Bright and early, Anthony and I headed to the airport to make our way through the customs-like checkpoints for heading to the famous Galapagos Islands. While we weren’t leaving the country, the islands are treated a bit like their own country, with their own set of very strict regulations to ensure the environmental integrity of the islands. Look for my upcoming blog post on how to do the Galapagos islands for under $1000.
We paid the $100 entrance fee, had our passports checked, our luggage raided (lost a bag of chia seeds in the process, darn!) and then boarded our plane with a load of other tourists all excited for the trip of a lifetime. It was an hour and 45 minute flight out over the Pacific ocean and as the first island came into view we all excitedly peered out the little oval windows for our first look at the Galapagos.
Arrival was similar to departure in that we had to go through a customs like process to get stamped into the islands (best passport stamp yet!). We boarded a free bus that took us to the boat which transported us from Baltra island (which is uninhabited and strictly used for the airstrip) over to Santa Cruz, the main island. We paid the $1.50 for the boat and then shared a taxi with a few others for the 45 minute drive into the town on the other side of the island, costing us about $5 each.
The island was immediately strange and alien like, and brought to mind what I thought surely parts of Africa might look like. The earth was martian red, with cactuses and green tufts of shrubbery laying a patchwork over the otherwise barren, baked red earth. I couldn’t help but think of fish tanks, with their bright red rocks on the bottom and little tufts of greenery here and there. We passed miles upon miles of this landscape before it slowly began to change and signs of human life appeared. Tiny farms and rolling hills took shape and an occasional fence sprung up. We made our way into the town of Santa Cruz and I was surprised at the size of the little place and how filled with people, houses, shops and life it was. I had the idea that the Galapagos was quite primitive and uninhabited, which some of the islands are- but I was not expecting the fully functional tourist haven that was Santa Cruz. It had a main cobble stone strip lined with endless shops selling the tourist charms of the Galapagos, a huge variety of western friendly restaurants and hoards of people milling around, cameras around their necks and silly tourist hats atop their heads.
We checked into our hostel and hit the town to wander around. We had decided to do the Galapagos only because we figured we could do it for far cheaper than it cost most people by not doing any organized tours and just doing the islands ourselves. We researched and found out there were loads of free things to do so we set out to find them. We walked around the cute little town and then made our way towards the Darwin research centre and tortoise breeding grounds, about a half hour walk. On the way we passed by a wharf area where local women were cutting up fish, and sea lions were lounging on the sidewalks. I was ecstatic! A sea lion on the sidewalk! Like all the rest, I pulled out my little camera and snapped a bunch of photos, including the obligatory sealion selfie! On we walked in search of the tortoises and Darwin things. We found giant statues on the way- both a tortoise and a Darwin!
The tortoise grounds had a few groups of people being led around on guided tours. Anthony and I walked through it ourselves and looked at the huge beasts in their exansive natural looking grounds. I couldn’t believe how huge they were! But otherwise they are quite lethargic creatures and don’t move much other than to munch on the leaves. We cruised through the grounds looking at the birds (Darwin finches everywhere!) that filled the trees with their chatter and fluttering, the lazy tortoises and some strange orange iguanas.
We wandered through the Darwin Research centre and read up on information about the islands, their history and present endangerment, and saw all of the research buildings where the scientists conducted their research. We followed a small path and found two small beaches that the locals used and even saw a local catching a few waves on his surf board. We caught our first glimpse of the strange black marine iguanas as they sun bathed themselves on the camouflaged rocks. Bright red crabs skittered about wildly as waves came crashing in over the rocks. This place was growing on us fast with its peculiar wildlife and landscapes. We wandered slowly back to the main town square and came upon a local parade- the whole town was out and all of the children were dressed in different outfits, (painters, musicians, dancers etc.) and trucks blasted music for them to march to along with the floats. It never seemed to fail that Anthony and I end up finding ourselves in the middle of a parade in whatever town we visit!
After the parade we sought out the cheap food street a couple of blocks from the main strip so we could eat cheaper. The whole street was a strip of food stands, the middle of the road filled with picnic tables and chairs for the patrons. The food was okay, nothing special, and still over priced, but much cheaper than the main strip. We had plans to head over to Isabela island in the morning bright and early so we headed to the hostel to catch a few hours sleep.
We took the 7am water taxi from Santa Cruz over to Isabela, which cost us each a whopping $30 one way. We made a reservation for two nights at one of the few hostels on the island. Isabela was like a different world compared to Santa Cruz. The island was very underdeveloped, with only one partially paved road and very few inhabitants and not a single store selling tourist gimmicks. We decided to rent bikes from our hostel and explore all we could of the island. We took the bikes on a 14km rip to go and check out the wall of tears- a stain on the islands history, where prisoners were taken and forced to build a massive brick wall. They call it the wall of tears because the locals say they can hear the cries of the deceased within the wall sometimes.
The ride out was fun and not too challenging with a mix of up and down on the dirt road. We ripped along a decent speed and I was lucky enough to spot a large, lumbering, brown mass slowly creeping into the bush- a giant tortoise in the wild! We stopped, dropped our bikes and watched the big guy shuffle slowly off. It was so much more exciting seeing one in the wild than in an enclosure. We kept going and up ahead of us three horseman came trotting towards us. They had two hogs slung over the saddles of one of the horses. We watched them walk past us and wondered why there were horseman hunting on a trail like this.
We eventually came to the wall. It was a strange sight, the big black wall, bricks made from the volcanic rock that was in ample supply everywhere, standing ominously. It was a broken disjointed wall 40 feet high that served absolutely no purpose other than to beat down the prisoners who built it until death took them. We walked to the back side of the wall and saw a sign that allowed locals to hunt invasive species – wild hog, cow and goat, and to keep out of the hunting grounds for safety reasons. The hogs on the horses suddenly made sense, and it was good to see the island was putting in measures to protect the native species by trying to eliminate the invasive ones.
We picked up our bikes and began the ride back. We stopped on the way to climb a large hill that had a lookout point that offered a view as far as the eye could see from the ocean back and inward on the large island. There were endless little side paths along the way the we stopped here and there to explore. Some were volcanic tunnels, some were lagoons and others mangroves. I began exploring one while Anthony stayed back a ways and I suddenly felt like I was in the scary part of a fairy tale, and the dark, gnarly twisted woods were taking over. I got a sudden case of the spooks and bolted out of there back to Anthony who was only too happy to leave. We brought the bikes back, grabbed a bite to eat, and then headed out again in search of a lagoon that supposedly had flamingos on it. We were the only ones on the little dirt road and found the lagoon easily and to my delight it had several flamingoes perusing the pond, necks bent low, beaks in the water, sifting for dinner. We parked our bikes and watched them silently for ages, just enjoying the strange creatures in their natural habitat. With the setting sun, it was a wonderfully peaceful way to end our day.
The next day we walked to the breeding centre on the island. As we were walking in, a large tour group was just leaving. We had the entire grounds to ourselves! In the first large enclosure we saw a giant male slowly waddling – wow they were actually moving! He made his way towards one of the smaller tortoises, seemed to check her out and then turned around and headed for another smaller one. He awkwardly clambered atop her while she sucked her head inside her shell. After a few slow thrusts he stopped moving and simply sat atop her nearly gasping for breath. Anthony and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. We couldn’t believe we just witnessed tortoise sex! All the t -shirts in the tourist shops have this crude image on them and we actually saw the deed in real life! And all those tourists just missed it on their paid tour-ha!
We were creeps and took some funny videos of the poor creatures, and I pitied the female who still had her head sunk inside her shell, not looking too impressed at all. We carried on through the grounds looking at the mounds of baby tortoises crawling slowly around in their enclosures. It looked like this breeding ground was wildly successful! We walked over to one enclosure and all of a sudden all of the babies took notice of us and very slowly but surely began to make their way towards us. It was slightly creepy, a slow moving army of baby tortoises crawling towards you! I bent down with a leaf and the little ones chomped down on it – holy crap! I was a feeding a baby tortoise! All of a sudden they were crawling on top of each other to get closer to us to get a bite of leaf. Two of them got ahold of a small apple on the ground and had a little battle for it. One got stuck between a tree and the enclosure wall and took a good five minutes to maneuver his way out. I have no idea how long we lingered in the sanctuary, but it was endlessly entertaining to watch the little ones – they were so much livelier than the old guys!
After the tortoises, we decided to head towards the beach and dock to catch some sun. I rented snorkel gear for $5 but there really was nothing at all to see in this spot. I was in the sea, walking back towards the shore and Anthony started gesturing behind me. I looked back and a sea lion was swimming behind me, following me! I was so excited! He swam off when I took notice so I went back out into the water to see if he would come back. I waded over to a rock and saw a marine iguana hop off the rocks right into the water and swim back to shore- yet another strange sight on these wondrous islands. I began to head back to shore and once again a sea lion popped up behind me and slowly followed me. I walked up on to shore and he followed behind me, then waddled right past and flopped himself on to a bench, let out a huge sigh and settled in for the rest of the day. I went back in to cool off and was talking to another traveler in the water, explaining how I didn’t think I’d have a chance to see the penguins as you usually needed a tour to see them on another island, when moments later a little penguin popped up from the water only a few feet away from me and swam off- I was in shock! Ask and you shall receive from the Galapagos!
I wanted to see if there was a better snorkel spot on the other side of the dock so me and the other traveler went to check it out. While there was slightly more to see here, it was nothing special. I was about to give up and go back when a baby sea lion slipped in the water ahead of me and began swimming around us. He was so adorable and playful! We were only in water about waist deep and we just waded around slowly with this incredible creature. At one point the pup grabbed a stick in his mouth and brought it to us, as if he wanted to play fetch! It was such a wonder, the creatures of these islands and the way humans were of no mind to them, no threat to them. After an hour of swimming with the sea pup I returned to Anthony to tell him about it and watch as a massive flock of hundreds of blue footed boobies flew over head.
The next day we had to head back to Santa Cruz early for our last full day. We had plans to hike out to Tortuga Bay, the beach the islands were known for. It was an easy 45 minute hike along a nice lava brick path through thick vegetation. We finally made it to the shore and hiked further along the sand to reach the best section of beach. It was an overcast day but the beach was still beautiful. White sand stretched on forever, with black lava rocks here and there to break it up. The turquoise water, muted by the overcast sky was still bright and the waves crashed in hard. We lounged in the sand, watching the crabs dig their homes, herons swoop overhead in flocks of 5 or 6, lowly flying over the water, and cranes patiently standing in the water fishing for dinner. A few fat black marine iguanas lazily swayed their way up the beach to find the warm sand for sunbathing. After a while we moved to a second beach in a bay. I walked in the water ankle deep and spotted a sting ray by nearly stepping right on it! Luckily it noticed me before I noticed him and he swam off, shaking off the sand with a rippling of his wings. As he swam along shore and we followed him, a small shark around the same size as the sting ray swam up near us and got us all excited. But after spotting a strange spotted water snake, I kept to walking on the sand instead of the water!
After getting our fill of sand, salty ocean, and marine life, we began the trek back. We had to pack up and grab a last dinner before we left these lovely islands behind in the morning to catch our flight back to the mainland. That night as we headed to get pizza and coca colas we encountered a massive protest of surely nearly all of the islands inhabitants. The government was lowering the already terribly low minimum wage on the islands, and the people were not happy. It was a peaceful demonstration, loaded with vigor and angst in the speeches of the people. We sympathized with the people and hoped their demonstration had some effect on the bad decision the government was making.
After dinner we headed home to the hostel, packed up and hit the sack for an early morning. We had breakfast on the main strip and caught a cab all the way back to the other side of the island. We stared out the windows the whole drive, contemplating our time on these strange and unique islands that we were so lucky to explore. How fortuitous to get to explore the place where Charles Darwin discovered the theory of evolution and changed the world with his science. How blessed to walk and swim among animals that have no care nor fear of humans because they’ve lived forever without predators. It was five magical days that are truly unforgettable.