09.01.2016 - 09.01.2016
I'll admit that on our flight to Galapagos we were nervous: would the visit hit our wallets too hard, was arriving on New Year's Eve with no cruise or accommodation booked a good move, and would we even experience the 'real Galapagos' at all?
We needn't have worried. Our experience was magical - the animals were friendly and we saw such variety so quickly that we probably didn't need a whole week. However, we enjoyed every minute we were there. AND we did it all on a budget. Here's what we got up to...
We arrived on New Year's Eve at the island of San Cristobal, a less-touristic island covered in snoozing sealions. We quickly found a place to sleep on the short walk into town from the airport, negotiating a price cheaper than anything we'd found online.
We took an afternoon hike to a lookout, Las Tijeretas. On the way we saw many birds and lizards and we also stopped at an informative free museum on Galapagos history and wildlife, Centro de Interpretacion.
From the hill we could see frigates - a bird that swells up a red pouch on its neck when looking for mates. Unfortunately we didn't see any puff up during our whole week but we did see them a few times. We then snorkeled in a rocky bay below the lookout with fish and a turtle. A few sealions swam past us too!
We walked home past a few more viewpoints and a postcard beach and watched as the sun set on 2015.
After we celebrated with a shared plate of prawns and chicken, we looked out from the balcony at the locals gearing up for a party. The energetic music (and fireworks - destroying the cartoon-like paper maché effigies representing 2015) lasted until 6am!! We rose at 7am for a tour we had booked the day before and there were still many people dancing in the streets and the body parts from the effigies which hadn't fully burnt were lying around which looked rather macabre.
The New Year's Day cleanup
On our one full day on San Cristobal we packed in a lot by way of a day tour with a friendly guide / taxi, Moses. First up we met our first giant tortoises at the jacinto gordillo reserve. As well as adult tortoises from 60-180 years old, they have had a breeding programme for ten years now so we saw little giant tortoises too.
"My neck is longer than your neck"
At our next stop we saw the strange blue-footed boobies at the picturesque beach Puerto Chino, together with iguanas and sealions.
We visited a crater lake at the highest point on the island, but all we could see was fog. We saw out the day at the beach La Loberia, which was full of swimming sealions. Here we snorkeled with fish, turtles and a playful sealion pup (and its protective mother). On the beach we saw marine iguanas and the island’s local variety of Darwin's finches. The birds happily hopped around right next to us, including landing on our bags and even on Laura's feet.
Early the next morning we took the choppy 2 hour speed boat to the most populous island and centre of the tourist scene, Santa Cruz. We had a brief search for last minute cruises, but our dates proved too limiting. It was encouraging (for next time!) that every travel agent had availability on a different cruise itinerary, but we hadn't really left ourselves enough time to take advantage of the options the agents had available. Instead we booked a day trip for the next day and searched for the best accommodation deals.
That afternoon we visited the disappointing Charles Darwin Research Institute - we expected more information and more animals after our fantastic experiences on San Cristobal. We did see some different tortoises and yellow iguanas on display in a zoo-like format.
We then visited a couple of beaches, snorkeled a little (Laura saw little stingrays) and on land we saw marine iguanas, big crabs and a pelican up close for the first time. Pelicans were my favorite animal on the islands - somehow awkward and majestic simultaneously.
Our splash out on a day trip to the island of Santa Fe, and a remote beach on Santa Cruz, was money well spent. The tour group was a relaxed bunch and the guide (“loco Richard”) was fun and knowledgeable. On our way to the two vibrant snorkel spots we sighted frigates, blue footed boobies, sealions, and a nocturnal gull with red eyes.
In the clear water colorful fish were everywhere, as well as little sharks, rays and playful seal pups.
We returned to a beautiful deserted beach on Santa Cruz, a great end to the day trip!
The next day we walked down a path filled with birds and lizards to Bahia Tortuga (“turtle bay”). The beach and adjacent lagoon were picturesque but devoid of the interesting wildlife we'd begin to expect - aside from huge numbers of marine iguanas. We were lucky enough to spot one coming ashore and its tadpole-like swimming technique was really interesting. The photo below shows the cool marks they left in the sand.
That afternoon the weather packed in, but unperturbed we caught a water taxi across the harbour so that we could walk (in the rain) to see Las Grietas, an unusual swimming area created by fissures in rock formed by lava flow. We were already wet and a little cold so didn't swim there. On the walk we saw a blue and red billed duck, some asymmetrical crabs and a stork, all enjoying the rain. This was our only day of bad weather which was pretty lucky as we had managed to time our visit for the middle of the rainy season.
The next day was our last, so we again arranged a guide / taxi to see the highlands of this island. In the morning before the tour we visited a lagoon with some fish and mangroves, and then read our books on the waterfront. I got my fix of pelicans diving clumsily headfirst into the water, and I also managed to take a single photo featuring: crabs, (cuddling) iguanas, sealions, a divebombing pelican and Laura!
The cuddling iguanas
On the way up to our highlands tour that afternoon we saw that the day before the rain (part of El Niño) had washed away the cycleway by the main road… Looks like they need better drainage engineering.
There must be something unstable about the ground in Santa Cruz - the first site on our tour was a giant sinkhole / crater, near the highest point on the island. In fact, there are two “twin” craters there. With high expectation, we then visited the giant tortoises reserve on this island, El Chato.
There were also a few short lava caves here, as well as a giant unicorn.
When we got home we decided we still wanted to go to one more beach, El Garrapatero. Foolishly we started to cycle there at this late hour, but ended up getting a taxi there and back (bikes too) when we realised that a 22km cycle each way with no lights and about 2 hours of daylight left wasn't a great idea. We were very glad we went because we saw flamingos at the nearby lagoon to top off our magical week! Flamingos!
At the beach Laura went for her last swim on the island, we had another look at the flamingos and then we returned in time to have dinner with our German friends with whom we'd been to the equator with at Christmas. They are coming to New Zealand in February, so watch out!
Santa Cruz had the classic gag of “our airport is actually on a different island”, so we started at 6 the next morning for our 10am flight. Our day of travel consisted of: taxi-bus-boat-bus-plane-walk-bus-bordercross-taxi which took us back to Continental Ecuador and across the border to Peru!
Ecuador and in particular Galapagos exceeded expectations. It was more expensive than elsewhere but we're glad we went where we did and at for the special memories created.