decreases the tolerance for being on a boat. After a few different experiences, we’ve reached the conclusion that doing anything for five days is pretty much enough!