After nearly 16 months and 20,000 KM of cycling, we thought it was time for a holiday. And since we were in the neighbourhood we thought the Galápagos Islands was the obvious place to go. I can hear you saying: “Holiday? Your whole lives have been a holiday for the last 15 months.” Well, you may think that, but this cycling business is hard work, but gladly done.
I booked a flight and Jan scoured the internet for a last-minute deal on a cruise. She struck pay-dirt with Happy Gringo Tours, discounting a first class, 5-day cruise by 50 per cent. The Santa Cruz is the largest ship cruising the Galápagos and billed as “Super Deluxe.” We wanted a large ship to have some space and to counteract possible seasickness as much as possible.
With the bicycles disassembled and packed in boxes, we took a bus from Trujillo, Perú, to Guayaquil, Ecuador. It was another 19-hour overnight epic. We spent one day in Guayaquil trying to figure out what to do with our bikes. Schlepping them on a plane to Galapagos and then onto a boat and back on a plane for the return flight to the mainland seemed a hassle, so, we shipped them to Quito by courier. It cost twice as much as taking them with us, but the hassle factor was greatly diminished.
The rest of the day we spent trying to straighten out a problem with the flight we had booked. Because of the cruise we had to change our return flight from another airport in Galápagos. This was easily done over the phone a few days earlier and only cost $30. But then I started getting emails that there was a problem with our payment and we had to call or lose the flight. I called and emailed and sat on hold for hours. We finally went to an Avianca office in Guayaquil where we were told it would cost us an extra $250 for the change. Not acceptable since the cost and class of ticket were the same as the original booking.
Unfortunately, the woman at the office couldn’t do anything for us but she sent us to her friend at the Avianca counter at the airport. Once there, the issue was resolved in minutes and we paid the $30 we had originally been quoted. It worked out in the end, but the amount of stress and inconvenience this caused was incredible. Thankfully, we had nice people who were able to help us. Now we were able to go and enjoy our holiday.
Galápagos. The name invokes all that is exotic, although, it was simply named after the giant tortoises found there by the early explorers who first visited the islands in the 16th century, some 300 years before Darwin ever set foot on these islands.
We set foot on Santa Cruz Island after a two-hour flight from Guayaquil. Sadly, the hotel we booked in Puerto Ayora billed as “waterfront” turned out to be several blocks off the water. We complained, but were completely blown off by the hotel’s manager. My complaint with expedia.com is in the pipeline. Not to be deterred by this disappointment, we set out exploring some of the sights around the Galapagos Islands’ largest town.
A visit to the Darwin Research Centre acquainted us with some of the endangered critters that roam these islands. Giant tortoises and land iguanas are the star attractions here but neither are very dynamic because they just kind of sit around without moving too much. The yellow iguanas are very cool.
Tortuga Bay Beach is a half hour walk from town along a paved path through the forest of opuntia cacti. The beach stretches in a long arc to a headland. On the other side is a large, calm bay perfect for swimming and snorkelling. We spotted our first marine iguanas sunning themselves in groups. These miniature Godzillas like to cuddle together for warmth, especially during the night. It’s not uncommon to see dozens piled together like a bunch of prehistoric frat boys after a night of debauchery.
Marine Iguanas are unique to the Galápagos and they seem to be doing well. The estimates are that up to 300,000 of them inhabit the islands. They are unique among lizards. They can dive up to a depth of 10 meters for as long as an hour to forage on algae on submerged rocks. They use their tail to swim and their sharp claws to cling to the rocks while foraging under water.
Another prolific species in the Galápagos is the delightful Sally Lightfoot crab. with its bright red and blue carapace they can be found just about anywhere scurrying and clinging to the rocks along shore. They are protected and there is no crab fishery in the Galápagos.
We wandered the beach under the hot equatorial sun, getting nicely fried in the process. While heading back to town, we came upon a small green sea turtle on the beach that looked like it was not well. A park staff member put the turtle back into the water but it was unable to swim through the pounding surf and she brought it back to land. It is possible that after a night of digging a nest in the dunes and laying eggs she was just too exhausted to make it back to the water. The green sea turtle is found around the world, except in polar regions, but is an endangered species because of habitat loss where they lay their eggs.
We enjoyed hanging out in Puerto Ayora while waiting for our cruise to begin. It has a pretty laid-back feel to it but it is a bit of a tourist trap, as can be expected with as many as 200,000 visitors annually.
On Monday morning, we took a taxi back to the airport to meet the rest of the cruise passengers arriving by plane. We were warmly greeted by the staff and after a short bus ride to a dock we boarded zodiacs to get to the Santa Cruz anchored in the bay. There were nearly 80 passengers from all over the world.
After lunch and the obligatory safety drill, we headed out for our first excursion. Zodiacs shuttled groups to Las Bachas beach for a walk. We were divided into groups, each of about a dozen people with a guide-naturalist. It was well organized as the groups dispersed to different areas so it didn’t feel like all 80 of us were there at the same time.
The food and service aboard Santa Cruz was outstanding. Our cabin was spacious and comfortable. Snorkelling gear was available to all guests. Housekeeping staff turned down beds, complete with a nighttime chocolate on the pillow, and provided clean towels for use on the beach every day. Breakfast and lunch were excellent buffets but dinner, with several a la carte choices, was a four-course affair served by the staff.
During the first night, the ship sailed to Santiago Island where we visited Buccaneer Cove the following morning. Again the groups dispersed, some exploring the shore and its wildlife while others went snorkelling, exploring the underwater world.
We were lucky to spot a large green sea turtle in the shallows of the cove. Snorkelling with this beautiful creature was amazing. It effortlessly glided through the clear, blue-green water with slow, deliberate strokes of its paddle-like front legs while using its rear legs for steering. I had to kick hard with my flippers to keep up with it.
Snorkelling in the Galápagos was great. There is a great variety of life to be observed and we saw many kinds of fish, including very colourful parrot fish as well as many other species. While snorkelling off Rábida Island we even had an encounter with a grey reef shark swimming just below us, cruising the ocean bottom.
At Bartolomé Island, frolicking, curious sea lions showed their agility by rolling and diving in every imaginable direction. Sometimes, I wish my spine could bend like that. One even bumped into my camera with its nose. It’s a real privilege to be able to get close to all of the animals in the Galápagos. They apparently have no innate fear of humans, allowing us to get close to them. Amazing.
Some of the notable bird species we encountered, some endemic to the Galápagos, included several species of heron, many of Darwin’s finches that are difficult to identify, except the cactus finch, which is the one that feeds on prickly pear cactus. There were also wading birds and shore birds, great frigate birds, several species of gulls.
Of course, the stars of the show: the three species of booby and the Galápagos penguin. There are three boobies in the Galápagos: the Nazca booby, formerly thought to be a subspecies of the masked booby, the blue footed booby and red footed booby. The red footed booby is mostly light brown with a blue beak and bright red feet but there are also white morphs with mostly white plumage, blue beak and red feet. They nest in trees and shrubs while the Nazca and blue footed boobies nest on the ground.
We love boobies. They are comical and they are beautiful. They dive from great heights going after fish and constantly have to fend off the great frigate birds who try to steal their catch. We saw thousands of them nesting on Genovesa Island.
Our holiday cruise wound up on San Cristobal Island with a visit to a giant tortoise reserve. A large parcel of land has been walled off containing the endangered tortoises. The eggs are collected and hatched in incubators and the young turtles are released into the wild when they are five years old.
The giant tortoises on each island are separate subspecies. Only 10 remain. The 11th subspecies from Pinta Island went extinct in 2012 when its last remaining member, known as Lonesome George, died. Attempts to mate George with other subspecies failed when none of the eggs hatched.
Most of the other cruise passengers boarded a plane back to the mainland that afternoon but we stayed another day on San Cristobal Island along with Tom and Moni, a Swiss-German couple we had met on board. We spent the rest of the day together, hanging out in laid-back Puerto Baquerizo. The next morning we went for a walk along Loberia Beach before they headed back to the Santa Cruz for another five-day cruise and we headed for the airport for our flight to Quito.
There are about 4,500 photos on the Flickr page divided into albums for each country we visited. Click here to go to the albums, then click on the album you would like to view. We hope you have enjoyed travelling along with us through this blog. Don’t worry, there is still more to come as there is a backlog of video I still have to edit. That will be posted as soon as possible. And Jan and I will have some reflections on our journey, as well as some thoughts about what worked and what didn’t. Hasta luego.