Planning and Research
Exploring the Galapagos was a “must do” bucket list item. Who wouldn’t want to experience the exotic Galapagos Islands?
I mean think about it — visiting the islands that inspired Charles Darwin. But it was so much more.
Once there, I was awed by the beauty of both geography and exotic wildlife. I often found myself thinking that this must be a smaller version of what the world looked like thousands of years ago as it was still forming.
The Galapagos is a National Park managed by Ecuador. With such a fragile environment, Ecuador is doing its best to protect the area while maintaining access for tourists.
Visitors are required to be with a local certified local guide when exploring the uninhabited islands.
The guides ensure everyone maintains the proper distance from animals to prevent them from becoming stressed, as well as staying on the trails to protect the environment.
I appreciated the efforts made to protect this beautiful area.
Getting There – The Adventure Begins
The Flight From Quito
All passengers on the boat are on the same flight from Quito, Ecuador to Baltra Island, Galapagos. It’s fun to look around and wonder which people are on your trip.
Before boarding my flight, I had to secure a Galapagos certificate (which has a fee) and go through two security screens.
The first security screen is to identify foods that could be destructive to the area.
In Baltra, I went through customs where they checked again for banned foods and, of course, I paid the park entrance fee.
Getting to the Yacht
A wave of oppressive heat smacked me in the face the second I stepped off the plane.
Now I live in the southeastern United States where summer temps can easily go over 100 degrees Fahrenheit for 2 weeks straight and even I was wilting.
The sun is just unrelenting; you know you’re at the equator.
A wide brim hat and sunscreen with an SPF of at least 50 are necessities. Locals wear hats and long sleeve shirts when out for long periods of time.
After grabbing the luggage and exiting the terminal area, I saw my guide was standing by the exit with a sign with a few of my shipmates.
When she introduced herself, I had to stifle my urge to jump up and down while clapping my hands.
It turns out I got really, really lucky and wound up with a guide I had seen rave reviews about on travel websites. Guides can make or break a trip so having the best of the best is a real treat.
She was a wealth of information on the area and also very good at herding humans. The crew grabbed our bags and we headed to the boat.
Our journey to the yacht was a lesson that nothing comes easy in the Galapagos.
We took a bus across Baltra, boarded a local boat to ride across a waterway, took another bus to a marina, and finally loaded onto the Panga (what they call their dinghies) to the yacht anchored offshore.
But hey, we were about to experience the exotic Galapagos Islands so I didn’t expect it to be easy.
Seeing the Giant Tortoises
During one of the bus rides, we stopped at a local farm to see the famous huge tortoises featured in every book and magazine article about the Galapagos.
I wasn’t expecting to see so many animals just randomly wandering around.
The tortoises have managed to invade local farms and, since they’re protected, there isn’t much the farmers can do. Several realized the potential and began offering their farms as tourist locations.
Not all of the tortoises are ginormous, they come in a range of sizes. We saw two that were that really large size you imagine, but many others, while still large for a “turtle”, were much smaller than I thought they’d be.
The tortoises actually move pretty well and are faster than I gave them credit for.
Overall, it was a great start to the trip and since seeing a giant tortoise is a big reason for heading to the area, checking it off on day one was pretty great.
Life on the Boat
When we finally boarded the yacht, we were greeted with a drink. It turns out a custom cocktail every evening was part of the trip and I was not complaining.
The boat was comfortable with a nice interior sitting area and a top deck with lounge chairs under a large covered area. This area was also carpeted with artificial turf to protect your feet from burning if you wanted to walk around barefoot.
As the trip progressed, the crew created a complex rope system up top so we could hang our clothes to dry.
I will say that the food was a bit hit or miss on the trip. There were really good meals and okay meals.
To give you an idea, I recall a breakfast buffet with squid casserole as one of the options.
A Typical Day
Our tour of the western islands included: Isabela, Fernandina, Santiago, Santa Cruz, Rabida, Sombrero Chino, and Seymour Norte.
We had an active group on board and managed to finagle 3 to 4 outings a day, rather than the usual 2 to 3.
On a typical day, we would start with a morning hike, come back to the boat for breakfast then head out to snorkel.
The boat would move to a new location while we had lunch, then we’d head back out to snorkel or kayak, come back to change, and go for a hike or Panga ride.
After dinner, we would debrief with our guide or have a quick learning lesson about the area. The boat would then move to a new location overnight and we’d repeat.
While this might sound repetitive, the Galapagos islands are still forming thanks to the ongoing volcanic activity throughout the area, creating a diverse landscape so every day was a different experience.
On one island, you have ocean, beach, desert and lush green all within a 50-foot space. On another, there is thick black lava as far as you can see.
Experiencing the Exotic Galapagos Islands
We spent three days exploring Isla Isabela including a quick half-day at Isla Fernandina nearby.
Our first activity was a hike across a lava field.
Our guide recommended something other than flip flops or sandals for hikes. I had a pair of Keen sandals with closed toes and found they worked well. Pieces of lava got into the shoe here and there, but the hike was easy and I could shake the pieces out.
Some people preferred sneakers or hiking boots which seemed a bit much, but I have to agree that flip flops would have been challenging.
The area felt like stepping back in prehistoric times. The location where we docked and got out of the Pangas was full of sally crabs scrambling around on the rocks.
As we moved up towards the trail, we could see black Galapagos iguanas everywhere, and I mean everywhere.
Can’t see the iguanas? Let’s zoom in.
Exploring the Water
As hot as is it on land, it’s freezing in the water since it’s fed from the Humboldt current coming out of Antarctica.
This hot land, cold water environment is part of the reason the Galapagos has such diverse wildlife.
If really want to experience the Galapagos Islands, you’re going to have to brave the cold water.
Even though I had researched and knew what I was getting into, that first dip sucked the air out of my chest.
I had brought a wet suit jacket, which was enough once we got moving, but the initial plunge was freezing.
Strong currents make swimming difficult in some areas. The Pangas are there to ensure safety so I wouldn’t hesitate to go even if you’re not a strong swimmer. Just be aware, you could tire out quickly.
Braving the icy water was definitely worth it. We saw these beautiful starfish that are red with dots and also had a three-foot, white tip shark swim under us.
The shark ignored us and went on its way, but it was unbelievable to have it be that close.
Unfortunately, my underwater camera case broke so my pictures were lost on our second water outing. Note to self: always have a backup camera.
While exploring Isabela, we hopped on a small trolley which took us to a local Tortoise Breeding center.
These are essential to helping ensure the tortoises do not become extinct, but I still felt sad looking at the facility which was very bare with a lot of tortoises.
I was happy to move on as we picked up a local trail from the breeding center and headed to town. The tree and cactus lined path wound through a park setting and we were rewarded at the end with flamingos.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a live flamingo before this trip. They were just standing in the water, eating. I got to see one of them pick up its long leg and walk through the water which was pretty cool.
There were other birds that our guide was excited to show us, but I was all about the flamingos.
The Exotic Wildlife
On our first Panga ride, we saw Galapagos hawks and pelicans going after something in the water.
There were also tons of the Blue Footed Boobies which you hear a lot about. Their feet really are a bright blue and the males are known for a mating dance they do to attract females.
I don’t know why I expected to only see one or two of them, but once again I was surprised by the number of animals we encountered.
The crew manning the Pangas continued our ride by heading into a mangrove cove where large turtles and spotted manta rays swam alongside us.
At Fernandina, we stopped at a cove known for its wall of graffiti from pirates past landing in the area. Although there were newer “signatures”, there were also a lot of old markings.
We continued on with a hike up a hill and were rewarded with amazing views.
Look to the left and there are lush green hills and a lake formed in a crater. Turn 180 degrees right and you see nothing but lava fields.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of seeing so many environments that would normally require you to visit different places in the world, but here they’re just on one island.
The pictures below were all taken from the same spot. I stood in the same place and just turned to take each picture.
We stayed in the area to do some snorkeling and then had our first outing with the kayaks.
Luckily they were tandem kayaks because the currents we experienced snorkeling made paddling difficult.
The trade-off is seeing the wildlife living on the steep cliffs that jut straight out of the water. The only way to get close enough to see them is via kayak or Panga.
It was definitely a workout and I did not feel guilty hitting the lunch buffet a second time that day.
As our journey continued, we headed to Isla Santiago where we spent a good portion of the day walking on a beach of thick black lava.
It’s not like walking on a black sand beach. It’s an actual lava field and you can see how thick it is where the water eroded the lava and created giant holes.
When waves come crashing through, water rushes out of the holes like geysers.
There was one location the locals call “Darwin’s toilet” where the waves would explode out of a hole and drain back down.
Inside these craters, along the edges, are iguanas and, surprisingly, sea lions. Our guide said they had sharp claws that allowed them to climb almost vertically.
It seemed far fetched until we saw a sea lion climb out of the water and up the side of the lava. It definitely struggled, but finally managed to make it to a shelf.
Islas Santa Cruz/Rabida/Sombrero Chino
When visiting Santa Cruz we went for an evening Panga ride in another mangrove cove and got to see small hammerhead sharks swimming around us.
It was odd to be in such a lush area that was almost like a tropical rain forest before we got to Isla Rabida and Isla Sombrero Chino.
Rabida has beautiful red sand beaches thanks to the oxidation of the lava. I wasn’t expecting this type of breathtaking scenery.
When you think about the Galapagos Islands, you picture exotic wildlife, but the ecology can be just as incredible.
We saw an orange Galapagos iguana during our hike across Rabida. I was starting to think all of the iguanas were all black and lived in the lava until we encountered this guy.
Sombrero Chino has a prehistoric look, and this is where we came face to face with the Galapagos penguins, which were the last “must-see” animal on my list.
Wrapping Up Our Trip
Unlike a lot of trips where the last morning is spent loading your bags and pushing you off the boat, we made one last stop for a quick hike at North Seymour the day of our flights home.
This seemed like a summary of the trip. The male frigate birds were puffing out their red chests and blue footed boobies were doing their dance all to attract the females.
Large iguanas were sunning themselves in the trail, and the magnificent colors of red, blue and green blended into one picture.
Sadly, we had to head to Baltra for our flights home.
It felt odd to board a modern air conditioned plane after taking a step back in time for 7 to 8 days.
You get back into the daily grind all too easily when you return home.
I used Adventure Life travel agency, so all of the booking was done for me.
I researched flights on my own for options and price. They were able to secure the same flights at the same prices and there’s an added level of protection since they can help re-route if there are any issues.
Adventure Life was great. I had a point person to contact who answered all my questions and was there to help me through the steps.
I did do my own research to ensure I knew the ins and outs of the requirements.
They suggested I have the Galapagos certificate messaged to me during my stay in Quito, but it was more than double the cost than if I did it myself.
I checked on what time the desk opened at the airport and opted to secure it myself, although this meant getting to the airport early.
I stayed an extra day in Quito and had to arrange for a hotel. All taxis I had to figure out on my own, although you can secure a driver through the travel agency.
Things to Note
The companies running the boats send you a packing list – follow it.
Sunscreen with the highest SPF you can find and a hat that covers the back of your neck are necessities.
Have good shoes to walk in like sneakers, Keens, etc. for hikes. I would recommend shoes that are attached to your feet with straps and be aware that a lot of areas with lava can get uncomfortable if pieces get in your shoe.
Have plenty of cash on you in local currency.
You’ll need to pay for the Galapagos certificate, the park entrance fee, anything you purchase at the airport and tips for the guide and crew.
You can use your credit card in most places, but it’s always good to have cash.
The water is cold and the wet suits for rent are generally not in good shape and ill-fitting. If you have room in your bag, you can bring one yourself, or just purchase a jacket like I did.
The rooms on the yacht are small and basic. We were only in them to shower and sleep so I didn’t mind, but it’s not a cruise ship so don’t expect fancy.
Research ahead of time to determine what you can and cannot bring to the islands. Wrapped granola bars are often allowed, but I’ve heard that some brands are confiscated.
If you want to take some snacks with you, be sure they’ll clear.