It would’ve been a complete travesty to go to Ecuador and not visit the Galapagos Islands……so after spending 7 days in the saddle exploring the Volcanoes and majestic peaks of the Andes and 3 days hiking in the enchanted wonderland of the Cloud Forest, it was time to put my sea legs on and cruise around the Galapagos for 6 days! I once again left my quaint little boutique hotel “Café Cultura” after a brief 24 hour hiatus in Quito and boarded a flight bound for Baltra Island.
Located 600 miles for the South American Coast and belonging to the country of Ecuador, this isolated archipelago of volcanic islands coupled with its fragile ecosystem has blossomed to legendary status of epic proportions as a showcase for biodiversity. Lest we forget that the uniqueness of the flora and fauna of the Galapagos and its differentiation and adaption among the individual islands sparked the infamous theory of evolution in Darwin’s mind.
“Considering the small size of these islands, we feel the more astonished at the number of their aboriginal beings, and at their confines range….hence, both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhere near to that great fact, that mystery of mysteries – the appearance of the new beings on this earth.”
Charles Darwin 1845.
In 1978 UNESCO designated Galapagos as the first World Heritage site and now 97% of the Galapagos’ land comprises a National Park. The surrounding waters have been declared a marine resources reserve and one of the seven underwater wonders of the world.
There are many options available for exploring the Galapagos, and mostly it will depend on affordability and personal preference. The idea of sailing this magnificent marine utopia aboard a luxury catamaran over populated with hoards of people made my blood run like ice through my veins. Instead I chose the M/S Encantada, a little motor sail boat with a capacity of only 12 guests. Arriving to the Itabaca Canal I knew I had made the right choice when I saw the picturesque yacht, her gracious white sails billowing in the breeze and her flaming red colour splendid against the grey melancholic sky. My good fortune continued to creep skyward as I discovered that I would have a cabin all to myself…..the only single female traveller amongst a group of nine guests. There are many advantages to travelling solo, and when I saw the actual size of the cabins I once again thanked my lucky stars!!
After a quick spot of lunch and a brief introduction to life on board Encantada we set sail for Santa Cruz Island to begin our foray into the land that captivated Darwin. We docked at Dragon Hill, on the north-western side of Santa Cruz to follow the longest trail of the Galapagos. As its name suggests, Dragon Hill is home to an impressive population of land iguanas and we were fortunate to spot some impressive male specimens roaming the sun-scorched and boulder strewn earth, not at all bothered by the presence of us human’s, we were just a minor annoyance, akin to paparazzi! Following the trail we passed from dry, arid desert-like landscapes through forests of cacti and Palo Santo trees, the different vegetation zones of Santa Cruz demonstrated almost too perfectly until we reached the summit, the rugged spire dominating the landscape, and what an incredible view, nothing but vast expanses of glorious nature surrounded us, no evidence of human existence, we were alone in the beauty. Unfortunately we could not wait until sunset as we had to make our way back to the boat before darkness fell, but there were more surprises in store for us! Wading in the brackish lagoon were some elusive flamingos, their long elegant necks bent towards the water, sifting the liquid for some tasty morsels of microscopic organisms……their reflections a mirror image in the crystal clear water, a beautiful parting gift from Santa Cruz Island as we made our way back to our floating home, the sun setting, a golden orb melting into the ocean.
As well as bringing an incredible variety of marine life to the Galapagos, the convergence of three major oceanic currents brings some very choppy water! I’ve never been one to suffer sea sickness, and I have travelled some pretty rough seas in my time, generally just riding the waves happily……..but I experienced my first bout of sea sickness in the Galapagos and it was horrific! Again I thanked my lucky stars that I was alone in my cabin! Probably another factor that might affect your choice of vessel…..smaller boats tend to be worse for sea sickness, they get tossed around a lot more than the bigger catamarans!
We travelled to the archipelago’s largest island, Isabella overnight and bright and early the following morning we boarded the Zodiac (dingy) to visit the Tintoreras Islets, home to an abundance of marine wildlife. Slipping off the side of the Zodiac into the surprisingly cool waters we waded to a small beach and entered another world…..stark, rocky and bleak, ancient lava flows atop a sand base with shores lined by mangroves created this alien landscape. Las Tintoreras is home to a thriving population of Marine Iguana’s and one of the few places in the world where this endemic lizard can breed successfully. They are literally everywhere, black and devilish, they blend inconspicuously with their surroundings, and I had to perform a strange looking improvised dance as we followed the pebble lined trail to avoid stepping on them! Again I was amazed at how unconcerned about our presence the marine iguanas were……..get too close and they will spit saltwater at you, it’s their way of marking their territory, but they genuinely had no fear of humans and it is incredible to experience this mutual respect. Here in the isolated paradise of the Galapagos, these animals never had a bad experience with humans, they have no reason to fear, it begins to make the mind wonder…….Nearing the end of the trail we stopped at a lagoon filled with shockingly clear seawater, on closer inspection we found it to be teeming with white tipped reef sharks, seemingly asleep! What a morning, topped off by the hilarious sight of an army of baby marine iguana’s seemingly charging towards us!
Next adventure was to get a little closer to the residents of the underwater world, time to snorkel! A lot colder than I anticipated, but it was a privilege to be in the water, invaluable memories of marine turtles cavorting before me, a playful, agile sea-lion kissing me on the nose, myriads of flittering colourful reef fish and the graceful swoop of the stingrays wings were more than worth being slightly chilled for.
An action packed morning called for a hearty lunch and restful siesta before heading to Isabella Island’s most populated area, Puerto Villamil, a small fishing village located on the Southern Coast with a cool beachy vibe. The atmosphere was so chilled even the sea lions were relaxing on the sun loungers on the beach!! Hiring bicycles we visited Isabella Island’s Giant Tortoise Breeding Centre to visit Galapagos’ most iconic animal. The Giant Tortoise almost became extinct mainly due to human interference, but thankfully due to conservation methods such as this breeding centre these ancient animals may roam freely throughout the Galapagos once again. A quick pit stop to gaze in wonder at the magnificent residents of Flamingo Lake and then it was free time to cruise around the Island and soak up the atmosphere…….which I happily did with a cold beer under a palm tree!!
The following morning I was up bright and early, the over-night sailing to the West Coast of Isabella Island had been smooth and calm. So there I was up on deck enjoying the smooth caress of rich, warm coffee massaging my throat, surveying the beauty around me when out of nowhere a humpback whale just breached behind the boat…….it was one of those moments that you had to almost pinch yourself to make sure you were not dreaming, a moment of pure perfection, a moment of feeling truly alive, a special moment witnessed only by me, a secret between the ocean and me…….and boy did I feel smug! I was still lost in my magical morning experience as we arrived by dinghy to Moreno Point, a barren landscape of volcanic rock and lava folds, stark and foreboding, no wonder Darwin thought this place “hell on Earth” when he first arrived! On closer inspection as we hiked along, the landscape became more intriguing, lava fields pockmarked with brine filled lagoons, overflowing with delicious delights for hungry flamingos…….but alas we did not spot any of these delicate, pink creatures. A quick snorkel before lunch proved a lot more fruitful, again the water was pretty icy, but thoughts of being cold were soon erased with great sightings of marine turtles and a rainbowed selection of reef fish.
Elizabeth Bay was our next port of call after a delicious lunch and serene siesta. We whizzed around the islets in our dingy spoilt for choice at the wealth of wildlife. The vivid azure hue of the blue footed boobies feet contrasted dramatically with the black volcanic stone from which he perched, the crystal clear waters like a pane of glass through which we could observe the daily routines of the meandering marine turtles and playful penguins, the wide swoop of the leopard rays fins glided past as we navigated the labyrinthine roots of the mangrove forests.
The morning of our fourth day found us at the youngest and westernmost of the Galapagos Islands, Fernandina. Fernandina is known as the most pristine of the archipelago as no foreign species has ever invaded it and if I had to pick, it was my favourite site. We landed at Punta Espinosa, the breathtaking presence of La Cumbre volcano dominated the landscape of convoluted sandy tracks meandering tortuously through thick strands of lava flows. The ground seemed almost to move and sway as a sea of marine iguanas invaded every available space the sea of black broken intermittently with the bright red flash of a scuttling sally light foot crab, flightless cormorants nested by the coast and then I found what I’d been waiting for……a nursery of baby sea lions waiting patiently for their mothers to return from the ocean with food, my heart melted at the sight as they stared at us with their huge dark pools of eyes, no fear, just curious and beckoning. I could’ve happily sat and watched them all day, playing and cavorting in the sand, snuggling together for heat……but all too soon I was pulled away from the hypnotic grip of their seductive gaze and back to Encantada. I opted out of the snorkel trip, deciding to relax on deck in the sun, the gently roll of the waves soon had me in a deep sleep as the sun blanketed me in warmth.
After lunch we returned to Isabela Island and Tagus Cove, a sheltered place, frequented by ships since the 1800s that used the area as an anchorage spot. Landing on the island we followed a trail to Lake Darwin with an array of amazing views, returning swiftly to the Zodiac to view the numerous marine turtles resting under the water before returning to the Encantada to try and spot some dolphins and whales as the sunset in a magical display of colour…….it’s a tough life!
Our final visit was to Santiago Island with its beautiful landscape of cliffs and pinnacles frequented by a wide variety of marine birds. Landing at James’ Bay we followed the lava shoreline dotted with marine iguanas and sea lions bathing in the sun, the silence broken by the odd brown pelican splashing into the sea for a tasty breakfast! Passing along a dusty, sandy trail through a scattered forest of Palo Santo trees we came upon another deserted beach punctuated with rock pools and craters, fur seals sheltering in the crevices. Time for one last snorkel as we returned to the beach, swimming amongst the marine turtles and sea lions, I narrowly missed several head injuries by dive bombing brown pelican’s……..clearly I was swimming amongst a veritable banquet!!
After lunch on Encantada we disembarked to Espumillia Beach where we had the opportunity to have a quick hike with Juan our guide or just chill. I decided to just chill and take some time to reflect on all the amazing experiences I had encountered in the Galapagos. Walking along the shoreline, sand crunching between my toes, waves lapping at my feet, the light breeze tousling my hair and the sun warming my skin I followed the dance of the Sally Lightfoot Crabs, ducking and diving from the hunting herons……the daring dance of predator and prey. One final blazing sunset as we travelled back to Encantada, the sun melting beyond the horizon.
Our final night at sea was pretty rough as we once again passed close to the Equator, the magnetic pulls of the Earth’s poles tossing our little sail boat around as if it were a toy. Calm had restored by dawn and we were greeted by a wonderful display by a passing pod of Orca Whales, a magical farewell from a magical land before disembarking for the final time at Itabaca Canal.
The Galapagos Islands are not your typical tropical island destination……. most of the islands are devoid of vegetation and are more akin to a lunar landscape, but they are a paradise unlike any other with magic and enchantment lurking around every corner.
Galapagos Islands, October 2012 http://www.encantadasailboat.com/
Author: Janine Whyte (Indiananneeners Globetrotting Cowgirl).