Most travellers have a bucket list, ours included the Galapagos Islands. There’s three approaches to visiting: as cheap as possible, a bit more expensive or the mega bucks way. Given that this was going to be once in a lifetime trip, we went for the middle option. Planning the perfect trip was tricky as each island offered something different and each boat took a different route. The best website Julie found was www.hillmanwonders.com, which provides great detail on each island.
In the end, we opted for a company called Last Minute Galapagos Deals and they were superb right from the start. Tania, the owner, was very patient as we ran through our requirements - lots of snorkelling and not too many people. Pretty simple really.
The Anahi, a 28 metre catamaran with nine crew and a maximum of 16 passengers was perfect. It called at most of the islands that we wanted to visit.
The flight from mainland Ecuador is nearly two hours, and starts with a very strict bio security check where your bags are x-rayed and sealed before check in. After paying the US$100 fee each to enter the Galapagos National Park, we met our guide, Rissel.
Rissel turned out to be a brilliant guide with a great sense of humour and an enormous amount of pride for his home islands. Now being on a small boat for eight days, you really have to get along with the other passengers. We lucked out here too, they were a blast. Five friendly folks from Holland and two English families with four children between them.
After a quick bus ride, we piled into a couple of zodiacs for the short trip to the waiting Anahi. Our home for the next few nights was spacious and spotless. After settling in, we had lunch whilst the boat motored to nearby Santa Cruz Island.
Not sure what either of us was expecting, but it wasn’t to be tripping over so much wildlife the moment we set foot on our first island. Get out the animal bingo card and start ticking off, frigate birds, blue footed boobies, pelicans, sally lightfoot crabs, hermit crabs and marine iguanas. We didn’t get to see any baby sea turtles, but we did find some empty nests with shell remnants scattered all around.
Back on board, we had a welcome cocktail and a formal introduction to the crew and fellow passengers. Some of us even managed to introduce ourselves in Spanish to the delight of the crew, well once the sniggering over the dodgy Spanish accent had stopped. Overnight we crossed the equator back into the northern hemisphere, if only for a few hours.
And so the days went by, a combination of nature walks and snorkels. Given the delicate nature of the region, we had Rissel with us always. Sticking to the paths was the golden rule. Not that we needed to venture off. On more than one occasion we had to detour around a blue footed boobie who had decided to nest in the middle of the track.
Each night Rissel would provide a briefing on the next day’s activities. When heading to the islands we would either have a dry or wet landing. The crew always made sure everybody was safe when boarding the zodiacs so nobody went for an unexpected swim.
Snorkelling was by far the highlight each day. Sometimes it was very calm and flat, on other occasions we were pushed along by fast moving currents and swamped by waves. Still great fun. Each time we surfaced we had tales to tell of the amazing sights below. Chantal (Dutch lady) was the only one to spot a hammerhead shark, but a couple of days later we all saw Galapagos sharks and white tipped sharks. At Sleeping Lion Rock (Leon Dormido) we snorkelled through the huge split in the rock alongside an enormous eagle ray.
For us, the highlight of highlights was snorkelling with the sea lions. They would twist and turn, somersault, and flip over backwards as they swam around you. The young ones would be inches from your nose making eye contact before they twisted away at the very last second. It’s hard to breathe through a snorkel when you are giggling like a crazed school girl at a Taylor Swift concert. We did manage to capture some video before my Lifeproof iPhone case became not so life proof. On one snorkel we came across two sea lions playing with a stick in the water. One would drop it and the other would fetch it and bring it back up before dropping it and so the game went on. Julie likened them to two Labradors playing. On dry land, they became cute sleepy puppies.
Then there were the sea turtles, these gentle giants were majestic. They would cruise beneath you and then with a couple of quick flicks would disappear into the deep blue yonder. On one occasion we saw two attempting to make babies, an incredible sight.
Back on dry land it was boobie heaven. Boobies everywhere, nazca boobies, red footed and blue footed boobies. Lots of nesting birds with very young chicks, some freshly hatched. Boobies generally lay two eggs but only one chick survives. We did come across one nest where a youngest chick had been abandoned and left to die just inches from Mum and an older sibling. Julie and I have made the blue footed boobie mating dance our party piece when enough alcohol has been consumed.
On Genovesa we went in search of the master of camouflage, the short eared owl. We did manage to spot a couple but only at a distance. On Española Island we found the waved Galapagos albatross the largest bird in the islands, again many were nesting just feet from the path. We also saw the Galapagos hawk, the only other bird of prey in the islands.
Movie night was a BBC style documentary on the birth of the Galapagos Islands. I joked to Rissel about the lack of popcorn, 5 minutes later he appeared with a huge bowl of popcorn for us all to share, now that’s fantastic service. Each night once dinner was finished the boat would travel between islands. Fair to say that most evenings it was more than a little bouncy, shake rattle and roll. But with the aid of sea sickness tablets we both made it through the week without dinner reappearing.
Mid week we stopped at San Cristobal Island and visited the giant tortoise breeding centre at Galapagurea de Cerro Colorado. A great source of food for visiting whalers, pirates and sailers, including Mr. Darwin, the tortoise population dropped dramatically across the islands. At the breeding centre, we saw tiny wee babies and giant old fellows. A great programme to help keep these gentle giants alive and well.
We also saw a change over of half the passengers. The English contingent being replaced by the Americans & Mexicans. A Boston mum with two grown up daughters and a New York Mum and her young son, as well as a family from Mexico, The great vibe continued and onwards we sailed.
Now, we all know Mr Darwin created his Theory of Evolution after visiting Galapagos back in 1835. It’s only when you are up close you really understand how he struck upon his theory. The same species on different islands have clearly evolved differently. It’s not just the famous finches, the iguanas are slightly different island to island as are the lava lizards and many other creatures. It is fascinating.
We saw mess after mess of iguanas laid on top of each other soaking up the midday heat. The odd one or two had clearly sent too much time in the sun. Marine and land iguanas of every shape and size dominate most of the islands. These creatures really are a throw back to the dinosaur era.
Our last full day was spent on Floreana island. This island comes with its own murder mystery. In the 1930’s the self appointed “Baroness" von Wagner Bosquet arrived on the island with her two male travel companions, wink wink, nudge, nudge. She caused quite a stir with the few inhabitants. A couple of deaths later the Baroness fled the islands leaving behind many unanswered questions.
Floreana is also home to a unique Post Office. Back in the 19th century the whalers put a barrel in place for mail drops. Passing ships would pick up the mail and deliver it to the nearest port. Today, the barrel serves as a unique way of getting your postcards back home. You grab a handful of cards flick through and find cards that you can hand deliver yourself. We picked up one for Las Vegas as the USA is our next stop. Julie left one for her Mum and within three weeks it was hand delivered by a dishy chap who lived nearby. Bonus!
Whilst the group was chilling on the beach one of the young Bostonians spotted a whale out at sea. Seconds later the two zodiacs were skimming across the water following a mother humpback whale and her calf. We tracked the whales for good thirty minutes ooing, and ahhing every time the happy family broke the surface. On the way back to the Anahi, we hugged along the coastline and spotted Galapagos penguin. The only penguin that hangs out at the equator, smart penguins.
We had an amazing time aboard the Anahi. Met some wonderful people and saw incredible wildlife. Yes, what we spent would have covered a year living in Thailand, but this was a trip of a lifetime. However, there was one other island we really wanted to visit so we set off under our own steam to visit Isabela, the largest of all the islands.
To get to Isabela, we jumped on board a 10-metre fishing charter boat that doubled as a ferry. Not saying the crossing was rough, but waves were breaking through the canopy of the fly deck where we were seated. The crossing back was even worse with 5-metre swells that turned a two-hour normal crossing into a scary three-hour roller coaster ride. One unfortunate lady on the way back was very poorly. Not Julie amazingly, although she was quite green.
The main town of Puerto Villamil is a sleepy affair blissfully lacking in tacky tourists shops, well for now anyway. We hired bikes and cycled the 6 km's to the Wall of Tears (El Muro de las Lágrimas). The wall was built by inmates from the penal colony, many of whom met a grizzly death in the 40’s and 50’s. On the ride to the wall, we came across giant tortoises in the wild. Arriving back in town, we stopped at Bar de Beto, a great little find with marine iguanas acting as bouncers at the beach entrance.
We paid for a half day volcano hike. Only trouble was nobody told the weather gods so we had misty rain all day long. The trail turned into something of a mud bath which was too much for a family of three who turned tail and headed back to base after an hour. We did catch a 30-second glimpse of the volcano crater as the clouds parted. On the north side of the volcano we explored different lava flows from various eruptions.
Island life had come to an end. Our departure was not smooth, in fact, we had the day from hell getting back to the mainland. Getting to Quito would involve a taxi, boat, taxi, barge, bus, and eventually a plane. The first taxi was due at 5.15am and eventually rocked up half an hour late. Then the boat ride took longer given that it had to go up and down the blooming huge waves. As we taxied from the bottom of the island to the top, we saw our 10.00am flight take off. At the airport, we were surprised to find that missing our flight was only going to cost US$30. Trouble was we only had $15 in our pocket. Julie convinced a total stranger to hand over $15 whilst I ran to the ATM. Slight issue, the only ATM wasn’t working. So we left promising to send the only generous Australian we have ever met the $15 once we got States side.
We arrived in Quito and were met by Jorge from Last Minute Galapagos Deals. The excellent service continued as Jorge dropped us at Hostal Revolution and gifted us two stylish Panama hats. We spent two nights at what was one of the best hostels we had stayed in during our four-month-long tour of South America. Of course, the $1.50 beers during happy hour may have had something to do with it. During our one full day, we took a walking tour, getting to see some of the sights of the city including visiting a shaman, tasting some exotic fruit smoothies and getting a rooftop view of the main plaza.
Back at the hostel, we met with a crazy Scotsman, Jamie Ramsay who is running from Vancouver to Buenos Aires, just a small matter of 18,000 kilometres, check out jamieisrunning.com. We ended up having dinner with Jamie and a couple of cool Canadians. A great fun evening and a privilege to be able to spend some time with a real life superman. Please check out Jamie's website and support this wonderful adventure.
Our flight to the US included an overnight in Bogota, Columbia. We used the opportunity to catch up with our travel buddy Trish who just happened to be in the city at the same time.
So that was South America, exactly four months to the day since we left New Zealand. We loved every minute of it. But we were excited for the next leg, bring on the U S of A. Burning Man, a National Park binge, new friends and new adventures.
Next Stop, burn baby burn