Where to start on this one? After searching around for a tour that fit both our budget and timeframe, we almost booked with Carpe DM Tours until they pulled the rug from under us by not accepting a Paypal payment which we’d earlier arranged. In doing this, a credit card payment would have forced a 6% charge, which on a sum of over USD$3,500 would have increased the cost too making it unfeasible.
Though don’t let this put you off, as we managed at the eleventh hour to find a Dutch run company named (confusingly) Galapagos Lastminute and luckily they accepted a bank transfer which only cost us four quid. Owner Ellen van der Worp even organised flights for us at the same cost as any of the online companies (recommended as if the flights or booking are messed up you’ve passed the buck). Off to the Galapagos we go!!!!
Spending the night in Quito’s Hostel Marsella (our much loved Hostel Revolution was full), our taxi man collects us at four in the morning and seems friendly enough, until he takes a sharp right into the urban abyss, winding us through the dark back street of Quito’s suburbs as we worryingly trade glances of ‘What the f#*k?’
Arriving safely enough it took 45 minutes to clear check in, pay the Galapagos registration (USD$100 each but reportedly going up very soon) and the additional bag check to ensure no plants or seeds are transported to the island. Our flight with Tame Air included free clown entertainment at the departure gate (that’s a first!), and a great view of sunrise over some of Quito’s surrounding peaks.
Catching our first glimpse of the Enchanted Islands through textured clouds, we touched down in Baltra airport where we were greeted by a beamingly exuberant chap by the name of Leonidas, who we were pleased to discover he will be our guide for the forthcoming eight days. Collecting us and a couple of other Swiss blokes, we’re shifted to the ferry over to the main Island of Santa Cruz.
Now before we get any further into this episode, the trip we booked was the budget one (meaning the lowest costing trip available), though if you continue reading you’ll find that this had no impact on the overall experience that is (que David Attenborough voice over) The Magnificent Galapagos Islands.
Boarding the New Flamingo (it’s anything but) with our new Swiss friends, we took the only room on the bow as for one it was bigger and secondly we’d been on boats several times (unlike the most of the others) and knew this was the place to take the brunt of any high seas. When the rest of the group eventually arrived, we were introduced to the ship’s crew and promptly shuffled back to shore for the first in what’s to become many highlights.
The easiest way to avoid boring the crap out of you guys is to break the trip down island by island over several blogs. Also we’ll mention a few of the many fish species we encountered though for a full list of what you may underwater click here.
Day 1 – Santa Cruz Island
The El Chato Tortoise Reserve up in the central Highlands of the Island is the first place we visit. Walking around the sanctuary we eventually spot a pair of Galapagos Tortoises getting jiggy with it, a painfully slow ordeal. Unfortunately old chap had it wrong and he’s going at his chosen lover from side on!
We move on to a partially collapsed lava tunnel which we’re able to venture through, being fortunate enough to encounter a female barn owl with her offspring perched at the end of the tunnel, a very rare encounter. No doubt dad was out hunting as the young can eat their own weight in food every night.
Making our way back to the headquarters we had many inquisitive Yellow Warblers gamely perching on tree branches inches away, strolled beneath poison apple trees and stood amazed at small ferns growing beneath lamps lighting up a pitch black lava tunnel. With the tour over we were given a taste of locally grown coffee (delicious) and a chance to play around inside real tortoise shells.
On to the boat we sat down to our first meal and were not disappointed. Our Ecuadorian chef, nicknamed ‘Chino’ due to his Chinese like features, had set the precedent for meals to come, and he did not let us down once. After a few hours getting to know the rest of the passengers over a few beers, the engines rumble to life with bearings set for an overnight passage to Isla Floreana.
This is when the worst of the seas occurred and our little room at the bow took the brunt of the brooding seas. With Sarah handing out earplugs to our fellow passengers, we managed to snatch a few hours sleep at the beginning, before the New Flamingo slowly began to take pounding wave after pounding wave.
So loud was the noise in the front cabin that if we hadn’t experienced these conditions before, we would have sworn the bow would snap, allowing the entire Pacific Ocean in at once. Even going to the toilet became a match of human ping pong and opening a window to get some fresh air resulted in Sarah being showered several times.
Day 2 – Floreana Island
After a rough night with little to no sleep, everybody was a little worse for wear at breakfast. However once we set foot on the island of Floreana it didn’t take much to change everybody’s attitude. The first thing you notice is that the beach has a green hue, caused by the presence of olivine crystals in the sand. You can clearly see these if you pick up a handful.
The lagoon is one of the best places in the Galapagos to spot flamingos and lucky for us they made an appearance. Flamingos get their colour from the pink shrimp that makes up their diet, and you can spot the younger ones by their white colour.
Whilst enjoying the view we were joined by a small Galapagos flycatcher, which flew right up to one guys shoulder as if so peer at his iPad screen, before making a few slow, close circles of Matt’s head, probably deciding if it was nesting material or not.
Next stop was a small white sand beach where we watched a small group of eagle rays came right into the shore. The black rocks which line either end of the beach make a great contrast with the bright orange Sally lightfoot crabs which hang out here. Matt’s favourite inhabitant of the trip, these aren’t the only crabs around, we almost stood on a hermit crab wandering along the beach, while red-headed lava lizards watched us boldly without scurrying away.
Heading back to the boat for lunch it was time for our first underwater exploration. Today’s snorkel site was the Corona Del Diabalo (Devil’s Crown) where, conditions dependent, you can swim around it’s entirety. On this occasion there were several White Tip Reef Sharks (leave the fear behind), starfish, green sea turtles, fish such as the Reef Cornet Fish and a rarity, a Hammerhead shark spotted quite some distance below in the murky darkness (yeah we shit it). The ‘crown’ is covered in layers of white, prompting one shipmate to ask our resident Geology graduate
‘Why are the rocks white?’
His scientific conclusion?
‘It’s bird shit, obviously!’
Back on the boat we were presented with a hunger busting plate of homemade sausage rolls, told you Chino was good, damn good (he was to follow this up with other hand made post snorkelling snacks including mini pizzas, donuts, tuna crackers and a huge bowl of salted popcorn).
Floreana has one of the most interesting human histories of the island. The Mirador de la Baronesa was once home to the self-proclaimed Baroness Eloise Bosquet de Wagner Wehrborn. Arriving with her ‘husband’ (her real one was still in Europe somewhere) and two other male friends, they apparently all slowly disappeared until she also disappeared herself.
Floreana is also home to Post Office Bay, where sailors would leave their post bound for Europe or the Americas for other sailors to collect on their way through. There’s still a postbox here so we all took the opportunity to leave a postcard, with ours meant to tempt from friends eager to visit the islands (Jamo and VJ it’s waiting for you!) and a Swiss guy’s card making it back to Switzerland before he did.
That night the boat was graced with a spectacle few people ever see. As Matt was starring out at the Southern Cross, a symbol of Australia which we hadn’t seen in a long time, flashes suddenly begin to appear off the starboard side. Taking a minute to figure out what was causing this peculiar phenomenon, it finally dawned that squids have the ability to emit a pulsing luminescent light. Gathering the other guys, we sit out the rest of the night on the top deck under familiar southern star constellations.
Day 3 – Espanola Island
Our third day saw us visiting Espanola Island, where we didn’t see a single other person the entire day. Arriving on shore of the best beach of the entire trip, we were greeted by the local sea lions lying on the sand.
Espanola had some of the best wildlife we saw on the entire trip, including Galapagos doves with a bright blue ring around their eyes, a Galapagos hawk sitting a mere few meters away and so many marine iguanas chilling out on the path you almost stood on them before they’d move slowly out of your way. At this time of year the Espanola marine iguanas take on a turquoise colour, with some pretty impressive results.
Add to that colonies of red footed and masked boobies and the huge Galapagos albatross and you can be entertained here for hours, which we were. We watched a male masked boobie giving gifts of sticks, stones and feathers to woo his female admirer, marine iguanas swimming into the seas and red billed tropic birds flying by with splendid, long white tails.
Passing by Hueco Soplador blowhole, we came across a colony of huge yet clumsy as hell waved albatross. What an impressive bird! Sitting on land you wonder how this bird could be so graceful, yet watch one waddle awkwardly to a cliff edge before launching itself into flight, and you’ll be in awe of just how graceful they can be for their size.
After the tour on terra firma we escaped the heat diving on a reef off Isla Espanola filled with loads of species of fish, some in large schools like the King Angelfish and Razor Surgeonfish. The ever shy Flanged Blenny darted away at the sign of any on coming body and Matt’s favourite the Orange Trigger Fish and an allusive long tailed stingray part buried in the sand also made up today’s tally.
Moving onward to the next Island of San Cristobal, a pod of bottle nosed dolphins ride the bow waves of New Flamingo keeping us entertained. We arrive in the port of San Cristobal and have the afternoon to chillout and stretch the vocal cords as we’ve been told there’s a karaoke bar hidden in the back streets. A good night was had by all, with Leo and the crew joining in the fun.
Day 4 – Interpretation Centre – Lobos Island / Leon Dormido (San Cristobal)
First stop today was a group hangover visit to the Interpretation Centre on San Cristobal, which had some interesting displays, but was a struggle for most after last nights epic sing off. Heading to the open seas we set our sights for one of the best dive sites in our opinion, Kicker Rock, protruding eerily from the open ocean with a wide split down the middle.
Allowing the natural effect of the current to take us through Kicker Rock’s channel, we spot many starfish and pencil urchins clinging to the rocks, Cortez fish doing their thing and as we reached the end followed a huge eagle ray slowly swimming by, accompanied by over a dozen green sea turtles. Sarah also got a surprise when a sea lion came out of nowhere and swam right by her.
The outside of Kicker Rock is a popular hangout for black tipped reef sharks, as Matt soon found out when he backwards dived off the dingy right on top of one of said sharks. Shitting himself he comes up exclaiming
‘There’s a f*&king shark down here!’
which prompts the guide to get excited and duly push one of the German girls into the water.
Following the shark (a VERY strange thing for an Australian surfer) Matt soon discovers that his mates are not far off in a school numbering around 20.
‘There’s at least 15 of ‘em down here!’
With Sarah finally getting up the courage the join Matt, the rest of the group dart worrying glances at one another and wait until the coast is clear. Sure enough the sharks were quickly bored of us and swam on their merry way. Leaving Kicker Rock behind, we were joined by a number of magnificent frigate birds following the boat.
Stopping off for a sunset walk around Lobos Island, we were treated to our first blue footed boobies doing their leg lifting, head rolling mating dance. Several sea lions joined us to watch a cracking sunset, before it was back on board for a rolling, pitching journey to San Cristobal.
For the second time this trip we were joined by a playful pod of bottle nosed dolphins, swimming along the bow. Mooring for the night we all hit the shore, grabbed a beer and entertained ourselves watching hundreds of sealions calling it a night on the front beach.
Well not quite, they were so loud it was impossible to sleep, and even those that were sleeping were soon squashed, sat on or pissed on by another sea lion trying to make himself comfortable. The best spot went to the ‘local drunk’ who’d pulled up his own park bench on the jetty.
That wraps up the first half of our trip, for Part 2 click here.
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