I’m so excited by our trip to the Galapagos Islands that I’ve taken it upon myself to skip details of life in Cuenca and will come back to it.
Initially a little unsure about visiting the islands we wondered if perhaps our pennies might be better spent doing an extended exploration of Ecuador and all the other things this country has to offer. After some family persuasion (Aunty Val) and David Attenborough viewing, we figured the expense was probably worth it. All I’ll say now is that we are hoping to plan another visit to this unique place we fell in love with.
Made famous by Charles Darwin whose studies of the plants and animals played a pivotal role in the development of his theory of evolution by natural selection. This archipelago of volcanic islands sit on the Pacific Equator and are a gold mine of native wildlife and bewildering landscapes which leave you feeling like each boat ride somehow ferries you to another planet.
Animals in the Galapagos Islands are not fearful of humans. Under Ecuadorian laws they are completely protected and the preservation and care of the islands makes it so they are the ones calling the shots – this is their home and we are the visitors. As curious about us as we are them.
We chose to do a self (Victoria)-organised land based tour of the islands, using the inter island speedboats and doing day tours, as opposed to a cruise. Either way there is no getting out of spending a lot of time on the water in boats, which can be a bit unsettling on days when the seas were rough! The itinerary I put together was a jam packed 9 days that left us on a high at the end of every one of them, but here are some of the most memorable moments for us:
The first animal we encountered as we took a leisurely stroll along Tortuga Bay was the marine iguana, unique to the Galapagos and modern lizards in that they can live and forage in the sea. Upon his first encounter, Darwin called them ‘hideous looking creatures’ which I can absolutely understand. Although after hanging out with them quite a bit, as they are in abundance on most of the islands we visited, we found them to be quite endearing. Unless you are in harms way of the impressive expulsion of salt water through their nostrils – an adaptation that evolved which allows them to live in salt water.
The water in the Galapagos is often quite cold – there was a lot of intense shivering with all the long bouts of snorkelling we did – so being cold-blooded, the iguanas spend much of their time sunning themselves on the rocky shores and beaches. They seem to favour group hugs as they bask in the sunshine and on extended observation there’s a lot of love going around.
We did have a very special moment when snorkelling on one of the tours and spotted some marine iguanas who enthusiastically swam up to our small group then continued to swim with us as if part of the crowd, without a care in the world. Where else in the world can one find wild animals who feel they are one with humans? The trust was unique to the Galapagos and every day delivered more of the same.
The giant tortoises are of course a big deal here, so iconic that the islands are named after them. They are the worlds largest tortoises with life spans in excess of 170 years.
Our favourite close-up encounters with these giant tortoises was up in the highlands of the island Santa Cruz at Rancho Primicias, where one is essentially seeing them out in the wild. Here we thankfully traded our shoes for some wellingtons and then walked through the tall grass and mud of the huge ranch looking for tortoises.
Spending time with these wizened old souls did feel a little like we’d stepped back to the prehistoric ages. In such close proximity we really got to see how battered their shells get and with their leathery and wrinkled necks they do look rather ancient.
As the tortoises delight in mud baths all seems very cool, calm and collected yet in no uncertain terms are you alerted if they aren’t happy with something. They hiss, exhaling air so they can make room to protect themselves by pulling in their heads that go all the way past their front legs.
The island of Isabela was probably our favourite in the end (once we found the only decent place to eat) as it seemed to have such an incredible amount to offer all in the one place.
Arriving at Isabela’s Puerto Villamil the locals give a wonderful greeting. Hosts of sea lions are seen and heard raucously barking in the waters, laying about on the rocks, boats and port, not budging an inch as you need to manoeuvre your way around them with suitcases. Look a little closer and the smallest penguins in the world can be spotted frolicking, the rainbow coloured Sally Lightfoot crabs sitting on the rocks and walls, rays swimming in the water, Blue-footed boobies and pelicans flying around. It felt like another ‘wonderful world of Disney’ moment.
Simply snorkelling at the port provided an eventful and fun afternoon with the abundance of animals and marine wildlife.
There are two day tours from Isabela and both delivered mind blowing experiences.
On the Las Tintoreras tour we spotted our first white-tipped reef shark which we later became very familiar with as we snorkelled with them, occasionally having some very close, face to face encounters which raised the pulse a tad.
The big ‘wow’ moment of this tour was swimming with the ginormous sea turtles. The grace that these man sized creatures have whilst swimming is mesmerising and we were able to swim along side them with only a couple of feet between us -magic! So sorry we have no underwater camera to share these turtles with you.
Arriving at Los Tunneles after our Manta Ray and Humpback Whale spotting on the way was a bit of an adventure in itself. The captain had to skilfully direct the boat through the big breaks in the open ocean before we arrived at the calm, blue, clear waters. Combined with the volcanic underwater tunnels – many of which are partially submerged so that the arch can be seen above the water and the rest of the tunnel underneath- cacti growing on top, the place was mesmerising and felt like we had arrived at a different world.
Slowly and carefully we weaved through the maze of tunnels before stopping to get off and have our most intimate encounter with the Blue-footed boobies.
Not unique to the Galapagos but certainly the healthiest you’ll find – the vivid blue of their feet gives this away – these birds looked beautiful as they calmly sat on arches everywhere you looked. Allowing us to get ridiculously close without budging an inch.
We even got a performance of their elaborate mating ritual which starts with the males lifting their feet up and down whilst strutting before the female. The vividness of the blue feet is very important here. His dance goes on to involve raising his vast wings and tail with his head and bill up to the sky and ends with a final display of his feet. BRAVO! I wanted to applaud at the end.
Whilst sea lions are everywhere on the islands and we were constantly snorkelling with them in close range, the small island of Santa Fe has a large colony of them that are known to be particularly playful. Swimming along the coastline, we had such fun with these curious, puppy dog like creatures as we twirled around with them, blowing bubbles. Provided we steered clear of the protective males, it was endlessly entertaining and only the relentless chattering of our teeth finally got us out of the water.
This already seems rather long and I haven’t touched on golden rays as we snorkelled through mangroves, seahorses, the magnificent male frigate birds with their almost comical puffed up red throat pouches, great blue herons and the schools of tropical fish. As I said earlier, it was a jam packed 9 days.
Upon departing the Galapagos we went our separate ways to Sydney and New York for visa and family affairs and are currently packing up the place we have called home in Cuenca. With a brief diversion, we are heading to another mountainous town in Peru – Cuzco. I’m pretty sure many of you know what the next planned big adventure will be including…