The Galapagos Islands were naturally a must-do on our South American tour, though I didn't plan around them the way I should have. Probably the best first way to see the Islands is on a live-aboard boat that tours many of the islands, and then on subsequent trips (if there are any) you know where you want to focus and what you want to do. In my rush to nail down the overall itinerary and book flights I locked us in to a stay in Galapagos where we couldn't do a live-aboard on a boat we wanted to be on, so instead we did Galapagos by land, spending three nights each on two of the biggest islands, Santa Cruz and San Cristobal, plus a bonus night back on Santa Cruz prior to our flight back to the mainland. One of our hotels recommended a local tour company, Galapagos Alternative, that would help coordinate our activities in Galapagos, and that turned about to be a great decision as we've certainly maximized our time here thus far.
Our flight from Quito to Galapagos was delayed by three hours, which was a shame as we were going to try and hit the ground running when we landed by visiting the Charles Darwin Center and see where they breed and raise the giant tortoises in captivity before releasing them into the wild. With the delay that was out the window, but on the plus side we received $200 in vouchers from Avianca for the flight delay. As it was, we checked into our hotel and met our "handler" from the tour company and then walked over to a nearby beach where we saw...not much at all. We then had a pretty good seafood dinner, the first of many on the islands, before calling it a night prior to our day trip to Sante Fe island the following day.
In the first example of the excellence of our tour agency, we were booked on a day tour to Santa Fe that allowed us to actually land on the island, which according to all the information online is now limited to live-aboard boats. So we were able to land and interact with the sea lion colony on the beach before going on a short hike, highlighted by sighting three different land iguanas. They were pretty docile and we were able to get right up close and get some great pictures.
After the hike we got back on the boat and anchored in the bay where we then were allowed to snorkel for about an hour (yes, allowed, all activities are strictly regulated by the Galapagos environmental agency). I'm going to go ahead and declare this the highlight of my gap year. Walter and I spent most of the hour swimming and playing with sea lions! At various times they would playfully bite and pull on our fins and they really loved playing with Walter. They would blow bubbles in his face, slap water at him with their fins, and one even playfully nipped Walter on the knee (it didn't hurt). I'm not sure whether they were drawn to Walter because of his size (he's clearly young like these sea lions were young) or because of the brightly colored shorty wetsuit he was wearing, but either way, it was a complete blast. I've posted a video below which is a bit long, but it captures the highlights of the entire 1 hour snorkeling session. The best parts are around 3 minutes in or so. I'd encourage you to watch the whole thing.
The next morning we did a tour of the highland areas of Santa Cruz island. Our tour guide was a really nice German-Ecuadorian who was actually featured in the NPR Radiolab episode about Galapagos. He was extremely knowledgeable, if a tad low energy, and we learned alot in the course of our three hour tour. We saw Los Gemelos, which are giant craters left when flowing lava tunnels collapsed on themselves. Then we went to El Chato Tortoise Reserve, where we were able to walk among the legendary giant tortoises as they sat, ate, and pooped.
After spending the morning on the tour we set off for Tortuga Bay in the afternoon. Rather than make the long hike over we opted to take a boat, which turned out to be a very questionable decision. On the boat ride over there were only 4 passengers, including us, and a very dangerous stretch on the boat where we were parallel to the coast with 6-8 foot swells coming in broadside. Good times. Once we got to the beach, Walter and I went on a few murky snorkeling runs and then came back in. On the way back I had a brief panic attack as I inhaled some water somehow through my snorkel and couldn't yet stand, so I ripped of my mask and swam on the surface the last 15 feet until I could stand and walk in with Walter in tow. It wasn't until about 10 minutes later, after we had walked back to our little temporary camp, that I realized I no longer had my GoPro. The GoPro with all the great videos of the sea lions from the day before. In a panic I raced back to the tree that I had aimed for as I swam in, and after 5 minutes frantic searching I found it resting on the floor of the bay, probably exactly where I dropped it. What a relief... After that the rains came in and we headed back on the water taxi, this time loaded down with a full complement of passengers. Very entertaining video to come.
The next morning we got up really early and took the 7am boat from Santa Cruz to San Cristobal, which was quite the experience. It was windy and the water was rough, so the 2 hour journey stretched to almost three, and Walter threw up again. After that, though, he fell asleep, so the rest of the ride was just fine, except that my leg fell completely asleep with Walter sleeping in my lap. So we began our 3 nights in San Cristobal...which will be the subject of my next blog post.