There are a number of tour operators lining the malecon front street eager to book your next day cruise or dive trip. After checking out a few we opt for Los Viajes Darwin ( recommended ) and book our first day cruise to San Bartolome Island. Alexandria is our agent and provides us with video, pics and encouragement that this is one of the highlights of the Galapagos. We agree as we have researched before arriving and it's on our hit list to do first. Besides the price you want to check the boat assigned for both size/comfort for long trips and number of passengers on board. We ask Alexandria if breaky on board is "huevos benny" and lunch is "langoustina and vino tinto si?". Eye brows and smiles are raised and she's getting to know the odd Canadian gringos. No eggs Benny but sit down breaky in the 16m two tiered cruiser is great and lunch is an excellent fresh swordfish and salad. On our way to San Bartolome we pass Daphne island and get our first glimpse at blue footed boobies, further along we see six foot manta rays trolling the surface, a few solo turtles on their way somewhere, a few monster marlin lunging into the air in the distance and as we near San Bartolome a few dolphins decide to play along the bow. SB is an island with two beautiful turquoise bays separated by a piece of the moonscape terrain that peaks atop the wooden stairs you climb to get awesome views of the bays, Santiago island and the Chino volcanic crater in the distance
. We are all ready to put on the snorkelling gear and hit the water by the time we make it back down in the 30c plus heat. Sea lions have moved onto the steps where our panga picks us up, a white tip reef shark cruises past along the craggy shoreline and charcoal black marine iguanas try and stare us down with their patented smirks. Our first encounter snorkelling is what looks like a mini penguin, a stunted speedster in the water it turns out he is full size as this little guy is unique to the Galapagos. They lost thousands in 2005 when El Niņo hit and food for them was scarce, and are now building on a population of around 2000 penguins in all of the Galapgos. The snorkelling here is incredible, we luck out and it's calm and clear as we float amongst a zillion assorted fish, playful sea lions, more of Margs favourite penguins on the rocks and "resting" white tip reef sharks on the bottom. These 5-6 foot sharks are the only ones of their kind that can actually stop moving without the need for the gills to keep them afloat and breathing, so they "rest" during the day and hunt at night. ( Isn't that convenient for us....)
Free day trips to beautiful Tortuga Bay for some snorkelling and beaching, the Charles Darwin Research Facility to see the turtles in various stages of development, catching the afternoon fish cleaning station by the docks to watch pelicans, sea lions and herons scrap over the scraps and a visit to Los Grietas canyon to cool off and watch the kids jumping off the cliffs consumes two days
. We catch the water taxi ( 3x 200hp 16 passenger water jets ) to beautiful Isabella Island a two hour fly by water. Caleta Iguana Hotel is a funky bright pink place managed by Emile, a hard working gal from Quebec at the edge of the small town of Villamil right smack on the beach that starts a Long Beach stretch of white sand and turquoise waters. ( 20bucks a night for a single, 50-75 for double - recommended ). Marine Iguanas were here long before the relatively small amount of development on Isabella and stake their claim along the beach, rock walls and decks surrounding the hotel. The black beauties blend in with the black lava beds in the waters to the point where you just don't see them anymore, yet the marine iguana peed in your sweaty armpit aroma lingers...
( there are restrictions on the Galapagos now with no new development permitted or any increase in population moving here, Ecuadorian or otherwise. )
We take in two full day boat trips here with an exciting trip to Los Tunneles where lava has formed sporadic inter connecting unique tunnels and caves from flowing and cooling lava off the active nearby Sierra Negra volcano. Our guide locates white tip sharks in the water caves then offers to hold you under as you hold hour breath, stick your head in a dark cave opening just long enough to face to face with the "resting" impressive creatures before your politely indicating "up pronto por favor" yanking on his hand holding your head under....the trip out from the tunnels is just as exciting as going in as the capitan has to navigate and time his way around and over huge breakers off the craggy lava shore
. Trip number two takes us to a lava field just off Villamil owned and operated by marine iguanas, beaching sea lions and bay feeding sea turtles. Our informative guide clues us in on the mating habits of said iguanas, shoreline sea lion pup raising and sea lion bull harem control practices before we don the snorkelling gear again. We witness huge sea turtles munching off the shallow bottom an arms length away, thousands of small sardines resting in a ridge current as a three foot wahoo from nowhere appears gorging his way through and a few small sting rays are "resting" on the bottom.
Free days on Isabella are enjoyed by a bike ride to the Wall of Tears stopping occasionally to watch land tortoises slloowwllyy cross the road to a new shady resting spot. The Wall of Tears is an interesting piece of history that had 300 convicts from the mainland sent to Isabella island to serve their time and construct their own prison walls from the volcanic rocks in abundance ( the good news is the lava rocks are quite light...) . The project was abandoned with only one wall up and is still remaining to remind everyone of how fortunate we all are not to have been an Ecuadorian convict. Story has it that the last few remaining convicts released opted to remain on Isabella rather than return to the mainland. The bike ride back is the reward for making the grunt uphill to get there stopping at a few picturesque beach bays on the downhill return
. Concha la Perla is walking distance from town and the best free place to swim with the playful sea lions, hard not to just hang out with these creatures who love showing off and hanging out with you. Depending on the time of year Isabella is known to host hundreds of pink flamingos. They had been sighted north of Los Tunneles but had eluded us until our last day when we were lucky to spot a few of them in a lagoon just north of the excellent turtle breeding centre. Odd creatures with a huge wing span when airborne we watched them for an hour doing their bobbing, cooling off in the wind and shuffling along the lagoon. Our evenings at Caleta Hotel are simple, enjoy the sunsets from the two for one bar complete with beach volleyball, tight roping and star gazing under such a big ecuatorial moonless night sky. Isabella island is really a beautiful place that you could easily spend a week plus getting to know the area by combining day trips with relaxing days and walks on the beautiful beach.
We return to Santa Cruz island and book our final day trip to Santa Fe island with Alexandria. SF is known for its unique land iguanas, huge sea lion colony, Galapagos doves, hawks and beautiful white sand turquoise bay. The bay beach is full of basking sea lions upon our arrival along with their many young pups. We happened to arrive when there were 8-10 Galapagos sharks patrolling the shore line looking to pounce on a pup
. With their fins breaking the water fifty feet from shore they had everyone's attention including mom and pop sea lions who seemed to be taking turns patrolling their youngsters and warding off the sharks. The very cool very large land iguanas on SF island are genuinely prehistoric looking and seem to know they rule the island. There are no natural predators for these land locked cacti depended beauties once they get beyond being frigate and Galapagos hawk bait as youngsters. Time for the snorkelling gear and we are treated to yet another great water world wonder with neon blue fish glowing at us and another dozen different varieties of fish we hadn't seen before.
The days go by to quickly here and we realize we have just touched the edges of this incredible place. At any time of the year that you may visit the Galapagos there will always be something extraordinary happening. Park fees upon arrival at $100pp are partially funding the many projects that are on going to enhance what is already here and build on the recovery of many endangered species. As it turns out Charles Darwin actually spent very little time in the Galapagos on his epic journey but he made some of his most significant discoveries and stirred the pot engaging the world in heated pub chatter and religious debate over our very existence. We felt quite fortunate to have the chance to put our flippers in the same water and feet on the same sand. We are homeward bound via Quito, Bogota, Houston, Calgary, Comox.
The Galapagos is one of those places where you just can't seem to stop pinching yourself. It's one massive outdoor marine aquarium dotted with islands representing eery prehistoric moonscape volcanic landscapes and every kind of bird, animal, reptile, fish and mammal imaginable. We opted to just book flights and search out day trips from two of the three main islands. Santa Cruz island is where the majority of flights land, cruises start and island hopping begins. Our first cruise is with the transfer from Baltra island airport to Santa Cruz on the ferry shuttle at $1.60, heh our budget is right on track! If your really really on a tight budget ( heh thats us at this point ) you can find accomodations for under fifty bucks, restaurants with great seafood for eight - fifteen bucks, or live off the daily "almuerzo" typically a three course set meal for five dollars or even more econo are the great street empanadas at a buck a piece. Bottom line is it can be a lot less expensive than you would think to visit this incredible place, but as it is with most travel one of the biggest costs is getting there and back