Galapagos Islands – a truly unforgettable experience

I can still feel the fuzzy carpet beneath me as I sit cross legged on the floor in front of the big box television. I’m 7 years old and my dad and older brothers are sitting on the couches behind me after they had claimed age-rank for the superior seats. David Attenborough’s voice fills the living room and we all marvel at the footage of strange and beautiful creatures and landscapes on the nature documentary Our World. Visiting the Galapagos Islands was like bringing this moment of childhood wonder into reality.

My tour of these fantastic islands began with a trek to Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz Island. I walked along a red dirt path through giant cacti plants with plasticky looking wooden trunks and fleshy green ends. At the end of the trek an idyllic sandy beach stretched out before me. The beach was empty aside from a large sea iguana who sauntered across the sand towards me. The iguana stopped in front of me to pose for photos, and we shared a moment of mutual curiosity. He showed no fear, and I was about to discover this was the same for most of the creatures of these Islands. I continued to make my way around to the bay, stopping to snorkel in a lagoon full of bright fish where the sea iguanas would wiggle passed me swimming back to shore.

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That evening some friends and I decided to check out Puerto Ayora’s buzzing little restaurant strip the Kioskas. It was a pedestrian street decorated with fairy lights that had picnic tables running down the middle. Kiosks lined either side serving up the days catch of fish or lobsters for about $15. There were also yummy more budget “menu del dia” options for around $4-$6.

The following day I rented a bicycle to check out the famous labs, libraries and giant-tortoise breeding centre at the Charles Darwin research station. The giant tortoises are a sight to behold and later I found they are not only in enclosed areas, but roaming freely on every island I visited.

The giant tortoises are rumoured to be able to see people’s intentions – they don’t hold back on giving you a “once over”.
The giant tortoise mating rituals can last for days. Not surprising, I’m no expert but I’m pretty sure he is facing the wrong way!!

After a few days on Santa Cruz Island some friends and I ventured by boat to the second largest island, San Isabela. On arrival we watched sea lions playing at the pier and penguins happily diving off rocks into the water. Snorkelling here was free and good for hours of entertainment. The sealions would swim at you at speed and then swiftly change direction up to the surface within centimetres of your face. Or check out their whiskers in the reflection of your mask.

After we hung up the snorkels it was time for Caña shots and Cuba libres at Beach Bar. The bar played great music while tourists and locals attempted the slack line and beach volley ball. After an exquisite sunset the bonfire was lit and the party went on into the night.

  

    

The next morning we shook off the Caña shots by climbing one of  San Isabela’s many volcanoes. After a small hike we repelled through the ferny mouth of the volcano. We then lowered ourselves 150 meters via rope one at a time through a narrow hole into crater. It was a nerve racking experience as on my way down I had to swing left and right on the vertical rock wall to avoid loosened boulders from those waiting at the top. I made it to the bottom in one piece and explored the lower portion of the crated with the light from my headlamp.

In the afternoon we rented bikes and made our way around San Isabela’s coast. It was lined with beach after white sandy beach and they were virtually empty. Here we found lookouts, walking-trails and wildlife including flamingos. We visited the wall of tears which is an eerie structure built by prisoners from when San Isabela was a penal colony. The wall is named this as it served no purpose other than to keep prisoners busy and there were many casualties during its construction.

snapped snapping pictures covered in mud from the volcano
Wall of Tears

 

The highlight of San Isabela for me was Los Tunelles snorkelling tour. We were taken by boat with our enthusiastic first mate “the sealion” and encountered devil rays that spanned 3 meters. First the boat slowed its engine and we made our way around the maze of lava tunnels, rock formations caused by volcanic activity over the years. Amidst the tunnels we found nesting blue footed boobies.


 The next part of the tour we jumped in the water and Sealion guided us snorkelling around the rock tunnels, I was soon distracted by a sea turtle the size of a picnic table inviting me to glide along with him. Rejoining the group we found groups of golden rays, spotted eagle rays, and my dream encounter – sharks! Sealion called me over at one point and literally pushed me under water into a cave and I was face to face with a shark. Later I found some sharks in action and enjoyed the thrill of snorkelling around with them.

The encounter with the Sharks had been amazing but only gave me a new aspiration – to find their creepy cousins the hammerheads. I’d been told I was unlikely to find them as they are normally too deep for snorkellers or in the more advanced diving locations. I thought I’d try my luck anyway and organised another snorkelling tour for the following day at kicker rock off San Cristobal Island.

On the journey an albatross glided in to land a few meters from the boat to check us out.

Kicker Rock – can you see the lion?

  

  

My adventure buddies Kent and David

Within seconds of getting in the water at Kicker Rock we encountered beautiful large eagle rays and sharks. Then swimming through the channel between the rocks was insane. The water so clear you could see 12 meters down to the bottom and watch the sea traffic, condensed in layers passing through. Sharks and sea turtles near the bottom, schools of large fish and rays through the middle and smaller fish and twirling sealions showing off at the top. Once I had come out the other side of the channel I was looking down and watched a shape passing a few meters below me that was unmistakable. I looked around to see if anyone else was seeing this and the guide grabbed me and yelled excitedly “hammer head, hammer head!”. Almost choking on the water in excitement I dove back under and followed this amazing creature through the water.  It was absolutely surreal and I felt incredibly lucky to get so close. 

After taking a moment to pinch myself I continued the adventure and found a school of dark fish so large and condensed that it was like its own ocean within an ocean. I swam into the middle of the school and watched in awe at the darkness around me sparkling as the thousands of fish simultaneously opened and closed their mouths to reveal bright silver. 

Our tour was nearly over and as we headed back to the boat I felt content having had this experience. And then to my absolute delight there were shouts from people in the water behind me “hammer heads, hammer heads!” I plunged down into the water just in time as 4 large hammerheads swam through the ocean in front of me. I looked behind me to see another 3,  I was surrounded by them. For a moment I panicked but I need not have, the hammer heads had no interest in me and soon out swam me.

  

On a complete high after the days encounters it was off to Santa Cruz Islands Bongo Bar for sushi followed by cocktails and dancing. The staff working here were awesome too.

 I met a lot of people travelling South America who decided not to visit the Galapagos Islands as it’s too expensive. I felt the same way until I did some research. The Lonely Planet guide book suggests the only way to do the Islands justice is to spend several thousand on a cruise but this was absolutely not the case. I planned my self guided trip with a budget of around $1,000 and found this was sufficient for a low season visit (March-May, Sept-Oct).

See below for cost summary (USD): 

  • Flights from Quito or Guayaquil, Ecuador – $320-$400
  • National Park entry $110
  • Budget accommodation $10-$15 per night
  • Activities and inter Island transport $400
  • Food, drinks and incidentals $100