* Prices may differ from that shown
My Nan was a really keen traveller and managed to get to see an impressive 82 countries in her time. After she passed away few years ago, my Mum and I decided we would use the money she left us to tick a few more off the list for her. First on the list was a 'must do' for both of us and had also been on my Nan's list for a very long time : Galapagos.
Galapagos is a group of islands off the coast of Ecuador, in South America. The islands are famous for it's many endemic species and the part they played in Charles Darwin's research for his 'Origin of Species.'
Just a short flight, a boat and a jeep through the jungle : FLIGHTS AND TRANSFERS
We visited Galapagos on a package in which we spent a few days in Quito and Guayaquil on the mainland of Ecuador. This is quite common with trips to Galapagos as you will need to get a domestic flight from one of the mainland airports to San Cristobel, or more likely, Baltra airport and then a bus to the dock and a boat to your destination, most likely the island of Santa Cruz which houses The Charles Darwin Research Station and the main tourist area with shops, restaurants and hotels. We did the journey from dock to town by 4x4 and it was our first glimpse at the wonderful world of Galapagos. The collection of pelicans at the dock were our first wildlife spot and they would turn out to become very popular throughout the trip. The journey itself takes around 45 minutes going at a reasonable speed. After a long journey when you're hot, thirsty and tired it might have seemed like a chore anywhere else but that 45 minute journey is little a fast forward snapshot of what Galapagos is all about. From the beautiful coast, we pass seemingly endless fields of cactus up into the leafy highlands where the weather changes in the blink of an eye. Our guide tells us to look back down the road and you can see a clear line in the sky where the climate suddenly changes. Back down into the town on the other side and we are back in sunshine. Bizarre and amazing.
What to do for the best? : TOURISM IN GALAPAGOS
Tourism is growing to Galapagos and it's a difficult situation that the people find themselves in. The money is needed to keep the research going into it's unique wildlife and protect it's future so every penny spent from the visitors is welcomed. On the other hand, it's important to keep the tourism fairly modest and keep the unspoilt, non inhabited islands just that. I was surprised just how much there was in Puerto Ayora, the capital. It's not big, but there are a fair amount of tourist shops and bars. Thankfully, it's all fairly in keeping and no modern glass buildings or chain stores have appeared...yet. I guess I was expecting one or two shops and as many small hotels for visitors. People don't visit Galapagos to be pampered or for the night life, it's just not that sort of holiday but I guess the local people need amenities too.
There are a few hotels and we were lucky enough to stay in one of the nicest, Hotel Siberstein which is in the heart of Puerto Ayora and minutes from the Research Station. The hotels aren't the most modern, but the people will do everything they can to make you as happy and comfortable as possible. Of anywhere I've been I haven't met a community so friendly, proud and enthusiastic about where they live, and you can't help but see why.
I think we were lucky to find a package holiday in which we stayed on Santa Cruz and were able to explore a little on foot as we pleased. The vast majority of Galapagos holidays are cruises. True that an increase in ocean liners cruising around the islands isn't without its problems but it does tackle the problem of allowing people to see this amazing place without having the need to keep building in order to accommodate.
As you would imagine, the limit to tourism puts the cost up. This really is a once in a lifetime deal for most people that visit as it is not cheap. Expect to pay around £4,000 from the UK for a two week break - and as I mentioned it's unlikely the full itinerary will be spent on the islands.
Charles Darwin and what he tortoise : THE CHARLES DARWIN RESEARCH STATION
The one place everyone needs to visit is The Charles Darwin Research Station. We stayed round the corner and so visited here on our first afternoon and walked back in an amazing Galapagos sunset.
The station is a centre in which Ecuadorian and foreign scientists are constantly researching the islands incredible ecosystems and working on conservation projects to sustain it's future.
One of the most iconic animals associated with Galapagos is the Giant Tortoise. Here at the station they breed them an reintroduce them to their native island. There are a number of different species that have lived or do live on the islands and the aim is to keep every one going. We saw babies from six weeks old to the famous and recently deceased Lonesome George. He died last year and was known to be over 100 years old but his true age remains a mystery. The real tragedy of George's death was that he was the rarest animal in the world - the very last of his kind. I am so pleased to have seen him, though admittedly, not the best view. By then the celebrity lifestyle had taken it's toll and he preferred to chill out and the back of his enclosure rather than come up and see his adoring public.
Recently they have discovered on Pinta Island, the island George was native to, a surviving sub species of George so hopefully they can breed some cousins and keep a little of his legacy going.
Even without George, I recommend a visit to the station if you come to Galapagos. The guides are incredibly knowledgeable and I challenge you to pose them a question about the islands and wildlife that they don't know the answer to. It is good to visit early in your trip too, before you get out an experience the wildlife for yourself as it gives you some good history and background information and help to identify some of the species as you come across them.
Sun, Sharks and lots of boobies: No, not a low budget horror film, EXPLORING GALAPAGOS
Right you're off the explore and find those amazing species you've heard so much about up close. Got your camera, good comfy shoes, guide book, all set? Without trying to sound like your mother, make sure you slap on a shedload of sunblock and if you have one, one of those fetching hats with a string underneath (the boats get breezy.) I experienced the worst sunburn I have ever had on my first day out on the islands and it made me very uncomfortable for the rest of the trip (especially that itchy 11 hr flight where I was shedding faster than the island's reptiles). There is no shade and, once on the islands, little breeze either. Think about it, this is a place where some of the world's biggest cold blooded animals thrive, it's going to be a little toasty.
We visited three islands in total, Santa Cruz where we stayed, North Seymour and the tiny Plaza Island. These are relatively close together and we didn't venture as far a some of the bigger islands such as San Cristobel and Isabela which have a lot of the impressive volcanic scenery seen in many Galapagos documentaries. This is a shame, but it was simply a matter of time - whilst Galapagos doesn't seem vast, it would take most of a day by boat to get to some of the outer islands and as a lot are uninhabited, it's not something you are really able to do unless you do a cruise.
~Santa Cruz/Tortuga Bay~
The islands we saw house a lot of the most famous and impressive species, so whilst we didn't cover a lot of ground we saw an impressive amount of wildlife. If you're based on Santa Cruz, you don't have to go far to see some wildlife. On route to the Research Centre we saw a few marine iguanas sunning themselves by side of the road, but in order to see them on mass we took a long hot, but well worth it walk, (with guide of course) to Tortuga Bay... probably the most beautiful stretch of coast I've ever seen, with amazing sandy beach and mangroves. The less assuming wildlife is fascinating enough as you will often see tiny brightly coloured lava lizards scuttling along the paths and sandpipers scurrying in and out of the waves. If you love your animals as I do this will give you as much pleasure as seeing the 'headliners'. We walked through a sleeping mass of marine iguanas, oblivious and unbothered by this group of tourists cooing over them and taking photos. After our 5k walk we were rewarded by a dip in a secluded lagoon off the bay which was buoyant and cool and refreshing. I could have happily floated there forever.
Our trip to the highlands was less fruitful. We were in search of giant tortoises and it was torrential rain that afternoon (though quite possibly bright sunshine by the shore given the amazing 'double climate.') After a trek through some of the wooded areas and only a glimpse of a tortoise who was wisely tucked up, we thought it a pointless exercise and we arrived back at the bus to see one had decided to sit in the road and whilst it provided us with a good view, it had to be shooed on so we didn't run him over. It's probably the case most days and it might not seem to be worth visiting the highlands for the wildlife spotting, it's certainly worth it so see the variation in the Galapagos terrain.
This was the best place for seeing the main species. Before we'd got off the boat, a courting pair of Blue Footed Boobies were displaying on the rocks. The males have a mating dance in which they bring up their amazing bright blue feet and show the females just how colourful they are. You can't help be amused at these gorgeous but funny looking birds and the dance the males perform makes them seem even more bonkers, but I'm sure to the females it's irresistible. It certainly worked for one guy as we were in for a treat as we got off the boat to find a Blue Footed Booby very proudly showing off it's freshly laid egg to it's cooing public. It's truly amazing how accepting they are of humans. Every creature just carries on about it's business without a thought. It's refreshing that these animals have never thought to be cautious of us as they are so well protected here, I only hope they continue to be and never lose this as it's fantastic for us to see them so closely without causing any fear.
The islands visitors are permitted on, there are markers to show you where you can and can not step. You must stay with a guide at all times and they will quickly and firmly tell you if you step out of line. It goes without saying that only people who are truly going to respect these rules and indeed the animals themselves should visit Galapagos.
The boobies really are the stars of Seymour and as we continued around we were treated to more and more courtship displays. This is not to take away from the amazing and beautiful land iguanas that seemed to be lounging under every cactus and the aptly named 'Magnificent Frigatebird' and we were very very lucky to see a chick cuddling up to it's parents.
This small island is the place to go if you want a view of the gorgeous Galapagos Sealion. As we arrived on the island we saw a hareem complete with baby lounging on the shore. A little warning about the sealions, again these guys aren't scared of you and the males are big. If you see one lolloping towards you, you move quick as I did when a male decided the place I was standing was where he wanted to sunbathe. As striking as the bigger animals are the intriguingly named 'Sally Lightfoot crabs' that you will see scurrying around are just as fascinating. Bright bright organgey red, they are stunningly beautiful and I managed to get some fabulous photos of them again the black rocks.
This island isn't one for anyone suffering from vertigo. In order to see the amazing array of seabirds, you need to climb to the top and see them flying to and from the cliff face. We saw a good number of Nascar Boobies (cousins of the blue footed boobies but with a dark mask making them look like robbers), Black Terns, Common Noddys and Lava Gulls.
Of course, it's not just on land that the wildlife live. The marine life of Galapagos was the biggest revelation to me and gave me some of the most memorable moments of the trip and indeed, my life. The first brief but amazing encounter was a turtle poking it's head up from the waves right by our boat. I'd never seen one in the wild and as a favourite animal of mine, it's something I will never forget. Snorkelling is the best way to get close to the marine life, and we went snorkelling from the beach and straight from the boat. If you've ever been snorkelling and swum through a shoal of fish as they split and swim around you, you will know the buzz and joy of this activity. I was a snorkelling virgin before this holiday and I wished I'd started sooner! That was soon topped though, as I came face to face with a stunning Galapagos shark, inches from my nose. Scary for a second but we'd already been told that they are harmless so I kept by him for a few seconds but he soon out swam me. I'll never forget that though. Once in a lifetime.
Eating, Spending, Staying Safe : THE ESSENTIALS
The food we had on Galapagos was excellent, though I think our particular hotel was trying to appeal to our tastes slightly. The breakfasts were the real star of the show as the amazing fresh fruits here are what I will remember most food wise. Seafood is also very good as you would expect and if you are staying on Santa Cruz, make sure you visit the dock around 5pm as the boats come in. The fisherman gut the fish at the dock in case you were in any doubt of the freshness, but more that that it's become somewhat of a tourist must see as there are a few cheeky sealions and pelicans trying there luck to snatch what they can.
Don't drink the water - bottled stuff only and as always be careful with salads etc. We didn't have any trouble with tummy problems but better to be safe.
Currency is dollars and on the islands, souvenirs and the like can be on the pricey side, though is worth a haggle if there is something you like. There is a small market in Puerto Ayora near the dock where some things can be picked up a little cheaper.
Check with you doctor before you go. I only needed one shot prior to my holiday though you may need precautions against things such as Hepatitus A, Diphtheria, Tetanus and Typhoid.
There isn't much I can say about booking trips, getting around etc as most tourist activity here is all arranged trips and package holidays.
To go or not to go?
Galapagos is probably one of those places most people will never go and the ones lucky enough to will only go once. Maybe given the need to protect this unique habitat, that's the way it should be : only one go each. On a selfish note though, if I ever got the chance to revisit I wouldn't hesitate. My trip to Galapagos was the best holiday I have ever had and, I imagine, will ever have. There truly is nowhere else like it and it you love wildlife, it's THE place to go. That said if you don't it really won't be your thing because that's the draw here. There are plenty of other sunny islands to go to if you just want somewhere tropical to relax and chill out, probably for half the price - leave Galapagos for those that really want it. This is also a holiday for people of a reasonable fitness who are good with boats and can handle a good dose of heat. It's hard work, but worth it? For me, no doubt.
For more info visit the website of this great charity : Galapagos Wildlife Trust -
The Galápagos Islands are famously wonderful - in the literal sense of being full of wonders. Their location is unique and so, in consequence, is much of their wildlife. In the continuing throes of creation by a volcanic hotspot far out in the Pacific Ocean, they provide a natural laboratory for the study of how life first gains a foothold, and then adapts to survive, on new terrain. Moreover, since most of their area has been declared a national park by the Ecuadorian government, every effort is being made to conserve their extraordinary character.
Whether this makes them wonderful to visit is a different question, the answer depending on what you look for in your travels.
* Arrival *
The airport on Baltra Island at which most visitors arrive is not part of the national park, and is certainly not scenic. A former military airstrip, its runway seems well-camouflaged in a landscape of scrub and rocky rubble. The terminal building is basic and strictly functional, faced by a cluster of souvenir shops. In the space between the two you board an over-crowded bus to lurch the mile or two to an equally basic, functional quayside, assuming you will be touring the islands by boat - and, unless you want to limit your visit to Baltra and the adjacent Santa Cruz Island, there is no other way.
While waiting at the quay no one sits on the benches provided, since these are already occupied by slumbering sea lions. Even if you wanted to dispute their precedence, their droppings would deter you; the odour alone is discouragement enough. Pelicans fish from the surrounding rocks. These are two of the more endearing species found on the Galápagos, though of course both can be seen elsewhere, and observing them whets the appetite for what will be experienced later. Eventually the relevant dinghies arrive for whichever cruise-boat you have booked on, and the visit proper can begin.
* First, some geological background *
The Galápagos straddle the equator west of the South American coast. At their nearest point they are about 1000km from the Ecuadorian mainland, at their furthest about 1250 km.
All the islands creep constantly coastward, but will never arrive. Long before that could happen they sink beneath the waves. This is because they are perched on a tectonic plate - known as the Nazca - that geological forces are gradually driving down under the South American plate. It is the friction between the two that makes the whole region so prone to earthquakes. Even as the older islands are slowly submerged on their eastward journey, though, they are replaced by new-formed ones to the west, where underwater volcanoes erupt and the resultant lava spews high up above sea level before solidifying.
The whole "conveyor belt" process from creation to submersion typically takes an island between three and five million years, with the entire formation moving at about 7cm a year. By geological standards this is fairly hurtling along, though it doesn't make for much visible change at any one spot during the average visitor's lifetime, let alone average visit. What the visitor can do is to see on each island the progressive effects of eruption, weathering, erosion, colonisation by flora and fauna, and the gradual adaptation of these to their new surroundings.
* Cruising around *
Baltra, although the only starting-point available, is not an ideal place from which to begin a cruise around the Galápagos. This is because it lies at the centre of the chain, and itineraries based on it have to go first one way, then the other, then back, thereby confusing the geological sequence and making it harder to appreciate the natural differences between the islands. However, the alternative airport on San Christóbal Island, at the extreme east of the chain, is currently out of action.
Let's pretend that we could follow the most logical route, in the direction taken by the islands themselves, from west to east, what would we see? Ignoring for the purpose of this exercise the smaller outlying islands, the main ones are:
~ Fernandina, the youngest and most volcanically active - erupting most recently in 2005 - is still conical in shape and consists mainly of bare rock formed from the cooling lava, but life has begun to find living-space at its fringes. Cactuses and similar plants have settled in "kipukas" - spaces untouched by recent eruptions; at one or two spots there are even pioneering mangroves. The only point on the island at which one is allowed ashore is in the midst of them. Here flightless cormorants nest and marine iguanas, as black and rough-surfaced as the rock, bask in the sunshine, snorting out surplus salt ingested during their stints in the sea.
~ Isabella, the biggest of the islands, formed from not just one but seven separate volcanoes. The tallest of these, Mt Wolf, has, at 1700m, the highest peak in the Galápagos. Much of Isabella's coastline looks as inhospitably rocky as that of Fernandina, and we did not go ashore, though we did explore a cove by dinghy to see penguins nesting amid the boulders beneath the cliffs.
~ Santiago, a million years or so older than Isabella, and hence more rounded and much greener. Iguanas, turtles, flamingos and hawks all thrive here. So too, unfortunately, do pigs and goats originally introduced by would-be settlers, now running wild and disturbing the natural habitat. Just off Santiago is the islet of Bartholomew, which offers no more than the standard range of marine life but on which you can climb up to a lookout point from which to admire a fine panorama in all directions, including the apparently famous view of Pinnacle Rock (see pic above).
~ Santa Cruz, Baltra and North Seymour - in descending order of size, south to north. Santa Cruz has the largest population of the four inhabited islands, and is the focal point for conservation and research centres - including those for breeding the different species of giant tortoise for which the Galápagos are renowned. Santa Cruz also has examples of tunnels created by lava flows, which can be explored, and extinct volcanoes amid its varied terrain. All six types of vegetation found in the Galápagos are represented, which makes this a good place for spotting some of the rarer birds. Not particularly rare, but wonderfully impressive with their puffed-out scarlet chests, are the magnificent frigate birds seen on North Seymour, where they compete with blue-footed boobies for nesting-room.
~ Española. Small, uninhabited, low-lying and at the extreme south-eastern fringe of the Galápagos, this is one of the oldest of the islands, but the terrain is still rocky and the flora scrubby with salt bush, scorpion weed and mesquite. It is, though, one of the best spots for birdwatching, particularly the breeding grounds of the handsome waved albatrosses with their ungainly, fluffy-feathered chicks. The beach at Gardner Bay is ideal both for snorkelling among the sea lions and for observing them onshore. The customs of the colony are fascinating, with each 'beachmaster' male patrolling his twenty or thirty metres of shore, keeping his harem in order and warning off prospective rivals.
~ San Cristóbal. The second (to Santa Cruz) seriously settled island, with the sleepy town of Puerto Bacquerizo Moreno the administrative centre for the whole archipelago. San Cristóbal is the only island with its own source of fresh water - a lake in the caldera of an extinct volcano - and it is here that the inland greenery seems at its most lush. The interior is also said the best place to spot giant tortoises in the 'semi-wild' (whatever that may mean), though on the day on which we went to do so the road was closed.
* Wildlife *
The wildlife is, of course, the great feature that attracts visitors to the islands. If you are a dedicated naturalist, there is much that must be fascinating. As is well known, it was here that Charles Darwin first observed how the divergent features of different species on the different islands could best be explained as their responses to the challenges of their environments, an observation from which he later developed his theory of evolution.
Other biologists have followed. There is, I understand, a British couple who have spent 38 years on the islands documenting the local finches, proving in the process that there are now 18 species rather than the 13 originally identified. Others study tortoises or iguanas equally assiduously.
As a lay visitor with only a passing interest in zoology, though, let me sound a note of caution to my fellow amateurs. I couldn't spot the fine distinctions, and, to be honest, I didn't really care. I liked the sea lions and some of the sea-birds: pelicans, penguins, albatrosses and blue-footed boobies. It is splendid to go ashore and see all these at close quarters without their running scared; they have evolved here without fear of humans. It was impressive too to see the boobies, seemingly clumsy on land, become streamlined in flight and plummet like stukas out of the sky when they spot fish beneath the waves. I was pleased to have seen a whale - albeit in the distance - and the occasional dolphins and turtles.
But I didn't much like the giant tortoises - ugly, lumbering things, however extraordinary they might be. And as for the iguanas, land and sea alike, I found them repugnant and grotesque. Of course, you might not share my prejudices, but my point is this: that unless you have a consuming interest in such matters, the fine points of the local wildlife may be lost on you and consequently it will prove less of a highlight than you may have hoped.
* Scenery, vegetation and climate *
The scenery of the Galápagos is dramatic in places, rather dull in others. For tropical islands, they are rarely pretty; the archetypical palm-fringed beach with verdant hinterland is not found here. The most dramatic landscapes are the rawest and most rugged - the bare volcanic islands in the west. Even on the longest-established, most easterly islands, though, the vegetation seemed to me a little drab. My wife, usually a keen plantsperson, failed to get much excited by the local plant life, in marked contrast to what we had seen in the Andes. Some wild strelitzas and brugmansias inland caught her eye, but mostly she was unmoved by the sparse grey saltbush at the ocean's margins, however interesting it might be to professional botanists.
This may partly have been bad timing on our part. We were there in October, in the midst of the garua season - predominantly dry and cold by local standards (average 20°C), the main moisture being provided by the resultant sea-mists (garuas). The days were often grey and overcast. The rainy season, January-May, would have been wetter, but warmer and greener too.
Do not rely too much on this seasonal pattern in planning a visit, though. Once or twice a decade, at entirely unpredictable intervals, the local weather goes haywire in a natural, but little understood, cycle known as 'El Niño'. The cold Humboldt Current that usually sweeps up the Pacific Coast of South America from Antarctica goes into reverse, the rains fail and the fish stocks dwindle. Both vegetation and wildlife suffer badly. This is not the time to visit, if you can avoid it.
* Conservation *
Depending on how much of a perfectionist you are by nature, you might regard the conservationist efforts of the Ecuadorian government in the Galápagos either as exemplary, or as too little too late.
Certainly a lot of damage had already been done before it occurred to anyone that nature might be worth conserving. Pirates and buccaneers used the islands as a base from as early as the 17th century, depleting the stocks of turtles in the process. Whalers followed. Later settlements - agricultural, penal, and utopian - all had an impact on the habitat and released alien species into the wild. The resultant feral cats and dogs, as well as horses, pigs, goats and rats, continue to distort the natural evolution of wildlife on the islands today, despite strenuous efforts to cull them.
The conservation movement began in earnest in the 1930s and in 1959 the national park was established. This now encompasses 97% of the surface area of the islands, and although there is some friction between the rules of the National Park Service and the economic ambitions of the local inhabitants, especially the fishermen, in general conservation is in the ascendancy.
As applied to tourists, the rules are strict and strictly enforced. There are very few places where one can go ashore, and tightly restricted areas within which one can walk having done so - both only in the company of a licensed guide. No food can be carried with you and nothing brought away. 'Take only photographs, leave only footprints' in fact - and you should be careful exactly where you leave the footprints.
In principle, I applaud the objectives enshrined in these rules. I understand perfectly why the Ecuadorian authorities feel they have to treat so fragile an environment so gingerly. Nevertheless, it has to be said that, for the visitor, the restrictions do detract from the experience. Not that I would want to drop litter or steal rare birds' eggs. But I would have liked to strike off at my own speed, following my nose and instincts towards what seemed interesting, or even to hike across the wild landscapes seeking solitude, rather than to stick to the well-worn trail within a few hundred yards of the landing-stage, proceeding at the pace of the slowest and being lectured all the while by guides, however informative they may be.
* Museums and visitor centres *
The Galápagos are to all intents and purposes an open air museum. Since most tourists arrive having read about them in advance, and all are escorted by expert guides, further explanation may seem superfluous. However, there are a couple of visitor centres worth mentioning:
~ The National Park 'Interpretation Centre' on San Cristóbal, which expounds the history and natural history of the archipelago. This is interesting enough, but as a museum it seems left over from a previous era - depending on densely written display boards rather than on real specimens and artefacts or on audio-visual displays.
~ The Charles Darwin Research Station at Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz, which is mainly a centre for the study and breeding of the different types of giant tortoise. Its most notable inmate is 'Lonesome George', the only known living example of the Pinta Island subspecies and likely to be the last, but there are also many specimens of other species on display.
* Diving and snorkelling *
For serious scuba-divers, the Galápagos are said to offer excellent opportunities to see underwater life you will not find elsewhere, and there are boats that specialise in visiting the best places for this purpose. Most of the cruises, though, are more focussed on onshore wildlife, with a bit of snorkelling available as an extra.
The water is generally chilly enough to make wetsuits desirable, except in El Niño years, which tend to be inconveniently bad for sea life. My wife, a keener swimmer than I am, went snorkelling a few times and found it worthwhile mainly for the interaction with playful sea lions, but said the water was too cold and murky for it to be a really rewarding experience - compared, for example, with Fiji or the Caribbean.
* Human settlements *
There are only two towns of any substance on the Galápagos - Puerto Ayora and Puerto Bacquerizo Moreno. Both have hotels, though neither would appear to have much appeal as resort in its own right, only as a jumping off spot to tour the islands. Apart from the two research/visitor centres mentioned above, there is little in the way of tourist attractions, and nothing of architectural or historic interest.
Puerto Ayora is the larger of the two (with a population of around 12,000) and the more animated, with plenty of cafés, restaurants and souvenir shops, as well as a lively little open air fish market under constant siege from sea lions and pelicans scavenging for scraps and offcuts. Puerto Bacquerizo Moreno seemed almost asleep on the day we walked round it, with just a few men out repairing beached fishing boats beside the harbour.
* How to get there, and cost *
The Galápagos Islands are not a cheap holiday destination - not even if you just wanted to go and lounge around Puerto Ayora for a few days, which would be a waste of a few days in any case. Apart from the cost of the flights from Quito or Guayaquil, which are in heavy demand (not to mention the flights to Ecuador in the first place), there is $100 entry fee to the National Park, payable in cash on landing. For even the most basic cruise around the islands, booked locally - which may be cheaper than booking in advance but may also be of uncertain quality and availability - you won't see much change from $1000. The shortest cruises last three/four days, but don't encompass the full range of islands; the seven/eight day versions are much better.
Less nerve-wracking and more reliable is to book from one of several UK-based providers a complete package of flights, stopover hotels and seven/eight day cruise, for which you won't see much change from £2000. You can make this a bit less alarming (or a bit more, depending how you look at it) by combining a Galápagos visit with seeing some of the other sights in the region, as we did with the Inca relics of Andes, and thereby spreading the cost of the flights to South America over two destinations.
* Conclusion and recommendation *
Many visitors describe seeing the Galápagos as a wonderful experience, and given how few are able to go there at all, I feel a bit guilty in failing fully to share their enthusiasm. The archipelago is certainly remarkable and its wildlife extraordinary. The world would be better off with more such places. But remarkable and extraordinary do not always equate to attractive and enjoyable.
As a non-specialist, there was a limit to how enthralled I found myself. Nature-watching was sometimes fun, but sometimes left me as incongruously cold as the frigid Humboldt Current in equatorial seas. I was conscious that I ought to be excited by what I was seeing, but somehow often I was not, and I resented the sense of obligation.
Just one or two highlights stand out: watching a mother sea lion teach her cub to come ashore in heavy seas, dragging it repeatedly by the scruff of the neck away from the higher, rougher rocks towards an easier landing; a male booby displaying the blueness of his feet as he performed a ritual mating-dance for the benefit of a female outside his prospective nest, while she looked on with real or feigned indifference. Memorable stuff, but hardly an overwhelming return on a full week invested in observing wildlife.
In any case, what you are allowed to see and do is very circumscribed. Here is nature in the wild, but you can only observe it in the tamest of ways, in tightly controlled groups and tightly controlled areas. Understanding the reasons, I don't say this by way of complaint, but by way of warning to prospective visitors. Don't expect to be able to wander freely and see things in your own time and your own way.
It's only a personal view, but if I had to choose, with all the benefit of hindsight, between the Galápagos and the Inca relics, I'd plump for the latter every time, both because visits to them are so much less restricted, and because human history fascinates me much more than natural history. But if, like Darwin, you are an enthusiastic zoologist, a visit to the Galápagos will probably prove one of the highlights of your life, and easily repay the expense and difficulty of getting there.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2008
Visited October 2007. A review of the cruise-ship Galapagos Explorer 2 on which we toured the Galápagos can be found at:
I had always wanted to visit the Galapagos Islands because of the diverse, unique wildlife so unafraid of man and to be found nowhere else on earth.
The Galapagos Islands are a volcanic archipelago of 13 islands just under the Equator about 600 miles west of Ecuador in South America. The oldest of the islands is said to be around 4 million years old and are supposed to be one of the most active volcanic areas in the world. The Islands associated with Charles Darwin who visited them in 1835 and came up with his theory of evolution that is known about all over the world today. These islands are now a National Park and highly regulated.
We did a lot of research as to what wildlife we wanted to see and to what islands that were best for viewing the wildlife we wanted to see most . We took into consideration weather, sea temperature as we are mad keen snorkellers and divers. We decided we wanted a smaller boat as we felt that would be more personal and that a 8 day trip looked a good option ( as opposed to 3 or 5 day trips) as the longer trips went to islands further away and hopefully we would see less people and also be able to visit more islands. We booked with Llama Travel and our chosen Motor yacht was the 8 berth Estrella del Mar.
Day 1. Getting There.
We visited the Galapagos Islands whilst staying in Quito in Ecuador. We had already travelled from London Heathrow / Amsterdam / Bonaire / Guayaquil / Quito and had spent a few days in Quito. The original plan was to fly from Quito to San Cristobel in the Galapagos but this had changed to Baltra due to San Crisobel having the tarmac on the runway redone. We also had to stop at Guayaquil where we disembarked the aircraft and waited in the transit lounge for a while. Here we met a young lad called Matt from Germany who was to be on our boat. We were asked to reboard and got back on only to be told some 30 minutes later that there was a problem with the aircraft and we had to get off again. They announced they couldnt fix the problem and were getting another aircraft. We dismally watched our aircraft being towed away. By now the free nibbles and drinks had lot their appeal as we wanted to get on our way. After a couple of hours we were bussed to another part of the run way to get on the aircraft. Lo and behold it was the exact same plane. Anyhow after around 3 hour flight we arrived at Baltra.We had to pay 100 USD each to the National Parks for entry on the Galapagos Islands. We were met by our guide called Ruly. He was a grade 3 guide which is the highest grade you can have in a guide. It means that they have usually been to university and speak several languages and are very experienced about the Galapagos Islands. We also discovered that there were only going to be 8 people in all on our boat instead of the possible 16. (There were 7 of us that had done the trips in Quito) .Bargain!!!!
Arrival In Baltra.
Thankfully it was hot as we had had plenty of rain in Quito. Our retrieved luggage from the aircraft was whisked away in a lorry and we were told to board a bus which was to take us to the harbour. We had arrived in Baltra in the Galapagos which was a Military airport and as far as we could see the landscape looked very barren.
Where It All Really Begins.
We got off the bus to the little harbour. There were wooden shelters which were occupied by about 4 sleeping sea lions! This took me totally by surprise as did the smell! I hadnt expected to see wildlife so up-close and personal so soon. They were casually dozing on the benches and floor and one large sea lion got up and shouted at the others something which I imagine must be give them your best smile guys. We of course got cameras out and were taking photos like there was no tomorrow!
We were then instructed by our guide in the art of wearing a lifejacket and how to hold our arm for assistance to getting in and out of the little boat (panga) that was to take us to our motor yacht and would also be used for going ashore to the other Islands. There were also Frigate birds and large gulls flying around. There were also several other boats in the harbour awaiting passengers
The Motor Yacht .Estrella del Mar.
This a comfortable 75ft motor yacht which carries a maximum 16 passengers in 8 small double outward facing cabins,2 lower deck and 6 upper deck .Cabins have private shower and toilet and air condition. There is a large comfortable social area, dining area, bar and sun deck. Crew consisted of 7 people plus our guide.
Well I was very excited at the thought of spending 7 nights on a boat and could hardly contain my excitement. I wasnt disappointed and as I stepped on board and walked through the dining area the first thing that hit me was the incredible shiny wooden floor and the comfy seating. Everything was spotless. We were delegated No 6 cabin on the upper deck. We had 2 beds (with drawers in) divided by a bedside table, a wardrobe completed by a bathroom of large shower, sink and toilet. This was home for the next 8 days.
Due to the delay of our flight we had missed our chance to go ashore so we anchored in a channel between Baltra and Santa Cruse. We were told we would have briefings every evening so we were fully aware of the next days itinery. We also had a lifeboat drill. We were told if we were wanted a bell would be rung, eg to go out in a panga , mealtimes etc. I did feel at first I was part of the Von Trapp family!!
After a late lunch and settling in we had our first swim in the sea joining the Galapagos puffer fish that were surrounding the boat. The sea was very refreshing at around 24degrees so not quite as cold as we had expected but we were definitely aware of the current. Swimming in the dusk somewhere in the Galapagos Islands viewing the twinkling stars was not a bad start.
Food and Drink on Board.
I am vegetarian and also have an allergy to prawns and the like. The crew made it known they were aware of this. Breakfasts consisted of Juice, fruit or cereal, cooked breakfast (not English!!) and fresh bread, jams and honey. Lunch was usually soup, fish, rice and salad for me whilst the meat eaters had things like beef, chicken as well as fish and similar for dinner. Each meal was finished off with fresh fruit and tea or coffee. The food was served from the galley by the barman cum waiter. The meals were plentiful to say the least if a little different at times. Breakfast and lunch times varied depending on our visits to the islands. Dinner was at 7pm.Tea/herbal teas and coffees were available 24/7 and you could just help yourself. Soft drinks, beer and wine were payable for (as we knew) and Alfredo the barman created a tab and if he wasnt at the bar you helped yourself and added it to your tab. A bottle of reasonable wine was 10 USD .Other drinks were not too badly priced compared to English pub prices. However as the boat was going into dry dock after we had finished the trip there wasnt much choice to drink. This we were going to rectify at the first inhabited island.
Day 2. Espanola Island
This is the southernmost Island in the Galapagos. Cloudy but warm day to start with. After an overnight sailing we were anchored in Gardner Bay on the north eastern coast of Espanola. At 09:15 after an early breakfast we jumped in the panga and headed for a long sandy beach which was occupied by rather a lot of sea lions. Male Frigate birds (the ones with the red pouch under their chin) were circling above. There were also a few Pelicans. The sun was now baking hot and we donned our snorkelling gear and headed in the sea which was warmer than the night before. As we swam out to an outcrop of rocks the water became clearer. We saw 3 white tipped reef sharks, a large ray, surgeonfish, large wrasses and many others. We were told by others in our group that there were some marine iguanas on the rocks at the end of the beach. We walked along to the rocks past the rows of seal lions that were just basking in the sun or feeding their young or occasionally having a dip in the sea. There were quite a few marine iguanas .They blended in so well on the rocks that I walked past the first ones on the rocks! .These iguanas feed on algy on the rocks several metres under the sea. They have large claws to enable them to hang on to the rocks in the very strong currents. When they come ashore they then squirt out the excess salt through their tear ducts.
Afternoon: Whilst having lunch the boat moved around anticlockwise to Punta Suarez on Espanola Island. We went ashore to a very different part of the island. In fact it was hard to believe it was the same island. We again landed on a little sandy beach. There were sea lions all over the rocks and some in the water. Rocks also covered with the brightly coloured Sally Lightfoot crabs. As we walked a little further on the island the terrain became extremely rocky. We didnt know where to look first, as apart from the sea lions there were marine iguanas and also our first sighting of the blue footed Booby. The name Booby is Spanish for clown and when you see them do their little dance complete with their song you will understand how perfectly named they are. They are so funny. We saw lots of these birds and spent ages watching and photographing them. As we walked further round the island we saw more sea lions. God they stink!!!! We were surprised to see a few dead decaying ones too. We thought we could hear thunder in the distance but was told it was a blowhole. We saw 2 Galapagos hawks which were apparently a rarity. There appearance caused great concern for the Boobys. We also saw Nazcar Boobys (or masked Booby). This island was just teeming with wildlife.
Day 3. Floreana Island.
Early morning trip out in Panga around Punta Cormorant for wildlife watching around rocky outcrop of the island. This island has more than 50 volcanic cones! Saw some pelicans and some penguins. Also white tip reef sharks in shallow waters. Then ashore on a sandy beach to Post Office Bay where there is a wooden barrel for leaving a postcard. This trend was started by whalers in 1793 as they were many months away from home. The whalers put cards in there in the hope that anyone travelling to the country that the card was destined to go to would take it with them. Nowadays another tourist from your country picks it up and posts it when they get home.
Next it was back to the boat to get changed for scuba diving. We nipped off in a panga to dive near where we had been this morning. We saw white tipped reef sharks, rays, 3 hammerheads in the distance, plus lots of other smaller fish. Quite a pleasant 40 minute dive.
Afternoon: After lunch we went snorkelling off devils crown which is a big pointed outcrop of rock, renowned for excellent diving/snorkelling and also strong currents. As we started out it looked quite choppy and I decided to stay in the panga until we got near the coastal side of the crown where it was not so rough although there was still quite a current running. We saw chocolate chip starfish, white tip reef sharks, eagle rays and also snorkelled with a penguin!
Back to boat for a cuppa and to get changed for a trip to a lagoon to see flamingos. As we went ashore there were a few sea lions. There were about a dozen or so flamingos in the lagoon. The surrounding area was quite brush like. As we walked further round the lagoon we were able to get closer to some of the birds. We also spotted greater painted locusts which are like very large crickets. We also saw lava lizards which these species of lizard are endemic to Floreana.We walked further around the island to a sandy beach. It was a lovely picturesque bay. Frigate birds were circling above waiting to pick up turtle hatchlings which were in a area zoned off to tourists. We could also see several turtles and rays in the water quite close to the shore. Back to the boat for overnight sailing to San Cristobel Island.
Day 4. San Cristabel Island.
San Cristobel is one of the largest islands and is inhabited by around 30,000 people. As we went ashore to the tortoise park the town had a feel of being on the Caribbean with its brightly coloured houses. Tortoises on this island were moved from North of Island to re-establish in the South. The park had many tortoises which freely roamed. There was also a little hatchery for small tortoises. We were able to watch them bathe in their pools. It was quite amazing how quick they could move. Back to the boat for lunch.
Afternoon: Ashore again to interpretation centre which was sponsored by the Spanish. It was a newly built building which housed an exhibition of the history of the Galapagos both human and animal. We were left to do our own thing so after the centre we walked the little windy streets back to the town for some souvenir shopping. We watched the frigate birds and pelicans from the pier.
Day 5. Santa Cruz Island.
Overnight sailing to Punta Ayora in Santa Cruz which has the largest community in the Galapagos. Ashore at 8am to catch a waiting bus to the Highlands. After 45 mins we arrived at the centre which was for wild tortoises on farmland. Saw two empty shells of tortoise in the café area which were found by the owners of the reserve. As we walked around the wooded reserve there were several very large tortoises. We spent some time watching a really tortoise eating tree tomatos. We decided after seeing these chaps that ET was definitely modelled on the head of a tortoise. There were quite a few finches and white egrets around the area.
Next was a visit to the Charles Darwin Foundation. This was a very large centre which was established in 1959 with various exhibitions which we unfortunately didnt get to see. It all looked fascinating. We saw varieties of tortoises from several islands. We visited the tortoise hatchery. We were able to view lonesome George who is the only sub species of the Pinta Tortoise left on earth and see the land iguanas. The centre was excellently laid out with informative displays around each exhibit but boy it sure was hot and it was hard work walking about in the heat. We walked back to the harbour as there had been a mix up over the coach and we were fed up of waiting. We walked through the little streets back to the harbour, past the fish markets where we saw several pelicans downing large unwanted fishheads!!
Day 6: Santiago Island.
Here we landed on a beautiful small sandy bay complete with the obligatory sea lion. The water was flat calm and gleaming turquoise. Walk over ridges and coils of Lava with little vegetation. Saw a snake, penguins, American oystercatchers and the little lava lizards. Very interesting scenery. We could hear a barking bull sea lion nearby.
We had time for a snorkel. The water was lovely. Saw many different reef fish and lots of the chocolate chip starfish. Also saw white tipped reef sharks. I was suddenly startled by a large black shape next to me but realised to my joy I was swimming with a sea lion.
Afternoon: Diving. Water was quite choppy. Rocky terrain to 18m where we stopped and hung on to rocks to try to see hammerheads as there was a bit of current. A cold thermocline came across. Water temperature dropped from about 25 degrees to 20.The water looked just like glass. It was amazing! Viz was a bit cloudy. Saw a white tip reef shark and 4 turtles and 2 large schools of barracuda.
Back to the boat in time to jump aboard another panga to see penguins and oystercatchers from Bartolome. We then went ashore on Bartolome to walk up 400ft to the summit of the island via a wooden walkway which was quite a climb up many steps. The scenery was breathtaking and looked just like the wind had left ripples in sand, except it was lava.
Day7: Islas Plaza (North & South)
Before breakfast we landed at South side to see the Land Iguanas. These were sandy in colour and quite big. There were many sea lions and Sally Lightfoot crabs. Flying around were swallowtail gulls and there very various seabirds on the cliffs. In this area the iguanas seemed to be in poorer condition as you could sea their ribs. We saw a hybrid iguana Marine X land iguana.
After breakfast we sailed 3 ½ hours to Santa Fe and anchored in a lovely blue lagoon. We went ashore and had to walk past many sea lions that were on the sandy beach to see second type of land iguana which was green this time. There were also large opuntia cacti which must have been about 7 feet tall.
Afternoon: swim in the lagoon which was not as clear as we expected although nice and warm. The panga men were taking it in turns to spot things for us. We saw many very large eagle rays some must have easily been 6 ft in width! Also several large turtles and several white tip reef sharks one of which had a hook in its mouth.
We then sailed to Baltra to be nearby for disembarking the following morning. Manta rays were spotted jumping out of the sea.
Day 8 - Baltra.
This was our final outing in panga before breakfast to Turtle Creek. |Lots of tributaries with mangrove islands. Some of the water was quite shallow. There were Pelicans in the mangroves. We could see turtles, rays and sharks in the water. Great fun to watch and try to film the blue footed boobies who gave us the most spectacular display of their diving skills.
Back to boat for breakfast then disembarked at Baltra harbour again being met by the sea lions. There were also large opuntia cacti which must have been about 7 feet tall. Many sea lions and Sally Lightfoot crabs. We arrived at the airport at 9:30am for our 13:30 flight to Quito. Mist came down causing a plane to abort its landing. Fortunately as the mist cleared our plane landed on time. This time although we were flying via Guayaquil to Quito we stayed on the plane. We landed at Quito around 17:30 for pickup to our hotel.
Recommended: Yes most definitely
For further information www.llamatravel.com
Cost: The whole trip including our stay in Quito and all excursions except on the last day in Quito was £2294 each
Thank you for reading about my trip of a lifetime and hope it wasnt too boring.
On the first morning of my Galapagos Island cruise, myself and nine other passengers excitedly boarded a dinghy to take us to shore for our first encounter. After landing and just as we were about to start following the trail, we passed a group from our sister boat who were about to leave following their slightly earlier visit. One of my group spotted a lady she sat next to on the flight over who was looking slightly hot and bothered and admittedly a bit po-faced. Nonetheless my fellow adventurer shouted over enthusiastically to enquire of the experience. The answer Its OK
.if you like animals!!
Fortunately most people considering a trip to Galapagos Islands will already well know that if animals, birds, sealife and nature itself are not of interest then it is probably not a holiday destination to contemplate for too long.
Where and what they are ~~~~
The Galapagos Islands are owned by Ecuador and are situated in the Pacific Ocean about 700 miles due west from the mainland of Ecuador. There are 13 larger islands which most holidays will be spent visiting, although there are numerous smaller islands in the sprawling archipelago as well. The islands are the result of volcanic activity and are oceanic meaning they have never been attached to any mainland. The non human inhabitants of the islands all reached the islands at one time by swimming, flying or in the case of giant tortoises, apparently floating on logs.
The islands straddle the equator, most being in the southern hemisphere but a couple in the north. I was surprised at the distances between the islands, greater than I had anticipated and we had many overnight sails and the odd long sail during the day.
About three of the islands have a human population, this is currently of about 15,000 overall and this has risen in more recent years due to the growth of tourism. During our visit we learnt of some quite disturbing attempts by man to populate the islands in the years past, fortunately these attempts failed but unfortunately not before some damage was done. Now the islands are protected, visits are strictly controlled and there are efforts in place to undo some of that damage, such as programs for the eradication of introduced species and the Darwin Research Centre which is used for tortoise breeding and education. Humans education that is.
Getting there and when to go~~~~
It is normal to fly to the Galapagos Islands from the mainland. We took a flight from Quito and it took about 3 hours including a 40 minute stop in the city of Guayaquil to pick up more passengers. Our cruise company advised us to make sure we had a couple of days in Quito before the cruise just in case there were any problems with the domestic airlines but in the event there were not.
To get to Quito from the UK, I would recommend a route via Madrid rather than the US as there are no direct flights presently. We had no choice but to fly through the US from our home in Bermuda, and on the way back it took a good two hours to clear immigration, pick up baggage, recheck baggage and re-clear security. Fortunately on this occasion we had a four hour window.
In terms of when to visit, I could not find anything to suggest that there is a particular time of the year that is more advantageous in terms of seeing the wildlife, most of it is there all year round and many species do not even have distinct breeding seasons. So I based my decision on the weather and broadly speaking between December and June the skies are clear and blue and it is hot, the guidebooks indicated 30 degrees max but in fact it was nearer 40 degrees during my visit in March. From July to the end of the year, it is cooler which has its appeal but apparently the area is prone to fog and mist, which does not. So for me it had to be the sometime during the first half of the year and March was purely out of convenience.
What type of trip~~~~
I chose to see the islands on a cruise and would maintain that this is the only way to do the Galapagos justice. It is possible to stay in a hotel in one of the populated islands and take day trips out to the sites. I personally would not recommend this option as the islands are further apart than you might think and if you are land based you would only be able to reach a couple of sites on day trips. Furthermore, whilst the town I visited was a pleasant and welcome land break for a few hours, it did not have sufficient attractions to compensate for missing some of the sites only possible if on a cruise.
Whilst I was in Quito, I noticed some travel agents offering last minute deals to the Galapagos Islands. Maybe it is possible to get a good deal this way, but this was definitely not an option I would contemplate. It is a long way to Ecuador, the Galapagos is an expensive holiday and my dream holiday and I would not want to take this element of chance. There are only so many boats and visitors allowed to cruise the islands and a local company could not just put on another boat even if they had one and there was the demand for it. So my advice is definitely to research, plan and book ahead.
Boats can roughly be divided into one of three categories, budget, tourist and first class. This will be an expensive holiday even in a budget boat, but obviously there is a range even within categories and you will need to shop around. Most boats take 15 -20 people, there are a couple taking about 50 people and I believe just the one carrying over a hundred passengers.
All boats are required to submit a proposed itinerary to the Galapagos Islands authorities for approval and will receive back an approved itinerary which will have been designed to ensure that land visits are coordinated. This seems to work well as we saw at most one other group during our land visits and many times nobody else.
The process also means you can find out where your boat is scheduled to go in advance. I am not sure this is essential unless there is somewhere in particular you do not want to miss. Generally a week long cruise will have 12 land excursions and as there are only 13 islands I think one would have to be quite unlucky to end up dissatisfied. I did not check my boats itinerary in advance and we ended up in all of the places highlighted in my guidebook, although I was surprised that we did not go to the largest of the islands, but it was not something which troubled me.
The Galapagos is popular with scuba divers as well. I did not scuba but snorkeled and thoroughly enjoyed it, in fact everybody on my boat snorkeled daily and it was a very enjoyable and important part of the day. The highlight for most of us was snorkeling with reef sharks, we also swam with sea lions, saw manta rays and loads of colourful fish but were unlucky with turtles and did not see many. I didnt think that the undersea experience was quite up there with the Great Barrier Reef or the Red Sea where I have snorkeled and dived respectively. This was mainly because the water was quite murky in places, although I daresay the dive boats know the best spots, whereas we snorkeled wherever was convenient. I think it would be real shame to come to the Galapagos and not spend quality time above the water as well as under, but I think it would be a great combination for a holiday.
The Galapagos Island offers a truly unique experience and the opportunity to see wildlife, some of which can only be found here, up close. The animals and birds are not tame but rather they have not learnt any fear of humans. We assumed binoculars would be essential for this trip, but in fact we only needed to use them a few times as the wildlife was so near to us. One day I was taking a picture of a sea lion pup and taking care not to get too close, however he was extremely interested in my camera and walked (if sea lions walk) right up to touching me to take a proper look.
Our boat followed the same pattern as most operating in the area of one land excursion in the morning, one in the late afternoon with free time in between that might be spent swimming, snorkeling or sailing to the next port of call. Before each land visit we would be told what to expect in terms of what wildlife might be found in that location and we would also be advised of the conditions so we could be prepared and wear appropriate footwear. Some of the islands are more rugged than others and involve clambering over rocks and lava formations and in some places we would have to wade the last few feet to shore so a towel and pair of sandals came in handy. There was very little shade on any of the islands, it was extremely hot and most land visits lasted about two hours so it was vital to be prepared for the conditions.
Everywhere we went the wildlife was in abundance and we saw everything we had been told we might see ahead of each shore trip. I particularly enjoyed the frigate birds (the males have a huge inflatable red balloon on their chest to attract females), red footed boobies, blue footed boobies, marine iguanas, land iguanas and the sea lions which were just about everywhere.
The biggest attraction for me though was the giant tortoises and I eagerly looked forward to our tortoise day which was in the second half of the week. Sadly, the human related damage I referred to earlier has had a great impact on the tortoise population, who were at one point close to extinction. So our visit firstly involved a visit to the Darwin Centre where tortoises are bred and kept until about five years of age before most are released to one of the islands. The tortoises are obviously coming and going here but there are usually about 200 including some fairly large ones which I assume will not be released. The most famous resident is a tortoise named Lonesome George, who was the only tortoise of his particular brand left on one island and was brought here many years ago after being found. There is a reward for anybody who can find a female of his sub-species as so far he has shown little interest in other female tortoises he has been introduced to. After leaving the Darwin Centre we went to see some semi wild tortoises in a tortoise game reserve type of place. Probably my biggest and only disappointment about the whole trip was that I did not see any truly wild tortoises, but sadly these are thin on the ground.
Wildlife apart, I also enjoyed being on the islands for the landscape itself as it is rare to see such untouched scenery and pure nature.
To conclude the Galapagos Islands lived up to all my expectations. I would recommend it highly and for any age group providing of course, that you like animals!
The Galapagos archipelago is simply a stunning place to visit. Sometimes stunning because of the pure ugliness of some of the volcanic formations, and sometime stunning because of the beauty and diversity of the wildlife. It is also one of those destinations which I'm torn on recommending. Certainly I would want people to have seen and experienced all that it has to offer, but I'm also aware of the fragility that humans have brought to its ecological balance. The economic situation further complicates matters because, quite frankly, Ecuador is a poor county which needs the tourist dollars, and the Galapagos islands themselves have to pay the conservation and research work needed to protect them. A difficult choice. Politics aside though, the islands are a must see. There are a large number of them, on which various species of animal - many of which found their way there by accident - have evolved in splendid isolation from the rest of the world. Not only has this impacted on scientific thought ever since Darwin's visit there caused him to complete his "Theory of Evolution", but also it means that the amazing wildlife all behaves as if it were tame. In fact most creatures there have not been tamed - more they never developed an instinctive fear of people whilst they evolved detached from the destructive ways of humankind. So overall then, you have a collection of islands situated on the equator in the Pacific 600 miles off the coast of (and owned by) Ecuador. They are most easily accessed by plane, from either Quito or Guayaquil. I landed on Baltra island where the "airport" is functional and there is nothing on the island except the airport. In fact most of the Galapagos is uninhabited, and there are only three human settlements. The rest of the island group (and surrounding waters) is part of the national park, with very strict rules concerning visiting times and so on. The vast majority o
f visitors are going on the organised cruises, and so arrival at the airport once you have paid the $100 park tax (yes, one hundred US dollars in crisp bills), you enter the baggage hall maelstrom of tour groups trying to find their guides and vice-versa. In this process people are put on busses which either take you to the nearby dock to get on a "cruise ship", or over to the ferry to Santa Cruz island which is home to the largest town, Puerto Ayora (which again is a bus ride away from the ferry). The three towns (Puerto Moreno and Puerto Villamil are the other two) are not large, given that the total population of the entire archipelago is around 10,000. Puerto Ayora is the largest and it is here that you are likely to stay if you don't simply hop on and off a cruise. As well as being home to the Darwin Research Station, it is also home to numerous dive clubs, tour operators, etc. There are many day trips and so on that you can organise from here. I won't go into the orientation of the islands in this review, other than to say that Puerto Ayora is roughly in the middle so many sights can be achieved from here with day-trips, though the only way to see some of the more remote bits is via a longer cruise. Confusion can arise since many islands have been given different names by different groups over the years. However, for tourists the use of the Spanish names seems most common. The waters are quite calm within the island group, though on some legs of your journey you may encounter rougher seas. Given that you can always see land, it is easy to forget that you are over 600 miles out to sea. Visiting the islands (other than the towns) must be done between 6:00am and 6:00pm, and you must be accompanied by a guide. Official guides are qualified, speak generally good English and are both helpful and useful. Unofficial guides should be avoided, and in general unofficial tourism is heavily frowned upon because of the environmental harm
it does. Inadvertently treading on a nest of iguana eggs because your guide does not know they are there kills the next generation of someone's family! The cruises, then, not only take you to the islands, but also form your sleeping quarters as well as providing you with all meals. Cruises range from cheaper, cramped and basic boats with 4-5 crew and 8-10 passengers, to large cruise ships with over 100 "guests". The main differences will be increased comfort and larger cabins, air conditioning, and more "fussing" at mealtimes. It is worth noting that all the food comes from the same place - so big does not guarantee better in terms of food. In all cases getting to and from the boat to the islands is done via smaller boats with an outboard, and you should choose your tour wisely if you do not want to test your agility leaping from boats onto rocks and vice-versa. Some of the more "luxury" cruises have better hand rails and so on on their little boats and so are more appealing to more elderly passengers. However, I think that a lot of the so called luxury is illusory, and the benefits of being in a small group (more intimate, access to more places and the chance to actually hear the guide) vastly outweigh the presence of air-conditioning. On the smaller boats most cabins will have two beds, so you could find yourself sharing. Most cruises follow similar routes, and ours did a figure of eight, crossing at the airport to provide flexibility for people to do a 3, 4 or 7 night tour. However long your cruise you will keep spotting the same ships alongside when you come to moor up for the night. Everything is provided, except for additional drinks (coke and beer) which will be available for a price not dissimilar to what you'd pay at home. On our boat these drinks operated on a trust system, so we kept a tally and paid at the end of the week. The money from this went to the crew. The chef on our boat was a genius: thou
gh not about to win any Haute Cuisine awards, given the limited facilities and lack of shops he worked miracles in the galley to provide varied and edible food - with no obvious food poisoning being suffered by any passenger. Also on the ship were adequate showering facilities, one on the back of the boat for a rinse after swimming and one in the cabin for (brief) hot showers at a pre-prescribed time of day. So, once off the aeroplane and $100 lighter, and hooked up with the guide who subsequently hooked us up with our boat, we were put in our cabins and given life jackets and a 10 minute introduction to etiquette on board. Just in time for tea! Having had something to eat, the boat set off for it's mooring point for the evening whilst the guide briefed us as to what we would see the next day. And this set up the routine for the whole trip: breakfast followed by a trip to an island; an hour or two on the island at a very gentle pace with the guide pointing out and explaining the wildlife, then back to the boat to move on. Do a bit of sitting around and sunbathing/chatting whilst the boat chugs along, then at the next stop it's back onto the little boat to visit a different island with different wildlife. Either take the little boat or swim back to the main boat for lunch. After lunch you can siesta whilst the ship moves on, then maybe one more island visit before having an evening swim off the back of the boat and tea. The boat may choose to move on again early the next day before breakfast. The visits are virtually indescribable, and it is all fascinating even for someone like me with no prior knowledge or particular passion for studying animals. Furthermore, a week of it left me wanting more, not getting bored. Be it looking at the one hour old sea lion cubs, or spotting the turtle nests, the experiences will live with you for ever. All the wildlife is approachable, and snorkelling with a school of eagle-ray is something the thought of wh
ich still makes me feel gooey inside. Suffice is to say that you will see iguanas, penguins, blue footed boobies, giant tortoises, ray, turtles, frigates, pelicans, puffer fish, lizards, crabs, etc, etc, etc. The boats have elementary snorkelling equipment, though one of our number was somewhat put off by an encounter with a White Tipped Shark. However, we were assured that it was all perfectly safe - and the water babies amongst you may wish to take your own mask and snorkel, and an underwater camera as well. I think that one of the pleasure of the week is that it is not only informative, but relaxing. Though the fauna (and flora) is the main event, a week of lounging around on boats with the occasional swim or snorkel would provide a pleasant diversion in its own right. At the end of this most incredible week (which will also include a trip to the Darwin centre, and Puerto Ayora), you get dumped back at the airport for your flight back to the mainland weighed down only by the vast number of experiences you hope never to forget. My highlight was snorkelling down to about 5m and patting a giant green sea-turtle on the head: he didn't seem to mind! Of course if you so desire you can head to Puerto Ayora for a couple of days (more) R&R, and maybe some diving. I alas had to leave and can't dive - though I understand that the diving is spectacular. Here's my tip: the cruise trips are a must do, but are expensive (check out, for example www.galasam.com.ec). It is more expensive to book them up in the UK in advance than it can be to do it there - though you do have the advantage of a certain place. However, if you are not pushed for time, you can hang around in Quito or Guayaquil, and try to get a late bargain. If there is an empty space on a boat then you should get it at a considerable discount. Though our agent (www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) insisted that everything would be fully booked, we encountered many people who
were able to get last minute places relatively easily. My other tip is take lots of suntan lotion and a hat. You will spend a lot of time out in the open in the sun on the equator! Lastly, though Ecuador is not particularly problematic at the time of writing, for trips to more "unusual" destinations I would always recommend a pre-visit to www.fco.gov.uk for up-to-date travel advice. So, do it, do it, do it. But when you are there, be mindful of the potential damage you could be doing, and treat the environment there (as everywhere!) with the respect it deserves.
"The Galápagos Islands (Spanish names: Archipiélago de Colón or Islas Galápagos, from galápago, "saddle"- after the shells of saddlebacked Galápagos tortoises) are an archipelago made up of 13 main volcanic islands, 6 smaller islands, and 107 rocks and islets. The oldest island is thought to have formed between 5 and 10 million years ago, a result of tectonic activity. The youngest islands, Isabela and Fernandina, are still being formed, with the most recent volcanic eruption in 2005. The Galápagos archipelago is part of Ecuador, a country in northwestern South America. The islands are distributed around the equator, 965 kilometres (about 600 miles) west of Ecuador (recently found to have 3 volcanos in the center island, all of them active) (0° N 91° W). They are famed for their vast number of endemic species and the studies by Charles Darwin that led to his theory of evolution by natural selection. The adjective "Galápagan" may be used to describe things from or related to the islands."