The Galapagos: A Natural Treasure

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” – Charles Darwin

Despite everyone raving about how great the Galapagos Islands would be, our expectations were far exceeded by the proximity to unique flora and fauna and appreciation for the efforts to preserve and share this incredible ecosystem.  Truly a one-of-a-kind experience! Located about 600 miles from the Ecuadorian coastline, the Galapagos was originally discovered in 1535 by the Panamanian Archbishop Fray Tomás de Berlanga. In the 16th century, pirates hid out on the islands and took advantage of the many caves to hide their looted stash. Their international fame, however, only occurred after Charles Darwin’s five years researching the animal life, which eventually led to his Theory of Evolution. With only 3% of the islands touched by humans (and a total population of about 25,000 based on the five inhabited islands), there are extremely strict protocols to protect the fragile eco-system and no more than 150,000 tourists can visit each year.

Aerial view of the Galapagos and its emerald green waters
Map of the main islands, including seahorse-shaped Isabela, the largest island, where we spent several days
One of the many sea lions loitering around town

We arrived on the flat, barren island of Baltra, once home to a U.S. Air Force base during WWII. Of the 20 volcanic islands in the archipelago, Baltra’s name to fame is the arrival point of the millions of tourists who have visited the islands, along with a few Galapagos cacti and various species of lizards.

We were told the best way to benefit from the Galapagos’ amazing eco-system would be to take a cruise. However, after searching, unsuccessfully, for an affordable cruise that would take us to some of the more remote islands, we opted to be DIY travelers. Given our preference for independent travel and exploration, this ended up suiting our needs and our budget much better. We were able to kayak, bike, hike, snorkel and swim on our own timeframe and in most instances without large groups of other people. We also took a number of day tours to reach some of the hard to get to places for snorkeling and saw some of the most fascinating marine and land animal life.

The ubiquitous marine iguanas found throughout all the islands
One of the many lava tunnels found on these volcanic islands
The popular snorkeling spot of Las Grietas with its volcanic cliffs
One of 12 species of turtles found in the islands, many of which are 150+ years old

The largest town in the Galapagos, Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz, is a bustling blend of locals and tourists as nearly everyone who visits the islands has a stop-over there. We found a slightly off-the-beaten path hotel, Casa Eden, that was close enough to walk to town and offered a more bucolic setting with lovely gardens with hammocks. During our stay, we were able to snorkel with sand sharks at Tortuga Bay, walk the rim of Los Gemelos volcano crater, listening to the twitter and fleeting visits of Darwin finches, and then bike the 30+ km (18 miles) downhill back to Puerto Ayora, stopping en route at Rancho Primicias to see giant tortoises as old as 150 years and walk through a 400 meter long lava tunnel. We also snorkeled in the narrow emerald green waters of Las Grietas, with dark volcanic cliffs raising up on either side and we also rented kayaks from Garrapatero beach where we saw sea lions bathing on lava rock, flying manta rays, and many pelicans, but alas no sharks.

Enjoy the landscape–it’s unique in the world
Lava flow at Sierra Negra, the most active volcano in the Galapagos and one of 6 volcanos on Isabela island
Near the summit of Sierra Negra volcano

After a couple of days in Santa Cruz, we took the bumpy 2+ hour boat ride to seahorse-shaped Isabela island. Although the largest island in the archipelago, Isabela is also one of the newest (a mere one million years old). With six volcanos, the majority of the island has never been explored with the only navigable route leading from the only town, Puerto Villamil, to the closest volcano, Sierra Negra, which we summitted and had the opportunity to walk along amazing black and red lava flow. It’s also one of the Galapagos’ most active volcanos; its last major eruption was in 2006 but it also erupted in one small part in June 2018. From a distance we were able to see sulfuric smoke but were gratefully saved any activity on the day of our hike.

Lava rock formations at Los Tuneles
Snorkeling in Las Tintoreras

Puerto Villamil feels like an outpost—a sleepy, small town with many unpaved streets and a relaxed vibe, it is littered with restaurants and tour agencies offering day trips to scuba dive or visit Los Tuneles.  

Sleeping sea lions lie leisurely on the beach benches in Isabela
Stunning sunset on Isabela island

There were sea lions swimming in the harbor around the small landing for commercial boats and other sea lions lying on the park benches and under the mangrove trees on the small community beach.  We also noted a fair amount of development in progress, which likely indicates the growing popularity of travel to this island and associated tourist industry. Highlights of our stay on Isabela included viewing the famous blue-footed boobies and tiny Galapagos penguins and snorkeling with sea lions and giant sea turtles after kayaking to nearby Los Tintoreras (where Julia unfortunately also fractured a rib while trying to get back into her kayak), a day tour to los Tuneles where we saw stunning marine life, including the elusive seahorse and walked across lava outcroppings, and biking past stunning beaches to visit the Wall of Tears, built by prisoners when Isabela was a penal colony mid-20th century. The sunset from Isabela was one of the most spectacular we have ever seen. 

The elusive seahorse near Los Tuneles
Talia walking on the beach during the sunset

Our naturalist guides were very informative and clearly passionate about sharing the uniqueness of Galapagos natural treasures.  For example, time takes on a different meaning when considering that the islands are relatively new landmasses (the majority of the islands formed less than one million years ago), yet relatives of the Galapagos green sea turtle likely swam the ocean and walked the beaches along with dinosaurs (65 million years ago) and sharks pre-dated them.  Nearly 20 percent of the marine life around the islands is native and restricted to the area, including the marine iguanas, which are only lizards in the world that are able to swim and feed almost entirely on seaweed (algae).  In addition, it is the only natural habitat in the northern hemisphere, on the equator no less, where a species of penguin lives. 

As with any travels, things don’t always work out as planned and communications sometimes gets lost in translation (despite speaking Spanish), which was amplified by the laid-back island culture in comparison with our North American time and detail oriented expectations. The tour agency failed to send the promised car to take us to the port and after waiting for 15 minutes for a taxi we nearly missed our twice-daily boat back to Santa Cruz. When we arrived at the port, our boat had already left, but fortunately we were able to get on another boat last minute (while of course having to pay a second time). Then, when we returned to Casa Eden, we discovered that our room, for one of the two nights we had reserved on our return, was occupied so we had to find another hotel at the last minute for our final night. Additionally, we had to be flexible on two occasions when boat engines broke down and passengers had to divide into the different boats that stopped to help us.  Fortunately, none of these were major issues and didn’t dampen our enthusiasm, although did create a bit more stress and take up extra time. 

Sharks have inhabited the islands for millions years
One of the many iridescent fish swimming beneath us
Sea turtle and rainbow fish competing for algae

Our last day in the Galapagos was the grand finale of our trip. We booked a day trip to Pinzón, a small island about 1.5 hours off the coast of Santa Cruz. We hit the jackpot with three different snorkels in some of the clearest waters we’d seen, vacillating between marine blue to emerald and jade green, allowing us to see several species of starfish over fifty below us. Absolutely stunning. We were able to swim within feet of many varieties of iridescent fish, white-tipped sharks, Galapagos penguins, baby sea lions being carefully monitored by their mothers, and giant sea turtles. A family of dolphins also joined us and swam along our boat for a while. We had to keep Talia from jumping in and swimming with them. Observing the often-territorial interactions of some of the animals was fascinating and you could definitely see how Darwin came up with his theory of evolution. For example, we were fascinated one day observing a large red/yellow Sally lightfoot crab chasing some of the smaller crabs. It was like a cat and mouse game but the smaller crabs kept their distance. Another time we observed a small school of striped rainbow fish swimming under a giant turtle snacking on the same algae as the turtle. And while sea lions are innocuous and friendly for the most part—often found sprawled on benches in the middle of towns, beware of the alpha male who is extremely territorial.

School of Damsel fish

As Darwin’s quote above aptly describes—life in the Galapagos is constantly adapting. New species are formed in part thanks to conservationists’ efforts, while others become extinct (as with the death of Lonesome George in 2012, the last remaining Pinta Island tortoise who died despite international efforts to save the species from extinction). Tourism has played a further role in eroding the fragile eco-system and we were happy that at least our guides were extremely mindful of preservation.  The government and other agencies have also taken remarkable steps to protect the ecosystem including prohibiting commercial fishing (sharks are plentiful because they are not hunted and generally not dangerous because they have plenty of fish to eat), monitoring and managing invasive species like blackberries, and protecting endemic species by setting up breeding areas and imposing heavy fines (in 2016, an airport shuttle drive was fined over $15,000 for running over a land iguana). 

While we were happy to return to the cooler temperatures of Cuenca, we could have happily stayed longer to see what other mysteries unfolded in these fascinating islands.

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