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Published: December 16th 2022
(Day 164 on the road)
Listo, I am back in continental Ecuador with a wealth of unforgettable memories after ten amazing days on Galapagos. Nestled in the Pacific Ocean, the Galapagos Islands are a unique and breathtaking destination, home to an array of exotic wildlife and landscapes unlike anywhere else in the world. I had opted for a land-based trip (as opposed to taking a multiday-cruise), and I feel it was the right choice - I was constantly amazed by the natural beauty and diversity of the place. Of course, it was a lot cheaper that way, but I am also very bad with taking boats, pretty much getting very seasick all the time. I spent my days exploring the three islands of Santa Cruz, Isabela and San Cristobal – and the 2h boat-crossing from Isla Santa Cruz to Isla Isabela was already very tough for me. So tough in fact, that I opted to fly from Isla Isabela to Isla San Cristobal four days later, instead of taking two more boats on the very rough seas here. I am unsure how I would have survived for days on a small cruise ship. I certainly would not have enjoyed it. Plus,
the inter-island flight in a tiny nine-seater plane was an experience in itself.
I based myself in the respective small towns of the three islands I visited, and did day trips from there. For the first day or so however, I needed a little reality-check, as my expectations of Galapagos were certainly exaggerated. I somehow expected wild animals to roam around everywhere, possibly a bit like in a Jurassic Park movie. I assume this happens to those famous places that you have dreamed off visiting for such a long time: When you get there, you are bound to be a little disappointed.
My first impression was a bit of a shock for me – the town of Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz was a noisy, fairly chaotic affair. I had expected a quaint, little island town, and while it wasn’t really ugly as such, it was still anything but pretty. The streets were full of back-to-back tour agencies, souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants. There were also lots of noisy dogs everywhere (both stray and with owners). So noisy in fact that I had to change accommodation at one point, as the dogs would literally bark all night
and I couldn’t sleep at all. I also saw dogs chasing iguanas on the beach, with only the robust interference of an Argentinian women preventing the dogs from killing the iguana. Pretty amazing, as there were signs everywhere on their ongoing efforts to eradicate hundreds of thousand of introduced goats and rats from the islands, yet they appear to do very little against the dogs freely roaming the streets. There were also no laws requiring dogs to be on leashes. I didn’t get it.
My expectations of the Galapagos Islands were further challenged as I noticed a lack of environmental awareness among the local population. Part of me had expected a lot less old diesel pick-up trucks driving around, and more electric cars or maybe even electric golf buggies. After all, distances were really short, so banning cars that produce emissions isn’t really a far-fetched thought I would have imagined. Instead, the people driving these oversized vehicles on Galapagos showed very little awareness of pollution or climate change in general. Many roads were littered with rubbish that was thrown out of car windows.
Also, the drivers pretty much left their car engines running all the time. Popping into
the supermarket for some grocery shopping – leave the car engine running. Taxis waiting by the side of the road for passengers – leave the engine running. Buses waiting for their departure in 45 minutes – leave the card engine running. It became irritating after a while: You walk down any road in town and regularly see completely empty cars with their engines running. The cheap price of oil in Ecuador seemed to contribute to a culture of
leaving car engines running all the time, but still…?
After adjusting to the reality that not everything is perfect even in paradise, I started exploring the island. I realized that the beauty of Galapagos does not lie in its towns, but rather in the stunning landscapes and unique wildlife that can be found on day trips away from the towns. So that’s what I did. And I wasn’t disappointed. To the contrary, it was often simply amazing.
Especially on Isla Santa Cruz and Isla Isabela, small lizards and big iguanas were almost everywhere, basking in the sun on the most unlikely of surfaces. As these little creatures need the sun to warm up, they would lie around literally anywhere. In
fact, it was sometimes hard not to step on them, especially when these dark animals were sunning themselves on the equally black lava stones, making them very hard to spot, even though they are quite big. On a number of my hikes, I was surprised that I didn’t actually spot many of them until the very last second.
And this is what made Galapagos so special for me: The animals are almost not afraid of humans. The iguanas (or the sea lions I saw in great abundance on Isla San Cristobal later on), simply don’t move an inch, even when you nearly step on their long tails. It was pretty fascinating: You sit on the beach and iguanas or sea lions “walk” all around you, not caring one bit if you are there or not. I think this experience was the most special for me. It felt like a very peaceful co-existence between humans and animals.
On Santa Cruz, the highlight was witnessing the giant tortoises that roam the island (besides seeing very cute blue-footed boobies near Playa Tortuga). I saw the tortoises first in the Charles Darwin Research Station, where I learned about the efforts to protect
and preserve these majestic creatures. They basically nurse the little tortoises from when they are still in their eggs until the age of four, when they release them into the wild. And while the giant tortoises were threatened by extinction at one point, there is now a healthy population again on Santa Cruz. Wandering the back roads in the interior of the island in search for some lava tunnels (very cool as well), it was simply amazing to see these giant (up to 150kg in body weight) yet super-slow animals grazing in the fields, sharing the space with cows, or even seeing them walking in the middle of the road.
On Isla Isabela, my highlight was a full-day boat trip to an area called Los Tuneles, which included two snorkelling stops. On the first stop, we saw two sea horses, and on the second spot we saw everything that was possible I feel: Giant sea turtles, dozens of sharks, and a giant 2 metre long ray. It was absolutely amazing to swim with these beautiful animals (although the water was very cold, even when wearing a neoprene suit).
And the last island I visited, Isla San Cristobal, the
most beautiful thing were there thousands of sea lions everywhere. They were literally inhabiting the main town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, laying on park benches (and of course the beaches), robbing around on the sidewalk, or simply sleeping right in the middle of the road. My favourite place was a small beach close to town, where the ratio of humans to sea lions was roughly 50-50, with nobody really minding each other. And it was funny to spot the new tourist arrivals on the island: These were the ones who were still taking pictures of the sea lions. For anyone who had spent a few days on the island already, the sea lions had become such a normal sight that you didn’t even notice them anymore. Except the smell, that is – it can be quite horrific.
Cost wise, Galapagos was super expensive. I spent more money in my ten days there than I normally spend in an entire month of travelling. Prices were high (especially for organised tours, which are required in most places), while standards were low, and many times it seemed that everybody was just out to extract maximum value from the tourists. For instance, foreigners
are only allowed to book the most expensive flight categories to Galapagos ("Premium"), whereas Ecuadorians can buy the cheapest seats ("Basic"), and locals from Galapagos get an additional 50% discount on top of that. Or when taking an inter-island boat, you have to pay for the boat, then you have to pay for the agency to sell you the ticket, then you have to pay to enter the pier, then you have to pay for a small taxi boat to ferry you less than 20 seconds to the actual boat (although the actual boat could easily dock at the pier itself), on the other island you have to pay for another taxi boat, and finally you have to pay to enter the island (even though you already paid 120 dollars previously to enter the Galapagos archipelago as such). It just felt like pure money-making at times.
Also, Galapagos was the first place I travelled to where I was systematically overcharged / short-changed in restaurants. While this hasn't happened to me once in the last five months of travelling, it happened five or six times in ten days on Galapagos. When pointing out to the waiter that the change was
incorrect, apologies and the correct change was always offered, but it happened so consistently that it did not seem like honest mistakes, but rather a standard practice on the islands. Shame.
On a more personal level, I was unfortunately struggling with fever twice during my ten days on Galapagos; first right after my arrival on day one (combined with a pounding headache for two days), and then again (combined with a bad stomach upset this time), during my last two days on the islands. This was a bummer, as I wanted to explore as much as possible, and not really lay low. Plus, I never really get sick, and this was already the third time now in the last two months that I had caught something. It also meant that I wasn’t able to do the full day boat tour I had planned for my last day before flying back to the mainland. Ah well, one can’t have it all, and I did a nice and easy hike instead, spending a wonderful sunset on a beach full of sea lions and other tourists, which was magical.
And this concluded my time in Ecuador. After taking a half-empty flight
back to continental Ecuador (the effects of Covid are very visible in many places, with tourist numbers really down and many places closed down for good), I spent a couple of days again in Guayaquil, treating myself to a nice hotel with a pool and sauna for a change. And then it was time to leave Ecuador and push south across the border into Peru. Muchas gracias Ecuador, I had an amazing time, with many special memories that will stay with me (hopefully) forever.
My route in Ecuador: Tulcan - Otavalo - Quito - Mindo - Papallacta - Tena - Rio Verde - Banos - Quilotoa - Latacunga - Cotopaxi - Salinas - Chimborazo - Riobamba - Alausi - Cuenca - Guayaquil - Isla Santa Cruz (Galapagos) - Isla Isabela (Galapagos) - Isla San Cristobal (Galapagos) - Guayaquil.
Next stop: Mancora (Peru). To view my photos, have a look at pictures.beiske.com.
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