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Ecuador: 5-Day Galápagos cruise

THE GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS

The Galápagos are about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador and consist of 16 main islands and 6 smaller islands. The first Europeans to discover the Galápagos were the Spanish, but subsequently they were frequented by English pirates who used the islands to attack Spanish galleons carrying gold and then latterly by whalers operating in the Pacific Ocean. In 1835 HMS Beagle bought a young Charles Darwin to four of the Islands where he noticed the finches were unique from island to island – through this study Darwin developed his theory of natural selection explaining evolution, which was presented in his book “The Origin of Species”. Since this time Ecuador declared the Galápagos a National Park and in 1978 UNESCO recognised the islands as a World Heritage Site.

OUR ITINERARY
Day 1: Santa Cruz Island
Day 2:  South Plazas Island and Santa Fe Island
Day 3: Espanola Island
Day 4:  Floreana Island
Day 5: Santa Cruz Island

DAY 1: SANTA CRUZ ISLAND

Today we had an early transfer to Quito airport to the famous Galápagos Islands. The Galápagos are about 600 miles off and consist of 16 main islands and 6 smaller islands. The first Europeans to discover the Galápagos were the Spanish, but subsequently, they were frequented by English pirates who used the islands to attack Spanish galleons carrying gold and then latterly by whalers operating in the Pacific Ocean. In 1835 HMS Beagle bought a young Charles Darwin to four of the Islands where he noticed the finches were unique from island to island – through this study Darwin developed his theory of natural selection explaining evolution, which was presented in his book “The Origin of Species”. Since this time Ecuador declared the Galapagos a National Park and in 1978 UNESCO recognised the islands as a World Heritage Site.

Our plane landed on Baltra Island, also known as South Seymour Island -all the islands have a dual identity. During World War II Baltra was established as a US Air Force base for patrolling the Pacific for enemy submarines. Today it is actually nothing more than a very barren island with a landing strip. The airport itself is minuscule and has limited facilities – the bags are bought off the plane and more or less dumped down – from which point it becomes a scrum to collect them.

We met our guide and resident naturalist for the week, a local man called Washington. He helped us on to our bus which took us down to the marina where we were to be transferred to the Guantanamera, our home for the week. Jack and Emily were amused by the 5 or 6 sea lions that had invaded the dock and were happily lying across the benches preventing us mere humans from taking a seat. After a few minutes, we were on the back of a motorized dinghy taking us across the magnificent blue-green water. The Guantanamera was very modest – there were only 16 passengers and 5 crew on board. After a couple of minutes, we set “sail” to our first stop Santa Cruz Island – about an hour away. En route, we basked in the bright equatorial sun closely observed by a handful of ever-watchful and opportunistic Frigate birds.

We moored up and took some lunch, after which we had our first wet beach landing. This involved a somewhat ungraceful scramble over the side of the inflatable dinghy into the glistening blue waters. Washington took us on our first trek along the sandy beaches of a Galapagos Island. Our first encounters were with the indigenous sea iguanas and an amazing number of red crabs – which flitted in and out of the rocks lining the beach. We also saw the indentations in the sand made by nesting sea turtles. Our tour took us a few feet inland where we found a brackish lagoon in which stood a solitary Galapagos flamingo (there are only 600 in total on the islands). To end our first excursion we donned our wet suits and snorkelling equipment and waded out off the beach to swim among the rocks where we get to see some wonderful reef fish.

All too soon it is time to return to the Guantanamera. From there we moved off into a quiet bay for the evening.

DAY 2: SOUTH PLAZAS ISLAND & SANTA FE ISLAND

We woke to the gentle rocking of the boat and went upstairs for our first breakfast on board the Guantanamera. The first stop of the day was South Plazas Island where we had a dry dock landing. The dock was somewhat slippery as it is used by the local sea lion community who line the shoreline. A little way into the island we found small cropping of tall cactus plants, under which sit ever expectant land iguanas. The islands were going through a dry spell so much of the food sources for these iguanas have dried up – what they now wanted was the flowers of these cactus. They sat there waiting patiently for these flowers to drop. The larger males guarded their territory around these cacti resolutely, fending off any intruding males. The female iguanas, as one might expect, are welcome.

We continue our walk around the island where see more iguanas and male sea lions (the males are forced out of the main colonies by the dominant males). At the top of the island where the land drops away as cliffs, we find some skeletons of a sea lion and an iguana. The children are fascinated by this somewhat grotesque scene. We are aware too of young sea lions who are clearly distressed and starving. Washington is unable to lie to Emily when she asks if they will be rescued….it’s survival of the fittest here and no one will intervene.

We wind our way back down to the shoreline and spend some time watching the seals – in particular the pups. There is one newborn who is only a matter of hours old – its mother trying to help it into the sea for the first time. It is then time to return to our boat and then on to our next stop Santa Fe Island.

When we arrived at Santa Fe we were greeted by the site of the most wonderful natural bay. After a bit of lunch, we were free to swim off the back of the Guantanamera. We put on our snorkel gear and we jumped in. There were a few fish who swam by not really taking any notice of us. As we swam nearer the shoreline we could see sea lions skipping through the water ahead of us along the shoreline. After a short while, we returned to the Guantanamera and climbed aboard the inflatable dinghy and went further out into the bay; to the opposite shore. Here we snorkelled again. This time there were more fish and even more sea lions. Sea lions are equipped with unbounded levels of curiosity and they swam right up to where we were swimming, often getting within inches of us. Washington, our resident naturalist, dived down and did twists and somersaults under the water and the sea lions would copy his actions. One of the main dangers of swimming with sea lions is that there is potential for them to bite – especially a dominant male who is protecting his territory. Karen had one very close encounter with a male who threateningly sweeps past her – teeth bared.

We climbed back into the dinghy and move towards an area often frequented by sea turtles – and we are not disappointed! We climbed back into the water and were able to get within a few feet of these huge creatures. They quite happily rested on the bottom but would come up every 10 minutes for air. So, we wait patiently and eventually as the turtle rose to the surface and we were able to get within inches of these magnificent creatures.

All too soon it was time to go back to the Guantanamera and get dried off. We still had one more outing for the day, a beach landing on Santa Fe Island. On the beach is a sea lion colony and this was a wonderful opportunity to get some close-up shots of sea lions – Jack and Emily were thrilled. There are rules about how close you can approach the animals but they creep up behind you sometimes without you knowing.

From the beach, we went inland among the Easter trees and cacti – where we found another species of land iguana waiting for the cacti flowers to fall. More photos are taken and then it was time to go back to the boats.

By the time we returned there was time for a quick beer and then dinner. At 8 pm we set sail for Espanola Island.

DAY 3: ESPANOLA ISLAND

The wind picked up as we entered more open ocean waters. Our sleeping accommodations were basic with very narrow bunks. Our biggest concern was being thrown out of the bunks by the ocean rollers. Fortunately this did not happen.

We made our first landing of the day in Gardner Bay where there is a wonderful long curved sandy beach. The morning was set aside for leisure – so we took a walk along the beach, weaving in and out of the ever-present sea lions. Further down the beach were rocks where we find more marine iguanas and red crabs. We also saw an American Oyster Catcher with its chick. We slowly strolled back to our landing point but still had an hour to kill so I sit down to read while Jack and Emily decided to play on the beach and in the sea. The only danger here is the sea lions constantly swimming along the shoreline – on a few occasions nearly catching Jack from behind.

We returned to the Guantanamera and moved around to our second landing point of the day, Punta Suarez, a rocky landing point on Espanola. The landing was somewhat tricky due to the large pacific rollers crashing down on the island, but we made it without getting our feet wet. There were the usual sea lions and marine iguanas to negotiate when landing, but the main reason for our visit here are the bird colonies. The first colony we come across is the Blue-Footed Booby nesting area. These wonderful birds are so named because they have, strangely enough, blue feet. Not just a single shade but variants from robins egg blue through to aquamarine. They have a strange waddling walk that makes them look somewhat comical on the ground. We had to carefully step in between the homes of nesting birds which seem to be pretty impervious to our presence; even those boobies with hatchlings in their nests.

We climbed the hill that took us further into the island. Here we see close up the Galapagos Hawk, the top of the food chain around these parts. Leaving the hawk behind we come to an area that Washington refers to as the “Airport”. This is the area where the Galapagos albatross nests. There are thousands of pairs who come to this one island to mate and nest for their entire lives. Unfortunately, on this day there is no one to be seen in the area – although we catch a glimpse of a single bird flying high above the island. This time of year the albatross live out at sea for months on end only returning for a short period to breed. We did get to see an egg – which is large and the thought of passing this would make your eyes water.

From the ‘airport’ we continued to the rugged cliffs at the top of the island, which is where the Nazca Booby nests. These are quite attractive birds but lack the distinctive blue feet of their cousins. They balance precariously high on the tops of the cliffs huddled on their nest – again we are lucky enough to see fledglings at various stages of development. Just being close up to this wildlife is absolutely mind-blowing and such a wonderful experience. We sadly have to leave this wonderful place and return to our floating home. After another wonderful dinner, we set sail again.

DAY 4. FLOREANA ISLAND

Today, sadly was our last full day in the Galapagos Islands and today we are visiting Floreana Island. Our landing is on a beach which looks like it has green sand because of the olivine crystals in it. It is only about 8:00 am but the equatorial sun is already starting to heat up the day. We climbed up through the island passing some lagoons where there were a handful of Galapagos flamingos feeding on the shrimp hiding among the silt on the bottom. We reached the summit of the island and went down the other side to a wonderful sandy beach. This was a nesting beach for sea turtles and we were lucky enough (how sad are we) to see a pair of turtles mating. This is a slow process taking several hours – so after a few minutes of listening to Washington tell us about sea turtles we leave them to their leisurely activities and move on!

We returned to the Guantanamera as the heat of the day began to kick in. It was now time for our final snorkelling expedition – and the best has been saved to last!

The Devil’s Crown is the remains of a volcanic caldera that has now been filled by the sea. Our dinghy carried us to the outside of the caldera and we climbed out into the water. Being on the equator you might expect the water to be warm but it was pretty cold (about 72 F) so the initial shock of getting in takes your breath away. The water outside the calderas is about 30 feet deep but the visibility is good and below us, we see an assortment of fish, large stingrays and black-tipped reef sharks. Emily is a bit scared of sharks so she stays back on the Guantanamera playing her Nintendo.

Erosion has resulted in some of the caldera’s walls collapsing so we were able to swim inside what would have at one time been an ash and lava producing monster. Here the water is much shallower – perhaps 3 or 4 feet deep – and is clear and pristine. Coral has formed a reef here and the variety of fish is astounding. There are huge starfish the size of dinner plates (shame Emily did not come she would have loved this). Washington finds a small octopus which he picks and passes among us – a very strange sensation holding one of these. By the end it got just a bit fed up and released a small amount of ink – time to let it leave. This was an amazing trip.

Returning to our boat we took a gentle sail around the island to Post Office Bay. Here we made another landing. A few tens of feet off the beach is the Post Office after which the bay is named. This is not your usual post office – it was originally set up by the local pacific whalers – as a way of getting the mail sent around the world. They would write letters, address them and leave them in the barrels. Passing travellers would look into the barrels and if the letters were addressed to a location to where they were travelling they would pick them out and take them to that address. The tradition still happens today – so we spend some time looking through the mail and some people take some letters to deliver.

We then took a short hike further into the island where we found the entrance to a lava cave (as the name suggests this is a cave formed by volcanic action !!!). This was not the nice cave walk that we are used to in the United States where there is plenty of lighting and nice even pathways. No! The descent is down rickety wooden ladders, slippery rocks (they do provide a rope of sorts to cling onto), and we have to provide our own lighting ( a couple of torches/flashlights). As we went deeper the cave had filled up with water. The braver of us continued and eventually, the water is so deep you had to swim – and the water was cold. There were a couple of ledges to stand on but it was a little scary. Fortunately, for the timider of us, the cave did run out after a couple of hundred yards, and after a few minutes of splashing around, we decided enough was enough and returned to the dry end of the cave. A very interesting experience indeed! With more than a little relief, we returned to the surface and the warm sun soon helped us forget the frigid underground waters. We got a final chance to swim in the sea before it was time to return to our boat and set sail once again.

Our final destination was Santa Cruz Island and the main town there, Puerto Ayora. The journey across the strait takes 4 hours but we were entertained on the way by bottle-nosed dolphins and manta rays. We arrive at Puerto Ayora at about 6 pm – and after some dinner, we were taken ashore to look around. This is the biggest town on Santa Cruz island – one of the few inhabited islands on the Galapagos – and its population of 14,000 is somewhat surprising. As one might expect it was geared up for the arrival of several tourist boats each day and most of the port area of the town is set aside for restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. Below the glamorous veneer of the shop frontage the underlying poverty of the islands is clear to see and living here in this ecological paradise must be hard for the native islanders. We soon have seen pretty much all there was to see of Puerto Aroya and take a water taxi back to the Guantanamera.

DAY 5. SANTA CRUZ ISLAND

In recognition of this being our final day in the Galapagos the weather was overcast and there was rain in the air. Our final outing was to the Charles Darwin Research Station. We collected our belongings together for the final time to be transported ashore. Some of our fellow travellers were staying for a further 3 days (lucky blighters) and we were to be replaced by some new travellers. The rest of us were taken ashore and handed over to a new guide for the morning.

Never mind today we got to see Galapagos giant tortoise. This was to be one of the highlights of our tour. These magnificent animals had almost become extinct being hunted for their meat and their habitats being eroded by man’s encroachment. Fortunately, there has been some reversal of this – and the breeding programmes at the Darwin Station are allowing tortoises to be released back into the wild. To our surprise, although we should not have been, each Galapagos Island has its own unique brand of tortoise – with 11 different living tortoise variants being recorded. Their carapaces (shells) also vary depending on the type of vegetation on which they feed. Some have carapaces that are tight to their necks, these feed on low vegetation, whilst others come from Islands where their food is higher up and these have a saddle-like carapace that allows them to stretch their necks upwards.

Our first stop was the new hatchling area. Some of these were only a few months old and it was difficult to believe at this stage how these will grow into giants. Mind you they live to be about 200 years old so they have plenty of time to get there. In the first enclosure of the adult tortoise, we came across the famous Lonesome George – purportedly the rarest living animal. He was the only surviving giant tortoise from the remote island of Pinta. Sadly all attempts to try and breed George had failed. We moved on to the other enclosures and were lucky enough to be able to go into the male enclosure where we got within inches of full-grown male tortoise. Truly a wonderful experience!

Planning your visit to the Galápagos Islands

You could get to the Galápagos Islands by boat but most people arrive by plane. Island hopping is the only way to really get to see the biodiversity that is the main draw to this chain of islands. There are many tour companies offering boat tours that take in several islands. The boats come in all shapes and sizes and levels of luxury. We decided on a small boat. There was about a dozen of us on board including the crew. The boat was basic. But we loved the intimacy of being on a small vessel – although it may not be to everyone’s taste. Small vessels carry 12 to 20 passengers, medium 24 to 48, and large 90 to 100 at most.

Most people take a tour lasting 4 to 5 days which will get you to 3 or 4 islands – which is great. If you have the time and money there are longer tours lasting 10 or more days which will get you out to outlying islands.

Best time to visit the Galápagos

The best time to visit the Galapagos Islands depends on the wildlife you want to see. The waved albatross, for example, can only be observed between April and November.

As for climate, the seasons in the Galapagos split roughly into two: cool and dry (June to November), and warm and wet (December to May). August and September see the coolest temperatures and choppiest conditions, but many cruises still operate at this time and our specialists will select a vessel with increased stability if you have concerns about motion sickness.

The warmer season is better if you want to go diving, because the water will have calmed down and the visibility will have improved. There are also more sea turtles around.

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