The Galapagos Islands

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South America » Ecuador » Galápagos
May 10th 2018
Published: December 21st 2018
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I woke up to the sounds of the overhead PA system making flight announcements in English and Spanish. Bev was still sleeping across several seats in the row across. We had met up the night before, she coming from Montreal and me coming from Cusco, and had spent the night in Jorge Chavez International Airport trying to get a few hours of sleep. I seemed to be recovering from my recent bout of traveler's diarrhea and even had some appetite after not having eaten much of anything for the past 24 hours.

Only a few weeks prior, Bev and I had come up with a crazy plan to reach the Galapagos Islands. This was a destination that both of us longed to see, considering our love of unique biodiversity. Bev often says I have "the cockamamie" when I propose such plans, as I often do. Somehow this one had worked out and we found ourselves in South America, ready to board a series of flights to this bucket list destination. I had already spent 12 days in Peru and Bev had some vacation time from work that she just so happened to coincide with some of mine. I guess it helped that we both were able to get down here on flight passes. We gathered our things and then walked over to our assigned gate. We then learned that our flight would be delayed for an hour. An hour later we learned that our flight was delayed indefinitely. Then we learned that our flight was cancelled. We had booked flights with Latam Airlines and apparently the plane we were supposed to be on had been diverted due to a storm near Buenos Aires. While waiting for information we met a guy named Louis-Philippe, who was from Quebec City. He had been traveling for the last four months throughout South America and seemed to have had one hell of an adventure having seen such far off destinations like Antarctica and Easter Island. Latam airlines would only be able to get us on a flight at one in the morning on the following day but they would be providing us with hotel and meal accommodations until then. I wasn't too bothered by this and figured we'd get the opportunity to explore a bit of Lima. We got our vouchers and then Louis-Philippe and I had to go back to immigration to get our exit stamps revoked and get stamped back into Peru. Bev had to go through Peruvian immigration as she had just been in the airport since arrival. We shared a taxi into town, nearby to the Miraflores district. We would be staying at the Novotel. We checked in and then Bev and I went right to the restaurant as we were both famished. Breakfast was still being served. We filled our bellies then went to the room to rest a bit. After which we went back down to the restaurant and ate lunch. Then we headed out towards the Miraflores district and walked through some parks along the way. Once in Miraflores, we checked out the famous cat park which Bev obviously enjoyed a lot. Random stray cats seemed to populate the park for some reason and could be found lounging around benches, trees, garbage cans, pretty much anywhere. Since it was Sunday, the area was filled with people enjoying the nice weather and walking around. In the center of the park a large group of older people were dancing to Spanish music. We headed back to the hotel and arrived at dusk. We had some buffet dinner and then slept for about two hours, before making our way downstairs and meeting up with Louis-Phillipe again. We then headed back to the airport and boarded our flight to Quito.

We slept for a few hours on a piece of floor at the airport before boarding another flight to Guayaquil and then onward to Baltra Island. The excitement was palpable as the plane landed. The Galapagos Islands sit on the equator, about 1000 kilometers west of the Ecuadorian mainland. The islands were molded by volcanic lava and a number of active volcanoes still exist throughout the archipelago. As such the terrain has a distinct geographic look. The Galapagos are home to unique species not found anywhere else in the world, and theories are still being explored as to how certain land based species initially reached the islands from the distant mainland. These islands famously inspired Charles Darwin to develop the theory of evolution. Some endemic species include the Giant Tortoise, Flightless Cormorant, Galapagos Sea Lions, several types of Iguana, Blue Footed Boobies, Waved Albatross, Galapagos Penguin, and more. Many of these creatures have no fear of humans. There is a monumental environmental challenge to protect endangered species from invasive species as well as human activity. Approximately 96% of the overall landmass is off limits to people, and many areas are only accessible via expensive cruises. The temperature was scorching as we walked out of the airport and took a short ferry to the Island of Santa Cruz. Then we caught a public bus and spent the next forty minutes on our way to the town of Puerto Ayora, the most populated town of the archipelago with about 12000 inhabitants. We walked around a few streets near the port, and we took a room in the first guesthouse we visited called Sir Francis Drake since we were so exhausted. Ecuador's official currency is the almighty American dollar, making travel in Ecuador particularly expensive compared to surrounding South American countries. A typical guesthouse would end up costing us between 25-40$, which wasn't terrible for such a reportedly expensive destination when split between two people. Excursions and activities on the other hand are what really shoot up the costs, as we'd come to expect. I was happy that I could at least speak some very basic Spanish, because many people we encountered here had basic English skills at best.

We took a two hour nap and then went back out in the afternoon to explore. We encountered multitudes of Sea Lions lounging along the coast and marine Iguanas sunning themselves. Pelicans could be found throughout, sometimes dive bombing into the water to catch fish. We spent some time at the waterfront watching Galapagos sharks swimming along the pier and then we walked up a few blocks to Charles Binford street which had plenty of outdoor restaurants with attractive 5$ meal menus. We chose one and began eating a delicious fish meal when Louis-Philippe noticed us as he was passing by and joined us for a bit. He was planning on doing a lot of diving but didn't really have any other concrete plans. Neither did we at this point. We walked back to our guesthouse and went to sleep early.

And we woke up fairly early, intent on catching the ferry to the largest island of the archipelago, Isabela. Isabela was home to several active volcanoes and only a small portion of the island can be explored on foot. Curiously the island is shaped almost exactly like a sea horse. The ferry took about two hours to reach Puerto Villamil, the only town of approximately 2000 people. Environmental controls were in place, including searches of baggage upon arrival to ensure that we weren't bringing in any dirt or seeds that could affect the unique flora and fauna of the island. Puerto Villamil seemed like a quaint and compact village compared to Puerto Ayora. We traveled to the other side of the town, to a guesthouse called La Jungla. This place was close to the waterfront. We met Sandra who owned the place and discovered that she was also a biologist who was very knowledgeable about the Galapagos and its animals. Our room was simple but perfect for what we needed. We headed out to walk on the beach on our way back into town. We were freaking out over how many marine Iguanas there were all over the place. We also found loads of crabs drying themselves off on the rocks. We then needed to take shelter from the burning sun and walked into town, stopping to have lunch along the restaurant street, similar to Charles Binford in Puerto Ayora. Then we walked back towards the port and turned along a wooden walkway surrounded by mangrove trees. Along the way we had to get passed several sea lions who were just lounging on the walkway. We reached an inlet where a few others were already hanging out. Bev had brought some snorkeling equipment from home so we strapped on our gear and went in to explore what lay beneath. We saw sea lions, marine iguanas, a bunch of tropical fish. At one point I was able to track a giant Eagle Ray that was gliding along the sea floor. Eventually we headed back toward La Jungla, and took a path along some swamps where we got to view Flamingos. I always thought Flamingos were such funny but interesting looking creatures. We stopped back into our room and then headed toward the beach. There was a hut between our guesthouse and the beach itself that was serving various drinks with a sign saying "Happy hour". We decided to get some beers and had them as the sun was going down. Then we walked into town for dinner. We tried a new place and got a few courses for 8$. I had fish yet again, and was loving what was on offer. After dinner, we began thinking of what else we might want to do while on this island. We walked past a shop offering tours called Isotourex, and I began talking to an eccentric woman in Spanish. I got the gist of what she was talking about and we ended up signing up to check out the Sierra Negra volcano the next day. Back at the room we encountered two tarantula like spiders that I had to try to wrangle away from the bed. I don't have a problem with spiders but these things were massive!

We awoke early for our tour. Sandra prepared us a homemade breakfast before we went. A vehicle came to pick us up and we went all over Puerto Villamil to collect other people who would be coming with us. We then headed out on the one road that would take us to the highlands. It was overcast and misty. Simon, originally from England, but now living on Isabela worked as a naturalist and would be our guide. He spoke both English and Spanish. I chatted with some other people including a cool Kiwi dude with plenty of traveling experience. As we approached the Caldera, the clouds cleared and we were able to see the expansive views. We walked along the Caldera for about an hour along jungle path. Then we headed back to our starting point and had a packed lunch that was provided while gazing at finches flying to and fro. After that we were brought back to La Jungla in Puerto Villamil. We rested for a bit and then walked into town and booked another tour for the following day. Then we found a bike rental shop and took two bikes for the afternoon. We headed west (there's only so many roads to take) towards the path to la mura de las lagrimas (The wall of tears). We were riding on dirt roads, sometimes along the coast and other times inside the jungle. We stopped often to take in some views and got our first close up view of some wild giant tortoises! There were two tortoises along the path, opposite of each other, just grazing. It was incredible to look at. This was the typical Galapagos experience I was expecting. We watched as they lumbered along and ate small green apples that had fallen from the trees above. These apples are poisonous to humans but are the perfect food for tortoises. Bev had left her backpack on the ground near her bike and a tortoise decided that her backpack strap looked like food and started eating it until I figured I should pull it away! Then one of them came over to the other and mounted it, but then just stayed in place seemingly confused. After an extended time hanging out with these animals, we got back on the bikes and continued along the path. Eventually we reached the end of the road and walked towards the wall. Decades earlier there had been a penal colony here and the guards forced the prisoners to build this large wall out of surrounding volcanic rock. The wall itself served no purpose except to keep the prisoners busy. Many died while toiling away on it over the years. There were stairs that led up to a lookout of the surroundings with Puerto Villamil in the distance. Then we cycled back into town as the sun came down, passing multiple tortoises on the way. We returned our bikes at the shop and then went to eat dinner at our usual place.

We were up early yet again and ate breakfast at La Jungla. Then a truck came to pick us up and then went around town getting various other people, just as it had done the day before. This time however, we would be going to Los Tuneles on a day tour. We went to the port and then took a one hour boat ride to a really nice area for snorkeling. We had a really knowledgeable guide who spent time explaining to us all about the amazing flora and fauna of the area. We got to snorkel along with giant sea turtles, and many other types of fish. We spent about an hour here and then continued on the boat to a maze of volcanic rock formations. The crew expertly navigated between them until we reached a place to dock and eat lunch. Then we went to walk along the rocks and saw many blue footed boobies, another endemic species of the archipelago. We chatted with a couple from California who were on their honeymoon. We endured the hot midday sun as we took the boat back to Puerto Villamil. Then it was back to La Jungla and an afternoon siesta that was much needed. In the evening we passed by a dive shop called Natural Selection and met with Nouria who helped operate it. I figured it would be a shame to not at least attempt a dive while in the Galapagos. Bev had never done any scuba diving but figured she wanted to try. So we got fitted for equipment and watched an instructional video. Scuba dives are few and far between for me so I usually need a bit of a refresh. We would be meeting at the dive shop bright and early the next day. On our way to our regular restaurant we stopped by a bakery and got some amazing banana bread.

The next morning we ate our final breakfast at La Jungla and then checked out, walking into town with our backpacks. We reached Natural Selection and quickly headed to the port with the gear and our dive masters. Joining us were Isabella from Brazil, Katie from England, and Tim and Richy from the US of A. I would be diving with Katie and Isabella as they had previous diving experience, while the others would be going on an introduction dive. We arrived at a site called Loberia and got into the water. I was wearing a 7 inch wet suit, the thickest I've ever used, mainly because the water could be pretty cold. We descended to about 20 feet and the visibility wasn't that great. However we did see many large schools of fish and some sea lions that were diving deep down and getting pretty close at times. After the dive we got back on the boat and I saw Bev who had to abort her dive because she had become sea sick under the water! She was still nauseous on the boat but was getting better. Sadly she would not attempt another dive today, or possibly ever as she alluded to. We had a quick snack and then rested a bit, before gearing up again for dive number two. We went to a slightly different area and then descended even deeper this time. The water was much clearer. The highlight of this dive was seeing giant manta rays hovering along the water! Once back on the boat, we were served a big lunch before heading back to port. We then returned to Natural Selection to collect our bags and get some vids/pics taken during the dive. We then headed back to the port, and bid a sorrowful farewell to Isabela Island, whom we had grown quite fond of over the last few days. It was quaint, it was calm and it was beautiful. We boarded the ferry back to Santa Cruz and spent the next two hours at sea. I was pretty sleepy during the voyage. We walked the streets of Puerto Ayora after our arrival and found a decent place called Hostel Salinas. Then we headed over to Charles Binford street and got some dinner from the cheap menu at one of the outside restaurants. That night was spent relaxing the the room with Spanish TV on in the background.

We continued waking up again early, and the plan for today was to check out Las Grietas. On our walk to the ferry terminal, we stopped at a diving/snorkeling shop that was recommended to us by Louis-Philippe. I wanted to take advantage of doing some more dives while here and, although Bev was done with diving, she wanted to go on a snorkeling expedition. We organized some stuff for the following day with the owner Victor.. We then took the minute long ferry across the bay to Las Grietas, which is an inland earth fracture filled with clear brackish water. We had a decent walk to get to it and then took turns going in and going through the three "stages" until we reached an impenetrable wall of rock at the end. There were some pretty big fish that could be spotted. Luckily we finished swimming and left just as hordes of children arrived and disturbed the entire area. We walked along and found a viewpoint of Puerto Ayora. We then headed back to town and had lunch on Charles Binford street. Then it was time for a nice siesta. We woke up in the afternoon and went to the Charles Darwin Center to learn more about the particular flora and fauna of the archipelago as well as see tortoises and land iguanas in captivity. We then checked out some shops on the way back and stopped at our "usual" spot for dinner.

Yet another painfully early riser, and I ate breakfast with Bev before walking over to the dive shop. Bev would be heading over there a little later for her snorkeling experience. I grabbed a vehicle with Liam, another prospective diver that day, as we were heading to Baltra. We chatted for a while and I discovered that he was living a pretty unconventional existence. He was a vehicle driver for a company called Oasis Overland. This company takes travelers, using retrofitted trucks, on overland trips through entire regions of the world. Liam had spent the last eight months driving all over South America and before that had driven all over Africa. This piqued my interest for trips in the future such as Central Africa where logistics could be a nightmare for solo travelers. We arrived after about 40 minutes and met the other divers such as John from Ottawa, a French couple on a long South American backpacking trip, and others. Everyone except Liam had between 15 to 30 dives, a necessity because the waters surrounding most of the dive sites could be very rough and experience was required. We took a small zodiac to a much larger sailboat. From there we met the crew and the dive masters such as Marco. Marco explained that the initially dive site was looking quite murky so suggested another site that might offer us some better visibility. We all unanimously agreed to this. We arrived at a site named Mosquera and took the small zodiac towards the dive site. The waters were quite rough. I had on a 7mm wet suit for the cold waters. We were all assigned a partner and jumped in. The visibility was pretty poor for the most part. We descended to about 17 meters. During the dive we all followed Marco and saw white tipped and Galapagos sharks. As the dive came to an end we ascended and were picked up by the zodiac as it battled the choppy waters. Back on the sailboat we ate a snack and rested a bit before suiting up again. This time we would be diving at a nearby site named Seymour. I was hoping for some better visibility. As we approached Marco shouted out for everyone to get their masks on, then regulators, then jump! He reminded me of a military man at that moment. My body hit the rough waters and I realized I wasn't sinking fast enough. In fact I wasn't sinking at all. I was having a serious problem with my buoyancy and had to struggle to descend and keep descending until the increased pressure prevented me from bobbing back up. I had to exert myself quite a bit and burned through plenty of O's just to get down. Then I was breathing so fast that I continued to burn through my oxygen, as I tried to calm myself. The dive progressed and I realized that I was going through my oxygen reserve way too fast. I motioned to Marco and told him I was almost out and was going to ascend. Instead he gave me his spare regulator and I shared his oxygen for a few minutes before we headed back up. This has never happened to me before and it felt shitty but I guess it was a learning experience to get heavier weights in this type of environment. I did see some hammerheads during the dive. With our second dive complete, we were now back on the sailboat and I chatted with the French couple over lunch. Then we returned to port and took the car back to Puerto Ayora. Once back I met up with Bev and we went back to the room. She had an awesome day diving and saw plenty of marine life, and got to swim around with turtles. We took a short siesta and then walked around in the evening before eating dinner at our usual hangout. I got to say that Puerto Ayora had certainly grown on me.

It was still dark as we walked to the port for the early ferry to San Cristobal. We ended up getting some seats on the second level of the speedboat ferry. It was a cloudy morning and the sea was wavy. San Cristobal is the most eastern of the islands and the second most populous. The main town is called Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. The first thing we noticed after arriving from our two hour ride was how fishy it smelled! In fact the town is known for its potent fish stench because of all the sea lions that make their home on its beaches. We walked to a guesthouse we had heard about called Casa de Laura. It was a peaceful place with plenty of hammocks and gardens. The owners only spoke Spanish but luckily my basic grasp of the language was enough to get us an available room. Of course the next step was to take a much needed siesta. I was loving having siesta's as an almost daily occurrence. I would really miss this aspect of travel when it was all over. It was yet again a scorchingly hot day but since we had such limited time left, we headed out to walk around and see what this town was about. Everything here, just like the towns on the other islands, were easily within walking distance. We first headed onto one of the beaches were I was promptly charged by a disgruntled sea lion. Luckily I was a bit faster than it. We continued into town and then Bev began feeling really anxious and eventually had a panic attack. She gets these from time to time and I think the trigger might have been the extreme heat. We walked into an air conditioned convenience store and she tried to calm herself. Later on we went to a small hole in the wall diner for lunch before heading back to the room for a bit.

That evening we went back out and checked out the giant sea lion colony by night. I thought it was super entertaining to just observe them. There were pups trying to find their moms, sea lions farting, burping, coughing, pooping. Basically it was loud and it was lewd. Then we walked over to a burger joint we had heard about called Cri's for supper.

The next day we walked over to the nearby airport and boarded our Latam flight back to mainland Ecuador and then got a connection back to Lima, Peru. From there we only had a short time before we hoped to board our Air Canada flight back to Montreal on standby. It was close but we managed to get on. All in all it was an incredible trip and one of the most unique places I have ever visited so far.

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