The Galápagos Islands!

Isla Bartolomé with the volcanoes of Isla Santiago in the distance

We wanted to celebrate a big anniversary somewhere memorable, but as always in these strange times, Covid played a major factor in determining what was open to us (and with not too many related hoops to jump through) and what felt reasonably safe. That first “bulletproof” feeling after getting our vaccines was waning as breakthrough cases started popping up everywhere (including among family). Focusing on outdoorsy destinations seemed like a good idea… and, after a little research, the Galápagos Islands moved to the top of my list.

Dramatic red sand beaches, flamingoes and sea lions
on Isla Rábida, first stop on our Galápagos cruise

While its possible to visit the Galápagos and remain on one island and take daytrips or take ferries from inhabited island to inhabited island, I wanted to do a yacht/small boat cruise to maximize the islands we could visit and the wildlife we hoped to see. These cruises are notoriously expensive, so it was going to cost, but (as always) I wanted value for our dollars. I spotted a 15-passenger yacht I liked through a German travel agency, did a little research to determine the owner of the boat and ended up booking directly through Galagents. It was a great choice. We got excellent service and lots more included items, including the final Covid test required for reentry into the United States. My helpful and quick-to-respond Galagents contact, Johana Cobos, even arranged for someone to come to our hotel on the mainland and do the Covid test there. So easy!

Early on our first snorkel off of Isla Rábida I was met by these two curious sea lions.
Exciting and fun! We found ourselves swimming often with sea lions.

Getting to the Galápagos from the U.S. means flying to either Quito or Guayaquil on mainland Ecuador and then on to the Galápagos Islands. (Flights from Quito stop over in Guayaquil before continuing on to the Galápagos.) There are two airports serving the Galápagos: one on Isla Baltra (just off Isla Santa Cruz) and one on Isla San Cristobál. We flew into Baltra and out of San Cristobál, spending a night on each island on either end of our cruise to do a little exploring. This was especially important for me since our only chance to see giant Galápagos tortoises was at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz, a short walk from our hotel in Puerto Ayora.

At the Charles Darwin Research Station

Our cruise turned out to exceed expectations. We had a wonderful time on what felt sort of like a grown-up summer camp. We visited two islands a day for dry or wet landings followed by hikes. We also often snorkeled twice a day for nearly an hour each time. The snorkeling was amazing. I swam multiple times with penguins and sea lions, enjoyed massive swarms of colorful fish, huge sea turtles, rays and more.

A favorite shot: Huge sea turtle with white tip shark in the background

We saw lots of sharks, both from zodiacs and some in the water. A highlight was spotting a big hammerhead while snorkeling off of Isla Genovesa.–Awesome and a little unnerving as it resolved into view below us in the murkiest water we’d been in. On land, we saw large numbers of blue- and red- footed boobies, nazca boobies, and frigate birds, all often with chicks. We saw black marine iguanas, and land iguanas, penguins perched ocean-side, lots of sea lions with suckling pups of varying ages. Wonderful!

This penguin swam up while I was watching the big sea turtle above feeding. Amazing to swim with these wonderful birds! They also let us approach within 2-3 feet as they perched on rocks along the water. The wildlife of the Galápagos is wonderfully unafraid of humans.
Getting closer to the 6′ white tip shark that I spotted behind the sea turtle

I was able to book my first choice cabin on the yacht of my choice, the Galaxy I, so we had a king-sized bed on an upper deck with big widows running the length of one wall. Given the season and a stop at remote Isla Genovesa on our itinerary, we knew we were in for potentially rough seas and the higher deck meant even more rocking. Scopolamine patches worked their magic, though, and neither one of us felt even a twinge of seasickness.

Galaxy 1 Yacht

The sheer number of birds on some islands, especially North Seymour and Genovesa was impressive. Their lack of fear of humans was something I’d never experienced and it was amazing to walk right up to mothers and chicks, mating rituals, and more: boobies, frigate birds, short-eared owls and more.

Our naturalist, Wilo, provided insight into what we were seeing. For example, we nearly missed a smaller second chick beside the older chick and mother in the top pic above. In a sad example of the cruelty of nature, the boobies have two chicks as insurance should the first not survive. The poor second chick is shoved aside by its older sibling when it comes feeding time and often starves to death. We saw them often laying, weak and dying beside their parent and strapping sibling.

Birdlife in the Galápagos extends far beyond boobies and frigate birds

Another fun aspect of the timing of our trip were the sea lion pups. We found suckling pups of varying sizes on many of the islands we visited. Adorable and fun to watch!

Sea lions are a common sight in the Galápagos: curious, playful and assertive.

Our cruise ended on Isla San Cristobál and it was only a short walk from the pier to our harbor-side hotel. We visited the island’s Interpretation Center with the boat’s naturalist, but weren’t given enough time to hike the trails that begin there. After depositing luggage at our hotel, we went back to explore the trails, finding beaches and great overlooks with views of Kicker Rock a/k/a Sleeping Lion in the distance. We could see sea lions and sea turtles swimming far below us in the clear water.

View while hiking the trails beyond the Interpretive Center with Kicker Rock in the distance

Details and practical info:

I decided to concentrate this trip on the Galápagos, choosing to fly directly to Guayaquil. I wasn’t interested in visiting Quito on this trip for several reasons: the very late arrival time of flights, altitude (especially when I’d first been planning to scuba dive), Covid and crime. Guayaquil, unfortunately, has the highest crime rate of any city in high-crime Ecuador. Timing meant we had to spend a night there on either end of our trip, arriving at nearly 10pm from Miami. I booked us in the nearby TRYP by Wyndham (visible from my plane window on the runway), and we were very happy. Our rooms both nights at the TRYP were very nice, the included breakfast buffet was vast and stylish, and–especially given the armed guard outside our hotel and in front of every neighboring business–we really enjoyed the enormous, attached Mall del Sol. We had lots more time to explore on our end-of-trip stay, and the mall offers a huge variety of restaurants and stores in a secured environment. The TRYP also provides free taxis to and from the airport, a ride that takes about three minutes. Covid protocols were strictly observed on both our stays.

Ecuador ended Covid test requirements for entry earlier this year, but maintained the requirement for visitors to the Galápagos Islands. We were fortunate that Ecuador dropped the Covid test requirements to enter the Galápagos not long before our trip. This made things even easier, but we still had to get our $20pp entry tag and pay the $100pp Galápagos Park fee. Like I said, the Galápagos are notoriously pricey. We just looked at these fees as donations to one of the planet’s most unique and fragile natural wonders.

Choosing to stay pre-cruise in Puerto Ayora meant we had to get ourselves all the way back to the airport on Baltra to meet up with other guests arriving by plane the day of the cruise. This is about 1 ½ hour process given you need a taxi across Isla Santa Cruz, a short ferry to Isla Baltra, and then an bus ride to the airport. Oh well, it is what it is. When arriving by plane buy a bus ticket for $5US at the booth to the right a you exit the airport. When the bus drops you off at the ferry location, leave your large luggage at a dropoff spot at roof-level to the boat. Someone will off-load the incoming luggage from the ferry roof and replace it with the outgoing. Walk yourself down to water level to get on the ferry and pay $1USpp onboard to someone who will come around before the short ride is over. On the other side, a bus(es) and taxis will be waiting. The bus is slower but cheap. We opted for a taxi that took us directly to our hotel in Puerto Ayora for $30 we paid to our hotel. The going rate is more often $25, which I knew, but I was happy to pay the extra $5 to eliminate any worries about finding our brand new hotel.

Our hotel in Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz, pre-cruise, was the stylish Hotel La Isla. The hotel sits a short block back from the main street providing welcome calm plus a large, deck with a great sea view. I’d definitely recommend this one. I chose La Zayapa Hotel in Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on Isla San Cristobál for location and a room with a large window facing the harbor. The view was nice, but the hotel didn’t particularly impress.

I chose a 5-night/6-day cruise for a number of reasons and we were very happy with that timeframe. We had a fabulous time, saw all we hoped to, and really felt like we’d be starting to repeat ourselves if we stayed much longer. This is a very personal decision, though. We met people who planned to cruise the islands for two weeks and were thrilled about it. Some were returning. We both felt we’d be restless and tired with more. Mornings were early as were nights, and while the “hikes” were easy rambles (on admittedly rough terrain), snorkeling in cool water twice a day left us pleasantly tired (and hungry!). We visited 8 islands, in total, (9, I suppose, if you count little Baltra where the airport is), only two of them inhabited. I could envision going back only to do the far northwest islands of Darwin and Wolf for the large numbers of big sharks and whales, but it’s low on my personal list, at least any time soon.

It really was worth it to book directly with Galagents, too. We got great value for our money and much more included than some of the other passengers on our boat. Other agents tacked on charges for things like daily snorkeling equipment that would have been galling to pay. We brought our own masks and snorkels by choice, but used the boats full-length 3mm wetsuits. Some people wore optional shorties instead, but that wouldn’t have been enough for me. I tend to get cold, so also brought 5mm diving gloves which I was happy to have while using my GoPro. I also brought a dive hood, but didn’t wear it.

Speaking of GoPros: I was very glad we opted to upgrade to the latest model GoPro. Although our old 3+ still worked, the new one is lightyears beyond and I was able to pull some really phenomenal still captures from my videos.

I first thought we’d do a scuba trip since I’ve been diving for 37 years, am fascinated by marine life, and we were going at the start of the cooler season when the Humbolt Current brings colder water and lots of nutrients which makes for great opportunities to spot sealife. When one of the first scuba yachts I contacted sent me a list of dive spots, I did research on those locations and quickly scratched diving off our list. I found too many stories from experienced divers of unsafe dives with newby divers, some leading to deaths. [Click here for one sobering example.] While I swam competitively when young and I’ve been diving for a lot of years, I’m strictly a pleasure diver and know my limits and David’s. Sure enough, on the short ferry ride over from Baltra Island to Isla Santa Cruz, where most planes from the mainland land, I sat next to a trio of young divers, one of whom proudly proclaimed she’d done three dives. I leaned over to David, whispering “She’s exactly who I didn’t want to dive with.” No doubt most people manage their Galápagos dives without death or injury, but strong currents and downdrafts, cold water, challenging rock formations and budget dive outfits were enough to make us opt out. Happily, the snorkeling we did–often twice a day–was spectacular, and we saw all we hoped for in the way of marine life.

We did make one fun find on our perpetual search for interesting local beers: Galápagos Republic Brewing Company. Our first attempt to visit after their 4pm opening found the place closed, with only a couple of friendly dogs to greet us at the low gate to the main courtyard. We headed back after dinner and this time they were followed by the brewer himself. He gave us a tour of his immaculate and modern brewing equipment, then returned with us to the cute courtyard sitting area where he offered us a tasting of the three handcrafted beers on tap that weekday night: Chatham Blond Ale (5.6% ALC, 20 IBU, 5 SRM), Norfolk Red IPA (6.7% ALC, 52 IBU, 16 SRM, Ablemarle Stout (7.2% ALC, 31 IBU, 37 SRM). We enjoyed the samples then ordered our pints. We had a great time visiting with him about his beers and his plans to expand and use more local ingredients. I’ll blog more out this intriguing microbrewery later.

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