MY LAND BASED TRIP TO GALAPAGOS Dec 2 – 9, 2014 by vagabondginger
The Galapagos Islands were discovered by the Bishop of Panama back in 1535. They are located on the equator just 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. Charles Darwin studied the species here in1835 which led to his theory of evolution. They were named the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978 and later Biosphere and Marine Reserve status was also added. In 2007 UNESCO placed this site on the endangered list due to invasive species, overfishing and uncontrolled tourism, however that was removed in 2010 after these problems were addressed. There are 18 main islands but only 5 of them are inhabited with a total population of about 25,000.
While the majority of tourists who go to Galapagos do so with a cruise program, there were reasons I chose a land based trip. I had to consider that my inner ear problem sometimes makes me prone to seasickness and I didn’t want to spend my time coping with my balance feeling out of whack. Also I am a budget traveler and I could do a land based trip cheaper than a cruise. But most foremost was as an “Independent Traveler” I could design my own trip. I first learned about land based trips a few years ago when I was staying at a family hostel in Quito. I wasn’t able to go at that time, however I contacted them this past summer to get some advice about putting this trip together and they prearranged boat transfers and my hotel stays based on my budget.
Because I had been to Quito before I decided to fly to Guayaquil which is the largest city in Ecuador. To my surprise it is not a very tourist friendly city in spite of being a Gateway to the Galapagos and very little English is spoken anywhere. A $5 taxi took me to Nuca Pacha Hostel where many international travelers stay so English was spoken and there was a great poolside bar.
Guayaquil was once a crime ridden city but urban renewal has changed that and the Malecon 2000 is a real showplace. This promenade runs 2 miles along the river with gardens, fish ponds, monuments, food courts and entertainment, making it the most popular place in the city. At the far end is Las Penas, an area of cobblestone streets, restaurants & art galleries that lies right below the colorful houses of Cerro Santa Ana which is where the city was first established in the 1500’s. It is as picturesque as a postcard and there are 444 numbered steps leading up to the lighthouse and chapel at the top with restaurants and shops along the way and there is a commanding view of the city below as well. At the beginning of the Malecon is a pedestrian bridge over to Santay Island, another good place for a walk. Otherwise in the city I wandered to Iguana Park in front of the Cathedral and I saw “The White City” of tombs, graves, mausoleums & statuary.
My flight from Guayaquil was to Puerto Basuerizo Moreno, San Cristobal, my first island in the Galapagos. This town is the oldest and the capital of the Galapagos Islands. The Arenas Blancos Hotel provided my airport pickup and tour options were offered. First of all I decided to just walk to the Interpretation Center and then went to Mann Beach where there were many sea lions nursing their pups. It was a calm cove where I could wade in among the frolicking animals and then as Ilaid back on my towel with my backpack as a pillow, a sea lion came and laid right next to me using a rock as it’s pillow. Already I was experiencing the uniqueness of the Galapagos.
The following day I used a guide and her driver and we went to Galapaguero de Cerro Colorado which is a giant tortoise reserve and I learned all about this species, one of 10 remaining on the islands. They mate once a year, lay about 16 eggs and the rangers pick them up to be incubated for about 100 days. The hatchlings are transferred to growing pens to protect them for up to 5years and then they are released into their natural habitat. There were trails to walk among the bigger breeding tortoises too. The natural population of tortoises is seriously threatened by introduced and now feral animals like pigs, goats, rats & cats so breeding centers are needed to ensure long term survival. Also on the trail were manchineel trees known as the most dangerous in the world. Not only do their leaves have a caustic milky white sap but the little poisonous apples can only be safely eaten by the giant tortoises. There were mockingbirds, yellow warblers and of course the many little finches.
Next we drove on to Lagoon El Junco for a hike up to 2300 ft, the highest point on the island. The caldera of this large extinct volcano is fed only by rainwater making it a freshwater crater lake. The frigate birds come here to dip their wings to wash off saltwater because they cannot swim or even land on water. They look like kites as they soar and feed on the fly skimming the water. They also can’t walk well or take off from a flat surface so they nest in trees or on cliffs. They mate & nest on North Seymour Island and a day trip from Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz can be arranged.
San Cristobal is a popular destination for serious snorkelers and divers to go to Kicker Rock, however that wasn’t for me. I didn’t feel like my hotel here was as advanced in tourism options as other places I went later as I found out I could have went to Espanola Island for the day to see the albatross if I had known about it. So on my final day on San Cristobal I walked to La Loberia Beach where I saw many marine iguanas sharing the seaside volcanic rocks with the colorful Sally Lightfoot crabs. The iguanas spit white saltwater as they are swimmers and feed in the water.
There also were more sea lions hanging out here with their pups and while I was sitting on the beach a black male finch landed right on my toe while the female one landed next to me on my backpack. These little birds are just so friendly.
I got the 7am power boat to go to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, arriving at 8:30am. I was met by a wonderful guide named Angel and we stashed my suitcase at the Buganvilla Restaurant and walked to the Charles Darwin Research Center which is also a breeding center for species of tortoises from other islands. It is well known as being the former home of the infamous “Lonesome George” tortoise who died here in 2012 at more than 100 years old. He was brought here in 1971from Pinta Island as the last survivor of his species making him the rarest creature on earth. Although he was penned with females from a similar species he never produced an heir. But the new super star here is “Diego” who was taken from Espanola Island to the San Diego Zoo in the1930’s and then brought here in 1977. He has dedicated himself to the survival of his species & has produced hundreds of offspring and is still going strong at the age of 130. Go Diego! There was one breeding pair of land iguanas here too. But all along the rocks and docks were many marine iguanas of all sizes and many more of the crabs who hang out with them.
Angel & I discussed options for Santa Cruz excursions over lunch and then we walked back to the boat dock. The fisherman were bringing in their catches which included some nice big lobsters. The fish and other seafood is sold to the locals & the restaurants or you could buy it and have it cooked and served it to you right there, can’t get much fresher than that.
We also met a real town character who had a canopy set up with a banner proclaiming him to be the “Nicotine Assassin”. He is a former boat captain who goes around town picking up cigarette butts and in just 1 hour a day for 1 year he has several huge clear trash bags full of them. He even built a life size man named “Nico” out of the butts and is now working on a female named “Tina”. He not only takes donations but he sells Nicotine Assassin T-shirts. He also sells his book about how on his last fishing expedition in 1985 with him as Captain and a crew of 5, the motor went out on their boat off Pinta Island and they went adrift for 77 days ending up in Costa Rica. Miguel is a very interesting man and Angel was able to be the interpreter in our conversation. And I bought his English version of the book which he autographed for me. It is a very interesting story of survival.
But I am now on the 2pm power boat over to Puerto Villamil on the largest island of Isabela. The 16 of us aboard were greeted by some small penguins on the rocks as we arrived at 4:30pm, climbed up into a safari type jeep with all the bags piled on the top & we were driven to our various hotels. I met Aussies, Venezuelans and Dutch who were staying at San Vicente Hotel too and we walked about the town and found the great Happy Hour Beach Bar where the locals hang.
Most tourists here do the 10 mile guided hike up to the Sierra Negra Volcano as it is the second largest in the world, it last erupted in 2005. Caroline, the manager of the hotel who was from England, agreed I could have a great day out on my own. I walked to the iguana crossing where I found the boardwalk and nature trail to lagoons of flamingos. While the flamingos are not a native bird and landed here on their own. they get along well with other species and their reproductive rate is very low so there was no need to eradicate them. The trail ended at the tortoise breeding center where I just took a quick walk thru and then I headed for the most glorious white sand beach and walked for miles. I found a colorful local cemetery over a dune in the middle of nowhere. Back at the town I wandered into the Booby Trap Restaurant for a beer and met the owner named Jim who was from Southern California too. After a couple of hours talking with him, I walked back to the hotel in time to join the group as Caroline provided snorkel gear and the jeep to go to Concha Perla at the other end of town. As we walked to the dock we stepped around many marine iguanas, sea lions & crabs and enjoyed a sea lion, a tiny penguin, a ray & a sea turtle in the water around us.The Booby Trap is right across from the Happy Hour Beach Bar so the Venezuelans & I went there for dinner afterwards and had great fish tacos.
6am was the power boat back to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz for my last 2 nights there and upon my arrival at 8am, I took a white pickup taxi for $1 to the Deja Vu Hotel and had breakfast there. Then I walked 3 blocks back to the main street and got the taxi for another $1 to the entrance ofTortuga Bay. The walkway to the beach is about 1 hour long and I enjoyed all the little lava lizards darting about, the males are very territorial and will chase others off and the little lady ones have a bright red throat. The Opuntia Cactus along the trail were so amazing to me, it’s the only cactus in the world that grows like a tree with bark and is only found in the Galapagos.
I was just blown away by the beach I found after my long walk. Just spectacular! White soft sand, iguanas walking on the beach, ghost crabs popping out of holes in the sand, mangrove trees, sea turtles rolling in the waves. At the far end was a calm lagoon for swimming and the tide was so low it was extremely shallow a long ways out. There were blue footed booby birds on the rocks (how’s that for a cocktail name: “I’ll have a blue footed booby on the rocks please”). There was the option to take a water taxi from here back to the dock in town but I was enjoying it so much I walked back all the way. I met Angel for lunch at the Buganvilla Restaurant and afterwards he had his driver Luis take us to Garrapatero where we did a 1/2 mile walk to another beach where the sea turtles nest.There was a flamingo lagoon here too and a really great camping spot under the mangroves. Saw a couple of big sea turtles swimming just off the beach in the waves and of course the marine iguanas, some are so big they almost look like small crocodiles.
My last day Angel & Luis took me to the highlands and there were giant tortoises along the road and even crossing the road, a very slow process. We walked in the pastures among these magnificent creatures in the wild and it was the highlight of my tortoise encounters. Some were so big, they can weigh as much as 500 lbs. There were so many of them roaming about. Altho the owners of this property have opened a restaurant and gift shop, it doesn’t detract from their natural habitat at all as the tortoises were there first. We walked a trail thru a forest of scalesia trees and saw the twin crater pits and also went down into a huge lava tube tunnel in this area.
I loved staying in the town of Puerto Ayora and enjoyed the art galleries, shops and going out for beers and to eat. My last night I hit the “street of the restaurants” tucked away back in the town off from the main road. At 6pm the street is closed and all the restaurants pull their candle lit tables and chairs out into the street with strings of lights above them, it is such a lovely ambience. They are selling seafood from the day’s catch including those big lobsters. It all smells so good and the tables fill up quickly. I joined some people from Holland & Belgium and we had cerviche de pulpo, frites and Pilsener cervezas. It was a good meal and a good time. Angel & Luis drove me about 1 hour the next day to the ferry to take me to the island of Baltra (South Seymour) and a bus from the ferry took me to the airport.
Upon arrival in the Galapagos there is a $100 in cash National Park Fee & a $10 Transit Fee. Isabela Island Entrance Fee is $5. All of Ecuador is on US$. There are no exit fees at the airport.
Santa Cruz is the main tourist hub for the Galapagos & has the longest paved road making it easy to get to the interior highlands as well as to the airport connection. Puerto Ayora is the most populated & offers the most options for those who want to design their own Galapagos experience.
I have done enough traveling to know you can never see it all. This is especially true with the Galapagos Islands as there are so many options and there are different times of the year to see mating and nesting birds. The power boat rides between the islands are rough and bumpy but go very fast and are only a couple of hours long. I chose to come just before the high season was kicking in as I was trying to keep my costs down and there were not so many tourists there before the holidays. I feel like I took the best trip for me and did not feel like I missed out on anything.
In Puerto Ayora I was told I was one of the “good tourists” because I was staying in the towns at hotels and going to the restaurants & shops so the community benefits, therefore the locals said they prefer the “good tourists” compared to the cruisers. Many of the cruise boats are internationally owned so the money does not go to the locals. 70% of wildlife protection dollars comes from land based travel whereas only 20% comes from the cruises. Land based travel is becoming more and more popular and Galapagos by land is the new growing trend.